First Hand — Battling burnout: How to survive your third year
Burning out is defined by the physical and mental exhaustion that comes as a result of overworking, often leading to a complete depletion of creative motivation and inspiration. It can leave you unable to come up with ideas, anxiously overthinking and procrastinating over the smallest tasks. Having graduated last summer, Anoushka Khandwala identifies burnout as a common side effect of the pressures of your final year of university – a time when many students experience an intense spike in stress. Here, she looks at the causes, symptoms and solutions of third-year fatigue, and offers preventative tips for anyone who might be vulnerable to its effects.
Burning out is a topic that has been on everyone’s lips recently, from Buzzfeed’s coverage of Black Burnout and Millenial Burnout to this massive student survey that explores mental health. Lecture in Progress also covered the topic by speaking to multiple practitioners about how to tackle this insidious feeling.
Student burnout, however, can be a uniquely difficult experience of its own, particularly during the third year of a creative undergraduate degree. From the incessant questions asked by friends and family – “What are your plans after uni?” – to the overwhelming pressure to create a smashing portfolio to wow the industry, the weight of expectation can result in a very specific type of exhaustion.
From a personal perspective, the third year of my degree was very different to the first two. I was gripped by the fact that it was my last year to access such a diverse range of facilities; continually experimenting while trying to constantly define ‘my practice’. On top of this, the stress of trying to freelance alongside my university work in order to make rent, while still maintaining valuable industry links, as well as playing a large part in organising our degree show, left me feeling creatively, physically and emotionally drained.
“I felt it was the end of the world if I wasn’t working all the time, and the guilt invaded my time for rest.”
Burnout is characterised by exhausting your mind and body, and then keeping going. Especially pertinent to third year, I’m sure we all remember getting ill after every deadline, and then picking ourselves up to continue working. At the time I felt like it was the end of the world if I wasn’t working all the time, and the guilt invaded the time I had allocated to rest. The only way to alleviate this guilt was to (guess what) resume work.
When looking at how to tackle this issue, I sought out Zoe Yibowei, a final year student at Camberwell, whose dissertation focuses on ‘The Politics of Rest’, in which she researched the effect of late capitalism on working culture. Having completed the first mandatory two years of the FdA course in Camberwell, Zoe unexpectedly went back for a third optional year; effectively completing her final year twice. She says, “I think because I’d done all my crying and burnout last year, I thought okay, I know how to do this, I know how to manage my stress, I know how to relax, I know how to plan my workload.”
Animation by Erin Aniker, as part of her New Year’s Resolution series
Limiting working hours
During the previous year, Zoe recalls sitting down for eight hours at a desk, but only really producing an hour’s work. Comparatively, she now does two hours of work a day, and still achieves everything she needs to. “Working harder is doing things that aren’t necessary,” she states. “Working smarter is looking at what you need to achieve in order to meet your goal.”
Creating a schedule can help
A lot of time is spent over-thinking and post-rationalising in art school, because so many projects stem from the conceptual. Putting aside more time than needed to complete a task can result in spending too much time thinking about what you need to do, and doubt creeping in as to whether it’s correct or not. Instead of this, it’s a good idea to make a list of tasks that need to be executed, give yourself an allotted amount of time to complete them in, and just do the work. This can eliminate wasted time and inefficiency.
Billie Muraben, third year tutor at Central Saint Martins, concurs with this, telling me that she’s seen a lot of students “paralysed by fear”. Helping them out of this, she says, is difficult as a tutor, because all you can offer is perspective. Some students have a really successful second year, but when they get to final year feel like the work they make has to be “amazing, it has to be massive, in every way”.
Keep perspective, take breaks
The debilitating fear that the result will be unsatisfactory, before you’ve even begun the project, can incite creative block. As Zoe says, “You need space in your head to be creative, and if you’re anxious or depressed, it takes up that space.” The importance of breaks in the creative process are underestimated in final year, as a lot of students feel like they have to be constantly producing.
“Rest, plan your time, and don’t compare yourself to others.”
Don’t let competition change your style
Competition can also push people to divert from their particular practice. As Zoe says, “competition as a mechanism to make people work harder is good, but the comparative aspect is problematic.” Imposter syndrome can drive students to feel like they don’t deserve to be where they are, or doubt the validity of their work. Some third years start to get noticed by industry as they begin to excel in their field, and it’s often tempting to change your practice to fit what is believed to be the ‘industry mould’.
But, in Billie’s experience, the importance lies in “doing projects that are representative of your practice and that you find interesting, rather than doing some killer, blockbuster work that people are going to notice”. She reminds students that “People pay attention if it’s good and if it’s true to what you’re into. They’ll also notice if you put spotlights around it to make it look good because you panicked.”
Bad working culture will wear you down
The working culture during your time at university is also important, as this can often determine how you work for the rest of your life. As Billie says, “you just function off each other’s energy. If no one else is resting, then you’re going to feed off that atmosphere.” In industry, Zoe’s research shows that “the more productive you are, arguably the more exploited you are, because you’re producing more for less pay.”
This is applicable to uni as well; be efficient so you have more time to yourself. “Having a shorter day makes you more productive,”, says Zoe, “but at the same time it’s important to remember not to reduce people to productivity because they’re so much more than that.”
Knowing your boundaries
At the end of the day, having enough confidence in your work to determine exactly what you need to do, and then sustaining focus on those goals, is difficult when you’re at university. Most people attend in their late teens and early twenties; it’s a time of major personal development, and art school in particular requires a lot of maturity in terms of expressing yourself creatively.
Burnout comes as a result of working too hard, not taking time for yourself and holding yourself to an absurdly high standard. A lot of these standards stem from you, yourself. It’s so important to be aware of your limits and to set boundaries for your time, as no one is going to do it for you.
There is an overwhelming amount of pressure to work all the time, but ultimately that means you won’t produce the most creative work. Rest, plan your time, and don’t compare yourself to others. Continue in the spirit of your first and second year, make work that you love, and remember that uni is not the be all and end all. There’s a whole life afterwards that’s waiting to be lived!
Tips for keeping third-year burnout at bay
As a recap, here is a summary our advice for keeping burnout at bay during your studies:
1. Work smart
If a working atmosphere is becoming stressful, work shorter days in a more concentrated way. Try reducing your hours and being more productive in the time you set yourself. Setting your own deadlines and having a schedule can help. One hour’s work can sometimes be more efficient than eight hours non-stop.
2. Stay confident in, and true to, your own style
Try not to worry about what others are doing, or current industry trends. Acting out of this kind of anxiety and changing your work to fit in has the potential to water down or clutter your best ideas.
3. Be kind to yourself
You can quickly easily become your own worst enemy when it comes to expectations, pressure and comparison. Be kind to yourself and when you’re stuck, try to give yourself advice that you’d give a friend. And if you catch yourself panicking or doubting yourself, step back for a moment and think of the bigger picture. Know that you’re not alone and you and your ideas are enough!
4. Don’t feel guilty for taking time out and resting
If your tutors and fellow students are adding to the stress, try to take the time and space you need. It’s easy to get swept up in mass panic and overwork where it’s not necessary. Be sure to confide in others and let off steam if the pressure is getting too much. Sharing a problem can help you put it into perspective.
Anoushka Khandwala is a writer and multidisciplinary creative who graduated with a degree in graphic design from Central Saint Martins in 2018.
Header image and animation by illustrator Erin Aniker, as part of her New Year’s Resolution series. Follow Erin on Instagram and see more of her work at erinaniker.com.