Feeling Burnt Out

I am burnt out, fried, my creative reservoir is dry, and the weather man is saying there’s no chance of rain in the seven-day forecast.

I have gone way past the point of exhaustion. Instead of pulling over to take a break, I passed every rest stop along the way and kept speeding across the state line.

I should have known better. I have written a hundred times before about the importance of taking care of yourself — proving I can give other people advice that I can’t take myself. I get it, it’s all my fault. I’ve been super busy with teaching my Art of Slow Comedy classes and workshops, performing, and doing Improv Nerd. And on top of that, my wife, Lauren, and I recently moved with our cat, Princess Coco, and all our furniture and belongings into our new three-bedroom townhouse.

In July, we moved from our tiny little condo with a bright orange wall that we loved into a temporary bachelor pad in “the party all night” neighborhood of Wrigleyville, where we stayed for three weeks before we moved again into our current home, all the while keeping a full schedule of classes, workshops and shows. It’s been unsettling and tiring, to say the least.

When I work so hard and don’t take care of myself, my creativity and joy dries up. For me, the empty light on the dashboard has been on for weeks now, and I’ve been operating on fumes.

I get up tired and cranky and with a low-grade headache. I can’t focus, and I think that getting on Facebook will help and it just seems to just make it worse. It’s even starting to affect my relationship with Lauren. I complain to her (no, more like blame her), that I haven’t had a day off and that we haven’t had any fun. She’s angry at me for not taking care of myself, and I am angry at her for being angry at me. I am waiting for her to give me permission to take time off and when she tries to help, I laugh because I am so uncomfortable.

The sad thing is I know that just as it’s important for me to be doing my art on regular basis, it’s equally important to replenish the well, but for some reason, I can’t seem to find the slow-down switch. I am on overload, and it’s making every aspect of my life miserable. Doing anything creative feels as painful as any day job I have ever had. In fact, I am white-knuckling writing this blog right now, hoping to squeeze out enough words to cobble together something that is half decent.

As I write this part of the blog, I feel some shame, like I should have some wisdom about what to do to get your creative juices flowing, and how to prevent yourself from getting burnt out. But obviously, I don’t have any wisdom to share. Usually, I tell my improv students that running out of ideas is good place to be because that means you are ready to learn, which must mean I am ready for learning now, too.

So I need some help. What do you do when you’re at the place I am at? How do you rejuvenate yourself to get some joy back? Next week I’m going on a three-city tour with Improv Nerd and teaching Art of Slow Comedy workshops, so I need your advice pronto. I know I’m better at giving advice than taking it, but I am going to give it a shot. Thanks.

35 replies
  1. Joe Van Haecke
    Joe Van Haecke says:

    I feel your pain; I’ve felt this way for a while. What helps me? Making time to take a class from someone else. Honestly, the workshops at the Omaha Improv Fest did me a lot of good. The other thing: take a vacation. I don’t know if it’s something you can work into your schedule, but I highly recommend a getaway. More than just a long weekend. Someplace where you can put everything away for a while. Take Lauren with you to help find the balance you need. Good luck!

  2. Marianne Smith
    Marianne Smith says:

    I feel the same way right now, and I am still a student :sigh:
    You need week, or even just a day to unplug, unwind, relax, and turn off the world. Sleep and good food helps, sometimes it is that simple.

  3. Jackson Collins
    Jackson Collins says:

    Same here, same here. It just gets to be a job rather than a fun way of life sometimes. When that happens to me, i like to pay more attention to one of my other hobbies, like making videos or playing piano. Having various other forms of creativity is really helpful to me so I can blow off steam using a variety of techniques; techniques I can use to get inspired to improvise with later on. Even talking to people, sharing life stories (both funny and tragic) sometimes can get you pumped sometimes.
    And whatever you do, just know that this dry spell is only temporary.

  4. Kathryn Brickell
    Kathryn Brickell says:

    I recommend as soon as you can, to take a week off and “do nothing”. Sleep, feel what it’s like to get totally away from improv. No schedule allowed. If you’re bored, read, watch TV, but get in the slow lane. Take a walk, look at the sky. Feel what it’s like to be alive. This wonderful movie you’re in isn’t going to last forever (I mean life). It will accrue as the days pass. Just totally take the pressure off both external and internal. And always be nice. No matter what. No one deserves anything negative. In fact any negativity you emit will just decrease the joy of being alive. This is a time of growth, but not artistic, rather spiritual. Reflect often. It will rejuvenate your art. Also eat, sleep and moderate exercise-be healthy. IMHO!

  5. Craig Richardson
    Craig Richardson says:

    When burned out, take time off from improv for a couple of weeks and or just watch improv as a spectator and even have others with you watch and laugh and let someone else do the improv and you just enjoy with friends or yourself : )

  6. Craig Richardson
    Craig Richardson says:

    When burned out, take a couple of weeks off from improv or take a improv workshop as a student and not a teacher and just play and have fun or go and just watch improv with friends or by yourself and just enjoy watching others do improv. These are things that inspired us when we first started doing improv and made us want to perform. Going back to your first love : )

  7. Tareq Malkosh
    Tareq Malkosh says:

    As far as putting a time limit on how much I should take off thats something I need to work on, but I usually dont sit and relax when im burnt, but I fill my days with alot more other things to keep my mind going but in a number of things. Right now I am taking a break from my improv or for anything whatever it is a person’s discipline is in. I am taking college classes, im trying to learn a language or two, just to try different things get other perspectives new activities to my brain, I train in a martial art that I dedicate alot of time to it helps me take care of myself physically and mentally as it is mind and body training. I just try to find ANY new hobby I can do for half a day/ day then switch to something else so I dont get bored of frustrated with new said hobbies and keeps me interested so when I am ready I go back to them. Sorry for the long answer Jimmy I hope our feedback will help you find what works for you.

  8. Anja Boorsma
    Anja Boorsma says:

    Dear Jimmy,
    I don’t know you personally but I do know this feeling. I’ve experienced a burn-out twice (same here about giving great advice but not taking care of myself). First of all, compliments for getting this out in the open and be vulnerable.

    Second, I am wondering whether this is about improv/creativity or about work/life/health in general. A burn-out can be caused by many things, and can manifest in many ways. That it influencee your creativity seems obvious to me.
    Frankly, I think this lack of creativity is the least of your problems. I think first priority is your health, so taking a few weeks of indeed seems a good advice.

  9. Anja Boorsma
    Anja Boorsma says:

    Part 2:.
    I remember the doctor saying I should close my diary, I remember how heartbroke and guilty I felt when I wrote the letter resigning from my volunteer job at the youth centre (I was still a student when I had my first burn-out), I remember discovering the difference between Doing and Being in a Mindfulness course and that I didn’t know how to ‘not do’. I also remember that recovering took longer than I thought. The few weeks off will help, but will probably not result in getting back ALL the energy and inspiration. Therefore my advice would be to seek help and find out why you work so hard without a pause. I wish you all the best!

  10. Jennifer Baird
    Jennifer Baird says:

    I’ve been in this place before so I know how you feel! I recommend finding other things that interest you, having things you enjoy that have nothing to do with improv. A really good book, I personally make sure I read a new book every month. I also make sure to have at least one or two nights a week where I do nothing! I sit at home watch my favorite shows and have a glass of wine. It’s important to exercise your brain but it is also super important to let it rest. I have also taken up running, it is a wonderful way to clear my mind, refuel and feel inspired. If running isn’t an option go for walks. Part of what makes improv so amazing is that you let the world around you inspire what you do, well you have got to take the time to enjoy the world around you so you can find the inspiration. I hope this helps, all the best to you!

  11. Michael Roy
    Michael Roy says:

    Jimmy, if it’s a minor burn-out I will invite my in-laws over (I know!) and have a family get-together, eat great food, drink beer and wine and laugh as much as possible. If it’s a major burn-out I go to my Buddhist temple and hide out for a night, a week-end or a week if I can swing it. That is radical and you may not be a Buddhist, but I put myself in that place to spend time ALONE, without speaking or even looking at another human being in the eyes. I have no-one to face but myself, in a meditation hall, working in the temple or in my room. GO ON A RETREAT. BE QUIET. DO NOTHING. This is important. Do NOTHING but listen to yourself, your heart, your breath and your fears. You could go camping, to a temple, lock yourself in a room whatever. It may feel like your trying to beat a heroin addiction at first and you may feel miserable but suddenly the clouds will lift and you will feel free and at peace and so, so rejuvenated. Facebook message me if you have any questions. LOVE

  12. Caro dateo
    Caro dateo says:

    Treat this with respect and give in entirely. Take a complete “malfunctioning break” for a 6 week term. In some European places a doctor will “write a note” which protects you insurance wise. Work wise is dependent on maturity of your team. But you need to step away completely , not half way. Find your pace and pulse again for natural sleep and natural energy with no chemical additives. Move physically and empty your mind in the process. Play with no agenda. (Now if only I could follow my own advice)

  13. Simon
    Simon says:

    Well, you can spend your time for yourself.
    When I am in crisis with my creativity I read a lot, I walk in a suggestive place, like a suggestive city (I am italian, from Modena, and I have Bologna, Verona, Mantova, Parma or Firenze around) or where I can find a river or a lake.
    I play videogames, in order to take off my mind from preoccupations. I talk with people, about everything : food, sport, gardens. I play basket. I listen to the music, Corelli, Battiato and Muse help me. I show other people’s cretivity, in order to be suggested. And, if I need it, I buy and assemble an Ikea furniture.
    Obviously I don’t do all these things all together, but these are my strategies 🙂

  14. Rachel Tullio
    Rachel Tullio says:

    I have been in this boat many times. For me the best solution isn’t doing nothing — it is doing something different from whatever flavor of soul crushing, stressful, repetitive stimuli life is dishing up. For me stress leads to paralysis, whereas action with a dose of novelty can break me from funks. It can be something simple — like taking a walk down a street you’ve never explored — but it should be novel enough to make your brain take notice. The added benefit is you’re doing something for you, taking time out. The real benefit is you’re giving your brain new inputs and thus rebooting creativity.

  15. JD
    JD says:

    Do something different, unique, like see a new museum exhibition, go to a Mosque during a worship service. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Read a book! Reading interesting fiction especially just inspires your imagination! Good luck!

  16. JD
    JD says:

    Do something different, unique, like see a new museum exhibition, go to a Mosque during a worship service. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Read a book! Reading interesting fiction especially just inspires your imagination! Good luck!uz

  17. Sean Fabri
    Sean Fabri says:

    I don’t have any more wisdom or insight than you already have. But I wanted to say: thank you for sharing this. A lot of us have been there, and it’s good to know that we aren’t alone. The only answer does seem to be take a break, replenish the well, do something physical / intellectual / spiritual (whatever that means for you) – but sometimes that’s not an option!

    I don’t know what will work for you, but here is what I’ve done.

    When I’m dry, I force myself to avoid “trying too hard” or feeling that the only way through this is to squeeze out my last creative drops. Instead: improvise efficiently. Go back to basics. Focus on everyone else.

    And even if you have a burned out phase. Well. It passes.

  18. sally smallwood
    sally smallwood says:

    Have you read The Artist’s Way, Jimmy? A great actress, Shari Hollett, told me and Cameron about it several years ago, and it changed my life. It is all about nurturing your inner artist, being compassionate with yourself, giving yourself space vs expecting perfection, and replenishing the creative well when you have wrung it dry. Best of all, if the thought of reading sounds like a chore in itself, fear not: on the first page, you will be won over. And you only have to read one chapter a week.

  19. Mary Ann
    Mary Ann says:

    Listen/go to a concert. If you’re into music, it’s a timeout that gets the creative juices flowing. 1/2 hr of exercise/tai chi/whatever is your thing. These are minor fixes. I need this advice. I’m burned out now. 8)

  20. Aubrey
    Aubrey says:

    Taking a day off doesn’t sound like an option for you now. Change something about your day every day. Eat something you’ve never eaten or don’t normally choose. Take a different route to your usual destination. Buy some new music – or just listen to more music. Put your naked toes in the grass. Pet a dog. Take a detour for a couple hours and go swimming or check out an amusement park or go to the zoo! Have a good cry. AND Next time you think of just browsing FB, take 10 min to do nothing instead. Actually, literally, nothing. Do nothing for 10 min every day. Hope you feel better soon.

  21. c
    c says:

    Pick a project that is physical and creative yet in a different way than improv, like making something out of wood for your new place, like a chair. Get plans online so that you have a roadmap and don’t have to think. Get out of your burned out head and let your body and hands take over. After a few days you will have a physical object that came from you, and you will feel creatively fulfilled in a different way.

  22. Darren
    Darren says:

    Oh just go jump in the lake… Seriously go jump into lake Michigan maybe right around 8:00 pm when the sun is setting. That will do it.

  23. Greg Morelli
    Greg Morelli says:

    You’re doing exactly the right thing: white-knuckling through a blog. You’re exactly where you need to be, Carrane, just flip the switch to being okay with it, since you’re never going to change.

    This is who you are. This is the voice you’re most comfortable occupying: The Sad, Sad Guy Struggling Through It The Unfairness Of It All.

    The good news is you’re likable, empathetic and loved by Princess Coco. If I had to guess, I’d guess your wife is sick of your sad, sad act. But she knew what you were when she said “I Do.” Besides, the only real purpose of marriage is to wake-up next to your biggest adversary.

    The Art of Slow Comedy is a beloved performance class. Improv Nerd is a beloved radio show. Jimmy Carrane is a beloved improvisational comedian, beloved by all but himself.

    To quote The Lady Chablis, my transvestite guardian angel, “Two Tears and a Bucket, Mother Fuck It.”

  24. Jen Sall
    Jen Sall says:

    Hi, Jimmy! Being a student of yours, I have heard you give the advice of “take care of yourself first” many times. But as you know, I am a mother of 3, an actress, print model, producer and I work for the dentist office. I often find myself running on empty. I feel your pain. You don’t have the luxury of taking a week off right now, but you do live in one of the most amazing cities. So take advantage of it! You and Lauren could do a “refresh day” or morning or afternoon. Turn off your cell phone! Pack a lunch. Go to the park. Sit on the beach. Go for a walk or a bike ride. Just stop, breathe, and re-center yourself. Take time to pray or meditate – together! Yes, your tank needs to be filled, but you have to stop at the station to get it filled! Find your station. And bring Lauren a little sweet treat or something as a surprise. It always makes us feel better when we do something for somebody else. 😉

  25. Ann Whitney
    Ann Whitney says:

    No answers because I am in the same place right now with some sickness in the family which is so much on my mind. Just want you to know, you are in my prayers. You are important to so many people and not just improvisors.


  26. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    Look at all these people supporting you 🙂 That’s thing number one, to realize you’re not alone and to acknowledge the support.

    You have a busy schedule, obviously, so it seems like taking a ton of time off isn’t in the cards right now. Take a little time every day just for yourself. Go to a restaurant by yourself and bring a good book (NOT improv), take a walk, have a nice long shower/bath, whatever. Take deep breaths and tell yourself it’ll be ok.

    I don’t know how to relax so I totally understand where you’re coming from. Perhaps doing some research in how to relax will help! Ironically, it’s easier said than done.

    Most of all, remember we support you!!

  27. Leena K.
    Leena K. says:

    Learning how to say no, some of the time, helps. The need to be productive 24/7 has to be squashed…coming from someone who had a fake heart attack a few months ago, you become a lot more mindful of breath, enjoying a few hours to yourself at the end of the evening, and actually paying attention to the 2yr old you’re playing with instead of thinking how you could be learning lines right now. (Playing with a little kid can totally help too -find one for a few hours, they’re amazingly uplifting.) Prioritize the events you accept in accordance to your goals. Not every gig or opportunity is going to benefit you, especially when you hit a certain level.

  28. Topher
    Topher says:

    Meditation and mindfulness are two tools you can use. Daily meditation reminds me that I’m a human Being, not a Human Doing. (Get it, funny, right?) Seriously. Meditation can reset the clock and remind you of mindfulness.

    Mindfulness is being aware of the moment. It seems silly to tell this to an experienced improviser but being present in the real world can be a real challenge. Our thoughts and tendencies are to forward think or past think. We apply the ‘weight’ to these thoughts, but they are all just thoughts.

    Here’s a mindfulness technique: Get a piece of fruit or candy. Put it in your mouth and savor it. Don’t chew. observe the taste and texture. Slowly savor it. resist chewing it. Take your time with the moment and enjoy it.

    Good luck.

  29. Jordan Weimer
    Jordan Weimer says:

    I’m not an expert in anything. But, here’s one thing published in American Scientific about how prolonged stress affects brain function.

    (apparently only a preview of the article is available for free)

    (Free, library addition below)
    American Scientific
    April 2012
    page 48

    Based upon the article, it would appear that reducing long term stress is the most important piece in rebuilding your brain function. It’s the day to day grind of one stressful event/day after another that can literally reduce the size of your brain. So, it seems, finding a way to place stressful days farther apart would help. I’m not religious but maybe you need more sabbath.

  30. Outlaw mama
    Outlaw mama says:

    TWo things: you have a cat named princess coco? Rad

    And you are allowed to take time off when you move? Please tell me this next week. When I move.


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