There are upsides and downsides to being a creator.
Controlling your freedom and time? Upside. Fretting over cash flow so much you forget the definition of ‘weekend’? Major downside.
The mistake creators make is assuming that more money means fewer problems. “If I just had more money, I would never feel burnt out again!”
Is that how it works in practice? No. Unfortunately, there’s one challenge a plump checking account won’t solve: a poor money mindset.
The problem is that creator burnout is an intensely personal experience that goes beyond overclocking and overworking. Instead, burnout is often the result of a confluence of psychological factors that pop up whenever you feel boxed in.
Whether those boxed-in feelings result from trying too hard to scale or failing to enjoy your current business, you need a shift in mindset. Here’s how to adjust your goals until you can tame your business into something more manageable.
The problem: losing sight of what attracted your audience in the first place
“It’s no trick to make a lot of money,” said Bernstein in the film Citizen Kane. “If all you want to do is make a lot of money.”
Does this sound like you? “I’ll just make $150,000 in revenue—and then I can start relaxing.” The money-first mindset didn’t work out so well for Kane, either.
Yes, it helps to have a measurable goal for growth. But did you ever sit back and ask yourself if you even want growth? Or remember why you started working as a creator in the first place?
It’s far healthier to adopt an “audience-first” approach.
This mindset is probably how you felt back in your first days as a creator when you didn’t have any income from your business yet. You had simpler thoughts, like, “Hey, I feel like I don’t see enough vintage map art out in the world.”
Then came the business and all its requisite stressors. Cash flow. Advertising. Bookkeeping. You start comparing yourself to other creators, many of whom earn twice as much as you. You start guessing how much revenue you need before you can hire an assistant to rescue you from the grind.
At that point, you’ve slipped from the original creator’s mindset into something different. You’ve gone “money-first.” If that’s where you find yourself, you’re veering toward the confluence of psychological factors that make burnout inevitable.
Why your money mindset creates feelings of burnout
First, let’s take burnout and put it into tangible terms. According to World Psychiatry:
Burnout is a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.
Note that there’s nothing in there about overwork. There’s nothing about there being too few hours in the day. Nothing about the customers being mean.
The reason? Stressors are variable. What stresses you out might not stress me out (and vice versa.) But stressors do stem from basic human needs, according to World Psychiatry. And they usually manifest in the following forms:
- Overwhelming exhaustion: The journal defined this feeling as having too much fatigue to do a satisfactory job. In other words, you’re no longer “serving the audience first.”
- Feelings of cynicism: Ever find yourself resenting a customer who sends you too many orders? This kind of cynicism is the result of burnout. You’ve lost a sense of proportion and gratitude.
- Lack of accomplishment: When your business feels like a treadmill, it cuts into your feelings of accomplishment. You may have created a business, but has the business achieved its goals? More importantly, has it freed your time? If not, you may wonder what it’s all been for.
This triad is what’s truly behind your feelings of burnout.
It’s not wishing you had more money.
It’s not longing for bigger checks.
And the cure definitely isn’t another zero at the end of your bank account.
Sure, a reward for your hard work sounds great. But consider this: researchers found that rewarding creative puzzle-solving makes us less effective at solving them.
It’s counterintuitive. Don’t rewards (like more money from your creator business) reinforce hard work?
Not exactly. According to Cal Newport’s research into what drives work satisfaction, there are three true antidotes to burnout:
- Autonomy. Autonomy refers to feelings of independence and control. Do you control your daily calendar? If you’re stuck in menial tasks you never wanted, it’s not only hard to scale your business and please your clients. You’re also going to experience burnout.
- Competence. Are you good at what you do? Are you satisfied with the work you give clients and customers?
- Relatedness. Do you feel connected to others? Do you see the impact of your work? Is there a sense of teamwork behind your business? Burnout often rears its ugly head when you’re alone at a computer, wondering who it’s all for.
For this reason, many creators get things backward: We think following our passions will set us free.
But more often, what sets us free is going where our passions lie.
As Newport argues in his book Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You, research suggests that true passion for your job comes from doing it well:
“Your love of the subject will grow with your sense of autonomy and competence.”
Where does your money mindset fit? Simple: avoid the idea that burning out stems from a simple lack of reward. For example, what if you’re working 14 hour days but can’t see your family in the evenings? No amount of money will make it up to you.
Burning out isn’t only about stress. Stress is the symptom, not the disease. The disease is putting money first.
When you put money first, you create feelings of disconnectedness. When you put money first and fail to grow the business, you feel incompetent.
This puts creators in a conundrum. How can you improve your business without spreading yourself thin? And if you scale yourself, how do you keep the feelings of competence, that you’re doing a good job for your paying customers?
These psychological factors also have psychological solutions. You need to restructure your money mindset.
Focus on serving your audience first. Allow the income to come after. If you can satisfy both your need to perform well and your need to grow.
It’s just a matter of getting them in the right order.
Common “more money, more problems” traps to avoid
We talked to a few creators who have experienced burnout to find out where their money mindsets steered them wrong.
Many of these creators are successful. They have large, enthusiastic audiences. Anyone from the outside looking in might envy their positions. But thanks to the complexities that lead to burnout, they often struggled as their careers blossomed because they:
- Lost autonomy due to relying on factors outside their control
- Lost relatedness when they became the bottleneck in their company, rather than finding effective help
- Lost feelings of competence when they didn’t prioritize their own mental health
Fortunately, with every mistake along the way, there’s a lesson to help you rebuild your money mindset.
1. Stressing out when you hit a wall in your scaling
Call it the owner’s paradox: Moving from a standard job to a business you own should give you an immediate shot in the arm. Full autonomy? Woohoo!
But just as often, the opposite happens. Autonomy goes down because you’ve assumed new responsibilities. Bookkeeping. Paying contractors. The taxing work of making every decision every day.
As a result, what should feel like empowerment ends up weighing you down.
Justin Blase of Ted’s Vintage Art experienced the owner’s paradox up close. Like many other creators, he started as a side business, and once it was earning enough money, he was comfortable making Ted’s Vintage Art his full-time gig.
Then his autonomy went down. He previously had a large portion of revenue generated from web development and custom software development…but that soon went away.
What did he acquire in return? Increased costs. Facebook ads. Two virtual assistants. High software fees. Additionally, restructuring his company meant Blase started paying himself a salary. This restricted his business cash flow.
Blase also noted how much he relies on paid media to generate revenue. “It’s paid media that determines if I have a $20,000 week or if I have a $4,000 week,” he said.
Sounds great to many of us. $20,000 a week! Who could feel burned out with that? But it’s the lack of control that leads to uncertainty and stress. Blase reports feeling overwhelmed when trying to balance his uncertain cash flow:
“I'm not hopeless about the situation by any means, and I'm confident we will have a great year…but every time I open Quickbooks, I do get a bit overwhelmed when I look at cash flow and then realize that I need to come up with new paid media strategies to make it all work.”
-Justin Blase, Ted’s Vintage Maps
It all adds up to less autonomy, or what Newport called “control over how you fill your time.”
Blase is happy with his business. He’s doing well. But even through all of the attention and success, the lack of control has made his work less certain.
How do you prevent this same stress in yourself?
Changing your money mindset is foundational here. One of the critical steps to adjusting it is to observe enjoyment. In other words, remember why you’re doing what you’re doing.
If you’re Justin Blase, maybe you love vintage art. But chances are, your creator business started as a hobby—something you enjoyed more when you were doing it for free.
Why is it that once you add the stresses of time and income to a creative endeavor, it suddenly becomes a source of burnout? Simple: you’re focusing on the business and not the activity itself.
For one moment, take out a list and write out why you’re grateful to do what you do. Then revisit the sources of your frustration with a fresh eye.
2. Trying to scale without removing yourself as the bottleneck
Scaling a business is one of the seven wonders of the digital world. If you turn your service into a product you can sell while you sleep, you’ve achieved a level of financial independence most people only dream of.
But there’s a problem. Until you get there, your service-based business relies on your input.
Aastha Kochar, a freelance writer/marketer, knows the bottleneck problem all too well. If she doesn’t produce great writing for her clients, she doesn’t get paid. This is time-intensive, focused work. Kochar describes early days in her freelancing career that required 12-13 hour days, writing from bed.
As much as Kochar loves writing and marketing, being the bottleneck in her own business eventually wore her down.
“Although I didn’t feel tired, I felt overwhelmed and stressed doing it all myself.”
What did she do? Like removing a kink from a hose, Aastha went straight to the obstruction: herself. She switched to a team of eight writers working with her. She cut down her personal client work to focus on the top-notch brands she enjoyed writing for.
For the rest of her work, she handles article briefs and edits the drafts her writers submit to her. She’s still the key gear in the machine, but that machine runs much more smoothly without her writing every sentence.
There are still problems, Kochar reports. Hiring means training. And writing is not the only role she wants to hire. “I’m also yet to hire a virtual assistant who could help me with the content creation part,” she said.
However, there are results for her effort: boosting her relatedness to a team of writers has reduced her feelings of burnout. She also happily noted her office hours now only last from 12 to 6 p.m.
3. Failing to make yourself the priority
For Jacob Espinoza, executive and leadership coach and author of the Built Different Newsletter, it’s easy to predict burnout. It pops up when he doesn’t make time for himself.
Even so, making time for himself is a challenge. Espinoza works on two podcasts, the Built Different Newsletter, a Twitter account with tens of thousands of followers, and even learning TikTok.
“I have people helping me with some of it. But it’s still tough finding time for it all. And I still feel like it’s not enough.”
– Jacob Espinoza
His solution is to make personal time a priority. He has three favorites: exercise, meditation, and unplugging from the digital world. When he does all three, he says he’s at his best.
But if he skips them all for a week? He notices the burnout starting to creep in again. Lack of self-care wears down your feelings of autonomy and competence. It’s no wonder. If you can’t control one portion of your day, you’re not at your best.
Putting your audience first requires putting yourself first, too. If you don’t take care of the person producing the work, how are you ever going to serve your audience?
According to the APA, clinicians fighting COVID-19 during the heights of the pandemic noticed the same effect. The taxing mental work and pressure put clinicians at “heightened risk for mental health problems.”
The solution for healthcare workers was the same: finding time to practice self-care. They also boosted relatedness, creating support teams to help clinicians deal with the stressors of fighting COVID at work.
Burnout often comes from the stress of decision-making. The longer you make those decisions, the more it taxes you. If you have a “money first” mindset, you will continue to push yourself at the expense of the quality of your work—even at the expense of your mental health.
But with an “audience first” approach, you’ll realize what Espinoza realized: the work is better when you first take care of yourself.
4. Letting “perfect” be the enemy of “good”
Matt Gavenda of Ambit is another creator who recognizes the bottleneck problem. But rather than think of himself as the key gear in the wheel, he’s content to remove himself from the systems entirely.
He rejects the “if I can do this thing better, I should” mindset of many business owners, calling it “just poisonous to any company trying to grow.”
Instead, his focus is on creating business systems that help Ambit run without his input.
“The more systems you can get working smoothly, the easier it is to do everything. Delegation without systems and good communication costs more in the long run.”
On the surface, this might not seem like Gavenda is adapting the “serve your customers first” mindset. If he was like most creators, Gavenda might assume that his presence—and his presence alone—optimizes the quality of work.
But Gavenda believes in the power of good business systems. Optimizing those systems increases the quality of output across the entire business. It also decreases the business’s reliance on its creator’s presence.
For example, Gavenda is shifting to a payroll system that pays himself weekly, even though Gavenda’s business often has multi-week projects. Although this system presents a short-term challenge, his eyes are on the prize: a business that runs smoothly every week.
This is a key shift in your money mindset. When you’ve been the only one creating the output for your clients and customers, it’s tempting to think you know what’s best.
But audience-first thinking means you have to do what’s best for the customers. That’s true, even if it means removing yourself from the equation.
Gavenda recommends building processes around yourself that help others optimize their work. This removes you as a cog in the machine while improving the overall quality of the machine. The result is higher quality—and less stress on the creator.
How adopting a different “money mindset” will help you scale without increasing burnout
All of these creators’ problems fit one central theme. Your money mindset ultimately determines how you shape your business.
If that mindset runs afoul of three key factors—competence, relatedness to others, and autonomy—you’re setting your course for burnout.
Think of your money mindset as your business’s GPS. For example, if your mindset is “I just need more money,” the GPS will give you a destination towards more money, no matter how rough the roads are in between.
But if you focus on optimizing your performance, you’re picking the smoother roads. Which ones get you to your goals faster?
To prevent burnout, consider shifting back to your original mindset: serving the audience first. This mindset auto-corrects many of the micro-assumptions we make that affect our business:
- “I have to do it myself.” You don’t, according to Kochar. They’re building business systems that remove themselves as bottlenecks, allowing them to divert more time to optimize their overall business output.
- “If it’s not perfect, I can’t send it out.” Not according to Gravenda. He is happy to delegate work to others even if their work isn’t perfect because it helps fulfill his long-term goal of building a business capable of serving a larger audience.
- “I can’t take time off.” Instead, you have to, according to Espinoza. He notices the quality of his work dips if he doesn’t set aside time for mindfulness, exercise, and meditation. Counterintuitively, his work improves when he carves out time away from it.
The best way out of burnout isn’t stepping on the gas
Traditional advice says, “when you’re going through hell, keep going.” Nonsense. When you’re going through hell, turn around.
When the pressures of scaling your business lead to burnout, it’s not a sign you don’t have enough money. It’s a sign your mindset has steered you off course.
If you have poor money mindsets—like perfectionism that gets in the way of scaling—then there’s no point in growing from a flawed concept. Instead, take a few steps back, collect your breath, and ask yourself how you can build more autonomy, competence, and relatedness as a creator.
When you do, you’ll better serve your audience. And we’re confident the money will come.