Sunday Mailbag

February 17th, 2008 | Posted in Freelancing

Q: What do you do to keep yourself motivated and avoid burn-out?

A: That’s a tough one, because frankly I don’t stay motivated and avoid burn out. You would think that if you do something you really love to do for a living then working would be like going to a candy store every day. The reality is that no matter how much you like doing what you do, it’s still work and some days you just don’t want to work. I think this is especially true when you do creative work, because while it’s not ‘digging ditches’ it’s mentally and creatively exhausting. Sometimes you just don’t have the creative spark needed to get going. That’s when you find it hard to get to work.

When you are self employed that’s dangerous because you have no boss or other co-workers to hold you accountable if you play hookey… all you have is a deadline and meeting that while doing a good job on the project is all that is really important. It is so easy to just say “I’ll just work harder tomorrow on that and spend today goofing off” when you are not in the mood to work. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of self discipline to combat those moments. The worst thing you can do is hold yourself to some perfect ideal of always working hard and never taking “me time”. That’s like going on a diet and saying you will never cheat. Eventually you will eat that cookie and then you’ll feel guilty which brings you down and you are then more apt to binge on a whole box of cookies. Being realistic and doing things in moderation is they key. You need to accept that you need time off and “me time” to keep sane, and allow yourself to do that without feeling guilty.

There are a few things you can do to try and stay motivated. One is to set smaller goals. If I have a big project I try and set up a series of goal and time line to achieve them, so it’s not this gargantuan task due in a far away future. Smaller, easier accomplished goals make it easier to stay focused. It’s easier to get your head around “I’m going to get three pages penciled out today” than to say “I’m going to have this entire job done by next Tuesday”. Realistic scheduling helps.

Staying motivated to work, at least for me, is mostly about some form of accountability. I work out with a physical trainer not because I really need him to design my workouts and tell me what to do, but because knowing he’s waiting for me at the gym gets me there on the days I am really tired, and he will make sure I do my entire workout and not skip some stuff because I don’t feel like working that hard on a given day. The ‘reward’ of building a better physique is too abstract and takes too long to see results to keep me focused on the here and now. Since there is no one to hold me accountable in the studio, I implement a system of “denial” and “reward” for reaching certain goals.

Say I have an illustration I need to pencil out today, and I am not feeling like working. I’d rather be watching the latest episode of LOST on my DVR. I then choose to deny myself of watching LOST until I get that pencil done, then I have my reward of being able to watch it. My reward might be something as simple as playing solitaire or surfing the web or whatever (not allowing myself to use the computer is one I use a lot). I often give myself a tangible reward for finishing a big job, like some new DVDs or some other toy.

It sounds simple and juvenile but it works. You just have to exercise the self discipline to refuse to allow yourself to get whatever it is you are withholding before you finish your task. It can keep you focused and get you past the distractions that might get you sidetracked.

Thanks to Matt Crawford for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here. I’m running low!


  1. jimbodraw says:


    I agree about setting the realistic goals. Otherwise you just feel overwhelmed. Pacing yourself, will help you meet your deadlines, in a less stressful fashion.

    Thanks for the post.



New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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