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Imagine I tell you I’m going to start a business. I’ll be doing something I love, but doing it on my own, so a lot of my week will be spent on things I don’t love — filling out tax forms, cleaning the bathrooms, marketing — but that are necessary to keep the business running. Oh, and I’ll have to keep my day job, because most people in my field never make any money.
You might tell me this sounds like a terrible idea. But I love it, and I feel this burning compulsion to make it real. I’m doing it.
That’s the deal independent podcasters and video creators sign up for. Many of us act not only as hosts and producers, but also as scriptwriters, editors, engineers, distributors, website administrators, and social media marketers — on top of working our 9-to-5s. We might put in years of work before we see any payoff. More likely, we won’t ever see any. But we’re somehow compelled, at an almost visceral level, to make something, so we do it anyway.
Normally in this newsletter we talk about craft and workflow. But for creators, keeping yourself going, and actually feeling good about your work, is as critical as mastering the craft or working smart. It’s especially true for independent creators, but the grind is real if you do creative work as part of your job, too. Burnout and podfade happen all the time. And even if you never completely flame out, you can just start to hate the process — and then what’s the point?
But with the right practices, you can keep creating what you love and keep loving the creation process. I talked to a few creators about how they thread that needle; here’s their advice.
Treat it like a job
It’s not sexy, but one of the best ways to keep your head above water when you’re creating something new is to stay organized and build routines. When you can make the minor tasks a routine part of your week — say, emailing potential guests at 9 a.m. every Monday instead of procrastinating until it’s an emergency — you’ll save mental energy for the creative stuff, like coming up with episode ideas.
Ed Cunard, who hosts the karaoke podcast The Greatest Song Ever Sung (Poorly) alongside his friend Adam Wainwright, says routines like this make his show much easier to produce.
“Systemize everything that you can systemize so it becomes like muscle memory,” says Ed. For example, Ed and Adam have created an intake form where potential guests provide their own background information to save the hosts time doing research.
And of course, the tools you use to produce your final product make a difference too. Ed credits Descript (ahem) with preventing a lot of potential stress.
“Just knowing that we’re able to have interviews and host segments recorded all in one file that we can take and clip to composition has been a drastic help in alleviating some of that burnout,” Ed says.
As helpful as schedules and systems can be, they’re best for mundane tasks. Creativity doesn’t respond well to brute force — the more you stress over coming up with ideas, the less likely those ideas are to come. So when it feels like your creative well is running dry, sometimes the best thing you can do is something else entirely.
Tina Tobey Mack, a freelance sound designer who has worked for the BBC and WGBH Boston, is a big fan of stepping away when creative block strikes. For her, that might mean running, yoga, going outside, hanging out with her kid, or just sleeping through the night.
“Just get space,” she says. “You come back a completely different person.”
Sometimes, though, you’re up against a deadline and you can’t afford to give your brain a night off. To avoid those scenarios, it’s good to figure out when you feel most creative and block off that time for the real strokes of genius — and don’t try to force it at other times.
Shannon Odell, a neuroscientist, comedian, and one third of the podcast The Science of Self Care, knows that she can’t do her best work before noon. So instead, mornings are her time to exercise, read emails — anything that doesn’t require creative energy. Then she devotes a scheduled block of time in the afternoon to creative work.
Tina and Shannon also swear by just living life as a way to get the creative juices flowing. Tina loves to see art installations and listen to podcasts in genres other than the one she’s working on. Shannon might watch an episode of her favorite show. Because sometimes, focusing too much on what you’re making can keep you from exploring other possibilities.
Shannon has seen the pitfalls among comics; the ones who consume nothing but comedy quickly become unfunny.
“You have to take a break,” she says. “You have to go do life and find jokes in the normal stuff because no one wants to listen to comedy about comedy.”
Same goes for podcasters and video creators. When all of your time is spent listening to podcasts, watching videos, and, well, reading newsletters about craft and workflow, you aren’t giving your brain the perspective and fresh information it needs to spark new ideas.
Find your tribe
Creating stuff can be isolating, even if you’re part of a team, and especially when you’re working independently. When you don’t have colleagues to bounce ideas off of or a boss to give you feedback, it can feel like you’re just shouting into the void.
If you’re truly working alone on a podcast or video series, one obvious solution might be to get a cohost. At the very least, it’s someone to talk to.
Ed loves hosting a podcast with his best friend. “Even if we only had 20 listeners, I’d be fine,” he says.
But as a freelance sound designer, Tina doesn’t have that luxury. Instead, she’s built a network of people in her industry who she can call on when she’s flummoxed or frustrated. Those people can also be helpful when she needs feedback on her work — because as we’ve said many times before, letting a friend see or hear what you’ve made is a great way to find out what’s working and what isn’t.
Keep the big picture in mind
When you start to feel overwhelmed, or your project starts feeling more like a burden than a labor of love, step back and remind yourself why you started doing it in the first place. As Shannon puts it, figure out your “why.”
If your “why” is simply to share information you’re passionate about, maybe automating some of your production (like, say, oh I dunno, filler-word removal?) or social media promotion will help you focus more on your content. If you started out with the goal to create a community of like-minded people, maybe spending more time just chatting with your audience will get your gears turning again.
And if none of that helps, you can always take a break. Many creators worry that pausing production will put them back at square one, losing their audience and everything they worked so hard to build. But more often than not, your audience will understand.
“Your first priority as a podcast or as a person should be to yourself,” Ed says.