This Accessible Well-Being Practice May Be The Antidote To Burnout & Languishing
Imagine this: You wake up feeling exhausted, even though you got a full eight hours of sleep. After moving through your morning routine—no matter how chaotic or calm—you log on to your computer and check off your to-do list in a cynical, robotic fashion. Soon enough, it's evening, but it feels like you got nothing done.
Sound eerily familiar?
Adam Grant calls it languishing. Glennon Doyle calls it feeling "half alive." At Daydreamers, the mental well-being company I cofounded, we call it hamster-wheeling. In scientific terms, these parts of seemingly normal daily life are the three main aspects of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency.
It's no surprise that we are currently living through a period of burnout, but this isn't just a recent phenomenon. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been warning us of collective burnout for years now (mindbodygreen even said we were in the "Age of Burnout" back in 2019). And if we're being honest, we've been feeling the effects of our overworked, productivity-obsessed culture for decades.
Yet, as a clinical psychology researcher and someone who has been studying burnout—and its antidote—for years, I think there's something deeper behind our robotic nature: lack of exercising our creative brain.
Our brains are wired to find meaning, beauty, and awe in all that we do—if we let them. And the easiest way to tap back into that innate human behavior to create is simple: Get into the creative flow.
Creative flow: the antidote to burnout and lack of purpose.
Many of the ways that we've been taught to cope with feeling burned out and robotic is to do more of the same: Quiet your mind, rest, and slow down. Yet, the most radical choice we can make to combat burnout is to feel more alive—and experience the spectrum of beauty, wonder, and awe that comes with being human.
When we define creativity from a scientific perspective1, it has nothing to do with achievement. In fact, creative expression (otherwise known in the research world as "everyday creativity") is synonymous with these qualities: openness to new experiences, curiosity, and one's ability to notice moments of beauty and awe.
These qualities aren't special; they are literally what make us human. Our brains are wired to make connections and imagine something new, no matter how big or small. Think about it this way: The only way we've evolved as a species—from making fires to skyscrapers—is by asking ourselves, what if things could be different?
Often when we're stuck in the burnout cycle, our thoughts fall into a repetitive pattern. We lose all sense of interest, excitement, and even purpose. We don't have room to imagine a new future because we're stuck in a constant loop.
But imagination and creativity are what we call, in research, a "virtuous cycle." Even if you're feeling bad, just by practicing them consistently, you can send your brain on a "positive upward spiral2."
At Daydreamers, we focus on helping adults access their creative brains, and in doing so, we found that building and engaging in a creative well-being habit for 15 minutes, two to four times a week, can cut feelings of burnout in half.
And this is something that's been validated by many leading researchers, too. We know based on new research3 that getting into the flow state was the best predictor of well-being, even more than optimism or mindfulness.
How to get into creative flow: the "anti-meditation."
If meditation is a practice of stillness and disassociation, flow is nearly the opposite. It requires active movement.
Getting into the creative flow is best described by its discoverer, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: "Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz."
In our modern world, flow is often associated with helping us be more productive, but this is a misconception. Flow, by definition, is an autotelic experience, which means that it requires us to be intrinsically motivated. In essence, creative flow comes about when we are doing something that we enjoy—so much so that we become immersed in the task while losing all sense of time and space. We become one with the moment.
What's even more powerful about practicing creative flow is that it's an entry point to living a full, meaningful life. At Daydreamers, we've seen this in action: 65% of our members have made transformative, purposeful changes in their lives after developing a creative flow practice, such as switching into a meaningful career or leaving a difficult relationship for a better one.
But engaging in creative flow doesn't mean your life needs to change in a large-scale way. Even by just taking a new walking route or noticing the beauty in a freshly folded load of laundry, you're more connected to "little p" purpose.
Getting into the flow relies on one main equation: Find the right balance between skill and challenge. Here are some ways that you might experiment with incorporating the flow equation into your life:
Find a practice you enjoy (or imagine you might enjoy).
Joy is an underrated emotion in our world. It may even be thought of as frivolous, but it's actually a core aspect of well-being. Since flow is intrinsically motivated, make space to notice the creative practices that make time seem to disappear. You don''t have to know what they are, yet. It could be making dinner, doing your makeup, or even brainstorming the way you want to redecorate your home.
Turn it into a consistent ritual.
Remember how creative flow is a "virtuous cycle"? In order to reap the well-being effects, it can't be something we engage in once or twice a year. According to Clarissa Pinkola Estes, "Creativity is the soul's food and water." Find ways to incorporate it into your weekly routine by stacking it with other personal care habits you already do.
Notice when you need to up the challenge.
Boredom is the starting point for creative thinking because it requires us to launch into that first question: What if things could be different? Instead of seeing boredom as the end, think of it as an added challenge to get back into the flow. This is where the power of creative constraints comes in and dreaming up new ways to use your imagination.
Flow leads to a fulfilling, creative life.
In a world that has so much to be overwhelmed by, simply making space to notice the beauty, wonder, and awe around you is a radical choice. But being mindful about not turning the exact thing that can help us unravel the burnout cycle into another check mark on your to-do list is core to long-term impact.
Developing a flow practice for the pure sake of reconnecting to your creative brain will help you remember how to be fully alive again. At Daydreamers, we live by a simple saying: It's time to be more human, less robot. Make space to tap into your innate human superpower, and see what else begins to shift.
Katina Bajaj is the co-founder and Chief Well-being Officer of Daydreamers. After getting off the burnout cycle, she became fascinated by the power of creativity to improve our overall well-being. Katina is a published well-being author (Simon & Schuster), a certified coach meditation teacher, and has a Master's in Clinical Psychology from Columbia's Mind-Body Institute. Her work on creative well-being has been featured in publications like Teen Vogue and Fast Company, and she has amassed a following of nearly 100k globally.