A Classic Case of Post-Production Burnout

Hi. My name is Zack Arnold…and I’m a workaholic.

I know I’m not the only person in the post-production industry (or any other creative industry) fighting this battle. Rest assured that you are not alone. But know this battle is winnable, even if you are burned out, considering changing careers because you can’t handle it anymore, or even worse, if you’ve contemplated suicide like I have.

A BRIEF HISTORY

If you are at all familiar with ‘Fitness In Post,’ you probably know I have been quite candid with my past as a self-proclaimed workaholic and how this has led to several recurring bouts of severe depression, one specific bout which almost led to suicide in my mid-twenties. Being blessed with the ‘creative gene’ comes with its share of curses, and one of those oh-so-wonderful curses has taken the form of mental illness – depression, anxiety, and ADHD for my entire adult life.

I created the ‘Fitness In Post’ program in early 2014 out of necessity. I did not decide it was time to ‘spread the good word’ about how great I am and profit from it. I have not spent the last 35 years of my life living a healthy lifestyle. I lived most of my life making very poor health choices and have driven myself into the ground more times than I can count. Unfortunately the post-production industry does not provide the tools or resources to guide us out of the dark holes we dig for ourselves, this industry hands us the shovel. So I decided ten years ago it was time to do the research myself and build my own personal health & wellness program. It’s been a long journey and I’ve failed a lot more than I’ve suceeded.

“The post-production industry does not provide the tools or resources to guide us out of the dark holes we dig for ourselves, this industry hands us the shovel.”

After almost a decade of experimentation, many trials, and lots of errors, I started to crack the code. Then I became inspired to share what I had learned with others, so I started building the Fitness In Post website and recording the podcast in May of 2014. I had just started my first season editing the tv show Empire and I was at the top of my game. I was firing on all cylinders.

Until I wasn’t.

THE DECLINE

Have you ever had a simple infection or cold and you were told to take antibiotics? The classic scenario is that we have to “take 3 pills a day for 10 days,” but nobody ever does. We feel better after 3 or 4 days, we stop taking the pills…then we get sick again because we didn’t let the antibiotics take their full course. Sound familiar?

This is exactly the path I led myself down in May of 2015. I had never felt better in my life. I was off all of my anti-depressant medication and using only natural supplements to maintain optimal brain chemistry. I was exercising regularly, eating well, practicing meditation, and getting plenty of high quality sleep. I felt like I could take on the world. So naturally, I decided that’s what I was going to do. I had just finished season 1 of Empire on a tremendous high and had several months in front of me before knowing I would return to edit season 2. And of course, I filled that “free” time as quickly as possible.

  • First I committed to being the supervising editor for a low budget feature. No sweat. Part-time at best!
  • Next I began the initial marketing and distribution of my documentary film GO FAR: The Christopher Rush Story. A huge undertaking yes, but my passion would get me through!
  • Then I committed to editing a tv pilot for Sony. Things were now stacking up, but Daddy’s gotta eat.
  • Meanwhile, I was still recording weekly podcasts and continuing to build the Fitness In Post website.
  • This apparently wasn’t enough to do, so I committed to a speaking engagement in Atlanta to spread the word about Fitness In Post…two days before the initial launch of GO FAR…while I was in producer’s cut on the pilot.

It was at this point I said to myself, “You’re good, but you simply cannot take on anymore. You have to be realistic.”

Then I got a phone call from the owner of the house I was living in. They were selling our house and my family had to vacate in 30 days.

This final straw did not just break the camel’s back…it cracked every bone in this poor camel’s body.

THE BOTTOM

I don’t specifically remember the last day that my health was at its peak, but it didn’t take long for everything to fall apart. Once I started stacking one project on top of another while simultaneously moving a family with two small children, I slowly replaced all of my healthy habits with unhealthy ones. I went from getting a solid 7-8 hours of sleep a night to getting a really shitty four hours of sleep per night, tops. Because my cortisol levels were jacked up from stress and no sleep I was snacking more and craving garbage, a habit I had spent years eradicating. And the icing on the cake…I stopped exercising. Completely.

It’s not that all of the various tricks and health strategies I had implemented stopped working, it’s that I just stopped doing them. I didn’t need to continue the antibiotics, I was all better! Why did I stop everything? Because I was “just too busy.”  I kept telling myself, “I’m in the best shape of my life, I can totally do this. I just need to get through the next two months, then I can recover.”

I’ll bet good money that last sentence sounds familiar to you. Because we all do it.

“I’ll be fine once I make it to hiatus.”

What I learned very quickly is there is no such thing as a sprint to the finish line. The finish line is a mirage in the desert that doesn’t exist. There is only one finish line, and we call it “death.” And I had run myself so far into the ground…again…that I wasn’t far off.

Two months before I had been riding the greatest natural high of my life, a journey that took me a decade to attain. And now I was back at the bottom. Severely depressed. So anxious I could barely go out in public or spend time with family. When I was twenty-five, staying in bed all day was the norm when dealing with depression. Now I’m a father with two young kids so not functioning and lethargy were no longer options. I was a shell of myself, I could barely take out the trash.

I hit the lowest point I had hit in a decade.

THE ASCENT

Ten or fifteen years ago I didn’t recognize “the hole,” it was too dark to see. Now I know exactly what it looks like, so the first thing I did was get myself to my integrative medicine doctor (Edison de Mello at The Akasha Center). He’s pulled me out of every hole for the last ten years. With Dr. D there is never any judgment, only astute observation, assessment, and strategies to move forwards. He also mentioned to me that this time was different than the previous instances because my level of awareness was so much greater. I had spent so much time acquiring the knowledge and tools that the answer to my recovery was extremely simple…just go back to doing exactly what you have been doing.

Duh.

I started from square one, and spent the next six weeks slowly implementing every single tactic I learned to achieve optimal health, one small change at a time. But the game changer this time was realizing the greatest mistake I’ve been making the last two years: I have been acquiring an endless list of “tactics” to improve my health, but I have never devised a “strategy.” I have now rebuilt my entire daily routine from the ground up, but now my focus is no longer how to maximize my time for maximum productivity and output, it’s how to maximize building a life prioritized as follows:

Priority #1 – My health

Priority #2 – My family

Priority #3 – Helping others

Priority #4 – My career

Basically I did to my previous priorities list what everyone needs to do with the standard food pyramid: I flipped it upside down. I spent fifteen years building my career at the expense of everything else below it. And now it was time for me to make the firm commitment to base every single decision on how it fits into my new priority pyramid. If anything interferes with priority #1, that means I simply have to say no. Period.

MOVING FORWARDS

In six short weeks I emerged from one of the darkest caves I’ve ever visited, and my health was back to where I had left it three months before. Only now my purpose was much clearer (thank you Tony Horton and Brendon Burchard for helping me find my purpose). I had spent the last year and a half treating ‘Fitness In Post’ as a hobby, and it gained more traction than I ever hoped or dreamed. I honestly thought I would record a couple podcasts, write a couple blog posts, and I would be proverbially “laughed off the stage” for sharing an idea as outlandish as helping people in post-production become healthy.

But what I’ve realized is that the post-production industry needs its own health & wellness program. There is no organization in our industry looking out for our well-being, we have to be your own advocates. And the only way to adequately do that is educating ourselves. My mission is to be your teacher.

For all of you out there headed towards the dark cave of burn out, or for those of you already there, you can count on ‘Fitness In Post’ being your go-to resource for not only surviving in this industry, but thriving.

Be well.

Zack Arnold

 

Zack Arnold is an award-winning film & television editor (Burn Notice, Empire, Shooter, Glee), member of the American Cinema Editors, a documentary director (GO FAR: The Christopher Rush Story), and creator of the Optimize Yourself program (formerly ‘Fitness In Post’). He helps ambitious creative professionals like you learn how to more efficiently manage your time, energy, and attention so you can maximize your creative focus and minimize procrastination, depression, and burnout. After all, what’s the point of killing yourself for the sake of your career if you don’t have energy to spare for the most important people in your life?