If you’re a LifeClever reader, you’re probably working (or studying to work) in a creative field. And you know that creative work is hard work. It’s exhausting. In fact, doing your non-creative work can feel like a welcome break after spending all day just trying to think of stuff.
Being a book editor, blogger, and podcaster, I look forward to tasks like washing the dishes or going on the elliptical trainer because they’re opportunities to stop worrying away at creative obstacles for half an hour.
In her book The Artist’s Way creativity guru Julia Cameron argues that each of us has a “well” of creativity. The well fills up when we treat ourselves right: get enough sleep, eat properly, take long walks, go to museums. When we sit down in front of the drafting table or the keyboard and start working, we gradually deplete this reserve. Cameron warns against pushing yourself too far.
Often, we feel like we can stay up an extra hour or two working on a project because we’re on a roll. Sometimes, particularly late at night, the ideas come fast and furious. Thinking of all the times it felt like sheer torture to even form a complete sentence, we figure: I’m on, so I might as well keep going as long as I can.
Method #1: Quit While You’re Ahead
So you’ve had great flow working on a project. You sit back for a moment and think, “Hey, this is going great! I wish I always felt this engaged and sharp!”
Time to quit.
One maxim often repeated by writing teachers is to leave your last sentence unfinished at the end of the day so you have a logical place to continue next time. The same holds true for any creative work.
Think about it. If you work and work until you’re burned out and exhausted and don’t even want to think about your project anymore, that feeling will stay with you. You’ll try to unwind, maybe have a few beers, and eventually sleep on it, but the next time you sit down to work on it, that nagging sensation of being fed up will remain, casting a pall on your efforts.
Instead, finish on a high note. Leave the project feeling exhilarated and eager to continue. That sensation will stay with you, and you’ll find yourself looking forward to continuing the next day.
It may seem like this method will waste valuable creative time. After all, you’re on a deadline and, if you’re making progress, you should continue as long as possible. Right?
Unfortunately, creative work isn’t the same as washing the dishes. While your mental state doesn’t really affect how quickly or effectively you clean your pots and pans, if your creative flow slows to a trickle, an hour of work can come to nothing.
“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all morning and took out a comma,” Oscar Wilde once said. “In the afternoon, I put it back again.”
Method #2: Waste TimeWhen deadlines are imminent, it’s tempting to skip breaks. Instead of leaving for a full lunch hour, you order in some Chinese food or just grab a sandwich at a nearby deli and scarf it down on your way back to your desk.
Remember, whether or not you have the physical stamina to continue working, your brain gets tired. Worse, there’s no obvious blinking red light letting you know you should stop. If you’ve been working all morning, your mental engine is running low on fuel, and there’s no quick and easy way to replenish it. Caffeine is a shortcut, but it can only go so far.
The problem is, we often don’t realize we’re mentally exhausted. We slow down, taking longer and longer to make decisions about what to do, pause in our work to look something up online and, suddenly, we’ve been Googling our own names for fifteen minutes.
“Oops,” we think. “How’d that happen? Time to get back to work.” Except we don’t. Soon, an hour has been frittered away with frequent pauses, fruitless detours, and brute procrastination.
We chide ourselves for being lazy, but in reality our well of creativity has been drained and needs replenishment.
Taking a full hour or ninety-minute lunch break can feel decadent, a bit like taking a sick day when you’re not feeling quite sick enough. Remind yourself that a good long break is the only way to get back in fighting trim. But don’t spend it all eating.
15 Ways to Recharge Your Brain
- Go for a brisk walk
- Take a nap
- Lie in a nearby park or on a bench and watch the clouds go by
- Listen to music or even podcast novels
- Browse a local bookstore
- Stroll through a nearby art gallery
- Get a coffee in a cafe and read the paper or, even better, a gossip magazine
- Hit the gym
- Meditate or do yoga
- Hang out at the local dog run and get in touch with your animal nature
- Window shop
- Sit on the corner and sketch buildings
- Memorize poetry
- Get a massage
- Do math problems or crosswords
The main thing is to (a) get away from your desk, (b) do something that uses a completely different part of your brain than your creative work does, and (c) get your mind off of what you were doing and stimulated with fresh ideas, images, and inspiration.
You’ll come back recharged, refreshed, and ready to plunge full speed ahead.
Have some great ways to clear your head and refocus? Post them in the comments below.