I’m Chanpory, and this is my site on how to live and work better as a designer.

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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 Time

When 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.

Bad idea.

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

  1. Go for a brisk walk
  2. Take a nap
  3. Lie in a nearby park or on a bench and watch the clouds go by
  4. Listen to music or even podcast novels
  5. Browse a local bookstore
  6. Stroll through a nearby art gallery
  7. Get a coffee in a cafe and read the paper or, even better, a gossip magazine
  8. Hit the gym
  9. Meditate or do yoga
  10. Hang out at the local dog run and get in touch with your animal nature
  11. Window shop
  12. Sit on the corner and sketch buildings
  13. Memorize poetry
  14. Get a massage
  15. Do math problems or crosswords
Depending on where you’re located, there may also be volunteer opportunities in your area that you can do during your lunch hour. Setting up a regular lunchtime appointment can be a great way to stay productive all morning. If you know you need to stop by your local food bank by noon to pick up a delivery, you tend to work a little more efficiently with the time that you do have after breakfast. (Oh, and eat a good breakfast!)

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.

16 Comments

  • Jordan

    gravatarNov 28, 2007
    10:55 am

    I just started reading your blog today, but I’m really enjoying the articles I’ve devoured so far.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarNov 28, 2007
    12:15 pm

    Glad you like the site, Jordan!

  • mark

    gravatarNov 28, 2007
    1:41 pm

    im reading and eating at my desk.

    Thanks for the great posting.

  • Marie Holzer

    gravatarNov 28, 2007
    2:50 pm

    Welcome to LifeClever! Loving your contributions thus far…

  • Alex Charchar

    gravatarNov 28, 2007
    10:10 pm

    Nice post and welcome to LifeClever :)

    A couple things (which slightly tap on the above) that I do, that i find helpful are;

    1. Read during lunch, but always in a different spot. Try not to return to the same place more than once in a week or fortnight (or month if you have the space to stroll around in)

    2. Every morning I pick up a book from our studio’s library (or my personal one) and flick through it for 5 – 10 minutes. Doing so well before checking email or anything else like that, keeps the juices flowing and gets me in the right mind set first thing.

    3. Browse through a library – people will mind a heck of a lot less when you pull apart half the shelves and spill them out over a table and indulge. Bookstore workers might not like you doing that so much.

    4. Talk to as many different people as you can. Doesn’t matter what they do or who they are, if there’s a good discussion had, you might come at a future project differently.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarNov 29, 2007
    8:09 am

    Good additional points, Alex. Thanks!

  • Taylor Wright

    gravatarNov 29, 2007
    8:51 am

    David, Welcome! I really appreciate this post–¦Â partially because I’ve sat down with “The Artist’s Way” so many times but stop after the second or third chapter. This seems to take some of the ideas, remove the new-age feeling around it and then put it into a practical context. I think I’ll start taking this advice today!

    Alex, I like your contributions as well. The book before work thing is a great idea.

  • Natalie

    gravatarNov 30, 2007
    7:02 am

    I am so guilty of not wasting time. I pledge to waste more!

  • Jacob Cass

    gravatarNov 30, 2007
    11:11 pm

    Hi, I found your 15 ways to recharge your brain quite interesting and I posted an article on my blog :)

    And I am going to use the quit while your ahead tip and see how it goes. Time is another matter however.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarDec 1, 2007
    4:15 pm

    Thanks, Jacob. Go read it people.

    http://justcreativedesign.com/

  • Philip Karpiak

    gravatarDec 2, 2007
    8:40 am

    Great post, David.

    I’ve actually been in a creative rut for the last few days, and have been trying different methods of refilling my well (visiting more shops at the nearby mall, reading a book, etc.).

    This will come in handy. Welcome to LifeClever ;-)

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarDec 2, 2007
    11:43 am

    Glad you found the post useful, Philip. More to come.

  • Filipe Bernardes

    gravatarDec 2, 2007
    2:48 pm

    Hi. Just wanted to add watching soap operas/talkshows, the lamest the better. Cleaning my workspace always work for me – organizing my books does wonders ;)

  • Joy

    gravatarDec 13, 2007
    4:13 am

    Great article! I do headstands, asanas (yoga poses) or for a really fast relief-ten deep breaths. This gives me more juice all the time.

  • Rick Stringer

    gravatarDec 27, 2007
    9:45 am

    David,

    This is great! It fits right in with the types of things we have been working on in our office. My company is a design firm, and it is so important to keep those creative juices flowing.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarDec 27, 2007
    12:09 pm

    Glad you liked the post, Rick!