I currently have a patchwork of jobs that keep me pretty busy. About half of my working week is spent writing for websites, including the ever-beloved Peaceful Dumpling. This portion of my work requires me to be fairly self-motivated. This isn’t usually a problem since I thrive on working independently, and I enjoy following the routine I design for myself. Ultimately, I do feel that this is the line or style of work best suited to me.
I have noticed, however, that with my independent work, I go through a cycle: I’ll be cruising along just fine, feeling excited about what I’m producing, and then, say every five or six months, I come up against a few weeks during which I feel paralyzed by my creative tasks. I may have ideas to work with, but in the moment, they feel like non-starters. The lowest point of this cycle occurs when I start to feel existentially aimless—I’ll wonder where my career is taking me in the long term. I’ll start to long for a finish line—or at least tangible markers of progress—that probably don’t exist.
Fortunately, this part of the cycle doesn’t last forever—nor does it make up the majority of my work-related thoughts on the whole. I used to feel upset with myself for experiencing and “succumbing” to this phase of the cycle, this uncomfortable paralysis, but now that I’ve been through it a few times, I’m starting to accept that it’s part of the game.
Accepting this cycle is easier said than done, of course. No one wants to feel burned out! Here’s what I’ve learned from experiencing the dreaded “dip” in my work cycle. There’s not magic cure-all for a creative crash, but you can make your stay in that dip shorter and less discomforting. Hopefully, these tips and insights will help you, too.
1. It helps to remind myself that the as a creative professional, it’s not required (or even possible) to feel inspired 24/7. Rather, the mark of a truly committed professional (in and outside of creative fields) is perseverance (a.k.a. grit) when you feel like an empty shell (a feeling that’s sometimes inevitable)—it’s a belief in the larger vision, a faith that inspiration hasn’t left the building (it’s just in the break room).
2. If you can, take a short break (and get physical)! Sometimes you’re so pressed with work that the thought of taking any time for leisure just fills you with anxiety about not doing work. I’m definitely susceptible to this. If this happens to you, find a way to take a mental break while still doing something productive. Walking to get the mail, taking out the trash, or cleaning the kitchen are activities that don’t take me too long (and I have to do them at some point, anyway). These simple physical activities help refresh my mind and relieve a little stress. It also helps to feel good at something without trying too hard—That was a flawless lobbing of the trash into the dumpster. I can check that off the list!
3. Longer breaks are important, too. Vacations and holiday breaks are awesome, but I’m talking about a weekly break here (a tip I learned from our EIC, Juhea). I try to leave one day a week free from writing and writing-related work. I haven’t been doing this lately (for shame!), and the effect on my mental freshness is obvious to me (hopefully not to others). I’m planning to shift around my writing routine a bit because that seventh day is super critical. The Judeo-Christian God took a day off, right?! Not a bad precedent.
It seems like a small gesture, but it’s actually huge when you think about it: It’s one thing to work six days straight, take a day, then work another six days, etc. If I’m not rigorous about giving myself a day off, however, then in a month, I may work 30 days straight, which is dangerous for my productivity in the long term, among other things.
4. Don’t completely abandon your work or declare that you’re permanently spent. Sometimes I feel permanently spent, but I just sit down and write anyway (when I’m not giving myself a break, of course). It turns out that I’m still capable. Many writers have referred to the Ass-in-Chair maxim with good reason. Just being open to your work, even when you don’t feel like you have it in you, will yield surprising results. As I mentioned in the first point, you have to keep believing in the larger creative vision—in your body of work. Believing in your work when parts of yourself are telling it’s not worth the effort takes some courage. It can be scary! What if you sit down to write (or draw or compose) and nothing comes or you produce work that’s not your best? Whatever happens—it’s okay. Simply trying is the first step out of a creative slump. Give it a go. Give yourself a break. Then give yourself another go. You’ll find your sweet rhythm.
5. Be gentle on yourself. If being “open” to your work sounds impossible, re-frame your expectations of your work product for the time being. In other words, be gentler on yourself. For example, if I’m having trouble getting in the flow of an article I’m writing, commanding myself to create a perfect, engaging, and informative piece will only make me feel less capable. During times like these, I’m more successful if I temporarily lower my expectations. A gentler notion like, I’m just going to gather some ideas and maybe draft a paragraph or two will make the task seem less daunting. Before I know it, I polishing up the article and getting it ready to publish.
Do you ever find yourself in a creative slump? How do you find your way back to your creative edge?
Related career tips: 5 Ways to Keep Not Settling
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Photo: Alba Soler via Flickr