There’s a pervasive idea out there that life and creativity are a zero-sum game. Indulge one, destroy the other. Or, as designer Stefan Sagmeister once wrote in a mural of coins across a plaza in Amsterdam: “Obsessions make my life worse and my work better.” But as anyone who has ever experienced it knows, there comes a point when obsession makes your work worse too. Burnout can be creatively lethal. As Sagmeister explains in his TED talk, “The Power of Time Off”: There comes a point when you need to step away.
But it can be very hard for for creative people to waste time. “I waste a lot of time,” poet John Ashbery wrote. “That’s part of [the creative process]… The problem is you can’t really use this wasted time. You have to have it wasted.” Gertrude Stein agreed: “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.”
Here are the five forms of creative rest I recommend for creative professionals.
Stress is the enemy of creativity. Our best work often comes from a state of nonchalance, when our minds are calm. “Qualities such as focus, calmness, clarity, and insight are as important to your creative process as glamour and stimulation,” wrote Mark McGuinness in a post on the site 99U. But a calm mind doesn’t happen by accident. It’s something you have to practice. How? Meditation. Of all the forms of creative rest, meditation is the most immediately beneficial. And the benefits only increase the more you do it. There are plenty of sites that offer meditation techniques, but the basics are incredibly simple: put yourself in time-out for 10 minutes. Think about your breathing. Let thoughts pass through your mind but don’t acknowledge them. Soon they will stop coming at all, and you will feel your mind clear. Think of it like restarting a computer.
Creative rest doesn’t have to be uncreative. Sometimes stepping away from your main craft in order to mess around with another can be just as creatively refreshing as taking a vacation…if not more so. Side projects are a no-stakes environment where you can let your childlike creative mind run wild. Sometimes side projects are so fun, they become main projects. But they must begin with one essential quality: pointlessness.
We like the way Hiut Denim Co. defines side projects:
- They don’t have to provide you with a living. You can still eat if they fail.
- They don’t have a deadline. And, as there is no time pressure, you don’t revert to your usual formula. You try new things. You experiment. You give them time just to play around for a while.
- They are what you call a Labour of Love. You provide the ‘Labour’. It provides you with the ‘Love’.
Thoreau said about walking: “The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” As our bodies move, our minds relax. And as our minds relax, our ideas begin to flow. There have even been scientific studies that claim walking produces twice as many good ideas as sitting in a room. Sometimes you have to jostle them loose. If you find yourself losing inspiration, feeling the brownouts that lead to burnout, give your mind a break and get your feet moving. It’s often the most restful thing you can do, besides sleep.
For some reason we’ve let ourselves believe that pulling all-nighters and regularly getting very little sleep is a point of pride. That cliché image of the red-eyed artist burning the midnight oil is romantic but highly unsustainable. Creatives need sleep and lots of it. Sleep deprivation is a quick path to mental hiccups, forgetfulness, and overall creative block. But sleeping doesn’t just prepare us to be creative. In many ways, it’s creative itself.
Tom Stafford, in BBC Future, notes this about dreams: “These bizarre monologues do highlight an interesting aspect of the dream world: the creation of connections between things that didn’t seem connected before. When you think about it, this isn’t too unlike a description of what creative people do in their work — connecting ideas and concepts that nobody thought to connect before in a way that appears to make sense.”
There is nothing impressive about denying yourself sleep. Act like a grown-up: give yourself a bedtime.
Sometimes you don’t need just a reboot; you need a hard reset. A reinstall. You need to walk away for a significant period of time. That’s actually the subject of Stefan Sagmeister’s TED talk we mentioned earlier. Every seven years, he takes off an entire year. Lucky him. Most of us don’t have the luxury of taking a break like that, outside of unemployment. So what do we do? Well, we do what we can. Try to take off two full weeks every couple of years. Push for three weeks.
If you feel yourself on the verge of burnout, it will be worth that awkward conversation with your boss or the drain on your savings account. This is your creative life we’re talking about. Take drastic measures.