Producing in a State of Flux
Recently, like many of you I’m sure, I found myself hitting a creative wall.
I’ll be honest, it totally snuck up on me. I’ve hit the proverbial wall before and the signs of it coming up were a lot more clear and the only reason why burn out happened was due to the kind of stubbornness I had to continually produce something. Lately - or rather in the last year or so to be exact - I’ve imposed a few sets of rules to keep that from happening but it ended up happening anyway. It wasn’t until that moment that things really started to click - the ways that I knew to create and produce are officially irrelevant. The rules and structure that I had built for myself were, in a lot of ways, almost reliant on the way our old world used to operate - making sure I took time out every day to go out for walks, treating myself if it was an especially productive week, even just planning trips to go on to celebrate basically anything. It all had to go out the window.
I tried rationalizing it for a little while. This is only temporary, things will go back to normal, just give it time, I told myself. But after being in quarantine for almost three months, I’ve consciously decided to shift my way of thinking.
This posed the major question: What does it mean to continue to produce in what seems like a perpetual state of flux?
Now, I can’t say I’ve got all of the answers. I definitely do not. This new world we’re in is continually changing and evolving with what seems like every passing day. But over the last few weeks, I’ve found some major breakthroughs that have helped me a great deal in battling burnout. Hopefully, even if it’s tangentially, they will help you a bit too.
Doing Nothing is 100% OK
I launched a new project in the middle of April and proceeded to produce absolutely nothing new over the span of two weeks. This. Was. Stress Inducing. My entire side hustle is rooted in producing new content and it’s very common to hear that going for extended periods of time of not producing anything new can be the death knell of what you’re trying to share with anyone. I spent the first week trying hard to get something out and then gave in once week two came around. And you know what? It proved to be an imperative decision that needed to be made.
I spent that second week reevaluating my production timeline and comparing it to reality versus my own expectations. My expectations for what I can produce are incredibly high (I have a strong passion and emotional investment in what I do and that can be a really great drive!) but the reality was that every day I had to reorient myself.
Every day I had to reconsider what I was actually capable of doing because every single day was different.
So that break gave me time to just be. It gave me time to take care of what was necessary and focus on my primary responsibilities again since - to be totally honest - that was all I had the energy for anyway. But it also meant that I was giving myself time and space to rejuvenate myself. I started playing music again. Picked up some old favorite games that I hadn’t played in years and gave myself time to just reconnect with me.
At that time, my coworker Lauren, kept saying “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” and boy was she right. It’s not realistic - or even kind to yourself - to expect to continually produce and accomplish at the same rate if you’re feeling energetically low. That’s why sometimes it is 100% OK, and even very much necessary, to simply do nothing.
Low Stakes Activities are Great Actually
Speaking of picking up music and playing games again - I do not think I realized just how much of my day to day life was completely defined by getting work done until I stopped actually working for that time frame. I had gotten so used to the grind that it had essentially made me numb to what the grind felt like. Everything I did was important, and in turn everything functioned at the same level of necessity which meant that everything, even if it was to varying degrees, was now labeled as High Stakes.
This, I think, was one of the bigger reasons why I hit the creative block that I did. I was offering very little variation in how my day to day went. Everyday had a checklist that needed to be completed and everyday had the same vibration to it which meant that everyday was suddenly very, very important.
Once I started integrating more Low Stakes activities - which is just another way of saying that the results of what I’m doing actually mean next to nothing at all towards my short-term or long-term goals - I started finding myself getting my energy back. Heck, I even started finding new avenues for inspiration.
The biggest thing about this integration is that doing these Low Stake activities gave me an opportunity to step back. In doing so, I got a better perspective of why tasks were important and whether - gasp - I could even still consider them important or what their importance even meant.
This was definitely a scary thing to do, of course! When you’re wholly invested in what you do it’s hard to think of continually investing in it if it’s not labeled with a big red exclamation point but all it did was help me recognize that sometimes what I’m doing is important because I just genuinely enjoy it and the best thing to do to continue that enjoyment really may be to step back for a while and just leave it be.
Flexibility is Key
I consider myself in a lot of ways an incredibly flexible person. I mean, I can touch my toes, yeah, but I also tend to operate in the mindset that change is normal and you have to be willing to go with the flow. When I say that these last few months have tested that, bolding and italicizing it still feels like an understatement.
Every day was different. Every day meant change. Every day meant that the plan that I’d come up with for how I’d like the next day to go would be tossed out the window because very few things were predictable. So I had to start asking myself - if I don’t even know how each day will go, what does that mean for me even keeping up with any kind of creative schedule?
Turns out it meant that the schedule had to go.
For anyone who knows me, they understand how this is a pretty baffling thing to do. Yes, I know I said I’m flexible, but it did make me realize that I am only flexible within very clearly defined limits - or as my partner called it - conditionally flexible.
It’s easy to be flexible if you know exactly what’s going to happen and when, and it’s very hard for things to suddenly change on you! Gasp! Shock! Awe!
So going through this process was actually like completely rewiring myself and how I work at my core. I like to be reliable and I certainly love sharing my work with the world, and those two hand-in-hand means creating on a very clear schedule! But for the sake of my sense of wellness and to make sure that my creativity and I didn’t start fighting in the end, it just had to go.
What I didn’t realize - or at least to what extent - is just how much liberty in my creativity this offered. This now meant that I could actually get my work up to a higher and more consistent quality. That made me realize that I wasn’t necessarily flexible in what I was willing to do, but rather flexible in my standards as a whole. If I got it done, then who cares what it looks like? But it turns out that I do, I just never gave myself the luxury to care.
Now my art is flourishing in ways that I didn’t expect. I can open up an illustration that I’ve done and still find myself excited and even sometimes impressed at what I accomplished and that feeling is very new, very foreign, and honestly very welcomed.
So in short, there isn’t really a simple solution to handling productivity right now. The best thing you can do is learn to be more kind to yourself, try to remain flexible to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on yourself, and also - and more important - give yourself permission to have fun. It all boils down to granting yourself the space you need to heal and rejuvenate so you can continue being creative.
Dealing with everything going on is going to be different for everyone, and that’s also part of why flexibility is so important right now. When you learn to be kind with yourself, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to be kind to others and - hopefully - help the love you have for what you do shine brighter.