I used to fear breaks, as coming back to my creative projects felt like a herculean task where I had to not only work out where I left things, but to also find my motivation and drive all over again. I worried that if I left things too long I would give up. Taking breaks is important to avoid burn out, however it can be a challenge to get back into the creative flow if you’ve been away from the desk or studio for a while. What are some of the strategies that can get back into your creative routine?
I used to do a lot of dancing, and at times when I’m procrastinating about getting back into my writing – spending too much mulling on the big picture of what I want to achieve and not enough time on the creating – I think about this different art form.
In dance (at least in the early learning years) you don’t concentrate on the piece you’re going to perform. Instead you focus on the repetition of the movements, training your body a bit more each day, pushing it in new directions and building in new movements not every day, but incrementally, over months and years. The performance is just the tip of the iceberg.
For me (admittedly as a hobby dancer!) although the performance was filled with excitement and adrenaline, it was the classes that I enjoyed the most. The end result of the performance is so quick that it’s hard to notice the details of the movements, but in the classes you had the space to experiment, push your understanding of the movements without worrying about if you’d fall on your face. But most importantly you just had to show up every class and practice.
When getting back into my creative practice after a break, I try to think more like a dancer returning to the studio, keeping my attention focused on the incremental steps.
Focus on the daily practice
I make ridiculously long to-do lists. Normally after the first sigh of satisfaction of writing it all down, it takes less than a minute for feelings of overwhelm to set it. It’s important to get this list out of my head, but once I write it down I pick one thing to start with, then hide the list away in my notebook. Every evening I pull it out and make a note of what I can work on the next day, but I don’t keep the full list in sight as it shows me how far away I am from my objectives. (By the way, since I’m always shifting my goalposts, this list is always daunting – good for aiming high, terrible for daily motivation!)
Take time for the small movements
This is not how many words I’ve written or the number of things I’ve crossed off my to-do list, but the sentences I write, the small articulations that train my mind and fingers into working again. I’m not looking for big wins here, just small steps that are warming up to a routine. They say it takes three weeks to make something into a habit; that seems like an appropriate amount of time to get back into things feeling easier again. Trust in (and enjoy) the regular practice.
I find that the best way to work through the muscle pain of not having done exercise for a while is to keep moving and pushing through the soreness. When I get back into the routine of writing again it can feel like more of a struggle than it used to be, so in the beginning I focus on keeping moving. If I get stuck on a task, I move to another one (after a quick glance at my to-do list). I lean into the stiff writing muscles and keep working, they’ll loosen up soon enough! It might be slow going but I eventually gain momentum.
Start again, and again
I never used to worry that much if I had a bad dance day, I just put it down to sore muscles, tiredness, lack of concentration or the normal ups and downs of any physical activity. I just looked forward to the next session. Bad writing days, however, sometimes get me down. I get hard on myself and somehow expect top performance every day. That isn’t reasonable.
If I have a particularly bad day – getting sucked into a cyclical hole of research that didn’t produce anything useful at the end or a day of battling procrastination – I reassure myself that tomorrow I have another chance. I wipe the slate clean and start again. I keep coming back, day after day, even after the bad days. The days where it all flows and productively is high are fabulous, but they are the minority. Don’t wait for those days.
What tricks do you use for getting back into creating after a break?