Welcome back to our monthly series Ask Angella, where we do exactly that.
If you’ve ever had a potentially sensitive creative question, we want you to throw it our way so that we can hand it over to Angella: our resident art writer, expert, and all-around kind, funny and wise human being. Here’s the question we’ll tackle this month:
“The burn out is real. How can I take a break without losing my will to create and be productive?”
Most people, myself included, don’t know how to relax. We don’t know when to stop, how to take a break or slow down. Between the gig economy and hustle culture, our generation essentially never rests. Even when we’re asleep, we never truly stop moving as our body regenerates and replenishes itself. In a New York Times piece, Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist who studies boredom and wrote a book on our relationship to digital culture, explains that boredom is important: “the way I think about boredom is coming to a moment with no plan other than just to be,” she writes and I think she’s onto something. As a grad student and writer, I am constantly managing my input and output and after awhile it feels completely mechanical and uninspired. It wasn’t until I fully embraced the art of doing nothing and learned how to take a break that I realized that living life—no matter what that looked like—was just as “productive” as work.
Understand there’s more than one way to take a break
I’m not talking about what you do when you take a break as much as I am understanding the fundamental way you’re taking a break. I know, I know. This is a post about relaxing and sloughing off structure, but understanding the difference is key. We’ll look at two ways to take a break: short term and while working, and long term and fully resting (like on a vacation, remember those?)
Refuel before you burn out
Schedule yourself breaks so that you take them at intervals, rather than waiting for exhaustion. Burn out due to workaholism has serious health consequences. When adrenaline (from stress) is elevated over a period of time, it affects the cardiovascular system to the point of heart disease. Not to mention chronic fatigue, depression and muscle strain are all symptoms of never taking a break. So don’t wait until your eyes are blurry and your neck is stiff, set a timer that goes off every half hour to an hour and make yourself get up, stretch, rest your eyes, go on a walk, lay down, do jumping jacks, have a snack—you name it. Preserve yourself so you can go longer. Speaking of the long term, taking entire days or months in between serious work projects work the same way. Your brain cells need to relax and recharge before they can help you come up with new ideas.
Give yourself at least one day a week or one hour a day where you do nothing
And I do mean nothing. I can’t stress how important and helpful this is. New York Times writer Bonnie Tsui refers to this kind of time as fallow time, time in which a creative person does nothing. Hours empty of anything, just sitting or bopping around outside or staring into space, laying down, doing nothing. Try in increments and see how long you can go before you start itching to get back to work. It’s crucial and worth it.
Take productive breaks and avoid taking breaks when you’re in a rut
Hitting a wall? Keep pushing. Taking a break while you’re frustrated will make it more difficult to come back to your work once you disconnect. By stopping when the stoke is high, you’ll actually want to come back to the drawing board. Similarly, a productive break, one that keeps your brain somewhat stimulated will keep things moving smoothly. For example, try a tactile task. Anything from doing the dishes (not everyone’s favorite, I know) or shuffling cards, to doing a few handstands or running errands.
Do the easiest, shortest tasks first
Does it take you ten minutes or less? Knock it out first. Instead of digging into writing your grant proposal or inking your sketch, consider making all the superfluous phone calls and writing your emails first. Tapping into a sense of productivity early on will get your brain thinking you can accomplish even bigger stuff throughout the day.
For longer breaks, do one small thing that builds toward productivity
As a writer I consider reading my job. When I’m in the middle of research I will typically read denser material. When I’m taking a longer break, a few months in summer for example, I will keep reading but I’ll take myself off the heavy material hook and read something more fun. To keep my brain sharp, I’ll chip away at the crossword app on my phone. If you’re an illustrator, do some doodling with low expectations.