There’s been a lot of discussion lately about burnout—both on the internet, and among my various groups of colleagues and friends. As we (too slowly) start to emerge from winter here in Canada, I’ve noticed an uptick in the symptoms of burnout. Lots of people are getting taken down by colds, bouts of insomnia, or in my case, a coordinated attack from my back, shoulder, and neck muscles, that seized up and made it impossible to turn my head for a few days.
Self Care Tips for Creative Humans
As I lay helpless on a heating pad, cursing my bad posture at my various workspaces, I got thinking about self-care, and what it means for people like me who feel the urge to work around the clock. For the most part, I find it fulfilling: I juggle a full-time job, working on my novel, and a handful of freelance clients. Without exception, these things are interesting and engaging and creative. And yet, I often stumble in my ability to juggle them and all the other elements that make up a life—the cooking, cleaning, eating, sleeping, taking care of myself stuff.
I also read Molly Page’s excellent post about the way social media is impacting her creativity. In it a wise friend recommended she go back and re-read one of her previous blog posts, and take her own advice—to get back to her habit of journaling, instead of constantly sanitizing her thoughts to share them with the world/internet. So, in that vein, I’m going to share some of the things that are important for me to take care of myself. Chances are, I’m going to need the reminder many times over in the future, so I’ll put them all in a handy post that I can reference later. Hopefully, there is something in these reminders that will be helpful for you as well.
You’ve Got to Move It, Move It
Regular exercise is something that helps me immeasurably. It cascades through my life creating benefits that far surpass the time it takes me to work up a sweat. When I’m in a groove of regular exercise, I’m hungry for healthy foods, thirsty for hydrating and delicious water, better able to focus, and more energized. When I’m not exercising, I’ll eat whatever is handy/easiest, would gladly hook myself up to an IV of caffeine, and feel sluggish and unfocused. I try to remember to meet my body where it is—not to push beyond my limits, but to work within them.
Good Food and Quality Sleep are Critical
Humans are not robots. We live in our bodies, and those bodies have needs. Exercise, healthy food and quality sleep are critical for focus, creativity, and general well-being. And yet for some reason, I hate the grocery store. It’s one of those never-ending tasks, and I’m constantly struggling to actually get the supplies I need to avoid eating out or ordering in. I’ll fall into bed with a million things on my mind, the bright blue light of my phone bathing my face. I’m trying to work on these two areas of my life actively right now, with admittedly mixed results.
Input is Essential for Output
Just as you can’t drive on an empty tank, you can’t expect to be creative without some fuel. Input can be found in many forms—getting absorbed in a great book, dissecting what I didn’t like about a bad movie, staring out the window and watching some birds build their nest, wandering around an art gallery or museum. When I get stalled on a creative project or find myself uninspired by my work, it’s often smart to figure out a way to add some fuel to my creative tank.
Output Doesn’t Always Look the Same
When I’m laser-focused on one kind of work—whether it’s writing a novel, working on blog posts for work, generating new ideas, or focused on a particular project—it’s incredibly frustrating to hit a wall. And that’s fair! Part of my identity is wrapped up in the work that I do, and these are the moments when I start to doubt myself. In moments like these, I find it’s incredibly helpful to give myself permission to switch modes: bake something, solve a crossword puzzle, put on some music and have a dance party. I was recently gifted a keyboard, and I find that the work of re-training my hands to play chords and melodies (even though I lament the lack of focus and dedication that my 12-year-old self had when I was taking lessons), can shake something loose in my brain in a way that is continually staring at a blank page cannot.
Rest is Part of the Work
Sometimes I just have to turn my brain off and turn it back on again, like rebooting a sluggish computer. Putting a project or task aside for a while and doing something mindless—the dishes, an easy errand, watching predictable TV (I’m a sucker for procedurals—I don’t know what it is that I find so soothing about Law & Order, but man shows like that seem just to lull me into a meditative state), taking a nap. Admittedly, I feel guilty about taking breaks, but I’m gradually learning that it’s part of the process. No one can be on all the time, and rest makes me better when I’m ready to start up again.
Celebrate the Wins
I’ve noticed that a lot of people, myself included (maybe it’s a Canadian thing?) are quick to point out the bad stuff, and reluctant to celebrate the good. At a recent check in with my writing group, almost everyone around the table said something along the lines of “I made great progress this week, but it’s not as good/focused/as much as I was hoping for.” I’m working on being gentler with myself around where I fall short, and for exuberant around where I crush it. It helps to have a designated celebration partner (for me, that’s also my life partner), who knows what I’m working toward, understands why it’s a big deal when I finish a project, hit a milestone in my manuscript, or find a break in the clouds when I’ve been stuck on something.
Remember February Always Sucks
Every single winter, I bottom out during February. This always seems to come as a surprise, even though I should know by now how things go. Vitamin D drops, sun simulating lamps, exercise, etc. only get me so far. I’m just not at my best in the dark. So, I try not to make any big decisions during those 28 long days, as I’m invariably the grumpiest version of myself. I try to double down on all of the above self-care strategies, make fun plans for the spring and summer (things like lining up concert tickets to look forward to), and when all of that invariably fails, I just knuckle through, and try to remember how it feels to get a few hours of sunshine.
It would be a massive exaggeration to suggest that I’m good at doing all of these things consistently. Like the manuscript of my novel, I’m very much a work in progress. And, I doubt that I will ever unlock some magical combination of activities that keep me performing at my peak, not burned out, always fully rested and healthy, day in and day out. With a little bit of luck, a little bit of practice, and the occasional reminder to take my own advice, I hope to have more good days than bad. I don’t think I would like to be a robot: I’m happy in my flawed, fragile, human body (most of the time). Learning to care for myself in a human way, with all the ebbs and flows and good days and bad days that come with it, is a lifelong journey, and one, I suspect, that’s well worth the effort.
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We Are Not Robots: Self Care Tips for My Future Self (And Other Creative Humans)