Last week on my travel blog, Second-Hand Hedgehog, I talked about the joy of doing work, and the satisfaction that comes through hard-earned achievement. Today I want to turn that on its head – sort of. Actually, I think they’re more like two sides of the same coin.
It’s all very well forcing yourself to do the work that deep down you know you need to do, but it’s quite another thing to do it constantly, and it’s easy to wear yourself out. I’ll hold up my hand as guilty to this – sometimes, I just need to learn when to stop working and rest.
And this has only become even more pronounced as I’ve got older. At university, I took a year out of my degree to study abroad in Melbourne: a fantastic experience that also meant I was less stressed and more prepared to take on my final year of university. (And come out with a fairly good mark – though of course I don’t like to brag…)
Now I’m working two jobs, plus the odd bit of freelance work, plus trying to find time to write, plus blogging, plus trying to run a house (though I’ll admit the housework does tend to take a back seat – as in, really far back).
Travelling to get away has become essential.
But my problem? I can’t switch off.
This is partly literal: I have a smartphone and everywhere has wifi, so I’m constantly instagramming my travels / updating facebook / tweeting / responding to emails etc. etc. But it’s also a mental thing. I can’t seem to switch off this feverish part of my brain that always insists: you should be working, not idling about enjoying yourself, because goodness knows you’ve got SO much to do, and it isn’t going to happen by accident, you know, and what happens when you suddenly look in the mirror and realise you’ve reached your dotage and not achieved anything you wanted to achieve in life…?
Let me give you an example: a few months ago, I went down to London for a long weekend to visit some friends. I arrived in the evening, stayed overnight with one friend, and then had about 8 hours in the city before meeting up with the second friend. I planned to spend those hours in galleries and museums, soaking up some culture and and enriching my mind / soul / whatever.
This went fairly well for a few hours. I spent some time in the V&A, admiring the sculpture and following their Shakespeare Trail, then having a picnic lunch in their courtyard while watching the children playing in the fountain and splashing their parents.
Then I felt that familiar niggle at the back of my mind. Maybe it was the presence of all this great art, reminding me that I should probably be working towards creating something of my own. Maybe it was the constant bustle that a gallery (and a city) provides, reminding me that I ought to be busy. Maybe I’m just no good at stopping and relaxing.
I left the V&A to see if the National Gallery could hold my attention for longer, but no: I’d barely been in there fifteen minutes when I started to feel restless.
The result? I spent the next two hours sitting in a coffee shop overlooking Trafalgar Square, working on my writing.
I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. Generally, any time I spend writing I see as time well spent. It’s definitely something I’d like to do more of.
What worried me was my absolute inability to relax. It was like an addiction: twelve hours without working and I was getting withdrawal symptoms. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I felt restless, and the weight of my notebook in my bag was like a constant pressure on my mind. As much as I promote living a life of creativity, that can’t be healthy – can it?
Probably not, but after I’d done those couple of hours of work, I felt much calmer, and enjoyed the remainder of the weekend far more.
Let’s contrast that with a slightly more recent experience.
A couple of weeks ago, I spent about ten days working intensively and (almost) solidly on a writing project with a collaborator. We created tons of material, pretty much draining ourselves of our creativity by the end of it. That’s ok – we had a limited amount of time together and needed to get the work done before we parted ways.
But at the end of it, I forced myself to take a day off from the project. It might not seem like much, but that day allowed me to recharge my creative batteries, and get the project back in perspective.
Yes, I missed the intensive writing I’d been doing on the previous days, but actually, it felt like a bit of a relief to take a day to myself. And for me, that’s where the difference lies: do I have a burning desire to create, or not?
If that burning desire is there, then maybe the break from working can be postponed. After all, nobody wants to shut the door in the face of inspiration.
But if you’ve drained yourself of all your creativity, if you’re just bashing out words for the sake of it, then that’s the time to stop. Take a break. Go for a walk and admire the landscape, or head to a coffee shop and people watch for an hour or so. Take a day to do the housework and ignore your creative projects. Spend a long weekend in a city you’ve never explored. Relax for a week or two on a tropical beach.
The most important thing I’ve learned is to listen to myself: my body / mind / soul / whatever bit of me it is that does the creative thinking. If it’s exhausted and in desperate need of a rest, I humour it. It’ll work that much better once I start again.