18 August 2019

Thinking mode. Physical mode. Don’t they feel like two different states of being?

They might be, but for the fact that your body is not the paper bag you carry your brain around in. Thinking and creating can become hyper-focused activities, pulling you into a world of paper and screens, fingers on the keyboard and hand on the mouse, mouth to microphone, hand to brush, everything driven by an idea machine: Divided parts of the body not working together, somehow commanded by the mind. But that’s not what we crave. We want the synchronous application of everything. A state of flow.

Remember the last time you were deep into a project and forgot to eat? Or the time you were cruising to a deadline and pulled an all-nighter? I’ve discovered that when I’m working at hyperdrive and blow through lunch, my efficiency decreases rapidly. I never see it that way when I’m in it. I am rocketing through. I’m hitting a milestone. Everything is grand. Then I look at my work product and see how quickly it fell off when I got hungry and ignored the gnawing inside. And later, when I finally do eat, I feel weak, needing the afternoon to recover.

It’s a similar story with working into the wee hours. Perhaps my client decided they needed something for a meeting the next day. Or I self-imposed a crazy deadline on myself because I was getting anxious about a project dragging on.

Yet it can’t be denied that there is magic in the all-night state of flow. It’s the quiet and the sense that nothing can stop you until dawn. Before you know it, the bluish first light of day crawls over your screen and you sit back, feeling satisfied that you made it to the end. You fall gratefully into bed and sleep the profound sleep of the master.

Then you wake up and see what you did was shit.

In the all night whirl of energy, you pushed through the sounds of the neighbors having screamy sex and welcomed the delivery trucks on their morning rounds — an alarm clock that you didn’t need because you were already up and buzzing. Grand when you’re in it. Later you see how the work suffers.

Let’s repair this situation by looking at it from the other side. Depriving yourself of basic life needs probably pumps your adrenaline and cortisol levels, boosting you to a false sense of fear/ecstasy. Better to be real. Getting enough to eat and enough sleep creates optimum conditions for creativity. It doesn’t have to feel boring to treat yourself well. Maybe you don’t need to go way out on the edge to feel the sense of risk. No need to boost focus with hunger, sleeplessness, inner rage, or other self-inflicted challenges. Simply showing up and doing focused work is an act of daring and courage.

Here’s a radical idea: Taking a break to go for a swim, play tennis, or some other seemingly non-essential activity is not screwing up your work schedule. It may seem as though you have committed the cardinal sin of the creative person who is also a parent, also a partner, also a wage-earner — you have taken time away from creative work to do something else. I will never get that time back, you tell yourself. But that’s good. You don’t need that time back. Doing something physical to nourish the body becomes part of the creative equation, part of a system that you need to charge up every day.

It makes sense when I write it here. But every day I have to work to convince myself that it is true. I pull myself away to run or play tennis or swim. Scheduling these activities as immovable objects in my calendar helps. Mind-based work is depleting and charging. Body-based activities are depleting and charging. You need to switch those poles around to keep the circuit alive.

(c) Lee Schneider 2023. Take care of each other. Subscribe.