As you know I struggle with overwhelm on a regular basis as well as all that open time that comes with retirement. Recently I read Andi Cumbo-Floyd’s new book Love Letters to Writers and read the following excerpt on how to cope with that tight feeling I get in my chest when everything has gotten too much, when I just want to close the front door and say no, no, no to every request for my time. There is some real practical wisdom here on how to live a sustainable creative life, no matter what you are making.
Dear Beautiful People,
It has been a BUSY month. A trip. My husband’s birthday. A book launch. A craft show on the farm. Family in town. Finishing a second book in two months. I’m tired . . . good tired. But tired.
BUT I have a new book coming out in three weeks. (More details below.) And I am launching two courses in early 2017. And I have clients to serve. I still have a lot to do.
So here’s the question I’m weighing each day – when do I need to push through, and when do I need to take a break?
Here’s how I decide what I need to push through on:
- Is it about the necessities of life, for people I love, or for our animals?
- Is it about a deadline that must be met for myself or for a client?
- Is it about something discrete and short-lived that I will be glad to have done and that will not be followed by twenty-five other tasks that are the same in nature?
If those criteria are met, then I keep going.
Taking a Break
Here’s how I decide when I need to take a break:
- Have I done a good day’s work?
- Have I finished what must be done for a day, AND is my criteria for “must be done” reasonable?
- Am I resentful when someone asks for something, or do I dread doing things that I typically enjoy?
If the answer to any of those things is “yes,” then I need to take a break. For me, that final question is the big one.
The Grumpy/Weepy Test
The ultimate indicator of when I need to take a break is this: if I resent having to do something for someone, if I get weepy at simple things like having to load the dishwasher or cry over sappy TV commercials, if I hear a tone in my voice that I associate with one certain, bitter English teacher I had, I need to take a break.
As a quintessential introvert, the best thing I can do then is to shut down alone for a few hours. I typically sew and watch TV shows I love. Then, within four hours or so, I feel much better.
I did this yesterday, so you’re welcome. You don’t need that English-teacher tone in a newsletter.
The Writing Test
It’s much trickier for me to determine when to work and when to rest in terms of a writing project. Since writing is one of the things that helps keep me healthy, sometimes I NEED to write when I’m tired.
So I have to come up with a couple other criteria to help me determine if I need to take a break from a particular piece of work. I ask myself these questions:
- Am I really stuck here, or is this a place where I need to go deeper instead of stepping away?
- Is fear dictating my choice? If it is, then I need to stay.
Then, I determine two things:
- For how long am I going to be away?Usually a fifteen-minute break will do it for me on most days. If I need an extended break, I try not to be away from a work in progress, i.e., a draft in progress, for more than a week. Any longer than that, and I can’t remember what I was doing.
- What will I do during my break?The best thing I can do is something like work on a jigsaw puzzle or color, or maybe take a walk. I can’t check Facebook or begin something complex because I’ll get pulled away for too long.
Then, I come back and go back in.
This Is Counter-Cultural
Almost everything in our culture says we should “soldier on” and “power through.” We hear messages about “toughening up” and “aim higher” all the time . . . and if you’re like me, those messages shout VERY LOUDLY when it comes to my writing life.
But here’s the fundamental thing I have to remember. Writing is an act of creativity, and creativity is unbounded and radical. It needs space to be able to spin itself out, and if we are always “powering through” and “soldiering on,” we are filling all the space in our lives. Writing needs air around it, and writers need to take deep breaths.
Sometimes breathing requires that we take a break, and there is not a bit of shame in that.
So friends, if you feel overwhelmed and like you’re just holding on to get to the end of the day, if your writing projects and platform building and blogging and all the rest of your life make it feel like you can never slow down, hear me when I say that I know just what you mean AND it’s important to slow down, especially when it seems like you can’t. There’s no shame in needing a break or just wanting one. In fact, you may be doing yourself and your writing the best favor you can.
Breathe deep, my friends.