On The Importance of Breaks During The Creative Process

I grew up learning the value that if you weren’t working, you were doing something wrong. This value isn’t all bad, it’s given me an excellent work ethic and a tendency to treat procrastination as the source of all evils. However, what do you do when you’re stuck on a difficult problem with your project?

This problem could be a tough calculus assignment where you just can’t solve question six. Or you could not know how to go forward in your scientific research – what technique should you use next or why is the technique you are using not working the way you planned? Or you could hit a plateau with your musical instrument where no matter what newfangled warmup or exercises you try, you aren’t getting better at the rate that you desire.

Writing problems aren’t any different. Despite sitting down at your desk every day at the same time and following your routine to the letter, some days you won’t see any progress. Maybe you can’t figure out a particular plot problem. Maybe your craft is suffering and every sentence sounds like it was written by someone in grade two. Maybe you just hate everything you’ve written and feel like you’d accomplish more if you spent your writing time writing CRAP CRAPPED A CRAP-CRAP-CRAP over and over again.

It happens.

So what are your options?

1) Stick to the writing routine and hope it gets better.

2) Take a break.

Now, I see the first option championed everywhere across the internet all the time. If you stick to a writing routine you will see progress. You need to work through the bad days to gain bulk to your manuscript. Blah blah blah.

It’s very true. I didn’t see my book get bigger until I committed to working on it regularly. A writing routine does ensure that you will improve through consistent practice and build stamina towards completing your projects.

However, I’m not talking about those days where you’re like “Hmmm, I have some spare time should I write/play video games/watch TV and eat chips/read/clean the house/cook dinner/pick those socks up off the floor behind the table who put their socks there anyway/call my friend/watch youtube until my brain only outputs youtube videos instead of normal speech/tweet about writing instead of writing… huh I choose all the options that aren’t writing.”

Those days happen to me often enough, and yes, those are good times to fight and adhere to a writing routine. If you frequently give in to distraction, you won’t see progress.

I’m also not talking about when you are using the first draft technique where you just write ANYTHING no matter what and see where it takes you. That’s fine. Charge full ahead with the writing routine.

I’m talking about when you’ve been stuck on your manuscript for so long that it’s been weeks. I’m talking about when you think about your novel and you feel exhausted. I’m talking about when you’ve been editing and last month you wrote six chapters, but this month you can’t even finish chapter 13. I’m talking about when you really need to find a way to kill the villain but you don’t know where to begin and haven’t for months.

In this case, you’ve been applying the writing routine and it’s simply not working. Why not?

Because your brain is tired.

If you go to the gym and lift heavy weights one day, you can’t expect to lift a ton of heavy weights the next day. The rest and recovery is just as important to lifting heavy as the actual lifting itself. In fact, if you do, you’ll probably injure yourself. If you keep doing heavy lifting with your brain when you’re tired, you risk burn out.

Think about baking bread. You have to let that sucker ferment and rise for a couple of hours otherwise the final product is going to be flat and hard as a frisbee.

Writing is the same way.

If you adhere to your routine when you are stuck, and nothing has improved after several days, you are wasting your time. It’s equivalent to banging your head against the wall.

Take a break. Maybe a couple of days. Maybe a whole week.
Rest.
Let your ideas ferment.

Afterwards you will have the added benefit of approaching the manuscript with fresh eyes. Your brain will have the opportunity to approach the problem at full power. You might find that your productivity increases after a break. In fact, you might find that the break doesn’t destroy your writing routine, but restores it instead.

 

10 Ways to Make Your Writing Routine Actually Stick

  1. Schedule your time. You’ve probably heard it before, but it helps to make a schedule of everything you do everyday for a week. After the week, you can see where you have space to write and what you can move around to make space to write. When doing this, consider when you prefer to write. Are you a morning or evening person? I find I am much more productive in the morning! This being said, you can learn to write at any time of the day. So, make a schedule and stick to it.
  2. Have a convenient and comfortable location to work. Some people work better at home. Some people work better out of the house. I’m one of those people who works well in my room at my desk. Frankly, I don’t have the budget for cafés and my local library is a fair trek. Make sure that you have a place to write that is your own where you won’t be interrupted.
  3. Inform the people who you live with about your writing time. It is important to do this so that your time is respected and they are aware that you are working and aren’t available. My husband and I have a rule with each other. When one of us closes our door, it means we are working  and are not to be bothered. Since we both work from home, this is necessary! Otherwise we wouldn’t get anything done!
  4. Protect your time. If you’ve decided that your writing time is in the afternoons and friends keep calling you to hang out during the afternoon and you keep cancelling on your writing time… Well! either you should reschedule your friends or your writing. Treat your writing time with respect, otherwise no one else will.
  5. Avoid distractions. Disconnect the WiFi. Unplug. Don’t be checking Facebook, email or twitter every five seconds, otherwise bam! You’ve just scheduled yourself a time to tweet everyday. Have a separate time to surf the net.
  6. Record your progress. Make Nanowrimo everyday! You can record your word count at the end of each session in a spread sheet to keep you motivated. However, this might not work well during editing. Then the delete key sometimes feels like the only key, so your word count might grow slowly. When editing it’s helpful to keep a time log of your sessions instead.
  7. Tell people about your project. Broadcast it among your friends. This serves as a huge motivator for me, since I know the next time I speak to my friends they will ask me how my writing is going. If I’m not keeping my writing routine, then I can’t give a positive answer.
  8. Set goals for yourself. Weekly goals, monthly goals, big deadlines, small deadlines. Make lots of goals, see if you meet them, and reevaluate. This way you can monitor your progress.
  9. Reward yourself after you meet these goals. Get yourself something you really want and is a little frivolous. I’ve heard of one writer who got herself a pair of fancy shoes. I tend to buy music albums. That way I can listen to them as I write some more!
  10. Have a ritual. Some writers like to make a cup of tea, or listen to a certain song to create the right head space, or light a candle. I have a very bare bones ritual, where I start my laptop, look out the window, and prepare my mind to write. Do whatever works for you.