This illustration by Gemma Correll could be a portrait of me in winter. By the end of Feburary it is most definitely me. Every year I struggle with this season. Sometimes I’m lucky and I only get the winter blues, but sometimes, like this year, things turn out differently and life gets really tricky. I am a greyscale version of myself, and the energy and enthusiasm for life that I have in spring and summer disappear with the daylight. It takes all my energy to look normal. I get frustrated and angry at myself for not managing to cope, for finding things hard when it seems like there’s no reason to feel so bad. This year’s extreme symptoms have led me to realise that I shouldn’t battle with myself like this. It does me no good to admonish myself; I need to be kinder and work with myself to find my own way through. So, armed with a SAD lamp that is retina-burning bright, and a will to do things differently this time, I’m going to share with you my plans for the dark months. Now, you may not struggle with the change in the seasons, but I’m guessing that everyone has times in the year when their mental health takes a bit of a dip and as a result their creative energy suffers. This post is for those times.
1. Listen to yourself
I am the Queen of ignoring my inner voice. I am too busy to listen; I always have stuff to do and not enough time, or so it feels. And so I don’t pay attention until it’s too late and the voice is overwhelming. This is how I get exhausted and overwrought. This season I am trying to learn to listen to the voice, to recognise emotions like frustration, anger or apathy as signposts for needs that my mind and body have.
It’s worth checking in and asking ‘what am I feeling right now?’ Don’t get caught up in why, or how to make it better, but instead ask ‘what does this mean?’. Try to find out what your body is telling you it needs. It might be that you need more rest, or that you are not stimulated enough creatively. It might be that you need some comfort and support from others, or that you need some time alone.
Once you’ve acknowledged what it is your body is trying to tell you, what can you do to help that? Can you manage to go to bed a bit earlier today? Can you get out and do something that inspires you? Can you reach out to someone, or can you carve out a moment of quiet?
Listening to yourself can be really hard, especially when there are so many external factors that demand your attention. It is not always possible to give yourself the space and time you need, there are always important tasks that need doing. I’m not advocating doing nothing or cancelling your commitments. But, sometimes there is a bit of leeway in your day or your week, and you can do something for yourself that will really help.
2. Refocus & prioritise in response
I often plan in 3 month chunks. This year I’ve found myself with December/January/February as the next block. Usually I would just jump in and think about all the big stuff I want to do, the business and creative goals I have and what needs doing to get there. But this year I’m taking a different approach. I know that this is the worst time of year for me in terms of having enough energy and motivation. My concentration is not great and by 4pm I am usually done for the day, mentally. So, why set myself unrealistic targets which I probably won’t meet? Why am I working against myself?
My experience of this time of year is that I end up just about managing to get my ‘urgent’ work done. I still keep up with the things I’m expected to do, but the extra stuff, the things I want to do for me- like developing new projects, getting out and meeting new people, going to events– these are the things I just don’t have the energy for. This year, I want to make sure I have enough energy reserves to do some of these things. Which means prioritising them and putting them at the top of the list, doing these things at the beginning of the day when I feel motivated, leaving the dull admin and routine tasks for after lunch when I don’t need to be so mentally on it.
The biggest difference this year is that my plan for the next 3 months doesn’t start with goals, it starts with reminders to myself:
- Be kind to yourself
- Keep things simple (not too much travelling, nothing too stressful)
- Make time for me
And then, the goals themselves are mostly focused on activities I can do quietly and take my time with – marketing, resources development, catching up on the backlog of stuff from the summer, future plans research. All of these things feed into the active, dynamic goals that I will pick up again in the Spring and Summer. This is preparation – planting seeds and letting them do their thing under the soil ready to pop up with the sun.
3. Make time for you
I wish I were a person who could do this easily, but I find it so hard. I’ll say to myself ‘this week I’m going to start swimming again’ and soon a month will have gone by and my cossie hasn’t seen the light of day. So, time to get a bit more organised about it. And because I’m a planner and a list-maker, the obvious way to deal with this is to put ‘me time’ on the plans/lists. To make it a priority.
A while ago I read The Now Habit by Neil Fiore. It’s a useful book on procrastination with lots of helpful techniques to get going with stuff. One technique, which I tried for a few months but then somehow slipped out of the habit, is The Unschedule. This is the way it works:
1. You start with an empty timetable for the week (Fiore recommends dividing the day into half hour blocks but I can’t deal with that sort of micromanaging so I do it by the hour).
2. Then, instead of diving in and filling it full of all the work commitments, you fill in all the things you can’t avoid doing – sleeping, eating, showering, travelling, family commitments, household chores, appointments etc.
3. Then you add in self-care activities – exercise, relaxing activities etc.
4. Then you add in what Fiore calls ‘guilt-free play’ ie hobbies, spending time with friends and family, going out etc. The aim is to schedule at least 1 hour of play per day and have at least 1 full day off per week.
5. Only once you’ve filled in all this other stuff are you allowed to put work things in the schedule!
The great thing about this technique is that it asks you to change your perspective on your timetable. Instead of your week being lots of work interspersed with moments of play and leisure, work is an activity that goes in between your fixed commitments, self-care activities and play.
Now, in the spirit of honesty, I’m not going to use the Unschedule timetable to plan my weeks – I’m currently rocking a mind-map format – however, I’m going to use the Unschedule approach when drawing out my week: what are the fixed things? What are the important exercise and relaxation things I need to do? What are the fun, life affirming things I’d like to do? These elements are going to form a ‘me’ to do list on my main list (I put them on bright coloured post it notes) so that I can’t ignore them and I am reminded that it’s worth spending time on my health & wellbeing as well as on work.
4. Feed the creative well
A couple of years ago a friend gave me a copy of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s a book that has almost mythic status for a lot of creatives, especially in America. It’s a 12 week course that helps you to ‘discover and recover your creative self’. As I’m sure you can guess by now, I followed the course for a few weeks and then things tailed off… but the basic tools stayed with me and became things that I try to incorporate into my creative routine, even now.
The first tool is the Morning Pages, a daily writing exercise, which I’ve mentioned before on the blog when talking about setting up a writing routine. The second is the Artist Date. The artist date is a block of time (perhaps 2 hours per week) which you specifically set aside and honour as a time ‘to nurture your creative consciousness’. An artist date is time spent on your own, out of the house doing something that feeds your creativity, that inspires you or offers you new experiences. It doesn’t have to be spent doing a specific activity and it needn’t cost any money, the key thing is to stimulate your imagination and recharge your creative batteries.
Cameron acknowledges how resistant we are to doing this sort of thing: “Commit yourself to a weekly artist’s date, and then watch your killjoy side try to wriggle out of it. Watch how this sacred time gets easily encroached upon…how it suddenly includes a third party. Learn to guard against these invasions.” And, she cautions against seeing the act of filling your creative well as another thing on your to do list: “In filling the well, think magic. Think delight. Think fun. Do not think duty. Do not do what you should do – spiritual sit-ups like reading a dull but recommended critical text. Do what intrigues you, explore what interests you; think mystery not mastery.”
For me, at this time of year, filling the well isn’t so much getting out and visiting exhibitions or having great conversations with makers. It’s about planning a meal and cooking, knitting in the evening, listening to music and making sure I have lots of books to dip in and out of. My artist’s date is more likely to be a walk in the park or a trip to a bookshop.
My priority for this season is to get through it as healthily and happily as I can. By following these 4 simple steps I’m hoping that instead of seeing winter as something to struggle through, perhaps this year it will be something I can experience mindfully and compassionately.