Some days I just don’t have the energy to sit down and do my creative work. It happens to all of us, and if you hear someone say that they can work every day despite the circumstances than they’re either lying through their teeth or they’ve somehow found the Holy Grail of Creativity that magically allows them to work at 100% peak performance all the time (which doesn’t seem likely).
Everybody reading this knows that feeling: when you come home tired from a long day at work, when you’re worried about bills, your future, or a breakup, or when you wake up on a Sunday too hungover to do much of anything. In these shittiest of shitty moments, the last thing you want to do is sit at your desk and start writing, drawing, or whatever it is you’re working on.
However, this begs a really important question: how hard should you work in the face of adversity?
I Get Sinus Headaches Kind of a Lot
Over the past ten or so years I’ve begun getting sinus headaches that leave me feeling nauseous, teary-eyed, and in general pretty shitty. The pain isn’t so crippling that it drives me immediately to a darkened room to go to sleep, but it’s a big enough pain that anything I try to do during those times feels like a momentous effort, if I can summon the energy to do it at all.
The headaches usually happen during the late afternoon and evening during the change of seasons (summer to fall, winter to spring), especially on those days when there’s a change in the temperature and air pressure. At their peak, I was getting them about once a week (!!!!!), but now they only tend to happen during extreme temperature changes, meaning I’ve been getting them once a month or less.
My first line of defense is to spot when these headaches are coming: I’ll watch the weather, and if I start feeling shitty in the early afternoon, I’ll try to take some Sudafed (I carry extra with me at work) and when I get home I’ll lie down with my eyes closed and no distractions, both of which help a lot. I also find that eating well helps reduce the likelihood of headaches, as does getting plenty of sleep—and you know how much I love sleep.
Last Night Was REALLY Bad
Though not nearly as bad as this season’s apocalyptic hurricanes, we had a pretty nasty storm two nights ago up in the northeast with 70 mph winds and loud rain pelting down that kept me up pretty late. (Remember: I usually write these entries in advance, so this actually happened about two weeks ago.) Then yesterday the rain stopped and the air turned really cold and dry really fast…which is the absolute worst thing ever for my headaches, with no amount of Sudafed able to save me.
Needless to say, I felt pretty terrible when I got out of work, and lay down right away to rest and try to ease the pounding. After a while I felt good enough to prep dinner and eat, though this took longer than usual…and when it came time to sit down for my usual 8:00 to 11:00 creative work time, I didn’t feel like doing much of anything.
There are worse nights that this could have happened during, but there are also better ones—I’d set aside a solid three-hour chunk of time on this particular Monday to work on my project for this year’s Art Swap, which I REALLY wanted to make more headway on….but then again, the project also didn’t NEED to be finished for another week at least, so I thought to myself that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I took the night off to rest….
That’s when I started feeling really, really guilty right away. If I kept letting these headaches put me down, how I was ever going to finish the project and get back to working on my novel? If I took a night off, I’d just fall farther behind and my entire week’s plan would collapse into a fury of catchup days, leaving me scrambling with all the other things I wanted to get done that week and putting me in a worse spot for the week after.
Just thinking about this was enough to make me feel even sicker, but also like I wanted to move into action…even though a part of me was saying no fucking way.
I sat contemplating this for nearly twenty minutes, then stood in my apartment hallway in a similar state of petrified fear wondering what to do. That’s when I realized I was wasting even more time standing (not even sitting, standing!) around doing nothing when I should at least be trying to work, since that was better than wasting time deliberating.
In the end I worked from about 8:30 until about 9:45, making some decent progress on my Art Swap project and then answering a few brief emails as a compromise. My work time wasn’t nearly as focused as it would be on a perfect night since I kept getting distracted and working really slowly, but I made more progress than I would have if I’d been watching YouTube videos, and when I’d called it an early night I went to go lay down, read this Elif Batuman book I’ve been super into for the past few days, and crash early.
I woke up the next day feeling one million percent better and decided to write this entry.
Why Am I Sharing This Story?
A lot of people will tell you that you should write every day, under any circumstances and despite any hardship you come across, which I don’t feel is realistic since we all have our rough days and problems. Then again, there are also people who’ll tell you that it’s fine to take a break, put the work off until tomorrow, take the day off and relax…which can put you really far behind if you do it too often.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m advocating for something in between, like I did last night: on any given day, you should assess your situation, consider your goals and deadlines, then choose how much work you can reasonably get done and how much rest you reasonably need to get where you want to go.
For me, taking the whole night off wasn’t quite necessary, since a mere hour of extra rest was enough to put me back in top shape for the next day. So I compromised, worked for an hour and fifteen minutes, then called it a night, which allowed me to get some work done, get enough extra sleep, and wake up with zero ounces of guilt.
In other situations when the pain or problem is more severe and you’re not able to work at all, that’s when you should be resting and stepping away from your work so you can recuperate and get back to it with a clearer head later. (This especially holds true if you suffer from health problems that make my sinus headaches look like a breezy day at the beach.) During those times, not working is OK.
Then there are those times when you’re just feeling kinda lethargic, or maybe you’re feeling OK but you also have a SERIOUS deadline that requires you to get your shit done. Those are the times when you should push yourself to do better, overcome the obstacles we all face, and ultimately gain more satisfaction by overcoming adversity. You also get a lot more done that way.
The tricky part is that ONLY YOU can make this decision—no one else, including parents, bosses, other creative people, politicians, colleagues, or overly critical people should make it for you. We shouldn’t judge other people for taking the time they need away from their work, nor should we glorify people who work endlessly hard as if the simple act of working made them magically better than everyone else (which also feels like it supports a system where most of us work really hard so that a bunch of CEOs and business owners can sit back and make a lot of money, but that’s a whole other entry….).
In the end, the decision to work or not work on any given day is yours and yours alone. It’s a hard decision to make, but one you have to weigh carefully if you want to keep your life in line and your physical and mental health in check.
Have a personal experience with sitting down to work despite hardship, or maybe taking some much-needed time off? I want to hear it! Share your thoughts in the comments below, or drop me a line at email@example.com for a chance to be part of a super-cool future project!