Dealing with creative wipeout

Last week, I found myself in a bit of a rut. After a few weeks of celebration (birthdays, weddings, and more), I was exhausted—mentally, physically, and emotionally.

As a result, all the practices I love started breaking down.

I hardly worked out.
Writing last week's newsletter felt like pulling teeth.
I went on an adventure ... and forgot to bring my camera.

Honestly? All I wanted to do was sit in bed and read. And I did, a little bit. I took some of the free time I gained from not creating and I finished a great book.

While I was in the throes of my down-in-the-dumps-ness, I realized:

Certain things break down my ability to create.

Just like when I had morning sickness.

January and February of 2014 were an absolute creative mess. All because I was growing a very tiny little guy in my belly. Everyday, I used all the energy I could muster to shower and put on a new pair of pajamas. My waking hours were made up on Netflix ... and more Netflix. It was almost painful to lift the remote to press "Play next episode."

But I had a business to run.

Turning on my computer felt like climbing a mountain, so it lay untouched for weeks. I stayed in bed and let a few iOS apps save my life. (For the curious: Mailbox, Slack and Dropbox.)

While morning sickness ransacked my body, I was able to keep the business running, but I didn't create anything new. 

My creativity was zapped. But how could I expect anything different when my body's energy was focused on something else entirely?

Where creative wipeout comes from

At some point in your life, you've probably learned about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Here's a brief refresher: it's a theory in psychology that states that humans need to fulfill certain "base" needs before we can access others. For example, we need to be healthy before we can be safe, and we need to be safe before we can go about feeling loved, and so on.

That's why I couldn't conceive a single creative thought during morning sickness.

That's why, just last week, I was too exhausted to create after weeks of celebration and spending so much time around other people. (Introvert alert, whatwhat!)

Have you ever felt this? Ever been sick in bed and longed for a creative outlet that seemed just out of reach? Or felt frustrated at a yoga class for not being able to get "in the zone" when really you're still nursing an injury of some sort?

I have. All the time.

All these experiences felt like the rug was being pulled out from under me, and I landed on my back on the hard, cement floor. Who can create like that? 

When the bottom of the pyramid (physical needs) isn't secure, there's no way to climb the ladder to creativity, self-actualization, or even peace of mind.

And it's not just physical needs, right?

The pyramid analogy helps me realize that whenever I'm stuck on a certain level, I can look at the one right beneath it to see what's holding me back. For example, a lack of respect for others may stem from a lack of sense of belonging to a family unit, or avoiding spontaneity may stem from a lack of self-esteem or confidence. Or maybe not, of course, because it's different for every person.

But no matter the reason, what remains true for all of us is creative wipeout happens. When it hits, what should we do? 

How to deal with downtime

The way I see it, you have two options:

  1. Embrace the wave.
  2. Fight the wave.

Most people choose to berate themselves for not "getting things done", even when it comes to creating. For example, when I haven't finished my weekly article (like this one) by the day I promised to publish it, I could get all kinds of stressed out. On the other hand, though, there's probably a plausible reason that I put it off for the entire week (exhaustion, for example), so I choose another path. Instead of berating myself, I'll just make that week's article a bit shorter.  

The key is compassion. 

As corny as it sounds, I do my best to be my own friend.

The next time you're feeling lower than usual and you're having a hard time creating, I invite you to rest, relax, and give yourself time to recover. And remember Maslow's pyramid—because there may be a very valid reason for the wipeout you're feeling.

It'll pass.


PS. I published a new podcast episode a few days ago, check it out here → Creativity for intrapreneurs with Aldo Aguirre of Techstars

Marcella Chamorro