I came back to myself after an hour and a half of workflow. Though I had the intention of working on titling my new group coaching program for forty-five minutes at the most, I got sucked in. Surely the perfect title would emerge if I thought about it long enough. I’d been asking myself the same questions in the hopes that I would land somewhere that felt right. What do the single Christian creatives I serve need most from a coaching program? What words do I use to ensure that when they read them, they will know the program was designed for them?
Long past the forty-five minute mark, I told myself, I’ll stop when I find those words. I’ll rest once I’m done.
The habit of only taking a break once the task was done had only gotten more pronounced in quarantine. Perhaps this mindset is a hangover from farm life, when a project such as mowing a pasture had a definitive start and end. I’d climb onto the tractor with my noise canceling headphones and a Gatorade. Then I began to cut an increasingly shrinking rectangle of unruly grass. When there was no more rectangle, I would leave the tractor where I found it and walk back to the house.
“Done” is less straightforward these days, when the finished project is by nature incapable of perfection. Words can always be rearranged to make the intent clearer. And for almost all projects, I get to decide when it is done. I get to determine what is good enough and what needs more work. The decision is subjective, rarely presenting a clear right or wrong.
After coming up with two pages of potential titles with nary a satisfactory option, I looked up from my computer. I felt hunger and the tension of clenching my shoulders, neck and jaw. It was day 8 of my two week isolation in anticipation of a trip to North Carolina. There was nowhere to go and no one to see. It felt like all I had was the work. And Ramon, the decorative metal deer head that hangs in my living room.
I rose from my workspace, a 29”x29” Ikea table I moved into my bedroom during week 17 of the pandemic. My 450 square foot apartment is railroad style--one long, narrow rectangle split into a living room/kitchen, and a bedroom. The two outdoor-facing windows are in the bedroom. After 17 weeks of working in my windowless cave of a living room, I finally succumbed to the “rearrange the furniture” stage of quarantine. It was one of my many weekend projects, which included purging my wardrobe, trying new cookie recipes, meal-prepping for the week, deep cleaning my apartment, reorganizing the cabinet that is my pantry, and rearranging all the books in my apartment into sub-niches (then alphabetically by the author’s last name).
Though I increasingly felt the pull to take some time off, I couldn’t see the point. What would I do, sit around my apartment all day? Even if I were to plan some sort of trip, where would I go? Could I ask friends to go with me, though we hadn’t been quarantining together? And yet, I was becoming increasingly dependent on productivity to stave off the boredom and frustration of living through a pandemic in a tiny apartment. The beauty of this crutch laid in the fact that when one is self-employed and lives alone, the work is never done. There’s an endless list of tasks that nobody is going to do for you.
In a sermon on Sabbath, Abe Cho said that taking time to intentionally not be productive trains our minds and hearts to trust that God will continue to move and act without us. He said that resting works the truth of God’s provision into our bones.
It’s easy to get caught up in self-importance and obsess over all my work. There’s part of me that believes that, if I just work a little harder, I will be able to guarantee the outcome I want all on my own. If I just finish the next thing, then the next thing, then the next thing without stopping, maybe I will finally reach that last line of grass to cut.
In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown writes, “For a type A personality, it is not hard to push oneself hard… The real challenge for the person who thrives on challenges is not to work hard.” The more I sit in this chair and write words, the more I know this to be true. And yet, the how of it all wrankles.
How do we build in habits of rest when so many of our leisure activities are no longer available? How do the achievers among us, particularly those of us who are not quarantined with a spouse and/or children, establish and maintain our workday boundaries? And how do we plan rest-filled times that honor vulnerable neighbors and loved ones while still caring for our own mental health?
That day, as I plowed through planning work for my up-coming group coaching program, I forced myself to stand up and pace the length of my apartment while breathing deeply. It was my substitute for the walks through Central Park I used to take to break up the day. I thought about how lovely the beach would be, how good it would be to see my friend who was to pick me up in just six days, and the call I scheduled with another friend for later that day.
After a few minutes, I grabbed my lunch from the fridge and sat back down at my desk. I took a bite of my salad and mulled over my list of potential names. With my head cleared, a quote from Anne Lamott rose to the surface of my thoughts. “Almost anything will work if you unplug it for a few minutes, even you.”
I put down my fork and searched for the source of the quote, a TED talk she gave called “12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing.” Anne Lamott is about the only person who can use a title that vague and still get almost 6 million views, I thought ruefully. As I listened to her wisdom and her quintessential humor and lyricism, I knew what my people needed. They need a refresh--the intentional time to take a step back, reconnect with their why, and to learn new, sustainable creative practices. They could use a coach who has cleared the way for them and a group of companions to walk with.
I texted a friend my top 5 titles, and she replied that “The Creative Refresh” was her favorite. I thought it could be better, but it was good enough. Though I felt the temptation to continue noodling with it, I moved on. I worked for another hour, then shut down my laptop and climbed out onto my fire ledge for my end-of-day activity--laying on a towel and listening to Jim Dale read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Though there are no longer big signals that the work day is finished, like leaving my coworking space and getting on the subway, or meeting up with friends for drinks, this little ritual has been sufficient.
As I put in my headphones, I made a mental note of what I learned that day. Sometimes, the most productive thing we can do is stop being productive.
If you are interested in learning more about "The Creative Refresh," click here!