Lessons on how to bounce back after an unproductive rut


As you’ve most probably read in my previous post about how the final weeks of December through to February has been the most unproductive for me work wise, I’ve tried to identify what the reasons were for this lapse in productivity. After all, it’s a good 3 months off my calendar – a quarter of the year that could have been spent on getting my hands dirty and my schedule full: new clients, portfolio, projects, etc.

So I’ve whittled it down to 3 things on my end – maybe you could identify with some of these issues that I’ve faced and maybe, just maybe, it’s what’s holding you back too. And of course I’m not going to leave you hanging! Once you’ve gone through the list, I’ll let you in on what worked for me for hauling my butt into gear!

Problem #1: Holidays

Ah, the good ol’ holiday season. For some it can stretch from November to January, or maybe it could be spring/summer/winter holidays. Or maybe you’re just back from traveling and have trouble getting back into the swing of things. Hey it happens – we need a holiday right after our holidays! Holidays are great though – they allow you to recharge after a hectic year, and helps to balance out the challenges of work and life. But starting up a routine again after a few weeks or a couple of months of not doing much work-related stuff (or maybe you’re only doing the fun stuff) is almost like switching the ignition of a parked car that’s been idle for a few months. It groans, heaves and simply doesn’t comply. Rattling it all the more might give you more sighs and fake starts, but you’ll soon notice that no amount of cajoling will bring it to life. Welcome to the post-holiday blues.

Problem #2: Emotional stress

I was a bit of a wreck in October, after I lost my dog to cancer. I won’t lie – it was hard leading up to the final moments. I had a class to run as well, all I could do was to hold it in and just compartmentalise my thoughts and emotions, doing things proactively instead of just worrying too much with nothing to show for it. So my time was divided between managing my classes and doing research on canine cancer, along with finding alternative therapies to help make my dog more comfortable. I was pulled into a few different directions and my emotions were running on the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I was lucky that I was working while I took care of my dog, because it allowed me to break away, even if it was just a few hours everyday. The downside to it was that I was a bit of a mess for a couple of weeks after everything ended. I felt as though a big weight was lifted off my shoulders as the compartments I had assigned within my mind all crumbled away. I felt everything all at once. I was tired.

Problem #3: Being unwell

I had severe acid reflux for 3 weeks prior to my Melbourne trip, out of the blue. I was nauseous all the time, and didn’t have any appetite to eat (the constant nausea had a lot to do with that), and to top it all off, I couldn’t sleep lying down because bile would come up into my throat. A round of blood tests and ultrasounds later, I found nothing that could explain my symptoms. I finally found the cause after a bit of fluke – it turned out that a particular medicine I was taking had caused the symptoms. Once I stopped, everything returned back to normal. So while my body took quite a beating a month back, I’m much better. I’m still tired though, and feel as though I’m still catching up on the sleep that I lost.

Finding your flow: A 4-step process

So those were the 3 issues that I faced during the last few months. It might be different for you depending on what you’re facing at the moment, but I’ve found that it doesn’t matter what you’ve experienced – the important thing is to get back up on your feet. I recently started to focus on how I could propel myself out from this bit of a slump and I found that the below tips work really well for me. So while I’m still gaining steam to get back into full-on work mode, I know I’ll get there! And here’s to hoping you will too.

Tip #1: Rediscovering inspiration

When you’re sick/emotional/away from your desk (or your workplace), it takes a bit of time to get back into the swing of things. I know this because with the crazy highs and lows that come with all the above mentioned scenarios, sitting still at a desk and actually doing work doesn’t sound attractive at all. Nope siree. So it’s either inspiration overload (holidays) or I-am-not-in-the-mood-for-anything (emotional/being ill) sort of situation.

What worked for me this time round was to slowly allow a bit of online perusing to trickle into my schedule. As a personal rule, I don’t often visit blogs or Pinterest. I prefer to do my reading through an RSS reader (Pulse on the iPhone) and as for Pinterest, I only allow myself a 15 minute peek every now and then because otherwise I’d look up from my computer and realised that I lost an hour in what I now refer to as the Vortex of Time Suckage.

So what happened was that by injecting my eyeballs with these sort of short doses of imagery on a daily basis, it got me pumped up again. In a kick-in-the-ass pants kind of way. The one where you clutch your hair, slap your forehead and go “That so-and-so who did this-and-that is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G! WHAT THE HECK AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE?!” You know, existential questions.

At least that’s what worked for me. Every time.

Tip #2: Reorganising your workspace

I love clean tables. I just haven’t been able to maintain one for a very long stretch of time.

Just to lay it all out on the table (ahem); I’m not the most organised person in the world when it comes to my desk. I have 2 – 3 different sketchbooks (because I like having separate books for each project) and a weekly journal propped open, all strewn about – depending on what I’m working on. I also have some loose papers flying about: printed materials, bills, notices, boring stuff so that it forces me to do something about them. Filing them away means never ever getting to them so they’re there staring at me until I settle them once and for all.

So yes, there’s bound to be a mess here and there; but it’s an organised mess and it’s the sort I don’t mind because I know what lies where and when. Clearing my desk is a task I enjoy, because with every task I finish, I get to clear it off my table. Physically.

Those letters and boring stuff? All gone. Those sketchbooks that I have haphazardly strewn around? I sometimes close them (gasp!), set them aside and choose to focus on one thing for a while. I do this each time I wrap up a big project, but also when I’m feeling a little meh. Clearing things away and reorganising my workspace helps me fill in the mental void I feel whenever I’m away from my desk for too long. When I give my desk a once over, I discover things that are left unsettled, projects that need filing, and obligations to fulfil. Knowing where I am and what needs to be done quickly kicks me into problem-solving mode, and then I realise it wasn’t all that bad. Once I took care of the boring bits, I get all tingly about starting fresh. Because it means that there’s now room for new things. Exciting things.

Tip #3: Creating deadlines and sticking to it

You know what has also really worked in getting me back into work? Deadlines.

If you’re a fellow procrastinator who’d rather wait until the final hours to a deadline before you even feel a glimmer fear, I feel you. Self imposed deadlines can sometimes be dodged (AHA!), but when you’ve got a commitment to others, you’re trapped. So what do you do? You give up the cheese. You’ll scramble for a bit and curse yourself for binge watching Downton Abbey while eating a truckload of cookies. But then adrenaline kicks in – you dust off your computer, crack your knuckles and get down to business.

Setting a date for projects and tasks and actually pencilling them into your calendar (I use Google Calendar) will help you get a bird’s eye view of your schedule. It also allows you to see how much time you have to do non-business/fun stuff (no judgement – let’s get real here) and how much time left you have to work on a particular task or project. I’ve found that having rigid time slots makes me feel claustrophobic, so I set goals for each day and allow my own rhythm to decide when I want to do it.

Break down your major project milestones into things you can do every day – don’t just schedule the deadline on a date with no idea on what you need to do to make it happen. There’s nothing wrong with being a little disorganised, but you’ll need to know what needs to get done, period. When or how it happens is entirely up to you, and once you’ve had a good think about how you’ll manage things, slacking off isn’t a bad thing. Because if you know what you’re doing and then it becomes purposeful slacking. There’s a difference!

Tip #4: Follow through on your new routine

I start my day with a shower and a bowl of yoghurt and muesli for breakfast. Sometimes I slip in a 10-minute yoga stretch, but to be honest, I haven’t been doing those for a little while. Doing it makes me feel better though, so I’m starting it up again (writing this just reminded me of it). After breakfast, I putter about in the garden and put my herb containers out in the morning sun before going to my desk to start my workday. That’s been my routine for the past couple of weeks.

For you though, maybe it’s when you make a cup of coffee and sit at the table, or when you go for a jog in the morning before you start your work. Building up a routine is definitely something I recommend for freelancers or those who work from home. And I’m not the only one. Ever notice how out of whack you get when your schedule gets messed up a few days/weeks in a row? That’s what happens when you run into the 3 problems I mentioned above: your routine gets screwed up. Going back to a routine is one the best things you can do to fan the flames of productivity.

Find out when your body works best – is it during the day? Or after lunch? Or perhaps you’re more relaxed at night? Knowing and recognising the cues your body and brain is trying to tell you will help you work more efficiently instead of merely pushing through the motions. Do you feel like a nap? Go ahead, take one. Are you in the zone and need total silence and concentration for an hour? Do it. Map out the times when you feel your best in a diary and when you’re not; and it will help you go a long way in getting things done.

No one ever said that you’ll need to work at your desk for 8 hours straight to be productive – maybe it’s how you like it, but I know I can’t do those anymore. As I grow older, I find myself breaking my day up into chunks – a block of time where I’m being really productive, and there’s a block of time where I’ll be catching up on fun TV show or a book. Because my hours aren’t quite set, my productive periods can run into the night as well, occasionally. I love that about working from home.

So there you go! I hope you find these tips useful – they’re what I’ve personally done to get myself into my work chair this week. I’m going to level with you on this: you’re not going to wake up productive the next day. Some people might, but like a sugar rush after eating a whole bowl of M & M’s – it’s only temporary. So don’t worry if you’re taking a little longer than usual to shake yourself off of whatever’s got you down. You’ll get there!


If you know how it feels like to be down and out and managed to snap out of it, why not share your story and tips to help out other fellow artists? Shout it out in the comments!

And if you like this article, don’t miss a beat – sign up for the mailing list where you’ll get an email whenever I have something worthy to share (and it includes the full article mind you – I don’t do link-baity stuff – yuck). If that’s music to your ears, then here’s where you can sign up for Pikaland’s fun and free newsletter!

[Embroidery by Karolin Reichardt, for her 2014 series called Iceberg.]

17 Replies to “Lessons on how to bounce back after an unproductive rut”

  1. Susan says:

    Just wanted to let you know that this post was great. Just what I needed to read to remind me that we all have those days and sometimes months. I agree on the routine thing. Just showing up in my studio at a certain time every day sets the tone for me. Staying away from the “Vortex of Time Suckage” makes a huge difference in my life. Thanks for letting me know I am not alone.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with Susan. Great post! I had to lol a few times while I slapped my own forehead. Thanks for the honesty. I think most creative people struggle with such things
    Xo stephanie

  3. Sieb says:

    That was a great read, and a good reminder that it happens to all of us 🙂 Setting a new routine usually really helps me, as does making a plain old to-do list and just start getting tasks done. Even if they are small and took no time at all, the simple act of crossing it off the list (esp in wunderlist, when you here the *ting!*) makes me feel like I am back to my productive self, and then I’ll actually get real stuff done.

  4. Casey says:

    Great tips! Reorganizing always helps to get me going again. I was sick for awhile after the first of the year and I had a baby at the beginning of December. I’m FINALLY starting to get back into blogging and creating regularly. It feels good!

  5. Eugenie says:

    Thank you for this post, I needed to read it tonight. I have been unwell for a few years with mental health issues and finally got myself in a position to be productive at the end of last year beginning this year. We then went on holiday and since coming home things have been chaotic again. I struggle to be inspired and struggle to work. I will definitely work on my routine and stick to it. It is a simple solution but so important. Thank you again!

  6. Sophie says:

    thanks for this post Amy! It couldn’t be more timely for me, as I’m going through a period of non productivity for similar reasons as the one you mentioned. It’s kind of a relief to read I’m not alone in this! Your tips are great, I need to some cleaning and deadline settings for sure. Another thing that has worked for me in the past to kickstart my creativity has been the Artist Way by Julia Cameron, writing “morning pages” and the weekly “artist date”. Maybe I need to do it one more time! Always appreciate your honesty and generosity, Amy, thank you.

  7. Mud Cakes and Wine says:

    What a great post and so know where your coming from. Thanks for sharing x

  8. Caris says:

    Love, love, LOVE this post!

    A little change can make a huge difference in our routines, especially for the freelancers. I learned a few of the listed tips by self-examination, which takes a lot of time (and a struggle) but as long as we explore possibilities, we can always bounce back. Thanks for this, Amy!

  9. Cate says:

    Thank you for your perfect timing. I really needed this as I am currently wrestling with getting back to work after a fairly long “downtime”, my name for these unwelcome but rather predictable interruptions in my creative life. And yes, holidays are the worst for breaking my flow, so my project for next fall will be how to keep the flow going, at least at a trickle, through that busy and very distracting season.

    To find the spark of inspiration, I find that these things help:
    -looking at my favourite old art technique books
    -looking through my old sketchbooks
    -looking at my old photographs

    In other words, a kind of process of creative recycling, or rediscovering what my eye likes.

  10. Yvonne says:

    So very recognizable… Sometimes these periods take longer than we want them to, which means there’s more going on and maybe we need to examen further. The ‘follow through on your new routine’ is a very good point. Will definitely take that with me. Thanks so much for posting and good luck!

  11. Jade Michele Griffin says:

    This article came at the right time. I am going through something similar. There was a fire in my building and even through my belongings were not destroyed, it affected me emotionally because I was displaced for a couple of days. It has been hard to concentrate after a traumatic event like that. I have found that breaking up my days in segments helps to get the ball rolling. For example; I will give myself an hour to read articles pertaining to my industry, 45 minutes to check and respond to emails, two hours to draw, an hour to complete paperwork. I also find that playing relaxing music and drinking tea helps me to relax. It is a constant challenge for me to complete things that I don’t find interesting to do; such as completing my freelance business plan, but if I’m confident that if break my day up in segments, I will get it done. Another thing that works for me is taking breaks. Taking a walk, or going in another room to work on something else can also recharge your mental batteries. One good thing to know is that we are not alone and this happens from time to time to all of us. Thank you for sharing your article and really helped me to get out my rut. 🙂

  12. Rhea Carl says:

    Hello! Amy.

    I really liked this article as I often come to a point in my life when it seems that NOTHING gets accomplished. I like learning new things and when things get boring, it is quite a struggle to find that spark that will motivate me to start on a new project. From experience, MAKING A LIST always helps :). When I write down the things I have finished and the projects that I have been forever contemplating on, it becomes much easier for me to get off the couch and start moving. It can be weird though that sometimes, without even making any effort, you just get tired of being tired and before you know it, you’re back on your feet.

    Thanks for this great article.

  13. Dawn says:

    I can so relate- in fact, a silly voice in my head asked as I was reading this, “Is she writing this for me?” I am in a very productive period right now and loving it. But, from past experiences, I’m about to fall into a very unproductive period- namely the end of school year and summertime with my kids. I used to love this time of year until I began my art career. Now I’ve come to dread it, a little.

    Anyone else have this problem?

    Thanks for the wonderful blog post. I have just discovered your website and have signed up for your newsletter. I feel you have a lot to offer and inspire with your wisdom and truths. Thanks so much!

  14. aileen says:

    I am recovering from freelancing burn out… still three years later! While this post is very relevant and helpful, I wish I knew who to talk to who failed at business, went back to working for the man, and is now maybe thinking about someday trying again? I know there has to be some sort of creative entrepreneur burn-out support group!

  15. Dana says:

    I can relate to almost everything here! My creative life has been at a dead stand-still all winter. It is very unlike me to be this way. I am usually very internally motivated when it comes to making my artwork. A series of unexpected challenges has made me feel simultaneously anxious and depressed (e.g., continuous blizzards, stuck in a studio apt., the list goes on…). I just hope once I get back to a happier life I will enjoy my art and be more productive. I love making things so much that I am optimistic it will not take much to bring me back to creating.

  16. Allison says:

    Oh my, I relate SO much with this post! And I really am so appreciative that you were so honest about the down time. I am in the same boat, here we are halfway through March and I am just now getting my rhythm back to start 2015. NOW. I’ve been feeling really guilty and like a major slacker, but the post-Holiday time really took it’s time working through our studio this year. Partially because like yourself, 2014 had some major personal challenges that took over our lives outside of work and ourselves. And partially because, Winter. In. Pittsburgh. It’s just grey and cold all the time, and it wears on you.

    I am so sorry to hear that you were unwell for so long, but really glad that you were able to identify the cause and get better. Being chronically nauseous isn’t just unpleasant, it’s exhausting. So sorry for you lady! And my deepest condolences again on losing your BFF, I’ve been there. It’s heartbreaking, truly.

    Here’s to a better 2015, and finding new friends, light, love and productive and creative days!

  17. Alice says:

    This is a brilliant article and definitely chimes with my experience as a freelancer! You get knocked off kilter sometimes and I’ve always found that being gentle with yourself and easing yourself back into a routine is a good way to tackle it. Also reading articles such as this makes me feel so much better that i’m not the only one and that it’s okay to feel that way! Feeling inspired now, thank you!

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