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!

SHARE WITH ME:

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.]

2015: The year of taking charge

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I had taken two weeks off from everything: teaching, family, this blog, everything.

And what did I do? What did I spend my 14 days doing prior to ringing in the new year? Was it something productive like sorting out my receipts and re-arranging the mess of a corner that I call my workstation (I work just fine, thankyouverymuch, and things are where they’re meant to be.)

Nope.

Here’s what I did instead: I was binge-watching The Mindy Project because I had just discovered the show, oh only after it ran for 3 seasons. I was laughing and giggling over the chemistry between Dr Mindy Lahiri and her colleague Dr Danny Castellano while nodding my head whenever she was talking about how other things can wait when it comes to food. Or that you’re crazy not to have seconds of anything. Oh yes. That’s what I watched. For some her voice might be grating enough to turn them off, but for me, I had to control myself from snorting out food through my nose whenever the punchline kicked in (did I also mention I didn’t stop watching even when it was lunchtime?)

So yes I binged watched for the entire 2 weeks while I was off. And I’m not embarrassed to say that I enjoyed it. That and oh, chocolates.

I deserved it.

That, for me, was the act of taking charge of my time.

And I want to do more of that in 2015. Not the binge-watching TV show bit, but the taking control bit.

But wait, doesn’t taking charge mean doing something proactive? Something useful? Yes, it can be that too. But that’s not the point. The whole point of taking control is to be able to exercise your choice – irregardless of what other people might think. You need to know what you’re doing and what you’re doing has to be purposeful. And that is totally different from merely slacking off.

I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt while I was reclining on my sofa, cradling my laptop to the tune of crazy nurse Morgan as he deadpans about his dogs. I emptied my mind and let myself do nothing for a change. And while I do watch my favourite TV shows from time to time – having 2 weeks of pure uninterrupted bliss time to call my own is just what I needed to recharge my exhausted batteries. Your methods may vary, and so will your mileage.

Because society and life in general puts too much pressure on people to do things all the time. Sure, there are times when you can’t afford to take a break. Or maybe you’re not into The Mindy Project like I am. The point isn’t about reclining on sofas and watching comedies while popping Picnic bars. It’s about taking charge of what you want, and ultimately what you need to do to move forward.

I knew that I had been through a bit of an emotional roller coaster in 2014. One of my first dogs ever died. I ran another fun, successful second session of Work/Art/Play. There was also the 2014 Artists and Illustrator survey. I did a redesign of my blog. I participated in a local zine fair where I peddled my zines and gave a talk among other great designers. I took on a part-time stint as an art director at a regional PR firm. I was at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content as a moderator for several keynotes and a one-day workshop. And a few other wins and losses that I can’t seem to remember right now, but that’s okay.

2014 was a relatively slow year, truth be told. And I didn’t mind it one bit. There are times when we surge and forge ahead, and there are times where we back down a little – not out of defeat, but to prepare for whatever life throws at us next. We lick our wounds and treat our pain – physical or emotional – and get ourself ready for what’s to come.

And 2015 is going to be one exciting year, I can guarantee you that.

Just make sure you get off the sofa like I did.

So here’s my question for you:

What will you take charge of this year?

Maybe it’s taking charge of your time so that you can finally spend that time on learning that new technique you’ve been meaning to try out; or it means taking charge of your art and business so you can do what you love and be rewarded for it.

I’d love it if you would share with me (and I read every comment):

  1. What does taking charge mean to you?
  2. What’s your focus for 2015? What do you want to change?
[Illustration by Tyler Feder of Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project. Available as a print in her Etsy shop.]

The Pikaland Gift Guide for All Seasons: part 7

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The Pikaland gift guide for all season has come to the end – and to cap this year’s edition, I wanted to do a bit of recap of the books that I’ve featured here on the blog, which has been some of my favourites. They’ve opened up new horizons for me, inspired me and to a certain extent, changed my life. I still flip through them from time to time, and I do think that the ones here have stood the test of time. (P/s: this list is done in no particular order!)

Enjoy!

Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

 

Lighter Than My Shadow (Amazon UK) is Katie Green’s first graphic novel – a tale of struggle and recovery; of abuse, betrayal and awakening. I’ve known Katie online for several years now and while I knew she was working on her first graphic novel about her eating disorder – I didn’t anticipate the range of emotions that bore into me as I turned each page. All 500 of it. I was curious, confused, shocked, angry – some of them all coming together in a flurry of emotions that caught me off guard as I devoured it in one sitting. It was beautiful, uplifting, and most importantly – incredibly brave of her to put her story out into the world.

Read my review here.

Draw Paint Print Like the Great Artists by Marion Deuchars

 

Marion Deuchars has done it again. In 2011 I reviewed her book Let’s Make Some Great Art (reviewed here) and it was a unique book which made me squeal with delight when I peeled open its pages back then. In her latest book, Draw Paint Print Like the Great Artists, she reprises the original concept of inviting the reader (or in this case, the artist) to dabble their fingers into some paint and let loose in between the pages of her book.

You can read my review here.

Birch field Close by Jon McNaught

 

The brilliant work of Jon McNaught is captured beautifully in Birchfield Close – a book that describes frame-by-frame of the suburbs in all its mundane glory. Each scene seems to blend into one another effortlessly, much as the day turns into night in places such as these – behind the subtle chatter of neighbours to the quiet unsymbolic passing of days. Throughout the book there’s no conversation; just sounds and noises against backdrops and textures of subtle color. Jon’s a genius.

Read my review here.

An A-Z of Visual Ideas by John Ingledew

 

If you’ve been stumped for ideas on how to push the envelope in your work or to add context by twisting thing ups a notch, then you must, absolutely, get The A-Z of Visual Ideas:How to Solve Any Creative Brief. What this book does is to link, connect and inspire new ways of thinking and creative solving. From A to Z and start to finish, the book not only outlines how to breathe new life into your ideas, but show you many examples of how others have done them.

Read my review here.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

 

Malcolm’s mind is like a giant repository of ideas, questions, answers, and the magic lies in how he tells and links all of them together. Facts that I never thought of learning are brought to life so vividly; facts that never crossed my mind and facts which seemed insignificant at the time — all of them were carefully dissected and presented in simple, layman terms. And in Outliers, he talks about success and the makings of it.

You can read my review here.

Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd by Youngme Moon

 

Thought provoking and written in a conversational style, you’ll feel as though you’re sitting down with Youngme herself for a chat about the topic of how to differentiate yourself from the crowd in Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd. While the title sounds like a business how-to, she mentioned that this was precisely why she set out to write a book that eschewed the norm of dishing out one-liners and pep talk. Instead, she manages to maintain the interest of the reader to delve into the subject matter further to decipher for themselves the points she puts across so eloquently in her book.

Read my review here.

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use it for Life

 

First, a little background. Twyla Tharp is a choreographer who has created 130 dances for her company and many others like Joffrey Ballet and London’s Royal Ballet. What shines throughout The Creative Habit, is how Twyla talks about creativity in the way she knows. Although choreography is a different way of expressing one’s ideas through art, the formula to achieve creativity in all levels of your life is a common thread that binds all creative types together. Drawing, writing, performing, singing and even business — she doesn’t discriminate what field you’re in. Rather, she offers learning through her eyes and opens up the reader’s mind via her experiences.

Read my review here.

How to be an Illustrator by Darrel Rees

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I first reviewed this book  in 2010, and a second updated edition was just released this year which contains updated information about the field of illustrations. The past 4 years has seen big changes in how artists market themselves (which is reflected in updated interviews), and they’ve added in sections on social media presence as well. \

You can read my review of the first edition here.

Whatcha Mean, What’s a Zine? by Mark Todd & Esther Pearl Watson

 

As a simple start off point for wannabe publishers, making a zine is surprisingly simple, yet effective. Staple together (or fold) a stack of papers with your idea in it and you can get your message across to any audience you wish! As one who came from the glossy publishing world of magazines, I loved the smell of paper hot off the press. I loved flipping through pages of my hard work and seeing the eyes of others lit up as they consumed each page. As I struck out on my own however, I thought that would mean the end of publishing for me as I knew it. Boy was I wrong.

Whatcha Mean, What’s a Zine opened my eyes to a world of zines and you can read my review of it here. It’s easily one of my most favourite books ever.

How to be an Explorer of the World by Keri Smith

 

How to be an Explorer of the World is Keri’s fourth book after so many other inspiring creativity-inducing books such as Living Out Loud, Wreck This Journal and The Guerilla Art Kit. I was always interested in the topic of creativity, and its many manifestations throughout my daily life, but Keri brought clarity to my thoughts and inspired me with one of the articles from her blog that first caught my eye: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love.

Read my review here.

And that brings an end to The Pikaland Gift Guide for All Seasons 2014! Thanks so much for sending your recommendations – you guys are amazing!

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