Throughout many of my 12 years as a creative freelancer, my main focus was on just getting things done and getting paid. I worked constantly, and said yes to a lot of jobs outside of my area of interest that I wanted to say no to, just because I needed the money.
Placing such a high priority on income and productivity caused my well-being to suffer immensely. Instead of talking about the depression, burnout, and destruction of my health (before I even turned 30), though, I’m going to tell you what I did about it.
In August 2015, I began a year-long experiment entitled “A Year Without Work.” The basic idea was to stop doing things for money that I would never consider doing for free. I would focus on doing only what I loved, in the most pure and idealistic way I could, then later see if there was a way to monetize it so I could still live. That may seem unrealistic to some, but I felt I needed this level of discipline to get back on track.
On the first day I was so excited! I could finally dive into some art and writing projects I had been neglecting for most of the last year.
But I failed completely. Here’s why:
To allow access to the most inspired mental state and maximize creative flow, I use a method that requires a certain order of operations; the first thing is to prepare physically, mentally, and emotionally. (The exact steps are in my book) When I began to do this, I discovered that I was in no shape to make my best work. I wasn’t even close. All kinds of things I’d been too busy to notice came to the surface of my awareness. I was exhausted, stressed out, and repressing all kinds of things that had been bothering me. Like when you go on vacation but can’t relax, clearing my schedule made it all completely impossible to ignore.
I was quite frustrated at first – I just wanted to make awesome things, but I couldn’t.
Eventually, I gave in and went with the flow. I rested. One by one, I began unraveling all the pent-up things I had ignored. When I thought I was finished, I’d wake up the next day to some new challenge to face. It seemed like it would never end.
Even after giving it my complete attention, this process took several weeks. My productivity level was at zero. I accomplished absolutely no creative work, and I was using up my small amount of savings to do it. I felt like a huge failure, and a disaster of a person.
But it turned out that it was all worth it.
At the end of this process I was finally in the right state to create, and suddenly I was on fire! I turned my phone off and wrote obsessively from early morning until late afternoon for days on end. No alarm. No coffee. I just needed to get it all out.
My first goal was to finish some neglected book projects – over several days I compiled all of my best ideas, did some outlines and samples, created a finished package for my editor, and sent it off. One project was chosen: a partial draft I hadn’t touched (or thought about) for several months, which went to acquisitions and was accepted. (Coming Spring 2018 from Chronicle Books!) If I’d stayed on the path I was on, too busy, tired, and depressed to do my personal work, this never would have happened.
If my focus remained on productivity and keeping busy, I wouldn’t have given myself the time I truly needed to complete my deep inner work and to be my best self – the version of myself that feels inspired, gets up early to work because I want to, and makes meaningful and unique work that people appreciate.
I had to forgive myself for my perceived failure. I had to love myself enough to address my deepest needs, however unrelated to my goals they seemed. I had to give myself permission to do nothing.
The paradox is that allowing myself to do nothing, to give myself the freedom to be lazy, and letting myself address my personal needs first, is what enabled me to accomplish my best, most positive work, and in great quantities! I now feel so motivated and inspired that I can barely stop myself from working all the time.
I am the most productive I have ever been because I no longer focus on productivity — it is merely a byproduct of focusing on the work I most love, and taking care of myself to be well enough to do it.
Plus, I am more happy and healthy than I’ve ever been, which only feeds the cycle of creation. I used to only really rest and recover just enough to get back to my to-do list. I was never completely well. I was just well enough to hustle, until I broke, and then work became impossible.
To perform at your peak level requires paying careful attention to your needs — not sacrificing them. Depending on your conditioning, it may seem counter-intuitive at first, but this is an important shift in mindset for anyone wanting to do challenging or highly creative work. Then when you focus on the work you love, you actually can build a life out of it. You become unstoppable.
I know how challenging it can be to take better care of yourself and to get out of survival mode when you’re up to your ears in hustle or can barely make ends meet, but I’m here to help. If this productivity philosophy resonates with you, and you’d like to give it a try, you can check out my step-by-step guide: Create Now!: A Systematic Guide To Artistic Audacity, available everywhere books are sold. Find your focus, unleash your highest creativity, share your work, do good, get paid, and more.
Originally published at medium.com