Let’s begin with a little exercise.
Wherever you are reading this article—stay still. Now take a deep breath in, feel your lungs fill up. Exhale and release, feel your lungs empty. Repeat for as many times as you like. How did that feel? That tiny little pause in the middle of your day, in the midst of a hectic mind? We dare guess that it felt nice, refreshing even.
This little experiment draws upon mindfulness techniques, but that’s not what we're here to discuss. We will focus on the very powerful effect that rest—if only for a short period of time—can have on your ability to become attuned to yourself, and therefore to your creativity.
So many creatives struggle with taking a break. After all, you’re doing what you love, enjoying your craft, so there’s really no need to take time off, right? Wrong.
In a world where being busy is worn as a badge of honor and needing extra hours in the day is considered the norm, choosing rest is a radical act. Many young creatives feel compelled to keep saying yes to things even when burned out, as if hard-wired to working long hours and cast relaxation aside. We tend to think of downtime as a luxury we cannot afford, but choosing to relax is a critical component to maintaining physical and mental health, being happy, and on top of it all, creating our best work.
We spoke to Ngaio Parr, a Los Angeles based designer, author, artist and curator, and Jill Senft, a Berlin based illustrator and painter, on what rest means to them and how it plays a role in their creativity.
The definition of rest The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines rest as to “cease work or movement in order to relax, sleep, or recover strength.” This may be the official way to describe what rest means, but to each their own, as rest can mean different things to different people.
Ngaio Parr: Rest for me is when there is no input to my brain, no information coming in from anywhere. So on a basic, routine level, it means giving my brain the daily ability to rest itself and forget about work stuff. I've gotten a lot better at daily rest, making sure I work regular hours and don’t go overtime, which has the biggest influence on the way I experience rest.
For me, choosing to work 9-6 and then consciously letting go and not checking emails or thinking about work has a bigger impact than going on a week’s holiday—though that’s important as well of course! As for prioritizing it, I definitely feel that as I get older I get better at looking after myself, and part of that is resting. Having come to see the effect rest has on me, both physically and mentally, means that I make sure I do it properly.
Jill Senft: For me, time off means I’m free to do what I want for myself. That is considered resting. If I want to watch a TV series and I can, then that is my rest. On the other hand, time off doesn't have to mean I’m not doing anything creative. Sometimes I like to sketch in my free time —it just needs to be something outside of that specific work project.
The double-edged sword of creative freelancing Working in the creative industry, especially as a self-employed individual, can mean that taking a break comes with a mental price. Being your own manager makes it harder for some people to allow themselves a proper rest, or they have demanding clients who won’t let them.
NP: Obviously part of working for yourself is that you’re working for the hardest boss around! Either there’s always something on the list that needs completing, or you’re stressing out about not having enough on your list. So again, it was a matter of growing up and getting to know myself and the way I work, coming to terms with the fact that as covetable as it may seem to have a neat mind and a completed to-do list, it’s not really attainable. And I learned that I don’t need to wait for that feeling of completion in order to allow myself to go on holiday or take the afternoon off. Because there’s always going to be something to do.
JS: It’s probably a bit harder as a freelancer to take official time off. Some clients will expect you to work over the weekend if there’s a very tight deadline. Personally, I don’t find it as much of a problem, because even if I work over the weekend I can take some days off during the week afterwards. Because I control my time, those boundaries between weekdays and weekends are not as important.
The cyclical nature of work and rest Time off is not always under your control. You may be employed and work under someone else's schedule, or you’re a freelancer and there’s no work coming in for one reason or another. Can you learn to enjoy it and utilize that rest time?
NP: It’s interesting, it’s almost as if there are only two states—one where there’s too much work, I can’t sleep and I don’t know how I’ll ever get it all done; and the other where I don’t have work for a few days and automatically feel as though I’ll never get another job in my life. Both of which, needless to say, are very stressful states! These days I manage to remind myself that this is how it works, always has been and always will be, and that I’m going to regret not relaxing in the days or weeks I have without work, because I will soon be busy again. That’s just the way it goes. You need to believe in the natural ebb and flow of work. So instead of worrying, just enjoy your free time.
JS: I actually don’t get stressed at all if there’s no work coming in—I have this positive belief that things will fall into place. I think that as long as you’re in motion with yourself and your work, then eventually something will come up. These things tend to have their own momentum and inertia in a way. So as long as I keep doing work for myself that I enjoy, it doesn’t ever feel like stagnation. I actually think it's quite important as an illustrator to not just follow the client’s schedule and commissions in order to keep that joy of working. So it's super important that you have your own projects, stuff that you do and enjoy creating in your own free time.
The creative ethos As creatives who “work in what we love doing,” needing a break from work feels paradoxical—why would you need a break from what you enjoy doing? The ethos of the artist working days on end, happily spending sleepless nights on their passion is as prevalent as ever.
NP: There are two things I feel that we should take into consideration on this topic. The first is that if you don’t stop yourself from doing just this one thing all the time, no matter how much you love it, it won’t be fun anymore. Pushing yourself to work 12 hours a day will eventually take the joy out of the thing you love, meaning you won’t want to do it anymore. So practicing balance is a better move in the long run, because you get to continue to love what you do.
The second thing, which trips up a lot of people who do what they love for a living, is that you tie your personality and sense of identity to your work, which is never a good idea. This is for a number of reasons, but mainly if you’re not doing the best version of a specific work, you think that it reflects on you as a person, not just as a professional fulfilling that brief. So if you associate that work with your worth as a creative person, it’s much harder to let go.
I heard a podcast a few years ago where someone asked, “who are you without the doing?” and I think that young creatives especially struggle with this type of question, because their whole identity is wrapped around their creative doing. And that’s sad in many ways, but mostly because in the long run, if you don’t have anything outside your life as a creative, you won’t have anything to pull from into your craft. If you don’t have any hobbies or interests, you’re going to end up producing very two-dimensional work that will never be as full as someone who has a life beyond the work itself. People that manage to pull from all places in life—be it a conversation with a friend, a song they heard or a bird they saw—end up with much richer projects. And that is directly impacted by whether you had time to rest and had time away from your desk, away from your screen and away from the same Pinterest feed we all see. In order to be a more successful creative, you have to have time to enjoy things that are not work.
The many shapes of rest For some, rest means taking a week off, spending it on a beach, doing nothing. For others, it’s the daily morning stroll to go get coffee.
JS: Generally, I enjoy being busy and being in the flow of things with lots going on, and just have moments and pockets of time off in my day-to-day life. And then, whenever I feel the need to get up from my desk, anything will play the role of rest—even going to get groceries. So any activity, like meeting friends for dinner, going to the museum or even reading the newspaper, can feel restful and can fill me with new energy and inspiration.
NP: I’ve recently moved to a new area, so I find hiking and exploring very enjoyable at the moment. When I lived in Australia I would swim in the ocean every day and that was my way to relax. Nature clears your head, so that’s always a go-to. Also, in the last couple of years I started reading differently. I used to only read books that carried some sort of importance, whether they were about creativity, or those I thought were worthwhile reading. I now make time to read books which are just about a story, those that have a good plot. They may not win a Pulitzer, but I’ve come to realize it doesn’t matter, because reading them is a great form of rest for me—it puts my mind in a different state of being. I also love listening to podcasts about things I know absolutely nothing about.
R.E.S.T.: Not what you thought There’s a phrase in neuroscience called Default Mode, which funnily enough is also referred to by the acronym R.E.S.T., or Random Episodic Silent Thoughts. The National Center for Biotechnology Information defines this as “a state when the brain is spontaneously reorganizing and acting as a self-organizing system. Association cortices are the primary areas that are active during this state.” In other words, as Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, puts it, “neuroscience is finding that when we are idle, in leisure, our brains are most active. The Default Mode Network lights up, which, like airport hubs, connects parts of our brain that don't typically communicate. So a stray thought, a random memory, an image can combine in novel ways to produce novel ideas.” Can we actually feel the effects of this type of R.E.S.T. in our creative life, in real time?
NP: When I was working on my latest project I was also in the midst of a house renovation, working on two exhibitions and a couple of books. I really overdid it. I was so stressed, hardly sleeping, working insane hours in a space that was basically a construction zone. Out of nowhere, I decided to book three nights away in nature, on my own. I took five books, said goodbye to my husband and went away to a place with no reception. It seemed like such a crazy thing to do with all the deadlines I had. But it was the best decision I ever made, it turned out to be so helpful. It was just me, sleeping, cooking, walking in nature, just resting. When I came back my brain just felt new. This is what happens when you step away from something—even if you’re not thinking about it, the back of your mind is just sorting through things and making sense of them, even without you being aware of it. You come back to it with a fresh perspective. Coming back from those three days off, everything felt more achievable somehow.
JS: I feel the effect of rest and time off quite immediately. If for example I’m meeting with friends and we have a conversation about something interesting, the next day when I’m sitting at my desk it’ll come up and I’ll want to paint it. For creatives, everything you see or hear directly affects you, influences your work and shows up in it somehow. Those little pockets of time out I take for myself have a huge effect. I get whole new inspirations from anything really—watching a film, having a conversation over dinner, reading something in the newspaper. For me, taking time off is also about creating motivation, not just inspiration. After the winter break, for example, by the end of a week of not doing anything I feel the urge to create, and have gathered energy to start something new.
Personal projects and time off Working on personal projects can feel as if there’s a different set of rules when it comes to rest— either in taking a break from it, or in having our personal projects be what we do on our time off.
NP: With my newsletter [Some Things] I do take time off occasionally, and just remind myself that I make the rules—it’s a free publication after all and no one demands anything from me. So if skipping a week has a big impact on my life, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I do find that my painting practice is the one to suffer most when I don’t prioritize rest. It will always be at the bottom of my list, the last thing to get my attention. And I find that if I’m not well-rested, going on holiday or taking care of myself, I just don’t feel like painting. I just want to sit on the sofa and watch something terrible on TV instead of doing the thing that I truly enjoy doing. There’s just no capacity for it if I’m not rested.
Fill your cup: Take relaxation seriously NP: When you first get into the industry, you have all the energy, working crazy hours and often earning very little money. You need to make sure that underneath all that you remember that you are worth more than that, and remember to take care of yourself in one way or another. Otherwise you’ll end up constantly burning out. But most importantly, figure out what fills your cup, whether it’s hiking, cooking or watching films. Try and develop those things that you do outside of work so that you can bring them back into your work. Otherwise you empty your cup and there’s nothing to fill it. It’s a give and take system, and sometimes that comes from doing absolutely nothing at all.