Absence (from work) makes the heart grow fonder

August 2, 2015

A year or two ago, I begin lifting weights. As a lifelong skinny bastard, I wanted to fill out my body, and deserve my nickname (Stilts) slightly less. And not long after I started lifting, I learned a valuable lesson that extends to other work as well.

I learned the value of rest.

In weightlifting, rest is extremely important. Not only does it prevent injury, but if you workout too much, you can actually hurt your goal of getting stronger or looking buff or shredding fat (whatever you’re after). It’s in the rest that your body grows. Someone who is always working out, and never resting, can actually end up weaker than someone who lifts less often.

This is counterintuitive to many. We think if we work harder, if we put in more effort, if we just try harder, we’ll get better results. Turns out, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, less is more. (Where have I heard that before…)

Turns out, this is true for writing fiction as well.

I used to write seven days a week. For the longest time I felt like I was behind on my writing goals, plus I had the time, so why not?

Only I didn’t get great results doing this. I burned out periodically, for one. I would do well for perhaps a week and a half, then I would do not so good, until eventually I’d flame out. I’d end up mired in self-loathing, marathoning some anime I never intended to watch. I couldn’t even watch the good anime, the interesting and thought-provoking ones, because that felt too much like effort. And I’d hate myself for it.

That’s reason enough to take breaks. Yet still I would occasionally force myself to work on an off day, because it would only be this one time, and I’d be sure to take a break next week.

(Never mind that, when I really got to feeling behind in my work, I would end up saying the same thing week after week. And so soon I’d burn out again, and the cycle repeated.)

To truly enjoy rest, looking at it as something you HAVE to do to prevent a negative outcome isn’t enough. You also need to see it as something you WANT to do to improve the work. Which is true as well. Just as resting is where your muscles grow when you’re lifting weights, resting is where your ideas grow if you’re doing interesting intellectual work.

Let me direct you to something John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, once said in a speech about creativity:

Cleese began his talk recounting one of his epic writing sessions with longtime writing partner Graham Chapman. While the two wrote arguably some of the most seminal comedic sketches of their generation, the partnership was not without its glitches. Like the time Cleese wrote and then lost a piece of work—and how that turned out to be the best thing that could have happened.

“I was embarrassed that I lost our work, so I rewrote it from memory, straight off in a hurry. Then I discovered the original and the one I’d done very quickly was better than the original. I didn’t spend any time thinking about it, so how could it be better than the original?”

“The only thing I could think was that my unconscious had been working on the sketch and improving it ever since I wrote it. I began to see a lot of my best work seemed to come as a result of my unconscious working on things when I wasn’t really attending to them.”

“I’m not talking about the Freudian unconscious but the intelligent unconscious. We can’t control our unconscious but we can look to how we can create the circumstance in which it becomes easier for us to work with our unconscious.”

Your mind needs rest in order to do this kind of background work. Or at least, mine does. Or perhaps it’s doing it all the time, but the only time I seem to access the fruits of this unseen labor is when I’m relaxing. When I’m hunched over the keyboard, jamming out another thousand words, I’m too focused; I can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s only when I step back, and am cooking or doing laundry or lying on the couch zoning out, that these realizations strike.

The other biggest benefit of rest is that it makes your grateful for the work you’re doing. When I’m writing every day, it’s work. Even though I get to make up stories for a living (at least in part), I still sometimes don’t want to do it, because it’s work.

But when I take a day off, even if it’s only one day a week off, I’m reminded of how amazing the work I do the rest of the time is. I give myself space to be grateful, which is both good for my mental health, and good for the work. Writing done from a place of gratitude is always better than writing done out of obligation, even if the writing itself is traumatic, stressful, or terrifying.

Yes, this even applies to drama, or horror. The work is always better when its creator has space to remember why they love it.

Currently, I write six days a week—five full days during the week, plus a half-day on Saturday. Sunday is my day off. And even when I want to write on that day—even on Sundays like today, where I feel like I’m behind on my next book, and badly want to catch up—I force myself to rest. My work tomorrow will be better for it, and I’ll be happier to sit down and do it.

And if the prospect of going back to work tomorrow fills you only with dread? Perhaps you shouldn’t be doing that work at all.

As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).

By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

2 Comments

  1. Reply

    kimbacaffeinate

    Rest or breaks are important. I understand the struggle particularly with my blog. I struggled to unplug but quickly learned the meaning of burned out. Now I regularly set daily limits and take breaks. Great post.

    1. Reply

      Stephen W. Gee

      Daily limits are a good idea too! I sometimes work nearly the whole day, almost all the way to my bedtime, then end up staying up for several hours more anyway because I’m so starved for relaxation. Like today ;_;

      One day I’ll figure out all my insanities. Just in time to develop new ones, probably.

      And I love your blog! Keep up the excellent work (in between resting!).

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