We’re Not Machines
There may be a lot of factors involved. There may be a lot of other things going on in your life, both good and bad that may be weighing on your mind. Even if you don’t think that these things are affecting you, they may be and you don’t know it. You also may have been working on music a bit too much lately and haven’t taken time out to take a break. Or, it may be a special time (like the holidays) and you really just want to be out having fun but still feel that you should be working. We may feel sometimes that we can go on everyday, working hard and getting things done but our minds and bodies don’t work that way.
The mind and body demands things from us even when we don’t want to accept it.
Like the athletic community knows all too well, our bodies operate in cycles and it’s in our best interest to acknowledge these cycles so we can take advantage of our peak periods. This is something musicians have yet to learn. Most musicians I know go at it everyday, without any consideration for their bodies or natural cycles; expecting peak performance day in, day out. There are times when you’re going to have more energy, greater creativity and be able to perform better; then there are the times when you’re not. Since we usually don’t have the privilege of working only at our peak times, we have to find some way to work with these cycles so we can get things done without burn out or injury. That means paying attention to what’s going on and making necessary adjustments.
When you’re finding it hard to get some work done, instead of fighting it or beating yourself up about it, you may want to take a moment and figure out if your body is trying to tell you something. If you’ve been working in the studio and doing a lot of writing and playing, your mind may need some rejuvenation time to ‘refill’ so to speak. There have been volumes written on all of the things that you can do to get the creative juices going by taking time out to recharge and get a fresh perspective. If you’re having a hard time getting to work, and it’s not just a one time thing but goes on for a couple of weeks, you may want to take a break and try working on something different. For example, if you’ve been doing a lot of writing and things just aren’t coming to you, take a break from writing and work in another area. Slow down the writing for a little while and use that time to work on your website, go to some industry events, work on some PR, or even try playing with some other people or somebody’s else’s stuff for a while. You may come back with renewed energy and a ton of new ideas. Keep in mind that new ideas need time to incubate so you may need some time to work through the ideas and it may seem like you’re getting worse for a while.
Sometimes it’s a matter of energy, sometimes it’s a matter of creativity. A lot of the time, since these seem to go hand in hand, it’s feels like it’s both.
If it’s creativity, a good thing to do is to try something new that makes your mind work in new ways. In music this might be learning a new instrument, learning a song in a genre that you’re not familiar with, or joining a group. Joining a group will force you to work with other people and you become part of a creative force where ideas are exchanged. Sometimes you get stuck in a certain way of thinking and being part of another creative group makes you start thinking in new ways. The other thing you may want to do when stuck is get the opinion of somebody you respect. This is just another version of the group idea above where you’re getting a fresh perspective. You can also try separating the various processes or doing the process in a new way. For example if you’re a songwriter, try writing the lyrics only or the melody only. Try writing on a different instrument even if (especially if) you can’t play the other instrument. Try writing with no instrument at all (an especially effective exercise because it makes you really focus on the melody). A great though, if you’re having trouble writing, is to set aside a time and just write without any judgment. Set a timer for about 10 or 15 minutes, pick up your instrument and your tools of choice and just start writing. The most important part of this is to dismiss any judgment. You’re just going to write for the time allotted and just let it flow. No idea is bad and no idea is thrown out. Just let it go. Once the time is up, stop. Let it sit for a while and come back to it later. See what comes up. You’ll be surprised how many great ideas come up when that judgmental part of our brain is completely shut off.
If it’s a lack of energy, and you just have to get the work done, try some of these ideas: Take a quick walk before starting. Walking seems to clear the mind and it gets the heart and blood flowing without going into a full on workout. A light stretch will have the same results. One thing that works really well for me is the half hour appointment. If I’m having a hard time getting to work, I just tell myself that I’ll just work for half and hour and ‘see how it goes’. Sometimes, the half hour passes and it becomes obvious that it just isn’t working today and I try working on something else. Most of the time though, the simple act of starting and keeping with it for a short time is enough to get a flow going and a couple of hours pass before I realize it. One other thing to keep in mind when it comes to energy is to take breaks. Get up once an hour and walk around, or leave the room. Five minutes is usually long enough to get refreshed and not lose your flow. This gets the mind and blood flowing and it may save you some injury from sitting in the same position for an extended period of time. Sometimes we get so involved in what we're doing, we forget about things like posture, stiff muscles or even how we’re feeling. Getting up once an hour for a stretch is a good way to keep the body loose and keep us from sitting in the same position for an extended period. Moving also has an effect on our minds because sometimes just getting up from where we’re sitting, gives us a ‘different perspective’. For example, listening to a mix from a different position or even another room is valuable in giving us an overall view of the song. Sometimes you get so involved in tweaking a certain sound that you lose perspective of the big picture. The last important aspect is to know when to stop. Since we’re involved in a creative art, we can't really 'cram' like in certain other activities. There comes a time when you’ve been working too long and you either start to make some bad decisions, you lose perspective of what you were trying to accomplish in the first place, or your mind starts to wonder and you lose that creative space and the work suffers. I know that sometimes when I’m working on a mix for too long, my ears get tired without me realizing it and I start tweaking sounds to some horrible results. In the arts, there is the point of diminishing returns and you simply have to stop for the day.
We’re not machines; we’re artists. Whether we like it or not, we can’t keep the wheels grinding day after day without taking time out to take a break or switch gears. It’s important to take note of the times when our mind and bodies are telling us that they just don’t want to do it today. It’s best to acknowledge these times and take a break or work on something else. If that’s not an option, we have to find some way of getting the work done while respecting what our bodies are trying to tell ourselves so we’re healthy enough to work and create another day.