I love the relief that comes after getting past a deadline. But there are times I push myself so hard, that I collapse afterwards, completely burned out. For a long time I find it hard to face my work again. Then I feel terrible that I’m being so lazy. Eventually I drag myself back to work, only to face an overwhelming pile of tasks.

This has happened more times than I’d care to admit.

Practice

I recently worked towards a deadline for which the whole experience, before and after the application was due, went pretty smoothly. I still worked hard leading up to the due date, and I still relaxed afterwards, but I neither burned out nor dreaded going back to work.

Why was this experience different? I think it has to do with having a steady practice, like a musician or a dancer. At each practice, the results may be more or less satisfying than the day before, but that’s not the point. The point is to show up and do the thing. I’ve come up with three qualities that turn work into a practice. Do you agree with these? Are there others I’ve missed?

1. Commitment

For me commitment doesn’t mean I work every single day, or the same amount of time at each sitting. My work ebbs and flows, but I expect a certain commitment from myself. I put in time. I pay attention to what needs to be done. I’m in it for the long haul. No matter how bad or good today is, I expect myself to be back in it at the next work session.

2. Flexibility

Life happens. If you don’t pay attention, you may be too hard on yourself. When I was getting my daughter ready to go off to college, I struggled to meet my writing goals. It wasn’t until I looked at how many hours were going into college prep that I realized how limited my time was. Then I was able to step back and see that this was just a season. I wrote when I could, and eased up on my expectations.

Flexibility goes the other way too. When circumstances make it easy to work, go for it.

3. Challenge

Part of the point of showing up on a regular basis, is to gradually, incrementally up your game. This happens naturally to a certain extent. Just by showing up on a regular basis you’re going to get better. But it’s also good to periodically challenge yourself. This might mean deciding to submit your work to a competition, or attend an author event, or take a class. It might mean something altogether different for you. Keep your eyes open for possibilities that feel out of reach or a bit uncomfortable, and give them a shot.

Steady Productivity

My recent application is one that I worked towards for over a month. I pushed myself pretty hard for those weeks. In the end, it was a relief to get past the deadline. I decided to use the time that followed to take a break from writing and focus on other (related) work, like taking classes and doing research.

The practice that I’ve built up kept me at a more even keel in several ways:

  1. Through practice, I’ve become better at estimating how much time tasks will take. For my deadline, this translated into a more realistic schedule that spread the work out. My estimates weren’t perfect by any means, but they were close enough that I finished the bulk of my work a day early.
  2. Having a practice has also made my downtime more productive. After the deadline, I gave myself a day or two to play, then shifted my focus to taking some classes. For example, I’ve been aware for some time that I need to improve my worldbuilding, so I’m using my break to take a class on it. Because it’s an issue I’ve been wanting to address, I’m actually excited to jump into this. It’s work, but it feels like a treat.
  3. After a while, being away from my normal practice makes me feel like something is missing. I can already feel myself becoming anxious to return to my writing. By the time I do, I should be re-energized to dive in.
  4. The challenge of putting together an application and sharing my work with others has upped my game. I felt good about the story I turned in. It had issues, but I made my story better in the process of shooting for this deadline.

It’s so nice to not be burned out after pushing hard for a deadline. It’s also been a real pleasure to enjoy my rest, feeling excited to try new things during my break, as well as energized to return to my manuscript.

Do you have any tips for maintaining a creative practice?

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