A guest post by Kirsten Foster.
Tell me if this sounds like you:
You’ve been working on a project for months now, whether that be a song, a story, a drawing, or any hobby. You were so excited to work on it in the beginning, but now you find yourself dreading to look at your creation. Inspiration that once was easy to draw from has now become elusive. The words no longer flow, and the mental energy is nonexistent.
“I just need to push and get it done,” you tell yourself, yet when you poise your fingers over the keys or touch that pen to paper, you find you just can’t. You can’t seem to squeeze out a few hundred words without feeling tired, or get a basic sketch done without criticizing it.
Frustrated, you ask yourself, “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I get anything done?”
I’ve been there, fellow creators. As a young writer, I have worked on many stories and novels, some for over a year. This weariness and frustration, I’m not a stranger to it. It is from nearly four years of experience that I give you an answer to the above two questions.
You might not be getting anywhere with your project because you simply need a break.
Why Take Breaks?
I get up around four-forty-five almost every morning. Why? To have the most amount of time possible to work on my stories. I used to write from five to nine in the morning—no breaks. Back then, I thought taking no breaks made me more productive—after all, it gave me more time to write, no? However, looking back, I see that it actually had the opposite effect. I burnt out more often, had trouble focusing, and found myself procrastinating more.
Breaks—long and short—can seem insignificant, but they are far more beneficial than you might think.
Breaks help refill your creative well
According to author Kara Swanson, when you’ve been working on a project for a long time, it is easy to run your “creative well” dry. This well contains the inspiration you draw from when you’re working on your story, drawing, or song. If you no longer have that inspiration, how can you keep going? Taking some time off allows you to do activities that not only let you rest, but can also help you refill that creativity well. When it’s time to return to your work, you’ll have a full well to draw from.
Breaks help refocus
According to the website Nir and Far, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of your brain that manages and keeps you concentrated on your goals. It is also responsible for logical thinking, executive functioning, and the willpower to override impulses. If the prefrontal cortex is worn out from sustained attention, it cannot function or keep you from growing distracted. By briefly taking your mind off your goal and partaking in activities that do not rely heavily on the PFC, you can renew your strength, motivation, and focus. When you return to work towards your goal again, you might be surprised how much more productive and efficient you are.
Breaks can help relax tension
Have you ever found yourself growing agitated, tense, or anxious when you need to meet a deadline with your project? Or how about when you have been stuck on the same scene in your story or same line in your poem for days? I have, and as strange as it sounds, breaks can actually help relax this tension. When I find myself stuck on a particular scene in my writing, taking a short break from my project gives me time to recollect my thoughts and relax. The cloud of growing frustration in my head clears, and I start to see things about my story and scene more clearly (or in a different way). That part that was giving me trouble? The solution was in front of me the whole time; I had just grown so agitated with it that I overthought writing it and missed the obvious. Once the tension left, the ideas came in.
However, what about when you’re working on a deadline? How can you relax the tension when you do not have time for a break? The answer is simple: take a break. Not a two-week holiday, but just ten or twenty minutes out of your seat and away from your project. Do something that energizes you and refreshes your mind like taking a walk, stretching, or playing with the dog. Getting your mind off your work even for just a little bit can make a big difference in your performance.
I only listed a few of the benefits above, but as you can see, taking a break does far more for your body and mind than just giving it a rest.
However, sometimes breaks give us a reason to procrastinate more than helping us refocus. Sometimes I tell myself I need a break from my project as an excuse to avoid working on it because either I have hit a rough patch or I am lacking the motivation or drive. In a case like this, the best thing to do would be to make yourself push through and get your project/work done.
This does pose a question, though: “How do I know if I actually need a break or if I am just being lazy?”
How to Tell When You Need a Break and When You Need to Push Through
It boils down to knowing yourself and your mental energy. For example, I know I can safely push myself to work on or finish a project because I tend to procrastinate when my project hits a rough patch. I have the mental energy to work, so a break is not what I need—just a lot of determination and willpower.
Do you tend to procrastinate and grow easily distracted when your project is difficult? Do you burn out easily? Are there certain tasks that drain you of your mental energy (the energy your mind uses to think and make decisions with) more than others like writing for school or researching for a project? It can take trial and error to figure out answers to questions like these. Try pushing yourself, giving yourself breaks, and taking notes on your energies.
Kara Swanson recommends finding wise and safe council that can advise you on whether or not you need to break or push forward. Getting thoughts from someone outside of your head is useful because he or she can give you a fresh angle and help you figure out what to do. Your council might be able to say, “I think you just need to push and get it done” or, “You’re starting to burnout working on this project, so I think it would be best if you took a break.”
Following are other things to think about when figuring out whether you actually need a break or just need to buckle down and get it done.
When you might need to push through . . .
Do you actually feel weary and blocked, or is it just that words or work are not flowing as fast and smoothly as you would like? If your answer is the latter, then you might just need to push yourself and get your work done (or closer to done). While taking a break could help, it could also open the door for procrastination and delay finishing your project even further. Slogging through some difficult hours of writing, composing, or working might be best. As hard as it is, when you complete your work, you won’t have to worry or dread working on it any longer. Then a break from it would do some good.
You also might consider pushing yourself when trying to form a habit or get back into a routine. If you had a busy season that kept you from consistently working on your project, it’s easy to fall out of your routine and feel overwhelmed when you return to it. Pushing yourself can help you back into your schedule and avoid falling into making excuses and procrastination. Also, consider setting small goals for yourself to encourage you to work on your project. I tend to be more productive and work better when I have milestones to reach and check off, and eventually, these smaller goals create a path to reaching my big goal: completing my project.
When you might need a break . . .
Writer Jaclynn Marie asks herself these three questions to determine if she needs a break:
- Is doing creative work (or working on a project in general) going to add more stress to an already stressful season and therefore damage my mental health, relationships, or just completely drain me?
- Am I going through a very difficult season that is already making everything else hard to manage?
- Am I unwell?
Take some time to think about these questions. (Sometimes we have to pause to realize just how weary we are.) If the answer to any of these are yes, then it might be good to take a break. Don’t add one more thing for yourself to worry about and work on in a busy, stressful, or difficult season. It is not worth sacrificing your mental or physical health or your connections with others just to get work done.
Also, consider taking a break if you have been struggling with your project for a while and feel weary and blocked. If you’ve been pushing and trying, but you can’t seem to get anywhere, it might be time to let your mind breathe and refill your energies. This could be as simple as taking a five to ten minute stand-up break from your computer to clear your head, or it could be a longer break where you give yourself some time to think. Either way, we can only run so long and hard before we need to rest our minds.
It takes trial and error to get to know yourself, but when you do, you will know when it is safe to push yourself and when you need to stop. However, what about those times when you need to rest, but feel guilty about it? Like when you are burnt-out from life or if chronic illness gets in the way. How do you rest when grappling with feeling like you should be working?
How to Handle Feeling Guilty When Taking a Break
First, remember taking a break is not giving up.
Just because you are taking a break from a project does not mean you’re quitting. It does not mean something was too hard and challenging and forced you to stop. Think of it as giving yourself the space to function better in different areas so you can perform better.
Moreover, just because you are taking a break does not mean your mind will quit thinking up story concepts, song lyrics, or other project ideas. Even when I am taking an extended break from one of my stories, my subconscious is still creating scenes and dialogue exchanges for that project. In fact, I have found it sometimes creates better and stronger ideas when I am on break. So while you might not be actively working on your project, your mind is working out ideas for it (or a new one!) subconsciously. That does not sound like giving up to me!
Second, look at a break as a recharge.
What happens when you run a battery for a long time without letting it recharge? It dies. Like batteries, we burnout if we don’t take the time to rest and refill our creative wells. If we try to work on our project when we’re tired or running on empty, we’re not going to give our best performance. If anything, we’ll probably give some of our worst.
Back in January of 2022, I helped lead a big online writing event for young writers called Crazy Writing Week. It is an interactive challenge for Christian writers in their teens and early twenties that encourages them to write and go after their dreams of writing again. However, on the first day of the challenge, I came down with Covid, and not a light case either. It lasted for almost all of Crazy Writing Week. I had little to no energy—physical or mental—but I still pushed myself to write and help my team. In hindsight, that writing I did while sick was some of the worst ever, and it was no wonder it took me forever to fix those scenes when I was editing a few months later. Because I chose to run while I was tired, the words that flowed from my mind to my fingers were just as empty as my energy well.
So give yourself that time to recharge, and let your mind rest at ease about it. You are not giving up on your project, but merely giving yourself some space from it so you can refill your energies and perform better than you were before. (:
Breaks: A Good Thing
So, going back to the beginning of this post, what is wrong with us when we can only squeeze out a few hundred words without feeling tired? What are we doing wrong that causes us to criticize even a rough sketch? Why can’t we seem to get anything done?
The answer? You might be weary or burnt out and just need a break.
While taking breaks might not seem immediately beneficial, in the end, they can help with both physical and mental health (yes, even those short five-minute breaks reap both benefits). Sometimes, though, pushing through to finish a project is the better route. It can be hard to tell if you need a break or are just making excuses, but with trial and error and some self-awareness, you can learn when it’s best to push or rest.
And you know what? It is okay to take a break when you need one. A break is not the end of the line, and it does not mean you’re quitting. You can return to that project whenever you’re ready. If you need to rest, let your body and mind do so. Don’t sacrifice your health and relationships in the name of productivity.
Everyone needs breaks in life—breaks from work, family, and even from reading this blog post. So go stand up, do some jumping jacks, go get a drink of water, just get out of your seat. While you’re doing so, ask yourself, “Where could I try adding small breaks into my schedule and life? Do I need to take an extended break from a project?”
Who knows? A break might be just what you need right now.
Kirsten Foster is a weird, funny, bow-wielding, and horse-loving writer saved by the blood of Jesus. She’s not perfect – not by a long shot – but she wants to do her best to honor her Lord and use her talents for His glory. When not sitting at a computer typing a story or at a desk writing letters, she finds herself working with horses and getting lost in books. Kirsten writes her Wild West stories from her country home in Connecticut, USA, where she dreams about visiting the places she writes about.
5 thoughts on “Taking Breaks: The Key We’ve Been Missing?”
This is a great post! It’s so true that depending on the situation, pushing through or taking a break can make all the difference.
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I’m glad you found it helpful too, Sara! Yes, I know for myself, sometimes I feel guilty for resting, thinking I *should* be able to push through, and other times, I’ve “taken a break”, then looked back and thought, hm no I really could have (and should have) worked then 😅… I found the questions Kirsten listed really helpful to make these decisions!
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I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Sara! Thank you so much for taking the time to read. Learning when to push through or take a break has been such a breakthrough for me and my productivity levels.
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It was such an honor to get to write a post for one of my favorite blogs! Thank you so much for the opportunity. ^-^
You’re so welcome, Kirsten! Thank you for writing such a helpful post! ❤