There’s a superstition that what you do on New Years is significant of how your year will be. So if you go out to a wild party, your year will be full of social engagements, if you spend it with close friends or family, it will be spent cultivating close relationships and friendships, and if you spend it alone, it will a be year of self reflection and care. Last New Years, I spent it alone, cooking, cleaning, and on a deadline which was Jan 1. I knew the year would be filled with projects but I didn’t know how large or fantastic they would be. I also didn’t know how isolated I would become. It’s easy to hide away on deadline, to just focus on the work, and feel like there’s not enough time for anything in between. I’ve done it and found myself depleted during and very much after those deadlines had been met.
When I was working on The Smashing Pumpkins tour I slept about 4 hours a night. There were a lot of images to complete and my main focus was to make good looking work that reflected what the band needed aesthetically. While the work came out great and the concepts were fantastic and exciting, I wasn't taking very good care of myself. I barely got out of the house, ate whatever was fastest, and rarely exercised. I was so focused on finishing and making good work in a short amount of time that I completely forgot about balance. Once the target date had passed, I immediately crashed. I had another project coming and was struggling with finding the energy to finish it. In the midst of this I recalibrated and tried to work out a plan that gave me time to exercise, cook, and possibly socialize. (This isn’t always achievable. Especially when trying to paint three to five paintings a day for huge projects.)
I started to look at the way I was framing time. I get up in the am, make coffee, pet the cat, check email, and take a few moments to put my to do list together and make day goals and then I’d spend the rest of the day painting or writing until I met those goals with just a few breaks in between for food. I would fall asleep exhausted only to wake up four hours later just as tired. I began to break up time into increments. The morning would remain the same, get up, make coffee, have breakfast, and then I’d get myself to the gym to swim or I would ride my bike down the lakefront for a few hours. Sometimes I would do both but the rest of the day had to change otherwise I was going to crash and burn quickly. I decided to do some research on productivity.
Author Tony Schwartz founder of The Energy Project suggests we focus on the 4 main pillars of human energy needed to avoid burnout.
Physical - Focusing on nutrition, sleep, fitness, and intermittent breaks throughout the day.
Emotional - Developing and nurturing the emotions that coincide with higher performances. The idea that emotions can influence performance.
Mental - Switching between calculated, detailed thinking and the bigger picture. Utilizing focus to create results.
Spiritual - Purpose and serving something other than the self.
He also categorizes work performance into different levels.
The Performance Zone - This is where we produce our best work. The four categories above are being met and energy is at its peak.
Renewal Zone - Restorative yet positive energy, conducive to daydreaming and restoring focus on bigger picture goals.
Survival Zone - High energy but negative, impatient, critical, and stressed. We can no longer focus on the bigger picture because we are caught in a cycle of productivity but moving towards burnout.
Burnout Zone - Low and negative energy fed by depression and exhaustion with very little productivity.
While I haven’t looked into too many of Tony’s methods I do feel that this simple breakdown of how we work and what we need for balance is true and effective.
In a 2008 University of Illinois study found that attention spans and memory drop after long periods of focusing without breaks. performance declined in those without breaks but brief interludes increased the focus of those observed.
Upon further research I discovered scientists at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute (BSI) had uncovered tools to help the brain focus by routing relevant information to noncognitive domains of the brain. This allowed them to gain insight on how the brain is disrupted by distractions. Justin Gardner and his research team found the brain uses a two step process.
Sensitivity enhancement - Look at the project as a whole and assess what needs attention. Focus on what needs the most attention.
Efficient selection - Zoom into the task at hand. As you do this it helps you enter into the Performance Zone.
Using these pieces of information I formulated a plan for my next deadline. I would stop multitasking. There was too way I could answer tarot related client questions, paint, keep up with social media, and try to take on other projects at the same time. I had to focus one painting at a time. I came up with actions that were achievable for the most part.
-I would try and get 8 hours of sleep a night. I used this “Swamp Sounds” recording to get me relaxed and fall asleep quickly.
-I would exercise 5-6 days a week for 1 hour increments but would not beat myself up if I fell short of this.
-I would try to cook easy meals in advance so I wouldn’t have to worry about eating quick foods.
-I would drink lots of water.
-I would use errands as a way to stop for breaks and engage with the outside world
-I would go to a museum, attend a cultural event etc whenever I could to give myself a rest and gather inspiration/feed my mind.
-I’d keep a journal where everything could be messy and imperfect and I wouldn’t have to worry about what I wrote or if it was poetic. The drawings could be messy and smudged. It would be a place to play.
With theses changes I was able to manage the emotional and mental aspects of the deadline. Swimming in the morning allowed me to process any feelings I had and gave me the energy to step into work mode once I got home. In order to cook food I made sure I took breaks in between painting to make easy recipes such as soups and baked healthy muffins for breakfast or boiled up some eggs for easy quick snacks. I also cut up fruit into water and kept it in the fridge so I’d have access to fresh infused water throughout the day. I also assessed the ways I worked fastest. I’m someone who is easily distracted in a quiet room, so I found myself working faster when I put on a podcast or a documentary. That way I could listen but my full focus could be on painting while I listened and absorbed any other information. I also turned off social media during heavy work periods. The spiritual aspect was the process itself. When I paint I spend a lot of time looking at people, trying to understand them, what makes them special etc. This is working outside of myself. Am I telling their story in a way that will make them proud? These were my thoughts while working on “The Hoodoo Tarot.” While I did get to Survival Zone by the end of the deadline. We were working on a lot in a short time span I didn’t feel fully burnt out. I considered this experiment a success and know for the next deadline I’ll be able to manage it even better.
I’ve also been exploring a bit of the Ultradian rhythm of 90-120 minutes based on experiments of brain activity while sleeping. First brought to our attention by Nathan Kleitman his research was called “Basic Rest-Activity Cycle” in which he focused on the 90-minute cycles during which you advance through the five stages of sleep. He also took notice that the brain mimics this during the day as well with higher and lower attention spans throughout the day.
I’m looking to try both of these and see which works for me personally. As a freelancer it’s very easy to get sucked into the feeling that you can’t stop until you’re finished. Allowing myself breaks in between, even if it’s just to prep food completely reformulated the way I work creating a more efficient and less taxing way to meet a deadline. I’m still a work in progress but feeling much healthier, stronger, and much less stressed because of it.