Learning How To Rest

Last week after an intense day of work I went out to see a friend play a gig. When I arrived I realized they were starting later than I thought which irritated me way more than it should have. I envisioned all the work still left for me at home, what I had to do tomorrow and felt so conflicted about being out at all – even though just five minutes earlier I had felt excited. Then I received an email. Someone couldn’t find the file they needed from me, even though I had spent a lot of time making sure the file was clearly labeled, easy to find and paired with precise instructions. Now my blood pressure was definitely up and I was fully irritated. All of these things were impacting me way more than they should or usually would. I didn’t like the way I was coping with it (or not coping with it, in this case). At this stage I found it hard to be present and enjoy the gig. Everything was pissing me off. All I felt was stress.

When I finally arrived home I was exhausted. There was something more going on than just being tired after a long day. I stopped and observed my behavior. I was acting completely stressed but it was not like I had clients breathing down my neck or a deadline right around the corner. When was the last time I had taken a day off? It had been Christmas, just two days and right in the middle of Sundance prep madness. This combined the emotional rigamarole that (for me) is the holidays – missing the family in Aus and my first Christmas in a very different life situation – didn’t make it the most relaxing holiday. Something needed to change.

I decided that I would finish the week, just one more day of work, and then the weekend would be “off”. If I did compose it would just be for me. I had a concert work I needed to compose but at least that wasn’t client-based composing, so it would be fun…..right? No work emails, they could wait two days. No client composing. Just chilling out, composing if I wanted to and having fun.

Well, friends, I am here to tell you I didn’t do so great on my rest weekend. I think my grade would probably be a C. Perhaps a C- on the Saturday. I responded to a bunch of work emails, including organizing a recording session. I responded on my phone – this is how I justified it. No, it is still work, even when you are on your phone! When my guy called to check in on my progress and I detailed the day’s events he protested “You are STILL WORKING!”. He was right. I was failing at resting.

The Sunday was a little better. A solid B maybe? I spent a lot of the day watching multiple episodes of a show I really liked and didn’t leave bed for a long time. Then I spent the evening actually enjoying writing concert music (once I got started) and it felt like its own kind of therapy. I was starting to get the hang of resting again. Emphasis on “starting”.

Monday came but it was still storming outside and as a result there was a power outage at the studio. This led me into another day of rest. I could feel a shift in my levels of stress and irritation. Something good was happening. The resting was working.

We live in a society now where people are constantly talking about productivity, efficiency, getting the most out of your days. I read so many of those articles and I definitely find beneficial information. But one of the downsides of this trend is that people can glorify being busy. Suddenly it is a badge of honor that you are working constantly, that you are only sleeping four hours a night, that you haven’t taken a day off in months. I think this is a dangerous trend; one we should turn on its head and immediately.

Here’s a fact for you: your body needs rest. You can ignore this but what will end up happening is that your body will have to forcibly bring this to your attention, usually by stopping you completely with either a stubborn creative block or some awful virus or infection. It will probably happen at the least convenient time. It may also cost you a lot of money – money in health costs, money in lost work, money in having to hire other people to pick up the slack.

And if money and client happiness is not enough reason for you to seriously consider rest then think about those who love you. When you are sick, it is not just a tax on you but the ones around you who end up taking care of you. I know of a composer who at a young age worked himself so hard he had a heart attack. His girlfriend dumped him while he was still in the hospital as she said she couldn’t bear to watch him kill himself with work. After that he took notice and changed his ways. He’s still very successful but his life has balance and, as a result, he is in good health. A few years ago I pushed myself so hard, ignoring every indication my body was giving me, and as a result passed out into the door of my studio. That’s why I have a scar above my left eye. My partner at the time had to wake up to a loud thump and find me face down, unconscious, in a pool of blood. That’s a horrible way for anyone who cares about you to find you. It’s not OK. I knew as soon as I regained consciousness that the fault was all mine. I had screwed up royally and needed to make a change. Took me a while to figure it out, and in many ways I am still learning.

What is rest? Here’s one definition: “Cease work or movement in order to relax, refresh oneself, or recover strength.” For the purpose of this blog post I want to put rest into two categories: rest that you can incorporate into your daily life and then rest that is a complete removal of yourself from work for a longer periods of time – a day, a couple of days, a week, a month. (A month?!?! It is scary just writing that down. At this moment in time I cannot imagine leaving work for a whole month! Life goals…..)

My cats, Bronte and Bondi, are rest experts. I need to learn from them.

I feel like the first category – daily rest – can be easier because you aren’t leaving your work alone for very long. Also I feel it can be extremely valuable and powerful to have those moments of renewal during the day. What specifically constitutes daily rest?

Firstly: sleep. Are you getting enough? For a lot of people this is the first thing that goes when work becomes intense. We burn the candle at both ends. There is overwhelming evidence to support the benefits of sleep. There is also great evidence to support the severe tax of sleep deprivation: bad decision making, lack of clarity and creativity, a classic case of diminishing returns. Read about the benefits of sleep and consider what is better: staying up too late trying to get things done, with your decisions and actions becoming slower as the exhaustion creeps in, or giving yourself a decent night’s sleep and tackling the task at hand with your body and mind renewed by rest.

Secondly: exercise. It is amazing to me how many freelance creatives consider exercise something that is almost a luxury. A “maybe” on their to-do list, if they have time. That used to be my story, and the toll on my body was significant. Again, the scientific and medical community has given us so much evidence as to why our bodies need exercise. Maybe check that out if you need convincing. My dad always says to me: you have to move the body as much as you work the mind. I have found him to be (annoyingly) 100% correct with this statement. Last year I was cranking out music for a video game on a very tight deadline. I was so stressed about getting it done, while keeping the job, that for once I made a good decision and increased my exercise proportionately to the composing I was doing. I had so much stress and nervous anxiety about the gig but getting out of the house and powering up a hill helped calm my nerves and work out the musical challenges I was facing. The creative juices kept flowing. I didn’t get fired from the gig, they enjoyed the music and all was well. I was so proud of the music I accomplished for The Endless Mission (will be released soon!).

We need other kinds of rest during the day. Breaks from constantly requiring our brains to create so they have a moment to breathe, renew and also process all the problems we have been sending their way. Rest looks different to everyone and it doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing. For me, writing this blog is rest. I look forward to it every week. It is a time of reflection and problem solving and when I finish writing I feel more energized than when I started. Another area of rest for me is yoga and meditation. I am not like some of my friends who meditate for hours a a time – I stand in complete admiration. I am more “minutes at a time” and I find it super challenging but really helpful. Writing songs just for me feels like rest. Watching cooking competition shows for me are a great break – Top Chef, Chopped, Great British Baking Show. Also Project Runway! Reading is another one, crime novels or books on the different aspects of the freelance existence. It is work-related but inspires and encourages me.

The other thing that really works for me is a trip to the ocean. Ocean is home. It makes me feel closer to my family. The beach has always been a big part of our family life, especially the beautiful beach at Connellys Marsh where Aunty Anne and Uncle David live, a place which will always be home base. Also Kingston Beach, by my sister’s house and where my second home was as a child. This week my guy and I woke up at an ungodly hour so we could get to the beach before the working day kicked off and walk along the water in the (LA version of) freezing cold. I was able to wave at home, listen to the waves, close my eyes and imagine I was in Tassie, and have a little cry. I cannot express to you how much this fed my soul. Mental note: I need to do this more often.

Home base at Connellys Marsh in Tasmania.

After our ocean jaunt I dropped by a coffee shop and visited with a writer friend of mine, Brian Barnes, who I have known since I moved to LA. He said something to me which rang so true, and was exactly what I needed to hear: you need to make peace with the hustle. It is so true. Through that acceptance you will be able to find rest.

Here’s the thing. We often have this approach of: I will rest once this is done. Once this project finishes I will take a break. Just need to make it through this month. But the hustle is NEVER ENDING. And while that project is wrapping up there is a solid chance that another will start. You cannot wait to rest. You need to find a way – and this is very much a mental game – to be able to rest while the hustle is continuing around you. I think this perhaps the biggest challenge of the freelance life. It is constant. In order to not just survive but thrive and avoid becoming exhausted, bitter or resentful you need to find ways to live a fulfilling existence right now complete with rest, and friends, and family and LIFE. Right now and every day.

The second category of rest – taking days off at a time – is much more challenging. As I have shared, I am not good at it. It requires planning, even if you are having a staycation, and it may provide some financial challenges if you are going somewhere else. There’s stress in trying to make it happen. It seems easier to just not do it. But we need it. It will benefit our art if we make it happen. We’ve talked before about needing to refill the bank. Getting out of your regular living situation, completely changing your daily routine, spending days at a time doing sometime completely different will refill your creative resources. I cannot find the interview, but I remember comedian Chris Rock talking about how between comedy specials he needs to go out and actually live life in order for him to have new material for the next special. It makes so much sense. Even though we are creating music, not situational comedy, we still need to live and experience in order to have something to spark our inspiration.

So I am here to tell you I am not good at resting. That is the challenge I took on this week. Like anything it takes time to learn how to do it well. But I will improve. This is a skill I am committed to developing because I know it will not only benefit me, but everyone that comes into contact with me. It will make me a better collaborator, a better composer and a better human. I wish for you good rest and abundant creating.

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