The expression “free-time paralysis”, one that has come to articulate the unexplainable and paradoxical feeling of being unable to decide how to spend one’s leisure time, is another reason why enjoying some time off might sound all the more difficult. Deeply linked to both the wrecking pressure of high expectations and wanting to do everything and then accomplishing nothing, the term exemplifies the longing to maximize the free time at disposal and eventually turning even more restless in an effort to escape being unproductive. On the other side, this inability to both enjoy and make time for leisure activities can extend to being almost completely unsettled by the idea of taking breaks at all while working, something that is indeed fundamental in order to create. A question emerges then, as these experiences are not just those of an individual but are intuitively shared among a wider group of people: what does this say about the core values our communities are based on and the more complex relationship between rest, productivity and creativity – both personal and societal?
Though plenty of creatives may rightfully fantasize about taking spontaneous breaks and time for themselves – fuel for their mind and therefore for their creative work – it is not often talked about why welcoming such opportunities, or rather committing to resting in order to sustain heavy routines, might not only feel inexplicably hard but also be perceived as weakening. It is not just the natural occurrence of the inevitable discomfort that comes with sudden routine changes (from working full-time to having no more deadlines) that are being put to quest, but rather a cultural tendency to dismiss the human need of resting with all the consequences that stem from it and the reasons that foster this belief.
Turning away from work in order to come back more focused is hardly ever something that comes easy.
A first very common symptom of this societal bias surfaces whenever any creative feels fear or anxiety at the thought of shutting down in order to rest and take some time off. Be it a full vacation, turning away from work in order to come back more focused is hardly ever something that comes easy. Indeed, especially in the creative field, when work and personal life might be overwhelmingly entwined, it is difficult to set the boundary between the two of them. Creativity can be discreetly serendipitous, work may overflow and take up space in someone’s private life, and inspiration might come not when decidedly trying to eviscerate a thought but perhaps when relaxing and open to catch unprecedented connections. This smudge, a blur between the purely imaginative act and the strict discipline of work is one of the reasons that keep creatives fearful of pausing. What could happen if a thought or an idea passed by unnoticed? How long would one doom themselves to prioritizing rest over work?
For a poll conducted by 1 Granary for the purpose of this article, 85% of the respondents answered affirmatively to the question “Do you find it hard taking a break from your uni projects or work even if you can?”
For a poll conducted by 1 Granary for the purpose of this article, 85% of the respondents answered affirmatively to the question “Do you find it hard taking a break from your uni projects or work even if you can?”, highlighting the issue with taking breaks even when needed. The reasons behind this varied widely when the same audience was asked what they felt would happen if they took a break. Impressively, the vast majority reported a gripping fear of falling behind and missing out on opportunities: the answers ranged from fearing the inability to make a living, therefore relating taking breaks to economic insufficiency, to being scared of falling behind schedule, eventually stagnating and not being able to live up in comparison to other people’s success. A hyperbolically alarming prospect behind which the fast pace of the fashion industry and that of universities is, ultimately, either implicitly or overtly to blame. Other answers relevantly pointed out how fearing creatives might be of losing the “momentum” or their “creative streak”, therefore of not catching sudden ideas or falling out of their flow, to quote the audience’s words, confirming what was previously implied. Lastly, many stressed how anxious, remorseful and guilty they would feel if they paused to let their minds rest. As painful as hearing such truths can be, the awareness that these assertions allow for is crucial to understanding to what extent people are made to feel like they cannot take their thoughts off work.
The system that seeks quantity over quality and is responsible for enabling a wearying peer pressure, is less interested in people’s wealth or physiology and does not consider how different creating might look among a broad community.
Yet as much as part of what is discussed might be subjective, cultural and societal factors come into play as well, casting other lights on the phenomenon. Indeed, as some of the respondents have highlighted, the idyllic prospect of taking a break or being on vacation can become concrete only when backed by financial stability. Instead, stories of poorly-paid freelance jobs and unpaid internships within the fashion industry have become so expected that setting a foot in the door has almost always come to imply eventually being the protagonist of such unfairness. In recent years, more and more evidence has been gathered to paint the picture of such a phenomenon, highlighting the poor conditions many workers are subject to. For example, last year, in the Vogue Business article “Fashion’s freelance problem exposed”, journalist Bella Webb started promptly addressing the struggles of this vast portion of workers that the industry relies on. The truth the article exposes signals a wider condition – that of economic instability – that extends even more to marginalized communities, as such injustices are always amplified in those that are already subject to other forms of both discrimination and external impediment. It is not hard to imagine how easy it is to neglect one’s mental health in a world where, as Webb puts it, “the combination of job insecurity and overwork, plus competition in a highly sought-after field and isolation, is mentally taxing”.
Moreover, the fact that society broadly suffers from the pressures of hyperproduction and that Western culture awards self-sacrifice more than general well-being is a hard truth that in recent years has come to be more evident. This default system, one that seeks quantity over quality and is thus responsible for enabling a wearying peer pressure, is less interested in people’s wealth or physiology and does not consider how different creating might look among a broad community. The episode “Campbell Addy – On Growth” which sees the renowned photographer in conversation with the host of The Messy Truth podcast Gem Fletcher, comes to mind when speaking about the many shapes that creating can take among different people. While the photographer admits to having a churning voracious mind, he also recalls a friend of his – a fine art photographer – who had been working over the same idea for nine months, thus highlighting how creative processes never do or should look the same. Indeed, basing someone’s success on quantitative aspects is deeply flawed, yet sadly normalized. It is hard, then, to let these words sink in, especially within an industry that thrives on full schedules and unbearable stress levels; yet it makes all the more essential, if not radical, the act of taking breaks, pausing and recovering, respecting one’s own creative cycle.
85% of the poll respondents believed that taking a break would benefit their creativity.
The benefits of taking breaks, whether brief during work hours or prolonged to recover after stressful times, have been highlighted by several studies: the same audience who admitted to not being able to take breaks is, as a matter of fact, deeply aware of their importance, as 85% of the poll respondents believed that taking a break would benefit their creativity. The science behind this has stressed abundantly how prolonged periods of attention actually hinder performance and how the mind is only able to come back to a problem with a fresh perspective after taking a brief moment to pause, whether through moving, walking, or doing other less intense tasks. Further research shows that the importance of slowing down after stressful times must not be overlooked: an article recently appeared on the Harvard Business Review website defines recovery as “the process of restoring symptoms of work stress (anxiety, exhaustion, and elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol) back to pre-stressor levels”, adding that it is referred to as a “skill because knowing how and when you can best recover from stress requires both knowledge (of what works for you) and practice (actually doing it)”. The research-backed advice that the authors suggest can be an interesting starting point to understand what each individual needs in order to refocus and come back to their creative work ready to face its challenges.
While external factors that prevent creatives from pausing effectively call for collective action, a first step towards the goal can be reached if, singularly, everyone became more understanding of the importance of their overall wellbeing.
Curiously, some of the given advice does not differ too much from what some creatives might already be doing. After the poll audience was asked what a real break looked like for them, many people – probably those who managed to escape the not-taking-a-break cycle – answered by citing non-fashion-related activities that they deeply enjoyed and that helped them divert their attention from their tasks. A good reading session, listening to music, sports, going for a walk or excitingly exploring the surroundings, plus being in the company of loved ones, were all mentioned as replenishing activities that helped the people involved actually enjoy their time off. It is unexpected to find out that the simplest things, perhaps the ones that are taken for granted the most, actually constitute the utter enriching and fulfilling activities one can be involved in. But, on a certain level, it is also reassuring, for there is no need to go out of one’s way in order to escape the burdens that stress can cause.
In the end, it can be hard to imagine that the creative industry and its cultural values at large could unwaveringly change all of a sudden by welcoming the thorough comprehension of human needs that perhaps is now lacking. Yet it is not too disheartening to know that, partially, even those actions which can initially appear the most insignificant could potentially enable change. While external factors that prevent creatives from pausing effectively call for collective action, a first step towards the goal can be reached if, singularly, everyone became more understanding of the importance of their overall wellbeing. Start with committing to taking a break. Start with acknowledging the purpose of rest, and defying preconceived notions. And ultimately, let’s all start withholding the culture and the industry accountable for its wrongs.