Today, Lynn Barrett asks us …
How do you know when you need a break?
Steve: Are you asking me or yourself?
Shawn: I’m asking you, and then I want to follow up because I have an idea, too.
Steve: Okay. I come from this school of “I never need a break”. In fact, I think that when I hear that . . . I have a maxim, which is if you’re trying to decide if the voice in your head is Resistance or it’s not Resistance—is it Resistance or is it legitimate—the maxim is:
When in doubt, it’s Resistance.
So, when you hear that voice in your head saying “Man, I need a break,” that’s Resistance in my opinion. Now, that being said, here’s when I take breaks:
I only take breaks when I’ve got real momentum going in a project. When I’ve got a bunch of pages in a row, a bunch of things accomplished so that I know I can coast for a week or so, or something like that, and I’ve got so much momentum that I can pick it up after that. The one time I never take a break, and I’ve advised—I can’t tell you how many people over the years about this, and no one has listened to me yet and they all come to grief. You never take a break at the end of a project. The only thing that’s worse—because that you fall into the abyss of Resistance and you can’t get started again. It’s like taking a break after the NBA finals. You just can’t do it. You’ve got to get into the gym the next day. Take a break a month later than that. But the only thing worse than that . . . I know I’m kind of swerving off topic here . . . The only thing worse than taking a break at the end of a project is when you end a project and you submit it to somebody for judgment, like a screenplay or a novel that you’re “turning in,” and then you stop and wait to hear back what people are going to say about it. That is the worst possible thing you can do to yourself because you must be your own judge of how good something is. When you do something like that, and particularly when you stop working . . . Forget about it. Okay Shawn, take it away. What did you want to say?
Shawn: I agree with you for the most part, especially the thing on once you’re giving it away for judgment. I mean . . . That’s a recipe for disaster. If you’re sitting around waiting for somebody to pass judgment on work that you’ve done, you might as well just check into a mental institution because all you’re going to do is think about, “Oh boy, I wonder if I’m good enough,” and that’s just a recipe for disaster.
The only thing I would sort of, and I know you do this every day Steve, but I think a lot of people don’t, and that is: You know you need a break when you physically need a break. Meaning if you get into the habit of sitting for nine hours a day and you’re not going outside and you’re not walking and you’re not exercising. I don’t mean you have to go to the gym and lift weights until you’re blue in the face, but you need to get outside. I know so many people who spend so much time indoors in front of a screen that they lose their mojo. They just sort of become zombie-like and they don’t really enjoy it.
So, the one thing I would advise everyone, every day is get outside. Move around because if you move around, it really allows all of those things that have been floating around in your mind for eight hours to sort of get inside of your brain and circulate and actually metabolize. So, that’s kind of like daily break situation.
In terms of project breaks, you and I are different in that I work on multiple projects at the same time by necessity, and even Steve is a one-project-at-a-time kind of guy. But I need to because I do four different jobs, really five; I’m an editor, I’m a publisher, I’m an agent, I’m a writer and I’m also a dad and a husband, so that’s six. I can’t take a day off on any one of those jobs. When I need a break, I just move to another job. So if I’m editing and I’m grinding and I’m ready to jump out a window, I’ll move over and I’ll take my kid out and play basketball with him. If I’m tired of playing basketball, I’ll come in and make a phone call as an agent. We all have different hats that we wear, so the way to take a break is to try in find in every day a time period that you can wear one of those hats so that you have a nice sort of mix of different things in your life at the same time.
Steve: That’s a good answer. Let me add another to thing to just kind of soften what I said before. A friend of mine who was a lawyer in an independent practice once gave me a piece of advice when I had just kind of a one-man business of my own. When you’re doing that kind of thing and you’re serving clients, it’s like you can never take time off, right? He said to me “Here’s what you do Steve,”—this is good for thinking in terms of next year. . . “At the start of the year, block out the vacations that you want to take. Maybe you want to take a week in July and a week in September and then a week around the holidays or whatever, or something like that, and tell all your clients that you’re going to be gone for that period of time, and they will absolutely accept it with no problem. Then when that time comes up, go.” And that actually is a good way to do it, because, even if you’re obsessive like me, as the date of that vacation is approaching, you’re going to start working harder, harder and harder to kind of build up a little bit of momentum and get over it. So that is a good way to take a break because you can’t just keep going forever. What happens with me sometimes is I just get sick and then I’m just forced . . . But, I’m demented, and . . .
When I’m productive, taking a break comes easy and naturally. Reading your work has made me aware of Resistance and I know now that wanting/needing a break, even getting sick, is really Mr. Resistance rearing his head.
And Steve, when you take vacations, do you write?
I’ve forgotten if you’ve answered this already, but do you also write 7 days a week?
I’ve been experimenting with variations on both of these and I’m curious to learn what you do.
Jenna, I don’t write on vacation but that’s just me. Stephen King writes 365 days a year and so does Woody Allen. I try for 22 to 25 days a month.
Thanks, that’s really useful! I like writing 5 to 6 days per week, and I’ve been leaning more toward 5 lately. My gauge is how much resistance builds up on the days off. I find it used to be very hard to start again after 2 consecutive days off. Now that’s fairly easy to do.
To be honest I use breaks as an excuse to slack off. I’ve felt really unfocused and unproductive lately, time to get back on track.
Read everything Steve has written about The Resistance. Then read it again. It is your personal struggle with the Resistance that has you using breaks to slack off…and failing to be who you can be. It helps to see Resistance for WHO it is, and Steve has laid that bare.
I submitted a project to an agent…a full rewrite of a novel that I’d poured my heart into…and then stopped working while I waited to hear from her. Two months later, and she called and said she hated it. Okay, I thought, I’ll just chill for a few days more and start something else.
I wish I’d gotten this advice then. Then was eight years ago.
Planning my breaks works well for me. It took me a long time to figure that out. My old MO was taking a break whenever I felt stalled in my work – therein lies disaster because the momentum would be gone and Resistance would hone in on that moment and close in for the kill. Telling myself I get to take a break in another hour keeps me in the chair, working through whatever has presented itself.
This Q&A is golden. Thank you for the tip on building momentum before taking a break. I’ve learned that on the hard way.
Also, when in doubt, bet that it’s resistance. Brilliant. Thank you
For me, breaks can be helpful. I might pause from novel when I’ve finished whatever # draft, then research agents I think would be a good match, draft my query letter or whatever length synopsis they want. I’m still “doing the work”, but it feels different and I can go back to my novel refreshed.
Steve, you’re still not getting this — wayyy too many superficial thinking patterns here.
Doubt IS resistance (what you like to call resistance). Period.
And when that voice “in your head” says, “Man, I need a break,” That’s precisely Not resistance. That is You, yourself, whatever you want to call that, speaking. If you do Not listen to that voice, you are now resisting! Do you not understand this?
Many of your practical application ideas are fine, great, but these concepts about resistance that you’re marketing are Way off-base. Because you’re taking a philosophical understanding and trying to fit it into the box of practical application. That is truly just a box, and a small one in the big scheme.
For what it’s worth
Many years ago I did what Robert Louis Stevenson did and moved to a tropical island in the Pacific to write full time. I wrote my first novel. It took me a year. I averaged about a chapter a week. It was a glorious existence. The forces of life have since brought me back into mainstream living. I now run a busy health centre (fourty five hours a week), develop property, am joint director of a foundation for special needs children, spend time with my wife and special needs daughter and help my two grown kids through University etc etc etc … oh and I write as well. The darndest thing is that I still write a chapter a week!! In fact if I am honest, I would say that I am more productive now than I have ever been as a writer. I take vacations and long weekends and occasionally blow off a day or two to watch a movie or play poker with my friends … but I still manage a chapter a week. Sometimes it comes at the 11th hour of the last day (Sunday night) Sometimes I get 90% done on the first day of the week and i spend the reat of the week staring at the screen, but I still get it done!!!! If I had more time I could write more, but I’m happy and I’d rather be happy (and have a few bucks for beer and poker)than be flogging myself that I’m not doing enough. I have found that self flaggelation does not make a writer any better at their craft than one who lives on a white sandy beach drinking G + T’s served by a brunette in a coconut bikini. I think the secret (if there is one) is to find your voice, then find your pace … one you can sustain for the rest of your life and stick to it and forget what everybody else is doing.
But that’s just me!!
Perhaps the key is to define “break.” As Shawn was saying, it’s an individual matter–and I worry that for some, not taking a break might mean not breaking for family time or healthy habits away from the chair and computer screen. Plus, the creative writing hours might BE the real break for some of us… we might need to “break” for the stuff that pays for kids’ music lessons or clears the snow from our elderly parents’ walkways, etc. I just lost my 71 yr. old mom to her cancer all of a sudden this week, after a eye-opening hospice experience, so perhaps I’m extra tender (well, not perhaps, I am). Now I’m moved to say this: if we don’t know if we really need a break or not, then something seems out of whack with our priorities. Whatever you produce, art or industry, is for the creating; people are for the loving; life is for the living–we should have permission and responsibility to fit that much in rather simply. Take a walk, call a friend, have a laugh with your loved ones, and get back to business. It’s okay.