From Boom to Bust: Self Destructive Mental Work

Athletes have to plan their exercise because overdoing it causes damage, but for creative and intellectual work there isn't such a thing. You're brain is not a muscle that will hurt if you push it too hard with intellectually taxing work.

This is evident in learning, when you reach a point where you cannot absorb any information. You feel physically tired and you are pushed to end your learning for the day. But if you tried to push further until the early hours of the morning you would be much less able to perform at the same level the next day.

We all know this and acknowledge it. I have been pushing myself too hard for many years, but it really doesn't seem that way, because there are long intermissions of inactivity. I've never known why I feel demotivated, lazy, and lacking creativity for extended periods of time. Months even. Writers call it writer's block. I feel like it is a complete creative block.

When I hit a creative patch, I would try to utilize it as best I could, because I was sure it would disappear after a while. The creative peak is addicting and sublime. For this brief period I could realise my creative goals. Then I would hit a major slump, and it would start with dissatisfaction with what I have created.

The music I felt was good and had a good time making now sounded amateurish and terrible. Soon I would turn on myself: I would come to believe that my skills were lacking, my work is derivative  and others doing the same thing were doing it better than I was. I would even go and listen to what they were doing, and then dismiss myself as being awful at my creative hobby.  All of these thoughts come very rapidly, and they pass by like a carousel of self criticism. When I try to engage with my music after that it feels like death. Everything is awful and I hate everything I am doing. These thoughts never enter my direct consciousness. They are subconscious feelings that ruin everything that is good in me. I start to feel like I have musician's block. I try things to save the situation but everything sounds bland or terrible.

The only choice I would have after this is abandoning my hobby, at least for some time, and focusing on something else. These activities usually start with the lowest common denominators, like watching TV or playing games, and peak at learning something interesting or reading a book. The problem is that this funk can last for months. Everything I started in my creative phase also remains unfinished in my next peak, because I still remember how awful it felt working on those once promising projects.

Everything I mentioned now was completely opaque to me, I didn't realise I was doing it my entire life, and that is why I struggle to finish things. This is a kind of boom to bust creativity. I realised it when my physiotherapist explained how muscle injuries work. You have an injury or condition that limits the amount of activity you can do. You feel better when resting and being responsible, and then you push yourself to the point that the injury returns, and then you are out of action again, suffering from this same malady.

I have been doing this with creative work and hobbies my entire life. I feel the desire to engage in some activity, and then I push my mind to its limits in terms of that activity. This involves complete and constant obsession with whatever it is, engaging it as often as possible,  and neglecting my body's needs: food, sleep, the other ones.

I think my brain gets tired, and then my abilities wane. As my abilities wane, I am obviously worse, and then the negative self talk begins. This pushes me out of my happy creative place into a dark hole where I feel sad at losing my streak, angry at myself for not being better at music, guilty because I am spending my time on idle activities and depressed because my mind is burned out and all of the above negative thinking. All along I've been losing months of time when I am too discouraged to even touch my guitar or my keyboard, and then the skills I have also start to fade. By the time I have my next creative streak, my skill levels are lower than they were when I ended the last one, because I havent been practicing, and so the cycle repeats. Consequently I've never been where I want to be with my skills, and my creative works remain perpetually half done or unfinished.

I think it is my personality as much as anything else. I don't think all people can drop everything and spend days doing the same thing with insane fervour. It's a kind of advantage, but when overdone it ends up being an anchor on personal development and enjoying the things you do because you enjoy them. I end up in a love/hate relationship with myself and my hobbies, and then we seperate to see other activities for weeks, maybe even months!

The solution is easy to explain, but hard to achieve. The solution is balance. The solution is using the superpower when I really need it, but then giving myself the necessary time to recover. It's like Eleven's bleeding nose in Stranger Things. I should just give myself some time to recover. But timing is important. It's important to know when to dial it down. That time is not when it is no longer fun, productive or rewarding. I think that time is probably hard to judge, but if I have pushed myself once a rest might not be a bad idea. Hopefully I can break this boom and bust cycle of hyperproductivity counterbalanced by intercreative depressive periods. Well I can only hope, and I hope this tale of self reflection can help someone else who may be stuck in the same vicious cycle.