If you drew out the first five years of my business on a graph, it would show a pretty consistent line that started at the bottom lefthand corner of the page and disappeared off the top right corner. There was so much new, so much growth, and there really was nowhere to go but up. But after those five years, things started to settle into a cycle that is much more typical for businesses and creative work. It became cyclical…a straight line up morphed into a line that curves, loops, and zigzags. I went from feeling like the wind was at my back to feeling like I didn’t know which way the wind would blow. Sometimes it filled my sails and things were easy and other times, I was pushing with full force against a resistance I couldn’t see. Sometimes that resistance even came from me. (Shaunna and I chatted about the wind being at our back recently and that’s stuck in my mind as I thought about this.)
But, I’ve learned that this is just normal. As I dove into books and podcasts, seeking some advice, consolation, and even confirmation, I learned that it’s normal. There is an ebb and flow to all things. There is a time and a season for all things. The trees bloom and are full and then they drop their leaves and rest. The cycle feels familiar and comforting, yet terrifying at the same time. If I release my leaves, will I bloom again?
While I was working on my book last year, the wind was at my back. When people asked me how things were going (a deeper question during this pandemic when people actually waited for an answer that was longer than “fine”), I would say that I was in my sweet spot. I was really loving what I do. I was in full bloom and it felt good. But, even though we are physically going into spring a few weeks ago, it felt more like the leaves were falling and the branches were becoming bare metaphorically speaking. I felt that slump that comes after a major project or event. The necessary, but slightly uncomfortable lull that, for some odd reason, makes me want to make more lists. It also makes me feel a little scattered. There is plenty to do, but what should I do? What is most worthy of my time and attention and focus? What work will yield results immediately or in 6-12 months from now? What does success specifically look like now that I finished the fill-in-the-blank?
This is typically a time I go on a creative retreat. I go somewhere rejuvenating for a few days, step away from the daily tasks, and give myself time and space. But, I can’t fly down to Florida at the moment and, while our beach trip will be relaxing and restorative, it won’t be for the purpose of reading, listening to podcasts, and pouring my thoughts into a journal. So, I’m having to build that creative retreat time into my everyday. This is what that looks like…
I almost always have intentional creative and intellectual input, but I really step it up when I’m in a lull. This is usually when I start getting daily book deliveries from Amazon or I walk out of Barnes & Noble with a large stack of magazines and books. I also put more podcasts in the listening queue, buy an audiobook or two, and I’ll take a new art class or revisit an old one. I read, listen, and take notes. I write down quotes, things I’ve learned, as well as my own thoughts and ideas.
The input is varied, so I’m hearing from a lot of different voices on several applicable topics. I listen to things that will encourage but also challenge me. I particularly look for input on creativity, business, design, and decorating.
If I’m a pond, the input is freshwater flowing in.
This seems counterintuitive if you’re feeling sparse and drained, but I have found it to be so beneficial to increase my creative output. Going back to the pond analogy, letting some stagnant water out while adding in more freshwater will create flow. Good things happen in the flow.
An increase in output for me shows up in several forms – I’ll write more in my journal, I sketch more, I paint more, I add more creative projects to my long-term goals, I’ll dive into some home projects. And I make sure to do some things that are just for fun or just for myself. I play. Increasing my volume of productivity prevents me from overanalyzing everything. It prevents me from paying attention to things that are out of my sphere of influence. It gives me momentum.
increase space and margin
All of the inputting & outputting creates momentum, but I also get more intentional about allowing myself time and space to think and reflect. Again, I prefer to do this on a trip where I can sit by the water with my thoughts and a notebook and ponder a few things, wrestle with questions, and develop ideas. But, I close the door of my studio and put on some music or take a walk. Even sitting out on the front steps, listening to the birds, can be beneficial. I just need the unhurried time to marinate on a few things.
Inevitably, the blooms come and the wind shifts and things feel fun, easy, and exciting again for the next season. Whatever your situation in life, whatever your work and hobbies are, whatever demands are on you, I hope you can take some time to do these things when you’re in those lulls, slumps, and valleys. And, if you’re looking for some good books to include in your input, here are some of my favorites…
I’m working through Fishing for Elephants right now and it’s been excellent so far.