Tyler Robertson

I don't want to write this blog post but I will anyway

Friday, July 29, 2022

A while ago β€” exactly two months ago, actually β€” I made a little spreadsheet called "Keep Going". It's got one column for each of the habits I'm trying to build, and checkboxes to track my weekly progress. It's nothing special, and my streaks haven't been perfect for the things I don't want to do (exercise, ugh), but I have posted one new blog post each of the eight weeks since I started, which is a level of consistency that I haven't had in a long while.

Not all of the posts have been winners, sure, but the only goal has been to stay in the practice of writing. And most weeks, it's been really easy; either I'll have just seen a movie, or finished a small project, or want to reflect on something going on in my life. This week, though β€” I've got nothing. A complete void of ideas, and just as much energy with which to write them.

Sometimes I hope that this practice will lead me to develop some kind of Anne Lamott- or Stephen King-style devotion to the craft: starting each day watching the sunrise (impossible with my west-facing windows) over the brim of a typewriter (which I do not own), a fresh pack of cigarettes (which I'm allergic to) laid out next to a fresh cup of coffee (that's accurate at least, I'll keep that), ready to eloquently dispense wisdom that belonged on… I don't fucking know, vellum? But truthfully, I'm writing this part from my phone, and by the time it's published a lot of it will have been written while sitting on the toilet (don't worry, I won't tell you which parts (this part)), because I don't feel like writing this week, but I'm going to anyway.

The shit part is that it's difficult to put into words why I don't feel like writing this week, because there's no "real" reason besides simply not feeling like it. Part of the spreadsheet I mentioned is an Energy column: I can pick "good", "bad", or "middling" each week. 6 out of the 8 weeks have been either "middling" or "bad", and I can feel the latter taking its toll, which is part of why I added the column in the first place: I know from experience that my energy tends to come in cycles. Weeks of good (getting lots of work done, making new projects, feeling satisfied by my art) are always followed by a long slump, where everything feels flat and gray by comparison. (Before you ask, yes I've gone to therapy for this β€” because I thought I was bipolar when I first started noticing it β€” and the therapist laughed in my face, so I'm not sure what to do with that.) And the important thing, the thing that keeps me from walking into traffic, is that the slump always ends.

But, knowing that the slump eventually ends doesn't help get stuff done while you're in it, and by gum I have a streak to keep, so here I am.

If any of this sounds like you, whether you've been in slumps before, or are going through a slump right now, here are some tricks for being "productive" (whatever that means) during the down times:

  1. If you're not in a slump currently, write down up to 3 easy/low-risk/menial tasks that your slump-self can do. Three tends to be enough to feel accomplished for a while, but more than that might be overwhelming.
  2. If you're in the slump, be honest about it with the folks who rely on you β€” most likely, they haven't noticed a change, and won't mind that you're not being hyper-productive this month.
  3. Identify the things that you can do on auto-pilot, and lean into those during the slump. For example, I can't come up with a new app from scratch during my slump, but I can reliably write about 1000 words stream-of-consciousness-style, which isn't nothing. Even simple stuff helps me: I can still make coffee, I can still order takeaway for dinner, I can still start the washing machine. These are all useful things, but things I might overlook during my more productive weeks.
  4. Don't compare yourself to others, especially during the slump. I went to a book launch the other night for an author I really respect, and was surprised to learn that they're the same age as me. Years ago, I would have spiraled into self-doubt and comparison about it, analyzing all the ways I had failed to achieve another person's success by my age. But the truth is that age doesn't matter: you've had different lives, different experiences, different opportunities and challenges. Celebrate what you've done with yours, and what they've done with theirs, as separate and incomparable things.
  5. Make a list with 5 things. I don't even really care what the five things are. Five is just such a good round number for lists. Favorite super heroes? Least favorite foods? Fattest squirrels in no particular order? Top five weekdays? 101 best binary jokes? It's fun, try it!

It may not feel like it, but taking care of yourself during the slump is also a form of productivity. Western culture is so fucked by this notion of needing to make things in order to have value, that we completely forget that you can't make things if you can't keep yourself in working order. As Audre Lorde put it, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare."

So do whatever it takes to come out the other end, and know that making it out the other side of the slump is not just "survival" β€” it's victory.