Tips for Surviving T.O.D. (Thoughts of Despair)

Folks who are familiar with my regimented and productive studio practice might be shocked to learn that it wasn’t always this way.

 In 2010, a few years after I started exhibiting regularly, I hit a hard wall. A dark visitor, who I came to affectionately name TOD (Thoughts of Despair), arrived at the start of winter and completely crippled my practice.

I would sleep until noon (or later). The only thing that got me up and outside was my obligation to walk my furry studio companion, Elvis. After the walk it would be lunchtime. During lunch I would tell myself “I’ll just watch one episode of Weeds while I eat and then get into the studio.” That turned into, “One more episode and then I’ll really get to work.”

Well, you can see where this is going…five hours and several episodes later the day would be over and I would have done zero studio work, or any work at all, for that matter. Afterward, TOD would come and hang out for an hour and tell me how useless I was and that I was a fake and a sham (‘cuz he’s nice that way).

This cycle continued every workday for months until the pain of not creating became greater than the pain of creating and I finally took action to break the downward spiral.

Since then TOD seems to have a standing, not always seasonal, reservation. Thankfully, over the years I’ve been able to introduce some self-survival tactics:

  • I typed out a list of activities I could do to avoid TOD and pinned it in a prominent place in my office. Note: it was a good idea, but its success relied on actually looking at the list when TOD showed up. The list contained items such as going to a museum, reading current issues of art mags at the library, and visiting thrift stores for inspiration.
  • I invested in an online mentorship that focused on developing and maintaining a healthy relationship with your studio practice. This resulted in adding some useful tools to my routine such as a daily to-do list, prioritizing your studio time so you do it first before the rest of the day takes over and steals your mojo, and creating daily even if it’s for as little as 15 min (you can actually get a surprising amount of stuff done in 15 min).
  • I heard about the power of accountability partners. In 2012 I responded to a request from another artist who was looking for someone to help with her accountability. Lisa and I have been holding each other accountable almost daily for over 5 years and it’s one of the key survival tactics that keeps me putting one foot in front of the other (thanks Lisa – and Joy, and Tzaddi!)
  • I started to intentionally exercise on a regular basis. Endorphins are amazing at elevating your mood. I learned that I’m most productive when I work out five days/week, first thing in the morning. It’s impossible to sleep until noon when you have a workout partner and are committed to hitting the gym at 7am.
  • I discovered having a well-defined plan and concrete, attainable goals is much more motivating than just trying to “make art and get shows”. I needed help with this so I began working with business coach Leah Goard of Define, Design, Align. Leah introduced me to several useful tools that upped my productivity, focused my vision, and encouraged me to view my practice as a business (annual and quarterly plans, time-blocking, and Evernote).
  • I learned I work best with a highly structured and consistent routine. I really do like the mantra “a place for everything and everything in its place”, not just for physical items but mental details, too. That’s why I love using the Evernote app on my phone to break down weekly goals into daily tasks. Having a schedule where I know certain things are going to happen on certain days frees me up to concentrate on just those items and prevents overwhelm induced paralysis.
  • I realized that fresh air helps immensely. Though I despise the cold, getting bundled up and going for a midday walk in the winter sun energizes me and boosts productivity.
  • I found out that I’m a bit of an admin nerd. I’m one of those people who are motivated by having a spreadsheet and keeping track of my progress as I work toward creating goals. Seeing that I’m getting close to a monthly goal inspires me to push harder to reach or surpass that goal.

BUT…

As awesome as it is to have these safeguards in place it’s not a magic fix.

Somehow every year I’m still surprised when winter settles in and I find myself struggling emotionally. Over the summer I totally forget how the cold, dark days challenge my psyche. The kinder, happier layers of me go into deep hibernation and the part left steering the ship is a despondent, self-sabotaging slacker (well, hello TOD).

The weight of the world hangs itself on my heart and weighs me down – I swear that I physically shrink a few inches in height. Simple, everyday tasks somehow balloon into behemoth events. I have to remind myself that managing mental health is an ongoing practice and that some days it takes more effort than others.

If you struggle as I do in the winter (or in any other season), please know that you’re not alone and that there are a multitude of tactics that you can adopt that may help you shake the devil (aka TOD) off your back. Never be shy or ashamed to reach out to your network of friends and professionals for support if need be.

The key is to TAKE ACTION (remember: inertia begets inertia).

Having strategies like the ones listed above help make it easier to take action and stay functional. On the difficult days you’ll be able to celebrate the fact that you have a system in place that allows you to keep moving forward – even baby steps are progress.

Do you find that winter has a negative affect on your psyche and productivity? Do you have favourite winter survival strategies? Please share in the comments below.

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