It’s Good To Talk: Thoughts And Feelings On Creative Wellness

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Jhey makes awesome things for awesome people! He’s worked on the web for 10+ years and is currently a Developer Relations Engineer @ Google. He’s … More about Jhey ↬

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With so much pressure to be our best selves and use every waking moment to develop skills, it’s easy to lose track of our own wellbeing. Self-improvement and commitment to your craft are great — but only if you find the right balance.

In fields as fast-paced and technical as web design and development, it’s easy to lose sight of our own wellbeing. For many, there’s a constant sense of trying to keep up or ahead. We may not even realize we’re doing it.

Ask yourself, when was the last time you stepped away for a day and didn’t think about coding or design for a day? For me, that’s very hard to answer. For many, it’s a vocation that we can’t switch on and off. We can’t turn it off at 5 or 6 PM. Let’s talk about that and ways we can deal with it.

It’s important to start right off the bat by saying this article isn’t a dictation. The aim here is to spark interest, engagement, and discussion. These are things that sometimes get lost in the whirlwind industry we are a part of. Different things work for different people, and these words are written with the best intentions.

Why now? I’d planned to write something about this topic at the tail end of last year. I was making my way back from my first NodeConfEU and feeling inspired by a talk I attended, “Building Open Source Communities with Tierney Cyren”.

I made a bunch of notes, then life and other commitments cropped up and the article made its way to the backburner. But, that’s OK. And that’s kind of where this post leads us to. It’s OK if you didn’t write that post, work on that side project this weekend, and so on.

Pressure Culture

If you’re reading this, odds are you’ve seen or experienced pressure culture — that constant, nagging expectation to dedicate every waking hour to skills development and side projects, even if your heart might not be in it. This pressure can be self-imposed, and whether we like it or not social media also plays a big part. If we aren’t careful, it can eat away at us.

Pressure culture isn’t something that’s popped up recently. It’s been around a long time, a constant looming external force. Left unchecked it can fill you with guilt, anxiety, and other feelings we aren’t fond of.

A comic from 'The Awkward Yeti' titled 'Work/Play balance'.
Work/Play balance by The Awkward Yeti. (Image source: (Large preview)

This is a common result of the idea of ‘The ideal worker,’ with pressure coming from those higher up in workplace hierarchies. These ‘Never say no’ employees feel obliged to wear themselves thin in order to progress in their careers. There’s a great Harvard Business Review article called “Managing the High-Intensity Workplace” that explores this mindset.

Social media pressure is also very real. The tendency to idealize our online lives is well documented. We often forget that we are likely only looking at someone else’s highlight reel. That is true of work as well as play. If we forget that and spend a lot of time-consuming content from those we idolize, that pressure creeps in. We want to be as awesome as the people on our feed, but at what cost?

There was a period a little while back where tweets like this were quite frequent:

The message is completely understandable. Time is valuable. The hard truth is that if you want to get far in your career, prepare to put in the hours. Nothing gets handed out. Self-improvement and commitment to your craft are great, but only if you find the right balance.

Messages like those above put you under an enormous amount of pressure. That pressure isn’t healthy, and can actually hamper your development. It can lead to things like burnout and potentially, even depression. What is burnout? This study phrases it quite well:

“Burnout is a psychological syndrome characterized by emotional exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and reduced personal accomplishment.”

It’s not a nice place to be. I can speak from experience here. Feeling as if things are bearing down on you and you need to keep up. “I need to make that new thing or learn that new framework to keep up with my peers.” I remember seeing tweets from people. They’d say things like, “I missed a day of my bootcamp course. I’d better do double tonight.” This makes for sad reading. You don’t want to end up resenting what you do for a job.

Burnout cannot only impact your personal wellbeing, but can also affect other areas of your life. Does your work suffer as a result? Do you still have the energy to give it your full attention? How about that creative spark? Is it gone? We’ve all heard of writer’s block. Well, creative’s block is a thing too!

The above tweet was a great example of how social media can influence us. Read the responses and engagement. There’s an almost 5050 split on how it’s perceived. This response from Chris Coyler was great:

And it’s so true. It’s OK to sit back and not force yourself to work on things. It’s fine to take the night off, the week off, and so on. Those projects will still be there for you. They’re not going anywhere. You might even decide you don’t want to return to them at all, and that’s fine too! It’s all about balance.

With the pandemic and many of us in lockdown, this trend has reared its head again. I’ve seen my fair share of messages implying if you haven’t picked up new skills with your new free time, you’ve wasted it. As if it’s some kind of opportunity. Not that a global pandemic is exhausting enough right?

A comic from “The Awkward Yeti” titled 'Hope and dreams'
Hopes and Dreams by The Awkward Yeti. (Image source: (Large preview)

Even now, pressure culture is not black and white. The free time gained where we had other commitments is an opportunity. An opportunity to try something new or do something we haven’t had the time for. It might be that that thing is ‘rest’. For me, my weekend commitments halted, so I decided to finally start streaming. And, I’ve loved it! Still, I try not to let it take up more time than my other commitments would. If it gets too much, I take a break and step away.

Handling Pressure Culture

Getting AFK (Away from keyboard)

How can we combat these feelings of pressure? It sounds like the opposite of what our minds tell us, but one way is to get away from that keyboard. Disconnect and go do something else. I’m not saying lock up your laptop for a week and go cold turkey, but a break does you good.

Go for a walk, read a book, do nothing! We already saw that Chris enjoys a night with Netflix! I myself recently picked up a stylus for the iPad so I can go chill out on a bean bag and sketch doodles. There’s also a 1000 piece puzzle laid out on a table downstairs that’s quite good to sit next to zone out with.

Yes, it’s difficult at the moment. We can’t make a trip to the theme park or the cinema or even hit the gym. But, we can still get AFK. Even sporadic breaks throughout the day can do you wonders. I often get up every once in a while and do a few handstands!

This is true even when the world isn’t in crisis. Getting away from things can be great for you. It’s not healthy to tie yourself to the same thing 24 hours a day. Step back, broaden your scope, and appreciate that there’s so much more on offer for you. Close this tab and get away now if you’d like. I’d prefer it if you stuck around until the end, though.

It might not even be a case of getting physically AFK either. There’s a Slack community I’m in that has this notion of ‘fun laptop time’ which is an interesting idea. Have a separate machine that you can unwind on or do other things on. One that isn’t logged in to social media perhaps? One that you can do ‘fun’ things on. Maybe that is still coding something or creative writing or watching a live stream. The possibilities are endless.

Give yourself space to live away from your work. This article on Lifehacker cites the case that taking up something new can help with burnout. I can relate to that too. Scheduling something completely unrelated to work is quite good at this. For me, I know when the season is in full swing, I’ll be spending some of my Saturdays AFK running around a field.

With AFK, we’re mainly referring to sitting at a desk with a physical keyboard. Odds are, if you have a smartphone, the little digital one on that isn’t far away. A FOMO tip that might seem counterintuitive is to share being AFK. Share what you’re up to with people. It might surprise you how much people appreciate seeing others getting AFK. Rachel’s been plane spotting for example!

Please Talk

And that leads us to the title of this post. It’s good to talk. Is there a stigma attached to talking about our feelings and struggles? Yes. Should there be? Hell no!

FOMO, burnout, depression, anxiety, and so on. They’re all real things and likely touch more of us than we know. I listen to various podcasts. I remember one in which the speaker and guest spoke about almost an obsession with chasing goals. When you reach that goal, you hit a low. Maybe it didn’t fill that void you were hoping for? But, although I wasn’t having a conversation with them, hearing that did me some good. It was relatable.

I’d had this feeling inside, never expressing it. Now I knew it wasn’t uncommon. So I spoke about it with other people, and they could relate too. One big example for me was buying my house. It had been a goal for a year or so to get on the property ladder. Once I got the keys, it was a bit deflating. But, I should’ve been super happy about it.

A comic from 'The Awkward Yeti' titled 'Return of Me'
Return of Me by The Awkward Yeti. (Image source: (Large preview)

We could all bottle those things up. But, speaking about things and getting your thoughts out can go some way in taking the pressure off. Another perspective can really help you out! It might be hearing something as little as ‘I do that too’ or ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself, you’re doing great!’ that can go a long way. It’s not that you’re fishing for compliments, but it sometimes takes that other perspective to bring you back to reality.

Now don’t get me wrong. Talking about things is easier said than done, but the results might surprise you. Based on my own experience and others I’ve spoken to, here are some things you can do to combat those negative feelings.

  • Be willing to take the first step.
    Interaction doesn’t have to be a dying art. It won’t work for everyone and you can’t force others to embrace it. There will be those who do, though, people who feel exactly the same and were looking for someone to talk to.
  • Speak more openly.
    I’ve personally been terrible at this and I don’t mind admitting it. I’m getting better though. I speak more openly with those I engage with both on and offline and I’m happier for it. The takeaway being that there’s no shame in being yourself and doing what you want to do. If you’re being made to feel that way, it could be a good time to shift your circle or change up those you engage with. One nifty tip if you work remotely and feel isolated during the day is to set a reminder for yourself. For example, set a reminder every day at noon to reach out to people. This is quite effective. Most IM services can do this. For example, with Slack:
    /remind me "Reach out to people!" every weekday at 12:00 pm
  • If it can’t be offline, take it online.
    You don’t have to speak to people in person. Hop on a call with someone. Or even a video call. There are also so many online communities out there now too. If you don’t want to talk about how you feel, it’s great to even talk about what you’re up to or hear what others are up to. You soon realize people aren’t churning 24 hours a day like social media might have you think. I’ve recently joined an online community of creatives on Discord. I must say, it’s been brilliant. The Party Corgi network has been a game changer for me.
  • Broaden your scope.
    It’s so easy to lose track and become so focussed on your own little circle. I ended up randomly hopping around Twitch the other day. And I sat there and thought to myself, “This is brilliant”. There are so many creatives out there doing fantastic things, things I wasn’t even aware of. Why do I get so fixated on my own little bubble?
  • One tip that trumps all others? Be humble.
    You gain more from being positive. Good vibes breed good vibes. Plus, no one likes a hater.

To Conclude

It’s completely normal to feel a sense of pressure or get that horrible ‘imposter syndrome.’ But, don’t let it get to you. Do what you can and what you want to. Don’t sacrifice your health to get ahead. It’s OK to step away sometimes.

The next time you feel a little overwhelmed with things and feel that pressure coming for you. Have a chat with a family member, reach out to a colleague, even an online acquaintance. Maybe share it with folks at Smashing? I love seeing what people get up to.

If this is a career you plan on sticking with, what’s the rush? You might be doing this for tens of years. Embrace your journey. It’s not a race. For one thing, you might not even be on the same road.

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

Smashing Editorial (fb, yk, il)