What 30 Days Off Taught Me About the Creative Process
Our team recently returned from a month-long break from mid-December to mid-January, during which our entire 100-person creative production agency hit pause and signed off. When I first learned about Hook's "Ctrl-Alt-Retreat," I thought to myself, "What?!" Although a surprise, it shouldn't have come as a total shock given how human-centered we are. But closing an agency for a month is far from normal.
We prepared for the break by discussing our rationale with our clients—namely, to avoid burnout and give our team space to recharge after two years living in Covid. We assembled a "go team" in case of emergencies … Which is all to say this wasn't a rash decision and was well coordinated.
It came with both excitement and options, and I was soon overwhelmed with possibilities. Should we travel as a family to the other side of the world? Should I make music, something I love but haven't yet made time for? Over the course of my 16-plus-year career, I've never had this much paid time off at once, so I immediately felt pressure to make the most of it.
My wife and I decided to take the family to Mexico (a trip around the world felt too ambitious). We made our way to Puerto Vallarta, and it was exactly what we needed—time for my wife, our two girls and I to connect. While we're usually outdoorsy and adventurous, we needed something low-key. We had no agendas or grandiose plans, and the only decision we wanted to make was whether to swim in the ocean or pool.
Our intention was to live in the moment, yet still somehow preserve this time we were having together, so we documented the trip by creating a small graphic diary. The four of us took turns drawing pictures highlighting our favorite moments of each day, although my girls soon took over that responsibility after determining that my drawing skills did not translate particularly well to the medium … their way of saying, "Dad, we've got this."
While it's hard to say how much my kids appreciated this time together, I have a feeling this will be an important memory for them as they grow older. I can tell you, however, that the break had a real effect on me. I was able to develop a deeper appreciation for my surroundings, to enjoy the moment without becoming preoccupied with what came before or what lay ahead. I didn't open Slack. I didn't check my email. I tried to ignore social media, and the news, which didn't offer much other than gloom. Walking through the woods and talking about wildlife with my daughters was exactly where I needed to be; that's what deserved my attention.
But I did consider the future. I had conversations with my wife, who is also an artist, about our creative goals for the coming year. We talked about prioritization and reflected on what's truly important and what will bring us joy. We made the decision to set everything else aside. We spoke about wanting to work alongside people we admire, discussed how we would find those kinds of creative partnerships that would allow us to focus on what we do best and not feel overwhelmed by a need to handle it all. This may sound like common sense, but designers often feel compelled to solve problems individually or risk looking "less-than," when in reality, we're often at our best when we band together.
In a time of chaos, with the virus raging and the holiday frenzy in full swing, I was able to decompress without feeling pressure to be "creative" or "productive."
I gave myself permission to not be "switched on" as a creative person, which is a core piece of my identity. And that's why coming back to work felt so good. I was refreshed. I was excited to jump into a couple of projects that were awaiting me. I had ideas that I was eager to share and act upon! But I was also a little rusty, and that was OK. Our clients were overwhelmingly supportive and admired our ability to orchestrate something like this.
I checked in with my design team and colleagues to see how they'd spent their time away. I was relieved to hear most people did very little. "I got Covid, and then just watched a bunch of movies." "I visited some family locally, after my big travel plans got upended." On some of their faces was a hint of guilt. "Was I supposed to create something? Learn a new skill?"
And that's when I realized how important it is to give ourselves permission to slow down and just be. I reminded my team that the only thing we were supposed to do was recharge, and it didn't matter how or what that recharge looked like. As creative people who work in an industry obsessed with speed and productivity, it can feel like we're breaking the rules by not using each of our waking hours to find new and exciting ways to be more productive.
But this is not how creativity works. We all need fuel, and that fuel is life. Master painters spend years experiencing the world before crafting their masterpieces. Musicians go through life's highs and lows in order to develop their own perspectives. We as designers need breaks to experience life, to reorient ourselves to the world at large and remember what's most important. I'm grateful that we had this opportunity. I only hope more of us find ways to take a break and reset.