Need clarity? Take a break

I'm a busy fella. On top of my full-time job, I volunteer, freelance, and side-hustle.

I do all these things because I love them, and they make me better. In fact, I'm certain that without my hobbies I would be much further behind in my career than I am. But that's a story for another day.

Recently, I experienced something pretty shocking to me: I stopped loving my hobbies. I'm certain that the pandemic is largely responsible for this; neither of the choirs I direct have met in person for over a year, and we've conducted our rehearsals exclusively on Zoom during that time.

This has served its purpose of keeping the organisations ticking over while we wait for the lockdown to lift. But we found very quickly that running a rehearsal over Zoom was extremely challenging.

In a live musical rehearsal, directors, coaches, and participants get near-instant feedback on what they're working on. As a director, I can hear my choir sing a piece, provide feedback, and ask them to try again straight away. Over Zoom, I don't get that. This makes rehearsals much less productive, and much less creatively satisfying.

A few weeks ago, I realised that I was suffering from pretty severe creative burnout. So I decided to take some time off my choirs. It's the first time since I was 12 that I haven't attended a weekly choir rehearsal.

Naturally, this time off helped with the burnout. But I discovered a secondary effect.

But first, an allegory...

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

I don't know where I heard this story, but I think it works well here.

Two fish are swimming upstream. They pass a frog who, naturally, greets them politely and asks, "Hey folks, how's the water?"

The fish nod politely and swim on. When the frog is out of earshot, one fish turns to the other and asks, "What the heck is water?"

The lesson we can learn from the fish is this: when you're immersed in something, you don't have a full perspective on it.

The importance of stepping back

It's now been a few weeks since my time off started. The first week or so was great; I basically didn't think about the choirs at all.

Then, after a couple of weeks, my brain started to do something it hadn't done for months: have ideas.

In hindsight, it's clear why stepping back had this effect on my creativity. There are thousands of movies about someone in a rut going on a big journey outside their comfort zone and suddenly discovering "who they are". And company retreats - despite their outward appearance of just a free week off - clearly have this effect on a workforce, or CEOs wouldn't keep having them.

In other words, there's something about a change of scenery which can provide a new perspective on something you're struggling with, or simply the breathing space for creativity to begin to flow again.

Ensuring breaks happen

So I've discovered that taking breaks is a good thing. But it's clear I discovered this too late; ideally, I want to avoid burnout by taking breaks at regular intervals.

I think there are a few ways to achieve this. I could change the choir's schedules to incorporate some breaks into the rehearsal schedule (currently the choirs rehearse every week continuously, except for a short break at Christmas). Alternatively, I could arrange for my assistant directors to run rehearsals for a couple of weeks at regular intervals.

When breaks aren't the right thing

I think there are lots of situations in which taking time off is extremely beneficial. But it's important to recognise that it's not the right solution to every problem.

I think a good rule of thumb is to avoid breaking a streak for a habit you're trying to build.

For example, I'm trying to build the habit of working on my side project every day. Because this is a new habit that I'm building, taking a week or two off could have a devastating effect on this project; the uphill battle to re-establish the habit after the break could prove too difficult.

Taking one day off from a habit is fine - sometime life happens - but if you're deciding to take a break from something, you need to be absolutely sure you'll be able to restart it in the future.

Lesson learned

My biggest takeaway from this experience is that there is a good solution to creative burnout, and that I shouldn't be afraid to use it if I need to. It may mean missing a few rehearsals, but in the long term it will make me a better, happier director.

Peter Bryant

Peter Bryant

York, UK