stop trying: what insomnia taught me about creativity

My mom has insomnia.

Like stereotypical, sleeps-for-2-hours-a-night, can't-fall-asleep insomnia.

She will lie in bed all night long, waiting anxiously for sleep to finally come. Usually, she nods off around 4:30 or 5am, only to be woken up at 6am when my youngest sister gets up and leaves for high school. It's not what you would consider a sustainable sleep cycle. It's brutal.

A while ago, I joined her at her appointment with a new sleep specialist. Because, believe it or not, when you don't get sleep, it makes it very, very hard to remember every pertinent detail. Thus the benefit of an outsider's perspective on the whole thing.

The specialist listened intently as we talked, occasionally asking questions or clarifying a note in my mom's records. When we were done, he told us that he had some recommendations (not one of which had to do with doling out yet another prescription). 

His primary recommendation was this: stop trying to sleep.

He didn't mean don't sleep, of course. What he meant was that, by laying there in bed, anxiously awaiting sleep's sweet embrace, using any means necessary to get her there -- TV, books, meditations -- she was thwarting sleep's arrival. By struggling so hard to fall asleep, she had conditioned herself to equate her bed -- what's supposed to be a cozy, comfy oasis o' rest -- with struggle and activity and stress. Not exactly the kind of thing that entices sleep to visit.

So, rather than trying (and failing) to fall asleep each night, he suggested that she stay out of bed, awake and engaged in whatever really relaxes her... Until she finally becomes tired enough to sleep. He then recommended a shift in her perspective on the whole thing. Rather than being tied emotionally to the quality of one night's sleep, excited when sleep comes and despondent when it doesn't, he encouraged her to release her attachment to the fluctuations in her sleep cycle and to simply focus on improving.

In essence, stop trying, change your environment, and let go.

When I thought about it, the same could be said at times for my creative practice and, by extension, my business.

Stop trying.

There are days when I sit at my desk and stare at the screen in front of me for what seems to be hours. Whether I'm trying to write this week's blog post, create content, or figure out the next step in the evolution of my business, the truth is that, sometimes, it just doesn't flow. I'll sit down to write or brainstorm or create and I just come up empty. Again and again. For hours.

I could let it be a stressed out and shameful experience.

I have, in fact. Many times.

I've let my mind transform from motivational cheerleader to schoolyard bully, from hopeful anticipation to anxiety-fueled fear-monger. At times, I've conditioned myself to equate my workspace -- what's supposed to be a space of inspiration, creativity, and alignment -- with struggle and anxiety and shame. Not exactly the kind of thing that entices creativity and productivity to visit.

So, I took a hint from the sleep specialist. I stopped trying. 

Yes, yes, I know that there are times that it's absolutely necessary to sit your ass in the chair and get 'er done. And, if you know anything about my creative process, you know that I write and create. Everyday. Whether it's a blog post or a sentence, I'm a firm believer that, if you want creativity to continue visiting you, you have to spend some time at her altar. You worship by doing the work.

But, on the flipside, if -- in all the struggle and stress and negative self-talk that accompanies the dire efforts to produce when it's just not happening -- I come to associate my relationship with writing or creativity with just that, struggle and stress and shame, I'm doing a disservice to that sacred relationship. Stop the struggle and start a different story.

That brings me to step number two: change your environment. 

I mean that literally. Get your butt out of the chair and move. Do something different. For me, that looks like leisurely walks around the neighborhood, hauling out the colored pencils, heading to the neighborhood coffee shop with my journal in hand, or spending time in the pages of a good book. 

I cut off the pattern of shame and fear at the knees. I engage another part of my brain, the one that specializes in curiosity and inquiry, and I let her take the reins for a while. It stops the cycle of struggle and initiates a new story, one of curious engagement and inspiration. When, just a short while later, I return to my workspace, I'm in an entirely new state of mind.

Changing your environment means a change in your mindset.

From there, what's left is step number three: let go.

Let go of your attachment to productivity and to-do lists. Let go of expectations and obligation. It's not about what you get done today or don't finish tomorrow. It's about improvement and learning and expansion. 

I know that it's hard. I'm connected to each and every word on the page, to every piece of content that I create for my business, and to every step along the journey. It's personal, this journey that we're on.

There will be days that you fly through your to-do’s, days when the words fall from your fingers onto the page, when you create and produce and complete. And then, there will be days that it seems as though you aren’t creating anything. You may not write a word. You may not find yourself any closer to that elusive clarity for your next course or piece of content.

But, love, your success is not tied to what you produce. Your success is, instead, tied to that stubborn insistence to live with authenticity, integrity and courage. To meet and greet the world with curiosity and trust and openness.

Stop trying. Change your environment. Come back and let go.

I’ll finish with a quote from Liz Gilbert, the author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred. What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all. We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified, and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege. Only when we are our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us. Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and I promise - you can make anything. So please calm down now and get back to work, okay? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.