The Importance of Brain Space

As someone who has to fit writing around working four days a week, a busy social life, and lots of trips away, I tend to feel as if I’m shirking if I don’t make use of every minute that’s available to me.


Last month, I went on a glorious, six-day writing retreat, where I had no excuses and all the opportunity in the world to get things done. When I went to the same retreat in February 2017 (admittedly only for three days), I squandered the time and I was determined not to make the same mistake again.


But six days is a long time to maintain focus and keep to a gruelling schedule of working on projects. So, I did find myself taking lots of breaks, going for walks, knitting, listening to podcasts, reading, chatting to the other writers, etc, etc. To begin with, I felt like I was failing again, and I was really annoyed with myself for wasting such precious time.


I found my stride on day three, set myself a challenging task list, and managed to complete everything on it. I felt great, as if I’d really accomplished something, and expressed how pleased I was with myself at dinner that night. I wrote another, similarly intensive list for the next day, and did pretty well, though I did allow myself to knock off quite early and go back to reading.


But, on the last two days of the retreat, I woke up early, with my head full of ideas and enthusiasm. Answers to problems presented themselves, and I found myself eager to get to work. And it was then that I realised I had been making use of all the downtime, after all.


If I had set to work on day one with a plan to work office hours on my writing every day of the retreat week, I probably would have burnt out by day three and spent the rest of the week being really miserable. What actually happened was that I gave myself the time and space to find a rhythm, and allowed my brain the chance to work on things subconsciously, without me constantly looking over its shoulder (as it were).


I got more done overall in that week than I planned, or even thought was possible. And I also had a great time interacting with other writers, and giving myself permission to relax and enjoy other pastimes as well. And the result was far more productivity, progress and inspiration than would have occurred if I’d driven myself into the ground, trying to do too much.


Creativity needs space. The imagination works best if you give it room to breathe. Yes, a schedule is important, and deadlines are helpful, but finding a balance between productivity and self-compassion is vital to success, in my view. It’s not an easy line to tread, particularly in this world of constant distractions and obligations. But your brain will thank you for allowing it some rest, and will most likely pay you back in better and more frequent ideas.




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