How to Ease Back into Productivity After an Illness

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Isaac Butler: Welcome back to working overtime. The advice forward desert to workings process heavy main course. I’m Isaac Butler.

Kathryn Hahn, Karen Han: And I’m Karen Han.

Isaac Butler: Karen, we’ve got a new listener voicemail and I found it really quite beautiful and moving. It’s from a caller named Susan who is trying to get back to writing after a bout of COVID. Let’s take a.

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Speaker 1: Listen.

Speaker 1: Hi, this is Susan. I’m up in Rhinebeck, New York, and I am an incredible fan of the show. So helpful, which is why I’m asking you this new question. When one has been ill, in my case, COVID. How does one know at what point? To push oneself to sit down and start writing again. I’m feeling like I can barely put thoughts together and I know that I couldn’t write now even if I wanted to. But the question I’m asking you is how do I re insert discipline and commitment into my life? Do I wait until I am dancing with joy out of moment? Or is there some middle ground between I can hardly think straight and such dancing. Thank you. You are so helpful.

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Isaac Butler: Before we get started responding to it, I just wanted to say, Susan, thank you so much for calling in with this question and for sharing your problem with us. Karen, before we leap into advice, I just wanted to say that I really love that Susan is talking so much about the joyfulness of the creative process in this case. For her, it’s writing. But, you know, we spent so much time talking to career professionals about like, how do you pay your mortgage and work on your craft and get jobs and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, that we can sometimes forget that making art is joyful. Not all the time, but joy is a really important component of it, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

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Kathryn Hahn, Karen Han: Yeah, I totally agree. And I’m pretty sure we’ve also said this on the show before. But if a certain creative process is not bringing you joy any more than that is a pretty clear sign that you should be taking a break from it.

Isaac Butler: Yes, absolutely. I’m also wondering, have you had periods where you couldn’t work? I mean, in Susan’s case, it’s recovering from illness. But, you know, I know you moved to L.A. and, you know, all sorts of other stuff. What was it like for you when just there was too much life in the way for you to do your creative work?

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Kathryn Hahn, Karen Han: Yeah, I’ve definitely had periods like that, and I think all of us have really, because you can’t control everything that happens in your life, but maybe not to as extreme a degree as recovering from COVID, but whether it’s illness or personal stuff, there are things in life that’ll monopolize your time and otherwise prevent you from being able to work. And I think in those moments you don’t necessarily feel like you have to be working, hopefully, But figuring out when you’re okay to come back is definitely a difficult task. And I think it’s particularly difficult for probably some people who’ve had COVID because of what we now call brain fog. Like you just it’s not that you’re necessarily peak sick anymore, but it’s just the side effect where you find yourself not thinking as clearly, perhaps, which is a totally different beast from like making time to work.

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Isaac Butler: Yeah. And also the other thing is that when it comes to, you know, unpacking your boxes after a move or whatever, you know, at some point they’re going to be unpacked. You don’t actually know when the brain fog is going to lift or what’s going to happen.

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Kathryn Hahn, Karen Han: Exactly.

Isaac Butler: So we’re going to talk a little bit more about all of this after these messages. Listeners. I just want to remind you that if you are enjoying working overtime, please subscribe so that you’ll never miss an episode. And if you listen on Apple Podcasts, we’d love it if you’d rate or review the show. It really does help new listeners find us. If Overcast is your app of choice as it is mine, please hit the star next to this episode to recommend this show to other people. Thanks.

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Isaac Butler: So, Karen, of course, we have talked on this show about taking creative breaks, but that’s by choice. You know, sometimes you just got to recharge. You’ve got to take care of yourself. This is a really it’s a related question, but it’s still different, which has to do with, you know, getting back on that saddle. When do you know it’s time? How do you figure that out? Is it something you can figure out? What do you think?

Kathryn Hahn, Karen Han: I think in an ideal scenario, you would know that it was time because you would either have an idea that you couldn’t stop thinking about or otherwise you really want to go back to working. Like you feel really creatively inspired in that way. Of course, I don’t think this will always be the case in terms of recovering. And I think the sort of second best answer is that you’ll know when you start feeling enough guilt about not working or otherwise know that you’re in okay shape to be working again where you feel okay. I feel good enough that I can sit at my desk and try to do something. But sometimes you really are just still too sick to work. But if you’re feeling all right again, sometimes it just comes to, like, forcing yourself to do it.

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Isaac Butler: Yeah. Or easing your way back into it. Right. You could do, like, a little maybe like a writing prompt for 10 minutes, you know, And then eventually you sort of get back in that into that habit. Like, I know for me, the closest experience I had of this and not to make light of brain fog, but it felt a little bit like brain fog was like the six months after the book came out, I just felt like I couldn’t think straight. I was just, you know, for one thing, I was giving interviews a lot and stuff like that and and doing stuff that was exhausting, but also was like, I just sort of like my brain was broken on some level. So much mental investment had gone to just like getting the book finished and getting the book out there that I think I kind of like blown a fuse in a weird way. And it was really hard for me to just admit to myself, which it sounds like Suzanne already has. So she’s one step ahead of where I was. It meant to yourself, like, actually, you’re not going to be writing right now, and that’s okay. It’s okay. You’ll do it eventually. You just need some time to figure this shit out.

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Kathryn Hahn, Karen Han: Yeah, absolutely.

Isaac Butler: Okay, so another thing is, let’s say the fog has begun to lift, or you’re finally feeling rested enough or you’re feeling super guilty, or there’s an idea you’re really excited about some combo of all of these things. And you say, Today is the day I’m going to get back to the writing desk or the studio or the pottery shed or whatever the fuck. How do you do it? What are some things Susan, or maybe other people who are listening can do to try to get over that hump and just start working again when it’s time?

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Kathryn Hahn, Karen Han: I mean, I think it’s sort of what you mentioned already, where I think it’s really useful to start slowly. Like, just try doing whatever the most basic form of your creative endeavor is, whether it’s writing a diary entry or throwing a cup on the wheel, basically just warming your muscles back up before you try diving back into the deep end of creativity again. And if you don’t feel up to it, then don’t push yourself too hard. But if you feel like there is some light at the end of the tunnel that you’re boring toward, then I don’t see why you shouldn’t try charging toward it.

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Isaac Butler: Yeah, totally. I mean, when I was when I was first coming back off the book, I mean, I was sort of like I would just like, handwrite in a notebook for an hour at the beginning of the day. That’s all I could do. That was actually very tiring. I found physically and mentally. But, you know, eventually, like the muscle starts coming back. Some writers and artists have a kind of ritual that invites the muse in. We’ve talked about that before on this show. I’m actually not a fan of those personally, but some people find them very helpful.

Isaac Butler: I also think that, you know, one of the nice things about writing, which is different from, I think throwing pottery or, you know, a lot of forms of painting and stuff like that is that, you know, you can just carry a notebook around a notebook and a pen or the notes app on your phone. And then any time in the day you could be writing, do you know what I mean? And writing can be one sentence. Writing does not have to be 5000 words. Writing does not have to be the great American novel. It can literally just be you’re sitting there at a on the couch or in a cafe or meeting a friend or whatever. An idea for a sentence comes and you just write it down. Boom. You’ve written today. You know what I mean? Like, it doesn’t have to be this mountain that you’re trying to climb. It can just be a habit, that’s all, throughout your life. All right. We’ll be back with more thoughts on all of the above and maybe some new ideas after this.

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Isaac Butler: Hey, listeners, is there a particular creative struggle you’d like to hear us tackle? Well, let us know by emailing us at working at Slate.com. Or even better, call us and leave a message. Just like Susan at 3049339675. That’s 304933. Work. One thing that I was thinking of, Karen, with, this is all the parts of the, you know, making an artistic thing process that do not involve the actual act of making it, you know? Mm hmm. Research is a big part of writing or, you know, sketching is a big part of painting. Or maybe you can’t think straight in this one way, but you can in another, You know, what can you be doing to rekindle the flame, do you think?

Kathryn Hahn, Karen Han: Yeah, you do. You can read a book. You can go for a walk, you can watch a new movie or TV show or rewatch an old movie or TV show that you really love, or go to a museum where like, just, I don’t know, travel a little bit if you can. Anything that’ll help you recharge your physical and creative batteries and maybe inspire you, I think is a perfectly valid part of the process.

Isaac Butler: You know, in fact, I’m going to add one more thing on to this, which is revisit your old work. Right. One way to connect to the the totality of yourself, including the self that as a creative person likes to make work, is to actually reread your old stuff. Mm hmm. Maybe not too old because we tend to dislike work. We made, like, a certain number of years ago. But, you know, if you’re a poet, read some old poems of yours or whatever. Just remind yourself what you’re capable of, because you’re probably capable of some pretty great stuff.

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Speaker 1: Mm hmm.

Isaac Butler: Of course, it is also true that the flipside of creative work being joyful and fulfilling is that it can feel kind of painful when you’re not capable of doing it. You know, those few months where I was having trouble writing that was hard. I was really mad at myself during that time. You know, how can we be kind to ourselves during those moments and acknowledge our limits?

Kathryn Hahn, Karen Han: I think this is a space where it’s really useful to have basically different hobbies, and these will sound really basic, but even stuff like just listening to music or playing video games, stuff that is maybe usually more considered, quote unquote, like fun. But I think it ultimately falls into the category of the previous question where you might not be making any immediate progress in your own work by reading a book or watching a movie, but you’re still soaking in this kind of creative energy and hopefully inspiring yourself further down the line. And it’s also really good, I think, to remind yourself that you won’t be able to do your best work if you aren’t in good shape and pushing yourself too hard might mean that you just feel worse afterward.

Isaac Butler: Yeah, I really had that experience myself, so I completely agree. Be kind to yourself. It’ll come back. It really will. And now you can sort of grow other parts of your life, which will in turn help inspire your work.

Kathryn Hahn, Karen Han: Yeah, exactly.

Isaac Butler: Well, that’s all the time we have for this episode. Thank you so much to Susan for calling in. And if you have a question, comment, suggestion, idea thing you need help with. Triumph. You want to share. Why don’t you give us a call at 304933w0 arc or write us at working at Slate.com and we will feature it on a future episode of Working Overtime.

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Kathryn Hahn, Karen Han: And if you like what we do hear on working, don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Kathryn Hahn, Karen Han: And hey, why not sign up for Slate Plus at Slate.com Slash working plus. You’ll get bonus content, including exclusive episodes of Slow Burn and Big Mood Little Mood. And you’ll be supporting what we do right here on working Big.

Isaac Butler: Thanks to our producer Kevin Bendis and to our series producer Cameron Drews. We’ll be back on Sunday with a brand new episode of Working, and in two weeks we’ll have another episode of Working Overtime. Until then, if you’re feeling up to it, get back to work.

Speaker 1: So.