IMPROVE YOUR CREATIVE SKILLS BY TAKING A VACATION FROM THEM
Yes. You read that right. Over the years, I've discovered an amazing thing. It's something that when it first occurred, I thought my perception must be wrong. I made some early conclusions and reasoned that it was something to be grateful for and I left it at that. I am referring to skill level and breaking through the plateaus we experience as creative types. Specifically, I am talking about what happens when we physically take a vacation from a particular talent or skill.
For example, I have several times in the past stopped playing guitar, singing or playing any keyboard instrument for sometimes months and years at a time. When I returned to them I was technically a better musician than I was before the break. Improvement without continuous diligent practicing?
In a nutshell, yes.
PART 1 - THE MECHANICS
I only recently decided to research this and it essentially is the byproduct of rest in between practice sessions. Neural replay plays a critical role in improving skill, including motor skill but takes place during sleep. Waking neural replay is just that... reinforcement achieved during waking hours. Because my mind was still thinking about guitar or keys or vocal lines, along with neural replay and waking neural replay occurring, I saw noticeable improvement when returning to intense work using those skills. With guitar, it might be solo phrasing, strumming patterns, technique or articulation. It would always be something noticeable and tangible.
Am I saying you shouldn't practice and you will improve through osmosis? No. What I am saying is that science does seem to back the idea of using breaks or time away from a skill or task to improve that skill. Equally, I am not suggesting that you won't have to knock the rust off either. With art and music specifically, I can attest to the fact that I have been shocked by the improvements seen by using this particular formula:
This illustrates how practice and skill development can stall and plateau and breaks and pauses in varying durations can result in breaking through the plateau and achieving a new level of skill. It just so happens that the instances of this occurring in my life have been more lengthy in duration. All musicians I know have experienced what its like to be broke and selling gear in order to pay bills. It happens. Only my friends Tony and Scott seem to have the bulk of the musical gears they've every owned. I, one the other hand, have bought and sold a small music store's worth of gear on multiple occasions. I used to rent a smorgasbord of gear to area musicians during the Saunders Street Records years.
Inevitably, things happen and like I said, bills have to get paid. So, for me, time away from a particular skill might be measured in months and years. Here are a few of my own personal benefits gained from those larger skill vacations:
Why I stopped
Creators of art and music often will suffer from the relentless pursuit of the perfect piece or perfect song/composition. It seems to be in our DNA. Because of this, it can be maddening and frustrating to hit a wall and not be able to get past it. Of course, creative blocks occur. That is another topic for another day. Skill plateaus seem to laugh in your face saying, "you can't be any better than this" at best and "you... are... trash" at worst. The natural tendency is to just get to work. Practice makes perfect. Hmmm... I think the correct phrase should be:
Practice + Multi-Duration Breaks + Visualization = Maximum Growth
The only experience I can truly speak from is my own. However, between what science suggest and my own experiences, I can at least try and make sense of how this is occurring. Everything begins with intent. We have to have the actionable intention to achieve some new level of skill. We must plan one way or another to get there. It could be a PERT chart or just a series of thoughts, but we plan. For most, that plan is to practice, practice... practice.
Practicing a skill is the foundation. Everything from noodles to serious wood shedding to formal lessons equates to time on task. That task is to improve. The role rest places in our improvement is what we are trying to understand. The brain regions involved with the skill-oriented motor tasks are reactivated during rest but at a far more rapidly. This improves overall performance. What occurs is memory consolidation or strengthening those memories formed during practice. The studies I found were based on break durations for hours or days. What about months and years passing without practice and improvement occurring? What if you are like me and put aside that practice for months and years? Logic would dictate returning to that skill would result in taking serious steps backwards, and that happens more often than not. However, I believe the last portion of my formula, Visualization, is the catalyst for the unexpected improvement when returning.
I suggest that perhaps, in absence of physical practice, we perform substitute compensation tasks on a conscious and unconscious basis. This is primarily achieved through visualization. Many of those Attributable Activities shown above involve visualization of improved skill. Creativity loves Constraint. Whatever the circumstances that prevent the continued practice, the brain seeks to compensate and find ways to overcome the constraint.
PART 2 - LEFT BRAIN | RIGHT BRAIN
I am plagued by a power struggle in my head between my analytical brain and ultra-creative brain. Structure isn't really on speaking terms with Chaos and they live together inside my head. On one hand, I think I should be able to put structure and form around this idea of Practice + Multi-Duration Breaks + Visualization = Maximum Growth. On the other hand, any attempts to even suggest putting structure around something that refuses to be boxed, measured or otherwise made predictable, is met with absolute defiance and resistance.
Given that memory consolidation during rest can improve skill performance, and thus break through plateaus, then that rest can be planned and measured. What do 30 minute breaks yield versus sleep? Rest can take a lot of different forms. I think that rest serves the most observable cause and effect. Taking a break from practicing that skill over days is different than months or years. Obviously, something different than memory consolidation is occurring.
The left brain suggests we do things like practice for 30 minutes, take a break for 30 mins and repeat. We can plan it, it is actionable and we can measure it. Perhaps practicing before bed might be a study worth executing. The problem remains so much of how we perceive our skill level. We are notorious about having a distorted view of where we are. Some overinflate where they are. Some underplay their progress. It is subjective unless we apply enough structure and repeatable process to make it objective.
Equally, we cannot predict life's monkey wrenches that get thrown into our best made plans. The examples given of my own accounts largely involve financial struggles or the loss of space to practice the skill. Therefore, the longer durations of time that still resulted in improved skill involved no planning or structure at all. One could argue that visualization could be planned, scheduled and measured. Sure. My experience has been these big hiccups usually involve simply surviving and being focused on your hierarchy of needs. But.... what if we intentionally walked away and took these longer vacations from skill development? What would happen?
You play piano. You've been practicing and practicing and you've plateaued. There are a number of ways we could intentionally impose a longer vacation from practice-based development. Here's a few ways.
Actual Vacation - Most vacations are between 4 to 17 days. With a real vacation your senses can be satisfied with the sights, smells and sounds of your surroundings. Ha. I'm reminiscing in my head all the vacations where I had to have a guitar travel with me. This of course, is a vacation minus your skill tool.
Replacement Hobby - Commit to 30 day project with a creative skill you've never done before. I've thought about taking a welding class and building something. I've never done that before. It would require some research and planning to figure out the right sized project that would last within a few days east or west of 30. It would also require the discipline to stop practice or leave the skill you want to improve alone for those 30 days.
Hiatus - Unplanned hiatus' can happen... a baby, a new job, health issues, new romance or loss of interest are a few. In my case, those longer breaks were due to financial reasons and not having to ability to practice my skill. It seems foreign to me to contemplate an intentional and planned long hiatus from one of my top skills.
This brings me to all that right brain chatter. My right brain self is horrified with all that prior talk. The creative brain of the creative obsessed cannot willingly comply with boundaries, timers, schedules and discipline. The creative mind won't have it. Nobody puts Baby in the corner.
The right brain provides the defiant refusal to completely abandon your skill and its ongoing improvement. If you are visual artist, everywhere you go on that vacation, you are getting ideas and how you would do it. If you are a musical artist, you are naturally hearing rhythm and melody where non-musicians do not. Your creative brain will not allow you to completely be void of some mental gymnastics related to your skill.
It all boils down to the exploratory thoughts, visualization and daydreaming we do when we aren't creating or practicing to improve our creations. Here is where I think the mystery gets solved. The creatively obsessed cannot completely disconnect. The pursuit of perfection provides some form of override circuitry in our brains.
Those multiple years vacuums are anomalies and not within the scope of this exercise. Instead, we will focus on 3 experiments you can do to see if can benefit from planned creative skill vacations. It boils down what you do as visualization exercises during the break from practice and immersion.
EXPERIMENT 1 - 30 DAY SUBSTITUTION
How to Substitute
Art Example - Painting
You just bought a new large canvas and you want to paint your next masterpiece.
Vacation from painting by substituting a month of just Photoshop work. The outcome of your visualization exercises should be explored using Photoshop to refine composition and working out ideas.
Music Example - Original Song Writing for Album Release
You are working on a new album project and need additional content
Hammering out a new song usually involves much trial and error using multiple skill disciplines. In this case, the 30 day vacation is more difficult because of deadlines and the sense of wanting completion. Substitution might be 30 days of photography immersion.
EXPERIMENT 2 - 15 DAYS OF NATURE
The Premise - Regardless the skill (art or music), the concept is the same, stop practicing for 1/2 a month. Whenever, you feel like practicing or creating with that skill, don't. Force yourself to get out the door and spend time in a park or anywhere you can enjoy some solace and getting closer to nature. Ensure you get outside and isolate at least 5 times during the 15 day period. Alternate between listening to music to accentuate the experience and being free of any electronic noise. The absence of sound can allow your visualizations to be more robust.
Visualization - Getting outside, regardless of the time of year, can be absolutely inspiring. It can be as elaborate as a short vacation to a state park or as practical as walking to the nearest city park. It could also be as simple as taking your shoes and socks off and sitting in the grass of your backyard and soaking in the sights and sounds we often overlook. The intent is to allow your mind to let go of the routines we slave over and allow our minds to drift. Here are a couple of visualization idea:
Tell the story
Step by Step
Visual from start to finish an imaginary tale of your location. Really, it could be anything from true life to fantasy to silly. The idea is to allow your mind to fill in the blanks about where you are at, how you got there, or maybe the history of the place. Make notes of what you came up with. Prior to resuming your project, review all of these along with any photos you took to stimulate your creativeness as you get back to work.
Walks are excellent for numerous reasons. None are better than the time spent inside your head. A change of scenery for that walk can alter the content that goes on in the mind.
During a nature walk, allow yourself to visualize each step that will result in the completion of your creative project. Make notes. During the next walk, visualize more detail that may exist until you've envisioned much of the minutia necessary in executing each step. Make notes.
When you return to working your project, review your notes and make as many actionable as possible.
EXPERIMENT 3 - TIME FOR TIMER!
I'm sorry but if you get that pop cultural reference, you are old, like me, or certainly getting that way. Yes, I am suggesting my creative type friends try some structure and disciplined start and stops when it comes to spending time on task, creatively.
The Premise - the general idea is to adhere to interval training over a 30 day period. The breakdown looks like this:
WEEK 1 - 15 X 15 EXERCISE
When you feel like working your skill creatively or practicing, set your timer for 15 minute increments. Work vigorously for 15 minutes and then relax/rest for 15 minutes. Repeat this for as long as you are feeling the urge to put in some work. Don't cheat your durations. No visualizations needed, but if stuff pops in your head, capture it.
WEEK 2 - 30 X 30 EXERCISE
Same idea, longer duration
WEEK 3 - 60 X 60 EXERCISE
Same idea, but the visualization portion you do during down time should be centered on what your next steps will be and visualizing those through to completion.
WEEK 4 - 24 X 24 EXERCISE
One day one and one day off is the general idea. Go as hard and as purposeful as you can within a 24 hour window. One that timer alerts you, stop. Set another 24 hour timer and rest and occupy yourself with other things or matters. Visualization during your down time can be following your thoughts through regarding what you do next, what project comes next or where you want your skill level to be at and how you will get it there.
To conclude, I hope that you will see your own creative skills improve and yield new levels of satisfaction and achievement by incorporating short and medium duration breaks periodically. I would love to hear any accounts of improving when returning to your passion skill/talent. Thanks for reading! ~WS