How Do You Do a Bad Day?

DaVinci's Dream, mixed media piece by Liz Kalloch

We all have them. You know, those days when you are just not feeling it, and there is no option to change the deadline, put off the client or otherwise arrange your schedule to accommodate the “I’ve got nothing” feel of the day.

People – I can’t call them friends, exactly – who know that I work from home as a freelance designer and artist, say things to me like: “OH, you have it made, if you don’t feel like doing something, you don’t have to. If you worked in the {fill in the blank} world like I do, you wouldn’t be able to just go for a walk at 3 in the afternoon or meet friends for a long lunch.”

Well, no, and actually no.

The misconception that we freelancers are footloose and fancy free, able to do as we please when we please, is just not the case.

I could do as I please, when I please, but my hunch is I wouldn’t have a whole lot of clients left at the end of a week.

True, we do have more freedom in how we schedule our time, and for that I am endlessly and more than endlessly grateful. Sometimes when stuck on a design problem, and all the wheels in my head are spinning, I WILL go out at 3 pm for a long walk in the hills near my house, but the flip side of that, is that when I return – energised and ready to solve that design problem – I am at my computer till 8 or 9 at night, and sometimes (more often than not), later.

So the question posed: Some days are full of beauty and ease and there is a flow that meanders and weaves through the hours. Those are the days when creativity and inspiration abound, when ideas are flying and stuff is Happening. Though we love them when they are here, those kind of days don’t happen all the time.

What is your method for dealing with the days when you are stuck in the muck, nothing is going where you want it to, but you have a deadline, or someone is waiting on your work, and there isn’t the luxury of “I’ll do this later.”

I’m going to start with the no-nonesense, nuts and bolts response from Kristen Fischer. It’s straight shooting at it’s best:

Days when you’re not feeling motivated, I think, are what separates freelancers that make it and those that don’t. Quite honestly, there’s nothing you can do if you have to get something done—you just have to do it. If not, you’re just a statistic and your clients will find other people to do the work. We have to work just as hard as anyone else—being creative or being self-employed is not an excuse. Forget finding your muse or whatever, just get to work. You can take breaks and try some brainstorming methods that work for you—I put on music and find an optimal setting—but otherwise, I just get to it. I also prioritize my work and don’t procrastinate so I’m hardly ever in a last-minute rush.

Kristen Fischer is a copywriter, journlist, author, and Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW) from NJ.

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I think she’s got that totally spot on, and totally covered. And now some tips and tricks from some more folks, that encompass moving your body, tunes to choose, and even a hairstyle that might work for you:

On days when I’m finding it tough to get going, but I need to get things done, I have a couple tricks I use. First, I try to boost my energy through some movement, whether that be a walk in the woods or a little shimmy in my studio. I always feel more awake and ready to take action after moving my body. If I’m still struggling, I’ll seek out some accountability through telling a friend (by email or phone) what my goals are for the day or by simply saying what I’m working on on Twitter. Just by putting it out there and knowing that someone else knows what I’m working on, I feel more motivated to get it done.

Leah Piken Kolidas is a mixed-media artist and creativity guide living near Boston with her four cats, husband, and their new baby.

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My tried and true method for getting unstuck is going outside and taking a walk. Being in nature gets my creative juices flowing, and even when my brain tells me I don’t have time for a walk, whenever I listen to my gut and take a break to get some fresh air, it always helps. My brain is usually spinning out of control when I’m stuck in a rut, telling me I’m not good enough and all that fun stuff, and being outside helps calm me down and focus on other things. Trees are my muse!

Jessica Swift is a full-time surface designer and artist living in Atlanta, GA, and my work is vibrant, colorful, and quirky.

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Well when I have the days that SUCK, I first go for a walk, a photo walk especially.  Where I can see things from another perspective. It might only be a 15 min walk but it makes all the difference in the world.  OR I might go and take 15 minutes to play with my kids to get out of my head. Both seem to work or at the very least give me a different mind set when I go back to whatever it is I need to get done.

Stefanie Reneé ~ a photographer, mother and joy seeker

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I keep very regular studio hours, even if it means sweeping the floor when I feel unmotivated. By standing next to work that needs to be done, I’m more likely to deal with it. When I have a specific deadline, to do lists keep me going and give me little boosts of motivation every time I can check something off.

I have very specific listening needs to push my productivity depending on what I’m doing: Framing = classical; painting = classic rock; sewing = audio books and podcasts. If all else fails, I head into my garden for a few minutes of fresh air. I always come up with solutions when I step away for a few minutes.

Kathryn Clark is a San Francisco fiber artist whose work revolves around the wabi-sabi principles of simplicity, imperfection and awareness of time.

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Although I do not have this issue on shoot days, I do find myself in this situation back in my studio when it’s time to post-process and to get a job delivered. When I feel the crunch, I go into “flip it!” mode: this entails double buns in my hair (I refer to this as my “happy hair”), a swath of red lipstick, a rapid ten minute walk around the block to get oxygenated and, upon return, a perfectly chosen playlist of music flowing from my speakers.

It is amazing the lift and enduring energy you can get from these few simple things. A bit of laughter, oxygen and spunk goes a long way. As far as music choices, this is up to you – I’d say any tunes that make you happy will be perfect! I’m a big fan of Pandora because there is no need to gobble up precious time building your own playlist. My standard working playlist is the ‘Mumford and Sons’ station but on days when I REALLY need a boost I crank up the ‘Opera, Classical Period’ station and immediately feel immersed in what feels like my very own movie.

Oh, and don’t forget to close your internet browser and even your email if you can! Nothing sucks away ones time and energy more than online procrastinating. I know this for a fact!

Leslie Lindell is a food, travel and lifestyle Photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area who is all about natural light, creating atmosphere and happy clients.

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When I’m feeling stuck I change my environment. If there’s time I’ll go for a quick walk in the park, but if there isn’t I’ll take my laptop and go work in a different part of my home—my home is a small one-bedroom flat, so this usually means moving from the living room to the bedroom or vice versa. Even moving from my desk to the sofa can help—I need to have something different in front of me. I occasionally try working in a cafe, but inevitably I find it too noisy and slink back home. Taking plenty of breaks to make a coffee or snack helps too—just standing up and stretching helps to break the panic.

Susannah Conway is a photographer, writer and creator of the Unravelling e-courses.

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The first thing I do is unplug from the internet and grab one of my guaranteed ‘to move me into creative action’ books. I plop down with a beautiful cup of coffee with lots of cream (even whipped cream) and read for 30 minutes. When I’m stuck it’s usually because I’m putting to much out — I find reading is a receptive and nourishing activity that stimulates ideas. It puts me in touch with the larger picture of why I do what I do. This perspective helps me gather up the day as’ just another day in the life’ and get back to work with a sense of larger purpose. If this doesn’t work, I drink whiskey and let the big mama in the sky do the creating through me.

Niya C Sisk is a writer, illustrator and brand consultant who lives in Northern CA with her macho rabbit Dakota, and his female harem of admirers. She is the founder and editor of the online flash fiction magazine, Curly Red Stories and is currently completing an illustrated children’s book.

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My tried and true method starts with the simple act of showing up.
For creative writing specifically I do three things:

  1. Show up at the page (I hand write my first drafts)
  2. Give myself permission to do it badly, to write the crappiest crap possible.
  3. Set a timer for 15 minutes and write as quickly as I can without taking the pen off the page.

Then I call my collaborator and friend Jen and read the piece to her. I am lucky because she can see the important nuggets in my fledgling pieces and encourages me to expand on those. She is the first person I have ever trusted to listen to my unfinished work. Such a gift!

Andrea Scher dreams big and is co-creator at Mondo Beyondo.

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So, what do you do when you are stuck on something, and there’s no getting out of the work ahead? Any tips to share, stories to tell or advice to lend, you can post it here!

14 thoughts on “How Do You Do a Bad Day?

  1. Thank god i am not the only one with bad days 😉
    I loved this one ! “Give myself permission to do it badly, to write the crappiest crap possible.”
    Thanks for the great tips!

  2. I have found that, with depression, anxiety and panic, the best way to counter the habits of stuckness is to develop other habits – good, helpful habits, that feel like pulling teeth or breaking my own bones to do at first, but are, slowly but surely, getting easier – regular creativity times, regular yoga (early morning before anything else sends a clear message to myself: I will put myself first and care for myself above all else). Doing these “habits” helps to make sure I rely less on stuck-stimulating habits.

  3. Such great responses from everyone! I’m especially responding to Andrea Scher’s comment right now about just showing up and giving yourself permission to do it badly. I always expect everything to perfect and amazing right away, but being gentle with myself and knowing that sometimes bad work is just part of the process would really help!

    Thanks for this post, Liz and everybody!

  4. This is a great article, I can relate to so many of the tips from other artists. The best thing we’ve done for our business is take one day off once a week, regardless off how much needs to get done. Otherwise, we could easily over-work ourselves, I remind my “normal job” friends that I don’t get that feeling of going home after work, and not having to worry about it until the next day. It is always there… and more stressful in most cases, because your success is totally depending on your decisions. We do wholesale orders, and although the amount of product that needs to be made can be overwhelming at first, setting goals and sticking to a set schedule from the day the order is placed until it is finished makes it much more manageable (and keeps the customers happy). Great advice!

  5. Oh, I just love what everyone wrote and since it’s raining outside today and not a day to get out there and walk – I will crank up the tunes and get down to it. The long list of to do’s today will get checked off, with the help from the peeps above.

    thanks liz – you are aweSOMe!


  6. This is something I’m struggling hugely with, even before my biz gets off the ground. My heart-goal is to run a kind of coaching business that involves me talking with clients in a counselling-type fashion. But some days, I can’t deal with people at all or seriously need my space. Those days are hard or impossible to predict! So how am I, as someone in a person-based biz rather than a creation biz, supposed to “power through” having a bad day?

    This potentiality (and eventuality) scares the crap out of me. How am I supposed to help someone else with their problems when I am in no position to hear them or be patient? “Just work” doesn’t seem to fit the bill in counselling settings.

    1. I would imagine that in some ways “powering though” is powering through no matter what you’re doing, and I know as I say that that I am not in a field where I am counseling others. Talk to your peers, interview people who are already doing what you are getting ready to do and get some different perspectives. Ask them questions about how they do it on a bad day. You’ll get your answers.

  7. When I feel like all creativity has completely drained from my bones & will never not ever return, I put on my “important artist” outfit, (complete with beret if necessary), crank up Cat Empire, and assume an attitude of someone who’s creative. If all else fails, I beg a few hours in a studio downtown …a change of walls does wonders.

  8. I have a nascent freelance writing business (going FT in June, woo!) but I already have several clients in addition to finishing out the term as a FT high school teacher.

    I have two things:

    Thing the First: I have tacked to the board behind my laptop Natalie Goldberg’s (“Writing Down The Bones” author) immortal three words of wisdom: Shitty Rough Draft.

    No matter how crappy the writing is, the important thing is to sit down and write. This is reassuring, even though I know I’m an outstanding writer. It takes some pressure off.

    I utilize Thing the Second often in conjunction with many procrastination-potentials, not just creative work: The Rule of 5.

    I gave it an impressive name, but it’s an idea tons of people have had before me, in one permutation or the other. The Rule of 5 states that no matter the task, all you have to do is 5.

    Five what? That’s flexible. Five minutes of writing, 5 words, 5 pages. Anything after that is gravy. 95% of the time, you keeping going after the 5…but if you don’t, YOU DID THE FIVE.

    This works for many things. Many times, I have washed a sink of dishes or cleaned a closet or written an article by invoking the Rule of 5. Commercial? Wash five dishes! Cleaning scary closet? Take out five things a day and toss, clean, put in proper place. Article? Write for 5 minutes each hour. Like I said, most of the time, you keep going. If not, there’s the next commercial or hour, and you keeping going anyway.

    So freeing yourself, even pseudo-psychosomatically (is that even a concept? I like it anyway) from perfection and time-restraints, can help immensely.

    1. Love this Erin, thanks so much for both The Five and Shitty Rough Draft. I am going to have to incorporate these great rules of life into my own life!

  9. When stuck (usually because a task is not going right) I turn to a couple of different techniques. I switch from the idea of ‘I need to finish this’ to a more rewarding mindset of ‘I will work on this for 2 hours and then have —— (a reward)’. Foolishly this works even if I know that I will probably have the task done in under two hours. And if the task is a lot longer than the time limit (I usually do keep it to 2 hours or less) I will have at least gotten that much more done. Then I can think up a new reward and start another block of work. Having that time limit with a reward enticing me from the other side is usually enough to get me going.
    The other thing I do is to practice a little active procrastination. If I cannot bear the thought of sitting down to my sewing machine to start something that will take several days to finish I warm up by making something that I can finish in under an hour. Once I am in the zone I can usually switch seamlessly onto the dreaded task.

  10. I appreciate the fact you are just keeping it real. Oh yes, we all have bad days even when we have been blessed and are able to do what we love.
    I find that sometimes the hardest thing to do is admit that I’m having a bad day and not push through. Being honest with myself and being able to accept the fact that I need a little time to myself, by going for a walk or getting fresh air and exercise {a huge help} is the key for me.

  11. Fantastic post – it is so encouraging to read all these different methods.
    For me – I put some “happy” music and dance for a little. Then I’ll do an easy little task that I know I will get done with a minimum of fuss.

    If I still feel stuck I’ll either go for a short walk or take my laptop to a cafe – or a mixture of both. And once there put my phone on a 15 minute timer.

    If still stuck i will bribe myself with something fun later – such as going out to see a film or an evening “off” with a good book.

    If I don’t have a deadline and it really and truly is a VERY BAD DAY – I just declare the day a holiday and do absolutely what ever I please. That could be going into town and seeing friends or it could be time in the studio just “playing” , or it could be going to get some nice ingredients and spending some time cooking. And I periodically ask myself ” What can I do to make today better ? ”

    Usually, after I have had these “bad days turned good” I am back on track with more energy than ever the next day.

  12. such good stuff Liz. and so many great perspectives on how to get past that bad day. sometimes, as Rob said in the podcast we all did together :) ‘you’ve just got to get her done’
    It always feels good to get it done too, which often helps the bad day become better.

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