I talk about mental health a lot it seems. I started a video series interviewing creatives who struggle with it. I talk openly about taking anxiety medication. The COVID-19 pandemic brought mental health to the forefront while everyone was forced to isolate and deal with the struggles alone. Honestly, I think I was more prepared than most. It wasn’t until this past year that I took more of an active role in my mental health care and incorporated strategies into my creative process.
A lot of designers will talk about the creative process or design thinking when it comes to strategy of design and all of that is true. It has been the system for a lot of creatives for a very long time and for good reason: it works. For me, only some of those steps are feasible some of the time when I work a full time job, run my own business, take care of my mother, keep my apartment clean-ish, cook (sometimes), and still try to maintain a social life. Throughout my high school and college career, I was a workaholic. I was trying to do anything and everything to keep myself busy and it was exhausting. After college, I had to make some hard decisions about how to use my time because I couldn’t do as much anymore.
Now that I have so much more to take care of, staying creative all the time has become a struggle, so I’ve stopped trying to be creative all the time. I’m incorporating my mental health into my creative process to keep myself sane and healthy and here’s how I’m doing it.
I used to work anywhere at any time. I would bring my laptop everywhere so I could work whenever I have downtime. You can imagine that got old real quick. So now, I have a dedicated work space at home, so when I sit down in my office chair, my body and mind knows it’s time to work. I keep my desk clean (compared to the rest of my room) to keep my mind clutter free when I’m working. Everything I need is within arms reach. I also have some things in my space to keep myself calm when I start to stress out. I have some green plants and a few aquariums in my room to give me mental breaks. I’ll get up and interact with my betta fish for a few minutes while I think a problem through in my head. I’ll even talk to them like they’re my coworkers!
My work space also has a beanbag chair for longer meetings so I can get comfy while still working. I’ll sketch out logos or read a book or have my evening meetings from this beanbag chair. It helps me stay in the work mood while making sure my body isn’t fatigued either.
I am no longer afraid to take time off. I haven’t figured out how to not feel guilty, but that’s a process I’m working through. Because I have long and flexible work hours, I take time off when I can. I will shut my laptop down and leave it upstairs in my work space, so when I’m downstairs watching baseball with my mom, nothing is disturbing me. I will also schedule time with friends, time with my partner, and even self-care time. When my phone dings to remind me that self-care time is coming up, I know to wrap up whatever I’m doing and start again another time.
My time off also means that I take time to meditate. I use the Headspace app to practice breathing exercises and keep myself relaxed when I go back to work. I also make sure that I am doing things during my breaks to keep my body happy. Usually during my breaks, I take naps. I’m the nap queen.
Speaking of scheduling, I rely HEAVILY on my calendar. Almost to the point of obsession, but it helps keep my busy mind at ease. Everything is in my calendar, so I don’t have to actively remember dates or times or projects. My mind can be focused on what I’m doing now and not what’s next because my calendar does that for me. I keep every event in my calendar, all my selfcare times, friend hangouts, trainings, and more. I will also block off time to work on projects with specific deadlines to make sure I meet those deadlines.
My calendar also allows me to set limits and boundaries. If a work day looks full, I know not to schedule meetings then. Having my calendar allows me to say no sometimes to clients, so I can say yes to myself and yes to better outcomes. I also have a disclaimer in my email that lets my clients know that just because I am emailing them at a time that works for me, it doesn’t mean they have to email me back when it’s inconvenient for them. This keeps both parties within our own comfy boundaries.
All of this sounds like a lot (and it is sometimes), but it keeps me accountable. I can see what needs to be done each week and how I can work around those times to stay sane. I also have people in my life to hold me accountable. I have a tendency to place work before myself, so I have my partner and therapist to hold me accountable. My therapist keeps me accountable for my thoughts and feelings and makes sure I take time every few weeks to talk about it. My partner makes sure I take care of myself. They know when I’m stressed out and can say “hey, let’s go for a walk and find a bookstore to explore somewhere”. So, when I schedule time with my partner, that time is mine and I am not responding to emails or text. I am with them and them only.
Medication also keeps me accountable. If I don’t take my meds, I tend to lose control of my emotions and that can have some serious effects on my health and wellbeing. When I’m a mental mess, I can’t get ANYTHING done.
These are all the ways that my mental health is prioritized in my creative process. So, if I say to a client that I can’t squeeze in a meeting on my designated time off, I mean it. You can’t pour from an empty glass. All of these strategies and resources help me stay happy and creative and able to do my best work!