What I do when I’m not inspired to do anything


Those of you with a touch of mania understand the glorious thrill of getting gobs of stuff done.

And I’m not talking about stuff you can cross off of a list (although that’s nice, too): I’m talking about the wildly productive times in your week, month, year when it feels like you’re surfing wave after wave of ideas, gently (but gloriously, and thrillingly) supported by the powerful, shifting, magical waters of inspiration beneath you. Good times, a.k.a. cowabunga.

I get that because I’ve got a touch of the mania, myself. And a healthy (or not) streak of Calvinism, and a predisposition towards “-aholism”, so far, the “work-” kind, but I know enough to stay on the alert for the others, as well. My most comfortable setting is “full-bore”; unfortunately, up until recently, the only other setting I could find was “off,” and “off” is a bitch for maniacs. I realize now, after years and years (and, um, years) of therapy that because I love operating in “full-bore” mode so much, I got used to operating in it under all conditions, with and without inspiration, or sleep, or oil, or what have you, until I’d lost the sense of what it felt to really surf the waves.

Fellow surfers and maniacs, this may surprise you as much as it did me, but not every day is a wave day. (Or week, or month, or year, even, but more on that in another post.) There are days (and weeks and months and yes, goddammit, years) when it seems like everyone else around you is up on their boards, inspired as a mofo, surfing the hell out of those ideas, while you are left to softly weep and/or curse what feels like incessant paddling for piddling surf-action, or a complete disinterest in the whole thing entirely. Entirely! As in, “Why am I even at this stupid beach in a stupid spring suit when I really want to be watching Cops at the Surf Shack over a tallboy?”

The answer, sometimes, is as simple as “because you’re supposed to be at the Surf Shack drinking a tallboy over Cops, dumbass.” Other times, it’s something not as simple, like a physiological something-or-other that needs sorting, more sleep or less sugar or fewer tallboys, even. It is beyond the scope of a silly, silly blog (or even this most excellent one) to address the exact underlying cause of your misery.

However, because I am me, I will lob a few things over the net for you to think about. This is a list of stuff that’s worked for me in the short term (when I can remember to do one of them, anyway), so your mileage will almost assuredly vary, but it may spark something.

1. Switch that shit up. If you’re in front of the computer, walk away. Far away, to the closest bit of nature and/or living manifestation of the animal kingdom that you can find. Lately, I’ve taken to enjoying two (short) meals per day on the backyard patio with a book and Arno J., who I’m pretty sure is only there in the hopes that I will either drop some of the food (fat chance, dog) or cave and let him lick the plate when I’m done.

On the other hand, if you’re not at a computer, if you’re painting or tinkering or what-have-you in a real-world fashion and it’s not coming together, switch that shit up, anyway. Or, if you’re tired, rest. Rest is switching, too, maniacs.

2. Take a walk. When you’re stuck, and every day, even when you’re not. Some people swear by swimming or running; I’ve always loathed both, so I’m not qualified to speak to their efficacy. A walk, sans iPod, will almost always do it, though. And (BONUS EXTRA) a walk done regularly seems to stave off some of the fallow time.

3. Clean something small. Your sink. A not-too-challenging shelf or drawer. A tabletop. A computer file folder, if you haven’t been spending too much time in front of the computer already. Something that will either prime the pump (your small thing is a test to see if that’s what’s needed) or act as a mental palate cleanser. (BONUS EXTRA: sense of accomplishment, which is great for maniacs.)

If you look at these three sample things, you can see that they all have to do with reflection, rejuvenation or high-level procrastination. They’re all components of staying motivated and inspired, and you can plug any one of them into Google and it will likely return all sorts of other ideas, if you haven’t thought of them already. But that last, high-level procrastination, I have found to be most useful for me as a true maniac. I’m not good at sitting still and I’m really bad at napping, but boy, do I like to putter. And for me, the puttering is often a way out of the doldrums.

As I hinted at, above, these are sometime-solutions for short-term lack of inspiration and motivation. Long-term wandering in the desert is another story for another day (and one I’ve got a fair amount of experience with, as well, so perhaps there will be another post on another day).

Also, a little kindness and a little perspective go a long, long way. Self-flagellation might have been good for martyrs, but it rarely works for producing great works*.

And finally (for now, anyway), please do yourself this small favor and remind yourself that it was not ever thus. You will be inspired again, and motivated, and manic, and surf-y. Until you’re not.

There’s just a way these things work. And don’t…



Image by Mike Baird via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

*See my friend, the great Jeffrey Zeldman, for more on this. That man has surfed more waves and, I’m sure, been beached on more shores already than I will in my hopefully-long lifetime.


  1. Puttering is the central force of my life. I can’t tell you how many times puttering has returned me to me. I now feel quite professional at it.

  2. I love the analogy that not every day is a wave day. Sometimes I’m okay at meeting myself there and accepting it, and other times not so much. Hiking with my dog works magic when I’m stuck. Lately almost so much magic that I worry I’ll turn it into a productivity tool, and that would be very bad. Um, right? It’s the remembering to walk away when I’m stuck and not push harder…thanks for the reminder!

  3. I have just recently run across your work and I am so delighted I have. It makes me insanely happy as I can relate to you so well. I am afraid to put in writing just how well I can relate to your quitting smoking post. HA! I am also a maniac that can’t sit still but will blow up after too much ‘constant, driven to continual accomplishment moments.’ I thank you for permission to merely ‘putter.’ I actually have a different name (I call it “dinking around”) but it is the same. Now I can view that as productive as well! Thanks for making me laugh.

  4. i believe in the cleaning thing (and I am NOT a neat freak in the slightest). Cleaning is especially good when I’ve got my mad on.

    Just out of curiosity, must the walk be sans iPod and, if so, why?

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