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Mental fatigue, boredom, and allowing time off for better performance

For the past two weeks, I’ve been feeling an expanding unwillingness to do the work—a strengthening of resistance towards game development, writing, and creative output in general.

At first, my daily productivity halved through a week. I went from 6 focused hours to 3-4 scatterbrained hours a day.

Then, the following week, those hours became a mess of distractions and boredom. What little was left of my focus grew hazy, my performance turned disjointed, and random internet surfing became frequent.

This wasn’t quite burnout. I still had some desire to do something. Just not the same writing & game development routine I’ve been doing for months. I felt bored, uninspired, and agitated by a slow sense of progress. I needed a break. Yet, taking a break always feels like a betrayal.

Two voices in my mind pulled me in different directions.

On the right, there’s Steven Pressfield, the author of The War of Art. His strict, authoritarian mantra clearly demands:

The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying. 

Steven Pressfield

In his book, every day is a battle in a war against resistance. To fight it, the artist must harden and immerse themself in their work with absolute dedication.

But the war is never-ending, and resistance is ever relentless. Ammunition tends to run out if one doesn’t take care to refill the stock.

On the left is the voice of Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way. Her ethereal, relaxed demeanor whispers:

The creative process is a process of surrender, not control. 

Julia Cameron

Her book, on the other hand, is all about letting go. To refill the creative well, the artist must relinquish rigidity and allow themself rest and playfulness. Allow the whims of both the internal and the external worlds to surprise and inspire.

The two authors are not the polar opposites I’m framing them as. However, I can’t help but feel a sense of Yin and Yang in their approaches. I find both books complement each other well, catering to the same artistic truths. Recommended reading if you’re not averse to intuitive, unscientific thinking with sometimes religious overtones. Or even if you are (averse) but want to develop creative faculties further and challenge your openness to ideas.

Though both books cater to the artistic label, the ideas are applicable outside of art. No matter what sort of creative or thinking work you’re doing, the processes are similar and mentally tasking. With Solomeow’s Magic Blast, I’m focused on creating pure entertainment, not video game art. But to me, doing the work, there’s little difference.

Burnout sucks

I’ve encountered burnout before. An ugly thing. It takes you out of commission for long stretches of time, replacing creative joy with apathy. You get enveloped in a complete lack of desire, loss of motivation, detachment, and defeat.

Each time it happened, I’ve previously been stuck in a hypnotic rut. Ignoring signs of fatigue, I was pressing on. The anxiety born of incompleteness and failure fueled me. Once the excitement and creative desire run out, anxiety is all that’s left. Perhaps I was over-compensating for all the times in my life I spent procrastinating or wallowing inside a cushy comfort zone like a piglet in mud.

Sooner or later, even that fuel source would run out, and I’d just stop.

Turn inert.

Hard to prod to action again.

But, with a listless detachment from anxiety, despite my goals, I would finally rest. For months.

Eventually, vigor would return, and I’d be back to organizing a new productive routine. A little wiser for the wear.

I’ve since learned to pay heed to fatigue and allow myself frequent breaks; especially when anxious thoughts arise, which seek to condemn me for being lazy. Those make it really hard to break the rut. Needing rest but refusing to is life-draining and always leads to an increase in procrastination. 

This time, instead of waging war against resistance, I raised a little white flag and retreated from the battlefield. A week or two off, right away, are far better than months of despondent burnout down the line.

Two of the most popular methods in The Artist’s Way, to regenerate creativity and cultivate growth as an artist, are:

  • Morning pages (three pages of unedited, stream-of-consciousness handwriting, done every morning)
  • Artist’s date (going way outside of your routine and rewarding yourself for one day each week)

I’m not a fan of morning pages. Writing by hand agitates me, and I already journal often. Typing out thoughts freely and indiscriminately is indeed cathartic and self-exploratory.

The artist’s date, I love. Taking a day off from daily routine and deliberately going outside of your usual zone, works wonders to refuel the mind. But occasionally, you need more than a day. You need an Artist’s leave.

Unplugging for a week of active (mental) recovery

Rest doesn’t need to be total inactivity.

One useful concept physical exercise taught me is the active recovery approach. Moving the body following high-intensity exercise speeds up the recovery process. This movement needs to be gentle enough for muscles and the central nervous system to recover but active enough to amplify blood flow.

Unless dealing with total burnout, I find the same works with mental recovery. Instead of sedating myself with gaming or TV, I prefer to dive into hobbies and activities far removed from my work. A vacation away from home would also work well, but I don’t do those often.

First, I unplugged my workstation and picked apart the GPUs and CPU. It was time to wash the fans and heat-sinks anyway, with the added benefit of not being able to habitually jump into my usual routine.

Instead, I used mobile devices to further my knowledge of weight-lifting and various exercises. I’ve wanted to start a more aggressive workout routine for a while and to move away from my 3/week full-body approach. I settled on this Pull Push Legs split.

Reinvigorating the mind through physical exertion

There’s something great about moving the body. I find a long, daily walk calms and focuses the mind. While vigorous exercise, over time, increases energy reserves, mental resilience, and overall dedication.

Then there’s the release of endorphins (the feel-good hormones) and a general reduction in cortisol and adrenaline (the stress hormones). Plus, a better quality of sleep and higher attunement with the body.

Cortisol, in particular, is a big one. Spending your days sitting, thinking, and (eventually) worrying; being fueled by copious amounts of caffeine; having poor sleep hygiene—all lead to chronic stress. Which often means elevated cortisol levels.

Regular exercise helps improve sleep quality, reduce stress, and improve overall health, which can help lower cortisol over time.

It has also been associated with greater resilience to acute stress and may lower negative health effects associated with stress. 

From on Exercise’s impact on cortisol 

Exercise itself is a welcome respite from hard mental work. I used to hate it with a passion. A fact my midsection and poor posture clearly betray. But today, I welcome it. Greedily.

Exercising has done more for my creativity and craftsmanship than any amount of hours spent “soaking in knowledge” through idle research.

There’s no room for conceptual problem-solving or worrying when you’re out of breath or when you have to take care not to injure yourself. While possessing explosive strength and stamina feels good on its own.

This is not to say exercise is a mindless activity. Prolonged exertion is mentally tasking and can reduce both cognitive and exercise performance. Likewise, pre-existing mental fatigue makes exercise harder.

As I usually workout in the afternoon, I used this off-week to move throughout the days. Aside from the 6-day PPL split, I went on several long hikes and a couple of short runs alongside my usual daily walks. It culminated with a 40km mountain hike on Sunday.

Zagreb’s Medvednica is always beautiful, but especially this time of year. New spring washes it with warm sunlight while patches of old snow remain, magnifying a sense of freshness and vitality.

My knees were spent from overuse, so the following Monday was a couch-potato day. While I didn’t feel like moving at all, my mind felt refreshed. Firing up Unity and fiddling with its abstruse UI systems no longer bored me.

The PPL split proved good, though time-consuming. So, for now, I’ll utilize it every other week as I figure out how to better juggle the increased physical load with game development.