If you’ve ever been stuck inside for a prolonged period during a storm, you’re probably familiar with cabin fever -- the state of anxiety, restlessness and boredom that arises from being trapped in a confined place.
But what about the cabin fever we inflict on ourselves? You don’t have to be walled up inside a house to experience its effects -- it creeps in through your own harmless routine: driving the same route to the office, working long hours at your desk, running meetings, going to tried-and-true lunch spots, stopping by the grocery store on the way home.
This kind of monotonous activity can cause what I call ‘creative’ cabin fever. You aren’t trapped inside with 10 feet of snow, but your creative capacities have completely frozen up.
Three signs your creativity is suffering from cabin fever.
Routine makes us feel safe and in control and most of the time, it helps us get unglamorous chores done without a lot of effort (laundry, anyone?). But a prolonged state of repetitive activities isn’t healthy and degrades creative thinking. Here’s how:
Tunnel vision: When you’re stuck in the same mode of acting and thinking, it’s easy to get fixated on small or unimportant details that don’t matter. If you’re not present with your thoughts, you’ll be more dismissive of new ideas, less appreciative of loved ones and less curious about what’s going on around you -- all things that have a major impact on creativity.
Burnout: Creative ideas that might typically present themselves without much effort don’t seem to be coming. Instead of taking a break, you push forward, working longer hours while getting fewer things done and making sloppy mistakes. You’ll experience that classic “spinning of the wheels” feeling, which can take a toll on your cognitive and creative capacities.
Lazy thinking: In the same way that sitting around your house all day can make you feel restless and bored, being trapped in your work routine can turn you into a lazy thinker. Lazy thinking may be associated with an uninspired or dull feeling (a ‘who cares’ kind of day) or it might happen over time as you become less challenged and more routinized in your work. If you’re resorting to the same tricks and status quo answers, you’re not using your creative faculties.
How to overcome ‘creative’ cabin fever.
When you’re knee-deep in a project, it might seem contradictory to stop working. But that’s exactly what you should do. Research shows that when you’re relaxed and distracted (after a shower, for example) your brain is more receptive to the flow of dopamine -- a key trigger for creativity. It’s often those 10 minutes away from your phone and daily life that you have time to process ideas without intense focus and let your subconscious take over. So, what are some ways to get relaxed and distracted?
- Go on a hike or run that you’ve never been on. As research studies show, exercise is great for your overall happiness and creativity. It distracts you from your normal environment and releases “feel-good” brain chemicals like endorphins. Try going for a hike or run that you’ve never been on. The challenge of a new experience will force you to think through problems in a different way.
- Spend time outside in nature. Being outside is often an overlooked part of our day -- we spend over 90 percent of our time indoors. Don’t underestimate the power of nature on your mental state. Dubbed by some researchers as “forest therapy,” nature has proven in several studies to reduce things that affect your creativity like mental fatigue and stress.
- Read a book that’s collecting dust on your shelf. Reading a book can stimulate creative faculties that make you a better writer, listener, and imaginative thinker. To truly disengage with work, try reading a book unrelated to your industry. It’s likely to teach you something new or spark interest and curiosity.
- Practice meditation and mindfulness. A study published by Biological Psychiatry shows that meditation has a positive impact on your health. Meditation not only relaxes the brain, but also helps you live in the moment. As researcher and professor Dr. J. David Creswell points out, “mindful meditation” demands “an open and receptive, nonjudgmental awareness of your present-moment experience.” You can be more attuned to creative opportunities when you’re mindful and grateful. (If you’re new to meditation, try out a yoga class.)
- Spend time with friends and family. Set aside quality time for your biggest supporters, your friends and family. Spending time with loved ones is an important part of work-life balance (and it’s often the best part of the day). Your friends and family will remind you that huge work problems often aren’t really that big at all.
Rather than wait until your creativity is suffering from cabin fever, take control. Make relaxation a weekly priority by blocking out periods of time away from the office and spending time in nature. It might feel risky giving up precious work hours to take a break. But in an economy that places a high premium on creativity, it’s a bigger risk not to.