The Key to Creative Work Is Knowing When to Walk Away
The discipline to stop is just as important as sitting down each day to start
There is a moment in the Netflix documentary series Abstract that’s stayed with me: Illustrator Christoph Niemann is hard at work when he notices that it’s 6 p.m. Without hesitation, he stops what he’s doing, grabs his jacket, and leaves the office. As a viewer, I was shocked. Isn’t clock-watching only for people who hate their jobs? Wasn’t he in his flow? What if he couldn’t find his rhythm again tomorrow?
Over the next few days, I became obsessed with this seemingly small moment. “Discipline equals freedom,” as in the book by former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink, had been my oft-repeated mantra. But this made me question everything I’d been taught about the importance of muscling through creative projects. Was that even “discipline” at all?
Do you know what spurs my best ideas? My wife. My kids. My friends. Good conversation. Green grass. Tall trees. A run. A book.
Niemann has discipline. He’s clearly incredibly productive: He’s had more New Yorker covers than any other artist. And he obviously knows exactly when to stop.
This makes total sense. Do you know what spurs my best ideas? My wife. My kids. My friends. Good conversation. Green grass. Tall trees. A run. A book. Not sitting at my desk.
Yet almost every evening when my energy is running down — and even when I truly know that whatever I’m working on will be better served tomorrow — my wife still has to call my name three times just to get me to come to dinner.
No one’s perfected the creative process. And we’re all different: There are times when I know I should push through inertia or boredom, or postpone a meal in order to stay in the flow. But that doesn’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t even always work for me. What I hadn’t considered, and what that otherwise unremarkable scene in Abstract helped me realize, was that the discipline to stop matters just as much as the discipline to sit down each day to start.
Life itself — the time spent away from work — often turns out to be the key to keeping our creative brains in good working order. It’s challenging, and crucial, to remember that simple fact when I’m letting my wife know that I’ll be just one more minute. It would be better, most days, to stop before my name is called.