During the month of December 2015 I decided not to use social media, read blogs, watch videos, or listen to podcasts. If you haven’t read it yet, you can check out my earlier post that I wrote before the experiment for more details, including why I wanted to do this.
What I hoped to achieve was to get some clear head space and dedicate more time to exploring my personal art. It was also a nice way to wrap up the year and make sure that what I’m doing in my business is what I really want to be doing.
I do week-long media retreats a couple of times a year, but a week really flies by and just when I get into the groove, I “have” to come back (or so I thought). This time I allowed for a longer period to see much deeper I could take this.
Not everything went the way I anticipated, but I got so many unexpected rewards, that I’m in no way sorry. You’re probably curious to hear what it was like, so here we go.
It’s not about deprivation
Before I get into the good stuff, I want to emphasize that this retreat is not about depriving yourself of the things you enjoy. It’s not about forcing yourself to do something you don’t feel like.
I chose this because I knew it would feel good. Being active on half a dozen social networks and staying on top of blogs and podcasts was making me feel overwhelmed. I chose a method that seemed attractive to me at the moment to deal with this.
This past year I’ve been on a mission to do the things that feel good as much as possible, and this has helped me get out of depression, grow my business and create a lifestyle I enjoy. The Creative Clarity Retreat has not only been an integral part of this mission, it’s been a catalyst for more good things to emerge.
Disclaimers aside, let’s see what came out of this retreat.
Art? What art?
Uh, yeah. I’m a bit ashamed to write this, but there’s no going around it – I didn’t create as much art as I hoped.
All right, I didn’t create any finished artworks at all.
One part of the problem is that I was working on a sketchbook project for an upcoming art show for the better part of the month. The project had a deadline, so I didn’t even think about new paintings until that was done.
Obviously, I didn’t plan out this retreat very well, but at least this gave me ideas on how I can approach it next time.
It was only on my vacation (last week of December and first week of January) that I started working on some personal works. There’s a half-finished inked drawing that I still need to paint with watercolor, and an acrylic painting on canvas with only the base layers worked in. I’d like to complete them over the weekends in January, but we’ll see how that goes.
Writing like a maniac
I wrote a month’s worth of blog posts in the first week of my retreat alone, and what I wrote was much better than a lot of the stuff I wrote before. Since I wasn’t occupied with reading what other people wrote, I found more and more ideas to write about.
If I hadn’t been writing that much, I might have been drawing and painting more, but I felt so inspired and didn’t want to stop writing. Eventually, this urge to write subsided, and in the latter weeks I didn’t write any blog posts.
It’s funny that I named this mission “Creative Clarity Retreat” and expected a completely different form of clarity, but I got all other kinds of clarity in abundance.
This isn’t surprising, because the way I look at it, art is never “just art”. Art is a mirror of our inner world. Being stuck artistically often means being stuck in other areas of life, while being creatively prolific and free can bring a sense of freedom and wealth in other areas – that’s been my personal experience, at least.
Our relationship to art can reveal many clues to our life in general. I know this sounds very mystical, but if you were tracing the patterns in your own life, I’m sure you’d find something similar.
Making a conscious effort to change this aspect of your life brings an avalanche of other unexpected changes, and some of them are scary. The act of facing the canvas reveals a whole lot more than we bargained for. A part of me knew this, and it kept throwing things in my face just so I wouldn’t have the time to do what I set out to do.
Just before my retreat officially started, I cleaned out my studio and storage space from a bunch of stuff I no longer wanted to keep. This included some old art that I didn’t feel attached to.
I never threw away a drawing, painting or a sketch in my life, and I didn’t think I could – but I felt a sense of pleasure getting rid of all those attempts at something that I didn’t even enjoy, and ideas from a long time ago that I gave up on.
It felt right to go into this unburdened by the past.
I took decluttering into other areas of my home, and have since put away or thrown out a bunch of old clothes I no longer want to wear, trash that I was keeping around for “upcycling”, products past their expiration date etc.
I also cleared a lot of the digital stuff I was hoarding on my computer and phone. I deleted the books I have no intention of reading and music from my angsty hardcore teenage years. This may not seem like it’s connected to my intention, but for me it was a great exercise in discernment and clarifying what I want.
The thing that creeped up on me (probably due to all that deleting) was the feeling of knowing for sure what I need to do without second guessing, which is pretty unusual for me.
I realized after completing the Savarakatini branding that I want to focus on hand-lettered logos. It just sunk in, and the next day I rewrote my logo design services page to give more emphasis to lettering.
I started saying “No” like a MOFO, even to people very close to me (which is super difficult). Having so much clarity about what I want made it a lot easier, and I didn’t feel as guilty because I knew what I would have to give up if I said “Yes”.
Clarity is scary because knowing things for certain means doing something about it, but being in my head became way more comfortable as I wasn’t worrying as much. If there was something bothering me, I trusted that after I did some writing about it, and then let it go for a while, I’d know what to do. I released the need to obsess about unresolved issues.
Turning my inquiry process into a daily habit
The issue of not creating art was bothering me a lot during the entire course of the retreat, and I journaled about it regularly. I asked myself questions about what was happening and identified some useful elements.
Some of my fears about creating work that isn’t “good enough” surfaced yet again, and I worked on that some more. I reminded myself that the process takes the time it takes, and willing it to be faster doesn’t help.
Even though I haven’t created much art, I have a wealth of notes on what’s in the way and how to change it. Not only that, but I got into the regular practice of making inquiry about things that are showing up, and this practice helped me in other areas of life as well.
Lisa Sonora’s course Creative + Practice has helped in examining and learning new things about my inquiry process, and I’m so glad that it coincided with my retreat.
By the end of the third week of my retreat I started noticing a pattern: I kept inventing new assignments that would prevent me from finally doing the thing I intended (drawing and painting).
The week before Christmas was my last work week before my vacation, and I buckled down to complete as many things as I was able to. Of course, I set out to complete more than was physically possible. But even in the wake of realizing that I’m not able to do as many tasks as I intended, I kept adding more tasks on top of that. It became so obvious, that I had to stop and think about this.
I realized that a lot of the things I “had” to do were things I didn’t actually want to do, and it wasn’t necessary for me to do them. These supposed obligations were just a distraction, because I was afraid to be fully responsible to myself.
Once I figured that out, the pressure of all the “things to do” subsided, and I ended the workweek quite content – even though I wasn’t actually drawing and painting yet.
Lowered capacity for information
After I came back to social media and blogs, I noticed that I no longer have the compulsive need for consuming media, and when I felt tired, I have no interest in it.
For example, I usually listen to podcasts and read blog posts when I ride the bus, but after the retreat I preferred riding the bus just looking out the window listening to music, or meditating.
I’m more selective about media now, and I’m able to ignore the majority of headlines that I only have a mild interest in, or if it’s a topic I feel I know enough about.
I understand now that I may need to change my media consumption habits permanently. The retreat was just the beginning, and now I want to bring the qualities of the retreat into my daily life for good. This might require letting go of some of my social media channels, and cutting down on the number of blogs and newsletters I read.
Facing my fear of missing out so directly by literally missing out on a month’s worth of updates has been super therapeutic. It feels good to know that I can access whatever I need at any time, but that I also don’t have to.
The impact on my website traffic
If you’re a blogger yourself, you might be wondering how not posting anything on social media affected my website traffic. I didn’t automate posts, so my social channels were frozen during December.
Social media amounts to less than 10% of my total traffic on average. More than half of total visitors come to my website from search engines. For this reason, the impact of my lack of social media marketing has been very small.
The number of unique visitors and visits was 5-8% lower than the previous month. Since my stats fluctuate a lot, I can’t say for certain that my numbers would be bigger if I continued posting on social media, but let’s say for the sake of argument that this was the only reason why my traffic decreased. Less than 10% decrease in traffic is something I’d gladly trade in for all the benefits I wrote about above.
This experiment is not only something I’d recommend to anyone who is curious to try it out, but I want to make it a regular thing. I already mentioned that it’s my intention to make December 2016 completely unplugged. It sounds far-fetched at the moment, but I know there must be a way.
I’ve gotten so many ideas and insights out of this retreat, and I expect that I’ll share some of them in my future blog posts. A lot of unknowns came up that I barely scratched the surface of, but I’m sure that things will get clearer in the months to come.
Out of the many ideas that came up, there are two that I’m feeling ready to commit to.
The 3 month buffer
There’s an interesting idea that I’ve read about in a book by Mark McGuinness “Motivation for creative people”*. In the chapter on getting back on your “path” after allowing outside influences to affect your art, Mark shares the story of a painter who had this problem.
If you’ve read my post before the retreat, you know that the issue I wanted to resolve was to release the pressure of outside expectation, and untangle the act of creating art from the act of public sharing.
To separate the creation process from the process of publishing, Mark suggests to put your finished works into “cold storage” for 3 months, and not showing them to anyone else during this time. After 3 months are up, you can decide whether to publish it, sell it, keep it or scrap it.
I want to try this, and I think I’ll start with these new pieces that I’m creating – which means that you won’t be able to see them immediately, but only in the late spring at the earliest. At any different time I’d think this was a ludicrous idea, but right now it sounds like exactly the perfect thing I need.
One of the ideas that emerged during the retreat was the practice of sabbaticals dedicated to creating art.
Right now I can only manage sketches on a regular basis, since they don’t take a lot of time. My “real” artworks take 10-20 or more hours each, and it’s not possible for me to spare that much time in a single week, not even on weekends.
One of the things I want to implement in my business are regular sabbaticals every 7th week, which is an idea I got from Sean McCabe. In 2015 I’ve had 3 sabbatical weeks: two regular vacations and one week off following a burnout.
Having every 7th week off sounds impossible. And yet, I know how these things work – the less time you have, the more organized you get. If I had to do 7 weeks’ worth of work in 6 weeks, I’d manage it. (In fact, I just did.)
I realized I want to dedicate these sabbaticals to art. Or more specifically, to painting, which is why I named them “Painting Week”. I’m going to elaborate on this more in a future post, but I’ll just say that I’m very excited about this, and I can’t wait for the next sabbatical to try it out. I honestly don’t know if I would have even thought of this if it weren’t for this retreat.
That’s it from me for now, and now I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Would you be willing to give up all online media (except e-mail) for a month?
Why, or why not?
Have you ever done such a thing, and what was your experience like? I’d love to hear about it – please share in the comments.
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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