The Creativity Cycle

By Shamus Posted Sunday Apr 12, 2015

Filed under: Personal 75 comments

A few days ago I said this on Twitter:

When I’m feeling very creative, I generally exhibit a well-defined set of behaviors:

  1. Being unable to stop creating. Like, I start thinking about stuff I want to do the moment I wake up, and I go to sleep only when my brain completely flames out. Between these points, I spend every possible moment working on stuff. Sometimes I’ll take a break from one creative project by working on a completely different project. (Like stopping writing so I can compose music, and then taking a break from music for programming.)
  2. My sleep schedule “rolls forward”. Since I don’t want to stop working, I generally stay up as long as possible. Without an alarm clock keeping me on a fixed schedule, I end up staying up later each day, living on a kind of 24.5 hour clock. My sleep schedule might roll forward an entire day in the space of a month.
  3. I listen to a lot of music.
  4. I’m very keen on sensory input. Food tastes awesome and I eat lots of itUsually junk food, since I’m unwilling to stop working long enough to prepare something healthy.. Other appetites increase accordingly.
  5. I talk a lot. I talk fast. I interrupt a lot because the ideas are coming so fast I sort of neglect the whole “social graces” end of conversation.
  6. I’m more physically active. I spend more time wrestling with the kids and dancing with the wife. I bound up stairs, fidget in my chair, and pace whenever I’m not at the computer creating stuff.
  7. I tend not to worry. “Things will work out fine in the end.”

This manic sometimes lasts for months. It’s always a bummer when it ends. When it does, the pendulum swings back the other way. I have no desire to be creative. I lose interest in games and music. I’m physically more sedentary. I worry more. Instead of interrupting, my mind wanders and I don’t have much to sayIt’s entirely possible my conversational failings aren’t anything to do with mental state and I’m just a simple jerk.. I also feel depressed. Not the soul-crushing sadness of clinical depression, but a sort of low-level general inability to take joy in things. I’m not sad, just sort of indifferent and bored.

It would make sense to me if I was up when things were going well and down when sad things happened. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’m down now, and nothing particularly bad has happened. I was way up a month ago, and things were actually going kind of crappy at the time.

I have this suspicion that this cycle isn’t unusual. I’m willing to bet that lots of people have ups and downs that are more to do with brain chemistry and less to do with how things are going in their life. I doubt I’m all that unique. But I don’t know for sure. Most people have very “noisy” lives: They interact with a lot of other people and have a ton of random stimuli. Other people can alter your mood through kindness or cruelty, and I’m a rare person that doesn’t experience a lot of that kind of inputEr. I guess I get a ton of it through the internet, but almost nothing in the way of personal face-to-face conflict. I think the two are pretty different.. Same routine. Same people. Same food. No alcohol or caffeine. The repetition makes it really easy for me to pick out shifts in my mood, which might be difficult or impossible in a busy lifestyle of personal politics, bad traffic, jerk coworkers, office parties, and the stress of pleasing an employer with vague goals.

After sharing my thoughts on Twitter, a couple of people messaged me (and some even emailed) expressing concern. So I’m writing this post to encourage you not to worry. I’m fine. I don’t bring this up because I’m suffering or need help. I bring it up because I find it interesting, and I figure other people out there probably experience similar patterns. Maybe someone else will recognize themselves in this and it’ll help them better understand their own mood shifts. Or maybe it will just feel good to discover they’re not alone.

Anyway, now I’m just slogging through my writing duties and hoping the next upswing hits soon. Fingers crossed.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Usually junk food, since I’m unwilling to stop working long enough to prepare something healthy.

[2] It’s entirely possible my conversational failings aren’t anything to do with mental state and I’m just a simple jerk.

[3] Er. I guess I get a ton of it through the internet, but almost nothing in the way of personal face-to-face conflict. I think the two are pretty different.



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75 thoughts on “The Creativity Cycle

  1. James Schend says:

    I’m jealous. I’ve never once in my life had your “feeling creative” set of behaviors. Don’t feel bad that you lost it; feel good that you ever had it in the first place.

    1. sensi277 says:

      I agree. I’m kinda productive most days and really don’t have any highs or lows. So while it sucks that you’re on a creative low right now, also remember there was a creative high (and it showed).

    2. Sleeping Dragon says:

      Way back when I had much fewer obligation and a lot more free time I actually experienced this “creative rush”, though it would generally last days, at most a week or two in my case. Also, in my case it resulted mostly in some godawful fanfiction so all things considered maybe it’s better the daily grind rolled over it.

  2. General Karthos says:

    I think this pretty much describes how it goes for me, though I don’t think my cycles last quite as long as you. (Maybe one week… two at the outside.) When I’m up, I can produce up to 10,000 words of creative writing in a day, and when I’m down, it’s difficult to string more than a few hundred words together. Since I have writing commitments that require me to produce several thousand words a week, my down periods tend to mean I have to work desperately hard to get stuff done, and I worry a lot that I’m going to disappoint people who are counting on me.

    Also, when I’m up, I often plan out an entire day in advance, I look forward to cooking, I have no difficulty motivating myself to mow the lawn, or do other household chores, because I know it’ll feel good to have them done. On the other end of the spectrum, when I’m down, I very rarely have a plan for the day, I cook only if it’s required (and sometimes I’ll just heat up a frozen dinner if I’m feeling especially lazy). I also have a tendency to drive places and run errands when I’m up, but when I’m down, I won’t even CONSIDER using my car.

    I also have a form of insomnia that comes on every 3-6 months and lasts about a week. It usually takes place during a week where I am otherwise exceptionally productive. I manage only three hours of sleep a night or so, but during the 21 hours I produce a lot. (Though I also wind up eating a lot of junk food.) Then sooner or later, my body realizes I need more sleep, and I spend the next several days spending 14-16 hours asleep at a time. After about 10 days (in total; 6-7 not sleeping, 3-4 sleeping lots), things are restored to normal, but usually my “up” is killed by that point.

    I dunno if the sleep cycle contributes to motivation or not… seems like it ought to, but it seems to be a delayed effect.

  3. Brandon says:

    Well, there’s a pretty common thought concerning psychological disorders: that they are ordinary behaviors that have elevated to the level of being problematic (for whatever reason). You may have a similar thing going on to someone who is manic depressive. Which is to say, mental/emotional cycles are probably normal to a certain extent, and yours may be more pronounced than most, but aren’t enough to reach the level of a diagnosis of being disruptive to your life and ability to function.

    1. Zak McKracken says:

      That’s what I was going to say, too.

      Also: I think it’s probably more “natural” (whatever that word means) to work in phases like this. In my case, I don’t have that luxury, because of the employer thing. Deadlines hit whenever they hit, and I need to do whatever I need to do, whenever it needs to be done, and so any attempt of lining my activities up with what I feel like is doomed. Well, it would likely result in me not doing very little for very long times, before switching to working intensely on something that isn’t relevant to anyone. So maybe it wouldn’t be such a great idea after all.

    2. Deoxy says:

      Having known a couple of manic depressives, that’s exactly what yours sounds like, only not quite a pronounced. (Seriously, imagine what you’re describing about times 5 or more, both up and down. SCARY stuff… but sometimes awesome to watch from a hardened bunker.)

      If you can manage the downs, the ups make for amazing creative and productive potential. IF you can mange the downs, I think you should view it as a gift.

      It’s managing the downs that’s always the problem. Well, except in the really bad cases, where the ups are so high they lose touch with reality… then it’s bad all the way around.

      1. evileeyore says:

        Yup sounds like relatively “mild” bipolar disorder.

        NIMH Bipolar Depression

      2. John the Savage says:

        Bipolar disorder is what my brain jumped to, as well. There are a ton of artists throughout history, like Mark Twain or Beethoven, who exhibited clear symptoms of what we now know to be BPD, and they had these kinds of cycles in their output. Curiously, while Beethoven’s output decreased during his depressive moods, he actually wrote some of his softest, loveliest music (like this during them, as a sort of therapy for himself.

        Not that I think Shamus has a serious, diagnosable case. After growing up with a dad, grandmother and several uncles who had it, I can say that I’ve never seen anything in Shamus’ behavior to suggest an actual disorder (except maybe the manic behavior he showed in the Mass Effect 3 LP). Like Brandon says above, a disorder is usually just normal behavior with the volume turned way up.

  4. Noah says:

    Yup, not uncommon. It seems like you get a kind of miniature manic-depression. But it sounds like both sides are pretty mild.

    Mine is milder even than yours, but I’m similar. I get the impression that geeks and artists are both prone to this.

    And yeah, it’s generally pretty divorced from whether things are otherwise going well or badly.

    1. Wide and Nerdy says:

      There’s a spectrum of types of manic depressive, but frankly if he has it at all, he hit the jackpot.

      That said, given his schedule of creative binges it’s no wonder he crashes periodically. Still, seems like a good operating mode for him. As long as his binges produce enough to cover his crashes

      1. Wide And Nerdy says:

        Just to be clear if this is ever read, when I say “he hit the jackpot” I mean relative to other types of this disorder. Swinging between super creative and meh has to be pretty useful given how he works, though I would suspect that being this way led him to seek this independence in the first place (that and his formative experiences frequently showing him the stupidity of the one size fits all org structures of society, from the education system to Taco Bell)

  5. I experience almost the exact same thing, only in my case I tend to be overcome with long bouts of severe apathy with occasional spurts of energy and/or creativity. My life is likewise also fairly static and stable. I’ve found that personally there’s little I can do to influence my state; once I’ve burned through my energy I crash for an indeterminate period. Diet and exercise help, but nothing – not even chemical stimulants – has proven reliably effective at inducing my positive mode.

    Routine, however, helps immensely in managing both my on and off time, allowing me to better identify when I’m switching from one to the other and helping to prevent burnout. Trying to force energy/creativity when you know it’s waning only proves further depressing; likewise, understanding when you’re first entering your upswing allows you to heighten your spirits and capitalize on your improved productivity more efficiently. In either instance, having a set of activities or pursuits to fall back on is crucial, as it’s all to easy to wind up aimless, especially in the downswing. I try to use my apathetic periods as a chance to relax and reflect, occasionally “prodding” myself with activity to keep myself stimulated and better identify when my upswing kicks in.

    This doesn’t always work, or life doesn’t always allow it, but it’s what I’ve found best helps me.

    1. This is similar to my experience. I only get bursts of creativity infrequently, and much more often just feel blah. I feel tired and bored, but restless. I want to do something entertaining or productive, but I look at my game backlog, my movies, and whatever unfinished projects I have, and I just don’t feel like I have the energy or mental focus. I want to do something but there’s nothing I want to do.

      I usually attribute this to lack of sleep or disturbance of my sleep cycle, but I wonder sometimes if my “blah” and tired feelings are a product of something else.

      1. Daimbert says:

        Not unless I have that, too, because that’s EXACTLY how I feel sometimes: I want to do something, but I don’t want to do ANYTHING. Fortunately, in those cases I can still read, and so I don’t get bored or overly frustrated, and it seems to pass quickly. But the two cases where I get that the most are after I’ve been very busy at work for a while — so burnout — or where I don’t do ANYTHING at work for a while (which is a rare experience for me, and so only happened the once) and so just get generally bored with life. But that would tie in to sleep cycles as well.

        That being said, for me it’s usually just a matter of motivating myself to get going. Once I get started, I’m usually okay, but it’s a massive pain to get started.

        1. Paul Spooner says:

          That’s why I wrote a “pick a thing” script in Python that randomly picks an item out of a list of ongoing projects. Deciding what to do has never been easier!

          Of course, you have to have the foresight to do this during a manic phase, or writing the code itself is just too much hassle.

          Here’s the code. Replace the things to do with your own, of course:

          from random import choice

          Things_to_do = (“Write Fledgeling Narrative Novel”,
          “3D model Tramp Destroyer”,
          “House Forge for Anna”,
          “FFTS Visualization / illustration”,
          “OmniCrane Presentation”,
          “MLP S4 finale ‘you’ll play your part’ re-write and record”,
          “Uplift”,
          “Aer landscape concept art”,
          “NovaKnight weapons, armor, castle”,
          “Wasp 3D Model”,
          “Tryop”,)

          print(choice(Things_to_do))
          input(“… Get to it!”)

          1. Cool! I’ll try using that sometime. Maybe Steam should have a button that loads up a randomly-chosen game from my library. That might help me clear out my massive backlog…

          2. Daimbert says:

            I went with an actual schedule, where I pick something a week or day in advance to do, mostly to avoid the issue I was having of not thinking of things that I really wanted to do until it was too late to do them. The problem for me is that I realize that this stuff is all artificial, and so if I’m not motivated to do it having something say “Do this!” gets me thinking “But I don’t feel like it!”. If I was motivated enough to actually do it, I wouldn’t need anything picking something for me [grin].

        2. Yeah, the effect seems to be strongest for only a day or two, after I’ve had a lot less sleep or a lot more work than usual. I often end up watching Let’s Play videos, the shorter the better. If I do start playing a game or something I’ll get into it and feel better, but like you say, getting started is the hardest part.

  6. Felblood says:

    Everybody has cyclic patterns like this in their biorhythms. Most people run about 28 days, but their doesn’t seem to be any correlation between where a random person will be in that cycle and the phase of the moon. Historically, people have noticed the symptoms of depression* and mania more during the full moon, however the advent of electric lights has reduced that to the point it isn’t statistically significant.

    That said, if you start to feel like these swings are tending to get faster or more extreme over time, talk to someone right away. That kind of deterioration is not normal and tends to accelerate with time.

    Additionally, if your rhythms are holding steady, but they seem to be interfering with your ability to function socially or with your work, (i.e. if you find yourself becoming dependent on that manic energy, to the point you are UNABLE to be creative without it) you should probably look for counseling or a support group. Having good strategic advice is the key.

    I personally caution people against prescription meds for anything short of rapid stabilization, following a real breakdown (thoughts of suicide, violent outbursts, irrational behavior, etc). The side effects can be almost as bad as the side effects of the drugs for the side effects, especially at the long term.

    *Depression comes in many forms and it doesn’t mean a case is mild just because it lacks the stereotypical symptoms like crushing sadness or despair. The grays can be just as harmful as the blues. Anxiety can be particularly dangerous/crippling because people often have difficulty admitting/explaining just how bad it can get.

    1. Isy says:

      I second the asterisk. It’s particularly dangerous not just because its hard to explain, but because a lot of depressed people easily convince themselves they don’t have real depression, because their symptoms don’t match the ones for clinical depression. I believe you when you say you’re not depressed or needing help, Shamus, I just think it’s an important addendum for anyone reading along. It’s too easy for people who need help to convince themselves their problems aren’t “bad enough” to be taken seriously.

      I don’t think you’re alone in your creative cycles, however. If anything, I think that’s very common for creative types — and I suspect it’s the reason for the saying “you aren’t just competing against the best artists in the world, but also the mediocre ones that can make a deadline and get a job done.”

  7. Matt Downie says:

    Bipolar disorder is characterised by extreme mood swings. These can range from extreme highs (mania) to extreme lows (depression).
    Episodes of mania and depression can often last for several weeks or months.

    During a period of depression, your symptoms may include:
    feeling sad and hopeless
    lacking energy
    difficulty concentrating and remembering things
    loss of interest in everyday activities
    feelings of emptiness or worthlessness
    feelings of guilt and despair
    feeling pessimistic about everything
    self-doubt
    being delusional, having hallucinations and disturbed or illogical thinking
    lack of appetite
    difficulty sleeping
    waking up early
    suicidal thoughts

    The manic phase of bipolar disorder may include:
    feeling very happy, elated or overjoyed
    talking very quickly
    feeling full of energy
    feeling self-important
    feeling full of great new ideas and having important plans
    being easily distracted
    being easily irritated or agitated
    being delusional, having hallucinations and disturbed or illogical thinking
    not feeling like sleeping
    not eating
    doing things that often have disastrous consequences, such as spending large sums of money on expensive and sometimes unaffordable items
    making decisions or saying things that are out of character and that others see as being risky or harmful

    Sounds like your version is pretty mild.

    1. Patrick the Angry Fountain of Joy says:

      Shamus is bonkers. It’s not his fault, it’s totally genetic. Its not like he went out on some Phencyclidine bender in High school and became permanently fried as a result. Though, that would be much more entertaining and interesting than “my whole family is a collection of bat-shit crazy people”. If there were ever a whack-job scavenger hunt, our family get-togethers would be one Anorexic Tourette’s sufferer away from finishing the whole damn list.

      Shamus isn’t even the worst one. Our brother Daniel actively engages in role-playing Michelangelo from TMNT. Our sister Ruth imagines she is a world class Cellist even though she has never held anything of the sort. Usually we catch her happily playing our Mom’s mop and saying things like “Rostropovich SUCKS!”. And Mom? Well……mom actually think Dan turns into a turtle and that Ruth is actually playing a cello…soo..you know..yeeaa

      I’m not any better. Right now I’m wondering if you are any relation to Steve Downie of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and whether you would be willing tobarter a fight between myself and Steve. Not because I dislike him, I actually think he’s awesome, I just want to fight him. And if he is unavailable, would you like to spar in his place? Seriously….I have been punched in the face in, like, weeks. We can go all barefoot and shirtless ALA’ fight club style or Marquess of Queensberry Rules, whatever you prefer.

  8. DISCLAIMER: I spent 4 years in the Army (active duty) as a psychotherapist. It was my job to conduct an assessment interview and provide a preliminary diagnoses under the direct supervision of a licensed psychiatrist. I essentially had to memorize the DSM from cover to cover to do my job effectively.

    As others here have mentioned, the characteristics you are describing meet the criteria for Bipolar Disorder. From my personal experience of studying mental health issues over the years, children who exhibit symptoms of ADD or ADHD often become adults with Bipolar Disorder. These symptoms also seem to be more severe in women, which may be attributed to the more significant hormonal fluctuations that they experience.

    I’m not a professional, so please take all of this with a grain of salt. It seems that if you do indeed have Bipolar symptoms, they are manageable and you may be mitigating their severity by your low-stress lifestyle.

    At any rate, thank you for sharing your experiences and insight with others!

    1. Lanthanide says:

      My boyfriend is bipolar, but his cycles usually only last up to 2 weeks, he doesn’t get crazy manic or deeply depressed. His depressed phases seem to last longer than his manic ones.

      But yes, Shamus’ story here, especially if this has been a stable pattern over many years, fits as a mild form of bi-polar disorder (and is therefore not ‘normal’).

      The thing to look out for is whether either the manic or the depressive phase becomes more intense and causes inappropriate / damaging behaviour (this may not be obvious to you, but your family/friends will notice). Often the manic phases are the more destructive, since people are feeling invincible / profoundly alive and are prone to doing reckless things, including making very poor financial decisions (like deciding to sell everything, buy a boat and sail around the world, only to snap out of the manic phase and be screwed).

      If it never gets any worse, then basically go with the flow and learn how to manage the symptoms in your life. Sounds like you’ve already got it pretty sorted out.

  9. Otters34 says:

    Yeah, undulations in energy and such is pretty much universal when you really try and make stuff. It’s neither uncommon nor a sign that anything’s wrong.

  10. Daemian Lucifer says:

    No alcohol or caffeine.

    Not necessarily.Tea also contains caffeine,and some brands can even give you a bigger jolt than a cup of coffee.

    Though thats probably not the cause of your mood sine function,its still nice to know about it.

    However,the reason could be your sleeping habit during your up phase.I regularly have a 25 hour day cycle,no matter how I feel,and during the days when it clashes with my daily routine,I accumulate a lot of tiredness,making me uninterested,depressed and cranky,and it lasts until I finally get a good long sleep(sometimes even 18 hours long).

    1. Rick says:

      Fruit has a lot of sugars too, so that’s something watch out for.

      My body seems to range from wanting 20 hour days to 36 hour days… Waves of motivation (I wouldn’t say creativity though) then nothing. I was super keen on making a game for my friends and I and the motivation ran out as soon as I’d finished the framework and started the actual game.

      This tends to happen a lot. Maybe I just like building tools more than products.

      1. Daimbert says:

        Yeah, that’s something to think about when it comes to a lack of motivation as well. I’ve run into a lot of cases where I wanted to do something like that and then simply couldn’t get into actually doing it. For me, though, I figured out that it’s because I don’t care much about the process, but instead care about the final product. Thus, in the long intermediate stages I’m doing work but not getting any real reward from it, which means I have no motivation to keep doing it. At work I have deadlines and a set schedule and so that motivates me, but for personal projects there are always things I can do that are more immediately interesting.

        I figured this out while reading Shamus’ descriptions of what he’s doing and his autoblography, because the way he talks about things there is definitely not how I work, and he definitely seems to be very interested in the process.

  11. Cybron says:

    If I were able, I’m pretty sure I’d be living a 26 hour sleep schedule most of the time. Employers typically aren’t too understanding on that front though. Stupid 24 hour days.

    1. Peter H. Coffin says:

      A freewheeling sleep cycle varies by age, but peaks in adolescence, when the “natural day” averages around 27 hours. (In my early 20s, I learned that mine then was about 29 hours, and I actually acquired a work schedule that allowed me to live six “days” in a calendar week. It was GLORIOUS.) As people age, it gets closer to a 24-hour period, but there’s always personal variations and variations from average, so 24.5 hours is probably even on the short side of average for you age.

      1. Kacky Snorgle says:

        Or maybe Shamus is a Martian.

      2. Cuthalion says:

        That’s actually fascinating. I know I tend to have a natural day somewhat longer than 24 hours when left to my own devices. I think it would lengthen by 1/2 – 2 hours a night until social pressure and personal (irrational?) guilt slowed it down, but can’t remember the exact amount.

        Where did you learn that, if I might ask?

        1. Deoxy says:

          It’s been several years since I saw it, so I don’t have the reference, but “they” did a study on people who were entirely removed from all sunlight and views of the natural sky AND clocks. Regulate yourself.

          People almost universally settled into a longer-than-24-hour “day”. 25 was about average.

          Personally, I think it has to do with always wanting just a little bit more than anything else. When there’s nothing that tells you not to, you TAKE a little more. Time, food, sleep, whatever. It’s just more noticeable when you compare to the clock is all.

    2. Zekiel says:

      Since I am a nerd I want to point out that you’d fit right in on Bajor. :-)

  12. Primogenitor says:

    It’s stuff like this that makes the medical world complicated – what counts as “normal” and what is not? What should be treated, and what shouldn’t? How do you put numbers to all this stuff so you can do a proper investigation?

    Plus humans are too good at recognizing patterns when there aren’t any (e.g. vaccines & Autism) and too bad at risk/reward probabilities (e.g. lifestyle cancer risks) and have other complicated psychological phenomena (e.g. placebo effect).

    I’d suggest keeping a simple diary – rating how you feel about things on a 1-10 scale, and how many hours a day you work on stuff. If nothing else, at least you’ll be able to plot some pretty graphs after a while!

    1. AileTheAlien says:

      I too, suggest keeping a journal/diary/log of your emotional state. Could be a 1-10 rating each day, or morning/noon/night. Might even be worth it to do it on an event basis, instead of time. e.g. “Ran into some loud-mouthed jerk at the grocery store. Had to get the manager.” 2 stars. I suspect the latter would be more useful to you, since you say you have a pretty uneventful life. At the minimum, you might be able to figure out if you have a natural X-month cycle in your moods. :)

  13. Daimbert says:

    When I saw the tweet, my first thought was that that was just normal burnout, because I get like your down part sometimes where I don’t really feel like doing anything. Even watching TV most of the time, oddly. Fortunately, for me, reading works well. I tend to get that after a long period of stress or work, and it’s hard for me to explain how I get it or how I get out of it. That being said, sometimes I can do a lot of different things for a long time, especially with games, which ended up being one of the first things that I lose lately when I get burned out.

    Since you don’t have artificial or even scheduled constraints on your creativity, it could be easier for you to push it too far and then crash mightily, only to surge back up again when you recover from the burnout, rinse, repeat. People with more regular schedules and routines won’t have the dramatic shifts, and when they do they can identify it with their work pressures.

    That being said, I’d have to agree with others from my very, very minor studies of psychology that 4, 5 and 6 sound more like bipolar disorder than that. Take that with a massive block of salt, though.

  14. Da Mage says:

    As with other in the commenters here, I do a similar thing when I’m working on projects. I have some days where putting in 9 hours of solid work is possible and other where even looking at the project is hard. I tend to have fairly short cycles, a few days of productivity and then a few days of downtime. The trick is managing the downtime to be short as possible when working on a project.

    I’ve found going out and playing sport (I play golf) and sticking to a strict routine does wonders for leveling out my productivity. It’s helps get my mind going when I’m struggling, and it helps me relax a little when its going full. Deadlines also help, nothing more motivating then knowing you have to have X completed by Y date.

  15. Orillion says:

    See, what really sucks is when you have this on top of clinical depression. Sometimes when you’re at your creative height you want to kill yourself. Sometimes when you’re at your creative low everything else is going well for you and you don’t know why you can’t produce anything.

    Now imagine that, but you’re also poor. When you’re at a creative height and you’re feeling good about yourself, you still can’t produce because your computer is held together with chewing gum and prayers.

  16. Causeless says:

    Other appetites

    Hehe. heh.

    … I’m such a child.

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to reach that interpretation.

    2. Mephane says:

      To the contrary, a child would not understand what the phrase means, and either simply gloss over it, or interprete it as “appetite for candy”, if their parents taught them some weird distinction between what would constitute for “actual food” (potatoes, fruit, pasta, bread…) and “not actual food” (chocolate, ice cream, chips/crisps…).

  17. Bitterpark says:

    I pretty much get the opposite of that. When I have nothing I want to create I can enjoy media, do chores and otherwise function without issue. But when an idea gets into my head, it’s like a parasite. It reminds me of Strange Moods from Dwarf Fortress: I can’t focus on anything else, I can only obsess over the idea.

    And yet, I can’t even act on the idea, because I *know* it will never come out as perfect as I see it in my mind’s eye, but that’s a whole different issue I suppose.

    I also get the 25 hour sleep cycle, but it’s usually unrelated to creative ups and downs, it’s always present.

    1. Anon says:

      Good Robot confirmed for legendary artifact. All craftshamusship is of the highest quality. It menaces with spikes of old webcomics. On the item is an image of Spoiler Warning. The humans are nitpicking.

      1. Sleeping Dragon says:

        The Writer is making a plaintive gesture. The Let’s Player is striking down the writer.

  18. Tizzy says:

    Justanother me-too comment. I work with alot of creative, driven people, and most of them seem to experience a mild form of this.

    I would temper the “bipolar disorder” crowd: I heard a presentation by someone who was living with a spouse with that disorder, and they made a clear difference between clinical symptoms and the more common up and down swings. In particular, the thing that seemed to be driving into mental illness territory was not merely enthusiastically diving into projects, but completely unrealistic expectations and pathological impatience when the projects did not resolve themselves overnight.

    Simple up and down patterns are not anything I would worry about. Again, I know tons of people who go through those and don’t seem the worse for wear. My uneducated guess is that chemicals, both in the brain and the body, lose their effectiveness when they have been around for too long and the system acclimates to them. Then they stop being produced for a while, until the system lowers its defenses once more. Probably a good self-regulation mechanism in the bigger scheme of things. Being manic all the time would not be good for the system either.

    1. Lanthanide says:

      Bi-polar disorder has a big range of expression, from the people who are jumped-up nuts when manic and self-harming when depressive, to the people who have an underlying buzz of energy when manic and merely a numbness when depressive.

      The severity of the phases can differ for people over time as well. Mainly what sets bipolar apart from other disorders is that it comes in phases (and there are forms of bipolar where you only get manic phases, or only get depressive phases, despite being called bi-polar) and usually doesn’t have any particular trigger for the beginning or ending of a phase.

  19. I read an interesting article recently that indicates that changes in mood (particularly depression) may have a lot to do with inflammation levels. This seems to be true in my case, and when I’m managing my inflammation well I don’t have as many swings and I’m “up” more.

    If you’re eating a lot as well, it’s probably a total-body metabolic shift and hormonal in nature. Get your thyroid, cortisol, insulin, and testosterone checked, maybe?

    I’m the opposite–I eat when I’m down and I’m generally not particularly hungry when I’m up unless I’ve been exercising a lot.

    1. Also, it’s spring. Seasonal Affective Anything?

    2. Rick says:

      Agreed. When your body is fighting something (inflammation, allergies, sickness, pain, injury) it can be very physically draining.

  20. SKD says:

    Sounds like a fairly normal manic-depressive cycle to me. From my observations mild manic-depressive cycles such as you experience are normal, especially for creative people, and are nothing to be concerned about. Everybody has them but most people don’t spend enough time analyzing themselves to realize it. My own cycles are easily gauged by looking at my leisure activities as I will go from periods of constant gaming or reading in my off hours to periods where I have difficulty finding anything to pique my interest.

    If you were experiencing more drastic extremes I might be worried but you seem to have a fairly stable life and your wife sounds like the type that would let you know if you’re swings were anywhere near extreme enough to worry about.

  21. So… this might sound very obvious, but do you think it could be a seasonal weather thing?

    I get something similar, but It’s tied to winter/summer. I am quieter and less active during the winter, but become loud and active during spring and through summer.

    The reason I say this is you happen to be posting this during the spring right as the weather is really starting to change

  22. Cuthalion says:

    I have pretty similar mood cycles, but they’ve moderated quite a bit since I got a consistent-schedule day job. When I was in school or on break, my sleep cycle would slowly march forward, especially when combined with the “it takes me 1.5 hours on average to fall asleep” insomnia variant. These days, my levels of motivation versus boredom versus apathy don’t vary too much during the week and tend to alternate weekend to weekend.

    For me, the depressive end of things has only gotten bad enough to become a problem once, while I took a year off of college. It stuck around for months and only very slowly dissipated.

    Not the soul-crushing sadness of clinical depression, but a sort of low-level general inability to take joy in things. I'm not sad, just sort of indifferent and bored.

    I think you might be misunderstanding depression here. In my experience and from observing others who had much more serious, seeing-counselors-level cases, the “not sad, just sort of indifferent and bored”, especially with “a sort of low-level general inability to take joy in things” is exactly what depression involves.

    Fortunately, as you and pretty much everyone has noted, you seem to have it under control and mild enough that it’s not really messing up your life.

  23. Paul Spooner says:

    Yep, you’re not alone. Both creativity cycles, and maybe just being a jerk and pretending that it’s okay because IDEAS (Or the lack thereof).

  24. Dragmire says:

    I want to create, I really do. The challenge from trying to manifest your thoughts in a way that’s tangible, from concept to completion, feels amazing. Each project is both exciting and frustrating, the headaches it gives me mixes with the joy of creating, absorbs me as I stop noticing or really caring about things like time of day/food/sleep.
    The knowledge that the current hurdles hit today are just as surmountable as the ones faced yesterday, motivates me by showing me that I am getting better but I can still improve. I just need to keep going.

    But I can’t.

    Or won’t, I’m not sure. I ache to make something, it hurts. There’s plenty of things left undone and no shortage of things that could be started but I can’t bring myself to do anything. Every piece of paper/white screen is an endless abyss that, once I finally bring myself in front of it, I just sit there and stare at it. I feel defeated, as if I am suddenly looking at an impossible obstacle in front of me, crushing any ambition with the heavy feeling of futility. At the same time, I am consciously repeating to myself that there’s no difference between any other time I began a project without issue. Unfortunately, I have not been able to release myself from this mental haze that hinders me. That said, since it doesn’t affect my job, I have not sought someone certified to help me work passed this.

    ____________

    Anyway, enough about me.

    Hey Shamus, as I recall, you have allergies of some kind, right? Spring is just starting now and this is your first spring at your new house, is it possible that you are having some kind of reaction that’s making you feel sapped?

    1. MichaelG says:

      A blank sheet of paper is God’s way of saying it’s not so easy to be God.

    2. Matt Downie says:

      A technique for dealing with the oppressive blank sheet of paper:
      The more time you spend working on the project, the closer you get to the end, even if you don’t seem to be making progress.
      Fill the screen/paper with statements about the creative project you’re going to work on.
      Positive statements are better than negative statements. If you don’t have any ideas yet, make a positive statement.
      So the process might go something like this:

      This project will be great!
      This project will be a short story.
      It will be fun to write.
      It will be good training for me.
      I will write it really fast and then sort out the problems later.
      It will be about something that interests me.
      It will feature a character who is a bit like me and who has problems a bit like I have.
      But I will make it so that it is also relevant to problems that most people have.
      I will give it a science fiction twist.

      and so on.
      This gets rid of the blank page, if nothing else, and frequently generates ideas you didn’t expect.

      1. Dragmire says:

        There are many techniques to get over the starting hump but my issue may be something along the lines of feelings of inadequacy resulting from the direction my life has taken. I left out the context for how I feel because it likely doesn’t relate to how Shamus is feeling other than the state of disinterest and futility punctuated by knowledge that the time spent feeling like this is time wasted.

        This is the context if you’re interested.

        I went to college to learn to draw with animation being the eventual goal. I decided after a year of learning to draw that, while drawing was fun, I was not interested in making a career out of it so I didn’t continue in animation. A few years later of night shift retail, I decided to go back to college and take 3D animation. It was very enjoyable and it seemed that I would work toward making that my career choice. Unfortunately, the private college I went to had no contacts to help students find work and positions in my city were all looking for people with far more experience than myself. With hope for finding a job in my field falling away, I went back to retail and let my skill rust. After another year I went back to college again for game development. Classes I enjoyed went very well and classes I didn’t went poorly to say the least, I dropped out after the first year. Now, I’m in retail again though looking at higher paying positions which are thankfully on the way once the current person retires.

        To bring this back to the blank paper again, the feeling of defeat I mentioned before probably stems from those experiences. My problem I’m having right now is that this feeling is preventing me from doing art as a hobby. It’s such a waste to let skills fall into disuse, especially when it’s something enjoyable but I can’t seem to break through this mental roadblock.

        Oh, thank you for the suggestion though.

    3. Daimbert says:

      It might be worth you planning out what specifically you want to do or what you want to get to instead of thinking of it as the project as a whole. I have the same starting issue you have sometimes, but not as bad, and I can overcome it by doing something specific that’s manageable in my timeframe. Using block posts as an example, instead of thinking that I need to write a post or two for the week, I end up thinking “Let me do the Philosophy and Popular Culture one today”, which is specific and manageable.

      This also lets you come at it from two approaches: either something that you really want to do or something that’s easy to do.

  25. Taellosse says:

    I don’t know that the end-points of the arc are quite as high for me, but I absolutely have a similar cyclic pattern. It’s become much more noticeable to me in the last 18 months, since I lost my soul-crushing job. As it happens, I, too, am in a “don’t want to do anything” mode, as of about a week ago – though it may be influenced by the fact that we’ve got 3.5-month-old twins to contend with, and they’re sucking the life out of my wife and me.

  26. Ilseroth says:

    I actually don’t really have these cycles; for me they are sporadic and trend to last for about a week. However the difference is that mine have a definitive end. Usually when they happen I work on a project pretty much all day for days, then I hit an artistic roadblock.

    I am not much of a modeler and animator, and by that I mean it is something that looks cool but bores me to tears. I *can* make a keyframe animation, and build at least a moderately detailed model if i can work up the gumption to do it, but it drains my energy faster then almost anything.

    So i start a project, lay down a code base, build my systems then run into the brick wall of graphics and it goes away over the next couple days after that. I have considered just going super low quality graphics and just pounding out a project anyways… but these are full force creativity projects and the only thing more frustrating then slamming into a wall, is to take the vision you have for a project and compromise it substantially just for the sake of finishing it…

    But then, if I could just slam my mental concept onto my computer then I would.. Compromise is necessary if you aren’t stupid rich or otherwise manage to build a full development team. I actually am reaching the end of one of my energy bursts right now… But I am thinking about continuing the project on. While it isn’t an inspired means of reducing the “art budget” as it were, I have a concept that could at least make it passable and still achieve what i want out of the project… hopefully.

    In any case, glad to hear you are “okay” even if you aren’t in super high mode. Hope your cycle is quick this time around and you get bumped to super bouncy Shamus in short order. :)

  27. Ambience 327 says:

    I don’t think my pendulum swings nearly as far in either direction as yours, but I feel like I have a similar but far less extreme roller coaster of creative productivity.

  28. Brendan Byron says:

    I’m currently undergoing clinical investigation for Bipolar II with, you know, this symptom set. My depression got so bad I couldn’t function last year, but I didn’t do anything about it because I was “not depressed.” In that, my self-esteem didn’t take a hit, and the only reason I was anxious was because I was guilty about how much stuff I wasn’t doing.

    Turns out: I had severe depression. Depression does not look like what you think depression looks like. It’s not often a bottle of brandy and listening to slow music, it’s exactly not being interested in things you used to be interested in. I nearly dropped out of university and racked up thousands in debt cause I flunked out of my job. Your description of it above could have come straight from the diagnostic manual.

    From the sounds of it, you’re pretty mild, but I’d break with the ‘don’t over-pathologise’ crowd. Bipolar disorder does not exist. Depression does not exist. Even Schizophrenia is only an extreme point on a spectrum. These labels aren’t objective statements about the world, they’re tools. Diagnoses are a manner of categorising problems, and if you’re having a problem with your mood right now, the label ‘bipolar depression’ exists to make sure you know you’re not alone, and that if it becomes a problem that overly interferes with your life, there is a set of steps you can take.

    Really, Shamus, you’re the only one who can decide if your mood swings are a problem that you want fixed. If you do, a diagnosis of bipolar may help, and a psychologist could give you that.

    I don’t know if my mood swings are a problem, even though I’m going through clinical study. I know my depression is a problem, but I don’t have that right now. If I was offered treatment that got rid of my manic swings, I probably wouldn’t take it, just cause, yeah, being manic is awesome. But if you don’t want to feel indifferent and bored for months at a time, you don’t actually have to. A solution exists.

    1. Lanthanide says:

      +1

      That’s the sort of thing I wanted to write, having a sister and brother in law who are both clinical psychologists, and a boyfriend who has been diagnosed with bipolar.

      These ‘illnesses’ generally can’t be cured, only treated. Treatment can involve drugs, but they’re not always effective for everyone and can become less effective over time. Coping strategies, like being self-aware about what is going on in your life, and organising your life in such a way that you can manage your symptoms when required, is basically the best you can do.

      1. froogger says:

        Just want to chime in with my personal experience with Bipolar Disorder II. I’ve had it my whole life, and got diagnosed as an adult because I wanted some medication that took the edge of the low points. Sure enough, I got meds, but now I’m dependant on pills that also kills the extreme highs. So there’s no benefit from the illness anymore and I sure miss those bursts of creative euphoria. My point is: if you can live with it, then mild BP can be a tool. Problem is society isn’t geared that way, so it can be really hard finding a lifestyle that works with you.

  29. BitFever says:

    While everyone experiences things uniquely I think I can understand what you mean. I know I personally get into slumps where I become lazy and don’t play games, listen to music, read, work out, or draw. After a month or 2 I go back to doing those things none stop.
    I THINK (I have no hard numbers to back this up it’s just a hunch) that most people go through this to some extent.
    One of the more interesting things I’ve noticed about it is I can have nearly identical days but if if when I’m in a slump then it was a bad day and if it’s in a high point it was a good day. Functionally the day can be identical but how my mental state is will frame it in a way to match my mood.

  30. JAB says:

    Ok, stop. Bipolar disorder, Major depressive disorder, etc aren’t diseases caused by a single organism, like, say Measles. But they are syndromes- clusters of symptoms that seem to have a particular natural course, respond to medicine or other treatments in particular ways, and so on.

    Shamus, based on what you’ve said, it sounds like you have mood swings that are different from what a lot of people experience. While making a diagnosis based on limited information and without a medical workup is a bad idea [is it related to your asthma, for example], it sounds like your up swings meet criteria for hypomanic episodes, and not fully manic ones. And your down swings are clearly down, not just normal, but don’t meet criteria for a major depressive episode.

    You might look into Cyclothymic Disorder.

  31. Mephane says:

    My sleep schedule “rolls forward”. Since I don't want to stop working, I generally stay up as long as possible. Without an alarm clock keeping me on a fixed schedule, I end up staying up later each day, living on a kind of 24.5 hour clock. My sleep schedule might roll forward an entire day in the space of a month.

    I have always been like this. My inner biological clocks doesn’t seem to accept that a day on this planet has only 24 hours. Whenever I am not bound to a regular schedule through the use of alarm clocks that do a hard-reset on my day&night cycle, e.g. on vacation, I automatically fall into a ~25 hour cycle until I usually put a manual break on it (by, for example, deciding to go to bed when I realize dawn has already happened), otherwise my sleep cycle would just keep shifting forward. I am still wondering whether there is any connection between this odd internal 25 hour cycle and my being the nocturnal type in general.

  32. Duoae says:

    Wow. I don’t have something similar (not really) but I would love the lengthened cycles! Hope you’re back on the upswing soon, Shamus!

    I have ups and downs like everyone else. I, however, am quite easily affected on the negative side of things and find that instances and people can make me feel negative and “down” very quickly. This leads to moody behaviour where I just want to shut myself off from the rest of the world and not have to interact with anyone or anything.

    I’m getting better as I get older and mellower but these moods are still difficult for those around me to handle… and they’re not exactly great for me to live through either! :)

  33. Patrick the Angry Fountain of Joy says:

    Shamus’ asthma drugs and diet play a large part in his….i don’t know…behavior? Heather usually keeps his stomach full of things that are less likely to kill you than most Americans, so his tolerance for the insane chemicals in pre-packaged foods is quite low.

    His addiction to fake cheese substances is legendary and surpassed only by his distaste for appearing in public. This keeps things like, say, Combos and Pringles at a safe distance. This makes it enjoyable to stop by his house periodically and leave 4 commercial size bags of Pizzeria Pretzel Combos and a dozen Krispy Kremes. Its like giving a 7 year old a case of Red Bull and a keyboard.

    So whenever you notice his posts fluctuate daily between Hunter S. Thompson and Nicolas Sparks, you can safely assume I stopped by and gave him cheese flavored LSD wrapped in a cylindrical baked cracker.

    1. Patrick, that’s just EVIL!

      ;-)

  34. BenD says:

    I see some notes about bipolar disorder here, but nothing about bipolar Type II, which is almost more of an ‘uncommon personality type’ than a disorder. It can require careful management. One real key to maximizing ‘up’ times and minimizing down periods is to get enough sleep on a reliable schedule. (24.5 hours may qualify as a reliable schedule, but if you cut your sleep back after rolling forward for 15 days in order to keep an appointment in the outside world, that one deviation from the ‘enough’ requirement may throw you out of the high arc and into the low one.) A book you may like: ‘Why am I Still Depressed.’ Good overview of bipolar types.

  35. Phantos says:

    I’ve never really thought about this kind of thing in-depth, but I notice I have periods of MONTHS of just having no willpower or motivation to do anything. Regardless of my emotional state or what’s going on in my life.

    I’ve been told the best thing to do is to just plow through it, to try and do something every day, to not “break the chain”. But I find that’s never actually helped. I get the feeling it works for other people, which makes me feel pretty jipped.

    In fact, I find my worst stuff happens(art, writing, etc.) when I’m -trying- to practice and push myself through those slumps. To do something regardless of a lack of motivation. I keep hearing that artistic hobbies are “perishable”, and yet they perish at a faster rate for me when I do what I’m supposed to.

    And then months later I come back and suddenly it all works. I don’t understand myself. I wish it weren’t like this. I wish my body would cooperate.

    1. Matt Downie says:

      During one creative slump, I decided to give up completely. I was never going to achieve anything, so I could just relax and try to have fun.

      A few weeks later I was back to normal, starting a new personal project. Either the technique ‘worked’ by taking the pressure away, or it was just a cycle that was due to end soon whatever I did.

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