The nature of project work is that there are often periods of inactivityâ€”both during the project (while waiting for feedback, for example) and between projects. It’s easy to piss away these lullsâ€”you’re exhausted from doing the project after allâ€”but you can also use the time productively by hunting and gathering.
Hunting involves finding new experiences to fill up the creative tank. The best creative practitioners are often those who can draw ideas from other fields, to make disparate connections to find solutions. Trying something different, even if it is just a new restaurant a little farther away, can provide new ideas, new stimulus. “Too often, we fail to consider the ways in which our surroundings constrain our creativity,” writes Jonah Lehrer. Doing or seeing something new stretches our creativity and gives us more raw material to work with when we return to work. You don’t have to skydive or travel to Bhutan, you just have to experience something not usually in your path. Whatever you do, don’t just sit at your desk, mindlessly surfing the internet. “We don’t know where we get our ideas from. We do know that we do not get them from our laptops,” notes John Cleese. Exactly.
Gathering involves reflection, thinking about the work that has already been done and figuring out the lessons learned. Especially if you write your thoughts down, gathering gives you another source of raw material: for blog posts, for presentations, and just for understanding your own work. Sometimes a pause lets you examine not just what, but how you did something, and why. (Definite shades of Donald SchÃ¶n’s The Reflective Practitioner here.) If you can’t reflect on your work, and in particular the mistakes you made while doing your work, you won’t grow.
Everyone fixated on the 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert that Malcolm Gladwell illuminated in his Outliers book. But what he pointed out (and that everyone forgot) was what that what you did during those 10,000 hours mattered. Practice entails doing an activity, then honing it through reflection. You can do an activity for 10,000 hours and still suck at it if you’re not thinking about what you’re doing, then correcting your mistakes. A project lull is a perfect time to do this sort of gathering.
So yes, while you could dull yourself with ‘net surfing, YouTube watching, and general goofing off (all of which has its place as well), you could take some small steps to better yourself, so that when project work resumes, you’re ready.