"Harry, I'm going to let you in on a little secret," advises Special Agent Dale Cooper in an episode of Twin Peaks. "Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don't plan it. Don't wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men's store. A catnap in your office chair. Or two cups of hot, black coffee, like this."
Agent Cooper, like series creator David Lynch, loves a good cup of coffee. Unlike Lynch, Cooper has murders to solve and supernatural entities to fight. To perform at his best, he treats himself like the brilliant FBI agent/mystic crimefighter he needs to be. If you expect to deliver first-class insights, you deserve first-class dining and accommodations.
Somehow, this isn't as easy as it sounds. When we're creatively stuck, our instinct is to punish ourselves. The path of the aesthetic ascetic.
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way, prescribes the Artist Date, "a weekly expedition to explore something that enchants or interests [you]." Nothing major—a trip to a community garden will do. Yet Cameron points out that many who will buckle down and write three pages every morning to get creatively unblocked will balk at a few hours a week in a museum or bookstore to "refill the creative well." Work they can do. Investing a little time in play is just too hard. Despite a lack of results, they persist in this masochistic mentality.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has a new daily newsletter. Yesterday, he offered a parallel suggestion:
I want you to go half a day without any machines. It could be breakfast to lunch. It could be lunch to dinner. Tell anyone you need to, “I will be out of touch for the next 4 hours,” plug that machine in, and head out into the real world. If you can, bring a piece of paper and a pen, so you can write down anything that comes to mind. Go on a walk with no podcasts or emails or phone calls. Go to a restaurant and remember what it was like. Sit in the park or in a coffee shop with a book.
Cooper, Cameron, and Conan agree. Take a minute! You need to treat yourself with a little time, a little space, a little stimulation. I wouldn't push this if I didn't absolutely rely on it myself. Coffee? Check. Artist Dates? Every week. Walking around without a podcast or a phone call to keep me company? Every day. Sometimes, I'll even do as Agent Cooper advises and take a short nap. (Or not so short.)
Crucial to the treat treatment, I've learned, is that it must come after the work, not before. I push myself hard to get to my desk by 8:15 a.m. and put in that first thirty minutes of work. Not just any work, either. Something big and ugly that strikes fear into the heart and gets the blood pumping. Once I've gotten over that morning hump, however, it's time for coffee. Another thirty minutes, I might even get a lollipop. (It's made with stevia, don't worry.)
Does this sound infantile? A grown man with a bag of lollipops in the pantry? No. I take treats seriously because I know that creativity is infantile. Being 44, I don't throw tantrums anymore, but my creativity does. That inner artist of mine is a big baby and always will be. It likes lollipops! As long as it delivers on cue, it's gonna get 'em.