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Coding as Self Care (+ Other Stories on Self Care for Creatives)

Posted by

Ana Wang

Published on

June 24th 2020

Everyone needs a little bit of self care, and right now, many of us seem to need a lot more of it. But there seems to be a fine balance when it comes to the art of making creative work: how productive you should be in order to produce and push your creative boundaries and the path it takes to get there and keep your sanity, your happiness and your health. For many of us, that balance seems like a constant chase, always just out of grasp. But maybe it's not about balance: maybe self care is about whatever you need to keep going, to keep doing, to say all the things you want to say. Embrace the ups and downs, the lulls and the wins, the "treat yourself" moments and the "work at it" self care, as we explore what self care for people who do creative work can look like.

I touched my first lines of code when I was 11 years old, back when tables and iframes were still in vogue. My family had just gotten our very first computer and for a few months, I was hooked on Neopets, Geocities and Expages (do not visit: last time I checked out of curiosity, I was in for a very rude shock.)

I had an older brother and even though there were four of us, he soon started to act as if the computer was his own. The remainder of my teenage years were spent on creative pursuits that didn’t require a computer: reading, writing, sewing and sketching. In a twist of irony, my brother started university as a computer science major, and ended up hating it, switching to a life of crime (analyzing it) just a few months in. I ventured into the world of marketing, photography, design, fashion and retail branding - a career cobbled together in an effort to find my right career - and left code behind.

Far from being a story about a young prodigal programmer or even about unrealized dreams - if you thought that’s where this is going - this is actually a story about self care.

What exactly is self care?

The term conjures up specific feelings and sentiments, ranging from essential human needs to luxurious indulgences. It can be putting on makeup even when you have no one to see - or it could be not putting on makeup because you were only doing it for others. In a recent tweet by beauty brand Glossier, answers ranged from “in-app purchases in a cooking game” to dalgona coffee to “alone time and reading”.

I never stopped enjoying the process of writing something to make something. And, as soon as I was old enough to get a job and buy my own computer, I did. Whatever idea I had, usually involving something on the internet, I found some way to make it, from a popup loungewear shop to several now defunct blogs.

At the end of 2018, I decided to buy my first SuperHi course as a Christmas present to treat myself. I felt like I deserved it. I started the Foundation HTML, CSS and Javascript course on December 24 and I still remember the feeling: this is it, I’m finally doing this for myself.

It was a splurge that I thought long and hard about. I was stuck at a crossroads in my career, at a place where, for the first time in a long time, I felt like I had the time and space to explore what I really wanted to do. Like Carolyn, who sees her freelance life come in seasons, there tends to be a theme to my creative work, a theme that evolves itself around the things I’m contemplating, the questions I’m asking. One of the questions that I had started to think more about during this time was the power we all have to change our careers and our paths, at any time. I believed that it was not only possible but also inevitable, and I needed to do it for myself. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a developer but I remembered how much I loved making things with HTML. I also saw how the path from idea to execution for anything you could dream about making was made much broader and much easier through code.

Making the leap ended up being a self-care decision than it was a career one - though, it did end up playing a part in how my career would continue to unfold just a few months later - hello, SuperHi!

I code because I can make anything I want to on the internet, and I don’t need anyone else to do it, to gatekeep, to talk me out of or prevent me from not even the vague and grand concept of “reaching my dreams”, but the smaller, more concrete one to just make something that I want to make.

Today, I’m not a “developer” if that means that I code for work, and I’ll probably never be one. But it’s like learning a language. You don’t have to live in the country to benefit from it; maybe it’s just another way to see the world. Even if I were never to make it my job or make money coding, it brings joy and fun to my life. There’s a sense of accomplishment when I build something of my own imagining, sure. But there’s also just the simple act of creative expression. I’m glad I found my way back, after all these years.

Most of my projects never get shared. Of the ones I do choose to share, many don’t receive any attention. Of the ones that do receive attention, none of them (so far) have lasted. Which is a pretty bad track record if I were doing this all for a specific end goal other than because it feeds me creatively.

But just because it feeds me, doesn’t mean it’s easy.

I have wondered: at what point does what I do for fun become an unhealthy obsession? When does my creative self care act become another unfulfilled expectation and plate to juggle?

After all, there have been plenty of instances where I’ve neglected other aspects of my life to work on my “fun” projects. When you get into the flow, it’s hard to stop.

One big misconception about self care is that it’s easy, as if it’s meant to be the light and fun thing you treat yourself to after your real work stops. It’s not. It’s actually pretty darn difficult sometimes. I was notoriously bad at any kind of care up until just a couple of years ago, much less the glorified IG-worthy version many of us now associate self care with.

It feels like an entire industry had to be made out of self care because it’s easy to sell people solutions to things that feel like great, big barriers otherwise - even if the solutions are in fact, simple. Don’t feel like exercising? There’s an app for that. Need a break from the endless stream of the internet? There’s another stream of content waiting for you - but this time, it’s about helping you take time for yourself, eating healthy, having a night in. Ironic, but necessary. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, like a self care Trojan horse beating at you with montages of candles and green smoothies.

This past weekend, in the midst of a personal coding streak, I spent hours trying to fix a Ruby on Rails bug: the kind when you fix one bug and then another shows up, and on and on it goes. I wanted to throw my computer at the wall. So, I decided to take the day off from my “self care”. That day off turned into weeks, but no pressure - self care has no deadline.

Self care isn’t always the easy fix or the magic pill. It’s often the things we don’t gravitate to, the things we don’t want to do, the things that don’t even necessarily feel good. (Don’t tell me I’ll learn to love working out - I still hate getting sore, every single time.)

The definition varies from one person to another, but for me, it’s mostly been in the things that feed me, that I often have neglected because they didn’t feel urgent or important. These were things like travel, rest, even reality television in its own strange and wonderful way. Begrudgingly, I’d also throw exercise in there. But it’s been coding too, a longstanding act of self-expression that I’ve only just recently allowed myself to indulge in.

I still have a lot to learn about self care. Don’t we all? But there are a few things I’ve learned about self care for creative people specifically:

There may be more to self care than meets the eye. When we’re all so different, there’s no need to judge or compare.

In the current climate of the world, it’s easy to mistake self care in its entirety with indulgence, luxury or even selfishness. But you can never really know the deeper reasons behind the seemingly “superficial” display of self care we see on social media.

You may think that Suzy’s Instagram post is over-indulgent, over-the-top or even privileged and Suzy may feel that your binge-watching of reality television is a way to numb yourself and not actually to treat yourself. You could both be right. Maybe you’re both wrong. It doesn’t matter. That’s why it’s called self care. The only competition you’re in is the one you have with yourself; and there, it matters that you listen to yourself and what you need, and you discard the time and energy you spend judging others for the choices that may or may not help them on their own path to creative work. Unless of course, judging people is your self care.

While coding may be a job to some, for me, it’s self care because even though it’s something that’s a challenge, that takes up time and energy, that doesn’t have an end goal, I do it because it feeds me and because doing so is a luxury that I hadn’t allowed myself to pursue when it wasn’t a goal. It brings me back to when I first discovered the internet back in 1999. I feel creative and in control, while playing in that beautiful space of the internet that I still think of as the wild, wild web.

Whatever form your self care takes, listen to it. This will become a part of your perspective as a creative.

You’re not here to find your voice or your perspective; you’re here to build it, one thing, one year at a time. This means listening closely to what turns you on and lights you up, in both ways: from the things you gravitate to (the “treat yourself” self care) and the things you don’t (the “work at it” self care).

This isn’t easy. Lines are blurry for creatives when often, the things that bring us joy and fuel us are also the things we’ve decided to make our jobs. And if not, we try to make it part of our jobs, ie. adding a fifth hyphenate to the whole “what do you do” question: Yes, I’m an artist/designer/musician/developer/writer.

But, you don’t have to make it part of your job.

It doesn’t need to be a whole other slash to your name. It can become an important and even critical part of your creative perspective, values and vision.

The things that I put off because they seemed like superficial luxuries actually ended up becoming the most important parts of who I am: I didn’t have vacation time earlier in my career, mostly because I was cobbling together various part-time jobs. When I finally did start to travel and see the world outside my own backyard, I found my clearest flashes of inspiration in foreign cities, from how stores are built in Paris to what good design looks like in Tokyo. Even though I may never build a brick and mortar store or design a restaurant menu, I’ve gained creative and cultural perspective. I try to maintain that openmindedness even when I’m not travelling, using the tools of the internet to help me look outside my digital “backyard”.

Sometimes obsession is necessary in creative work. Sometimes it’s necessary to let go. There’s a cadence to self care.

The concept of flow (read Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) is something that many creative types are familiar with. Deep work is a very important part of doing quality work that pushes your creative boundaries.

It seems that a certain degree of obsession is what makes people who do creative work a little bit different and I do think it’s part of doing good work - not necessarily everyone, and definitely not all the time.

Sometimes you need to go all in, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re failing at self care. Sometimes you have more of it and sometimes you have less of it, as long as you respect a rhythm and you can recognize when you really need it. Warning signs: you feel uninspired, you’re tired and exhausted, you’ve been going-going-going nonstop for a while.

It’s like breathing: you can hold your breath for a while, but at some point, you’re going to need to take a breath of fresh air. That breath may be just what you need.

Self care can be complex or it can be simple.

Just as self care can be complex, individual, built on histories, insecurities and influences, it can also be universal, essential, simple.

There are things we all need: a little bit of sun, a little bit of fun, a bit of exercise, and some social interaction and validation. These are just, scientifically speaking, all parts of being human. So sometimes the self care advice is the simple variety: take a walk, grab a Fika, step away. These are the things obsessive, creative, maker types sometimes neglect. Remember, whatever unique form your creative self care takes, you’re still only, but very wonderfully, human.

There are many things in my self care repertoire: a mini skincare haul, boba tea, untangling from my phone to read a book on a different screen, retail therapy. I’ll buy myself flowers to perk up my home and workspace. I’ll go on an unresolved mysteries binge on Reddit or Netflix. Luckily, in all my years of trial and error, I’ve found that the self care act that gives me a return 100% of the time - and turns out, is free! - is to just step away and take a break. At work, this is leaving a project for a day or a week to come back to. In life, this is a vacation or staycation. It’s a walk or a midday nap, the start of which usually is just me trying to do some “horizontal thinking”. Many people talk about having their best ideas in the shower; I have mine just before falling asleep, when I’m in a state of rest. I just think it’s simple math: if I get into that state twice as often, I’ll have twice the number of ideas. Naps for the win! (The hard part is remembering my ideas or trying to interpret my half-asleep notes.)

It’s even, yes, a break from coding to make other kinds of things or even just to not make at all. I call it conscious procrastination and it’s become a part of the cadence of my creativity and my productivity. I take a lot of breaks, both short and long.

Novelist Anne Lamott says it best and most simply:

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes - including you.”

Next, we’ve invited four writers and illustrators to share their personal perspectives on self care for creatives. They’ll share their stories and practical insights, from staying creative through the noise of the internet to how to practice self care while working from home, from finding meaning in creative hobbies to the important practice of maintaining your creativity even when you don’t feel like it.

Illustration by Meri Biscotto