Inspiration is important. Your influences matter. But you also need time to process, reflect, and create your own connections before jumping into your next project. Whether that’s a book, startup, or scientific theory, the lesson holds true for artists, entrepreneurs, and scientists, alike.
Best-selling author, Ryan Holiday, refers to these as “drawdown periods.” In the months leading up to writing a new book, Holiday guards himself against new information with the potential to clutter this mind. Instead, he seeks a period of stillness where he’s able to distill information and settle his mind before jumping off and creating something new.
The danger of neglecting a drawdown period is failing to create a buffer where you’re able to discover and piece together your own thoughts on the subject. Instead, you’re just regurgitating the latest idea or concept you’ve heard, as if it’s your own. To be fair, this is human nature — we’re highly impressionable, social beings.
But creating a little more distance is a good thing. It provides additional perspective that you’re able to bring back to your work. Without this, you’re just facing an onslaught of information and distraction which can be difficult to make sense of.
Is your idea worth pursuing?
Above everything else, drawdown periods help inform whether or not an idea’s worth pursuing. The original source of “drawdown periods” — where Holiday borrowed the concept from — was military strategist, John Boyd. After he encountered a breakthrough or exciting new idea, he would spend weeks examining it, assessing its originality, and stress-testing it for problems. If it survived this period, he knew it was worth investing in.
The greater the endeavor, the more vital a drawdown period becomes. It’s important to act when inspiration strikes as it relates to the little things — an article, a small experiment, a new tactic. But the mountains — new books, startups, theories — are worth reflecting on before jumping in.
This helps create a natural filter for the things you’re not completely invested in. If the idea still resonates with you tomorrow, next week, next month, you might be on to something.
Tapering before the race
Far from killing inspiration, drawdown periods promote creativity. They allow you to find your voice and the guiding principle behind your next project. Without this, it’s impossible to sort through what’s your own.
Drawdown periods are the calm before the storm. If you set off scrambling without first setting your feet, you’re putting yourself behind from the start. While everyone loses their way at some point, it’s important to have a sense of your guiding principle — this initial footing — that you can return to along the way. And the best way to establish an early version of your guiding principle is by creating room to reflect before taking the leap.
Creative work is difficult enough, as is. Don’t make it more difficult by cluttering your mind at the start. Allow yourself time to breathe before setting off on your next pursuit.
It’s similar to tapering before a race. If you’re rested, you’ll be in better condition to handle the strenuous demands of the real race and guard yourself against burnout. In endurance sports, two days before a race, your metabolic fitness level is what it will be for the upcoming race. No matter how hard you train during those final 48 hours, you won’t see any benefits to your endurance in time for the race. Rest matters.
The value of tuning out
In 1902, Albert Einstein took a job at the Swiss patent office. The years he spent there could be considered the ultimate drawdown period. It was challenging enough to keep his mind engaged, but not enough to distract him from his more important focus on comprehending and redefining physics.
Three years later, Einstein published his paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” which outlines the special theory of relativity. Its contributions to the field of physics were profound. But one of the most astonishing things about the paper was that it had exactly zero footnotes or citations. It was like he reached the conclusions through years of pure thought, without listening to outside opinion.
While Einstein is an extreme example and a profound abstract thinker, the underlying lesson holds true. For originality and creativity, sometimes you need to allow yourself to tune out.
Deliberate or impulsive?
Drawdown periods aren’t an excuse to avoid getting started. You’re never going to be as prepared as you might like. Drawdown periods are more about giving yourself a moment of calm before the grind of creating something from nothing. New startups, books, and theories can take years, if not decades, to develop.
The difference between great artists, entrepreneurs, and scientists is the difference between drawdown periods and procrastination. Drawdown periods are deliberate. Procrastination is impulsive.
At a certain point, it helps to limit exposure and turn things back to yourself. Allow yourself to mull ideas, forge connections on your own terms, and see what comes out of it. It’s impossible to find your own voice if you’re bombarding yourself with other people’s ideas without giving yourself time to breathe.
Drawdown periods offer a temporary refrain when you’re able to step back and see the terrain. This allows you a chance to appreciate the interconnected whole and create connections or bridge ideas that you might have otherwise missed. The more perspective you can build, the better you’ll be for it. And the same goes for your craft.
As a smart creative, drawdown periods are essential. Give yourself time to prepare, rest, and reflect before your next endeavor. You’ll need every ounce of energy you have if you want to get your thinking clean and bring the best version of an idea to life.