Illustration by Kriota Willberg

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Advice for a Sustainable Desk-Bound Creative Career

Advice for a Sustainable Desk-Bound Creative Career
Published June 16, 2020 by Mia Pinjuh

It can be tempting to think of creative lives as existing purely in the domain of the mind, as imaginative pursuits that have little bearing on our physical bodies. But as any artist or designer who has struggled with injury will attest, the body is a necessary part of a creative practice. A repetitive strain injury, poor posture, or persistent fatigue will certainly have significant impact on how and when creatives produce work. Unfortunately, this realization tends to come only come after such issues have become an impediment to one’s work. 

Illustrator and cartoonist Kriota Willberg has long recognized the importance of taking care of your body as part of a well-rounded, sustainable creative practice; much of her work explores the ways in which our physical bodies and artistic practices overlap. Willberg's book of comics, Draw Stronger: Self-Care for Cartoonists and Other Visual Artists, was created as a blueprint of healthy routines and exercises for artists and desk-bound creatives who struggle with pain, repetitive injuries, and long-term bad habits (no more slouching!). Her approach—drawn from experience as a massage therapist and health educator—makes injury prevention and thoughtful self-care accessible and easy to incorporate into your creative life.

Here are five of our takeaways from the invaluable book.


1. Make longevity a priority.

Whether you’re a graphic artist who sketches frequently or someone who works in front of a screen, a sedentary workday is fraught with potential strain and the likelihood of exhaustion—both likely to hinder your ability to make work, and even prematurely end a cherished pursuit. Think of it this way: considering physical health as a creative is investing in your future and laying the groundwork for a career where you can keep working comfortably and safely.  

Shifting your focus to a long-term view, rather than making do with short-term approaches that work in the moment, is a way of respecting your chosen path and assuring your future wellbeing. It can be a difficult task, especially given the uncertainty of artistic industries, but paying attention to your health in this way leaves you more available to shift gears if necessary, and to adjust course without the restrictions of injury.

2. Commit to a movement practice.

Meeting deadlines, bookkeeping, and networking with your community are just a few of the obligations beyond actually doing the creative work that can often take up significant chunks of your time. To realize the full benefits of Willberg’s approach, you must create a consistent practice that works with your lifestyle and has the intended preventative effect. It can be a great deal easier to avoid an injury rather than treat it, and the way to do this is to make physical self-care a muscle memory in itself. 

Willberg's suggestion is to find the right corrective activity that counteracts time spent at a desk, or repeating the same motions. Taking cues from how professional athletes structure their workouts, she suggests a mix of specific and general activities to keep your body in tune. For some, it might be a martial arts practice that lets off steam, while for others, swimming could offer the needed range of motion to open up tight muscle groups and re-balance the body. No matter the exercise, the crucial factor is finding a release valve that allows for freedom of movement and a way to jolt yourself out of a limiting physical range of motion. 

3. Create a new normal.  

Breaking bad habits can be frustrating, dispiriting, and self-confronting. After all, why change something that feels like it’s working just fine? In many cases, this “just fine” mindset is the seed of many strains and injuries. 

Take your posture as an example (this may be a good time to remind you to sit up straight!). Slouching or slumping is the natural state for many people, because it requires little effort and feels good in the moment. However, back and neck issues are the most cited pain points for those confined to a desk and can be the most debilitating for work.

The tricky thing about posture is that the muscles we need to hold us up straight are not nearly as well developed as they should be for most of us. And before you put all the blame on yourself, think of how difficult it is to find a truly ergonomic workspace. Laptop and monitor screens, low desks, and poorly designed chairs are all factors in persistent fatigue and muscle issues. Hunching, holding your head forward, and sitting in one position for extended periods puts pressure on your nerves and muscles that become very (painfully) apparent when you stand up after a long day of work. Taking measures to find a new normal will feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar at first, but it will pay off quickly once you realize how much your old habits were holding you back. It can be as simple as changing locations partway through the day.

4. Use what you have. 

Part of the impediment and hesitation to set up a healthy practice comes from the myth that you must invest in a range of specialized tools or equipment to make it truly effective. The creative thinking you utilize for artistic breakthroughs or problem solving can be applied to creating sustainable self-care habits. Take the time to look around the space where you spend the bulk of your time, and consider how it can be repurposed to meet your physical needs. Is there some floor space that you can clear for a quick morning stretch while listening to the news? Do you have a window that can be part of your designated rest area? Even a doorway can be incorporated to be part of your exercise routine, as Willberg shows us.

Many of Draw Stronger’s suggested exercises don’t require any equipment, or use easily available props to help make them a part of everyday life. By removing barriers to a healthy lifestyle, Willberg shows us how easily it can become part of our day, as natural as drinking our morning cup of coffee (a great time to practice deep breathing or positive visualization!). 

5. Pace yourself.  

Burnout has emerged as a chronic burden, spanning multiple industries and demographics. Stress, pressure, unhealthy workplaces, and exhaustion are all factors. For creatives, particularly self-sufficient freelancers and contractors, it can be an especially frustrating problem to overcome. Very often, the instinct is to commit to multiple projects, push yourself to achieve more, and ignore tell-tale warning signs. And it is true that for the sake of your livelihood and career, you sometimes do have to endure some amount of discomfort. Willberg acknowledges this in Draw Stronger, relying on her years as a creative herself, and extensive time spent treating athletes and creatives alike. 

With a focus on big-picture preventative care, Willberg includes ways to minimize risk and long-term damage you could cause by ignoring the red flags in your practice. Part of creating a healthy practice includes setting clear boundaries that allow you to maintain a sense of balance. An important part of this includes taking the necessary time for rest and recharging. Making yourself take time off can require just as much discipline as the work itself sometimes, but pushing past your physical limits will cause further undue damage and lead to a longer, more complicated recovery.

Reframe your thinking around rest and sleep. Instead of “slacking off,” you are refreshing your stores of physical and creative energy. You’re not “doing nothing,” you are listening to the cues of your body that will guide you in the right direction. With time, you’ll see the benefits of adding in daily checks and new routines for caring for your body, and, in turn, assure the longevity of your career and creative practice.

More about Mia Pinjuh

Mia is a writer based in New York. 

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