I used to think I was unstoppable. Just six months ago, I was juggling a demanding full-time job, graduate school, and a blog while maintaining a decent social life and a happy marriage. Then I left my job and started working for myself. I opened an Etsy shop, recommitted to blogging, and envisioned a busy career in the not-so-distant future with a variety of creative freelance opportunities involving writing, making, teaching, and consulting. With my extra 40+ hours a week, I could do EVERYTHING.
Then I got re-acquainted with reality. Where once I was a steam engine, writing blog posts on my morning commute, finishing papers on my lunch break, squeezing brunch, Orange Is The New Black, and laundry into a weekend filled with readings and research, I was now only a sedentary homebody—getting plenty of sleep, thinking about food a lot, and enjoying simple moments of quiet nothingness. Like a balloon from the previous weekend’s birthday party, I was slowly deflating, losing all motivation to do anything, let alone everything.
What happened? Suddenly, I had to deal with the absence of pressure. I was forced to figure out how to do things on my own, for myself, at my own pace. Sounds great, though, right?! Wrong. When you’ve spent years relying on external deadlines to keep you productive, you’re left feeling pretty lazy and uninspired when those pressures disappear. Luckily, there’s a wealth of research on how to stay motivated and stimulate creativity, which is particularly useful for artists, designers, makers, and anyone self-employed in a creative field.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Work with Your Strengths
These character strengths, or "values in action," include a list of twenty-four positive traits, from prudence to gratitude to bravery, that we strongly identify with and exercise regularly. Discover your top character strengths through the free VIA Survey of Character Strengths, then adjust your job to best utilize them in your daily goals and tasks.
For example, I know that one of my top character strengths is perspective — finding ways of making sense of the world and sharing wise counsel with others. So how can I use that in my creative work? Perhaps by gathering the information I know about creativity and motivation and sharing that with other women...
2. Seek Intrinsic Motivators
Why Did She Makes Things card from Pinwheel Designs
Extrinsic motivation is so last century. According to best-selling author Daniel H. Pink, external rewards and punishments, or "carrots and sticks," are not only ineffective at motivating quality work but also harmful. "Science is revealing," Pink says, "that carrots and sticks can promote bad behavior, create addiction, and encourage short-term thinking at the expense of the long-view."
So what's the alternative? Harnessing your internal drivers of success, your intrinsic motivation. To do this, suspend the idea for a moment that you are engaged in a creative pursuit to eventually earn gobs of money, fame, praise, and appreciation. Sure, it's great to strive for these, and you obviously need to garner enough success to support yourself, but the best way to create truly excellent work is to find intrinsic motivators. Here's how:
- Infuse your creative work with more meaning, a greater purpose, which will help guide you through the challenging times.
- When appropriate, fight for autonomy (by which I mean choice, not necessarily independence) in what you do, when you do it, how you do it, and who you do it with.
- Make mastery a primary focus. What's more rewarding that seeing yourself improve in your craft?
3. Set "Big Hairy Audacious Goals"
We all understand the importance of setting goals for ourselves, but most of the advice I've read sings the praises, almost exclusively, of small, realistic, short-term goals. Don't get me wrong, these are crucial to progress. Reaching incremental goals gives you the confidence to keep going. Equally important, however, are those giant, pie-in-the-sky goals. I don't just mean dreams and aspirations but those big, hairy, audacious goals—painfully ambitious but also concrete and measurable.
The term "BHAG" (pronounced BEE-hag, short for Big Hairy Audacious Goal) was first coined by business consultant and author Jim Collins twenty years ago, and the phenomenon has been a major part of business leadership ever since. A BHAG, which is intended to be very difficult but not impossible to achieve and require ten or more years of commitment, is meant to be so exciting that the vision of achieving it kicks you into gear, and working toward it will inevitably transform you, even if you never reach the finish line.
Follow these tips to set a BHAG for your own creative practice, one that's built on your character strengths and guided by your intrinsic motivators.
4. Set the Mood
Write Drunk Edit Sober print available at Harvey Grey
The best time to be creative might not be when you think. If you're a morning person, it's likely late at night, when you're unfocused, calm, and in a positive mood. For night owls, the same is true in the early morning. So when you need to get the creative juices flowing, avoid waiting until you're in a hurry on a project and then downing some coffee to jolt you into gear. In fact, the research shows that a beer might be more helpful in igniting creative thinking, while the coffee is more helpful in executing your ideas.
Also consider painting your workspace a cool, calming color, like blue or green. Research conducted by the University of British Columbia showed that "blue enhances performance on a creative task."
And, of course, make sure you're getting enough exercise, which will not only improve your physical health but also boost your sleep, reduce stress, enhance your mood and overall well being, and lead to growth in all other areas of your life, including your creative practice.
5. Set Your Schedule
If we can learn anything from this Creative Routines infographic, which depicts the daily schedules of the world's most famous creative people, it's that there is no one-size-fits-all schedule. If you're starting a new creative venture or trying to reinvigorate your current artistic practice, try experimenting with different routines.
The first place to start is in bed. Make sure you're getting the right amount of sleep for your particular age, health, and lifestyle. The 8-hour recommendation that we all know is really just an average — some adults need fewer hours while some need much more. I'm a 9-hour kinda gal.
Next, when beginning a creative task, make sure to give yourself enough time to find flow, the mental state associated with being "fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process" of an activity that is perfectly suited to your current skill level (i.e. not too easy so as to be boring, not so hard so as to be frustrating).
And finally, remember that your focus has a natural rhythm, just as your body knows when you need sleep (see: circadian rhythm) and when to menstruate (see: infradian rhythm). Try to schedule regular breaks during your work to deactivate and refresh your mental focus. My favorite method for doing this, especially during more mentally taxing tasks, is the Pomodoro technique.
6. Stay Creatively Fueled
Do Scary Things print from Shire Furnishings
This may be a tough one to swallow, but the best fuel for creativity is discomfort. The easiest way to churn out the same work over and over is to get comfortable with your abilities and techniques, but seeking out new problems will challenge your skills. Harnessing your uncertainty can fuel your brilliance. Conflict can be a hidden resource for inciting innovation. Expanding your worldview through authentic multicultural experiences will enhance your creative thinking.
7. Stay Accountable
Book of Poems painting from Anna Magruder
Never underestimate the power of the buddy-system, from crossing the street to crossing things off your list. Commit to a group of similar creatives or identify someone in your field who might appreciate some reciprocal accountability, a close friend or relative who isn't afraid to call you out for slacking, or, ideally, someone who is both.
Create urgency by regularly setting hard deadlines and sticking to them. Research shows that imposing strict deadlines on yourself results in far better and more consistent performance. It's a no brainer. Try creating a simple accountability chart to maintain progress.
8. Procrastination? Just Say No.
Easier said than done, right? Well, understanding the science of procrastination may help you overcome it. Psychologists believe that procrastination has everything to do with mood—we delay starting a task to avoid the negative feelings of anxiety or worry associated with the challenge. The solution is to focus on repairing your mood in more productive ways:
- Time Travel: Visualize how good you'll feel when you complete your task.
- Just Get Started: Tell yourself you only have to do the first one or two steps.
- Forgive Yourself: Stop feeling guilty about your procrastination. Everyone's done it, at least once...
- Easy Things First: Build momentum by starting with the steps you feel most like doing.
Recognize that disappointments and frustration are inevitable. Hopefully, you've already been inspired by this quote from Ira Glass to keep trying despite feeling like you're falling short. (Marry me, Ira.)