When it comes to creativity, our minds really are our worst enemies. They throw so many excuses, blocks, issues, complaints, and problems our way that it’s a wonder we get anything done. One of my favourite things to do on this blog is dismantle these mind traps and figure out how to get the work done anyway.
Recently I put out a call and asked people: how are you struggling with your creativity? What do you need help with? One of the responses I got felt all too familiar:
“How do you take a big idea and break it down so you know what to do for 15 minutes or an hour, in the time that you have? Anything I could do today seems too small to make a difference.”
This all-or-nothing thinking trap is a particularly sticky one. It can be so hard to start a project that you’ve been thinking about for a long time because it tends to build up in your mind to the point where getting started feels hopeless. And things get especially tough when you have tried to work on it but haven’t seen the results you want.
The answer? Put a stop to the mind games and sit down and do the work - no matter how much or little time, money, or energy you have. Then keep doing it for as long as it takes to reach your goal, whether that’s filling a sketchbook or becoming a paid writer. If that sounds much easier said than done, I hear you. Here are 6 steps that have helped me through this mind trap - hopefully they'll help you too.
Make a commitment
When I found that I wasn’t getting the results that I wanted from my art career, I decided to commit myself 100% to my goals. I declared my decision publicly and refused to let fear and self-doubt pull me from my path. It is a struggle and there are days when I want to throw up my hands and ask my office job to give me full-time hours. But the commitment I made to myself and to my art means that I never take that plan seriously.
Decide what you want to achieve and write out a contract with yourself, stating what you will do to finish your project or achieve your dreams. This is important because the only thing you can control in this equation is what YOU will do. You can’t plan the results of your work, you can only decide to do the work, day after day after day.
Break the Project Down
Whether the goal is to write a novel, publish an article, sell a painting, or learn a new skill, it can be overwhelming to look at it in it’s entirety. The goal of making a living as a writer is great but it’s not something you can wake up one morning and just start doing. It’s a matter of taking a series of small steps that will eventually lead to something bigger.
For example, a good place to start with the goal of becoming a writer is to send work for publication in magazines or journals. Here are a series of steps you could do to achieve that goal, with each step taking from 15 minutes to an hour:
- Research publications and make a list of ones that would be appropriate to submit to.
- Choose one and get familiar with their submission guidelines.
- Brainstorm ideas.
- Choose one idea and outline it.
- Write for 15 - 60 minutes per day until you have a first draft.
- Edit the draft.
- Edit it again.
- Complete other submission requirements, like writing a bio or a CV.
- Package up the submission and send it.
You could repeat this process over and over until you get published.
Focus on process rather than results
While having a lofty goal gives you something to aspire to, it can also put too much pressure on what you’re doing in the moment. My goal to make a living as an artist and teacher gives direction to my days but if I get stuck comparing where I want to be with where I am now, I feel completely discouraged and I want to give up.
Instead, I’ve made it a priority to focus on the process, and set smaller goals to reflect that. One of my goals for this year was to send out 100 asks: applications to galleries, art shows, grants, etc. as well as sending emails to specific people asking about projects I’m interested in. Notice that I’m not aiming for 100 acceptance letters but just 100 asks. The more I ask, the more likely it is for me to have someone say yes.
I write out a list of everything I accomplished each month to remind myself that I AM making progress, no matter what my brain might tell me. I also fill in charts that I made in my bullet journal so I can visually see how close I am to my goals.
There’s also a very famous exercise that you could try, attributed to Jerry Seinfeld. Put an X on the calendar every day that you work on your project. Every day the chain of X’s gets longer and longer and you can physically see the accumulation of progress. Once your initial 15 minutes becomes an hour, then 10 hours, then 60 hours, even small chunks of time will feel more meaningful.
Create routines and systems
If you really want to get something done, it needs to be given priority. Treat your art like it’s your job, even if you don’t ever want it to be more than a hobby. Find a time that works for you, schedule it, and stick to it.
When I was working in retail I convinced the store I was working in to sell my greeting cards. Every morning I sat down for 30 minutes and made cards until I had enough to bring to the store. That schedule worked at for me at the time. Now, in order to make art before my day job, I would have to get up at 5:30am and that is a time of day that makes me physically ill. Instead, I have Thursdays and Fridays set aside for art-making and I do what I can to keep them open for that purpose.
If you have specific tasks that need to be completed, find a way to keep them organized. If it’s more about volume (like when you’re filling a sketchbook or writing a novel) decide how much you’ll do each week and track it.
Be kind to yourself
This shows up at the end of so many of my blog posts because it is so important. Don’t beat yourself up when you don’t meet your expectations, don’t put in all your hours, or don’t get the results you want. It won’t help, and will only make it harder to get back to work. The chain doesn’t need to be unbroken for it to have value: if you miss a day, or a week, or a month, then tell yourself it’s okay and get back to making stuff.
It also helps to have things in your back pocket for days when you just can’t produce anything creative. Are there any mindless tasks you can set aside for these times? Danielle Krysa of The Jealous Curator cuts pictures out of magazines when she’s feeling stuck. I do boring but essential things like bookkeeping and tidying, or fun things like research when I can seem to squeeze a creative thought out of my brain.
It can be so very very hard, but the only way we can live our creative dreams is the same way we do anything - by taking it one day, one hour, one moment at a time. Stay the course and don’t quit. You can do it.