We live in a world giving us so much entertainment, excitement and distraction that it is incredibly hard to give your creativity room to breathe. You might watch a show and feel inspired to write a chapter of the book you’re working on, but then Netflix gives you the “Next Episode Starts in 30 Seconds” countdown. Naturally, you say “ah, just one more”. And then it’s 1am, you have work in the morning and you haven’t written a single new word for your book. In fact, I took a nice little break after that last sentence because I had NFL Videos up on youtube. It’s closed now.
So, if you’re anything like me, sometimes you get in a creative groove and it feels great. And sometimes you go from episode 15 to episode 22 of NCIS season 12 in a night. Here are 5 lessons I’ve learned to get into a creative groove.
1. When You Hear the Muse, Respond
This is the necessary first step because this is the step that separates the people who have talked about their book for 10 years and have 0 pages written, and those who accomplish something. When you have a bit of inspiration for your latest song, story or art piece, do something about it. If you’re able to drop what you’re doing to work on it, do that. If you are at work or are in some other situation where you can’t work on it, take a minute to just jot down your thoughts.
If you ignore the muse because Netflix’s countdown got to 0 before you made the effort to reach for the remote, you may never have that specific inspiration again. Worse, you have now spent 45 minutes that would have been effective creative time watching an episode of The Office for the 4th time. Spoiler alert: Michael still hates Toby.
Not only is time wasted and the muse allowed to escape your grasp, but the episode of The Office was still going to be there 3 hours later, the next day, and next month. The muse comes and goes at will, with little to no ability for the creator to control it. Netflix is forever. Well, at least for the foreseeable future.
2. Don’t Wait for the Muse
While you need to take advantage of a visit from the muse, don’t wait for it. The muse is fickle, but rewards those who work for it. If you write every day, I bet the muse will swing by for a visit more often than if you don’t work unless the muse shows up first.
Besides that, you simply cannot rely on the muse. Relying on the muse would be like relying on momentum in a sport. Sure, it’s a great wave to ride when you have it, but it can disappear in a second. Not only that, but you have to be able to GET the momentum in the first place. Which means you had to work to earn it when the goings were tough.
Like almost anything in life, the ultimate factor in a quality product will be your time. If you spend 10,000 hours honing your craft vs 1,000, I’m going to put my bets on the 10,000 hour guy being better. I’m also going to guess he will already have a more impressive output.
Waiting for the muse will get you from 0 pages in 10 years to a bunch of random and decent story bits in 10 years. Not waiting for the muse will bring you to a couple trilogies fully written, edited and published in 10 years. Or, at the very least, you will have a ton more accomplished and many more hours where you have fine-tuned your skills.
3. Create the Habit
Motivation is fickle, discipline and habit-building are not. If you get into the habit of working on your creative projects every day, or every Saturday morning, or whatever schedule works for you, that will go a long way. No more of the “I don’t really feel like painting today” followed by 6 months of forgetting you were a painter at all. No more years of thinking about songwriting with little or no production (I see you, 21-23 year old me).
Getting into the habit of even 15 minutes a day will go a long long LONG way. As you know, I’m a huge proponent of baby steps, as they are easy to take and yet guarantee constant movement in the right direction. For more on baby steps, check out my post on how to accomplish your goals.
There are a couple great things about getting into the habit of daily creative time. One is that it will become your nature to make constant, if small, creative progress. Your nature before habits is managing to play Fortnite 4 more hours than you planned. If you can get your mindless, go-through-the-motions self to be creatively productive, that’s a massive win.
A second great thing about getting into creative habit is it gives you so many more opportunities to let your creativity flow. If you force yourself to work on your latest music composition every day for at least 15 minutes, you may just work for 15 minutes 5 days a week. But the other two you might get into it and end up replacing that 4 hours of Fortnite with 4 hours of arranging the violin and oboe parts.
Forcing yourself to get into the habit will have days where the 15 minutes (or however much time you commit to) is a drag and nothing happens. You’re too busy daydreaming of how you’re on the episode right before Pam and Jim get together. But it will also give you the days where the 15 minutes blows by and you decide your creativity will own the entire rest of your night. There are few better feelings in the world than those kind of nights.
4. Change Creative Context
This is one of my favorite tips as it has helped me immensely. A bit of background on me will help explain this. I am a singer-songwriter, blogger/podcaster and software developer who plans to also write a book trilogy in the future. My day job is being a software developer, I’m working on a web app on the side with a friend, I’m doing this blog, and I’m the middle of a 12 month stretch where I’m supposed to record and release 12 original songs. So I’m not a creative 1 trick pony. This tip is ESPECIALLY useful if you have multiple creative passions like me.
Some days you just won’t be feeling one of your creative projects. You’ll sit in front of your piano and everything your fingers do will sound uninspired or derivative and you’ll wonder how you ever wrote anything that was any good. It would be easy to throw your hands up in the air and play some Mario Kart.
But don’t. Change creative contexts. Try working on your blog instead. Or maybe work on that painting you haven’t worked on in a week. Just because the muse is more silent than the lambs for your latest love ballad doesn’t mean that you won’t become the Superman of painting once you sit with brush in hand.
Even if you DO have an inspired hour at the guitar before the muse leaves you, don’t just give up once the inspiration disappears. Change creative contexts. Now see if you can re-inspire yourself with your painting. Maybe check out if you can write blog words better than you can craft lyrics tonight. And then, once you’ve run out of creative juice in that category, you can even go back to songwriting again!
Changing contexts can allow one inspiration to pour into another and also allows your creative brain to stretch in some different directions. Think of it like working out. You’re not going to just bench for an hour at the gym, right? No, first you bench some, then you work on your biceps and abs and legs and THEN go back to some other chest and tricep exercises. By time you get back to chest and triceps, your chest muscles have recovered just enough to not be threatening to pop out like that one scene in Alien.
This is the same exact idea. Just because your brain is tired and seems totally incapable of even figuring out what color green to paint your trees doesn’t mean you won’t be able to whip out 4 pages of gold for your latest novel. And even if you get some great painting in but then seem to lose all creativity in an instant, when you change creative contexts and then try painting again, you may be able to continue on.
Learning this concept is the difference between coming home and doing 15 minutes of staring at a blank page and then saying “well, I guess it’s just me and Netflix tonight” and being able to work for 3 hours on all 3 of your creative projects before finishing the season finale of Stranger Things.
5. Don’t Let Learning Time Interfere with Doing Time
If you’re anything like me, you try learning everything you can to better master your craft. I’ve listened to podcasts about all kinds of creativity, from writing a novel to songwriting to how to be efficient in your creative endeavors while holding a full-time job. I’ve read books about running a business to the social side of business to books on how to influence people. I’m pretty much constantly in self-improvement/go-get-the-future-I-want mode. But a problem that can easily come up is too much time learning and not enough time doing.
An example of this is if it’s 11 at night and all the kids and your spouse are asleep, so you have 1 hour to yourself. Then you watch youtube videos about how to write better songs for an hour and go to bed. Then you do the same thing the next night and the next. Soon you have an overwhelming number of things you’ve heard from Youtube videos and you’ve forgotten 90% of them and implemented 0% of them.
It is important to prioritize actually DOING your craft over just learning about it. Often the best way to learn is just to do. If there is something you need to learn, go ahead and look it up and then implement it. If you want to learn something you cannot implement right away, don’t waste your time. Subscribe to the idea of Just-in-time-learning. This is the idea that you only learn something when it is presently useful to you. If you plan on writing a book in a couple years, maybe don’t spend a lot of time learning about how to do that now.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First is that the lazy side of us that wants to mindlessly drain our night away on Rocket League is the same side of us that wants to lazily watch 3 hours of youtube videos on writing a book without actually writing a single page. Second is that we may forget what we learned by time we actually get to implement it, making the time we spent a total waste.
Another way to prevent learning time from interfering with doing time is to learn how to double-dip. If you have a 30 minute commute to work every day, that’s 1 hour a day that you can either listen to some dudes on the radio talk about the latest Trump tweet, or listen to podcasts about what you want to learn. If podcasts aren’t your thing, then maybe try to get an audiobook on how to write more compelling characters.
Now you have 1 hour of free learning time per day and 1 extra hour of creating, you’re welcome.
What are some lessons you’ve learned from trying to be productive in your creative projects? Which of these lessons will you try to implement this week? If you found this helpful at all or know someone who could benefit from this, please share! If you want to start a discussion, feel free to tweet me @josephNVadala or at us @EscapeTheBoxLab. As always, thank you so much for reading and even more so if you shared!