Getting Creative Work Done During a Time of Uncertainty and Stress

Creative work is hard.

Even in the best of circumstances, it’s hard work translating your imagination and raw emotions and jumbled ideas into something structured and tangible, and then sharing it with the world.

And right now, we’re not in the best of circumstances.

In fact, it’s easy to say that our current circumstances feel downright terrifying. The coronavirus pandemic is inexorably making its way into every corner of the world. The global economy has collapsed. Political views seem to have hardened into vicious polarization.

Scrolling headlines on the internet reminds me of Henny Penny, the little hen who ran screaming, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” and soon recruited a host of terrified followers… who all ran breathlessly straight into the fox’s den.

The moral of this story is: the herd mentality is very, very dangerous. It almost never leads to anything positive.

Creative work, on the other hand, almost always leads to positive things.

For you, the creator, it leads to feelings of accomplishment, confidence, and the joy of touching other people’s lives. For your audience, it leads to insight, camaraderie, and the thrill of experience.

Therefore, now more than ever, it is critically important for you to continue creating your work. Because you are a force for good in the world.

But how can you create your work when it feels like the sky is falling?

We all feel overwhelmed when we embark on ambitious projects, but it can feel especially impossible when the TV is blaring bad news and headlines are a non-stop barrage of dire predictions.

I have two simple pieces of advice:

  1. Break your work into manageable chunks
  2. Connect with your peers

1. Break your work into manageable chunks

This advice holds during extraordinary circumstances just as much as it does during normal ones.

If you find yourself thinking, “OMG, I’ve got to finish writing, penciling, inking and coloring this entire graphic novel by the end of the year, and I was so distracted/freaked out I didn’t even finish one page last week!!!”...

Stop. Take a deep breath. Say to yourself, “Let’s focus on this week, not this year.”

I recommend that you spend 20 minutes or so every Friday afternoon, Sunday evening, or Monday morning deciding exactly what chunk of creative work you want to finish in the upcoming week.

Be realistic. It’s better to set smaller goals that you can definitely accomplish rather than consistently fall short.

Then, schedule it. Even if you’re on lockdown and have no other meetings and you’re thinking, “I have all the time in the world right now, why in the world do I need a schedule?”...

I’m telling you, make a schedule. Write it in your calendar: from 9 am to 11 am on Monday morning is Creative Work Time (for example). Tell your family or your housemates in advance and gently ask them to be respectful and not interrupt you during that time.

Come Monday at 9 am, you’ve already decided: you know what you need to do. You sit in your chair and start working.

Even if at first you feel distracted or unmotivated or worried about something else, you’ve pre-determined that this is work time, so you don’t even need to think about it. You only have one task: put pencil to paper (or stylus to tablet, or whatever your tools may be!).

If the work you do is crappy, so be it! You did your duty. If you continue to show up and work as planned, day in, day out, you will make progress.

2. Connect With Your Peers

During a time of enforced isolation like we’re experiencing now, it is imperative that you proactively reach out and connect with peers on a regular basis.

Social connection is a basic human need. It is also amazingly important for creative work -- even creative work that we typically think of as a solitary endeavor, like writing or drawing.

Talking with your peers is the gasoline that keeps your engine going. It’s what keeps you motivated and inspired.

And as most of you would probably agree, your mom or significant other or best friend usually isn’t the right type of person (unless you’re unusually lucky). You need to talk to people who understand what you’re trying to do, and who are trying to do similar things themselves.

For instance, when you say, “I’m trying to figure out this shading technique on Clip Studio Paint but having issues with XYZ,” it isn’t helpful if your conversation partner looks at you with a blank expression and says, “Huh?”

Instead, you want someone who leans forward enthusiastically and says, “Oh yeah, I know who you should ask about that!”

So, in addition to scheduling time for your creative work, make sure you schedule some Zoom calls or FaceTime with fellow artists/writers/creators you trust. Every single week.

Keep going. Keep creating your work.

The world needs it.

Looking for a place to meet your peers? Join Me for Office Hours

Office Hour is happening again this Monday, March 30th, and next Monday, April 6th. All are welcome.

Please join us Monday at 11:30 am EST:

how to find time to be creative

How to Find Time to Be Creative

Just a few days ago, a friend wrote to me,

“How do I get rid of things on my plate that I don’t want to do? How do I prioritize?”

Her questions echoed similar ones that many people have asked me. It seems like we’re living through an epidemic of busy-ness. In the midst of the rush, it’s becoming harder and harder for people to decide what’s most important, and to focus.

I know many of us wish we could wave a magic wand and make our most frustrating and tedious obligations disappear.

But that seems impossible. Weighed down by our To Do lists, we can’t find enough time to do the things we want to do. We feel trapped.

What Happens When You Don’t Deal With This Problem

If you don’t treat the root of the problem, for many people, the result is depression.

This is what happened to me.

For a long, long time, I felt trapped in my work. First when I was working a full-time job, traveling for business, and taking care of our young daughter at home. I yearned to have a greater sense of control over my life and some sort of creative outlet. But whenever I tried to figure it out, I felt stymied by a lack of time and confusion over which direction would be best for me to go.

Then I quit my job to help my husband with his business. Having our own business, I reasoned, would give me that greater sense of control.

But it turned out I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire — instead of having more time, I had even less. To make matters worse, I took on a consulting job to bring in a little more income. And then I had a second child.

Now I was juggling two jobs, two children (one of whom was a baby), and a growing sense that time was racing by and somehow I’d missed the spot where I was supposed to get off the express train and “find my calling.”

What Caused This Mess?

Eventually, I came to realize something important: Depression can be caused by unrealized creative potential.

And the key to realizing your creative potential is not what you think it is. You don’t need more time.

What you need is a subtle but utterly pivotal shift inside yourself.

Although your obligations don’t necessarily need to change (at least, not at first), your mindset toward them does. When this happens, it can open up a veritable floodgate of creativity.

We all have two finite resources in our lives: money and time. However, there is at least the theoretical possibility that we can create more money for ourselves.

Time, on the other hand, is truly finite. While some of us may have a lot of money and others not very much, we all have the same amount of time.

Yet some people seem to spin their wheels for years at a time, while others move forward and make things happen.

We think that in order to “have enough time” we need to relinquish some of our tasks.

The truth is that our own minds are the terrible taskmaster keeping us trapped. And the reason why that taskmaster is so cruel to us is because she is deathly afraid of allowing us to move toward that vast, powerful, brilliant space of our full potential.

Our current To Do list is a known entity. We know what we’re supposed to do at work, to keep the household running, to make our families happy.

But to confront our nagging existential angst… or to push ourselves as far as we can go in our creative pursuits… far enough to go over the edge and see what happens when we try to fly — that is like stepping into a void.

So we instinctively (and unconsciously) protect ourselves by dutifully checking off the boxes on our To Do list.

This is completely understandable. “Finish monthly report” or “reorganize the basement” might not be fun or creatively fulfilling, but at least they’re clear and concrete.

How the heck do you check off the box that says “confront my existential angst” or “realize my full potential in life”?
I’m not a religious person, but I am spiritual, and this line from the Bible resonates for every human being:

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7

The shift that needs to happen inside you is simple: you stop resisting. You accept what your heart is telling you.

There is something inside you that you want to do. You may have a very clear vision of it. Or you may have no clear sense at all; only a hazy intuition that something needs to be different.

It doesn’t matter whether you know what you want to do, or you don’t. You simply start by saying “yes.”

Yes, I matter.

Yes, I am open.

Yes, I am moving forward.

Instead of saying “I can’t,” you say, “I am ready.”

I am ready to ask for help, even when it feels uncomfortable.

I am ready to go looking, even when that means taking a path I’ve never traveled before.

I am ready to knock on the door, even when I have no idea what lies on the other side.

When it opens, I am summoning the courage to step across the threshold, and keep going.

What to do when you have TOO MANY ideas

What To Do When You Have TOO MANY IDEAS

How do you transform your creative chaos into something manageable? How do you distinguish the diamonds from the pea gravel? How do you know when it’s the right time to nurture an idea, and when it’s better to just leave it fallow?

I struggled with these questions for a long, long time.

When I left corporate publishing, I wanted to do something “different,” but I wasn’t sure what it should be. Here are just a few of the ideas I considered:

  • Should I start a girls’ comics magazine? Or a children’s book company?
  • Should I open a bookstore? Or a tea and rice ball cafe?
  • Should I go back to school and get an MBA? Or maybe an MFA?
  • Should I become a book packager, a literary agent, or an author?
  • Should I switch gears entirely and go into finance?????

I researched all of those questions seriously. In some cases, I wrote business plans or made significant headway on the first phase of the goal.

But I always ended up questioning myself, getting side-tracked by other ideas, and abandoning the original plan.

After a while, the pattern was very apparent to me, and I felt like an abject failure. Why were other people able to take an idea, persist with it, and carry it to fruition? What was wrong with me?

What Was Wrong With Me

In order to figure out why I seemed doomed to Sisyphean idea generation, we have to look at the subtext behind the question, “What should I do when I have too many ideas?”

The phrase “too many” is a negative judgment. The question itself assumes that it is not good to have many ideas, projects, or interests. Without realizing it, I was interpreting my creativity as a liability.

Because I thought there was something wrong with me, I unconsciously struggled against my natural tendencies. Although on the one hand I was creative, on the other hand I was squashing my ability to channel this creativity in productive ways, because I was refusing to see it as an asset.

As the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön writes,

“When resistance is gone, the demons are gone.”

Once I started changing that habit of asking myself, “What is freakin’ wrong with me?,” and started developing the habit of asking, “What’s going right? What’s making me happy?”….

Everything changed.

Before doing anything else, you’ve got to reframe the question.

Here’s the same question, posed in a compassionate, curious way:

I have lots of ideas. How can I organize them and move forward on them most productively?

Step Number One

The first step is both simple and essential: write your ideas down.

It is critical to get your ideas out of your head. This accomplishes two things: first, it frees your brain from worrying about remembering all your ideas, and gives you a lot more free space in your mental hard drive.

When you have a lot of ideas but you’re keeping them all in your head, without realizing it, your brain is expending a lot of energy trying to keep track of everything. This creates a constant, nebulous feeling of anxiety — definitely not conducive to creative work.

Second, once you have your ideas down on paper, your ideas gain a certain substance. It becomes easier to evaluate which ideas to pursue, and which to discard or hold for later.

I’ll talk more below about how to distinguish between good and not-so-good ideas, but suffice to say for now that the very first step in that process is always to write out each of your ideas as comprehensively as you can, as soon as you can.

Where should you write your ideas?

That’s up to you. It could be Evernote, or Google docs, or a journal, a notebook, or index cards. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a system that works for you and you’re consistent about it.

In her book on creativity, the choreographer Twyla Tharp says that she has actual physical boxes for each of her projects. In each box (labeled with the name of a specific project), she puts notes, clippings, artwork, videos, books, or any tangible item related to that project. As Tharp says,

“Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.”

In Tharp’s case, yes, she does have a literal box, but in the metaphorical sense, you need some sort of organizing principles and structure to your idea generation process in order to make it most effective.

Now what? How do you make sense of all those ideas?

Once you have a system for capturing all your ideas, you now need a system for filtering them. In other words, deciding which ideas are keepers, which ideas to explore further, and which ideas to move forward on NOW.

Filter #1 is a stark thought experiment.

Imagine you only had one year left to live. Which ideas or projects would you want to finish in the last year of your life?

This helps put things into perspective. It helps you understand what is absolutely most important to you, what you want to do on behalf of your loved ones, and what you can actually accomplish in the near term. These factors are extremely effective ways to zero in on what to do.

Filter #2 is a prioritization exercise.

I outlined this exercise in my blog post two weeks ago about prioritization. Clearly decide for yourself what your top two to three goals for this year are. Write them down and put them somewhere where you can see them every day — for example, a Post-It on your computer, a note in your wallet, or a page taped above your work table.

Now, when you have an idea and you’re trying to figure out whether to pursue it, ask yourself: “Is this going to get me closer to my two most important goals for this year?”

If not, set it aside for now. This doesn’t mean you have to set it aside forever, of course! But now is not the right time.

Filter #3 involves determining your rationale.

Get to the root cause for each idea. Ask yourself, what’s driving me? Is it something I want to do for myself, or someone I love? If the answer is yes, it’s worth considering.

If it’s something you want to do because you think it’s what “the market” wants, or it’s what you’re “supposed to” do, or because you think it will impress someone… run the other way. It is most definitely not an idea to pursue.

Filter #4 is to create a set of rules for yourself.

This filter helps you counteract “Bright Shiny Object Syndrome.” It’s especially important for big ideas that may cause you to shift gears or lose your focus on your current priorities.

My rules are simple. In fact, there’s only two of them:

  • When I have an idea, I must write it down in my idea notebook.
  • I must let every idea gestate for one week before I take action. If my enthusiasm has waned after one week, that’s a sign. I shouldn’t pursue it, at least not now.

Always be biased to action.

Once you decide which idea is most important for you right now, get started as soon as possible. Make a back-of-the-envelope plan and start working on the very first phase.

Taking action consistently and frequently on your most important ideas and projects is critical, because that momentum will motivate you.

I’ve said this before, but I will keep saying it till the cows come home: being motivated doesn’t cause us to take action. Taking action causes us to get motivated.

If you struggle with feeling consistently motivated, stop worrying about your motivation. Focus on consistently taking action, whether you feel like it or not.

Another reason why you want to take action consistently is because, if you let an important idea lie dormant for too long, it may lose its spark entirely.

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this in her book Big Magic, where she describes an epic novel she worked on for more than a year. Then there was a family crisis and she had to stop working on it for several years. When she finally got back to the manuscript, she found it was impossible to start writing again.

The fire for the story was completely dead and she couldn’t resurrect it.

Say Thank You to Your Monkey Mind

My final word on “too many ideas” is that you need to be aware of this challenge as a potential sign of resistance.

Our brains deeply resist being pushed outside of our comfort zone. Working on ambitious creative projects always pushes us outside of our comfort zone. One way that the fearful part of our mind can easily sabotage us is by dangling an enticing new idea in front of us.

“Oh!” we think. “THAT’S an interesting idea! That sounds easier and more fun and way more exciting than what I’m currently doing!”

But if you’re prepared, you won’t be derailed. Instead, you’ll thank your brain for its endless inventiveness.

Then you’ll write the idea down in all its glorious detail, look at your calendar, and tell yourself, “OK, I’ll revisit this in a week or so. Now it’s back to the drawing board.”

And get back to the work at hand.