Creative work doesn’t just “happen” at anytime. It is done, with blood, sweat, tears, ink, paint, clay, film, keystrokes… by you.
It is work, solid hard work, not a rainbow-shower of glittery Idea Skittles that happened to happen because, by chance, you stepped on a magical mushroom just as the Flying Unicorns of Beauty passed overhead.
It is real work, sweat-inducing work, roll-up-your-sleeves, should-have-sprung-for-the-namebrand-deodorant work.
And it happens, everyday, when you sit down and do the work everyday.
But there are a couple of key ways to help yourself do this work.
FIRST, and foremost, pull your knobbly little mind away from all the productivity blogs, including this one, and focus on being productive, not on improving your productivity.
Being productive means producing output. Real output.
Output is proof that you’re doing work, because when you’re doing work, actual work, real creative work, guess what? YEP. You’re creating something. Something real. Maybe it’s digital-real or maybe it’s tangible-real, but it’s real and it’s output and it’s something that you can look at and say, “See here, world, I have made this thing!”
That is being productive.
Productivity, on the other hand, while important and good and fun, is about improving the rate at which you do this productive doing.
Improving your rate is fabulous, but if you are tweaking your methods and testing your systems and redesigning your workflow, guess what you are NOT doing?
That’s right, darlings. You are not doing the creative doing, the work, the real stuff upon which your creative life depends.
Pick one single day of the week in which you work on improving your productivity. Spend time on that day with the reading of the blogs (including this one?) and the tweaking and the testing and the redesigning. The rest of the days, put productivity aside and focus only on being productive, period, end of it all, Amen.
SECOND, and thus, secondmost, define the actions that actually equal creative work.
I know. This seems stupid. But you know what? This is what my brain needs. Maybe your brain does too.
My brain is not so smart, it needs repetition, it needs overbearing, simplistic, idiotic instructions screamed at it pretty much every minute of everyday.
Here’s what my writing time looks like:
Me: Time to write!
Me: No. Time to write!
Brain: The TWITTERZ. ALL THE TWITTERZ ALL THE TIME OH GOD YES.
Me: Time to write. Write, I said.
Brain: Did you say PINTEREST while eating cookies? YES TO THAT!
Me: No. Writing time. Writing.
Brain: LOOK, A BIRD FLYING BY THE WINDOW OH DEAR LORD IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL I SHOULD GO OUTSIDE AND BE IN NATURE RIGHT NOW I AM MISSING OUT ON ALL THE BIRDS THAT THERE ARE WHAT KIND OF SOULLESS INTERNET-ADDICTED GOBLIN HAVE I BECOME?
Me: No. Writing. Look, like this! Here’s Byword.
Brain: Writing? WHAT is WR-wr-wri-wriiiittiiiinnnggg? What is this UGLY program? PUT ON THE FACEBOOK AND BRING ME COOKIES OR I WILL MAKE YOU CRRRRRRRRY.
Me: No, no no no no no no no no no no. First writing, then reward.
Brain: AaaaAAAARRRRRGHGHGGHGGGGGGHH. I don’t remember any words. We can’t write. NO no nope nopers no.
How often do I write? Daily. And still my brain, with its hard-wired aversion to threats and work and discomfort, is trying to find an easier path, a nicer alternative.
There are plenty of alternatives.
A thousand of them, and many of them jumping up and down, screaming, waving their hands, saying, “Look at me! Look at me! Pay attention to me!” It’s willpower that helps us turn away from these alternatives and focus on the creative work.
Willpower needs help. Willpower needs a motivation. That’s why you have to define the actions you must take to do the creative work and remind yourself, all the time, that those actions are your real work.
Because – this is important – of all the alternatives you have for how you might spend your time, only the actions that are your creative work will lead to the output you want.
I mean, I guess the Creative Work Wizard might show up at some point and take you away to a place where all distractions lead to output, but until that happens?
Maybe keep on doing the stuff you should be doing.
Take Action on This Concept
- Dedicate one day a week to productivity. Or to social media, reading, planning, etc., whatever it is that steals your time away from doing the work. Block the time for it, or give it the whole day and immerse yourself. But the rest of the time? Focus on being productive, which means producing output.
- Write a list of the actions you take which lead to production, to output. Hang the list up, or, um, have it tattooed on your arm. (That’s what all the cool kids are doing these days.) When you are ready to work, check yourself: am I doing these actions? Yes or no? If not, why not? OH, right, I am getting distracted. Which means not doing the actions. Which means there will be no output.
- Struggling to jump into those key actions you need to take? Bribe, trick, coerce, or otherwise sneak yourself into it.
Some of the Easy Hacks I Try…
Use a Timer: tell yourself you only have to do this for 5 or 10 or 15 or 20 minutes. Some short, reasonable amount of time that you can get your brain to agree to. Set the time, and for that time, plunge in. When the timer goes off, give yourself the option: would I like to quit now, or would I like to continue?
Have Rewards at the Ready. After time doing the work, you get a reward.
Have Bribes Ready. As you begin doing the work, you get something lovely that you enjoy. Coffee works for me. Maybe beautiful music, a cup of tea, a piece of chocolate, time alone.
Have an Easing-in Ritual. This can be dangerous, so use carefully. Rituals can become nothing more than complex means of avoidance. But they can also help your brain get into creative-work mode. For example, I usually start my morning writing time by reading for a few minutes, then writing, by hand, a few pages. The trick then is to launch right into the work, not into some distraction (Twitter, email, another book) that needs to be saved for later.
Remember You’re Not Perfect and you’ll have off days and that’s okay. Have you ever had a week where everything was pretty awesome except for one thing? And that one thing just ate up all the awesome and turned it into stress-goo that filled your skull until your brain was saturated in stress-goo and all you could do was huddle in the corner and tremble violently and obsessively go over that one thing in your mind? No? That’s just me?
Oh. Well. Point is that negative outweighs positive in our brains. So when you have a negative day, can’t force yourself to do the work, miss your time, oversleep, whatever: take a moment to remember the positives, all the time you have done the work, the output you have produced, the days you have focused. All creative people deal with this struggle, and nobody except maybe Tolstoy has ever won it completely.
How about along with that list of actions that are your work, you also make a list of the output you’ve produced? I’ve never felt like I had this creativity thing down pat, but somehow in my haphazard writing life I’ve managed to produce 500+ blog posts, dozens of articles, pages of copywriting for clients, a draft of a novel…
What have you produced?
Hold it up there. Take a good look. Make a list, and keep that list with your action list. Remember what the actions will get you: more of the output that is you, the creative you.
Other tips? I’d love to hear them! Let us know in comment section below.