How to Be Creative Even When You Least Feel Like It

Couch designed by Michael Rowe from the Noun Project

Couch designed by Michael Rowe from the Noun Project

In Manage Your Day-to-Day, Seth Godin tells us: “Lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it.” So how do we do that? Michael Nobbs — who suffers from the debilitating disease Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome — tells us how it’s done:

Slowly, over the past decade or so, as I have built up a creative career, I’ve learnt that the way to have a sustainably creative life takes three basic things:

  • Working little and often (perhaps for just 20 minutes or less a day)
  • Focus
  • Recognizing what has been achieved

It’s amazing what can be achieved if we embrace these three things. It’s a little like making the decision to put one or two drops of dye into a bowl of water on a daily basis. If you commit to it every day, slowly, very slowly, the water will start to change colour.

Michael’s three tips allow us to make progress even when we’re low on energy or unmotivated. For sure, even a little bit of time every day can add up quickly.

Learn more about being creative even when you don’t feel like it, and see the value Nobbs places on recognizing his achievements over on his blog.

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  • http://aqeelfikree.com/ Aqeel Fikree

    The three basic things mentioned shows quite an insight. I take baby steps, and when I look back at the things I’ve achieved in a week, or a month or a year, those little steps add up to a mountain of victories and achievements.

    • http://www.creativesomething.net/ tannerc

      You nailed it Aqeel. It’s by taking this small steps and occasionally stepping back to see what’s been accomplished that can provide just enough momentum to keep going.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • venkyiyer58

    I didn’t quote get the “working little and often (perhaps for 20 minutes or less a day)” part. How does 20 minutes a day-even if you do all 365 days a year-make for “often”?

    • Mia

      I agree. What? 20 minute sessions fine, but 20 minutes a day? You’re having a giraffe!

      • http://www.creativesomething.net/ tannerc

        See Micah Andrew Hasty’s comment above. :)

    • Micah Andrew Hasty

      I believe Nobb’s is referring to specific projects. Likely if you already have a “creative career” you’ll be working on multiple projects at once all with separate deadlines. His thought of 20 minutes a day speaks more to the idea of “biting it off in small chunks” or “baby steps”. If we work at least 20 minutes a day on a project that is brick-walling us we can make a greater impact and move forward in the project.

      • http://www.creativesomething.net/ tannerc

        I think you got it right Micah.

        Nobb’s is simply stating that the 20 minutes we set aside a day for a single project that we may be struggling with is often enough to not only make good progress after time, but to also get us to a point where we don’t feel stuck with the project anymore. It’s a nice trick to essentially propel us forward!

        Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • venkyiyer58

        Yeah. What you said makes sense.

  • Sherri Shoemaker

    I agree…small steps are better than no steps :)

    • http://www.creativesomething.net/ tannerc

      Yeah! Especially if you want to “get” somewhere with your work. The only way to move is to take steps, big or small. Thanks Sherri.

  • http://www.james-swan.com/ James Swan

    Totally agree…but wonder how best to apply this to ongoing creative projects. Maybe it’s time for me to re-evaluate how I approach my daily work. Wonder how smaller bites will impact my finished product. Will I be more energized or more frustrated by the perceived slower pace. Stay tuned…..

    • http://www.creativesomething.net/ tannerc

      It’s all about testing what works and doesn’t work for you, personally. Maybe breaking up your work into smaller increments will help you actually achieve more, but it might also hinder your momentum.

      The only way to find out is to experiment! Let us know what you find out James.

  • Berm Lee

    http://www.sustainablycreative.com/creative-career/ should be the link under “tells us how it’s done.”

    • Sasha

      Good catch!! Fixed. :)

    • http://www.creativesomething.net/ tannerc

      Thanks for catching that Berm!

  • Lee Truesdell

    Really appreciate this discussion. My path has been very similar to Nobbs’ – a decade of unraveling a life-long pattern of PTSD and its attending symptoms. My progress has often felt glacial, truly, and these three steps have been essential for me as well. And, not incidentally, what I’ve learned about the process of change and the nuances of how it works are helping me immensely in my healing arts and coaching practice. I can share what I’ve learned to help my clients move forward with greater ease, and that makes it all worthwhile!

  • Michael Nobbs

    Hello Tanner, thanks so much for talking about this.

    I can see from the discussion that there is some confusion about what I mean by working just twenty minutes a day on a creative project. I would like to clarify for your readers.

    Over the last decade and half there have been plenty of days that I haven’t been well enough to work for anymore than twenty minutes. I learnt very early on with this nasty illness that the way to keep my spirits up was to feel as though I was making some progress with my creative life however small that felt or appeared to the outside world. I found that by changing how I worked (I used to paint large paintings) to something much smaller (making tiny drawings) meant I could finish something in just twenty minutes. Usually even on bad days I could manage that.

    Working this way meant I could build up a body of work reasonably quickly. The drawings became part of an illustrated blog, then a illustrated journal. Yes sometimes I worked more than twenty minutes, but not often.

    These days my health is much improved but there are still days I can’t do more than a few minutes work. I’ve learnt to focus on what I can do and generally work on projects that can be moved on in twenty minute chunks of time. Some days there will only be one chunk of time in a day, others more.

    The important thing is that it is possible to keep things moving by just focusing for twenty minutes. Obviously the more twenty minute sessions the faster I will move, but better to make some progress then none at all.

    At my lowest times I have still been able to draw, blog, write and podcast (not all at the same time!).

    Last year my book Drawing Your Life was published by Penguin. I made that book one page at a time and in largely twenty minute sessions.

    It is possible to have a creative life (and even a career) by working for twenty minutes a day.

  • Denise

    As a person who also suffers with CFS and Lupus, I really appreciate this and knowing I am not alone.

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Information Overload? Embrace “Intentional Ignorance”

Close-Minded by Luis Prado from the Noun Project

Close-Minded by Luis Prado from the Noun Project

The availability of information in the digital age is overwhelming. For every mesmerizing Instagram profile you browse, there are hundreds of millions more. For every page of search results you scroll down, there are thousands upon thousands beyond that one. For every article you read or RSS feed you subscribe to on a research topic, you could spend the rest of your career consuming more where those came from, and never reach the end.

Writer Sarah Von Bargen discovered the magic of “intentional ignorance” when she clicked “mark all as read” in her RSS reader:

[T]his temporary ‘opting out’ has increased my productivity and cleared my mind like nothing else.

You see, I’m deep in ‘creation mode’ at the moment… And all those great articles and clever blog posts and super helpful tutorials that I usually read aren’t helping me get any closer my goals. In fact, they’re distracting and misdirecting me. …

So I’m making the decision to safeguard my focus and productivity. I’m putting the proverbial blinders on and keeping my eyes on my own paper. …

Intentional Ignorance gives you space to do your best work. It frees up mental energy for big, exciting projects. It allows you to focus – with laser-like intensity – on one or two things. …

We all cycle through seasons in our lives and businesses – times when we’re seeking inspiration and insight and times when we need quiet single-mindedness and uninterrupted time. Take a look at where you are and what you’re doing and if you need to turn down the noise, go ahead and click ‘unfollow’ or ‘unsubscribe’ or even just ‘mark all as read.’

The internet will still be here when you get back.

Taking an information sabbatical is like giving yourself the gift of ignorance-as-bliss. What you don’t know that you don’t know can’t hurt you. You can adopt the principle of intentional ignorance even when you’re not in need of hyperfocus on a certain project. Set a monthly calendar reminder to scroll through all the content you’ve saved using your tool of choice—Pocket, Evernote, Pinterest, Google Docs—and delete anything that you’re not going to read right this second. Think you’ll get to those articles or videos at some point? As von Bargen points out,

I’m here to tell you that a) that won’t happen b) all those unread newsletters carry an immeasurable psychic weight. They make you feel bad just sitting there, all unread! Dude, delete them. That’s what Google is for.

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Stop Ending Your Client Emails With This Phrase

Remove email icon by Lloyd Humphreys from the Noun Project

Remove email icon by Lloyd Humphreys from the Noun Project

Over on the InVision blog, freelancer Robert Williams shares some valuable intel on how you can strengthen your client emails. He gleaned serious insights when he found client after client backing out or not replying to his messages, leaving him without work and increasingly stressed:

[T]here’s one huge problem that almost every freelancer I’ve met suffers from: they use a phrase that hurts their credibility and repels clients.

“Let me know how I can help.”

When I said this I honestly thought I was being helpful. I’d close almost every email with some variation of “Just let me know…” It felt like the right way to end an email. …

By ending my emails like this, I was dropping a wheelbarrow full of work on my client’s desk and saying “Here. You deal with it.” It reeked of incompetence. …

So I began to do the complete opposite and prescribe solutions at the end of every email. … Just by suggesting a next step at the end of my email, I was able to double the amount of people who responded to me.

This next step was different for every email, but it always followed the same 2-step structure. I would include:

– My suggested next step
– What we could do in the event they don’t want to do that

… If someone wanted a meeting, I’d suggest a time and instead of saying, “Let me know if this works for you.” I’d switch that out for, “If not, then X time/day also works or I’m free at X time/day.” …

You’re not just saving yourself the extra time of writing 2 separate emails, you’re saving you (and your client) the time in between these emails.

Williams suggests writing every single client email with whatever your next step is going to be in mind. Make every sentence reinforce that next step, whether it’s a confirmation of the deliverable you’ll be sending on a specific date, a request for feedback that you need by the next week, or an agenda for your upcoming call.

As Elizabeth Grace Saunders pointed out in a past 99U piece, effective people “always add value” with their email. She suggests that replying just for the sake of replying is a waste of time. Per both Williams’s and Saunders’s guidance, aim to always add something of communicative value to your email correspondence with clients. If you don’t, you’re making yourself more of a burden than a help.

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How to Be as Productive as Your High School Self

You in high school: a dramatization.

You in high school: a dramatization.

Impossible Ventures founder Joel Runyon was one of those high school overachievers who balances sports, extracurriculars, a social life, and an advanced course load all while making great grades and still having free time to, as he says, “jack around.”

Since you read 99U, you probably have at least a little of the high school overachiever in you, too. The challenge is tapping into that high-gear productivity DNA as an adult in the working world. It was so much easier to have it all back in high school. The barometer of success was much more clear-cut, and there was a substantial safety net just one stumble away. There were letter grades to measure your performance, and standardized tests to evaluate how capable you were compared to your peers. You had a much stricter schedule with less control over your daily routine, which established boundaries and limits that fed productivity.

With all that in mind, Runyon took a critical retrospective eye to his habits as a 16-year-old powerhouse, and came up with some helpful tips:

Make Your Lunch The Night Before

… Packing your lunch the night before is a good ritual. It helps you wind down for the evening and gets your body mentally ready to fall asleep, so the rest of the week can go according to plan. …

Get In Bed By Midnight

You can stay up as late as you want, as long as you’re in bed by midnight.

If you’re in bed by midnight, you’ll have no problem getting up at 5:30 or 6. If you’re in bed at 1am, you’ll sleep till noon. …

When School / Work Is Over, Leave

Don’t stay at work longer than you have to. I don’t stay at school longer than I have to. It’s practically a race out the doors. …

Schedules Make Things Real

… Practice? Write it in.

Hanging out? Know when your free time is (schedule it). …

Bonus: make sure you have people at each place who will hold you accountable. Show up late and you’ll be running suicides. …

Do It With Friends

Anything you do with friends will be 2x as much fun and will have 1/2 the stress than if you do it alone.

Even AP Physics can be fun – if you’re with the right people.

It may seem unattainable to reach your high school productivity levels given the added pressures and responsibilities of adulthood. But science shows that during high school you are poised biologically to be deeply impressed by your experiences while you also form your first sense of identity. So today, those helpful habits are primed for the plucking somewhere in your mental makeup. And this time, you can adopt them without the teenage acne and traumatizing bad haircut.

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How Pessimism Can Improve Your Life And Work

A new video by The School of Life explores the unappreciated wisdom of pessimism. Negative thinking gets a bad rap, but in fact it can ironically have a positive effect on your productivity and creativity. As The School of Life argues, pessimism prepares you for the worst, reduces your expectations, and protects you from disappointment—all helpful for your psyche as well as your creative output:

We live in an absurdly and painfully optimistic world. Mostly, that’s the result of all the businesses out there trying to sell us things, and understandably using cheerfulness to do it. And partly, it’s the influence of technology, which is always getting better, coloring our view of life as a whole, which often isn’t improving. …

For centuries, religions peddled dark messages. Buddhism told its followers that life was suffering. Christianity spoke of the fallen state of mankind, and of the inevitability of earthly imperfection. That was helpful; it kept our expectations in check.

The psychologist William James came up with an equation: Happiness = Expectations / Reality. So there are two ways to ensure contentment. Change reality, or change expectations. Pessimists know to reduce the expectations.

Writer Barbara Ehrenreich takes the espousal of pessimism a step further in her acclaimed book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. As she writes in a piece for The Guardian, it’s not just that pessimism has benefits for us; optimism can actually be psychologically harmful:

Like a perpetually flashing neon sign in the background, like an inescapable jingle, the injunction to be positive is so ubiquitous that it’s impossible to identify a single source. Oprah routinely trumpets the triumph of attitude over circumstance. A Google search for “positive thinking” turns up 1.92m entries. A whole coaching industry has grown up since the mid-90s, heavily marketed on the internet, to help people improve their attitudes and hence, supposedly, their lives. …

[But this] ideological force in American culture… encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.

You undoubtedly have, and will continue to, hit roadblocks on your path in life and work. But by recognizing that cheerfully assuming everything will shake out in your favor, and maintaining unrealistically sky-high expectations, is dangerous and unproductive, you’ll be able to clear those roadblocks in such a way that enables you to learn, grow and—most importantly—move on.

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How (and Why) You Should Read More

Book by Mike Ashley from the Noun Project

Book by Mike Ashley from the Noun Project

There’s no question that reading enriches your life. Reading imparts fresh inspiration, keeps your brain sharp, improves your writing, can relax you, and even benefits your health. Devoting the time and mental energy needed to read an entire book, as opposed to the snackable content (tweets, blog posts, email newsletters) that makes up the Internet, is a deeply rewarding experience. You go on an intimate journey with an author, by way of which you become much more immersed in the topic at hand than you’d be able to after a few hundred words of “like”-able discourse.

But how to make time for reading books (physical or e-)? From Rype’s blog, a few handy suggestions:

Learn To Read Faster

… Since the average reader reads around 250–300 words per minute, being able to double your reading speed at 500–600 words will allow you read twice the number of books in the same amount of time. …

a. use a pointer

Use either a pen or your index finger to keep track of your speed when reading. This will be useful for the second technique.

b. expand your peripheral vision

Start reading 3 words in from the first word of each line and end 3 words in from the last word.

Schedule It

Reading more books can simply come from making more time for it.

Scheduling your most important tasks can become one of the most productive things you can do, whether you’re making time to read, learn a language, or master a skill. …

It can be as little as 15–30 minutes in the morning before your work, or during lunch hours.

Drop It If You Don’t Love It

… If you want to read more books, retain more, and double your knowledge, you need to have a passion for what you’re reading. …

Don’t be afraid to quit if you don’t love it.

It’s what will lead to what you love.

Keeping track of how many books you read each year can be a huge motivator. You get the satisfaction of adding an item to your list each time you close the cover of a book for the last time, and can challenge yourself to increase your total each year. Sites like Goodreads and Shelfari help you log your read count and set an annual goal.

Reading is one of the three R’s of childhood education for a reason. And assuredly, Sir William Curtis—credited with coining the phrase—had books in mind when he said it.

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The Method Actor Approach to Design

hollywood

Legendary graphic designer Michael Bierut, Pentagram partner and protégé of design legend Massimo Vignelli, lets the world into his creative process in his new monograph How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things. A particularly interesting element is his “method actor” approach to graphic design, as he tells FastCoDesign:

[S]omeone says you want to do the signs for the New York Times?… [T]o do the work properly, I have to talk to editors, I have to sit in on the page-one meeting where they decide how page one is going to be laid out…

If you just have a request for proposal where the client says we need X, Y, and Z, that really just gives you the shopping list… It’s sort of like saying, I need a pair of pants and a shirt. But then, where are you going to wear it, how much are you going to spend? I’ll stand you in front of a mirror and you have to feel like you’re the kind of person who can wear those clothes.

So going to all those meetings, if all I cared about were typefaces or colors, I’d be sitting, fidgeting, thinking, “Why am I here? This is boring.” Instead, I was thinking “I can’t believe I’m here, I can’t believe that without ever taking a journalism class I’m actually sitting with the top editors at the New York Times and I’ll know before any other civilian does what’s going to be the story that appears in the first column on the left of tomorrow’s paper.” I had that momentary thrill.

Wrapping yourself up in the topic of your work so that you’re truly invested doesn’t just translate into more effective and impactful work. It also keeps you more fulfilled and motivated as an artist. Because the method actor approach to acting isn’t just about inhabiting the character fully so that you never lift the veil to reveal your true self until after the project is completed. Ultimately, method acting is about just being, as opposed to putting something on or performing. And if you can get to that place in your work when you’re not feigning interest or curiosity, but truly “feeling it,” that’s where the art lies.

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Austin Kleon: How To Be a “Scenius”

By Austin Kleon

By Austin Kleon

Writer and artist Austin Kleon, of Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work! fame, is a big supporter of creatives that can contribute to an artistic community as opposed creating in their own vacuum. In FastCo Create, he borrows the term “scenius” from the musician Brian Eno to encourage artists to change their end goal from being a genius to being a creative contributor:

Kleon cautions against the artistic myth of the lone genius pounding away in a garret somewhere…. He created his own scenius online. Kleon says, “I think what has been the most remarkable in my career is that I’ve never been part of a geographical scene. I didn’t move to New York after college. I didn’t move to L.A. I moved to Cleveland, and there’s not a whole lot of a scene there. But what I did have was the Internet, and I became part of a scenius by putting my work out there. I started blogging in 2005, and back then, we were all connected, we just didn’t have social media in the same way as we do now. You’d just post things to your blog and people would send you comments or emails and you’d slowly find people as they stumbled across your work. When I did work I really liked and put it online, it attracted the people I wanted to meet. For me, being online, that was my scenius. That was my moving to New York in the ’70s. Or Paris in the ’20s.”

Kleon notes that you don’t have to be in the same medium as the people in your scenius. In fact, it helps if you’re not. He says since moving to Austin, he’s fallen in with musicians and filmmakers in addition to writers and artists, and those relationships have informed his work.

The key to being a scenius is to create something every single day. A constant stream of creative outpout ensures that you remain a vital part of a creative community. As Kleon told 99U in an interview:

We all get 24 hours. No one gets more time. Sure, you might have your job, you might have a kid, you might have a family—I had all of those things when I was writing my first book—but when you get ruthless about what you really want to do, there are so many gaps. So many little spaces in the day where you can find the time….

It happens a lot of in creative work that you finish a project and you don’t know what to do next. It can be a bit disconcerting. And I think that’s why it’s so important to have a daily practice that you do no matter what you are working on.

Your work, no matter what it is, matters. When you put it out there every day for your creative scene to absorb and consume, you cultivate your own brand and the community in tandem. That’s what being a scenius is all about.

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