Friday, February 21, 2014

5 Ways to Sustain Your Creativity

I work in a creative profession (I'm a writer), and I regularly collaborate with a number of other creatives, not limited to graphic designers and dancers.  So, I know that, contrary to what some may think, creativity is as precious a resource as food or water.

In my work, however, I'm also inundated with articles from people proposing ways to stay creative day after day.  It is certainly a challenge; clients often think creativity can be turned on like a spigot at any time of the day or night, and the stream will never run dry.  I know from experience that this is far from the case.

Most of these articles include tips that probably work great for some creatives, but they usually don't work for me.  So, I offer a few ways that I sustain my creativity so that I can continue to give my best to my work.

1.  Take a real nap.
Study after study has shown that lack of sleep impedes creativity, not to mention making you difficult to live with.  Yet business articles insist on offering these ludicrous suggestions to take a 10 minute nap sleeping upright in your office chair.  That's preposterous.

I'm all in favor of naps; I take one every day.  But if you are going to take a nap, take a nap.  If you work where you can crash on the couch, actually lie down and cover up with a blanket.  Pull the blinds if you can.  Shut the door behind you.  And stay there for a while.  I recommend 90 minutes -- enough to make it through an entire sleep cycle.  That gives your body enough chance to get a bit of deep, restorative sleep and let you wake refreshed.  After all, if your clients expect you to burn the midnight oil when needed (and all creatives do this frequently), then they should understand that you need to sleep when you can.

Note:  if you are one of my clients reading this:  1)  Yes, I really do take a nap every day.  2)  No, I'm not going to tell you what time.  3)  Don't worry about interrupting me; I'm incredibly good at answering the phone from a deep sleep and coming immediately awake.  If you get voice mail, it is far more likely that I'm talking to another client or working on a deadline than taking a nap.

2.  Make a physical to-do list.
I don't know about you, but sometimes I can almost physically feel the pressure of a great idea straining to get out of my head, but it is blocked by the knowledge that I need to call to get an oil change for the car or refill a prescription.  This is why God invented to-do lists.  Make a list every day of all the mundane things, and every time something like this impedes your work flow, put it on the list and forget about it for the time being.

And make the list a physical, hand-written one.  Electronic notes programs are great, but they are where things to do go to die.  If you have to keep transferring your list in longhand to a new calendar page every day, you are far more likely to take 15 minutes and knock a few things off instead of dealing with them over and over again.

3.  Find your mindless chore.
You know when I write the best?  Early summer.  I do my research for an article or conduct my phone interview, and then I head out into the garden and pull weeds until the article is written in my head.  I don't come in until it is complete, and then I just transcribe what is in my head into a Word document.

The very act of doing something mindless often allows our brains to work better.  Research suggests that doodling during a meeting, far from indicating boredom, might indicate a person's deep immersion in the subject.  I often keep some knitting on my desk for when I have to participate in a conference call; I can keep my hands moving while listening to and participating in the conversation.

Note that this typically only works with physical activities.  Two mental activities will each draw from the same "pool" of attention.  So refrain from turning on the TV if you have an article to write, unless you are a financial writer and have to monitor the market.

4.  Remove distractions.
Email is so easy to use that many clients now do you the "favor" of giving you an in-house email address and access to their email system if you are working on a long-term project.  This has certain advantages, but I recently realized that every day I'm logged into three separate email accounts, plus an instant messaging system, plus Skype.  Most of those "helpfully" indicate to others when I am logged in, so I can be messaged with the expectation of immediate reply.  I started to realize that every time I went to answer a call of nature, it took 10 minutes to return and check every email account, plus Skype, plus Skype's messaging, plus sundry other services.

So, I started logging out of Skype and turning myself "invisible" on my email programs unless I knew someone was expecting me to be in the office at a certain time.  Communication is great, but it is hard to create when you are constantly afraid of virtual interruptions.

5.  Do it your way.
When I was in school, there was a set process for writing a paper.  You picked a topic, found all your sources, conducted your research and wrote all your facts on 3x5 index cards, outlined your paper, wrote a first draft, revised the draft, and wrote the final draft.  Here is a confession for all of my high school teachers:  I never did any of that.  I reverse-engineered the entire project.  I did research, but I made my notes on paper, then wrote the final draft.  I then wrote a substandard "first draft," went through and crossed out a few things and substituted "better" words or construction, and then I made my outline and 3x5 cards.  It was all a total lie.  Sorry about that.

I say this to point out that people in the creative fields are great at telling other people a process to follow, but these processes don't always work for everyone.  I've recently gone back to a paper day planner, even though people have patiently explained to me how much better it would be if I just kept a Google calendar; I'm way more productive with my paper, thank you.  Other swear by different tools or different brands or the latest and greatest technology, yet I know of several famous writers who use vintage word processing programs running on ancient computers.  Keeping up with the cutting edge is great, but tools only work if they fit your style.  You'd never build a deck with a hammer too large or too small for your hand, so stop using tools and processes that don't fit your life.

You're creative.  So create -- no matter what obstacles you have to remove to do so.

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