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Articles tagged “work”

Creativity requires that you keep coming back for more

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To be a writer you have to write, of course. But you can’t simply write a paragraph and call yourself a writer.

Arguably, to truly be a writer you have to write more than a book too. You have to write and then keep writing. The same is true of painting, sculpting, performing, and even teaching.

This is also true of creativity: if you want to be creative you have to continuously work on it. But breaks are good for creativity too, it turns out.

Researchers have shown that taking breaks provides the brain with precious time for idea incubation. Breaks allow us to literally break the cycle of thinking that often causes symptoms such as writer’s block. When we break out of our current processes of thinking, it allows moments of eureka-like insights to occur.

What commonly happens for the amateur – or naive – creative is that he or she takes a break, and then another break, and then – before long – there’s too much other stuff to do and not enough time or focus to get back on the creative work.

We know this is a problem for creativity (apart from the obvious reasons of procrastination) because it trains us to be short-term with our thinking. As a result of breaks becoming more of habit and less of utility, our attention waivers at the slightest flash, beep, or craving.

You know what I’m talking about. Right now you’re likely tempted to check your phone, or email, or another website. To close the window, or open a new one, or get up from your desk altogether. If you’ve made it this far without jumping away: congratulations. Keep reading.

Scientists have shown that persistence pays off for creative work; those that can consistently show-up to do a task without distraction tend to fair better and produce more creative results.

This sounds conflicting at first however. Research shows that we need breaks in order to allow ideas to incubate, but additional research indicates that we should be persistent if we’re to gain the benefits of what psychologists and neurologists refer to as “working memory.”

It’s working memory that is failing when you walk into a room and immediately forget why you did so.

Working memory is also attributed to our ability to work on something while, at the same time, recall more distant memories or ideas that can be tied to the work.

So what do we need to do if we want to be the best creatives we can be: take more breaks or be more persistent?

Essentially this is how creative ideas fully come about: as a result of you being focused and persisting in the work, but at the same time being able to subconsciously recall additional information through working memory without being distracted by that information.

Professional creatives are those who have found the proper balance of persisting through problems or projects with taking the much-needed breaks that yield powerful insights.

Even those who have found a balance still struggle to maintain it from time-to-time. Sometimes the distractions are too plentiful or the work is too enticing.

But it’s from years of dedication to the work that the best creatives have thrived. Only from those years of dedication have the creative greats throughout history realized the power of both persistence and idleness.

By taking well-timed breaks (and that’s key here: timed breaks), then returning to the work, you ensure that you are giving yourself the time to let thoughts simmer, give your brain a break, and also that you continue on with the work.

Sometimes the work takes only a few hours, other times it can take months or years. The point to remember is that you have to keep returning to the work.

When the work is completed, the ideas are overflowing, or success has been unburied, the great creatives understand that those moments are breaks too. Breaks from the larger body of work: of becoming a writer, a painter, an artist, a dancer, a musician, or whatever else.

If you want to be creative – or a successful creative worker – you have to decide now, today, that you’ll keep showing up. Then, when you start feeling exhausted or stuck, taking a timed break and coming back to keep working.

Lamp icon by David Papworth.

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“Success is no big thing. It is every little thing, achieved on a daily basis.”

Craig Lambert

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“Don’t do what you think the world needs; do what you love. The world needs more people who do what they love.”

The Best Advice on Failure

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What to do when there’s too much to work on

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As creative people, we get to experience the grand fortune of having a lot of ideas. I say that only somewhat seriously, as having a lot of ideas can be both a blessing and a curse.

For example, I remember meeting a local artist for lunch one weekend not too long ago to talk about all of the things she was working on. Before we even had drinks on our table she explained the seemingly endless list of projects that she had going on in her life.

Apart from a continuing series of commissioned paintings she had been working on, she also had an idea for a book that she was flushing out with a few partners. She was also working on a set of cards she wanted to illustrate, had an idea for an app, a number of crochet projects she had started weeks ago but never finished, and, to top it all off, she had to prepare a number of written articles to post on her blog for the upcoming week.

Somewhat taken aback by the list, I asked her how she handled working on so much at once. She replied: “I don’t handle it. So much needs to be done that I get overwhelmed and end up not doing much of anything at all.”

So after awhile of having these ideas for projects and starting some, the debilitating effect of having too many things to work on leads her to what research experts have called: paralysis by analysis; also known as decision paralysis.

Decision paralysis is a psychological death trap, where creative ideas and dreams go to die.

When faced with too many decisions, we feel paralyzed and helpless. We can’t make a decision. What if we make the wrong decision? What if there are better alternatives?

We experience this often in our lives, particularly if you live in a first-world country where you have to decide between what shoes to buy, where and what to eat for dinner, how to spend your time, and so on.

As creatives with a lot of ideas and projects going on at once, there’s a certain point where we become paralyzed too.

Rather than trying to work on anything in her queue, the artist I mentioned before ends up feeling stuck and unable to work on anything at all. Which means she never starts anything new and the old ideas get pushed back, further and further. Eventually her list of “things to work on” is so big that it starts to fall apart.

In his best-selling 2012 book “The Paradox of Choice” psychologist Barry Schwartz explains that the paralysis isn’t the worst of having so many choices in front of us.

Even if we’re able to overcome the paralysis, even if we’re to say “I’m going to just work on this thing I’ve had sitting here for a few days now,” research shows most people will be less satisfied and interested in that work. The reason? Opportunity cost.

While we’re able to complete something and make a decision, there is often the looming question of: did I make the right one?

Some of us will lose sleep at night over that question. We may have finished one project, but was it the right one to be working on? What if we missed a valuable opportunity to do something else because we were too occupied doing the thing we decided to do?

Schwartz says:

You really want to get the decision right…it’s easy to imagine that you could have made a different choice that would have been better. And what happens is this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision. The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.

In the end it looks like decisions are downright dangerous. All of these ideas we end up having and all the projects we end up starting or daydreaming about, they’re great to have, particularly if we have good ones, but they can lead to paralysis, regret, and stress.

So, what should we do?

The answer is straight-forward and not completely pleasing or reassuring. I’ll just tell you that now so you can be ready. The solution is this: just make a decision and get behind it 100%.

For some of us it comes down to prioritizing our queue by making a to do list (I personally use the Clear app on my iPhone). For others it’s simply pulling a random strip of paper out of a hat.

Whatever it takes, make a decision and then get behind it.

The reason this works is explored in a research study done on baseball pitchers.

One particular pitcher in the study was found to constantly be thinking too much about decisions that are, I’m assuming, critical to baseball pitchers.

As a result, his performance suffered. He would strategize immensely well before a game, but during the game he would lose focus, jump back and forth on decisions about what to do, and perform poorly during games.

The solution to his problem? Simply having confidence in his decisions, and then follow-through.

It’s the same for us as creatives, with our stockpiles of ideas and projects that we consistently say “I’ll get to later.” We need to be more decisive in what we work on, trusting our decisions and having the confidence to follow-through with full dedication.

After-all, what matters isn’t whether or not we’ve made the right decision, it’s whether we’ve done anything at all. As I once wrote:

“When you look at the work of any known painter, you’ll encounter layer upon layer of paint, a visible example of their attempt to get the lines or shades exactly right. The painting couldn’t be completed if the artist had, instead, fumbled around in his studio, waiting for the decisions on where to place a stroke or which colors to use or which direction to tilt the brush, be made clear for him.”

To do list photo by Courtney Dirks.

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Three reasons why “they” don’t like to work

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“Work” has a bad reputation, when it shouldn’t.

Whenever I tell my friends or family that I worked over the weekend the response is typically that of apologizing, of stating: “I’m sorry.”

This weekend, for example, I had to spend a few hours updating the creative apps I’ve created for iOS devices. I ended up missing a birthday party as a result of having to do the work, and when I gave my excuse the response I got back was along the lines of: “That’s terrible that you have to work!”

But why?

For me, work is something I immensely enjoy. It’s rewarding, challenging, and provides me with a sense of purpose. No, I don’t work every weekend and I do have hobbies and other things I really enjoy, but work, for me, is something very few activities can match in terms of how rewarding it can be.

This mentality of work as a negative thing needs to change if we’re going to be successful creatives. Work isn’t bad when it’s balanced healthily with non-work life. We need to change how we view “work,” particularly in the creative field.

This isn’t a rant about how we should never spend our weekends playing video games, going camping, or watching an entire season of an popular TV show (I’ve done that more than I’d like to admit). What is this article about then? It’s a reminder that work isn’t something to dread, to fear, to apologize for.

Work, instead, should be viewed as a rewarding experience, time well spent, something you can proudly admit to spending a weekend doing.

Consider the fact that work is something you can uniquely offer to the world. It’s something that can influence people, impact your life, and give you purpose when you need it most. How can something so empowering be viewed as so negative?

Without good work to be done, many of us would waste away from boredom, or a senseless set of direction in life.

Why is it that work gets such a bad reputation then?

There are a few reasons, and they are reasons that each of us needs to address personally. I call these: Reasons Why They Dislike the Work. The reasons many people end up disliking the work their doing are as follows:

1. The work is boring.

Work that isn’t challenging for your skill-set, or that requires little stretching outside of your comfort zone, is work that is going to always seem like a chore.

Nobody wants to do boring work. From filling out Excel sheets to writing up invoices, work that doesn’t challenge you to strive for betterment is going to always seem to simply get in your way. This type of work has to be done though, more often than not.

But even the boring work can be stretched into more challenging work.

By setting hard-to-hit goals around objectives, attempting to learn new skills (like keyboard shortcuts, better and more efficient ways to reach the end-goal, etc.), and even turning the work into a type of game, can all make it much more enjoyable and worthwhile.

2. The work is too challenging.

On the other end of the spectrum is work that is too challenging.

This is the type of work where you don’t have any idea what to do with it. It keeps you up at night even after spending countless days working on it. You know there’s a way to get this type of work done, but you just can’t seem to get moving.

For overly-challenging work you may find yourself often procrastinating, waiting until somebody forces you to do the bare minimum or take the work off of your plate for you.

When it comes to this type of work, the solutions commonly involve finding a mentor, digging your heels-in to learn how to do the work on your own (thanks to the power of the Internet), or even passing it off to someone more experienced.

The benefit of overly-challenging work like this is, of course, that you can always learn from the experience. It’s a matter of mindset at this point, as long as you seek help.

3. The work just isn’t important.

Ah yes, the most daunting of all reasons for disliking work: uselessness.

When you find yourself feeling as though there’s something else you should be doings, something well-worth while, it’s important to do two things: first, take a step back and figure out whether or not what it is you’re supposed to be doing is actually important (filing taxes doesn’t seem very important when you’re doing it, for example, but here in the United States it’s actually extremely vital to your well-being).

The second thing you need to do is remind yourself of the end-goal. Your end-goal.

Filing for a business license isn’t everyone’s idea of fun work, for example, but for a freelance artist who is trying to take her business to the next level, it’s a really critical step to getting things done. The meaningless work that gets you a step closer to the work that matters.

If the work is important enough to where it impacts your long-term-goal(s), then it’s worth reminding yourself that it’s important to do now, even when you aren’t feeling like it.

Long story short: I love working. Particularly when it comes to the work I’ve always dreamed of doing.

Work is a way for me to ensure that I’m using my time wisely: by challenging myself, I’m growing personally and professionally.By doing work that has long-term returns, I have a clear direction in how I spend my days and time. And by working on things that allows me to learn from others who know better than I do, my abilities and skills reach out infinitely.

As you should be able to tell: work isn’t bad! It doesn’t have to be, anyway.

Work is a way to grow, to influence those around you and who love what you do. Whenever anybody tells me: “I’m sorry you had to work over the weekend,” I just laugh now and say: “I’m sorry you didn’t have anything important enough to enjoy working on.”

So what about you: do you have anything that’s important and challenging enough that you would spend your time doing it, rather than watching the TV or laying around?

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The only thing

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The only thing standing between you and where you want to be, is the work

I’m regularly surprised at how creatives believe their lives are supposed to work.

The artist who is stressed that none of her work is selling in galleries across the globe, even though the only pieces she’s made have been for family or very close friends. Or the musician who wants to “make it big” but doesn’t want to produce as an independent. Or the writer who figures his novel will write itself, one day.

Even those who are doing the work consistently, who are putting in the time and energy to make good work and get it seen, they have this weird belief that someday they won’t have to work any more.

In both cases the thing that matters is still the work. There will always be work to do. Yet we so easily lose sight of this powerful and important fact.

In the instance of those who fall into the first group – where success will hopefully fall into their lap, if they’re lucky – their beliefs are often what holds them back from happiness and creative fulfillment.

For this group, the wisdom I want to share can’t be any simpler: the only thing standing between you and where you want to be, is the work.

There really is nothing more to it than that. I promise.

You want to write a best-selling novel but are afraid that you can’t get a publisher to give you a contract? Sell the book yourself. It won’t be easy, there’s going to be a huge learning curve and seemingly endless hours of work, but you can do it. I did years ago.

Or what about the musician who does shows and makes CDs and has a lot of quirky music videos on YouTube who just can’t seem to get a record deal? Say “screw it” and do that little bit of extra work to become a top artist yourself. It’s been done.

Then there’s the artist who doesn’t know how to make a website or online shop. A quick Google search shows it’s not that hard. The same for the artist who doesn’t have the “right” supplies. Use what you’ve got, or find a way to get what you need.

A friend of mine recently did just that: she wanted to purchase a cello, an instrument she hadn’t played since her youth. In order to afford a brand new cello she took up painting, then learned how to legally sell as a street vendor, and within three months she had saved up enough money to buy a very, very nice cello. Just like that.

In nearly every instance where you aren’t creatively where you want to be, the only thing standing in your way is work.

This insight is fortunate, because no matter what the type of work is – learning to do something new, actually producing art, hitting the streets to spread the word, creating a fan base, etc. – all it takes is time and a little sweat.

But then there’s another group of thinkers, the ones that come after they’ve put in the work and maybe found some level of success.

For this second group the belief is that just a little more work and that will be it, then they can retire to a beach somewhere south of the equator and sip mimosas with little umbrellas all day.

But this is a fallacy too, because the work never stops. That’s not to say it doesn’t have to, however, for creatives the work isn’t some means to an end. The work is the end itself!

You can look to retired artists who still paint, or sculpt, or perform, to see exactly why this is: the work isn’t done for monetary or some other livelihood gain. The creative work is the livelihood. Doing the work is fulfillment.

Even when it gets stressful, or intimidating, or burdensome. The work still has to be done because there’s simply nothing else worth doing.

In this instance: there’s something to be said about the passionate creative who strives to write part-time after a very long and intense day of work elsewhere. Or the musician who spends years recording on her own just to get a hit single out, just the one. Or what about the teacher who dedicates the bulk of his life to instill a sense of curiosity and wonder in his students?

In all of these events, what creativity comes down to is the work itself. Again, it’s about putting in the time, exploring, learning and trying new things, and occasionally working up a little sweat, in order to simply do the work. The work is all that matters professionally!

Why? Maybe it’s for some hard-to-define purpose, some deep longing to learn and grow. Maybe it’s to see exactly how much of an impact one individual can have on culture, society, the world. Perhaps it’s simply how a creative’s brain is innately drawn to new and unique things.

Whatever the reason may be, creativity always, always comes down to the work.

Do the work.

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