Building systems for staying creative and not burning out

Creative work happens between the birth of an idea and seeing the idea come to fruition. The result of the work is something useful, something to be experienced, something from nothing. Of course, your milage may vary.

To the general observer the creative process looks simple, even easy: idea, action, success. To those only seeing the end result, creative accomplishments appear to get done simply by magic. Just like in the movies.

Of course, this perception changes depending on who you ask too. An analytical, business-minded thinker might see the creative process as beginning with a goal, working through execution toward success. But it doesn’t always work that way either, as famed entrepreneur Derek Sivers once said:

“Notice how most business plans have this line pointing to the right that keeps going up? It doesn’t happen all the time.”

The reality is that the creative process is more wild and unpredictable: idea, draft version 1, experimenting, obstacles, learnings, adapting, back to the drawing board, version 2, another obstacle, experimenting, fine tuning, repeated until you can step back and call the work “good enough.”

There’s a lot of hard work involved in the creative process. Obstacles and failure cause frustrations, which is why at times creative work can be almost as exhausting as physical labor. Creative workers are exposed to analysis paralysis, depression, anxiety. These don’t always take a physical form, but they can be debilitating to experience.

The creative process is both beautiful and grimy at the same time. But mostly it’s just exhausting.

How do we, as creative thinkers and workers, develop habits to combat the inevitable feelings of exhaustion that come with creative play?

Scott Adams in his book, How to Fail at Almost Anything and Still Win Big, recommends focusing on systems instead of goals.

How does that work?

Many people have been conditioned to go after their goals with a low level of specificity. The advice might be familiar: dream big, be bold, be ambitious, “just do it.” This type of mentality often leaves us feeling confused or uncertain, prone to procrastinating or clumsily taking action then quitting after bumping into the most minute obstacle. Or, we run forward and when we face any uncertainty we persist, we must carry on, which causes us to eventually run out of willpower.

The key is to build a system of thinking that simplifies how we manage our time, energy, and willpower for our creative pursuits. What does a system look like?

Prioritize taking care of your body. You can’t dedicate energy toward doing creative work if all of your energy is reserved for instead staying awake, or fighting a sickness, or getting out of bed in the morning. Start with a healthy diet, get some level of exercise, sleep, and if possible: take walks, outside and without your smart phone. When in doubt, remind yourself that it’s ok to take a break.

Develop habits that enforce creative work and when to take breaks. If you know you wake up every day at the same time to write or doodle or tinker, there’s no guess work involved; the time is already set, you just have to show up. A simple creative to-do list, or list of experiments you want to try in your work, can help too.

Employ the help of a friend (or two). Most of histories greatest creative minds never worked alone. They may be famously framed as a lone genius, but the reality is they always had someone behind the scenes helping them work through problems, prototype ideas, and providing guidance on how to overcome obstacles. Whether that’s a partner or a close friend, never hesitate to pull in a friend who can get you out of a creative rut.

Whenever you’re stuck, or when you start feeling overwhelmed with your creativity, ask yourself what system you’ve developed to maintain your creativity?