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?

Dealing with creative burn-out

It’s usually easier to start creative work than it is to finish it.

As creativity expert Mihaly Csikszentmihaly writes in his stellar book Finding Flow:

“The world is absolutely full of interesting things to do. Only lack of imagination, or lack of energy, stand in the way.”

So why do we occasionally end up stuck when we’ve already begun the work?

There are a number of possible reasons: as we approach the finish line we begin to question what we were doing in the first place, or we start to feel that our perception of the work isn’t aligning with what we’re actually producing. All of the various nicks and cracks of the work begin to make themselves visible.

But what’s more likely is that we’ve simply run out of steam, and understandably so.

Creative work takes a lot of energy and uses multiple mental resources.

The initial excitement of starting something new, of turning an idea into something real and tangible, eventually burns off. The flash of insight or an energizing spark of motivation fades.

Unlike computers, humans don’t have a system monitor where you can check what’s using up space or hogging resources. In-fact: more often than to we don’t have complete control over what our minds are burning energy on.

All we have is the sudden feeling of burning out, of wanting to do something—anything—else.

Energy and attention are limited resources, both which influence our willpower and creativity. If we’re smart and optimize our energy and resources, we can control the burn out. We can maintain our momentum. Dilbert creator and author Scott Adams puts this elegantly for us:

“Make choices that maximize you personal energy because that makes it easier to manage all of the other priorities.”

So what can we do to ensure we’re making better choices to help optimize how we use our energy?

Take a nap

I will often use a quick fifteen to twenty minute power nap to restart my mental processes.

At times when I can’t rest (like at the office), I do a quick 15 minute meditation session or just listen to classical music while focusing on my breathing. Each seems to provide just enough space from the actual work and worries of the day to help reset and refocus my energy.

Clear your work space

Another surprisingly effective way of refocusing energies is to take a few minutes to clean up my work space.

“A clean workspace clears our mind, just as a cluttered, disorganized workspace confuses us and slows us down,” Dale Carnegie once wrote.

Our brain seems to unconsciously pay attention to every object in our surroundings. Cleaning up and making sure that our mind is clear enables our ideas to flow more freely.

Free write

Often taking a few minutes to free write (about the work, how I’m feeling, or even capturing notes in my personal journal) helps bring clarity to my mind and rejuvenates my creative energy.

The benefits of free writing whenever feeling stuck are numerous: they break your typical work flow while also allowing you to capture and explore your thoughts in a more tangible flow.

While taking a nap or cleaning your work space are effect ways of re-energizing yourself, they can take away from the actual productive work. Whereas free writing doesn’t have to. If you free write about the work or why you may be feeling stuck, you’re still making progress.

Consider this…

If you consider each of the ways we revitalize our mental states and re-orient ourselves around a creative spark, what you’ll notice is each entails two primary things: time and perspective.

And really a breath of fresh air is what we need when we encounter a fear of the critical finish lineor when we begin to second-guess the work we’re doing.

If you feel yourself burning out, or losing motivation, or wondering if what you’re doing is right to begin with: take a step back, give yourself a few minutes to acknowledge what you’re doing, remember that done is better than perfect, and get back to work.

The role energy plays in getting unstuck

Typically when we feel stuck or uninspired there are two major culprits: a misunderstanding or a lack of energy.

In the first case, we’re stuck because we have incomplete information.

Like trying to finish a puzzle before you’ve pulled all of the pieces out of the box, the only way to move forward is to proactively pursue the missing pieces. I’ve written about creativity as understanding before. To better understand what knowledge we may be missing, we should focus on asking questions about our process, the task at hand, and any ideas that come to mind.

But the second case, of having a lack of energy, is an entirely different type of stuck.

Energy is a rare commodity, both outside of ourselves and internally as well. When you work on anything for any amount of time, your brain physically changes shape in order to optimize the energy required to do it. We call this process of mental change “learning.”

But learning creates a problem for having new ideas or overcoming challenges, it causes us to inevitably get stuck.

You approach the work the same way for so long that it becomes costly to try and do it any other way. It would require more energy to change how you’ve done the work or thought about it, despite the fact that changing how you’re approaching the problem is the only way to innovate on it. This also explains why bad habits are so difficult to shake.

We become stuck because we maximize how we use energy for a given situation or problem. We essentially train our brains to only think in a certain, very familiar, way. Which inevitably leads us to feeling creatively stuck.

To get unstuck we must find surplus of energy, enough to make thinking in a new (and potentially risky) way feel more worthwhile.

Businesses, relationships, and everyday life fall into this trap too.

After doing things a certain way for so long, it becomes difficult to even see how they could be different, let alone try to incite change.

Trying something different requires more energy than the people involved are willing to invest, so the business is beat by more agile competitors, the relationship becomes stale and boring, and life becomes a dry routine.

In these situations and in getting creatively unstuck, the solution is to find a source of energy you can use for the sake of changing how you’re doing things.

For the sake of getting creativity unstuck we can take lessons from how those in the other situations do it.

In a relationship, sometimes the only way to get more energy is to take a break. To conserve some of the energy you do have in order to make a push for improving circumstances in the future.

In business, pulling in new energy sources (like through an acquisition) can spur change effortlessly. Relying on new individuals to help provoke new ways of thinking or behaving can make getting unstuck seem effortless.

Embracing new partnerships, reallocating energy from different areas of your life, and utilizing activities that give more energy than they take away, are all other ways we can get the energy needed to overcome creative blocks.

Of course, this also helps explain why many creative-types tend to drink so much coffee.

(If you need a boost to get unstuck and aren’t sure where to look first, it’s worth mentioning I wrote a book to inspire your creativity.)

Small steps toward energizing your creativity

To think creatively requires more energy than our typical, behavioral mode of thinking.

After a while, going about your regular day and doing mundane or routine tasks can become almost entirely effortless for the mind. You don’t have to think very much at all when it comes to daily routine because it’s more efficient not to, to simply do what you’ve always done, as you’ve always done it. But to think creatively is to break away from the typical or expected, and instead pursue details, differences, and possibilities.

Creative thinking is hard work, not only for the conscious mind, but for the subconscious mind as well. As a result, research has shown, we are most creative when we’re in states involving highly active or compressed energy.

These states are referred to as as activating moods, where we are either forced into deep contemplation or open thoughtfulness.

Activating moods are the ones where we are driven to either think more critically or holistically, with a fine-toothed comb or with open arms. Typically these moods are spurred by some extrinsic event or motivation – a first kiss, a break up, a promotion, etc. ” or some intrinsic state, such as depression or mania, a changing of situational or emotional tides.

Because of these shifts (whether caused by intrinsic or extrinsically events or motivations), we are moved out of our typical modes of thinking and into ones with a different type of energy. And this leads us to uncover creative possibilities, more often than not.

What happens for many of us is we find parts of our day or lives where we aren’t encountering a lot of activating moods. Work or school, relationships, hobbies, they all start to normalize and we find ourselves suddenly not feeling as creatively inspired as we once were (or would like to be).

We have to find ways to gain energy for our creative selves. This can take many different shapes, depending on you as an individual. Energy can come through small hobbies or enjoyable tasks that help make us feel good, like doodling or free writing, dancing, even simply listening to energetic music or watching a new movie.

You can probably relate to this notion if you think to a time you saw or experienced something that suddenly sparked a little creative energy in you.

What matters is that we find ways to incorporate these small sparks, these subtle creative activators, into our day-to-day lives.

Find time to doodle, even just for a few minutes with nothing in particular to draw. Find time to write, even if it’s just journaling about your thoughts or current mood. Find time to connect to the acts or habits that tend to energize you creatively. You don’t have to dedicate a lot of time, all it takes to spark a mood is one word, one idea, one minute.

Doodle by Sandra Strait.

Harnessing the energy effect of everything you do

We each have a limited amount of energy each day, and everything you do uses up that energy; physical, mental, or otherwise.

Your brain is burning roughly 1.5 calories every minute. And that’s without you having to think very hard.

If we are not intelligently using our limited mental energies on things that empower us to think creatively, how can we hope to cope with the challenges we face in life, our careers, or relationships?

Of course the answer is that we can’t. What’s important is not necessarily understanding the impact of our actions, but understanding which of our actions utilize our mental energies in a negative or destructive way and which actions use it in a way that leaves us empowered, stronger, or even with more energy than when we first started.

For example, I love to read. This year I have a goal of reading a minimum of one book every week. I’m off to a good start and a surprising thing has come as a result of my challenge: when I make reading a priority and make the time to get it done, I seem to be more energized and somehow have moretime for other things in my day.

This is the value of spending your time on empowering activities rather than passive or even destructive ones.

When we use our mental energy unwisely we suffer from what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “psychic entropy,” in his book Finding Flow: the wasting away of our mental abilities, to the point where we cannot use our attention to deal with tasks.

However, when we use our mental energies to accomplish some goal, or to grow ourselves, we find ourselves more energized than when we began.

You can probably relate. Think of a time when you felt effortlessly energized while writing, painting, dancing, participating in a sport, taking photographs, or having a good conversation with a friend. Each of those activities may have taken up a bit of energy from you, but because the acts challenged your talents – and therefore were rewarding as experiences – you benefited from them.

Conversely, think of a time you watched television, sat in a boring lecture, or waited around for a friend. Those moments were likely to drain your mental energies because there was no challenge and no clear reward from them.

Everything uses energy: watching TV, reading a book, learning a new language or how to code, drawing, chatting with friends, and simply sitting in quiet to think.

If you use the energy up on trivial things – like watching a tv show for the sake of “spacing out” – you have not only used up energy, but you have diminished your ability to be energized further.

In many things we do, a cognitive multiplier effect is applied. Tasks that drain us of our mental energy and also don’t give us a cognitive reward in return leave us feeling drained and unable to fully recover unless we catch our breath, through a nap, meditation, exercise, or some other, more stimulating action.

A similar, but opposite effect is experienced when we do things that we can excel at and are challenged by.

In these moments we find ourselves in a state of what Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.– These are the moments where time flies by and we find ourselves so naturally enthralled in what it is we’re doing that nothing else seems to matter.

After we encounter moments of flow, we’re much more likely to feel better about ourselves and our creative abilities than if we had done a non-rewarding act like watching TV or browsing Tumblr for hours on end.

The first step is to pay closer attention to how you’re spending your time. If you’re doing things that are not rewarding – that don’t challenge your talents or who you want to be – try to find something else that more closely aligns with those things for you to do. Some ways to do that are in the next step.

The next step is to build momentum through small actions. You don’t have to turn off the tv in order to become a better painter, writer, entrepreneur, or whatever. You can watch movies aboutpainters, writers, or entrepreneurs and the strategies and techniques they learn. As long as your intent in watching the tv is to get something from it (maybe consider taking notes the next time you flop down in front of the tv set).

Simple, but challenging, tasks like trying a new art style, writing in a new form of poetry, taking notes while watching a tv show or movie, or reading about historical greats, are all positive ways that will help you to not only become more creative, but to utilize your time and energy in more effective ways.

You don’t have to invest a lot to get the most from the energy multiplier effect of what you do. As long as you incorporate some way of challenging yourself and growing from the experience, you’re on your way.

Photo by Joseph O'Connell.