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How to Maintain Your Creativity (without Burning Out)

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Group of people on a tableCreative work is any kind of work that requires unique output on a regular basis.

Skill is required, as it is for any job.

But more is also required: the ability to solve problems, to come up with unique solutions, and to produce original output on a regular basis.

It’s great work, interesting and exciting, and really difficult. Producing exact replicas of the same thing requires less creativity but is mind-numbing. Producing new and original things all the time is exciting but creatively demanding.

Keeping up with the demand can lead to creative burn-out, which is no fun for anyone.

Is creative burn-out inevitable? You’ve got creatives like Trollope, on one hand, who work like automatons and leave the rest of us feeling inadequate. Then you’ve got the one-work geniuses, like Los del Río, who leave the rest of us wondering if mediocrity is the only way to sustain creative output.

Let’s talk about the third way.

The way of the ongoing creative. The way of we creative folks who aren’t as insanely prolific as, say, Picasso, but who also aren’t willing to be one-hit wonders.

The way of the ongoing creative requires thoughtfulness, conscious construction, and a humble recognition of your need for help. If you’re there, read on. (If not, keep slogging through doing it your way, and we’ll talk in a few years.)

Build Yourself a Solid Inspiration System

Crumpled papers on a clean sheet of paperInspiration isn’t as rare and ethereal as we might like to think. It’s also not a guaranteed daily condition, no matter how creative you might think you are.

There are ways to make inspiration happen more often. It’s still not going to be a spigot of creative motivation that you can turn on and off at will. It can, however, be a lot more frequent and even (dare we say it) close to reliable.

You need an inspiration system: this requires three elements. First, the sources of inspiration in your life. Second, regular time dedicated to these inspiration sources. And third, a somewhat organized way to collect and organize the ideas that you get from all this inspiration immersion. (I’ve written a little more about building an inspiration system here.)

Create Routines that Allow Mindless Operation

Because, let’s face it, some days you are going to be essentially mindless.

And on those days, your routines will make or break you. If you’ve built conscious, productive rituals that help move you from one part of your day to another, you’re going to produce something even on the zombie days.

If you haven’t, however, you’re going to suffer from low to zero output, have to make up for it later, get stressed out over having to make up for it, lose inspiration and energy due to stress, and find yourself in a terrible cycle of creative annihilation.

Creativity, see, does not have to happen at the beginning of the output; it can happen at any point in the process. When your routines are in place, you’ll produce something even in your uninspired hours. Later, when you’re feeling the juice, you’ll go back and make it better.

Set and Live by Minimum Output Requirements

Man on the beach with laptopYour routines, or daily rituals, will help you to move through the motions required to produce something, anything, even on the difficult days. Your minimum output requirements will let you know when you can stop. On days when you’re feeling the creative wind in your hair, you’ll breeze past those requirements with a look of scorn. On other days, you’ll crawl to them on your hands and bleeding knees, sobbing a little bit.

But you’ll get there, one way or another.

Why the self-imposed quotas? Here’s what I’ve found:

  • following a daily (or weekly) quota helps me keep moving forward on projects even when I’m mentally stuck and saves me from getting stuck even deeper.
  • following a daily quota helps me prove to myself that I’m capable of doing work even when I don’t feel like doing work.
  • following a daily quota helps me feel like I’m for real: a professional, a real creative person who’s not, in fact, a fraud. This “I’m for real” feeling is really important when it comes to doing creative work on a regular basis.
  • following a daily quota helps me improve in the basic skills of my craft.
  • following a daily quota, however minimal, helps me to produce a body of work, little by little. A little bit every day adds up to a lot over a year or more.
  • following a daily quota helps me to make the most of those times when I’m totally inspired; I’m already practiced, adept at the basics, and I can jump right in and follow an idea without a big set-up process or hesitancy that would exist if I weren’t producing on a regular basis.

I’ve used quotas off and on for different lengths of time and for varying amounts. Without a doubt, the times when I set a minimum output requirement for myself are much more productive, creative, and enjoyable.

Find and Respect Your Own Limits

man on a cliffThe flip side of a having any sort of regular quota is having some boundaries. You need to learn your own limits, identify your particular weaknesses, and respect them.

I don’t mean, either, that you should find them in order to overcome them. It’s great to get better and improve yourself; it’s also important to know and accept yourself, to treat yourself gently, and to quit pushing yourself so hard all the time.

Let’s be productive, yes! Let’s be creative. Let’s make stuff, do stuff, and change the world.

Let’s also sit on the hammock on a breezy afternoon. Let’s also take naps, eschew guilt, enjoy the company of friends, say “no,” give ourselves solitude, play, and meander.

And let’s not wait until we have a nervous breakdown or get so stressed that we alienate the people we love before we do these things. This practice — of knowing and honoring the limits we have — is what allows us to keep being creative.

Creative work is hard work. It isn’t always fun, but when it’s flowing, it’s pretty much the best feeling in the world. If you’re not willing to give that up (and I know I’m not), do yourself a favor. Build a life that makes sense for you as a creative. Put the thought and effort in to sustain yourself, so you can sustain the creative work.

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Posted by Annie Mueller  | September 14, 2015 at 9:16AM | Reply

Hi David,
I don’t have a secret for instantaneous sparking of inspiration, though I do have a few ‘tricks’ I rely on to boost inspiration & to keep myself writing regularly, whether I feel inspired or not..
First is to really study what inspires you. It might seem random, but there’s almost always a pattern or commonality in the experiences that leave you feeling inspired and brimming with ideas. (The section above touches on it- click thru & read that piece on building your own inspiration system for more detail). Second, realize that you need both practice and flow in order to consistently produce creative work. Practice is about doing the work, meeting the quota, building the skills. Flow is that awesome inspired place we love to be in while working. Read more about them here:
Third, I’ve found my most consistent creative times to be when I set a quota and force myself to meet it, even if my writing for the day is absolutely terrible… the consistent work of writing is never a waste, even if a particular day’s output goes into the trash. It’s the act of doing the work that builds more adeptness & mental comfort with it, which opens up room for more creativity.

Hope that helps!

Posted by David  | September 13, 2015 at 10:45PM | Reply

Awesome article to combine routines with creativity! A personal struggle for me on creativity is to be consistent. And I have found it difficult to produce creative work without inspirations. One good example is writing, and I struggle to find a topic of my interest that has not been written yet. I like the self-imposed quotas that will “force” myself to keep me moving forward. But my inspiration doesn’t come on a regular basis. Is there a way to spark this at moments of notice?

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