Maintaining a creative mindset is damn hard.
The fear of burnout is enough to sap anyone’s energy. When it strikes, it’s hard to imagine recovering from it.
Projects that start with inspiration can derail at the slightest hurdle, leaving you drained and wanting to give up. You might even start to think that you’ve lost your touch.
I know the feeling all too well.
All too often I’ll dive into a new post, fired up and coasting on my initial momentum, only to get 500 words of a rough outline and then flat-lining. Then the slog begins to finish it since it’s already in the calendar and now has a deadline.
This slowed my progress to a crawl, which I would beat myself up over. This cycle repeated until the stress (among other things) drove me to seek therapy, which I am still undergoing.
What I’m trying to say is that creativity is taxing, scary, emotional work. Some weeks I write 4-5 long-form high-quality articles and still have time left over to give my brain a break. Other weeks, I’ll try not to fall behind, stress myself out and waste a whole week staring at text files full of junk.
So, after recently overcoming a bleak patch, I’m going to tell you what I’ve found helps to keep hold of your creative mindset and keep your flow going. These are tips, attitudes, and practices you can work on whenever you start to feel your work slowing to a grind.
Let’s get started.
Creativity isn’t consistent – accept it
The worst thing you can do when struggling with creativity is to beat yourself up about it.
Trust me. Been there, done that, had the therapy.
It doesn’t do you any favors.
As much as you or your boss would love for everyone to consistently produce solid, inspired work, it’s not possible. Even David Ogilvy said he’s only had a few big ideas in his entire career. When you’re feeling beat, remember that.
There will be days where you’re the master of your thoughts, with great ideas and the ability to express them well. There’ll be more days where you have no energy to express the ideas you can’t get anyway.
Coming up totally blank is an important part of the process.
We’re used to consistency in life. We’re used to a fixed sleep cycle, meal times, and working hours. When these expectations don’t apply to the work we do, it’s painfully frustrating.
Anything you put into your mind — an idea, a paragraph of a book, a poster you saw on your way to work — whirs round in your subconscious until it’s well-formed enough to come out as a tangible stream of thoughts.
Accept that you’re a human, not a high-output robot. Some make the mistake of getting in too deep with productivity systems, a mindset summed up well by Quinn Norton:
“Productivity never asks what it builds, just how much of it can be piled up before we leave or die.” – Quinn Norton, Against Productivity (This Essay Took Four Years to Write)
When you focus on pure output, you’re overlooking the fact that your brain needs time to relax in between sprints.
Give yourself time to come up with truly great ideas, instead of forcing poorly formed ones out, hating them and killing them.
Manage your admin to give more time to large tasks
Whether you get promoted or take on extra (or more varied) duties, it’s unlikely that you’ll be doing one thing all day every day.
I was hired as a writer. I had the entire day (other than review calls) to research, plan, write, and edit my work. There wasn’t anything to interrupt my flow and derail my creative mindset.
Then my tasks expanded, and before I knew it I was drowning in smaller tasks, struggling to find enough time to settle down, avoid distractions and get a chunk of work done.
Meetings, emails, customer support duty, employee onboarding, and anything else that’s not your main job. You name it and the mere thought would stop me from starting on any large projects for fear of getting interrupted and dragged out of my flow.
Y Combinator founder Paul Graham has seen this issue in himself and his co-workers:
“If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you’re a maker, think of your own case. Don’t your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don’t. And ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.” — Paul Graham, Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule
I first tried to solve this by bottling up all of my “extra” tasks and having one day per week to blast through all of them. The rest of the week could then be dedicated to my regular (larger) duties.
This didn’t work for long.
My usual days would meander about with little urgency, leading to working overtime in the evening just to hit my deadlines. I only had one task to focus on that day after all, so my mind relaxed just enough that distractions took hold.
On my admin days I would then struggle to wake up or tear myself out of bed on time. I was grumpy, unfocused, and overwhelmed at the relatively massive number of tasks I had to tackle that day, no matter how small they were individually. By the time I got halfway through (or even started in some cases) I was already mentally exhausted.
That’s not even counting the weeks where my regular tasks had complications and bled into my admin days. Those were pure mental hell.
The way Paul Graham overcame it was pretty extreme. He worked as a manager by day, and a maker by night, staying up until 3 am programming before rolling into the office by lunchtime to deal with ‘business stuff’.
Since I’m not as superhuman as Graham, I tackled my admin stress differently.
Instead of splitting my tasks by day, I returned to doing basic admin work and my regular tasks throughout the week. However, I now only go to admin duties after lunchtime.
I get my most creative work done at the beginning of the day when my mind is fresh, so it makes sense to tackle at least part of the larger projects first thing. Then, when I’ve spent most of my energy building momentum and getting work done, I’ll switch to getting just a few smaller tasks done before I crash.
It’s the best of both worlds. I don’t have a mountain of admin to deal with at once, but most of my energy is still dedicated to the tasks I was mainly hired to do.
Don’t give in to impostor syndrome
Have you ever felt like you aren’t good enough? That you don’t deserve your accolades? As if, one day, you’ll be realized for the “fraud” you are?
That’s called impostor syndrome, and it’s a horrible thing.
In a 1978 paper, psychologists Pauline Clance & Suzanne Imes reported a surprising level of anxiety in high-achieving women — namely PhDs and professors. They coined the term impostor syndrome, which is described as:
“[When someone] persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.” — Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention
Although their original study focused on women, later examinations have shown (and Clance has agreed) that both genders suffer from it, everyone has it to some degree, and it seems to be more common the greater success a person has.
You externalize your success, crediting other people’s poor judgment or pity for your achievements. You feel like your ability to do meaningful creative work is so transient and fragile that it could soon be gone forever.
Again, I’ve been there. I often return there. I know what it’s like.
That’s why I know how to battle impostor syndrome to stop it interfering with your creative mindset.
Here’s how to use it to your advantage:
- Embrace it – it’s okay to be scared
- Know that being scared means you have something to lose
- Having something to lose means you’ve succeeded in some way
- Success means you’re doing it right
- Keep a log of your achievements to remind yourself of your successes (no matter how small)
- Document your processes to stop doubting your methods
- Keep a folder of “confidence boosters” (e.g., nice comments people have left on your work)
- Use fear and deadlines to kick yourself into working
- Ignore useless criticism but listen to constructive comments
After all, even if you are getting praise for something you didn’t do, surely it’s best to ride out the wave for as long as possible?
Know that time invested â‰ quality or quantity of work
We all know the Pareto principle. It states that 80% of the output comes from 20% of the input. With this in mind, doesn’t it make sense to think that sometimes the first half-hour you spend on a task will be that 80% progress?
This article almost didn’t get written. I had the idea in my head for a while, and I was in a waiting room with my notebook. I knew that I had less than half an hour to wait, so I was going to use that time to plan out some of my admin tasks.
Instead, I wrote the bulk of this article in barely legible handwriting and have since spent the day editing it and a couple of other pieces.
That’s the 80/20 principle at work, right in front of my eyes.
By internalizing this principle, it makes it much easier to motivate yourself to just spend 10 minutes on a task when you’re procrastinating.
Switching between tasks isn’t ideal as it takes around 25 minutes to get up to steam when you start working. That being said, the longer you spend on a single task, the less work your time will yield.
Even if you don’t put the 80/20 rule into strict practice, try to identify when your mind starts to wander and how long it takes after starting work on a task for your progress to slow.
Once you know when this is happening, stop. Have a break. Switch to another task. Come back later.
Creativity isn’t consistent, and neither is focus, motivation or productivity. The best you can do is roll with the punches and try to find something else that you’re interested in doing to kickstart your progress on that.
Don’t beat yourself up – it wrecks your creative mindset
I know I said this earlier, but it’s worth saying again.
Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t hit your targets.
It won’t change what you’ve already done, and will only cause further stress which makes future work even harder.
Instead, try asking yourself why you aren’t hitting your targets. For example:
- Is my personal life affecting my work?
- Am I being assigned too much?
- Are these tasks too difficult or not interesting enough?
- Do I have a goal?
- Can I block out distractions while working?
If you’re still struggling with things such as repeated tasks or admin duties, try documenting your workflows. I’ve found it really helps to have a set method you don’t have to think about – you can just crack on and follow your own instructions without worrying whether you’ve forgotten a step.
How do you encourage your creativity? Are you too harsh on yourself when it comes to work or feel like a fraud during your successes? I’d love to chat in the comments below.