11 Things to Do When You Need to Sustain Creativity for a Long Time
This year I’m participating in both Inktober and NaNoWriMo. Those in the know will understand the horror I’m inflicting upon myself. But if that sounded like gibberish to you, it boils down to two back-to-back months of intense creativity.
Inktober is a daily art challenge for the month of October. By the end, you’ll have produced 31 ink drawings. This year is my first time trying Inktober, so I’m being lenient with myself. I aim to have at least 20 drawings by the time Halloween rolls around.
Then November is NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month and is exactly what it sounds like. The goal is to produce 50,000 words. I’ve accomplished this goal and “won” NaNoWriMo the past two years, but have yet to produce a completed novel.
I love short, intense creative challenges like this, but two consecutive months can no longer be considered a “short” challenge. Typically you’d have time to prepare yourself, do a little planning, and charge forward. NaNoWriMo is 8 days away and I still have no novel plans.
So I decided to step back, gather some resources, and figure out how I’m going to make it through the end of November. And while you may not be setting yourself up to jump through ridiculous creative hoops, maybe you’re struggling with this question too:
How Do You Sustain Creativity for an Extended Period of Time?
I’ve compiled a list of 11 tips staying consistently creative, whether you’re doing an Inktober- Nanowrimo marathon, need constant creativity for your job, or just want to get your creative juices flowing again.
1. Take Breaks.
When I get busy, it’s easy for me to completely fill up my day. I’ll keep working and multi-tasking on something because “I’m busy,” and I need to be working. All too often I fall under the false impression that being busy means being productive. And it’s plenty easy to stay busy.
I’m taking breaks, I tell myself, as I eat lunch and read books at the same time, or stare at my phone when I get up to refill my coffee. But these days take their toll on me. I know because after one of these needlessly busy days, I’ll finally lay down to sleep and my mind will be buzzing.
While I may have taken breaks from my freelance writing or studying (that darned GRE), I never gave myself a mental break. All the mental processing I didn’t get to do during the day hits me full force right as my head hits the pillow, and then I can’t fall asleep either.
Hopefully, you don’t do this to yourself. Because going non-stop all day is the best way to kill your creativity.
2. “Get Up and Move!“
Get some exercise. Work out. Take a walk. Try kickboxing (I’ve been wanting to). This may not sound like practical advice for someone facing a time crunch, but it’ll do wonders for your life. As someone who finally got back into a workout routine a few months ago, I’m still surprised at the benefits.
I’m a morning gym person – not one of those 5 am people, just a modest 8 or 9 am – and here’s what happens after a workout:
- I’m super-energized.
- I’m also super-hungry, which leads to eating, which results in more energy.
- I’m super-chatty – notice how every just seems “super”?
- I’m better prepared to sit at a desk for extended periods of time.
- I’ve already crossed one thing off my list and feel super-productive – already!
And, you know, there’s research that suggests being active boosts your creativity too. Apparently, the results are a bit more nuanced, and consistently active people (like athletes) benefit from exercise more than non-active who suddenly try exercising to boost their creativity. So the moral of the story is, start exercising now.
3. Defend Your Creative Time with Your Life.
Seriously. To accomplish anything you need time, particularly focused, distraction-free time. Treat creativity with respect and give it the time it deserves. Don’t give in to friends asking you to hang out during your writing time – just convince them to do NaNoWriMo with you!
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield stresses the importance of approaching art as a professional. A pro, he asserts, shows up every day, no matter what, all day. “By performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, [you] set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that [will] produce inspiration.” Sounds good to me.
4. Get Rid of or Get Away from Distractions
I work from home. But most days, home is pretty distracting. Even when I try to close my door, my dogs feel the incessant need to go in and out of my room nonstop. Cinnamon feels particularly entitled to entry. It’s really just better to leave the door open. So when I really need to focus, I get out of the house.
If it’s artwork I’m trying to do, packing up all my supplies to go to a cafe would be annoying. Having people stare at me also messes me up. So for Inktober, I’ve gravitated toward morning or night hours. Early in the morning – before I work out or on days when I skip the gym – the house is quiet and anyone who’s awake is still groggy. At night my dogs are in bed or passed out elsewhere, and everyone else is winding down.
But living creatures aren’t my only distractions. My phone is a notorious offender. So sometimes I throw it across the room (onto my bed) to rid myself of its temptations. The satisfaction of literally throwing away your distractions is also worth it.
5. Notice the Details.
Don’t be distracted, but do notice the details. Easy, right? Well, this tip is for inspiration time, not work time. Eventually, your well of creativity will start to run dry. Rather than trying to produce something out of thin air. Go for a walk and pay attention to your surroundings (that way you’re doing tip #2 at the same time).
Notice what’s around you. Is there artwork? A ridiculous conversation going on behind you? Strange smells? Try to engage all five senses, but use “taste” at your own discretion.
6. Take Notes.
Or sketches, memos, audio files, or whatever medium works best for you. While you’re noticing all these details, you’ll want to be ready if inspiration strikes. And just tucking the idea away in your mind in the hopes that you’ll remember it later is only effective 50% of the time, if that. Take it safe. Dig up the built-in notes app on your phone. Keep a little notebook at your bedside. Just don’t let the ideas get away.
7. Find Your “Inspiration System.”
I’m stealing the idea of an “Inspiration System” from Asian Efficiency because it really resonates with me. The gist of it is this: you know what inspires you, so intentionally put yourself into inspiring situations.
What works for you? It might be getting away to explore a new city or going on a long hike. Or you might find inspiration in something as simple as music from a particular artist. I tend to go through intense phases where I listen almost exclusively to one artist, over and over again, and then lose interest and move on. My latest was, surprisingly, Demi Lovato. Don’t ask me why.
8. Quantity Over Quality (Or Create, Create, Create!)
As a perfectionist, I know the feeling of getting stuck trying to produce that one amazing thing. But especially in creative challenges like Inktober and NaNoWriMo, the point is to produce. To get into a daily creative practice. No one’s submitting their NaNoWriMo draft to an editor as is – at least, I hope not. Creativity requires practice, editing, and repetition.
Most famous artists were surprisingly prolific. Van Gogh created an estimated 900 works of art in his lifetime. Monet boasts 2,500, and Picasso is at a shocking 50,000. Can you name all 50,000 Picasso works? Have you ever taken art history class where the professor gave you a full list of every work Picasso ever made? Of course not. Because some of them flopped, and that’s okay.
9. Develop a Routine.
Did you catch that mention of a “daily creative practice” earlier? That’s important. It takes one to two months to develop a habit, depending on the complexity of the task. But following the same routine helps. Just like working out first thing in the morning helps you remain consistent, choosing a consistent time or place for your creativity will help you keep going.
10. Seek Out New Experiences
Here’s another tip that seems to contradict the previous one. Stick to a routine to get work done, but try new things for inspiration. Listen to new music, try a new food, or read a book that you normally wouldn’t. Even with an “inspiration system,” new experiences give you a new perspective, surprise your senses, or force you to remember what it’s like to be a beginner again.
You know how some authors seem to churn out novel-after-novel using the same formula? I wonder if they truly enjoy producing these novels or if they simply don’t make any effort to try new things anymore and this is the result.
11. Find Your Community.
No matter what kind of creative work you do, there’s a community out there for it. Anything from tree shaping to element collecting (as in elements from the periodic table). If you’re stuck, just Google it. One of the parts of NaNoWriMo that I love best is the enormous global community. You can find local Wrimos (the slang for people attempting NaNoWriMo), communicate in moderated chat rooms and forums, and even attend write-ins in your area. While we weren’t the largest group, I loved going to write-ins when I lived in Busan, South Korea.
Is this list helpful to you? Do you have any other strategies to sustain creativity? Let me know in the comments!
Best of the Week
Every week of October I’m highlighting one of my Inktober drawings. This week I did a lot of Sumi-e or Japanese Ink Painting. My favorite of the bunch was the bamboo. You can see more on my art Instagram @monicartsy.