Have you ever found yourself in a creative rut? How did you get out of it? And if you’re in one right now, what tools can you use to create change?
I recently received a question via the text community (206-309-5177) asking about overcoming hard days. As we close mental health awareness month, I wanted to share a few thoughts based on what’s worked for me, with the hope to bring some value to you.
Here is the question:
“Hey, Chase. I generally do a really good job of taking care of my mental health. I use tools like positive self-talk, meditation, exercise, or even just call friends when I’m feeling down or discouraged. But sometimes we have really tough days. So I’d love to know how you handle the really tough days. Do you have any advice on weathering some of the deeper challenges we face as creators?”
It’s a well-framed question and one I think we all need to answer. How to handle the hard days.
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First and foremost, there is a difference between a serious mental health concern that requires professional support, and what this question is asking about. If you feel like you fall into the camp of potentially needing some professional support, I’ve found counseling to be incredibly valuable. There are also tons of online resources, including CreativeLive’s wellness and health classes.
Tapping into Creative Flow
To me, the crux of any creative process is how to tap into a state of flow. Flow is where things are effortless and you are on a roll. It’s when life feels good. It seems like all of the best stuff is happening for you rather than to you, right? My belief, and what the science says, is that this is creativity in action. To do our best work, our job is to get into and maintain flow states as long as possible.
The unfortunate reality is that there’s no on switch for flow. We can do things to encourage and protect flow, but being a professional creator means getting down to the work, whether flow shows up or not.
So what happens as we start getting into hard days? Negative self-talk starts creeping in. We might tell ourselves:
“These ideas aren’t good”
“Maybe now is not the time.”
“Maybe I don’t have the talent.”
“I should probably take another class or sharpen some skills or maybe I just hit pause for a few weeks until inspiration returns.”
It may stop our progress and our flow all together. This is the early beginnings of a creative rut. As our internal dialog becomes harsher and more lacerating, it absolutely kills our progress. So how do we navigate this?
Hard days are a little like finger traps. You know, those toy puzzles you put your fingers in? The harder you try to pull your fingers out, the more you realize you’re trapped. The trick of getting out of a finger trap is relaxing. Move back to center until the trap loosens its grip on you.
The same is for navigating tough days. Give yourself some grace and get back to the things that center you. Notice that doesn’t mean stopping all creating, thereby keeping you stuck. The key is action.
You can’t think your way out of a rut
This is not a try harder, push through it prescription. Instead, move in different ways that can help you rest and recover one area of your creative life, while fueling another.
Consider it similar to a workout routine. You cannot perform at peak performance every day. You need rest days. But you would not just stop all movement. Instead, you might walk instead of run, focus on diet, or work out different part of the body. These same principles can be applied to your creative work.
Lean into a daily practice
We all have unlimited creativity within us. Maya Angelou said it best, “you can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
That being said, creativity is a muscle. The best way to cultivate it is through a daily practice. This daily practice doesn’t need to be your primary medium either. Write a blog post. Journal. Sketch some ideas. Go on a photo walk. Start small and don’t be too precious.
The times we are most stressed are exactly when we need to keep our creative practice on point. Micro sessions of creative activity can be incredibly powerful if you’re willing to reset your expectations. Consider what is the smallest thing you could possibly finish and share.
Maintain scheduled work sessions
Inspiration usually visits us while we’re working. So schedule full creative work sessions and set a plan of what you hope to achieve. My own preference is to set aside at least ninety minutes to tackle a small creative task. If I’m doing any heavy lifting, I prefer a three hour block, at minimum.
Don’t wait until you’re standing at your work space to decide what you’re going to work on. Try developing it the night before. Once there, focus on being 100% creative. Stay out of the back office. Never let admin get ahead of the real work. No scrolling instagram, no doing “research”. It’s a distraction to the real work you need to do. Draw some clear boundaries and get to work.
When the going gets tough
Hard days, feeling stuck, or self-doubt are completely normal. There’s no avoiding it. Remember, creativity is a process. You will visit the land of “this sucks” and “I suck” as you journey along the process. The key is to not live there.
Yet sometimes, despite our best efforts, we find ourselves feeling creatively drained. In these cases, it’s difficult to keep the momentum going. If you’re feeling exhausted, focus your actions on self-care. These are obvious, but chances are if you’re feeling depleated, you’ve been letting it slide. Run through this list and make sure you’re covering your bases:
- Focus on your most basic needs that can restore your energy: Sleep, eat good nutritious food, and mental rest.
- Audit where you spend your time and who you spend it with. Start shifting time to the things that fuel you, instead of drain you.
- Reconnect with the things you love and bring you joy.
Give yourself options
A single failing project has a way of taking over your life. Fortunately, you are not your art. The greater the separation between your ego and the products of your creative effort, the happier and more productive you’ll be.
Second, having a few projects cooking at once is a great way to let go of “perfect” and get unstuck. Do what you can for one and when you’re feeling stuck, move on to another, and repeat.
Lastly, hang in there. None of us can do it alone. Don’t forget to reach out to friends and your community for support. Eventually you’ll be back in the flow. Action, not thinking, wins the day.
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