Leveraging Inspiration: 10 Simple Practices to Keep Your Creative Output Flowing
Are you under pressure to produce some sort of creative output? Are you feeling “dried up” or empty? Do you find yourself staring into space and mumbling “I got nothin’!!” ?? Do you wonder how some people seem to be consistently productive while you keep having these “dry spells?” In this article I’m going to share the simple, down-to-earth practices I use to keep the articles, videos and podcasts flowing.
Everyone is Creative… Everyone!
The truth is, everyone is creative. Period. Everyone gets ideas, sees unique connections, has insights, comes up with unusual thoughts. But why do some people seem to produce more creative output than others? The answer is they leverage their creativity. They nurture it. They capture the shimmering bubbles that float into their consciousness before they can pop or drift away. They treat these like the magical gifts that they are and they maximize them by employing some fairly mundane, everyday practices. Here are my favorites:
1. Rain barrels & catch basins: Don’t let that idea get away!
One of the ways that home gardeners in semi-arid areas make sure they have enough water for their plants is to capture rain water that runs off their buildings. They carefully position barrels beneath gutters and locate catch basins where the rain water flows. So instead of losing it down the drain, they capture that pure, plant-friendly rain water to use later when there’s not enough rain. In a similar way, I position a pad of yellow stickies or note paper outside my shower, near my meditation chair, beside my bed, in the car and in one of my pockets.I also have an app in my phone that takes my dictation in situations where I can’t write.
By having all these “catch basins” available, I’m able to snag every little insight, notion, or creative leap that drifts into my consciousness. I can then play with these later and organize them into collections or articles. In fact, I created this article you are now reading by organizing a bunch of these fragments that I had been collecting over the period of a month or so, mostly as phone-recorded dictations! This is probably my most powerful creativity-enhancing practice.
2. Resolve to create a small chunk.
One of the best ways to remove the feeling of overwhelm or “writer’s block” is to make this deal with yourself: “I will simply create one small chunk right now. Then I’ll come back later and do another chunk.” So, if I’m working on a difficult article and feeling a bit intimidated, I might resolve to crack open Evernote and write one single paragraph. I tell myself that if I feel like it, I can always add another — but the goal is to write just one. I simply make that small commitment.
What frequently happens, however, is that when I focus on the ideas for that one little chunk instead of the entire writing chore, momentum begins to build — I slip into the flow of things and the next thing you know a couple of hours have gone by and I’ve made a ton of progress! And if this doesn’t happen, then at least I’ve added another paragraph to the work. (Note: For this to work properly, you should sequester yourself from all forms of electronic interruptions… shut down everything: all forms of email, text, & social network alerts, your phone… everything!)
3. Get random! Start in the middle or at the end.
In the beginning of any project, it’s okay — sometimes highly desirable — to go wherever the energy takes you. Don’t allow a strict focus on an outline or particular structure or exact linearity to bog you down. Start in the middle. Jump to the end. Ramble. Loop. Doodle. Mind map. Plaster a wall with yellow stickies containing idea fragments of all sorts. Don’t worry about editing or supporting those raw ideas. Just get them out, get going and do something!
4. In the early stages (first draft, initial concept development, etc.) trust you intuition and don’t criticize or second guess yourself.
Think about it. You were excited enough about your idea that you wanted to bring it to life on paper, video, audio, etc. So keep your internal critical voice stifled until you have developed the idea to the point where the work has the strength to stand on its own and be evaluated. And this admonition pertains to anyone you know who tends to be cynical, “realistic” or otherwise a source of negative energy. Avoid them during this stage of your work. When a creative concept of any kind is in the process of being born, it is almost always too fragile to endure any kind of harsh treatment.
So instead of criticizing your new-born creation, flesh it out, nudge it, pick it up, spin it around, play with it, and help it stand on its own. After all, this creation is based on an idea is that bubbled up from somewhere in your intuition, got your attention and motivated you to pursue it. So it deserves to be gently nurtured in its infancy and given a fair chance to grow.
5. Create a little something every day, even if you don’t feel like it.
Develop the habit of getting into your “zone of creation” whether you feel like it or not. (See preceding advice about agreeing to create a small chunk.) By insisting on doing a little every day, you develop the strength and discipline to stifle that whiny little voice that presents you with all kinds of excuses to indulge your laziness. You must say to that voice: “I’m gonna try for 15 minutes — — that’s all– maybe start in the middle or at the end but at least start playing with the concepts and engage the process. This way I’ll at least keep my creative muscles in shape and keep this project from withering away.”
6. Lost your “voice?” Find it in another work.
One way to get “unstuck” is to hitch a ride on another creative piece that you’ve already completed. Ask yourself: What finished article, video, audio, or other creative work seems to have a similar mood or attitude to the one I’m trying to bring to life? Identify it, consume it, and put yourself in the same creative space that produced that work. In this way, you can re-activate that voice and make it sing for you to produce the new creation.
7. Know when to unleash your editor.
Your internal editor is a real buzz killer! He’s anal, judgmental, fastidious, fearful of breaking rules, and the kind of entity that can douse the fires of creativity in an instant. So don’t let your internal editor anywhere near your enthusiasm or your creative process. Get crazy, generate a big pile of creative output, play with it like a bunch of blocks by trying different organizational structures. And ignore any noises that your internal editor is making. Later, when you’re finished having fun, you can unleash your editor on your big pile of stuff and he can do what he does best — tidy things up and make them “presentable.” (Yep… my internal editor is a “he.” That figures, right?)
8. Release it when it’s 90% perfect. 90% is just fine!
One of the good things about working with publishers and clients is that they can be ruthless editors. And while their editorial input and demands for revision can be painful to the ego, they can also be liberating. By tearing up my precious work and forcing it to be released with changes that I sometimes didn’t like, these folks have taught me a great deal about “perfection.” Specifically: “Perfect” is a fiction. There is no perfect. There is only “finished”… for now. This is because anyone looking at your work could provide you with some little bit of feedback recommending a change of one kind or another. Anyone! And when you finally make peace with this fact, you realize that there is never any “perfect” form for your work. There is only your version. And pursuing “perfect” can be a productivity killing, time-wasting self-indulgence. So get it 90% right and release it to the world! (Then later, simply smile and thank them for their feedback!)
9. Be a curator of your consciousness.
Most art museums have way too many art works to exhibit. They employ a curator to make sensible displays of the works by focusing on one or more themes and organizing them into meaningful collections. This way visitors aren’t overwhelmed by a jumble of random stuff. Our consciousness can be like that museum. With our 24-hour cable channels, unlimited info to cruise through on the web, and endless stimuli from circles of electronically connected friends and colleagues, our consciousness can get all jumbled up and stuffed full like a museum basement.
To be a productive creator you need to be a curator your consciousness. Pay attention to where you spend your time and what you bring into your consciousness. When streaming news items or reality TV or online games or a bunch of Tweets or Facebook updates start screaming for your attention, ask yourself: “Is this where I want to spend my time? Is this the world I want to engage? Have I had enough opportunities to simply think? … to quietly ‘be here & now’ so that my back burner can cook up some new insights and new meaning without having content constantly pouring through and dousing the flame?”
So shut off the radio, close that chat box, turn off the phone, kill that instant alert setting and, yes, meditate. Or go for a walk, run, or bike ride without any electronic input. Remember: You can’t hear your muse if you’re not quiet. Silence invites your unique Source of inspiration to speak.
10. Honor your weirdness.
Reflect on what people are talking about and how you might see things differently. Notice how you might see shades of gray when others see distinctly black and white. Notice how you want to delve a little more deeply into an issue when others are content to form a conclusion quickly. Notice how you see things from odd or unique angles. In particular, pay attention when they tell you that you have just shared a “weird” idea. Honor your weirdness and follow it to new places.
Avoid Creative Malpractice
I truly believe that squandering any of those little bursts of inspiration that are served up to you by your muse is essentially creative malpractice. Remember: Everyone is creative. The difference between someone who consistently churns out creative output and someone who’s “… got nothin’!” is that the former employs a few of these simple, practical methods for leveraging inspiration.
Originally published as a stand-alone chapter in the “Peace of Mind” section of my book, Worth Sharing: Essays & Tools to Help Project Managers and Their Teams.