Right now, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in a hip part of town, sipping on a caramel mocha, listening to some Michelle Branch, and begrudgingly typing words onto my blank screen as easily as one might walk up six flights of stairs after a particularly intense leg day.
I’m writing this because it’s easier than writing the project I’m actually working on. That project is hard. It requires emotional energy, and mental energy. I’m at the boring middle part where the new sheen of it has worn off and all there is is work until the end. I want to be at home playing video games. I want to be outside in the crisp fall air walking through a farmer’s market. I want my project to be finished and not calling to me in a whiny voice, “But you haven’t written your chapter today! Why not? Don’t you want this? You know you’ll never finish at this rate.”
I’ve been here for almost two hours and have written about half a chapter, along with paragraph-long snippets of about four others. Progress is painfully slow. Honestly, I just don’t want to make anything today. My brain refuses to focus or get into the flow. It’s rebelling this morning, as it has been all week.
This is the part of any creative project that really tests your dedication. This is the part where I decide whether my idea really is good enough. Will I give up on it? Decide it’s not worth the pain? Or will I keep going because it deserves to breathe life?
This project deserves life, which means I have to do something about it, whether I want to or not.
If anyone is selling you the idea that there is a simple hack or routine you can introduce to make these kinds of days disappear, they are lying to you. These days will always be there, even if you can make them happen less often with time. The good news is, there are some things you can do on days like these to still accomplish something, no matter what your brain wants to do instead.
Some days, it’s about just getting something on the page. It might not be all that you wanted to get done, but momentum is important. Doing a little bit often is better than doing a lot once or twice a month, because you won’t have to spend time getting back into it and remembering where you left off and what the next step is. It also keeps you thinking about it, helping your brain make those connections to keep you being creative.
Here are some specific ways you can keep that momentum going.
- Set a time limit. If you can’t get yourself to start, just spend 15 minutes on it. If that seems insurmountable, try 10. You can do anything for ten minutes, even if it feels punishing. Usually once you’ve started, you’ll want to keep going- but if not, you still got work done. You tried. You did more than most people did today. Acknowledge your effort and try again tomorrow.
- Get inspired. Pull out your favourite book. Look at your favourite painting. Play your favourite video game. Don’t lose yourself for hours, but take the time to remind yourself what you’re trying to achieve and why you want to achieve it. Maybe it will even help give you some direction on what to do next.
- Let it be bad. If you’re blocked by feeling like everything you do is terrible, let yourself be bad anyway. It’s a lot easier to edit something to be better than it is to start from scratch 100 times. By letting it be bad, you can more easily identify specific problems like, “there’s a giant plot hole I have to fix”, or “this part of the user interface doesn’t work”. You might even find later on, that it wasn’t as bad as you thought- and finishing something bad is still better than not finishing something great.
- Play. Experiment. Do what you did when you were still learning how to make things. Allow yourself to get out of the headspace of your project and just have some fucking fun. It might help you make some connections that you hadn’t made before, or work on a particular skill that you are weak on. Time spent practicing is not time wasted.
- Make something totally different. If you just can’t stomach the thought of working on your project, make something different. Do origami. Learn how to draw an ultra-realistic apple. Pick up the recorder you learned to play in 4th grade and learn how to play your favourite song on it. Switching gears may be just what your brain needed to move forward, and you still get the feeling of accomplishment of learning how to do something new, even if it’s not what you originally set out to do that day. Something is better than nothing.
- Treat the problem, not the symptoms. If none of the above is working, it’s time to identify why you feel such a mental block, and treat the cause. Are you burnt out? Do you not believe in your project anymore, and can’t see a reason to continue? Do you think that it’s terrible, so why even bother pushing through? Figure out why you don’t want to work, and work on that instead. Take a bubble bath. Identify why you started this in the first place. Recognize that every first draft for everyone is garbage but that’s okay. Sometimes this will take a little more digging, and the answer won’t come to you right away, but pushing through will make days like these a lot less common if you can figure it out.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go finish that chapter I started.