Self Care for Creatives: How to be Creative Even When You Don't Feel Like It

Posted by

Nadja Bozovic

Published on

July 22nd 2020

If only there was a formula to producing good creative work. There isn't, but let's try to get as close as we can. Nadja Bozovic takes us through how to maintain and feed your creativity to keep doing the work, even during uncertain, stressful and lazy days, as part of our series on self care for creatives.

“If I only had 320 words I felt good”, Ernest Hemingway wrote in his letter to his editor Maxwell Perkins in 1944.

You would imagine that a writing genius like Hemingway would’ve had thousands of words naturally pouring out of his mind and immediately being translated into masterful stories we all love and cherish. But, it wasn’t that way. Mr. Hemingway had his ups and downs, inner struggles, creative blocks, and all sorts of obstacles on his creative path. Just like we all do.

There is no magic wand to cast a spell for our creative work to magnificently appear in a blink of an eye. There is only the work we put in. On our best days, we feel like out-of-this-world heroes. On our worst days, we just want to put a blanket over our head and stay in bed f o r e v e r.

If you get stuck because of stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and a lack of inspiration and motivation, you’ll find comfort in knowing that you don’t need to push yourself hard to squeeze creativity out of you. Your creativity doesn’t need to be pushed around; it needs to be nourished and played with. It is the driving force of your original ideas, so you need to handle it with care and be gentle to yourself.

Is there a magic formula for turning those bad days into good ones? Spoiler alert: there isn’t.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of a solution, either. But there are simple, actionable steps that we can follow to develop our own framework for creative success.

Let’s check them out.

Embrace the messiness of your creative process

As a writer, I need to think through every writing project, do the extensive research, outline, draft, revise, do some more research, write, iterate, tweak, and do the several swaps of editing and proofreading.

As a designer, illustrator, or a web developer, you get to research, find inspiration, conceptualize, sketch, wireframe, illustrate, test, improve, prototype, test some more, scale-up, and iterate.

As a digital marketer or a project manager, you’d have to think about the project’s purpose, goals, clarity of language, making it attractive and appealing, defining success, measuring success, analyzing, testing on different channels, and then revising, rethinking, and reframing as needed.

It’s not a linear process, right? Rather, it’s a messy curl that we get to untangle bit by bit. Sometimes I start writing from the middle with a single thought, and I build a case for it. Sometimes I start from a headline. Sometimes a headline is the last thing I put in, after changing it 30 times. Sometimes I write the first sentence and then I get stuck. Sometimes I can’t even write a single word. And sometimes, this process makes me exhausted, frustrated, and irritated. It makes me unimaginative, unproductive, and overly stressed-out.

I know I’m not alone in this. Everyone who has ever been busy with creative work has come to a similar point. I know you did, too.

But, here’s a secret. We shouldn’t shy away from the hard, negative feelings. It’s all part of the process. Welcome your insecurities and creative anxiety into the game. Sometimes we need to struggle and go through our worst fears in order to come out of it stronger, with a clear vision of what we want to do next.

To learn how frustration can make us even more creative, listen to this TED talk from Tim Harford. He explains that once we feel restrained, that’s when we may be able to come up with the most beautiful pieces of our work.

Challenge yourself with daily prompts

Here is an idea on how to go about your creative work: make it fun, experiment, and play with it.

Challenge yourself, restrain yourself, explore, try new things, try funny things, try silly things, think like a child, do some soul-searching, start a self-reflection diary, start a journal, start a 100-day challenge, give yourself daily prompts… There are so many ways to set your creative spirit free and start making magic with your skill and craft.

Here are several examples to get you going:

  • The Isolation Journals by Suleika Jaouad, a 100-day challenge started during the pandemic-caused lockdown, with daily prompts coming from artists, writers, illustrators, designers, and other creatives. Some of the prompts include drawing a giraffe with your eyes closed, making up a life story of an unknown person whose photograph you’ve seen in a magazine, writing a whole page of prose using only the words with one syllable, exploring your inheritance, and writing an eviction notice to whomever or whatever hinders your creative joy.
  • The Assignments, a new platform for artists with open briefs based on a theme or an idea. New assignments will be published periodically with instructions. For now, there is a Wing Assignment 2020, based on the 2012 Wing project, that invites artists to create a new work in response to a bird’s wing. Your artworks can take the form of words, images or film.
  • Instagram hashtags #100daysofsketching, #100daysofdesign, #100daysofdrawing, #100daysofcode, and others alike, to unleash your creativity and start adding your ideas to the realm of artworks around the world.

You can follow these or make up something completely different, something of your own. The only rule is this: be true to yourself and let there be fun.

Untangle your mind with free writing

When you feel discomfort, anxiety, overwhelm, and you find it hard to concentrate on creative work before you, perhaps free writing can help. It isn’t just for writers. This simple practice can help you overcome the creative block in no time.

How does it work?

Instead of staring at the blank page or the blank canvas while the blinking cursor beats you up in the rhythm of your pressuring thoughts, step away from the computer.

Take a pen and paper, place yourself in a cozy corner, and start writing. It’s as simple as that. Let your mind unfold and your thoughts flow out. Don’t think about it, just write. And keep on writing as long as it takes. Put every little thought you have on that piece of paper. Express yourself, let your feelings speak. It’s like a meditation in a written form.

This can help you declutter your mind, lower the pressure, and reclaim your focus. Before you know it, you’ll be back at your desk feeling relaxed and excited about the work ahead. And that nasty block you experienced… Umm, what block?

Remember, creativity is your superpower (you can’t lose it!)

Never underestimate what we can learn from kids. I’ve been playing with my 6-year-old nephew since he was a baby, and I’m constantly amazed by his ingenious mind, vivid imagination, and magical strength of will-power.

So, here’s a little game for you.

Imagine yourself as a superhero. Instead of being strong like Superman, or walking up the buildings like Spiderman, you get to make insanely creative ideas become true. Your mission is to inspire, motivate, empathize, make people feel the positive energy whenever they feel down.

You can imagine your mighty suit, too. What does it look like, how does the texture feel under your fingertips? Do you have a face mask as well? What is the shape of it? Are you completely unrecognizable when you put it on? Can you draw it?

Oh, and what’s your superhero name? Magnificent Arty, perhaps? Or, Mighty Energyzer? Illu-Woman? Fierce Creative?

Now, think about it this way. That superhero is your alter ego, your inner mentor, your strongest, bravest you. Bring that superhero up whenever you feel a lack of creativity.

Simply ask yourself: What would a Magnificent Arty do in this situation? And act accordingly to show everyone what you’re made of. Your creativity lies inside you. It’s always there, it can’t disappear. Sometimes it just needs a little nudge to dust itself off and show up like a hero.

Be gentle to yourself

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you feel anxious. Calm down. Take a deep breath. Allow yourself *not* to be creative, as well. Stop beating yourself up.

“Creating in times of stress is like running in humidity. You can do it, it just requires a lot more effort. It’s important to remember that and grant yourself some permission to go slower, to walk through it.”– Lisa Congdon

Lisa Congdon is a visual artist who has been exploring the light and dark sides of being creative during extraordinary times. With an insight into the ways stress can impact our productivity, our self-worth, and sense of purpose, in her talk at the Creative Mornings Virtual Portland session in May 2020, she emphasizes how important it is to find a new purpose, change our approach, let our imagination run wild, express ourselves, and show up for our art.

We all want to structure our creativity in times of stress, but try to find your balance without putting a ton of pressure on yourself. Try to rethink, reflect, repurpose, reimagine, and reinvent yourself as a creative person and a creative professional.

For this purpose, I like to keep notes to myself like a gentle reminder of simple, important truths.

My notes are:

  • Make it simple
  • Don’t overthink
  • Be a pragmatist
  • Trust your gut

And if you struggle with overthinking like I do, there’s a recently published book called Get Out of My Head: Inspiration for Overthinkers In the Anxious World, written by Meredith Arthur and illustrated by Leah Rosenberg, that could come in handy for navigating your insecurities.

Find comfort in safe online communities

Whatever you do, remember that you are not alone. There are millions of creatives out there who struggle every day the same as you, suffer from the imposter syndrome, and feel the lack of inspiration. It can be of great help to share your thoughts and experiences within the group of like-minded creatives who understand you and support you. It could be an online or an offline community, as long as it is an inclusive, inspiring, and supportive group of people.

The SuperHi Community is a great way to start. It offers a safe environment to ask your burning questions and get helpful answers, without having to worry about being vulnerable. Because, as Brené Brown would say, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change”.

Speaking of Brené Brown, she recently launched her podcast Unlocking Us and it’s been a pleasure to listen to, pure gold if you ask me. She is such an excellent communicator and her guests and topics invite us to soak up every word and feel less anxious about the world around us.

Let’s wrap it up

There are two possible scenarios for our not-so-good days as creative professionals.

Scenario #1: We quietly sit and do nothing. We shy away from negative feelings, and we wait for our muse to reveal herself in all of her glory. But, our muse persistently stays hidden. Our deadline is becoming closer and we haven’t done anything. Nothing, zero. We end up feeling overly stressed-out and tremendously freaked-out. We try our best to work under such conditions, but we deliver the work full of mistakes and flaws. Realizing that, we beat ourselves even more up and stay in the loop of perpetual imposter syndrome.

Scenario #2: We welcome creative anxiety into our creative process. We challenge ourselves to find amazing new ways of expression. We start creating no matter our current mental state. Soon, we realize that mental states shift easily and we were silly thinking we couldn’t do it in the first place. We end up finishing our creative projects on time, without too much pressure. Our confidence level gets boosted up, and we look forward to creating again to show our excellence to the world.

Which one of these would you choose for your next creative project? I know I’m all about that Scenario #2, thank you very much. And you?

Taking care of ourselves, nurturing our thoughts and ideas, challenging our inner creative superhero, and going away from the project only to come back even more enthusiastic about our work can lead us a long way. Let’s do it!

Nadja Bozovic runs a content studio-of-one Narativ, as a writer, marketer, and strategist for creative professionals, indie small businesses, and nonprofits. She’s also the author of Content Puzzle, a weekly newsletter on all things content strategy.

Illustration by Oliwia Bober