Avoiding your creative work? 3 tips to get back on track

I’ve dabbled on a book for three years now and still haven’t finished. I finish copywriting projects for clients every day, why can’t I finish this one thing for myself? I think I’m  afraid to fail.

Writing marketing copy (my day job) is impersonal, but writing a book is like opening the door to your soul and letting everyone peek in and take a look around. (I think mine would look a little like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, the Gene Wilder version.) What if people hate what they see? What if they love what they see and I can’t follow up with more and I become a one-hit wonder on VH-1? I know, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One  fear of failure scenario at a time.

I call it creative dissonance. I want to write but I’m afraid of what may happen when I do. Creativity coach Dr Eric Maisel calls it fear of making a mess, and that’s a great analogy. We teach our kids to color inside the lines, don’t spill your milk, pick up your room. Everything is expected to be neat, tidy, orderly. That’s fine for your room or your clothes, but creativity doesn’t work that way. It’s a messy business, creativity. There are papers, paints, oils, brushes, clay, dust and all the other creative tools, but factor in all the emotions involved and you’ve got a big mess.

It’s not writer’s block. Instead, I find distractions to avoid my creative work. As a working mom with two kids, my time is genuinely jam-packed with play dates, softball practice, piano and homework (another diorama?), so finding time to squeeze in writing gets tough. When I do have the time, though, I suddenly decide it’s more important to download and organize 10 years worth of digital photos, clean the house, (I’m addicted to my Swiffer) or organize closets. (No, I don’t want to come to your house and organize your closets. Well… maybe.) I also rearrange the furniture in my office; as I wrote in a previous post, change can spark your creativity, such as moving your furniture around, but too much can be avoidance in disguise.

So I decided to tackle my three biggest avoidance tactics: my Swiffer addiction, timing and priorities. For one week, I tried three new things to kick those bad habits in the butt so I could write. Here’s what I learned:

Leave your creative space a mess. I spent more time cleaning my office than actually writing in it, so on the first day, I pulled out my book project and left the folders, research and chapter drafts out on my desk. I left my research books in piles on the floor; I balled up pieces of paper and threw them next to the trash. I even dumped my bowl of paper clips on the desk. I was itching to clean, but I wrote instead, telling myself that this is how an office should look when I’m working–like I am actually working, not getting ready for Better Homes and Gardens to stop by for a photo shoot.

The biggest test came on Day 5 when the dog chewed up a stuffed toy and a ball in my office, leaving big white puffs of stuffing and purple plastic pieces right in front of my desk. I stepped over the mess, sat at my desk and wrote anyway. The week is over, and the puffs and plastic pieces are still there. This is HUGE for me. I usually say I can’t write because I am distracted by the mess that comes from living with a family of 4 people and 2 dogs. Now I am training myself to ignore the mess in my creative space and in my house until after I write. Hubby suspects this is some diabolical plan to get him to help more. <Insert diabolical laugh here.>

Save your best time of day for your creative work. Many writing books and coaches advise getting up early in the morning to do your creative work. I’ve also recommended this to some coaching clients; I too have gotten up at 4am to write. It does work; I wrote. A lot. But by mid-afternoon, I was a train wreck. This week, I realized I’m really a night person. I like it when the house is quiet and there are no interruptions because no one needs me to get 9 layers of gel out of their hair, drive them to a sleepover or make dioramas. I stayed up  deliciously late all week and wrote. It was a shock when the alarm went off the next morning, but I was still energized from writing for such a long block of time. The lesson I learned is that it really does help to figure out when your best time of day is and save it for your creative work rather than forcing yourself to work at 4AM because that’s a “best practice.”

Make a to-do list, but only allow three to-do’s. My to-do lists tend to look like War and Peace, so I went back and highlighted the three top things that absolutely HAD to be done each day. Everything else …poof! Saved for another day. I didn’t just prioritize. I simplified: dog puke, priority! Grocery shopping, priority! Gotta eat. Cleaning the grout in the shower? Eh, what’s one (or 50) more days. The result was amazing. I felt lighter. I had more energy and space in my brain for my personal creative work. At first I was itching to grab my Swiffer, but within a few days, I didn’t even notice the dusty tables or the shoes piled up at the front door. I  was too busy writing.

The past week has been a little tense–I didn’t realize how much I used distractions to avoid finishing my book. While  I’m still afraid of failing, I’m happy to report that I wrote 12 pages this week. Only now the family is running out of underwear. Laundry, priority!

Get creative: what’s the number one factor that keeps you from your creative work? What are three things you can do differently this month to free up time, energy and space for your creative work?

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6 thoughts on “Avoiding your creative work? 3 tips to get back on track

  1. You are so right. Thanks for attempting to put my mind ad ease about my messy home office/studio. I find my desk pile up with stuff and when I sit down to work on my freelance graphic design I think, boy, I should clean up this place. But then I get in a zone between me and my monitor and all periphial vision dissapears. When I switch gears from day to day graphic design to painting. And like you, it is hard to find the time unless there is some kind of deadline. I have to tranform the studio a bit from the graphic design space to paints, easels, brushes, canvases, etc. In this case I feel I have clean up my old mess so I can make a new mess with painting. Maybe I should try to leave everything a mess and just work on creativity.

    1. Hey Chris, so glad I’m not the only one who struggles with this! The mess can be distracting, but yeah, once you get pulled into your creative project, it’s like you’re in a different world and you just don’t see it. Once I get to that point, it’s hard to STOP working and come back to the real world! 🙂 I like your old mess/new mess thought too; the creativity should be the focus. A messy creative space is a productive office, where good things are percolating, simmering and happening, I keep telling myself. It definitely helps giving yourself that permission to let the unhelpful thinking go. I’m coming from the writing perspective, nice to know this translates across creative mediums.

  2. I recognized long ago that I am a cathartic cleaner. I need cleaning to transform me (and take a whole day to do it). I somehow enjoy going through three months of mail and sorting it into piles all over my seats-10 dinning table. So as much as I try to follow the advice of the professionals: sort the mail when it comes in, have a file for everything; when I’m in my creative zone I don’t see the mess. I don’t have time for the mess. I must find the clutter somehow a comforting reminder that I am in fact busy. Too busy to clean. I was once told that there are two kinds of people: Pilers and Filers. I’m a piler.

    1. Ah, cathartic cleaning. Sounds much better than “I’m addicted to my Swiffer.” 🙂 Suan, your post just reinforces that just because the experts say that you “should” do things a certain way, creativity is a tricky business. You have to figure out your own process and what works for you. I will say that a thorough carthartic clean as you described feels great, I always end up writing more in the week after I do that. I just have to learn to do it less frequently. The creative zone is powerful stuff–when you can get there. I like that–“Too busy to clean.” Sounds like a great tagline!

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