You might think being creative on demand is “hard”. Here’s what I’ve learned on the job.
I’m sad that society heavily sells this idea that creativity is “too hard” That we are constantly being indoctrinated into it. Adults spout tropes about the difficulty of creativity, sounding like children talking about monsters under their bed. No evidence of a monster, just fear. (See also: Face the Fear of Failure)
Hard is one of my least favorite words. Most of the time considering difficulty is impractical. When you catch yourself doing it, take it as a sign to practice. Pondering how easy or difficult a task manifests as a common procrastination habit. We place mental blocks in front of our own goals to protect us from imagined outcomes.
Anyone who got to the point where they could read this has already tackled countless difficult tasks.
Fairly early in my career, a more experienced designer told me starting with a blank page is the hardest part of the job.
So I’ve found to make it easy, at the beginning of a project I focus on the most practical parts of it. Break apart the project. Open a document. Get the size right. Put something on the page without judgment.
If it’s a particularly creatively challenge project, I name the file “Project Name Ideas”. Then it’s a super judgment-free space.
If you know any text or ideas for text, put it on the page. If it’s even more intimidating, scribble some messy thoughts on paper.
Sometimes just drawing boxes or grabbing a photo or texture works. Or make a list of steps.
Creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Look at inspiration and try using very specific parts of what you like in your own idea. Draw from a few inspirations and try getting them to mesh together
Try out the bad ideas too. Afraid of becoming unoriginal? Copy something and then try to fix it until it’s unique. Make something hideous and see if you can fix that too. Even at your worst, you’ll have some usable thoughts.
The important part I’ve found is to show your work. If someone could see you, could they describe an action? Thinking is not an action in itself.
Think through actions and through making.
Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.
Once upon a time, I once started a job as a graphic designer.
A brief introduction to design work. All my jobs have been in design. You just put some colors, text, and shapes down in a way that looks nice. Your day gets filled with Color Purple Moments.*
There’s often other business and administrative tasks. File paperwork, mark time, organize digital files. Most of which I enjoy to varying degrees as a break. This department was perhaps a dozen or more office workers at various levels.
Until one day – only a few months into the position – my manager calls me in. Maybe I’m in trouble. Instead, I’m promoted. It’s retroactive. The next check adjusts my pay as if I was paid that way for the last month.
(Sounds great on paper, except that I made very little. So small that I just now had to double check to make sure I was above the Federal Poverty Guidelines.)
Here’s the thing. I reacted with confusion.
The manager explains that I had been doing the new job already. First, I handled all of my own work. Then did work for the vacant position that I filled.
From my point of view, I thought everyone in the department did that. Split the overload, right.
Plus, I was bored!
I’m data driven. Obviously so are they as they had time records and accuracy (never my strong suit).
Cool news right! There was and still is a part of me that’s like “Why work so hard???”
The truth is, most of the time the concept of “hard work” doesn’t often cross my mind. Thinking about difficulty feels unhelpful, impractical, and stressful. [Cue “Stop for A Minute” by Keane]
I really try to veer toward answering questions like “Is it possible to do it?” “What would it take to do it?” Focus on the steps, tools, and behaviors involved.
I’m sure I read this in many productivity books when as a young adult. I tried it. I noticed I felt less stressed.
(The 2012 paper “When thinking about goals undermines goal pursuit” by Fischbach and Choi tested this concept. This story takes place before then.)
The early pre-smartphone internet leaned more geeky. So the productivity boom was afoot.
Flash forward a few years, another job as a graphic designer.
Once again, I’m called in to discuss with my manager. Let’s make more duties official. This time it was not really design oriented work without any immediate incentives – salary, flexibility, and perhaps if there was a new title it would be more out of my intended field. So I was less enthusiastic.
From my point of view – once again – I thought everyone helped do this work! They asked us to split the overload.
I learned a valuable lesson and acted on it. If you can get away with just doing more, you can get away with doing less. That’s exactly what I did.
All of this new administrator work – I didn’t want to it and so I didn’t. And it all just went away.
Someone else in another office somewhere did it I guess. Or they decided no one needed to maybe. I don’t remember because I stopped being involved.
That part of me that asks “Why work so hard?” That’s super annoying when you have goals you care about. Useful when you have anti-goals that you want to stop caring about.
Nowadays, still bored.
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.” Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.
Which moods are scientifically linked with creativity? Various research links negative moods and feelings to a decrease in creativity:
A 2010 study published by the Association for Psychological Science linked creativity most with positive moods. Using music and video clips, researchers primed participants for certain moods by researchers of the University of Western Ontario. Those who listened to the happiest music or watched a cheerful video were most able to recognize creative patterns. The happy volunteers were better at learning the rules behind patterns than those in neutral or sad moods.
“Generally, positive mood has been found to enhance creative problem solving and flexible yet careful thinking.” Ruby Nadler, University of Western Ontario
Creativity has been associated with mood disorders. Preliminary associations compiled by the University of Iowa found higher rates of mood disorders and alcoholism among writers and playwrights. This study did not include a control group to draw comparisons against. (The relationship between creativity and mood disorders) Among those who were studied, almost all involved reported less creative output during depressive or manic states.
Matthijs Baas of the University Of Amsterdam focuses his research on creative psychology. His work indicates that happiness, fear, and anger are the most creative enhancing moods. Sadness, relaxation, and relief decrease creativity since stimulation encourages flexibility and idea generation. Happiness leads to creative flexibility while fear and avoidance lead to creative persistence.
Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.
What drives your creative projects more: the thrill of the fresh start OR the finish line?
Learning to love both makes us productive and creative.
Creatives love the part in the middle where we get to indulge in the business of making things. At the same time, I’m betting that you’re creativity sparks more from either (a) the love of starting something new or (b) the satisfaction of completing a task.
Imagine the nature documentary. The love of a new start VERSUS the joy of completion.
I see this Creative Drive spectrum as
Badgers versus Barkers
Badgers love achieving merit badges. They’re achievement driven.
Barkers love embarking on new tasks. They’re initiation driven.
Badgers: Achievement Driven
I call these lovers of achievement-focused creativity… badgers! They love collecting merit badges. The badger Creativity Drive focuses on finishing tasks.
Badgers love the end goal. If they see a finish line, they’ve found focus. They love seeing an idea become real.
They become the classic gamer who wants to complete 100% of a game. In their game, there exist only a few items. If you’re a Badger, you’re constantly envisioning finishing every single specific piece and then completing everything. That’s because you know exactly what it is. When given a well-defined goal, a Badger figures out how to beat the game.
Psychologists dub one type of a higher achievement drive as “performance orientation”. This is a high focus on positive outcomes such as grades and promotions. If the goals focus on comparison to others, the outcome can be psychologically negative. This high achievement mindset becomes influenced by environment according to a 2012 study by Stanford psychologist Paul O’Keefe. Healthy goals lean toward a “mastery orientation” where finishing the task with a focus of developing new skills, improving, and gaining knowledge.
A badgers favorite part of creating and making involves completing goals. A badger loves small tasks and finishes them.
A badger wants to start in the right place for a goal they know they can complete. Figuring out the unknown feels harder and less interesting.
A badger might tend to finish tasks that don’t really need to do at all. They write things on a checklist just to enjoy an official ending. They love the feeling of crossing a task off of a list more than the feeling of writing it on their first.
As part of a team, badgers are excellent finishers.
They’ll figure out how to get a task done on time. That’s because they are swiftly decisive when they see a way to cross a finish line. If they’re not given a new finish line, they wander off. They might even finish tasks that have nothing to do with the original goals, just because they know they can finish them off.
What are badgers afraid of?
They may be driven by the fear of not finishing a task and not the fun of finishing. If they don’t see how they can win, they won’t try. A fearful badger may learn to be driven by external recognition of a finished task or by an internal sense of accomplishment.
The badger procrastination style:
They do what they can finish easily. They’ll need to practice looking for ways to create finishable achievements. They don’t naturally see those link to real priorities with new projects. They’ll put off looking for goals as a way to delay starting.
Past versus future?
Badgers romanticize past wins. In their fishing stories, the fish gets bigger every time. An extreme badger might remember themselves as a king of their high school. Without those kinds of externally focused starts, that same person might not have done as much in regular life.
How badgers learn:
Badgers learn by looking backward. They love reflecting on completed work. An achievement, trophy or merit badge strongly represents their best qualities. Even when doing a current task, they learn to use past patterns to figure out new tasks. From the outside, this might look like a strong vision and plan.
Analysis paralysis at the beginning.
Achievement driven creatives find resistance when they’ve encountered a task they consider new and undefined.
How can badgers become better at starting tasks?
As badgers love to collect finished tasks, they’ll need to see starting a new task as an achievement. What task can they cross off their list that counts at the start? Get specific on the first step. If a badger learns to see “Finished Starting” as an achievement, they can adopt the best parts of the initiation driven style. Reward yourself at the start by completing even the most ridiculously small step.
Barkers: Initiation Driven
I call an initiation leaning Creativity Drive being a … Barker: They like to embark on new tasks. Barkers have a Creativity Drive focused on starting tasks.
Someone on this side of the spectrum leans towards creativity that involves start on a new work. They love to start lots of tasks and all of them seem ongoing. They find more ways to add and stretch any task as they find new pieces to explore.
A barker starts a new task with energy and then quickly their attention wanders. They chase the next shiny thing. After all of this dreaming, their project becomes too big. Their ideas began without defining a clear realistic end point.
As part of a team, barkers are excellent starters.
They’ll know the best place to start is anywhere. They’ll remind others to notice new paths to wander. That’s because they are swiftly decisive when they see something new to jump into. They stop at any point due to frustration, losing focus, or when realising how much work they have involved. They may just start something else and forget the original task if not kept in check
What are barkers afraid of?
A barker may even be afraid to finish realizing that the result may not match their ideal
What’s a barker’s procrastination style?
They’ll start something new and unrelated to put off the old task. If they practice seeing new opportunities to start within the current project, they have a better chance of success.
Past versus future?
For a barker, starting a new project feels like falling in love. A barker feels excited by possibilities to come. They’re disillusioned by possibilities when they realize the effort, work, or planning involved. A barker feels more likely to seem like a perfectionist. After they’ve created an idealized task, they want the reality to live up to their vision.
Barkers love trying new things. The downside? Barkers love trying new things. The tendency to fantasize about the future – experiments in the American Psychological Association demonstrate – results in a false sense of finishing. We imagine how it ended, felt the reward of that, and so we don’t actually feel like we need to create any of it.
Since a barker loves new beginnings, they open a new and different box of cereal before finishing the last one. Leftovers lose their appeal and they’re ready to cook something new. Creation feels like exploring new wonders in life.
How barkers learn:
When a barker learns, they love to think about their future use of knowledge or an ability.
Analysis paralysis at the end.
Initiation driven creatives find resistance when they’ve encountered a task that needs a well-defined end. The dream of travel might be appealing to a barker. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, a barker would be paralyzed by the mundane details of travel planning.
How can a barker become better at finishing tasks?
Since a barker loves to embark on new adventures, they have to see the journey of finishing. Get specific on the last goal, break down each small step along the way, and take a minute to see the fun in starting the next little thing.
The very common pros and cons approach reveals our biases as we tend to self-select a limited set of options. Psychologists note that humans tend to look for confirmation for our untested believes. We rely on short-term emotions to make choices. We’re overconfident about our ability to make predictions for the future.
W – Widen your options.
Humans tend to present ourselves with decisions as one option versus another: Do we try to make our current job work or find a new job? The last choice would most likely include parts of both options:
“The universe has no fixed agenda. Once you make any decision, it works around that decision. There is no right or wrong, only a series of possibilities that shift with each thought, feeling, and action that you experience.” Deepak Chopra, The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life
For example, if we’re having problems at work, consider fully discussing concerns with managers and coworkers. Continue to test new problem-solving strategies. At the same time, it could still be wise to look into other opportunities. The discussions at your current job both help in your work life and tell the questions and criteria for your search. If a concrete offer for a new job becomes a certain reality, then you’re making decisions with more evidence to know how each role meets your needs.
An experiment published in the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization found that support for an economic policy was greater when presenting the numbers for the employment rate is emphasized. Giving the related unemployment rates garnered much less support. This is a common tactic used in politics to influence public opinion while not presenting the reality potential outcomes.
How opportunity costs limits our options
To counter the framing effect and force ourselves to consider more options, we can explore the opportunity costs involved. What actions would, in fact, rule out other choices? If you must decide between:
Choice A: A friend’s party
Choice B: A movie on the same night with another friend
What would be the impact of each decision on your mood, friendships, and budget? Have you already accepted one invite, if so what would be the impact of a change of plans?
“In economics, one of the most important concepts is ‘opportunity cost’ – the idea that once you spend your money on something, you can’t spend it again on something else.” Malcolm Turnbull
In the book Decisive, the authors recommend adding the possibility for both actions. Rather than choices “A OR B”, are both “A AND B” possible? Could you bring your movie-loving friend to the party and/or ask to see the movie on a night when you don’t have an accepted invitation?
R – Reality test your assumptions.
Consider the opposite of your ideas and guesses as potentially valid. Is there evidence that contradicts your current thoughts on probable outcomes?
Overcoming confirmation bias
“When we hear news we should always wait for the sacrament of confirmation.” Voltaire
Confirmation bias is a common reasoning error. Experiments have shown that people search for evidence consistent with their current beliefs and predictions. The term “confirmation bias” was coined by English psychologist Peter Wason whose simple experiment in the 1960s showed that people tend to try to confirm their first ideas and not disprove them:
Given the sequence of “2-4-6”, participants would guess that the pattern was even numbers. Then they tried to test this rule by proposing more even numbers such as “4-8-10”, “6-8-12”, “20-22-24”. Researchers would confirm that these all fit the pattern at which point participants would stop their attempts, satisfied that they had found the correct answer.
However the answer was not even numbers, it simply increasing numbers. Participants tended not to try odd numbers to disprove their first guess.
Take action in small steps
With confirmation bias in mind, take small steps giving more evidence toward one outcome or another. If you believe a person you’re dating is not reliable, for example, you might ask to commit to plans. Look for evidence that they are able to be relied on.
The next small step resulting from their response may be further discussion of the pattern of behavior. During this talk, you could look for evidence that they attempt to be more reliable.
“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” Vincent van Gogh
If you contradict your first guess, you may decide this someone you can easily spend time with and continue to date. Or you may find more anecdotes showing unreliability, which helps you decide relationship styles are incompatible. Taking small steps gives you more confidence in your final decision.
“You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.” Michelle Obama
Writers Chip and Dan Heath recommend asking “How would you feel about this decision in 10 minutes? 10 days? 10 years?” If you were not involved, what advice would you give? In the short-term, it might feel great to eat a bag of chips or skip that trip to the gym. By attaining distance and thinking about how we might feel in the future, it becomes a lot easier to act.
Identify your priorities
A decision often becomes emotionally difficult as we feel the conflict between various priorities. By identifying your distinct preferences, you’ll often be able to more clearly see. You’ll have a more clear idea of your best answer for your situation.
Is your long-term priority better health? Compared this to your short-term priority of instant gratification. You might decide to eat a balanced meal skipping the fast food ultimately feels more satisfying.
P – Prepare to be wrong.
In preparing to be wrong, we acknowledge and take steps toward various likely outcomes. The overconfidence effect is a natural human bias. We tend to view our own actions as more certain to guarantee outcomes. More so than is likely or possible. We believe that we are more certain to know the truth than we really do.
In fact, the results of our decisions likely fall within a wide range. Some factors and events could not be predicted. Other possible outcomes that we could have predicted, we did not. Perfect decisions that give us perfect control are the least likely possibility.
Set a wide target
An example of overconfidence is demonstrated in the planning fallacy, first proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The planning fallacy is the tendency to guess a task takes less time than it likely will.
A wide target is easier to predict. If these taxpayers guess that they’d mail their taxes sometime within the next year, they’d be more likely to be correct. Compared to if they guess that within the next week they’d complete the task.
Set a tripwire
Prepare to revisit your decision by setting triggers. If X happens, at that point revisit your decisions. If you were investing or gambling, you might be comfortable with losing 10% of your money. Once you’ve lost 11%, it’s time to decide if this it’s wise to continue with your current strategy or test something new.
Be ready for positive outcomes too. If the person we were dating in the earlier example on reality testing does become a reliable planner, what does this mean for the relationship?
Build a safety net
Since things happen that are hard to predict, it’s smart to prepare for the unexpected. For example, financial experts recommend emergency funds even as they discuss tracking spending and creating plans for how to pay your bills.
No plan is perfect. We often can’t predict what we’d need to use our savings for. We can guess that an unexpected event will happen. Many situations would be easier and less stressful if we have extra money available for it.
Next time you’re deciding to take that expensive vacation or buy a fancy dinner, consider a 2012 study cited by Vanguard that found that those surveyed had: unpaid medical bills (26%), overdrew their checking account (22%), took a loan from their retirement account (14%), took a hardship withdrawal from their retirement account (10%), had more than one late mortgage payment (13%), and filed for bankruptcy (3.5%). If you think this can’t happen to you, re-read the section on overconfidence. Then start to act and start your safety net.
Readers, what strategies have helped you make better decisions? Share below in the comments!
Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.
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