Here’s a frustrating fact about creativity: It’s often the first thing to evaporate when we’re tired, stressed out, and overwhelmed. It also feels fleeting when our brains are pulled in too-many different directions: email, text messages, social media, sensationalist headlines, a slew of responsibilities, a whole lot of stuff.
Sometimes, it’s simply too hard to focus. Sometimes, it feels like too much.
Thankfully, however, we aren’t powerless. Thankfully, we can be intentional and proactive, instead of getting dragged around by all kinds of distractions.
By applying certain practices and adopting certain perspectives, we can connect to our creativity—and savor more meaning in our lives.
In his latest book, Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad author Austin Kleon lays out an inspiring plan to navigate burnout, distractions, and an overbearing sense of uncertainty. Below are four tips from his excellent book that anyone can try.
Establish a daily routine. We assume that creativity is this wonderfully whimsical—maybe even chaotic, and free-wheeling—thing, which would shrink with structure. We assume we’d be taming and suppressing our creativity by having any kind of routine.
Yet, routines serve as an anchor to help us access our rich well of creativity. A routine helps us prioritize our creative work—no matter what else we’ve got going on in our lives. As Kleon writes in Keep Going, “I’ve written while holding down a day job, written full-time from home, and written while caring for small children. The secret to writing under all those conditions was having a schedule and sticking to it.”
A good routine gets us through a variety of emotions, experiences, and circumstances. Kleon also writes, “Rather than restricting your freedom, a routine gives you freedom by protecting you from the ups and downs of life and helping you take advantage of your limited time, energy, and talent.”
To establish your own routine, Kleon suggests paying attention to your days and moods, and considering these questions: “Where are the free spaces in your schedule? What could you cut out of your day to make time? Are you an early riser or a night owl? Are there silly rituals or superstitions that get you in a creative mood?”
Take your creative work less seriously. Creativity thrives in play. It thrives when results don’t really matter. Of course, this takes practice. Because most of us are hyper-focused on the product (versus playing with the process).
How to practice? Kleon suggests doing what Kurt Vonnegut advised a group of high school students to do: Pen a poem, but don’t show it to anyone. Instead, tear up the piece of paper, and toss it in the trash. According to Vonnegut, “You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”
Or you could find new tools and materials to try—things that are completely unfamiliar that you can tinker with.
Or you could make something really awful. Truly awful. Make that the goal. As Kleon writes, make “the ugliest drawing. The crummiest poem. The most obnoxious song. Making intentionally bad art is a ton of fun.” And having fun sparks our creativity.
Practice “slow looking.” According to Kleon, “When your job is to see things other people don’t, you have to slow down enough that you can actually look.” For most of us, this doesn’t come naturally, at least not today. After all, we’re busy, and we’ve got things to do. After all, our to-do lists beckon (and only get bigger and bigger). So, we slam our foot on the gas, and accelerate.
Kleon shares a powerful example of what “slow looking” can look like: When art critic Peter Clothier realized that he wasn’t actually looking at art, he started leading “One Hour/One Painting” sessions at different galleries and museums. Participants were invited to look at a single work of art for one hour. Yes, an entire hour. Because when you look for that long, you discover things you’d never discover by glancing and walking right by.
Drawing is a great way to really see (whether you can actually draw or not—and if not, who cares?). Kleon writes about Roger Ebert, who started sketching later in life, writing: “By sitting somewhere and sketching something, I was forced to really look at it.” He said his drawings were “a means of experiencing a place or a moment more deeply,” Kleon writes.
Kleon also notes that our attention “is one of the most valuable things you possess, which is why everyone wants to steal it from you.” So what can you pay attention to so it welcomes and cultivates your creativity? Where and how can you practice “slow looking”?
Embrace the seasons. You are not a robot. Of course, this isn’t a surprise to you. And yet so many of us expect ourselves to produce at a dizzying pace. We expect to churn out creative work as though we’re factory workers on a production line.
Kleon believes that “creativity has seasons.” That is, you might be in a season of self-reflection, examining your wants and wishes and who you are. You might be in a season of consuming, reading a variety of books, listening to podcasts, and watching documentaries. You might be in a season of deep, furious creativity, working on your latest novel. You might be in a season of rest, focusing on your family and other activities that rejuvenate you.
Kleon encourages readers to observe the rhythms and cycles of our creative output—and to be patient in the off-seasons. One way we can connect to our personal seasons is to pay attention to the seasons in nature. Kleon writes, “Draw the same tree every week for a year. Take up casual astronomy. Watch the sun rise and set for a week. Observe the moon every night for a few cycles. Try to get a feel for nonmechanical time, and see if it recalibrates you and changes how you feel about your progress.”
We can sum up the biggest, burnout-leading distraction of all in one word: life. There are other pressing projects, dirty dishes, difficult decisions, crying kids, unpaid bills, clogged sinks, cluttered counters, conflict, just to name a few. Which might make you think that creative work simply isn’t possible—or you need to make some dramatic change in order to get any creative work done.
As Kleon writes in Keep Going, “You do not need to have an extraordinary life to make extraordinary work. Everything you need to make extraordinary art can be found in your everyday life.”
You can focus on doing what René Magritte said was the aim of his art: “to breathe new life into the way we look at the ordinary things around us.”
Which, in general, seems like a great way to spend our days.