Honor your limits for sustainable creativity

I’m for prolific work. I’m for open creative processes, risk-taking, embracing mediocrity (so we can get to quality), releasing when we don’t feel ready, pushing ourselves into uncomfortable places, learning and growing and expanding and energy and movement.

We can all do more than we think we can. The hustle has its place. Hard work is rewarding. Self-discipline can serve us in amazing ways.

But I have some caveats about the hustle. Some learned-the-hard-way rules about what works (in the long-term, in a sustainably creative life) and what works for a while until you burn out and crash hard.

Here are my rules for hard work and hustling without running yourself to the ground, beating yourself up for mistakes, or otherwise grounding your beautiful, high-flying, joy-fueled creativity:

  1. Honor your own values.

Set your own priorities first. Base your priorities on what you actually value, not what you think you should value.

This is the foundation of it all. If you’re hustling, let it be for something you love. Let it be for a goal that makes your heart sing. Let it be for soul-work, for meaning, for helping, for self-expression, for building something you are proud of.

Your energy is an investment of your very Self. Why invest your Self into anything that you do not care about? Oh, right, I know: survival. Paying the bills.

I get it. But don’t let survival dictate your life. Set your own priorities now. Know where you want to go, even if you’re not there yet. Start defining the difference between life now and life as you want it to be. That way your hard work and hustling can be focused on what you want. You’ll be working toward your own long-term priorities, as you do that full-time job you don’t love and find that #firsthour on the side to work on something you do love.

(In the meantime, if survival is eating up your hours, your energy, your mental resources, etc., start thinking about what you can do without. Lessen the load.)

  1. Honor your energy.

I am a morning person: my brain is on fire first thing in the morning (well, right after that first cup of coffee). I get ideas. I write quickly. It’s like all the ideas and storylines and thoughts were percolating in my brain overnight, and as soon as I wake up they are pushing to get out, get onto the page.

I can use my morning hours in a lot of ways, and according to many productivity experts, there are about 72 things I can do in the morning to be more productive, creative, successful, fulfilled, and happy.

But knowing my own priorities and my own energy flow lets me choose which of the possible things matter for me. Exercising in the morning is a waste of my creative brain power; I save running for late in the day, when my brain juices are gone.

When is your creative energy high? Map the times. Figure it out. Pay attention. Then spend your highest creative time on your most important work. This is your first hour. Use it wisely.

  1. Honor your resources.

There’s nothing smart about wasting what you have. And wasting your resources is exactly what you do when you

  • make things harder than they have to be
  • spend more time planning that is necessary
  • try to prepare for every potential obstacle or outcome
  • try to predict unpredictable things (like every potential obstacle or outcome)
  • depend on haphazard systems
  • keep switching tools and methods
  • start from scratch every single time

If you do creative work that results in similar outputs (lots of blog posts! Lots of paintings! Lots of logo design! Whatever) then build things that help you work faster. Create your own set of templates, checklists, process sheets, formulas, etc. What do you do over and over again? How can you help yourself do that bit faster?

  1. Honor your body.

Creative mental work is taxing. Your physical health and sensations will absolutely have an effect on your ability to focus, make choices, see connections, and sustain your attention for the time needed to finish something.

I don’t know what’s your body needs, and nobody else does either. Spend less time reading other people’s advice and more time listening to your body.

This is a puzzle for you to solve.

Try things out. Mess around. Maybe you need more sleep or maybe you need less. Maybe you need to exercise daily or maybe not. Maybe you need less exercise and more sex. Maybe you need more protein, not more vegetables. Maybe you need more fat. Maybe you need to sit outside in the sun for 30 minutes and breathe deep.

I don’t know your body’s needs, but I am learning my own. And as I learn them and honor them, my energy and creative ability increase.

  1. Honor your feelings.

Here is what I used to do: feel awful gross dread about big, intimidating projects or assignments; force myself to start anyway; feel stressed and overwhelmed the entire time; do the work feeling awful; finish the work thinking it was awful; turn in the work expecting it to be awful; be surprised when it was okay; be convinced that it could have been better.

I was right: my work could have been better. Work done in joy, with a spaciousness of mind, will be better than work done in the cramped cubicle of fear and pressure.

But I was also wrong: the work wasn’t awful. It was work I was capable of. My self-doubt was not based in reality, but my feelings convinced me that it was. I thought that ignoring my feelings was the way forward.

I was wrong about that, too.

Here’s what I do now: if I feel awful, dread, afraid, worried, stressed about some project or assignment or my workload in general or anything, really, I do a hard stop. Pause. Lock the door. Headphones in. Sit still. Breathe deep. Maybe write out why I’m feeling so gross. Ask myself some questions. Give the feelings some space to surface and deliver their messages.

I learn a lot this way.

Sometimes I learn that I’m worried about something completely unrelated to work. I can take a few steps to alleviate that worry and go back to my work with focus and joy.

Sometimes I learn that I’m worried about being locked into some type of work I don’t love. I can make note of that, promise myself to weigh future commitments carefully with that fear in mind, and move ahead with the task at hand.

Sometimes I learn that I’m full of vague fears that need to be spoken or seen, and then I can let them go. Sometimes I learn that I need human connection, or a nap, or a snack.

Sometimes I can’t fix the feelings; they’re deep, they need to be there, they’re going to take some time. That’s okay too. I can accept that the feelings have their purpose and, having given them time, I can ignore them for a while and do my work. They’ll wait. I can move back to the work—if not with complete joy—at least with peace.

  1. Honor your commitments.

The most important promises you make are your promises to yourself.

If you can’t trust your word to yourself, you can’t trust anything. You feel nervous, unsettled, uncertain, insecure, helpless, fearful because you don’t have grounding. You don’t have a trustworthy baseline. You don’t have your own back.

You can change that.

You change that by being conscious and careful with your Yes. You learn to be deliberate and firm with your No. You think through your decisions. You give that screaming sense of urgency less importance. You give your soul-deep values more importance. You give yourself buffer, time to think, space to digest, room to interpret and explore and then come back with a decision you feel good about.

You honor your limits, in the ways described above. You don’t make commitments you can’t keep, to yourself or anyone else. That relieves of you of a great burden: the burden of trying to do the impossible, trying to please everyone, trying to be something you are not.

Hustle within your limits, and you can hustle sustainably, be prolific, build a body of creative work, and have fun doing it.