7 essential rules for creatives

1. Don’t do anything you don’t want to do

Desire is the fuel of creativity. Fear is its nemesis.

The only reason you do things you don’t want to do is fear.

Fear stifles your mind. Anxiety stunts your ability to make connections. Connections are the core of creativity. You can’t connect what you can’t see. When you’re afraid, your vision is limited. All you see is what you are afraid of. Your energy becomes desperate, manic, as you scan obsessively for escapes and solutions. This is what fear does to you.

If you want to do something but you also feel afraid of it, ask yourself questions: why am I afraid? What am I afraid of? Say your fears out loud. Write them down. Ask them for the worst-case scenarios. Then decide if it’s worth doing anyway. 

Fear cannot create. It can only resist. It cannot lead to connection. It can only separate and defend. When you do things you don’t want to do, you are motivated by fear: fear of others, fear of poverty, fear of disapproval, fear of being forgotten. Without fear, you’d never operate from anything but desire. Desire, by the way, is another way to say love.

2. Hold the vision lightly

You need to see before you can create.

No, you don’t have to see the final product; in fact, you never can. There’s a blindness to creating. That’s what makes it both surprising and upsetting.

You, the creator, have a vision and you pursue it. Your creation itself remains a mystery, however, even to you. Despite your faithfulness to the vision, what you create will emerge not as your vision, but as itself. How the creation differs from the vision can bring you joy or pain.

Hold the vision lightly. Let it guide but not stifle. A vision held lightly will open doors. A vision grasped, gripped in desperation will shut you down.  

You can’t see what you’re creating, but you can see the materials. You have to see the materials first: the colors, the images, the words and the feelings, the characters, the shapes. You have to see the elements, speak their language, so you can get them to work their individual magic. When you see the elements, you can bring them together. You can connect them. And that is the spark of creation.

3. Imagine creating without an audience

The ego always works from fear. If you follow the first rule, faithfully and honestly, you will always work from the true self. But the ego is tricky. It will get you hyped up, excited over the possibility of making a splash or getting attention. You will believe that this excitement is the same as desire. It isn’t. It will fuel you only so long. You will start a project and then hate it. This is a sign that it is not from your true self.

How do you know if an idea is from the true self before you start creating?

You put yourself in an imaginary vacuum.

If you would get no response, receive no acclaim, go without feedback, would you still create? Would you still create this piece, this project, still pursue this particular vision? If the appeal goes away when you are in the vacuum, the idea is from the ego. If, instead, you find that the vision becomes even clearer, it is your true self speaking.

4. See creation as transformation

You don’t call things into being out of thin air; you do something even more amazing. You take raw materials, tangible and intangible, and transform them. You see the potential of something that is; you see the potential it has to be something else, to be part of something else.

It’s far more difficult to transform out of raw material than it is to create out of thin air.

Recognize that the materials you use, the scope, the influences, the background, and the limits of time/energy/space all influence what you create. They are part of the creative process. They influence the transformation.

Think of how easy it is to sit and imagine something: without the limits of physicality, you can create effortlessly. If you had the ability to bring your mind-creations instantaneously into the world, the only skill you’d need would be idea generation. But creation isn’t like that. It’s more visceral, more intense, much more difficult. You must take your idea, apply it to the raw materials which are yours, and transform them into something close to your vision.

5. Embrace boundaries

Creativity loves boundaries.

You may not love boundaries when you’re creating. They make you sweat and struggle. The words won’t come. The shapes won’t align. The colors won’t cooperate. The topic is stupid. The deadline is too soon. The format is dumb.

But boundaries make your creative ability stronger.

If you’re struggling creatively, take things away: fewer options, less time. A smaller canvas and a single color. A 500-word story about a single character. A simple melody. Get basic and more basic, closing the boundaries in until your creative force feels safe and comes out to play.

Boundaries force you to find more connections.

You think the most important part of creating is having the idea. That’s not true. The important part is the conflict that will inevitably happen: the conflict between your ideas and your limitations. The most important part is how you handle that conflict.

6. Choose quality over quantity.

Yes, you want to create good work. Yes. Of course you do. But the standards for quality, the ones you have, the ones you impose upon yourself, are ever shifting.

They become standards of perfection, standards that are always a little bit further than you can go.

Those standards can be sources of inspiration or causes of desperation. If you impose too-high/perfectionist standards on your work, you won’t do the work. You’ll start and never finish. You’ll try and give up. You’ll procrastinate and hesitate.

Choose to pursue quantity of work over quality of work and see what happens. You will create some things that are terrible, but remember: you don’t have to release everything. The act of creating, in quantity, will build your confidence and build your skill. 

When you create in quantity, you can then go through your work, choose the best, refine it a bit more if needed, and release it.

7. Focus on your next move

This is not to say that creation must be extemporaneous.

Some creators like to wing it. Some like to plan. Both ways work.

But creation itself is fluid, and as we take one step forward we influence, effect, and thus, change, the array of possibilities for the step after. Your plan is relevant only if it is flexible, because reality will flex. You are the one flexing it.

Make a plan, but beyond the next step, keep the details vague and fill them in as you go. Focusing on all the steps beyond the next one creates anxiety: you’re establishing a “should trail,” a designated path to follow. But creativity  forges its own path. Let it. 

Creating makes some of us uncomfortable, very uncomfortable, even terrified, because of the uncertainty in it.

It isn’t predictable.

It is immersive.

To be surrounded by something that’s unpredictable scares us. That’s why creativity engenders resistance, and that’s why resisting the resistance – pushing past it, through it, and on to the next step – is the only way to keep creating.


How to stay in a creative rut

1. Keep comparing what you need to do with what others need to do.

And focus on the seeming inequality of it all. Your work is so demanding, your circumstances so difficult. No one else understands the struggle.

2. Don’t admit that your perspective might be skewed.

Don’t admit that your work will always seem more difficult to you, because it is your own.

You face the details of it, the daily overwhelming pressure of all the obligations and duties of your own life. It’s easy to underestimate what other people are dealing with because of the distance that separates you from them.

But don’t think about that.

3. Keep comparing your struggle with someone else’s success.

The comparison mindset sees successful people and thinks, “I can never be that awesome. I can never do XYZ thing that that successful person does. I can barely do ABC. I’m such a bum. I’ll never make my goals…”

It might play out in any sort of language in your head, but the gist of it is this: “I’m not enough.”

And the truth of it is that you’re not enough to be someone else.
You’re not enough like any other person to be successful in his or her life.
But you are enough of who you are to be successful at your own life.

If you focus on that, and quit wasting your time on foolish comparisons, you’ll see success in your own struggle.

To stay stuck, comfortably, in your rut, beat yourself down with the impossible idea that you should achieve someone else’s success. You’ll find it easy to give up after that.

4. Keep pushing yourself too far past your physical limits.

Do you have any of these habits? All of them, maybe? You’ll want to stick with them to keep that tired, fatigued, semi-depressed feeling:

  • habitually staying up too late and/or getting up too early so you never get adequate sleep
  • failing to give your brain time to rest and recharge from the constant inflow of information and interaction that fills your days (and nights)
  • not providing enough good, clean water to your body so that it can flush out toxins and stay strong, healthy, and energetic
  • not consuming enough fresh, healthy, living food that provides the resources your body desperately craves
  • taking on every obligation that comes your way
  • overloading your calendar and your to-do list
  • complaining about what people expect from you instead of asking for help
  • scheduling time for exercise, rest, family, and yourself

Are you pushing yourself past the perfectly normal, reasonable, physical limits that you have?
That will keep you stuck.

It’s really hard to get your internal motivation up high enough to overcome physical fatigue, dehydration, illness, and lethargy.

You’ll get so used to ‘feeling tired all the time’ that it feels normal.

5. Keep ignoring the need to have a system for your work.

You know you don’t really need a system because your work is too simple.
I mean, really.
It’s not rocket science. You can wing it.
You can muster up the self-discipline to meet those deadlines.

You can juggle stuff, and sure, you drop things now and then. There’s been a rash of unfinished projects… You haven’t been putting out your best work lately…

But, c’mon.

That has nothing to do with needing a system, a solid routine, a decent workflow. That’s just overcomplicating everything.

You don’t need a system.

You don’t need to take the time to think about what kind of system will work best and then create it and then use it.

You can just keep working from that haphazard system that you have to recreate daily.

You can afford to waste time. No big deal.

6. Keep blaming everybody else for your lack of focus.

A lot of your distraction comes from the lack of a system, but keep on blaming other people for it instead.

Don’t take responsibility yourself. That would be heavy, too heavy. It’s obviously not your fault, even though you haven’t done much to cultivate the habit of focus.

Focusing your brain on something particular for an extended period of time is tough work. It’s not a natural state for our distracted brains. It’s okay to avoid tough work like that. It’s okay to blame other people for what you haven’t done.

Just go with that normal human tendency to shy away from uncomfortable and difficult endeavors.

7. Keep getting beat in the first 5 minutes.

The first 5 minutes are the toughest.
The first 5 minutes stink.
The first 5 minutes make you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing.
The first 5 minutes are a buzz of self-doubt and negativity and doubt and fear.
The first 5 minutes you know – you just KNOW – you’re a phony and you’ll be found out.
The first 5 minutes win it or lose it.

If you stick it out through the first 5 minutes, then you own the next, oh, 23 or 45 or 60 or 90. However long your work cycle may be (which you don’t know, though, because you don’t have a repeatable, measurable system).

Chances are, once you own that set of minutes, the rest of the day submits calmly to your commands.

So – whatever you do – don’t try to beat that first 5.

Let it beat you. Let it keep you down. Never push yourself hard enough to own it. Never force yourself to focus until you get into the flow. Nah. You don’t need that.

The rut’s good. It’s comfy. Cozy. Nice. Familiar. Just stay there.

Settle in.

It’s good enough.


4 obstacles to creative work

To achieve excellence, we must first understand the reality of the everyday, with all its demands and potential frustrations.

Mihaley Csikszentmihalyi

1. Disorder

Disorder will not induce creativity.

If your work space (cubicle, home office, desk squished into a corner, your car, big desk in big office with nice view, studio, coworking space) is crammed with clutter or not equipped with the basic supplies you need to do your work, you’ll find yourself with plenty of excuses not to do the work.

Orderliness doesn’t mean everything has to be alphabetized and color-coordinated.

It does mean you can find a paintbrush or a pen or a piece of paper when you need one.

Another element of disorder is lack of routine or schedule. If your basic plan for the day is to “wing it,” well, good luck on getting anything done.

People without a plan are like honey to the flies, flies being chatty coworkers, meaningless phone calls, bored children, hungry spouses, dramatic friends, endless meetings.

Have a plan, even if it’s basic, for how you will spend the time in your day. Take your plan (and thus, yourself and your work) seriously enough to say No to things/people who try to pull you from it.

2. Distraction

The first step in dealing with distraction is to get the disorder out of your space and time management, as above.

If you have a basic plan for your day and a clear work space, however small, with the supplies you need at hand, you are infinitely closer to getting work done.

But distraction will creep in. Though people provide plenty of distractions, most are self-induced. You’ll remember that phone call you didn’t make yesterday, the bill that has to be paid, the hangnail that might be infected…

Suddenly you have to deal with it now. Shift the attention. Pause the work.

Deal with distractions from others by simple, firmly, and politely saying “No, Not Now.” Over and over. As often as necessary.

If you can’t say No, try saying Yes like this: “Sure, I’ll be happy to help you when I finish this _____.”

Most people aren’t very patient. If you aren’t available to solve a crisis until later, they might find a way to do it themselves. It’s perfectly wonderful to deal with distractions from others by making people wait on you, instead of making your work wait on other people.

Deal with distractions from yourself in the same way: tell yourself, “No, Not Now.”

Jot down all those momentous, important tasks that come to mind as you sit down to work in your notebook or reminder app.

Almost any “important task” you think of can wait a little while without much harm done. If you think of something that absolutely, positively, must be done now [you have to call the bank and transfer that money before they close in 10 minutes] then set a timer for five minutes, do the task, and return immediately to your work.

3. Indecision

Everyday life is full of [these conflicts of interest]: rarely do we feel the serenity that comes when heart, will, and mind are on the same page. Conflicting desires, intentions, and thoughts jostle each other in consciousness, and we are helpless to keep them in line.
Mihaley Csikszentmihalyi

Deciding what to do next can keep you from doing anything.

Almost always you know what should be done, but you have options: perhaps there is one most important thing, but there are four or five or fifty items of secondary importance.

Which one to tackle? Every moment you spend in indecision is an open invitation to distraction.

Deal with indecision quickly and, well, decisively.
Grab a piece of paper. Write down five things weighing on your mind right now. Start working on the first one. Put in at least 20 minutes on it; then decide (according to the scope of the project, what is needed to complete it, and the time you have left for work) if you will continue working on that project or move down the list. Don’t stop to contemplate other options.
Remember that it’s less important, really, what work you’re doing than that you are actually doing something instead of letting disorder, distraction, indecision, uncertainty, details, or delay keep you from your work.

4. Uncertainty

Uncertainty is different than indecision in this: indecision keeps you from knowing what to do. Uncertainty strikes right after you make a decision.

You’re decide going to work on Project X. You open the file, pull up the information, ready the tools. Uncertainty floods in.

You doubt your decision. You question your approach. You need to rethink the whole thing. Uncertainty in the details of doing the work. Uncertainty will keep you repeating the first 2-3 steps of a project infinitely.

Remember that you’ll never really know the value of the work until you do the work. Trust your past self. Trust your decisions. Give yourself some credit.

Put uncertainty on pause. When the thoughts rush in, acknowledge them and then ask them to wait: “I’ll think about these issues when I’ve spent 45 minutes working on this task.”

Most of the time, after 5 – 10 minutes working, the uncertainty drains away. It’s a resistance to starting, that’s all. If you can just ignore it for a little bit, you’ll find your clarity again.