Life Hacks for People Who Make Things: Navigating the Creative Process

The act of creating things, whether art or architecture or literature, is a joyous process. It’s also frequently uncomfortable and occasionally frustrating, and it requires a level of both vulnerability and focus we’re rarely asked to achieve in the course of more straightforward work. Despite the requisite anguish, creative pursuits are deeply rewarding and are fundamentally rooted in our humanity.

Those of us who create for a living, however, run the risk of falling into a more workaday attitude towards creativity in response to deadlines, budgets, and meetings. How do we nourish our creative minds while meeting our professional responsibilities in a timely fashion? How do we tap into inspiration without being overwhelmed by possibilities? How do we continue to create, day after day, without fearing that we will use up all the good ideas and the well will run dry?

These are just a few of the questions that keep creatives up at night.

As the only writer serving a firm of 350, I’ve developed a few strategies over the years. However, after having the great good fortune to attend my first writers’ conference recently, I was surprised by the depth of emotion I felt walking into a group of writers. It felt like coming home; each person who showed up, whether novice or acclaimed published author, was welcomed, brought immediately into the fold, and deeply understood. I learned a few new things about the creative process over the course of a week of intensive writing. When in doubt, we can:

Accept that the creative process is rarely linear.
This can be especially hard for the type of creatives who have an orderly to-do list and a rigid daily schedule, but sometimes we just can’t force the good ideas to rise from the ether. Sometimes we have a brilliant idea, only to see it derailed by a stumbling block, and re-working the idea drains it of its energy. We are all familiar with the paralyzing effect of the blank page, and humans are easily distracted by hunger, fatigue, background noise, and a million other variables. This is all part of the natural order of things. We must trust that inspiration often strikes when we least expect it and we’re not trying to force it. The ideas will come when they’re ready, and most often when we’re absorbed in a completely unrelated task.

Give our inner critics something to do.
Most creative people live with an inner critic. (Certainly, all writers do.)  We may refer to this voice as the conscious mind, the superego, the left brain, or the rational mind, and this part of our psyche is critical to executive function and the process of editing. This part of our minds is not, however, kind to the act of creation, which depends heavily on our unconscious mind, our id, or right brains, and our unfettered emotions. Fortunately, there are ways to hack the creative process by keeping our inner critics busy with rules and constraints, thus allowing our creative brains to do the real work of making things. Freewriting is one tried-and-true technique; a rigid set of rules for speed, timing, and process help to satisfy the part of our minds which needs control and precision so it’s less intrusive to creative flow. It’s a little bit of a smoke-and-mirrors approach, but it works surprisingly well.

Remember that creativity may be spontaneous, but excellence is usually Iterative.
We rarely create a final draft on the first attempt. We may strike gold early with an idea, but extracting that gold and turning it into a successful project takes work. At this stage, the left brain becomes an invaluable partner to the right brain in refinement and editing. The back-and-forth between the internal creator and the critic is vital to making things, and making things well. It helps to put down the work and walk away from it for at least a day or two, and return to it clear-eyed and refreshed.

Avoid becoming precious about the process to delay participating in the process.
No matter how excited we are about what we’re creating, every creative professional has experienced the phenomenon of needing to do everything possible to make sure the environment is perfect before beginning. We clean the house, secure absolute quietude, finish all distracting chores, and have our favorite special pen in hand. Our focus on the external factors delays the inevitable, but the truth is this: in order to make something good, we have to dig in and start making mistakes. We have to work through the mediocre ideas to get to the good ones, and understand that the great ideas come after the hard work of wrestling with the messy stages. There are best practices, but few shortcuts here.

Set ambitious goals, but remember that habits are a safer bet.
Whatever our long-term goals may be, habits are a powerful force. As the old parable tells us, if a poor man adds just one coin a day to a pile, day after day, at some point that poor man becomes a rich man.  For the creative process, a daily commitment to practicing our craft can yield huge benefits over time.  Waking up and getting directly to work for even fifteen minutes first thing in the morning can trigger inspiration throughout the day. Likewise, setting an alarm for later in the day to focus on an idea for the same fifteen-minute block of time, no matter what else is happening when the alarm goes off, can lead to surprising productivity. When we commit to making a creative endeavor a priority- to wake up before the sun, to drop everything when the reminder goes off, to pull over to the side of the road or peel out of conversations to do the thing we promised ourselves we’d do-  we add a coin to the pile.

Find our tribes.
Very little in this world is achieved by the artist working alone in a garret. Even for those who create best in solitude, we are better when we surround ourselves with others doing the same work for inspiration, support, constructive criticism, and questions. Those working solo, or those working around others doing different tasks, may be the ones who benefit the most from finding a community of people who are wrestling with the same creative issues. Gathering and sharing with these creatives is much more likely to engender support and compassion than competition; we’re all pursuing our own creative paths, and in sharing our work with others, we make the work stronger. When we find a place where we can share our ideas in an environment of trust, each voice becomes part of a rich tapestry of creative voices, and the effect is beautiful.

About Katherine

Senior Associate Katherine Ball, AIA, LEED AP, serves as LS3P’s Strategist | Writer. Based in the Raleigh office, Katherine supports firmwide internal and external communication efforts, content strategy, and research. Katherine earned a Master of Architecture at NC State University’s College of Design and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Wake Forest University. Her architectural experience includes programming, design, and construction administration for civic clients; her previous professional experience is in public education.