Do you know that feeling when creativity strikes? You feel inspired and passionate, and great work seems to just flow effortlessly from your fingertips. But, chances are, you’re also familiar with the other end of that spectrum. You feel totally stuck. The creative juices aren’t flowing and you feel like you don’t have a single nugget of inspiration to cling to.
Creativity can often feel impossible to grasp. When things are good, they’re really good. But when they’re bad, they’re downright painful.
This wouldn’t be much of an issue if we had the flexibility to do creative work only when we feel inspired. However, most of us don’t have that luxury. When it’s your job to churn out creative output day in and day out, you need to figure out how to create—whether you’re feeling inspired or indifferent.
In fact, creativity is so crucial that 60% of CEOs cite it as the most important leadership quality. When asked about the skill they valued most in their people, another batch of CEOs cited (you guessed it) creativity.
However, even with that in mind, a whopping 75% of people don’t believe that they’re living up to their creative potential.
Creativity is important. But not easy, particularly when you’re expected to exercise your creative genius day after day.
Is it even possible to achieve a consistent level of creativity, while producing at a high volume? And if so, how? Here’s what you need to know.
What Exactly is Creative Output?
“Creative output is essentially the Key Performance Indicator (KPI) of a creative business,” explains Kate Sullivan, a human factors psychologist and Content Director of TCK Publishing. "It might be words written, designs created, pages laid out, code written, covers designed, or any other metric that measures how much creative work a designer, writer, editor, or other creative person has done in a certain period of time."
Put simply, you can think of creative output as the result of your creative process.
Julie Burstein’s enlightening TED Talk below (length: 17:12) tackles how the creative process is the tension between those elements you can control and those you must learn to let go of:
Can Creativity Happen Consistently?
Achieving creativity seems pretty straightforward on the surface. However, as any creative will tell you, it’s not always that simple. In fact, being consistently creative seems like an impossible feat. Which begs the question: Is it even possible? Can you achieve a certain level of consistency in your creative work?
Yes, within reason. “Quantity for the sake of quantity doesn’t necessarily provide quality, but there is something to be said for regular ‘practice’ of one’s art,” shares Michele Jennae, holistic creativity coach with Rise Up Creativity.
But, as with anything, it involves striking a delicate balance.
“Continual high-volume creative output can sap your ability to produce fresh, new ideas,” explains Sullivan. “You turn into an ‘assembly line’ of creativity if you’re, say, regularly producing 3,000-word blog posts seven days a week, or churning out six logo designs a day.”
At the same time, Sullivan mentions that regular use of your creative muscles can serve to strengthen them. “You start figuring out what works for you, improving your technique, and gaining the skills you need to streamline your process. For instance, instead of struggling through a page layout, you start gaining a mental library of what you can apply that will work for a certain job,” she adds.
They key here is to do some trial and error to settle on a realistic output amount for yourself—enough to sharpen your skills, but not so much that you feel burnt out.
“It’s a very personal thing, figuring out how much is too much for you,” adds Sullivan.
How to Foster Better Creativity
With that in mind, how can you train your brain and tailor your environment to set yourself up for success in your creative work? Here's advice that experts swear by:
1. Create a Schedule
The word “schedule” might seem like a curse word to many creatives. But, rest assured, it can actually be a huge asset to both your productivity and creativity levels.
“Far from being a restriction, scheduling is actually a creative worker’s best friend,” Sullivan explains. “By scheduling your day to include sprints, rests, and batched work, you can set yourself up for success. By planning your work around your most energetic, creative time of day and then allowing yourself breaks and time to recharge your creative pool, you can get a lot more work done—without sacrificing the quality of your creative insights.”
The magic behind scheduling all comes back to the theory of ego depletion, which states that we all have a finite amount of mental resources, such as creativity and willpower. (It’s worth noting, however, that this theory has been called into question.)
Controversial or not, the point might still hold some water for you. “By giving yourself too much flexibility, you’re pouring your energy into stuff that doesn’t matter, like when to work on Project X or what to have for lunch,” says Sullivan. “By scheduling out your time, you’re taking away some of the dumb decisions that pull from your mental resources, and that means you have more energy to put into actual creative production.”
Scheduling doesn’t necessarily have to mean sticking with a routine. You can schedule out each day differently, if you feel so inclined. However, a solid routine can have some benefits as well.
“By making a habit of your creative time, you train yourself to get right into the thick of it,” Sullivan says. “Your brain is pre-primed to go into a creative mode at that particular time each day, so you spend less time staring at a blank sheet of paper.”
TIP: When aiming to find your most creative time of day, stick with what you know. Early birds assume that mornings will be their peak times, while night owls take the late-night route.
However, research shows that the exact opposite could be true. So, even if you don’t consider yourself a morning person, try cranking out some creative work in the morning hours. You might be surprised! Find out more in this infographic.
2. Get Creative About Creativity
“Variations on a theme, variations on a routine, or variations of scenery are great ways to combat monotony,” says Jennae.
So, whenever you’re feeling a little tapped out of creative inspiration, it might be time to get creative about your creativity in order to continue producing at a high volume.
Can you change up your technique? Try a different software program? Tackle that project in a different order to challenge the various parts of your brain?
“Basically, do whatever you can to shake up that routine while still getting your work done,” explains Sullivan. “It’ll force you to think in different ways and make the volume feel exciting, not stale.”
TIP: When in doubt, switching up your scenery never hurts. If you’re willing (and able) to go far, research shows that international travel can improve your neuroplasticity—thus resulting in greater cognitive flexibility.
But, if you want to skip the airport, even venturing out to a coffee shop or a different area of your office for some working time can help to spark different synapses in your brain.
3. Resist Perfection
“Quantity can and does improve quality,” says Jennae. “Unfortunately, many creatives are focused on perfection, and that can keep them from producing. But, it’s the mistakes made in quantity that lead us to the insight and improvement that provides quality.”
While it’s easy to think that every single thing you churn out needs to be flawless, it’s much better to just get started producing—keeping in mind that you can always go back and make changes.
“Many of our ‘mistakes’ are recyclable with revision too,” Jennae adds. “10,000 hours comes one minute at a time!”
4. Don’t Push Yourself Too Hard
When you feel pressured to crank out creative output at a high volume, it’s tempting to push yourself hard. You force yourself to sit at your desk and continue trudging through, no matter how spent you feel.
While quantity can be helpful in refining your craft, expending yourself far too much can actually have a detrimental effect.
“Pushing yourself too hard to do too much as a creative does lead to a decrease in quality,” Sullivan explains. “Willpower, creativity, imagination, and mental energy are a bit like a pool that we use up during the day, and that has to be replenished with rest and relaxation.”
Indeed, taking breaks is a great way to give yourself that boost you desperately need. “While it may seem counter-intuitive, stepping away from your work can give you fresh insight and ideas, so you can return and watch your inspiration become execution,” says Jennae.
TIP: One Stanford study found that walking can actually increase your creativity. So, if you're wondering what to do on a break, venture out for a little afternoon stroll. It’s good for the body and the mind!
Over to You
Consistent creativity might seem like an oxymoron. But, believe it or not, it is possible to achieve—provided you go about it the right way by:
- Finding a schedule that works for you
- Switching up your routine
- Resisting the urge to be perfect each time
- Giving yourself plenty of time to recharge and replenish
Will you always feel totally inspired and ready to hash out your next great idea? Maybe not. But, these tips will at least help you produce creative output on a regular basis—without staring at a blank page with disdain.
Kat Boogaard (@kat_boogaard) is a Midwest-based writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. She is a columnist for Inc., writes for The Muse, is a career writer for The Everygirl, and a contributor all over the web.