An old friend of mine owns a print press studio in Seattle called Constellation and Co. A handful of years ago, I took a print press workshop at their studio. I made a poster that reads:
“See what’s there to know what’s not.”
The concept behind it is simple: if you want to get unstuck from the creative mud, you have to see your current state, to understand what’s missing.
When what you do for work is “creative” by label, you can add a bunch of baggage about what it means to be creative. You may feel like you have to be in a creative mode or mood to be productive. The truth is that to be creative means to put your work into the world — to create.
Still, when your job is to put out creative work — design, architecture, writing, podcasts, music, code, ideas, etc. — the creative pressure can hold you back and stop you.
Have you ever felt you are trying to make progress, but it’s like you’re in an old letterpress? The press pushes down; the top press block is your internal pressure to be creative, and it pushes into the immovable deadline of work.
You put your own hands on the press lever and, through force, move forward. Ink is transferred, and art is made (or the start of it), but it’s not without pain.
I’ve been hunting for a better way to handle this creative squeeze.
How do we get creatively unstuck so that we can keep making?
How can we see what’s missing and keep moving?
How can we shrug off creative label baggage and focus on doing our genuine work?
Here’s a way I’ve learned to understand the pressure and see my world differently.
- Have a clear desire to do the work. Desire is a strong word. Your “desire” may come from the need to earn money or make the world better or even the tension between both. Use this as an anchor to know you have to press on. The first step is to make a decision that you need to make, then move on to the “how.”
- Realize that you’re stuck, Sometimes we spin and stall out making terrible iterations, writing nothing words, and looking at a blank space in front of us. If you work from home, you find other things to do. If you’re on a computer, you may turn to email, social media, YouTube, or 1,000 other things. If you can catch yourself in your stuckness, then you can take action.
- Change Your Lens, Turn over how you look at your work, remove the labels you have, add new pressure, or remove old pressure.
A lot of us battle the tension between stress as a positive motivator and stress that causes burnout. When your job or work requires you to be creative, it can be frustrating when you get stuck.
I’m always trying to make work that aspires to change the world in small way, or at least my small corner of the planet. While this thinking gives me a sense of purpose and challenge, it can also add unnecessary pressure to my creative work. At times, this is the exact pressure that gets me stuck.
Emma Seppala shares in her book, “The Happiness Track,” that using pressure and stress to get work done can be something that works but it, in many ways, harms the kind of work that we do. When we use self stress to push through and get work done, we may find that we end up in a place of chronic stress. Using stress as fuel maybe the pressure we need to keep moving, but it could also result in a workaholic, successoholic lifestyle, ultimately accelerating our path towards burnout.
I’m not always sure when creative pressure is doing more harm than good. But by asking the question, “is this creative pressure holding me down” — it keeps me aware.
(side note: if you’re looking for strategies to help you de-stress, I highly recommend checking out Emma’s book.)”
When you feel bogged down, and you’re not able to turn out new ideas, try looking at your work look through the different lens.
Take a step back from the work you’re doing and consider how you’ve labeled a project. How you view your work, and the labels you use, act as a lens, tinting how you see what you do.
If you’re working on something that you see as standard work, then look at it as creative. If your work is creative, look at it as just a job.
At one point, an art teacher of mine told me that art is:
“looking at the world and seeing something else”.
We would put this into practice by turning our canvases upside down and looking at them anew.
Next time you’re stuck, try turning things over, inside out, view your work in a different light. Getting unstuck doesn’t have to be a big task; it may be as simple as adopting a new lens.
There’s an art to how you see your work.