“Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention… It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”
There’s a scene in the show Mad Men that sticks with me.
A new manager is in the office, and he’s looking for efficiencies. He complains to Don Draper that the writers are all just sitting in their offices doing nothing. Don shrugs and says something to the effect of, “They’re writers. That’s what we pay them for. To lay on the couch until the next idea comes.”
I’ve scoured Mad Men tribute blogs to find the exact quote, but I’ve not been able to track it down. Probably because, for most people, there are dozens of more compelling Mad Men quotes that speak to the human condition!
But for me, there’s something that really strikes at the heart of human creativity in that exchange. As a creative myself, I can’t seem to shake it.
For sure, it makes me nostalgic for a time when you could be a creative person who’s asked to sit and think and “be creative”. Romanticized notions aside, even the most creative jobs today tend to involve a lot of correspondence and computer usage. When you were doing that kind of work “way back when”, there were fewer distractions. No emails to answer; no smartphone notifications; no compulsion to scroll through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter; no instant news updates (and no blog posts about how to get yourself creatively disciplined 😉).
There was just you and the empty air and the ideas drifting by, waiting for you to seize them.
That’s no longer the world we live in, which is why the Mad Men exchange in question inspires me. For me, it’s a call to action to create the space I need to think and be creative, even though such space is harder to come by in our society.
In my case, that means turning off the internet for a set block of time each day, and using that time to do what Don’s staff of writers did: stay productive; foster the arrival of the next idea; make the next bit of progress on a project.
I don’t necessarily have to lie contemplatively on a couch. I could be writing the whole time, working hard to keep pace with my thoughts. The only thing I can’t be doing is procrastinating by, say, click, click, clicking away at the myriad of distractions that are available to us in this digital, very non-Mad Men world we’ve found our way to.
As a fellow creative and Lights Film School teacher, I hear a lot from writers, filmmakers, and other artistically-inclined people who struggle with time management. How do we make progress on our work? The answer is deceptively simple: by dedicating time to it. But that, my friend, can be easier said than done. Effective time management and sustainable self-motivation are two of the biggest challenges facing creative professionals on a daily basis.
The struggle is real.
What I want to do today is demystify the struggle for us by examining it from two angles. We’ll (1) reveal the traps we sometimes fall into while doing creative work (and how to avoid them), and (2) share some strategies for how to lead a productive and healthy creative life.
It’s my hope that you’ll come away from this feeling a little less alone when it comes to things that trip you up – that you’ll feel energized and ready to get into (creative) shape, so to speak.
So: here’s to building momentum on our creative endeavors this year!
Here’s why you need to show up for your work.
Personally, when we talk about committing to creative work, I naturally gravitate to writing, since that’s my craft. To be clear, though, the art of setting aside time and making space is one that’s relevant to nearly every creative pursuit. For filmmakers, that can include:
- Writing and rewriting a script.
- Reading a friend’s script and providing notes.
- Pre-production work for an indie film, including budgeting, developing a shooting schedule, finding locations, casting actors, shot listing and storyboarding, etc.
- Production! Actually shooting something.
- Sound design.
- Scoring and composition.
- And any number of related tasks!
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an aspiring filmmaker just starting out or a super-established one gearing up for the next project: the thing about being a productive independent artist is that it takes a lot of gumption to make sure you’re showing up for your work every day.
Notice the key word, here: your work.
Colloquially, people talk about “showing up to work every day” a lot, right? It’s often used in context of complaining about “the Day Job Slog”. Showing up for your work is a different beast altogether, though. For many, showing up for a day job is the only way to get paid and thus afford life. But showing up for your work is the only way to give that project you care about life. Your work literally can’t grow unless you show up for it. And if you don’t, it’s just sitting there, lonely, waiting 😭.
Ask yourself honestly: are you okay with that?
To quote Steven Pressfield‘s book The War of Art – a kick in the butt every creative professional should read! –
“Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”
Bring on the weight training! 🏋🏻♂️
As with nutrition and sports and many things health-related, actively choosing to make progress on a creative endeavor requires regular exercise.
If you’ve ever started exercising after a period of lethargy, then you know those first few days are really tough. Thankfully, the more you do it, the easier it becomes, the more the process starts to feel attainable.
It’s the same with creative work. The first day you sit down to write after not writing for awhile? Streams of beautiful words may not exactly be pouring out of you. The fifth day in a row, though? You’re going to feel less winded. Those words probably will start to come a little more naturally.
…Assuming, of course, that you actually use the time well.
It’s alarmingly easy to sort of fool yourself into thinking that you “did the work” of being creative, that you were super productive, when what you were reeeeally doing was wasting time in front of the computer. Sort of like how you can feel good about your “progress” when you go to the gym even if you don’t touch any of the exercise equipment. Unfortunately, neither creative schedules nor workout schedules build true momentum through osmosis!
But to go back to that Mad Men moment – imagine the scene in today’s day and age. The manager would have walked past Peggy Olsen’s office, and he would have seen her sitting behind a laptop, clicking away. He probably would have assumed she was busy at work… SMASH CUT TO the Instagram Story on Peggy Olsen’s screen (been there 🤷🏻♀️)!
Computers can give the appearance of working – project a strong impression of “busyness” – even (and most insidiously) to oneself. But arguably, the sitting and thinking that the writers were doing back in Don’s day actually may have been more productive, since there were fewer distractions competing for attention.
In other words: Don’t get stuck in the Dark Playground!
As Tim Urban explains it, “The Dark Playground is a place every procrastinator knows well. It’s a place where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening. The fun you have in the Dark Playground isn’t actually fun because it’s completely unearned and the air is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread”:
Basically, getting into creative shape takes some real self honesty. If you set aside two hours to be creative each morning but spend an hour and a half of that time on Instagram, then you need to be honest with yourself about the fact that you did not actually live up to your goal that day.
And then you need to show up the next day and try again.
But what if I was on Instagram to do research for my project?
Okay, fair. I’m not about to claim that the entire internet is evil, or that it can’t help you with your creative endeavors! Maybe you’re using a social network to learn about a subject relevant to your creative project, or simply to get inspired. Great! Just be honest with yourself… Don’t lie about the quality of the time you’re putting in. You’re only cheating yourself if you convince yourself you were productive when you weren’t.
Hanging out in the proverbial gym, watching other people train and channeling the vibe, is not going to build your muscles. Only hard work will do that! Again, if you want to get into creative shape and master the art of self-discipline, then you have to commit.
That said, it’s worth highlighting that research can take many forms. Reading books, watching films and videos, browsing magazines… These are all legitimate avenues of information, depending on the task at hand. If you’re writing about someone who speaks with a particular dialect due to where they live, then watching YouTube videos of people from the same region could count as research – and thus, time spent working toward your goal.
Again, just be aware of when you’ve crossed the line from “this is helpful to know” to “this is procrastination in disguise“.
Strategy A: Set aside time.
Here are some fairly straightforward ways to hold yourself accountable to building focused creative working time into your day regularly:
- Set aside a specific time, on specific days, to write or otherwise pursue creative projects. This doesn’t have to be for the rest of your life, but while you’re figuring out what works well for you, I’d recommend giving it a try and really sticking with it. For example, “Every day for one workweek, I’m going to get up an hour earlier than usual, and I’m going to use that hour to write.” At the end of the week, evaluate how much you’ve accomplished, and figure out if it was worth it. Chances are you’ll look at the pages of writing you’ve created, or the configuration of video clips in your editing timeline, and you’ll realize that that never would have happened without the hour you set aside. If that doesn’t work for you, no worries! Try new routines until you find one that sticks.
- Build creative work into your to-do list. I work from home, which means that I don’t have somewhere I need to be, which means that I don’t necessarily need to do my writing before the rest of my day starts. I can be flexible with when I do it – for better or worse. When I’m not in a mode of setting aside a specific time each day for creative work, I find it can be helpful to put it on my daily to-do list, and to make sure I’m not doing whatever tasks are beyond it on that list before I’ve completed the time I want to give to myself. (For what it’s worth, for me personally, setting aside a specific time of day still works best). Lights Film School teacher Michael shared something with me on this topic that really struck me, too: “I had a screenwriting professor who encouraged us to ‘hold that time as sacred. Treat it as seriously as you treat other priorities in your life.'”
- Make a progress chart. Maybe every day isn’t doable for you. That’s okay; we can work with that! Simply pick days that are doable, and make yourself a chart that has each of those days represented on it. On the days you successfully give yourself the amount of creative time you intended, put an “X” in the box. It may surprise you to discover how motivating and rewarding the simple act of ticking off a box can be!
Please, please be patient with yourself!
These examples are all built around setting aside time for creative work, and then routinely doing the work. Such an approach to self-discipline builds the habit. And once you have a healthy habit in place, you can start to foster an attitude of patience.
In my years of working with new writers, I’ve noticed that some feel as if everything they write should be ready for prime time right away. I have a completely un-researched hypothesis that this belief may have its roots in how society tends to communicate these days. In our digital world of social media and breaking headlines, it’s easy to feel compelled to share content immediately, right? “Instant” is literally built into Instagram’s name. Have a delicious dinner? Snap a shot and put it online. An interesting thought occur to you? Throw it up on your blog or share it on Facebook and watch the Likes pour in.
Immediate feedback – immediate validation – immediate gratification.
But the reality is that much creative work tends to require patience, commitment, and – yes – time. As Don Draper’s staff understood, many ideas need room to breathe. Naturally, not all of them will see the light of day, and that’s okay. It’s too much pressure to put on yourself – not to mention, wildly unrealistic! – to expect everything you create to be good to go right off the bat. That’s what revisions are for.
So give yourself the gift of time. Your creative work deserves nothing less. In the words of Tim Urban again, Progress = Pace X Persistence!
Strategy B: Set specific goals.
Again, for some, setting aside a specific amount of time doesn’t work as well. Some people find it more helpful to set specific goals each day – for example, writing a particular number of words or pages, or editing up to a certain point in your film. If this is you, go for it!
At risk of sounding like a broken record, our digital age is full of distractions. But it’s also given birth to some pretty neat apps that can help you achieve your goals. I personally like Ulysses, which lets you set a deadline for yourself and tells you how many words you need to write per day to hit that goal. Scrivener is another piece of software that allows you to set writing targets. For screenwriting, one of our favorite solutions here at Lights Film School, CeltX, facilitates the same. Meanwhile, The Most Dangerous Writing App is fun for free-flowing brainstorming – if you stop writing, your progress gets erased! 😂🤬
You don’t need a purpose-built tool to set a goal, of course. Word counts, page counts… These are things you can track manually, too.
Either way, if this goal-oriented approach speaks to you, the only word of caution I’d offer is that if you wind up exceeding your goal on any given day, you don’t decide to give yourself the next day off. Remember, leading a healthy creative life is just like physical training. If you take a day off, it’ll be harder to come back the next day.
Unlock the potential of Nothing in life and your creative work.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the power of Nothing… Both the ideas that can come when we let ourselves experience nothingness, and the sensation of wanting to run for the hills when we stare at our screen and see that we’ve written… Well, Nothing!
I often feel an urge to use the distractions of the digital age to fill the Nothingness… To keep busy those spaces which, in bygone years, were quiet factories of thought and ideas. This is why I find it so important to unplug during my dedicated creative work time. I’d encourage you to try and do the same.
But even as I stand up on the highest mountain and shout that my “unplugged” time is very important, I’ll be the first to tell you:
It. 👏🏻 Is. 👏🏻 Hard. 👏🏻.
I’m no different than anyone else. When I feel like I don’t know what to write next, I feel anxious about it. Clicking over to email or social media or whatever is a welcome relief from the blinking cursor that’s staring me in the face:
When I do unplug, I still sometimes find that anxious twinge in my core whispering in my ear: “Y’knoooooow, it’d be a lot easier to scroll through social media than sit here and think right now, amiright?”
But the truth is, I’ve almost never found the answer by indulging such distractions. Instead, I’ll find the answer by staring out the window for a few beats or whatever. Go figure.
Of course, I’ll also find answers through other avenues of inspiration! Sure, sometimes that’s the internet (again, be honest with yourself). Recently for me it was an encounter at a museum. I had a creative breakthrough when I came face-to-face with a sculpture that took my breath away. If I’d been laser-focused on, say, hitting a word count that day – in other words, if I hadn’t made the time to intentionally pursue inspiration by visiting that museum – then I may not have made that breakthrough.
I suppose what I’m saying is that sometimes, the most productive thing you can do is Nothing. As Pooh puts it in the film Christopher Robin, “Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something.” So take your eyes off the screen and stare out that window or get out there and visit that museum!
Here are some of the many ways you can invite more creativity into your life. If you’re mid-project and on a hunt for inspiration, keep your project in the forefront of your mind and actively invite the activity to reveal things to you:
- Stare out the window.
- Visit a museum.
- Go for a walk. Or more generally, get outside! Science proves it’s healthy. Plus, it breaks up your routine and gets you away from technology, helping you unplug (I dare you to leave your phone behind!) Being outdoors can really boost your creativity… Think how much open space your ideas have to fly around out there.
- Hang out in the park and observe passersby.
- Go out to eat. Extra points if you pick somewhere you’ve never been before, and double-extra points if you also choose something to eat that you’ve never tried before. Trying new things – especially things that are out of your comfort zone – helps grow the part of your subconscious that’s receptive to and flexible with ideas, including in context of creative work.
- Grab a coffee, beer, etc. with someone you find particularly inspiring. That doesn’t necessarily mean you put them on a pedestal or think everything they do is amazing. What I mean by “inspiring” in this context is “someone with whom you can share ideas freely”. For example, I have a friend with whom I have sort of a magical chemistry. She and I riff off of one another with ease and come up with all sorts of zany ideas and ways of looking at things together. If I’m feeling creatively stuck, having coffee with her often frees me up without us even ever having to talk about the thing I’m working on creatively. The air between us is just creative, and I leave feeling artistically inspired.
- Look at art, read literature, listen to music, play a game… And of course, watch movies! All of these activities have the potential to introduce you to a new way of seeing – to spark a moment of emotional or creative awakening that will benefit you and your project. However, with this one more than the other things on this list, I feel like it’s important to remind you to be aware of when you’re using these things to open your mind versus when they’re an insidious means of procrastination. Watching a film with an open, creative, productive mind is a very different experience from zoning out binge-watching a show on Netflix. Art created by others has a ton to teach us about being artists – we just have to, as always, be honest with ourselves about the manner in which we’re indulging.
So what do you think?
How do you build momentum and stay productive? What kind of creative routines and strategies work for you? And what do you do when you need inspiration? We’d love to hear about your creative process in the comments below!
Lauren McGrail, with
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