We’re at the end of the year, already.
If you’re wondering how it went so fast, you’re not alone.
How did you do on your goals this year? Did you progress that big personal project you wanted to explore? Did you finish your book, film, album, or whatever else you were planning to create this year? Or did you get do caught up in deadlines, earning money, and all the other stuff of life?
If you didn’t finish (or perhaps even start) the creative projects you wanted to do in 2022, don’t beat yourself up. Self-directed creative projects are hard, especially when there is no guaranteed outcome, no publisher, gallery, label, or perhaps even audience eagerly awaiting your new work.
Guilt, shame and recriminations don’t tend to help you move forward. Instead, focus on what you can do to get that personal project over the line in 2023.
Start working on it regularly. Don’t wait for a clear stretch of time to open up, for the to-do list to be finally done. Make the time, now.
How? You pay yourself first.
This is a concept that originally came from personal finance. If you wait until the end of the month hoping there will be money left over for savings, you’re often disappointed. No matter how much you earn, your spending somehow seems to expand to fit your bank balance. (And beyond.)
So instead, you pay yourself first. You take out a fixed amount as soon as you get paid, and you put it in a separate savings account or invest it immediately. If you’re earning enough to get by, you don’t tend to miss this. If you set it all up to happen automatically, it’s easy to forget that money ever existed, and you no longer need willpower, discipline, or lots of decision-making about your daily spending to quietly build up a nest-egg, a gift to your future self.
Time is much like money
Despite our best intentions, we spend it carelessly. Or we focus on working harder, faster, more efficiently in the hope that we’ll save enough time for the creative work we really want to do.
The problem is that every item you tick off your to-do list spawns several more. Even if you attain that much-vaunted in-box zero, it quickly fills with more emails (much of it replying to your speedy replies). The ‘free’ time you were waiting for never quite appears – or if it does, you’re too exhausted to do anything except lie comatose in front of a screen.
So how do we change this?
We stop waiting, and we make the time we need. Paying yourself first means blocking out a regular slot on your calendar to work on your book, business, film, music, art, personal work – or whatever it is you want to create in 2023.
Then you protect it fiercely, treating it like any other urgent or important task or meeting. And you show up for it, every time. Even when you’re uninspired, tired, or you’re just not feeling it.
For me, this means writing from 8-9am every weekday morning. I don’t open my email before then. I never schedule early meetings or coaching sessions. That time is sacred, protected. It’s often my most productive hour of the day.
Sometimes I’ll write more.
But even if I don’t, the rest of the day goes better because I’ve already done what’s important to me, the thing that makes me more.. me.
There have been studies showing that many of us are at our most creative and inventive first thing, when we’re still a little groggy and our inner critics and our perfectionist tendencies are less active. But we’re all wired differently – and we all have housemates, families, jobs and other obligations that might mean our best time for focussed work comes later in the day.
So for you, it might not be first thing. It might not even be every day. If you work full-time, it might only be an hour or two at the weekend. But whatever time you carve out, here’s how to make it work.
Make it regular
Take the decision-making out of it. That drains energy. You no longer need to choose when to work, or feel guilty that you haven’t started yet. Procrastination isn’t an option. You just show up. On time, every time. Even when you don’t feel like it.
Once you establish this routine, you’ll find that you get into flow faster. Not every session will be brilliant. There will be times when you produce very little, or just stare into space. But that’s OK, because your subconscious will keep working on it between these creative sessions.
When your mind knows that this is something you now do, that the hard work of creating can’t be avoided with distractions and busywork, you’ll find it keeps working on the knottiest problems, even when you’re not aware of it.
Solutions often come as if by magic, while you go about your day. You’ll get ideas in the shower, on a walk, while cooking dinner. But only if you show up regularly, do the work, and understand what the problems even are.
Make sure friends and family know how important this time is to you. If you have children, pets, elders to care for, make sure their needs are met and organised in a way that leaves you that space. Leave your phone in another room, and turn off your email, messaging or anything else that might distract you.
Stay in flow
If there’s a fact you need to check, a question you need to ask someone, or if you realise you need to order new paint, paper or guitar strings, don’t stop and do it in the time you’ve allocated for working on your own projects.
Just make a note of it, then either do it or add it to your task list at the end of your creative time. New ideas will also tend to pop up and interrupt or distract you in your allotted creative time. If they do, just make a quick note and capture them for later, then carry on with what you were doing.
Make it joyful
Creative work is satisfying, but it’s also hard. And scary, because failure is part of the process. We we all try to resist or avoid hard and scary things. So do everything you can to make working pleasurable. Have something to look forward to immediately after your session, too: a meal, a meeting with a friend, a walk, some reading or guilt-free screen time.
Play music, if you enjoy that while working. Light a scented candle, if it makes your creative space feel more special. Save up for tools you enjoy using. I always have fresh flowers in my study, so it feels welcoming.
If you can, link your creative time with things you already love. I look forward to my morning coffee, for instance. So I have my first cup of the day at my desk, as I get to work. After my writing hour I make breakfast, then take a moment to really savour my second (and sadly final) cup of the day.
Make it easy
If you need work clothes or tools, lay them out ready. Do everything you can to reduce the friction, and make it easier to begin.
I’m a writer, so I don’t need a lot of equipment. But I decide what I’m going to work the day before, and if I can I’ll prepare by jotting down a few bullet points, or reading/watching something relevant that evening. Then I leave those ideas to percolate overnight, and I often know exactly what to write when I begin the following morning.
Respect your rhythms
All hours are not created equal. And all of us have different rhythms. You’re looking for that sweet spot when you are at your most creative, and when you have the time and space to work without interruption or distraction.
My peak writing time is now first thing in the morning, but this is a fairly recent development. In my twenties, I used to write best late at night, before going out clubbing. After my son was born, my prime writing time came in those still, peaceful hours after he went to bed. It was only after menopause, when he was older and didn’t need me in the morning, that these rhythms changed for me.
Experiment. Find your sweet spot. Try to work with your natural rhythms rather than against them. It’s always easier to swim with the current, not against it.
Make it sustainable
You’re in this for the long haul, so pace yourself rather than going all-in and exhausting yourself before you’ve really begun.
If you have a day-job, for instance, putting in a regular two hours every Saturday morning is so much better than working all weekend for a month or two then abandoning the whole project because you’re exhausted, your partner is feeling neglected, and your friends are starting to forget you even exist.
Plenty of people have steadily written their first novels or scripts in a few hours a week, written songs and recorded them, made art that matters. Or gradually transitioned from full-time work to part-time while building their creative business into something that can support them completely.
This is about building a life you love, not replacing life with more and more work.
Be kind if you miss a day
Sometimes, life gets in the way. You have an early train or plane to catch, there’s a family event over the weekend. You fall ill – or someone else does, and needs your support. This doesn’t make you a failure. And it certainly doesn’t mean you should stop showing up at all.
My rule is that I try not to miss two writing mornings in a row. And I never, ever miss three. It’s about staying consistent over years and producing a solid body of work over time, not beating yourself up or even giving up if you miss a session or two.
Creative work is often unpredictable.
We do rough drafts or explore new directions that don’t work out. Some days it comes easily, on others everything feels like a struggle. We rarely produce the same amount of work every day, so it’s hard to measure our output. What we can measure is the time we put in. And the more regularly you do it, the greater your chance of having one of those magical sessions when everything flows and it seems almost effortless.
We love the idea of the unpredictable muse, of waiting for our mood to be right, for inspiration to come. But the muse won’t show up unless you do. Consistency is often our greatest tool.
Creativity is a habit.
Train your brain to come up with ideas and solutions at a certain time of day—and it will.
“I write only when inspiration strikes,” said the prolific British writer W. Somerset Maugham. “Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”