If anyone asks me what the most difficult thing about being an artist is, my answer will probably be self-motivation. This is not because I am horribly lazy. Being lazy, to me, means having a disinterest in doing things, or feeling like you can’t be bothered. I may have many flaws, but laziness is not one of them. My biggest challenges, dear reader, are self-doubt and self-distraction. In this, my most downright frank of blog posts, I would like to share with you some of the strategies I’ve had to develop to keep myself motivated, and how they have improved my creative output. But first a few words about the horrors that are self-doubt and procrastination.
I think of self-doubt and insecurity as the invisible mountains every creative person has to mentally climb before they get on with the all important Making Of Art. I imagine it as though some are more inherently more confident, so their mountain range is smaller and quicker to overcome. Others will find they are walking on smooth terrain for quite some time before – bam! – they suddenly meet with a vertical wall with almost no warning. In the past I basically got to the peak of Mount Self Doubt, set up camp and lived there. It took a long time to work out how to move on from this, but eventually I got down and started making things again,
Because I’m a visual person (and a little strange) I like to give most of my emotional challenges an image and a name – I find them easier to take on that way. Another way that I ‘frame’ my creative insecurity is the ‘rabbit hole of despair’ (which has nothing to do with the 1960s interpretation of this by the way). Quite dramatic a name I know, but that’s how my brain works. The rabbit hole of despair is a creativity killer. For me it can include any of the following:
– Fear my work is rubbish, and huge self-criticism and shame about everything I’ve made. Ever.
– Fear I’m a failure, often accompanied by pointlessly comparing myself to others.
– Being convinced I’ve done the wrong thing for the last decade and spending hours looking at courses I can’t afford, reading job descriptions I haven’t got the experience (or often interest) to do, or looking up house prices in towns I will never actually live (yes I really do this).
– Deciding to throw everything out of the window (metaphorically) and start afresh, often with the potential risk of undoing hours of work on websites, blogs or social media.
– Guilt that I’ve had hours to do constructive, useful things and wasted them on all of the above.
On the other side of this I have the challenge of Procrastination With Intent To Avoid. This is often harder to see happening at the beginning, but can be just as destructive. For me this can take the forms of volunteering, offering to meet up with friends, doing housework, or researching things that aren’t really relevant (sometimes good of course, but often just straight up procrastination).
The techniques that I’ve developed to counter these aren’t the most inventive, and I am not championing myself as an online guru here. But I have found some things that have really helped me to minimise my once regular visits down the rabbit hole:
1. Writing down 5 dreams I’d like to achieve in my work over next 5 years
I didn’t invent this idea, obviously it’s one that is used in counselling and self-help books, but it’s been really useful to me. I make them quite aspirational things, things I’m maybe even too scared to share with other people, and I put it up in my studio. I could be setting myself up for disappointment of course, but I know they might not happen, and I’m ok with that. They will change as I do. But I find it useful to have a reminder that I am ambitious in my own way, and that I do have things I’m working towards.
2. Reading or watching interviews with people I admire
I think social media has made it much easier for us to find people we admire which is great, but on the downside it can often feel like everyone has had overnight success we will never experience. I find watching or reading interviews with people whose careers I have deep respect for so helpful because (of course) none of them got there easily. Knowing that they too had to work extremely hard, failed at things, were rejected and nearly gave up sometimes reminds me to stop feeling sorry for myself and keep plodding onwards.
3. Writing a 6 month plan
In the past I’ve often scuppered myself with poor time management and planning. For example I would see an opportunity I really wanted to apply for, get distracted by other things that needed my attention, and suddenly realise I’d missed the deadline or run out of time to make my application adequate. I now have a plan that covers the next 6 months to stop this from happening. I have different categories – opportunities, commission deadlines, publicity, events, etc, and I write under each one the important dates and what I need to do for this. I then make a more detailed plan each month working out how to fit everything into the time available, and add these things to my calendar. It’s not always beautiful to look at, and sometimes I fall off track and need to redo it. But it helps me to feel like I have a hold on things a bit better these days, and when I’m feeling down I look at the old lists to remind me of how much I have achieved.
4. Talk to people who understand
If I’m feeling really unmotivated or like everything I’ve done recently has landed flat on it’s face, then nothing is more helpful then talking to a friend or family member who totally gets it. I’m very lucky as I know quite a lot of self-employed creatives, but if you don’t you could always reach out and bravely email an artist you admire, or participate on one the many forums out there. After talking it through with someone I often feel much more motivated, and I will try to do the same for others whenever I can (hence this blog!).
5. Doing anything at all to make headway
I have a piece of paper on my pinboard that says ‘Do something. Anything!’. Especially in times when I’m under a lot of pressure I can find myself freezing – finding it hard to get on as it’s all too intimidating and I feel overwhelmed. I find if I do anything at all – something tiny and boring like a quick drawing, making a tiny papercut, sharing something on social media, replying to an email or even (when I can muster the inner strength) book-keeping – it breaks the spell of panic and indecision.
6. Having structure in the rest of my life
For me, a big component to being more productive is to make the rest of my life quite structured. I do sometimes find when I have bags of time I will be low on motivation because I don’t value that time as I should. On the opposite side to this, not having any real time to be creative is also highly counter productive because it’s hard to find the energy to make amazing things after a long day at work or with children. I am endlessly tweaking this and trying out different combinations, but at the moment having a part time job is helping me to make progress on my art without endlessly panicking about money. And having clearly defined times for looking after my child, seeing friends or just reading a good old book also helps me to focus on my studio days. I’m not perfect at this – very few people are let’s be honest! But I do feel like I’m getting closer to finding a balance that works for me.
So…..there are a few of my strategies, and I might share some more another time. There are a few points I’d like to make before I end this post though. The first is that I am obviously in no way a mental health expert, but I do know if you are really struggling with feeling low, negative about yourself or struggling to get motivated with anything these can be signs of depression and perhaps it’s best to ask for some help from a professional. We all have things we need a bit more support with from time to time.
The second is to say, I’m no expert in this field but I think that it’s normal to struggle with motivation and procrastination if you are self-employed. I don’t give myself a hard time when things slip a bit these days, because I know I’m doing the best I can in my own unique circumstances.
The last thing I feel I should mention is no one is meant to work all the time. The constant and global nature of social media can make it seem like everyone is always working, the guilt caused by this can be intense. But we all need other things in our life to make us happy too.
Otherwise, what would we have to make art about?