Creativity Killers

There are many ways to nurture and protect your creativity: artists’ dates and morning pages (if you are a Julia Cameron fan), meditation, retreats, book groups–even hiking clubs, motorcycle groups, wine-tasting groups.

The Night Sky by Thomas Graves, The Baltimore Sun, 1998

Ignoring creativity killers may do more damage than all the nurturing we can do. It’s easy to engage in them because they feed the shallower, consumer, peer-pressure side our culture encourages. A part of us wants to belong, and another part–the creative part–wants to be the outsider, the observer, the stranger, the visionary. It’s a hard tension to keep in balance.  Who wouldn’t rather eat fresh hot French Fries than lentil salad? Or at least order a side of fries with the lentil salad?

Creativity killers are habits that drain the considerable energy needed to fuel our creativity. They may be fun, but they are empty calories in our creative diet. And they are sticky, so once we connect with them, they seem more harmless, more engaging than we gave them credit for. Having powerful creative minds, we begin to rationalize that these creative killers are really “people watching” or “observing how people interact.” Nope. If you haven’t been in your studio for three weeks, but haven’t missed an episode of Flipping Out or Hell’s Kitchen, you aren’t observing, you have a drama addiction.

Creativity Killer #1: Addictive TV.
“Must See TV” is mindless shows we watch because we know when they are on and they don’t require much from us and deliver an emotional rush. This can be a reality show, a game show, or a comedy, but you haven’t missed an episode in three years.

Try This Instead: Use TiVo, Netflix, or some other device to record the shows, and spend some time in the studio instead. Power through the shows, skipping commercials and getting the idea of what happened without using up the whole hour. Try to figure out what the attraction is–watching other people be debased? Making yourself feel better about your own life? A little self-knowledge goes a long way to changing “must see” to “must flee.” A good number of TV shows are entertaining, educational, fun, and interesting. Watch those instead.

Creativity Killer #2: Drama

Sylvain Serre captured the Northern Lights in Salluit, Nunavik, Quebec, Canada, on March 25 2009. Originally published in

It’s a short step from watching drama to creating it. The push is adrenaline, and it’s addictive. Careful, here–adrenaline addiction is as real as drug addiction and about as productive. It feels like creativity, but it’s the opposite. It’s all slick surface and bright flash, but there is no deep satisfaction. There is a strong let-down, and a need to go on the prowl for more.

Try This Instead: Avoid drama for three days. If you feel dull and uninspired, you are addicted. Find a creative outlet that suits you and get involved in it every day. Physical exertion will feel good–hiking, dancing, swimming, skating–a physical stretch brings on a creative rush. Worth it!

Creativity Killer #3: Fear and Anger Mongering. It doesn’t matter if it’s financial (the horrible economy), emotional (dysfunctional families) or health issues (this week’s dreadful doctor reports followed by a full organ recital) nurturing fear and anger is stoking the reptilian brain and sending it to jazzercise class to get stronger and more flexible. Talking about your disasters certainly puts you on center stage, it also invites the drama-lovers to compete with you. Pretty soon fear, danger and anger have you spending your time circulating inane emails about dryer sheets instead of working in your studio.

Sunrise, inventing the world. Quinn McDonald © 2010

Try This Instead: Start a gratitude journal, no matter how difficult it seems. Do it every day. It will seem impossible at first. But we see what we look for. We begin to expect to find what we keep track of. That makes gratitude realistic for us. And gratitude is a great extinguisher of both anger and fear.

Creativity Killer #4: Social Networking.
Wait. Haven’t I told you it’s important in marketing your art? It is. Timing and time management is everything with social media. When you start your day with Facebook, Twitter, emails and news, you don’t get your own creative work done. Everyone else’s posts are more important. So is their drama, their anger, their summary of TV shows. All of a sudden it’s 10 a.m. and you haven’t really done anything. So you play catch-up all day long and it’s another day that you don’t make it into the studio.

Try This Instead: Start your day with your creative projects. Spend the first hour in your studio. Have a day job? Get up early. It’s worth it. I learned that lesson from getting up at the impossibly dark hour of 4:30 a.m. for three months. I still refuse to admit how I’d work for an hour and then watch the dawn and feel like I’d invented the world and everything in it. But it’s true. Leave the social networking for a specific time and time of day when your creativity is low. You will get your friends-and-family circles rush, and your creativity will have room to develop. Oh, and you’ll be sleepy at night and not have to watch TV to relax.

Creativity Killer #5: Not Enough Sleep. Not Enough Rest.
You are so busy, you never go to bed. When you finally drop, you can’t fall asleep fast enough, so you reach for a chemical solution or you turn on the TV timer. Both of these are bad for your REM-sleep, the one that produces dreams. Dreams are vital to clearing your mind, warning you of upcoming problems, helping you explore answers. Chemicals change your brain waves, and leaving the TV on interferes with REM sleep. You won’t dream and you will wake up feeling tired and sleep-deprived.
Try This Instead: One of the most important things we teach babies is how to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own, without music, milk, or media. We can teach ourselves the same skills. Drinking warm milk (with vanilla) actually does work. Setting an evening schedule so you don’t pay bills, watch adrenaline-rush TV, or explore the internet on the iPad for an hour before bed also helps. Develop a ritual in which you begin to wind down and get to bed at a reasonable time each night. The first week you will invent a million excuses you really need TV to sleep. Once you learn to drift to sleep anticipating a dream, then remember colorful dreams and use them, you will never use the sleep timer on the TV again.

–Quinn McDonald has her own batch of creativity killers. Her “try this instead” is to eliminate tasks from her to-do list instead of adding more. She’s given up important jobs, clients and promotions to save time for creativity. She hated doing it, but she has never regretted weeding out the work that doesn’t build creativity. Her book, Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art was published earlier this year.