Behavior Modification for the Creative Soul

When you hear “behavior modification” it often seems to be a negative way to get a positive result–stop eating what you love, stop doing some behavior that has become a comforting habit.

The trouble with empty calories is that they are fun and taste good.

The trouble with empty calories is that they are fun and taste good.

I was journaling last night and had a big “Aha!” moment. Two, in fact. One was about the way I’m changing my relationship with food. I’ve finally crossed over from anger and resentment to experimenting with new foods and old foods in different ways. And liking it. (Well, that took only seven months). Yes, I still miss cookies and chocolate and all the things my sweet tooth loved, but it’s been replaced by a satisfaction that I am managing to stay on track. Mostly.

Here’s the more important thing–behavior modification also works with creativity. But you have to look at it in a different way. It’s not stopping what you love doing. It’s doing what you love already in a more supportive way.

It’s easy to want to start 50 projects–pile up your creative plate with the creative equivalent of cookies and cakes–work that tastes delicious, gives you a rush of joy, but doesn’t lead anywhere. It can be loading yourself up with every project you saw in the latest magazine, instead of focusing on one project that supports your creativity but is challenging.

It can be buying a lot of new equipment that does just one thing per machine, requires lots of special, proprietary refills and takes up space.

It can be deciding to learn something new and make that the focus of your creative work, when it’s far away from your main interest. For example, deciding to buy a floor loom and take up weaving if you have done watercolors for years.


Going deep allows you to see new things and learn more.

None of these pursuits is dangerous on its own, but it is scattered behavior that is fueled by the Inner Critic’s insistent whisper: “What you are doing now is not as fun/ flashy/ popular/ money-making as your current creative work.

Focusing on your creative work requires discipline. It is incredibly easy to rationalize–to make what you want seem more important than your creative work that makes meaning but has hit a hard patch. There is nothing wrong with trying out new supplies. But if all you do is buy supplies and never use them, or play with them and then move on to the next new fad, if you never decide if the new thing is worthy of your precious time, energy and money, well, then, your creativity needs some behavior modification.

Running after every fad, trying every new device has the same effect on your creativity that eating a box of cookies has on your attention span. It feels great for a few moments, gives you a spurt of energy, and then your creativity crashes leaving you feeling empty and spent.

Creative behavior modification is a struggle, but after a few months, when your work improves and you move deeper into the work you love, you won’t miss the box of cookies new fad art supplies so much. You’ll value skill and depth of accomplishment. Life is good again.

Quinn McDonald is learning that behavior modification has advantages from many sides. Some days are harder than others.

30 thoughts on “Behavior Modification for the Creative Soul

  1. I´m a step behind re: all the new stuff. I don´t even try it out, I only read about it. *sigh* The world is just too interesting! {Yes, there is also a bit of a “fear of missing out” component there}

  2. Quinn,
    I think when we have found our niche, whether it is in creative pursuits, in written journal writing, or in our careers, it then becomes easier to focus on that niche rather than running after things that really become distractions in the long run.

    I appreciate what you shared about making what we do even better by modifying how we use our time and how we adopt what we use for the betterment of our creative selves. Sometimes less is more!

    I have chosen your post, Behaviour Modification for the Creative Soul, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day on 3/19/13 for all things journaling on Twitter; a link will be posted on the social networks, on my blog and website Refresh with Dawn Herring, and in my weekly Refresh Journal:

    #JournalChat Live is every Thursday, 5 EST/2 PST, for all things journaling on Twitter; our topic this week is Your Journaling: How and Who I Am. Debra DiPietro joins us!

    Thanks for sharing so forthrightly and for the encouragement to listen to our creative selves.

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    Your Refreshment Specialist
    Host of #JournalChat Live and Links Edition on Twitter
    Author of The Birthday Wall: Create a Collage to Celebrate Your Child

  3. or maybe it is coming to the realization that every brush stroke or ink daub or word in the story makes it “new and improved” and different and not what it was before.

  4. I find myself going back to my old ways, even when I do find something new and flashy. I love re-evaluating an item. My favorite thing to do is re-purpose. Once I realized it…all the new gadgetry out there became inconsequential to me. Now I look around at what I have and challenge myself to use it.
    That is not to say I don’t have my share of unfinished projects and ideas and “stuff” around my home! It may actually be worse because it’s difficult to throw something away without thinking I may need it later…and very often I do! And that doesn’t help either! :chuckles:
    Here’s to growth for all of us, knowing who we are, what we need and redefining our worlds.

  5. Guilty. A work in progress . . . there’s not end to it really. And that’s okay too, it’s as it should be. I’m far to young to stop exploring!

    The thing with behaviour modification is, as you point out, a shift in behaviour not the complete wiping out one for another. You can still explore a new product/have a slice of cake on a special occasion, however the focus is your goal be it a deep exploration of oil pastels or a healthy life.

    • While I love exploring, and will shift behavior in creativity, there will never again be a piece of cake on special occasions, or a quick chocolate sneak. But I am OK with that as I can always play with another tube of watercolor!

  6. Love this Quinn, you are so succinct! I have noticed, just this week, that I am passing on the occasional urge to splurge on cookies (or other sweets!). I let the angst roll over me, enjoy the momentary sugar high, but DO NOT follow through. I have been working on this for over year, so this is really progress. And since I am retired and no longer have the resources to splurge on supplies, I am passing on the art high too!

  7. I’ve diagnosed myself with “Creative ADHD” because of exactly what you say here. Focus is so key. Challenge is so necessary. Completion is an obligation I need to make to myself.

    Thank you for this!

  8. could part of the challenge be trying to see how to integrate the “new, scattered” direction with the current line of creative work? kind of like turning a drawing upside down to get a new perspective on it. letting the brain play with the ideas….

  9. The aspect of this I’m most familiar with has to do with computers and computer-like-things (mobile phones, etc). There are “early adopters” who want to have the newest kit, and then there’s everybody else. I think of these customers separately when designing.

    When you acquire a new device, part of what you do is start learning about it, and I try to design for delightful moments during that learning process. Something you know you’re going to do, like sending a photo or calling someone you’ve called before, can be delightful when it happens in a new, faster/cleverer/prettier/funner way. Some customers really love those moment; modifying behavior is a goal.

    Some customers, though, are more motivated by learning as little as possible while still getting done what they have to do. What delights them is more likely to be subtle improvement in quality or process, and I try to design not to highlight the moment of learning, but to distract from it. Make it seem like you don’t have to learn anything new, and what you already know how to do is just what you need. Modifying behavior is, for these customers, something to avoid.

      • I think they’re pretty similar. Two differences: the value system used in making creative decisions and the scale of the effort involved.

        Any creative endeavor, I think, means making a series of decisions that are generally about what, how, where, and why. Same decisions, different values in deciding.

        The things I design are all tools in one way or another; they’re things you use in order to do something else. So the value system I use in making those decisions has a lot to do with function; *what* has to happen when the software works, *how* should it occur, *where* should that control go, *why* display this information rather than that. In another kind of creative endeavor, I suspect artistic or editorial decisions are similar at a high level, but the value system is different. It might be visual esthetics or cost or expediency, for example. (This is, of course, vastly oversimplified and invoking one value doesn’t usually mean completely overlooking another.)

        Scale is not about the effort of any individual but about how many people are involved. Designing a mobile phone takes thousands of people with different skills because the thing is so complex. That means the process slows down and actually *making* one of those creative decisions is a real luxury. Artists get to make their own choices. More often in my world there are rounds of meetings and layers of management to persuade, and creative decisions of lots of other designers that all need to be combined and harmonized. A side benefit, maybe, is that the process moves from implicit to explicit.

        But from a certain perspective the processes are similar.

  10. It just dawned on me that my very nature seems to be the one of an addict.
    Now and then I tend to think I´m quite a facile person with trying and experimenting with so many materials…. this behaviour is not limited to the creative process I´m afraid – I´ve expanded to teaching and after a couple of months I´ve to deal with the lack of excitement… and the need to go deeper. Now the life of a butterfly may has come to an end. It seems I somehow glorified the ease of this creature – it´s a long way to new insights.

    • There is a lot of addiction-habit and “oh look, a chicken” approach in artwork today. And yes, I think it is like an addiction. I see a difference between exploring and having to have the next newest thing. I can see that need for newer and bigger thrills all the time.

  11. Brilliant – this is very timely – i will read and re-read this to help with addiction for new projects and exciting new techniques and gismos – thank you!!

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