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 Yes, I still miss cookies and chocolate and all the things my sweet tooth loved, but it’s been replaced by a satisfaction that I am managing to stay on track.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.