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The Relationship Between Creativity and Willpower

Have you ever started the day determined to stick to your diet…and blown it by lunchtime?

There’s a reason that as the day went on, it got harder for you to live up to those good intentions. Psychological studies on willpower and self-control have revealed that we actually have a limited amount of willpower available to us each day–and once we’ve used it up, it’s gone.

Yes, gone. Self-control–the ability to make yourself do the right thing instead of the easy thing or the fun thing–is an exhaustible resource. Or, to quote Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard: “What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.”

How We Burn Willpower

  • Making choices
  • Editing or otherwise controlling our behavior (usually as a way of managing other people’s impressions of us)
  • Controlling our emotions, especially negative ones
  • Focusing on instructions given to us by someone else
  • Being careful or deliberate in performing a task
  • Forcing ourselves to push on with a task even though we’re frustrated
  • Engaging in creative thinking

In other words, any time you’re not on autopilot, you are burning up self-control. How many times per day do you bite your tongue, force yourself to choose carrot sticks over cookies, or come up with a creative solution for a problem on the job?

The energy that fuels your creative process is the same energy that fuels getting chores done and resisting the ice cream in the back of the freezer. That makes it even more important for us creative types to be good about managing the mundane aspects of our lives–so we’ll have more energy left over for writing that novel!

 How to Get More Willpower

The good news is that, while self-control and willpower are exhaustible, they’re also renewable, and there are things you can do to increase the amount you start the day with.

Take care of your body. One of the biggest factors in how much willpower you have is your health. Physical vitality translates into mental energy that’s available for making choices. Lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and other things that drain your body don’t just affect how you feel, they also affect how much self-control you have available. Getting a good night’s sleep, taking a fifteen-minute walk, a few minutes of deep breathing, eating a healthy meal: these are just a few of the small steps you can take to increase your physical vitality, and at the same time, your willpower.

Nourish your mind. Mental stress–sensory overstimulation, an environment that’s full of distractions, having too much on your mind–also reduce your available willpower. There are many small steps you can take to reduce mental stress too: meditation, journaling, talking with a good friend, losing yourself in a good book for a few minutes, listening to relaxing music.

Use Your Willpower Wisely. Here are some strategies for making the most of the willpower you’ve got.

  • Do the important things first. There’s a reason so many successful writers recommend getting up early in the morning and writing first thing.  At the end of the day, you’ve got much juice available to channel into your novel.  If your reserve is exhausted, you’re likely to skip your scheduled writing session altogether.
  • Make starting easier. Taking the first step on a project often involves overcoming many mental hurdles, and each of those hurdles requires a bit of willpower to get past. What’s the simplest first step you could take? A phone call? A google search? A quick-and-dirty list that breaks the project down into simple steps? Gathering all the materials you’ll need in one place? Anything that makes you feel like you’ve gotten a grip on the project today can make it easier to do the next step tomorrow.
  • Eliminate unnecessary choices. It’s hard to choose carrot sticks over cookies as a snack — but what if it wasn’t a choice? Bring healthy snacks to work with you. If you need help keeping portions in check, put an appropriate amount of your snack into a ziploc baggie, so you don’t have to think about how much you’ve eaten.
  • Simplify your routines and habits. For example, how many choices do you make every morning while you’re getting dressed? Laying your clothes out the night before or having your closet arranged by outfit could make getting dressed a
  • Plan ahead. Do you have to wrack your brains every night to come up with something you can make for dinner using what’s in the fridge? How many decisions and how much mental stress could you eliminate from you day by planning the week’s meals ahead of time and buying the necessary ingredients each weekend?
  • Arrange your environment to make the right choices easy. If you have to clean off your desk before you can start writing your novel, how likely are you to work on the novel? Would you channel surf less if your television was hidden away in an entertainment center with doors? Could you hide the junk food in the back of a cabinet and put the healthy food right up front? The more your environment supports the habits you’re trying to cultivate, the easier it is to stick to those habits.
  • Make a checklist. If you have to look around a messy room and decide what to do first, you’re squandering precious willpower. But if you have a cleaning checklist for each room, all you have to do is follow the list.
  • Set rules. This one sounds like a drag, but when you discover how much mental stress the rules can save you, you’ll be glad you did. One of my new rules is that every time I go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, I do a small kitchen chore while the water is heating, like loading or unloading the dishwasher. Stress eaters often reduce snacking by following the rule that every time they get stressed and want to eat, instead they take a minute to do a breathing exercise. Thinking about situations where your willpower often fails and coming up with a rule that guides you to the better choice can significantly reduce the amount of stress you feel when that choice comes up.

The better you get at using your willpower wisely, the more effective you will be in your daily life. And here’s how the kaizen approach can help: if you break your goals down into small steps, you only have to use a little bit of willpower each day until that small step becomes a habit (i.e. an action that does NOT drain your willpower).

And once that small step is a habit, you take the next one, and the next one…until you’ve got a whole repertoire of good habits that keep your life under control, so that you can focus all your willpower on achieving the big things.

Can you think of one or more ways you might reduce the daily drains on your willpower?

What’s one thing you could do to increase the amount of willpower available to you?

How a Tracking Journal Can Make You a More Prolific Author

More than a year ago, I joined a different kind of writing group than I usually participate in: instead of emphasizing craft and critiques, this group focuses on building a writing habit.

I joined because I was hoping that peer pressure would motivate me to write more.

It worked even better than I expected.  I had to check in daily to report my progress, and I didn’t want to show up empty-handed.

As I got into the rhythm of daily writing sessions, I started to experience an odd sense of relief when I sat down to write each day.  In the past I’d always felt conflicted about writing–as soon as my butt hit the chair, I’d be slammed with a wave of guilt about all the other things I should be doing.

But knowing that other people expected me to write made the writing feel less like a guilty pleasure and more like a priority.

Not too surprising, right?

That isn’t the best part.

In addition to reporting my progress, I was also required to answer a series of questions about each day’s writing session, including:

How creative did I feel that day?

What negative thoughts did I experience as I was writing?

What obstacles did I have to overcome to write?

At first, I thought these questions were a waste of time.  But it was part of the group’s process, so I answered them anyway.

When I started seeing the patterns in my answers, I was shocked.

I thought I knew what factors were influencing how much I wrote:  what mood I was in, how healthy I was, and whether or not I was feeling inspired.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Mood

It turns out that my mood didn’t correlate with how much I wrote on a given day.  I didn’t write more on days where I was happy, and I didn’t write less on days when I was annoyed or had the blahs.

Health

I discovered that if I wrote at my scheduled time, I wrote about the same amount whether I felt great or had a cold.  Hayfever and other everyday physical complaints didn’t decrease my output at all.

Inspiration

While I’m not the type to wait for inspiration–I know that it often strikes when you’re already working–I did assume that I need inspiration to have a really productive day.

Not so, it turns out.  In fact, I often wrote more on the days that I felt less inspired.  It’s possible that I was pushing myself in the hopes that inspiration would come.  Or maybe the feeling of satisfaction I felt on the days when my muse was generous made it easier to quit early.

In other words, how I feel–physically, emotionally, creatively–is not an accurate predictor of how much I’ll be able to write.

Seeing the cold, hard data made it impossible to ignore the patterns.  For years, I’ve been allowing myself to skip writing sessions when my mood was bad or when hayfever had my sinuses in an uproar.  And I’d been blaming my uninspired days for my slow progress.

My faulty assumptions about how my creative process works were keeping me from reaching my full potential as a writer.

So what factors did affect how much I wrote each day?

Only two:  sleep and how active my inner critic was.

Days where I got eight hours of sleep or more were days where I exceeded my word count goal.

Days where I got less than eight hours of sleep were days with lower word/page counts.

Days where I got less than seven hours of sleep were days where I struggled to write anything.

And as for my inner critic–recording the negative thoughts I experienced as I sat down to write was enlightening.  There was an almost perfect correlation between how many negative thoughts I experienced and how little I wrote.

And the thing that really stinks:  my inner critic doesn’t know what it’s talking about!

When I went back to look at the things I wrote on days when my inner critic was throwing a tantrum, I discovered that they weren’t any worse than the things I wrote on days when my inner critic was silent. They both required about the same amount of editing.

That’s right.  My inner critic wasn’t helping me improve the quality of my writing.  At all.

Lessons Learned

Now that I’ve seen the real factors that affect my productivity as a writer, I’m doing things a little differently.

1.  I don’t let how I feel on a given day determine whether or not I write.

2.  I go to bed at a reasonable time, knowing that I’m increasing my capacity to write tomorrow.

3.  I’m exploring ways of taming my inner critic.

Just knowing that my inner critic isn’t giving good advice makes it easier for me let those negative comments go.  When the voice in my head tells me I’m writing crap, I now shrug and reply, “That’s your opinion.”

The group has also taught me that positively reframing my inner critic’s negative comments helps take the sting out of them.

When I find myself thinking that I’ll never finish this novel, for example, I remind myself that I don’t have to finish it today.  I just have to write the next scene.

Challenging my assumptions about what factors affect my creative process has allowed me to more than double my writing productivity in a mere two months.  I encourage you to do same.

Make a list of the things you think are affecting your productivity.  Time of day you’re writing, noise levels, diet, sleep, inspiration, mood, exercise. If you’re not sure what to track, start with your usual excuses.  What are the things you usually blame on the days you decide not to write?

For the next month, commit to writing for at least five minutes each day, and track each productivity factor at the end of your writing session.  You might track hours of sleep, or rate your energy levels on a scale of 1-10, or simply note your mood at the time you started your writing session.  You might start a list of negative thoughts and put a checklist by the ones that show up as you write each day.  Whatever you think is important, track it.

At the end of the month, look for patterns.  Did you write more on days when you felt blah and less on days when you felt angry?  Did your output go down on the days when all you ate was pizza and milk duds?  Did you discover that you write best after a brief nap or a snuggle session with your cat?

Once you see the patterns, you’ll know exactly what you need to change to become a more prolific author.