Honest answers & workable widsom: how real creatives get out of their own way

Honest answers & workable widsom: how real creatives get out of their own way
February 28, 2018 Beth Nyland

This is the view from my office chair today:


It’s a familiar scene. Dash frequently sits, stands, or lounges between me and my work. He’s a real and physical barrier to my progress.

And he’s not the only thing that gets in my way. A number of intangible but substantial forces wedge their way between me and my work.


In my procrastination/preparation for this post, I went to Facebook. Not just for the distraction of mindless scrolling, but for wisdom from my friends. (Sometimes it takes a village to draft a blog post.) I wanted to know what keeps other people from making progress—or even starting—on a creative project. So I posed a question:

“What gets in your way, and how do you overcome it?”

The friends in my virtual village came through with honest, creative answers. Here’s what they offered:

Conquer doubts and distractions with a deadline.

“I get in my own way,” confessed my business partner, Jill Pollack. As she prepares to write, her inner critic accuses her of having bad ideas. In defense, she invents excuses to avoid writing at all: “I have too many emails to answer,” or “I can’t write until my office is spic and span.”

Jill knows the fix for this double-whammy of self-loathing and self-distraction.

“I set a timer and write without stopping,” she says. “I let myself write really inane ramblings. I follow them wherever they go. Eventually, I get to the good stuff.”

I can vouch for that. Here’s some good stuff she’s written and shared via LinkedIn.

Move past inertia with small steps.

Emily Nash is a math teacher who strives to engage students with unexpected approaches. But the challenge of invention sometimes stops her in her tracks.

“When I’m trying something new or different with a lesson,” says Emily, “I get nervous that it won’t work or I’m taking on too much. I talk myself out of starting it altogether.”

How does she get herself to move?

“I get over it by starting something, even it’s a checklist for the students. Just one small piece.” These micro-efforts increase Emily’s sense of commitment. “I feel I’ve invested the time, so I should continue,” she says.

Similarly, Norma Fredrickson, a full-time artist (and my sister), believes in the power of “chunking it up” to get things accomplished.

“I was slow to get to the studio yesterday,” she admitted. “To finally get there, I needed to remind myself of the purpose for the work, turn off the judge in my head, and then make a series of quick, small decisions.”

After a few purposeful moves, Norma found herself “in the zone,” making things happen.

Provoke your process by glimpsing finished work.

As a consultant and entrepreneur, Carol Semrad must often channel her ideas into a blank page, slide deck, or spreadsheet. When introspection doesn’t get her going, she scans external sources for the shape of her work to come.

“I look at what I would do if I did start the project,” Carol says. She thumbs through background information, revisits similar projects, or searches her topic on the web. “Once I look at something—once I get beyond hearing my own loop—then I can get going.”

Seeing other people’s finished work also motivates Vania Rachitoff, a teacher and student who makes art in the nooks and crannies of her busy schedule.

“When I want to paint but I’m too lazy to get up,” says Vania, “I’ll look at pictures on Pinterest to inspire me. Then I’ll get up and get wine, lock my door, and begin to paint.”

Self-talk your way past perfection and procrastination.

Two communication colleagues weighed in about some of the most common barriers to progress: procrastination and perfectionism. They suggested the same antidote: Talk kindly to yourself.

“Perfection is what holds me back,” says Kristine Hinck Mills, a corporate communication consultant. By recalling her own successes, she finds courage to dig in.

“I remind myself of other times I accomplished things—perfect or not.” Conscious of past victories, she gives herself permission to proceed.

Sharon Phillips, another experienced communicator, had this to say: “When I find myself procrastinating on something, I have a talk with myself.  I acknowledge my fear and then immediately do the work.”

Sharon is a talented consultant with years of experience to share. What could she possibly be afraid of? Like Kristine, she has that “fear that I won’t do it perfectly,” as well as “fear that I will struggle and be uncomfortable, fear of making a major and costly mistake if I do it incorrectly, fear of not meeting others’ expectations.”

By talking to themselves, Kristine and Sharon are shushing negative notions that can stop anyone from getting things done. The friendly voices in their heads keep them sane and productive.

Know when your brain is wired to work. And be ready!

Caroline McAlpine, a graphic designer, doesn’t waste daylight struggling for an idea. When working on a logo, she knows her best ideas come after dark, when her head hits the pillow.

“Enjoy your day, because you may be wasting your time stuck in a rut with your creativity,” she says. “Often my best ideas occur once I lie down to sleep. It never fails to amaze me. I find myself leaping out of bed with fresh ideas and jotting down the idea or sketch before it gets away. Usually, one solution leads to another, and I’m hopping out of bed several times.”

So, what do I do about my cat?

I can relate to everything my friends put forth. Every one of their obstacles has been mine, at least a time or two. And when you get right down to it, every one of these creative people spoke to the barrier I consider my biggest fault as a creative communicator:

I procrastinate.

This blog post is a case in point. All month, I’ve been pushing it down my to-do list, moving it deeper and deeper into the month of February. Suddenly, tomorrow is March, and there’s no time left for anything but the work. So, I do what must be done:

Shut the door.
Silence the phone.
Close email and messaging apps.
And reach an agreement with the cat:

With the barrier removed, Dash gets his nap, and I get my writing done.