What prevents us from being more creative and more productive?
For one, our self-talk messaging is often about not being enough. Not talented or accomplished enough. And whether it’s practicing, networking, self-promoting, or booking — the message is we’re never doing enough.
And even when we’ve given a terrific performance or released a recording we’re really proud of, and people congratulate us, we’re often unable to take it in praise. We either think or say, “Yeah, but . . . I screwed up three times in the second movement,” or “He’s just being kind” or “Sure, that was OK, but I still haven’t . . .”)
What can compound this is an underlying sense of being unworthy. Not smart enough, thin enough, rich enough, or young enough. We may think, on some level, that we’re losers. I know I’ve done this. Plenty.
And it can undermine our efforts and limit even the projects we dare to take on.
Yeah, but . . .
We may defend our hyper-critical inner voice thinking it’s necessary to reach our goals. That we need to be super tough on ourselves to perfect our art. This is unfortunately how many musicians learned and what was modeled for us.
The problem with this approach is that it can lead to resenting the work itself, and then avoiding it. Especially when we’re tackling ambitious goals or projects. If we fear we’re wishing beyond our capabilities, we may hold back or engage in “micro self-sabotage.” Because on some level, we believe that we’ll never succeed, so why be “all in” when it just means more heart ache? We may quit early and avoid loss of face. Or we may never begin at all.
So what’s the alternative?
To come from a place of radical acceptance. Of ourselves, of our circumstances. To acknowledge it all: our strengths, our short-comings, our self-sabotage. Not to make excuses, but to confront our own BS. If we can acknowledge that there’s no such thing as perfection, and if we’re truly committed to changing our thinking, our habits — and taking action — then we can change the outcome.
To boost creativity and productivity, we need to change habits of behavior and thinking. Here are three of the practices that have worked for me, for clients, and for colleagues:
1. Counteract negative-thinking with gratitude
Grateful Flow is an exercise I’ve mentioned here before but haven’t spelled it out in detail. It’s from The Tools and Coming Alive authors Phil Stutz and Barry Michaels. It’s simple and quick. Use it in the moment when you start to feel dread, worry, or resentment. Grateful Flow works because it’s impossible to feel anxious, angry, or self-defeated when you are truly feeling grateful.
But it’s a tool you have to use repeatedly, every time you catch yourself cycling into negative thinking. It’s best to build it into your routine so that it becomes a habit. I do it every morning before breakfast and on my walks (it’s great to do at meal times and also before bed).
Take a moment and breathe. Then think about and say in your mind or out loud the small, everyday things you are actually grateful for. For me, at this moment, it’s the ginger tea I had this morning. It’s the fact that I have this time now to think and write about what matters. It’s the conversation I had yesterday with my friend Howard and the view I love out my dining room window.
As you make your own list, notice how your body feels. You may sense a softening in your chest — a feeling of opening up. If you lean into this feeling you may also have a sense of being connected to something much bigger than yourself. Call it wonder, the life force, a higher power, God, or whatever else works for you. It’s this connection to something beyond ourselves that can help fuel our work so we can live into our best selves.
When you start each day and each work session with gratitude you can operate from a baseline of openness and possibility.
Grateful Flow has an amazing effect but the results are short lived — so you need to make it a habit, a way to counteract the negative self-messaging. It’s a way to bring yourself back to being present in the moment. When you build this into a habit over time, it changes your self-talk and improves your quality of life. But it takes commitment.
2. Create a morning ritual
A client — let’s call him Matt — talked about feeling reluctant to start his work each morning and uncertain about what to specifically start with. He felt it didn’t really matter when or what he started with because he wasn’t sure it was going to come to anything.
I know that defeatist feeling all too well.
Matt had some procrastination going on but also uncertainty about how to get started. And perhaps unrealistic expectations, as well — that every work session was supposed to yield amazing results and feel inspired. And if he didn’t feel that way going into it, what was the point?
This is how our Resistance can really do a number on us — because there’s no way we can feel good about getting down to work under these circumstances. It’s as though our Resistance is telling us that no matter what we do, it won’t come to anything so we should just give up — why bother?
I’ve been there, too.
It’s why I love having a morning ritual. By “ritual” I mean having a consistent morning routine that I’m committed to and that I schedule into my calendar and don’t alter unless it’s an absolute emergency. So there’s no negotiating or deciding. I simply follow the plan — the habit — and get to work each morning at the appointed time.
Having the ritual demands getting up early so that I can do my creative work before other my appointments and commitments kick in. It means putting my frame of mind and my creative priorities first.
It also means going to bed early and shutting off all screens a full hour before I get into bed so that I can sleep better and get up on time. And it means having a concrete plan for the next morning’s work.
It’s what I found I needed to do to be more focused, more present in my work. But there was another important discovery.
I needed to make my early mornings distraction free. Why? Because how you start each day matters. This means absolutely NO checking social media, email, or listening to the news or anything else that’s stress-inducing and distracting.
You can feed your addictions later. Believe me.
Important tip: this means NOT using your phone as your alarm clock. Do not have it in your bedroom at all. Put it in another room and charge it overnight with the ring turned off.
Whoa, that’s a lot to change, isn’t this supposed to be easier?
You might be thinking this sounds extremely restrictive and perhaps your Resistance is telling you the artistic life should be more free.
My question is, how committed are you to living up to your potential?
Because my guess is that what you’re doing now isn’t working that well.
It comes down to this: you can either swap your old habits for new ones, or keep on with what you’ve been doing and the life you’ve got. It’s a choice.
But I don’t know any creative success stories that happen when people wait until they’re inspired to do their work.
What I do know is that no matter how busy you are, you can find 10 minutes a day for quieting you mind with yoga or meditation. I can promise you that by doing this consistently before you start practicing or writing (or whatever daunting creative work you’re committed to)—that you’ll see improvements.
My morning ritual includes qigong, meditation, and a walk before getting down to writing. Your ritual will be your own.
For my client Matt, when he stopped listening to the news over breakfast, it made a huge difference to his frame of mind for the creative work he does each morning. It bought him more calm and focused energy and improved the quality of his creative output — and the rest of his day.
Like Matt, if you prioritize time in the morning for distraction free creative work, you’ll be far better equipped to deal with the day’s challenges.
This takes discipline. But it mainly takes setting up a habit, a morning ritual that becomes your new normal. It’s what has helped me write articles, complete new book manuscripts, and create a course.
If you have a 9-5 day job, fitting in that creative work may take getting up extra early to study scores, to journal, listen to recorded practice sessions, or use a practice mute. Whatever you need to do, it’s essential that you don’t squander the start of the day — when your mind is fresh and uncluttered. Prioritize what’s important: your creative productivity. Demonstrate to yourself that you’re living your values.
3. Focus on the process
Instead of focusing on the present, it’s common for musicians to be distracted by comparisons. It’s easy to feel that we are “behind.” That at this point in our lives, we should be at X or Y.
We compare ourselves with our artistic heroes and feel “less than.” Or we measure ourselves against our old fantasies of how our lives were “supposed” to go.
Either way, this thinking can keep us locked into believing that we’re not enough. And that the point of all our efforts is to prove ourselves and gain external validation.
But that’s not why we got into music in the first place, is it?
If being a musician is a lifetime mission, if it’s about love of the art form and being of service, then the process is the reward.
And here’s the weird counter-intuitive thing: when we focus on the real process — on putting our mission in action — then rewards actually come more easily. What I mean is when you can be fully present in your creative process, in genuinely connecting with audiences, and in honestly looking for ways to be of service as you advance your career, you will bring your best self forward and see more positive results.
Focus on the now.
But is this change really possible?
In working with clients, I sometimes sense in them an underlying skepticism about whether real change is possible for them. Scarcity thinking and self-limiting beliefs can prevent us from following through whole-heartedly.
So we may do the work but we are, on some level, going through the motions on auto-pilot. We may reach out to networking contacts and work on our promotional materials. But we’re not actually “all in.” And we may even engage unwittingly in small acts of self-sabotage, missing deadlines, or forgetting to follow through — because ultimately, we don’t really believe that we are worthy of reaching our goals.
My best advice is to notice what’s going on in our thoughts. To catch our Resistance, our Part X, whispering or shouting at us. You can’t counter-act what you’re not noticing.
The actual creative work isn’t simply doing the practicing or the composing — what’s crucial is how we deal with the negative self-talk and our own distractions. It’s how effective we are in bringing ourselves back to focus.
Having a meditation practice and using The Tools can boost your creative productivity. And creating a consistent morning ritual can reduce stress and improve focus. It has for me and my clients.
Question: What’s helping you get your best creative work done? I’d love to hear what other approaches people are using!
And if you’d like to have a conversation about your goals and career plans, and how coaching might help you get past whatever’s been holding you back, let’s schedule a time to talk! Reach me at Angela@BeyondTalentConsulting.com.
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