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How to Protect Your Creative Energy From Heightened Stress

If stress kills creativity, then your creative output could be a sad casualty of the pandemic. Thankfully, you can take a few steps to protect and enhance your creativity during the most challenging times.

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I freaking love the work I do.

But I’d be lying if I said I don’t get that Sunday night feeling when the glow of the weekend fades in the rearview and Monday morning looms in the headlights. I might be dramatizing a bit, but I bet you can relate. The start of a new workweek means stress.

Stress can be a good motivator, and studies show that in reasonable doses, it’s actually healthy. Some people even thrive on it — they get a shot of adrenaline, like a sprinter on the starting block. But times of extreme uncertainty (like, I dunno, the COVID-19 pandemic) can do a number on even the most badass adrenaline junkies.

We mere mortal creative professionals don’t even get an adrenaline rush. Instead, we get a visit from adrenaline’s evil twin — cortisol — which messes with our health and clouds our minds. But we can’t go into survival mode and hide under the bed with the cat. There’s work to be done. And in our heart of hearts, we’re dying to do it.

Creativity is all about flow. Too much pressure constricts it, but just the right amount improves it. What we have to do is accept (and welcome) deadlines and challenges — but also develop some safety valves for when pressure builds to dangerous levels.

Creativity During Quarantine: Managing a Weird Reality

Today’s socially distanced Zoom world doesn’t exactly offer ideal creative conditions. Even the most flawless video call in the history of video calls is still no match for a dry erase marker–wielding team gathered around a whiteboard saying, “Yes, and.” A half-hour of that might produce a dozen viable campaign ideas, whereas a video conference can consist largely of looking at someone’s cat’s butt. Dialogue often consists of, “Lisa, you’re frozen. Lisa? We lost Lisa.”

If your video calls leave you feeling more exhausted than energized, just know you’re not alone. We’re all in it together, and the struggle is real.

Another thing I look forward to about returning to on-site work is repairing the feedback loops that remote work has severed. With the awkwardness of giving feedback over video (which is especially awkward when you can see yourself doing it), we’re resorting to more written feedback, and that leaves room for misinterpretation. A thousand instant messages can never replace popping by someone’s desk for a minute.

This adds up to a net loss in candor and collaboration, but we will get through this weird time. For now, we have to put up with these constraints, and they do add pressure. That means putting a little extra care into maintaining your creative flow.

How to Keep the Creative Spark Lit in a Stressful World

Here are a few time-tested strategies I use to turn stress into productivity. Thankfully, these apply whether your office is across the hall from your bedroom or across the hall from the executive boardroom:

1. Obey your circadian wiring. This doesn’t mean staying up past midnight or rising before the sun. (Unless, of course, it does).

Circadian rhythms are partially learned, but they’re also genetically encoded, so we have to let them have some say in our schedules. They don’t dictate just our preferred sleep times — they also determine when our brains work best on given tasks. In fact, we all have times of the day (or night) when we’re most creative.

Your brain has a million ideas to present to you, but you have to be on task when they’re flowing. If you succumb to distractions during your brain’s “on” hours, you’ll squander your own best resource, and you’ll be stuck trying to extract ideas after your brain has punched out and gone to the couch, bloody mary in hand, ready to watch some Hulu. So block off those creative hours as much as possible.

Manage the flow of your week similarly. That Monday morning stress? I can write “I love Mondays” a hundred times, but it’s never going to be true. So I use each Monday strategically. I don’t demand creative brainwaves from myself. Instead, I use the day for meetings and analytical work. I’ll collect information and get a clear picture of the creative solutions I need to work on later in the week.

2. Embrace your inner bookworm. Reading isn’t leisure — it’s creative work that can get you out of mental ruts. Reading stories is like a creative rehearsal. Sure, it’s the author who did the hard work of turning a blank page into an entirely new world, but think about it: That’s impressive as hell.

Reading the words of successful writers teaches us to model confident, effective word use. Reading also reveals the world through another person’s eyes, which builds empathy. Plus, though the author provides descriptions, it’s you who actually conjures the imagery — at least in the case of fiction books. You have your own unique visual take on the characters’ faces and the settings they exist in.

On the flip side, doing your own writing is also a high-intensity workout for your imagination. Some people think creativity is a gift certain people are born with, but that’s not true. Creativity is a muscle, and the more you work it, the stronger it gets. Don’t set out to write “War and Peace.” Just let your stream of consciousness spill onto a page, and (this is key) don’t judge. The workout is for your imagination, not your inner critic.

And I know: Who has time, right? But you can fit these things in. Have a novel and a notebook by your bed. End your day with a few words that might seed your dreams with material that turns into powerful ideas. Start the day by capturing these in your notebook. Besides this, I also keep a couple books and notebooks at my desk. We’re trained to feel guilty about sneaking in little detours into a book’s pages during work, but it’s worth the few minutes it takes. All in all, it’s not so much goofing off as plugging your brain into a charger.

3. Share more. There’s no doubt that creative careers are magnets for introverts, but creativity can’t always be a lone-wolf endeavor.

Collaboration is the engine that converts individual ideas into working realities: Research shows that problem-solving works best when you have a combination of ruminative alone time and time spent pitching solutions and listening to team members’ pitches. They will have ideas vastly different to yours, so hearing them takes your mind on a trek into uncharted territory.

This idea-bouncing is important outside of work, too. Find your creative tribe, and consider joining a mastermind group or starting your own. It’s great to be an innovator, but it’s also great to know your vision isn’t weird and that other people get you.

4. Learn to meditate. Research has found that a mix of focused-attention and open-monitoring meditation can be highly beneficial for creative people.

Focused attention is connecting to an object, sensation, or thought. Training your attention on this one thing forces the million random thoughts buzzing around your head to shut up for a second. It reduces anxiety and makes space for ideas. I know it doesn’t seem like clearing your mind would generate new thoughts, but ideas do seem to arise out of nothing when the mind is quiet.

Open monitoring is also a technique for quieting the mind, but rather than trying to trick your brain into dropping its worries by laser-beaming its energy on one object, you simply let it do its thing. Whatever thoughts come into your head, just observe without judgment. Say hello to each one and then let it go. It’s called meditation practice for a reason. The more you practice dismissing scattered thoughts, the more you learn to let go of creativity-busting worries and doubts.

No matter how crammed my to-do list, I take at least a few minutes per day to sit quietly and declutter my mind. Just as graphic designers learn to leave white space on a page, you can appreciate that soothing mental white space in your mind.

I hope these strategies will help keep your creative chops intact through everyday stress, the stress of the pandemic, and the stress of whatever crisis lies ahead. And more importantly, I hope you will give yourself permission and time to implement these steps. Stress is an ever present variable in our lives, but you can safeguard yourself and keep the pressure at a level that promotes (rather than restricts) your creative flow.

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