• tarahthornburg

How to Get Out of a Creative Funk and Do Your Best Work

This post originally aired as an episode of my podcast, The Fearless Creative.

Make sure you subscribe to get your weekly dose of inspiration, motivation, and my very best tips for succeeding as a creative entrepreneur! If you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below.

Welcome, welcome, welcome to the show everybody.  I am so happy to be back with you this week. 

If you are a regular listener of the show, I’m sorry that I didn’t have an episode for you last week. My father-in-law Larry passed away two weeks ago, and so we have been in Missouri visiting family and helping get things in order.  

As you might expect, it’s been a very emotional and reflective time for me and my family, and one of the most important things to me about running my own business is the ability to hit pause at those times when life takes precedence over business. It’s important for me to really be able to be somewhere without having to step away or fly home…It’s one of the great privileges of running an online business.

And also…podcasting isn’t like writing. With writing, I find that I can write at almost any time. Writing fiction in particular can provide a nice escape. I’ve been able to write fiction at times in my life when I really couldn’t bring myself to do much else. But with podcasting, I find that I need to be “on.”  I have to be feeling positive and helpful and constructive so that I can help you, and to be perfectly honest, I just didn’t have it in me to record an episode last week.

This actually goes perfectly with today’s topic. I’ve been searching to figure out what I want to talk about this week, and I thought I would discuss an issue that I’m working through right now. So today I’m going to be talking about how to get out of a creative funk and do your best work.  I wouldn’t say that I’ve been in a major creative funk, which is why I’m able to recognize what’s happening and deploy some of the tools I have at my disposal to get myself out of it.

If you have never been in a creative funk before or you’re new to writing or creating art, you might not really know what’s happening to you. You may feel blocked or depressed or just really unproductive, and you might need some help getting out of that rut.

So we’re going to dive into that, but first it’s time for this week’s Discovery segment. This is the part of the show where I share something I found useful or interesting this week. And today I want to feature a podcast that my husband and I discovered on our drive back to Colorado. You know I love podcasts… 

This one is called “Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know.” It’s a production of iHeartRadio, and the podcast features topics ranging from conspiracy theories to actual government conspiracies to unexplained phenomena like UFOs and the supernatural. We listened to the episodes on the secret Nazi escape routes, psilocybin, and the Phoenix Lights. As a science-fiction writer and a serious tin-foil hatter myself, I just can’t get enough of this stuff.

So be sure to check it out if you need some more great conspiracy facts or theories in your life.

Now we have a note from our sponsors…just kidding. This podcast is brought to you by my own book, “Creative Morning Magic: A Life-Changing Daily Practice for Writers, Artists, and Makers.” 

We all need a way to integrate creativity into our daily routine — a method that embraces and enhances our lives as they are. “Creative Morning Magic” is a step-by-step guide to incorporating creative passions into our busy lives. Drawing on neuroscience, Eastern thought, and my own experiences as an author, I offer some practical advice for carving out the time to write or make art, using meditation to quiet the inner critic, and cultivating a lifelong relationship with creativity.

You can download your copy wherever books are sold or order the paperback on Amazon. 

And now let’s dive into today’s topic: How to get out of a creative funk and do your best work.  I thought this was appropriate to tackle this week because my husband I just lost a member of our family. We have been working on getting our house finished up…My husband is building our house off the grid in the mountains, which has been challenging in all sorts of ways…I’ve had a lot of irons in the fire work-wise.

And as I sat down to outline this episode, we had a random snow day here in Colorado after a day of 85-degree weather. It’s been kind of a cold and gray day. I can’t pretend I don’t enjoy the excuse to stay inside in my sweats and eat soup and snuggle under the blankets, but the days are getting shorter, and sometimes this gives me a bit of malaise.

So before we can get into the solutions, I think it’s important to ask: Why are you in a creative funk? Why are you feeling blocked or bleh?

For me, there are a few really common causes:

  1.  A disruption to my schedule

  2.  Having too much going on

  3.  Feeling burnt out. (In other words, I need inspiration or maybe a vacation…)

  4.  Facing a setback or feelings of self-doubt

  5.  Not being into what I’m working on

Quite honestly, lately I have been experiencing a little of all of these and the combination of several at once. Being out of town and off my normal routine always puts me in a bit of a funk. I am a creature of habit, so not being able to eat what I normally eat, sleep when I normally sleep, and have quiet time when I normally have quiet time always makes me feel a bit off-kilter. And when you go from living at higher altitude back to sea level, it kind of messes with your whole system — everything from your metabolism to your hair.

Having too much going on…This one applies to me both with work and on a personal level. As I mentioned, my husband and I are trying to move forward on building our house, and this creates an enormous amount of mental clutter that’s really detrimental to the creative process. I’ve been trying to close some boxes on various projects, and while that’s been successful, it has left me little worn down.

Burnout… Recently, I felt kind of burnt out as I was trying to get the course finalized. Luckily, all the videos were already recorded and edited, but there were just some technical things that I needed to do. I have some final marketing materials that I need to create, and that feels like a tall order right now.

Facing a setback or experiencing self-doubt…I have had this in Spades this year. Because I’ve been launching so many new things, I haven’t been as focused on my fiction. This means that my book sales have been down, and I’ve constantly been questioning whether I’m doing the right thing by splitting my focus in this way.

Finally, our last problem is not being into what we’re working on. I have felt this, and I do feel this at some point on nearly every novel that I’ve ever completed. I think this is a totally normal part of the process. But lately, this feeling has mostly been due to feeling like I should be working on something else (like my next novel) instead of these other projects. And to do something well, you have to be fully committed.

So first ask yourself why you might be in a funk. Of course, there are plenty of personal reasons why you might be in a funk. These might be related to a change in the weather, a change in your health status, relationship issues, financial troubles, or an ongoing mental health challenge.

Whatever might be going on that’s making you feel this way, I find it so helpful to just identify what’s causing the funk. I find that writing is one of the best ways to pinpoint what’s bothering you. So if you have a creative morning practice like I have, you could explore this in your expressive writing. Or if you follow Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages method, your pages can be really useful for that. If you do this, it’s really important that you write three full pages, because sometimes I find that I don’t get to the meat of the issue until I’m halfway through that final page.

Once you identify what’s causing your funk, then you can get to finding a solution. And of course, sometimes the solution will depend on the cause, but there are several general tips that I can offer that usually to help me get out of a funk.

Tip No. 1: Clean and organize.

Sometimes I’m in a funk partially because my immediate environment is a mess.  This can happen if I’ve been too busy to clean and put things away where they go. This can also happen after a trip when I have a suitcase to unpack. This is why I try to unpack from a trip immediately — either that evening or the very next day.

I do my laundry. I clean the house. I clean out the refrigerator and go to the grocery store. I put things where they belong in my office, and I try to get my email inbox to inbox zero.

I don’t know if this happens anyone else, but I always feel really weird coming back to my house after being away for a week or more. I think one reason is that we have a cat sitter who comes in and out while we’re gone, and so there’s just kind of a weird energy in the house when I come back.

For me, cleaning is an essential part of the process to make my house feel like home again. You could also burn a candle or some sage if that’s your jam. I find that it’s nice to open all the windows to let in some fresh air.

If you’re in a funk, start by looking around you. Your internal state is very much linked to your external environment, so get your literal house in order.

Tip No. 2: Clean your engine.

When I say “clean your engine,” I mean take care of your body. Go for a run or catch a workout. Eat some super-healthy food. Drink plenty of water. Get good sleep. 

Think of it this way: Any piece of machinery you own has to be cleaned and maintained to stay in good working order. You get the oil changed in your car on a regular basis…If you own a gun, you have to take it apart and clean it. The same principle applies to your body.

If you haven’t been taking care of your body, you aren’t going to feel right. If I haven’t been eating well, I feel completely different. Exercise can be a little sneaky…I won’t necessarily feel bad right away if I don’t exercise. It’s only when I force myself to get out and go for a run or do some yoga that I noticed what was missing. 

Tip No. 3: Get clear on your priorities.

If I’m in a funk because I have too much going on, I have to get really ruthless about what my priorities are. Ask yourself what’s actually important. This is especially useful if you run your own business.

If you don’t know what’s most important for your business, you might start by asking yourself something like “What could I do today to make money?” or “What activity is going to have the highest impact on my business this month or this quarter?”

This is where the 80/20 rule comes in.

If you aren’t familiar with the Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule, it just means that 20 percent of your activities will bring you 80 percent of your results. (Or that 20 percent of what you do is going to bring you 80 percent of your revenue/sales.)

So imagine the impact you could have if you focused 100 percent of your efforts on those 20 percent activities. Of course, this isn’t always possible — especially if you don’t know what those 20 percent activities are. But, if you can start thinking that way, you will at least get better at omitting activities that aren’t bringing you any results.

A good example of this is when writers edit their manuscripts to death. I’ve been guilty of this at many points in my career. I will obsess over word choice and punctuation before a book even goes to my editor. But then one day I realized that nobody would notice or care about those changes except for me. Another editing pass was an 80 percent activity. Most time spent on social media as a businessperson is an 80 percent activity.

One thing that I know about myself is that I often resist engaging in those high-impact activities because they feel hard. So if I know that there’s something I really need to do for the good of the business but I’m resisting, I might make that the only thing that I put on my to-do list that day.

This brings me to my next tip…

Tip No. 4: Make a plan.

If you have some big unwieldy goal, the best thing to do is break it down into smaller and more manageable goals. I had to do this for the online course. Rendering all the video was taking forever, so I said to myself that I just needed to render two videos a day.  It may seem like it’s going to take a long time to accomplish your goal that way, but at least it’s getting done.

Tip No. 5: Give yourself a healthy distraction.

Now, I offer this tip with some caution because I think we are all too distracted as it is.  When I say “give yourself a healthy distraction,” I don’t mean hop on Facebook or Instagram or YouTube. I mean immerse yourself in a high-quality distraction. 

This might mean going to the theater to see a really good movie or binge-watching a wonderful show. I really enjoy immersing myself in a show that transports me to a completely different world. 

There’s something really comforting about “Gilmore Girls” or “The Last Kingdom” or “Vampire Diaries” because those shows are just a world all their own, and sometimes I think immersing yourself that way can help pull you out of your current situation in a way that’s refreshing.

As a writer, I always feel really jazzed about the creative life and excited about writing when I realize that I have the power to create something that is equally immersive and enjoyable. That’s actually what made me want to be a writer…I wanted to create these shared fictional experiences for people that sparked fan phenomena the way “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games” did. So going to see a really good movie in theaters or watching a fantastic binge-worthy show has a strange way of motivating me.

So those are my more general tips for getting out of a creative funk.  Now I want to get into some more specific tips that will directly address some of the causes of being in a funk that I mentioned earlier.

If you are in a creative funk because you’re feeling burnt out, pushing harder isn’t the answer. I really wish someone could have told me this sooner. You have to take care of your creative self or your Inner Artist, and that means giving yourself a break now and then.

Give yourself a day off. Take a vacation or a long weekend away. For me, travel is one of my favorite ways to get out of a funk. I always feel so inspired and so fresh about life when I’m exploring a new place.

But, of course, this isn’t always possible. We can’t always afford to take a vacation or to take that time off work. But you can still take yourself on an Artist Date. 

If you’re not familiar with the concept of an Artist Date, this also comes from Julia Cameron. Essentially, you take your Inner Artist on a date somewhere that she will enjoy. This isn’t work…it’s supposed to be fun. So that might mean taking yourself to a bookstore or the craft store or to a museum or to the movies. If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, think of where you’d like to go if you were playing hooky. If nobody knew where you were and you could just go do anything you wanted, what would you do?

Next, I want to discuss coming off of a setback or experiencing feelings of self-doubt.  From now on, I am probably just going to ask myself what would Larry do? Larry is my father-in-law who died, and he was a very confident, self-assured person. My husband is very much that way — highly capable and highly confident in his own abilities. He built the family home, he ran marathons, he hiked the Grand Canyon in his 60s…He was just a force of nature and I’m not sure there was anything he thought he couldn’t do.

For the rest of us mortals, a lot of times you just have to push through self-doubt. I call this the brute-force approach, and I talked about this quite a bit on the September 9th episode “How to Manage Self-Doubt as a Creative.” 

Personally, I find it really helpful to listen to some Eminem and hit the heavy bag for a while. Sometimes I will go watch interviews with people I admire like JK Rowling or Oprah where they talk about overcoming setbacks. To me, it’s really helpful to be reminded that successful people weren’t always successful people. They usually faced hardships and setbacks and moments of self-doubt before they experienced massive success.

Finally, let’s dive into what you should do if you’re really just not into what you’re working on. The most important thing to ask yourself when this happens is “Am I really not into this, or have I just reached a rough patch?” 

Sometimes it happens that we are working on something we’re not really passionate about. But as a writer, I can tell you that you’re not going to be in love with every stage of the process for every book you work on. There are parts of the process that I genuinely hate. And there’s a point with almost every book where I just want to put it aside and work on something else. I have written enough to know that I should expect windows of time throughout the revision process where I really just hate the book.

But perseverance is the name of the game. If writing books was easy, everyone would do it.  I would say that 80 percent of the time, you’re just stuck.

Of course, you can shift gears to work on another project temporarily. I have done this several times, but you have to return to what you got stuck on. Otherwise, you’ll never finish anything. In our culture today, we are very accustomed to instant gratification. And art isn’t like that. Success isn’t like that. Things that are worth having or worth accomplishing rarely come easily. 

But if you just don’t feel any passion and you’ve been working at it for a while, try shifting gears to something totally unrelated. Sometimes I need to dip my toe in an entirely new genre to get excited about writing again. Even if I’m writing something that I have no intention of publishing, sometimes this can be enough to break me out of my funk. 

If you’re an artist, this might mean working in a different medium or creating something unlike anything you normally create. If you’re a musician, this might mean working in a different genre or playing with a new group of people. Sometimes it might playing or creating art just for fun — in other words, you can’t possibly be paid for it. Sometimes this is enough to take the pressure off and remind you why you love that thing.

That’s all I have for you today. I hope you found it helpful. As always, if you enjoyed this episode or any other episode, please go leave a rating and a review of The Fearless Creative on your favorite podcast app — especially Apple podcasts.  

I know I say this a lot, but reviews are really the lifeblood of any podcast. Leaving a written review does an enormous personal favor to me, so please just take 30 seconds and do that. 

If you have any questions or comments or ideas for future show topics, you can always get in touch with me. I’m on Instagram and Twitter @writewithtarah. You can email me via the contact form.

I’ll see you next time, and happy creating.

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