While, as a freelancer, you absolutely must focus on your business and develop killer business skills, you also need to guard and nurture your creativity. Because it’s with your creative thinking that you actually help others.
When you make a living as a creative — designer, illustrator, photographer, artist, writer — you’re expected to be creative all the time, on demand.
Staying inspired is a different subject, and I talked about that in this article. My focus at the moment is how to manage the natural “season” of creativity and our creative work.
While, as a freelancer, you absolutely must focus on your business and develop killer business skills — and helping you do that is a primary focus of Freelance Road Trip — you also need to guard and nurture your creativity. Because it’s with your creative thinking that you actually help others.
That’s right: Your business skills give you the ability to make a living from your creative work. You need to amp up as a business owner. But you absolutely must nurture your creativity at the same time. You’re blending the two into one whole.
Do you understand how valuable you are in the world as a creative?
There’s a cycle of creative output most of us go through, and mostly without recognizing it. The cycle is progressive, and each stage is necessary to manage your creative energy — drive and focus — every day.
Don’t burn out on business stuff. Learn to design a business so that practices and principles allow you to solve problems for your clients. You don’t want your creative energy to be spent on solving problems in your business. You want your business to run smoothly so that you can focus on helping your clients and create amazing work.
And don’t burn out creatively. Pro creatives need to approach creativity differently than hobbyists and dabblers. We must guard it. As a singer will take care of their voice, the designer will take care of their thinking.
You can think about your creativity in similar fashion to how a farmer tends and cultivates the fields that produce the harvest. A farmer doesn’t really produce the crop; the field does. The farmer cares for the field so it can produce the crop.
Do you see the analogy?
Likewise, the creative pro’s “crop” is produced by their creativity. So your creativity is the field that produces the designs that solve the problems of the world.
How do you nurture your creativity?
There’s a regular cycle of creative output most of us go through, and mostly without recognizing it. The cycle is progressive, and each stage is necessary to manage your creative energy — drive and focus — over the long term.
We can think of this cycle as having four seasons. Unlike in nature, a creative season has no defined duration. In nature there’s a set 90 days between the summer solstice and fall equinox. But you can move through a single complete creative cycle in a few weeks, months, or even years.
Let’s take a look at the four seasons of creativity.
The first phase in the cycle is rest. This is a period of little or no output. You’re essentially dormant.
Remember, creating anything is work. Work is tiring. We need to rest from our labors.
Rest is absolutely necessary. Without it, you become overwhelmed. Stress and frustration follow along quickly, settle in and make themselves at home. You lose clarity. It takes longer to get through projects. You miss details. Your brain fogs. The next thing you know, you’re in burn out and seriously considering giving up.
We need to take breaks. But we need to take breaks in meaningful ways.
I’m not talking about going on vacation. I’m talking about sabbaticals.
We need intentional downtime from our ideas, from input, from the barrage of messages and urgent calls to action coming through our desktops, phones, tvs and gasoline pump screens. We need time away from client demands and opinions.
The farmer needs to let his fields go fallow for a season in order to allow them to rejuvenate. This is a conscious decision on the farmer’s part. Letting a field lie unproductive for a season makes that field more productive the next time it’s put to work.
What does rest look like?
Rest is a cessation of labor. You stop working — on purpose.
How long is the rest? A day. A week. A month. Sometimes even a year. Taking a sabbatical is a common practice for academics. This allows them time away from serving others to focus on refreshing and restoring themselves. Rest is self-care.
Rest is different for each person. I like to sit outdoors and simply observe. Sometimes I’ll head out for a drive or a hike. Other times I binge-watch or binge-listen to podcasts. When I’m resting, I don’t do anything creative. I take things in but don’t put out. Some people go on a retreat in order to advance creatively.
But rest is hard to come by if you make your living though your creativity. Freelancers commonly experience long working hours and even pull all nighters to meet a deadline. So how do you find time to rest?
Well, you don’t find time because you’ll never find it. Therefore you have to make time for it.
If you don’t rest, you will feel it. It’ll affect everything in your life, not just your business.
Schedule your rest on your calendar and follow through with it. If you do this it will make a huge difference in your creative energy level.
Take action: Where in your schedule this week can you set aside at least a half day of rest? Or, backing out for a broader perspective, when can you take a full day off for intentional rest this month? Schedule that time on your calendar. Keep the appointment. You’ll notice the difference it makes in your creative energy.
The fallow field created by a season of rest is now ripe for the seeds of ideas to fall and take hold. So the next phase is cultivation.
We go looking for inspiration. We write down our ideas. We start sketching or taking photos once again. We’re inspired by what we see. We’re pinning things right and left. We’re build out our swipe files.
Cultivation is where you sprout new ideas. With a rested brain, you’re able to make connections between things. New ideas spring from taking this idea from over here and that idea from over there and marrying them into a new idea. This process is known as innovation, and it’s vital to the design process.
Take action: Grab your camera and sketchbook, notebook, or tablet. Head out to a gallery or museum. Go see a movie. Go shopping. Go for a drive. Hang out with people. Keep your eyes open and pay attention to what you see. What do you notice? What catches your eye? Record it with camera. Sketch it. Make notes. Create a Pinterest board or add to an existing one. Upload photos into your digital swipe file. You now have new idea fodder for your next project or for down the road.
So you’re back to work with a project to tackle. Because you rested and allowed space for cultivating ideas, you now have energy and inspiration to fuel your creative solutions.
Resting your brain gives you clarity, and you’ll discover that one idea begets another, and you end up in a flow of ideas.
Take action: Capture these idea by writing them down, sketching, taking photos. Expand on them.
Let’s acknowledge that work is hard. It involves effort and perseverence. As creatives, we’re changing lives through our work — which is actually the point.
You complete one project and move on the next. Or you’re tackling several projects concurrently.
You’re loving the creative flow. Ideas are streaming through your head. You easily slip into the “zone” where the passage of time goes unnoticed. If you’re like me, do forget to eat. You’re having fun. You can’t wait to get to work every day, you’re having so much fun. This is what you’re meant to do.
If your rest has been deep, this creative energy will hold out for awhile. Even so, be sure to take time at obvious intervals to top off your tank. If you’re in a prolonged stage of producing ideas for yourself or a client, take mini-sabbaticals to refresh and refuel. Take that half-day away and go do something un-work-like.
Action item: Chunk large or long-term projects into smaller, manageable bits. Pause between each chunk you complete to pause and celebrate the accomplishment.
Creative work isn’t completed until you share it. Release the designs to your client and watch them go to work.
Share your work with the world. Show it on your website, your social profiles, your marketing efforts… let other clients know.
Promote the work to your prospects and colleagues. Make videos about it. Create case studies highlighting how you solved the client’s problem.
Be proud of the work you’ve created, especially if it helps your client achieve their goals. Their prosperity is the result of your efforts. Their prosperity is your harvest.
Design is service.
And so it goes. After a prolonged period of working, start the cycle over again by intentionally making time to rest.
Manage your creativity
By taking charge of your creative flow and keeping your energy levels topped off, you can sustain long periods of high-level, high-effort work without crashing and burning.
Understanding this cycle allows you to relax wherever you are in it. Sometimes we get frustrated because we’re in a producing phase and we want to be in a rest phase. Knowing exactly where we are provides security, peace of mind, and relieves the stress that comes with not knowing.
Look back over the past year or two and identify the creative seasons you’ve been through. Where were you highly productive and engaged in making stuff? Where were you full of ideas? Where were you resting and feeling uninspired? This kind of observation — paying attention to your creative cycles — will help you make the most of them.