Self-generated time pressure can be a productivity booster

I’ve been writing about creativity, freelancing, and illustration daily for over four months. Last Wednesday was a jam-packed day, and I only got around to sitting down at the laptop to write around 11:30pm. I was tired and didn’t know what to write about at all.

The motivation was fragile. I almost broke the streak and just went to bed. Then I saw that the laptop battery was showing 7%. I decided not to plug in the charging cable. The time to write something was thus limited, and so now all decisions fell quickly. In the end, there were two sentences beside the headline. But that was perfectly fine, and I got to bed before midnight.

Without the time pressure, I probably would have worked on the post for a long time, or maybe I wouldn’t have written it. Instead of trying to adapt to the situation, we can try to adapt to it every now and then.

Inspiration – a romantic notion of the origin of creativity

Waiting for inspiration is not enough. We have to get it, work for it. From my experience, it only comes in the making and playing. Not necessarily at that exact moment, but when we switch our minds into discovery mode.

This happens as soon as we try to physically capture our idea. For example, when an advertiser scribbles his first ideas for a campaign on a napkin, a screenwriter writes down the plot for the first time, or a children’s book illustrator draws his first sketch of the character in his sketchbook.

Once we break through that initial barrier, we start to see things that we can relate to our project or story anytime, anywhere. We put out our feelers, and we pick only the best from what the world has to offer us.

Let’s embrace frustration in the creative process. It will strike us anyway

Frustration is usually perceived as something negative. In a way, it is. Who likes that uncomfortable burning feeling behind the chest when the drawing, the layout, or the story doesn’t look like we imagined it. In our minds, it looked already finished, so simple to accomplish.

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Silence is a tool for creative ideas

Creative meetings, where participants brainstorm or play ping-pong with their thoughts, are an effective way to come up with original ideas.

I believe that creative thinking in a group is ideal for starting and finishing a new project. However, in my experience, the real magic happens in silence when there are no external stimuli like voices, music, time pressure, Instagram, emails, or phone calls. When we have the opportunity to listen to what we have to say to ourselves. Whether we call it inspiration, gut feeling, or the inner voice. In solitude and silence, all the big fish of ideas swim. Steven Spielberg puts it this way:

“Your instinct, your human personal intuition always whispers. It never shouts.”

Steven Spielberg

Switching our minds into discovery mode

The first step is the most important, they say. But why is that so?

We have managed to conquer the first stage of resistance, for one thing. This can take a lot of strength, overcoming, and a lot of time in the worst case.

The best part is that the first step can be minimal. The first sketch of an idea for a new advertising campaign, the first sentence of our novel, or the first Google search on our bachelor thesis.

The first step may take a few moments, but what happens to us at that moment changes everything. Because the moment we start, we put on a pair of glasses. More precisely, we look through a template or filter from now on. We switch our minds into discovery mode.

Suddenly, whether consciously or subconsciously, we begin to perceive things around us differently related to our project. Similar to the phenomenon that if we bought a red jeep, we now start seeing red jeeps everywhere on the roads. They were always there, but now we see them first.

Our subconscious works from now on, even when we do something completely different, like the household. The well-known brilliant idea that struck us in the shower is not creativity. It is only the result of creativity.

Building a new routine: the Golden Coin Method

A small change can make much bigger changes happen in the future. That’s the idea behind the butterfly effect. Likewise, a minimal change in our daily routine can have a massive impact on our lives in the long run. The best part is that it doesn’t take much effort to drastically change our lives and achieve our goals. All it takes is some consistency and perseverance.

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Let’s embrace and look for the client’s opinion

Client: “You are the expert. I’m afraid I’m not creative at all.”

A client can tell a programmer, “I don’t know anything about computers, HTML, and website programming.” However, a client cannot say to a designer that he is not creative and that his opinion is not important.

Every person is creative in their activity every day. It’s because everyone searches for solutions every day. In addition, every person also has a sense of visual aesthetics. Even if they do not work in our professional field and struggle to express why he likes or dislikes something.

As illustrators and designers, let’s involve the client. We may be the established experts in our field, but nothing beats a fresh look at our work to make it better. After all, that’s what it’s all about. We want to create the best possible outcome for the project, the client, us, and the audience. 

Some people may be too engaging in the creative process, trusting us too little and constricting our creative freedom. If the reasons are not destructive, there are always solutions to solve this—more on this in another post.

Creative freedom comes from limitations

“We give you all the creative freedom.” If this is the client’s briefing, it sounds tempting at first. The client seems to have blind faith in us. After all, we can do and try whatever we want. We have the license to play. But actually, it means that sooner or later, we will inevitably lose control.

A game in which we can do whatever we want, without a clear goal, is not a game. We need guardrails. Basic rules that limit what we do and think. Only then can we focus our thoughts, dig deep, immerse ourselves in the task at hand and become truly creative. Too much freedom can be intimidating, superficial, and counterproductive.

A tight briefing is like a lighthouse on the open sea at night. How we get there is up to us, but the destination is always there for all to see. 

So let’s accept the client’s constraints and rules to reach his goal. They are what ignite creativity.

Do what you love. Then love what you do

A dream job does not only consist of dream tasks. The first step is to follow our passion in search of our calling. Once we find it, we quickly realize that our dream has a few catches. For example, writing invoices, maintaining the website, night shifts, stressful negotiations, and calls.

Project requests can also seem unspectacular and monotonous. “Why do I always get these boring jobs?” “I’ll get this one over with somehow now, and I’ll go full-throttle on the next one.” However, with this attitude, we sabotage our arduous journey to get here.

The only thing that matters is the work on our table here and now. Instead of condemning and devaluing it from the start, let’s dive into it and grow from it. This is the only way to keep the passion that got us here in the first place.

Starting a creative journey is always a leap of faith

Rules, constraints, direction, templates, time pressure, or experience are guardrails of creativity. When we create something that is not bound by any conditions, such as a briefing or deadlines, it can quickly scare us… We are 100% responsible and accountable only to ourselves. Without some kind of primal trust, fighting this resistance is hard. We freeze instead of starting the journey and having an adventure.

The first hour of the day is gold

I used to feel that the evening and night hours were when I was most creative and worked best. This is not the case.

Over the years, I’ve found that the time right after I get up is when I’m the most productive. I am concentrated, work faster, and hardly get distracted. I also find it easier to come up with ideas. The tank of thoughts is relatively empty in the morning. They don’t jump around yet.

As the day goes on, the tasks on the to-do list pop up and stick stubbornly because I still want to wash the car, write the bill and go grocery shopping.

Meanwhile, I put the most critical tasks in the first hour of the day. That means no meetings, appointments, and no social media, or news.

The first hour is sacred to me and belongs to me alone.

Our childhood is an excellent guide to finding our passion (1)

The search for my illustration style has been exciting, full of highlights, and at the same time, often tedious and frustrating. Because I wanted to reach clients, there were always thoughts like what might appeal to potential clients and what’s trending right now. So I tried my hand in different areas. But again and again, I hit a wall. I just didn’t enjoy the topics.

Without motivation and vision, I came across drawings I made as a teenager – a small A6 sketchbook. It was full of ink portraits of Hollywood stars and rappers. When I made these drawings, I wasn’t thinking about customers, the market, or my dream to make money with it. Nobody had paid me to draw this. It was my own drive. Maybe I’d better focus on that, I thought. I did, and it felt liberating.

Finding your passion. The million-dollar question is…

When I think about advertising on the Internet and conversations with friends and strangers, it is strikingly often about the question: How do I get a lot of money quickly, without much effort? This is a legitimate, albeit risky, goal, as this incentive opens the doors to fraudsters and criminals.

10 years ago, I had the goal to earn a living with my illustrations. As I worked on it for months, searching for my style, I realized something at some point: no amount of money in the world would be able to help me do that.
It wouldn’t have spared me the frustration I felt when drawing after drawing ended up in the trash can. Nor would it have made me realize that I’d be better off focusing on athletes and portraits, which I enjoyed the most. And finally, it couldn’t have given me the courage to publish my work on social media. That can only be done with the classic ingredient you can’t buy: Our passion.

In Singapore, I attended a design conference at a university. The host asked a successful creative director what advice he could share for young people and students looking for their own path. He replied, “Ignore the money. Focus on what you love and enjoy doing, and the money will follow you.”

Instead of asking ourselves what we need to do to become millionaires, what would I (continue to) do if I were already a millionaire today?