Maintaining Motivation
Issue № 243

Staying Motivated

Whether your chosen medium is pictures or language, food or formulas, everyone has the capacity to be creative in their work. But we can often lose our motivation to create, making it difficult to stay focused and excited on a project. So how does one keep their creative well from drying up?

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Maintaining your motivation to create is actually a long-term endeavor. Starting out can be tough, but with discipline and consistency you will eventually reach a point where staying motivated only requires minimal daily maintenance—a simple matter of learning to make the right choices at the right time.

Of course, everyone is different, and each person will have their own unique formula to propel themselves into a creative frenzy. So while this article offers some possible solutions, it is up to you to make the right choices to keep yourself motivated. Maintaining motivation requires paying attention to your behavior, listening to your instincts, and learning how to encourage, bargain, and even trick yourself into being creative.

Phase I: starting out#section1

As I’ve mentioned, starting from scratch is the hardest part, and rewards don’t come quick. But if you want to reach a point where all you need to do is give your motivation occasional maintenance, you have to start somewhere.

Here’s a few tips to help you when you’re starting out:

Set goals#section2

It’s a lot easier to stay motivated when you feel like you’ve accomplished something, but how can you know when you succeed if you never set a goal? Give yourself something to achieve.

Stack the deck#section3

Keeping interested and motivated is directly related to those successfully met goals. Set yourself up for more success than failure by being realistic in your goal setting. Small, bite-sized tasks at first. As you get more and more successes under your belt, make your goals more ambitious.

Build a creative den#section4

Whether it’s your desk area, a dark cave, a hotel room, or a home office, you need a place specifically set aside to be creative in. Once you’ve decided on that place, use it like the dickens. Each creative success you have in that location will train your mind to be creative within its boundaries. When I set foot inside my office, something clicks on in my brain, and I’m ready to work. Sure, it took about six months to turn into a den—but trust me, it’s time and effort well spent.

Retreat, but don’t surrender#section5

Never give up on projects or problems. Put them aside for a while, but always come back to solve them (even if it’s only developing a theory for solving them). Solving these problems will build your confidence, your knowledge, and (hopefully) your portfolio.

Find your cycle#section6

Just as your body has optimal times for sleeping and eating, there’s also an optimal time when your body is at its most creative (and, unfortunately, least creative). For me, that super-creative time is in the morning. I know many other people find that they’re most creative late at night. Find out when you’re at your creative best, and start using that time to your advantage; save your least creative time to do the mundane administrative aspects of your job.

The right tools#section7

Being creative is difficult enough; don’t make it harder for yourself by using inferior (or just plain wrong) tools. Explore your options and find the tools that allow you to create what you want to create, and get the best ones you can afford.

Follow your progress#section8

Seeing just how far you’ve come can be an excellent motivational tool. If you don’t stop every so often to see where you were a couple months ago, and where you are now, do it—you might surprise yourself with how much you’ve gotten done, or how much you’ve creatively grown. Or perhaps you’ll feel you didn’t get enough done, and it will strengthen your resolve to work harder. Whatever the case, it’s worth it to check every once in a while.

Phase II: maintenance#section9

Applying the tips from above, you’ll hopefully reach a point where you’re consistently motivated. Yet even when you’ve reached this plateau, you will occasionally hit points where that fervor wanes. It’s in those instances when you’ll need to try something new or different, set obstacles, or even take a step backwards in order to get your motivation back.

Here’s some things to try when you feel like you’ve hit a rut:

Don’t set any goals#section10

In the early stages of an idea, or if you’ve stumbled upon a creative endeavor you wish to experiment with, setting goals may destroy some of the spontaneity that makes experimentation so fulfilling. Let things play out naturally, and when you’re ready you’ll know if it’s time to duct tape that idea to a timeline.

Make the goals unrealistic#section11

I believe in certain instances that biting off more than I could chew worked out to my advantage. It helped me focus on the project, and push myself farther than I would normally. Unfortunately, you run the risk of failing to complete those goals, or completing them and completely burning out.

Get out of the house#section12

While a creative den can often get the juices flowing, sometimes it helps to go somewhere different to work. It may not be as familiar and comfortable as your creative den, but it can provide different stimuli that can positively influence your ideas, and eventually your work.

Study your peers#section13

It can be helpful to see what others in your industry are doing. It may provide inspiration, and at the very least will give you an idea of what the standards are for excellence in your particular industry (which can help you figure out what to expect of yourself).

Ignore your peers#section14

While it has its benefits, studying your peers too much can often cause you to focus only on their achievements, and lose focus on your own goals. What’s worse, it can often cause you to doubt your own work if it’s too different from the industry standard. When in fact you might be working on something just so different and fresh that it’s what the industry needs. Have a care, and don’t lose focus on your own work.

Seek external stimulation#section15

We’re absolutely surrounded by the creative output of both human beings and nature. Taking a closer look at everything around you can spark new ideas, and give you insight into how to solve some of your own creative problems. Whether it’s a museum, the center of town, or the biggest damn waterfall you’ve ever seen, there might be something out there to push you back into a creative mode.

Seek internal stimulation#section16

While surrounding yourself with stimuli can be helpful, it’s often just as helpful to remove all external stimuli, and let your brain stimulate itself. For example, I often go running to help give me ideas. Not because I like running, but because it’s possibly the most boring activity in the world. It’s often easier for me to mull over creative problems when there’s nothing for my brain to do.

Keep a sketchbook or notebook#section17

I can’t emphasize this one enough. Ideas—good or bad—need to be recorded. No one can remember them all. Writing down an idea for long-term storage might just free up some room in your brain to tackle new problems. What’s more, you now have a library of ideas to lend a hand when a deadline is looming and you’re not feeling your most creative.

Work through it#section18

While it may seem counterintuitive to force yourself to be creative, often it can work out for the best. It might feel difficult and clumsy at the start, but as you gain momentum you’ll almost always find your motivation has returned. And if it hasn’t, then take comfort in this—sometimes you may feel the work you’re producing is the most horrid abomination the world has seen, you may be producing good work after all. You’re just in the wrong state of mind to tell. Get through things as best as you can—you won’t know whether it’s good or bad until later on.

Give yourself obstacles#section19

Set a time limit, refuse to use a certain tool, make yourself take a more difficult direction—often these obstacles lead to some pretty exciting results.

Remove unnecessary obstacles#section20

We sometimes set unnecessary limits on a project, which hinder our ability to solve the most important problem. If you feel you’re too restricted while trying to solve a creative problem, it can often help to reevaluate the restrictions, and see if some of the unimportant ones can’t be stripped away.

Get on your horse#section21

So there you go. Hopefully, some of these suggestions can help you get on the right path to long-term motivation, or help you jumpstart your slightly-waning creative enthusiasm. As I mentioned above, these are by no means the only solutions. Only you can decide what direction is appropriate when. But with a little luck, experimentation, patience, and persistence, you’ll find the right regimen for keeping your motivation and creativity ever flowing.

About the Author

Kevin Cornell

Kevin Cornell is an illustrator/designer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He spends the majority of his days maintaining his website, and drafting treaties for imaginary conflicts. It is rumored he is allergic to cashews, but that is largely unconfirmed. Kevin is the staff illustrator to A List Apart.

57 Reader Comments

  1. Especially love the “be unrealistic” and “get out of the house” (or office) ideas. Sometimes a steeper hill and a change of scenery ARE what it takes to shake out of, or off a plateau.

    Thanks…will recommend to others, as well.

  2. That’s a kind of external and internal stimulation at once, the crazy people help your internal ideas to come out by not being blocked by thinking of being normal so much.

  3. It seems that recently we are getting more and more fluffy articles and less technical ones. Is that because there’s nothing left to discover with CSS, or the result of [gulps] market research?

    I didn’t enjoy this article at all. To paraphrase Duke Ellington’s (?) quote about swing: “if you need to read articles about it, you ain’t got it”

  4. It’s you. 😉

    Seriously, though, not every article hits every reader’s sweet spot (or can). If you have no problem getting and staying motivated, rock on with your bad self. But many of us do have problems staying inspired and productive; articles like Kevin’s help.

    More broadly, if ALA is not “amazing CSS trick of the week,” that doesn’t mean there are no new horizons in CSS. It means professional webmaking is about more than just great code. Articles about information architecture, writing, design, and so on may be fluff to you, but they are not fluff to many other web professionals who read this magazine.

    In the late 90s and early 00s, we focused more often on web standards (and on the kind of articles that would generate excitement about web standards) because _somebody had to._ Those battles are not over, but history (and best practices) are now on our side, allowing A List Apart to once again broaden its coverage of professional web design and development.

  5. I am not knocking articles writing, design and the rest of it, but I do miss some of the more technical articles you guys used to publish.

    This is not to say ALA is not a great site though, and thanks for the time and effort you put into it.

  6. Jeffrey I fully agree with Your comment for me the best part of Your commnet is: “In the late 90s and early 00s, we focused more often on web standards (and on the kind of articles that would generate excitement about web standards) because somebody had to. Those battles are not over, but history (and best practices) are now on our side, allowing A List Apart to once again broaden its coverage of professional web design and development.” btw. I want to thank Kevin for really great article (I like the ideas You write for me some of them are really brilliant!) and I’m waiting for another one from You!

  7. I found this article inspiring. I guess somehow most of us know a lot of self motivating techniques but we don’t apply them and seeing those techniques in one article as well written as they are here is a very fresh re-start for some of us.

    I have the ALA RSS feed since a while now and never really paid attention to it (even though i work making websites), this article changed that and i’ll be following the site from now on.

    Best of lucks for you guys,

  8. @Richard: So true. I can’t tell you how many women made out of 24 carat gold I’ve dated.

    @Juan: Thanks Juan – For myself, this list of techniques was always helpful in keeping me focused. So much of this article was compiled from sticky notes on my desktop 😀

  9. Some very sound advice. Keeping a notebook or sketch pad to hand is definitely very important. 90% of all my design work starts as a scrawled sentence, doodle or sketch.

    I think making a definite boundary between work space and living space (if you work at home or live at the office), is especially important. It’s a way to “trick” one’s brain into working.

  10. Personally I _don’t care_ whether the articles relate to web design _specifically_ or not, as long as they’re interesting and well written.

    What I particularly like about this one is that while what I do for a living is web “stuff”, what I consider I _am_ is a writer. Not a _successful_ one, but that doesn’t mean I ain’t one.

    Simply because for a long period of my life I’ve enjoyed writing and write regularly. A lot of it is simply my thoughts on news events and such like (scoff now and dismiss as simply another uppity _blogger_ if you like – but make sure to sound just the right amount of derision), but the key point is I write regularly.

    I write, on average, at least 1500-1600 words a day, normally at least 5 days a week. The more you do it, the easier it gets: and that applies whether it’s writing, illustrating, or cutting code.

    So ideas and thoughts that other people have used to keep their creative juices flowing are interesting (particularly when I note I already use many similar techniques myself) and well worth listening to.

    Thank you Kevin for this.

  11. Thanks for this article.

    To add on to Kevin’s list: if I can’t force myself to fill up that blank page, sometimes it helps to have music (played at a decent volume).

  12. Your most welcome, Jack. And you touch upon an interesting point. While the article provides new options and techniques for some, I think for most people it will simply provide confirmation on techniques that they’re currently using, or have considered trying out. Hopefully it will help some tentative creatives commit to trying a new path.

  13. The advice about the importance of work environment is spot-on, but let’s not forget our internal environment. My body is a crucial support system for my brain. I think and create best when I am well-fueled, and for me, that means having some protein in a recent meal. For others, it may be having a glass of juice or milk at hand, or a slow but steady stream of carbohydrates to maintain blood sugar level. Similarly, sleep. I usually hit peak creativity and productivity at night, but if I haven’t slept well the night before, I won’t ever hit it.

  14. This is my first time on ALA and I am immediately impressed, this was a fantastic read! I am feeling a bit unmotivated and not very inspired at the moment, and this had given me many tips and much which I hope to put into practice. Thanks for the great article! 😉

  15. First, thanks for this very well written and interesting article, Kevin!

    Most of these “techniques” are well known to most of us, but as some have already said, we just like to forget about them.

    For me, if motivation drops down or something gets too complicated, it works best to just put things down and change location/take a walk. And one point — already suggested by Robert Mohns —, maybe most important but yet unvalued, is to keep yourself strong and healthy.

    *Get some sleep, eat breakfast!*

  16. I really enjoyed reading that and it’s especially apt at this time of the year when everyone is thinking of holidays, (either with regret or longing). I’ve been a bit lax with my notebook keeping of late but you’ve inspired me to start up again: you certainly make a very compelling argument for keeping one. Also, like you, I find my morning time is best: but it never occurred to me to before to set it aside for the more creative tasks and do the mundane stuff in the afternoon! Finally, one thing I would add to your list is “Sleep on it”: I often find that when I can’t solve a problem, it can be useful to stop thinking consciously about it. When I wake up the next morning, I will often have the solution I was looking for.

  17. Definitely another good suggestion, David. Brains are funny like — sometimes the subconscious seems to want to try and figure things out without the conscious mind butting in!

  18. All I have to do is set goals, not set goals, work in my creative space, work outside of my creative space, study my peers and not study my peers. I’ll make sure to remember or not remember this advice.

  19. Haha – yes, a lot of these tips are contradictory. But the way to stay motivated is to zig when zagging isn’t working, and zag when zigging no longer cuts it. The goal of this article was to emphasize that particular aspect of staying motivated. There is no infallible 10-step plan for getting creatively charged, and writing an article where I only shared tips that work 100% of the time would have been impossible.

  20. Seems like noone has mentioned the most important part of staying motivated — staying HAPPY!

    If you graph these two variables, you’d find they’d be almost on top of eachother. Causation people! 🙂

  21. Thanks for the nice reply Kevin. I went and re-read my comment from yesterday, and I must have been in a crabby mood, ’cause I sounded totally negative. Sorry about that. I think your article was well-written, and I agree with most of your points. I just had a chuckle at some of the contradictory headlines, but like you said, it’s about the zig and zag. Good work.

  22. Thank you for a excellent article with a lots of useful ideas! Buy the way the illustrations true the whole ALA are amazing. I hope to see more design professionals talking about their skills and habits in the future. Keep the good work.

  23. Excellent article and very timely. One question: What about pushing through when one is under the influence of too much creativity and too little time/resources to handle it? Frequently I find myself in that situation–too many ideas or directions to choose which one to follow and I end up following none.

    I love your illustrations too, by the way. You do an excellent job catching the spirit of the article.

  24. I hear ya, Patricia. Sometimes you have so many voices with so many creative ideas all blaring in your head at once, it feels like a mistake to put one aside when they all could be masterpieces!

    But what it comes down to is that you have to choose the creative idea that’s most important to you, execute it, and ignore the others. In any creative endeavor, a lot of excellent possibilities will have to fall to the wayside for the good of that one idea that’s most important to you. You have to edit your efforts in the same way an author edits a story.

  25. What if it’s the clients who are killing the design and motivation? What if every single link, copy, etc. gets over analyzed and watered down? How does one escape that (besides looking for a new job because your current gig pays killer)?

  26. I’d love to say there’s an escape… but I’m not sure there always is one. The best you can do, if finding another job is not an option, is pick your battles and defend the 2 or 3 things most important to you in any design. A project you share with your team, and the client, will always have to be full of compromises – some of which you won’t agree with.

    But if you what you REALLY yearn for is complete creative freedom, then perhaps you can develop a side project of your own. When I was working at an agency, my personal website became an important place for me to stretch my design legs. I usually came into work an hour or two early to work on it, and did little bits throughout the day when I had a chance. Every little bit counts, and probably helps stem the tide of creative frustration.

  27. Kevin, thanks for this article. Honestly, all I’ve ever heard regarding motivation is “c’mon man, you just gotta be disciplined and push through it!” That never helped. You gave 17 alternatives which really takes off the pressure. Somehow, I don’t feel as incompetent.

    Also, as others have mentioned, your illustrations are awesome.

  28. I recently moved-in with my girlfriend and lost my “big ugly (IKEA) glass top desk” (Creative Den). While it did get messy, I was able to spread out. Now, I have this very consolidated work-space (“cleaner”), but I have nowhere for my post-it notes and piles. We’re now meeting at a compromise with a new, bigger desk (not from IKEA).

    My point: This article reminded me how important that space is to me. Thanks, Kevin!

  29. It really does help especially when trying something for the first time not to expect too much from yourself.

    I try to focus on making simple things work when learning new web technologies wether its CSS, Regular Expressions, Javascript, PHP or just trying to combine things together.

    Don’t try to build a perfect website in one day. Rather start with a single element of what will later become part of that perfect site.

  30. Personally I thought this article was great.

    Sometimes when your motivation is a bit low, all it takes to get you back up there is to read an article which reminds you that this happens to the best of us at some point or other.

    Thanks for taking the time out to write this Kevin.

  31. creative thinkers, the doodlers of the lecture hall/ meeting room. most of us have the attention span of a small child in harrods toy department and yet some of our projects seem to flow for years…so easy to lose the big picture. to have someone just put it down just seems to affirm what we already know (and yet need to read because like the 3 year old we are now too busy playing with something with sparkly coloured lights that moos. thanks for the heads up..time to refocus..but the lights are so pretty

  32. Excellent “fluffy” (love that) article.
    I call lack of motivation Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday usually between 9-5.
    To coin a quote from freelancers blog…
    “Your worst day working from home is pretty much better than any day at the office”

    Its always easier to stay motivated when you’ve not got to justify a design to 30 people, most of which stem from print design and still think the Internet’s a fad.

    WOOHOO

  33. It never would have occured to me that motivation was an issue. Motivation is that damn blank sheet of paper (screen, whatever). For me, what I used to think of as writers block in fact was idea block. After a lifetime in the business of ideas (advertising), bringing a fresh perspective to the party was sometimes more easily done than others. When I struggled, I had to purge the hackneyed, the trite, the obvious for the unexpected, fresh, original. Exercising your inner child, endless digging, discovering new insights is and was the key. For a list of 241 links to ideation, visit http://www.ieclectic.com

  34. Stuff is simple,practicle and very useful.Best thing is, it does not require too much of extra effort(which would need great deal of motivation… again).Thanks.
    -Harsh

  35. Cruising ALA for both some creative solutions and “inspiration”, I stumbled upon this article in the recent postings. Thanks! Sound advice to both a “web generalist without a job description” and “aspiring writer”.

    Now I just need to create my work area, i.e. excavate my desk from my “in” pile.

  36. I often read articles on ALA, but this one doesn’t feel me indifferent. So I decided to post my first comment, although my English is so bad.

    I read right words here, and in the moment when I seek creative idea, I learn how to learn find out myself. Indeed, I think that take my pencil, put it in boudaries of my paper before to “keep an eye” on my peers.

    I will again trust on myself, and I will launch (and note) my project…

    Thank you for advices!

  37. Kevin,

    I really appreciate your article, now I feel that I have a tool to work around those times when I feel lost.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    You just gave me back my hope. And I’m going to use each word from your article from now on.

    Thank you.

  38. yeah.. totally true, I find that motivation is just one of the hardest things to get right.. also since there is other requirements in life to distract you from the task at hand.. the comments on setting up a place is sooo important.

  39. It’s funny. But out of all of those, carrying a notebook was a big turning point for me. I’ll be out with friends on a Friday night or and the gas station buying my daughter a Bug Juice and suddenly something will hit.
    I have always been that kind of person. I really wish I had done something about it when I was younger. I have seen a lot of great ideas come into fruition over the years that I never had a notepad around to scribble it into.

  40. Things will always evolve and people will always reminisce to the good old days, technology is doing rather well right now and rather inspiring I think!

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