Should I wait to be inspired?

Inspiration is a touchy subject. Designers depend on “being creative” for the work we do every day. Not feeling inspired can be debilitating. But what do we mean by lack of inspiration?

In ancient Greece, the Poet was inspired by a Muse - and if the muse had failed to arrive, the poet was not to blame. They were just unlucky. It was the poet’s professional responsibility, however, to be ready to write in case the muse shows up. To keep oneself in shape, so to speak.

Today, our thinking about inspiration and creative work is largely the same. But while we may be forgetting the importance of “staying in shape” to work, the inspiration bit has potential to create lots of stress for designers and artists. When stuck on a project, we may spend countless hours seeking inspiring examples of others’ work, or self-loathing.

The poet Virgil composing Aeneid and two muses

The poet Virgil composing Aeneid and two muses

Note that the poet is ready to work when the muses show up. Causation or correlation?

To help solve this lack of inspiration, we will first see where it comes from, and then how artists have addressed it by forming habits and scheduling.

Ways of feeling un-inspired

Feeling uninspired usually means one of these things: 1. Lack of material 2. Low energy 3. Loss of momentum

Lack of material happens when we think it might be nice to have created something, but do not have a specific subject in mind. To design something cool, we first need the source material - a context and a problem to solve. Without material, there is nothing to work on - nothing to solve.

The problem is, when we are in the mood (and the physical environment) to start making something, it can be the wrong environment for thinking about ideas for what to make. If you’re already sitting down with paints mixed and ready, then thinking up a suitable subject may feel like daydreaming - something that’s getting in the way.

A couple of years ago, I challenged myself to make a small watercolor painting every day to improve my technique. I enjoyed the process at first, but after 2 weeks it became a struggle to complete the daily piece. After I made a list of subjects and gathered reference material ahead of time, I was able to complete the daily drawing smoothly. The easiest solution to lack of inspiration is gathering materials and ideas ahead of time.

Low energy can be both physical and mental. The most effective way to solve this is by scheduling your creative tasks in the morning - before everything else. The 6am club concept by SeanWes is a very clear example of how one could prioritize the creative work of writing over other tasks of the day by scheduling it first.

Lack of momentum happens when one step is completed, but the next step is not clear. Documenting your process and planning out the work ahead of time will help solve this. For example, a written outline for a piece of writing (like this one :-) will help eliminate distractions that creep in between thoughts. As I start drifting, I look over to my handwritten mind map, and proceed to the next point I wanted to cover.

A mind map / outline I used for the  Analog Tools  post

A mind map / outline I used for the Analog Tools post

Even a lack of inspiration to start a creative project can be solved with a well documented process. For example, before starting a UI design, I always learn about the audience, and comparable products that already exist. So rather than waiting for inspiration, I ask myself some “obvious” questions. The answers give me plenty to work with.

Using habit to support inspiration

Habits and routine consistently show up in artists’ practice.

Nearly every weekday morning for a year and a half, I got up at 5:30, brushed my teeth, made a cup of coffee, and sat down to write about how some of the greatest minds of the past four hundred years approached this same exact task—that is, how they made time each day to do their best work, how they organized their schedules in order to be creative and productive.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey

The book provides a fascinating glimpse into the everyday details of artists’ lives - like what they had for breakfast. Through these examples, people like Georgia O’Keefe and Vladimir Nabokov become relatable and somehow more real. And the examples prove that we need a schedule to consistently produce creative output.

Georgia O’Keefe found the solitude she needed for work the New Mexico desert. On ‘painting days’, she would work consistently from morning till early evening. In the early evening show would drive in the countryside to take in the views as visual material for her work.

Nabokov, During his time in Montreux, Switzerland, followed a steady schedule of working nine to five-thirty with a break for lunch and a walk - “My habits are simple, my tastes banal.”

Even Francis Bacon, whose social life appeared chaotic and excessive, would work consistently on a schedule. “Painting came first. Despite late nights, Bacon always woke at the first light of day and worked for several hours, usually finishing around noon.”

To create and keep up with a schedule, consider the advise Twyla Tharp shares.

I will keep stressing the point of creativity being augmented by routine and habit. Get used to it.

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Twyla explains that because willpower is a limited resource, rituals will help us make the most of what we have.

Waiting until “inspiration strikes” is the opposite of scheduling. It relies too much on the outside influences “striking”, and without routine to support the creative work, distractions will almost always take over.

In summary - no, don't wait for inspiration. Schedule your days, create the conditions you need to work, and inspiration will arrive.

Maria Matveevathird-9