How You Sabotage Your Own Creativity

Preparation works for you—until it doesn't.

A couple of months ago I sent my Fast Company editor a list of 24 articles I intended to write in 2013 (my idea, not hers). She blessed 12 of them and set me to work.

And this article ain’t one of them.

I really tried to stick to the program. I looked up and down the list repeatedly, searching for some topic that I could get excited about. "What was I thinking?" I kept asking myself. "Who cares about this? What do I know about that?"

I gamely started article after article. I have an entire Dropbox folder of shame filled with scraps of articles, quotes, sentence fragments, and witty first lines. I squirmed and procrastinated. I made videos. I practiced guitar. I went running (to "clear my head"). And I kept coming back the list, feeling more and more frustrated and blocked.

Then it hit me: The list of articles was the thing getting in my way. I was trying to buffer myself into a productive and predictable future.

The Buffer Strategy
Buffering, in the positive sense (the negative sense being hypnotized by the revolving gears in front of a slow loading video), means building up a supply of something in advance of need.

If you have a pantry filled with canned food, you’re buffering. If you make seven videos on Monday and drip them daily onto YouTube for a week, you’re buffering. If you buy a 196-pack of toilet paper every three years, you’re buffering.

In these examples, buffering may make good sense. It can increase flow, as in having to set up and take down your video studio once rather than seven times. It can ensure against an unexpected spike in need, as in the full pantry. And it can save you frustration, as in always having plenty of toilet paper on hand (when you need it, you need it).

Buffering ensures against future scarcity. But that’s precisely why a list of article titles ended up stifling my creativity.

Buffering Against Presence
By creating this list, I was essentially telling my future self, "I’m not sure you’re going to have any ideas this good." And my future self began fulfilling this prophecy by withholding good ideas from the list itself. I suddenly felt like an unmotivated employee given a task he hadn’t asked for by a boss (that would be myself) who didn’t trust him.

Whatever we do, we do now. We literally have no other option. And how well we do it depends, mostly, on how present we are in this moment.

My friend Peter Bregman confided that he also had a folder with article ideas and snippets, just in case his creative well ran dry as a deadline approached. At one point his folder consisted of 57 articles that had been there for months, as moribund as the DMV line in hell.

When he realized that he always had something new and fresh to say—that in fact, having something new and fresh to say was his impetus to write in the first place—he deleted the folder and trusted the future.

Which is to say, he trusted himself to become full each time the environment required it of him.

Deadlines Are Acts of Faith
Being on deadline means always facing the possibility of being empty, of having nothing to offer. For me, each deadline raises the fear: "Will I be enough?"

When I go for that bait, I move right out of presence, of being here now, and into a cascade of worry about something that I can’t predict and can’t control.

What I need to remind myself on a regular basis is that each deadline that I agree to (and I agree to all of them, whether I admit it or not) represents my faith that I will always become full enough, clear enough, and generous enough to share something important with the world.

No Amount of Preparation is Enough
Preparation is a common form of buffering. And I’m a big believer in preparation: I believe that it exists, and that I might try it some day. (Note to clients and prospects: That is a joke.)

But even people who prepare like crazy—especially, perhaps, people who prepare like crazy—never feel prepared enough. Many people I know drive themselves nuts because of this. Whenever they stop preparing, they feel like they’re sabotaging their future. Their sacraments of success include Red Bull and coffee and self-deprivation.

But the truth is, it’s impossible to be fully prepared for anything. At best, preparation creates a framework in which we can be fully expressive in the moment, in the face of the freshly unfolding present. When our preparation crosses a line and starts to hinder that expression, it renders us dull, distant, and dead. Even when we’re in the room, we’re "dialing it in" from the past.

I never have everything I need when I sit down to write an article. But when I open myself up to the present moment, stuff comes in.

I never have everything I need when I get up to give a speech, or a workshop. My finest, most impactful, most honest moments are never scripted, never prepared, never expected.

My strongest performance anxiety occurs not in public speaking (thanks to those unplanned yodels during my Bar Mitzvah that lowered the bar far beyond anything that could happen now), but in private coaching and consulting. My client is paying big bucks. The stakes for their business are high. And I’m supposed to be clever and wise. Yikes!

Yes, I prepare. I research before I write. I create presentations and handouts before I present. And I study my clients’ situations before I meet with them. But all that preparation does not and cannot serve to excuse me from being present in that moment. And the only way I know to be present is to let go of all my preparation and simply face this moment as it is, right now.

At this point, it’s no longer faith in myself. It’s faith in whatever source of creativity and generosity flows through me when I let it: When I release the fear of not being enough. The fear of the well drying up. The fear of entering this moment with nothing to offer.

What About Long-Term Projects?
I realize that some projects require advanced planning. When I wrote my book AdWords For Dummies, I started with an outline and pretty much stuck to it for several months. Had I not, my ADHD would have produce a title like AdWords, Facebook, YouTube, Green Smoothies, Juliette Binoche Was Totally Hot in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I Wonder if the Fluorescent Lights in My Office Are Draining My Life Force For Dummies.

The outline provided a framework and kept me focused. But because I wrote it as an act of faith rather than doubt, it didn’t keep me from writing.

That’s all for now. Look for my next Fast Company article in a couple of weeks, when I talk about…

[Image: Flickr user Giulio Nesi]

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  • Dr_Liz

    Howard, I had to smile (in recognition) when I read what you wrote about crafting articles and giving talks. That is so true. In fact, there have been times when I've arrived at an event at which I was about to speak, having just spotted something that morning that was better suited to what I had intended to say, and completely changed my entire thought process. Which is why I always hate it when conference organizers ask to see a PowerPoint deck or other materials way in advance. Thinking about it, this is probably why so many talks are so pedestrian--because the speaker feels duty bound to confine themselves to the thinking they'd engaged in several months earlier.

    It's also interesting how, as writers who intend to hit our deadlines, it's important to have a framework (as you rightly point out: to stop us wading into the weeds) while not confining our creative juices by whatever was set out in the book proposal or article brief. I'm reminded of this quote by Joan Didion who said,"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking." Recently, as I was crafting a proposal for my next book, thoughts emerged as to its structure and organization that were not apparent when I began logically planning out how I might pull all the material together.

    That's the key thing about creativity, though, isn't it? It requires a high degree of confidence to "go with the flow" while at the same time the discipline to know when you're getting off track. It's hard to teach anyone that; it can be only achieved experientially. 

  • Mary Hochberg

    Interesting! I keep files of snippets, ideas, and inspiration in a "Perhaps" folder. as in "Perhaps I'll do them. Perhaps I won't." While there are times when I look at the items and wonder what I was thinking, I don't feel any pressure to complete or use them at any time. No matter how much planning, scheduling, thinking, the most important thing is now. Being open to what the present brings makes life (and work!) so much easier.

  • Katie Konrath | Ideas To Go

    Howard, in this article, you've hit the nail on the head about the problem of holding onto ideas!

    This is something I've noticed over and over in creativity session.  At Ideas To Go, we hold co-creation sessions with clients and Creative Consumers® associates.  In those sessions, we facilitators are constantly saying to everyone: "Write your ideas down. Write your ideas down."

    We tell people that the reason they should write their ideas down is so that they don't forget them. In my opinion, however, the bigger benefit from writing your ideas down is that once you have an idea on paper, it opens up room for a new idea.

    When you're holding on to an idea as "the next one I'm going to share", you're locking your mind into only thinking about that idea. And it limits your creativity - as you've noticed above.  Your brain thinks "I have a good idea. I'm done thinking."  And it shuts off - even though you still need every ounce of that creative ability to actually write that article. 

    Your strategy of starting from scratch is a good one. It forces your brain back into generating ideas and being present in the moment. You'll be much more creative if you stop holding onto the "good ideas" with all your might - and instead push yourself to think of other good ideas.

    Just as a side comment, I wouldn't recommend throwing out all your ideas. What I do recommend is using them as stimulus.  What do they make you think of? What about them could you turn into something you're passionate about writing at the moment? Where could they take you?  What about them did your editor like - and how could you use that to write about something new? The key isn't to look at those past ideas as destinations, but rather as thought-starters for future idea generation.

  • Howard Jacobson

    Good point about not throwing out the baby ideas out with the buffering bathwater. (Ooh, I do love the aroma of alliteration in the morning!)

    In fact, while meditating this morning, one of the article ideas came back to me in an altered state (at least one of us was in an altered state during my meditation), and I think it will turn into my next article.

  • worklifereward

    Howard. You get it exactly right, I think. It's a balance between advance work and just diving in, or it really isn't worth doing in the first place. While I relate as a writer, I've gotten caught up in the "did I prepare enough" in every job I've ever done. One side note though: I've found that we don't prepare enough for the work we need to do in our personal lives. It's a balance there too!

  • Howard Jacobson

    Yeah, balance is key. But I usually find balance by swinging between extremes. So next month I'll probably write about the benefits of careful preparation.

    As somebody said, the opposite of every great idea is also a great idea.

    And the opposite of my ideas are also ideas.
    BAM! ;)

  • Iskander

    I suspect there is a difference between buffering "finished items", e.g. toilet paper rolls, and just a wish list of things you want to do. The list of things still to be done probably induces a kind of stress, that effectively leaves no room for creativity. While of course the availability of toilet paper rolls will give you peace of mind, i.e. knowing that you won't be caught without...

  • Howard Jacobson

    That's what I find. My error came from not discerning the difference between the two.