Since I use Ulysses for so much of my writing work, I am also using the month of August to dive into the higher-level topics around creating every day.
Last week’s article was on how to do the work and also show your work. Next week, I’ll be talking about how to build a creative habit.
And now, on with the show…
How to Stay Inspired
I was driving a 15-passenger van up into the Rocky Mountains. In the van were a dozen guys. We had just met up at the Denver airport and were now on our way to Breckenridge for a retreat.
Scott Young was sitting in the seat behind me, and I overheard him say something related to doing creative work online. He said…
“The single most important thing you need in your business is compelling content. And thus, the worst thing you can be is bored and boring.”
I’ll repeat part of that: ”The worst thing you can be is bored.”
This is actually quite liberating, I think.
Sure, I’ve felt uninspired before. I’ve felt overwhelmed, frustrated, confused, unsure of myself. I’ve been tired. I’ve been distracted. But rarely have I been flat-out bored at the work I’m doing.
If you’re bored, you’ll be boring. And if you’re boring, you’re dead in the water when it comes to creating anything that is compelling, moving, or exciting.
Back in 2011 when I quit my job to begin my full-time career as an indie writer for my eponymous blog, I was terrified that I would run out of things to write about. I remember feeling so anxious that I wouldn’t be able to write regularly enough or passionate enough.
But well over six years later, it’s safe to say that I’ve not yet run out of ideas or inspiration for things to write about and things to work on. In fact, just a couple of days ago I let 13 domain names expire. These domains represented about a half-dozen ideas I’ve had over the years that just never got built (some of them I bought nearly a decade ago). Letting those domain names expire was actually quite liberating. It was a moment of honesty with myself; I’ve got plenty of other ideas to work on, and these old domain names are just taking up space.
As I’ve been thinking on what it is that has helped me to stay inspired over the years, a few things came to mind.
I’d like to share them with you, saving what I think is the most important one for last.
I. Try to Avoid the Just Checks
The Just Checks are that thing when you’re standing in line at the store, or you’re waiting at a stoplight, or you’re just hitting a wall with the work you’re doing… and you pull out your iPhone to jus check Twitter / email / Facebook / Instagram / etc… What this does is condition your brain resist boredom and to become addicted to the inbox.
In an article for The Atlantic, Ian Bogost wrote this:
Now we all check email (or Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram, or…) compulsively at the dinner table, or the traffic light. Now we all stow our devices on the nightstand before bed, and check them first thing in the morning. We all do. It’s not abnormal, and it’s not just for business. It’s just what people do. Like smoking in 1965, it’s just life.
II. Try to Celebrate Those Small, Daily Wins
There is nothing very sexy about writing 1,000 words. Or taking a photograph. Or drawing an illustration. But if you do that every day for a few years, you’ve got something quite substantial to say the least.
Thus, the secret is to not break the chain. To show up every day. For me, it helps tremendously to recognize and celebrate those small, daily wins of showing up, doing the work, and taking another step in the right direction. This helps me to keep the momentum going through the hard patches when inspiration seems to be running try. I remember to trust the process even when I’m not feeling it.
III. Make It Easy to Get Regular Input
Whenever I’m in the car, I’ve got a podcast going. Podcasts (and audio books) are great because they’re so easy and passive. There is very little energy required to listen to a podcast — you just turn it on and you’re bound to get a great idea or other inspiration.
Something else that helps me is the Queue Playlist feature in Overcast. It’s a custom list of episodes that you create yourself. I just queue up the episodes I want to listen to, and then, when I get in the car, I just hit play on whatever’s next. This removes a lot of the friction for finding “just the right episode” when I am getting in the car. Which is so important because you’ve got to have regular input of new and other ideas.
(For related reading on getting the right kind of input, read Step Out of the Echo Chamber.)
IV. Get Thyself Around Fun and Interesting People
This can be hard to do. But it has such an impact. I try to meet up with people whenever I can. Even going out of my way to attend events, introduce myself, and build friendships. Friends, peers, and mentors all help me with doing my best work and getting fresh ideas or understanding a problem in a new way.
And that’s not even to mention the value I get when I intentionally help and serve others.
In the past year I’ve been to Chicago, San Diego, Atlanta, Breckenridge, Boise, Austin, Portland, and (in a few weeks) Nashville. Of course, you don’t have to travel to connect with interesting people. I also get on Skype or good-old-fashioned phone calls with folks often just to chat and connect.
V. Read a Book in the Evening Instead of the Internet
As you know, I buy books without much thought. And I don’t force myself to read them all the way through because otherwise I’d never start one. Make the barrier of entry for a book as low as possible.
Moreover, I make a habit of not checking my phone in my bedroom before bed. Instead, I read a book or just stare at the ceiling (true story).
VI. Have a Good Tool to Capture and Then Work With Your Ideas and Inspiration
In his book, The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry writes that “what goes in must come out”. In order to do our best creative work, we need to have a steady stream of incoming stimuli and we need to be intentional about what all is in that stream.
Assuming you’ve mastered the previous 5 tricks, what then do you do with all those ideas and inspirations?
I think it’s crucial to have a trusted, go-to spot to capture your ideas and other tidbits of inspiration. Have a spark file or an app or a notebook whatever that you use to keep all that stuff, then it just makes things easier.
Having a known spot for my ideas helps to make capturing inspiration part of my day-to-day rhythm, because there is very little friction to it in the moment.
A trusted tool is important for more than the little ideas and tidbits of inspiration we get throughout the day — it’s also important for intentional study. The latter of which is critical if we really want to take our inspiration to the next level.
In his book, The Spark and the Grind, Erik Wahl writes about how we need both. Naturally. We need the spark (the dreams, the ideas, the excitement) and we also need the grind (doing the work, making our ideas happen).
When you have the grind without the spark, that is the road to burnout and boredom and frustration. Alas, many of us allow far too little time in our day to study, get inspired, and just be bored with our thoughts.
How about you? How do you stay inspired? I’d love to hear from you over on Twitter.