January 24, 2008

Don’t Like Meditation? Try Gratitude Training. (Plus: Follow-up to “Testing Friends” Firestorm)

Filling the Void

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and zen teacher once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr., has a knack for making the esoteric understandable.

In discussing what some call “present state awareness”–experiencing and savoring the present—he offers a simple parable:

Let’s say that you want to eat a peach for dessert one evening, but you decide to only allow yourself this luxury after washing the dishes. If, while washing the dishes, all you think of is eating the peach, what will you be thinking of when you eat the peach?

The clogged inbox, that difficult conversation you’ve been putting off, tomorrow’s to-do list?

The peach is eaten but not enjoyed, and so on we continue through life, victims of a progressively lopsided culture that values achievement over appreciation. But let’s get specific.

If we define “achievement” as obtaining things we desire (whether raises, relationships, cars, pets, or otherwise) that have the potential to give us pleasure, let’s define “appreciation” as our ability to get pleasure out of those things. To focus on the former to the exclusion of the latter is like valuing cooking over eating.

How then, do we develop the skill of appreciation, which is tied so closely to present state awareness?

There are a few unorthodox tools that we’ve explored already for state awareness, like the 21-day no-complaint experiment, but the most common mainstream prescription is meditation.

The problem with meditation is that it too often gets mixed with mysticism and judgment (attempting to forcefully exclude certain thoughts and emotions). Who really wants to visualize a candle flame for 30 minutes? It can work, but it doesn’t work for most.

Here’s where we enter the 60-second solution: gratitude training. From Cornell to the University of Michigan, scientists are looking at the far-reaching effects of practicing gratitude just like exercise.

Here is one example from Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Dr. Michael McCollough of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas:

“The first group kept a diary of the events that occurred during the day… the second group recorded their unpleasant experiences, [and] the last group made a daily list of things for which they were grateful.

The results of the study indicated that daily gratitude exercises resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism and energy. Additionally, the gratitude group experienced less depression and stress, was more likely to help others, exercised more regularly and made more progress toward personal goals. According to the findings, people who feel grateful are also more likely to feel loved.

McCollough and Emmons also noted that gratitude encouraged a positive cycle of reciprocal kindness among people since one act of gratitude encourages another… McCullough suggests that anyone can increase their sense of well-being and create positive social effects just from counting their blessings.”

In practical terms, here is one example of how you can test the effects of gratitude training in less than 10 minutes over the next week:

From Thanksgiving to next Thursday, November 29th, ask yourself the following question each morning, immediately upon waking up and before getting out of bed:

What am I truly grateful for in my life?

Aim for five answers, and if you have trouble at first, ask yourself alternative probing questions such as:

What relationships do I have that others don’t?
What do I take for granted?
What freedoms, unique abilities, and options do I have that others don’t?
What advantages have I been given in life?
Which allies and supporters have helped me to get to where I am?

Thanksgiving shouldn’t just come once a year. Use it as a system restart and a chance to put your appreciation back on track with your achievement.

Don’t forget the peach… and Happy Thanksgiving!

January 18, 2008

Staying Motivated

Staying Motivated

Maintaining Motivation

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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Related Topics: Creativity, Graphic Design


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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.