Why waiting for inspiration to strike will get you nowhere

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Illustration: Dani Pendergast

Do you consider yourself a creative person?

If so, you’ve probably been asked at one point or another to share your creative routine. And if you’re like many creatives out there, your answer might include phrases like:

“I get my best ideas in the shower.”

“I do my best work when I’m going through something tough in my life.”

“I don’t decide when I get a creative spark; it just happens!”

That’s all well and good, but it sort of sounds like us creative people spend a lot of time, well… not creating, but rather waiting for inspiration to strike to create. We want to spend our lives creating art – but only when we feel like it.

Is it possible that we’re procrastinating on creating?

Procrastination and creativity

Enter the two terms into Google and you’ll find tons of research on how procrastinating actually helps your creativity. I’ve experienced it firsthand; many a songs were written while I was supposed to be studying for an exam, cleaning the house, doing my taxes – virtually anything else. We procrastinate on something hard by working on our creative projects.

But what happens when there’s nothing hard or important on the to-do list for the day, and we actually get some free time to work on music, paint, write, etc.?

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I tend to — wait for it — procrastinate on being creative. And I shamelessly chalk it up to feeling uninspired. “I can’t work on music right now. I have to wait until I’m in a more creative mood…”

Sound familiar?

Here’s the thing: our brains are lazy. At any given moment, they take stock of all the possible activities we could or should be doing, and try to reason their way into doing the easiest one. And even if you’re in love with your creative work — you find it fun and fulfilling — at the end of the day it’s still work. Therefore, it falls victim to being shifted up and down on your brain’s list of priorities.

Say you’re supposed to be filing your taxes. You could do that, or you could take a break and pick up your guitar for a few minutes. Your brain screams, “Yes! I love that idea!”

What about days when you don’t have any important tasks? You could pick up the guitar and write a new song… or you could go to your freezer, scoop out some ice cream, and see what’s trending on Netflix. Which do you think is your brain’s top choice now?

This poses an interesting question: when you set aside your taxes because you feel a creative spark and an urge to pick up the guitar, is it actually a creative spark, or is it just an excuse to get out of doing something hard? Is it possible that you feel inspired because your brain decides to prioritize the easier activity?

The brain also has to justify this decision and make it worth putting off an important task, so you just happen to come up with some of the best lyrics and melodies you’ve ever written. If this is all true, could we discipline our brains into prioritizing creative work, even when there’s nothing else we’re supposed to be doing instead? And could this be the answer to reducing all that time we spend “waiting for inspiration?”

The problems with waiting for inspiration to strike

1. You cover up bigger issues

If waiting for inspiration is just procrastination in disguise, we’ve got something else to deal with. See, procrastination isn’t a problem in itself. Rather, it’s a symptom of other much bigger problems. We’re talking fear, self-esteem issues, limiting beliefs, self-sabotage… the list goes on. Personally, I procrastinate on creating music because I’m afraid that whatever I create won’t be up to my standards, but that’s a conversation for another time.

The point is, if you spend a lot of time waiting for a creative spark, it may be a sign that there are some deeper issues that need tending to.

2. You sabotage your success

If making music is just a hobby, that’s absolutely alright. Do your thing.

But what if you’re hoping to make an income with music or have a full-on career? What if you have goals and aspirations? You simply can’t afford to waste time waiting for creativity to strike.

3. You miss out on the opportunity to improve

If you don’t practice your craft regularly, inspired or not, you deprive yourself of the chance to improve.

When you practice regularly, you can look back and see how far you’ve come, what your strengths are, and what areas need improvement. Just because your work is creative, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require hours upon hours of practice. Of course, it should never feel like painstaking work, but you do need the discipline to make time for it even when you don’t feel like it.

4. You’re unable to produce quality work on demand

What if you have to be creative as part of your job? What if you have clients who need a catchy song written or produced by a certain deadline?

When you regularly practice being creative, even when it’s the last thing you want to be doing, you train your creativity muscle. This makes it possible to produce something great on demand.

Think about actors shooting a scene – they’re not allowed to say, “Sorry, I don’t feel like it right now, can we try again tomorrow?” They simply do their job. And what allows them to do it is the ability to discipline their brain, set aside all distractions, and reach deep into that part of themselves where the artist lives.

It’s the same with professional songwriters and producers. They don’t go into the studio only to say, “Hmm, I’m just not feeling inspired today.” They’d lose money, and probably their jobs. If you take your music seriously, you have to train your creativity like a muscle until you can create your own inspiration whenever and wherever you need to.

What to do instead of waiting on inspiration

1. Identify any blockers

We touched on this briefly earlier. It’s one thing to procrastinate on something you don’t enjoy doing, but when you procrastinate on your passion, it’s likely a sign of some deeper issues.

Spend some time with yourself and ask the hard questions:

  • Are you being a perfectionist?
  • Are you afraid of failure? Are you afraid of success?
  • Do you believe you’re capable of doing what it is you’re trying to do?
  • Are you tying your self worth to your creative output?
  • Do you believe you can only create something good when you’re in a bad mental state?

These are just a few examples, but identifying what’s blocking you is the first step to freeing your creativity and becoming a prolific and productive artist.

2. Set specific goals

Sometimes, we procrastinate because we don’t have a clear plan of action. Remedy this by setting very specific goals for how you’re going to create.

Avoid setting goals like “I’ll write a hit song by the end of the month.” This is an example of a goal that’s too vague. When you’re feeling uninspired, it’s too easy to say, “I have the whole month ahead of me – I’ll just work on it tomorrow.” Before you know it, the deadline you set has creeped up on you, and you quickly scrape together something mediocre.

Instead, set goals related to your process rather than the final outcome. In this example, a great goal might be, “I’ll work on songwriting for at least an hour each day for a month,” or, “I’ll write three songs every week for a month.” Not everything you produce during this period will be salvageable, but you’re guaranteed to come out of it with at least one great song or bits of a song.

3. Create more than you’re going to publish

On a related note, stay open to the fact that in order to create something you like, you’re going to have to create a ton of work that’s really bad.

Professional staff writers who work for publishers typically have a quota they have to fill, such as writing one song per day for a set period of time. The publisher then listens to their work, dismisses 95% of it, and then identifies the 5% that’s going to turn into a hit song.

The other benefit of this creative process is that you need the 95% as a benchmark. When you come up with your best work, how will you know it’s your best work if you have nothing to compare it to?

4. Find what works for you

Practicing creativity requires a habitual routine. What that routine looks like, however, will vary greatly from person to person. So, spend some time figuring out what works best for you and make adjustments as you go – it can take weeks or months to establish a good creative routine.

Some people prefer to work at the same time each day, in the same room and in the same atmosphere. Pay attention to the details that foster a creative environment for you and take advantage of them. For example, maybe you work best when the lights are dimmed and you have your favorite scented candle burning.

If you know that this setup just won’t work for you, try something different. How about taking a walk outside each day and recording ideas on your phone as they come?

The key is to learn as much as you can about when and where you’re most creative, and turning these triggers into a solid routine.

5. Stick to it no matter what

Like with any new habit, you’ll likely be very diligent about it for the first three – five days, and then life will get in the way and you’ll find some excuse to disrupt your routine.

Or maybe you just find that by the sixth day, you’re creatively drained and would rather be doing something — anything — else. Days like this are the most important. This is when you build the discipline to work on your craft, even when you don’t feel like it.

If you set out to work on songwriting for 30 minutes each day, stick to it no matter what. Even if you don’t actually end up writing anything, don’t allow yourself to do anything else – this is your sacred creative time. If you truly don’t allow yourself to get distracted, you’ll likely get so bored that you’ll actually want to write.

Some days you might just sit there for 30 minutes with your dimmed lights and your scented candle and not actually write anything. Sessions like these are still productive – they help reinforce the habit and train your brain to respect this time slot.

If you’re really drained and can’t come up with anything to save your life, do something that’s not exactly your task at hand, but closely related to it. Listening to your favorite artists, reading poetry, or watching a music video are all great examples of activities you can do to pass the time but still stay in a creative mindset. And hey, they might just inspire you to jot down something of your own.

6. Don’t forget to fill your cup

Speaking of getting inspired by other art, pay attention to how you spend your time outside of your scheduled creative session. No one can be expected to just create all the time – we also need to consume other creative content in order to re-energize and re-fill our cup.

When you’re not creating, spend your time listening to music, reading books, watching movies, going on walks, visiting an art museum, what have you. This will help you stay balanced and help you create your best work when the time comes.

So there you have it! Are you one of those people who wait for inspiration to strike? Did this article change your perspective? Let us know in the comments if you’ll be trying any of the tips for establishing and sticking to a creative routine.

November 12, 2020

Sayana Sayana is a contemporary R&B singer-songwriter based in Toronto, Canada. When she's not making music, she creates content on personal development and navigating life as a musician. Learn more about her at https://www.sayanamusic.com/.