4 Work Problems of Creative People and How To Solve Them

It’s official! I’m a “Creative” and I’m not meant for traditional 9-to-5 work. Pop internet psychology confirmed it, and I see no reason to argue. Like an eerily accurate horoscope, this article nailed many of my own work habits, need for flexibility and motivation in my work.

But the article didn’t go far enough. It’s all fine and good to offer up ways for us creatives to have the “a ha” moment or pat ourselves on the back; the trick is to stay creative and still be able to pay the mortgage and buy groceries.

Maybe you’ve noticed – the bank has absolutely no interest in nurturing your special snowflake artist nature. But that’s okay! Never in the history of the world have more opportunities been available to Creatives to actually bring their creativity to the world and be recognized and even paid for it. But being creative is not enough – if you can’t harness and, yes, even discipline your creativity, autonomy and unique world view – then you will always be in limbo. Your creativity will always take a back seat to the job that keeps a roof over your head and food in the cupboard.

Here’s what I’ve learned about succeeding as a creative in a 9-to-5 world, with lessons from both worlds.

Creative Brain

1. Conceptualization is Never a Problem. Implementation Can Be.

I was bitching to a friend once about feeling overloaded with work for this site. She suggested that I should hire an intern for $15 a hour or something to come up with blog topics for me. I had to laugh. Coming up with new ideas is never the issue. Creatives can’t walk down the block without 30 new ideas popping into their heads. I have a spreadsheet with over 500 blog topics I’ve brainstormed for 2015 alone.

However, you’ll notice I don’t write 500 blog posts a year – to do that would mean churning out crap content with no longevity or unique voice, and that just bores me. Unless I’m really excited about something, I find it tedious to write about.

The Creative’s Solution

Stop trying to do everything you know you could do. You must give yourself permission NOT to embark on 95% of the ideas that pop into your head. If you try to chase your latest concept, you will never complete anything and your work will be sub-par.

Allow yourself to simply have ideas, and keep an idea list, pin board, or other inspiration space and write down all those concepts that pop into your head. If you don’t get those ideas out, they’ll start piling up like rush hour traffic. But, somewhere at the top of the list, write “This Is An Idea List, Not A To Do List” because the last thing you want is your Creative Brain to think you actually have to do all the things you can think of.

The 9-to-5 Solution

Before you rush into a new project, check your idea board. Have you written down versions of this idea before? Has your creative brain tried to approach the same concept from 5 different ways, and you have the proof on your idea list? Great! That’s a sign this idea really resonates with you and you likely have the passion to see it through.

But wait! Before you start, make yourself an outline, a sketch, a bubble diagram, a sloppy copy – whatever. Know more or less where you are going before you dive in. If your project grows in a different direction as you nurture it, that’s totally fine, but take a few minutes at the start to visualize where this project is going, and what it will look like when it’s done.

Real Life Example

Before I started writing this post, I made a list of the main points I wanted to cover. Here’s a screencap of what the rest of this post looks like right now. The 10 minutes I look making this outline will save me literally hours as I craft this post.

Creatives Roadmap2. We Prefer Projects To Routines. 9-to-5 Life Requires Routine.

Creative people tend to prefer one-off projects to long term routines. I’m certainly like this. I’d rather deep clean the stove with a toothbrush than unload the dishwasher. Like many creative people, I find the act of changing one thing into another (empty page to story, dirty stove to clean stove, blank canvas to painting, ingredients to special meal) very fulfilling. Doing the same thing over and over (empty dishwasher, make bed, pack lunches) is boring, and boring isn’t fulfilling.

The Creative Solution

Where possible, make routine activities into projects. Take a day and make big freezer meals, set up auto-pay for all your routine bills, make frozen sandwiches for your kid’s lunches, spend an entire afternoon responding to a week’s emails. As much as possible, get out ahead of routine tasks by going full-tilt when the mood strikes.

The 9-to-5 Solution

Suck it up, buttercup. Look, here’s the reality: being a grown-up means doing certain routine things. I write myself morning routines, weekly routines – all kinds of routines, and then do my best to follow my own plan. Is this because I’ve suddenly decided I adore making the bed every morning? Nope, not at all.

Do I love pulling myself away from product development or writing to invoice a magazine for an article I wrote? No, I find the “business” side of life as a Creative about as much fun as putting toothpicks in my eyes.

Turning your creative passion into a job and not working for other people is many people’s dream – but it means sometimes you have to do stuff that’s really fricking boring and that you aren’t even that good at (like book-keeping, for example). That’s life. Deal with it.

Real Life Example

Check out this post on how I batch-make sandwiches for my kids lunches once a month, thereby turning boring drudgery into a fun occasional project.

3. Creatives Are Internally Motivated. The World Gives External Rewards.

Why is the cliche artist always starving? Why does the cliche musician sleep in his van? In work, the Creative needs their project to become what their mind has already seen. Seeing the vision made real, and in the best possible way we can execute, is our driver. Everything else is secondary. Creatives are primarily internally motivated. All those external motivators like money, fame, bonus vacation days or prestige are a distant second to the need to get the creative expression right for ourselves.

Now, Creatives aren’t exclusively internally motivated – most of us still like nice stuff, good food, and warm, dry homes – but we aren’t interested in putting up with an endless stream of work that slowly kills our soul in order to prove to society that we can die with the biggest pile of nice crap. External motivation is secondary, worn like a coat that doesn’t quite fit.

The Creative Solution

Align your life with your values, as much as possible. The more you can tap into your creative core, the happier you will be. The less you are dependent on money earned in a way that stifles your creative core, the more free you will feel. Sometimes, this will require sacrifices – a move, a career change, a paycut.

The 9-to-5 Solution

You can work in a traditional 9-to-5 job environment as a creative, but you must be surrounded by, and managed by, people who will not squish your internal motivation in the name of corporate homogeneity.

It’s true that most traditional “artists” aren’t going to make Wall Street-level bucks, but there are careers that can be both very creative and financially rewarding – website development and programming come to mind. My husband says writing code taps into the same part of his brain as writing fiction. Even at my humble just-pick-through-the-css-and-html level of understanding, I can say that tinkering with the underlying code of my website to make things look just as I want them is a deeply creative and satisfying task.

Real Life Example

My husband is a Creative who, because of his specialization, works in large, corporate environments. At a prior job, he worked for a total micromanager, who could not understand why Nick wasn’t eager to climb the corporate ladder to soul-crushing middle management. She required that he spend about 30% of his time filling out forms detailing how he spent his time (“Mostly filling out bullshit forms”?). That kind of pointless paper-pushing is the quickest way to lose the interest of a Creative. Stripped of any autonomy or creative outlet in his work, Nick rapidly became miserable.

He quit after about 10 months and took a job with an even more notoriously corporate corporation – one of the largest, oldest, most conservative companies in the U.S. Don’t worry – ComHugeCo turned out great – he works several days a week from home, is given considerable freedom to deliver his projects in his way, and likes and respects his supervisor.

The moral of the story: not all 9-to-5’s are created equal. Immediate surroundings and people matter more than generic company policies. Don’t be afraid to look for a better fit.

4. We Need A Balance of Deeply Focused and Unfocused Brain Time. 9-to-5 Worships Ineffective Multitasking.

Creative people tend to be able to hyper-focus. When we are deeply engaged in creative activities, the whole world except the project seems to fall away. This is because the right side of the brain controls creative thinking, and has absolutely no awareness of silly things like time (that’s the left side’s job). When our environments allow us to hyper-focus, Creatives can accomplish incredible amounts at a stretch.

However, this deep, intense focus can’t go on forever. It’s also important that we have time away from our project to allow our brain to just run where it will without that tunnel-vision focus. Some of the best ways I know of to break up focused creative work is with physical activity: walking, gardening, yoga, even briskly taking care of home chores can help re-boot my ability to get back into that deep, satisfying project flow-state.

Alternating stretches of high-productivity hyper-focus and “I’m-just-screwing-around-here” is nearly impossible in a world where people expect constant multitasking and 24/7 availability. (Science says multitasking doesn’t work, but trying telling that to a boss who needs an answer 10 minutes ago.) Creatives must protect their deep-focus time aggressively if they want to do their best work.

The Creative Solution

Set yourself up for success by removing external distractions as much as possible, and taking deliberate, periodic breaks. When I’m writing at home, I use “Freedom,” an App that temporality takes my computer offline and makes text pop-ups, email alerts and the always tempting internet just go away for as long as I want.

I generally set Freedom for 45 to 60 minutes and work in bursts. After I’m “allowed” back online, I take some kind of physical break like doing the laundry, cleaning the chicken coop, or running up the street to get the mail. In two focused 45 or 60 minute bursts I can get more actual work done than in 8 or 10 hours of “working” while also responding to text messages, checking Facebook, etc.

The 9-to-5 Solution

Corporate Creatives should learn to book themselves stretches of time when they are “in a meeting” with their own project, just to cut down on interruption. Hiding somewhere other than your office or cubicle is a good strategy, too. All corporate Creatives should figure out how to turn off auto alerts for new email, meeting pop-ups and inter-office chat as needed.

Sometimes you have to eek out your effective time away from prying eyes, gossiping voices and interrupting coworkers (or children). Consider if it’s possible to shift your schedule to work on your key projects earlier or later in the day, before or after the time the rest of the world feels entitled to steal your hours.

Real Life Example

Just go buy Freedom – it’s $10. (This isn’t an affiliate link – I get nothing for the recommendation. I just know how much Freedom helps me get my shit done.) Use it for a few hours and you’ll become your own Real Life Example for efficient productivity.

Freedom App

The Bottom Line

Creatives aren’t good paper pushers or corporate drones. We want freedom, self-direction, and the joy of creation in our work, so it’s our responsibility to appropriately channel our own skills and work style.

By disciplining our lives with routines just a little bit and setting up some structure to protect our most effective work style, we can create environments where our creative work can be satisfying and high quality. With a bit more discipline, perseverance and (yes!) creativity, we might even be able to bring our career and our creative together.

Are you a Creative type? How do you do your best work in a 9-to-5 world?

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  1. Ravenna says

    Thanks Erica. This make So. Much. Sense.

    Lately I have gotten into the routine of doing project work until my brain dies in the afternoon, then I chill on the couch, maybe wash a few dishes or take a walk, and then I’m ready to go back to it a couple of hours later. It’s just a thing I started to do recently so I wasn’t wasting precious “brain time” on stupid boring things like (gah!) cleaning.

    I never never never ever thought of myself as a creative, growing up heavy into a scientific curriculum, but the cubicle world makes me want to strangle people and was literally killing me. Plus that whole no-windows-no-sunlight thing was a problem.

    I suppose it’s a new perspective to think of myself as “A Creative” but it just might help push me to the next level and help me get better organized around my work style. Thanks again! :)

    • says

      Your description of your work routine is very similar to what I do, and for the same reason. I get up early, write, tackle projects and then later, when my brain is done, I do stuff like clean the kitchen while watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on my computer. :)

      • Sophie says

        Gah! Yes! Buffy and chores! I find that I need lots of time to wake up. I let myself veg out then. I get any email or facebooking internet stuff done then over breakfast. Then ACTION!!!! Then lunch and quiet time. THEN ACTION! I find I am also largely controlled by my usually willing 3.5 year old’s schedule but hers is really mine too. Some days I just work and work and work with small physical breaks and then take two days off to recover. I have times where I write for days and reflect on things a lot. Then there are weeks full of action. Then I introvert again to read and research for weeks. Then relax to let it all settle in. Then ACTION. Projects big or small. Being in an office meant seeking validation from others and I found that to be toxic. If you rely on them to feed you then they can also starve you. So my validation comes from within and seeing productive results. I feel like I go with the flow so much more these days. Including binge watching shows I love.

        Thanks for the great post!

  2. says

    Great post, Erica. I suffered for 20 years working in a large college and turned down every management opportunity that opened or was offered. I taught as an adjunct for most of that time – despite the ridiculous low pay – so I could have control and some creative opportunities. Finding a niche within the organization that allowed me the creative freedom I needed was my primary strategy – my secondary strategies involved copious amounts of wine and gardening! I put away as much money as I could during those years, forsaking new cars, expensive travel and avoided all forms of retail therapy.

    At the age of 50, my investments and I escaped to the country to play and work with plants as an herbalist. But the marketing and bookkeeping make me a bit crazy! Too much time in front of a computer and part of it is definitely of my own doing – checking msgs and following a Google or Wikipedia inquiry until I am off in another stream of thinking.

    I am buying Freedom!

    My income is reduced significantly but I would not trade my freedom to go out to the garden or greenhouse, to take a nap when I am tired, to spend the day reading and learning about something when I am super motivated to do so, to wildcraft in the nearby woods, to walk with dogs on a sunny or snowy day, etc. I live very comfortably, proudly growing most of my produce and much of my medicine. I actually work 7 days a week often from 7am to 8 or 9pm but I seldom notice it. It’s just what I do.

    • says

      You sounds like you’ve aligned your day to day life with your deepest values. That’s wonderful, congratulations!

      I was talking with a friend about my financial goals for this website, and I said I wanted to make enough money to be able to pay someone else to take care of the book-keeping and taxes and related stuff I’m neither excited about nor good at. That’s my definition of success. :)

      • Cathie says

        Hi Erica,

        Maybe you should find someone to “barter” with – you give them eggs, veggies and whatever per month and they do the mundane things for you. Just a thought but I know it works!

        Love the site, come often to read and learn.

  3. Julia says

    I love this article. In my mind, you could substitute “ADD” for “creative.” Easily bored, tons of ideas, hyperfocus on what’s interesting, losing track of time, not good at routine. . . yup, sounds like ADD to me!

    Not that it makes a difference. I don’t think of ADD as a disorder, myself, even though it’s right there in the acronym. So is the word “deficit,” and that’s obviously wrong. Hello? Hyperfocus! People with ADD don’t have a “deficit” of attention, they just have a really hard time forcing themselves to pay attention to boring things.

    • says

      I see what you mean, that’s very interesting. Hopefully the suggestions in the article help ADD folks, too. I don’t think I have ADD or ADHD, and I doubt I’d get that diagnosis. But probably, like everything about personality traits and diagnosable labels, it’s a spectrum thing. (“Spectrum” used here in the generic sense, not as an autism reference shorthand). Like, shift any Creative’s natural work style far enough down the spectrum so that they are no longer functionally able to deal with stuff they aren’t directly interested in, and that label might very well apply.

  4. says

    I deal with the 9-5 world by… mostly avoiding it, honestly. But income-quilting (multiple part-time / occasional / freelance jobs) and mixing up my days so that I’m not in front of a screen constantly both help. Your Freedom app looks like a really good idea (I generally just unplug the modem for Set Period, which works just as well).
    I’ve also been known to drag my computer to a coffee shop, sans power cable, so that I have to plow through All The Things (whether that’s writing my 1000 words or dealing with The Email or whatever) before my battery dies. It gives me about two hours to get everything done, which is enough time to focus on something without getting exhausted. Plus it gets me out of the house with a 10-minute walk to bookend my work session, so. Handy.
    A friend loaned me her hand-cranked miniature laundry thing (it’s like the world’s biggest salad-spinner) and I find that the physical requirements – like the ones that come with making bread from scratch – give me enough “get up and do something physical” breaks to help me do that “reboot” on my brain.

  5. Reeves says

    As I self-made corporate creative, I really wish I had learned that my idea list and my to-do list should be separate. earlier.

    • Sophie says

      Yes. I read that and had a revelation. “WAIT! You mean I don’t have to act on every idea to set it free???” I suppose I’m learning it now. Even after realizing that, after I went through the ideas I ended up just planning ways to implement them. Good thing I have a partner that gives me the eye if we overload ourselves. I need to practice this as my new 2015 goal.

  6. Homebrew Husband says

    There’s another one I think I’d add…perhaps it is a corollary or a subset of one of the other ones, but I’m running smack into it right now, at 2:09pm on a day I’ve been working since 5am and in the office proper (gasp!) since 8:30:

    Creatives like to work when they are inspired to, 9-5 demands that we work according to an externally mandated schedule.

    I kick ass working in the morning, so I like to do that and get a lot done. But sometimes that means I have to soldier on well past the point where all I’m really doing is smiling and nodding with glazed over eyes and wandering mind while attending meetings arranged according to someone else’s expectations of normal work hours. More often than not I’m lucky enough to be able to structure my day into nice-sized sprints where I can bust it out for a while, go stretch my legs, and then come back refreshed.

    But that isn’t always the case and it isn’t something everyone has the luxury of enjoying. I’m not sure what the ideal 9-to-5 solution is other than raiding the break room for ANOTHER cup of coffee, but I do try to keep some work on my to-do list that could be considered as “easy but time consuming” that is a nice way keep busy when you’re at your desk but the mental juices have departed an hour ago and it just wouldn’t be political to head for the door yet… Time tracking (yes, there’s still time tracking in my life…), just-checking-in emails, cleaning crap files off the desktop, taking mandatory office training courses, etc.

  7. says

    Oh my. I have never known that I am a creative. I am a math geek. A computer programmer. All left sided brain. Logic and reason control my work days.

    Yet. Higher math is actually creative. Theoretical algebra, which I got a Master’s in because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life yet, is creative. It isn’t rote memorization, and it isn’t step by step. It is beautiful and mind expanding and it is creative in its own way. Theorems and axioms are the lincoln logs that allow you to build something entirely new, or at least follow in the footsteps of the great thinkers of the past.

    Programming also is creative. Sometimes you have to just sit there and think. Let it paint a canvass in your head before you can type it out. I admit, as the only programmer in my company, and self taught, I don’t do waterfalls, I don’t check code in and out, and I could probably do a better job of planning out all the steps instead of just diving in. I can sometimes type and make really good progress for a couple hours in a row. Then, I have to take a break – usually by looking at the internet. I can’t start another project. What I have been working on has to peculate for a while. It has to bounce against all the fragments and half finished ideas and find a way to work together, and then, suddenly, I must flip back to my work screen and out the code comes pouring out again.

    If I am doing something the easy way and not the right way, I start taking more and more breaks. Like a lot. I can’t get myself to type anymore. Eventually, I have to say to myself, usually in my head, but sometimes out loud “Fine.” It might mean ripping out a lot of code I have already done, but it will be right and it is the right thing to do.

    I work full time coding for my employer, but only 3 days a week at the office and then 2 days a week at home. I get so much done at home. No commute, complete quite, no office jibber jabber and sometimes I’ll be coding and look up and it is 5:30 and I have worked 30 minutes past quitting time.

    I am the only one in the company that they allow to do this. No other person gets to work at home consistently 2 days a week. I don’t think anyone else has even asked to do this. It “helps” that I live an hour away. That was a good introduction and sell to let me, but honestly, my work ethic and lack of wanting to do housework (ha! People ask me, don’t you get tempted to do laundry or dishes or something instead of working? Not even a little.) has made it a perfect fit. If they take it away from me, the day they tell me I have to go in all 5 days is the day I look for something else.

    I have a flipbook of projects that need to be done. I have to write it down or get an email about it or something, or else I will concentrate on remembering it and won’t get anything else done.

    You are right about the bank not caring that you are a creative. We farm and my husband and I are trying to buy (too much) farm ground that has been in the family for 7 generations (my son is the 7th). It is not possible for me to quit and pay the bills and make the land payment. It is barely possible with my job. Luckily I love my job and fit in well. My previous job, at a union-dominated aircraft company was hell for me. No quarter was given. I lived 3 hours away, drove down Monday morning, stayed overnight in a rented room until Thursday night and then came home. Did that for the first year of our marriage (the CIO had told me to talk to him after I got married he would work with me to set a schedule. After I got back from my honeymoon, I brought it up and he had an incredulous look on his face and said “I never said that!”). Worked 10 hour days. Everything was so scripted and regimented and people who were great coders/workers were lumped in with the dead weight and everyone was treated exactly the same. I hated it. The best thing that ever happened to me was being laid off from that awful company.

    I think this might explain why either my house looks awesome (because I do my exact specified chores every night) or attains shithole status (I skipped a few days, so I might as well take 2 weeks off). I diet like a banshee, do really well for months at a time, then eat a cookie, which turns into 5, so I might as well have a couple dark beers and some popcorn, hey, how about some thick pieces of raisin bread? Ice cream? Sure. I look up a month later and I have taken great big giant steps backwards. The garden looks great but the backyard is awful. I take on projects and follow through with them, but the other things I don’t even see. I am focused on the things that are important, and if they are not important to me, I literally don’t think to do them unless they are on a list somewhere.

    You have opened my eyes to something I have never seen before. I knit, I can, I garden, I sew, I read (a lot), I do a lot of things that would be considered creative, but I am a math geek. Therefore I can’t be creative, can I? I guess I can be.

  8. says

    I have my best insights in the shower. I don’t know if it’s the white noise, steam, sensory deprivation, or what. Or maybe it’s that at the end of a day of trying to focus my creative impulses towards some productive end, that’s where I finally stop trying.

    • Val Rogers says

      The shower is MAGIC! I can always count on it to literally get my creative brain flowing. Often its musical, which is one of my professions. The other is fundraising, where I have to come up with creative ideas for events and appeals, or compelling language for grant proposals. Works in every case.

  9. says

    This makes me feel so much BETTER! I could no more sit and type at my computer for 8 to 10 hours than I could stick toothpicks in my eyeballs, but I get tons done in little bursts–especially if I am ALONE. Thus I get up VERY early and get at the things I really want to get done, and then later (when I’m surrounded by a winsome, demanding family) I unload the dishwasher and sweep the floor and clean out the chicken coop. Glad I’m not alone.

  10. Conni says

    What a fantastic blog – thank you for writing & posting this! Makes me feel better about my struggles to work effectively in the corporate environment all these years…

    One of my fave methods for getting some privacy to focus and actually get work done while in the cubicle-world, was to book (frequent, short) meetings in a conference room. I’d list them as “conference call, planning XYZ Event…” – that way, no one thought it odd that I was in the conference room by myself, typing away on my laptop (I was just taking notes while on a conference call – yeah!!)

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