15 Tested Tips for Creative Efficiency


Creative pursuits and efficiency don't always seem to go together; in fact, our age-old wisdom tells us that in order to be truly creative, we need wide open swaths of time, unbounded by other obligations like work, kids, and the need to get dinner on the table. (See also: Fun and Cheap Ways to Get Creative When You’re Bored)

Then there's real life, which includes work, kids, the need to get dinner on the table…little things like that which won't go away. Life won't be put on hold while we decide to get creative.

So what's the answer? Unless we've found "being creative" a way to also earn a living, we find ourselves having to fit our creative pursuits around the edges of our day. If you're in a boat like mine, you're trying to do all that and then some: being a mom, while also using your creative skills (in my case, writing) to supplement your family's income… oh, and also carve a little time in to write that novel or book of poems that you don't expect will make you any money but which simply must be written.

I'm writing this right now with my third child snuggled up next to me. He's 2 1/2, and he and the other three kids have been sick for the last week. We're all starting to get better now, but for the last seven days I've not had more than a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep at a time. To say I'm tired is a drastic understatement. My oldest is five. My youngest is 5 months. Also, right now, we're living in my in-laws' basement due to the black mold problem discovered in our house. We've been living away from home for a couple of weeks, running back and forth to get what we need, moving back in once only to find more mold so moving back out again. Needless to say, my life is a bit unsettled.

What I'm trying to say with that long drawn-out story is that life is rarely going to bless you with long open hours to sit around and paint portraits or write songs or write novels.

If you want the time, you have to fight for it. And chances are, you'll win it in minutes and snatches, not in hours and days.

So here are 15 tips I've discovered/gathered/collected from the last seven years of being a wife, a mom, and someone who values creativity too much to let it wait until the kids are grown and we're retired and I have all the time in the world. Which I don't expect will happen anyway (the all the time in the world part, I mean. I do expect the kids to be grown, someday).

1. Create simple routines for your day

Routines simplify the repetitive tasks of the day, helping you to get them done on autopilot so your brain is free for creative pursuits while your body does the routine work.

2. Keep your supplies on hand

Accessibility is a big part of being more creative. If you have to get involved in any sort of major set-up before you can be creative, you're putting up a road block.

3. Focus on one project at a time

It simplifies what your brain needs to do, and allows your unconscious to work on the project and be ready with creativity when the time comes.

4. Do something related to your art every single day

Keep it fresh and front of mind. Even if all you have time for is something very basic, get in five minutes of an activity related to your creative project. For a writer, that could be just keeping a daily journal, or a five-minute creative writing break. For artists, it could be making a sketch, or reviewing your sketches.

5. Have an easy way to catch ideas

Keep a notebook in your pocket or get good at quickly recording ideas on your phone. They don't need to be good ideas, just treat them as valuable and put them in a place where you can find them later. This has a double benefit of freeing your brain up from the work of holding those ideas and giving you a place to start when you're out of ideas, later.

6. Focus on one medium/method at a time

Focus is powerful; it sets boundaries for your creativity, which actually kicks it into gear.

7. Immerse yourself

Read books on or related to your creative pursuit. Read biographies, or watch biographies and documentaries of others in the field. Go to workshops, talk to peers, listen to inspiring music, study, immerse yourself in what you're doing and things related to it. Give your brain plenty of fodder.

8. Think in 5- to 10-minute blocks

What can you do in five minutes? In ten minutes? Think in these terms. It's different than having hours of unbroken time, but that kind of luxury isn't always possible. Five minutes is long enough to write a few sentences, analyze the light in the corner, listen to the line of a song, try a new stitch pattern, match some colors, play with a logo design. It's not enough to do everything, or even much, but it's enough to do something.

9. Make creativity mobile

How can you work on your creative project while you're on the go? Can you listen to related recordings, podcasts, music? Can you jot down ideas in your notebook? Talk about it with a peer or mentor?

10. Eliminate time wasters that eat up your free time

Keep a time log if you're not sure what your time wasters are. You'll find some. Pick one, and get it out of your life.

11. Turn off the TV

It eats your time and your brain cells. If you truly want time to do your creative work, kill it. For that matter, unplug yourself entirely when you're off work and able to be unavailable. Silence the phone, shut down the browser. Give your brain some free space.

12. Train your muse

Do some work every day at the same time in the same place. It trains your muse to show up and be ready.

13. Hang out with inspiring people

Find the people in your life who inspire you to work harder, think bigger, be better. Put yourself around them. Limit your time around the people who distract you with gossip, negativity, same-old same-old ruts of life.

14. Define creative work so you know when you're doing it

There are so many ways to be creative. You probably have a lot more creativity in your life than you know. Cooking, baking, sewing, humming, playing games… define creativity beyond art/music/writing.

15. Use your creative strengths on obligatory tasks

Need to plan a birthday party? Find a way to use your creative strengths. You'll pull off a better party and use the time "planning" as creative time. Try to do that with everything possible: volunteer for things that fit your creatively. Take on the work projects that allow you to use your creative strengths. So on.

What are your tips for creative efficiency? How do you fit creative work into your busy life? Share in the comments so we can all benefit.

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Guest's picture

These are excellent tips! Thank you so much for the real life reminders and encouragement!

Annie Mueller's picture

You're so welcome, Andrea! (That's my name, too - I just go by Annie most of the time.) Glad you liked the tips, hope they help you.

Guest's picture

Thanks for the tips. It's true, everyday life can get in the way of creative efficiency, and we have to fight for that time, which may only be a few minutes each day. I personally find tip #5 to be the most effective, as we can't leave everything to the mind in the hopes that we will remember, because we will eventually forget.

Annie Mueller's picture

Yep, so true. I can't trust myself to remember even the important stuff - so having some kind of system for getting that stuff written down in a safe place is huge. Plus it allows my brain to quit focusing on "remembering every single thing" and focus on doing something creative/productive instead.

Guest's picture

These tips are great! I've always felt like I am a creative person, but some times I just need help getting using it to help me. I always surround myself about people who are inspiring and are creative as well that way I can use my own creativity to good use. Nad I always turn off the tv!! There is no point to even owning one any more. But these tips are very helpful, I am going to keep them in mind when trying to out my creativeness to use. Thanks so much for the post

Annie Mueller's picture

Glad you like the tips, Jenna. Sounds like you've already got quite a few of these down.

Guest's picture

I will definitely be using these tips while working on my own writing.

Guest's picture

The idea of "train your muse" is the best piece of advice here. Show up, show up early, show up often....I think that takes care of a lot of creativity blocks. Granted, it's more complicated than that....but just training yourself to be present and be creative is a huge first step.

Also, the very simple task of keeping a small notebook and writing down every single creative idea as it comes to mind is extremely helpful in training the brain to always be on the lookout for creative ideas.

Guest's picture

Great post! The obligatory tasks part, or just obligating myself to something creative like a craft show with a definite time & place has been huge for me. I've never been very disciplined with my creativity so a tight, externally-imposed frame within which to work juices me like an orange and more often than not I'm really pleased with what I show I'm capable of! That positive self-reinforcement builds up over time too so your spirits lift and when you are confident, creating can be that much easier.

Guest's picture
Carl Lassegue

These tips are wonderful. The TV is by far my biggest time waster. It's so easy to just turn on the television and next thing you know you've just wasted a couple hours watching nonsense.

Guest's picture

Oh, I hear you! Uninterrupted sleep, work time, whatever -- doesn't usually happen. Thanks for the inspiration to get those 5 minutes in.

What would have normally taken me 45 minutes to create, took 2.5 hours -- my 4 month old just needed to be held.

:) Hope you all feel better (and get your home back!)