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Whether you’re a freelancer, entrepreneur or employee in the creative industries, the likelihood is that you rely on your creative skills every day. While networking, people management, and teamwork play a part in maintaining a healthy career, it’s creativity that’s your ultimate asset – and the reason that people hire you. But once you’ve defined yourself as a “creative”, what can you do when stress stifles your imagination, resourcefulness, and originality?
It can take some guts to plant your flag in the ground and declare yourself as a creative professional, especially when you know this means that people will take your creativity for granted. The pressure of other people’s expectations, especially when they are relying on you for creative skills, brilliant ideas, and innovative approaches can be intense. The stress can become overwhelming, inhibiting your most significant and bankable skills – a natural knack for invention and ability to produce compelling results.
How Does Stress Impact Your Creativity?
Stress isn’t always bad for creativity. Every now and then, stress in small doses can be motivating. An edge of adrenaline can help you come up with your best ideas and work at breakneck speed. However, it doesn’t take long for stress to turn from an invigorating influence to something that clouds your vision and drains your energy. Prolonged stress interferes with your sleep, traps you in tunnel thinking and makes you less likely to take risks, robbing you of the optimism and confidence needed to pull off an original idea.
This is because our stress response originates in the most ancient part of our minds, (known unflatteringly as “the reptilian brain”) and this aeons-old response has yet to catch up with the modern world. The stress response is triggered by all kinds of “threats” – from a clattering alarm, to a looming deadline or even a rude client – but the reaction is the same as it would have been to a stalking predator back in the dawn of our history. Cutting off higher thinking in favor of short-term and emergency functioning, creative contemplation becomes impossible and panic takes over.
So how do you stop stress from stifling your creativity? Here are some tips that will not only ensure that you stay creative throughout your career, but are healthy, happy, and successful as well.
Schedule a Digital Detox
There are few creative professionals left who don’t work in the digital realm. Even those with fairly traditional practices (such as fine artists and craftsmen) will be increasingly reliant on the Internet for promotional purposes, and for everyone else it’s a key part of our daily working lives. You may find yourself staring at a screen for eight hours a day, only to be followed home by a smartphone beeping with work emails. This makes it difficult to ever really leave work behind – something that’s especially true if you’re a freelancer.
The constant consumption of information – even if it’s unrelated to work – can have other negative effects. Rolling news coverage is both addictive and likely to make you feel stressed, anxious or angry, while social media is thought to increase the perception that others are leading more exciting and fulfilling lives than your own. We can feel annoyed at ourselves for wasting so much time on the Internet, but at the same time are unable to put out smartphones down.
Scheduling a digital detox (perhaps for two hours before bed, or an entire day over the weekend) can be a way to truly switch off. Keeping away from all Internet carrying devices not only takes you away from “work mode”, it also removes the social pressure that constantly being engaged on social media fosters. It also gives you time for real-life conversations, hobbies you may have neglected and a chance to reconnect with the non-digital world.
Take Up Meditation
There are many reasons why getting into the habit of meditation can be a great asset to a creative career. Meditation has been shown to improve focus and concentration, helping you to develop your problem solving skills and bolster your creativity – everything you need to kick-start a lacklustre brain. It does this by providing deep levels of rest that aren’t even achieved during sleep, reducing the stress hormones in our systems by up to a third. It’s also been shown in MRI scans to reduce activity in the areas of the brain responsible for anxiety. This suggests it can keep the panic and worry of prolonged stress at bay.
Meditation also gives you a chance to simply exist, getting away from to-do lists, urgent emails and client meetings. By focusing on something as simple as your breathing you’ll get into the habit of concentrating on one thing, finding it much easier to ignore distractions and think with more clarity. In the creative industries there are often demands coming from every direction, so increasing your focus will help you complete one task before moving onto the next.
Reassess Your Workload
Stress-reducing habits can go a long way in helping you stay creative and happy, but if your workload is simply too demanding, you will never solve your stress. The creative industries are so competitive that it can be tempting to take on more than you can sustainably cope with in order to get ahead, hoping to prove that you are the best person for the job. Also, for freelancers, the insecurity of not knowing when work may dry up can make you commit to too much while it’s there.
To avoid this, you need to be aware of how you’re feeling, be strict with yourself and learn how to say no. Telling yourself that everything is fine and that you can cope, even when you are exhausted, unhappy and dry of ideas, is a step towards burning out entirely. If you are a freelancer who already has plenty of work, say no to the projects that don’t interest you, and set clear boundaries with demanding clients. Make it clear that you won’t be available outside of working hours, and any extra work will involve an extra fee.
You may have less wiggle room as an employee, but that doesn’t mean you have to put up with unbearable pressure. Be honest with your boss about how your workload is affecting your performance. Suggest that – while you are willing to take on extra work on the odd occasion when the role demands it – that working way over normal professional hours is not conducive to good results or your mental wellbeing. A sensible employer will understand the need to reduce your workload, especially if the alternative is losing a member of staff to chronic stress.
Feeling as though you’ve lost your creative spark (especially when it’s a key part of your professional and personal identity) is both a symptom of stress and something that will make stress worse. Not being able to produce your best work and feeling as though none of your ideas are good enough will perpetuate feelings of worry. Ensuring that inspiration keeps flowing will mean taking care of yourself, making sure that your career makes you happy and that stress doesn’t cloud your creative brain.