How you can use systems to trigger creative motivation and inspiration

“Systems” and “creativity” seem to contradict each other a little, don’t they?

Formal structure can extinguish creativity pretty fast. Even though, in small doses, those constraints inevitably make you think out-of-the-box… But, too much structure, and your creative freedom just feels squashed, bound, and unable to move.

Over the years, I’ve learned that creativity can be an elusive and unfriendly beast: It often needs motivation and inspiration to coincide, but neither are necessarily guaranteed to happen at the same time. More often than not, I either feel really motivated to be creative but have absolutely no inspiration, or I have a really cool idea for something but don’t have the energy to do it.

So, I’ve learned to outsource as much of my motivation and inspiration as I can. Systems that I’ve set up for myself take care of that stuff, so I can worry about the actual content of what I create.

Here’s some of the ways I’ve done that. The two things I’m going to unpack below are:

  • Willpower is a fallacy
  • Inspiration lasts longer than you think

Note: I mainly talk about drawing and illustrating in this post, but you can substitute pretty much any creative field: Sculpting, writing, embroidery, animation, photography… These tips apply to any expressions of the imagination!

On creative motivation:

Here’s the first lesson I’ve learned: Willpower is a fallacy.

If you always wait until you feel like doing something… you’ll be running a really tight game, my friend. You cannot rely on willpower alone. It is not a reliable resource, and it is not good at judging what’s best for you – how many times have you been reluctant to do something, only to really enjoy it once you started?

Think of creating good habits:

Getting up to go for a run at 6am isn’t fun (some weirdos love it though). So, you set things up to make it as easy as possible for you to succeed – things like setting your shoes by the door, having a playlist you love to listen to, etc. Here, the idea is to give as much responsibility for motivation to the habit as possible, so you don’t have to muster up tons of energy each time you do it.

We can create similar systems with creative motivation, to make sure we never need to rely on willpower to get creative:

Tip #1: Make yourself accountable to someone

Accountability is a helluva good way to get off your ass and do something. Gym buddies are a great example: If you know someone is meeting you at gym at 7am, you’d feel really bad if you stood them up.

What works really well for me is to tell a friend of mine that I’m going to draw them something by the next day. This gives me a solid reason not to let them down. Plus, I also have a really cool opportunity to make them smile and feel appreciated. Bonus.

Whether it’s a friend, colleague or online stranger, get them to expect something from you, and use that to hold yourself accountable.

Tip #2: Get somebody else to pick the subject matter

Part of why it’s hard to feel motivated is the ‘blank page syndrome’ we all get when we first sit down. With so much possibility of what you could do, what the hell do you do? My advice: Outsource that shit.

If the goal is just to draw, then do an Inktober series (even if it’s not October!), or use a ‘random drawing idea’ generator. You could even text your mum and say, “Give me a cartoon you watched as a kid, and name something you had for breakfast this week.” Whether you draw that exactly, or use it as a base, you’ve done the hardest part – just getting started.

Find someone or something to give you a place to start. That’s your activation energy. Once you get going, who cares if you stick to it or not! The point is: Pick something that makes it easy to get going. That’s all you need.

Your barrier to starting a creative project shouldn’t be always needing to think of what to illustrate. That’s silly. Rather, outsource the activation energy you need. Once you start, the rest will fall into place.

On creative inspiration:

Oef. Alright.

Firstly, “I just don’t really feel inspired right now” is bullshit – and you’re only hurting yourself.

Secondly, as much as I said you need inspiration and motivation to get creative, you do not need to be inspired every single time you get creative.

My second lesson about creativity is this: Inspiration lasts longer than you think. Let me explain what I mean with two examples:

Example 1: Every now and then, I have these waves of ideas crash over me – or even just one, really big, really exhilarating wave. I get all hyped up, I scribble the idea down onto paper, I send a voice note to myself… And only days later do I really revisit it and start working on it. Here, inspiration happens on Monday, and execution happens on Thursday.

Example 2: Sometimes, I’m working on a sketch, and an idea evolves as I go. I flick to a new page, I fly from pencil to ink, I digitise it, I colour it, I tweak it… and bam, in an hour, I’ve taken a spark and kindled it into really kickass picture of a fire. A few days later, I build on the idea, and draw another fire, but I invert the colours. A few more days, and I’ve got a series of three different fires, all with varying colour palettes. Inspiration happens on Monday, and momentum carries me for a week.

What I’m trying to illustrate (ba-dum-ts) with the two scenarios above is that inspiration is not as transient as we sometimes treat it. I used to think I had to feel inspired every time I sat down to illustrate; what I didn’t understand then is that inspiration can be stored, and released over time.

Enough analogies. Here’s how I’ve systematised storing and tapping into inspiration:

Turn ideas into inspiration frameworks that you can plug into

I once had this idea for a new style, and I had a very particular image of a creepy, macabre-looking finger in my head. Here it is:

I loved the simplicity of it, so I turned this style into a framework. My moment of inspiration became a thing I could plug into every time I sat down to sketch. It became a framework I could apply to… well, anything. A rose? Cool. A tooth? Yupp. An eye? Done. Whatever the doodle, I just used the same the colour palette, a simple line shading to accentuate details, and added something macabre to each one. And now, I have this series of illustrations:

A simple way to store inspiration is to find its unique qualities, build a framework around those, and make it easy to use whenever you want to. Whether you write it down as three bullet points, or create an Adobe preset, make it something you can overlay onto whatever you want.

Some ideas on how to build inspiration frameworks:

  • Create a series from an old idea: Pick something of yours that you really enjoyed doing, and find a way to apply those mediums/principles/styles onto something else.
  • Outsource an idea from someone else: No, don’t steal their idea. I just mean: Find an artist you admire, pick one of their creations, and find what makes it unique. You can generally get some fundamental styles from that and run with the idea as a framework, tweaking it here and there.

In case it inspires you, here are some other inspiration frameworks I’ve built for myself:

Stuff-into-spaceships: I got this idea from an Instagram account called @spacegooose. They turn everyday objects into spaceships, and I used the idea as a way to have something that I don’t need to think about. I pick an object, and I illustrate it into a UFO. I never need to think about what to do beyond choosing what object to turn into a spacecraft – infact, I sometimes even get friends to send me pictures of things, so I don’t even need to pick that! It’s not lazy; it’s inspiration that I simmer on the stove until I need it.

Redesign existing logos: I love translating brands into symbols, but I don’t want to have to find a freelance logo design job, or come up with a fictional company before I get to do that. So, I find a company that already exists, and try to redesign their logo. This gives me a lot of room to play, and the most I need to do is find a logo (and, spoiler: there’s no shortage of those).

Make your art

So, if willpower is a fallacy and inspiration lasts longer than you think… what then?

Well, if you can find a way to externalise and outsource as much of the energy it takes to feel motivated and inspired, then creativity becomes all that much easier. Go and create. Make your art. And don’t let motivation and inspiration get in your way.

You always have exactly what you need you be creative; you just need to make it easy for yourself to tap into it. Turn motivation and inspiration into systems so that you can fully relish in creativity whenever you want to.

And remember: A little growth every day goes a long way.

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