How to stay creative in times of uncertainty

Posted April 20, 2020

Like many of us who for the past few weeks have been stuck at home self-quarantined, I’ve been followed by a sense of worrisome uncertainty mixed with boredom. As I often do in times like this, I turn to wanting to create something, a drawing, a painting, a story, anything really.

Looking for ideas, I browsed around, oh I could take an online programming course, oh I could do something with my portfolio, oh how about a UXR course instead. Having enrolled in 3 courses and started none, I stopped. I couldn’t decide what to do. There was so much I wanted to do, so much I could do to become more productive and increase my productivity in this time of unproductiveness.

It’s always a mistake to equate productivity and creativity. They are not the same […]

Austin Kleon, Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad

After taking a few days off from trying to do anything productive, I began to realize that I was spiraling into a cycle of wanting to become better at work, while trying to pick up the remains of whatever routine I had left. And that wasn’t why I had set out to create something.

While my job and masters degree kept me occupied creating websites and researching designs, I’ve come to learn that focusing solely on work only offers a momentary distraction. I needed something for my own time, something that gave my mind space to process and served as a relaxed todo for the hours of boredom.

In search of a solution, I did what I often do in times of creative uncertainty: Google something desperately, and finally calm myself down and pick up a good book. I landed on Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon.

Keep Going, book cover

For a book that was published about a year before the times of COVID-19, Keep Going offers an incredible amount of relatable and common sense wisdom for maintaining creative sanity during these insanely strange times. I’d like to reflect of 4 pieces of wisdom, and how I believe the pertain to our current reality:

Routines are useful, modifiable, and aspirational

Kleon starts off by talking about the importance of daily practice, and how creating a routine will help you know what to make next, thus helping you advance your creative practice. However, he explains that all routines are individual and may sometimes need to be modified. And he also reminds us:

Not every day is going to turn out the way we want it to. All routines and to-do lists are aspirational.

Austin Kleon, Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad

We all need to be reminded that routines aren’t immutable. They must change and evolve with us. And as humans, we also sometimes need a break from them.

Focus on doing, and it’ll add up

Kleon explains that most successful artists he knows focus on their daily practice, and on continuing it regardless of wether “their latest thing is universally rejected, ignored, or acclaimed.” The next time you feel stuck, focus back on the work, pay attention to your craft, and the small steps to achieve the larger goal. The big picture is important, but when many of our big goals are on hold or a slow slope up, the best we can do is focus on the day by day.

Create for fun, not just for work

About a year and a half ago, in a moment of feeling overwhelmed, I made the semi-spontaneous decision to finally buy that DSLR camera I had long wanted. And I fell in love with photography. It made me pay attention to the world in ways I didn’t normally. I went to parking lots to photograph street art like the image below, and I became a fan of shooting small objects in gardens too. I also felt free as a creative. I didn't have to follow someone else’s guidelines when I captured pictures.

Arrow on the ground pointint to a modern mural of a indigenous Mexican woman, Undergound Inkblock mural by Victor "MARKA27" Quinonez

Constraints are normal in work, where the audience is essential. But constantly worrying about constraints can make creative work difficult and exhausting. Your mind needs space to process and create freely, especially during times when you find focusing difficult. Take Kleon’s advice: “resist the urge to monetize every single bit of your creative practice.”

Creativity thrives in uncertainty

In these stressful times we all need a little more hope, so remember creativity helps us solve problems. While your skills and knowledge may not be enough to stop COVID-19, we can trust on the skills, knowledge, and creativity of health experts. In the mean time, we can focus on caring for ourselves and our community by following expert guidelines. And we can make art, because creativity thrives in times of uncertainty.