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As the news continues to look grim and the economy struggles, what can creatives do to stay happy and productive? The Creative Boom community share their top tips.
Are you finding your life and work particularly challenging right now? You’re by no means alone. After all, we might be past the worst of Covid now, but the world hasn’t exactly pivoted into the big, happy, post-pandemic party we’d all hoped for. Instead, we’re suffering from economic turmoil, political tensions, and a general atmosphere of uncertainty. And when that coincides with personal struggles in getting enough work to survive, it can lead to some pretty dark thoughts.
Yet, while these struggles are real, that doesn’t mean they can’t be overcome. And those who manage to do so will only grow and become stronger as a result.
Part of that is simply what photographer Mike Black describes as: “Bloody-mindedness and a desire to keep going.” As he puts it: “If you carry on creating, the work will eventually acquire some value when you look back on it. As someone once said to me, ‘How many recessions have you been through now, Mike?'”
But how do you keep going when everything seems so dire?
We asked the Creative Boom community to provide actionable advice and insights on staying positive and productive. And as always, they provided some great advice. We share some of their best ideas below, while you can read the full thread on Twitter here.
1. First, accept your situation
As with many problems in life, the first step towards resilience is acceptance. You need to accept this is how things are, however much you’d like them to be different.
There’s no point, for example, in obsessing over how you once had multiple clients falling over themselves to give you commissions, and now there’s silence. That’s just the nature of freelance work; it tends to be cyclical. “It happens, and it will happen again,” says senior freelance copywriter Jonathan Wilcock. “There will be lows as well as highs. So when the good times come, make the most of it and save the pennies. Conversely, when the doldrums hit, remember it will definitely change.”
Most importantly, accepting that the market for your services has dipped in general prevents you from blaming yourself personally. “It’s not you!” says brand builder Asa, aka Work by Page. “Everyone’s feeling the squeeze in this climate, so keep celebrating the small wins – even surviving this current market is a huge success. And if you’re new to this, that’s one hell of a baptism of fire. Hopefully, one day, it’ll feel much smoother.”
2. Stay informed, but not overwhelmed
One reason you may be blaming yourself is that you’re seeing so many success stories on social media, and that can skew your perspective. So, it’s vital to remember that this is not a representative sample of how creatives are doing in general. After all, few people post on Instagram when they get turned down for a project or if it goes badly.
As Chris Duffy, co-chief and creative director at Fire Dept, puts it: “Comparison is the thief of joy. So, forget what everyone else is doing. Concentrate on what you can do, and get it in front of as many people as possible.”
When you’re on a downer, looking for inspiration from your social feeds is, of course, natural. But, believes Steve Price, chief brand officer for Lkysunz, that’s playing a dangerous game. “Sitting scrolling through social media, witnessing the myriad of posts from recruiters and observing the pile-on in the comments will crush your spirit,” he says. “So instead, update that book you’ve been putting off. Work on side projects you’ve left collecting dust. Focus on keeping yourself busy and doing work that makes your soul flutter.”
Indie director and screenwriter Miles Watts agrees. “Spend less time online reading about what everyone else is doing,” he urges. “Focus on real-world one-on-one relationships to edge things forward each day and help you stay sane!”
Social media is especially problematic if you work alone because all the nuance can get lost, and you can start to get a warped picture of how things really are. Designer and illustrator Kevin Tiernan is aware of this dynamic and actively works against it. “I try not to misconstrue my thoughts as solid facts,” he explains. “Do I have the evidence to back up any negative thoughts? Am I futurecasting? Sometimes, when you talk to somebody else, you can hear that your inner narrative doesn’t hold water.”
3. Cultivate a positive mindset
Avoiding negativity is one thing, but how do you actively stay positive? If you’re struggling to do so, try mindfulness and meditation techniques to help you maintain a calm and upbeat outlook. You’ll find some suggestions on how to get started in this article.
Another common approach is journaling. Creatives regularly tell us that documenting their thoughts and feelings is a great way to stay focused and positive, and you’ll find tips on how to do so here. “A useful exercise is to journal daily and list three things you’re thankful for,” says logo designer Ian Paget. “There’s always a reason to be thankful.”
He also has an interesting concept for how to reframe your current situation. “Imagine yourself in a movie,” he suggests. “Every good story has those darker moments. Just imagine the music that will play at this moment in your life and the people that you’ll be able to help and inspire when you’re out on the other end. Doing this always puts a smile on my face.”
“I often struggle and over the years have found lots of ways to keep going,” says artist and designer Mark Leary. “My current favourite is my ‘happy inbox’: a folder in my email where any thanks, good feedback and friendly messages of hope go, to look at in darker times.”
“Surrounding myself with positive, fun things is a huge help,” agrees Richard Paul, creative director at Propellernet. “For example, If I’m playing sombre music, that will only make things worse. So I’ll get out the 90s pop bangers, watch something funny on YouTube, or go back to old work that made me smile to get my head back in that place.”
And here’s one further idea from Ian. “My daughter’s mum has a memories jar,” he explains. “The concept is to note down a happy event, no matter how small, fold it up and put it in the jar. Then, at the end of the year, open it up and go through the notes. You’ll have forgotten most of it, so it’s a nice way to show how great life is.”
4. Maintain a working routine
Ultimately, of course, you don’t just want to feel positive about life in the abstract; you want to make great work that fulfils you creatively. That, in turn, requires routine and structure, but if you’re short on paid commissions, maintaining a daily routine can be a challenge. It’s really important to do so, though, so it’s worth diving into a personal project or pro bono work for a while just to give you stability and keep up your momentum.
As photographer Kerry Curl says: “If you can, keep doing personal work, even if budget restrictions mean you have to strip ideas and processes back. Look at the resources you have around you. Also, go back through previous work with fresh eyes and new thoughts. And don’t be afraid to share existing work you connect with.”
That’s exactly what illustrator and artist Abi Daker has been doing, and it’s borne fruit. “I’ve had a few small commissions over the last year, which came about from people looking at personal work I posted and basing a brief on some of the newer work,” she explains. “In addition, feedback throughout this last year has been useful, and I felt it moved my work forward a bit, so the extra free time wasn’t wasted.”
5. Lean on others
Do you work by yourself? Then, always remember that when times get tough, you don’t have to do it all by yourself. There are always people out there to help you through.
“It’s difficult to stay motivated, especially when you work on your own,” says designer Kate Moorhouse. “I find treating myself to a nice coffee and meeting another creative works wonders. And trying not to be hard on yourself when you need a break.”
Digital designer Andy Schofield takes a similar approach. “Ask for help,” he advises. “Go grab a drink with fellow creatives and pick their brains for best practices or opportunities you hadn’t thought of. Talk.”
“Gathering like minds is what catalyses and connects for me,” says Emma M Bearman of Playful Anywhere. “Poco y poco, as the Spanish say. It means having faith that by doing a little thing – one by one, step by step – you can spark some glimmers. And don’t forget to support your friends and peers, and try to shine a light on them too.”
“It’s important to turn outwards and stay engaged with the world,” says Jonathan Jarvis, design director at Without. “Being a hermit is tempting when it’s cold, but it can kill creativity and motivation.
“My advice is to book things you can look forward to,” he continues. “A gallery visit, alone or with the studio. A lunch somewhere new with a friend. Or even just hopping on the first train and going somewhere different; my friend runs a fantastic ‘no-obligation walking club’ for exactly this kind of thing. Inspiration doesn’t need to take the form of typical creative outlets, and engaging with things in the real world can help keep you grounded and positive. But make sure you book it in, or it might not happen!”
6. Get outside
“Get outside” isn’t the most original advice, but it’s advice that’s often ignored by creatives who are feeling down and just want to crawl up into a ball. It’s vital, though, that you fight that instinct because even a short walk and a breath of fresh air can make a world of difference to your mood.
“Walking for me has a massive impact on how I feel through the day,” says illustrator and animator Emily Redfearn. “Lots of little things like that through the week add up, even if some days you don’t feel like it.”
Mike Hindle agrees. “Spend a couple of days, half days or even a few hours per week surrounded by fresh air, countryside and trees,” he urges. “It has an instant calming effect and powers up a positive mindset.”
In short, staying motivated is all about the little things. For illustrator Vicky’s World, these include: “Getting outside every day, exercising, making time to see friends and making sure I’ve achieved one useful thing every day; from booking a trip to see my family to updating my portfolio so I can tick it off.”
7. Look to the future
If the present sucks, then here’s the good news: the future won’t… at least if you look ahead and plan accordingly. That’s mainly about setting small, realistic and achievable goals, giving you a drip-drip of accomplishment and progress as you tick them off.
Setting goals doesn’t mean writing a list of everything you want to achieve in theory but deciding what you can achieve in practice. In other words, urges graphic designer Tony Clarkson: “Narrow down what to focus on. You probably have a list of things you feel you should be doing that’s as long as your arm, but be selective. Trying to do it all becomes overwhelming, and you end up standing still. Checking some tasks may help solve others.”
Guy Armitage, founder of Zealous, offers similar advice. “Focus on smaller wins,” he says. “For work, that means breaking big projects into smaller goals you can achieve quicker. For life, it means focusing on the smaller pleasures in life: a walk outside, a hot chocolate, a hug, and less doomscrolling.”
Looking to the future is also about learning new things. “Be a beginner at something,” says Jack Milburn, brand design lead at Numbered. “The power of learning – learning anything – shouldn’t be underestimated. It can be a skill related to creativity or something in your personal life. The sense of progress and achievement it provides is a great motivator. Personally, I’m often looking to photography, cooking and fitness.”
Kevin Bethune, author of Reimagining Design, agrees. “Lean into your curiosity and experiment your way through the unknown, making things along the way,” he recommends. “Give from your well of knowledge to help others who could benefit from what you already know. Threads of hope are often found in this manner of daily practice.”
8. Be hopeful
If there’s a conclusion to all of this, it’s that feeling either optimistic or pessimistic isn’t something that happens to you; it’s a choice you have the power to make. You can choose to give up, or you can choose to be hopeful. And the overwhelming consensus from the Creative Boom community is that if you make that choice, good things will happen.
“It certainly felt dire last year, but a new year feels like a clean whiteboard on which to be creative,” says branding expert Jonathan White. “Connect with new creative minds. Learn new creative software. Start a side hustle passion project. A positive pivot.”
“Remember there will always be something to be curious about,” says Sally Louise Day, owner of Saltoria Marketing. “There will always be problems to solve. There will always be people to inspire. And what you do is important. I totally get these feelings of feeling low or unmotivated. It can be really tough, and I’ve definitely been there. But try to keep up the hope and remember someone’s world is brighter each day because of the work you create or the support you give.”