3 Ways to Improve Your Creative Focus

Do you have a creative project you’re passionate about but keep procrastinating on…

  • Finally writing that book you keep telling yourself is “in you”?
  • Getting back into watercolor painting after a 3 decade hiatus?
  • Starting a blog, podcast, or YouTube channel?
  • Turning your woodworking hobby into a part-time business?

If so, you’re probably familiar with the deep frustration that comes from what seems to be a contradiction—continuing to avoid or put off the things you’re the most passionate about!

But if you look a little closer, it’s actually not that strange at all…

The creative work you’re most passionate about is often the work with the most at stake.

If you really believe that writing a book, for example, is a part of your calling, that’s both incredibly motivating and incredibly scary because it’s tied so closely to your identity. So much pressure!

Unfortunately, the way most of us respond to that pressure doesn’t work so well…

  • “Powering through” and willing your way to work often leaves you more exhausted and depleted than when you started.
  • The litany of negative self-talk and judgmentalness you fall into when you struggle only saps you of motivation and creative resilience.
  • Perfectionistic expectations and unrealistic standards only lead to more discouragement and lack of confidence.

As a psychologist, I worked with many individuals who struggled with creative procrastination. And what I found most successful in helping them was to shift their mindset from fighting against their procrastinationimproving their creative focus.

What follows are three ways to stop procrastinating and build creative focus.

1. Work in Stranger Places

When it comes to creative work, there’s a lot to be said for developing routines. In fact, the right routines can be one of the most powerful ways to avoid procrastination in the first place.

The problem is, like any tool, routines can be both helpful or destructive. And if the creative routines you’re in are currently associated with distraction, rather than focus, that means those routines themselves could be the very thing causing your procrastination.

For example:

  • Let’s say you’re trying to start a blog.
  • So you wake up every morning at 5:30 and make yourself some coffee.
  • Then you head up to your home office and sit down in front of your computer to start writing.
  • Now, that sounds like a perfectly nice creative routine.
  • The problem is that for three months, you’ve been doing this exact routine and procrastinating instead of writing.
  • Which means by now, this nice morning routine has become associated with procrastination and distraction, so that even if you wake up in a pretty good headspace to start writing, your routine itself will be a cue or trigger for procrastinating instead of writing.

If this sounds at all like something that might be going on with you, the best antidote is to get a little weird….

Try breaking your routines and working in unusual and unfamiliar places.

For example:

  • If you always write (or try to write) in your home office, try taking your laptop to the park and writing on a bench.
  • If you always paint (or try to paint) in the park or countryside, try painting in your garage.
  • If you always knit (or try to knit) in your living room, take your supplies to your local coffee shop and try knitting there.

The logic here is that you might have better creative focus than you realize outside of your typical routines and environments that have become associated or paired with procrastination.

And by working in stranger places, you now have none of those procrastination triggers to contend with.

It seems almost too simple to be true, but I think that’s part of the power: As much as we tend to think of procrastination as an “inner” problem, in many cases it’s actually an “outer” problem that can be solved with a relatively simple environmental shift.

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.”

Matsuo Basho

2. Be Curious, Not Critical, with Difficult Emotions

Difficult emotions are often at the heart of our creative struggles:

  • How many times have you been thrown off track in your creative pursuits because of anxiety and the fear of what people will think?
  • How many times have you used distraction—social media, TV, talking to a friend—as a way to avoid the self-doubt that comes along with doing something creative?
  • How often have you let perfectionism and insecurity derail your creative goals?

But it’s not quite fair to say that difficult emotions like fear and anxiety cause us to procrastinate and lose focus. After all, if you listen to anyone who’s successfully created anything, they’ll tell you they had their fair share of self-doubt, insecurity, and fear.

Here’s a better way to think about it:

Our relationship with difficult emotions determines how much they hinder our creative work.

Sadly, many of us grew up with an antagonist relationship toward our own emotions—one characterized either by aggression or avoidance:

  • You feel anxious, and immediately get into a “fight” with your anxiety by criticizing it or yourself for feeling that way.
  • You feel insecure about your work and how it will be perceived by others, then instantly fall into self-judgment about why you shouldn’t be so insecure.
  • Or, you simply can’t tolerate much emotional hardship and tend to run away whenever it comes upon—leading to temporary relief at the expense of your long-term creative ambitions.

If this is you, the task is not so much to avoid or get rid of difficult emotions that arise when you work as it is learning how to relate to them in a healthier way.

And one very simple (though not necessarily easy) way to do this is to practice substituting curiosity for criticism when those difficult emotions arise.

For example:

  • You sit down to work, and a series of doubts and worries pop into mind about people thinking your work will be “amateurish,” and this immediately leads to a surge of anxiety.
  • Next, you find yourself muttering to yourself: “God, why am I such a worry wart?! I’d get a lot more done if I was just confident in myself.”
  • Now, you’re not only feeling anxious, you’re also feeling ashamed and guilty (or maybe angry) about feeling anxious.
  • At this point there’s so much painful emotion onboard, that avoiding the creative work is the only way to cope.

But imagine this alternate scenario:

  • You sit down to work, and a series of doubts and worries pop into mind about people thinking your work will be “amateurish,” and this immediately leads to a surge of anxiety.
  • Now, instead of criticizing yourself for feeling anxious, you get curious and ask yourself a question about it. Maybe it’s: “Huh, I wonder if other writer’s feel anxious and worry about what other people will think when they sit down to write?”
  • Interestingly, this leads to the thought: “Yeah, I mean, I’m sure a lot of writers feel a little insecure about their writing. In fact, I just saw that quote by Hemingway about this…”
  • And to your surprise, you realize that, while the anxiety isn’t gone, you don’t feel terrible and that maybe it’s possible to keep going despite feeling a bit anxious?

When you criticize yourself for feeling bad about not being able to focus, you end up feeling worse and your odds of actually continuing the work plummet. But when you get curious about your emotions, you will often end up validating them—even by accident—which tends to relieve some of their pressure and make it easier to keep going.

If you can get in the habit of substituting a little curiosity for your default of criticism, you’ll find it much easier to be resilient and stay focused in the face of difficult emotions like fear and anxiety.

“Beware the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.”

— Ben Okri

3. Visualize the Why Behind Your Creative Work

When I work with people to help them overcome procrastination and stay focused on their creative projects, an interesting theme emerges…

Creatives have a strong impulse to create, but don’t have a very sharp why behind that focus.

This results in many creatives getting stuck in a kind of no-man’s-land of procrastination and distraction: They feel an intense desire to create but lack the motivating pull of crystalized values to help them follow through.

Motivating pull of crystalized values… What are you talking about?!

I know, that was a mouth full! Let me use an example to illustrate what I mean…

  • I worked with a fellow therapist once who, for years, had wanted to write a book about her unique speciality—helping young adult men with eating disorders.
  • She had decades of experience and incredible insights into this niche-but-not-as-rare-as-you-would-think area of psychology and it was obvious both how much she wanted to share this knowledge and how much it was needed.
  • At this point, you’d think with all that energy, writing a short book on something she knew as much about as anyone on Earth would be relatively simple.
  • Not so! She struggled mightily just to get started, and even then, was making tortuously slow progress—to the point where she was genuinely despairing of ever writing it.
  • What became apparent after a couple weeks of working with her was that while she clearly valued this project immensely, the values behind her desire—her why—was strong but not clear.
  • When I asked her to talk about her why, she tended to respond in fairly vague terms about valuing creativity and the desire to help this neglected population. But I could tell immediately that these values, while genuine, had no teeth. That is, because they were vague and non-specific, they didn’t exert much motivating pull over her.
  • See, values, when well-clarified, are one of the most powerful sources of motivation to undertake any demanding project or goal, including difficult creative work. Unfortunately, most people don’t know much about values work and how to tap into this hidden store of motivation.
  • So that’s what we did…
  • I spent the next few weeks helping her describe in excruciating detail exactly what her values were, what they looked like, how they felt, and why they really mattered to her.
  • And sure enough, while her procrastination didn’t disappear completely, her ability to stay focused and work through the pulls of procrastination got much stronger because her why behind her work was crystal clear now.

Your personal values behind the creative project can be incredibly motivating—enough to outcompete almost any kind of distraction or fear—but only if you do the work to make them crystal clear.

Here’s a quick way to get started:

  1. Choose the creative project you’re struggling most with.
  2. Using this values list, select the one value that best explains why you want to undertake or complete this creative project.
  3. Next, pull out a journal or a few sheets of paper and set a timer for 20 minutes and reflect on and write about these questions with as much detail and specificity as possible:
    • What does it look like when I’m living this value out? How do I feel emotionally? Physically? Spiritually?
    • Who is someone I admire for living out this same value? What specifically do I admire about them? What actions do they take that show their commitment to this value?
    • How would other people know I was living this value? What would it look like from their perspective? How would they describe me?
    • What would the benefits be of me living out this value consistently? The benefits to me personally? The benefits to the people in my life who are close to me? Others?
    • In what ways would I be a different person if I lived this value consistently for an entire year? How would I feel about myself?

You can learn more about values work here.

“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.”

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

All You Need to Know

If you want to stop procrastinating on your creative work, here are three habits you can build to improve your creative focus:

  1. Work in Stranger Places
  2. Be Curious, Not Critical, with Difficult Emotions
  3. Visualize the Why Behind Your Creative Work

Learn more