How To Overcome Self-Criticism and Lack of Motivation

The May issue of HOW explores how procrastination can be a creative roadblock that gets in the way of our best work. John Perry, author of “The Art of Procrastination,” entrepreneur and writer Julien Smith and creative coach Mark McGuinness shared 10 ways to overcome our procrastinating tendencies and just get on with it.

procrastination_web_mainBut procrastination is just one of the creative gremlins that keep us from hitting our full potential at work. Self-criticism is another self-inflicted obstacle; so is lack of creative energy—we’ll call it the “I-don’t-wannas.” Here are a few strategies for vanquishing both of those creative roadblocks.

Creative Obstacle 1: Self-Criticism

Most creative pros encounter that internal voice that says, “You’re just not good enough.” It’s a creativity-killer, that voice. It keeps you from getting started on a project, and it keeps you going on the project long after you’ve reached the limit of billable hours.

Nashville, TN-based freelance designer Steve Wilson says solopreneurs are especially susceptible to this creative roadblock. “As a full-time freelancer working from home, I tend to naturally downplay the quality of my work as compared to other agencies,” he says. For Wilson, the longer a project drags on, the more doubt creeps in. “When a website sits on my screen with little progress for several days (or even weeks), it tends to grow visually stale and unprofessional in my eyes. Also, when the revision stage drags on or client feedback becomes overwhelming, it tends to create self-doubt about my abilities.”

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And those questions about talent and worth hit experienced creative pros, not just design-school students. Pros like Debbie Millman, president of the design division at Sterling Brands in New York City, industry leader, fine artist, author, educator and illustrator. It’s hard to imagine that such a well-respected force has her own creative doubts to stifle, but Millman says she works constantly to conquer the demons. “I am trying very hard to ease up on myself,” she says.

“I love this quote by John Maeda,” she continues: “‘The computer will do anything within its abilities, but it will do absolutely nothing unless commanded to do so.’ I think people are the same—we like to operate within our perceived abilities. But whereas the computer has a fixed code, our abilities are limited only by our perceptions. I’ve been working now for 30 years and I am finally at a point where I want to rewire those self-inflicted roadblocks by facing the demons head on and trying to push through them.”

One key to overcoming self-doubt, says Julien Smith, is to take refuge in the fact that it hits everyone. “At the end of the day, it’s simple: people are constantly caught up in themselves and their failure, and they’re viewing themselves as a story in which they’re a loser. No one is watching. And everyone is pathetic. Everyone has this problem, and we all just want to admit it.”

How to Overcome Self-Doubt

So, now that we’ve all admitted to our nagging self-doubt, here’s what we can do about it:

Shift your attitude. “My biggest goal for 2013 is to improve my professional attitude about my own business by upgrading my home office surroundings and attending more creative and professional networking events,” Wilson says.

Let go of worry. Says Smith, “You’re gonna die, you have a limited amount of time, why worry so much? It’s a cliche way of saying it, but cut yourself some slack.”

Hone your critical skills. If you’ve ever taken a design course you know how to—and how not to—critique someone else’s work. (For the uninitiated, here is Terry Lee Stone’s guide to the formal design critique process.) In short, discuss how the work addresses objectives laid out in the brief, focus on strategy and keep the conversation constructive. Next time the inner critic raises its voice, make it adopt a respectful tone. Review your work with the same emotional distance you’d use when critiquing another designer’s work.

Honor the role criticism takes in improving your work. NYC-based freelance designer Nikita Prokhorov says that honest evaluation can either lead to doubt or to improvement. Keep questioning as a way to keep growing. “It’s a fine line between using self-doubt as positive motivation or letting it hamper your progress and development as a designer,” he says. “Most designers need to step back and evaluate their own work & thoughts process/creativity under a microscope to make sure they’re still improving their skillset. Being confident because you are a good designer is one thing, but being cocky because you’re not critical enough of your work can lead to stagnation of your skills.”

Creative Obstacle 2: Lack of Motivation

Ugh. You just. Don’t. Want. To. This lack of creative energy can stem from all kinds of sources: frustration with your job, boredom with the same kinds of projects, disinterest in the subject of the project. Lack of motivation can strike in-house designers who deal with the same brand day in and day out, or agency types who only work on brochures.

Mark McGuinness distinguishes the different factors that get us into the groove with work: There’s intrinsic motivation—the love of the work itself—which is highly correlated with creativity. “The more you’re doing something interesting and inspiring, the easier it’ll be to get yourself motivated and the higher your creative output will be,” he says.

Then there’s extrinsic motivation—money, praise, prestige. These are detrimental to creativity, McGuinness says. And here’s the rub: The motivators that drive creativity are antithetical to motivators that drive business.

How to Overcome Lack of Creativity

Short of finding another job, there are small steps you can take to overcome the “I-don’t-wannas.”

Find something to like about the project. Perhaps it doesn’t fire you up, but it could make an excellent portfolio piece that demonstrates a particular capability. Maybe it’s an opportunity for you to try new skills or collaborate with interesting people.

Find creative outlets beyond work. “If you’re in a situation where you feel like you’re not getting the creative satisfaction out of your work, then find some time during the week, preferably every day, to pursue a creative project that really inspires you,” McGuinness says. “You don’t have to be totally frustrated with you job to do this. For example, if I make time to write a poem every week or to read a poem every day, everything else gets easier.

“As well as the actual time you spend hands-on doing it, it’s always in the back of your mind; it’s your pressure valve, your escape hatch,” he continues.

“Your responsibility is to fuel your creative well.”


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