Kevin Cornell on Staying Motivated

A few months ago Kevin Cornell, the staff illustrator for the highly acclaimed website A List Apart, wrote about staying motivated. He had some excellent things to say that I’d like to share here. Cornell says that there are two phases to creative work of any kind: starting out, and maintenance.

Phase I: Starting Out

When you’re starting out, stack the deck in your favor by giving yourself attainable goals, setting yourself up for more success than failure by being realistic in the goals you set. He suggests building a creative den, a place where you go and do your thing. I’ve found this particularly useful with my own studio:

… you need a place specifically set aside to be creative in. Once you’ve decided on that place, use it like the dickens. Each creative success you have in that location will train your mind to be creative within its boundaries. When I set foot inside my office, something clicks on in my brain, and I’m ready to work. Sure, it took about six months to turn into a den — but trust me, it’s time and effort well spent.

He also suggests figuring out what time of day you’re most creative, and take advantage of that. I think a lot of artists are (perhaps stereotypically) more active and creative in the late hours, but some aren’t. The point remains:

Find out when you’re at your creative best, and start using that time to your advantage; save your least creative time to do the mundane administrative aspects of your job.

Phase II: Maintenance

When you get to the maintenance level, you can take steps to ensure that you don’t fall off track by applying a few tricks here and there. Try getting out of your creative den and work somewhere else for a change. Changing your environment is a powerful thing, forcing you to think of things differently. You can be inspired from a cafe or a museum or something you see on a hiking trip. You can go from one extreme to another to keep yourself on your toes by doing things like studying your peers and then ignoring them completely so that you don’t become fixated on what they have done that you haven’t.

Cornell is definitely in agreement with me about carrying a sketchbook or a notebook:

I can’t emphasize this one enough. Ideas — good or bad — need to be recorded. No one can remember them all. Writing down an idea for long-term storage might just free up some room in your brain to tackle new problems. What’s more, you now have a library of ideas to lend a hand when a deadline is looming and you’re not feeling your most creative.

His article is a pretty good summary of a lot of the things we’ll be talking about in-depth here in the coming weeks and months. Hopefully a glance at this list will spur you on to do something great, whether you’re just getting started or trying to maintain your creative steam.