If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive – no matter how skilled or talented you are.
Cal Newport, Deep Work
If you’ve ever felt anxious and overwhelmed, whilst also numb and unfulfilled, then you’ll know exactly where I was before I embarked on my journey towards Intentionalism.
What was I doing that made me feel this way? Let’s see… Wasting my mornings endlessly scrolling through social media. Getting short-term dopamine hits from fast fashion hauls. Losing countless hours to mindless trash TV series like Love Island or Real Housewives (and yes, you should absolutely stop watching these shows if you want to change your life for the better!).
Whilst all these things may be easy and even pleasurable in the moment, you probably already know on a deeper level that mindless consumption is short-term gain for long-term pain.
When you’re stuck in this vicious cycle, you can start to feel like you have no agency over your own life. This leads to the need for continual escapism, as a gnawing void grows inside of you. You keep trying to fill it with more stuff to distract you. But unfortunately, as you may have already realised, no amount of short-term pleasure can lead to lasting fulfilment.
So what is the answer?
I think The Minimalists hit the nail on the head when they say:
The void most of us feel is a creative void – we’re so caught up in our consumeristic mindset we forget our inherent need to create. The solution, then, is to create more and consume less… This is how we move the needle of contentment back to the positive.
Whilst it may be difficult to differentiate on the surface when these two things look and feel familiar, the short-term pleasure you experience from consumption pales in comparison to the inherent joy you experience as an active creator.
Consumption is Extrinsic Pleasure, Creation is Intrinsic Joy
The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.
Whether it’s switching off a football match or declining an invitation to the cinema, my dad doesn’t like being a spectator. He would much rather be doing. His passions are rock climbing, hill walking and photography, and he pursues these ruthlessly. Despite never having earned more than a middling income, he is one of the most fulfilled and content people I know.
I think that ‘being a spectator’ is a great analogy for the inherently passive nature of consumption. On a psychological level, when you consume you are staying firmly rooted within your comfort zone. As a spectator, you aren’t putting yourself in the spotlight or ‘out there’. In other words, you can anonymously judge others from a safe distance, without fear of failure or rejection.
On the flip side, creation equals risk. As Brené Brown puts it in her wonderful book Daring Greatly:
Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.
The more difficult but rewarding path to true fulfilment is finding your passion and purpose in life. Your real duty is to serve. To contribute to society in the best way you possibly can, be it through science, industry, sports or the arts. It is about the power and beauty of creation, in a way that is unique to you as an individual. Being vulnerable with your inherent talents is your way of transmitting and receiving value in the world.
It is easier to bounce back from hard times when the locus of control is within you. When you know your values, understand what drives you, and are actively immersed in a life more heavily skewed towards output, you can overcome any how because you know your why.
Creation Grants us Entry into a Flow State
Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.
If you think back to your childhood, you may remember getting so immersed in certain activities, that time and space seemed to completely fall away. Whether it was painting, practising an instrument, or playing sports with friends, your childhood self inherently understood the importance of an active life of creation.
In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a flow state as complete absorption in something with no external reward. We are doing the thing for no other reason than the thing itself. He uses the example of rock climbing or writing poetry, whereby you don’t climb to get to the top or write to finish a poem. The justification is the climbing or writing in and of itself, which is a deep form of self-communication or ‘flow’:
Flow is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.
Scientific research also shows a connection between art and mental health benefits. Regardless of your skill level, just 45 minutes a day of immersion in a creative activity can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
I would even go as far as to argue that a flow state is a transition into a natural form of meditation. When you’re in this state, you have a heightened awareness and attention, with a decreased breathing rate and heartbeat.
A flow state is right on the cusp of your comfort zone. You’re challenged, but not to the point of fear. And this is the sweet spot at which you work best and experience joy.
The Dangers of a Society that Over-Consumes
Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.
In his chilling dystopian novel 1984, Orwell explores themes of power and control over a population that has lost awareness. Big Brother is always watching, and giant telescreens in every household stream constant propaganda supporting the Party.
Whilst we can sleep easier in the knowledge that this is a cautionary tale, dystopian fiction always holds seeds of truth. The more large-scale and concerning issue of a society that over-consumes, is that as a collective whole, we become distracted to what is really going on in the world. We get depressed, prescribed anti-depressants, and numb ourselves to our individual and collective pain.
A lot of the articles you read online now are AI-generated, and social media uses algorithms that provide just the right content to keep you addicted to scrolling. Your favourite sitcom uses a winning formula that producers know will keep you hooked. What I mean to say by this is that bit by bit, you become more like a robot yourself. Because you’re not really using your brain, having autonomy over your choices, or actively engaging with anything meaningful anymore.
I’m not trying to be fatalistic here. But you should feel unnerved by this and use it as a wake-up call to take back control of your thoughts and time. When a society is so comfortable that it becomes completely apathetic, we have no agency over the things we’re blind to.
To challenge difficult issues like climate change, deforestation, poverty or factory farming, you need to educate yourself and be an engaged citizen. And there is no better way to do this than to start changing your own individual life to one of consciousness and creative output.
7 Tips to Create More, Consume Less
Now that we’ve talked about the benefits of creation and the dangers of mindless consumption, I want to give you some tips that have helped me to make dedicated daily time and space for creativity in my own life. If you’re new to this, I encourage you to go easy on yourself and don’t give up at the first sign of resistance – your attention span will take time and effort to grow. This won’t happen overnight, but I promise the rewards are worth it!
1. Choose something which resonates with you
The first step is to know yourself at a deep level. What inspires you and makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? If you’ve been a chronic people-pleaser and looked to others for external validation your whole life, this can be a challenging question.
You may be one of the lucky ones who has known what makes you tick from a very young age, whether it be singing or acting, crocheting or interior design. Whilst I’ve always known that I can enter a flow state through writing, it took me a long time to really feel that I’d found my purpose with Intentional View. So I empathise if this is where you find yourself right now.
I could dedicate a whole post to this topic(!), but if you’re unsure, the answer is probably already within you. It might help to start with self-reflection. When you’ve got a quiet moment to yourself, sit down and answer the following questions as honestly as possible:
- What were you passionate about in your childhood and teenage years? What activities did you fill your time with?
- If you didn’t have to worry about a steady income or your usual responsibilities, what would you spend your time doing?
- What would be your dream job?
- When was the last time you were completely absorbed in an activity? What were you doing?
- Write down three of your strengths, or things you do well.
- If you were to sign up for a course of your choice right now, what would it be and why?
- Imagine your funeral. What would you regret not doing in life? What would you want people to say about the life you lived?
If you still only have a vague notion, then the best thing to do is to simply try new things and immerse yourself in various activities. Try to work out what you naturally gravitate towards.
2. Start small
Like with any behaviour change, it’s easy to get carried away and tell yourself you’re going to practice guitar for three hours a day. But it’s important to stay grounded and realistic in order to make your creativity habit a sustainable lifestyle choice. If you start too big, you can easily feel overwhelmed and give up too easily.
On the flip side, I know that in the past I have also been guilty of procrastination, perfectionism and fear of failure… all before I’ve even started! At a certain point, you simply have to bite the bullet and begin. Understand that you will make mistakes and learn along the way, and that’s okay!
Start with manageable daily targets for your creative output. For example, I started with just a fifteen-minute writing target. Hitting this consistently gives you the momentum to keep going. I can now manage up to a few hours a day when I really push myself, which I wouldn’t have thought was possible when I first started this blog! So have faith this is a muscle that you can build with daily practice. Consistency is key.
3. Have a digital detox
To allow yourself entry into a flow state, you need to be focused on the task at hand and distraction-free. If you’ve got your phone next to you with Whatsapp notifications pinging up, and the Facebook icon just one click away from instant gratification, you’re never going to access the meditative state of full creative immersion.
When you’re particularly addicted to social media, I would honestly advise you to suspend or delete your social media accounts. Coming off social media is one of the best things I’ve done for my own self-discipline, reading habit, and creative output. However, if this feels too extreme, then there are barriers you can put in the way. Lock social media apps between certain times so that you can’t access them. Or leave your phone in another room altogether.
4. Replace mindless crap with inspiring content that makes you think
I should probably clarify something at this point, because I’ve talked a lot about the negative and even devastating effects of mindless consumption, both on an individual and a societal level.
But of course, you can consume in a way which is self-aware, curious, targeted towards your areas of interest, and improves your life exponentially. For example, you can choose to read a book about manifestation rather than sitting in front of the TV, or you can watch a YouTube video about a topic that really interests you. I will be the first to admit that I consume a lot of content, but a good 95% of it is geared towards things I’m interested in and want to learn more about, or research for articles I want to write.
You don’t live in a vacuum, and consuming content from those who are experts or more knowledgeable than you in certain areas can be a fast track to learning much quicker than you ever would have done by trial and error alone.
When you are consuming, try to be conscious and push yourself to absorb more challenging information that makes you question things, as well as inspiring you to create better content of your own.
5. Intentionally construct your environment for success
Be the designer of your world and not merely the consumer of it.
Having worked in retail, we used to call this ‘silent service’. You could influence best-sellers by placing them in key-sight lines that customers would focus on, as well as styling them in window displays and on mannequins. It was actually astonishingly easy to manipulate consumer buying habits, simply by having an understanding of visibility and positioning. I have definitely found it beneficial to carry these lessons into my own home!
Try not to mix spaces designed for different activities. For example, if you’re writing in the living room with the television tempting you, you’re probably going to struggle. Or if you’re working in your bedroom, this is a space you associate with relaxation and sleep, so it may be too easy to kick back and lie down (just for a minute!).
Of course, we have to work to an extent with the spaces we have, and you may not be able to dedicate an entire room or space to your creative activity of choice. But there are always adjustments and 1% improvements that can be made to give you the best chance of success.
For my own writing habit, I sit at a desk in front of my office window. My desk, chair, laptop, keyboard, and mouse are the only things in the room. Use intentional design to craft your creative space, and hack your own behaviour with your environmental cues.
6. Pair your creativity habit with positive reinforcement
In Atomic Habits, James Clear also talks about the importance of pairing behaviour change with positive reinforcement, so that you come to link the new behaviour with the positive experience.
A couple of examples from trying to develop my own writing habit include:
- Writing on my laptop in coffee shops, where I’d treat myself to my favourite chai latte with oat milk. The combination of a warm coffee shop and ambient background chatter helped me to associate writing with one of my favourite day-off activities.
- This helped to build my writing habit, but it wasn’t realistic or budget-friendly to be doing this all the time, so my next step was to create a positive cue in my own home office. I started listening to calming meditation music, which immediately helped me to enter into a flow state. It also became a cue which I began to associate with writing. As soon as I listen to meditation music now, muscle memory takes over and I’m in the zone. It’s so automatic that I barely even have to think about it anymore, but it really works!
It’s scary to transition into adulthood and realise that no one is going to give you the praise or positive reinforcement anymore to succeed when it comes to pursuing your dreams. It may feel strange at first, but you need to provide this for yourself. So even if it’s little things, think about how you can track, reward and reinforce your own good behaviour, in ways which are motivating for you.
7. Allow yourself to experience resistance
This is probably the most challenging thing about building a creativity habit if you’re used to the addictive nature of short-term gratification.
Staring at a blank screen at the start of a new week, I can still find it hard to begin writing even now!
I like to think of this as your own kind of meditative process. If meditation is paying attention and being aware of your thoughts, then experiencing resistance when you’re trying to build your creativity habit is completely normal and something you can work through with self-awareness and willpower.
Particularly with writing, but probably with any kind of creative practice, it’s easy to feel that we must wait for inspiration to strike otherwise we can’t get started. But the real lesson is that you just need to set aside time daily and show up! Your output may be varied, but the likelihood is that you will be surprised at how well something turned out. And you will always be improving through continuous practice!
When you learn to ride the waves of resistance, you will come to love the creative process.
Happiness is a By-Product of a Creative Life
Everyone is always asking ‘How can I be happy?’ but maybe chasing happiness as an end in itself is the wrong way to go about things. If happiness is really alignment with your values and pursuing the things which matter to you, then a life skewed towards active creation and serving others is the path. You just have to take the first step and trust in the process.
I hope that this post has been helpful when it comes to building your own creativity habit. It’s great to start your day on the right foot and build this into your morning routine, so for some early-morning motivation, read my post 21 Motivational Quotes to Wake Up Early.