Tips for Getting Creative When You Have No Time: Sharpening Your Pencils

So you have an idea. A really cool project you’d love to work on … but …

  • the kids! They’re so needy. There is school and lunches and laundry and …
  • I just don’t have the time. It’s too hard to get started. I’ll just keep dreaming about it for the next ten or twenty years until the kids are grown and I’m retired.
  • I don’t know how to start.
Quiet moments are few and far between here. I have regular guests to my office and studio, there are appointments and work commitments and house maintenance. It’s almost impossible to do anything I’m supposed to do, let alone what I WANT to do. So, I have to make the time. I owe it to me, and I owe it to them.

Hey, I get it. Life is hectic and making time for a shower is hard enough, let alone finding time to get creative.

But listen. You owe this to yourself. You owe to your kids. If you wait until they’re grown, or until you’re retired:

  • You’re missing out on 10-20 years of happiness and joy
  • You’re missing out on figuring out more about yourself
  • You’re not modelling self-care and the importance of creative exploration for your kids
  • You’ll never get that project finished.

But, I have a concept that might help you.

Sharpening yours pencils is a key idea that I think and talk about a lot. It’s also the only thing that gets me from Dreaming Of Creating State and into Creating State.

Sharpening Yours Pencils is a concept introduced to me by my illustration critique partner. After days of failed attempts to get my butt in the seat and work, she suggested that I “sharpen my pencils.” Of course, I replied that I work digitally, so that wouldn’t make a difference.

And she replied: “No, not your ACTUAL pencils … well, unless you’re going to draw.”

The idea is this: you set up every thing so that when you come to it, it’s ready for you.

I know. This is stupidly simple.

And yet, I wasn’t doing it. Most people I know don’t do it. Almost 100% of people who WANT to make but don’t get around to it also don’t do it. So let’s break it down:

When you sharpen your pencils, you’re making a promise to yourself. It’s not just thoughts anymore. It’s not even just words anymore; now, it’s actions.

When you make that physical promise to yourself, by setting up your space, you are more likely to actually go to it and do the thing you want to do. It’s also great for people who don’t have a hobby room or a studio or anywhere to put their things. You can set the table up after the kids go to bed, and clean it up before the kids get up.

We are great at excuses. We tell ourself Very Important Stories that really do convince us not to take the plunge and create. It could be because making is risky. It’s vulnerable. It means we need to work, and work at it, and eventually, hopefully, make progress. If we don’t start, we can’t fail – except that the only way we CAN fail is if we don’t start to begin with.

I sharpen my pencils like this:

Note how I have everything I’ll need: the template I’m drawing in, the manuscript, the candle I use to focus me with intentions. I’ve got my mechanical pencil loaded and ready to go.
  • I commit to a time. For me, it’s when I wake up, which is at 5am. This is a GREAT time to tell a story and get out of the work: It’s too cozy here; I need a bit more sleep; I’ll just sleep for two more minutes. But if we don’t get up and get it, guess what? It’s not going to happen.
  • I commit to a project or task. These are sometimes connected to a bigger project or task, and sometimes not. Sometimes, it’s about inspiration. Sometimes, it’s practicing a skill. It doesn’t matter what it is, though. I just need to pick something I can do when I reach the committed time.
  • I set up my space. Yes, I have a studio. But, I don’t always work there. Sometimes, I want to work in the kitchen. Sometimes, at the couch. I do, however, make that decision the night before. I go to the space I’m going to work in when I reach my committed time, and I set out everything I need. I go as far as to open my books to the pages I need, and have browsers open, and if possible, searches for reference materials open. I take all of the non-creative work out of it, so when I reach the time and space, I’m ready to get creative.

    Honestly, THIS might be the most important piece for me. If I have to shuffle through books, it’s too discouraging and I am likely to say, “Meh, maybe tomorrow …” Tomorrow never comes.
  • I set the coffee. Since I get up at 5am to work on my passion projects (right now, it’s a picture book), I set the coffee so it’s ready when I get up (4:50am usually has it finishing its brew at 5am.) If I’m feeling extra sluggish, I’ll even take out my favourite hand-pottered mug and a spoon. The goal here is to take all thinking out of the steps before getting to the fun part.
  • I tell someone. Saying it out loud, or in writing, is key. I usually mention to my illustration partner and overview for the week. A private Facebook group I’m in sets goals weekly, and celebrates them, and this is key to motivation. I talk about it on my Instagram stories. I tell my wife what I’m working on and show her progress throughout the week. The more I share, the more important it is to me that I finish what I start, or accept that it’s not working and pivot it. That’s not a shameful thing; it’s honesty and kindness to myself. Why would I keep working on something I’m no longer interested in?

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