THE BLOG
05/19/2014 04:33 pm ET | Updated Jul 19, 2014

10 Fool-Proof Keys to Creative Flow

In 2010, I broke through the biggest creative block in my life.

As a professional artist, you might think I wouldn't struggle with creative blocks, but you'd be wrong. I'd successfully built a profitable business as an artist, making Jewish marriage contracts and other wedding documents, but 15 years of making art to client specifications led to burnout.

Art had become "just a job."

The only time I ever made art to feed my own soul anymore was at an art retreat each spring. That year during the retreat, a phrase popped into my head while taking a shower, and I took pen and brush to paper to create this piece:

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I understood that a woman in love with her life is absolutely irresistible, but I realized that I was not in love with my life, and I wanted to change that. I knew that getting back to my art table to make art for me was a critical piece of falling back in love with my life, and for a few weeks, I did get back to my art table, where I made more of these brush-stroke women.

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It felt great to be creating again, but gradually, I found myself avoiding my art table once more, and I couldn't figure out why!

Finally, it hit me: These artworks required the same kind of meticulous planning and designing as my client work. They felt like work, but I wanted to play! My creative spirit wanted to let loose and make messes, the way my 4-year-old nephew played in his sandbox.

*Click!*

In that lightbulb moment, I realized I needed to approach my art the same way a little kid approaches a sandbox.

The metaphor of the Creative Sandbox was born!

It was time for me to play again, but after so many years of making art for clients, playing didn't come naturally to me anymore, so I developed a set of rules for myself -- what I called my "10 Rules for the Creative Sandbox" -- to help me break free of perfectionism and get back to creative joy.

These maxims have proven to be almost magical keys to unlocking creative flow, for both me and my clients and students. They permeate everything I do, and the mini-course I designed from them, Creative Sandbox 101, has helped over a thousand others find their way back to creative joy. These are my 10 commandments of creativity, and whenever I feel stuck, one of these 10 keys will, without fail, help bring me back to creative flow.

Here, then, are my 10 keys to creative flow.

1. There is no wrong.
Wrong and right have no place in the Creative Sandbox. In order for your creative spirit to be free to play, it has to be free to do anything, even if it's ugly, weird or stupid. Only when there's no fear of doing it wrong can your creative spirit let loose.

Creative flow means letting go of judgment. This is play, remember. The point is simply that you're having fun.

2. Think process, not product.
In the Creative Sandbox, it doesn't matter if you like or hate the product; all that matters is joy in the process.

Of course we all want to make work that pleases us, but in order to truly feed our creative souls, we have to let go of judgment and immerse ourselves in the experience of creating. Some days I don't like what emerges from my Creative Sandbox time, but I don't let that stop me. I focus on the fun I'm having and I trust the process.

If it's hard to wrap your head around this concept, think of your creation as a sand castle, which will be washed away at the next high tide. Just let yourself get your hands dirty (literally and/or metaphorically) and focus on enjoying the work itself.

3. Think quantity, not quality.
Nobody starts out as a master. The irony is that in order to achieve mastery, you've got to make a whole lot of crap first -- the more, the better. Although few people like creating crap, the truth is, we need crap to fertilize the good stuff!

There's a great story from the book Art & Fear, of a ceramics teacher who divided his class into two groups at the start of the semester. The first group would be graded solely on the quality of their pots: they needed just one pot to get an "A," but it had to be perfect. The second group would be graded solely on quantity -- literally, by weight: 50 pounds of clay would get an "A," 40 pounds a "B," etc.

Can you guess which group made the better work? It was the quantity group!

The quality group spent the entire semester agonizing over that perfect pot, while the quantity group was cranking out pots and learning from their mistakes (and having fun!)

Remember, as long as you aren't being sloppy, if you take care of the quantity, the quality will take care of itself.

3b. Or don't think quantity.
I added this sub-rule when I discovered that focusing on quantity made some of my clients anxious. The good news is, there are no Creative Sandbox police!

My overarching rule of everything is" "Whatever works is right," so by all means, if the notion of quality stresses you out, or if it doesn't work for your particular medium, then be intentional about it and don't think quantity.

4. Think tiny and daily.
One trap that kept me stuck for years was the belief that I needed great, big chunks of time in order to create. I'd come home from my art retreat every year, committed to setting aside a weekend every month, or an afternoon every week, just for painting.

It never happened.

When I created my metaphor of the Creative Sandbox, I got realistic, and made my commitment just 15 minutes a day. I could spend longer in the sandbox if I wanted, but if all I put in was 15 minutes, I got to call it a success.

I quickly discovered, much to my surprise, that 15 minutes is enough to get into a state of flow.

Over the course of the first week, I also discovered something else that surprised me: When I put a little bit of time in every day, I feel more creatively fueled than when I put a longer time in, say, once a week. Again, those longer chunks of time are wonderful (if I can make them happen), but thinking tiny and daily keeps my toe in the creative stream in a way I never expected.

Fifteen minutes is an arbitrary number; it doesn't matter if your goal is 15 minutes, seven minutes, 18 minutes, or 250 words, as long as it's ridiculously achievable.

The hardest part is always starting, and I find that setting a tiny, ridiculously achievable goal fosters a lot less resistance than setting a big goal, so I'm a gazillion times more likely to actually make it happen. Plus with a ridiculously achievable goal, if I do fall off the wagon (which we all do sometimes, because we're human!), it's so much easier to climb back on.

Remember: the most important practice is just getting back on the wagon.

This means it's a good thing to keep your metaphorical wagon as short as possible -- i.e. ridiculously achievable.

In addition to thinking tiny in terms of time, I've found it useful to think tiny in terms of physical size. For a long time the artworks I made were just a few inches on a side. When I write, sometimes I limit myself to filling a page, or even a 3x5 card.

Thinking small like this is a way of keeping the work less intimidating, so you actually do it. And if it all comes out crappy, it's not such a big deal, because you know you'll make another tiny thing the next day.

5. Just start. Anywhere.
Creative taps never permanently dry up; they just get rusty from disuse. The secret to opening the flow is simply to do something. Anything.

Just as you can't theorize your way to a perfect pot, you can't intellectualize your way to creativity -- it requires action. Truly, if you just start, you'll be surprised at how quickly your creative juices start to flow again.

6. Ask, "What if... ?"
My favorite moments in the Creative Sandbox are when a question pops to mind.

"What if I drip the paint instead of brush it?"

"What if I poke a hole in the canvas?"

"What if I pull this peeling paint off the canvas?"

Following questions like these leads to new discoveries, and can even spark entirely new directions for your work.

7. Take the riskier path.
When I'm working on a piece in the Creative Sandbox, there's often a point where it needs something, but I'm afraid that if I try it, the piece will be ruined. It's easy to get stalled there, so I created this rule to keep me moving forward.

This maxim tells me to go ahead and risk ruining the piece, even if it feels scary.

The worst thing that will happen is that I'll learn something! And because I'm already thinking "quantity, not quality," and "tiny and daily," if I do ruin the piece, it doesn't sting so much.

Also, the great secret that most creators may not tell you is that some of the greatest creations evolved directly from mistakes. Your next "disaster" may take you off in a bold new direction you never would have discovered without taking the risk and blowing it!

8. Dismiss all gremlins.
Gremlins are what I call those voices of self-doubt and self-criticism. These nasty voices do not belong in the Creative Sandbox!

They will invariably creep in, however, because gremlins exist to keep you inside your comfort zone -- they're trying to protect you.

The problem is, creativity always happens outside of your comfort zone, in the realm of uncertainty, so staying in your comfort zone means staying stagnant.

Learn to recognize those nasty, critical voices as gremlins, and put them on notice that they're not welcome inside your Creative Sandbox. When they appear (as they will), send them off to get a pedicure. (And yes, you may have to do this several times an hour. I do.)

9. Spring the comparison trap.
Once I went to an art workshop and spent the weekend at a table next to someone who was doing the most amazing work. "Her work is so cool and interesting," I remember thinking, "I wish my work was like hers." My work seemed so dull and boring compared to what she was creating.

I was gripped by the jaws of the comparison trap.

To my surprise and astonishment, later in the workshop my table partner turned to me and said, "Melissa, your work is so cool and interesting. I wish my work was like yours!"

That moment has never left me. It taught me an important lesson: Someone else's work will always feel on some level more cool and interesting than your own, not because it's better, but because it comes from their unconscious, which is totally unknown and mysterious to you.

Plus the fact is, your opinion about your work is only that: your opinion. Other people may look at work that you deem crappy and think it's wonderful, and who are you to tell them they're wrong? That's just insulting!

Besides, there's no way to see your own work objectively. As a calligraphy teacher of mine used to say, "Other people see your work for what it is. You see your work for what it isn't."

Stop comparing, and just do the work.

And finally, the most important rule of all:

10. Treat yourself with compassion.
Humans are fallible. You are human; therefore you will stumble.

This is not an excuse to beat yourself up! This is an opportunity to practice what I call my Golden Formula:

Self-awareness + self-compassion = the key to everything good.

First, you've got to notice what is going on inside, what's working and not working, and how you feel about that -- this is the self-awareness piece. Then, rather than beating yourself up, love yourself up! Treat yourself with the same kind of compassion you'd offer a beloved friend or a child.

Conventional wisdom tells us that only by whipping ourselves can we achieve our goals, but scientific studies have proven otherwise. It turns out that people are dramatically more likely to accomplish goals of all kinds when they treat themselves gently and with kindness.

Think about it: if you know you'll get a beating if you stumble, you're more likely not to try at all!

So there you have it, my 10 keys to creative flow. By following these rules and staying inside the (sand)box, I made over 150 finished artworks in 2011, and after a decade and a half of miserable stuck-ness, the last few years have been the most prolific of my life.

These keys are not limited to visual art, either; they've helped me with writing, songwriting, creating videos... everything, really! Whatever your own creative pursuits are, you'll find something here that will help you blast through your blocks.

To keep these concepts front-of-mind, I created this poster, which hangs on the wall of my studio where I can refer to it often. (Find a full-size, fine art wall-poster here)

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If you're the aural type, you might like the song I wrote to help me remember all ten "rules":

I hope you find these keys to creative flow helpful. Let me know if you do, and most of all, please share them, and let's spark a creative revolution!

Go get creating!

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