4 mistakes that sabotage your creative work

Last week I asked, “If you knew you couldn’t fail, what is the one thing you would like to accomplish with your creative work?”

I received dozens of responses, many of which were brutally honest about challenges and fears. Do you know what I noticed?

How simple people’s aspirations were.

Now, I don’t mean simple as “insignificant.” I mean simple in terms of “easily understandable, and completely doable.”

No one told me they wanted to save the world, or cure cancer, or live to be 1,000 years old. Instead, I received responses like these:

“I’d try writing full time.”

“I would paint again.”

“I would design flowers for weddings.”

“I would love to claim the title of ‘author’.”

“I would use my art to encourage people to not give up.”


In other words, each of these people already had the skills they wanted, and a reasonable goal. But… their dreams feel distant.

Every answer resonated with me, but this one jumped out:

“If I couldn’t fail, I would like to give myself the permission to write a book I’ve been thinking about for twenty-five years. What’s more, I would like to stop waiting for ‘one day, when everything settles down’ and find the courage to do what makes me happy, now, rather than pursue avenues I feel I must to earn a living I hate.”

That one stopped me cold.

Imagine that… thinking about doing something for 25 years, and not doing it. Not because you lacked the tools (paper and pen, or any word processor), but because you lacked courage and time.

The thing is, I hear this often. That, what stands in people’s way is not 10 years of specialty training, but instead, courage and time.

In my last note, I reviewed the four biggest challenges standing between you and your creative work:

  1. You are drowning in distraction.
  2. There is never enough time.
  3. You can’t get creative habits to stick.
  4. You struggle to feel you have permission to pursue your dream.

Today I want to review the common ways people try to tackle these problems, and how these “solutions” set them up for failure.

Okay, let’s dig in:

#1 Buying is not solving

When we get serious about solving a problem in our lives, a typical first reaction is to buy something. Somehow, spending money equates to “taking action.”

But spending money does not always equate to “investing.” And it certainly is not always a step towards solving the real challenges that you want to overcome. Too often, the first — and only — effort to battle distraction and find more time for creative work is something like:

Buy a book.

Buy more tools.

Download an app.

Sign up for a conference.

The result? That book sits on your shelf. Next to all the diet books and personal finance books that now suddenly seem like fads that never really caught on in your life.

If solving the problem was as simple as buying the right tool, we would all be super thin and have our finances completely in order. The same holds true for battling distraction and finding more time to do your creative work.

Tools are only part of the solution. Buying is not solving.

#2 Going it alone

It’s easy to romanticize being that “lone wolf” who beats the odds in a dramatic storyline. But too often, the real reason people try to win their battles in secret is that they are partly ashamed of the problem they have to fix (and how defeated they feel by it), and because they are nervous to fully commit to eradicating it.

Going it alone means they can bail at any time.

This is why Weight Watchers works with dieting. Why personal training or CrossFit works for getting in shape. These are inherently social programs, that require accountability to another person.

Without that support and accountability, people flounder, alone.

#3 Waiting for the “right time”

When your creative vision is conditional on other things, it means that you give everything else the power to sideline that vision.

Tell me if any of these sound familiar:

  • “I would work on my writing, if only I didn’t have this big project at work.”
  • “I would work on my writing, if only the house wasn’t such a mess.”
  • “I would work on my writing, if only the holidays weren’t coming up.”

The normal demands of life leave you feeling swamped each day, so you begin to imagine a time in the not-to-distant future when things “calm down,” and magically, you have the time and clarity to do the work you really long to do.

But that time never comes.

Investing in what matters most to you can’t wait. The longer you do, the less likely you are to truly take the action you need to.

Five years ago when my wife and I made a radical shift in our lives so that I could launch my company. We put everything on the line. I left my job at the height of the recession, a month before we had our son, and then a year later, my wife quit her tenured teaching job.

Why did we do this?

Because I knew that if I didn’t take this risk at age 37, that I wouldn’t take it at age 42. Or 47. Or 52.

If you are waiting for the right time to focus on your creative work, you have to begin considering this: That day may never come. What are you waiting for?

#4 A false belief in “balance”

Last week I shared my conversation with Dawna Ballard, a professor who studies chronemics — the intersection of time, communication, and work. What did we chat about? How “balance is bullshit.”

You may have adopted the belief that you can perfectly balance everything, and thus “have it all.” This entails reaching some kind of magical state whereby the following things coexist peacefully in your life:

  • Your day job
  • Your home
  • Your kids and family responsibilities
  • Your relationship to a spouse or significant other
  • Your community responsibilities
  • Your finances
  • Your friends
  • Your physical health
  • Your mental health
  • Your hobbies
  • Oh yeah, let’s not forget your creative work. Maybe you are writing a novel, or trying to launch a little shop on Etsy.

Maybe you create a plan — a diagram that shows all of these things in pretty colors.

But it fails.

Why? Because you want to do it all. When you make no choices about where to put your very finite resources of time, focus, and energy, it means you end up giving others the power to choose for you, because you haven’t chosen what matters most to you.

When you focus on what matters most, that decision requires you to cut away the things that matter least.

Most people resist this. They want it all, they don’t want to make diffcult choices; instead they want to please EVERYONE ELSE around them.

The result? They feel imprisoned. Trapped by too many responsibilities.

Does any of this sound familiar?

These 4 mistakes are common — and pervasive. I see creative professionals making these mistakes every day. They take an action, which makes them feel like they are doing work, when in reality, they are dooming themselves to failure.

To being stuck.

On Friday, I’m going to share with you a simple way to ensure you can take meaningful action in finding the time and focus to do the work that matters most to you.

In the meantime, please reply below and tell me the following:

“What is the biggest thing standing between you and doing the creative work you dream about?”