Finding creative clarity

This week I am reassessing so many things. My life is filled with writers, artists, and creators. Their work has always felt magical to me because they create something from nothing. They use their gifts to create the stories that need to be told. To ensure the world is filled with the messages we most need to hear.

Yet so many people — myself included — can find their creative vision clouded. What we want is to feel a compelling sense of creative clarity. To know what we want to create, and how to make it a priority.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a resource I developed a few years ago called Clarity Cards. This is a tool I’ve used to assess where to put creative energy. It’s a simple process, requiring a bunch of index cards (or scraps of paper). But the outcome of it can be powerful.

Creative clarity leads to actions and experiences that allow us to grow as writers and individuals. I think it is important to consider what drives you to create. I’ve always liked the phrase “going back to the well” — returning to the source of your own inspiration that gives you the inner resources to create.

What are Clarity Cards? It is an exercise where you get clarity on what you create and why, and you prioritize this amidst the rest of your busy life. At the end of the 5-step process, they look like this, a pyramid of 10 cards:

Clarity Cards

They look simple, but they have a powerful way of reframing not just your creative goals, but your entire life. I have taken hundreds of people through this process, and have used it myself for years. I have seen this exercise lead to profound breakthroughs for people, as well as practical ways to find more time and energy to write.

Clarity Cards changed my life. More than a decade ago, I sat down on the floor of my old apartment and took out a stack of index cards. The floors were crooked, and whoever installed the carpet in the living room did it wrong — there was this harsh ridge running diagonally across the floor. There I sat, on one side of the carpet ridge, and on each index card I wrote down a goal for my life.

After I had around 10 cards, I organized them into a pyramid where the single biggest goal was at the top. This became the Clarity Card process.

Not long ago, I found my original Clarity Cards. They included a mix of intentions, but one card jumped out at me:

At the time, my wife and I did not yet have kids. I was working a job at a large publishing company, commuting about an hour and a half each way to work.

With these index cards I was reassessing the distance between my daily reality and the life I hoped to lead.

The “stay at home dad” thing was my way of saying that I wanted to be present in the lives of my family once we had kids. To not always be on a train, or in an office 30 miles away from my wife and kids.

The second part of that card included a frantic question: “Earn money from home. How?!”

Since that time, I left my corporate job in publishing, and have run my own business for a decade. I work from home (or a private studio a mile away) and see my family regularly throughout the day.

It’s astounding to look at this index card and consider the moment I wrote it, and then look at my life today which has answered that question, and lived up to the intention of that goal. I’m thankful for this every moment of every day.

I have been thinking a lot about what the next version of my Clarity Cards will look like. One’s Clarity Cards can change and evolve over time to reflect where that person is today, or where they want to grow now.

So I thought it was a good time to share that process. Let’s dig in…

The Brain Dump

The first step is to capture all of the things that you are responsible for, care about, and dream of. On each index card, write down one responsibility or thing that you care about on each card. This should encapsulate your entire life, not just your creative goals.

Some of this is a process of cataloging your current life. Other aspects may be about brainstorming things you want to focus on more of in your life.

You may have cards that read “finish writing my novel,” “family,” “take care of mom,” “work out,” “get more involved with my community,” “housework,” “my job,” “find an agent,” or so much else. This process should feel cathartic — to actually recognize all that you are responsible for.

This is what it looks like — imagine each of these as separate index cards with one thing written on each that you care deeply about:

The Sort

Now sort all of the cards into three different priority levels:

  1. High priority
  2. Medium priority
  3. Low priority

Items in the high priority level can include items that are your biggest responsibilities. But you should also include things that light you up inside — your writing and other goals. Within these can be the biggest changes you hope to make in your life as well.

After you do the initial sort, set aside the low priority items. We won’t be including them in the rest of this exercise. The purpose of Clarity Cards is to devote more energy and resources to the few things that matter most to you. You can’t do that if you are juggling 1,000 things at once.

This is what it looks like:

The Square

Now, take your high priority cards and arrange them in a square on a large table or the floor. The items on the top of the square should be that which you care about most. In the middle will be things that feel slightly secondary. And on the bottom, they are the lower end of what you care most about.

Where needed, mix in some medium priority cards. At this stage, you should have 12 cards in a large square. It may be difficult for you to select exactly which cards go in your square because of competing priorities.

This is what it looks like:

The Battle

Our end goal is to get to 10 cards. So at this stage, you may feel conflicted over which cards to keep in your square, which to remove. You may feel that some medium priority cards should be elevated and some high priority demoted. Try to get down to 10 cards which all feel high priority.

In this process you may feel a sense of loss or even guilt at cards that you are leaving out. Likely, you are trying to shove too many cards at the absolute highest priority levels. To help you make choices, battle two cards against each other. Ask yourself, “which of these cards will lead me to the fulfilling life that I dream of.”

When one card “wins” it doesn’t mean that the other card is unimportant. Instead, you are developing the skill to choose what matters most to you, instead of becoming distracted by things that will not lead you to where you want to go. Likewise, which of these cards is more foundational to help support the other. For instance: you may choose to put “meditation” above “family” because the more calm and centered you feel, the better of a parent you can be.

This is a process for you to choose your focus with intention. This is what it looks like:

The Pyramid

Now, take your square and turn it into a pyramid. This is the final form of Clarity Cards, where you choose one priority at the very top, two at the next level, three at the level beneath that, and four at the final level. All other cards should be set aside.

Play with the ordering of the cards on the pyramid. Move cards around to see what it feels like when different cards are at the top. No one is looking over your shoulder making judgements. Perhaps for a moment, you swap out the “family” card at the very top with a card that reads “finish my memoir.” How does that make you feel? Does it give you a sense of motivation or does it make you feel scattered? You want to feel that the final selection feels both exciting and fulfilling. Like you are living up to your biggest responsibilities, but also able to focus on things that truly light you up inside.

When finished, your pyramid should give you a sense of clarity of your priorities, including where your writing and creative work fits in. This is a decision-making tool that will allow you to say “no” to tasks and obligations which are absent from the pyramid, in order to give more time, energy, and resources to that which you care about most.

This is what it looks like:

Turn Clarity Into Action

With your Clarity Cards, you can now:

  • Use this simple system to remind yourself of your creative goals
  • Make decisions for where to put your energy
  • Communicate with those around you about what’s important to you

What to do next? This:

  1. If you create your own Clarity Cards, please consider emailing me a photo of them. If you don’t want to share the words on them, just flip them over so I can only see the backs of the cards.
  2. Tape your Clarity Cards to a sheet of paper and place them somewhere that you will be reminded of them often. 

  3. Then identify the single habit you need to establish that will lead you to honoring your biggest priorities. That habit can be ridiculously simple.

Thank you.