Five Tips for Staying Creative

By Jonny Elwyn

Jonny Elwyn is a freelance film editor, blogger and author of How To Be A Freelance Creative. To read more, visit his site and follow him on Twitter @jonnyelwyn.


Finding reliable ways to stay creative can be a serious challenge, especially when it’s your job to be wildly creative day after day. How can you nurture and develop one of your most valuable assets as a creative professional — your unique creativity?

Working as a freelance film editor in London for the past eight years, I have learned a thing or two about what it takes to build a successful freelance creative career from scratch. Chances are, as fellow creatives, the principles and techniques that have helped me grow and sustain my career will help you do the same.

Here are my top five tips for remaining creative on a daily basis over the long haul.

1. Get in the Groove

Lots of books on creativity, as well as psychological studies and self-help gurus, will tell you that building a routine, a creative habit, is an essential part of safe-guarding your creative productivity on a daily basis.

Routines help to remind our bodies and our brains (on a subconscious level) of what they’re supposed to be doing. Over time they get in the groove of doing that, so getting up to speed on that task happens much more efficiently.

So what does that look like in practice? Well, it will be different for everyone. But for me it’s crucial that I tackle the main thing for my day, first thing. If I start my morning by checking email, doing little jobs and thus begin my day in a piecemeal fashion, I rarely complete the big stuff.

My routine is to focus on the one big thing and work on it until either it’s done or I’m done for the day. Then I take on the small stuff that requires less creative energy.

2. Stay Focused

Cutting out distractions such as social media, email and similar chatter is crucial to generating creative focus. Following on from point one, it’s important to remember that you only have a certain amount of creative resources to expend each day. Once that's gone, you need time off to recharge.

So creating a distraction-free environment is crucial to directing those resources to the things that really matter. Social media, email and general chit-chat all take away from your creative focus but rarely do they add anything of value. So shut them all out, knuckle down and you’ll get more creative work done.

That’s great, you say, but what if a client sends an email with an urgent request? A short cut to keeping yourself focused, and clients happy, is to simply turn on an auto-responder to control expectations of when you’ll see their email. Try something like, “I’m focused on some creative work right now but I’ll see your email in about an hour. If it’s urgent, just call.”

3. Don’t Work Too Hard

People seem to forget that even though we live in an always-on digital world, we are finite, analog creatures. Once our energy and focus have been consumed, it's pointless trying to squeeze out any more.

That’s why I don’t think the culture of working long days (that you especially encounter in advertising agencies) is ultimately productive. Sure you stayed until midnight but did you create anything worth staying for?

Doesn’t it feel better to work in short, ninety-minute bursts, with complete breaks in between, and to produce focused, fruitful work, than to flog the dead horse of your creative muse while getting nowhere?

Getting in the groove, staying focused and then working intensely for a short period is much more productive, especially in a creative environment, than the alternative.

The important part of this process is taking a rest and doing things that recharge your creativity. Escape your strip-lit office chamber and go for a walk outside. You’ll get your body moving again, get your mind off work and onto other things and all the while your subconscious will start to mull over your creative problem in the background.

Whether or not a great idea springs from the back of your brain while taking a walk, it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that good rest produces good work.

4. Make Time for Inspiration

There are certain things that will always inspire me. As a film editor, making time to get to the cinema, watch a DVD or check out a talk by a filmmaker are all guaranteed to get me inspired to create.

But I hardly ever get to the cinema. And two hours spent on a DVD feels like a waste. The problem is, I’m too busy to be inspired.

That’s a serious problem. Making time to do the things that you know will inspire you should be a vital part of your creative life. It might be hearing live music, getting out to a new exhibition, hitting the streets with your camera or reading a book in your favorite coffee shop.

Whatever it takes to inspire you — make time for it. It’s a crucial part of your creativity diet. I admit to being guilty of being “too busy” to invest my time in this often enough. But if I want to be constantly creative, I need to be regularly injecting fresh inspiration into my life.

Time invested in being inspired will always reap a greater return than the cost.

5. Eat, Sleep and Exercise

We are holistic beings — the quality and quantity of our creative energy comes from the rest of our lives. Fueling yourself with appropriate amounts of food (which contains real nutritional value!), sleep (at least seven to eight hours) and exercise (three times a week if you can), is vital to building those creative fuel tanks. Are you getting enough of each?

The Most Important Thing to Remember

As handy as these five tips may be, ultimately there is no one-size-fits-all solution to maintaining creativity. But deliberately repeating whatever works for you is the best way to build (and rest) your creative muscles for maximum creative impact. So next time you have a really great idea, or an incredibly productive day, ask yourself why. And build the answers into your creative routine.

For more creative inspiration, and for a ton of help on building a successful freelance creative career, check out How To Be A Freelance Creative, a 100-page guide to everything you need to know to build a thriving freelance business and a healthy creative career. By reading the book you can learn how to network and create the kind of work you really want, how to manage your finances so they smooth out the bumps in the freelance road, and how to go about building fruitful long-term relationships with even your most difficult clients. That and a whole lot more!

Upper photo by spin spin