How to keep the daily grind from grinding you down?
February 25, 2011 7:36 AM   Subscribe

As a creative person working a day job completely unrelated to your chosen form of expression, how do you cope when the urge to create comes up while at work?

I found a lot of tangential information from previous "passion," "work" or "creativity" tagged questions, but nothing seems to directly answer this.

Further details: I'm a songwriter/musician with a steady, but not-very-challenging day job working with Access databases. It's not my life's work or passion, but it supports me and my wife, while allowing a little time for music and other pursuits.

For a while, I've felt creatively blocked, having a difficult time getting any songwriting or other writing done. I chalked it it up to being given more responsibilities at work than I'm used to (above and beyond Access-jockeying). The additional mental bandwidth I needed to deal with this left me drained, frequently unable to do anything after work other than surf the web or watch TV. In the past few weeks, the extra responsibilities (and related stress) have gone away. I've spent some time slowing down and paying attention, trying to figure out what I really want to be doing. Amazingly enough, it's nothing to do with Access...

I've frequently had the desire to create something while I'm at work, but being in a job that requires a lot of "computer brain," I've had to push that desire down in order to function. I suspect this has also been a huge part of my block, so I want to avoid doing this if at all possible.

Does anyone have techniques for coping with an "inconvenient" creative urge when you simply need to be doing your job?
posted by anthom to Work & Money (15 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Best I can suggest is develop the discipline to postpone the urge: Make a quick note on the new idea right then, to get it out of your mind and onto paper (or tape or whatever), and then get back to earning a living. Having to put off the creative act may even intensify the propelling urge. Good luck--it's an age-old problem.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:44 AM on February 25, 2011

This is me - also songwriter, also have unrelated day job.

You know those little breaks you take from work, to do whatever people do to relax, ie go have a coffee and chat to someone/smoke a cigarette/surf the web etc? Use them to write! Scribble down your best ideas, draft out some lyrics or melody, and then keep it for later.

Even if you can get only a little bit down, the bit of paper will sit patiently in your pocket, something to look forward to for later, when you have the time. Then, you can eagerly get it out and start building from that spark of inspiration.

Citation: wrote the lyrics to what would become one of my favourite songs whilst on a particularly boring reception shift about eight years ago :)
posted by greenish at 7:50 AM on February 25, 2011

I'm also a musician/composer who has a non-musical job. When this happens, I do my best to get everything I'm imagining out in email and send it to myself to follow up on later. I don't try to push the idea out of my head if I can keep developing it as I'm doing my actual job. This has worked pretty well. Things that have started out as a seed of an idea at work have later turned into full songs with productions and everything.

I definitely understand the post-work funk, where you just want to veg in front of the TV or internet for the rest of the night. Having a work-in-progress that I'm excited about coming home to to flesh out is very motivating for me to skip the whole vegging thing, or at least to put it off until after I've put time into the music.
posted by wondermouse at 7:55 AM on February 25, 2011

Writer formerly with day job with husband who is songwriter with day job. The thing is to get into good habits of taking notes that capture your inspiration so you can use them later.

Step One: Buy whatever kit you need to capture the notes, whether it's a notebook or an iPad or a little voice recorder or whatever.

Step Two: Set aside some time each week to review your notes.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:09 AM on February 25, 2011

Best answer: I asked a similar question a while ago; the answers might help you. Here's what I've found that helps:

Get a notebook or sketchbook, and keep it with you. When you get a creative impulse, take a ten-minute break away from your desk and start writing. It's important to time the break and physically step away from your work, otherwise you can get derailed and spend your morning writing a Great American Novel in an email draft instead of tackling your to-do list. If you need more time, use your lunch break.

The commute helps, too, if you have one. Walking or driving can give you clear time and space for thoughts to percolate. If you have a great idea during the drive and can't write it down, practice committing it to memory so you can recall it later.

Schedule designated creative/productive time for yourself before or after work. (I suck at following through on this, but it does work once you establish the habit.) Awesome ideas usually happen when your brain is awake; it's harder to build up that energy when you're zoned out. You get ideas when you're at work because you're already mentally engaged in something, you just want to be engaged in something else. You want to trick your brain into getting active, so don't feel pressured to dive into brilliance during your creative time. Warm up by practicing scales or doodling or just walking around and see where it takes you.

And, if you can and don't already, use your weekend mornings. Even without work, I just have more get up and go when it's light out and I have a lot of time ahead of me. It's an awesome feeling to think of something and see it through to completion before 11 am on a Saturday.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:10 AM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Notebook and thumb drive; try to jot down / type out whatever, so as not to lose an idea, but not to linger so long as to impact day job tasks.
posted by aught at 8:12 AM on February 25, 2011

I do sort of like Greg Nog (this is my old AskMe on the topic) and use Dropbox with Microsoft OneNote. The great advantage of OneNote is that it's quick and easy. I jot down a little note/question to myself, close OneNote, and it saves automatically and Dropbox syncs it automatically so I can revisit it on my home computer. If your work setup allows it, this is a method you might try. And Dropbox is free.
posted by AugieAugustus at 8:46 AM on February 25, 2011

I occasionally have creative urges that are unrelated to my GIS job and I just... act out on them:

Making it related to your work: I'm not sure what you do with Access databases, but have you considered making interfaces (programming, web design) for what you do? Coding may seem really nerd, but I feel one needs to be creative to produce something usable. If you get more adept into it, you can somehow weave your music/writing passion into it.

Making it related to people at your work: I've created animations, produced custom calendars, and done other crafty things at work that have no direct correlation to my job. Why? Because people enjoy it when I do (and they go, "oo, that Seboshin is so creative") 'cuz I gear it towards them: The calendar features coworkers, the animations were for company softball, and when you start building up a reputation for being "creative", people tend to leave you alone for when you're doing other non-job things. Can you write songs about work? About coworkers? Like make up a customized song next time a coworker has a birthday lunch? Or maybe you can contribute to the company newsletter if you like to write in general?

Yes, get creative, but also, get creative about how you want to express yourself and perhaps use it to make your workplace better or boost morale.
posted by Seboshin at 9:13 AM on February 25, 2011

Response by poster: I definitely appreciate everyone's feedback - feels like I should clarify, though. I'm familiar with a lot of the GTD-type stuff about ubiquitous capture, and I'm not sure that's the problem. I have (and use!) paper notebooks, iOS apps for notetaking and recording, etc. What I'm talking about is less often a concrete idea that springs up ("Hey! 'Vampire Home Invasion' is a cool phrase - I should do something with it!"), but a nebulous feeling ("Hey! I need to write something!").

If I were at home, this feeling might lead me to turning on my keyboard and playing for a while to see what comes of it, or sitting at my writing desk and doing some equivalent of longhand morning pages. I understand that the feeling/urge is a great servant but a horrible master, and that habitually writing/playing/whatever is really the only way to get better or actually *make* something. It just seems my primary creative habit at the moment is to tell myself "This isn't the time or place. You can do something about this when you get home." And thus, nothing happens.
posted by anthom at 9:35 AM on February 25, 2011

Well.... something that I have done when I felt like work was absolutely impeding my progress as a musician was to find a different job. I have a job now that doesn't make me feel like my soul is being crushed.
posted by wondermouse at 10:36 AM on February 25, 2011

Best answer: Like wondermouse, my real solution to this problem was to quit my job. But my stopgap was to force myself to write sometimes when I wasn't feeling it, to do writing exercises or freewrite just to get something down on a page, even if it was terrible. It did help keep me going, and some of the terrible things turned out to be interesting, but more importantly it kept the creative impulse from being a source of guilt. I was doing it sometimes, even if not well.

Do you have someone in your life who can prod you to do this? My ex used to give me "assignments," which felt silly at times but was actually really helpful.
posted by dizziest at 10:53 AM on February 25, 2011

Is your income enough to support payments of $100/month or so? If so, I would see if you can meet up with a career coach. They can help you see a path through this and automatically refresh your memory every time you meet. :-) I hired a coach and I get a great feeling of "the future is very bright" whenever I meet with him. And I'm a creative type who works in a very technical environment (albeit running my own business, but you have to really work at this stuff regardless).

Other benefits:

1. Problems come up at work: You have an experienced advisor who's got your back.
2. You want to talk about anything career related: You have experience a phone call away

I thought I'd mention this path because a single Ask MeFi question with good answers has been known to give people with lots of temporary emotion and energy that then needs to be converted into a more practical, effective form over a longer stretch of time. The follow-up part is super important.

When I was at a job like yours previously, I was able to find a way to under-promise and super-over-deliver that left me with a bit of an open schedule at work. Starting from there I proposed projects that integrated my creative talent with the technical side (multimedia interface to a product database) and got nothing but support from the higher-ups. Your circumstances might be different, but maybe there's a way.
posted by circular at 11:40 AM on February 25, 2011

Best answer: Great question! This has plagued me ever since going to work for a Law outfit...

I used to work in an office unit with a guitar shop downstairs. Whenever the urge hit me I'd excuse myself and run downstairs for a quick strum. Now I work somewhere with a beautiful, quiet Victorian library and when the office gets too much I go sit out my lunch hour there and draw. With songs I'll sometimes be bothered by some snippet of melody on the way to work so I'll sing it quietly into my phone's voice recorder to vanquish the earworm and set something down to work on later.

In all other circumstances, when the urge is too compelling, I just freewrite furiously in notepad at my desk for a set period (usually 15 minutes) then email the results to myself. I got a lot of lyrics this way and a few seeds for items that become longer prose. It's not the best option though because it can trance me out a bit.

I do find though, since I've had more responsibility at work these moments become narrower, and I feel a bit like you these days. It's the first time I've had a job that wasn't in some way related to creative pursuits, or at least staffed by other abstractly-oriented souls and it's been pretty dampening. As such I don't plan to do it forever. I have no desire to run off and join the circus but I do think I'm more creative when aspects of my life are better integrated. In the meantime you just have to process it where you can, and I have become more disciplined as a result - which has really surprised me.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:15 PM on February 25, 2011

Learn to code and learn how to create beautiful user interfaces. A lot of times, learning a new way to code and build applications is very satisfying. You can make them on work time, just because you feel like it, and because the work is tangentially useful (who couldn't use a better looking Access front end using some slick Silverlight graphics)?

This is a great way to be creative and look vaguely like you're getting work done.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:45 PM on February 25, 2011

Best answer: A few months ago I started taking my lunches alone and going to a cafe near work, where I would spend the hour drawing. It made a huge difference in my drawing AND my mood at work, and really helped with that "I'm going to gnaw my arm off" feeling I sometimes get when I want to be creative but I'm editing XML instead. Just try it for a week and see if it doesn't make a difference.
posted by smartyboots at 12:37 PM on February 28, 2011

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