get the work done

How you can set creative goals without setting yourself up for failure…again.

Are you pondering a resolution to “get more creative work done” in the New Year?


How has that worked out in the past?

I’ve got bad news for you: unless you’ve saved up for a personality transplant as well, you’re going to need a better plan than “I’m totally going to do it this time…

OK, OK, let me dial it back a little here: You can do more to move towards your creative goals. You absolutely can. But there’s one key ingredient you need to get in hand before that’s going to happen:

You need to figure out who you really are as a creative person.

You have to learn your creative rhythms.

creative rhythm header

Living as a creative person is a marathon, not a sprint. Maybe you can get through a month writing X amount of time every day without acknowledging your true creative rhythms (hello Nanowrimo!). But how will that play out over the long term?

Want to create a whole graphic novel series? Do you want to be on top of the podcasting game, not just this year, but in 30 years?

Do you want to be painting, or singing, or writing poetry at 90? Why not? I do!

You won’t finish your creative marathon strong at 90 without hitting your stride a hell of a lot sooner. And that means you have to stop pretending you’re the kind of creative person who just sits down every day for six hours and cranks shit out. Or the kind of person who can do a ton of creative work and everything else without any external motivation or validation. Nor the kind of person who can work in 10-minute increments between writing emails. Or whatever it is that you’re not and you’re telling yourself that you are.

If you want to finish that marathon, getting in sync with yourself is the core mission.

I want us to have a conversation about you. How you work best, how you’re most productive, and how you’re happiest. When I ran the Creative Project Planning Challenge recently (and I’ll do it again in the winter), the importance of working with their creative rhythms was the number one revelation/take away for participants.

We spend so much time reading and thinking about how other people work:

  • Writers who are at their desk at 5, work until noon, have a three-course meal, play 9 holes of golf, and then nap.
  • Artists who work through the night, every night, cranking out page after page, hundreds of pages a year.
  • Communicators who seem to effortlessly build a following, constantly wired into the world, but seemingly still able to do the work.

They may be real or they may be mythical (and they are certainly annoying), but we compare, and that does us no good.

I had a conversation recently with my husband, cartoonist Matt Madden. Matt is a brilliant artist, always diving deep into some new formal experiment. He does workshops and expositions, gallery shows and posters, you name it. But he beats himself up, thinking that he’s got to speed up the pace on his books, because he’s got this idea that “real” cartoonists have a massive body of published books out there. They put something out every year or two. And he wasn’t reaching that standard.

After 18 years together, I finally realized, and said to him, You know what, Matt? You are not that guy. That is not how your creativity works. When you’re boxed into cranking out one project—even if you love the project—you’re miserable. You have to change it up often. You don’t want to be at your drawing table 8 hours a day.

He’s still got that vision hanging over him of having 20 books under his belt by now. It taunts him. But gradually he’s coming around. And the fact is, he doesn’t have 20 books under his belt. That is water under the bridge. Focusing on that phantom pile of books is just a distraction, it’s an excuse to not do the things that need doing to make this book happen.

Me, I have a different rhythm to my creative work, and some envy it.

I have very little trouble with procrastination, and I can easily work 8-10 hours solid, even on the same project. But my problem is that I can’t get myself to stop. I have a workaholic tendency; that’s what I have to struggle with. I tell myself that I enjoy exercise, but I spend 8-10 hours at a time glued to a screen. I tell myself that I’m a reader, but I’ve barely cracked a book in the last year because I’ve taken on so much, and I feel stressed and busy all the time. Do I get stuff done, yes. But I don’t let myself breathe. It’s not great.

I’ve got a friend who reports that she can work in great bursts of energy, but the day after, she’s toast. if she tries to keep it up (and she usually tries) it’s worse than counterproductive. It brings on self-blame. Why can’t she tap into that energy today? What’s wrong with her?

We all have work to do on understanding how we work best, and where our weaknesses lie. But here’s the plain truth: there is no one for whom guilt and anxiety are optimum creative states. Your job is to clearly see and accept who you are right now. And then if you have creative goals that you’re not meeting (and who doesn’t?), gradually cause your imagined life and your actual life to come more into alignment by changing your behavior, but also by adjusting your understanding of who you are.

Here’s what to do.

Look back into the past, and think about a time when you worked at your best, when you were reasonably content, you felt the flow of creative energy, and you made good work. What were the conditions?

  • What was the nature of your creative project?
  • Were you working alone or collaboratively?
  • Did you have external or internal deadlines?
  • Did you receive internal or external rewards?
  • What time of day were you working?
  • How many hours at a stretch? In a day?
  • Was it very regular work, or in bursts, or just the occasional session?
  • One project, or many projects at the same time?
  • What kind of feedback were you getting? From whom?
  • What was your environment like?
  • What else can you remember?

How about other times when you’ve been in the groove. What details from the list seem to be commonalities?

Now, think about when you’re not pleased with how you’re working (which might be a lot of the time).

Identify what story you’re telling yourself about how you should be working that consistently fails to line up with reality.

What internal expectations are you setting up that you fail to meet? You’re saying to yourself day after day: I should be doing X. And you never do, and it makes you crazy.

What are those things?

These are two sides of the same coin:

  1. Where you have done well, and
  2. Where you’re “failing” (to yourself at least).

And then the big question is:

Do you need to fix those things about you?

Or do you need to change your expectations?

You can find an expanded version of this article, as well as the accompanying activity, in my book, Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life.

Meet Jessica Abel

Meet Jessica Abel

Author. Cartoonist. Teacher. Coach.

I help people whose imagination and creativity are the ultimate source of everything they do in their professional life stop grinding and start carving out the deep focus needed to finish—and launch—the game-changing work they want to be known for.  Discover my Courses, Join the FREE Creative Engine Workshop or find out more about me.


  1. Barb on June 19, 2016 at 1:12 am

    Hi Jessica,
    I came across you in a Jane Friedman email. I always have a quick look at her suggestions and I found this site very appealing. You have a down-to-earth attitude that resonates even though I work in a different genre. Your comments in your blog are practical, helpful and very interesting. I am hoping to incorporate some of this insight in my next post. At the end of the day differences disappear giving way to either getting in and doing it or not.

    I have just brought my blog over to my website and found one of your posts particularly pertinent. I am hoping to post in the next few days, my first one as part of my site.

  2. Jessica Abel on June 19, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    Please send the link. I’d love to see what you post.

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