Do You Know Your Own Creative Rhythm?


Funny boy dancing with a hat and glassesLord, I’m on a deadline.

I’m a week into a 2 week deadline for a couple of very large custom pieces for a boutique hotel. I’ve got to share at least one of these images with my art consultant in the next 48 hours so I can make changes if necessary and start the second piece in order to show the client something promising at the end of next week.

Right now, I really don’t think I’ve got the right hook yet. I keep looking at the descriptions of what the client (thinks) they want, images they’ve collected to help me understand what they (think) they want and then back to what I “do” as an artist and the images I’ve created so far.

I’ve got some work to do. Sigh.

In this situation, it’s very easy to panic. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious. But I’m trying to remember what I know deep down about my particular creative process and my success with tight deadlines in order to both keep the faith and simply keep going.

False Starts

For instance, whenever I start a new project, I always have what I call a “false start day.” This is the first day that I commit to spending a big chunk of time on a new project.

Each time I make that plan, that day is, inevitably, a mix of “almosts” and “kind ofs” combined with missing supplies, distracting phone calls and other irritating interruptions. Nothing gets done on the surface and usually about halfway through I realize, “Oh yeah, this is my false start day.”

I’ve also learned that this “false start” day seems to be required before I get down to brass tacks. So rather than beat myself up about it, I understand that for some reason, I need the “false start day” in order to have my productivity.

Even though it’s a very consistent experience, I still don’t usually account for it and I actually truly believe that I’m going to get lots and lots done that first day. ┬áBut once I’m halfway through and realize what’s happening, I accept my fate. At least I know it will be better tomorrow.

End of the Day Blues

Another part of my creative rhythm that I have to keep my eye on is the fact that I while I may like something I’m working on during the day as I create it, I usually decide by the end of the day that it’s not working–that I”ve somehow taken myself in the wrong direction or I just plain hate it.

In the past, I would have done something rash at this point. But now I’ve learned to wait–to see if I still hate it tomorrow. Because even if I decide it still needs work the next day, it’s usually not quite the overhaul I imagined was required.

And when I’m working for myself, as is the case now, I also look at the project one more time before I go to bed to give my sleeping mind a chance to figure out what I should do. No touching, just looking–this doesn’t have to take long either–in fact, it’s probably better that it doesn’t.


The other thing I know about my particular creative process is that I spend longer in the “gestation” stage than most folks. That is, I stay in the messy middle for a long time where things neither look good or like they’re going to get finished on time.

For instance, when I worked in a design office, I was usually the last in with my finished products. I used to share an assistant with 2 other designers and she’d always get quite worried for me as each deadline loomed and they appeared to be accomplishing much more and what on earth was I doing?!

But by the end, I’d always get my projects in on time and I’d usually also have the most work done. I learned this in college when I was writing a paper–Id’ be the last one to start my paper but the first one to finish. I knew that if I lingered longer in the idea-wrestling phase, I’d be able to put my thoughts down much more quickly–basically not forcing myself to start before I was ready.

This habit, though, is the most stressful under a deadline. While I know it works for me, the desire to provide concrete evidence of great progress is very strong (that’s why we start before we’re ready). It’s hard-hard-hard to look “behind” or that you’re just not “getting it”. And when you have a long “gestation” period, it really means living with a project while it looks “bad” which is VERY uncomfortable.

But it’s usually worse if I get too focused on producing “evidence” too quickly. I just keep reminding myself that I’ve been here before–so really at this point, the most important thing is to keep the doubting voices in my head in check.


We each have our own particular creative rhythm. And the more you know AND RESPECT your own rhythm, the easier it is to get out of your own way and let it work.

For me, I’ve been pretty aware of my own creative process for a long time, but it’s taken me longer to truly respect it as well. And shushing those doubting and negative voices is an important part of offering that respect.

And it’s definitely more complicated on a deadline because everything is exaggerated and you usually have to speed up your natural rhythm–which almost always feels unholy, un-natural and unjust. But again, it’s worked before, it can work again.

(Of course, I never quite fully believe that as it’s happening–and I don’t want to jinx myself mid-project–but that is, in truth, what has always happened up to now.)

What About You?

Have you thought about what your own creative rhythms are? Do you get out of your own way and let them work?

If you haven’t, consider asking yourself some questions like:

  • What is your best time of day to create?
  • How long do you like to work at a time?
  • Do you need music to work? Silence? Privacy? Company?
  • How do you help yourself through the messy parts? Do you take a walk when you’re stuck? Eat twizzlers?

Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. (Remember, we’re all struggling with the same things, so when you share your own struggles, you’re helping someone else realize they aren’t alone!)

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  1. Nancy Monson says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Great thoughts on the creative process. I have thought a lot about my own rhythms. As a magazine article writer, which is the way I make my living, I am best in the morning. I can start with a blank page and make headway. In the afternoon, not so much, so now I save that time for administrative work and editing.

    In terms of my creative work–collaging, quilting–I find my rhythms are much different and much freer. One thing I’ve noticed is that my ideas need to percolate for longer before I get them down on paper or fabric. I am more hesitant about the process because I have less confidence that I can execute them in reality (plus I don’t have to to pay my mortgage, so I can let my doubts get to me!). I also find that I love creating bit by bit. I do a collage, and then I look at it and tinker with it day after day till I finally think it’s finished.

  2. Junanne Peck says:

    Great article…I especially liked the False Starts Day…..thanks for sharing…I’ll pass it on….

  3. Sarah Bush says:

    Hi Nancy, Such great points–especially about doubts having more leeway because it’s not the way you pay your mortgage–with your writing, you’d just push through. But it’s also swonderful to have our art as a sanctuary from work as well…and the bit by bit tinkering is so pleasurable as well. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Sarah Bush says:

    So glad that resonated Junanne! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Linda Peckel says:


    Thanks so much for this post! My sister, Nancy, sent it to me and it makes me feel so validated, since she knows this is my process. On my blog page, I called it the Procrastination Proclamation, which was my way of exploring my own need to “gestate” as you call it. Like you, I start very slowly, thinking I’ll get so much more done than I ever do. I just finished a 3-week deadline where I didn’t get anything really written for the first week, and worked right up to the deadline–but like you, I made it.

    Everybody who knows me recognizes that as I get closer to the deadline, some kind of adrenalin kicks in and I do my best work, and I will be pushing the SEND button at the last possible moment!

    Much as I would like to be one of those who works steadily and reasonably to get things done, I’m always stressing at the end. REALLY stressing. But it is my process, and it’s worked for over 2 decades, so thanks to you, I will accept my fate and relax a little!

  6. Linda Peckel says:

    Hey Sarah, How do I follow you? I can’t find the button.

  7. karen says:


    This is a great post. Thanks for discussing this important issue. It is very hard to have faith even if you know that you have always gotten it done before. Because before you see work that you think is good, it is so frightening. You imagine that you have suddenly lost all your abilities. I think this post will really help a lof of people who have never really analyzed their process or realized they had a pattern.

    Thanks again. Very thoughtful.


  8. Sarah Bush says:

    Hi Linda, You can follow me by signing up for my newsletter at http://makegreatstuff.com/! Thanks for your interest!

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