When you first launch your creative business, it can feel like you’ve finally escaped the 9-5 grind.
The irony is that you often end up working more hours than you would in a full-time job—and the stakes are much, much higher when you work for yourself. You start feeling anxious, and before you know it your usual creative spark has all but disappeared.
It can be impossible to get anything done if you’re not feeling creative, which feeds into a loop of anxiety. It’s no wonder that so many creators say they’re burned out.
I didn’t want to work a 9-5 job…
So, I began building a startup and now work 24/7 instead 🥰
— Alex Friedman 🤠 (@heyalexfriedman) October 12, 2021
The secret to undoing your overwhelm? Process.
Creators often resist process or structure because they feel like it'll ruin their creativity and spontaneity. It doesn't have to be that way! In fact, adding a more structured workflow can unlock your creative potential, not the other way around.
“I’m not naturally wired for process,” says writer and marketer Erin Balsa. “I realized, though, that after putting processes in place for the first time, that it’s a necessary evil. Once you do that work, you can actually focus on being more creative.”
Here’s how you can add structure to your business without losing that creative spark:
#1: Undo overwhelm by mapping your creative process
Even if you don’t call it a “workflow,” you have one. The question is, will you optimize it?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all! the! things! on your to-do list running your own creative business, start by mapping out what you’re currently doing, and what it looks like when you have those genius, a-ha moments.
“You can’t be in survival mode and be creative at the same time,” says Amanda Chils, therapist and wellness creative. “Your brain needs to feel safe, because it’s not like you’re going to paint a picture while you’re running from a bear.”
That overwhelm you’re feeling? It’s the modern-day version of the bear barreling down on you.
“Creativity feeds on itself, so the more pockets you can find, the more you can disconnect from overwhelm and route yourself back into your body, downregulating the nervous system so you can actually create,” she says.
Putting scaffolding structures in place for your day can make that easier, whether it’s building time for a long walk or outlining parameters for a given project. You don’t need to add a 12-step method for it to work—just enough to give you room to breathe. Take a look at the map of your current process and look for opportunities to add structure, like:
- Making a certain day of the week “admin day” or “create day”
- Adding “meetings” on your calendar for creative time that can’t be scheduled over with client calls or other commitments
- Reflecting on what self-care routines help you be your most creative, and making them repeatable (such as a walk every day at 3 PM)
- Installing apps or time limits on devices for social media or other online distractions
“Structure really does help people be more creative because they understand what’s expected of them,” says Balsa. “I wouldn’t tell them to go build a webpage. I would tell them, here are the animations I want, here are the charts I want, and here are examples of what good looks like. You need those rails. There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank page and not knowing where to begin.”
#2: Use deadlines to your advantage
The easiest constraint to add into your routine is time. Giving yourself a reasonable deadline is the first step in putting a process together, because then you can work backwards to make sure it gets done.
“I always start with a deadline and end goal in mind. For example, let’s say I want to do a landing page with templates, blog content, and market trends. I’m going to have an end date where everything is completed by, and then have a plan for filling in each element of the page,” says Balsa. “That doesn’t stop me from launching the page—I define what’s enough, and then add value and promotion later.”
The same process works for specific or repeatable tasks, like promoting your business. Chils recommends time blocking, which is the practice of dividing your day into discrete “blocks” of time where you dedicate yourself fully to one specific task. “I’m a big fan of timeblocking and batching,” she says. “If I’m recording a podcast, I do multiple episodes at once. I’ll pick a day to plan out the episodes and think about what I want people to learn, and then I pick another day to do the recordings. The rest is just making it happen.”
#3: Customer feedback = built-in guardrails
If you’re running a business, you’re not just creating for you. You’re creating for your community, and the feedback they give you helps you set constraints around your creative work. Listen to them!
When you let your customers lead, you automatically place constraints on your activities, so it’s much less overwhelming. For example, if your ideal clients are always on Facebook, you should focus your marketing there. But if they’re not, you don’t need to worry about it.
This is especially true for your ideal clients, the ones who purchase from you again and again. Pay attention to what they say—and how they react to your marketing messaging.
“If a client punches me in the heart, I say, ‘Okay, that’s something I want to build.’ It forces me to get into their life and their head, which is what really feels creative to me. I want to talk to my customers, not about them,” says Chils. “I keep a document with some of the best, most visceral quotes, because my customers can say what I do and how I help them so much better than I can.”
Find inspiration from where your customers hang out, and what they like, even if it’s a completely different industry.
“I also keep a file of things that really inspire me,” she says. “When I feel stuck, I look through the file and see what I can tweak and make my own. A lot of creators think you have to reinvent the wheel, but you don’t. You can put your own spin on it, be more useful, or simplify it.”
This kind of swipe file is perfect to pull out when you’re just not feeling creative, but know you need to get something done. It might be as simple as a collection of inspirational quotes or poems, favorite authors that make you think, or Instagram handles of artists you admire.
#4: Don’t lose sight of your goals
Your goals act as constraints that focus your attention and willpower on what matters most to you, and the rest of your actions flow from there.
“Your goals matter a lot, because you’ll catch yourself out of alignment between your goals and your actions if you’re not careful,” says Balsa. “I’ve worked with companies who have a narrative they’re trying to push, but then their marketing experiences contradict that view, like talking about how gated ebooks are terrible, and then gating an ebook.”
Whatever process you create, remember that you’re in control of your business. Think about your individual goals, not what you think you “should” do. Don’t be afraid to dig into your goals and the why behind them, and change your tactics if you need to.
“Before I ever come up with a topic or title, it’s an investigative process,” says Balsa. “Understanding the goals, what they’re currently doing, and their point of view in the market, and poking holes to guide them in the right direction that matches their goals.”
Sticking to your goals by focusing only on the activities that align with them is what prevents burnout.
Says Balsa, “As you scale, you’re going to get tons of ideas. If you start randomly saying, ‘Sure, I’ll do that,’ you end up overloaded. But if you stay true to your goals, build a roadmap, and lean into your priorities, you’ll be able to say yes and no more easily.”
#5: Templatize the elements of the process that you repeat often
Once you have your goals, you can more easily find the areas of your business to automate or make repeatable, templatizing work so you’re not starting from scratch every time.
Think about your email marketing, for example. Rather than designing a brand new newsletter every month, find a template you like and make small tweaks from there. That way, you can focus on the content instead of on getting the email out the door.
“Every time you learn something new, you can take those learnings and update your template for a project in the future, so when you create that same kind of campaign, you’re working your way down those steps and learning from your mistakes,” says Balsa.
With ConvertKit, you can easily automate your entire marketing funnel with Visual Automations. We offer a series of templates designed to help you grow your list, engage your audience, promote a product, or launch a new event, depending on your goals.
If you do plan on timeblocking your email marketing efforts, you can work ahead and schedule emails out days or weeks in advance with our scheduling tools. “For me, I have a different theme every day of the week for social media and email, and on Mondays, I build out the content,” says Chils. “I talk about anxiety, depression, trauma, relationships, and lifestyle, and when I create content, I think about a different theme for each day. Today’s is mindset, for example.”
That’s where a strong process becomes really effective. Not only does it build efficiency into the activities that require less creativity, it gives you a little grace period if things don’t go according to plan (because you know they won’t.)
“Scheduling things ahead just takes the pressure off,” says Chils. “Because if I don’t post on Instagram or send a newsletter that day, it’s not the end of the world. As a creator, I shoot for 100%, but I’m happy with 80%.”
#6: Treat your business like a business
Even if you’re running a creative business, it’s still a business. That means you can’t neglect marketing, sales, and finance just because it taps into a different side of your brain.
But you don’t have to waste your creative energy on more mundane or administrative tasks. Your energy changes throughout any given day (and throughout the week), so think through when you do your best creative work, and what times are better suited to administrative work that requires less creative energy.
For example, Chils is prefers creating in the mornings, but likes to be 1:1 with her clients in the afternoons, since that’s when she’s most energized. “I had to experiment to see what worked,” she says. “One of the beautiful things about working for yourself is creating your own schedule. It takes energy to create from nothing, and so I need to do that in the morning. But if I saw my clients in the morning, I would need to sleep in the afternoon! It’s so tiring.”
Set your own routine based on energy constraints. That way you can timeblock creative work when you’re feeling most creative, and other tasks (or rest!) when you’re not.
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Adds Chils, “Is it factually true that most people are productive at 5:30 AM? Probably not. You need to ask what’s true for me? Because when people force themselves to work, especially creative work, it goes against themselves, and adds so much pressure.”
If you have recurring tasks that consistently drain your energy, consider outsourcing them if you can.
But it may be that you’re trying to force yourself to do them when your mindset just isn’t there.
If you’re truly stuck, Chils recommends movement—the sillier the better. “Start with your body. Move around, do some gymnastics, especially in a weird way to shake up the way you’re thinking, like crawling on the floor. If you have three hours to feel stuck staring at a computer screen, you have 30 seconds to wiggle.”
#7: Find technology that helps manage your business, not manage you
Finding a way out of survival mode and into creative mode means implementing a process that works for you. Maybe it’s getting up at 5am and writing by candlelight. Maybe it’s holding on to your midday walk no matter the weather. Or maybe it changes day by day.
The point is, you’re in control—and by using the right kind of constraints, you can unlock the psychological safety you need to be even more creative (while still running a business.)
One element that makes this even easier? The right technology partner. With our visual email automation platform, you can send well-timed, targeted content to the humans in your audience so you can stay focused on what matters most: growing your online business. Don’t worry about constantly being on top of your email marketing—once you set up your automations, we’ll do the rest.
Try ConvertKit today.