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I really try hard not to be hypocritical. Sometimes I fail, but I like to believe that I succeed for the most part.


So when people told me that they were having a hard time meeting deadlines for their DukeEngage blog posts because they were having trouble being creative on command, I couldn’t just criticize them for not finishing things on time. It’s easy to be a taskmaster when you have no idea how hard things are, but I understand too well the mental block that makes it seem like inspiration is permanently missing and everything you write sounds horrible. I have been there over and over through the years, both on school projects and personal projects.


For the first half of the DukeEngage blog, I focused on how other people were making my life harder when they didn’t turn in blog posts on time rather than thinking about why they were having a hard time writing in the first place. I now realize that it is hypocritical to expect people to naturally be creative on command, especially if they have little or no experience with it. Most of the time at Duke, assignments are rigidly structured with specific guidelines on the form, the topic, or both. These DukeEngage blogs, on the other hand, are pretty open-ended.


I don’t pretend to be an expert at being creative on command. Just last week, I struggled with creativity at my partner organization, Crag Law Center. I was rewriting three blog posts, interviewing three local environmentalists for five additional blog posts, and attempting to finish all eight posts as quickly as possible. Being at various stages of all of these blog posts stressed me out, and I had a hard time being creative on command.


Here are five tips based on how I dealt with this challenge last week:


1.     Set time-based goals.

At work, I essentially set my own schedule, so I oftentimes end up writing lists of all the things I want to get done in a week. Usually, this does not end well—I almost never finish all the things on my list, and it stresses me out even more to look at the list of all things I failed to do. This does not help my productivity at all. One thing that helps me be more productive is focusing on the amount of time I want to spend on something rather than the end result of that time spent. (I.e. I will spend two hours working on this blog post vs. I will finish this blog post no matter however long it takes) That way, I don’t feel like I’ve failed if I don’t get something done.

2.     Mix up the types of work you are doing.

I wrote “Hit my head against a wall” in my work notes twice last week. Both times, I had spent a significant portion of time rewriting blog posts from the week before that just weren’t working. I had gotten feedback on them and knew what was wrong, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to fix them. I was to split one blog post into two posts, and I had a hard time figuring out how to present both sides of the topic in interesting ways. Instead of spreading out this stressful task, I had decided to get it all done immediately. I tried to focus all my energy on getting them written. However, I soon got tired of writing blog posts. Once I started mixing in other types of tasks, I felt a lot less mentally blocked because my mind was taking a breather and going in a new direction for a little bit before I went back to blog writing.


3.     Don’t let yourself be distracted.

It is really easy to get distracted—and I got distracted last week by coworkers, dogs, music, schedule changes, interviews, and more. Because all of these things pulled my mind in a million different directions, I had a hard time focusing on any one thing. I could not get anything done because I was trying to work on everything at the same time. Once I changed how I thought about my busy schedule and my work, I had an easier time getting things done. I eliminated the obvious distractions and tried to control for the ones I could not predict.


4.     Think big picture.

A lot of the time, annoying tasks seem much harder when you don’t consider the reasons why you are doing it or what the end result will be. Last week, I initially treated the blog posts as merely things to be crossed off my to-do list. When I later began to think about the value of my contributions to Crag, I felt better about my work and less stressed out. I recognized that my work is more than just little tasks to complete; if done right, my work takes thought and prompts thought. Seeing two of my posts published on the website helped me to understand this fully. I better understood what the end goal of my work was and was more enthusiastic about the work.


5.     Come back with fresh eyes.

Sometimes, things just don’t work out, and ideas don’t flow. At about 3:30 P.M. on Thursday, I recognized that I would not be finishing any more blog posts that day. I had been trying to finish one for an hour or two, but absolutely nothing I did was making it better in my mind. I recommitted to trying again the next day and then moved onto another task. On Friday, I had an inspiration moment where I figured out what wasn’t working and how to fix the blog post to make it flow better. Coming back with fresh eyes made all the difference for me.


Being creative on command will always be a struggle for me and for everyone here at DukeEngage Portland, but I hope that we will continue to learn more about it this summer.


The blog will now be going back to normal as much as possible, but if we miss a few posts here or there, this is probably why.