How to Maximize Your Natural Creativity as an Introvert

an introvert maximizes his creativity

Introverts have the power to imagine and the power to take what we see and make it real — but first we must harness our creativity.

Not all creative people are introverts, and not all introverts are super creative. But some of history’s greatest artists and writers have thrived on alone time — and not by coincidence. Take Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, who lived a reclusive life to suit her introvert nature. “I get on pretty well with my own company,” she once told Andy Warhol.

Introverts have the power to imagine and, when everything lines up, the power to take what we see and make it real. Of course, things don’t always line up. All creative people face obstacles to producing our work and getting it out to the world, and many of us have a hard time earning a living creatively. These challenges can feel stifling to an artistic introvert and make us doubt our natural talents.

So how can you use your introvert nature to boost your creativity and build yourself up as an artist? Here are four lessons I’ve learned from my career as an author.

How to Maximize Your Creativity as an Introvert

1. Enforce your alone time. Only you can make sure you get it.

All introverts need alone time — it’s part of the definition of an introvert. And being alone is more than just how we get our energy; for many of us, it’s also how we do our best work. We do our thinking, dreaming, and creating in our rich inner world, and our work suffers in the presence of other people. That’s because other people force our minds to multitask, which takes our focus off the project at hand and prevents us from entering a state of deep work.

So you simply need alone time to do your best creative work. And only you can make sure you get that alone time.

I learned this lesson the hard way. By the time I was in college, I knew I wanted to be an author. But I could never seem to find the time for long, uninterrupted writing sessions. There were too many social invitations and obligations. After being an outsider in high school with few friends, in college, I felt like I had a chance to start over. Maybe I could even be popular. So, I accepted every invitation, even if I had planned a quiet evening writing alone in my dorm. As an introvert, these social events drained me, but I was determined to not repeat my lonely high school experience.

As I got older, I noticed something funny. Even though I was still excited by the invitations, once I arrived at an event, I rarely enjoyed it. Although I was surrounded by people, I felt more alone than ever, and neglected. Often I was too shy to talk to anyone. Soon I was too drained (and busy) to work. My writing career stalled, and I wasn’t even having fun.

As a creative introvert, you simply cannot compromise your need for alone time. I was afraid that if I turned down invitations, the offers would stop coming, and I would seem rude. But the opposite happened. Instead, certain friends were even more excited when they did see me, and I developed a reputation for being dedicated to my writing. I lost some casual acquaintances, but in the end, I developed stronger, closer friendships with the people I really valued. Best of all, I finally had time to focus on my writing.

Some steps to enforce your alone time include:

  • Set a fixed weekly schedule for your creative work, and don’t accept invitations that conflict with it. Communicate your schedule to your partner or family, and ask for their support in helping you maintain it.
  • If your job requires you to be creative, come in early or stay late when fewer coworkers are around, if possible. When I worked for a nonprofit organization, I found that I did my best work after most other people had gone home for the day, and the office was finally quiet.
  • If possible, work from home. Even one day a week will boost your energy.
  • Build collaborative projects in a way that doesn’t require face-to-face meetings. Have a shared document, such as a Google Doc, with project notes or create a group Slack. Asynchronous communication means fewer interruptions.

2. Learn to use that alone time in the right way.

Have you ever had this experience: You have a great idea for your next creative piece, you’re excited to work on it, and it’s all you can talk about (or think about). You finally have a day to yourself to work on it… but when the time comes, you have no creative focus.

Sound familiar?

This is the worst feeling. It makes you question whether you have what it takes to be a writer or artist. It made me think I was lazy. But I’m not lazy — I can work 10-hour creative days and enjoy it, if I have the right conditions.

I learned that the most important condition is getting two kinds of alone time. One kind lets you recharge as an introvert, the other kind is when you work as a creative. One refills your energy battery and the other spends it down. If you try to cram creative work into your quiet time without recharging first, you’ll probably find yourself doing nothing but scrolling through Facebook or TikTok.

It’s not always possible to get double the alone time, especially if you have a job, a family, or other “adult” obligations. But there are ways to structure the time you do have so at least some of it turns into creative work. How exactly you do this will depend on your goals and your circumstances. But there are several tricks that can help:

  • Set metrics. I found that just saying “Tuesday evening is my writing night” wasn’t enough. I could squander Tuesday easily, watching Netflix or doing “catch up” chores around my apartment. Instead, create clear expectations of how much work you’ll do. Work can be measured in time (5 a.m. to 7 a.m. every morning) or output (write five pages a day). Just give yourself a framework — and use the rest of your alone time to recharge.
  • Learn how procrastination works. Then begin to create your own system for avoiding procrastination traps and putting meaningful work first.
  • Be your own best client. For years, I worked as a freelance writer, writing blog posts and marketing copy for clients. Although I was in charge of my own time and schedule, I found that it was all too easy to let my paid work take over my entire day. Eventually, I learned that I had to be my own best client; if I had to split creative time between my own work and paid work, I did my own work first, when my mind was the most fresh.

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3. Mine draining or uncomfortable social situations for creative ideas.

We all end up in social situations. They can be fun or they can be annoying. Either way, you’ll probably spend at least part of the event feeling bored, drained, or out of place (that’s just life as an introvert). Let’s call this time “outsider time.”

Examples of outsider time include:

  • Sitting at a bar waiting for friends
  • Wandering a party after the few people you know went to “mingle”
  • Half-listening to an extrovert that won’t stop talking
  • Making a courtesy appearance somewhere you don’t feel comfortable

Outsider time really drains introverts. It’s not meaningful talk with close friends that wears us out; it’s standing at the edge of the dance floor surrounded by a million people. It’s being forced outside our heads when there’s nothing out there that interests us.

But you know what else is outside your head? Inspiration.

All around you, every time you leave your house, there exist a million real-life stories, a million mélanges of color and light, a million strange sounds and beats and rhythms. Couples break up next to you. Soul mates meet. This is where ideas come from. If you can tap into it, you can put your outsider time to use.

I learned how to do this from an illustrator friend. He was asked to give a lecture about his “process” and he admitted that he just brought a sketchbook every time he went to a bar. He doesn’t really like talking to people, so he would sit at the bar and doodle. This made him look busy, for one thing, and it meant that most small talk at least involved something he valued — his art. But, as time went on, he also learned he could capture scenes at bars, sketch live models, and pull ideas from his surroundings.

Picasso did this too. The first time he arrived in Paris he immediately drew a selfie of him and his friends entering the World Fair. Most of his paintings are based on quick sketches of performers at the circus or friends at the pub. These outings are where he developed the style that eventually made him famous. (Check out a great book about Picasso and the other artists of Montmartre here.)

Since I learned this secret, I’ve started carrying a notebook everywhere. I hate writing with a pen — I’d rather use a computer — but it’s a good way to pass “outsider time” and put myself in a creative mood, which keeps me charged. Now I get story ideas every time I leave the house. I’ve even gone so far as to sit in the street and write what I see, like an artist doing a landscape.

4. Find friends who will brag about your work (so you don’t have to).

It would be misleading to say that all introverts are bad at self-promotion. I’m sure there are introverts who know how to promote their own work. But the truth is, I’m not one of them. As proud as I am of my writing, I get uncomfortable talking it up.

One solution is to just “get over it.” There are entire marketing courses designed to convince artists it’s okay to toot your own horn. From a business perspective, that’s a good lesson. But I prefer a dirty shortcut: getting somebody else to toot it for me.

I stumbled on this by accident. An ex-girlfriend was impressed with my writing and very proud to date an author. The first time we went out with her friends, they asked me the usual question: What’s your book about?

“Oh,” I said. I started to mumble my usual response: “It’s, um, sort of magical realism…”

Then my girlfriend cut in. “You should read it! It’s about this guy who casts spells for a living, but he stops believing they work…”

She went on, basically selling my book for me. I even had a small spike in sales just because she kept talking me up. We eventually parted ways on very friendly terms, but the lesson was clear: One friend or partner who loves your work is worth a dozen marketing classes.

(You can read more about my book Lúnasa Days here.)

Since then, I’ve tried to return the favor. I find it hard to brag about my own work, but easy to brag about my friends. I pull up samples of their work on my phone to show new acquaintances. I don’t know if it translates to sales, but I do know they walk away beaming.

You can’t control whether someone will talk you up. But you can do two things to influence it: Don’t spend your time with people who don’t believe in you, and always speak up to compliment your friends’ work. I’m convinced this “pay it forward” attitude eventually catches up. Even if it doesn’t, your friends will soar from the praise.

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