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. 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 creatives 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. This can stifle an artistic introvert, and make us doubt our natural talents.
So how can you use your introvert nature to boost creativity, and build yourself up as an artist? Here are four lessons I’ve learned from my career as an author, that just might help you too.
Step 1: Enforce your alone time
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; it’s 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 and multitasking is bad for creativity.
So you simply need alone time to do your best creative work. And only you can make sure you get that alone time.
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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. After being an outsider in high school, I finally felt like I could be popular. I accepted every invitation, even if I had planned a quiet evening writing.
As I got older I noticed something funny. Even though I was excited by the invitations, once I arrived at an event I rarely enjoyed it. I felt alone, neglected, or too shy to talk to anyone. Soon I was too drained 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. I thought it would seem rude. But the opposite happened. Instead, friends were even more excited when they did see me, and I developed a reputation for being dedicated to my writing. I may have lost some casual acquaintances, but I developed stronger, closer friendships with the people I really valued. And my writing career flourished.
Steps to enforce your alone time include:
- Set a fixed weekly schedule for your creative work. Don’t accept social invitations that conflict with it.
- If your job requires you to be creative, ask your boss if you can change your hours. Come in early or stay late when fewer coworkers are around.
- If possible, telecommute. Even one day a week will boost your productivity.
- Build collaborative projects in a way that doesn’t require face-to-face meetings. Have a shared document with project notes, or create a group Slack. Asynchronous communication means fewer interruptions.
Step 2: Learn to use that alone time the right way
How many of you have 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.
This is the worst feeling. It makes you question whether you have what it takes. 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.
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 the battery and the other spends it down. And you need both. If you try to cram creative work into your quiet time without recharging first, you’ll find yourself doing nothing but surfing Tumblr.
It’s not always possible to get double the alone time. 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 be different for everyone. 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. Instead, create clear expectations of how much work you’ll do. Work can be measured in time (5:00 to 7:00 every day) or output (write 5 pages a day). Just give yourself a framework—and use the rest of the 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. If you have to split creative time between your own work and paid work, do your own work first.
Step 3: Mine social situations for creativity
We all end up in social situations. They can be fun or they can be annoying obligations. Either way, you’ll probably spend at least part of the event feeling bored, drained or out of place (even if most of the event is great). 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 is really what drains introverts. It’s not meaningful talk with close friends that wears us out; it’s standing at the edge of the dance floor with 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, are 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.
Step 4: Find friends who will brag (so you don’t have to)
It would be misleading to say 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. And 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 friends’ work. I’m convinced this “pay it forward” attitude eventually catches up. And even if it doesn’t, your friends will soar from the praise.
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Read this: 21 Undeniable Signs That You’re an Introvert