How Creatives Can Improve their Motivation: It Isn’t Magic

Photo of a light bulb with arms and legs of screws and bolts plugging in his own plug to give him power to shine.

Do you struggle with motivation? Or have you plenty of motivation but still don’t get (enough or any) things done? Yeah. It can be a struggle to create when it’s not your full-time job—and sometimes, even when it is. 

We tell ourselves all kinds of stories about what our lack of motivation means.

It’s only this part of my work that I hate. 

I’d be golden if I could afford to hire someone to do this part,

If it weren’t (fill in the blank), I’d be fine.

I’m not motivated, so I must not have genuine talent.

It’s Not Magic

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines motivation as: 

1 a: the act or process of motivating, b: the condition of being motivated. 2 a: a motivating force, stimulus, or influence: INCENTIVE, DRIVE.”

Boy, is that a circular definition. At least it is until you get to the words “incentive” and “drive.”

According to Psychology Today, “motivation is the desire to act in service of a goal.” Better, but what if you don’t have an obvious goal?

Motivation makes you start and continue doing something. 

First, the good news. It’s not something you’re born with or without. And it’s not something you must wait until it shows up. The bad news is that even the most self-motivated person has times when staying motivated is hard work.

Sources of Motivation

You can slice and dice motivation into a lot of pieces depending on what actions you’re attempting to encourage. All the types described by different people have some validity. Use what works for you. For this discussion, I’ll refer to two major sources and a subset of each of those sources.


Extrinsic motivations are those rewards or benefits that are external to you. Things like paychecks, prizes, bonuses, promotions, and fame are extrinsic. You’re thinking this doesn’t apply to you. Have you entered a contest or had your work judged? That prize is extrinsic.


Social motivation is a concept I learned from Mark McGuinness on “The Creative Penn Podcast” hosted by Joanna Penn. According to Mr. McGuinness, there are several ways to experience social motivation: copying, connection, collaboration, commitment, rebellion, contribution, and tradition. In my mind, this is a subset of extrinsic motivation because these things are in reaction to or rely on other people’s involvement. But the rewards of this motivation can be both. For example, if collaboration and contribution bring you joy, social motivation is extrinsic because it relies on your collaborator and the group or where you contribute. It is also intrinsic because it brings you joy.  


Intrinsic motivation is internal and specific to you. For many creatives, your joy in your work is an enormous piece of your motivation. You love creating. You love the method with which you create. That’s self-motivating. It drives you to pick up the tools and create.


This is another concept I’ve borrowed from Mr. McGuiness. Your personality, your values, your needs, your education, your personal strengths and weaknesses, and your priorities are part of your intrinsic motivation. It’s things like the adventure, beauty, compassion, harmony, justice, pleasure, or power that motivate you. These are all subsets of intrinsic motivations because they are internal. They are personal because they are unique to you. You may love to learn, but another person loves a challenge or an adventure. 

Why It’s so Hard to Create?

Photo of several pieces of wadded up paper and a blank page on a spiral notebook.

Resistance by creatives is a concept attributed to Steven Pressfield in War and Art. (Please note: I do not recommend War and Art but that does not negate the concept.) Pressfield describes resistance as a universal force that works against human creativity. 

I agree that resistance is a universal reaction humans have. We humans have a basic drive to survive, no matter what our circumstances are. That drive means we must conserve energy in order to have energy to fight or escape if we must. It is not laziness. It’s a survival instinct. Resistance is our instinctual nature to conserve energy for survival, even when we don’t face daily survival challenges.  

So how does a creative overcome resistance in order to create? First, you need an awareness of the basic instinct. Hopefully, I’ve provided you with that.

Second, you need to ensure that you have taken care of your basic needs to convince your instincts that you can survive. 

Third, you need sufficient motivations to overcome resistance. 

How Unmet Needs Interfere with Creativity

If you have not fulfilled your basic, physical and psychological needs, motivation isn’t your issue. You simply cannot create to the best of your ability when you don’t take care of your needs. 


Not getting enough water to drink every day can lead to dehydration. One of the first symptoms of dehydration is fatigue. It is a symptom that can interfere with your ability to create, even with slight dehydration. Take extra care if you are on medications (such as diuretics) or have medical conditions that require careful monitoring of your liquid intake. 

Lack of Sleep

Fatigue is a creativity killer. Oh, I know the seductiveness of creativity when you’re tired. You’re convinced that dream or hallucination or crazy-thought you had were the thing that will take your art to the next level. Really? It’s possible, but how many times do you look back and see that the idea was impractical or incomplete, or even just plain bad? 

Not to mention that lack of sleep decreases your energy and endurance. You may not need eight hours, or you may need more. Discover how much sleep you need for optimum energy and endurance. Your creative motivation will thank you.

Optimize Your Physical and Mental Health

Am I saying you must be in perfect health to be a creator? Heck, no. Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Hemingway, and Virginia Wolfe are only a few of the world-famous creators who created, despite serious health issues. Perfection isn’t the goal. Poor health can cause extra resistance to sit down and create. Get a help from a professional healthcare worker. Use medications as prescribed. Help your body get as far past survival mode as possible. 

Forgive Yourself

Negativity, in all forms, is a creativity killer. 

Obsessing about the things you did or didn’t do or think you can’t do is not helpful. Sometimes in everyone’s life, outside factors create crazy amounts of stress, or consume all your energy.

Mistakes, misjudgments, fear of risks, high expectations, isolation, and rigid thinking are part of the human condition. No one is perfect. No. One.

Forgive yourself. Let go of the negativity of pessimism, fear, pressure, isolation, narrow-mindedness, and negative self-talk. It’s not easy. But it gets easier the more you practice. 

Ways to Change Negative to Positive

Reframe negative experiences or self-talk. Look for what went right, a helpful thing you learned, or even how you recognized the negative and reframed it. 

Embrace fear. It’s part of the learning and creating process. Failure happens to everyone. Learn from it. Accept it and move on.

Turn off negatives. Don’t read or listen to criticisms that cause you to freeze. Focus on helpful critiques that highlight what you did right and where you could improve. 

Take charge of the pressure in your life where ever or whomever it comes from. Enforce boundaries by saying no. Create time on your schedule to relax and unwind. Allow yourself time to recharge your creative energies.

Expose yourself to new people, new ideas. Let go of prejudices and rigid thinking. Look for and explore more options.

Create a written or recorded journal entry at the end of each day, celebrating what you accomplished, praising yourself for what went right, and making choices that helped you get there. 

Optimize Your Motivations

Extrinsic motivations aren’t enough. The source of those motivations comes from things over which you have no control. Wanting to be famous is an extrinsic motivation. If that is your sole motivation for creating, you will experience more and more resistance the longer it takes to find some fame. If it takes too long, you may be no longer able to create.

Intrinsic motivations are strong, but sometimes they aren’t enough. You may love the act of writing stories, but when illness or poverty or some other challenge prevents you from creating, your love of writing may not be enough to get you back to writing. 

It takes a balance of all four sources of motivation to keep a creative going. But balance doesn’t mean a constant state of equilibrium. The balance is that you need a combination of the four sources of motivation to keep your drive going for years on end. 

If you haven’t already, identify at least one motivation from each of the four sources. For example: love of the process (intrinsic), money, (extrinsic) popularity (connection-social), and learning (personal) your craft.

Creativity is a Process

Photo of an open stitch bound notebook with the words "Never stop dreaming" in large print at a diagonal with a heart at the bottom, and a red and yellow tulip laying partly across the page.

Creativity is not a “eureka” moment. It’s a process that involves motivation, information gathering, idea generation, critical thinking skills, problem solving, gathering materials, tool-using skills, and so much more. For most of us creatives, it’s a lifelong process. We build and explore and stretch our skills. Our needs, desires, and yes, our motivations change more than once in that time. And that’s okay, because it isn’t magic. Now that you know more about motivation, you can change your motivations as you need to and keep on creating. 

What keeps you motivated?

Image Credits

Top Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

Middle Image by Steve Johnson from Pixabay

Final Image by Marta Kulesza from Pixabay


Merriam-Webster Dictionary 

Psychology Today

The Creative Penn Podcast #243 

Other resources on this site:

5 Tips for Staying Motivated 

Don’t Chase Flow State 

Reignite Your Creativity

Inspiration is Fickle and Lazy  

Motivation for being a Creative

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