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Why You Need Creative Caffeine, and 4 Ways to Get It: David Sherry

Why it can be hard to get unstuck

A few months ago, David Sherry was stuck. The photographer and co-founder of Death to the Stock Photo says he felt like he was “making sequels instead of originals.”

“I was feeling like we had a lot of different plates spinning at Death to Stock. I was feeling like my work was maybe a little bit forced, because the duty was to keep it going, instead of doing it for the right reasons,” he says.

It’s a common problem, he adds. “I think the skill or the art of being inspired and using that inspiration to create really great work is something that everybody struggles with.”

What makes it hard, he says, “is that stuff happens so naturally.” An obsession with “likes” and follower counts can overwhelm us, and cultural pressure to be successful with all our projects causes what Sherry calls “a gravity towards not having space.”

A Dancer who is creatively unstuck.

From the collection “The Dancer” on Death to Stock.

And space is what we need to be inspired. That’s why we should implement systems for creating it, and for disrupting the patterns that crowd us, he says.

A common tip for creatives is “Go to a new coffee shop.” There’s a germ of wisdom in that, according to Sherry. If it works, he says, “It’s because you let yourself not be forced into a routine, and so it’s not the coffee shop, it’s the breaking of a pattern.”

Having broken a pattern, we get more than regular caffeine; we get creative caffeine, too. Creative caffeine, as Sherry defines it, is something that kicks you in the creative pants. It’s the jolt that comes when we see or experience something unfamiliar or that we didn’t expect. It reinvigorates our creative process.

A man getting unstuck in mist.

From the “Into the Light” collection, Death to Stock.

4 Ways to caffeinate yourself creatively

1. Find some “push” tools.

Often, creatives seek what Sherry calls “pull” tools: things to help us finish projects we’ve already started. Creative caffeine comes from what he calls “push” tools: things that surprise us and spark new ideas.

That’s what Death to Stock strives to be, Sherry says. Subscribers to the site’s free membership get a set of photos emailed to them every month, along with a little story. Sherry says he hopes the images inspire people to create something they wouldn’t have created otherwise.

Subscribers with a paid membership get additional photo packs, along with access to the site’s image library.

2. Build space into your schedule.

What got Sherry unstuck was following the advice of a mentor who ordered him to clear his schedule for three days per week.

“It was amazing how quickly I felt unblocked,” he says. “I literally blocked off the entire day in my schedule, and I wrote silly phrases on the event block.” One of them was “Free and Courageous Fun.”

Since then, he has made a point of keeping much of his schedule open.

“I think I get more and more stuck as my schedule is more and more full with things that feel like obligations.” When he decided to work on his company two days a week instead of five, “that time was filled very quickly with inspired ideas,” he continues. “So, I think you have to create a vacuum for yourself a little bit that you can then go fill.”

“It’s funny, because this is very difficult to do and counter-intuitive,” he adds.

3. Focus on something else.

Sherry recommends using some of that newly-created free time to focus on something unrelated to your main gig. When he first made space in his own schedule, he says, “For two or three days, I started reading like crazy. I got really into this weird topic, which is chatbots, and how we have conversations with computers, and I thought I was gonna maybe try to write a book about it.”

When his three days were up, though, Sherry says he was so excited about Death to Stock again that he wasn’t interested in writing the book anymore.

A woman getting unstuck creatively while staring into a fire.

From the “Slices of Summer” collection, Death to Stock.

4. Detach yourself from the outcome.

We don’t just need physical and temporal space in our creative work, Sherry says. We need mental and emotional space too, which comes from detaching ourselves from its outcome.

“You get increasingly blocked up as you feel an increasing demand to do well or be successful,” he says.

“I’m still working on this too, but I’m trying to adopt a perspective that 50% of the time, it’s gonna work, and 50% of the time it’s not. Therefore, everything I do can work or not work, and that’s just how it is.”

Applying that perspective eases the pressure on any given project, he says. It lets him focus on the process of creating something, instead of what’ll happen to it when it’s done.

“I think if your perspective on the thing you’re working on is that this has to work, then, already, there’s not much space between you and the thing, so I try to adopt a posture and perspective of, I’m working on this, and people might love it, they might hate it, they might just think it’s OK — I really won’t know until it’s out there, and it’s also not under my control.”

Running Death to Stock has made it easier to practise such non-attachment in his photography, he adds. In the beginning, he and the site’s other co-founder, Allie Lehman, took all the photos themselves. “Now we hire out and produce with artists all around the globe.”

“I don’t really shoot a ton, except for fun, and as a hobby,” he says, but now, “anytime I have a photo shoot, I can get into flow almost immediately when it starts, and having that going on in the background, when it’s not your main focus, is very helpful for being productive and inspired elsewhere.”

What about you, Reader? What’s one way you could break your patterns to give yourself a creative jolt? 

Featured image: courtesy of David Sherry.

PS: If you’d like a sneak peek at my upcoming book, Creative Unblocking: Bypass Self-Doubt, Tap Your Genius, and Complete Your Best Worksubscribe for free to my “no spam” email list. You’ll get fresh inspiration and creative insights delivered monthly(ish) to your inbox, and I’ll remind you when the full book is released on August 1st, 2017.

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