How To Create A Stellar Creative Workspace

When we were on the hunt for a new apartment in Brooklyn, my husband and I never thought for even a moment that we would be able to find one with an office. I mean, are you kidding me? Even though I work from home and a home office would clearly be a helpful addition, I was savvy enough to know that finding a reasonable two-bedroom apartment in New York was akin to finding a perfectly in-tact, unscathed bagel in a dumpster. Like, I guess it's possible, but you've got to get reeeaaaally lucky. (Also, why you are looking for bagels in a dumpster? Examine your choices!)

So when we stumbled upon an apartment that was within our price range (or at least it was after we increased our budget), in a neighborhood we loved (okay, just on the outskirts, but still), and had not one but TWO official bedrooms (fine, sure, one of them was about 80 square feet), we wasted no time putting in our offer. We did everything short of crying out, "PLEASE TAKE OUR MONEY, APARTMENT DIETIES!" and within two months, we signed the agreement. The rarest of dumpster bagels was ours.

We've been living in this apartment for nearly two years, and yet I still walk into my office every morning with a sense of awe. If I'm being honest, I'm so in love with this room that I often think of it with a romance that I would usually reserve for my husband. How are you mine? I don't deserve you. You are a treasure. 

That said, I still remember what life was like pre-office, and you know what, honestly, it was just fine. That's because, as someone who works from home, I have always made it my mission to carve out a dedicated creative space for myself. Whether you have an abundance of extra room to build a visionary wonderland or you've only got a tiny, dank corner of your living room to work with (that was my situation before we moved), there are plenty of things you can do to make your space more creatively accessible. 

Ready to amp up your creative space? (ALSO, DO YOU WANT TO SEE PICTURES OF MY OFFICE?) Here's what imma suggest for you:

Designate a territory

Stop balancing your laptop on top of piles of dirty laundry. Stop creating in the same place where you eat chili. Stop prioritizing everything else over your creative work, and actually decide on a space in your home (or in some fancy studio, I guess, if you're excessively rich) to get your artsy fartsy on. For my apartment, that decision was simple. I mean, I guess I could have put a baby in this room or something like that, buuuuuuuuut nope.

Anyway, my point is this: when you actually designate a space for your creative work, you in effect treat your creative work with a higher degree of seriousness. And seriousness often invokes follow-through. And don't you want to follow through on your creative endeavors? ME TOO. So whether it's a second bedroom, a closet, a garage, an attic, a shed, or a pillow-filled corner of your bathroom, make some space for your creative genius. 

Mark your territory

Guys, let your inner alpha dog out and mark that creative territory (could I have chosen a less crass way of saying this? Sure. But then I wouldn't be me.)! By this, I mean do whatever you can to stake your claim over your space. Jazz it up with the things that make you feel like oh-yes-this-is-mine. For me, that meant creating a gallery wall of some colorful prints over my desk (and by the way, don't judge me for not getting frames. Washi tape is whimsical and framing stuff is hard). 

Also, it should be noted that I painted that picture of the pomeranian. It is potentially my life's greatest achievement.

Fall in love with your desk

Really, I just want to take a moment to brag about my desk. Is that a thing people brag about? I got it years ago at IKEA as a space-saving measure in my former Brooklyn apartment. Its name is NORDEN and it collapses to become a shelf whenever it's not busting its ass as a desk (did you know tables have asses? The more you know!).

In our old apartment, I shoved this thing right under a book shelf in our living room and felt so proud working in a foldable space that was all mine. In our new place, it also works well considering my already small office doubles as a guest room (and yeah, I know I'm kind of breaking my first rule by making this a multi-use space, but we don't entertain sleepover guests that often, so shove it). 

Whatever the case, find a sturdy surface that makes you proud to get down to some creative bidness. While you're at it, get a standing desk so you can live longer maybe!

Get some natural light (if you can)

Can I get a hallelujah for some Vitamin D?!

In my former apartment, natural light was a luxury we simply couldn't afford. When you looked out the window, this is what you saw:

 
 

And that, by the way, was on a slow day. On a more typical day, there would also be stray garbage, feral cats, and, inexplicably, burnt toast adorning this already dismal alley. It was a real treat for the senses.

Of course, I still made it work, but it certainly wasn't ideal. I could feel myself getting sluggish and easily distracted as I frequently wondered to myself -- is it still daytime?

Natural light is scientifically proven to boost creative productivity by regulating your body's production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you all sleepy-sleepy-Netflix-and-chill-y. Now that I have oodles and oodles of natural light streaming through the window of my office, I can attest to the fact that it really has an effect on my energy level. Not only that, but being by a window with a view is a solid reminder that the world is out there -- a world with people, homes, dogs, and possibilities -- and that kind of inspiration is invaluable. 

So if you can, strategically place your workspace by a window. Even if all you can see outside is a bunch of burnt toast, it's better than nothing. 

Have your favorites on-hand

What are the tools in your life that make you feel like an artist? What is the pen, notebook, pair of scissors, organic molding clay (I think I made that one up) that makes you feel as though you are a master of your craft? Whatever it is, make sure it's readily available to you. 

Looking for some ideas? Here are some of my personal favorite tools that I keep at my desk*:

  • Le Pens by Marvy - These are the best pens in the galaxy. They are essentially thin markers and they will change your writing game forever. 
  • Post-it notes - I'm a sticky note fiend, and in a minute, I'll show you why. 
  • This mega pretty weekly desk calendar from Rifle Paper Co. - I don't use a physical planner, but this weekly list helps me scratch that handwritten itch I have when it comes to planning my week.
  • My favorite sketchbook by 3M - I use it as a notebook because lined paper is the enemy of my creativity.
  • All of the washi tape - I never run out of uses for this stuff.
  • A kitchen timer for when I need to work on a deadline - Mine is in the shape of a bellpepper, but I just put in an order for this adorable cheeseburger timer
  • Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon - A super inspiring, short, fun book I like to keep by my desk when I need a jolt of creative encouragement.
  • A S'well water bottle for hydration and cuteness purposes

Visually depict your ideas/projects/tasks/calendar/etc (if it helps you)

Guys, this is my idea wall! Isn't she something? This is where I plan out every single creative project I intend to tackle (and some that I likely will never tackle, but that's okay). Here's how I do it:

I've divided the wall into two sections (with washi tape! I told you I never run out of uses for that stuff): "Current Projects" on the right and "Future Dreamy Stuff" on the left. Anytime I have an idea of any sort -- sane or otherwise -- I write it down on a sticky note. If it's relevant to a current project, I slap it on the right. If it's not, I slap it on the left. Then, every day, I spend time organizing my sticky notes into obvious patterns and categories. It's like doing a puzzle of my own creative brain, and it is hands down my favorite way to brainstorm. 1 out of 1 would recommend.

Whether you want to steal my idea wall or not, if you're a visual processor, consider creating a space like this where you can see your ideas. That way they are always staring at you, practically forcing you to bring them to life. 

Commit to your space

Honestly, it's crazy easy to make a creative workspace. It's easy to decorate a room. It's easy to buy a brand new desk and inspirational posters and a heapin' helpin' of your favorite pens. 

What's hard is showing up. A dedicated space makes things more fun and focused, sure, but it doesn't write the essay for you, or draw the sketch for you, or develop the romance story between your protagonist and her zombie lover. That's all your doing.

So develop your space, fill it with all kinds of inspirational and practical stuff. Or, you know, don't. That's totally fine, too. My feelings won't be hurt. 

But whatever you do, just keep showing up.  

What are your must-haves for a creative workspace?

*All of the products listed are affiliate links, which means I make, like, a ha'penny if you end up purchasing something, but I really do stand by all of this stuff and use it daily, so get off my case!

The Problem With "I Used To Could Do It"

When I was in college, I spent every summer, four in total, working at a camp in Central Texas. Every morning, I would wake up at 6:45 AM, hustle a pack of eight-year-olds out of their bunks, and spend the rest of the day sweating out 1/3 of my body weight in 101+ degree heat. 

And man, I loved it. It still remains a mystery to me why I loved it so much, but I'm quick to tell anyone who asks that working at camp is easily the best job I've ever had.

For my first two summers, I worked as a counselor, which meant that I was in charge of the care, safety, and dance parties of a group of eight or so girls. But the latter two summers, I worked on program staff as a challenge course facilitator. This meant that I was certified to lead small groups in high and low elements. That's right, I was the lady spotting kids as they dangled from high wires and crawled through tires, and I was also the lady who made them sit in a circle afterwards and talk about their feelings.

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While I loved facilitating, there was a side of the job that I found absolutely agonizing: watching challenge course. 

I mean, first off, it was just boring. As a facilitator, my job was to set up the objective (ex. move from one platform to another smaller platform without touching the ground because, hello, it's hot lava), but after that, I was only there to keep everyone safe. I couldn't talk or provide any expert insight. I could only observe.

And here's what I observed: lots of loud-mouthed kids with terrible ideas shouting over quieter kids with sensible ideas. This was pretty much the scene at most challenge course initiatives I ever facilitated. For the most part, until the time came to debrief, my job was simply to monitor the dysfunction.

While I saw a lot of insanity in my challenge course facilitator days, there's one memory I have in particular that really sticks with me, one that I've actually been thinking about a lot lately.

I was facilitating a group of thirteen-year-old boys, each one more awkwardly lovable than the next. They had been struggling with cohesion, so I decided to bring them to what was a classic teamwork element at camp: The H-Platform, a large wooden structure with a raised platform about five feet off the ground. The objective I set was a simple one for a group of this level: get every member of your group up to the top without touching the structure with any part of your body, except for your feet.

If you're having trouble envisioning how they were supposed to accomplish this challenge, here's the trick: the group is supposed to safely lift each member up one-by-one and set them on the platform gently. Anyone who is already on top can help pull individuals up for support. The last one up is usually a smaller, athletic kid who can be pulled up by the rest of the group.

Many groups figure this simple strategy out right away. Many more do not.

On this particular day, things started in the usual way. I gave my instructions, and the boys proceeded to try to ask me several follow-up questions while I simply stared back at them, severely, through my sunglasses (not going to lie, my challenge course persona was pretty intimidating, and I loved it). They made a few attempts to push themselves up on the platform with their forearms, clearly having not listened to my instructions. I asked them to start over, and they were puzzled.

My Challenge Course persona. Don't mess.

My Challenge Course persona. Don't mess.

A quiet kid named Garrett remarked, "We're only supposed to use our feet." And then a louder kid named Devon shouted, "WE CAN'T USE OUR ARMS, YOU IDIOTS! ONLY OUR FEET!" The group took Devon's words to heart and collectively agreed that the challenge was impossible.

But then a boy named Zach had an idea. Zach, by the way, was a small, boisterous, little guy on a mission to prove his manliness (did you notice how I used two different adjectives to describe how prepubescent this kid was? It's relevant to the story, I promise). According to Zach, he had a platform just like this one in his backyard at home. Why, the others asked. Well, because he built it. Duh. He used a circular saw and everything.

Seemed plausible.

Anyway, according to Zach, he had done this loads of times (this, being scaling a five foot platform with nothing but his feet). "Watch this," he commanded his skeptics. 

I got into my spotting stance, knowing this would certainly not be good, and I watched as this boy, whose crisply gelled hair stood roughly three inches above the platform, placed one foot on the edge of the structure and proceeded to backflip, wildly, straight into my arms. The whole thing looked like that scene in The Peanuts where Charlie Brown pitches a ball and it gets batted right back towards him, so his body spins in circles until he lands on his back, mysteriously having lost his clothes. Fortunately, Zach was still clothed throughout this whole incident, but his movements were just as chaotic. In an instant, we were both on the ground, me having broken his fall, him having no recognition of the fact that I had essentially just saved his life.

Image via  Red Legs Review

Image via Red Legs Review

To this day, I still have no idea what Zach was actually attempting in this maneuver. The only thing I can think is that he mistakenly thought that he was a nine-foot giant who could simply step up onto a platform five feet off the ground. But regardless of how insane his initial idea was, it's what he said to his group immediately afterwards as he was dusting himself off that left me positively dumbfounded. 

"Well...I used to could do it," he said, shrugging. 

I used to could do it. This sentence echoed in my mind as the most ridiculous words ever spoken. On the outside, I was still a stone-faced facilitator, but on the inside, I was doubled over in laughter. Not only did I love the awkward, pre-teen phrasing of his bizarre statement ("I used to could..."), but I marveled at the sheer implausibility of it. You used to could do it? You used to be shorter!

If it's not apparent from my description of him, I should probably make it clear that I really liked Zach. He was a sweet, funny kid, but he was also just ridiculous, as were all of my favorite campers. But that day on challenge course, Zach taught me a tremendous lesson, one that I still think about all the time: a lesson in self-comparison.

We often talk about the dangers of comparing ourselves to others. We know that we should keep our eyes on our own paper and focus on who we are rather than on what someone else is doing. We know that comparison is the thief of joy and that no one is perfect and that Instagram doesn't tell the whole story and yadda yadda yadda. 

But perhaps an even greater danger exists when we compare ourselves to...ourselves. Our former selves, that is.

Look: Zach literally thought he "used to could" step up onto a five foot plank of wood, no problem. And that's just crazy. But is it any crazier than the times in life when we say things like I used to be so much more outgoing or I used to be happier or I used to be better at ____?

Honestly, just like Zach, we all kind of suck when it comes to estimating our former abilities. We always romanticize. We always exaggerate. We always glorify. So when we think back on the person we used to be, chances are we aren't even really considering the whole story.

The downfall of these flashback comparisons is that they cause us to uplift false versions of our old selves while degrading who we are now. When we long for the days gone by, we neglect just how far we've come.

I have to admit that I can get caught up in this type of toxic thinking fairly easily. Lord knows there are days that I'd love to go back to being Camp Counselor Christy. In my mind, I often look at her as the freest (not to mention thinnest) version of myself. I find myself longing for "the good old days," wishing that I could get that time back. 

But if I'm really being honest, Camp Counselor Christy wasn't all that. Girl didn't have half of what I have now. She was less skilled, less knowledgable, and far less experienced than the person I am today. She also wore Nike shorts everywhere she went and didn't enjoy the taste of coffee. What a weirdo.

So that said, if you're anything like me, if you ever struggle with past-self-comparison, learn from Zach's and my mistakes. Focus less on the things you "used to could do" and instead take stock in the person you are now. For the record, it's very possible (and actually highly likely) that you don't even have a clear picture of who you used to be. Chances are that in the past you had the same exact insecurities and fears and oddly-placed moles that you have now, but your selective memory is choosing not to remember any of that. 

The truth is you have come such a far way from whatever former version of yourself you have chosen to idealize. And there is so much value in the sheer fact that you are growing. You may never be able to step up onto a five foot platform all on your own (honestly, you likely never could before), but right now you have more knowledge, skill, experience, and strength (perhaps more mental than physical, but whatevs) than you've ever had in your entire life. Ever.

By the way, much to my surprise, the boys did eventually complete their challenge course objective that day. Someone eventually started listening to Garrett's ideas, and Zach was one of the first people to be hoisted up onto the platform. As I watched this scene unfold, I couldn't help but swell with pride. Perhaps Zach "used to could" do this on his own. I guess we'll have to take him at his word on that one. But that day on challenge course, he had an army of eight goony thirteen-year-old boys helping him up. And honestly, isn't that so much better than doing it alone? As far as I'm concerned, that's progress. 

Do you ever struggle with past-self-comparison? How do you move past it?

How To Fight Imposter Syndrome

Have you ever read something so impactful that it seemed as though it was written just for you -- something so specific to your particular worldview that you have trouble imagining that it wasn't based on events from your own life?

That's how I felt recently when I read this piece in The New York Times by Carl Richards on Imposter Syndrome. I mean, for the record, I'm still unconvinced that Carl didn't write this essay after wire-tapping my phone or skimming through my diary. I'm onto you, Carl. 

Do you ever feel like you are a fraud? Do you ever feel like people are about to find out that you don't actually deserve to be doing what you are doing? That's called Imposter Syndrome. It's a real thing. And in this post, I'm going to show you ways to combat the lies your Imposter Syndrome tells you so that you can make something that matters. Click through to fight your fear!

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Anyway: Imposter Syndrome. What is it? Is it contagious? Is it treatable? 

According to Richards, Imposter Syndrome is a term coined in the 1970s by psychologists to describe a type of anxiety present in the lives of many artists, myself included. In its most basic sense, it is the fear of being "found out." It's a sensation of waiting for people to realize your own perceived lack of talent.

And it's particularly strong during seasons of transition -- at the starting phase of a new project, or even in the obsessive thinking phase leading up to it. It's a fear that, like many others, has a voice. And that voice can say some really shitty things. For instance, here are some of the things you might hear in your mind when in the throws of Imposter Syndrome:

"Who gave you permission to call yourself an artist?" 

"You don't actually have talent. You're just pretending."

"Everyone who does what you are trying to do has a wealth of experience, confidence, and ability that you simply lack."

See? Pretty brutal stuff.

And for years, whenever I would begin a big creative endeavor, I was plagued by these kinds of thoughts. They were especially pervasive when I started my writing career. I mean, just so we're clear, no one ever gave me a license to do this. No one ever gave me the "OK" to start referring to myself as a writer (you know, except for my friends and family and mentors and basically everyone in my life).

And for some reason, this lack of official permission felt like some sort of taboo. I mean, surely the President of Writing is supposed to hand-deliver a typewriter and induct you into the club before you can even think about putting the word "Writer" on your LinkedIn profile.

But that's not the only instance in which I've experienced Imposter Syndrome. As a person who puts myself out into the world on a semi-regular basis and says, "Hey! Look what I made!" I am used to dealing with powerful doses of overwhelming doubt.

And I know I'm not the only one. I recently asked some folks on my email list to tell me about their struggles with creative work. Out of this simple request, I received a flood of responses from folks whose answers all looked remarkably similar. Each person, on some level, dealt with some variation of Imposter Syndrome. Here's one of my favorite comments I received:

I need to be able to look myself in the mirror and be like, GIRL, stop worrying so damn much. You're good at what you do and you deserve to be here...doing this...living THIS LIFE. It's hard.

(And by the way, she's totally right.)

In Richards' article, he also cites several notable, historically successful people as Imposter Syndrome sufferers, including legendary author and poet, Maya Angelou. I will repeat: MAYA FREAKING ANGELOU. As in, the woman who wrote this: 

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

::COMMENCING MASSIVE FREAK-OUTAGE:: How is it possible that Maya Angelou -- a person so brave, so gifted, so renowned and skilled in her craft -- how could she have struggled to see herself the way that we do?

So this begs the question: what causes Imposter Syndrome?

From my experience, it derives from a deeply-ingrained misconception that our talents are the norm, that the abilities we have aren't really that unique in the first place. Our thoughts look like this:

Surely everyone can do this. Surely the fact that I can [write, paint, design a website, take pictures, sing, whatever your thing is] -- surely that's not all that special. And the fact that I struggle in any way is a sign that I'm not even very good at this basic thing in the first place.

We fail to see anything spectacular in what comes natural to us.

So how do we deal with Imposter Syndrome? Here's what's worked for me:

See it for what it is

The reason why I loved Carl Richards's article so much was simply the fact that it gave a name to a sensation I had been feeling for years. The mistake we often make when in the depths of Imposter Syndrome is that we assume it is a feeling of logic. We assume we are just being honest with ourselves.

But in actuality, Imposter Syndrome is a distortion. It causes you to see the world through a lens in which you are not the gifted person you are. So the first step: put a name on it. Call it Imposter Syndrome. Call it Trevor. Call it whatever you want. But just know that whatever you choose to call it, it's not your reality.

Talk about it

Arguably the biggest reason Imposter Syndrome/Trevor is so common is because we don't own up to it. Everyone pretends like they have their shit together. They pad out their Twitter profiles with confident statements of what they are, what skills they possess, the people they are DEFINITELY capable of helping. And this creates a culture in which we easily assume that we are the only ones struggling. You put up a front, and you know it's a front, but in the meantime, you totally buy into the front someone else is putting up. It's a vicious cycle.

So let me just state for the record: we are all terrified. I mean it. Like, have you ever seen a chihuahua just standing on a sidewalk trembling? Yeah, well, that's how we all feel on the inside when we are starting something new. We are all just trembling chihuahuas, petrified that we are not good enough, talented enough, or ready enough.

So let's just own up to it. Because once we start owning this thing, once we let people know the truth about our fears and anxieties, we feel understood. And being understood is a powerful thing.

Do the work anyway

Let's make something abundantly clear here: Imposter Syndrome can cripple you. If you buy into the belief that your skills are average, that your talents are sub par and that everything you make will be exposed as amateur, then you won't ever make anything. At the same time, at least from my experience, Imposter Syndrome doesn't go away. You don't suddenly wake up with confidence-to-boot and total belief in yourself. If you are the kind of person who is going to struggle with feeling like an imposter in the first place, you are probably going to struggle for life. Sorry.

That said, do what Maya Angelou did. Make something anyway. Find a way to trap those doubting voices in your mind in some kind of mind-box and regardless of if you can still hear them or not, create something anyway. Surround yourself with better voices, people who know your heart and believe in you. Let their voices be louder. And just do the damn thing.

Because once you've done it, then you've got something to point to. You've got a way to soothe your future self, the one who is still burdened by feeling like she is about to be exposed as a fraud. Show her what you made so that she can make something else.

How do you deal with the fear of being "found out?"