Creativity, Inspiration

How to kickstart your creativity without having a meltdown

Happy monster illustration

A few days ago, I shared how I go ‘weird’ if I’m not being creative. I drew a sad monster at the top of the post.

Today sad monster is looking much happier as I’ve discovered an unbelievably easy way to overcome my resistance!

How I discovered the technique 

If you’ve read Oh Sugar! you’ll know I’m not a fan of strict diets. Quite frankly, they don’t work. They might to begin with, but once your willpower falters (Chocolate Hobnob, anyone?), you’re back where you started… only now you’ve got chocolate all over your face and you feel doubly crap.

Instead, I recommend a more gentle approach to achieving your goals (sugar or otherwise), inspired by psychologist Robert Maurer’s book One Small Step Can Change Your Life.

Now, I know taking small steps is nothing new, but this method entails taking such minuscule steps, they are RIDICULOUS!

Let’s say your dentist wants you to floss your teeth every night but you just can’t get yourself to do it. With this approach, you’d start by flossing one tooth a day. Yup. One single tooth.

Struggling to exercise? No problem. Do one squat during a TV ad break.

Want to take up meditation? Meditate for 60 seconds a day.

Worried about how much sugar you add to your cup of tea? Remove a few grains from your teaspoon each week. (This is how I went from 2 teaspoons of sugar in my tea to zero.)

The trick is to pick a step that’s so easy and non-threatening, you cannot fail.

Robert Maurer shares the story of a woman who bought an expensive treadmill for her home but never used it. Under his instruction, her first step was to stand on the treadmill every morning whilst she sipped her coffee and read the newspaper. The treadmill wasn’t even moving! The next month, she walked on the treadmill for one minute. Crazy as it sounds, by increasing the time by a minute each week, she gradually built her “tolerance for exercise”.

I wondered if the same approach would work with creativity.

Small steps to being creative

To test this out, I picked an area I’ve been struggling with for years. I can write non-fiction till the cows come home but the thing I want to do most – write children’s books and be an illustrator – triggers gargantuan levels of resistance.

So… I needed to pick a step so minuscule that even I, with my PhD in Procrastination, could not run away.

I found a nice big notebook (that’s important I think)…


And I decreed that every day I would open that notebook and I would draw one line and write one word or sentence.

That was it!

There were no other rules. I wasn’t planning on showing my notebook to anyone so I was free to write or draw whatever came to mind, regardless of whether it made any sense. The only ‘rule’ was that I had to draw or write something… even if it was one straight line and a word plucked from the ether.

I didn’t think it would work. Not long-term, anyway. But amazingly, it did!

In fact, it kept on working and it hasn’t stopped since! Nothing, I repeat, NOTHING has had the same effect on my creativity in all my years of struggle. (I’ll share the proof later on in the post.)

Why this technique works

If you’ve tried to make drastic changes to your life in the past but failed, blame your amygdala. This is the part of the brain that triggers the fight-or-flight response whenever it senses danger (real or imagined).

When you depart from your safe, comfy routine, the amygdala sounds the alarm and starts to shut down rational and creative thinking – so that it’s ready to fight or run if necessary.

If you take a tinsy winsy step towards a goal, however, this stress response isn’t triggered. After all, the step is so ridiculously easy, a child could do it – where’s the danger? This enables you to tiptoe past the fear and resistance that has tripped you up in the past.

This means several life-changing things:

1) You take action. Instead of fretting and procrastinating, you take a step closer to your goal and siphon off some creative angst. This feels good.

2) Your brain changes. With no meltdowns on the horizon, you take more steps. Any behaviour that is repeated builds new neural pathways in the brain. This means that the creative thing you dream of doing gets easier the more you do it.

3) Your subconscious starts to help out. It anticipates that you’ll open your notebook/pick up a paintbrush/sit down with your guitar, and it will be required to come up with the goods. So it starts feeding you things to write, draw, or sing.

4) As the days go by, your confidence grows. You start to relax and think, “Hey, I can do this!” You grow more bold. Drawing one line was easy so you push the boat out and draw three… or a circle… or perhaps a figure.

5) You start to have fun! Before you know it, you’re doing the very thing you previously swore you couldn’t. And with no one but yourself to please, you start to create things that delight you. You start to find your voice.

Here’s what happened when I tried this for 2 weeks

Day 1: I drew a line. Actually, I drew one line and that felt so easy, I out-did myself and drew two more…

Pencil lines

Day 3: Emboldened by two days of drawing lines, I drew some shapes…
Pencil drawings
Day 5: After 4 days of drawing random lines, a creature emerged…

Day 6-8: More followed…
Frog illustration       Robot illustration

Day 9:
Growing in confidence, I drew several characters and a background…

Funny creatures illustration

DAY 14: By the end of two weeks, I was drawing scenes which could just possibly live in a picture book…

Bee illustration

Often the drawings triggered words. I started by writing one word (“Frogtastic!”) and progressed to writing a sentence (“Figgle was excited; his whole body quivered”)… then several sentences or ‘Story Snippets’:

Owl illustration
Ottis hooted into the night sky. He waited for an answer but all he heard was the wind murmuring through the trees. He was all alone with only the moon for company.

Most importantly of all, I started having fun! I looking forward to sitting down with my notebook every day to see what would emerge. And I shared my small steps on my new Facebook page – something I would have never done in the past. (I’ll keep posting my drawings and Story Snippets there – I have a feeling this is the start of something…)

Choose your ‘ridiculous’ step

The key to this technique is to choose a step that’s so easy, you’d be embarrassed to tell anyone about it. Ask yourself, “What’s the most simple step I could take towards X [insert dream]?”

If you dream of being an artist, open a notebook, draw one line, close the book. Job done.

If you yearn to play the guitar, teach yourself one chord.

If you want to be a singer, do one vocal warm-up scale.

If you long to write a book, sit down and write or type one sentence.

The next day, repeat the above. Keep going!

Be kind to yourself

If you ever find yourself making excuses, reduce the size of your step. If you can’t bring yourself to write a sentence, write a word. If that’s too much, pick up a pen, hold it, then put the pen down again (remember the woman standing on the treadmill!)

Don’t worry if things don’t go swimmingly. Some days I did ropey drawings or didn’t feel inspired, so I drew a squiggle or whatever was in front of me at the time…

Crap  illustration 4Illustration of a lamp
‘Success’ is completing your step, no matter what it looks like. If you’ve been creatively ‘stuck’ for years, this is cause for massive celebration!

Never feel bad for taking tiny steps. Slow change is better than no change at all. If you’ve been struggling to achieve a cherished dream, give yourself a break. Have fun. Start small :-)

(Please pass this on to anyone you think it might help, and if you give this a go yourself, I’d love to hear how it goes!).

Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to your soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

Steven Pressfield

By taking steps so tiny they seem trivial or even laughable, you’ll sail calmly past obstacles that have defeated you before. Slowly – but painlessly! – you’ll cultivate an appetite for continued success and lay down a permanent new route to change.

Robert Maurer


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