Day Jobs and Creativity


You know the scene; you live in this picture every day.

Rows of desks march down an open floor plan; coworking spaces nestle in niches and corners; LED computer screens add their eerie white glow to the ceiling lights set overhead. Fingers click on keys and mouses brush against tables; conversations float at eye level, sometimes reaching for the ceiling in a gout of laughter; somewhere someone is shouting, but it’s not an angry shout, it’s an excited shout. It smells like coffee (cliche but true), chipotle, maybe incense if your coworkers are trendy. It’s fun, it’s upbeat, it’s fast-paced, it’s engaging, it’s distracting, it’s… your office?

Ok, fine, not the best kept surprise in the world, maybe the title gave it away. But yes, I’m talking about your office. My office, actually.

I work as a management consultant for a medium sized firm in DC. Despite what some (still-not-famous) artists might tell you about how shackled they feel by a day job, I actually love mine. I get to work with and advise C-level executives at Fortune 500 companies in and around NYC; I work with many of the largest institutions in Toronto, including the Big Five Banks of Canada. I have the opportunity to travel to both of these cities on a regular basis. The work is interesting, engaging, fun, and I love the 40-some-odd people on my team. When I arrive at the office in the morning I get to see and hang out with real friends all day (and often all through happy hour and the night). It’s great. It’s cool. As Donald Trump would say: ‘It’s fantastic, believe me.’ It’s almost enough to make me forget what my greatest desire is – my biggest dream. It’s the most dangerous kind of distraction, because it’s one I thoroughly enjoy.

But I don’t want to be a consultant for the rest of my life, no matter how fun or engaging it is. I want to be an author, as many of the people reading this post do. A writer. A storyteller. A teacher of tales, whatever shape that may end up looking like.

So how do we stay creative at work?

I could give you the list – you know, the one you’ve heard before: write every day, keep a journal, take advantage of down time, protect your writing time at all costs, etc. But who can actually keep up with all that crap (if you do, no offense, I’m actually very impressed).

Instead of giving you the list, here is my list:

  • I use Evernotes. Actually, I wrote this post on Evernotes, switching between my phone and my iPad. By keeping a lot of my work in Evernotes, I can work on my projects no matter where I am. Stuck on a delayed flight? Evernotes has synced my work and I can outline / brainstorm and write on my phone. Taking the train? I grab my iPad. Back home again? I pull up Evernotes on my computer, take everything that has copied over from my phone and iPad, and put it back into Scrivener. I make a habit to copy my works in progress into Evernotes at least a few times a week so I can always be ready to go.
  • I read on the Metro to and from work. We all have some form of down time (whether it’s commuting to work, waiting for our kids to get out of school, pretending to watch The Bachelor with our girlfriend) that can be used to sneak in reading. There is absolutely nothing – 0 single thing – in the world that will spur your creativity like reading will. Read often. And when ideas strike you, write them down (in Evernotes, perhaps?  No, I swear this is not an ad).
  • I’ve found my writing spot. In the past, I would try to write in my apartment. It sucked. I’d end up watching TV, get distracted by my roommate, fall asleep. I firmly believe that we all need a special place to work. Because writing is not relaxing; it’s often extremely hard. Just like you work better in the office, you’ll get more writing down outside your home. Now for some of you home may be better, you might have a special nook. That’s great. For me, I go to this coffee shop in Chinatown in DC called La Colombe, bring my Bose noise-cancelling headphones, and like magic I can concentrate fully for as long as I want. I usually leave work and go straight there. So find your spot.
  • Figure out what you love to do, then write directly before you do it. For me, I love going to the gym. I go about five times a week, I blast music, I have fun, I feel awesome. It’s my thing. I used to go to the gym after work, come home, shower, and try to write in my apartment. It rarely ever worked. Now I go to La Colombe right after work, knowing that as soon as I’m done I’ll be rewarded by getting to go to the gym. It’s a huge incentive. If the gym isn’t your thing, maybe it’s watching a specific TV show, or relaxing in a nice long bath, or having a few glasses of wine (or a 6-pack of beer – Loose Cannon is my favorite by the way); whatever your thing is, it’s yours. Write before you do it.

Those are just a few of the things I do, but they’re the ones I do day in and day out. If your list gets too long, it’ll be too hard to keep track of. Find what works for you and stick to it. No excuses.

For those of you with engaging/exhausting day jobs, how do you find the time to stay creative? To write? What works best for you?

7 comments on “Day Jobs and Creativity”

  1. I made a task list for my writing on Habitica. Turns out, I will do just about anything to check off a little colored box. Now I have a routine I follow every day; when I finish my writing quota, I get to check off my quota box. Checking off Habitica tasks has been working for me for some time now. : ) I like the idea of noise-canceling earphones.

  2. I can relate, a lot: not to the job you love, as it sounds like my idea of hell, but to having a busy career distract me from my writing aspirations. Until very recently, I was a full-time schoolteacher at a private school, and, despite what you may have heard, that left me absolutely no time to myself: evenings and weekends, on the rare occasion that they were not spent running extra-curricular programmes, were filled with marking and lesson preparation until my eyes would literally not stay open. It was never enough. It is really only in the last year, since “retiring” (sort of) that I have been able to do any writing at all, or even start my blog.

    Having said that, the writing I did during that time (some of which went on to win awards I managed by finding ways to work it into my work as an English Teacher. As long as students were working toward a relevant task, deconstructing the process of writing my fiction was of value to them.

    Thanks for keeping in touch. I will be doing some guest-posts for Cow Pasture Chronicles soon, so I hope to see you there as well as at my own blog!

  3. This is an awesome post! I have also found that having a specific time really helps me stay disciplined. In regards to writing at coffee shops, do you only work on creative projects or will you do other kinds of writing there as well?

    1. Thank you! I only really work on creative projects there – keeping it to just one type of work helps me focus. Anything else I do at my office or at home.

      1. No problem, I also do kind of the same thing though not with a coffee shop. I love going to the library to work on creative stuff. I work on most of my client work from my home writing space I set up to get away from the rest of the family.

  4. I managed to write my first book while working one of those office jobs. Work usually lasted until 11pm, eight-hour shifts. It was a struggle, but I got up in the mornings and managed to sit and get this thing out. There’s a lot of tricks, but finding the right story to write was the hardest. I had to abandon a novel-in-progress to compose this little novella.

    Getting myself outside to write once in a while sure helped with the lack of sun (my desk was in a basement office). I suggest investing in a clipboard if you’re like me and enjoy writing by hand for the first draft.

    That brings me to another trick: abandon the computer. You can search the internet for all the reasons why you’re more creative when writing by hand, but for most, I think the very fact you won’t be able to switch over to your favorite online vice, be it Facebook or Youtube, is reason enough to try composing your book using good old paper and pen.

    The final trick for keeping creative at work is quitting. Yes, I quit that office job. But not before finding another job that could cover the bills. The difference is a 5-day workweek verses a 2-day workweek. Yes, working only 2 days out of every 7 has made a small…actually a very large impact. In 2 years it’s allowed me to write 1/2 a novel and to spend the time and energy to get the small book I wrote while at the office job published. Oh, and finding a job where you can simply read or write in your downtime is a plus (I’m there now, writing this).

    Thanks for the great post, David. We creatives all need to find a way to keep the creativity going while still being able to make ends meet.

  5. Great post! I love these ideas. I have to drive to work and I always find myself inspired by what I listen to whether it’s a podcast, book or song. Because I’m driving I can’t stop and write so I use my phone to record myself talking out my ideas. It actually works super well because I force myself to speak like I’m telling a story and then I’ll write that transcription when I’m home!

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