Creative Diversions: A Healthy Way to Recharge or a Sneaky Path to Self-Sabotage?

If you’re looking to build a career as a full-time writer, you need to hone a laser-like focus. When I was building my business, I would wake up an hour early to write before work and then spend another eight or nine hours in front of my laptop. I wrote on the weekends. Sometimes I edited on lunch breaks. It was a grueling period in my life, but it allowed me to leave my 9-to-5 to pursue my writing full time.

To this day I write at a relatively fast pace. I publish a new book every four to five months, and I’ve maintained this rhythm for years. But sometimes my Inner Artist taps me on the shoulder and whispers that she’d like to work on something else — a story in an unrelated genre perhaps or a blog for writers.

Sometimes, I can appease her with my daily expressive writing. Other times, she needs more: a full-blown creative diversion.

A creative diversion is any creative pursuit unrelated to your current work in progress. It could be launching a new website, writing a weird little short story, learning the art of watercolors — you name it. For myself, I apply this label to any form of creative work that doesn’t have the potential to make me money (at least in the short term).

Because I write for my job, I usually only restrict myself on things that encroach on the work I do during business hours. But if you’re writing for a hobby or as a side hustle, this gets a little more complicated. Any time you spend on a creative diversion is time you could be spending to finish your novel, but these diversions offer several important benefits:

1. An opportunity to recharge. It doesn’t matter how much you love your genre — writing in the same niche or in the same series day after day can get old. A creative diversion is a great way to maintain creative enthusiasm and take a more active mental break. Between books four and five of my second dystopian series, I took a few months off to write a little police procedural/murder mystery in the flavor of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” My novella didn’t sell, but it was an invigorating creative vacation that allowed me to re-charge for the next book in my series.

2. A growth opportunity. Taking a break to write in a new genre or try out a different style of writing allows us to flex our creative muscles. It’s a growth opportunity that can prevent us from getting stuck in the same old patterns of writing. I find that when I’m trying to break into a different genre or pursue a different creative medium altogether, I find interesting new ways to express myself that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.

It can be tricky to justify a creative diversion outside of writing, but these pursuits also offer us a chance to learn important new skills that could add depth to our work. You may not understand how playing the ukulele or taking up podcasting could help your fiction, but you may be surprised. We don’t always know how our personal experiences and specialized knowledge may enrich our writing. The fact that I once wrote a character who plays the ukulele reassures me that no creative pursuit is ever a waste of time.

3. A chance to keep the spark alive. Maintaining a long writing career requires that we nurture our creativity. Just like any relationship, it’s not enough to just go through the motions on a daily basis. We have to keep the passion alive. That means courting our creativity, doing nice things for our Inner Artist, and trying new things to keep the relationship fresh and exciting. Sometimes “fresh and exciting” doesn’t make money, but it does bring long-term creative satisfaction.

And, of course, they are FUN! That should be reason enough. How can life be worth living if we don’t allow ourselves to do the things that bring us joy? I know that taking a few minutes to play my ukulele or write a poem enriches my life. And I value that above all else. Sometimes, creative diversions are just good for the soul, and we NEED them to feel fully human.

But when do creative diversions veer into the territory of procrastination and self-sabotage?

Occasionally we may abuse creative diversions to avoid real work or side-step our looming fears. Here are a few signs that your creative diversions may be creating problems:

  • You find yourself bouncing from one project to another and never completing any of them.
  • You consistently have three or more projects in progress at once.
  • You experience crippling anxiety any time you think about putting your work out into the world. This is usually the time you start a new creative project.
  • You never return to your old projects.
  • You turn to a creative diversion whenever you feel blocked mid-project.

If any of these things sound familiar, there are a few simple practices you can use to check yourself anytime you feel like taking up pottery or writing a teenage vampire romance:

1. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and direct your focus into your body. Notice any sensations in your stomach and your chest. What are you feeling? Is it fear, anxiety, boredom, or burnout? If it’s fear or anxiety, a creative diversion is not the right course of action. You need to work through those feelings with your current work in progress. If it’s boredom or burnout, a creative diversion might be just what the doctor ordered. (Note that if you’re suffering from a severe case of burnout, a vacation might be more appropriate.)

2. Ask yourself: Is this a burning desire or a fleeting impulse? Quite often, being a creative is like being a dog that sees a squirrel and immediately becomes distracted. We move through the world with open eyes and open hearts, so it’s easy for us to get excited at the prospect of a new creative project.

A couple years ago, my husband was frequently out of town for work, and I was left home alone. One day I had this burning urge to play the ukulele, so I went out and bought one on impulse. When he returned I’d already mastered several songs. (I still love my ukulele to this day.) Then, this past summer, I became obsessed with the idea of analog photography. I went on Craigslist, bought a camera, and I have yet to develop my first roll of film. I’ve noticed that I frequently disappear down a Craiglist/eBay rabbit hole when my husband goes away because I get bored. Now I like to sit with a desire for at least a week to see if it’s just an impulse or a true burning desire.

3. Only succumb to creative diversions between projects. If you frequently become distracted by other pursuits and struggle to finish any of your projects, you may need to create a rule that you are only allowed creative diversions after you have finished a major project like a novel. I like to tackle new writing projects between books, especially if I’m in the middle of a long series. At the end of December, I published book three in a six-book sci-fi series, so I felt it was a good time to tackle a nonfiction project that had been burning in my heart. I gave myself a month to work on it, and I was able to dive into book four with renewed enthusiasm.

Creative diversions can be a wonderful way to keep our passion for writing alive. They can help us rejuvenate between big projects and grow as writers and humans. Most importantly, they are the stuff LIFE is made of — art and music and crafternoons! But like any diversion (like shopping or partying), creative diversions can become destructive if we use them as a way to bypass our emotions. We may not break the bank writing our moody screenplay or need to get our stomach pumped after a night of macramé, but these side projects can veer into self-sabotage if we allow them to get in the way of our most important creative work.

To avoid derailing our progress, we must learn to recognize our own patterns of procrastination and avoidance. That way, we can indulge without guilt in the things that bring us joy.

Do you have any big creative diversions? What are they, and do you think they’re a help or a hindrance?

Photo by Brandon Bynum

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