The entrepreneurs I know are well acquainted with The Dark Side.
The setbacks that come with the lifestyle can lead to financial crisis, destructive habits and despair. A phone call that undoes months of hard work can send you into a rage, or you might wake up one day unable to get out of bed.
Thankfully, the struggle is balanced by the reward of the occasional astronomical high: being visited by a genius idea or the feeling we’re changing the world. The siren’s call of incredible wealth isn’t so bad, either. Those inspirational highs have kept entrepreneurs working for days on end into the small hours of night.
To be human is to accept that the ups and downs often follow no discernible pattern.
But I’ve uncovered a secret: We can create the conditions where inspiration is likely to strike.
What Is Inspiration?
We all know inspiration when we feel it. Vladimir Nabokov described it as first, “a prefatory glow,” followed by a “feeling of tickly well-being.” After a few days, a lightning bolt hits you.
The idea grips you and furious napkin writing ensues. You forget to eat. You build a prototype. This kernel starts a nuclear chain reaction that fuels a lifelong undertaking.
OK, OK, it’s not always that profound. Sometimes inspiration takes you only as far as, I think I’ll have another coffee.
Like its cousin, motivation, inspiration seldom bowls you over. In its more common form, it’s a gentle hand on your shoulder, but it always moves you forward.
Related: 21 of the Most Inspirational Quotes
Inspiration’s Evil Twin, Resistance
Inspiration can be created, but also destroyed.
In his book, Do the Work, Steven Pressfield introduces his central antagonist, Resistance. It’s the force inside all of us that leads to procrastination. It is indifferent, but evil; a powerful anti-inspiration that keeps us from doing what’s important, especially if the goal is big.
We know resistance: a desire to check Facebook, insisting on cleaning our office before we work; anything but working on our goal. It corners us where we can’t do one more damn thing today (usually 3 p.m. on Thursday afternoon).
Resistance looks fierce, but it’s a flimsy enemy. When your inspiration is greater than resistance, you win.
Fill your inspiration bucket in three steps:
1. Patch the holes.
No matter how much inspiration you generate, you’ll feel drained if you keep killing it. First, find out what’s sapping your life force and remove it.
You’ll need to consciously observe your mood to find your leaks, but here are some hints:
- Being in the wrong role. For three months, I sold credit card machines to main street businesses. I was terrible at door-to-door sales. Let me rephrase: I was TERRIBLE. After hundreds of rejections, I had zero drive to continue.
Wellness expert Dr. Susan Biali recommends that you first notice how you feel about the goal itself. “Does the idea thrill you? If so, you’ve passed the first test,” she says. If it doesn’t, you might not be in the right role.
- A lack of encouragement from those around you. Research shows that people enjoy increased motivation when they receive positive feedback for their efforts, whether from a boss, peers or customers.
Daniel Pink, author of Drive, says that intangible rewards such as praise can inspire us to turn out more quality work. “It sounds small and simple,” he says, “but it can have an enormous effect.” Surround yourself with cheerleaders.
- Working in a drab environment. Stephen King started his writing career with a tiny desk jammed into his laundry room. We’re all happy with how that turned out, but for most people, a cluttered, claustrophobic, drab workspace is the No. 1 enemy of inspiration.
Not everyone has the luxury of a glass-walled penthouse with a view of the mountains, but do what you can to create inspiring surroundings.
Related: How to Be Constantly Creative
2. Find your “juice.”
Tony Robbins likes to talk about getting more juice out of life. Sadly, this is not a product offered, but rather a metaphor about squeezing out of life those things that set your spirit on fire. Your favorite flavor might not be mine, which is why it’s up to you to discover the parts of the human experience that give you goose bumps and shivers.
I’m fired up by 5 a.m. walks and loud music. When I feel my energy waning, I’ll take 30 minutes to throw on headphones and turn up the noise, and I’ll come back to work inspired to continue.
Set aside time to find your “thing,” whether it’s stand-up comedy, time with your kids or a great novel.
Try this: For the next three weeks, keep a journal of all the times you feel inspired. You will see patterns and end up with a list of activities to add to your productivity toolkit. When you’ve plugged the holes and discovered your juice, fill the bucket.
3. Do the work.
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” ―Pablo Picasso
The best way to kill inspiration is to wait for it to strike. Loaf around, and it’s unlikely the muse will visit.
Painter Chuck Close got it right: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
When we open our laptops, two things happen. First, movement. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the act of staring at that blank document generates ideas. Second, positive feedback. When we sit down to work and actually accomplish something, we are inspired to do more.
Humans are happiest when they are productive. If you don’t believe that, start tracking how you feel after coming home from work on a day of accomplishments versus one of spinning your wheels. Productivity feels better every time.
Newton’s first law of motion applies not only to physical objects, but also to your own inspiration—an object in motion stays in motion.
The best way I’ve found to create momentum is to apply persistent starting. Instead of focusing on a task in its entirety, just start. If you run out of steam, that’s OK. Start again in five minutes, or an hour or a day. The key is to keep starting. Then finishing takes care of itself.