Cycles of Inspiration — How To Regain Passion For Your Work

What do you do when the passion for your work isn’t there? What do you do when you don’t like working on any of your ideas? When designing a website or writing an article is drudgery and the last thing in the world you want to do?


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Recently I was listening to David Smith’s Developing Perspective podcast. If you don’t know David Smith, he’s an iOS developer. While I’m not an iOS developer, I find David has good insights into design and development as well as what it’s like to work for yourself. More than a few of his thoughts have inspired content here over the years.

In this particular episode, David explained why he hadn’t recorded in about a month and how he’s lost passion for Developing Perspective. He talked about the ups and downs of recording regularly and how he’s been through it before. This time it sounds like David is going to end the podcast and move on to something else he feels more passionate about. I think his plan is to wind down Developing Perspective and perhaps start a new podcast.

Regardless of his decision, David offered some thoughts about what you can do when you’re in a down cycle to keep you moving forward and regain the passion for what you were doing. Since I have some experience with the ups and downs of creating I thought I would offer some thoughts as well.

Waning Passion

I’m pretty sure this happens with just about anything you feel passion about. I know it’s happened to me with both writing and design.

It’s easier for me to talk about in terms of writing (specifically for this site) as I’ve been writing regularly and consistently for years and have experienced the ups and downs more often with writing than design.

While I may approach the topic from the perspective of writing I’ll offer some design and development examples and know that most everything I say here applies beyond writing or design or development. I think you can apply what’s here to life in general and anything that inspires you.

Sometimes everything you create and produce feels good. You’re in a flow of sorts that can last for days, weeks, even months. You feel good about the process of creating and the result of the process. You feel confident others will like what you’ve written or designed.

Then there are times when you don’t like your ideas and can’t turn any into something worthwhile. Every part of the process is a struggle and no matter how much work you do and how much effort you give, you aren’t happy with the finished product.

These are the up and down cycles. The first time you’re in a down cycle you might you’re think your done. You feel you no longer have anything to say or contribute and it’s time to find something else to do.

If you stick with it longer though, you’ll find it’s a natural pattern that everyone goes through. You’ll experience the ups and you’ll experience the downs at various levels of intensity.

Some days are better than others. Some days are worse. The good or the bad can last weeks or longer. Hopefully the up cycles last longer than the down cycles, but you’ll experience both.

The downs can be hard to deal with at any point whether you’re experiencing them for the first time or the hundredth time. What can you do to get out of the down cycle and back into an up cycle?

While listening to David’s podcast I listed the things I do when the passion for my work is below it’s usual levels. Later when seeing them all together, I realized they fall into three general groups.

  • I wait it out.
  • I fill myself with new possibilities.
  • I work differently, shake up routines, and break out of comfort zones.

Wait it Out

Once you’ve been through the up and down cycle a few times you know that each gives way to the other if you let it. If you simply wait it out you’ll likely feel the passion again. Wait and in time the down cycle will go away and be replaced with an up cycle.

Keep Working

If you keep working, the work might be a grind, but you’ll make it through. It’s work and you’re a professional. Suck it up and keep working. Before you realize it your passion will come back. It’s hard to know how long it will take, but much more often than not it won’t take long.

While you’re grinding through, you probably won’t feel great about some of the things you create, but the odds are the work is better than you think and only you notice any difference.

I know I’ve written plenty here that I didn’t think was my best work. I hesitated to publish and people responded as though it was the most important thing I’ve ever written. There are also times I thought something I published would make an impact and no one seemed to care.

When you’re in a down cycle your perspective usually isn’t great and you become less of a judge of your own work. You likely think it’s worse than it really is.

If you regularly put effort into your process, you can generally trust that what comes out the other side will be more than good enough. It’s one reason I talk about writing or design as a process. Put in the effort and the work created through your process will be above your minimum standard of quality regardless of whether or not you think it’s good.

I go through this all the time. Some weeks I don’t feel good about the things I’m working on. However, I’ve learned if I’m not feeling inspired one week, I likely will be the next. Most of the times that I feel a loss of inspiration for my work I push through it. More often than not the inspiration comes back quickly.

Take Some Time Away

Sometimes that’s not enough. It’s possible the loss of passion is an indicator of something more and it’s a sign you need to take some time away.

A few years ago I wasn’t happy with anything I was writing here. I couldn’t think of new ideas I wanted to write about and when I did, I realized I didn’t have anything to say about the topic. For a time I kept plugging along as best as I could, but I knew something wasn’t working.

I took some time away from the blog. It was hard at first, but then I found a good excuse to skip a post, which made it easier to skip another and then another. It was eight or nine months before I was publishing regularly again.

The time away enabled me to look at the blog with a fresher perspective and without the pressure of having to produce anything for the site. It gave me time to think about why I wasn’t happy with the work.

I realized I wasn’t interested in my blog as it was. I asked myself if I would read my content if I didn’t write it? The answer was no, I wouldn’t. At the time I was writing more about marketing and search engines, with an occasional post about design and development. The marketing posts were quicker and easier for me to write, but for the most part they weren’t good.

The realization led me to think about what I wanted to read and that’s what I decided to turn this site into. Now I write more about design and development, which is what I initially wanted to do when I started. I didn’t because I was afraid I couldn’t do what I wanted to my standard of quality. I thought I lacked the experience and the knowledge and I know I lacked the confidence at the time.

I felt mostly the same during my time away, however I decided to go ahead and do what I wanted. I trusted that I’d figure it out. and I haven’t looked back since. Now the content here is something I’d want to read. It doesn’t mean I’m never low on passion for it, but not to the extent when I took the time away.

There is some danger in taking so much time away. It’s very easy never to come back, though I suspect if you don’t return, it’s because you didn’t have the passion to begin with or maybe it was a temporary passion and you’ve gotten what you wanted from it. You’re ready to move on to something else.

If you’re somewhere in between the extremes of pushing through for a few days and needing some serious time away, there are things you can do.

Fill Yourself with New Possibilities

This usually works well for me. If I fill my head with new possibilities it almost always renews my passion quickly. With the general category of filling myself with new possibilities I do a handful of things.

  • Take in more information
  • Learn something new
  • Learn a different, but related topic
  • Practice with exercise
  • Take inspiration from another

Take in More Information

I’m sure you know the expression garbage in, garbage out (GIGO). You have to feed your creative process and take in new information constantly. This is particularly true where technology is concerned and the pace of change is sometimes overwhelming. What was true a couple of years ago may not be true today.

You have to take in quality information if you want to produce quality information. More input should lead to more output that you can shape into something better. Reading is my preferred way to take in new information, but I also listen to podcasts and watch videos. I also do my best to pay attention and observe what’s going on around me. Mostly I read a lot of RSS feeds.

There’s not a lot of pressure to read or generally take in information. For me reading leads to inspiration and as I take in more information it usually generates new ideas I feel inspired to work on.

Learn Something New

Sometimes you need to be more purposeful in what you take in. Learn something new that you want to learn. When I start to learn a new subject my thoughts tend toward the possibilities. I don’t yet know the subject well enough to understand the difficulties and limitations so my mind races with the possibilities.

The possibilities inspire me. I think it’s because I’m too dumb in the beginning to see why something can’t be done and I focus on what might be done.

With writing I might pick up a book on the craft of writing or on a subtopic of writing. With design I might spend time learning more about color or type. With development I might read through a CSS spec or I might learn some new technique for developing a form or a navigation bar.

Learn a Different, but Related Topic

What you learn doesn’t have to be directly related to the work you do. You could learn something indirectly related.

For example design, writing, development, photography, painting, and music are all are a combination of general creativity with specific craft. They’re different forms of creativity.

If your particular craft isn’t inspiring you, try another that’s also creative. Again there’s something in the newness. The craft you take up is might be new to you so you can see it with beginner eyes. You can apply what you know about creativity so you aren’t an absolute beginner, but you will be new to the specific craft.

You’ll learn about creativity from a new perspective by learning and practicing a new craft. You’re being creative under a different set of constraints. The different perspective often brings back new and different inspiration.

Practice with Exercise

You might also accept that the passion isn’t there for the moment. You aren’t worried because you know it’ll come back, but the work isn’t going well.

You can spend more time doing things that will help you be better in the future when your passion is back. You can practice with exercises directed toward learning and getting better.

You might not feel passionate about doing the exercises, but they will help you get better. Working the exercises keeps your hands busy, which helps you grind through the down cycle.

This is about practicing what you already do. The inspiration isn’t there and you aren’t producing, but you can still use your time productively. Stay connected to your work and improve your skills. Keep your hands busy. Inspiration tends to come after you start working and not before.

Take Inspiration from Another

If your own work isn’t helping, take inspiration from another. Read an author you like or look through the portfolio of a designer you admire. Find something you like online, view the source code, and figure out how it was built. Let the work of those you admire inspire you with their work.

You can copy their techniques and ideas, not for real work and projects, but for your own practice. Learn from those you admire. In your effort to copy you’ll no doubt add something of your own to the finished product.

You’ll probably find you can produce what they produced and it’ll improve your confidence. The danger here is feeling you aren’t good enough because you’re making an unfair comparison with someone you admire.

You need to have some confidence in yourself to do this. If lacking confidence is part of why you’re lacking passion, this may not be the best way to get the passion or confidence back.

Assuming you have enough confidence in your abilities, you might find that enjoying and studying the work of those you admire helps restore your passion. It does mine at times. I see what someone else has done to push writing or design or whatever forward and it tends to make me want to do similar. I let someone else’s success inspire me to have success for myself.

Work Differently

This last group is about working differently, shaking up your routines, and breaking out of comfort zones. For me a few things work well.

  • Dive into a new project.
  • Challenge yourself with constraints.
  • Work in a different medium.
  • Do the same old thing in a new way.

Dive into a New Project

Sometimes when one project isn’t inspiring I find another one will get my creative juices flowing again. There’s newness in the project and having something to do keeps me busy. I may not have the time to think about my lack of passion because I have to keep working. In a sense I’m waiting by distracting myself from the actual waiting.

Obviously you can’t always drop a project, but with something like writing an article here I might drop the specific article I’m working on and start on another idea. I’ll leave the first article for another time or for never again.

It might have been the specific article causing the problem and not something in general. You can’t always drop one project in favor of another, but where you can it can help restore your passion.

Challenge Yourself with Constraints

You can challenge yourself with constraints. On your next writing project set a work count far less or far more than what you usually write. Write about a topic you know nothing about and research it. Write about a personal topic if you usually avoid the personal. Pick a common word or phrase and refuse to use it for one article or post.

Choose the constraint first and then write. If you design restrict yourself from using certain colors or typefaces. If you develop force yourself to build a common component in a different way. Do you normally use floats to develop a navigation bar? Develop one using inline-blocks, CSS tables, or flexbox.

You have to choose something that’s still a good solution to the problem, of course, but there are usually multiple solutions that are equally effective. Pick one you don’t normally choose.

The challenge will get you to stop focusing on your loss of passion and have you diving into new work to solve a new problem. The challenge should be inspiring. If you’re a designer or developer or writer, you solve problems. You should generally be inspired by solving new problems and overcoming new challenges.

Work in a Different Medium

Similar to learning a different creative outlet, you can work in a different medium. I suppose this is also a specific kind of constraint. If you write, try recording audio or video to express your idea. Create a slideshow presentation or interactive demo. A specific constraint that can work well to inspire you again.

If you’re a web designer try your hand designing a logo or brochure or business card for print. If you’re a print designer work with a material you don’t usually work with.

You still have to faithfully serve the project. You can’t do something different just to be different, but you can usually find something different that still serves the project. You are creative, right?

Do the Same Old Thing in a New Way

Along these same lines, but a little more general, do the same old things in different ways. For example if you work in an office take a different route. Go to sleep or wake up at a different time. Do you work for yourself? Try working at different times or in different rooms.

Any routine is free game. Shake things up. Do the usual differently. The change can be a good way to get you out of a rut and back to feeling more passionate about whatever you do.

Your routines likely get too mechanical after a time. They’ll become something you do unconsciously. Shake things up so you have to do them consciously again.

Closing Thoughts

Your passion for your work, for your life, for anything, will go through cycles. Sometimes everything is great and you’re in a flow whenever you work. You like what you produce and how you produced it. Sometimes you feel the opposite. You don’t like what you’re working on and you don’t like what you produce.

Understand it’s a cycle. You’re likely going to go through these ups and downs many, many times in your career and your life. You can wait it out. Push through the lack of passion. Just keep at it and be professional. Trust that the passion will come back. It usually does if you give it time.

Take some time away if you have to. Sometimes you do need to get away from things for awhile to come back to them fresh and renewed. Be aware of the danger of not coming back, though.

You can fill yourself with new possibilities. I usually do this by reading and learning something new. For me reading a book about a topic is typically enough to regain my passion.

Generally you want to find a way to see what you do with fresh eyes and a different perspective. We tend to be more passionate at the beginning when things are new. We tend to be more optimistic at the start. Think any relationship you’ve ever been in. The new brings passion.

You can regain passion by doing things differently. Different forces you to work with beginner eyes. You’re focused on the new and don’t have time to worry about your lost passion. You distract yourself with whatever you’re doing and forget about the lack of passion while your hands are busy working away.

Shake things up. Break out of routines. Leave your comfort zone. Change, challenge yourself, and explore new things or the same old things in new ways.

I have one last thought to leave you with. I’ve found that inspiration and passion for your work doesn’t strike unless you’ve set up the conditions for them to strike. This requires you to be working at something.

Inspiration doesn’t lead to to work. The work comes first. The work leads to inspiration. Keep doing something. Keep your hands busy and the passion will come back.

If it doesn’t it’s possible you aren’t doing the right thing, which is good to know sooner rather than later. Assuming you are doing the right thing, know that your passion will come back if you keep working and let it come back.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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