Dealing With Plateaus

Ice plateau

Plateaus are not only common in the landscape, they happen metaphorically in our lives in various ways. A simple dictionary definition of the type of plateau I am discussing is “a state of little or no change following a period of activity or progress“. In other words. we’re stuck for a while.

Life is not a linear progression. We’re not always moving forward to achieving goals and bettering ourselves. No matter how good our intentions or our will power, there are plateaus where things go level for a while.

This is frustrating, but something to accept. The plateaus are probably necessary to let us regroup and “catch up”. Kind of like getting a good night’s sleep. Usually we go on and start progressing again.

Like losing weight

Some of us have a body type that easily puts on weight. When it gets bad, we have to take some action to get our weight back in control. I hope you don’t have this problem.

Dieting is a futile activity. It doesn’t work long term. My strategy is cutting back eating to what I need and getting more exercise. But this is not a rant on dieting.

As I lose weight I hit plateaus sometimes. There doesn’t seem to be a reason for them. I haven’t changed what I’m doing. It’s just that sometimes the same actions do not get the same results. Sometimes my weight even goes up with no discernible cause. It can be very frustrating if I don’t remind myself that this is natural and expected.

Plateaus in our art

Progressing in our art is kind of like losing weight. We work at it diligently, but sometimes it is an up and down process and sometimes we get stuck at a plateau. I think we have to accept it and keep working.

We can’t force it. Inspiration, creativity, the muse, whatever you call it is not a constant part of our life. We don’t know why it chooses to visit us sometimes and not others. But that is the way it works.

As a matter of fact, what I observe is if we get too frustrated and try to force the creativity to happen, we are very disappointed with the results. Let it be and wait for it to happen.

Be persistent

We can’t force the creativity to come, but we can do things to encourage it. When we’re on a plateau, of even in a valley, I find it helps to train, to learn, to seek inspiration from other’s work. This is a great time for study, reading, reflection, trying new things. Not a discouraged resignation that our creative life is over. If a plateau is kind of like sleeping, get a good sleep. It helps a lot of things and life looks better in the morning.

Keep working, just don’t focus on the truly creative work at this time. I know I always have a lot of filing and cataloging to do. Re-evaluating portfolio selections and changing things around. It is a good time to contact galleries and submit to shows. Do the dreaded marketing that I put off when I’m “too busy being creative” to do it. Maybe even catch up on my bookkeeping. Yuch. But is needs to be done.

Accept the dark times, they will end

Know for a fact that the dark times will end. Trust that your creativity is not “used up”. Creativity breeds creativity. If you have been creative in the past it will happen in the future. Probably even better and stronger.

A plateau is a temporary stage. Our mind will decide when it is time to move on.

Use the plateau time wisely. It will help you come out the other side stronger and better equipped to move on.

Relish the joy of moving to the next stage

Finally it happens. One day you wake up with a renewed vision, a new point of view, an eagerness to resume work. Rejoice in it. Fill your work with the new vision.

You are rejuvenated. All is well. You are still an artist.

Enjoy. Do your best work. Know that the cycle will repeat and more plateaus are coming. But trust that they are temporary and you will come out even better. That actually gives you hope.

And I hope I will break through my current weight plateau and achieve my goals. 🙂

Being There

What does it mean to “be there”? How do we be in the moment so well that we are receptive to the inspiration all around us? In today’s world, how can we push out the distractions and noise to find creative space?

This is just a quick fly-by of a deep subject. That’s because: I’m not smart or wise enough to do it justice, I’m not a philosopher – I can’t drop enough cow pies in the text to speak that language, and you don’t want to go there. Going too deep in the concepts will suck the life out of a potentially rewarding idea. But let’s try.

The philosopher Heidegger articulated this idea of being there (German word “dasein”). I”m not going to step into it, but it involved coming to grips with what it means for a person to “be”. The realization that we are self-aware, we are an individual, that we have a limited life span, that we must make our own choices, discover our own truth. The opposite state is to give up this responsibility. To escape into the world and lose our identity into the general “them”. Sounds like the Matrix, right?


I want to push on this idea of losing our identity in the noise of the world. Look at your own life. Think back to just a few years ago. Are more sources of distraction claiming a larger portion of your time now? Not just your job, but social media, entertainment, communication. Look around at any public place, from an airport to a restaurant, and you will see most people with their face buried in a screen. Their attention is given to something artificial. They are being controlled by something outside of themselves.

Are you defined by your number of Friends or followers? What happens if you miss the latest episode of The Bachelor? Do all messages or emails need to be responded to within 1 minute? Do you message someone sitting next to you because it is more comfortable than actually talking to them?

Not one of these things is inherently evil. The problem is the cumulative effects of them dominating your life. One writer likened it to being in a bubble. You tend to become self-focused and unconcerned with the people and the world outside of your bubble.

And those bubbles sometimes look like a comfortable place since most of us live in cities and something like 93% of a typical American’s day is spent indoors or in vehicles. Who wouldn’t want to retreat into a place where we seem to have some control?

Down time

But there is a dangerous by product of all of this noise and activity. The human mind needs a certain amount of down time to rest, to make connections, to figure things out. In addition to sleep (which many of us don’t get enough of) we need to take time to just be in our head. Shut off the noise and stimulus. Stop the flow of new information. Be in the moment for a while.

We need time like that to “catch up”, to think and analyze, to sift through the clutter.

This is not wasted time. Even if you sit and stare at a wall for 15 minutes, that is healthy. Shut off the outside world, including music. As a matter of fact noise canceling headphones can be a good idea.

At first it will be uncomfortable. You will feel like you are missing out on something. That’s OK, it will wait. You will feel restless because you are not used to going even a few minutes without external stimulation. You will get over it and start to eagerly look forward to the brief captured solitude. Best of all, though, you will start to take back control of your thoughts.


What was all of that? This is supposed to be about the creative life. How did I veer off into philosophy and self-help kinds of things?

I believe we creatives are especially vulnerable to the effects of too much noise in our heads.

I can only speak for myself, but I can’t create anything useful when there is too much noise and distraction in my head. To do my work I have to unplug and find quiet to hear the small voice within me that will help me find the resources I need. For some parts of my art it can be an isolated indoor environment, e.g. at my computer. But for most of my image making, it will have to be outside.

I know from experience that I have to be quiet in my head, which means no internet or email or videos or even music. This is an internal peace. I can find images with a train roaring by next to me. That is just the outside environment. But I have to clear my head and open my eyes to be receptive. I know from experience that if there is noise in my head I will just not see the same images I would if my head were calm. I will miss many things that I would pick up on without the noise.

If you are a wedding or commercial artist your needs and/or approach will be different. But if you are doing non-commissioned fine art I suspect you may share a lot of similarities with me.

Feed your head

For all of us, please, practice taking some time for your head. Unplug for serious time. Get your mind off the drugs of our fast paced, high tech culture. Give yourself some time to think and regroup. Unplug from the Matrix. Take time to reflect on who you are and what it means to be a person. Feed your head, which sometimes involves giving it a rest. Maybe Jefferson Airplane was right about something all those years ago.

I will follow up more in a future article. I might even get into forest bathing. 🙂