Let’s try a thought experiment.
Imagine yourself tasked with infiltrating the life and actions of a solo creator. It could be anyone. A popular, well-known author. An up-and-coming artist. A niche community YouTuber.
Now let’s imagine that, for whatever reason, you have it on good authority they’re a dangerous agent. An enemy propagandist, perhaps — such that hindering their creative efficacy is of the highest import and indeed a noble cause.
Which tactics would you deploy? Which weak spots would you target? What devious schemes would you contrive to ensure this talented, dangerous creator is as ineffective as possible?
And after you’ve done your scheming and conspiring, here’s the punchline. Ask yourself candidly:
Am I using any of these very same tactics on myself?
Here are 7 techniques I’m personally guilty of to help get the brainstorm started…
Store documents in various, disconnected places. Do it haphazardly. Make sure the creator has no efficient way of accessing useful past thoughts, notes or reports. The goal is not only to make it difficult to retrieve the information they need, when they need it — but to make the whole process of being a creator unpleasant, anxiety-ridden and high-friction.
As a bonus: encourage the creator to sign up for as many free trials, newsletters and SaaS tools as possible. Use multiple platforms, give up on most, lose passwords if you can. The more you’re able to scatter their efforts, the lower the likelihood of them actually diving into anything with impact and consistency.
Never let your target creator know exactly where they stand. Whether they’re in fact making positive strides or falling behind; the goal is simply to create a pervasive sense of instability and uncertainty.
Try to lead them away from dedicated reviews of their content performance. Data and analytics are pretty hard to argue with — and as soon as they get a clear data visualization of the progress made over a longer timeframe (say, the past 180 days), it will be hard to obfuscate the trend line.
Progress typically leaves a footprint — especially in the digital era. Your challenge will be to constantly explain away the tracks, or better yet: ensure they never take the time to pay attention to the zoomed-out trendlines of long-term progress being made.
The last thing you want is for the maker to be positively reinforced for effort. Positive reinforcement on a variable schedule is one of the most motivating reinforcement protocols known to social science. Avoid it at all costs.
The rewards that come from being a creator are random enough. Inconsistency, high variability and income instability are part and parcel of the creator and gig economies. Fortunately, for most creators these rewards are few and far between. Too rare for a strong reinforcement schedule to develop —instead, the scarcity of reward creates the ideal conditions for a learned helplessness to develop instead. We should use this competitive, low-reward creative landscape to our advantage.
Never let the maker reward themselves by proxy, in an attempt to overcome this naturally brutal creator reinforcement schedule.
Don’t let them celebrate personal milestones, enjoy small wins or take comfort in the positive feedback of a select few that support them with dedication. Do your very best to discredit these ‘small’ factors as irrelevant — they might otherwise be enough to buoy the creator’s spirits and push them forward despite all other signs.
Lean into the creator’s tendency toward privacy and modesty. To avoid fanfare. To avoid putting their work out into the public sphere.
Perhaps they’re insecure about the merit of what they have to say; great. Maybe it’s a quiet perfectionism, never quite satisfied with their efforts; lovely. Or they may simply be uncomfortable promoting their own work, and inflict a low reach upon their content through silence — you get the idea.
Whatever the self-limiting tendency may be, tap into it.
Hone in and feed its development, so that the creator can always justify keeping their work a secret — despite the gains that could be made by publishing and distributing their work generously, openly and freely to a growing network.
If the creator is ever doing well, be sure to point them in the direction of 10 creators who are doing far better. Be subtle about it. Remind them that they’ve come a long way, sure, but in the scheme of things it’s really worth little to nada. “This person just went viral for writing about the exact same thing you did; and they’re earning $10K+ monthly… you made enough to buy yourself a couple of coffees this month — that’s cute.”
Never let them latch onto the fact that every creator must start somewhere, and that every comparison is filled with hidden bias — from survivorship bias to availability bias and all the insecurities in between.
Then again, be careful not to take it too far. Occasional comparisons may actually help motivate the creator and it could backfire — a sense of confident competitiveness, honing in on what’s working for people they admire and respect, and intelligently recreating those tried and tested strategies. No, we don’t want any of that — so be sure to really drill it in, constantly, so that comparisons become a chronic distraction, rather than a spurring driver for more effective, productive creations.
Make them feel bad for learning. For listening to interesting podcasts. For reading when they should be making. Of course, the more they read and broaden their horizons, the richer and more potent their content can be — wherever possible, we must stop this from happening.
If you can, try to give off conflicting messages so that the entire ‘learning project’ becomes tainted with uncertainty and hesitation. One day, tell them that ‘reading and learning is the best habit for all successful creators’ and that ‘if they’re not reading 52 books per year, they’re simply not keeping up with the best’.
The next day, tell them, ‘stop wasting your time reading — it’s a high-brow form of procrastination and you’re not fooling anyone’.
That way, even in the moments where they have been moved or inspired to learn, there will be a haunting sense of waste and indulgence which pulls at their attention.
The secret is to provide intermediates that ‘look’ like taking a break, but are actually eating away at attention and cognitive bandwidth. That way, the days will be unproductive, but the mind will never be truly rested.
Twitter is great for this. Social media in general is an excellent weapon in the toolkit — ingenious products that take the creator away from the work they know they want to be doing, but absorb their attention nonetheless through limbic hacks and chronically elevated stress signals.
No, the enemy here is true, deep rest. Anything that would give the brain an opportunity to refresh and recharge — Non-Sleep-Deep-Rest protocols, for instance, which give the glial cells a chance to flush the system and enable a return to high focus activity.
Never, for example, let them take a nap in the afternoon when they notice themselves losing attention or not feeling well rested. Encourage them to instead ‘push through’. Let them believe they can ‘force themselves to focus’, and that this is the honorable thing to do.
That way, they’ll stare idly at the screen, willing themselves to work, all the while knowing deep down that anything they do produce in this window won’t be worthwhile, anyway.
These tactics are subtle in nature — they have to be, otherwise the creator will catch on and look to defend themselves. If it were transparent sabotage — say, burning their laptop, shouting constantly in their ears or tying their hands, physically, behind their backs — they’d never let you get away with it.
If you can keep it to the realm of the subtle and psychological, however — there’s no reason you cannot successfully sabotage their efforts for many years to come.
Be kind to yourself. Creating is hard enough without the self-sabotage.