The Unspoken Psychological Debt Of Being A Creator

We are both planners and makers of our own lives.

The planner is idealistic, optimistic and largely unaccountable; capable of wild-eyed ambitions and firm prescriptions for what should be done.

The maker is inspired, diligent and talented; but inevitably flawed, distractable and ever obligated to the plan. Naturally, this creates a good deal of tension.

When we plan more than we do, it doesn’t go unnoticed.

Sometimes, we’re held to account by others. But often, the debt is more subtle and personal. A mental tab is opened — consciously or unconsciously — which tracks the debt we’ve created for our future selves and influences our ability to appraise and embrace new opportunities.

I’d like to label this form of borrowing, creative debt.

Creative debt is similar to Richard Thaler’s notion of mental accounting, only, applied to creative efforts, rather than expenses and savings.

Similar to technical debt, except not limited to product development and shortcuts taken.

And like all forms of debt, creative debt often occurs in cycles.

  1. Steady (or rapid) debt accumulation;
  2. An inflection point;
  3. Defaulting on the loan;
  4. The crash;
  5. The revival.

Of course, some people are excellent planners and makers all at once. Some people are rigorously disciplined and never default on a promise made to themselves — for that, they’re worth our admiration.

But for the rest of us, the creative debt cycle begins with one simple fact:

Borrowing time from our future selves is just too damn easy.

1. Debt Accumulation

A Seinfeld sketch says it best:

“I never get enough sleep. I stay up late at night because I’m Night Guy.

What about getting up after 5 hours’ sleep?

Oh, that’s Morning Guy’s problem. That’s not my problem — I’m Night Guy.”

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

Borrowing time from ourselves is dangerously simple.

In the case of sleep, it’s explicit. The calculation is transparent and direct — going to bed late means either getting less sleep or sleeping in.

But some borrowings are more subtle. We tell ourselves we want to set a habit of reading each evening for 60 minutes. Suddenly, it’s getting late and reading for 60 minutes just isn’t going to happen.

We tell ourselves ‘OK, not tonight — I’ll read for two hours tomorrow instead’.

We could say we’ve procrastinated. That we’ve put it off.

What I’d like to suggest, instead, is that we’ve borrowed time from our future selves, with a commitment embedded into the borrowing — that’s creative debt.

Image made by the author. Graph of a 60 minute reading habit and the debt accumulated by taking a more sporadic approach.

Suppose we really did the accounting on these types of statements, thoughts and justifications. What would we learn?

Well, in the example graph, we’d learn that by the end of the first week we’ve accumulated 195 minutes of ‘reading debt’.

Often, creative debt isn’t written down anywhere. You aren’t docked pay or penalized for it. But you are behind on your goal — and if it’s a goal you care about at all, that kind of thing doesn’t go unnoticed.

When it comes to generative goals — when the objective requires making things, writing, designing, etc. — the creative debt which accumulates is more conspicuous, and weighs even heavier on the mind.

2. The Inflection Point

If we build up enough debt, there comes a moment where we must ask if we intend to ever pay back the borrowed time.

In our reading example, we’re not yet beyond redemption. A lazy Sunday of reading could make up the 195 minutes of debt in one rather indulgent sitting.

At the inflection point, we decide whether or not it’s worthwhile — or perhaps possible — to honor the original goal. In the case of reading for an additional 3 hours, it’s certainly possible.

But what about the cases where we’ve let something slip for weeks on end, and we now find ourselves with 40 hours of work ahead of us and only 48 hours until the deadline?

If we don’t claw back our lost ground at this point, we move on to our available defaulting options.

3. Defaulting On Our Loans

There are a couple of ways to default on borrowed time:

  1. Don’t deliver on the final outcome and take whatever cost comes with it (no payment, lose your job, slap on the wrist, etc.);
  2. Submit low-grade or unfinished work.

And here’s the claim I’d like to make:

Due to the ease of borrowing, we often deliver work that is of significantly lower standard than we’re capable.

Here’s the logical breakdown:

  • Borrowing time from ourselves is easy;
  • This means we do it often and willingly;
  • This means we are more likely to accumulate debt than to take the ‘steady’ approach;
  • This means we will, on occasion, be forced to default on our loan;
  • The cost of ‘not delivering’ is often more severe than ‘submitting low-grade work’;
  • Therefore, we will often deliver work that is of a lower standard than we are capable.

Defaulting on the time we borrow from ourselves is a pernicious cycle. And we can see how easily it might spin out of control.

4. The Crash

The crash will depend on how we default.

If we submit poor quality work, the consequences may be more subtle, indirect and long-term.

If we fail to ship, the crash can be significant and immediate.

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

In this period, we feel grim. We feel useless. We curse ourselves and our myopic binge-series-watching.

But supposing we survive the crash, there is a final stage which turns this downward spiral into a wonderful, regenerative cycle.

5. The Revival

We are not eternally condemned beings. Our sins are temporary and able to be cleansed. The revival comes as a period of renewed energy, commitment and dedication.

This is the burst of energy which spurs a New Year’s Resolution. A new fitness routine. The pledge made to a friend in a moment of inspiration.

In the case of particularly strong crashes (losing a job, failing to deliver on a client project, missing an important deadline), the inspiration comes from the necessities of rock bottom — “If I don’t pull it together now, I won’t be able to pay rent.”

That kind of thing.

During the revival, we exhibit superhuman levels of concentration and productivity. We work 12 hour days as though they were nothing. Our minds are sharp. We are stressed, but we can ward off new stressors powerfully — we are hitting our stride once again.

Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

In our excitement, we oversubmit. We send hundreds of proposals. Begin dozens of new projects. Open ourselves to any and every opportunity. And of course, with that much volume, a few of them start to return positive responses.

Soon enough, we are approaching something close to equilibrium again, but opportunities are still flowing in — we take on more than we are comfortable with, because what could go wrong?

We’ve already learned our lesson, right?


… right?

3 Tools To Help Short-circuit Creative Debt

  • Choose to default on some things early: There is plenty of good advice out there about ‘eliminating’ things as a means of staying productive and effective— in a way, they are expressing a kind of premature inflection point. They are asking — do I really want to stay committed to this item? If not, I’ll default on it now, before ever arriving at some difficult inflection point. Non-essential commitments that are steadily accumulating debt in the background take a toll — eliminate those that you can.
  • Find someone to hold you accountable: This is the age-old trick of telling someone you’re going to submit it tomorrow morning — even when it isn’t even close to done; that you’ll meet them at the gym for a workout; that you’ve made a resolution this year and you want them to pull you up if caught cheating. Outsourcing accountability to friends and colleagues is one way to make the task of borrowing time from yourself more difficult — ultimately, this means fewer chances for debt to build up and grow out of control.
  • The Creative Debt Ratio: There’s a simple ratio you can use to help you keep track of how far behind you’re falling at any given moment.

Hours Completed / Hours Planned = Creative Debt Ratio

For example, you might have planned to read 1 hour per day this month.

If 15 days have passed, your hours planned is equal to 15. However, your actual reading time may only be equal to, say, 10 hours.

Your creative debt ratio will be simply 10/15 = 0.67.

The closer this figure is to 1, the healthier and less in debt you are. The closer to zero, the higher the danger.

For independent creators, freelancers, solo founders or anyone who must hold themselves accountable in their work and schedule — the creative debt cycle is a constant challenge to overcome.

But by understanding the stages, paying attention to the debt that’s accumulating, and setting a few simple nudges to hold yourself accountable — we can make sure the crashes never get so large as to end the game completely.


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