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Big Ideas

Bolster Your Creative Output by Activating Your “Red Zone”

Sustained creativity requires that you tend to your "inputs" as well as your "output." Here's how.

It’s a wonderful feeling. You’re deep in the groove of your work, and everything seems to be going even better than expected. There’s a lot on your plate, but you’re managing your priorities with elegance and grace, and you’re doing some of your best work. In short, you’re on fire. Then, just as suddenly, it ends…

You’re in creative purgatory. Ideas aren’t flowing, and much of your work seems like a rehash of previous projects. Because you’re a pro, you’re still producing, but deep down you’re dissatisfied with the quality of your work. How is it possible that what comes so effortlessly one day – ideas, focus, energy – seems so elusive the next?

In American football, there is an area on the field, between the 20-yard line and the goal line, called the red zone. The overall success or failure of a team is largely determined by how well they perform their duties in this small section of the field. No matter how many open field passes are caught, or how many great runs are made up the middle of the field, if the team cannot perform in the red zone, it will likely lose a lot of games.

In much the same way, we each have a personal red zone, and a corresponding set of extracurricular activities that we must engage in consistently if we want to do great work over the long-term. This means that we must perform these activities even when, or especially when, work gets intense. How well and how consistently we perform them can determine our overall success or failure.

We each have a set of extracurricular activities that we must engage in consistently if we want to do great work over the long-term.

Here are a few Red Zone Activities that will keep you poised to do great work:

1. Activities that increase your capacity to generate and make ideas happen, such as study, skill development, or research.

When we stoke our curiosity by filling our mind with inspirational or challenging thoughts, or hone our craft by intentionally developing our skills, we gain a sturdy platform to build on. Unfortunately, these are often the first activities to get tossed out when we’re in crunch time, and by eliminating them we are borrowing a little bit of time now against the quality of our future work.

What are you doing to stretch your mind, seek inspiration, and fill your creative well? In other words, what are you doing today to increase your capacity to do great work tomorrow? Make sure that these activities find their way onto your calendar, even in busy seasons.

2. Activities that feed your creative soul, like spending time with friends who inspire you.

When we get busy, it’s easy to default to engaging only in relationships of obligation or convenience. This means that we are missing out on a key source of creative inspiration. Setting aside time to connect with others, to discover what they’re working on, and to hear what’s inspiring them can expand our perspective and fuel our motivation to do better work. Who inspires you, and are you protecting time on your calendar for them, even during busy times?

3. Activities that provide creative traction, like clarifying objectives with your manager or client.

Sometimes we are so anxious to jump into the work that we fail to clarify what’s really expected of us. Taking a small amount of time now to set objectives can save a lot of pain later as we try backpedal out of a mess. Set aside time on the calendar each day to re-align and ensure that you’re working on the right problems. Creatives and teams that regularly clarify their objectives are more productive and are less likely to experience the relational tensions that can kill workplace creativity.

Depending on who you are and what you do, the most important “red zone activities” can vary. The key takeaway here is making sure that – whatever those activities are – you are not neglecting them for short-term gain. When we trade effectiveness for efficiency, we often lose both.

What’s Your Approach?

What “red zone activities” fuel your creative process?

More Posts by Todd Henry

Todd Henry is the author of the new book Louder Than Words: Harness The Power Of Your Authentic Voice. Learn more at, or follow him on Twitter at @toddhenry.

Comments (9)
  • Pete R.

    Spending time around people who inspired you seems to be the only thing I do best. Attending‘s groups allows me to learn so much, know so many people in the same field and got a lot of takeaways. Especially meeting with like-minded people in the middle of high work season, it allows me to ask for advice and act upon in passionately the next day.

    The first point, learning is extremely difficult for me. Shortcuts is everywhere and I tend to go that way more than learning the root cause and fix it right a way. The negative impact is that i have to lookup multiple times for the solution until I understand it, which is a waste od time.

    Thanks for an awesome article. Very Inspirational as always.


    Very good article.  For sure meeting up with people in the same field is HUGE!  But also having a far off goal or fear both play huge roles in getting creative stuff done.

  • Securitygearshop

    Ive always struggle with this big time.  I dont have any creativity thinking people around me.  I also dont have any time for myself because of my business.  Im always in a madhouse.  Balance is important and some that has to succeed in order for other things to proceed  Im going to check Making Ideas happen.  Because of Google labs-a great concept google had. 

  • Matthew Ortega

    It’s always a challenge to be aware of your creative behaviour. Stepping back and observing your approach takes effort, especially when you are in the heart of a project and are fueled on caffeine and eagerr to see your ideas come to fruition. That is where having a process comes in handy, where you just check off one by one things that you could do to keep a balance. This article picks out a couple of good things to remember.

  • Matthew Ortega

    I’m looking for the same sort of groups just to meet other designers and artists in my area, but haven’t found any good ones. If you are in New York, do you know of any good meetups?

  • Richard Stephenson

    Excellent points!  Recently, I’ve been neck deep in non-fiction books and associated projects.  It seems like the creativity well gets dried up or at least has less fuel to work with.  Now, I’m throwing in a few fiction books in the mix.  Talk about a huge change!  I don’t care how old and fancy people think they are… we all need to play a bit!  Fuel for the mind, body, and soul.  Good post!

  • Sarah Rapp

    Hey Matthew – at Behance, we have brand Ambassadors who plan meetups for like-minded creatives in our community. If you want to sign up for the event mailing list, you’ll be notified of upcoming meetups:

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  • Sila Mahmud

    Great blog, not later than bloke that wrote so often. The biggest factor
    that writes to-date poop 🙂

  • Leonam Espíndola

    yeah, I figured! my moment exactly! 🙂

  • Dawa Sherpa

    this is quite true. I often find that when crunch time does come around, I remove hobbies and creative work, which is natural in the moment, but is a bad habit to have. we all need hobbies and free time to get creative.

  • Στυλιανή Βαρβάρα+

    Balanced Wisdom produces Nutral Creativity adapted online growth progress 4 all kind of unpredictable fines……++++***&***++++

  • Ben Franke

    I take Alpha Brain for increased creativity. Its a balanced nootropic, basically a blend of nutrients that results in an extraordinary combination of lucid dreams, mental drive, focus, and mental acuity. I’ve had the craziest dreams from this stuff and really been able to focus and get things handled in my life. Check it out at this link.

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