Questions to Ask When You’re Stuck or Need Motivation

Everything is Googleable these days, right?

If you want to know who painted Las Meninas, Google it and you’ll quickly find it was Diego Velázquez in 1656. From there, you’ll see that it hangs in Room 012 of the Prado and can read about the Infanta Margarita and her mother’s maids-of-honor. You can even click on Room 012 and see the paintings of family members that keep the young princess company in that same gallery.

Painting by Susan Martin Spar
©Susan Martin Spar, Thoughts of Spring. Oil on panel, 19 x 12.5 inches. Used with permission.

Not into 17th century Spanish painting? Other treasures await you on the internet. You can Google how to write your artist statement, how to grow your email list, and how to use Instagram Stories.

It’s easy to find answers. It’s harder to know if the answers are right for you and when you should stop looking for answers outside of yourself.

It can be painful to sit in the unknown and explore what might be possible. But … oh! … the rewards that await you when you do.

When you sit in the question rather than looking for answers, you begin generating additional questions and rephrasing your original question to be more in line with what you are seeking.

In his exceptional book, Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg notes that questions beginning with “Why” help us link hard choices to something we care about. He says, “Make a chore into a meaningful decision, and self-motivation will emerge.”

With that in mind, I’ve outlined a number of situations in which you might need a hefty dose of motivation. Each has a number of questions to help you make progress and a Big Why to ask yourself.

When You’re Not Making Art

One day off is understandable. Two days is acceptable. A week? Probably okay.

An entire month without thinking about or making art is something to be concerned about when you’re trying to gain recognition and earn money from your art.

Ask yourself …

Why am I not inspired? What can I do about it?
What am I prioritizing above my art? Is it right to do so? (It might be!)
One year from today, will I be happy that I chose to spend my time in other ways?

The Big Why: Why do I care?

When You’re Overwhelmed

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the demands of modern life and all that is required to run a business. And you can’t let it stop you.

Ink on rice paper, Marianne Hall
©Marianne Hall, Exaggerated Exposure. Ink on rice paper, stitched collage, 13 x 14 inches. Used with permission.

Take a deep breath and consider …

What do I need to do more of to feel in control?
What do I need to do less of?
What do I need to let go of?
What boundaries do I need to better abide by?

The Big Why: Why am I overwhelmed in the first place?

When Too Many People Want a Piece of You

The gallery needs new work. The art center asks you to teach a class. The organization wants you to serve on the board.

Before you say Yes to everything immediately, it’s worth pausing to think about these questions …

Is there someone else who could do this?
Is there a different solution that no one has considered?
Is this in alignment with my vision, goals, and values?
If I make this choice, how will it serve me 3 months from now? 1 year from now? 5 years from now?
What if I pass on this opportunity? What if I agree to it?
What’s the worst that could happen? The best? Which is easier to live with?

The Big Why: Why is it important that I do this?

When You’d Rather Do Anything Other Than Marketing

Painting by Stefanie Taranto
©Stefanie Taranto, Ready to Play. Oil pastel, 16 x 12 inches. Used with permission.

Yeah, I know. You’d rather be in the studio.

You’d rather the art fairy visit your studio in the middle of the night, wave her magic wand, and sell all of your art. What a joy it would be to enter an empty studio and discover a big fat check on your work table!

Well, you’d better roll over and keep dreaming cuz that ain’t gonna happen.

Your success, whatever that means to you, is your responsibility. Keep in mind …

Who needs to know about this event/exhibition/product?
Who haven’t I been in touch with lately?
Who needs to know about my art?

The Big Why: Why is it important that I share my art?
(Until you know the answer to this, you’ll keep making excuses for not doing the work.)

When Sales Are Slow (or Zippo)

Whether your work sells or not depends on a huge variety of factors, including pricing, competition, quality, venue, marketing, and networking.

You can’t try something once or twice and say it didn’t work. And you can’t fix what you can’t control.

Examine the results …

Where am I not making my best effort?
Where have I been inconsistent?
Have I outgrown this space/exhibition/event?
How has my work changed?
Are my works larger or smaller than what’s selling?
Am I following up?

The Big, Overarching Why: Why is it necessary that my art sells? 

When Your Next Move Is a Big One

You’ve been doing the same shows year after year. Or maybe you’re teaching the same classes to the same students at the same level that you were five years ago. Yawn.

Painting by Josephine DeFrancis
©Josephine DeFrancis, Spillin’ the Beans. Acrylic, oil, and glitter on canvas, 65 x 55 inches. Used with permission.

If you’ve been stuck in a rut, it is probably time to make a big move if you want to grow as a person and an artist. Step back and review …

What obstacles will I need to overcome?
Where am I playing it too safe?
What makes me uncomfortable, and how might my business expand if I overcome that discomfort?
By when can I make the next move happen?
Where is there opportunity that I’m ignoring?
Am I all in?

Two Big Whys: Why do I want this? Why have I been avoiding this?

When You’re Too Much In Your Head

You’re focusing too much on yourself and not about your place in the bigger world. You have forgotten your vision and all that you can be.

Time to reboot and start thinking about others …

Who can I send a Thank You card to today?
What are my blessings?
What do I need to do to fill the creative well?
Who can I help today?

The Biggest Why of All: Why am I here?

Keep Asking

Next time you find yourself feeling unmotivated or stuck, resist the temptation to Google your way through to the light. Try asking yourself the hard questions.

What’s the Big Why that motivates you?

Painting by Denice Peters
©Denice Peters, Grandma’s Trio. Pastel, 12 x 16 x 1 inches. Used with permission.

In Context

As you probably know, I’m a huge fan of journaling—especially when I’m stuck or overwhelmed. Journaling helps me uncover answers that are within myself, which means that my journal is full of questions I want to explore.

As an educator in art museums, I learned that asking the right questions can help visitors explore artwork and “own” their personal experiences with that work. This builds confidence for their next encounter with art and enhances their connection to individual pieces.

Because most people haven’t had a visual education (they weren’t taught how to look at art), it’s critical that, when the moment is right, you are able to teach them how to look. This is something I teach in module 5 of my course, Magnetic You.

This post was originally published on May 18, 2017, and has been updated with original comments intact.

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36 thoughts on “Questions to Ask When You’re Stuck or Need Motivation”

    1. Interestingly, it was the art in this article (portrait and flutes like trees), and some good questions, that motivated me today: “Why am I here?” …Today it is to appreciate art, mine and that of others. It seems when we seek we find. Thank you.

  1. This is a timely post for me. I went to an event last night that I thought was a social event for artists. It turned out to be a networking event with various arts organizations looking for teaching artists.

    For years I’ve maintained a spreadsheet detailing teaching opportunities throughout the state, but I didn’t follow through on it, I just added to it. I never asked myself why I avoided contacting these organizations, even though I knew they were looking for teachers.

    I was forced to ask myself the question last night and had no good answer. Even though I wasn’t completely prepared, I talked to about 6 organizations and now have good leads on teaching venues.

  2. Alison, you are so spot on as usual. I love how you get what’s in our heads!
    I feel constantly overwhelmed especially about all the possible things that I could be doing . I actually made a really big step yesterday and hired a part time assistant to do the mailchimp and tedious marketing and computer work that is sucking so much of my time, so that I may do what really fills me up and makes me the most $. My bank account say I shouldn’t but my mental health and my creative deadlines say YES! I look forward to following up on these great concepts that you have put forth in this article. Thank you for all that you do and for your loving supportive energy.

    1. Nice, Wendy. I was just talking about this to a group of artists. Someone said, “I never thought about hiring someone” after she spent 10 hours trying to figure out MailChimp. Boom!

  3. Zippo is the place I’m in and consistency is not the issue. A lot of the advice I’ve found online isn’t applicable when you don’t have those opportunities where you live. There is no audience nearby, no networking events at all, and so on. It’s getting very exhausting to keep working so hard for no results but I am examining ways I can keep going without burning myself out. I wish I did know the who, where, and what but I don’t.

    1. Wow. I know exactly what you mean. I’m in the middle of no where living in a beer and camper and “what the heck is art good for” world. Prices are low if anything sells at all. Someone said I need to find my niche. Perhaps. But it does slow down the want to fire. Not sure what I will do with all those finished paintings. Some need a good bonfire perhaps but there are others that are worthy. Most other artists of my acquaintance are 60-120 miles away. One art association folded. I know of 2 that are going pretty good. We are all in the same boat. Plus there are too many artists and not enough clients. We gather and paint. Keep the associations afloat. Have art shows but what we don’t have is sales. I was hoping I might supplement the beans of old age with income from paintings. I just don’t see that happening.

    2. Okay, so you have both identified a problem. Why is it happening? (You seem to have the answers.) What are the solutions? You can’t control what people do or say (or don’t do), but you can control your response.

      What can you do differently to get better results?

  4. Thanks, Alyson. I’ve never been much of a “why” asker.
    Much more of a go with the flow person.
    Looks like I need to add that to my list of questions for myself.

  5. Just put this list of questions in my Morning Pages journal and it’s getting a post-it bookmark! Lots to ponder. I especially need the reminder to think about “Why am I avoiding this?” This year I have been reflecting weekly (most weeks) and it really helps to write out the answers so I get to the heart of what is overwhelming, or what I’m avoiding, or what needs adjusting. It has really helped with the overwhelm of large future plans 🙂

  6. Alison, I just made a big step; I have decided to go into art full time. These questions are very useful for me. Thank you.

  7. Alyson, I’ve been admiring/recommending you for years, by reading your relevant posts and stylish newsletters. Since my goal is not necessarily to sell my art, I mentally filed away the advice, thinking it didn’t apply to me. Well, with this post something clicked, and it certainly DOES apply to me and my goals, so just wanted to thank you for all of the above. Keep shining!

  8. Over the years, whenever I’ve gotten into a rhythm of producing art with the (mental) objective of creating a collection for an exhibition, I’ve (sabotaged myself?) accepted offers of jobs where some of my creative skill could be used together with causes close to my heart (eg. a horse rescue at the mo). This invariably puts my own art on the back-burner and on a very low heat. My excuse being that I’ve not been selling anything despite (reasonable) efforts and I desperately need some income to make ends meet. I also live in a country (Greece) that is experiencing huge economic recession so buying art is a luxury for the extreme few, coupled with the mentality that it’s not worth anything if you aren’t already a well-known name in the circles that matter. I’ve been creating artwork that is large and heavy, so this could also be a ‘handicap’ but, although I like the technique for it’s effect (mixed media on wood with pyrography) I don’t like it for the amount of time it takes me to get a piece done. Even the smallest possible piece can take me a few weeks from board prep to finished. Perhaps that’s why I’ve turned to photography of late and been developing that, and enjoying it immensely primarily because of the speed and immediate satisfaction it gives me. I miss creating art but I can’t seem to carve out enough time to get started, let alone finish a piece. Your post is great for helping me ask the questions I need to ask myself again and again and how I can manipulate my situation to my advantage and make it work for me rather than me working for IT.

  9. I love this list of questions and refer to it often (it’s on a sticky note on my computer desktop).
    In my version of this list I’ve added one more question: “What am I resisting? And why? What would happen if I stopped resisting?”

  10. This article is very timely for me, Alyson. There’s a lot going on and a lot not. I need to ask myself questions in order to isolate the real issues as well as prioritize actions. (And even see if those actions are the right ones for the results I need.)

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Patricia: Let me know what path of questions is fruitful for you to investigate at this time.

    2. Hello Alyson!

      Some of the “Overwhelmed” section but I don’t think I’m overwhelmed so much as spinning in circles. Also some of the “Sales are Zippo” section. There’s a lot on my plate. I slowed down paintings in order to do some design work for the Print on Demand site, Zazzle. That has since slowed down too. I am not sure if I saturated my market (that particular group who was buying my work is a small niche that I haven’t figured out how to grow. Or perhaps my market is spending less. And then I got a $333.00 grant to buy a webcam, mic, and cell phone tripod adapter which all just arrived in the past few days. Part of the rationale for the grant was to share my (activist) work locally in the Greater New Haven area. And then someone bought a small pen and ink on watercolor and insisted on paying twice my asking price. As you can see there seems to be potential everywhere and it’s a matter of juggling and planning and scheduling. And prioritizing. And reaching out. My two exhibitions convinced me that my work has value and that I am, as one person put it “talented.”

      In my application I said that my work had two facets. The first is commentary and warning in response to the existential crises in our world and here in CT and the second is to share a sense of respite to those overwhelmed by it all.

      So here’s the big question, I believe: “What am I not seeing?”

      I hope I answered your question!



    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Denice: Thank you for sharing it with us! We were very happy to feature your painting.

  11. After years of fairly nonstop production and enthusiastic reception (but few sales) I was stopped in my tracks after my latest solo show last year. First there was a lengthy family situation requiring my out-of-town presence and lots of work. Then the coronavirus shut everything down. Those two excuses may or may not have caused the mental shutdown, but I just didn’t want to make work. Didn’t even want to look at other people’s work. I live in one of the smaller markets where people claim to love art but expect to get it for next to nothing. I was sick of the “scene” and didn’t mind the forced withdrawal caused by lockdown. At first I worried – is this it? Is it over? Jerry Saltz said this is the time “real” artists get to work! Then I let it go. It’ll either come back or it won’t (it always has in the past). I have long lists of life tasks that need sorting out. I’m using my time productively. And I’m pleased to note that ideas are starting to creep back in. I’ll make good use of your checklist.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Cynthia: I’m sorry for the blip in your productivity. I think it’s so common after a big solo show. Take comfort in the fact that Cy Twombly seemed to have been unproductive most of the time.

      Here’s another question for you: What if I scheduled something that forced me back into the studio?

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