A few weeks ago I was admiring a cookie decorator’s Facebook page. She was lamenting the fact that her technique and designs were not as good as those of other “cookiers.” Instead of being inspired, she found their work discouraging. She shared her fear that she might never be as good as the designers she admired, and that feeling made her consider giving up.

Around the same time, a friend sent me the link to a blog post about inspiration: having it, losing it, and overcoming its loss. The blogger said, “I feel so overloaded by imagery thanks to my big art book collection and websites like Tumblr, it is almost as if there is nothing new or unique I can offer to the world as everything has been done before.”

A post at IndieBeauty.com, an online indie business community, was the most recent of many such stories. The subject of the discussion is, “HELP…Where do I begin?” and the Indie-in-training writes, “I feel like I’m on information overload and I’m about to explode!” She’s having a hard time choosing a direction for her fledgling business because there are so many options available.

I’ve seen these feelings described in other places lately and have felt them, myself. There are so many books and blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter streams, podcasts, and videos to navigate, and clearly this constant stimulation and information are not always helping us. We are discouraged by comparisons, afraid we can’t innovate, and paralyzed by too many choices.

What’s happening here? How can we feel less overwhelmed by all of this information?

1. Take Care with Comparisons.

Comparison is necessary: how else do you recognize your own improvement? But there is danger in comparing yourself to colleagues or mentors. The truth is, getting really good at anything takes more than inspiration and education. It takes time: practice time, play time, trial-and-error time, LOTS of time. Your willingness to make that time for your art or craft diminishes when you feel discouraged. Nothing beats down a playful spirit like feeling hopelessly behind someone else.

When you’re looking for inspiration, try not to focus on other people who do exactly what you do. If you’re a “cookier,” you could check out fabric patterns at craft stores or even clothing at the mall. Sketch or take pictures of the shapes and designs at a local antique store. Or follow some jewelry designers or soap makers on Facebook for new ideas that can be rendered in sugar. I admire the work of painters, toymakers, and yes, cookie-and-cake designers because they are creative and colorful and have nothing to do with lip balm! The tendency to compare ourselves unfavorably to others is unfortunate, but real; save the heartache and compare yourself only to yourself.

2. Limit Your Choices.

When I first started my business, I decided to prepare and file my own taxes. That first year was a nightmare; I was drowning in tax forms and publications, overwhelmed by piles of information. Then I realized that at least 90% of those forms and publications didn’t apply to my business at all. Subsequent years were much simpler because I knew what was critical and ignored the rest.

It turns out that ignoring the stuff that’s not critical is pretty important when making decisions. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes the work of Cook County’s ER in establishing a triage plan for suspected heart attack patients. Researchers found that doctors made better decisions about who to treat (and how to treat them) when they had less information. “What screws up doctors when they are trying to predict heart attacks,” Gladwell notes, “is that they take too much information into account.” (Is this the same thing that happens to us when we try to reconcile the advice of 6 business gurus and 10 business books and 7 bloggers? I know it makes me feel screwed up!) Gladwell recommends, “In good decision making, frugality matters.” And just to drive this point home, he adds, “To be a successful decision maker, we have to edit.” But how do we edit successfully? How do we know what is critical and what we should ignore? I think we should all try to…

3. Go Unplugged.

There was a piece in The New York Times in January called The Joy of Quiet. It refers to designer Philippe Starck and attributes his innovation to social and cultural isolation. “I never read any magazines or watch TV. Nor do I go to cocktail parties, dinners or anything like that,” Starck states. What the Times article didn’t relate was the rest of Starck’s description of his process (detailed in this interview in Condé Nast Traveller India): “I just make what I believe in, in a very free way…Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I don’t. But the most important thing is that I am outside of mainstream thinking, not repeating what everybody else is saying. I am alone, trying to find my own way of doing things. That’s all.”

Though Starck’s kind of isolation isn’t practical for most of us, those who aspire to “original thinking” are right to be troubled by the constant stream of other people’s ideas and words. Finding one’s own way through this barrage requires efficient decision making, “snap” decisions like those described in Gladwell’s book. “Is this right for me? Or better for someone else?” are daily, hourly, even minute-to-minute decisions. And making those decisions successfully depends on knowledge and experience—in this case, knowledge of ourselves. I think it’s become harder to be creative and make decisions because many of us have lost touch with what we truly want, think, and believe. The solution is turning off all of those outside voices, temporarily, but on a regular basis. We need to establish the routine of looking inside for our direction and purpose, and that can only happen when we’re unplugged.

In her book The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp talks about the importance of routines. The “most productive” writers, she notes, “get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet, the phones aren’t ringing, and their minds are rested, alert, and not yet polluted by other people’s words.” (p. 6, emphasis mine). Recognizing that “other people’s words” can be harmfully overwhelming as well as inspiring and educational is a surprising thought that allows us to keep the proper perspective. What do you think? Do you feel overwhelmed by the amount of information around us? Are you discouraged about adding your voice or ideas to the mix? How do you deal with it? Please share your thoughts!