Growth doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of intentional effort and consistent progress. You must define how you want to grow, then establish a plan to help you get there. —Todd Henry
For much of my life, I’ve taken a pretty haphazard attitude towards my own creativity. And while I’ve been mostly successful, I have long periods of creative block, as well as professional goals that have idled. I look back at envy at some of the most creatively-fertile periods of my life (2007-8 in particular) and I’ve realized there were activities I did every day that I should probably resume.
At the same time, for the last few months, I’ve been reading a number of books on creativity and forming creative habits. While many of these books have different, specific pieces of advice, I’ve collected the themes into a course of action for myself.
Block off time for creativity. This is obvious. You can’t expect projects to just happen; you have to make time for them. And it’s better to have a consistent small block of time every day than to expect large chunks of time at some future date (which almost never seems to happen). This is how I wrote my books: small bits every day, early in the morning. It’s how I should structure my other projects as well. From now on, every morning from 6-7:30 is creativity time. I’ve also blocked out one morning a week—on my work calendar!—for work-related (article) writing.
Start with a ritual. You need to get yourself into a creative state—even when you don’t feel like being in one. This is where ritual comes in. “It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behavior—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way,” writes Twyla Tharp. For me, the ritual is a cup of tea and Brian Eno’s Music for Airports.
Work space. When I’ve written books in the past, it always has to be at particular place, which has (oddly) moved around my house with each book. I’m going to attempt to reclaim my (disused) desk and make it not just a place for dropping bills and other semi-garbage. It should be a place to summon ideas—and act on them.
Keep a list of Big Questions. It’s easy to lose track of what you’re supposed to be thinking about and working on, especially since my working days as a creative director are often chaotic and fragmented. Having a list of the top three things my subconscious should be mulling on is important as a centering tool. And phrasing them in the form of a question helps the mind work on answering them in the background. “When we phrase our objectives simply and in the form of a question, we lead our minds directly to solving the problem,” writes Todd Henry. I have a small whiteboard at home (it used to be my daughter’s toy) next to my desk where these questions can go.
Take walks.* Movement helps the body relax and the subconscious work. Too often I stare at my computer screen or flip through social media when I should just get up and walk around the block. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman noted, “Almost every dimension of cognition improves from thirty minutes of aerobic exercise, and creativity is no exception.”
Fill the well. Advises Austin Kleon, “Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.” I’m going to make an effort to see more art, starting with buying a membership to my local museum, the De Young. I’m also going to expand my non-fiction reading to more general interest, biography, and other topics removed from design. I’m also going to increase my fiction reading. I used to walk down Haight Street in the early mornings, before the crowds came, and just look in the windows. Seeing new things can trigger new connections.
Record what you observe, then review it. I’ll be keeping two notebooks: one physical, one digital. The digital one (in Evernote) is for capturing anything I read online. The physical one will be for writing/sketching fragments of ideas, what Twyla Tharp calls “scratching.”
Without the little ideas, there are no big ideas. Scratching is what you do when you can’t wait for the thunderbolt to hit you…Remember this when you’re struggling for a big idea. You’re much better off scratching for a small one.
When you’re in scratching mode, the tiniest microcell of an idea will get you going. Musicians know this because compositions rarely come to them whole and complete. They call their morsels of inspiration lines or riffs or hooks or licks. That’s what they look for when they scratch for an idea.
The physical notebook (dotted paper from Muji, if you’re interested in that sort of detail) is for scratching.
Because it’s not enough just to gather, on Saturday mornings (usually my longest working period), I’ll review and reflect on what I’ve read/seen/gathered that week.
Turn off the stream. Your mind needs time to work and process. I often find myself aimlessly going from Facebook to email to Twitter to RSS and repeat. When I catch myself doing that, I know it’s time to unplug (and maybe take a walk). Being bored and staring off into space is fine. Allowing your mind to wander allows ideas to enter. I’m not going to pull out my phone immediately while waiting in line either. “As we tune in to our devices during every moment of transition, we are letting the incredible potential of serendipity pass us by,” says Scott Belsky.
Rest. Related to turning off the stream is just switching off for longer periods. In addition to my (hopefully now) annual Screens Sabbatical on the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I’ll be doing a weekly Screens Shabbat from noon on Saturday until sunrise on Sunday. “The idea is that one day a week, you need to get your mind in a different mode, you need to not work. Every week, your brain—and your soul—needs to be reset,” writes Tiffany Shlain.
Meditate.* I hate even using the word meditate. It sounds so San Francisco. For me, this is simply sitting quietly for a few minutes, not doing anything. This is very difficult for me.
Have a hobby.* I haven’t seriously played the cello in almost five years now. That needs to change. I miss it. Kleon: “It’s so important to have a hobby. A hobby is something creative that’s just for you. You don’t try to make money or get famous off it, you just do it because it makes you happy. A hobby is something that gives but doesn’t take.”
If you want your life to be different, you have to try something different. I hope that by taking these steps, I’ll move outside my comfort zone into a more fulfilling, productive, creative space. I’ll let you know how it goes. Although hopefully, the fruits will be self-evident.
* It’s very easy to find good advice, but very hard to take it. For some of these activities, I’m going to be using Stephen Guise’s “mini habits” to help me out. Mini habits are those that are designed to be too easy not to do, and lead to making it easy to form a habit. For me, this is doing (daily) one minute of walking, one minute of sitting quietly, and tuning my cello.
I recommend all the books on this list, but especially The Creative Habit, The Accidental Creative, and Steal Like an Artist.
The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, Twyla Tharp
The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry
Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon
Manage Your Day-to-Day, Jocelyn Glei (ed.)
Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day, Todd Henry
Maximize Your Potential, Jocelyn Glei (ed.)
Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, Stephen Guise
Do the Work, Steven Pressfield
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey
Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson
Creative Something blog