Target your habits to boost your creative practice
Welcome to the fourth and final week of the Creativity Kick-Start! In the last three weeks, we’ve prepared our workspaces and studios, set creative goals, and turned inspiration into action. This week, we’re going to zone in on our habits to remove obstacles to creativity and build enduring artistic rituals.
This week’s challenge to kickstart your creative flow:
Cultivate healthy artistic habits
The trope of the “artist genius” has been circulating for centuries. But the idea that an artist was born with talent—that they are naturally a cut above their peers—is ultimately a myth. While genetics certainly play into our personality types, there is no reason why artistic skills cannot be developed through practice. Although pop culture depicts the “artist genius” as a melancholic, young, and naturally-gifted caricature, rest assured that you can achieve artistic success by nurturing and developing your skills at any age. Building creative habits into your everyday life is a sure-fire road to productivity, success, and creative innovation.
In the “Hallelujah” episode of Revisionist History (a podcast about hidden or forgotten histories), Malcolm Gladwell busts apart the myth of artistic genius, and assesses different kinds of geniuses in music and art. He explains that there are various creative types who work in different ways. “Conceptual innovators” work quickly to articulate an idea that is already highly developed, like Picasso whose ideas were fully formed before he picked up a brush. They may have flashes of inspiration but are often inconsistent. “Experimental innovators,” on the other hand, like Cézanne, work relentlessly to develop and evolve their ideas over time, and often achieve their greatest works only after many years of labor. They don’t have a clear vision from the get go, but instead, work by trial and error. We all tend to be a combination of the two.
Perhaps you’re like Cézanne and feel that you’re constantly reworking and revisiting old work and haven’t yet achieved your artistic vision. Don’t lose heart! In fact, Gladwell believes that experimental innovators, the slow and plodding type, have an edge over those who wait for inspiration to strike. So let’s develop habits that encourage you to relentlessly pursue an artistic project. Remember that every little artistic gesture is meaningful, and contributes to your overall artistic practice. This week, we’ll target habits that are inhibiting our creativity and establish new artistic rituals that will boost your productivity.
Let’s break this process down into four steps:
- Assessing your current habits
- Removing obstacles to productivity
- Prioritizing your time
- Creating new artistic rituals with mini-habits
Assessing your current habits
Let’s take a look at how you spend your time, and determine if there are ways we can streamline your daily routine to make space for new artistic rituals. If you’re a freelancer or a stay-at-home parent who is always rushing from appointment to appointment, try to schedule meetings back-to-back, giving you large chunks of time to work on projects rather than little half-hour blocks. If you have a day job with a long commute, target that hour-long period and turn it into an important time for writing, planning, and researching. Notice when you tend to slack, and when you have a surplus of time, so we can build new creative habits in that time period.
Everyone has strategies for prioritizing tasks: some people take care of errands first, or emails first, or the most urgent tasks first. When you’re prioritizing, think of the most stressful tasks that take up the most mental space. Often these are the tasks that we spend time unnecessary time worrying about—in the shower, before bed, on the commute. You can free up so much time by sending that difficult email first thing in the morning, or picking up the phone and tackling that task before your commute so you can spend it with a free and creative mind.
Removing obstacles to productivity
You know your own weaknesses whether you actually want to name them or not. You know that you’re not a morning person, that you’re a perfectionist, that you micro-manage other people’s tasks, or that you tolerate messiness a little too comfortably. Don’t beat yourself up over your weaknesses! The better you know yourself and are honest with yourself the more you set yourself up for success.
If you know that you are easily distracted by the surfing the internet, turn off your wifi or work somewhere where you don’t have access to it. If you work at home, set up clear boundaries with your family regarding your work schedule and when your studio or office is off-limits. If you’re too tired to hit the studio in the evening, wake up an hour early to make sure you fit it in before your day begins. If you need a morning walk to stay focused focused for the day, make sure that you get it!
Take a moment to make a list of the obstacles that stand in the way of your creative practice and what you can (realistically) do to remove or diminish them.
This doesn’t mean scheduling every moment of your life. Nor does it mean removing every indulgence to make way for productivity. Instead, it means focus and intention while creating and enjoyment when relaxing. Treat moments ‘off’ as a restful break and an important part of your overall productivity and well-being.
You don’t need to have 3-minute showers or cancel your Netflix subscription, in fact these radical steps may make you snap back into old habits. Instead, try committing to only watching TV in one part of your home, and don’t let yourself bring your laptop into bed. Make sure the books, files, and tools that boost your creative potential are accessible and visible—on your desktop, beside your bed, in your workspace—and clear away distractions.
Prioritizing your time
You may have noticed when you assessed your current habits that you’ll need to clear some space in your schedule to make room for creativity. Boosting your productivity in all areas of your life will impact your artistic practice, so consider streamlining the way you approach email, and the way you divide your personal life from your professional life (or your day job from your work as an artist).
Sometimes you need to explicitly enforce these boundaries. If you have a tendency to answer work emails in off-hours, this may mean telling your team that you’re shutting down all work-based communications for the weekend, evenings, or even a three-hour period on a regular basis. You can also apply this strategy to friends or family. You’ll feel much freer when you cease to be bombarded with texts or calls during your creative practice.
Linking all your communications on a program like Slack or Basecamp can also help reduce the volume of messages you receive. Ask any Slack fan—it will change the way you approach team projects forever. You can create “channels” for different types of messages (General Banter, Marketing, Event Planning, Content Creation) so that your conversations with your team are grouped in distinct threads. You can integrate file sharing apps like Google Docs and Dropbox, so all your files are sorted according to each channel, and you’re not always swimming through a mess of emails.
Remember, however, that the goal is streamlining in order to free up time to focus on the important stuff. Tim Ferris warns us that efficiency isn’t a goal in itself. We waste too much time fussing over tasks like organizing our sock drawers or obsessively checking our inboxes. “Being busy,” he writes in The 4-Hour Work Week, “is a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.” Instead, we need to prioritize what matters to us. Being effective means “being selective—doing less,” but of the right things.
Creating new artistic rituals with mini-habits
Now that we’ve set aside the time for creativity, try to kickstart new habits by starting small. By integrating mini-habits into our life, we can build solid, enduring artistic rituals over time.
Stephen Guise, author of Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, says that “Doing a little bit every day has a greater impact than doing a lot on one day.” We want to build artistic rituals that become second nature through repetition. Habits are a sure-fire way to success because they don’t depend on willpower.
If you aspire to be a writer, maybe you resolve to just write 50 words per day rather than committing to ambitious word counts. If you’re an artist, perhaps it’s committing to sketch for 20 minutes before bed, or deciding to stop by a new gallery on your way home from work.
Wanting to get into the habit of painting? Maybe it is making just one mark on the canvas each day. Soon picking up a paint brush will no longer seem threatening.
Try to stop reaching for the phone or turning on the computer the moment you’re not stimulated. Maybe it’s journaling when you first wake up to get focused for your day. Or, if you’re a commuter, it might mean taking the first 5 minutes on the bus or train to settle in, meditate, or let your focus soften as the landscape breezes by. This will allow your mind to wander and creativity to flow.
Research shows that it takes at least 21 days to build a new habit, so start small, “stupid small” as Guise says, and stick to it until it is second nature. Make success inevitable and build on it.
Develop habits, artistic rituals, that launch you into your artistic process, and over that mental block. Ultimately remember that habit-forming takes time, but you can cultivate your artistic practice every day through small and meaningful steps.