Creatives don’t need habits, right? After all, this type of work involves sparking inspiration and original ideas.
Habits describe activities you do every day, whether consciously or unconsciously. Chances are, you’re already following several habits that help or hinder your creative process. And creative work is also hard.
So why complicate things? Focusing on the right creative habits will move you towards a creative goal rather than away from it.
A few years ago, I was depressed. I was working in a job I hated and unhappy with all the increasing demands of family life. I told anyone who would listen that a small family “puts five years on you.”
I was only half-joking. When I started meditating, I found it hard to sit on a cushion for more than a few minutes without my mind wandering. Now that I’ve been meditating for a few years, I still sitting on a cushion and wondering whether to eat steak or chicken for dinner instead of focusing on the breath.
Still, meditation helps me embrace challenges at work and find my focus when I’ve spent too much time reading the New York Times or the Guardian. Meditation and mindfulness also help me manage low moods. And this habit helps with finding better ideas for creative work too.
Filmmaker David Lynch has practiced transcendental meditation for 20 minutes twice each day since 1973. Lynch attributes transcendental meditation to creative breakthroughs in many of his film projects. He said,
“Transcendental meditation has given me effortless access to unlimited reserves of energy, creativity and happiness deep within.”
After reading about Lynch’s practice, I enrolled in a TM course. You don’t need to go that far though. Apps like Headspace and Walking Up simplify building this creative habit. Headspace even has a meditation course focused on creativity.
2. Capture Creative Ideas
Productivity software used to excite me. Then, I stumbled upon this gem from David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. He said,
“Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.”
Creative work is no exception. If you think of an idea in the shower or during the middle of the night and expect to remember it when you turn up in the studio or in front of the blank page, expect disappointment. Far better to hold creative ideas in a trusted system.
George Carlin, a comedian famous for seemingly off-the-cuff riffs, had a system for capturing ideas, using series of notes and index cards.
So, capture and record creative ideas as soon as they emerge. Keep them all in one place so you can review these later and decide what to use. Rather than unlocking your phone at 03.23, keep a notepad on your bedside table. When you’re out and about, use a notes or dictation app. This creative habit assures you’re always depositing ideas into a bank and have something to draw upon.
Capturing ideas means I’m less likely to worry about being behind or having missed something important. It also ensures I always have topics to write about. I talk about this habit so much that somebody I work with even sent me an Aqua Notes pad that works in the shower!
3. Following A Physical Training Routine
Spending hours in front of the screen searching for an idea won’t get you very far. Many creative people have breakthroughs when they’re engaged in physical exercise or a pursuit unrelated to their immediate projects.
The novelist Haruki Murakami is a prolific runner and swimmer. When writing a novel, he exercises for several hours each day. Murakami wrote about this physical training routine:
“Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life — and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.”
Lately, I spend my free time alternating between long-distance running and strength training. The former gets me outdoors after spending so much time inside working, while the latter prevents injury.
4. Daily Walks
Good ideas can often arise when out for a walk. A 2014 Stanford University Study found walking boosts creative output by up to 60 per cent.
While outdoors, you can approach a problem side-ways rather than head-on and also spend time with others. Famous creatives who enjoyed or enjoy walking include Ernest Hemingway and David Thoreau. Steve Jobs also held regular walking meetings with his direct reports to plan business strategy.
Columnist and writer David Sedaris is a more contemporary example. In between writing sessions, he spends hours walking around his hometown in West Sussex in the United Kingdom, picking up trash while contemplating ideas. In Calypso, Sedaris wrote,
Walking that distance at the age of fifty-seven with completely flat feet while lugging a heavy bag of garbage takes close to nine hours—a big block of time but hardly wasted. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts. I talk to people. I learn things:
5. Reading Widely And Deeply
Bill Gates is a smart guy, but he doesn’t rest on his IQ. The documentary Inside Bill’s Brain reveals how much time Gates spends reading. He see him sitting alone in a personal library surrounded by books. Gates famously publishes a public reading list regularly that documents his interests across many competing disciplines.
So if you find yourself often reading the same genre, for example, thriller books, consider reading from a different genre or niche that could inform your creative work. Listening to audiobooks is a great way of learning on the go or if time is short. I keep my reading list in a spreadsheet on my computer to avoid running out of books to buy.
6. Manage Your Inputs
Often, creatives complain of feeling blocked and discouraged when they really have an input problem.
The right inputs are a key part of the creative process. Wake up, reach for your phone and spend an hour browsing social media and the news and you’re less likely to feel energized and optimistic about your work. It doesn’t take a creative genius to figure out that Facebook and other social media platforms are more interested in capturing our attention than sparking inspiration.
Far better to regularly refill the well by listening to relevant, inspiring talks, visiting art galleries and taking applicable courses. These creative activities will offer more ideas for your current creative projects.
That said, balance consuming with creating. Too much information, courses and books can easily turn into a form of procrastination that delays taking action.
7. Napping and Day Dreaming
Napping offers several health benefits, including improved concentration and better performance at work. The National Sleep Foundation cites a NASA study that found a 26-minute nap improves performance by 40% and alertness by 100%.
But, napping and daydreaming also help get your creative juices flowing, especially if feeling tired or creatively burnt out. Famous creative nappers include the artist Salvador Dalí and the inventor Thomas Edison.
Dali regularly napped in the early afternoon while holding a heavy key. After falling asleep, he dropped the key. The clang of this key hitting the floor woke him up. Immediately, Dali began painting so to harness that blissful state between daydreaming and full alertness.
Benjamin Franklin planned what he wanted to accomplish each day in his journal. And at the end of the day, he asked himself a series of questions like, “What good did I do this day?” to evaluate his progress and determine what to focus on next.
If journaling was good enough for a founding father like Benjamin Franklin, it’s good enough for the rest of us.
I’ve kept journals on and off for years in notebooks and using digital apps. It’s relatively easy to keep a journal because what you write is for you and for you alone.
I usually write a 150–300 word entry at the start of the day and a longer 1,000-word journal entry at the end of the week. I use Day One, a dedicated journaling app. That said, a password-protected file or a notebook works fine too.
At the start of the day, write a short entry about what you’re planning and what would make it a success. Or, at the end of the day, like Franklin, review what you did, what worked, and what didn’t work.
This creative habit will foster self-reflection and provides a great way of charting progress over time toward a creative goal.
Bonus points if you’re a writer. Journaling encourages turning up in front of the blank page. Although, avoid rumination whereby you reflect without action.
9. Practicing Different Forms of Self-Expression
A writer writes, an artist paints, a designer draws or sketches, and a musician composes. Creative people think beyond a single medium or expression, or genre and break out of their comfort zone regularly.
It’s fun to experiment with a different form of self-expression. You might be able to carry over insights from one genre or medium to another too.
David Sedaris, for example, doesn't just write books and essays. He also performs his pieces on the radio and in person at events. Speaking his work aloud and getting feedback from an audience helps find weaknesses in his essays and improve his craft. In a Fast Company interview, he said,
“But if a laugh feels cheap to me or it feels like it’s going to date really quickly, I try to take it out as soon as possible and replace it. I don’t want to come to depend on it, to think ‘well that’s my only laugh at the end of page four so I have to keep it.’”
10. Exercising Patience
Productivity involves accomplishing the right tasks as efficiently and effectively as possible. But forward momentum isn’t always conducive to creative thinking.
Sometimes a creative can feel blocked if they’re pushing hard for a desired outcome or end goal. And they may feel frustrated with a lack of progress. In this case, stepping back to recharge or work on another project helps. Allow room for procrastination.
Remember, art demands patience. And that applies, even if you’re not painting a masterpiece. Take advice from the 19th-century professional sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who said:
”Oh, if one knew but one-half the difficulties an artist has to surmount, the amount of different kinds of study necessary, before he can see the path even beginning to open before him, the public would be less ready to censure him for his shortcomings or slow advancement. The only remedy I know is patience with perseverance, and these are always sure, with a real honest love for art, to produce something.
11. Spending Time Alone
Creativity thrives in solitude. Bill Gates regularly expounds on the importance of having a Think Week. He packs a bag full of reading matter and retreats to a cabin in the woods to digest his reading materials.
Henry David Thoreau is another famous example of a creative who spent time in solitude. He decamped to the Walden pon din Massachusetts to pen masterpieces like Walden.
It’s impractical for most creatives to isolate themselves for two years today. But, cultivate blocks of alone time for an hour or two each day or a few days every few months enables self-reflection and deep work. That assumes you’re not spending alone time on social media or browsing the web.
12. Keeping a Schedule
It’s fun to think of creatives sleeping all day, rising late at night and exploring where the muse takes them. Perhaps they break things up drinking and party until dawn.
Who has time for routines when you’re living a creative life?
The reality is most modern creatives keep an orderly routine. They go to bed and get up at the same time almost every day and keep up a regular working routine. Successful creatives know inspiration is more likely to strike if they turn up at their desk or in-studio at the same time every morning.
French novelist Gustave Flaubert said it best. He wrote,
“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
13. Working In Coffee Shops
Now and then, consider mixing up your creative routine by working somewhere new, like in the local library or coffee shop. Our environment drives creative thinking, and the ambient background noise of a coffee shop can spark more original ideas than working at a desk or in front of a computer screen all day.
A 2012 study found that low to moderate ambient background noise, like a coffee shop, noise boosts creative thinking.
Creatives like Pablo Picasso and JK Rowling all spent time working away on their creative projects in coffee shops too.
Creative Habits: The Final Word
The right creative habit feels automatic, and, like brushing your teeth, it’s not something to question. They should help you unlock fresh thinking and find better ideas for your projects. Cultivate these habits as part of a daily routine, and you’ll find it much easier to write, draw, compose or paint.
Creative Habits FAQs
How do you start a creative habit?
Pick one relevant creative habit like meditating or journaling. Work on it at the same time and place every day for a few minutes. Gradually build up the amount of time you spend on this habit. Track your progress and reward yourself occasionally until it becomes automatic. Then, pick a new habit.