The Focus Course

Developing Your Creative Habit

Here’s the thing with building a creative habit: you’re going to have a few enemies along the way.

For instance: You won’t want to start. Each day you’ll be tired, or bored, or distracted, or your desk will be too messy, or your kids will be sick. You won’t be feeling it. You won’t know what to say or draw or write.

There will always be an obstacle to overcome in order to get started.

The issue is not what challenge you face. Because you will face a challenge. The issue is, are you going to choose to show up anyway?

Here are a few examples of obstacles:

  • Not feeling it
  • A messy desk
  • Self doubt
  • A clean desk
  • Kids
  • A noisy work environment
  • A work environment that is almost too quiet (what’s going on here?)
  • Unanswered emails
  • Text messages from friends wanting to meet up later
  • The weather (It’s so beautiful, I should be outside! It’s so overcast, I should be reading a book with tea.)
  • The wrong tools
  • The expectation of fun

The idea of a “creative habit” is a bit sexy these days. It combines two rising tides of creativity and diligence. Which, at first, feels a bit paradoxical, but don’t worry… it’s not.

Since we know that overnight success isn’t actually a thing, we’re becoming more and more comfortable with signing up for the long game. Which is awesome. Until, that is, when you’re hit with two very difficult truths…

  1. Showing up every day is not as fun as it sounds (after the honeymoon period, the mundaneness and routine set in).

  2. It takes a long time — years! — to gain traction with your creative work (in terms of skill and recognition).

The most important thing, especially at the beginning, is repetition. Consistency.

The repetition — the quantity — is more important than the quality. Oftentimes, especially at the beginning, people put too much emphasis on the “creative” and not enough emphasis on the “habit”. That’s because the creative aspect is fun. It’s full of color and sound and light. While the habit aspect feels like grown-up crap, full of responsibility and duty.

But it is the latter which enables us to soar in the former over the long run. Raw, intrinsic motivation alone is not enough to carry you for decades.

Why so? Because of fear. Fear holds us back from our best work. Fear of the unknown. Fear of failing. Fear of other people’s opinions. You may even be afraid of success.

The only way to overcome fear is to push on in spite of it. And if you push through the fear enough times, then that fear becomes an ally rather than an enemy. Fear becomes a signpost telling you that you’re on the right path.

By showing up every day and doing the work, you gain a confidence knowing that fear will not win.

And so, how then do you show up ever day? I’m glad you asked.

How to Show Up Every Day

Put away your to-do list and get out your calendar.

Doing the work is not a task to be completed, it’s an appointment to be kept.

There are a lot of dynamics to this. And many things that help grease the skids, Such as building better defaults, and maintaining margin, and staying inspired, and removing friction from the process, and just getting started to push through the first five minutes, and having a routine around your daily creative time.

But these are the five things I want to emphasize today because these are non-sexy and yet they are the things that will have the most impact…

  1. Time and place
  2. A plan (what you’re going to do)
  3. A routine for getting started
  4. Accountability
  5. Lower the bar (500 crappy words)

If you do those 5 things, you’re optimizing for the starting line. Because in the beginning, what matters most is doing the repetitions. Quantity matters more than quality. But so many folks focus on quality and thus they never get started.

1. Pick a Time and Place

As I said, put away your to-do list and get out your calendar. Make an appointment with yourself for 20 minutes (or more if you’re feeling brave) and put it on the calendar. This is when you will do the creative work.

I know very clearly for me when and where I will do my writing each day. At 8:30 I am at my desk, typing.

As with all important things you want to do on a daily basis, your chances of doing them are way better if you have planned the time for when and where you’re going to do it.

(See also: How and Why I Schedule Every Minute)

2. Have A Very, Very, Very Simple Plan

When you show up to do your creative work, you need to be singularly focused on doing the work itself. For me, when I sit down to write each morning, I know exactly what the topic will be. That’s because I planned ahead the day before.

It takes about 30 seconds to plan ahead. Grab a sticky note, or a blank piece of paper, or a new note in your phone’s notes app and write down ahead of time what your topic or theme or goal will be for your session. Then, when you show up at your appointed time (remember from #1 above?) you’ll already know what to do. Now all that’s left is to just do it. Swoosh.

3. Routines (or Rituals) for Getting Started Are Awesome

My morning writing routine is basic. I sit down at my chair, turn on my lamp, put on my headphones, and hit play on the Monument Valley soundtrack. I have listened to this soundtrack hundreds if not thousands of times.

Do you know what’s hard? Sitting down to a blank page and having to come up with something interesting to say. But do you know what’s much easier? Sitting down, turning on some music, and then picking up where I left off with my aforementioned writing plan.

This ritual aids in the repetition. It helps me get started. It replaces the fear of a blank page with a familiar routine instead.

Lots of folks will tell you that you have to do this or that for your morning routine, etc. But learn what works for you.

For me, I try to stay away from email and Twitter until after lunch. My mind can get easily pulled into other issues and thus derail me from the writing that I want to do that day. But I know other folks who check email the very moment they wake up. So there is no single right or wrong “routine” — be weary of those who say otherwise.

But make no mistake about it: routine does matter. Systems and processes and boundaries and rituals are what keep you on track, day after day, year after year. As I said before, raw motivation isn’t enough.

4. Get Accountability

This comes in two forms: external and internal.

Externally, when you’re on the hook for something, you’re far more likely to get it done. This is part of why I’m committed to sending out my email newsletter every Friday. It’s a public expectation that keeps me on the hook for writing and publishing at least one article per week.

Internally, you can keep yourself accountable by recognizing and even celebrating your daily progress.

5. Lower the Bar

Set your bar of success pretty low at the beginning. Don’t hold yourself to a standard so high you will only feel the pangs of shame at not succeeding right away. Instead, hold your creative output to a lower standard than normal.

As you are building your habit, the aim is little more than to show up and keep your appointment with yourself. Not to create a masterpiece. Just punch the card that says you were here, give yourself a high-five, and go make another cup of coffee.

Doing your best creative work is already a fight. Don’t make it harder on yourself than it has to be. You’ll return again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.


P.S. I put together a one-page Show Up Every Day Worksheet to help you set a creative goal for the week, and begin building a creative habit.

Download of the PDF »

If you download it and fill it out, let me know! I’m @shawnblanc on both Twitter and Instagram.

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