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What is the No. 1 Habit of Highly Creative People?

What is the No. 1 Habit of Highly Creative People?

For the full original unedited article visit Leo Babauta’s blog, Zen Habits

“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for contructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.” ~Rollo May

Creativity is a nebulous, murky topic that fascinates me endlessly — how does it work? What habits to creative people do that makes them so successful at creativity?

I’ve reflected on my own creative habits, but decided I’d look at the habits that others consider important to their creativity. I picked a handful of creatives, almost at random — there are so many that picking the best would be impossible, so I just picked some that I admire, who came to mind when I thought of the word “creative”.

This was going to be a list of their creative habits … but in reviewing their lists, and my own habits, I found one that stood out. And it stands out if you review the habits and quotes from great creative people in history.

It’s the Most Important Habit when it comes to creativity.

After you read the No. 1 habit, please scroll down and read the No. 2 habit — they might seem contradictory but in my experience, you can’t really hit your creative stride until you find a way to balance both habits.

The No. 1 Creativity Habit

In a word: solitude.

Creativity flourishes in solitude. With quiet, you can hear your thoughts, you can reach deep within yourself, you can focus.

Of course, there are lots of ways to find this solitude. Let’s listen to a few of the creative people I talked to or researched:

Felicia Day – wonderful actress perhaps best known for her awesome awesome work on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Guild.

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I was thrilled when she replied to my email asking about her creative habits. One of the things she said: she makes “sure to be creative first thing in the morning, before doing anything for the outside world, really sets the day up for me. It makes it feel that CREATING is my job, not answering emails.”

Ali Edwards – an author, designer, and leading authority on scrapbooking.

I was honored with a response from Ali as well. One of her top habits wasn’t exactly solitude, but is related: “Do nothing. I have a habit of welcoming time away from my creative work. For me this is serious life-recharging time where my only responsibility is to just be Mom & Wife & Me. Doing nothing has a way of synthesizing what is really important in my life and in my work and inspires me beyond measure. When I come back to work I am better equipped to weed out the non-essential stuff and focus on the things I most want to express creatively.”

Chase Jarvis – an award-winning photographer.

Chase also kindly responded with several of his key creativity habits — see more great ones at the bottom of this post. But here’s one that I loved: “Find Quiet. Creativity sometimes washes over me during times of intense focus and craziness of work, but more often I get whacked by the creative stick when I’ve got time in my schedule. And since my schedule is a crazy one and almost always fills up if I’m just “living”, I tend to carve out little retreats for myself. I get some good thinking and re-charge time during vacations, or on airplanes, but the retreats are more focused on thinking about creative problems that I’m wanting to solve. That’s why I intentionally carve time out. I make room for creativity. Intentionally. The best example of what I mean by a retreat is a weekend at my family’s cabin. It’s a 90 minute drive from my house on the coast. There are few distractions. Just a rocky beach and a cabin from the 60′s with wood paneling and shag carpet. I go for walks, hikes, naps. I read. I did get an internet signal put in there to stay connected if I need it. But the gist is QUIET. Let there be space for creativity to fill your brain.”

Maciej Cegłowski – painter, programmer, excellent writer.

Maciej is one of my favorite bloggers, and responded to my email with a classically short answer that to me, embodies a beautiful way to find solitude.

What habit helps his creativity?

Maciej replied: “Running up hills!”

Leo Babauta: OK, I wasn’t going to talk about myself in this post, but I thought I should share some of my previous thoughts.

The best art is created in solitude, for good reason: it’s only when we are alone that we can reach into ourselves and find truth, beauty, soul. Some of the most famous philosophers took daily walks, and it was on these walks that they found their deepest thoughts.

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My best writing, and in fact the best of anything I’ve done, was created in solitude.

Just a few of the benefits I’ve found from solitude:

  • time for thought
  • in being alone, we get to know ourselves
  • we face our demons, and deal with them
  • space to create
  • space to unwind, and find peace
  • time to reflect on what we’ve done, and learn from it
  • isolation from the influences of other helps us to find our own voice
  • quiet helps us to appreciate the smaller things that get lost in the roar

The Greats on Solitude

Of course, many other creative people have believed in the habit of solitude. I’ve collected a small but influential sample here. There are many more examples.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – prolific and influential composer of the Classical era. He composed over 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, piano, operatic, and choral music. He is among the most enduringly popular of classical composers.

Mozart: “When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer–say, traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep–it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.”

Albert Einstein – theoretical physicist, philosopher and author who is widely regarded as one of the most influential and best known scientists and intellectuals of all time. He is often regarded as the father of modern physics.

Einstein: “On the other hand, although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.”

Franz Kafka – one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Novelist and writer of short stories whose works came to be regarded as one of the major achievements of 20th century literature.

Kafka: “You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

Nikola Tesla – inventor, one of the most important contributors to the birth of commercial electricity, best known for his many revolutionary developments in the field of electromagnetism.

Tesla: “The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.”

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Joseph Haydn: A life-long resident of Austria, Haydn spent much of his career as a court musician for the wealthy Hungarian aristocratic Esterházy family on their remote estate. Isolated from other composers and trends in music until the later part of his long life, he was, as he put it, “forced to become original”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – German writer and polymath. Goethe’s works span the fields of poetry, drama, literature, theology, philosophy, and science.

His magnum opus, lauded as one of the peaks of world literature, is the two-part drama Faust.

Goethe: “One can be instructed in society, one is inspired only in solitude.”

Pablo Picasso – Spanish painter best known for co-founding the Cubist movement and for the wide variety of styles embodied in his work. His revolutionary artistic accomplishments brought him universal renown and immense fortunes throughout his life, making him one of the best-known figures in twentieth century art.

Picasso: “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”

Carl Sandburg – American writer and editor, best known for his poetry.

He won three Pulitzer Prizes, two for his poetry and another for a biography of Abraham Lincoln. H. L. Mencken called Carl Sandburg “indubitably an American in every pulse-beat.”

Sandburg: “One of the greatest necessities in America is to discover creative solitude.”

Thomas Mann – German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and 1929 Nobel Prize laureate, known for his series of highly symbolic and ironic epic novels and novellas, noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual.

Mann: “Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous — to poetry.”

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The No. 2 Creative Habit

While it might seem contradictory, the No. 2 habit when it comes to nurturing creativity: participation. This can come in many forms, but it requires connecting with others, being inspired by others, reading others, collaborating with others.

But how can you have both solitude and participation? They obviously have to come at different times. Finding the balance is key, of course, but it takes a conscious effort: this time is for solitude, and this time is for participation.

Why are they both important? We need inspiration from without, but we need creation from within.

A couple of the people I interviewed had habits that relate to this:

Chase Jarvis: “Devour Popular Culture. Consuming the works of others inspires me. And it’s not just museums and the “establishment”. I devour magazines, books, street art, performances, music, etc. All things that make me think critically (and whimsically) about the world. You get the picture. Inspiration can come from anywhere.”

Ali Edwards: “Participate. My creative spirit is interested in documenting the wonderful everyday details of our lives. To really get to the heart of the matter I need to be fully participating in my life, in the interactions with my kids and husband and family and friends. If I am just going through the motions or wishing away the present moment for “the next thing” I am missing the blessing of right now. My creativity requires the habit of active participation and daily attention to detail.”

Other Creative Habits

There are other habits than those top two, of course, that can nourish creativity. Some other good ones:

Felicia Day: “When I am most productive I am the most ruthless with my schedule. I will literally make a daily checklist with, “one hour gym”, “30 minutes of internet research,” and “drink 3 glasses of water” on it. For some reason being that disciplined creates a sense of control that I wouldn’t have otherwise, as a self-employed person, and I get the most out of the scheduled hours that I have for writing.”

Ali Edwards: “Take notes. I am a really good note-taker. It’s essential for me to write down my ideas when they come to mind…otherwise, poof, they disappear way too quickly as I move on to the next task (diaper changes, wiping noses, tending to the stuff of life). I use my phone, my computer, and a moleskine notebook to jot down thoughts and ideas and then I move them into Things every week or so.”

Chase Jarvis had a few more:

  • Live a creative life everyday. I very much believe in doing creative stuff everyday. For one, I take photos and videos almost everyday. Doesn’t matter the camera. I use my iPhone everyday. Just taking photos keeps me in a creative headspace. Hell, I play with my food and draw and doodle.
  • Moderate Expectations. Make it a habit not to judge yourself on your creative output. Sometimes your creativity is on fire. Great news. Other times, it’s not. It’s hard sometimes when you make art in a professional commercial capacity because you’re paid to be ‘ON’, but you’ll save yourself a lot of greif if you make it a habit to be cool to your psyche when your creative mojo isn’t firing on all pistons.
  • Shake Your Tree. When I’m starting to feel stale, I make a habit of getting into adventures. Break molds. Drive home from work a different way. Stir up my routine. I get active and shake my tree.
  • Find fun.  Doing what you love inspires you to be more creative.  Make time and space for having fun.  All work and no play makes Jane a dull girl.
  • Lastly, being creative means living a creative life.  Expect yourself to have one.  Believe you are creative. Know that you are. Make that the most important habit of all.

For more on creativity, read my Little But Useful Guide to Creativity.

“Creativity is essentially a lonely art. An even lonelier struggle. To some a blessing. To others a curse. It is in reality the ability to reach inside yourself and drag forth from your very soul an idea.” ~Lou Dorfsman

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Leo Babauta

Founder of Zen Habits and expert in habits building and goals achieving.

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Last Updated on March 21, 2019

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

Most gurus talk about habits in a way that doesn’t help you:

You need to push yourself more. You can’t be lazy. You need to wake up at 5 am. You need more motivation. You can never fail…blah blah “insert more gibberish here.”

But let me share with you the unconventional truths I found out:

To build and change habits, you don’t need motivation or wake up at 5 am. Heck, you can fail multiple times, be lazy, have no motivation and still pull it off with ease.

It’s quite simple and easy to do, especially with the following list I’m going to show to you. But remember, Jim Rohn used to say,

“What is simple and easy to do is also simple and easy not to do.”

The important things to remember when changing your habits are both simple and easy, just don’t think that they don’t make any difference because they do.

In fact, they are the only things that make a difference.

Let’s see what those small things are, shall we?

1. Start Small

The biggest mistake I see people doing with habits is by going big. You don’t go big…ever. You start small with your habits.

Want to grow a book reading habit? Don’t start reading a book a day. Start with 10 pages a day.

Want to become a writer? Don’t start writing 10,000 words a day. Start with 300 words.

Want to lose weight? Don’t stop eating ice cream. Eat one less ball of it.

Whatever it is, you need to start small. Starting big always leads to failure. It has to, because it’s not sustainable.

Start small. How small? The amount needs to be in your comfort zone. So if you think that reading 20 pages of a book is a bit too much, start with 10 or 5.

It needs to appear easy and be easy to do.

Do less today to do more in a year.

2. Stay Small

There is a notion of Kaizen which means continuous improvement. They use this notion in habits where they tell you to start with reading 1 page of a book a day and then gradually increase the amount you do over time.

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But the problem with this approach is the end line — where the “improvement” stops.

If I go from reading 1 page of a book a day and gradually reach 75 and 100, when do I stop? When I reach 1 book a day? That is just absurd.

When you start a habit, stay at it in the intensity you have decided. Don’t push yourself for more.

I started reading 20 pages of a book a day. It’s been more than 2 years now and I’ve read 101 books in that period. There is no way I will increase the number in the future.

Why?

Because reading 40 to 50 books a year is enough.

The same thing applies to every other habit out there.

Pick a (small) number and stay at it.

3. Bad Days Are 100 Percent Occurrence

No matter how great you are, you will have bad days where you won’t do your habit. Period.

There is no way of going around this. So it’s better to prepare yourself for when that happens instead of thinking that it won’t ever happen.

What I do when I miss a day of my habit(s) is that I try to bounce back the next day while trying to do habits for both of those days.

Example for that is if I read 20 pages of a book a day and I miss a day, the next day I will have to read 40 pages of a book. If I miss writing 500 words, the next day I need to write 1000.

This is a really important point we will discuss later on rewards and punishments.

This is how I prepare for the bad days when I skip my habit(s) and it’s a model you should take as well.

4. Those Who Track It, Hack It

When you track an activity, you can objectively tell what you did in the past days, weeks, months, and years. If you don’t track, you will for sure forget everything you did.

There are many different ways you can track your activities today, from Habitica to a simple Excel sheet that I use, to even a Whatsapp Tracker.

Peter Drucker said,

“What you track is what you do.”

So track it to do it — it really helps.

But tracking is accompanied by one more easy activity — measuring.

5. Measure Once, Do Twice

Peter Drucker also said,

“What you measure is what you improve.”

So alongside my tracker, I have numbers with which I measure doses of daily activities:

For reading, it’s 20 pages.
For writing, it’s 500 words.
For the gym, it’s 1 (I went) or 0 (didn’t go).
For budgeting, it’s writing down the incomes and expenses.

Tracking and measuring go hand in hand, they take less than 20 seconds a day but they create so much momentum that it’s unbelievable.

6. All Days Make a Difference

Will one day in the gym make you fit? It won’t.

Will two? They won’t.

Will three? They won’t.

Which means that a single gym session won’t make you fit. But after 100 gym sessions, you will look and feel fit.

What happened? Which one made you fit?

The answer to this (Sorites paradox)[1] is that no single gym session made you fit, they all did.

No single day makes a difference, but when combined, they all do. So trust the process and keep on going (small).

7. They Are Never Fully Automated

Gurus tell you that habits become automatic. And yes, some of them do, like showering a certain way of brushing your teeth.

But some habits don’t become automatic, they become a lifestyle.

What I mean by that is that you won’t automatically “wake up” in the gym and wonder how you got there.

It will just become a part of your lifestyle.

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The difference is that you do the first one automatically, without conscious thought, while the other is a part of how you live your life.

It’s not automatic, but it’s a decision you don’t ponder on or think about — you simply do it.

It will become easy at a certain point, but they will never become fully automated.

8. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Marshall Goldsmith has a great book with the same title to it. The phrase means that sometimes, you will need to ditch certain habits to make room for other ones which will bring you to the next step.

Don’t be afraid to evolve your habits when you sense that they don’t bring you where you want to go.

When I started reading, it was about reading business and tactic books. But two years into it, I switched to philosophy books which don’t teach me anything “applicable,” but instead teach me how to think.

The most important ability of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. The strongest tree is the willow tree – not because it has the strongest root or biggest trunk, but because it is flexible enough to endure and sustain anything.

Be like a willow, adapting to the new ways of doing things.

9. Set a Goal and Then Forget It

The most successful of us know what they want to achieve, but they don’t focus on it.

Sounds paradoxical? You’re right, it does. But here is the logic behind it.

You need to have a goal of doing something – “I want to become a healthy individual” – and then, you need to reverse engineer how to get there with your habits- “I will go to the gym four times a week.”

But once you have your goal, you need to “forget” about it and only focus on the process. Because you are working on the process of becoming healthy and it’s always in the making. You will only be as healthy as you take care of your body.

So you have a goal which isn’t static but keeps on moving.

If you went to the gym 150 times year and you hit your goal, what would you do then? You would stop going to the gym.

This is why goal-oriented people experience yo-yo effect[2] and why process-oriented people don’t.

The difference between process-oriented and goal-oriented people is that the first focus on daily actions while others only focus on the reward at the finish line.

Set a goal but then forget about it and reap massive awards.

10. Punish Yourself

Last two sections are pure Pavlovian – you need to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. You are the only person who decides what is good and what is bad for you, but when you do, you need to rigorously follow that.

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I’ve told you in point #3 about bad days and how after one occurs, I do double the work on the next day. That is one of my forms of punishments.

It’s the need to tell your brain that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they lead to bad outcomes. That’s what punishments are for.

You want to tell your brain that there are real consequences to missing your daily habits.[3]

No favorite food to eat or favorite show to watch or going to the cinema for a new Marvel movie- none, zero, zilch.

The brain will remember these bad feelings and will try to avoid the behaviors that led to them as much as possible.

But don’t forget the other side of the same coin.

11. Reward Yourself

When you follow and execute on your plan, reward yourself. It’s how the brain knows that you did something good.

Whenever I finish one of my habits for the day, I open my tracker (who am I kidding, I always keep it open on my desktop) and fill it with a number. As soon as I finish reading 20 pages of a book a day (or a bit more), I open the tracker and write the number down.

The cell becomes green and gives me an instant boost of endorphin – a great success for the day. Then, it becomes all about not breaking the chain and having as many green fields as possible.

After 100 days, I crunch some numbers and see how I did.

If I have less than 10 cheat days, I reward myself with a great meal in a restaurant. You can create your own rewards and they can be daily, weekly, monthly or any arbitrary time table that you create.

Primoz Bozic, a productivity coach, has gold, silver, and bronze medals as his reward system.[4]

If you’re having problems creating a system which works for you, contact me via email and we can discuss specifics.

In the End, It Matters

What you do matters not only to you but to the people around you.

When you increase the quality of your life, you indirectly increase the quality of life of people around you. And sometimes, that is all the “motivation” we need to start.

And that’s the best quote for the end of this article:

“Motivation gets you started, but habits keep you going.”

Keep going.

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More Resources to Help You Build Habits

Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sorites paradox
[2] Muscle Zone: What causes yo-yo effect and how to avoid it?
[3] Growth Habits: 5 Missteps That Cause You To Quit Building A Habit
[4] Primoz Bozic: The Lean Review: How to Plan Your 2019 in 20 Minutes

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