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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

More by this author

Leo Babauta

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

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

More About Goals Setting

Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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