By Tom Beck
Sustained creativity is difficult. Too often, we’re seduced by the allure of inspiration. We wait for the muse to strike.
According to the World Economic Forum, creativity will be one of the most vital skills in the twenty-first century. Creativity is not just for working artists — it’s a useful and increasingly necessary skill for anyone to possess.
To develop your creativity, you must learn how to tap into it every day. You must devise a system where you can produce constantly, no matter how you feel. No matter how dry your inspiration.
Consistent creativity requires a system. There’s a bit of up-front work putting the system in place, but once it’s there, it proceeds naturally. Julia Cameron likens the creative process to a radio — with a transmission and a receiver. You must gather enough “inputs” (receiver) so that you can continually broadcast your creativity (transmission). You can also think of this process like refilling a well so that it’s always full when you need to draw from it every day.
What does the universe want you to create? If you cannot find time to stop and listen, you will never know.
For years, I struggled with this. I was always taking from my creative well but never refilling it. I would have sporadic bursts of creative work followed by droughts of inactivity. I never thought about refilling my well so it’s no surprise it was often empty. Instead of understanding the process, I beat myself up. I considered myself “not creative” enough.
But we’re all creative. Creativity is as natural to humans as breathing. Remember when you were a kid — you were creative without thinking about it. You just did it. You drew and wrote and painted and played music and danced because it was fun. That’s it.
Over the last few years, I’ve developed a little routine each day that helps me stay creative. It’s quite simple — only three real tools, none of which takes very long. You could do all of them in an hour — twenty minutes each. Every morning, I make these three tasks my priority.
They’re the most crucial things I could do — they refill my creative well.
“Journaling daily is the most potent and powerful keystone habit you can acquire. If done correctly, you will show up better in every area of your life — every area! Without question, journaling has by far been the number one factor to everything I’ve done well in my life.” — Benjamin Hardy
The first thing I do in the morning, immediately after I wake up, is to write three pages in my journal. Well, usually, I get coffee, first. But then it’s right to the pages.
Journaling refills the creative well via subtraction. Like you, I have so many thoughts bouncing through my head — concerns ranging from what I need to pick up at the grocery store to how to fix the world’s problems. Writing in my journal helps get these thoughts out of my head and onto the page so that my mind is clear.
Here’s a neat trick — write down what you need to do each day.
You haven’t done it yet, but your brain feels like something has been accomplished. It’s why writing lists is so satisfying. I use my journal as a to-do list for the day — here are the things I need to accomplish. My list runs from the mundane (pick up more milk) to the abstract (thoughts about a poem I’m working on). I don’t think about it too much, I just list off the things on my mind.
Another technique for your journal is future-planning. In Personality Isn’t Permanent, Benjamin Hardy recommends using your journal for goal-setting. As Hardy writes, you can use your journal to:
Clarify your ideas and insights
Affirm that you can make your goals real
Make plans for accomplishing your goals
Acknowledge the help you receive
I like to write down my goals every day in my journal. Every month and every quarter, I do a review and reassess the goals I have, my progress, and how important they remain to my happiness. I do all of this in my journal and it’s a great way to keep myself motivated, particularly on those days that I don’t feel like working.
A journal is also a good warm-up exercise. If you write, I’m sure you’ve noticed that the first couple hundred words you produce aren’t very good. It takes a bit of time to swing into practice. Writing in your journal helps you work through the awkward pre-writing. Then, when it’s time to dive into a creative project, you’re already warmed up. You can think of your journal like stretching before you go for a run.
I like to write in my journal right after I wake up so that I can record my dreams while they’re still fresh. I don’t keep a dream journal per sé, but it’s helpful to write down my initial impressions. When you sleep, your mind doesn’t turn off. Your subconscious remains alert and communicates to you throughout the night. Many of my deepest insights have come from remembering and recording my thoughts immediately after waking up.
“What I’ve discovered is that the practice of diving within in meditation makes ideas easier to catch and the enjoyment of the doing increases exponentially and you appreciate people more — you seem to almost recognize everyone. It becomes fun to work. It’s not the kind of thing that you even think about, it just grows naturally.” — David Lynch
After I finish writing in my journal, I sit down and meditate for ten or twenty minutes. Like journaling, meditation is another subtraction technique. It’s another way to clear the mind so that creative thoughts have room to breathe.
Whereas journaling is an active form of subtraction (you actively write down your thoughts as a way to clear your head), meditation is a passive form of subtraction. You sit and watch your thoughts — that’s it.
Meditation is a form of prayer. It’s a way to reconnect with the universe. It’s a way to slow down and listen to what the universe is trying to tell you. What does the universe want you to create? If you cannot find time to stop and listen, you will never know.
I use meditation to get clarity on my creative goals. Often, I have a lot of goals running in tandem and it can be hard to know what to prioritize. Especially with financial considerations. As with many of our best creative ideas, we can struggle to think about how to “monetize” them. Worst, your loftiest creative goals promise to take years, even decades to accomplish.
How can you prioritize long-term projects with short-term payoffs (like making sure this month’s rent is paid)? Meditation helps. When you meditate, you get clarity on what you are supposed to do. Clear your head, listen, and the universe will tell you where to put your focus.
#3 Go for a walk
“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
In the middle of the day, usually after lunch, I go for a twenty-minute walk. Unlike journaling and meditation, walking is an additive process. The goal is to gather sensory details that I can repurpose for my creativity. Walking actively refills the well.
A Stanford study found that walking can boost creative output by 60 percent.
At its most basic level, walking provides the sensation of moving forward. In our creative endeavors, we can often feel like we’re stuck or that we’re going in circles. Taking a walk helps to recalibrate our focus forwards. By taking a walk, you can reaffirm a little bit of control.
Walking is inefficient, which makes it the perfect antidote to our frenzied age. We are so accustomed to receiving things immediately that we grow restless at the slightest delay. Creativity requires time. It needs to simmer for a while. You need to slow down.
A walk slows you down. Because it is slow and inefficient, it is ill-designed to get you anywhere in time. Which is good, because the point of your walk is to notice what you see. When you slow down, you are forced to notice details — you see every house, every pedestrian, the trees, the flowers, the clouds, the cracks in the pavement. These little details are the threads with which you will weave your creative projects.
Walking is also a physical activity — it reconnects you to your body. Your body is controlled by your subconscious mind, which is also the source of your creativity. It’s your muse. Think of your subconscious like your creative muscle. Walking is how you exercise it and keep it fit and healthy.
There is a rhythm to walking. It is no coincidence that in English, we describe poetic units as feet. To walk is to connect to the poetry of the body — to feel the swinging feet of words dashing across the verses of the street.
Take a notebook with you when you walk and write down your thoughts. Stop occasionally and look at something for a while. The painter Rodin recommended to the poet Rilke to spend an hour looking at one thing — so that you can really see it. Wallace Stevens wrote all of his poetry walking to and from work.
Walk every day and you’ll always have a full creative well to draw from. You’ll never have to worry about inspiration again.
I make sure I do each of these activities every day. No excuses. If I can’t prioritize doing these three things, then I am not prioritizing my creativity. It’s as simple as that.
After I do these three things, I sit down and write. Over the years, I’ve developed a checklist for keeping a daily writing habit. Get the checklist here.
There are some days I don’t work. There are days where I’m just too busy to do anything creative. Even on those days, I make sure to carve out time to journal, meditate, and walk. If I can do that, I can keep my creative well filled. Otherwise, I risk over-drafting the next time I sit down to create.
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