Photo courtesy of SXC.
Habit and ritual aren’t necessarily the first two words that come to mind when thinking about artistic creativity. The stereotype of a “creative” person typically is of one so nonconformist that he or she can’t be “bothered” with schedules, routines or anything that resembles planning. And I’ve certainly known artists for whom “spontaneity” was deeply interwoven into their artistic identity, and who created works that reflected that mercurial quality of their personality.
However, it’s also true that many of the most prolific and successful artists are well-grounded, and cultivating positive habits and rituals related to one’s art is all about grounding.
Plenty of creativity experts tout the necessity of developing constructive creative habits. Julia Cameron talks about the “creative grid,” that web of routine and practice that can protect artists from chaos, drama and subconscious resistance to their work. Carol Lloyd, in her creative-career-making book “Creating a Life Worth Living,” encourages readers to practice The Daily Activity, which she describes as 15 minutes everyday spent in a solitary, process-oriented activity that “creates an empty space where your creativity can reassert itself.” Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp has written a book, “The Creative Habit,” dedicated largely to the subject of habits, and she speaks of her own daily routine this way,
“I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 a.m., put on my work out clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.”
Examples of positive habits and rituals
The habits you use to ground your creative work will be unique to you, your background, preferences, personality, etc. However, here are some examples of habits/rituals that other artists have found useful.
- Writing Morning Pages or First Thoughts pages, ala Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg, respectively
- Long walks immediately before practicing one’s art (or taking it along for the ride)
- Sketching or doodling
- Playing or singing improvisational melodies
- Dancing alone in the living room
- Spending time watching the sun rise/set or quietly observing nature
- Daily care of your musical instrument, art materials, etc.
Hallmarks of positive habits and rituals
Whatever habits you choose to cultivate to enhance your creative momentum, check to see if they have these hallmarks in common.
1. A positive habit or ritual gets you doing your art, not just talking about it. Whether the habit is a springboard into the art-making, or a warm-up involving actually doing it, it should ideally propel you directly into action.
2. It is anchored in your day-to-day life. The habit should be simple enough not to require a particular location, great expense or lots of extra gear to complete.
3. It meshes with the range of projects you’re interested in pursuing. Again, whether the habit is a warm-up activity or one that leads you into your art from that “empty space” opened up for creativity, the ideal habit helps you stay excited about your creative goals and keep going when an individual art work becomes challenging.
4. It is fun, comforting, or has some element of grounding or creative reassurance. Positive habits don’t have to be soothing, but they definitely need some element of pleasure to them. If you pick a warm-up routine that is an onerous, resistance-inciting challenge, how much energy is going to be left over to actually create?
Positive habits build creative ROI
Cultivating a habit is an investment—and like all investments, it comes with risks. However, finding rituals that work for you can payoff by creating a situation in which it is more uncomfortable NOT to create than it is to remain blocked. Another payoff can happen if the activity you choose allows you to slowly chip away at any subconscious resistance you may have to your work or a particular project. Finally, well-cultivated habits embed your creative efforts into your daily routine, no matter how chaotic, unsettling, or just plain traumatic your day may be.
Helpful links for creative habit-building
Warning: Habits May Be Good for You: Thought-provoking New York Times article discussing research into habit formation and how public health advocates have used that knowledge to encourage positive hygiene habits in developing countries.
Brain researchers explain why old habits die hard: Article on brain research being done at MIT gives insight into what happens to our brain when we form a habit.
MindHabits: Video game developed to “train” attention on positive, growth-enhancing behaviors (looking for acceptance in a sea of rejection, etc.). I wouldn’t recommend this as your sole positive habit related to creativity, but the site is interesting in the way that the developers have created a complex, multi-level game to reinforce helpful actions.