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:
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!”
Rayyan Islam: 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.
My best writing, and in fact the best of anything I’ve done, was created and produced 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
Most importantly of all, it allows us to truly think, feel and let our thoughts wander into the unknown - to escape from the mental perimeters that living in society can often impair us with.
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.
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.
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.
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. And yes, this is the same Nikola Tesla that Elon Musk had admired and named his electric vehicle company after: Tesla Motors.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 moleskin 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 a 3-second video clip everyday. Doesn’t matter the camera. I use my iPhone everyday. Just taking photos keeps me in a creative headspace and helps me internalize the events of my life. Hell, I play with my food, sing, and take time to 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 grief if you make it a habit to be cool to your psyche when your creative mojo isn’t firing on all pistons.
- Break your plateau: 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 break my plateau. Just like in fitness, you have to do something different to escape from your plateau, to reach the next fitness level.
- Find fun. Doing what you love inspires you to be more creative. Make time and space for having fun. All work and no play can make anyone a dull person to be around.
- 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.
Keep hustling, my friends.