Today I want to talk about your creative routine, and how mastering a habit can help you to make art on a regular basis.
If you follow me on social media, you might have seen me speak about physical issues that have prevented me from writing. I suffer from RSI (repetitive strain injury) in both my hands and one shoulder, as well as some yet unknown nerve damage. As a result, I was forced to stop writing almost completely for over two months.
Recently, I’ve been feeling better and was able to go back to writing, with the helpful assistance of a dictation software. But going back was NOT easy. I was procrastinating, I was frustrated by the use of the dictation software, I felt like my brain was foggy and not helpful, and I never seemed to be able to get started on anything.
I realised that, in the two months of not writing, I had lost the key component of writing: the habit!
Habit ≠ Motivation
People usually think that motivation is the key to being able to create a lot of art, but it’s not. Motivation only helps with starting a project. But in the long run, motivation doesn’t really sustain you. It’s not reliable enough and you often will lose it along the way. It will not help you finish a book, a play, a composition or a complicated drawing.
What you need is something much more efficient than motivation. An engine that runs even when you feel unmotivated: a habit. A habit is something that you will do every day (or very regularly). And a collection of habits is called a routine.
The good new is, you already have a routine. Look at the habits you already have: brushing your teeth, taking a shower, having breakfast, checking the news… These are only a few of the habits you do every day. And for most of those, you do them without even thinking about them. Indeed, unless you suffer from depression (or other issues that might make daily habits difficult), these habits don’t require much motivation to accomplish them. Often, with a routine, you completely switch off your brain and just perform the actions you are used to. You don’t need encouragement to do them.
Well, that’s what you need to do with your art.
Creating a New Habit
The idea here is to integrate your art into your day in a way that you’ll do it without thinking about it. It will become your new “normal”. But how do you create such a routine?
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains the concept of the habit loop. According to him, a habit is composed of three steps: the trigger, the routine, and the reward.
The trigger is what will tell your brain to start doing something. It can be the time of the day, for example. You could decide that every day at the same time, you will be writing. Or you could decide that every Saturday morning, you will be drawing without a fault. Or once the clock shows twelve, you’ll start composing a new song.
The trigger doesn’t have to be time-based, however. It can be a different visual cue. For example, it can be sitting at a specific desk that you don’t use for anything else than creating. Or it can be using a dedicated room, if you have the space. It can also be wearing a specific outfit, for example an apron for painting. All these visual triggers will tell your brain that it’s time to start.
You can even use your other senses. These are very powerful cues to trick your brain. For example, you can use a scented candle that you’ll burn every day when you start. You could also drink a specific beverage. For example I use coffee to tell my brain: “this is it, that’s when we write”. You can use music and play the same playlist or the same song to put yourself in the mood for creating.
And you can even combine all of these trigger to create your own tailored routine. You could do your art every day at the same time, in the same room, using the same outfit and drinking the same beverage. The more triggers you have, the better your brain will be at switching into a creative mode.
This is where you create your art.
If you’re new to this or are coming back to creating after a long break, I would suggest that you don’t do too much at first. It’s not really realistic to plan to write for two hours when you have never written for that long. It’s also not realistic to strain your voice for hours on end if you have never sung for that long before.
A really important part of creating a routine is to make it sustainable. If you are just starting, and you just want to be a bit more creative on a daily basis, do that for 15-20 minutes. Give yourself the benefit of just doing something without having the strain of doing it for too long.
And then, once your routine is more established, you can start increasing the length of the sessions.
The reward is probably the most important part of this habit loop. It’s there to prove to your brain that it should repeat the loop the next day because it’s worth it. But how do you reward yourself?
There are several ways to do this. The first and probably the most obvious is to give yourself an actual reward. It could be eating a treat. It could be watching an episode of your favourite series. Or it could be having fun, going out, or meeting friends. These kinds of rewards work as long as you don’t exaggerate. If you eat a piece of chocolate every five minutes, you’re going to lose interest after a while. It has to be proportionate to the work.
Don’t make the mistake of lying to yourself, though. It’s easy to say, “in five minutes, I will have a break”, then forget to take a break and push through. Next time, your brain will remember that the promised break was a lie, and it’s not going to work as well. The carrot only works if you get it at the end. So be honest with yourself and be accountable.
Another way to reward yourself is to track your progress. And preferably do it in a way that you can quantify with numbers. For example, you can track the time that you’re spending on your art. Let’s say that you have decided to paint every day for half an hour. It’s a good idea to keep track of it, in a notebook, in an app or on a spreadsheet. In this case, the reward is seeing that you have been working consistently every day for several weeks. Another example, if you’re a writer like me, is to track the number of words written every day.
Track the progress that you make, and prove to yourself that the routine was worth it, because now you have more words, you’re further in your painting, or you have more skills than when you started.
This is the most essential part of any routine. You need to do it often enough so that yo do it automatically. It might take some motivation at the beginning, but after a while you’ll notice that it will become easier and easier.
It is said that making a new habit takes 3 weeks. So, this is the plan: try it for that amount of time. Decide what will be your trigger, what you will do and for how long, and how you’ll reward yourself. And see how it goes.
Chances are, after 3 weeks, you’ll notice a lot of progress in your productivity!
But What If I Fall Off The Wagon?
The main danger with a routine is to fall out of it. One day you don’t have time, then the next you don’t feel like it, and the next thing you know you haven’t produced anything in a month.
It’s okay to hit and miss. The important part is to notice it and understand what happened. What went wrong? Did you lose interest? Determine if maybe your triggers were not strong enough. Or if maybe your rewards stopped working after a while. Or perhaps if the routine was too intense, and real life just won.
And then, start again. Start small. Stay consistent, and you will see that after a while, your progress will be back!
I hope that this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments and how you get on with your creative habits!
Céline is an author passionate about helping fellow artists reach their potential and live a happy, balanced life.