Being routinely creative

By Philip Brewer on 13 June 2008 9 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

It might seem like creativity would flourish best in the absence of any constraining routine.  In fact, the opposite is true:  Having a routine is very useful for protecting your creativity.

Most people have the outline of a routine provided for them--they get up, they go to work or school, they come home, they go to bed.  This sort of rhythm provides a useful constraint on your routine--perhaps you shower before work, run errands on the way home, mow the lawn on the weekend.  If you're going to do any sort of creative work, you need to carve out a chunk of time somewhere in that schedule.  That isn't easy, but at least it's clear what you need to do.

If you don't have a schedule imposed by something external (such as school or a job), you might imagine that you're in a superior position to give your creativity free rein.  For most people, though, it doesn't work out that way.

Everybody has certain things that they need to do--pay the bills, buy the groceries, run the errands, etc.  The problem is, there's no limit to those sorts of activities--they will grow to fill all your time, if you don't put limits on them yourself.

If you don't have a work schedule to constrain them for you, it's very easy to let things that have to get done eat the time available for your creative pursuits.

The solution is a routine.  Just like someone with a job, allocate chunks of time for the things that have to be done, then prioritize.

There are two keys:

First, be sure to schedule a chunk of time for your creative work.  It doesn't need to be a lot--it doesn't take a lot of time to be creative.  Like everything else, if you allocate more time (and put it to good use), you can get more done.  But also like everything else, you pretty quickly run into diminishing returns--you won't get twice as much done in six hours as you can in three, or even twice as much in two hours as in one (although large chunks of time do have a magic all their own).

Second, be sure to restrict the "things that have to get done" to the time allotted for them.  Since they "have to get done," it's easy to let them encroach on the time you've set aside for other tasks.  Don't let that happen.  Make sure that you've got enough time to get the truly necessary things done (such as paying your bills), prioritize the other items, and ruthlessly defer anything that would spill over.

Whether you have the outline of a routine provided for you (by something like a job, school, or family obligations), or you have to create the entire routine for yourself, having one is the only way to ensure that you can get both your creative work and the ordinary chores of daily living done.

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Guest's picture

Philip, it always seemed intuitive to me as a writer that I'd need to schedule time to get the work done. Unfortunately, I didn't make the same connection with songwriting until last year.

To all you starving artists sitting around feeling sorry for yourself and "waiting for the muse to hit" - don't wait. Set a time and do it. Now will do. Trust me.

Great stuff, mate.

Guest's picture

I've got the scheduling part down. The hard part is getting the rest of the household to respect what it means when I tell them, "Not now, I'm working." Since I work at home on the same computer my husband uses to play games and watch movies, and since so far I have not earned any money with my creativity, it seems hard to get everyone in the mindset that I am working, not playing, and need not to be disturbed!

Guest's picture

this is so true and so hard to do. i've started setting myself to do the challenges over at -- it has swiftly become the highlight of my week.

Guest's picture

Routines are great, but I'm loathe to stop writing when I'm in the zone -- even if that zone has lasted hours and hours. I'll let even need-to-do tasks wait whenever a creative spurt is going hot and heavy. There is something to be said for this type of single-tasking. When the surge finally passes, I feel spent but also tremendously satisfied. But, most of the time, I do stick to routines.

Guest's picture

If I don't carve out time to be creative, that time will always get eaten up by less useful tasks. I think that creativity--at least beyond the initial spark--requires a commitment. The actual execution isn't always easy and intuitive, so we have to give it concrete boundaries in order to be developed. Like you suggest, a routine can provide those boundaries and create space for creative freedom.

Guest's picture

This has been a constant area of exploration for me. Sometimes I need to get back to routine. Other times I need to gear down and let my Muse find me in a hammock. And it is only really in the present that I can tell which is appropriate to where I am now.

Fred Lee's picture

Boy, try being a parent if you seek routines. And nothing makes you appreciate and make better use of your free time than being denied it. You certainly take it less for granted.

Guest's picture

This is so true, and I think it's something people struggle with, because it doesn't fit the romantic notion of the artist struck with inspiration. If I waited till I felt like drawing, I would do it once a month!

Guest's picture

It's amazing how much can be created within a structure of space.
Trial and error have taught me that.
Thank you for putting it into words which I do not have.