How to Build a Creative Habit
A simple guide to help you better understand how creativity really works.
Creativity is not magic. It’s a habit you practice, built upon a mix of curiosity, passion, and determination. We all have at least a little bit of that inside us - remember that the next time you hear someone say, “I’m not creative.”
What the “I’m not creative” crowd might be doing is confusing creativity with skill. It’s OK if you don’t yet have the skills of your favorite authors, filmmakers, or musicians, but the process of learning and discovery is not out of reach to anyone with the will and ability to create.
There may even be benefits to creative pursuits beyond your own satisfaction. Dr. Cathy Malchiodi positions creativity as a wellness practice. She points to a number of studies showing how artistic practices contribute to wellbeing, especially later in life. “These findings underscore the idea that it is possible to build a ‘cognitive reserve’ through engaging in novel, creative experiences that have a protective effect on the brain,” notes Dr. Malchiodi. “Creativity is increasingly being validated as a potent mind-body approach as well as a cost-effective intervention to address a variety of challenges throughout the lifespan.”
If you feel like you don’t know where to begin, it helps to break the creative process down into smaller steps.
How to be creative (in five minutes a day)
In short, your goal is to start capturing life. You can write, take photos, knit, paint, carve wood, or do anything else that scratches your artistic itch. For simplicity, this will focus on writing, but you can apply the general principles here to just about any creative pursuit.
Dedicate five minutes a day to writing any thought that comes into your head. Write down a name, a stray phrase, or even what you ate for dinner last night. When you start looking at the same thing each day, whether it’s a blank page or your walk to work, you’ll begin to notice little differences. Repeating this practice each day creates a new muscle memory. As you repeat your process, you’ll become more comfortable and efficient. Dancer and author Twyla Tharp wrote about this in The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, “It gives you a path toward genuine creation through simple re-creation.”
After you’ve been writing for ten or twenty days, start to think critically. There’s no right answer, but there is an answer. Which sentences do you like more? Why do you think that is? Every so often, spend your five minutes writing about which sentences are better and why.
At a certain point you’ll get bored. That’s good. Be comfortable with boredom. Dr. Sandi Mann found links between boredom and creative thought; by giving yourself time to drift mentally, you’ll come up with more unique solutions.
Once you’re in a routine, think about a new idea. This could be a poem, story, or blog post. Write it, but don’t be concerned about whether it’s good or bad. (Or if it even makes sense.) Put it in a drawer and forget about it. Write another one. Use your five minutes on this each day now.
Creative people have a lot of ideas. Most of them are bad. Most of them are put in drawers and never seen again. But only by going through all these bad ideas can they find the good ones.
Then apply your process to something else. Something bigger like a song, screenplay, or presentation at work. Because creativity works like a muscle, and you’ve spent a lot of time building it up, this will be easier now.
By stretching yourself toward something new, you can find new connections between old ideas. Tharp, in The Creative Habit, touched on the purpose of artistic endeavors: “Creativity is more about taking the facts, fictions, and feelings we store away and finding new ways to connect them.”
Remember: Being human means making mistakes. It’s nothing to be ashamed of - making mistakes can be a great way to learn if you’re receptive to feedback. This is where you’ll find gaps in your knowledge, or realize that your original vision was slightly off. If people criticize your work or you aren’t happy with your progress, try to understand why. As Sarah Ruhl wrote in 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, “Failure loosens the mind. Perfection stills the heart.”
Don’t set specific goals. Not yet, anyway. This might seem counterintuitive. Although you should be writing every day - which is kind of a goal in itself - don’t mark it on a calendar. You didn’t fail anything if you miss a day. You simply missed a day. On the other hand, once you’ve completed your goal, you might be inclined to stop practicing. That’s not good, either. Being creative means figuring it out, not checking a box.
It will take time. That’s the point. As Mr. Rogers once said, “Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.”
Every once in awhile, take a step back and look at how far you’ve progressed. This might mean looking through old work that makes you cringe, but it’s an important part of growth. By regularly assessing your own progress, you’ll be more comfortable constructively critiquing your future work as you create it. This helps you to avoid the same mistake twice, and will keep your eyes on where you have room to grow.
What comes next?
Creativity is about starting small, making mistakes, and constantly adjusting your work. In other words: Practice.
There’s a legendary story about director David Fincher’s 2010 film The Social Network. The opening scene between actors Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara was filmed 99 times. As a viewer, you see a single version (or compilation from multiple takes) that makes Fincher, Eisenberg, Mara, and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin look creative, smart, and pitch perfect. You’re not seeing all 99 takes. You’re not seeing the dozens or hundreds of times Sorkin wrote and rewrote those lines. What you’re really seeing is the one time out of 99 they got each and every line just right. And that only comes after years, sometimes decades, of perfecting their craft.
What might you create if you tried the same thing 99 times?