The Creative Habit

When magical thinking hurts you

My cat Arlo doesn't understand how dressers work.

When I open my bottom dresser drawer, he slides under it, does happy-baby yoga pose on his back, and marvels at this magical, new place. When I close the drawer, suddenly the whole world as he knew it is back.

I love me a little magic in my life, who doesn't? But here's the thing: Arlo thinks he lives in a magical world.

Magical thinking is the fallacious attribution of causal relationships between actions and events.

This is because he doesn't understand cabinetry (as if I do), physics, nor several millennia of human invention and ingenuity that make up his environment.

If he understood those things, the nook that opens up when he's next to my dresser would not delight him as much. I think he would say,

"But of course. I will lie here and then Girl Human will push in the drawer, triggering the slide mechanism to happen along the track. Finally, the drawer will disappear into the greater apparatus, awaiting its next use."

Magical thinking can be a trap or a hiding place if you go there too much.

Have you ever had a great work day and chalked it up to the universe or solely because you had a green juice, or something? I thank the universe too, but I also know my stellar creative days are the fruit of the following:

  • wake up before 8am
  • meditate
  • move mah boday
  • shower
  • eat breakfast
  • switch off from my sitting desk to standing desk every 90 mins
  • eat lunch
  • take breaks
  • try to see the opportunity for growth in every moment.

Sometimes the way things go is super smooth and there's no feeling quite like it. At the same time, it's quite ordinary. You can put a lens of magic on it if you want, but the truth is it's entirely within your power to have a great work day. 

Stop making New Year's Resolutions

Join me and do a quarterly focus instead. That's 4 foci per year, all leading up to a big goal. Here's how my goal of "wellness" looks like, batched out:

Q1 — Move well.

Jan: Move your body 20-30 mins a day.
Feb: Choose a fun movement practice and go 1x/week.
Mar: Start going 2x/week.

Q2 — Eat well.

Apr: Order literally colorful dishes at restaurants (more colors means more variety of nutrients).
May: Make sure half my plate (eating out or in) is veggies.
Jun: Cook 5-ingredient healthy dishes at home a couple times a week (cook time max 1 hr, pot-to-plate)

Q3 — Rest well.

Jul: Take a 10 min break every 90 mins of working.
Aug: Pick 3 priorities for the day and stick to them. 
Sep: No devices past 11pm.

Q4 — Connect well.

Oct: Say "Hello!" to one stranger a day.
Nov: Write an intro email to like-minded friends once a day.
Dec: Plan or attend a simple gathering once a week.

Wish me luck, and let me know if you want to join me! I'd be happy to set up a support group.

Be consistent

I was a 2nd/3rd grade after-school teacher for one year; I consider it my fellowship in education.

Kids crave structure and consistency. Someone else is always telling them what to do and when —they like to know what's coming next.

Confession: I had a lot of trouble being consistent with my group of kids, and the chaos of the job affected me more than most. I'd say we would play "ball tag" (just like it sounds) in 2 days, and I would plan something else and end up disappointing a lot of them. I would ask Alex to be "line leader" and then put another kid in front of him. Inconsistent, and the kids learned to curb their excitement when I announced something fun.

The same can be said for your bosses, colleagues, and audience. Each of us is dealing with a lot of live and digital chaos. If you're not consistent, the general response to your announcements will be "Nice" and "We'll see about that."

How to be more consistent

  1. Master the art of saying no, thank you quickly and yes slowly.
  2. Make a habit out of inviting eyeballs on your work. If daily, all the better.
  3. Say "My name is _. I (what you do), every day. You can count on it."

Back in the saddle

The holidays are tough for many reasons; the media focuses on how stressful it can be to be around family, falling into deeply ingrained patterns and roles.

Creatively, they can be challenging because many of the routines and habits that keep you creating get paused. Everyone else is resting. Resting well is important. But the holidays are nothing if not extreme, and it's hard to find a balance between rest and staying creatively engaged.

A perspicacious coach friend of mine Betsy Butterick once told me "When in doubt, do less and be more." Somehow, the way she phrased it stuck with me, and now it's a kernel of truth that I revisit every time I'm trying to do too much.

During this break, I definitely overloaded on "be". Getting back on the "do" horse is taking some time.

Take Frank Sinatra's advice and switch off for balance: Do Be Do Be Do. :)

Hold your "expertise" lightly

"My current thinking" is a great way to start sentences.

My current thinking is (where you're at).
My current thinking is (fearlessly say it even though you're not 100% sure). 

It leaves space for development, improvement, refinement, nuance, and just... mistakes.

We often want to nail down, define, box in, or limit a concept. It's all in the name of wanting to understand something well, and that place is a good place to start.

However, in order shake up your field of expertise, it's beneficial to hold your thinking lightly. If a better frame or more cogent idea comes along, you can update your current thinking.

When you just can't today

The news is really getting to me.

It's overwhelming, scary and I didn't want to write anything today. Plus it's pouring here in SF.

Less-than-ideal conditions: this is when we push to keep going.

Creative flow is most needed right now. When anxiety strikes, it's almost impossible to look forward and stay plugged in to possibilities. Creative flow keeps you malleable, thinking, holding things lightly (vs. with clenched fists)

What is creative flow, exactly? A state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play, and work, theorized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Here's a clear, comprehensive summary I found recently in my research:

Flow achieves "clear balance of the human brain's stable and flexible regimes. These states involve high generativity, productivity, flexible memory combination, and successful inhibition of intrusive habits or fixed ways of thinking, and they enable us to connect more clearly to drive action or perception.

— Robert Bilder, Geffen School of Medicine (Santa Fe Institute Working Group and NEA study "How Creativity Works in the Brain", July 2015, p.10)

How do you achieve this "clear balance"? Answer this first:

Do you ever get involved in something so deeply that nothing else seems to matter and you lose track of time?

Do that thing, and push through the "don't wannas" with me. It matters. 

The pros don't wait for inspiration

If you wait for ideal conditions, you'll die waiting.

Story: There are two teams of soldiers who need to get from point A to point B. Unfortunately there's a vicious blizzard swirling, intermittently.

Team 1 decides to walk 5 miles a day no matter what. Team 2 decides to walk as much as possible on days with good weather conditions.

Team 1 made it. Team 2 froze to death.

All to say this: In your work that matters to you, work "5 miles a day" no matter what, and you'll get there. You'll finish; you'll launch (as it turns out, they're one and the same). Work if/when the conditions are good and you feel like it — you'll freeze up.

Important vs. Urgent

We confuse “important” with “urgent” a lot. What's the difference?

Urgent is something that has a timeline. It might often be what other people want you to do. This can simply be your manager or the tools we use to work: Your email client, your text message inbox, Facebook messages. There's a connection between urgency and other people.

Important is something that's key to your life's goals. Put what’s "Important" first.

Hardly anyone schedules the very important things that require a lot of self-motivation. I find this endearing about us. Case in point: are any of these on your calendar?

  • Appointment to Move Your Body, recurring, repeats on MWF

  • Appointment to Eat Real Food, recurring, repeats 3x a day

  • Appointment to Be Creative, recurring, repeats daily

  • Appointment to Sleep, recurring, repeats daily, duration 7–9 hours

  • Appointment to Meditate, recurring, repeats daily, duration 15-20 mins