“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it; they just saw something and connected the dots. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”
Over the years, through our coaching practice and premium course, Angel and I have spoken with dozens of entrepreneurs, artists, and creative types about their unique rituals and routines. The really nice thing is that we often learn just as much from our clients as they do from us. They tell us about some of the most incredibly creative ideas and projects imaginable, and we teach them how to fine-tune the process of getting from where they are to where they want to be. A good coach/client relationship is truly a win-win.
Today, I want to share seven of the most common rituals we’ve seen repeated by the most creative people we’ve worked with.
It’s often said that creativity can’t be contained. That creative inspiration and ideas arise suddenly out of nowhere and then fail to show up when we need them most. And while that may be true for a specific idea, when you look at the broader picture, you realize that sustained creativity – having lots of creative ideas over time – doesn’t come from a flash of brilliance or a single moment of inspiration. It comes from a consistent set of rituals that serve as the bedrock for getting remarkable things done.
1. Engage deeply in meaningful pursuits.
Marcus Aurelius once said, “Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?”
One of our coaching clients brought this quote to my attention about a decade ago. Today I have it pinned to the bulletin board in my office. It stops me from squandering my most precious resource: my time.
Creativity as both a lifestyle and a profession is a daring adventure, and a truly rewarding one. To thoroughly love what you do while also being fulfilled financially and emotionally is an aspiration and a challenge. That aspiration can become a reality, but it takes lots of hard work, dedication, and some luck that eventually comes from persistently doing the right things. Which is why you must remind yourself on a daily basis of what’s actually meaningful to you, and fully commit to the actions that yield progress in that area of your life.
2. Set up triggers that get you into the rhythm for a routine of creating.
Maya Angelou only wrote in small hotel rooms. Jack Kerouac made sure to touch the ground nine times before sitting down to write. And many of the artistic clients we’ve worked with over the years have done everything from meditating, to singing, to running, to even doing two-hour long workouts immediately prior to working on their creative projects. For example, take a look at our client Fay’s morning routine. Here’s what she recently told us:
“I begin every day with one simple ritual: I wake up at 6 a.m., put on workout clothes, walk outside my downtown San Francisco home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to my gym. I workout for an hour and forty-five minutes, and then I take a leisurely fifteen-minute jog back home. The important part of the ritual is not the training I do at the gym; what’s important is getting in that cab every morning and getting the day started in the right direction. The rest just falls into place. I get home feeling good and ready to work.”
Think about your days. How are they structured? What triggers your creative (and productive) mind? Are you consciously structuring your days with this trigger in mind?
Whether it’s waking up early, working in a specific location, or hitting the weights first thing in the morning, you need to find a trigger that gets you into rhythm – your rhythm. When you design a healthy daily routine that starts automatically every morning, you save lots of mental energy for the creative thinking that comes naturally when you find yourself in your rhythm. Through this personalized routine you will bring out your most intuitive work.
Of course, your routine will change occasionally due to evolving circumstances. The idea is that you make the necessary adjustments and maintain a routine that works – one that maintains the necessary triggers and rituals to develop and nurture your creative mind, and to ultimately do the work necessary to get you from where you are to where you want to be. (Read The War of Art.)
3. Spend daily downtime daydreaming.
Creative types know that, despite what their grade school teachers likely told them, daydreaming is anything but a waste of their time. While structured routines are important for the actual process of creating, our minds need downtime filled with the freedom to wander.
Neuroscientists have found that daydreaming involves the same brain processes associated with imagination and creative thinking. According to psychologist Rebecca L. McMillan, who recently co-authored a research paper titled Ode To Positive Constructive Daydreaming, daydreaming can aid in the “creative incubation” of ideas and solutions to complex problems.
Perhaps that’s why we sometimes get our best ideas while taking a long, hot shower.
4. Schedule in new experiences.
When they’re not daydreaming in their downtime, creative types love to expose themselves to new experiences, sensations and states of mind. This willingness to stretch themselves is a significant predictor of their creative output. Because creative growth always begins at the end of your comfort zone.
Of course, a big part of this happens inside a routine when you’re “in rhythm” and working hard to stretch your creative and intellectual muscles. But new experiences help balance out your routines. They force you to think differently. So make an effort to try something new at least once a week. It can be a whole new activity or just a small experience, such as talking to a stranger. Once you get the ball rolling, many of these new experiences will open doors to life-changing perspectives you can’t even fathom right now.
And with a strategy of continuous small, scheduled steps into new experiences, you are able to sidestep the biggest barrier to thinking outside the box: Fear.
5. Observe your mentors and study the work of other masters.
If you study the lives of enough successful creators, it becomes obvious that most world-class performers in all fields – musicians, entrepreneurs, artists, dancers, etc. – had incredible mentors, coaches or role models who made the activity of practice worthwhile and rewarding.
If you can speak with a mentor face to face, that’s incredible – do so! But keep in mind that just observing a mentor works wonders too. When we observe someone we want to learn from, and we have a crystal clear idea of what we want to create for ourselves, it unlocks a tremendous amount of motivation. Human beings are socially inclined, and when we get the idea that we want to join some elite circle up above us, that is what really motivates us to achieve greatness. “Look, they did it. I can do it too!” It may sound overly simplistic, but spending time studying people who are great can be one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself.
In his book Mastery, Robert Greene emphasizes the importance of studying the work of others using Mozart as an example. This is an essential building block for mastering your craft and cultivating your creativity at the same time:
“Throughout his career, Mozart never asserted any particular opinions about music. Instead, he absorbed the styles he heard around himself and incorporated them into his own voice. Late in his career, he encountered for the first time the music of Johann Sebastian Bach – a kind of music very different from his own, and in some ways more complex. Most artists would grow defensive and dismissive of something that challenged their own principles. Instead, Mozart opened his mind up to new possibilities, studying Bach’s use of counterpoint for nearly a year and absorbing it into his own vocabulary. This gave his music a new and surprising creative quality.”
The bottom line is that studying mentors and other masters can help you diversify your own creative output. Doing so facilitates the process of cross-pollinating ideas and strategies, introducing you to new approaches and ways of thinking. Not everything others do will be relevant to you, of course, but it will help refine and develop your style and tailor it to your own unique creative goals.
6. Lean heavily on your intuition.
Intuition is very real and something that is never wise to ignore, because it comes from deep within your subconscious and is derived from a combination of your previous life experiences and core perceptions about the present. If everyone else is telling you “yes” but your gut is telling you otherwise, it’s usually for a good reason. When faced with difficult decisions, seek out all the information you can find, become as knowledgeable as you possibly can, and then listen to your God-given instincts.
Creative people know that trusting your intuition is equivalent to trusting your true self; and the more you trust your true self, the more control you have of making your biggest goals and wildest dreams come true, just the way you envision.
7. Gradually turn life’s obstacles around.
Many of the most iconic novels, songs, and inventions of all time were inspired by gut-wrenching pain and heartbreak. Therefore, the silver lining of these great challenges is that they were the catalyst to the creation of epic masterpieces.
An emerging field of psychology called Post-Traumatic Growth has suggested that most people are able to use their hardships and traumas for substantial creative and intellectual development. Specifically, researchers have found that trauma can help people grow their long-term contentment, emotional strength, and resourcefulness.
When our view of the world as a safe place, or as a certain type of place, has been shattered, we are forced to reboot our perspective on things. We suddenly have the opportunity to look out to the periphery and see things with a new, fresh set of beginner’s eyes, which is extremely beneficial to creativity and personal growth. (Angel and I discuss this in detail in the “Adversity” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
Walt Disney once said, “Around here, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious – and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
This is one of my favorite quotes. It inspires me to write and create. And to move on to my next piece of work, even when I catch myself judging my last piece of work as “not good enough.”
For nearly a decade, I have been publishing new articles every week on marcandangel.com. Sometimes the ideas and words come easier than others, and there have been plenty of times when I’ve felt like my work was sub-par.
“I thought this was a great article. Why aren’t people reading and sharing it?” Or I’ll feel like I fumbled through an article only to watch it receive 25,000+ shares on Facebook. Regardless of which outcome I’m dealing with, I’ve realized one thing: As human beings, we are often terrible judges of our own work. We are just too self-critical to see the truth most of the time.
And not only that, it’s not our job to judge our own work. It’s not our job to compare it to everyone else’s work, or to how we thought others would perceive it. There’s no use in doing that.
Instead, it’s our job to create. Our job is to share what we have right now in this moment. Our job is to come as we are and give it our best shot.
There are people in nearly every career field who make each day a work of art simply by the way they have mastered their craft. In other words, almost everyone is an artist in some way. And every artist will have the tendency to judge their own work. The important thing is to not let your self-judgment keep you from doing your thing and sharing your creative gift with the world.
Just like Walt said, the key is to “keep moving forward.”