9 Habits that highly creative people have, and why you should adopt...

9 Habits that highly creative people have, and why you should adopt them, too!

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This article was first published on Medium.
pexels-photoHere, in no particular order, are nine habits that top creatives across design, development, writing, photography, illustration, and video production are using to do their best work. Start building these habits yourself.


1. Start the Day with Purpose

There is certainly a trend of creatives waking up early. The idea of the flighty artist who wakes up at 10:00 and strolls in whenever he feels like is fast fading into myth. Creatives today are up with a bang, often first in their household.Armin Vit, designer and entrepreneur, wakes up at 5:00 in order to get a jump on work before his daughters wake up. His particular schedule involves early morning blogging — publishing an article to each of his main sites — but this trend isn’t just for bloggers.

Many people have taken to a short burst of work first thing in the morning, whether it’s sketching, writing, or editing. This “first shift” is also useful for reading, planning the day, or doing some light exercise. A number of folks have described their rituals, which often involve coffee or smoothies, newspapers or RSS feeds. No two individuals have an identical routine to start the day, but there seems to be agreement — do something useful before the world wakes up.

“I’m a creature of habit. I get up with [my girlfriend], and there’s about half-an-hour to an hour of warm-up drawing for myself first. Then I dive into the production for the day.”
Joel Duggan, Cartoonist

There is one key thing to avoid early in the morning — email. Many entrepreneurs and creative pros alike will testify to the destructive power of email and its ability to derail your plans. Email is, essentially, other people’s demands on your time and attention. But the morning is too important to waste on other people’s demands. Keep off email first thing in the morning, especially before you’ve physically left bed. You don’t want other people’s problems weighing on your mind before you place two feet on the floor!

Further reading: The Miracle Morning, by Hal Elrod


2. Vary Routines to Allow for Flexibility

Top creatives will advocate for basic structures to frame a day’s work, but they’ll just as soon stress the need to vary those routines, and to allow for flexibility.

Whether your upcoming week is filled with experimenting, planning, or just doing daily commercial work, it is important to embrace an ebb and flow, and to understand your work in seasons. Todd Henry, a former musician turned consultant and author, speaks about breaking up his year into writing, speaking, and planning seasons. Building a weekly and monthly schedule around his family allows him to maintain balance on the home front, but also helps him approach different creative challenges with fresh eyes, having just come off a seasonal break. This is an accepted practice in the music business, according to singer/songwriter Blake Stratton, who observes the trend to separate recording, touring, and writing into distinct seasons. Writing from the road doesn’t necessarily yield the best songs, as the majority of your energy is dedicated to upcoming performances.

Wake-up times are one of the first things people will vary and experiment with. Rising early is definitely made easier in summer than in winter, when sunlight is scarce. This could be a natural opportunity to experiment with variation. Altering exercise times can bring some freshness as well. If you normally work out after work, why not try it mid-day? Subtle changes to your routine can bring excitement and new energy, while still leaving enough structure to maintain productivity.

Refining your processes through subtle variations can take years. You won’t stumble on bulletproof project management style on the first try, but you’ll get there eventually.

Remember: Any system is only as good as its performance under stress. Can you find files at a moment’s notice? Do you have a client on-boarding process that can withstand a looming deadline? Build some stress into your systems to find the weak spots, and allow for variations upon surviving a particularly cumbersome period. Through minor tweaks and improvements, your systems will become stronger.

Further reading: The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry


3. Defend Best Working Conditions

In order to perform at top levels and continue to be both creative and productive, we must establish and maintain the conditions which allow us to do our best work. For many creatives, this is physical, involving the appropriate amounts of background noise (music, coffee shop din, sounds of nature, etc.), the right chair and desk combination (or a standing desk, if that’s the thing), and a “personal zone” with their necessary tools and objects.

While physical comfort is important, it’s equally important to keep your most productive hours your own. A busy office can mean interruptions by co-workers and phone calls — all demands on your time. To defend your ideal working hours, try banning yourself from meetings and turning off your phone. Even short interruptions can be disastrous; studies find that for thought-intensive work, it can take up to 25 minutes to get back in the zone following a break.

Constant interruptions can make for a sort of “time-clutter.” We must take care to avoid actual clutter in our working lives as well. The best creatives working today have cast aside the stereotype of the scatterbrain with bits of paper and supplies flying everywhere, and are disciplined about maintaining a tidy working space. The anxiety of facing a mess is a far greater destructive force than the five minutes it takes daily to keep things in ship-shape. The same goes for the email inbox. Top creatives set up filters and protocols to maintain something close to Inbox Zero, and will build systems into their businesses to avoid a deluge of email during the day. A simple method for reducing the email onslaught is to create a “not to me” folder within your inbox and automatically filter messages where you are not the direct recipient. You’ll be shocked at how much of that email actually has you in the CC section, or is otherwise sent to the entire group.

“I don’t answer the phone unless I have a call scheduled.”
Liz Andrade, Designer/Illustrator

Further reading: Getting Things Done by David Allen


4. Break Up the Day

While we all have the same 24 hours in a day, we don’t all have to use them the same. Many creative pros work in flexible organizations, in distributed companies, or solo. Take advantage of your own schedule and experiment with your working day by breaking into chunks. Maybe 3-hour shifts are the way to go. Perhaps one long session followed by a quick nighttime sprint. Try to plan your midday break not around lunch, but around picking your kids up from school.

Erica Heinz, an independent web designer, will sometimes work in three spurts throughout her day, with the first one taking place in the morning from home, the middle at her studio, and the final shorter session again at home.

Even if you’re not ready to abandon a conventional working day, try working in mini-sprints throughout the day. See what you can get done by 10:30am, avoiding as many distractions or meetings as possible. Throw on some headphones and try working during an entire play-through of an album. See if you can move all your meetings, phone calls, and team reviews to the morning and taking on the afternoon as one continuous burst — when you need to stop, go home and start fresh tomorrow.

“My schedule will always be a work in progress, but simply by limiting the times I’m available … I’ve managed to create more space for content creation, brainstorming, planning, designing, and just life in general.”
Marie Poulin, Digital Strategist

Before you devise a radically different schedule for yourself or your team, take time to acknowledge when during the day you do your best work. Build these work-chunks around your natural working cycles, rather than try to adjust to someone else’s model.

Further reading: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg


5. Celebrate The Small Stuff

Today’s creative pros are humble. They don’t work for trophies and awards, but instead they celebrate the small stuff. To start, you don’t have to involve anyone else. Simply acknowledging how much you got done in a working session or overcoming distraction during a particular period is itself a reward.

Going one step further, you can built a habit of gratitude into your morning routine and record things you’re grateful for in a journal. If journaling isn’t for you, yet, please create a “praise” folder in your email or Evernote where you can save little snippets of good vibes. The kind words of clients, colleagues, and industry peers can add up to some serious positivity, but only by recording the small increments.

“It can be really tempting to always be looking ahead to where you want to go, but one of the keys to not getting discouraged is to remember to look back at how far you’ve come. People often refer to it as ‘the freelance journey’ and that’s because there’s really no such thing as ‘the freelance destination.’”
Sara Berkes, Graphic Designer

Celebrating the small stuff can be accomplished through rituals. Josh Milesand his team at Miles Design always make sure they decompress as a team on Fridays. Together they take time to reflect on the week and enjoy what went well, such as wining a new client or completing a project. These rituals can be marked by food and drink — perhaps pizza, bagels, or beer!

You can also take the practice of minor celebration home and play a game like “High/Low”. Introduced by podcast duo Keith and The Girl, this is a nightly practice where romantic partners will remark on the high- and low-point for the day. I’ve since heard the same technique adopted by parents with children, by teachers and students, and amongst co-workers.

Further reading: Happy Hour is 9 to 5 by Alexander Kjerulf


6. Allow Unconventional Inspiration

As much as structure and rhythm are parts of modern creative professionalism, there is still an element of inspiration. The best of us allow and encourage input from all sources, including the unconventional.

Saul Colt, word-of-mouth marketing guru and frequent traveler, approaches every visit to another city with the perspective that he might never return. To that end, he’ll seek out quirky events like art fairs and street festivals. More traditional sources of inspiration include museums, documentaries, and magazines, especially those outside of your core practice.

To ensure that ideas and inspiration don’t slip away, top creative pros carry a notebook, sketchbook, or mobile phone with apps suited to quickly record an idea. Cameras on smartphones have made visual research-on-the-go much easier in recent years, but many folks still prefer a notebook. Sometimes the two- or three-word phrase scribbled during a fleeting moment can be the trick to get you un-stuck on your next project.

Several folks I’ve spoken to have remarked on the value of so-called Creative Distraction, undertaking a mundane, often physical task where the mind can wander and solve problems seemingly on its own. Adam Harrison-Levy credits several of his ideas to the practice of stacking firewood outside his home. Several others prefer cycling or jogging both as exercise and a way to distract the mind. The classic “shower thought” is not to be overlooked!

“When I’m struggling with a problem I often find the best thing is to get out of my head and into my body. Go for a walk and be in nature if possible. Those few minutes of fresh air also fill my head with new ideas and they’re often better than the ideas I have working a problem directly.”
Tzaddi Gordon, Artist & Designer

Further reading: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed


7. Respect Your Future Self

We’ve all abused our future selves at times, whether in the physical sense, like staying up way too late on a Tuesday night, or the organizational sense, like not saving tax receipts and important documents. But top creative pros build habits around the premise of making the future slightly easier, by taking simple steps today.

First, get plenty of sleep. Debbie Millman, a woman who seems to have unlimited energy, credits her success to getting enough sleep. Maria Popova, blogger and modern day thought-leader, sets her morning alarm for exactly eight hours in the future, no matter what time she ends the day. Energy management, rather than time management, is the first step to taking care of your future self.

Planning ahead, even if it’s only an hour ahead, can help you get a jump on tasks, especially daunting ones. Productive people look over their priority lists for the day at regular intervals, planning when they intend to tackle a particular action. Checking tomorrow’s task list at the end of today helps them stay on top of things, and helps start the day right.

Disaster planning sounds obvious, but so many of us don’t anticipate how very wrong things can go. Backing up files is essential — if you don’t have an automated system in place, get one today! Common tactics for backup include working on Dropbox or Google Drive, using a continuous copying tool likeFolderWatch, and using an always-on cloud solution like Carbonite. Some pros, like photographer Bill Wadman, will export final images to his phone and mobile devices so that he always has at least the end result of his projects, should the worst happen.

Bonus: Learn keyboard shortcuts to the software you use most. It may take a wee bit of brainpower to remember, but even the second or third time you use a command, you’re already saving time. Your future self will thank you when those shortcuts become second-nature.

Further reading: The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson


8. Continually Learn

The creative professionals kicking butt today are also the ones who continually learn and improve their craft.

Savvy creative pros use the web to keep current. A well-curated collection of RSS feeds or Pinterest boards can be extremely insightful and introduce you to vast resources and trends, providing you’re must be disciplined enough to continually prune distracting or frivolous content.

To say “you should read a lot” is to understate the value of books tremendously. Think of books as time travel; the author takes 40 years to acquire that experience, a further 5 years to write the book, and now you’re able to consume it in 10 hours. 45 years worth of work and experience condensed into 10 hours — that seems like a good use of time. Even if you only read half of a book before setting it aside, the useful information gained can change your practice and open your mind to an area of business or creativity you haven’t pursued. Follow the lead of highly creative people and read a ton.

“I read constantly and do an exhaustive amount of research. I learn everything I can about a client, his brand, and his customer.”
Debbie Millman, Brand Strategist

In addition to reading, more and more creatives are listening to audiobooks and podcasts. The continuous stream of real-life stories offers virtually unlimited insight on all subjects. Dip in when you have a moment and learn something. In addition to more entertaining shows, some very instructional podcasts are available for free, like the Adobe Creative Cloud podcast where Terry White introduces us to the latest tools from Adobe.

Get out there in real life to spend time with inspiring people. Many creatives will regularly meet with a mastermind group or other informal “circle” to be inspired by people doing different work. Having someone help you recharge and push you just that little bit harder is a great way to stay productive, and to continue to learn.

Further reading: Mastery by Robert Greene


9. Don’t Freak Out

Perhaps more of an observed trait than a proper habit, the top creative professionals working today seem to have mastered their own mind, and avoid being overwhelmed.

Most everyone will agree that some form of to-do list is essential but, the best of us know that you can’t become a slave to it. Seeing that you may not get to every item on that list and acknowledging your own hard work in spite of that is an important step. The sooner you can view the to-do list as a tool for productivity, and not an weapon for enslavement, the sooner you’ll be that much freer.

Building on morning routines and rituals, more and more folks are taking to meditation. Starting small is the key — it doesn’t have to be a three-hour retreat in the middle of the day, but instead a simple breathing exercise or 10 minute pause can be the difference between a daily freak-out and just getting on with things. If you’re like me, you need some help. Try MuseApp orHeadspace, two mobile phone apps designed to guide you. If you tend to freak out while writing, try Omm Writer or Byword, two word processor titles that offers a distraction-free interface.

To avoid freaking out, try rocking out. Time and time again, music is touted as an ingredient in maintaining composure and focusing in on work. Experiment with different types of music to discover what helps you get in the zone and push through mental barriers.

“Part of a Producer’s duties include making sure everyone is having a good day.”
Shannon Morse, Online Video Host/Producer”

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