Photo by pavonne via Twenty20
Photo by pavonne via Twenty20

Creativity is a nebulous, murky topic that fascinates me endlessly — how does it work? What habits do creative people keep that make them so successful?

I’ve reflected on my own creative habits, but decided I’d look at the habits that others consider important to their creativity. I picked a handful of creatives, almost at random — there are so many that picking the best would be impossible, so I just picked some that I admire, who came to mind when I thought of the word “creative.”

Great creativity

This was going to be a list of other peoples’ creative habits … but in reviewing their lists, and my own habits, I found one that stood out. And it stands out if you review the habits and quotes from great creative people in history.

It’s the Most Important Habit when it comes to creativity.

After you read the No. 1 habit, please scroll down and read the No. 2 habit — they might seem contradictory, but in my experience, you can’t really hit your creative stride until you find a way to balance both habits.

The number 1 creativity habit

In a word: Solitude.

Creativity flourishes in solitude. With quiet, you can hear your thoughts, you can reach deep within yourself, you can focus.

Of course, there are lots of ways to find this solitude. Let’s listen to a few of the creative people I talked to or researched:

Felicia Day

This wonderful actress perhaps best known for her awesome work on Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Guild. She’s also the author of You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost).

I was thrilled when she replied to my email asking about her creative habits. One of the things she said: she makes “sure to be creative first thing in the morning, before doing anything for the outside world, really sets the day up for me. It makes it feel that CREATING is my job, not answering emails.”

Ali Edwards

I was honored with a response from Ali an author, designer, and leading authority on scrapbooking. One of her top habits wasn’t exactly solitude, but is related: “Do nothing. I have a habit of welcoming time away from my creative work. For me this is serious life-recharging time where my only responsibility is to just be Mom & Wife & Me.

“Doing nothing has a way of synthesizing what is really important in my life and in my work and inspires me beyond measure. When I come back to work I am better equipped to weed out the non-essential stuff and focus on the things I most want to express creatively.”

Chase Jarvis

Chase, an award-winning photographer, also kindly responded with several of his key creativity habits — see more great ones at the bottom of this post. But here’s one that I loved: “Find Quiet. Creativity sometimes washes over me during times of intense focus and craziness of work, but more often I get whacked by the creative stick when I’ve got time in my schedule. And since my schedule is a crazy one and almost always fills up if I’m just “living,” I tend to carve out little retreats for myself.

“I get some good thinking and re-charge time during vacations, or on airplanes, but the retreats are more focused on thinking about creative problems that I’m wanting to solve. That’s why I intentionally carve time out. I make room for creativity. Intentionally.

“The best example of what I mean by a retreat is a weekend at my family’s cabin. It’s a 90 minute drive from my house on the coast. There are few distractions. Just a rocky beach and a cabin from the 60’s with wood paneling and shag carpet. I go for walks, hikes, naps. I read. I did get an internet signal put in there to stay connected if I need it. But the gist is QUIET. Let there be space for creativity to fill your brain.”

Maciej Cegłowski

Maciej — a painter, programmer and writer — is one of my favorite bloggers, and responded to my email with a classically short answer that to me, embodies a beautiful way to find solitude.

What habit helps his creativity?

Maciej replied: “Running up hills!”

Leo Babauta

Okay, I wasn’t going to talk about myself in this post, but I thought I should share some of my previous thoughts.

The best art is created in solitude, for good reason: it’s only when we are alone that we can reach into ourselves and find truth, beauty, soul. Some of the most famous philosophers took daily walks, and it was on these walks that they found their deepest thoughts.

My best writing, and in fact the best of anything I’ve done, was created in solitude.

Just a few of the benefits I’ve found from solitude:

  • time for thought
  • in being alone, we get to know ourselves
  • we face our demons, and deal with them
  • space to create
  • space to unwind, and find peace
  • time to reflect on what we’ve done, and learn from it
  • isolation from the influences of other helps us to find our own voice
  • quiet helps us to appreciate the smaller things that get lost in the roar

The number 2 creativity habit

While it might seem contradictory, the No. 2 habit when it comes to nurturing creativity: participation. This can come in many forms, but it requires connecting with others, being inspired by others, reading others, collaborating with others.

But how can you have both solitude and participation? They obviously have to come at different times. Finding the balance is key, of course, but it takes a conscious effort: this time is for solitude, and this time is for participation.

Why are they both important? We need inspiration from without, but we need creation from within.

A couple of the people I interviewed had habits that relate to this:

Chase Jarvis: “Devour Popular Culture. Consuming the works of others inspires me. And it’s not just museums and the ‘establishment.’ I devour magazines, books, street art, performances, music, etc. All things that make me think critically (and whimsically) about the world. You get the picture. Inspiration can come from anywhere.”

Ali Edwards: “Participate. My creative spirit is interested in documenting the wonderful everyday details of our lives. To really get to the heart of the matter I need to be fully participating in my life, in the interactions with my kids and husband and family and friends.

“If I am just going through the motions or wishing away the present moment for ‘the next thing’ I am missing the blessing of right now. My creativity requires the habit of active participation and daily attention to detail.”

Other creative habits

There are other habits than those top two, of course, that can nourish creativity. Some other good ones:

Felicia Day: “When I am most productive I am the most ruthless with my schedule. I will literally make a daily checklist with, ‘one hour gym,’ ’30 minutes of internet research,’ and ‘drink 3 glasses of water’ on it. For some reason being that disciplined creates a sense of control that I wouldn’t have otherwise, as a self-employed person, and I get the most out of the scheduled hours that I have for writing.”

Ali Edwards: “Take notes. I am a really good note-taker. It’s essential for me to write down my ideas when they come to mind…otherwise, poof, they disappear way too quickly as I move on to the next task (diaper changes, wiping noses, tending to the stuff of life). I use my phone, my computer, and a moleskine notebook to jot down thoughts and ideas and then I move them into Things every week or so.”

Chase Jarvis had a few more:

— Live a creative life every day. I very much believe in doing creative stuff every day. For one, I take photos and videos almost every day. Doesn’t matter the camera. I use my iPhone every day. Just taking photos keeps me in a creative headspace. Hell, I play with my food and draw and doodle.

— Moderate Expectations. Make it a habit not to judge yourself on your creative output. Sometimes your creativity is on fire. Great news. Other times, it’s not. It’s hard sometimes when you make art in a professional commercial capacity because you’re paid to be ‘ON’, but you’ll save yourself a lot of grief if you make it a habit to be cool to your psyche when your creative mojo isn’t firing on all pistons.

— Shake Your Tree. When I’m starting to feel stale, I make a habit of getting into adventures. Break molds. Drive home from work a different way. Stir up my routine. I get active and shake my tree.

— Find fun. Doing what you love inspires you to be more creative. Make time and space for having fun. All work and no play makes Jane a dull girl.

Lastly, being creative means living a creative life. Expect yourself to have one. Believe you are creative. Know that you are. Make that the most important habit of all.

Creativity is essentially a lonely art. An even lonelier struggle. To some a blessing. To others a curse. It is in reality the ability to reach inside yourself and drag forth from your very soul an idea. – Lou Dorfsman

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