Creativity at the push of a button (if there even is such a thing) requires many years of practical experience. Even then, we can never be sure that ideas will pop out of our heads exactly when we need them.
In my experience, however, simple tricks give our creative minds a little support. We can build triggers into our daily lives that put our entire body into work and creation mode.
For example, I always run the same Spotify playlist when looking for ideas for my Mindshot illustrations. Sometimes I even start with the same song for months (currently Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence by Ryuichi Nakamoto). Most of the time, I listen to instrumental music, like movie soundtracks or video game tracks.
Additionally, when I want to work concentrated and effectively, I go to my favorite café and order a cappuccino and sparkling water. So far, this is my best routine to get work done.
Through such developed habits, we condition our minds. We create a button that puts us on autopilot, just like we brush our teeth when we get up in the morning. It signals to our brain, now it’s time to work.
Inevitably, I am reminded of the famous example of the cow whose mouth fills with saliva as soon as the farmer rings the bell. By habit, the ringing signals to the cow’s subconscious, now it’s time for food, and the legs automatically move towards the jug.
When I started to work as a freelance illustrator, I was forced to develop new habits in my life more than ever. There was no longer a boss telling me how and when to work. All the critical decisions were up to me from now on.
How do I find my illustration style? How and where to present my work. How do I get the attention of potential clients? How to use social networks? The list was endless, and I didn’t even consider time for family, friends, and sports.
I knew that I needed a plan. And to fulfill it, I had to create new habits. Drawing alone would not be enough. I had to get into the habit of taking small but consistent steps. Every day I worked on my style, I informed myself about the benefits of social networks and marketing methods for illustrators. I set fixed times for sports, which is essential because you move even less in your own home than when you work in a company.
Over time, I’ve noticed four methods for myself that help me develop new habits:
- Baby steps:
Let’s do a little bit every day. Our motivation for the next day fades as soon as we overload ourselves. Let’s say we want to read more. We can set a limit like five pages, ten minutes, or half an hour each day. How much we want to spend is up to us. It should only be realistic and not overambitious. In a few weeks, we will have internalized the habit of reading like brushing our teeth.
- Track our new habits:
A simple calendar helps. As soon as we read, we make a checkmark for the day. The best thing is that the chain of checkmarks eventually motivates us over time. We don’t want to break it.
- Backup plan for super-busy days:
Some days are just different than others: deadlines, personal commitments, or dark days when we can’t get our minds up. No problem. We have already made a plan for that. In those days, we don’t read for x minutes. We read one paragraph only. It takes a few seconds, and that’s perfectly fine. We make our checkmark here, too.
- Having mercy on ourselves:
If the chain breaks, it’s not the end of the world. If it happens, it does not mean we have failed—quite the opposite. If we get upset or feel bad about it, we take it as a sign that we care. Let’s keep going tomorrow.
Bookkeeping, answering emails, and doing household tasks, have something treacherous about them. Once we get them done, it feels good. They make us feel like we’ve been diligent. Giving these tasks a high priority and doing them first thing is tempting. After all, we can usually finish them quickly and without any particular effort. In addition, we see the results immediately: the inbox shows no new emails or our office finally looks tidy again.
However, each of us has a period during the day when we are particularly productive. For many, it’s the first hours of the morning. This is definitely true for me. That’s why I tackle the most critical tasks in the morning. These are tasks that require my total concentration and creative thinking.
It has turned out for me that spending these precious hours on “simple” tasks is counterproductive. Instead, I schedule them for the afternoon, when my energy starts to wane. That’s the ideal time to answer emails, write bills, and clean the dishwasher.
These mundane tasks also have a nice side effect. We can consciously use them as a little motivational boost. If our concentration is at its lowest point for the day, it’s best to pause the important work and go for the things that don’t demand much of us. Usually, we feel good, relieved, and full of energy afterward. Finally, these tasks are off the list, and we can use this inner boost for our essential tasks again.
If we want to reach people and create new opportunities with our creative work and ideas, we need to share them with the world. There is no other option.
We need a dose of courage to do this because suddenly, our work is no longer just in our drawer. People see them, can evaluate them, or ignore them. We have to get used to that, especially at the beginning, and by building sharing into our daily routine, we will sooner or later.
So let’s make a practical and realistic plan. A simple calendar will do. On which day do we share what and where with the world? If we stick to this plan long enough, it will soon become a habit, and we will learn to break the initial resistance step by step.
I’ve been writing about creativity, freelancing, and illustration daily for over four months. Last Wednesday was a jam-packed day, and started to write around 11:30pm. I was tired and didn’t know what to write about at all.
The motivation was low. I almost broke the streak and just went to bed. Then I saw that the laptop battery was showing 7%. I decided not to plug in the charging cable. The time to write something was thus limited, and so now all decisions fell quickly. In the end, I wrote two sentences beside the headline. But that was perfectly fine, and I got to bed before midnight.
Without the time pressure, I probably would have worked on the post for a long time, or maybe I wouldn’t have written it. Instead of adjusting the situation to our needs, we can try to adapt to it ourselves now and then.
When I decided to go the freelance illustrator route, I quickly noticed the differences between permanent employment. We usually have a commute in a permanent position that we do every morning and after work. This one we can find annoying and a waste of time. But the commute home has a valuable advantage. It makes a clear cut between our work and our free time, which helps us structure our daily lives.
As freelancers, this physical cut is often missing. Often, the place where we work and create is the same place where we eat, watch movies, and go to sleep. As a result, we quickly tend to lose track of time and merge our free time with our work time. In short, we lose piece by piece our life outside work. In the times of Covid, many permanent employees are in home offices, so they have experienced the same thing.
There are simple methods to create physical cuts if we can’t or don’t want to go to an external place, such as a co-working space. A fundamentally important one is to dress for work as if we are going to the office. Maybe not in a suit and patent leather shoes, but not in sweatpants or pajamas. This daily routine affects our attitude during work hours. Then, after work is done, slipping into sweatpants is not only a signal to us that we can leave work behind for the day. It can also feel good and earned, and there’s nothing to stop us from enjoying it.
I used to feel that the evening and night hours were when I was most creative and worked best. This is not the case.
Over the years, I’ve found that the time right after I get up is when I’m the most productive. I am concentrated, work faster, and hardly get distracted. I also find it easier to come up with ideas. The tank of thoughts is relatively empty in the morning. They don’t jump around yet.
As the day goes on, the tasks on the to-do list pop up and stick stubbornly because I still want to wash the car, write the bill and go grocery shopping.
Meanwhile, I put the most critical tasks in the first hour of the day. That means no meetings, appointments, and no social media, or news.
The first hour is sacred to me and belongs to me alone.