Frustrated? Stuck? Put Yourself in Creativity Boot Camp.

Happiness resolution: Put yourself in creativity boot camp.

A few days ago, I posted some mental exercises that are meant to boost creativity and flexibility in thinking. One of my own favorite ways to stimulate creativity is to put myself in Creativity Boot Camp.

If you’ve ever tried to move forward on a creative project, you probably know the frustrating feelings of being blocked – or not having enough time to make progress – or working so sporadically that you can’t maintain your focus.

To address these issues, I sometimes use creativity boot camp to tackle a project in an intense, concentrated way.

I saw this when I wrote a novel in a month. That’s right, a novel in a month. A passing acquaintance told me about Chris Baty’s book, No Plot? No Problem!, in which he lays out a program for writing 1,167 words a day, to produce a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, while keeping your day job. (50,000 words is about the length of The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye.) I immediately went to the bookstore, bought the book, and started three weeks later. It was a fantastic experience.

In fact, I’m thinking about doing it again; I have an idea for a young-adult novel, and although I doubt that it will be good, because I’m no novelist, I can’t stop thinking about it, so would love to get it out of my system. The desire to write outside your field is a common occupational hazard of writers. (How do you like the title “Forest and Horse”? Or “Into the West”?)

I saw the same recommendation in one of my favorite books, Scott McCloud’s brilliant Making Comics. He recommends “The 24-Hour Comic”: “Draw an entire 24 page comic book in a single 24-hour period. No script. No preparation. Once the clock starts ticking, it doesn’t stop until you’re done. Great shock therapy for the creatively blocked. Over 1,000 artists have given it a try so far.”

If you’re intrigued, check out the websites National Novel Writing Month and 24 Hour Comics.

That’s the sprint kind of boot camp. I also like the marathon boot-camp, where you do something daily over an extended period. Whenever anyone asks me for advice about how to keep up with writing for a blog, I always say: “Post every day.” Although this sounds arduous, many people find, as I do, that weirdly it’s easier to write every day than just a few times a week.

I think the Boot Camp approach helps the creative process for several reasons, and it helps with all kinds of projects: finishing a photo album, a gardening project, a wood-working project.

  • Because you have to get so much done, you don’t have time to listen to your internal critic. You just get something done and keep moving, instead of sitting, paralyzed.
  • Progress itself is reassuring and inspiring. Panic tends to set in when you find yourself getting nothing done, day after day.
  • Because you’re so focused on your project, you begin to make deeper connections and to see more possibilities, instead of being constantly distracted by outside concerns.
  • Because of the intensity, you can hop in and out of the project, without having to take time to acclimate yourself. I have a writer friend who’s married to a painter, and she says their test for working well is when they can sit down and work if they have a spare ten minutes.
  • You lower your standards. If you’re producing a page a week, or one blog post a week, or one sketch a week, you expect it to be pretty darned good, and you fret about quality. Often, however, folks achieve their best work from grinding out the product.
  • Practice, practice, practice. My novel was terrible, but I think the sheer doing of it helped my writing, just the way practicing scales helps a pianist. The more you practice, the better you’ll become.
  • Because you have a voracious need for material, you become hyper-aware of everything happening around you — and ideas begin to flood your mind.
  • You can use this approach even if you’re working on a creative project on the side, with all the pressing obligations of a job, family, etc. Instead of feeling perpetually frustrated that you don’t have any time for your project, you make yourself make time — for a specific period.
  • It’s fun! I don’t have the urge to climb mountains or run marathons, but I got the same thrill of exertion from writing a novel in a month.

When I’m having trouble getting work done on a big project, my impulse sometimes is to take smaller, easier steps. Sometimes that helps, but sometimes it helps more to take bigger, more ambitious steps instead. By doing more instead of less, I get a boost of energy and focus. How about you? Have you found a boot-camp approach helpful?

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

* Amazing video of the mimic octopus, which can imitate the appearance of fifteen species. It’s extraordinary to see it change its shape in an instant.

* If you’d like to see a copy of my personal Resolution Chart, to see how I organized it, email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com. Just write “chart” in the subject line.

  • Great advice Gretchen. I think writing every day is probably the single best thing a writer — or any artist — can do to maintain their art. Because it keeps you from freezing, it keeps your mind working on it, it keeps it from becoming too precious and important. You’ve said all this before, I think. But I learned this the hard way and have to remind myself. Julie

  • emd04

    This might be the year I finish NaNoWriMo….because we’re not going anywhere for turkey day, so I have time!

  • Another great option is Art Every Day Month:

    I’ve done both it and NaNoWriMo in the past. Really love the feeling that I ‘have to’ be creative every day. It helps make it a priority.

  • guest

    Great post. I recently read about this writing challenge…50,000 words in a month. Love the pic from Stripes, Bill Murray & Co.
    Congrats on your success.

  • I agree with the idea of a creative bootcamp, Gretchen, AND I think that once you’ve done one, the ability to pound out a book or any other project becomes an embedded skill you can draw on at any time.

    Years ago, I read about a week long writer’s retreat in which writers immersed themselves in their craft with no distractions, and I thought that sounded heavenly. I didn’t have the money to do it, so I created a retreat at home. I announced to my then husband that I was on retreat (I had no children, which obviously, made creating the time easier), and I set up the week with practice intensives, time to work on specific projects, idea brainstorming, and some self care to balance it out.

    That one week project turned me into a better writer. Since then, I’ve written every book I’ve done in less than three months. When I’m working on the actual manuscript draft, I write 30 to 40 pages a day. I know that kind of productivity grew out of the experience of that intensive.

  • Perspective

    This may not work for writers, but Roger von Oech created a “Creative Whack Pack”. This is a deck of cards with a variety of ideas to stimulate different thinking.

  • Sara

    This is exactly what I needed to read! I have hopes of leading some youth wilderness trips this summer and eventually founding a summer camp, but have been too overwhelmed with grad school and work to put quality time into the planning. I think a one-week boot camp, 2 hours a night, would help enormously. I think I’m going to try this next week!

  • Alina


    Creativity is essential to happiness. I just found out about your book around a month ago. I began my journey toward happiness and a friend of mine asked me if I had heard about the Happiness Project. She left your book in my mailbox…I haven’t read it. I can’t get too influenced yet. I will read it eventually, later on. I’ve given myself 500 days to explore the topic of happiness. I often stumble upon your articles in my research…
    As for many discoveries in life, it seems that collective knowldge leads us in the same direction at approximately the same time.
    I have found the process of creating a text every day challenging but also extremely gratifying. Creativity is definitely one of the keys to happiness.


  • I have done the boot camp approach with getting a jump on improving fitness. Here’s how: Take a one week vacation from your job. Plot out your food plan for the week. Get out your gym fitness class schedule and do what I call “two-a-days.” In other words, two different fitness activities of AT LEAST one hour each every day for seven days. Mix it up! Add in a massage on one day, get a pedicure another day, to make it more fun and reward yourself. It’s like a spa-cation.

    It’s a great way for blasting forward. But you definitely can’t keep it up.

  • Marthe

    I’m one of those crazy people who are doing NaNoWriMo this year.

    The reason why I do it not to put myself on a bootcamp, however I imagine that battling my inner editor will ultimately be good for my photography too.

    The reason why I want to do this is that I never fully commit to anyting. I never complete what I start. And I have always wanted to write a novel.

    Anyone else doing NaNo as well? I’ll be keeping my readers updated over at my website, just to make sure I have the pressure behind me to complete the novel.


    I did Na No Wri Mo in 2006 and loved it! Just squeeked in with my 50,000 words minutes before the deadline, but it made me feel amazing. I’ve only just pulled it out after 4 years in the closet, and it is making me laugh out loud, so fun to re-read and it was such a treat to make it. It happened so fast there was no time to hem and haw, just to create. Like improv for writers. Do it!

  • Hi there,

    This is one resolution you can count me in on! During the month of November, I’ll be working on song for a scheduled 3 hours daily. If nothing else, I’ll learn a lot!

    Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

  • awesome

  • Great post! My favourite boot-camp approach is writing 1000 words in an hour. I’m currently writing my PhD thesis and it’s sometimes very hard to get started but I put to myself this small challenge every morning from 8-9 I have to write 1000 words even if what I write in this space of time is completely rubbish, it’s a good way to get myself into “writing mode”.

  • KatieC121

    Thanks for this post Gretchen! It was just what I needed! NaNoWriMo was something I decided to do, and then decided not to, and now I’m back to deciding to do it thanks to you, Gretchen!

  • Awesome, really! Happiness is everything!

  • I’m into it… love this idea. Now where to find the time to focus…? Thanks for linking me up to National Novel Writing Month!

  • Thank you for sharing this beautiful post today. Surely, I am learning a lot from you. You are very creative in sharing your techniques.

  • I’m starting my novel today. It’s gonna be a nerd’s rock & roll fantasy. Thanks for leading me to NaNoWriMo. I’m looking forward to having an excellent time writing a terrible novel!

    Also, Gretchen, you say you’re no novelist, but I have a feeling I’ll be buying your novels someday…You can do anything!

  • joless

    I kind of applied this bootcamp approach to my to-do list before a holiday last summer. I made a list, posted it on the fridge and worked like mad to get all the stuff done before my trip. It was fantastic to cross things off, and made me feel like I deserved my holiday. Not creative by any means, but certainly a jumpstart in productivity.

    I need to apply this creative approach to practicing the saxophone which always gets left ’til after the chores are done, and then not done at all, or for long enough because I’m tired or out of time.

  • Eileen

    I did National Novel Writing Month last year and it was great. I am still editing my manuscript and want to finish it before I do NNWM again, but the “accountability” of putting my word count in each day really did the trick and when I cracked 50,000 words and posted it on Facebook all my friends were rooting for me! The most important take-away was knowing that I can do it (or something else) again, because I already did it once.

  • SFPrncss

    Gretchen, I love your ideas and your writing. I first came across your happiness project in Real Simple magazine, and I pulled out the page and have kept it folded up in my journal ever since. I am doing NaNoWriMo this year and I would love to add you as a Writing Buddy if you’re doing it again this year. Would you be willing to share your NaNo website name?

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks! I’m not doing it this year in November — I may do it on my own next
      spring. Good luck with your novel!

      • SFPrncss

        Thanks! Good luck to you as well. Do you know there’s a national haiku writing month in february and a national novel editing month in march? The trend is catching on, it seems. Hope to see one of your novels in print some day!

  • Elle

    Great post! I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year for the 7th time. It is an incredible creative challenge. I live for Novembers! (and if it wasn’t for NaNo, I would never finish a manuscript – got to have that deadline!)

  • I love this. Thank you so much for sharing. Keep up the blog!

  • I love the idea of a Creativity Bootcamp. I love getting inspiration from the author of this blog: The Found Recipe Box. This woman is always trying new things to spark her creativity and when she shares her ideas, it sparks mine!

  • Ayirrell

    i do something similar am part of project 365 which is to take a picture a day for a year and that has gotten me thinking about things i do in life and what is really important!

  • Lulu240788

    Great post!