What Habits Are Best for Creativity?

When I tell people that I’ve been working on Better Than Before, my book about habit change, many people ask, “What habits are best for creativity? What habits help people think creatively — and also, actually produce?

Often, people make the case for adopting a particular habit by pointing to a renowned figure who practiced that habit, with great success. For instance…

Maybe we should live a life of quiet predictability, like Charles Darwin.

Or maybe we should indulge in boozy revelry, like Toulouse-Lautrec.

Maybe we should wake up early, like Haruki Murakami.

Or maybe we should work late into the night, like Tom Stoppard.

Maybe it’s okay to procrastinate endlessly, like William James.

Or maybe it’s better to work regular hours, like Anthony Trollope.

Should we work in silence, like Gustav Mahler?

Or amidst a bustle of activity, like Jane Austen?

Maybe it’s helpful to drink a lot of alcohol, like Fried­rich Schiller.

Or a lot of coffee, like Kierkegaard.

Are we better off produc­ing work for many hours a day, like H. L. Mencken?

Or maybe for just thirty minutes a day, like Gertrude Stein.

The sad fact is, there’s no magic formula, no one-size-fits-all solution—not for ourselves, and not for the peo­ple around us.

We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.

In his fascinating book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, from which these examples are drawn, Mason Currey exhaustively examines the work habits of 161 writers, composers, artists, scientists, and philos­ophers.

These examples make one thing perfectly clear about creative habits: while brilliant people vary tre­mendously in the specific habits they follow, they all know very well what habits work for them, and they go to enormous lengths to maintain those habits.

I used to tell everyone that working slowly and steadily was the best way to produce creative work. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to encourage everyone to get up early, to work in the morning. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to say that it was better to work in a reasonably quiet, calm environment. Because that’s what works for me.

But as I worked on Better Than Before, it became increasingly clear to me that the opposite habits work better for some people.

I’m a Marathoner, but some people are Sprinters.

I’m a Lark, but some people are Owls.

I’m a Simplicity-Lover, but other people are Abundance-Lovers.

We have to think about ourselves. It’s helpful to ask, “When have I worked well in the past? What did my habits look like then – and how can I replicate them?” Maybe you work more creatively with a team – or by yourself. Maybe you need deadlines – or maybe you feel strangled by deadlines. Maybe you like working on several projects at once — or you prefer to focus on one project at a time.

With habits, as with happiness, the secret is to figure out ourselves. When we shape our habits to suit our own nature, our own interests, and our own values, we set ourselves up for success.

How about you? What habits contribute or detract from your creativity?

  • I used to assume that I wasn’t creative because I preferred stability, early mornings and calm environments to crazy hustle’n’bustle, and because I was never ‘struck with inspiration’ like the drug-fuelled artists of film/lore. I came to realise, however, that there isn’t just one kind of creative process. Gretchen, reading about your success in doing a little bit everyday, and biting the bullet (or frog, as it were), encouraged me to sit down and work out what worked best for me. I found that by sticking to my quiet, plod-along work mode (but directing it to creative writing rather than law essays) I got a lot done, and surprised myself with the ideas I generated!

    • gretchenrubin

      So great to hear that my work resonates with you and your own work style —

    • Elodie,
      I felt the same exact way! I didn’t think I was creative because I couldn’t pour myself into work the way you hear some artists do. However, now I realize that I am creative, but I have to hone it in my own way.

    • Gillian

      I think most of us have some creativity if we believe in it and give it a chance. I always thought I had none. There was no attempt to nurture creativity in my upbringing and no great talents in my family. I think my parents assumed that they had no creativity and therefore, neither did their offspring so I just assumed I was not creative.

      In recent years, however, I have discovered that I do have some creativity in me – no brilliant talent but enough to bring pleasure and satisfaction. What works for me is to just give my mind the space and time to come up with an idea – let the mind drift. In the garden, for example, if I just sit occasionally and look at an area I want to redesign, an idea will gradually (or sometimes suddenly) form. It might take only a few minutes or it might take a few weeks of contemplation but I know it will arrive. Once the initial idea has taken root, it is just a matter of implementing it. In the past, I think I assumed that creative ideas were instant. They are not (at least, not for me) – they take time to germinate. The first requirement is the knowledge that I am capable of generating some good ideas.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I am for coffee, early rising, regularly spending an hour or two on whatever I want to create. I like a walk to unleash my mind, a period of wakefulness around four in the morning to invent patterns or solve construction problems, and some time wandering out in the afternoons to see things that I want to grab onto and MAKE something withal. That’s what my body and mind resonate to — others will no doubt work differently.

  • Thank you for this post. I think I have burnt myself out by trying to follow everybody elses’ perfect formulas for life to the point where I felt like I was hopeless because I wasn’t able to accomplish anything this way. Ill have to check out that book you mentioned. Can’t wait til your book comes out, I feel like its exactly what I need right now!

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific —

  • I love this approach to figuring out what works.

    It reminds me of a study that was done on 100 cancer patients who’d been given a terminal diagnosis and yet 10 years, 15 years later they were alive and healthy.

    The question the study sought to answer was, “What’s the difference that made the difference?”

    They wanted to look at what these people did and find out if there was a specific treatment plan that kicked ass over all the other plans being followed out there.

    What they found was that these people had, across the board, done different things, some of them being radical.

    Some of these people followed the traditional medical approach, others had said screw the medical approach and followed a specific diet that they credited with helping them heal, others had done neither of those but instead relied solely on praying, other people had done psychological transformation work, and they couldn’t find any commonality within these patients that gave them evidence that one approach was superior to others.

    The only thing they found in common with all of these patients was that ALL of these people believed wholeheartedly in their answer to cancer.

    People who responded to chemo believed that it would help them. People who responded to prayer believed that would help them. People who responded to a radical diet believed that would help them.

    Think about the Placebo Effect where you can actually give people fake medicine and people get physically well while taking it, in spite of the fact that they were taking nothing but sugar pills.

    The only explanation for this is that their belief in what they were doing is what came to their rescue.

    You feel certain things in your body when it comes to beliefs you’re 1,000%
    bought into (tension, calm, fear, strength, etc.) .

    You don’t feel emotions about the answer to 6 x 6.

    One of the reasons for this is that the part of your brain that stores beliefs, the limbic system, is deep in your brain down where your more primitive brain is.

    Beliefs give meaning to things and I would say that a believe that would serve people well when it comes to this topic is that of “There is no ‘is’, There is no ‘truth’ and there is no ‘wrong or right’. There is only perspective and and all perspectives are biased.”

    What you recommended in “figuring ourselves out” is solid advice.

    In “The Structure of Magic” Bandler and Grinder, the pioneers of Neuro Linguistic Programming, pointed out that, “One of the paradoxes of psychotherapy is that you have all of these very different psychotherapeutic approaches, some of them contradictory to each other, but the paradox is that they ALL work for some people.”

    How is that possible?

    They pointed out that if you look deeper, that when an approach works, regardless of which method it is and who it was for, when it does work what happens is that this person’s model of the world is enriched. They now see more possibilities.

    And so for anyone who is trying to figure out the creativity ritual that would serve them best, I believe one of the smartest things you could do is to get your hand on Mason’s Daily Rituals book so that they can see the wide array of practices that allowed creativity to flow and then test the practices that land most favorably on them.

    I thank you Gretchen for reminding me of this important lesson and for reminding me to go finish Mason’s book myself. Maybe I’ll stumble into something that takes my rituals to the next level. 🙂

    • Mimi Gregor

      Our thoughts determine our experiences. If you believe something will work, it will, whether it be the chemo, the massive doses of vitamin C or prayer. And our beliefs are merely thoughts that we consistently keep thinking. This works not only for health, but for every aspect of one’s life. I’ve been reading a lot about the law of attraction, and it makes sense to me. I’ve seen it work first-hand for my benefit… and even to my detriment. It’s important to always go for the more positive thought… the one that makes you happy.

      • Penelope Schmitt

        I know a lot of positive, believing people whose illness has been stronger than belief. Please remember that the other side of this coin–is the vicious, wicked tendency to hold people responsible for the misfortunes, suffering and death that come when the medical miracle does not occur. And anyone out there who is sick, faithful or just boldly optomistic, and finds that — oh well — the disease was not something that could be combated effectively in THIS lifetime DO NOT FEEL THAT YOU HAVE FAILED IN FAITH. It is always good to hope and believe, but not good to blame yourself for things over which your magical thinking has no power whatever. Do your best. Choose the path that ‘has heart.’ Know that the results, whatever they are, cannot deprive your spirit of hope. Love.

        • Mairsydoats

          A-MEN!!

      • Charlotte

        For me personally, a positive attitude can make my life better in many ways. I agree with you there. However, I see great problems with the belief that if you want something, or believe in something, strongly enough, it will happen. It’s simply not the case. Try turning that idea around, that everyone who has failed at achieving survival, getting well, or whatever, did not believe enough, did not want it enough. And then try applying that to all cases of unwanted death, disease, etc.

        • Charlotte

          And I want to add, that I am so very grateful for all the good things that have happened to me in life, in spite of _not_ being able to have a positive attitude, or a strong belief, a lot of the time. Also: it’s a strong human urge to find patterns, explanations, reasons, especially for helping us feel that we can fully control (or at least understand) the outcome. An interesting read (for me, anyway) on the urge to find explanations is “Thinking, fast and slow”.

  • Sandy Massone

    I agree, there is no one size fits all. We have to try on different habits and adopt the ones the work the best for us, for the time of life that we are in. I’m certain that habits for creativity that worked best in my 30’s are no longer a fit now that I’m in my 40’s. It’s fascinating to see the difference.

  • Maryalene

    I vote for boozy revelry! 😉

  • Jen Johnson

    I have two “habits” that help me in my creative endeavors: (1) I recognize the need to respond to the muse when the moment strikes. When an idea hits, I stop what I had planned on doing and dedicate myself to either writing it down, or better still, just dedicating myself to doing it. This has worked for me for writing as well as for visual arts. If I try to schedule it, I’m stuck with mediocrity. (2) I take a long shower. Relaxation (without falling asleep) is great for letting ideas percolate. Just don’t forget to write them down when you get out!
    But I agree – to thine own self be true.

  • Joanie

    It’s taken me years to figure out what works best for me after I retired and no longer had the structure of the workday in my life. I have recently started volunteering at a school breakfast club that gets me up at 5:45 for breakfast and e-mail checking and out for a walk to the school at 6:45 everyday. I’m energized by the kids and I’m back home by 8:15 and ready to start my day. I’m an artist and a morning person but have had a hard time getting started on my painting. Now I’m excited to get going every morning and I credit you and the Happiness Project for getting me motivated.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that my work has been useful to you.

      From my study of habits, it’s clear that whenever you have a “clean slate” habits have to be re-built. It’s an opportunity – but can also take some work. But done right, it can be very productive, as your example shows.

  • If I’m consistent with waking up early, and doing yoga, then I’m much more creative in my writing. Like, I actually write. Once I’m up and awake, it’s so much harder for me to get in that creative brain space. But… going for a walk or getting out in nature can do the trick. I think my biggest creativity suck is social media. While it’s helpful and informative, it can suck the life out of anything if given too much space.

  • Kirsten Raynor

    What a fabulous post. This one REALLY hit me when I read it this morning. Know yourself, put the work in there, rather than into copying systems and routines developed by others. Thank you so much, Gretchen.

  • Susanne

    My best habit to get inspired for my own creative endeavours is to be involved in and look at the creative work of others. And my best habit to actually work creatively is to get up early, and to work in 20-minute sections of intense focus. Creative work requires a lot of problem solving and tasks that challenge the mind and can be exhausting, and often I am too daunted to start. But I tell myself: I know I can do it for 20 minutes. And even such a short period of strong focus can bring more results than one might think. It is all I need to “break into” a problem and then often I get so absorbed that I will continue for much longer.

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  • Monica Krazz

    An important thing to remember is, happenings are different along with choices that are influenced by your feelings first. Always consider the outcome or consequence. Be right, do good, stay safe & pay attention, because it’s always worth it…

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  • Hello, dear Gretchen, i know this website form Linkedin, and know that you are rock at contents writing of happiness and habits.Which is quite down-to-earth. I totally agree with the point what everyone carries individual habits to achieve its own things. For me, a writer covers fashion and culture issues i found it is functional when i make a list of my inspirations of writings. Help to clean my mind down to the fact of writing current issue. Plus i am so honor to read your articles and know that you are honored that i am your new fans.

    http://www.fashionculturediary.blogspot.it/

  • Jonathan

    I really appreciate this article because it shows that each one of us were created in a special way and we operate in different ways to be creative! Our creative heart is unique and special and it defines who we are! I always tell my friends and students “Be in your journey” and don’t jump into someone’s track and lose life!

  • alx

    I am so glad I came across this post because I’ve actually been going through a phase relevant to work creativity. I’m restless and unease because as much as I love order and stability, I am too someone that constantly challenges the current state. Working in quality management us system people are on the never ending route to continuous improvement, but having worked in the process for so long you start to lose creativity on new ventures or opportunities because you know already know all the constraints you are working with. Gretchen, I took your approach of “Aiming Higher” from your Happiness Project as well as your ground truth of finding happiness in the atmosphere of growth. Constantly trying to develop yourself and grow has proven itself in my application. I found what has worked for me is joining a professional organization within the scope of my job and subscribing to newsletters, journals, and keeping myself up to date with the latest research. With this approach I’ve been able to introduce new frameworks, concepts, & analysis tools to my team and it has caused a positive stir. Even if we don’t end up using some of the tools, it evokes great conversation and gets people thinking of ideas that may not have been stated had I not brought forth the new research.