To Be Creative, What Are the Best Habits To Follow?

Assay: This post is back by popular demand, because when I tell people that I’ve been working on Better Than Before, my book about habit change, one of the questions that people most often ask me is: “What habits are best for creativity?” They want to know 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, orderly 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?

  • Natalie

    I am a writer. I have tried prioritizing my writing by doing it first. But I found it very hard to concentrate when other things were preying on my mind. So, for me, what generally works it to get other things done first so I don’t have to worry about them. Exercise, grocery shopping, clearing the kitchen table, whatever. If I have a task looming over my shoulder I can’t do creative work. I’ve ended up doing most of my writing between lunch and when my kids get home from school. This really surprised me as I thought I should be doing it first thing. It took me a while to learn what works better for me.

    • mackey

      I have limited overall energy. After 3pm I’ve had it. Can’t commit to anything in evening. Even going out to dinner. But at 7am my motor is racing any I am raring to go. So what ever takes mental and physical energy must be first

  • Ellie

    Type-o… Self-awareness…. and the science and ideas behind it and link to happiness. Does one need to be self-aware to have true/deep happiness? Lots of questions and I know you woukd thoroughly explore this or amy issye. Snd…share ideas how to get there!!

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Here is one thing I have never done ‘on purpose’ but is characteristic of my creative mind: I envision or think through things when I wake up at night. When I was writing fiction or poetry, I would see the plot unwinding over and over in replays or play with words. Now that I quilt more than anything, I design quilts, solve technical problems, envision fabrics and colors. Then when I wake up and go to work, those mental rehearsals inform my work. Another advantage of this creative work in the dark is that I no longer spend those wakeful times fretting about things that I cannot do a thing to resolve at 2 a.m.

  • Rich Grenhart

    A wise and stereotype-challenging post, Gretchen. Here’s my 2 cents: My most creative thoughts come during the silence of my morning commute, alone in my car, with a good night’s sleep and a few cups of coffee under my belt.

  • Jeanne

    Something that blocks my creative efforts sometimes is procrastination. I have a quote up in my studio that says “Do at least one thing toward your goal every day.” I find this amazingly helpful, even if that thing is just to make one phone call or do one small task – something really easy that I might think doesn’t count – but it does. Doing the easy stuff first is OK. Things start to get done, and of course, doing one thing frequently leads to doing others. There is a power in getting started, and then the big, more important things seem easier to do. I used to wonder why I would procrastinate on doing what I love so much (digital fine art) and got so “in the zone” with once I get started. I’m still not sure, but I think that for me it’s fear of running out of talent or ideas (as if this were possible). Ideas are in mind, and mind is infinite. Running out of ideas or creativity is impossible, and so I remind myself of this when I seem to be avoiding my beloved work.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      When I go in the sewing room, I often take a few minutes to press some table linen (I still use ‘real’ napkins and table cloths) and that puts me in the zone and gets me ready to work.

      • Linda

        I do the same! I love to iron and it gets me in the mood to quilt. Sort of eases me into it.

  • Felicity

    I have another dichotomy that might interest you – maintainers and progressors. I’m a maintainer – my drive is to maintain the status quo e.g. by tidying up. My husband is a progressor – his drive is to move projects forward e.g. by rearranging and renovating. He doesn’t do much tidying and I would never willingly undertake a big house project. So that works out pretty well for us… when we understand it and stop expecting each other to ‘tidy up!’ or ‘get something done round here!’

  • Jenn

    People asked that you repost old content instead of writing something original? Are these people unaware of the “archive” feature? The percentage of your content the last few years that’s original is absurdly low. Seriously. Just stop blogging if you don’t want to give it any time.

    • gretchenrubin

      Gosh, if you don’t like what you find here, don’t read it!

      • Penelope Schmitt

        I agree! And I think that bringing out the oldies-but-goodies reminds us of great moments, gives us a chance to take a fresh look at an idea and see if WE have discovered something new.

        • Gillian

          I agree, a second look at an idea can reveal new insights. Many newer visitors to the blog won’t have read past posts so a repeat will be new to them. If I don’t find a particular post interesting, I can scan it then ignore it.

        • HEHink

          Another nice thing about re-posts is that they give readers a chance to add new comments they may not already have shared.

      • Mimi Gregor

        Just an example of the increasing rudeness in society. Have you read Lynn Truss’s book, Talk To The Hand? It’s about this very subject, and is a hoot. I also love her style of writing: a lot of British colloquialisms (I’m an Anglophile) and a manner that seems like she is in the room talking with you.

        • Gillian

          I’ve read this book too. It is right on the money regarding civility and our current lack thereof and is very entertaining. Her book, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” is an equally informative and entertaining treatment of correct punctuation. Hard to believe that a book about punctuation could be entertaining but it is.

          • Mimi Gregor

            I know! Perhaps if they used her book instead of a dry old English textbook to teach kids punctuation, the apostrophe wouldn’t be in such a sorry state today. And don’t even get me started on quotation marks!

      • Jenn

        My mistake. I thought that the comment feature meant that I had another option besides “don’t read it”. I think it seems patently absurd for you to suggest that you’re reposting old content *because people asked you to* as if they couldn’t find it in 10 seconds in your archives. I find it offensive, so I commented on it. Won’t happen again.

        • gretchenrubin

          People ask me this question, about creative habits, ALL THE TIME, in person. So I figure it’s something that many people are curious about – but probably not so curious that they’d search through my archive.

          • Linda

            You are right.

      • Manda

        Hi Gretchen, Just wanted to say thanks for re-posting – i’d forgotten about this post. Gives me food for thought. Perfect timing too, i’m starting to get my creativity shoes back on 🙂

        Keep blogging the way you blog, everyone else enjoys it 🙂 And be Gretchen!

    • Linda

      Wow that’s a little harsh. Gretchen is so generous in her efforts to help others and I imagine her schedule is a little overwhelming. I’m constantly amazed at how rigid some people are. Jeez, take a nap or something.

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    My work as a writer means I naturally tend to think of many plot lines, character motivations, complexities, etc. My habit is to think in abundance and not in simplicity. That really works in creative life. In real life, not so much. ;o) So my challenge is to limit what is on my daily ‘plate’ in order to enjoy the buffet of creative work that needs time and mind-space for its abundance to emerge. So to be creative requires I remind myself to SIMPLIFY.

  • Priyanka

    I think I read in Susan Cain’s Quiet (if I’m not mistaken) about how some introverts might benefit from writing at night, when they’re tired. The reason was that they have lower self-control by then, and so the writing is more free, honest, and less guarded. I’ve been following that advice myself and think that there’s truth in it! 🙂

  • Linda

    I’m a quilter and I have two seemingly contradictory practices. One is to stick with it……every day, because if I leave it for more than a few days, I won’t get back to it for maybe months. The other is to walk away when I get hung up on a problem. I do this because I’ve found if I walk away from the problem, often the solution comes to me when I’m sleeping or otherwise occupied. It’s magic….and almost never fails.