Amy Whitaker and I met many years ago. She has a fascinating background: she got both an MBA and an MFA in painting (not a combo you see every day), and she has spent many years thinking about the conjunction of her two interests.
She teaches business to artists and designers, and lectures widely on creativity in the workplace. She’s also an assistant professor of visual arts administration at New York University.
Amy has a new book that just hit the shelves: Art Thinking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedules, Budgets, and Bosses.
I know from talking to people over the years that one of the habits that people most want to form is the habit of doing creative work. We have so many claims on our time, energy, and money that it can be hard to fit in that element — even when we know it will make us happier.
So I was very eager to hear what Amy had to say.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
Amy: The mind naturally goes to worrying about what could go wrong. While that’s evolutionarily helpful if you’re being chased by a cheetah, it can make it hard to soak up the joy that’s around you. I have learned some mental habits for when I worry that help me to separate out the facts, to notice any conclusions I’m jumping to, and to question what might or might not be true. You could call it the Habit of Injecting Skepticism.
What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That you have to actually do them, over and over, until they become rituals that support you.
Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
I just had a book come out, Art Thinking (Harper Business). In switching from writing it (a.k.a., long romantic getaways, just me and the Microsoft Word doc) to sharing it with people (social reentry and the dawning realization that a project is real), I noticed that I had a habit of acting like my life was happening on a five-second time delay, the way that live television has a lag for bleeping out swear words. Someone would make an offer to help with the book, and I would have to think, oh, this is happening right now. I had to remind myself to show up presently, as if we were all doing improv comedy.
Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
I live on my own, so every morning I walk across the street, in New York, to get a cup of coffee, from people whose names I know and who know my standard order. It wakes me up and gives me a sense of community.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I’m an Obliger, with a dash of Rebel and Questioner thrown in. I’d like to think that I’m less of a people pleaser than I was growing up, and that my “Obliger” nature comes from an old-fashioned belief that you are only as good as your word. If I tell someone I will do something, I have to do it, even if I have to put something on the back-burner to do it.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
I’m a social creature and a Southerner originally, so I hate for people to eat or drink alone. That means that if I have any habits related to food or drink, I need to go cold turkey. Otherwise, I think, well, I’ll have that one Manhattan / glass of red wine / cookie / entire chocolate cake because what is life without a shared sense of occasion?
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Several years ago, a friend looked at my calendar and said, “Wow, this doesn’t look at all like what you’re talking about!” I realized that I was putting down all the things that were commitments to other people (see Obliger, question #6) and few of the ones that were commitments to myself. So I started putting everything in my calendar. (Like a time-traveler, I still keep a long-hand calendar in a giant leather-bound book I buy every year.) It was a breakthrough in being able to see the whole landscape of my life—something I actually found myself writing about not long after.
Do you embrace habits or resist them?
I think I resist habits—or that I work episodically and have different habits within different episodes of my life.
There’s a feeling as a writer that you should have habits, because people will ask you what your writing routine is. And you’re supposed to Ernest-Hemingway the question and explain how you write in the morning and drink with friends in the afternoon. Or that you make yourself get up and write from 5-8 am every day.
I was writing a book about how to carve out creative time in the midst of busy working life, while working full-time. So, I wrote a little on a regular basis time, and then took a deep dive periodically when I had school breaks or bracketed weekends.
When I am writing intensively like that, I have a habit of starting the day with coffee, going for a midday walk, even around the block, and then going for an evening run.
When I was working full-time, I used one of the tools from Art Thinking – the habit of “studio time.” I would decide how much time I had to devote to a creative project—whether a half hour or two hours—and then set it aside and commit to it.
I also used the studio time habit to learn something new—video editing, hip-hop dance—because it renewed my ability to take a risk on feeling (and looking) like an idiot, which I’d argue is an important part of creative process. Risë Wilson, the director of philanthropy for the artist Robert Rauschenberg’s foundation, once described being an artist as “the act of being vulnerable in public.” I use habits to force myself to do that on a regular basis.
Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?
I made a new friend a few years ago who is one of the most remarkably punctual people I have ever met. She arrives fifteen minutes early. She reminded me of the importance of punctuality. I practice the habit of being on time, and it makes me happier when I do it.