Building Habits for Creativity Requires Time

On the wall of my gym is a painting that says, “Motivation gets you started. Habit keeps you going.” People often join gyms or start other health plans with good intentions and enthusiasm, but unless they persist in their efforts, they probably won’t create a habit and likely will abandon the plan.

It was easy for me to build a habit of going to the gym. I started after injuring a knee in 2016. Soon I injured the other, as well. Between working with a physical therapist and also with a personal trainer for several weeks, I used the gym four days a week. Once I was done with PT, I continued with the trainer for a few months. Since I paid for the privilege, I made sure I got there. I still go three times a week when I’m in town.

Most of our behavior is habitual, or part of a well-established routine. And if we want to change our behavior, we need to change the routine and persist in it long enough to create a new habit. I wonder if it’s like striving for the opposite of mindfulness, trying to do something often enough that we don’t need to think about it. hmm… 

When it comes to quilting and good habits, most of my habits of technical proficiency — seam allowance accuracy or pressing or how I prep my fabric — are pretty well ingrained. The bigger issue is the habits that lead to increased “production” and creativity. If you look for tips on improvements in these areas, you can find all kinds of things: focus more, focus less, spend more time working, spend more time having fun.

I would like to be both more productive and more creative. For me, those two concepts can be in conflict. To be more productive (have more quilts finished,) I could reduce the time I spend on planning and design, and choose options that are easy/quick to execute. Doing that I could finish multiple quilts a week. Some people get great joy from that, but I would not. Or, I could be more “creative,” chewing over lots of possibilities, brainstorming endlessly, drawing and redrawing designs, looking up strategies and techniques, taking classes, endlessly gazing at fabric choices online, searching for inspiration. That would take up a lot of head space and boy howdy, I’d have a lot of creative ideas going. But they wouldn’t get made. Well, that’s no good, either.

There is only a conflict or tradeoff because resources are finite. In particular, time is limited. Choosing to do anything necessarily means not doing something else. To spend more time in both creative thinking and execution, I need to do less of something else. Less computer time would help me. I spend a lot of time clicking from news site to news site. It doesn’t always make my life better. 

Once we’ve intellectually decided our priorities (found the motivation,) we need to establish a habit of behavior to keep going. I read an interesting article about habit formation at brainpickings.org. It suggests that to create a simple habit, like drinking a glass of water after breakfast, it takes about 21 days. More complex acts don’t become routine for many more days, and sometimes as much as a year.

Late last year I tried blogging every day for 30 days. I abandoned the effort after about 20 days. Apparently I didn’t stick with it long enough. Or it wasn’t very important to me in the first place. 

This is actually a different issue than how long it takes to create proficiency at a skill. However, persisting with a behavior long enough to improve would certainly help motivate continuing the effort. Four years ago I wrote a post called “(Don’t) Stop Acting Like a Two-Year-Old.” In it I cite sources that claim you can learn a new skill in anywhere between 20 hours (Josh Kaufman) and 10,000 hours (Malcolm Gladwell.) That’s a pretty wide range!

How long can you persevere? At least 20 hours? How many days are you willing to put in to create a new habit? An hour a day for 20 days? Is that enough to change your life?

You may have been in on the Instagram #IGquiltfest, a challenge of sorts to post particular kinds of quilting photos on Instagram every day for the month of March. That might create a habit of posting on Instagram. And certainly it’s fun to see what other people post. I haven’t figured out what else it does to spur creativity or production in quilting. (Not meaning to be snarky here. I just literally don’t know what it’s for. If you can explain, feel free to do so in comments.)

There are “challenges” galore, including various ones that show up on WordPress, the famous NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month,) and others. I love the idea of NaNoWriMo. It takes the intention to create and allows you to commit to that intention for a limited amount of time. You don’t have to finish a novel, you don’t have to show it to anyone. You do have to be motivated enough to commit the time every day to write 50,000 words in a month. That’s it! And for some people, that might be enough to create a habit of writing daily.

As discussed earlier, though, for complex behaviors, it usually takes longer to make a habit. Another project that could push through that barrier is #The100DayProject. Here again, the challenge leaders want you to post everyday on Instagram. That, I think, is both to market the program itself, as well as to continue to affirm your own commitment to the project you’ve chosen. You can choose anything. You could make a health commitment for 100 days, or decide to put a dollar aside every day for 100 days with the ending pot of money given to a charity, or create a 12″ x 12″ painting every day for 100 days. Obviously some things are more visual than others, in terms of recording your progress in photos, but the idea is flexible enough to be appealing.

If I want to make more, and make more interesting things, I need to spend more time on both of those intentions. I’m considering joining The100DayProject as a challenge to myself, to focus my attention and energy on my quilting, and less on doing something else. Because the start date is April 3, I still have a few days to define a project.

What tips do you have for developing a creative habit? Have you found something that works especially well, like paying for in-person classes or forcing deadlines or other motivators? Do you commit a minimum amount of time each day to your creative life? Do you have space devoted to your creative work? Tell us in comments about your creative habits. 

 

 

Advertisements

30 thoughts on “Building Habits for Creativity Requires Time

  1. Tammy Hutchinson

    This post is an example of why I continue to click on your posts, and few others Melanie. You advance my thinking, thank you. I wish I had a tip for you, but I’m just starting PT and hope (wait, hope is not a strategy!) that I develop better exercise habits.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      🙂 No, hope is not a strategy, but I think it’s an important part of the process! The really weird things was, after I injured the second knee, (and it wasn’t something that needed surgery,) I felt really lucky, because I would get PT and be able to get stronger and fix the problems that led me there in the first place. I was motivated and hopeful, for sure! Good luck, and thanks for the kind comments.

      Reply
  2. Paula Hedges

    It does take commitment to make something become a habit and I do think it depends on what it is you are trying to establish as to how long it takes. I’d love to develop a habit of only being online for a set amount of time each day. I’ve whittled down my list of those I get emails from, but could do more. I simply need to come up with a realistic time, when during the day I will do online work, and work it into a habit. Is it cheating if we give ourselves rewards periodically during the habit forming days?

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      The emails! I hardly get any anymore, and still sometimes I find it hard to respond! (But I’m not worse than my kids. I guess that’s something.) Is it cheating to give ourselves rewards? No, I don’t think so. If you think of it as “weaning,” you can be pleased with progress toward getting your routine changed. Like, if you currently spend 3 hours a day just wandering around online, and you want to cut that in half, doing that all at once could be pretty hard. But switching back to 2.5, then 2, would make that easier.

      Reply
  3. cjh

    What tips do you have for developing a creative habit? —As for myself, I have no objection to dabbling. That is, start things and don’t finish, if you feel like it. Since one roadblock to getting started on something is the thought that “but I’ll never finish THAT”, I completely give myself leeway to NOT finish. Note: this is not meant to apply to such things as doing the taxes or making the dentist appointment. The way I think this develops habit is that I am ready to be creative at any time. (If you don’t have healthy snacks in the house, you can’t get in the habit of eating them…) I feel this is the most important factor. Sure, sometimes the productivity aspect is lacking, but it is kind of the basic fertilizer in my view.

    Have you found something that works especially well, like paying for in-person classes or forcing deadlines or other motivators? —My current strategy could be described as oversaturation. That is, I look at images everywhere of all kinds of art; try different kinds of art; take classes; follow challenges – not necessarily to fulfill a time commitment of so many days in a row but to open up to the creative parameters; and conversing with others about art and quilting.

    Do you commit a minimum amount of time each day to your creative life? —Not really per day, but there are some things that prompt me to commitment: belonging to quilt guild prompts me to finish things up to “show and tell”; participating in an Instagram weekly art challenge, a painting class, and a Wednesday local painting group prompt me to DO the art rather than think about it; and accepting an invitation to prepare a body of work for a local sales gallery has made me devote time to completion before the date I need to show up with the stuff!

    Do you have space devoted to your creative work? —I’m lucky to have an extra bedroom devoted to sewing and quilting, and a large laundry room with space for a cutting table, great built-in shelves for storage, and a card table to do art. A recent teacher said dedicated studio space is key to art success.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I do think having dedicated space is important. Having to get things out and put them away would hamper me a lot. (And you know, I LIKE having my stuff neat, but it is all in my studio.)

      Do you think your creative habits, especially of finishing, have changed since getting re-involved with guild, and participating in classes and on Instagram?

      Reply
      1. Cjh

        Probably I would credit the bulk of finishes since early 2017 to the fact that I can now use the 40 hours a week doing quilt and art stuff instead of working.

        Reply
  4. zippyquilts

    Huh. In my world at present, creative time management is required just to get the basics done. And my newest habit is an hour of exercise a day, no matter what it pushes off.the schedule. As with you, the beginning motivation was orthopedic problems, but I felt so much better with all the exercise I did for PT that I decided to keep it up.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Choosing an hour a day to exercise is a huge commitment, and you have my congratulations! And that hour means a lot of stuff has to be rearranged, so I get what you’re saying. My choice for the gym 3 times a week does take that time away from other things, and it’s frustrating sometimes — morning is my best time for EVERYTHING, so taking a chunk out of morning is key. But also I know I’m fortunate to be able to make that choice.

      Reply
  5. tierneycreates

    Wonderful essay! I develop my creative habit by just doing something, even if it is sketching out an idea. Sometimes it is just thinking through a challenging design as I am going to sleep at night. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      The vast majority of my time is engaged in creative work of one kind or another. But as mentioned above, I also value being up on the news, and I do spend/waste a lot of time on that! Yes, the going-to-sleep design challenges, always reliable! 🙂

      Reply
  6. katechiconi

    I wonder if the 3 months of physiotherapy I’m about to need after knee surgery will get me in the habit of doing exercises regularly. Knowing my sedentary inclinations, I somehow doubt it… But I found blogging was an easy habit to develop, which probably says a lot about how much I like to talk, or more properly, communicate!

    Reply
  7. KerryCan

    Lots to think about here, Melanie! I think the answers to the questions are likely to be different for each of us, since we want different things and have different reasons for doing what we do. Process, much more than product, is what seems important to me so I am happy just to have time, most days, for the doing!

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, I’m sure the answers differ for each of us, which I think is why there are such disparate recommendations out there! I love process, but in general I want to MAKE something, too. And lucky us to have the time!

      Reply
  8. snarkyquilter

    My sole strategy is to spend at least 15 minutes a day in my studio. What I do in that time varies wildly from sketching to matching thread for the next quilting project. And of course once I’m there, I often spend far more time than 15 minutes. I do NOT take my phone in with me.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Good on you for the 15-minutes plan. I don’t actually do that, though I’m sure I spend at least 15 minutes a day doing something quilt related. I think it’s good not to take your phone with you. Sometimes I do, but usually not. Sometimes I pull my laptop with me, but usually not. There are benefits of both, depending on what I’m working on. Thanks, Joanna.

      Reply
  9. TextileRanger

    I agree with you on the productive/creative dichotomy, and I definitely fall on the creative side, just as you described — full of ideas and mulling over their possibilities so much that few of them are actually made. And for me that dichotomy applies to blogging as well — I have a lot of ideas for posts, but researching them adequately and crediting everything properly takes so much time that I end up with just a few posts a month. And I don’t know that that process makes me any more creative, just better informed about topics I have been wondering about.

    I do get so many creative ideas from other people’s blogs that it would be impossible to produce them all, but what I really gain is the feeling of community — it’s great to find other people that are interested in the same topics I am and come at them from different angles.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Well you’ve certainly hit the mark for how I blog! Right now I have more than a dozen draft posts, some of which have writing in them and some just links, and probably a couple that are only titles. And that doesn’t count the 3 or 4 posts I have in my head right now, that haven’t even made it to “draft.”

      And yes!! I love being able to read posts from smart, talented people who love textiles (and some other subjects) and approach it from different directions. You’re so right, that’s one of the best things. Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  10. audrey

    Such an interesting conversation. For me, it made all the difference in the world when I started recognizing how the ‘creative’ process actually worked. Being more cognizant of how creativity builds and grows and all the different stages helped me be less hard on myself and also, to take the greatest advantage of those rare lightbulb moments. After that, it was easier to break it all down into what worked best for me. I actually wrote a long post on this a couple years ago ‘http://quiltyfolk.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-courage-to-feel-creative-habits-of.html’. Not a lot has changed since then except that I just adapt to what limitations our life has at the moment. Might be a whole lot more hand work going on if time in the sewing room is limited, but however it works out, quilting is very important to me and so I WILL find time to do it!

    Reply
  11. Chela's Colchas y Mas

    One of the problems I have dealt with for years is shutting down at night. When I was teaching, I would spend hours awake at night as I thought of new things to try with my students. When I retired, I would spend this time at night creating a design or thinking of projects. I felt I needed to do something about this poor sleeping habit without stifling my creative time. I started a plan to read something inspirational or motivating every morning. It could be a poem, a quote, a passage, or a chapter from a meditation type book. Then I draw in my journal. I am finding that this really helps me start up the day with more energy and it gives me time to create. My sleep habit is better, because I am training myself to put things aside until the morning. This was a big step for me. I used to exercise and walk every day. This good habit has gone by the wayside and I am trying to reestablish this in my routine. When I retired, I initially declared that I would no longer have the word agenda or schedule in my vocabulary. I now realize that I do have to set some time boundaries or I will just keep on going in all different directions.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh yes, time management isn’t only for the over-busy! Sometimes those of us with all the time in the world find need for it, too. I’m glad you’re sleeping better, even if that were the only positive effect. Thanks for the comments. I can imagine how starting your day that way helps create a positive flow. (I usually start by reading news. hmm….)

      Reply
  12. Cindy Anderson

    I commend you on contemplating #The100DayProject. If you decide to participate I hope you find it to be a worthwhile endeavor. My plan is to stay as focused on my craft as time allows; whether thru planning or action. If I’m too regimented I grow tired of the activity. Great post!

    Reply
  13. Pingback: #The100DayProject – A Quilter's Corner with Cindy Anderson

I love your comments!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.