habits

Taking the risky path leads to more ideas

To invoke a little creativity into anything we do, we simply need to add a bit of chaos.

A blank page represents order. It’s only when the chaos of color and strokes and texture are added that we begin to make art.

The idea that feels familiar or obvious is one of order and logic (that’s why it feels familiar). It’s when we add a touch of randomness, chaos, to the idea that it becomes something new and creative.

Predictable is order, unfamiliar is chaos. The light us order, shadow chaos. Routine is order, adventure is chaos.

Our brains like order far more than chaos. We use order to anticipate the future and in doing so preserve and comfort ourselves. What to wear tomorrow, how we’re going to represent ourselves in the big meeting, where to go for dinner. We are anticipatory animals because that’s what helps ensures we are safe and healthy and happy tomorrow, as well as a means for educating and preserving the next generation.

But creativity can’t exist in the world of order.

Creativity requires something unexpected and different, by definition. The sudden surprise of spilled paint, the road construction exposing us to a new way of getting where we’re going, the delight of a risky gamble paying off.

Chaos is why most people shy away from creativity rather than embrace it, it tends to threaten our notion of order and predictability.

A clean sheet of paper is easier to approach than one covered in colorful scribbles. Walking into a presentation you’ve prepared for is far easier to do than one you haven’t prepared at all for. But the safety and comfort of each also means we might be missing out on a better opportunity.

The road we can see clearly ahead appears much safer and reliable than the one we can’t see. We know what we’re going to get from the clear path, while the dark one is a risk.

Of course maybe the route we can’t see clearly down is also the one that’s quickest and with better scenery. Maybe it’s the path we should be taking after-all, we don’t know unless we’re brave enough to take it.

That’s creativity: taking the risky path because we believe it provides more than the clear one, simply by being unknown.



Why regular rituals matter when it comes to creativity

Rituals are important when it comes to creativity.

It’s regularly discussed that routine stifles creativity, and to a degree this is absolutely true. If you stick so rigidly to routine you’ll rarely have an original experience from which to drive creative thought.

As the saying goes: you can’t do the same thing over and over and expect something different to happen as a result.

But the benefit of routine on creativity cannot be overstated. Routines are important because they give us a base of expectation: how do you know you’re experiencing something new and different if you don’t have a base, a routine, from which to measure?

Experts are all about routine. Doctors need routine to conduct surgery, airline pilots need routine to ensure a safe trip, and chefs need routine to deliver what’s promised. You wouldn’t want to visit a doctor who begins a major operation by saying “Let’s see what happens today.”

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As a most famous example of the importance of routine: in 1928 Scottish physician Alexander Fleming returned to work after holiday to discover a culture contaminated with a fungus which was keeping colonies of the bacteria staphylococci at Bay. Rather than throwing the petri dish out because of the contamination, Fleming instead looked closely at the dish and commented: “that’s funny.”

After some research on the fungus and it’s affect on bacteria, Fleming ended up having had discovered penicillin, one of the first major antibiotics against many bacterial infections.

If Fleming had not maintained a professional routine, he may have never have noticed the contaminated dish in his lab.

It’s often easy to look at great creative thinkers and remark on their lack of routine or structure—Fleming’s lab was notably in a constant state of disarray and Einstein’s desk was regularly covered in mountains of unorganized papers—but what appears to be chaos on the outside is well-thought out structure to the thinker.

We need routine for many reasons. When it comes to creativity routine enables us to notice when things change, when there’s something funny or interesting worth pursuing further. We don’t get to uncover the unique and valuable if we’re in a constant state of unexpectedness. The ground is always beneath us, which makes it easier to determine when we’re flying or falling.



What the habits of geniuses remind us

Not long ago a good friend recommended a book about the habits of the greatest creatives, called Daily Rituals, written by Mason Currey.

The short book is fairly popular among artist and writing circles. For a seemingly fair reason: who wouldn’t want to learn how to be more like Charles Dickens, Andy Warhol, Twyla Tharp, Benjamin Franklin, or Jane Austen? If we can learn the habits that may have led to their success, will that increase the likelihood of us being successful?

Unequivocally no. The habits of someone else will not make you more or less likely to follow their path to ideas or success. No more than living in the same city that Picasso lived in will make you a great artist. You cannot become Elon Musk by eating the same breakfast as he does. Studying the habits of Einstein will not make you a genius.

Without any doubt there is something to the habits of others that is fascinating and possibly insightful. If we can peek into trends in habits, or observe possible behaviors we may not have considered or been cognizant of in the past, we unlock new doors for our own habits.

What books like Daily Rituals teach us is less about which habits lead to success and more about which artists or inventors were capable of shaping their habits to better fulfill their personal needs and processes. Einstein slept few hours because he simply didn’t need the sleep. Benjamin Franklin would wake around 5 every morning to ask himself “What good shall I do this day?” and that worked wonders for him.

But in each case what these examples tell us is the same wisdom we must focus on in our daily explorations and practices: read of other’s habits, yes, but don’t expect their solutions to be yours too. Instead: find what works for you. Be diligent about trying new things and being open to change or opportunities. You may find those opportunities in books like Daily Rituals or Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans, but you may also simply need to go out and explore on your own.



Three simple steps for building a daily creative habit

What’s the single best habit you can build in order to be more creative?

A lot of possible answers almost immediately come to mind; daily meditation, journaling or writing every day, creating something (no matter how small) every day, trying new things, trying to see things from a different perspective, or simply taking more chances.

Each of these habits have deep roots in creativity. Writer Julia Cameron believes in the power of morning pages, a daily practice of writing three pages, by hand, every morning. Meditation has repeatedly been shown to increase creative capacity in participants who practice regularly.

But if you had to pick just one habit to build in order to increase your creativity, what should it be?

Developing a habit of constant curiosity.

Einstein noted: “I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious.” Steve Jobs once exclaimed that “Creativity is the whole thing.” If I had to attribute my creative success to one particular thing, it would be my insatiable curiosity for the world around me.

But how do you build a habit of curiosity? The way I’ve always gone about it can be described in three steps:

1) Find time to be mindfully present. Set a repeating timer on your phone, write a sticky note and put it somewhere you’ll have no choice but to see it throughout the day (a mirror is a good place), tell all your friends to remind you, whatever it takes to constantly remind yourself to be in the moment. Not the mindful zen type of being in the moment, just recognizing that whatever moment your in at the moment is happening right then and there. The moment doesn’t have to be anything special or anything in particular. In-fact: the more mundane the moment can be, the better.

2) Take it all in. Once you’re being present in the moment, take a minute to acknowledge all of your sense. What do you hear? What do you smell, anything familiar or anything new? What are you feeling, what do the clothes on your body feel like or the temperature of the environment around you? Can you taste anything? What do you see?

3) Ask questions about the details. Once you’ve acknowledged your senses, start asking questions about it all. What do you see that maybe you didn’t notice before? How did it get there, whatever it is? What would it taste like to lick the floor? Who would do such a thing? What about the sounds? What are you hearing that you maybe didn’t notice before? What is making that sound? What sounds do you find yourself missing?

Here’s the thing: this entire practice, from step one to step two, doesn’t have to take more than one minute out of your day. But if you take the time to practice curiosity often, what you begin to find is that these types of questions become engrained in your thinking.

Suddenly you’ll start asking these types of questions about everything you encounter. You’ll find yourself asking questions nobody else is asking, or questions you didn’t realize you could ask. And when you start becoming this curious, new ideas will suddenly spring up in the most peculiar places.



Two physical hacks for recharging your creativity

In the past we’ve written about the link between depression and creativity.

Creative thinkers are more exposed to depression and anxiety possibly more than regular folk because of the tendency to ruminate more, or so the theory goes. Often, as creative individuals, we’ll use frustration or otherwise negative emotions to fuel the drive into finding solutions to problems or into doing creative, expressive work.

Unfortunately, the traits which give us leverage as creative workers can also be a disadvantage. In some circumstances, our focus on a task may lead to overthinking, analysis-paralysis, furthering our anxiety or depression, and so on.

How can you move past these creative obstacles if they’re the same thing that might be fueling your ability to pursue creativity?

According to Tony Robbins, peak performance coach to world leaders, creative experts, and business professionals, feelings of fear or uncertainty are physical by nature.

In fact, whenever you feel fear or uncertainty, your body assumes a specific position. Have you ever noticed that? When we’re fearful or anxious we tend to ball up, rolling our shoulders forward, pulling our knees close together, clenching our teeth or fists. The opposite is true of when we’re happy or open to experiences: we open our shoulders, sit up tall, push our chin up into the air.

Our mental state influences our physical self, and the opposite is theoretically true as well. If you’ve been unsuccessful at getting yourself unstuck from a creative rut, if you’ve felt frustration or depression clouding your ability to move an idea forward, consider a few physical hacks to see how you might alter your mood.

1. Change your posture

Try imitating the posture and facial expression of the state you want to be in. If you’re feeling inhibited, hurt, or afraid, try instead sitting up straight, smiling, opening your eyes wide, and pulling your shoulders back. If you’re having trouble even doing that, close your eyes for a moment and try to recall a situation where you felt extremely creative. What did it feel like in that moment? Ruminate on that space until you’re ready to open your eyes and get back to the work.

2. Cold Exposure

According to some studies, thermal discomfort negatively affect your work performance. Which might explain why Tony Robbins owns a Cryotherapy machine. The machine cools the body to primarily help with muscle recovery, but it also has some surprisingly beneficial effects for the body as whole.

In a 2007 study published by Nikolay Shevchuck, cold showers performed once or twice daily were shown to help treat symptoms of depression. In another study conducted on swimmers, after training in the cold all athletes's mood and energy improved.

How does the cold help? Researchers suggest that cold exposure may help trigger mind-boosting endorphins and help relax the body, and therefore the mind.

Whenever you find yourself unable to get passed a mental wall, consider changing your physical state.