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The No. 1 Habit of Highly Creative People

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 “In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for contructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.” ~Rollo May
Creativity is a nebulous, murky topic that fascinates me endlessly — how does it work? What habits to creative people do that makes them so successful at creativity?
I’ve reflected on my own creative habits, but decided I’d look at the habits that others consider important to their creativity. I picked a handful of creatives, almost at random — there are so many that picking the best would be impossible, so I just picked some that I admire, who came to mind when I thought of the word “creative”.
This was going to be a list of their creative habits … but in reviewing their lists, and my own habits, I found one that stood out. And it stands out if you review the habits and quotes from great creative people in history.
It’s the Most Important Habit when it comes to creativity.
After you read the No. 1 habit, please scroll down and read the No. 2 habit — they might seem contradictory but in my experience, you can’t really hit your creative stride until you find a way to balance both habits.

The No. 1 Creativity Habit

In a word: solitude.
Creativity flourishes in solitude. With quiet, you can hear your thoughts, you can reach deep within yourself, you can focus.
Of course, there are lots of ways to find this solitude. Let’s listen to a few of the creative people I talked to or researched:
Felicia Day – wonderful actress perhaps best known for her awesome awesome work on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Guild.
I was thrilled when she replied to my email asking about her creative habits. One of the things she said: she makes “sure to be creative first thing in the morning, before doing anything for the outside world, really sets the day up for me. It makes it feel that CREATING is my job, not answering emails.”
Ali Edwards – an author, designer, and leading authority on scrapbooking.
I was honored with a response from Ali as well. One of her top habits wasn’t exactly solitude, but is related: “Do nothing. I have a habit of welcoming time away from my creative work. For me this is serious life-recharging time where my only responsibility is to just be Mom & Wife & Me. Doing nothing has a way of synthesizing what is really important in my life and in my work and inspires me beyond measure. When I come back to work I am better equipped to weed out the non-essential stuff and focus on the things I most want to express creatively.”
Chase Jarvis – an award-winning photographer.
Chase also kindly responded with several of his key creativity habits — see more great ones at the bottom of this post. But here’s one that I loved: “Find Quiet. Creativity sometimes washes over me during times of intense focus and craziness of work, but more often I get whacked by the creative stick when I’ve got time in my schedule. And since my schedule is a crazy one and almost always fills up if I’m just “living”, I tend to carve out little retreats for myself. I get some good thinking and re-charge time during vacations, or on airplanes, but the retreats are more focused on thinking about creative problems that I’m wanting to solve. That’s why I intentionally carve time out. I make room for creativity. Intentionally. The best example of what I mean by a retreat is a weekend at my family’s cabin. It’s a 90 minute drive from my house on the coast. There are few distractions. Just a rocky beach and a cabin from the 60’s with wood paneling and shag carpet. I go for walks, hikes, naps. I read. I did get an internet signal put in there to stay connected if I need it. But the gist is QUIET. Let there be space for creativity to fill your brain.”
Maciej Cegłowski – painter, programmer, excellent writer.
Maciej is one of my favorite bloggers, and responded to my email with a classically short answer that to me, embodies a beautiful way to find solitude.
What habit helps his creativity?
Maciej replied: “Running up hills!”
Leo Babauta: OK, I wasn’t going to talk about myself in this post, but I thought I should share some of my previous thoughts.
The best art is created in solitude, for good reason: it’s only when we are alone that we can reach into ourselves and find truth, beauty, soul. Some of the most famous philosophers took daily walks, and it was on these walks that they found their deepest thoughts.
My best writing, and in fact the best of anything I’ve done, was created in solitude.
Just a few of the benefits I’ve found from solitude:
  • time for thought
  • in being alone, we get to know ourselves
  • we face our demons, and deal with them
  • space to create
  • space to unwind, and find peace
  • time to reflect on what we’ve done, and learn from it
  • isolation from the influences of other helps us to find our own voice
  • quiet helps us to appreciate the smaller things that get lost in the roar
Read more: the lost art of solitude.

The Greats on Solitude

Of course, many other creative people have believed in the habit of solitude. I’ve collected a small but influential sample here. There are many more examples.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – prolific and influential composer of the Classical era. He composed over 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, piano, operatic, and choral music. He is among the most enduringly popular of classical composers.
Mozart: “When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer–say, traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep–it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.”
Albert Einstein – theoretical physicist, philosopher and author who is widely regarded as one of the most influential and best known scientists and intellectuals of all time. He is often regarded as the father of modern physics.
Einstein: “On the other hand, although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.”
Franz Kafka – one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Novelist and writer of short stories whose works came to be regarded as one of the major achievements of 20th century literature.
Kafka: “You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Nicola Tesla – inventor, one of the most important contributors to the birth of commercial electricity, best known for his many revolutionary developments in the field of electromagnetism.
Tesla: “The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.”
Joseph Haydn: A life-long resident of Austria, Haydn spent much of his career as a court musician for the wealthy Hungarian aristocratic Esterházy family on their remote estate. Isolated from other composers and trends in music until the later part of his long life, he was, as he put it, “forced to become original”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – German writer and polymath. Goethe’s works span the fields of poetry, drama, literature, theology, philosophy, and science.
His magnum opus, lauded as one of the peaks of world literature, is the two-part drama Faust.
Goethe: “One can be instructed in society, one is inspired only in solitude.”
Pablo Picasso – Spanish painter best known for co-founding the Cubist movement and for the wide variety of styles embodied in his work. His revolutionary artistic accomplishments brought him universal renown and immense fortunes throughout his life, making him one of the best-known figures in twentieth century art.
Picasso: “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”
Carl Sandburg – American writer and editor, best known for his poetry.
He won three Pulitzer Prizes, two for his poetry and another for a biography of Abraham Lincoln. H. L. Mencken called Carl Sandburg “indubitably an American in every pulse-beat.”
Sandburg: “One of the greatest necessities in America is to discover creative solitude.”
Thomas Mann – German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and 1929 Nobel Prize laureate, known for his series of highly symbolic and ironic epic novels and novellas, noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual.
Mann: “Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous — to poetry.”

The No. 2 Creative Habit

While it might seem contradictory, the No. 2 habit when it comes to nurturing creativity: participation. This can come in many forms, but it requires connecting with others, being inspired by others, reading others, collaborating with others.
But how can you have both solitude and participation? They obviously have to come at different times. Finding the balance is key, of course, but it takes a conscious effort: this time is for solitude, and this time is for participation.
Why are they both important? We need inspiration from without, but we need creation from within.
A couple of the people I interviewed had habits that relate to this:
Chase Jarvis: “Devour Popular Culture. Consuming the works of others inspires me. And it’s not just museums and the “establishment”. I devour magazines, books, street art, performances, music, etc. All things that make me think critically (and whimsically) about the world. You get the picture. Inspiration can come from anywhere.”
Ali Edwards: “Participate. My creative spirit is interested in documenting the wonderful everyday details of our lives. To really get to the heart of the matter I need to be fully participating in my life, in the interactions with my kids and husband and family and friends. If I am just going through the motions or wishing away the present moment for “the next thing” I am missing the blessing of right now. My creativity requires the habit of active participation and daily attention to detail.”

Other Creative Habits

There are other habits than those top two, of course, that can nourish creativity. Some other good ones:
Felicia Day: “When I am most productive I am the most ruthless with my schedule. I will literally make a daily checklist with, “one hour gym”, “30 minutes of internet research,” and “drink 3 glasses of water” on it. For some reason being that disciplined creates a sense of control that I wouldn’t have otherwise, as a self-employed person, and I get the most out of the scheduled hours that I have for writing.”
Ali Edwards: “Take notes. I am a really good note-taker. It’s essential for me to write down my ideas when they come to mind…otherwise, poof, they disappear way too quickly as I move on to the next task (diaper changes, wiping noses, tending to the stuff of life). I use my phone, my computer, and a moleskine notebook to jot down thoughts and ideas and then I move them into Things every week or so.”
Chase Jarvis had a few more:
  • Live a creative life everyday. I very much believe in doing creative stuff everyday. For one, I take photos and videos almost everyday. Doesn’t matter the camera. I use my iPhone everyday. Just taking photos keeps me in a creative headspace. Hell, I play with my food and draw and doodle.
  • Moderate Expectations. Make it a habit not to judge yourself on your creative output. Sometimes your creativity is on fire. Great news. Other times, it’s not. It’s hard sometimes when you make art in a professional commercial capacity because you’re paid to be ‘ON’, but you’ll save yourself a lot of greif if you make it a habit to be cool to your psyche when your creative mojo isn’t firing on all pistons.
  • Shake Your Tree. When I’m starting to feel stale, I make a habit of getting into adventures. Break molds. Drive home from work a different way. Stir up my routine. I get active and shake my tree.
  • Find fun.  Doing what you love inspires you to be more creative.  Make time and space for having fun.  All work and no play makes Jane a dull girl.
  • Lastly, being creative means living a creative life.  Expect yourself to have one.  Believe you are creative. Know that you are. Make that the most important habit of all.
For more on creativity, read my Little But Useful Guide to Creativity.
“Creativity is essentially a lonely art. An even lonelier struggle. To some a blessing. To others a curse. It is in reality the ability to reach inside yourself and drag forth from your very soul an idea.” ~Lou Dorfsman

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Empire Building and the Art of Small Steps

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Empire Building and the Art of Small Steps
For a long time, I focused on starting big projects. And for a long time, I had a hard time finishing any of them. Sometimes I got overwhelmed, other times I just looked at the faraway goal and thought: what comes next? How do I know which step is the right one?
Only when I studied the art of breaking down big projects into very small steps was I able to make progress.
It’s kind of like mountain climbing. Mountains look impossible from a distance. But if you come to basecamp and just start putting one foot in front of another, all you see is the path ahead. You can’t help but make progress—and as long as you have a trail, you know you’re going the right way.
For the past few months, I’ve been conducting an intensive research project with small business owners. From an initial group of 300, I selected 15 “emperors” who had built profitable businesses with less than three employees.
I wanted to find out exactly how they did it, and the key was to separate the essential steps from the optional ones. The central question was: can you really build a business around something you love to do, without going crazy—or without going broke?
What I discovered was that most businesses are not built from big ideas. Big ideas are good, but it’s more important to look at all of the smaller steps that bring you to the bigger goal.
The practice of daily habits—familiar to everyone in the Zen Habits family—is also crucial. Every day, you get up and do one thing that brings you closer to your goal. If you’re learning to exercise, you do twenty sit-ups—or just two sit-ups, if that’s all you can manage at first. Achieving a flat stomach is much more likely through this method than with a weekly sit-up binge.
The same holds true with the business owners I studied. In a small business, here are the sit-ups you work on every day:
1. Reach out to existing customers – because it’s much easier to sell to existing customers than to new ones.
2. Bring traffic or prospects in – because partnerships and soft-sell promotion can bring in more customers than costly advertising.
3. Create new products or services – because once you have an audience, you need something to offer them. (It also helps if you have more than one thing.)
4. Find a way to expand your reach – because ultimately you’ll want to reach a bigger tribe with your message and business.
More than big ideas, breaking down each of these strategies into specific steps grows and nurtures a healthy business over time. The step-by-step business system is also much easier than the caffeine-fueled startup. Startups tend to fly high and die; a lifestyle business flies at lower altitude, but flies safer and longer.
Going step-by-step, you might climb a mountain, you might build a business, and you might even get a flat stomach.
Today will be gone before you know it. Before it disappears forever, what mountain are you climbing, and what one step can you take to get closer to the top?

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minimalism, rethinks

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As many of you know, I’ve been passionate about minimalism for awhile now, but as the trend towards simplicity and minimalism has grown, it’s given me pause for thought.
The minimalism trend has had certain elements that leave some readers with a bad taste in their mouths: elements of hype and salesmanship, elements of obsession, elements of one-upsmanship, a focus on aesthetics, a focus on possessions to the point of obsession.
I have to confess I’m as guilty of these things as anyone else, so please don’t take this as an attack on anyone. If anything, it’s simply me, holding up a mirror and giving myself a close inspection.
It’s true that when we obsess over what (few) possessions we have, it has a hold on us just as much as if we were hoarders. I publish my list of 50 things not so much to obsess over every little thing I have, but as a way to say: limits are good things. And as a way to inspire others, to show them that it’s possible.
But still. Obsession over possessions is unhealthy, and it needs to be rethunk.
Minimalism, as discussed on minimalism and simplicity blogs, can also become a game of one-upsmanship — showing how little we have (it all fits in a backpack!), how far we’ve come (not only have I given up my car, but my house and my computer too!), how cool our setup (my desktop has fewer icons than yours). I’ve done it, and if other writers are honest, they’ve done it too, even if they didn’t mean to.
Let’s let go of these obsessions with the perfect setup, with showing simple desks and desktops and software and so on.
And that brings me to minimalism, rethunk: we need to let go.
Let go of obsessions, and embrace the moment.
Let go of salesmanship and hype, and be content.
Let go of one-upsmanship and competitiveness, and just share and encourage.
Let go of control, and embrace what comes.
Let go of perfection, and just do.

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The Elements of Living Lightly

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The Elements of Living Lightly

Today I’m going to suggest a small change in mindset that could change your life.
I won’t keep you in suspense. Here it is: think of nothing that happens as either good or bad. Stop judging, and stop expecting.
It’s a tiny change — all you have to do is say, ‘That wasn’t good or bad, it just happened, it just is.’ It’s tiny, but it takes practice, and amazingly, it can knock you on your ass.
Why? Because with this little change, you will no longer be swayed up and down depending on whether good things or bad things happen to you, whether people (and their actions) are good or bad. You will learn to accept things as they are, and move within that landscape mindfully.
You will no longer expect good things to happen (or bad things), but will just take things as they come, and be content with whatever comes. This means you’ll no longer be disappointed, or unhappy.
“When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.”
~Lao Tzu

A Little Exercise



Think of something good that happened to you recently, and how it affected your mindset. Now think of something bad that happened, and what that did to your mindset.
Now imagine that neither event was good, and neither was bad. They simply happened, existed.How does that change how you would have felt as a result of those events? How does it change your happiness, your mood? How does it change what you do in reaction?
When you stop judging things as good or bad, you are no longer

 

Nothing is good or bad


Hamlet said, ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’
He was right. Without the human mind, things just happen, and they are not good or bad. It’s only when we apply the filter of our judgment that they become good or bad, beautiful or ugly.
A weed is only a weed when we don’t like it. Children are only naughty if we don’t like their actions. Life only sucks if you judge it as bad.
But what about truly horrible tragedies, like a plague or tsunami or the Holocaust? Surely those are bad? Sure, through the lens of the judgment we’ve been raised to make, they are terrible. But then again, remove the judgment, and then … they simply happened. Death and cruelty will probably always make us sad, but they’ve always happened and always will, whether we like them or hate them.
Holocaust survivor and author Victor Frankl wrote of a rich woman who went through the Holocaust, and who was grateful for the experience, as much as she suffered, because it opened her eyes. It transformed her. I’m not saying the Holocaust was good, but perhaps we can say that it happened. It serves as a lesson — one we should heed, by the way, in these days of politically charged hatred, of blaming our ills on immigrants and minorities.
There are other tragedies that happen that aren’t necessarily bad. They’re devastating losses, without a doubt, but in life there are always losses, and people will always die. It’s how we judge them that determines our reaction, and determines whether we’re capable of dealing with it sanely.

 

Great Expectations

 

The second half of this change is just as small, but just as important: dropping expectations. Not lowering expectations, but eliminating them.
Think about it: when we have expectations, and things don’t go the way we expect (which happens quite often, as we’re not good prognosticators), we are disappointed, frustrated. It’s our expectations that force us to judge whether something is good or bad.
When you expect something of a friend, co-worker, family member, spouse, and they don’t live up to that expectation, then you are upset with them, or disappointed. It causes anger. But what if you had no expectations — then their actions would be neither good nor bad, just actions. You could accept them without frustration, anger, sadness.
What if you went on vacation, to a place you had high expectations of, and it wasn’t what you thought it’d be? You’d be bitterly disappointed, even though it’s not the fault of that place — that’s just how the place is. It’s your expectations that are at fault.
When people disappoint you, it’s not their fault. They’re just being who they are. Your expectations are at fault.


 

The Why

But why make this change? Why should we stop judging? Why should we stop expecting?
Because judgments stop us from understanding, and can ruin our happiness. When we judge, we don’t seek to understand — we’ve already come to a conclusion. If we stop judging, we allow ourselves to try to understand, and then we can take a much smarter course of action, because we’re better informed by our understanding.
Judging makes us unhappy. So do expectations.
When we leave judgment behind, we can live in the moment, taking what comes as neither good or bad, but simply what is. We can stop ruining our happiness with our thinking, and start living instead.

The How

So how do we start doing this? In small steps, as always.
1 First, start by being more aware. Throughout the course of the day today, note when you make judgments, note when you have expectations, and when things don’t live up to them. Over time, you’ll notice this more and more, and be much more conscious of these types of thoughts.
2 Next, pause each time you notice a judgment or expectation. Take a breath. Then tell yourself, “No expectations, no good or bad.” Repeat this, letting go of the judgment or expectation.
3 Third, seek to see things as they are, and to understand. Be curious as to why things are the way they are, why people act the way they act. Investigate, empathize, try to put yourself in people’s shoes. See the landscape of your life as it actually is, without the filter of judgments or expectations.
4 Next, take what comes. Experience it, in the moment. React appropriately, without overreacting because it isn’t as you hoped or wanted. You can’t
control life, or others, but you can control how you react.
5 Then, accept. When things happen, understand why they do, without judgment, and accept them as they are. Accept people for who they are. Accept yourself, without judgment, as you are. This takes practice.
6 Finally, know that the present moment, being as it is, also contains infinite possibilities. And those possibilities are opened up once you see things as they are, without judgment or expectations.


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5 Ways To Combat Reactionary Workflow

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5 Ways To Combat Reactionary Workflow
Every few minutes, more communications are being sent your way. Emails, text messages, voice mails, instant messages, twitter messages, facebook posts…and the list goes on.

Your human response? You simply try to stay afloat. You peck away at the latest communications at the top of your many inboxes. And since the flow of communication never ends, you slip into a life of what I have come to call “reactionary workflow.”

For those of us with great ideas and bold goals for the future, reactionary workflow is a big problem. If we spend our working hours reacting to the incoming barrage of communication, we will fail to be proactive with our energy. Our long-term aspirations suffer as a result.

For the past five years, i’ve been interviewing uber-productive leaders and teams – people at companies like Google, IDEO, and Disney, and individuals like author Chris Anderson and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. I’ve never asked them how they come up with ideas. I’m not interested. My fascination is how they make their ideas happen, time and time again. The outcome of this long project is MAKING IDEAS HAPPEN, being published this month.

Many of the people I met have developed ways to combat reactionary workflow. Here are a few tips on how they do it:
Create windows of non-stimulation. Once you open the door to communications overload, you could spend all day reacting to what’s thrown at you. Piers Fawkes, founder and editor of the marketing consultancy PSFK, reserves a good chunk of his morning – from 7-10am every day – to do research and digest the day’s trends and news prior to going through his email. Proactively blocking out time for creating and absorbing – rather than just responding – is a key tactic of productive creatives.
Keep Two Lists When it comes to organizing the day’s tasks – and how your energy will be allocated – create two lists: one for urgent items and another for important ones. Long-term goals and priorities deserve a list of their own and should not compete against the urgent items that can easily consume your day. Once you have two lists, you can preserve distinctly different periods of time for focus on each.
Schedule intense periods of processing at a consistent time every day. During the research for the book, I met a number of people that swore on the benefit of “power hours.” These individuals would try to compress all response-related work into pre-determined short periods of time every day, usually 1-2 hours of un-interrupted in-box clearing. The notion of compartmentalizing reactionary workflow was a theme across the most productive leaders I met.
Don’t hoard urgent items. Even when you delegate operational responsibilities to someone else, you may still find yourself hoarding urgent items as they arise. When you care so deeply about a project, you likely prefer to resolve things yourself. Say an e-mail arrives from a client with a routine problem. Even though the responsibility may lie with someone else on your team, you might think, “Oh, this is really a quick fix; I’ll just take care of it.” And gradually your energy will start to shift away from long-term pursuits. Hoarding urgent items is one of the most damaging tendencies I’ve noticed in creative professionals that have encountered early success. When you are in the position to do so, challenge yourself to delegate urgent items to others.
Don’t dwell. When urgent matters arise, they tend to evoke anxiety. We dwell on the potential negative outcomes of all the challenges before us—even after action is taken. Worrying wastes time and distracts us from returning to the important stuff. When it comes to addressing urgent items, break them down into Action Steps and challenge yourself to reallocate your energy as soon as the Action Steps are completed. It is also helpful to consider whether or not certain concerns are within or beyond your influence. Often your worries are for the unknown and there is nothing more you can do to influence the outcome. Once you have taken action to resolve a problem, recognize that the outcome is no longer under your influence.
How do you avoid a life of reactionary workflow? You need discipline and a dose of confidence. Recognize your tendency to surf the stream of incomings, and gain confidence in the potential of being proactive. It is easy to sit there and react all day. You’ll never run out of work to do. But your bold ideas will suffer unless you take your energy by the reigns.

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