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Habits in the Lives of Artists

Portrait of Symposia author Vishal Sheth
Vishal Sheth

Mar 16, 2022

 | Max 


 min read

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Whether you're a full-time artist or you have a day job and hope to make art full-time someday, you'll need to work at your art every day to succeed.

Even the most gifted artists of the past have gone through a long apprenticeship phase, typically lasting ten years or more before they make the mature works for which they are remembered.

How can you sustain a consistent practice over such a long period? The answer is: by establishing good habits (and maintaining your motivation, but that's a subject for another article).

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The relationship between creativity and habits

Habits are enormously powerful. Making an activity habitual reduces the need to use precious willpower to start it. It relieves the pressure you feel to do the activity well when you know you'll be doing it every day. And—though it may seem paradoxical—routines can improve creativity.

Any problem worth solving, any work of art that resonates, results from slow, consistent work in a direction. By sitting down to work every day, artists and creative people keep figuring out what doesn't work until they figure out what does.

Daily routines can take different

Ruthlessly efficient writers like Stephen King swear by the practice of writing 2,000 words a day. Some creatives follow a more regimented schedule, waking up at the same time each day and blocking out specific hours for creative endeavors.

Others are more flexible in their approach, learning on the go and allowing inspiration to strike them when it will. However you approach your creative routine, the important thing is to make it a part of your daily routine.

Some artists might balk at the thought of having to adhere to a strict set of routines to be creative and let ideas flow. Indeed, they might think, creativity is about spontaneity and following one's muse?

Turning daily activities into routines

You can make your life as an artist easier by making your artistic work a routine rather than trying to fit it into the corners of your schedule.

As William James wrote in Psychology: The Briefer Course The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy… For this, we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many practical actions as we can.

The more details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their proper work.

There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation."

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How to form a routine as many artists have

Routines have two phases: an initiation phase, in which the practice is forming, and a maintenance phase. In the initiation phase, you need to use willpower, motivate yourself, or use reminders to do the activity like answering emails.

Once the routine is formed, it's in the maintenance phase: you still need to do the activity to keep up the routine, but you mostly do it automatically, without thinking about it or motivating yourself as much.

How long does it take to benefit your own work?

How long it takes to form a routine—that is, the length of the initiation phase—depends on many different factors, like your motivation, the strategies you use, and how rewarding the behavior you're trying to start is.

One study from 2010 found that it took an average of 66 days to form certain health-related routines, like drinking a glass of water, eating fruit, or doing situps. But there was an extensive range: some routines formed in as few as 18 or as many as 254 days. So if you don't manage to start a new routine in a month, don't worry— you're not making mistakes, it usually takes longer than that.

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Having plants in your workspace to water regularly will help you build routines. You get a reward for following through with this small habit as they beautify your space and are a visual reminder of upholding your commitments.

The anatomy of habits

As Charles Duhigg explains in The Power of Habit, routines have three parts: a cue prompts a behavior, and a reward follows the behavior. For example, one of my most persistent lifelong habits is showering after brushing my teeth in the morning.

  1. The cue is brushing my teeth.
  2. The behavior is showering.
  3. The reward is relaxed muscles, a clearer mind, and feeling clean.

Using old habits as cues

When cultivating a new habit for your art practice, it's better to use an existing solid routine along with proper time management as a cue rather than to do something at a particular time. Keeping an eye on the time introduces an unnecessary extra step that you might forget.

Make a list of everything you do habitually every day, starting from when you wake up. Then find a good place to fit your new routine into your routine. Let the completion of one habit be the cue for the next. You can consistently have solid and productive days by chaining your habits together.

Good routines are hard to start because habits are powerful: you have to overcome your old routine to progress and form a new one. But the initiation phase is challenging. You have to throw everything into the routine during the initiation phase.

Where to start:

  1. Make a plan.
  2. Leave reminders in places you'll see.
  3. Set reminders on your phone.
  4. Tell someone else like an artist about your intention.
  5. Put up a chart on your wall to track your routine.

How to make difficult habits easier to start for artists

The goal is to get to the maintenance phase, where you do the activity because you crave the reward. The reward is crucial in determining whether your new habit sticks. If you enjoy the activity right away, it's easy to keep up the routine. You start to crave the reward.

But some artist routines are difficult to start because the reward isn't obvious—or worse, the activity is painful at the beginning. For instance, meditation is a notoriously difficult habit to start because your first attempts are likely to feel awful: your mind wanders constantly, and instead of calm and collected, you feel fidgety and frustrated. This is especially true for artists and creatives who are constantly thinking.

To start such habits, you not only need a great deal of motivation; you also need to have realistic expectations for how the initiation phase should feel to be successful. You can learn what to expect from teachers or books.

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Habits can stick alongside your art-making

You may want to create habitual behaviors, like working out at the gym or practicing at the studio, a series of activities that stimulate growth. Because each day the activities may be different, it might seem impossible to make them habitual; but you can make a habit of starting them.

For decades, choreographer Twyla Tharp has been going to the gym to work out for two hours every morning before going to the studio. But she doesn't think of the habit as working out at the gym; the habit is getting in the cab to go the gym.

She considers it a success if she gets in the cab and tells the driver where to go. She's free to change her mind from that point (but in reality, she never does).

Create a ritual for creative success

There are many different rituals that artists have used throughout history to help them find inspiration to make their work. Some people like to work in the course of the morning, while others prefer to make new work at night. Some people like to work on their art in complete silence, while others need some background noise. Some people like to work alone, while others need the company of other people.

To help your mind prepare for extended work periods, you can cultivate a ritual, which is a certain kind of habit. Rituals are helpful for many activities, like starting work, praying or meditating, listening to music performing, competing, and even stopping work and relaxing.

Concluding thoughts

Learning to make art takes many years of deliberate daily practice. The only way to accumulate those days is to cultivate the habit of practicing regularly. As John C. Maxwell said, "You will never change your life until you change something you do daily."

  1. By making as many of your activities habitual, you can reduce your reliance on willpower and have more productive days.
  2. Habits take an average of two months to form, but there's a lot of variation around that number.
  3. When trying to form a habit, throw everything you've got at it during the initiation phase: make a plan, set reminders, and track your habit on a chart.
  4. The goal is to get to the maintenance phase, where you do the activity, making you feel good.
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