Want to know a powerful secret weapon you can use in your quest for better creative output? Think of it as an industrial-strength antidote to resistance, creative blocks, and stale ideas.
This amazing secret weapon is called a habit.
Developing better creative habits is one of the most valuable things you can do as a content creator.
Legendary Choreographer Twyla Tharp’s practical book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, is a ground-breaking guide to becoming a calmer, better balanced, more productive creative professional.
Ms. Tharp’s book actually gives readers a system for facilitating peak creativity, without the craziness. The key is developing the right habits.
Let’s talk about some of this legendary choreographer’s suggestions for becoming a creative professional …
A storage system for creativity
When Ms. Tharp is starting a new choreography project, she begins with a box — a simple, cardboard box from an office supply store. She says,
I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.
Tharp’s boxes help keep her organized — each project has a box (or eventually, a series of boxes). Everything related to a particular project goes into the box, and each box is a stake in the ground that represents her commitment to that project. If she needs to put a project on hold, she can always come back to the box and pick it up again, because she knows all her ideas are in one place, waiting for her to pick them up again.
When I start a new article (or when I was writing my book) I used a combination of Word documents, Delicious bookmarks, and file folders to keep all my ideas organized. Any system can work for content creators, as long as it’s flexible and sturdy enough to hold all of your ideas. Physical or virtual boxes (or a combination of the two) are both fine.
Evernote is a great tool for writers, as it allows us to tag and categorize information as we catalog it — making it easy to find later. Post-it notes are easy to use and incredibly flexible. Index cards are a tried-and-true writer’s tool.
The specifics of your holding bin don’t matter — what matters is that you have a system. Your boxes need to hold all of your research, mementoes, inspiration, newspaper clippings, flash drives, blog post links, and so forth. You also need to make sure that your system is sturdy and flexible enough that you can start (or restart) a project at any time by starting a new box or returning to an old one.
Powerful ways to get new ideas
When Ms. Tharp needs a new idea for a project, and she’s digging around for inspiration, she calls the process “scratching.”
The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: ‘You need an idea.’
… Even though I look desperate, I don’t feel desperate, because I have a habitual routine to keep me going. I call it scratching. You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won? That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging though everything to find something. It’s like clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, some sort of traction to keep moving upward and onward.
You might be thinking to yourself, “Do I really need a system for finding inspiration? I’m a blogger. I create blog posts on how-to topics. My writing isn’t terribly creative.”
But here’s the truth we don’t often talk about — writing really miraculous posts absolutely, positively requires inspiration. My favorite examples of miraculous posts are Jon Morrow’s gorgeous essay on fighting for your ideas, Brian Clark’s moving post about the aftermath of his snowboarding accident, and Sonia Simone’s list of the bad habits of insanely productive people. All three are examples of great ideas, perfectly executed on the page.
We need inspiration to write compelling posts that resonates with our readers. And if you haven’t been struck by inspiration lately, you might find yourself “scratching” around for a new toehold.
So how can we facilitate the process of searching for our next great idea?
- Free write. Just pull out a piece of paper (or open a new document), set a timer for 20 minutes, and free write. Keep your pen moving for the entire time, and don’t edit – just see what bubbles up. Read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within for more information on the concept of free writing.
- Read. As writers, we should read a lot — it makes us better at our craft. But reading someone else’s work can often help us uncover our next great idea, too. So if you’re stuck, pick up a book and sit down in your favorite reading chair. And remember to make time to read outside of your usual topic.
- Soak in someone else’s work of art. Visit an art museum, go to a dance performance, or attend a musical. Get inspired by watching the creative efforts of a fellow artist.
- Be creative in a different way. Are you a musician, painter or singer, as well as a writer? If so, try immersing yourself in the other side of your creative life for a little while — you might be surprised at what rises to the surface.
- Enjoy nature. Getting out of the house and watching nature can be a potent boost for your creative self. Try walking the dog, hiking, skiing, swimming, biking — or just go out and sit in the grass for ten minutes and watch the clouds.
The Creative Habit gives more killer exercises for scratching — make sure to check it out if you’re stuck for an idea.
Get (and stay) in shape
Ms. Tharp also emphasizes the importance of staying in our best possible creative shape. To do that, we need to make sure that we pay close attention to the details of our craft.
[Powerful creators] have mastered the underlying skills of their creative domain, and build their creativity on the solid foundation of those skills.
As content creators, we need to have strong writing skills in our toolbox. If our toolbox is well stocked, we can easily implement our killer ideas when inspiration strikes.
What are the best ways to stay in your best writing shape?
Read a lot. Immersing ourselves in great writing — magazine articles, blog posts, fiction and non-fiction books, plays, and poetry — gives us a solid foundation of grammar, syntax and rhythm that we just can’t get anywhere else.
To stay in shape and hone our craft, we also need to write a lot. We should write every day, if possible — even if it’s just for a little while.
As you become a better writer, you’ll not only get better ideas, you’ll be able to execute better when you do get inspired. It’s like being in shape as a dancer — if you take classes every day and keep your body in great shape, you have virtually no limits on what you can do physically. You will be able to handle the best choreography in the world, which makes you a great artist.
The same goes with your writing skills. If you know the rules of grammar and have an insane vocabulary, you can do anything you want when you sit down to write.
So write a lot. Then write even more. Make “working out” every day a part of your creative process.
Make creativity a habit
Being creative isn’t easy — it requires luck, skill and perseverance. But we can make our lives significantly easier by developing concrete habits that establish a solid foundation for our creativity.
As a writer, I know that good creative habits give me something to lean on, and they give me reassurance that even if I’m temporarily stuck, things will get un-stuck soon — because they always do. My habits are my creative security blanket — and that’s fine by me.
Henri Matisse said, “Creativity takes courage.” Admitting that we need systems and habits to facilitate our creativity also requires us to be brave. What are your best habits to help you through this crazy life as an innovative content creator?