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RSS Creativity: Routines, Systems, Spontaneity

RSS Creativity: Routines, Systems, Spontaneity
Published November 30, 2009 by Mark McGuinness
Most stories about creativity are stories about the 1%. We hear about the moment of inspiration – Archimedes leaping from his bath, Coleridge hallucinating “Kubla Khan” in an opium reverie. We don't hear so much about the years of perspiration – Archimedes plugging away at failed experiments, Coleridge learning his craft by writing notebooks full of dull poetry.
Most of us don't like to think about the labor involved in creativity. It takes away the glamour and the magic. But real creators know different. They know that creative work isn't particularly glamorous. It requires discipline, routine, and a nitpicky attention to detail. But they also know that none of that takes away the magic.We often talk about “the creative process,” but it's really several interlocking processes. The magic happens at the point where they intersect. Here are three core processes you need to coordinate in your work as a creative professional:


Many creative people lead apparently boring working lives, sticking to the same routine every day. They do this because they understand instinctively what neuroscience has now confirmed – routine is a key that unlocks creative inspiration. Circadian rhythms of arousal and mental alertness mean that certain times of day are especially conducive to focused creative work. The effect is magnified when familiar objects, surroundings, and other stimuli (coffee, background music) become associative triggers for creative states of mind. Here's how it works for Stephen King:
“There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”- via Daily Routines
Takeaway: Notice what time(s) of day you are most alert and creative. Dedicate that time to focused creative work. Use the same tools, in the same surroundings, even the same background music, so that they become triggers for your “creative zone.”


A rock-solid productivity system performs a dual function for your creativity: (1) It ensures that all ideas and action steps are captured, so that nothing slips through the cracks, in your own work and within your team, and (2) When you are confident that everything important has been captured, you are free to focus fully on the task in hand. Systems are different from routines, since they are not dependent on circumstances. Major events can play havoc with your routine. When this happens, a good system acts as a safety net. I discovered this over the summer, when I became a father and my daily routine went out the window for a couple of months. But having a decent productivity system in place meant that nothing important was forgotten and it all got done (eventually!).
Take a few moments to review how you spend your time. Study productivity systems and experiment to see what works for you. (Behance’s Action Method is one of the many tools available to streamline your workflow.)


Real creativity involves spontaneity and surprise, whether a simple “Aha!” moment or the lightning bolt of inspiration. Paradoxically, the harder you work at routines and systems, the more likely you are to experience that bolt from the blue. Archimedes wouldn't have had his bathtub revelation if he hadn't been working hard on problems of volume and density. Coleridge's notebooks show that much of the groundwork for “Kubla Khan” had been done in the months leading up to his famous opium trip. But nose-to-the-grindstone productivity won't get you very far unless you take a break, relax in the bath, have a beer with friends, browse the internet or a bookshop, or go for a walk and “wander lonely as a cloud,” as Coleridge's friend Wordsworth put it. (Probably best to draw the line at opium though.) One of the best things about being a creative professional is that all of this stuff technically counts as work! Takeaway: Take breaks from the usual routine. Be open to new people, places, and experiences. Welcome the thoughts that appear from nowhere. Have a notebook or phone handy to capture them. -- How Does It Work for You? What role do routines and systems play in your creative work? How do you leave room for spontaneity?

More about Mark McGuinness

Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach. He is the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, and the free course for creative professionals, The Creative Pathfinder.

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