“Better work and less stress”: How to form, and most importantly keep, creative habits
It’s never the wrong time to make impactful positive changes to your creative methods of working, and here are a few ways to start.
It’s Nice That is currently partnering with Skillshare, an online learning community for creatives, on a series of articles exploring the value of learning new skills. In this piece, Abbey Lossing explains how learning how to animate her illustrations got her jobs at Buzzfeed and Vice, then innumerable freelance clients, and how it's not as daunting a skill as you might think.
When it comes to forming habits, it’s fair to say that most of us have the best intentions at heart. It’s especially evident when picking up a new creative habit, starting out with grand visions of speedily gaining the ability of a new medium, technique or skill. Whether you’re a freelance practitioner looking to add a new tangent to your practice, or developing growth goals in your position at work, picking up the right habits – and stepping away from the distracting ones – is only half the battle.
One initial stumbling block comes when deciding what you want to achieve in the first place. When the horizon seems endless, it can be difficult to select a point to march towards. And, if you pick a goal that feels disingenuous to what you actually want, it’s even more difficult to drag yourself there.
For Thomas Frank who has two Skillshare classes on productivity, finding his goals began by embracing as much as possible, and by starting an impossible list. Similar to a bucket list, an impossible list is a series of goals which may feel out of reach in day to day life. They’re also goals that are made impossible by constantly evolving – once you achieve a goal you immediately set yourself a leapfrog achievement to work towards next. For example, in a creative setting your first impossible goal could be to learn how to animate. Once that goal is achieved the target could shift to being commissioned to animate in a certain style, or for a certain client.
Impossible lists also encourage the writer to look outside their day to day life as much possible. In Thomas’ case, his is organised into different categories, purposefully helping “me to branch out my goals,” he tells It’s Nice That. “In high school, I felt like I wasn’t a very artistically gifted person, which was part of what fuelled my decision to go to business school. And, while I love building a complex spreadsheet here and there, adding and working towards goals on this list has helped me to explore music, video editing, and even visual art,” he points out.
Sitting in between wide ranging possibilities, an impossible list is a comforting place to start if defining a goal feels daunting. By adopting this approach it also opens up “active exploration”, with Thomas further explaining that: “Many people who don’t know what they want to do in life simply haven’t been exposed to many potential opportunities.”
If you feel completely unsure of what avenue to turn down next, a small step to start with is to say yes more. “By saying ‘yes’ when friends ask to do adventurous things, showing up for meet-ups, attending conferences and events etc [albeit digitally currently], people will discover interests that would have never unearthed simply by sitting down and trying to list out goals,” he adds. If you’re still stuck, reversing introspective questions can work too: “‘What will I regret not doing when I’m in my old age?’ is one that I like to ask myself,” says Thomas. “Not only for settling upon goals to pursue, but also for getting over the fear that often keeps me from getting started.”
Hopefully, these tips of Thomas’ will help you define your creative goal – but how next do you stay on track? The second half of Thomas’ Skillshare class on mastering habits covers exactly this, centred around “augmenting self-discipline with external systems in order to create lasting habits.” For creatives who are often juggling personal projects alongside commercial client-led briefs, this is where all those best intentions get cast aside. In the instance of renowned type designer and artist Jessica Hische, who also has three Skillshare classes on the art of lettering, it’s at this point she tends to struggle.
To tackle this Jessica explains she has made her own habits, the first being “my calendar rules all,” she tells It’s Nice That. “If a project isn’t on my calendar, it doesn’t get worked on.” With this in mind, Jessica prioritises what gets placed in her calendar and when, very closely. For example, “if I have a high-priority personal project, it gets put on my calendar as if it were a client project with a real deadline.” The designer also compartmentalises her day according to when works best for her: “I know that my brain is the freshest in the morning, so I always save that time of the day for doing brainstorming, sketching or ideation,” she explains. Then, in between calls she’ll catch up on admin tasks, while saving “solid three to four hour blocks of work time in order to get creative work done”. The afternoons, when she feels less creative brain power is when the production side of her practice, “like vectorising sketches or fine-tuning art that’s already been vectorised,” receives close attention.
Another “creativity ‘hack’” of Jessica’s is to prioritise working on personal projects during the day if she’s feeling “really fired up”. Leaving little room for much else, the designer justifies this focus by pointing out how: “The client work will always get done because there is a deadline and someone who will be mad at me if the work isn’t delivered,” she says. “But, if I save personal projects for night time I’ll likely put them aside and go to bed, or do some other leisure activity.” This approach of Jessica’s also relates to another judgement of Thomas’, quoting the saying that “‘If you can’t stick to the habit on your own, then you don’t want it bad enough,’ and to a degree that’s true,” he says. Yet, if you need to unavoidably hunker down on a task you’re not enthused about, you can make a considerable difference by “designing your environment correctly,” Thomas tells us.
Within his productivity focused Skillshare classes Thomas suggests designing an environment where good habits are actively encouraged. A beginning tip he recommends is the “20 second rule” [first mentioned by Shawn Achor in his book, The Happiness Advantage]. “The general principle here is to make good habits very quick and convenient to start doing,” explains Thomas. “For example, keeping a guitar on a stand instead of putting it away in a case. If it takes just seconds to pick up and play, you’ll practice more often.” It works the same if you’re combating bad habits you’ve picked up too, with Thomas further suggesting that “bad habits should be made less convenient to start,” he says. “If someone is trying to write every day, but PC games are a problem, they could create a work-only account on their computer that can’t access the games. When it’s inconvenient to access the temptation, our self-discipline will win out more often.”
Temptations come in all shapes and sizes too. At the moment in particular, it’s understandably quite difficult to feel innately creative when there are plenty of other outside influences distracting the mind’s focus. On a day to day level Jessica relates to this, saying how she actively keeps “a close eye on fluctuating anxiety levels,” in relation to her habits and productivity. “One of the things I struggle with is feeling overwhelmed by how much there is to do on any given day because I’m taking into account EVERYTHING I have to do at once (work/life paperwork, a giant inbox, outstanding bills, random ‘owed’ favours to relatives, old promises I haven’t yet kept, client deadlines, website updates, that pair of jeans I haven’t returned yet),” she outlines. “When I think about everything, I can get nothing done, it’s too overwhelming.”
Nigerian Illustrator Ojima Abalaka, who teaches a Skillshare class on “Illustrating the Everyday”, similarly has generated her own system to ensure individual tasks receive her whole attention, rather than being swallowed up by all of them. “Staying organised is really important for my work because it prevents my tasks from getting overwhelming,” she tells It’s Nice That. As well as writing down consistent notes, “I also use Notion to keep track of on-going projects and my daily tasks,” Ojima recommends. “Having a system that lets me clearly see and sort through my tasks and projects makes working easier,” and encourages the illustrator to split her time between personal and commercial projects. Keeping organised also helps Ojima avoid her self-confessed bad habit of “waiting until the last minute to start working on a brief,” she tells us. Guilty of spending “most of the time thinking of ideas” and not enough on the execution, “finding a balance is ideal and will usually lead to better work and less stress.”
Breaking up the day giving yourself assignments, and in increments, certainly helps. On this subject Thomas quotes Peter Drucker’s saying of “What gets measured gets managed”, recommending that no matter what habit you’re trying to implement: “it’s always important to be observing how well everything is working.”
One option is to set time aside to do this, a process Thomas refers to as a “reflection day”. Choosing Sunday as “a good candidate”, look back at what you set yourself to achieve, and simply what happened that week. Allow yourself to delve into “How well you stuck to your habits, whether or not any failures happened, and anything unexpected that popped up and made sticking to those habits more difficult.” Most importantly, try to get into a mind frame that sits between holding yourself accountable, while not placing pressure on yourself to achieve, achieve, achieve. As Jessica so rightfully says: “I have to forgive myself for not being 100 per cent on top of everything all the time and know that it's not actually possible to take care of everything unless I stop also taking care of myself.”
Thomas’ final suggestion is to also try and generate a dialogue around your goals. A good way of keeping yourself on track, but at a comfortable pace, is to “encourage frequent contact with a friend, or with another person with similar goals.” Speaking openly on what you want to achieve may sound just as daunting as finding a goal in the first place, but checking in one another creatively speaking can only ever be helpful for yourself, others and the practice of creativity in general.