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If you’re a creative type, you’ve probably heard some version of these two “truths” before:

Truth One: Instilling routine and positive daily habits boosts productivity.

Truth Two: Frequently changing direction increases creativity.

Hmm, don’t these seem to be completely contradictory? What’s a well-meaning creative to do?

The real “truth” lies in a combination of the two. Yes, it is possible to develop a positive daily routine while giving yourself the directional changes which can increase your creativity. At the same time, you can change up your routine without losing sight of your end goals.

Oxymoronic? Maybe…

The Creative Reality

If you make a living via any capacity creatively, you rely on being able to produce creative work, often to a deadline. There’s nothing worse to a fastidious creative than to have a looming deadline but a creative “block” on the brain.

On the other hand, time tends to be a fluid kind of concept when you’re on a creative role. You may even feel like you produce your best work when you’re feeling uninhibited.

The reality is, if you want to remain in business, you need to develop some kind of routine and meet those deadlines upon which your clients are relying. If you don’t, you could easily find yourself living the “starving artist” stereotype as work goes to those who can deliver on time.

The Creative Routine

As counterintuitive as it may sound, some of the most creative minds in history have harnessed routine as a vehicle to get their creative juices flowing. Just take a look at these examples:

Franz Kafka — wrote from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. every night.

Voltaire — broke creative work into chunks of time: 4 a.m. to 12 p.m., 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. to 12 a.m. (Yikes, it appears the guy only had 4 hours sleep every night!).

Maya Angelou — did her creative work from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., usually in hotel or motel rooms. Between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. each night, she usually read to her husband what she had written that day.

Pablo Picasso — creative work happened in two chunks: 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. He would have dinner with his girlfriend in between working, however he was usually silent during the meal, his mind still on his work.

Winston Churchill“Churchill’s daily routine changed little during these years. He awoke about 7:30 a.m. and remained in bed for a substantial breakfast and reading of mail and all the national newspapers. For the next couple of hours, still in bed, he worked, dictating to his secretaries.

At 11:00 a.m., he arose, bathed, and perhaps took a walk around the garden, and took a weak whisky and soda to his study.

At 1:00 p.m. he joined guests and family for a three-course lunch. Clementine drank claret, Winston champagne, preferable Pol Roger served at a specific temperature, port brandy and cigars. When lunch ended, about 3:30 p.m. he returned to his study to work, or supervised work on his estate, or played cards or backgammon with Clementine.

At 5:00 p.m., after another weak whisky and soda, he went to bed for an hour and a half. He said this siesta, a habit gained in Cuba, allowed him to work 1 1/2 days in every 24 hours. At 6:30 p.m. he awoke, bathed again, and dressed for dinner at 8:00 p.m.

Dinner was the focal-point and highlight of Churchill’s day. Table talk, dominated by Churchill, was as important as the meal. Sometimes, depending on the company, drinks and cigars extended the event well past midnight. The guests retired, Churchill returned to his study for another hour or so of work.” (Daily Routines)

… and a personal favorite, Victor Hugo: “awakened by daily gunshot from fort”, “public ice bath on roof in water left out overnight.” (Nothing like a bit of public nudity to get the creativity flowing!).

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Source: Business Insider (Note: The green area is creative work time, while the mustard color is “social and meals”

The point is that the most successful creatives have a routine, despite any notion that routines are “restrictive” to the creative process.

What did famous creative routines look like? Grab our free guide here.

Conflicting Advice?

Before you get the public ice bath ready promptly at 11 a.m. daily (or ask the neighbors to fire gunshots), there is an argument against routine for creativity, one that is also backed up by some evidence.

As Annie Murphy Paul points out, the way most people spend their mornings is counter to the conditions that neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists tell us promote flexible, open-minded thinking.

If you’re leaping up at the alarm (fifteen minutes late already because you kept hitting “snooze”), racing through the shower, trying to get kids ready, then battling your way through aggressive morning traffic, you’re probably generating more of the stress hormone cortisol.

Studies show that cortisol can damage the myelin (fatty) sheath which coats our brains. When this becomes damaged, it slows down the speed with which signals are transmitted between neurons and makes those “Eureka!” moments less likely.

On the other hand, our groggy brains, when allowed to wake up slowly, are more likely to come up with imaginative insights.

Does this preclude having a “creative routine” though?

Well no, not really. In fact, having that more “relaxed” approach could be a routine of itself. John Tierney wrote a New York Times piece on “wu wei” or the art of not trying. He advocates for a “routine of spontaneity” and likes the approach of ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius: “try, but not too hard.”

“You plant the seeds and water the sprouts, but at some point you need to let nature take its course. Just let the sprouts be themselves.”

In other words, yes, have a creative routine, but in order for it to flourish you need to give it the right kind of space — strike a balance between unpredictability and routine. Yes, it does tend to be an ongoing struggle for any creative professional. You still need to maintain your creative flow while delivering work on time to paying clients.

How To Get “Unstuck”

All right, you’re thinking, that’s great. I need to wake up slowly and have a routine which doesn’t try too hard, but how does that help me right now, staring down the barrel of a deadline and a blank computer screen?

How can I maintain a routine, deliver to deadlines and maximize my creativity?

It is possible to change your routine slightly while still maintaining your goals, here are a few examples for getting “unstuck”:

Do One Thing Every Day…

You know the saying “do one thing every day that scares you?” As far as getting creative juices flowing, this isn’t too far from the truth.

As Tanner Christensen says, “If you want to be more creative, do something that involves an outcome you cannot safely predict; get uncomfortable.” When you try out new things, go somewhere new or do an activity you’re not comfortable with, you can expose yourself to new ways of thinking and general perspectives you haven’t thought of before. Sure, it doesn’t have to be every day, but it makes sense as part of a “creative” schedule to diarise time for new things.

Change Locations

You might want to stick to the same routine you have, but if you’re stuck in a rut in your home office, why not mix it up and take your work elsewhere? You can keep the same basic schedule while working out of a co-working space, a café, or any other location where you can access facilities you need to do your work.

Sometimes, all it really takes is a change of scene to get moving.

Don’t Be Too Rigid

Your schedule needs to consist of more than work, work, work. In fact, this would be a very fast way to run into creative blockages. Make sure taking a breather, daydreaming, or even just having a chat with friends is part of your schedule. (Notice how most of those famous creatives had a fair bit of social time!).

Try The “10 Minute” Routine

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“Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.” —Thomas Edison

This is a routine recently published in Inc. Here’s how it goes:

10 minutes before you go to sleep: Take a few moments to meditate on and write down the things you’d like to achieve. It’s about making “requests” of your subconscious so that while you’re asleep, it is working on those things.

This is a practice that is said to be commonly used by many of the world’s most successful people in order to intentionally direct their thoughts.

10 minutes after waking up: Instead of immediately reaching for your phone, find a quiet spot and “thought dump” into a journal for fifteen minutes, particularly in relation to those things you directed your subconscious toward. Research shows the brain is more readily creative after sleep.

What did famous creative routines look like? Grab our free guide here.

Final Thoughts

At first glance, the “truths” which are frequently expressed about the creative process can appear to be a total oxymoron, yet both of those actually are true if you want to thrive creatively while meeting the more practical demands of a professional career.

The real trick lies in balancing the two: having a routine which helps you to achieve your goals, yet having enough flexibility to get your creative flow on.

You can build in time to have a routine which balances new activities and changes of scene with getting your task list done. “Try, but not too hard.”