Habits, when properly established, act as the through line transcending the good and bad days of creative work. They give you a structure that keeps you consistently showing up to create, to improve and to work towards your goal. Here, Australian writer and photographer Andy Summons shares some tips on building good habits.
Any creative pursuit is a marathon not a sprint. Whether you’re just starting to develop a creative practice, looking for ways to deepen an established practice, or trying to work out how to make more time in your week for something you love, the transformative powers of habits may help. Because as Ancient Greece’s most famous philosopher, Aristotle, said, ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.’ So if you can turn your creative practice into a habit, you can set yourself up to deepen your practice and pursue excellence consistently.
Building habits, just like creative projects takes time, and a lot of repeated effort. There’s an old saying, ‘an overnight success takes 10 years – it’s a marathon, not a sprint, stay with it.’ In his book Perennial Seller, Stoic philosopher, author and former marketing director of American Apparel Ryan Holiday says, ‘Art is the kind of marathon where you cross the finish line and instead of getting a medal placed around your neck, the volunteers roughly grab you by the shoulders and walk you over to the starting line of another marathon.’ Two bits of advice will help prepare you for these recurring creative marathons. One: fall in love with the journey. Two: improvement comes from repetition.
“To establish new habits, I start by stacking them onto my morning coffee.”
Fall in love with the journey
If you don’t fall in love with the journey, you’re unlikely to reach your destination. That sounds easier than it is but if you can do it, you’ll be happier in the short term and reaching your goal will feel like a bonus at the end of a long enjoyable journey.
The good days are the easy part – you can get into a flow state easily, you’re confident in the work you’re creating and you start to believe you’ll reach your goal a lot sooner than you expected. The struggle comes on the bad days, when it feels like you’re banging your head against your own incompetence. Ideas and decisions made so easily the day before grind and spark distrust in your abilities. You start to question yourself and whether this agony is even worth it. To help you find more good days, here are some ways to get through the bad days:
1. Remember it’s part of the journey. Improvement and success are rarely linear. There will be setbacks, unexpected challenges, even catastrophic failures as well as good times, small wins and big victories – learn to embrace it all and you give yourself the best chance to overcome the challenging days and the perils in your creative journey.
2. Define success. Self-doubt is often the catalyst for procrastination. It can start with an imperceptible thought and snowball into a full crisis of confidence, totally derailing your day. Define what success looks like for your project – list everything you need to do to finish it. Once you’ve squeezed your project to-do list out of your head and onto the page, it’s easier to know what you’re aiming for and whether your efforts are helping you work towards it.
3. Drop your gaze. If it’s a really bad day and you feel like you’re not up for doing any work on your project, stop worrying about the future. Forget the outcome, forget comparing yourself to others, stop comparing your progress today with yesterday, forget about tomorrow and focus solely on today. Write a list of three things you can do today that will help you move towards your goal. Focus on doing those three things and ignore everything else. Once you’ve done those three things, stop for the day. Or maybe you’ll find you’ve tapped into some hidden motivation. There’s only one way to find out.
Improvement comes from repetition
Consistent, repeated efforts help build your stamina and deepen your creative practice. Creative journeys are rarely easy – nothing worth doing is – but progress comes from repeated efforts, from practice, from working on your craft over and again across weeks, months, years and decades. If you form strong habits, your repeated efforts will come more easily. And as you automate your creative practice by turning it into a habit, you’ll free up headspace to focus on your art. This is the process I use to establish reliable, long-term habits:
Round up your habits
The first step in establishing good habits is to reflect on your days and identify the habits you already have – note down good and bad habits. It can be as simple as waking up, having a shower each morning, having lunch at the same time, exercising at night, walking the dog, going to work, reading the news – look at what existing habits you have. Author of the habit bible Atomic Habits, James Clear, says, ‘One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behaviour on top.’ Instead of relying on a particular time or place to cue the behaviour you want to turn into a habit, habit stacking leverages an existing habit to cue it for you.
“If you are struggling to find the time, habit stacking or not, it’s not that you don’t have time, it’s that you’re prioritising other things.”
Stack new on old
I love coffee so I make myself and my partner coffee every morning. It’s the strongest and most reliable habit in my day. It’s my cornerstone habit. To establish new habits, I start by stacking them onto my morning coffee. I’ve used that for meditation, writing more, reading, and exercise. Once these new habits are established, I move them around throughout the day so they fit better with my schedule but that’s the easy part. To establish them, I connected them to the strongest habit I have. So if you walk the dog every morning without fail and you want to make sure you’re painting, writing, photographing, playing music everyday, stack your habit onto the back of your existing habit.
You can make it even easier for yourself too – leave a visual cue as a reminder. Put a paintbrush by the dog leash, leave your camera near the dog food – whatever’s going to help cue that new habit. It’s worth noting too, that it takes a lot longer than 21 days to establish a new habit – some studies say 60 days, others anywhere from 18 to 254 days. It’s best not to count the days and focus instead on sticking to your new habit, falling in love with the journey, and concentrating your energy on making best use of the time your new habit makes for your creative practice.
Optimise for success
One of the best tips for great writing is: leave the reader wanting more. You do this by finishing before the end. And you can use this same trick, whatever your creative medium, to set yourself up for a flying start the next day. In a letter to Thomas Wolfe, Earnest Hemmingway recommended “to break off work when you ‘are going good.’—Then you can rest easily and on the next day easily resume.” When you’re wrapping up for the day, finish before you’ve worked yourself to a point of not knowing what comes next. Leave yourself some notes too. Jot down the ideas in your head, tell yourself where you were going, what you were working towards. The next day, instead of sitting down and having to remember what you were doing, where you were going and what you should start on first. You can get started quickly, and then use action as motivation to continue on. You can set yourself up for success and optimise for success by finishing your day mindfully.
Out with the bad
You can use habit stacking to replace bad habits too. James Clear says bad habits are usually cued by stress or boredom, and I’d add frustration into that mix too. When grappling with a challenge for too long, it can be easy to hit pause and escape, especially onto your phone under the guide of research or inspiration gathering. Instead of trying to quit bad habits, Clear says, ‘bad habits address certain needs in your life. And for that reason, it’s better to replace your bad habits with healthier behaviour that addresses that same need.’
For example, if you sit down at the start of your creative practice time and you’re feeling a bit flat so you go searching for inspiration and wind up wasting an hour scrolling through Instagram, Pinterest or some Youtube vortex, start by identifying the cue. The cue is that you feel like you’re lacking inspiration, or maybe you’re unsure where to start. By replacing your escapism with going over yesterday’s progress, you can tickle the itch of inspiration. If you finished before the end and left yourself some notes, you can remember where to start without getting distracted. You can replace the negative habit of escapism with a moment of reflection, gratitude, and a surer way into deep work.
If you’re still struggling to establish good habits, you can try using your phone alarm or calendar reminders to cue your habit too. This works best if you have a structured day or week. If you set your alarm to wake up at 7am every day and then you usually have breakfast, have a shower and make a cup of tea, you can try setting an alarm or creating a calendar event at 7:30 for your new habit. And name the alarm, ‘Make tea and write’. That way if you forget to stack it onto your morning routine, you have the fail safe of your phone alarm to remind you.
Prioritise your habits
It doesn’t much matter if you make time every day or once a week for your creative practice. For most people the hardest challenge is making time in the first place. Few things are more frustrating than feeling like you don’t have enough time for something you enjoy doing. And the harsh truth is, we all have the same number of hours in a week. If you are struggling to find the time, habit stacking or not, it’s not that you don’t have time, it’s that you’re prioritising other things. And sometimes that’s unavoidable, but usually we can find time for the important things in life. Building habits makes it easy – it replaces the cognitive load of trying to work out when you’re going to squeeze it into your week with the effortlessness of an unconscious habit.