There are dozens of interesting studies of creativity in the past couple of decades. All of them are asking pretty much the same question, “What makes us ‘tick’?” For example, in 1945, psychologists Karl Duncker performed what is now a famous experiment to measure a part of creativity called “functional fixedness”. You may have heard Dan Pink talk about it in his TED presentation.
What Karl Duncker found is that external incentives such as money and prestige cannot – and do not – help us lower functional fixedness. Unfortunately, that was where his study ended. He never did found out what DOES help. But someone much older than he was gave us a clue. He said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” Yes, that person was Aristotle.
I believe the same is true with creativity. Some of the most creative individuals I know or read of have routines. Writers, for example, love to wake up before the sun dawns, way before phones start ringing and emails start pouring in. Others go for a contemplative walk, at the same time everyday, no matter what is happening on that day. Today, though, I won’t write about what habits to establish. Instead, I want to talk about how to establish that habit – a process, I’m sure you know, so gruelling, most people give up before the habit is formed.
Why Are Habits So Hard To Establish?
Because a long long time ago, our ancestors figured that any change is bad. And that lesson stuck with in a genetic code – everytime you initiate a change in life, even if it is a positive one, you create uncertainty. If you can’t tell what’s going to happen in the future, you’re going to do all you can to find out. The easiest way to achieve that, of course, is to revert to your old behaviour.
“So what if I’m think stuck in a rut,” your subconscious thinks, “at least it’s safe right here.” This is why there’s a certain comfort in sticking to what’s known. To stick to conventions. To follow the rules. And to do what others tell you to do. These are all safety mechanisms. And it’s why the more “secure” someone feels, the more she’s going to stick to her crystal ball.
Don’t Give Up
Yet when it comes to change, most people like jump in head first. They are usually in the heat of the moment – say after watching a documentary, reading a book or during a particularly inspiring seminar. I am going to change my life, they proclaim. I WILL exercise 30 minutes a day from today onwards, never again step a foot into McDonald’s, wake up at 6am, floss, learn to dance and optimize my breathing pattern. But that’s the thing: willpower is a limited resource.
In a study to prove this, psychologist Roy F. Baumeister recruited a group of hungry students. He then sat them in a room and placed three choices in front of them: a bowl of freshly baked cookies, chocolates and radishes.
1. The first group are allowed to the cookies and chocolates.
2. The second group are only allowed to eat radishes.
To maximize temptation, he left the students with the food but observed out of sight. After sufficient temptation, the students are then taken to another room to solve puzzles. The first group persisted for 20 minutes – as did the control group who was not offered any food. But the second group persisted only for 8 minutes. Subsequent studies have since found that sure, willpower can grow, but it’s still a limited resource.
In other words, sure you can discipline yourself for the first 3 days but as soon as that pool dries up, you’ll go back to your old habits. When people go on a strict diet, it’s not uncommon for other parts of their life that require willpower – parts such as relationships or career – to decline, at least until that diet becomes a habit.
What To Do Instead
A better way to establish creative habits is to slowly introduce change – slow enough not to trigger your conscious need for safety. For example, 30 minutes of daily contemplative walk is a habit among highly creative individuals (eg: Steve Jobs). In fact, some people say that solitude is the most important habit of creativity. If you’re an extrovert, though, being alone with your thoughts for 30 minutes can feel like forever. So try this: try one minute a day and introduce another minute every 2 days. By the end of 60 days, you’d have spent 30 minutes of solitude a day.
A better way to establish creative habits is to slowly introduce change
If you want to pick more than one habit in 60 days, there is one thing you can do to increase your chances of succeeding: remove temptations. For example, if you want to be alone with your thoughts, putting on a noise-cancelling headphone in the middle of an open-plan office is a BAD idea. The temptations are right within your reach. Instead, when you go for your contemplative walk, leave your mobile in the office and disappear off the grid. And if you can’t do that, do what writers do. Wake up earlier than everyone else, when no one will seek your attention.