On Creative Practice, Part 2: Structure, Just Enough

How systems create structure, which produces habits, so you can be your most creative self.

“The point about working is not to produce great stuff all the time, but to remain ready for when you can,” says Brian Eno in Eric Tamm’s, Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound.

This bears repeating because it’s so important: a creative practice is not designed to produce your best stuff all the time; it’s about doing the work. That’s not to say you won’t create great work. In fact, the more practice you put in, the better the work will get.

Practice, or doing the work, also serves as a mechanism to develop a love for the creative process, which is the real work of art. I’ll let Bill Watterson, the creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, weigh in on this.

“To endure five years of rejection to get a job requires either a faith in oneself that borders on delusion, or a love of the work,” he said in his Kenyon College commencement speech. “I loved the work. Drawing comic strips for five years without pay drove home the point that the fun of cartooning wasn’t in the money; it was in the work. This turned out to be an important realization when my break finally came.”

What sustained Watterson in the days before his art was selling was his creative practice. Through that practice, he learned to love doing the work. If we approach our creative practice to foster our love of the work, we will be successful. While your ambition may not be a world-famous cartoonist, putting a creative practice in place will enrich your life in many different ways.

Let’s get started.

Systems Create Structure

When you break it down, there are two parts to a creative practice: systems and focused practice. Systems provide structure for doing the work every day or on a cycle of our choosing. Done well, systems develop great habits that you’ll need to create your best work. Focused practice on the other hand is part of the actual work, especially on days when we’re struggling a bit. The idea here is to exercise our mind in ways that build our creative muscles for the betterment of our art, whether or not we create something for an audience of one or an audience of many.

Think of your creative practice as a new adventure in your life. The normal advice you’d expect to receive at the beginning is to set a goal for what you want to achieve. In my experience, this hasn’t always been the best approach. For one thing, goals tend to be terribly limiting to long-term growth. They’re generally good in the short-term, but they lack the ability to scale over time. Say you set a goal to lose 20 pounds, for example. You come up with a few actions to achieve it: maybe drink less beer and stop eating carbs. You achieve your goal (yay!)…but you add 10 pounds back when you have a two beers and a pepperoni pizza at your victory celebration (boo!). Congrats are due, though — you achieved your goal.

Instead, it would be smarter to create a system that fosters healthy eating with the right portions that is sustainable after you lose the 20 pounds. It can feel a little bit like we’re forsaking gains in this approach. Not so, because losing 20 pounds becomes a milestone on a much longer journey. It’s a result that you expect. But you’re not focused on doing whatever it takes to achieve that short term goal. Instead, you’re focused on improving your overall health.

So how do systems support a healthy creative practice?

Within the context of a creative practice, systems serve a dual purpose. First, they build discipline and ensure that you do the work even when you’re not feeling up to it, because you’re human, and you will have days like that. Second, they keep the pump primed. When performed rigorously, they get your mind to a place where creative thinking is almost automatic, even when you can’t deliver your best work. This is important because inspiration doesn’t strike every day. Days, weeks, months or even years can pass as you wait for inspiration to find you. As E.B. White quipped, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

Ultimately, the structure you put in place to support your creative practice allows you to get shit done. By carving out the time and the place in your schedule, you are making a promise to inspiration: you will be ready when she arrives. It’s like saying, “I’ll be there. Will you?.”

Simple Theory. How’s it used?

For the longest time, I didn’t give much thought to my personal creative practice, even though I work in a so-called creative profession. But what I was doing for money was not exactly what I wanted to be doing daily. I wanted to write. But I just couldn’t find the time to do the work. It hadn’t occurred to me that the most basic measure of a writer’s success is quite simple: ass in the chair time.

If you want to write well, you need to get into the chair and do the work. But I didn’t do anything to guarantee that I’d get into the chair every day. Instead, I assumed that I would write when I felt inspired to write. Alas, inspiration is a fickle creature, and I found the time between her visits long and non-productive. And when she did arrive, the work was mediocre at best because my skills had atrophied. A few years blurred by and I was getting nowhere. I had to make a change.

I needed a system.

I started by dedicating one hour each morning to writing. No direction, no guidance, no thought required. Just sit for an hour and write whatever comes into my mind. And in the spirit of getting and keeping the juice flowing, it didn’t matter the mistakes in the manuscript, or that the order didn’t make sense, or that I had busted grammar, faulty punctuation, or illogical arguments. The whole point of the exercise was to write.

I scheduled my writing for 6:40 am. My day starts earlier, usually around 5 am. I wake up, meditate, work out, walk the dog, help get the kids ready for school. Everybody’s out the door by 6:40 am, and I take the next hour to free write in my journal. If I’m lucky, I can stretch this another 30 minutes and start my day with 90 minutes total to write. The only rule: they have to be all new words.

I like to write new stuff in the morning, because that’s when my mind is most receptive to the task. As the day goes on and my energy level wanes, so goes my capacity to invent new phrases and sentences. But if the opportunity presents itself, I can crank out drafts during the day as well. At this time of day, I find setting is most important, and that means sitting in a coffee shop or a bar, some place with just enough distraction to keep me focused. And in the evenings, I edit my drafts. This is a good low energy task that I can perform after my wife and kids go to bed.

After a few months of working within this system, quality arose organically. Instead of me imposing structure on the words coming out, they formed their own structures, and in some cases, they made for solid first drafts. I didn’t set out to do this. I merely put the structure in place and organized work was a surprising result.

What had happened, though, was the structure created constraints, and the constraints, even if they were arbitrary (as most constraints are), sharpened focus and increased resolve. I was forced to get work moving to avoid wasting the time.

I found myself at the laptop each morning, in the dull light of the kitchen, first light cracking the horizon out the eastern windows, and the words steadily flowing from head through fingers in what Haruki Murakami calls a “state of mesmerism.”

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

Play a Little Bit

I didn’t get to this structure overnight. Instead, this has been a years-long process of rearranging the parts of my day in different ways to achieve optimal results. What I’ve come up with works well for me today, but I’m still experimenting with the form. It’s important to approach any form of structure with thoughtfulness and make deliberate choices that will lead you toward where you want to be, but be ready to change it up if it doesn’t work.

To ensure that you do it every day, the best thing you can do is put it on your calendar. Once it’s on there, that time is sacred. I find this creates a strong sense of ownership for the process, as well as putting some pressure on yourself to perform during the workouts.

As we’ve discovered, some structure in a day is a good thing. It helps the body and mind prepare themselves for specific activities, develops focus and discipline, and builds good habits. But I wouldn’t overdo it. If you’re structuring your day to such an extent that scheduling your shower, there’s probably too much happening in your little world. After all, there are limits to human performance, and cramming 10 pounds of shit into a five pound sack will eventually break the seams and you’ll be left with shit everywhere. So keep your hands clean and stay receptive to great work. Add just enough structure to get the work done, but allow freedom for serendipity to enter in your life.

It’s important to create a structure that fits the work and life that you live. This may take some experimentation, some play. But that’s alright. Consider this another opportunity to express your creativity. Try different methods, approaches, times of days, locations, whatever it takes, and find what works for you. After all, life is a journey in which we get to know ourselves every step of the way.

Structure alone had succeeded in getting me into my seat and doing the work. After six months of writing every day with just a few misses here and there (after all, I’m not a robot), I decided it was time to go to the next level. Sure, I was writing words like I had hoped, and some of the work was even decent, but there was still tremendous opportunity for growth. The majority of my work at this point was still garbage. Adding focused practice to the mix brought me to the next level.