Breaking patterns, inspiring creativity, and building flexible structure
Why do I do that?
I’ve been reading Let the Elephants Run by David Usher (yes, the David Usher of mid-90s alt-rock fame) as of late, as part of my efforts to reexamine my creative process. Personally, I find a lot of value in diving into the “why” of what I do, what I don’t do, and what I want to do. I find that starting with the signposts of “action” or “inaction” is a great way to understand how I’m feeling and if there’s anything going on I might not be aware of. And understanding my motivations, blocks, and assumptions allows me to make positive changes in my life. Following through and developing new habits? Not always easy. But it becomes a whole lot easier when you understand what’s driving you, and knowing you CAN change if you want to.
I’ve learned over the past few years that, aside from serious illness, “that’s just the way I am” is a true statement when people choose it to be true. It really only takes one big change to understand that everything that seemed so certain about ourselves is far less permanent than we think. It takes a lot of time, effort, discipline, and faith to make big changes in our lives. But, it’s rarely impossible to shift a habit or belief unless we choose it to be so.
Creativity and change
I believe that this ability to make changes in one's life is very much linked to creativity. Creativity is change. Nobody feels creative when they're stuck in a rut. So, getting back to the book...
One thing Mr. Usher suggests to inspire some creativity is to disrupt the patterns in one’s life. In fact, he suggests that, in essence, creativity is creating “mutations” in patterns to produce something new. This is certainly true in art itself. Adding another note to a chord to change its entire feel, adding some complimentary colour strokes to your pastel painting to alter the mood… I could go on.
Mr. Usher's point is more about changing how we do things to create unfamiliar situations that spark new ideas. This isn’t new; we’ve all been told "try taking a new route to work!" like it'll solve everything. How about "eat your lunch somewhere else"? "Exercise in the morning instead of the evening!" Yep, nothing new. But have you actually tried these things, or simply dismissed them as silly? I’ve definitely been on Team Dismissive. Changing such small things up seemed novel, but that was about it. How could such a small, mundane change to my day have impact?
Truth be told, I don’t think taking another route to work will all of a sudden turn me into a creative force. But, I’m starting to think that good things can happen when disrupting these patterns becomes a habit rather than a novelty. In fact, I’m starting to think it’s a necessity for living well.
My take on structure: Making the system work for you
With all this in mind cultivating creativity requires more than just disrupting patterns. One still needs SOME structure in which to transform ideas into something a little more concrete. Finding that balance between giving yourself the fertile ground to grow creative ideas and building in enough structure so they actually go somewhere is a problem that any artist or entrepreneur must tackle. As much as I resist structure, I see the necessity. So, I've chosen to run with a bit of an experiment.
Basically, I’m planning my days, but not ahead of time. New day, new plan.
I tried planning my weeks and how my work days should look in advance. Setting Saturday as a day off, making time for the gym Monday Wednesday Friday, working exactly six hours on client work and one and a half on my own material each day… you get the idea. For me, this wasn’t working. I found myself basically ignoring these rules because shit comes up. Things change. I might get a call to go see an awesome speaker and “oh I can’t because it’s my gym day” just isn’t an answer I want to give. Or something I wanted to feel guilty about. Perhaps I get really inspired during the day and want to make some music. I want to be able to DO that. Half the reason I’m working for myself is the schedule flexibility anyway. So I support this by structuring my day when I wake up, rather than well in advance. This lets me do two things:
- See how I’m feeling before committing to something that won’t work.
- Gives me structure that fits with how I’m feeling.
Basically, I’m creating a structure that conforms to me rather than shoving myself in a box.
Here’s an example schedule from the other day:
- 8:30 am: Alarm
- 9:00 - 9:30 am: Write daily plan, get up and meditate for 20 minutes.
- 9:30 - 10:15 am: Shower and get ready, get breakfast/coffee sorted, and eat
- 10:15 am - 3:30 pm: Emails and client work. Mutation: listen to some new tunes
- 3:30 - 4:30 pm: Work on my business (blogging, portfolio, social media)
- 4:30 - 5:00 pm: Bass practice. Mutation: Try to come up with a bass line in 5/4 time
- 5:00 - 6:00 pm: Make/eat dinner before 6:00, anything else is flex time
- 6:00 - 6:15 pm: Drive Crystal to physiotherapy
- 6:15 pm til she’s finished: Read book or do some writing (journal, lyrics, etc). Mutation: Go find a new place to hang out.
- Approx 7:45 - 10:00 pm: Flex time
- 10:00 - 11:15 pm: Catch up on any late emails, client stuff, or business work not quite finished. Maybe do some late online reading.
- 11:15 - 12:15 am: Get ready for bed, read a book or watch something w/Crystal
This timeline works for me because I've found I naturally feel a LOT better waking up around 8:30-9:00 am and going to bed between midnight and 1 am. I'm way more productive on this timeline than if I was forcing myself to get up at seven. I was a fucking zombie, requiring three-plus cups of coffee to get through my mornings, when I was getting up before 7:30. Now I'm on one cup, and am much happier in the mornings. This also accommodates for my late-night productivity bursts without burning myself out. Everyone has their own rhythm of sleep and productivity. It's worth finding yours.
Being nimble and realistic means you'll be happier
What I like about planning my days out this way is it lets me get really granular. I’m rarely wondering what to do next. And, as mentioned, I’m allowing for change day to day. I woke up feeling like I wanted to get some bass practice in later. I also was feeling a bit under the weather so exercise was not happening. Figuring it out in the morning allows me to be nimble, and shake up my structures as I see fit.
Most importantly, planning in the morning lets me feel good about my day. I’m not feeling like I’m making commitments to myself I can’t keep, like I did when I planned on hitting the gym four times a week but struggled to hit three.
When you feel like you’re doing what you want and not struggling with commitment, it becomes so much easier to enjoy and appreciate your life. No longer are you the slacker who can’t stick to a plan, you’re building the confidence in yourself while building good habits. You’re making intentional commitments, not creating obligations and feeling guilty.
I had someone ask me, when I presented this scheduling to them, how long-term goals fit if one is only planning day-to-day. Why I feel this will work for me is I've already taken some time to clearly define for myself things that are important to me. My theory is, if my schedule is in line with how I'm feeling each day, I'm likely to get where I want to go with my goals. Mindset counts for a lot.
I’m very aware that I have a high degree of freedom in my life right now. Dictating my own schedule and finding the opportunity to create mutations in it happens because I don’t have a whole lot of external things depending on me. But, this was by choice. I’m designing my life with this flexibility in mind, so I can commit to what I choose to. I understand that you may have children. A job with a set schedule. A medical condition. Regardless if these things in your life are good or bad, they affect one’s ability to be nimble with their schedule. I get that. But, restrictions can breed creativity too. Tons of people with creative, satisfying lives and careers have other things that require their attention. How can you still honour these commitments and find ways to shake things up?
We’re not meant to be static people. We are all beings capable of extraordinary change and reinvention. But we have to first accept that we’re capable of change, and of dictating the flow of our lives. In my humble opinion, accepting this is crucial for breaking patterns and getting our creativity flowing.