As someone who works from home, doing on a range of creative things, habits can make or break every aspect of my life. How many songs I write, whether I post my weekly content on time, how physically healthy I am, whether I do the right amount of thinking (neither too little, nor, as is more common, too much…)
I’ve been using my love of spreadsheets and an analytical approach to try and create the right creative conditions for my day, whilst staying happy and healthy and making time for other people.
After three different people (at least) recommended I read Atomic Habits by James Clear, I decided to give it a whirl to see what more I could learn…
A summary, in case you haven’t read it: he talks through how to form good habits and break bad ones, through drawing out the different elements of habit forming and suggesting ways to change them, e.g. for good habits:
- The cue (the trigger that sparks a habit) needs to be obvious
- The craving (the thing that makes you want to do the habit) needs to be attractive
- The behaviour (the actual habit) needs to be easy, and
- The reward (the instant gratification you get for doing it) needs to be satisfying
There are various ways you can achieve each of these things.
I’ve been doing some of these already, for example:
- In a previous article I talk about how I’ve used ‘Paths Of Least Resistance’ thinking to make my daily singing warmup as easy as possible to stick to
- I’ve crafted a morning routine (see this video) using the process apparently called ‘habit stacking’, where one habit leads directly into the next as a sort of chain (drink water → do yoga → do press-ups → brush teeth → eat oats → learn 5 Russian words)
- By way of ‘Habit Tracking’, I’ve had this Master Spreadsheet to check in on these tasks each day
- Specify time and place for each habit you want to form – it makes you more likely to do it (this has been great for mine and Anya’s daily midday workout!)
But some of it is new to me and so I wanted to draw out my main takeaways and apply them to my daily, creative and otherwise, as a real life example of an artist struggling to get the right things done.
Again, while this is an ‘open journal’ and so I’ve made it about me, I also want to make it about you so please think about how this relates to things you want to do (or not do…)
Tip #1 – Understand the difference between ‘Motion’ and ‘Action’
There is a huge difference between doing something useful, and just doing something for the sake of doing something.
For example, when I plan out YouTube videos, there are two types of ‘planning’ with a fine line between them.
‘Action’ would include coming up with new video ideas, writing scripts, and drafting different options for titles. This is all good and necessary – a lot of planning goes into making a great video. Often I’m guilty of not planning enough…
But I have a spreadsheet that includes a list of all my video ideas mapped out against the week I intend to film and release them. Sometimes – because I’m putting off doing the important work above – I’ll just move different ideas around different weeks and pass this off as ‘planning content’ when actually it’s just ‘motion’. I’m doing it to avoid doing real work.
The same goes with editing my website. I’m always making changes to it, some of which are necessary and others of which are totally unneeded – unless I’m giving it a proper, considered makeover, tinkering with colours and fonts and buttons just constitute a form of procrastination.
It even translates into my copywriting work – especially when I’m researching new clients to pitch to. Finding relevant businesses that might need my writing services is totally pointless if I don’t actually get on to the part where I pitch to them.
Tip #2 – Build up each habit gradually, starting with super small steps
Sometimes the best way to build a habit over time is to start doing a little bit of that task each day and gradually increase how much you do each day, until it’s turned into the full blown habit.
An example would be this: if you wanted to do 100 press-ups a day, but you find that prospect so daunting that you can’t build it as a daily habit, you can just start by doing one press-up a day. Eventually, that one press-up will become a force of habit and you’ll find that you do several, then a dozen, and keep growing it incrementally. You’re already down on the floor, what’s a few extra press-ups? Without realising it, the idea of doing a 100 isn’t so daunting after all.
I have done this already to some extent – e.g. I started with a shorter singing routine before increasing it by building in more exercises.
But I need to remind myself how powerful this could be, especially for a couple of daily habits I’m still struggling to build:
Firstly, I want to build a habit of practising one of my songs for half an hour after lunch every day. Amazingly, like the ten-year old violinist version of me, I find the idea of 30 minutes practice a day super hard.
So instead I could just start by getting out my guitar after lunch and playing one chord. Every day, just one chord.
Soon, I’ll find that playing that chords has become so ingrained as a habit that I can start lengthening that practice – maybe 2 minutes, then 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, etc – until I’ve got into a habit of doing 30 minutes a day.
Secondly, I could use this technique to force myself to write a new 1,200-word article each day, starting with just a title, then a first sentence, then a 100 words, etc… until a 1,200 word article is habitual.
Tip #3 – Don’t miss a habit two days running
Time and time again I get into a great rhythm with my routine for weeks or months at a time, only to lose all momentum by having a bad week.
I’ve always told myself that this is ok – it’s part of the process. People have bad weeks and that’s fine.
However, the truth is that the routine should exist precisely to stop bad weeks from happening. These habits – especially the creative ones that force me to write songs and articles all the time – are there to keep me in the right mindset, and protect me against change or disruption in the environment around me.
It’s especially a problem when I travel (e.g. I was in the UK a few weeks ago to record my latest EP, and caught tonsillitis the week before, and generally used all of that as an excuse to ignore my routine for several weeks).
Again, travelling is when my routine matters most.
What Clear talks about in his book is the huge importance of bouncing back after bad days and not letting yourself have two bad days in a row. As soon as you accept failure as a consequence of previous failure, it’s easy to let it spiral into a longer stretch of aimlessness. I’ve been lucky to get that rhythm back again, by first reconnecting with the few easier habits on my list before building my routine back up again, but I mustn’t let this keep happening.
If I have one bad day, the next day I need to make it right again.
Tip #4 – Focus on your identity as the driver for your behaviours, not your aims/goals
This was my favourite thing about the book, and echoes a lot of other behavioural psychology and philosophy around motivation.
Don’t focus on what you want to achieve – focus on who you want to be.
I find the concept of ‘identity’, and especially how ‘values’ and ‘principles’ can form an amazing map of you who are.
(I’ll be writing a later article about ‘Ways My Values Can Be Reflected In My Music’ or similar… remember you can subscribe if you want to read more…)
I know that goals are important, as a way of setting your direction and understanding different strategies.
But far more motivating, in building the right habits, is thinking about your desired identity.
Who do I want to be? I want to be the sort of person that keeps a notebook and jots down all my good and bad ideas. I want to be the sort of songwriter that writes a lot of songs and wants to share new ideas all the time. I want to be someone that wakes up early and treats the body and mind as temples, and crams as much joy into the day by way of gratitude that I’ve been given happy circumstances and a good life.
And so, in building each of my habits, I can remind myself of this creative sprit I want to be and enjoy the fact that I’m writing more, reading and singing more, eating and sleeping healthier, not because those things represent some form of discipline I’ve managed to maintain, but because they all bring me closer to that person I want to become.