Why Routines Can Be the Core of Creativity

Akanksha Singh is a journalist, content writer, and editor based in Mumbai, India. She writes about travel, culture, social justice, and her experience of being raised as a third-culture kid. Essays and journalism have appeared in Bon Appétit, CNN’s Parts Unknown, HuffPost, The Independent, South China Morning Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, and many more.

As a child, my Air Force brat dad drilled one thing into me: If you’re not at least two minutes early, you’re late. Since then, the idea of being late has given me immense anxiety. (The condition is exacerbated by the fact that I live in Mumbai, one of the world’s most heavily-congested cities, where it’s impossible to predict arrival times of any sort.) That said, the idea of people’s time—including my own—being important is something I’ve learned to respect, especially since I’ve started working as a full-time freelancer.

It irks me to no end when a musician I’m interviewing texts to say they’re running half-an-hour late after I’ve reached our café at the agreed-upon time, and it’s even more frustrating when the rebuttal to this is a sympathetic nod accompanied by, “Yes, but she’s a creative…” 

There are many legitimate reasons why a person might be late to a meeting, but being ‘a creative’ shouldn’t be one of them.

I know this because, at one point, I was that type of ‘creative’ person. Not the type who didn’t think owning a wristwatch was fashionable (still rocking my grandfather’s retro Titan, thank you), but the type who didn’t do anything unless she ‘felt’ it.

***

There’s a convincing (albeit self-perpetuating) myth that ‘feeling’ it is better than ‘forcing’ it when you’re trying to earn a living through your art. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing to wait for the muses to smile upon you as you romantically put pen to paper to write your magnum opus; less so when you’re writing a listicle on where to eat in your city, or how to go about saving more money as you set up a freelance business. 

I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with ‘feeling’ it; just that the feeling comes more frequently when you start setting aside time to do your work. Sit down at your desk, open up your guitar case—whatever your ‘it’ is.

While I used to believe in the wishy-washy idea that setting rigid hours for yourself was somehow harmful to my creative spirit, I now see that the truth lies in balance. For instance, I know I’ll never be the type of freelance writer who timetables her day to the hour. That’s just not me—I’d be terribly bored within the first two days of doing what I’m doing as I’m doing it.

I thrive on variety and a peppering of uncertainty. I find that it’s great to get out and actually do things before I sit down to write. That bit—when I’m going out to a museum or a bookshop, say—is where I get to indulge my creative self. But when I’m home, which I have to be for a minimum of four hours a day, I write like there’s nothing else in the world. I don’t care if that’s two hours and two hours, or one hour and three hours, or one-and-a-half hours and two-and-a-half-hours (you get the idea). I put in the work, and I’m accountable to myself.

In other words, I make myself ‘feel’ it for a given amount of time. Specifically, with an oven timer that dings to satisfaction when I’m done.

***

An editor I once worked with, Chloe Angyal, recently tweeted the following:

She’s right; we’ve conveniently taken an eraser to the fact that those who we thought could work only when they ‘felt’ it had the luxury of time, money, or someone making one or both of those things on their behalf.

The fact is, the stories we hear of ‘go where the wind takes me’ artists—and people who are so in ‘the zone’ that they became immune to the laws of time and rules of polite society—are myths. In her book The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer refers back to Henry David Thoreau:

Thoreau wrote in painstaking detail about how he chose to remove himself from society to live ‘by his own means’ in a little 10-foot x 15-foot hand-hewn cabin on the side of a pond. What he left out of Walden, though, was the fact that the land he built on was borrowed from his wealthy neighbor, that his pal Ralph Waldo Emerson had him over for dinner all the time, and that every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought over a basket of freshly-baked goods for him, including donuts.

Donuts, people! Donuts!

It’s ridiculous to think that being a creative sort of person requires you to simultaneously be an isolated, lost-to-the-world-until-my-novel-is-complete kind of person. The reality of it is that those ‘lost-to-the-world’ moments when we’re engrossed in our work are punctuated by real life—and there’s no shame in that! My four-hour timetabling efforts are my way of choosing how and when to punctuate (or an editor choosing the same for me).

When I was starting out, the idea of routine scared me. Sort of like it went against the idea of being creative, almost. Since then, I’ve learned that a writing and freelancing career requires enough structure in your day to pull your creative efforts into place.

I don’t want to sound like I’ve got it entirely together, because I don’t—this is still my first year of doing this full-time. But what I do works for me, and while it took a little trial and error to come to, it’s the sort of routine I can stick to without much effort.

Because if there are three things a career of full-time freelancing needs, it’s this: structure, coffee, and—of course—donuts. 

 
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