Enable Creativity Instead of Killing It:

Replace Routine With Habits

Every time I hear the word “routine” I cringe just a little.

Lately we’ve been reading a lot about routines that promise to make you more creative. I see articles all over the place promising things like three things you can add to your daily routine be more creative. As you consider ways to tap into your own creative power (and by the way, it’s definitely in there — you just have to find it), be careful not to fall into new traps that will actually make it harder instead of easier.

Don’t get me wrong. I like order. I like organization. I like efficiency. But if you feel like your life is lacking a little creativity but you aren’t yet ready to become the next Walter Mitty you might want to consider how you frame “routine.”

Routine, as in falling into the same patterns, sometimes without even thinking, is one of the biggest killers of creativity. Getting up, using the same products every morning, eating the same thing for breakfast today as you did yesterday (I read somewhere that was good for you), doing yoga every Tuesday and cardio every Wednesday, commuting to work the same way every day, sitting on the same seat on the train, going to the same office, saying good morning to the same people, having an agenda meeting every Monday morning, and onward through another day that looks just like the one before… some people say “there’s so much routine in my days that they all look the same and I almost feel like I‘m sleep-walking.”

If you work from home or office at your local Starbucks, the same thing can be true. Do you don your favorite hoodie and go grab the same table in the corner, after you greet your favorite barista who doesn’t ask for you order but with a friendly hello starts making your “usual?”

If you take care of young kids, you get them up, get them dressed, get them off to school, do your work, greet the bus, help them with their homework, make dinner, and start again the next day. Even if you just think about getting your coffee at Starbucks ever day, how many of us honestly order something different most days?

The older we get, the more responsibility we have to our growing families, our growing companies, our aging parents, our partners, our communities, or the people who depend on us at work as our professional responsibilities grow; the more the attraction of routine lures us in.

Honestly, it sometimes makes life a lot easier. And don’t get me wrong. There’s something really comforting about routines.

So often, though, people with the clearest routines, the most ordered patterns and the best time management are the most frustrated at the lack of feeling active creativity in their lives.

Routine is an efficiency strategy, but most of the time it is not a creativity strategy. The minute something becomes routine, it starts to become… mechanical… fixed.. passive… rote.

When I went to work as the first international marketing director at Starbucks (well, the second, technically, but the first guy got promoted his first week or so and so he called me before he ever actually did the job), as we were beginning to take the company into Asia, I went to get some in-store experience by working some shifts in Starbucks stores. During my shift in the original store in Pike Place Market, I marveled at the way people ordered drinks. Twenty years ago, the personalize-my-coffee phenomenon was new and I was amazed (coming from a stint in Chicago where we didn’t have a coffee culture at all and it hadn’t been long since I learned the difference between a cappuccino and a latte) that people would have nearly double digit disclaimers on their orders.

“Double tall, non-fat, extra hot, half caf, half decaf, light foam, tall in a grande cup, light pump of vanilla and could you put the two sugars in first?”

New baristas were drilled on how to repeat back those orders in the correct way and it was an art form to train the customers… both to try something new, and then to say it the first time correctly, without making the customer feel anything but special.

At first I listened in wonder at each, what seemed remarkably unique, lengthy drink order. “How did they get there,” I wondered to myself as I listened to the endlessly customized features of each person’s drinks while the rain sputtered down on the endless gray Seattle days. Over time, though, I started to wonder if it was something else entirely, how what begins as trying something new eventually creeps into a routine.

When do you slip from doing something interesting because you want to try something new to doing it over and over again until it becomes something you don’t really think about?

At Starbucks, I think it’s about the time when that barista sees you come in the door and starts your drink before you even order your multiple-caveat beverage.

Creativity, at its heart, is about newness; challenging convention, solving different problems, collaborating with different people and learning new skills are excellent drivers of creativity. When does something that started out as creative or with creative intention become part of your routine?

Consider the definitions of “routine” and “habit” according to dictionary.com.

Source: dictionary.com

The simple secret to enabling more of your own creativity is to learn to recognize the difference between being stuck in a routine and intentionally incorporating creative habits.

One feels sleepy, passive and unintentional. The other feels more, well… choiceful (even though that isn’t really a word).

As I’ve traveled around helping people understand their own creativity and how to tap into it, I’ve observed several common themes.

Routine is passive. Creativity-enhancing habits are an active choice.

Routine is sometimes unintentional. Creativity-enhancing habits are a result of intention and prioritization.

Routine is usually simpler. Creativity-enhancing habits are often more challenging.

Routines are comfortable. Taking on new habits can be stressful.

Routines are often energy-sapping. Creativity-enhancing habits can be energizing.

Once you know the difference you can increase your self-awareness and fine tune your internal radar. Being conscious of the inevitable slip of the new into the familiar will help you make sure you aren’t depending on one activity or habit that no longer offers the stimulation you need.

Creative people often swear by their creative habits. Many writers say they could not produce anything without their habit of writing an hour a day. I know a painter who loves nothing more than a trip to Blick to stare at the blank canvasses. She does it each time she finishes a work and wants to be inspired to begin a new one. Business people love to have off-sites but the most productive ones are not the ones that happen annually in the same place with the same people: to really fire up creativity they have to “change it up.” These are good ways to approach the need for catalysts to pique your creative spirit. However, if they start to become things you do just because you always do it that way, these good habits become sleepy routines.

For people and organizations, if well-intentioned habits become part of the routine, the result may actually end up stifling the very thing they want to enhance.

So here’s some advice. I love some of the suggestions I’ve read about making your brain work while you sleep, allowing time and space in your day to come up with ideas, writing in journals and forging collaboration relationships. I also love the order and efficiency that can come from long-practiced routine.

The trick is to make sure you aren’t expecting one outcome from a strategy that will lead you to the other.

Consider all the interesting and thought-provoking suggestions you read, and definitely try one or two and see if they work. But do yourself a favor and build in an exit clause.

If you start your new “creative routine” (still a contradiction in terms, if you ask me), make sure you actively keep asking if it’s working for you. If you try it for a while (write a blog for 30 days, keep a gratitude journal for a year, join a writers’ workshop, etc) and you find it isn’t working, or you find you don’t finish the period more inspired, ask yourself if you’ve just fallen into another routine. One way to do this is to build in checkpoints before you even start. As part of the plan, check in after 30 or 60 or 90 days and ask yourself a set of simple questions that can gauge your creativity level:

  • Am I happy with the time I spend on my new habit?
  • Do I look forward to the time I spend on my new habit?
  • How is my life different than it was before I started?
  • Is there an example that shows my new habit is working?

Just like “getting in shape” physically, it’s unlikely that your life will suddenly feel more creative one day without major changes, regular practice and some hard work. You don’t have to quit your job (although I will say from experience that cutting your hair and moving your furniture can be a temporary solution) to shake things up. You can do it in some of these small ways that take just ten minutes or less than a few lines on a piece of paper or notes page.

Just be smart about it and stay aware. Consider carefully the difference between intentionally creating habits and falling into the curse of routine. It really will help if you think of a habit as something you are intentionally prioritizing. One is incredibly effective in accessing your creative firepower. The other can stall you in ways that will make you lose weeks and months and even years.

Jane Melvin is a strategy consultant who helps her clients figure out who they are, what they do and how to do it better. She teaches creativity and is the Master Practitioner and Chief Shepherd of The Five Faces of Genius (a model to help you understand creativity styles).

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