How To Be an Extremely Productive Creative
Have deadlines, write daily, and always forgive yourself
The difference between hitting the golf ball at its center or one millimeter below is the difference between the rough and the green.
When we tell artists all they need to succeed is to create daily, we’re telling them to omit that difference. This is a disastrous disservice. It’s close to, but not quite the truth and, as such, potentially more dangerous than a blatant lie.
We all know quantity begets quality. Picasso created 50,000 pieces, Stephen King wrote some 80 books, and Jimi Hendrix recorded close to 200 songs despite dying at age 27. An immense body of work can’t guarantee you’ll be a great artist or a rich artist or even a famous artist. But if you’re a professional artist, at least you’ll maximize your chances. The math checks out.
But it takes more than just creating daily. That part is important, but when I look back on two years of weekly newsletters sent without fail, I see not one habit, but a conjunction of three, all of which support one another.
1. Have Deadlines, No Matter How Irrational They Are
Death is what gives life meaning. Deadlines are what gives art meaning.
Why can you deliver freelance work on time, but not consistently ship your own? Deadlines. Why do you pay your phone bill but not order the mic you need to launch your podcast? Deadlines. Why do you show up for your doctor’s appointment, but not your daily writing time? Deadlines.
Deadlines awaken our inner panic monster, which is why they work. If we can’t get that monster to wake up, bad things happen. Tim Urban explains:
“If you want to be a self-starter, something in the arts, something entrepreneurial, there’s no deadlines on those things at first. Because nothing’s happening at first. Not until you’ve gone out and done the hard work to get some momentum. If the procrastinator’s only mechanism of doing these hard things is the panic monster, that’s a problem, because in all of these non-deadline situations the panic monster doesn’t show up. So the effects of procrastination they’re not contained, they just extend outward forever.”
While you’re wondering how to resolve this issue, how to crack the code, the pros simply take the mechanism that works from one arena to the other. They create their own deadlines, no matter how irrational or ridiculous they are.
The most arbitrary deadline in my life is also the most important one: every weekend, I must send out Nik’s Newsletter. Come hell or high water, by Sunday night at 11:59 PM, I must press ‘Send.’ I’ve had deadlines long before anyone considered me a serious writer, which is why now, people do.
The way to transfer your ability to deliver on time from work that pays the bills to work that, hopefully, one day will is to transfer the idea of deadlines.
2. Create Daily, No Matter How Little You Produce
In front of a deadline-backdrop, daily creation makes a lot more sense. You don’t just have to write, you have to publish. You don’t just have to record, you have to release. The professional knows that once she schedules the exhibit, she’ll pick up the brush. The amateur tries to sync his art with inspiration. The pro knows that inspiration will sync with him once he sits down in his chair.
And while pressure gets you going, habits keep you going. They allow you to dance with the deadlines. Suddenly, the question is not if you can deliver, but how much. To prevent this question from becoming yet another problem, pros don’t try to answer it in advance.
They’ll settle for “I started,” not “I finished.”
According to Stanford researcher BJ Fogg, whether a behavior happens or not depends on the product of motivation and ability you have when something triggers that behavior. As a result, James Clear says,
“We do not rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.”
To disproportionately tweak the equation in favor of your ability, James suggests the two-minute rule:
“Anyone can meditate for one minute, read one page, or put one item of clothing away. This is a powerful strategy because once you’ve started doing the right thing, it is much easier to continue doing it. A new habit should not feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first two minutes should be easy. What you want is a “gateway habit” that naturally leads you down a more productive path.”
Focusing on one sentence a day, one brush stroke a day, one chord a day is the ultimate antidote to overwhelm. There’s no time to worry about the height of the mountain when you’re looking at the ground to take your next step.
Starting slow and letting the momentum build naturally lies right between being unproductive, demotivated, and unhappy and being too excited, taking on too much, and quitting. The mundane, boring, easy alternative always works, but because it is, few people choose it over and over again until it compounds.
“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it. I always worked until I had something done, and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”
Creativity is not a shelf that’s empty as soon as you take off all the books. It’s a river to which you can walk at any time, grab a cup, and scoop out some water. It’s just easier to access it at a random point in the middle than to find the source. Innovation is never a singular event. Great ideas might be the gold in the river, but they too are the result of a long, methodical, meandering process. That process is always running, so you can tap into it whenever.
You know what else Hemingway said? He said start small.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
3. Forgive Yourself, No Matter How Often You Fail
You’re an artist. As such, everything you do is productive. Everything you do is productive. There is no “this is useful” and “this is a waste of time.” There is only your life. Every word you write, every picture you paint, every song you sing is a result of everything that’s in it. It all matters. Everything matters.
Every minute you’re awake counts. Every minute you sleep counts. Every minute you spend watching a movie, lying sick in bed, thinking about friendship, eating pasta, and staring desperately at a blank screen — counts.
So be kind to yourself. Be kind to yourself.
“Everything is creative. You are creating cells and thoughts as you read this. You are creating Co2 as you exhale. When you’re spending time with someone you love, you are creating your relationship. Every time you work, you are creating money, you are creating skill. You are always creating.”
As humans, we’re born to survive. That used to simply mean ‘create more humans.’ Today, for you, it means ‘create art.’ But it always means creation.
That’s why everything matters. Because everything is art. Everything is art. A kind gesture. A passionate kiss. A beautiful smile. All this is art and it goes way beyond writing, painting, and music. We only suffer if we don’t create.
Pros know this. So when they’re not creating, they forgive themselves for not creating. They don’t dwell on their failures because they want pain to be a part of the process, not an excuse to prolong inaction. They want their pain to mean something. Pros look in the mirror and they don’t hate what they see.
They have compassion for themselves, no matter how many times they have to fall before they can fly.
You won’t write every day. You won’t meet all your deadlines. But regret won’t change that. Regret won’t help you create today. It’ll only turn pain into suffering. Regret is holding on to the past that’s trying to pass. Why don’t you let it pass? Only forgiveness can eliminate this friction.
There are many things in life that are outside our control. Creativity isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s one of the few things that is 100% up to us. But in order to exercise its power, we must take complete ownership of that fact.
Then, with careful timing, low expectations, and lots of forgiveness, we can start expressing our true self. It’s a little bit like golf: Ultimately, success is found by adjusting the last millimeters. But it starts with one bold hit, one true sentence, one confident stroke of a brush.
Your ocean of art, your river of creativity — they will flow from a single drop.