The Power Of Routines In Sustaining Creativity

Creativity is rarely born of chaos, which is why author and artist Sunni Brown has built some consistency into her lifestyle.

The Power Of Routines In Sustaining Creativity
[Photo: Flickr user Sebastiaan ter Burg]

Austin-based author and artist Sunni Brown makes sense of problems through her dual talents: writing and doodling. She runs consulting firm Sunni Brown Ink, where she helps businesses solve problems using a visual mapping system she calls infodoodling. She’s written two books about unlocking creativity, Gamestorming (2010) and The Doodle Revolution (2015), and has just begun working on a third.


But before she helps others unlock their creative potential, she has to channel some inspiration for herself. Here’s how she does it:

On Routines: On one hand, I’m a writer. On the other, I’m what I call an infodoodler. So I go between the world of language and the world of visual language. There’s a shared expectation that a writer would write every day in some consistent form. And I don’t do that. I am consistently looking for creative possibilities, but I’m not a drumbeat kind of creative. If I’m not inspired on some level, I don’t sit down and try to bang out some shit. My commitment is to work. And so sometimes I work at 6 p.m. Sometimes I work at 6 a.m. For me, it’s not about a consistent time in my routine. It’s more about a constant commitment to that process, to being creative. A lot of people think that if you sit down for eight hours, that’s what a real workhorse creative does. It’s not efficient. I will say four hours max, and I may take a nap in there. Because really, truly the way that the biological process is, people need to move, they need to breathe, they need to get up and walk around. They need to get off the track and jump onto another track.

Sunni BrownPhoto: Flickr user Sebastiaan ter Burg

The Mind-Body Connect: I think that physical movement is extremely beneficial for any kind of work. So I’m a big fan of some kind of physical movement prior to working or to stir the pot–to get past something that might be difficult or to solve a problem. I do yoga, meditation, and I do strength training. But even that, I’m not consistent with. I have two gigantic dogs, and I walk them daily, twice a day. One of them is named Simon–like Simon, Theodore, and Alvin. And then the other one is named Falkor from The NeverEnding Story–he’s a Great Pyrenees, a big, white, shaggy dog. I didn’t even name him Falkor, but ever since I was a kid, I was obsessed with the white dragon in that movie. So when we rescued that animal, it was like a childhood dream come true. I’m almost positive that my dogs are partly responsible for any creative thing I’ve ever done, because they get me outside all the time. Austin is super dog friendly. We take them everywhere: restaurants, a place called the Greenbelt that’s part of the [Colorado] river, we take them to dog parks. I walk them probably four miles a day.

Brown’s Great Pyrenees is named Falkor after the creature in The NeverEnding Story films.

The Weekend Plan: Up until about three months ago, I didn’t know if it was Monday or Saturday. I just recently started putting parameters around that. If you run a business, you’re very consumed by that. So I just learned the great art of structuring your week as a workweek. I have a coach–a creative coach–she and I over time realized that consistency is one of my biggest challenges. What I’ve seen is much less anxiety. For creatives, I think we have more of a tendency to move into anxiety and instability. So I think one of the best-kept secrets for long-term, sustainable creativity is consistent discipline and sustainable, predictable actions. It’s kind of like getting a container for your creativity so that it doesn’t wear you out.

Best Business-Travel Story? My business, when I started it, was doing live visualizations–what I call infodoodling–where you go to an event and you make large-scale murals in real time with someone talking. So I used to do that. I went to Saudi Arabia and did it for Bill Clinton and the King of Saudi Arabia, and it was just mayhem. In Saudi Arabia, the men and women are partitioned. I couldn’t even be in the same part of the room with [Clinton]. I had to wear the hijab and full regalia with my face covered in black robes, and it was culturally shocking on some level. I drew his speech–he was giving a talk, so I was just mapping what he was saying while he was saying it.

Work Philosophy: This is going to sound philosophical, but my inspiration comes from being motivated by my own core belief system. One of my core beliefs is secular humanism. I believe in people, and I believe that people should be treated with kindness and compassion. I’m reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book called Big Magic, and there’s this section in there where she’s like, “Don’t try to ‘help’ people with your work.” So I wouldn’t say that I help people, but I do like to make contributions. I like to give people things that they can use to make their lives easier, smoother, better, smarter, whatever–and I’m really motivated by that. When I die, and I look back on my life, I always want the creative things that I do align with a core value that I’m really proud of.

Brown meditates in this all-analog room in her Austin, Texas, home.

The Antidote To Facebook: I’m a huge meditator. And there’s a thing called interpersonal neurobiology, and I study a lot of self-awareness techniques. In order to really know why you’re doing something, you have to have a certain level of honesty with yourself. At the end of the day, you could be deluding yourself. So meditation for me has been a really useful tool for discernment and honesty about why I’m doing something. I have a meditation room. It’s totally dedicated to meditation, and I actually have nothing electric in it. I only have analog objects in my meditation room, and that’s a purposeful decision that I’ve made because we’re all so plugged in all the time. I love having a sanctuary where nobody can call me; I’m not going to get on Facebook.

Fun Fact: I got married twice to the same man–two different styles of ceremony, because we have different styles. The first time, we got married in Panama. Then we got married in Texas. The Panama wedding was my dream, and the Texas wedding was his dream. We had a Buddhist wedding: I’m a practicing Buddhist. So we got married by our zen teacher. For me, the intimacy of a small wedding was what I wanted. I wasn’t interested in marriage licenses and legal mumbo jumbo. I’m kind of a philosophical lady, so for me, a marriage is in your heart. It doesn’t have anything to do with the state. It was about 15 of us. We had flowers around our necks, and some of the little Panamanian kids were running around.

The second wedding was Texas-style, white wedding, white dress, 200 people, barbecue. It was nerve-wracking to have so many people. But Ted is so good about including family, and he really thought that that needed to be witnessed by a bigger group of people. And I agree. I think it was really smart to do both of them.