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How following a schedule improved my creativity

Creativity doesn’t happen out of nowhere. You have to work hard (and consistently) to make it happen.

How following a schedule improved my creativity
[Photo: Brent Gorwin/Unsplash]

If I asked you to identify a piece of work that you’re particularly proud of (and describe your process), how does that look? Did you have a lightbulb moment and finish everything in one go, or did you work diligently with some breaks, struggles, and frustrations in between?

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Chances are, it probably resembled the latter. In my experience interviewing 700 experts for my podcast, the Unmistakable Creative, I discovered a clear pattern among every single person who does creative work for a living. From entrepreneurs and graffiti artists to peak performance psychologists, high performers create on a schedule.

In 2013, I interviewed author and blogger Julien Smith who told me about his habit of writing 1,000 words a day. He had one of the most popular blogs on the internet at the time and had also written a best-selling book. I decided to give his practice a try. For the next several months, I wrote one article a week for Search Engine Journal, one piece a week for a startup I was advising, multiple posts for my personal blog, and a weekly newsletter. This habit led to a self-published book that became a best-seller and eventually led to a book deal with a publisher.

Here are the lessons I learned when I started writing on a schedule, and how you can adopt them in your creative endeavors.

1. You can rely on consistent effort, but you can’t rely on inspiration

Professionals create on a schedule because they understand the profound power of consistency. They know that their cumulative output matters more than any individual piece of work. As Fast Company contributor Art Markman previously wrote, the more you practice your craft, the more you develop your expertise, and the easier it becomes to stoke your creative brain. “In order for jazz musicians to improvise, they need to know a lot of music theory related to the song structures they play. The best scientists are deeply immersed in their fields. Inventors spend years understanding the way the world works.”

I would love it if I woke up every day vibrating at a high frequency and inspired to write something brilliant. I’ve been writing every day for almost seven years now, and I can tell you those “flash of dazzling insight” mornings are few and far between. Here’s how it usually goes: I start writing, and midway through a writing session, I end up with an idea.


Related: The dos and don’ts of working with creative people 

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2. I was able to put less pressure on myself

I found the constraint of writing on a schedule liberating for two reasons–if what I produced one day was garbage, it didn’t matter, because I knew I would be back the next day. And if the essay or blog post I published one week didn’t strike a chord with my readers, I didn’t stress about it–because there was always next week.

It might sound counterintuitive, but I found that it took the pressure off. I can practice and experiment without worrying about someone judging my work. That freedom allowed me to produce a higher volume of work, and in turn, higher-quality work.

3. It was easier to find motivation

By writing every day, I saw visible and meaningful progress, and this motivated me to keep going. Sure, I might start with a blank page, but each day, I’d end up writing a paragraph, a passage, or a page that I could use. By the end of the week, I’d have a blog post, an essay, or a chapter.

You don’t have to measure progress the same way–you can count the number of days in a row you show up or the number of hours you spend. The key is finding a way to quantify your progress. When you practice your craft every day, you’ll see improvements.


Related: Stop waiting for creative inspiration and manufacture it instead 


4. I was able to break a big goal into small (and more manageable) chunks

Before I wrote every day, I resisted ambitious projects like writing books because it felt utterly overwhelming. Having some constraints can spark creativity, but it’s very difficult to produce a masterpiece in one sitting. Think about if a director tried to make a movie in one day, or if a writer attempted to write a novel without stopping. Without further editing and refining (and probably some pauses in between), it’s unlikely that they’ll win an Oscar or Pulitzer for that work.

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I found that once I stopped thinking about writing a book in its entirety, and focused on writing 1,000 words a day, it didn’t seem as daunting. I ended up finishing a 45,000-word manuscript in six months.


Related: Creative imposter syndrome: How do you get over it? 


How to design an effective ritual

Now that you understand the benefits of practicing your craft on a daily basis, how do you do it in a way that’s productive and sustainable? After some trial and error, I’ve discovered that there are three crucial factors:

1) You need to choose a specific time. When you put something on a calendar, it goes from being an item on a to-do list to a time-bound commitment. Look for blank spaces in your schedule. If you’re deliberate about setting aside time for something, you’re much more likely to do it.

2) Establish a routine in a particular place. When you show up at the same place day after day to do your creative work, your mind will link your environment and your behavior. For me, it’s drinking a cup of bulletproof coffee at 6 a.m., with a techno track on repeat. That triggers my brain to say “it’s time to read and write.” Choose a place that inspires you. It could be a room in your house or a spot at your kitchen table. Or you might get to work an hour before everybody else shows up. It doesn’t matter where you are, as long as it inspires you.

3) Have a clear outcome in mind. A lack of clarity is the biggest inhibitor of progress toward your goals. When you have a concrete objective (for example, writing 1,000 words or doing one hour of deep work), you’ll be far more efficient with your time and attention.

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Creating on a schedule has enabled me to record two new podcast episodes every week for close to 10 years, write four books, and build a substantial body of work. When you do small things consistently, it all starts to add up. Try scheduling one hour out of your day to do uninterrupted, focused, deep work. You’ll be amazed by the momentum you build and the goals that you accomplish down the line.


Srinivas Rao is the host and founder of the Unmistakable Creative podcast, where he’s interviewed more than 700 people, ranging from bank robbers to billionaires. He is also the author of An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake.

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