My butt’s in the seat. Now what?

I recently received a question from a reader:

I was hoping if you could advise me on how to develop habits that I could incorporate into my day on how to actively do design work and just explore my creativity. I feel like a lot of the times I get in my own way. Rather than actually doing work, I spend time thinking about what work I am going to do. Any advice will be greatly appreciated.

I could relate entirely to this, and pointed the reader to one of the prompts in Creative Doing, entitled, “Source Inspiration.” Here’s the full excerpt:

One of the most difficult parts of creative work is sitting down and deciding what to actually do. One solution to that is to draw from a predefined source, each day. For example, over a decade after he first worked as a lecturer at Yale, graphic designer and Pentagram partner Michael Bierut assigned a brand new project to his students: pick an activity and commit to doing it for 100 days in a row. This project emerged from a practice that Bierut had started five years prior to the assignment, starting January 1, 2002.

Every day, Bierut would make one interpretive drawing of a photo he found in the New York Times. These drawings could take just a few minutes, perhaps even a matter of seconds. They could also be more elaborate, if he had the time. But no matter what, he never ran out of ideas—because every day the New York Times came out, he would get more. You’re free to do what Bierut did, which is to pick a source that provides a constant stream of new ideas.

You could also choose to train your attention, by taking photos of an object that you like anytime you see it in your life. Virgil Abloh observed an acquaintance taking a photo every time he saw a specific luxury handbag, which essentially trained his mind to see it during his day-to-day life. Abloh said, “If you want to find new space, if you want to get to another crescendo of design, and having your brain figure out how to aesthetically put together something, you have to do it often.” You could also do this with visual patterns, as Abloh did with diagonal stripes.

If you prefer writing fiction, you could respond to the r/WritingPrompts subreddit, which surfaces new prompts every day. If you’re more interested in nonfiction or memoir writing, you can try author and speaker Suleika Jaouad’s The Isolation Journals.

You could also prepare a set of sources. For example, before Bierut’s student Zak Klauck started doing his 60-second posters, he had put together 100 phrases (some from friends, others he selected on his own) to design from. That meant the 60 seconds could be spent working on the actual poster, not finding a source or thinking of what to do.

If you want to learn more, I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of 25 daily creative challenges at my blog.

In the reader’s case, I suggested selecting a photo from a specific publication and making an interpretative drawing of it every day for seven days (10 days or 100 days could work too!). 

The idea here is to set a very specific constraint (a photo from a website), and to basically respond to it. The tighter the parameter, the better. 

For me, I started writing at this blog every day since mid-February or so, and the creative operation usually starts with an idea I’ve written down in Airtable or in my notes somewhere. Most of the time, I just try to write five sentences. 

I try to find an idea that resonates with what’s latent in my mind, that I don’t have to jog my memory too much with. Life is priming my brain, and the blog is the outlet. For example, the reader’s question prompted this entire post. Some of my posts are inspired by, or adapted from, long emails I write, or a post I saw at Reddit.

I’ve really enjoyed the process (and seen some cool external results as well!). Some additional ideas to consider:

  • I personally love the idea of doing something every day, I’d highly recommend it if the idea energizes you. If it feels overwhelming—which it can!—then you either need to scope down (do something that can take seconds! For me, sometimes a blog post is just an image I recently downloaded; an interpretative drawing can be literally one line), or to give yourself more time—once a week might be a better pace for you. (That’s too much time for me, and I often fall out of consistency.)
  • There’s no way that you’re going to make something good every day. That’s the whole point! You’re learning to loosen up and to let go of results
  • We’re allowing ourselves to be bad at something again. That’s the first step to being good; we’ve just forgotten that throughout the years.
  • Our whole lives, we’ve been trained to protect ourselves, to figure out the ideal future, and to be critical and fearful of events that could go wrong; with this exercise, we’re learning to focus on what’s in front of us in the present.
  • The more you make, the more something interesting will emerge; you can’t force something perfect to happen, perfection emerges naturally from making a lot of acceptable work.
  • In order to get better, you need to practice both your technical skills and your artistic sensitivity. The more ideas you come up with, the more ideas will come to you. You’re actively seeking inspiration, not waiting for it to come to you.
  • Professor Betty Flowers and Susan Sontag both describe four inner beings of a writer, and both of them note a particularly chaotic energy (one is named the madman, the other the idiot); negative connotations aside, you need to feed this energy to get more ideas. Create ugly, think wrong, and think stupid.
  • You probably won’t look as dumb as you think. In fact, as your practice develops, you’ll learn to develop a pride in your work, and you’ll realize that your work isn’t dumb—and it isn’t for anyone who thinks it is.
  • I don’t always use accountability partners, though someone can—at any point—check out my blog and see if I published something that day. That’s enough accountability for me.
  • I try to have 2 to 3 days scheduled in advance so that this habit doesn’t get too overbearing or stressful.

One final point is to understand where the blocks are emerging. If you’ve carved out 1.5 hours per day to make something, and it’s not enough time, where is the time going? How are you spending it? If someone was watching you, what would they see?

Like Big Mike told me, “Put the paint on the canvas!”

Less thinking, more doing.

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