How Being Creative is Like Going to the Gym

lego guy lifting bar bell

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”  — Sommerset Maugham

Creativity is one of the most sought-after skills in business and in life. And as we know from mountains of anecdotal, and psychological evidence, creativity is not a random “god given” gift, reserved for only the select few.  It can be done by anyone.

But therein lies the rub. Creativity is “doing.”  It is hard work and in many ways it’s a lot like going to the gym. While flashes of insight can occur to just about anyone – that Eureka moment – there’s a lot of discipline involved in living a creative life, and executing on your ideas.  As Albert Einstein suggested, it takes liters of perspiration to make an idea come alive.

Regimen Required

Every year in January, countless people buy gym memberships with the best intentions. But a fraction of them end up following through with it. Do they just love wasting money? No. They simply lacked the dedication to go every day.

Discipline is perhaps the most fundamental component of getting success at the gym.  And it’s the same with creativity.

Coming up with ideas can be simple as hopping in the shower or bumping into a colleague. But an idea is worthless unless you deliver on it.

To do that, we can look to the advice of famous authors who’ve made a career out of steadily pushing out work by maintaining strict work habits.  Writer’s such as Susan Sontag, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King and Henry Miller,  all had routines as diverse as their writing style. But what they all had in common was that they set a plan, and they stuck to it. They didn’t sit around waiting for the muse to come; they went out, did the work, and only then were they hit with the inspiration and creativity that they needed. Stephen King magically illustrates this onerous, but necessary process of creativity.

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know. (source)

Runner’s High

We’ve all heard of the euphoria that people who work out regularly experience. Part of this high comes from the release of dopamine into the blood stream, which gives you the immediate gratification feeling; it’s the same thing going on when you have sex, or win at the casino – no wonder some people are addicted to the gym.

The act of creativity can seem daunting because the rewards don’t often get experienced as quickly or directly by the work being done. You need to suffer through it, for a while, and only then does the good feeling wash over you.

Steven Pressfield, author of the invaluable primer on overcoming the barriers to creativity, The War of Art,  describes this “runner’s high” notion in detail. He uses the metaphor of a hike up a big hill. At first the climb is difficult. The weight on your backpack is excruciating. The slope of the hill too steep.

The hill is a sonofabitch but what can you do? Set one foot in front of another and keep climbing.

An hour passes. I’m warmer now, the pace has got my blood going. The years have taught me one skill: how to be miserable. I know how to shut up and keep humping. This is a great asset because it’s human, the proper role for a mortal. It does not offend the gods, but elicits their intercession. My bitching self is receding now. The instincts are taking over. Another hour passes. I turn the corner of a thicket and there he is: the nice fat hare I knew would show up if I just kept plugging. (source)

Trudge through the mud for a little bit, keep at it, and something magic starts to happen. The load gets lighter. The sun seems to shine brighter. The mind eases. The ideas come and the words start to flow.

As hard as it may seem, this is useful knowledge for anyone who has trouble getting started on a creative task. Burrow into it, dig really deep, and eventually, it gets easier. You might even enjoy it. Remind yourself that and begin.

Get a spotter

When I was just starting out at the gym, I knew I wouldn’t have the discipline to show up every day. Sure, I had the motivation, but I knew from experience and too many failed attempts that my shiny new gym membership would go unused unless I set myself a path where I had no options but to go.

So I made sure to hire a personal trainer. All of a sudden, I was being held accountable. I had paid for the services upfront, and I was getting dates put in my calendar. I really had no choice in the matter. And trust me, this guy worked me like a dog, and it was not always the happiest thing to look forward to.

Improving your productivity with creative work can be done in the same way.

Not only do we see in popular cases studies that a work place where ideas among people flow freely serves to strengthen its creative output – such as Pixar and Walt Disney – but creative types in general feed off the ideas of others around them. While this is a good way to ensure novel combinations of ideas, the less discussed benefit is that it brings accountability to the project.

When someone knows what you are working on, you feel the pressure to actually work on it. Otherwise, that cumbersome task of getting started on it might seem just too difficult and you may spend all your time on Youtube instead, letting that project fester. The takeaway here is to put your work out in the open. Set guidelines and expectations for when it needs to be done and then share them with those who can hold you accountable.

If you work alone, then get out a chart and track the fruits of your efforts everyday. Hemingway famously tracked how many words he wrote at the end of every writing session, so as not to fool himself.

Hacks to make creativity easier

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. And that’s the point. Creativity is hard, after all. But just in case it sounds too hard, here are a few good hacks to make things a little simpler.

  • Keep a journal with you at all times to capture ideas as they come
  • Ideas come with a change of context. Take a walk, have a shower, change it up.
  • Take your creative deadlines seriously. But don’t look at it like a chore. Focus on the runner’s high you’ll get, the lightness you’ll experience from finally finishing that damn blog post
  • Like Hemingway, keep a chart that tracks your creative output, whether its words written, projects completed, sketches made, etc. Get scientific about your work and  find ways to increase your effectiveness.
  • Turn fears into inspiration. Find your role model, understand how they got to where they are. You are bound to discover that they aren’t the pedestal bound gods you think they are, but they simply put a lot of elbow grease into it. What were their baby steps? How hard did they work? Couldn’t you get there too?
  • Read Steven Pressfield’s War of Art. Right away. (But not before doing some work).
  • Get to the “burn”, don’t walk away before you hit it and surpass it. You might sketch an outline for a blog post. But then keep going with it. I once read a post that gave the advice never publish something you spent less than two hours on. It changed my entire outlook on blog writing.
  • Eliminate unnecessary distractions: Full screen mode on Word is your new best friend. Close email and annoying pop ups and reminders. In fact, stop checking email all together.
  • Find your ideal time to do the work. Mornings, or evenings. Some people can only create in the wee hours of the night. Is that you?
  • Here’s a great video from Scott Berkun with theory and more hacks on improving your creative life
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