My Morning Routine for Optimal Creativity
This post originally aired as an episode of my podcast, The Fearless Creative.
Make sure you subscribe to get your weekly dose of inspiration, motivation, and my very best tips for succeeding as a creative entrepreneur! If you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below.
Creative Morning Magic,” came out on Tuesday. If you haven’t ordered your copy yet, make sure you do so. It’s available wherever books are sold.
I also completed my online course for authors. I’ll be launching that very soon, and if you are a writer who has a book written and you’re not sure what next step you should take — or if you are an author with one or two books — this course is for you. It’s called Author Business Bootcamp, and it’s a complete roadmap to turning a book into a thriving author business or optimizing your existing author business.
In publishing and the arts in general, I think that there’s a lot of emphasis placed on craft. We creators are always very concerned with creating the best piece of art possible, but when it comes to running a business, we tend to be pretty clueless. This course I’ve created is designed to be an MBA in indie publishing. It’s the perfect road map for people who want to write books for a living. (If you’d like to be notified when the course launches, you can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Now let’s go ahead and dive into today’s topic. Since I just published “Creative Morning Magic“ and my head has been entirely in that space this week, I thought it would be a good idea to create an episode where I go through my morning routine in detail.
Anytime people hear that I’m an author who’s published 18 books, their eyes get really wide and they don’t quite understand how I’ve done it. Personally, making good use of my time in the morning has been absolutely critical to my success and my productivity as an author.
I’ve always been a big believer in the power of mornings, and this has only intensified over the years. You can put this routine into practice for yourself whether you are a creative entrepreneur who runs your own business already or if you think of yourself as a creative person but don’t think you have the time to devote to your writing or your art.
I coach a lot of aspiring authors who are in the process of completing or publishing their novels, and one of the struggles that I’m constantly helping them work through is how to find the time to write on a regular basis…preferably every day. In an ideal world, every client of mine (and every aspiring author) would be writing a little bit every single day. Of course, when you add in work, family, and other obligations, this can be really difficult for people to achieve for any extended period of time.
But the one thing I always tell people is this: If you want to write books for a living or create art for a living, you have to do the work. And the work doesn’t usually happen in late-night binges once or twice a month. The work happens a little bit every single day. Talk to anyone who does this for a living and they’ll generally tell you that they write every day or close to it when they’re in first-draft mode. I use writing as an example because I know many, many writers. I don’t know quite as many artists, but I know that this is true for creative people who make good money from their creations. Their work is an obsession.
So before I dive into my routine, I want to talk a little bit about the power of mornings. Theoretically, you could establish a writing habit or get into the studio every single day when you get home from work or after you put your kids to bed. So why am I such an advocate for creating in the mornings?
In the book, I have a little chapter called “The Power of First Priorities.” And the basic premise is that when we are busy (as most of us are), we tend to prioritize the things that are urgent and the things that are important.
Things that are urgent would include things like paying a bill that is due, finishing a presentation for work, or completing a project for school that has a hard deadline. Things are important will vary depending on what is a priority for you, but for most people, this will include things like being present in their kids’ lives, being a good employee, taking care of aging or ailing parents, and their health.
For really busy people, health gets pushed onto the back burner, and that’s because when we are overly busy — when we have too much on our plates — we will prioritize things that are urgent over things that are important.
Even if you consider your writing or your art an important part of your life, when you are overloaded, you will always prioritize other things. The idea behind “the power of first priorities” is that if you have to do your creative routine before you can do anything else for the day, suddenly it becomes urgent. You can’t get ready, you can’t eat breakfast, you can’t go to work until you have done your practice. It’s kind of like imposing a false sense of urgency, but for me, it works.
This idea also goes hand-in-hand with a concept that I embraced when I was working full-time. When I had a regular nine-to-five, I was an editor. So I was using my writing skills and my creativity during business hours for other people, and by the time I got home, I was basically a wrung-out sponge who was no good to anybody. During this time, I adopted the concept of “pay yourself first.”
This is an idea from personal finance that says when you get your paycheck, you should pay yourself first. In other words, you should save money before you spend any money on anything else. In this case, I was paying myself first in terms of creative energy.
So that’s why I encourage creatives to always make their art in the morning when they are fresh…when they have a direct line of contact with the subconscious just after waking up. When we first wake up, we haven’t been exposed to any of the negativity of the outside world. We haven’t taken on the burden of other people’s priorities; it’s really just the best time for uninterrupted, uncensored authentic creation.
Now that you understand the importance of mornings, I’m going to walk you through what I do every single day…at least every weekday.
First, I should say that since Ben and I are both self-employed, we’ve gotten into this wonderful rhythm of not having to rely on an alarm clock. Ben wakes up naturally around 6. I do not. But he always wakes me up between 7 and 7:30 before the markets open. This has been wonderful because I was a slave to my alarm clock for so many years. He wakes me up really gently with a kiss, and then I get up. Once I greet the dogs and the cat, I grab my notebook and the current book that I’m reading, and I go to my place where I do my creative practice.
I’m going to use the phrase “creative practice” quite a bit moving forward and so I wanted to just give a brief explanation of what that means. The idea behind a practice is very simple: It’s a ritual that you perform every day for your own personal fulfillment. This isn’t something you have to do; nor is it something you do to accomplish a specific goal.
In the book, I quote Zen master Shunryu Suzuki from “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” He says:
“When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something. In zazen what you are doing is not for the sake of anything. You may feel as if you are doing something special, but actually it is only the expression of your true nature; it is the activity which appeases your inmost desire.”
For most of us, the innermost desire is to create, so we have a practice that is centered around creativity. But you could also have a practice of prayer or a yoga practice… I just happened to write about a creative practice.
So, as I said, right after I greet the animals I go to my special place where I do my practice.
The last several months, we’ve had a really beautiful weather in Colorado, so I’ve been sitting out on the back porch. The backyard is where I have all my herbs growing. It’s a tiny little yard, but it’s completely private. My chair is shaded by this sweet little apple tree.
It’s been super cold this week, so I know it’s about time to move into my winter location, which is a corner of my office where I have this wonderful comfy teal chair that’s nice and wide. It doesn’t really matter where you do your creative practice as long as it’s somewhere where you can be by yourself. My office isn’t anything fancy…It’s 67 square feet. But I’ve made an effort to turn it into this little creative oasis. I have all my special things: all my crystals and a little succulent plant and my Himalayan salt lamp. It smells like vanilla. I have all my books…I just love being in here.
My creative practice has three parts: introspection, creative output, and creative input. I’ll go over each of these individually.
The introspection portion always comes first, and so I meditate. Usually, I’ll meditate for about 15 minutes, and there are a few reasons I do this. For one thing, I’m a fairly anxious high-strung person, and meditating first thing in the morning really helps ground me. I am much easier to live with when I’m meditating regularly. So even if I do a shortened or amended practice, I try to meditate for at least a few minutes every day. Another reason I meditate is that it is fantastic for creativity. Dozens and dozens — perhaps hundreds — of studies have documented the benefits of meditation.
I’m just going to read you a brief little excerpt from the book here:
“Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It has been shown to improve attention span and task concentration, improve learning and reduce memory loss, increase our capacity for empathy and compassion, and enhance introspection.“Meditation can be used to improve sleep quality, help fight addiction, and manage the symptoms of chronic pain, asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, and irritable bowel syndrome. There’s even a growing body of research to suggest that meditation can slow the cellular aging process.“According to Mayo Clinic, meditation can also improve imagination and creativity. One reason is that meditation trains us to focus on a single task while ignoring the damaging effects of distraction.“But it’s not just that meditation trains your brain to pay attention; you can actually change your neurobiology in the physical structure of your brain. One Harvard study showed that after 8 weeks in a mindfulness training program, subjects had increased the gray matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex (the region associated with self-regulation, thinking, emotion, and problem-solving) as well as the hippocampus, which controls memory, learning, and emotion.”
There’s this whole other theory that I talk about in the book related to the frequency of brain waves, but I won’t go into that here.
There are lots of different methods of meditation that you could try, but I generally just keep it simple. I take a few deep cleansing breaths…I scan my body for any feelings or sensations…and I just breathe.
I offer a few different techniques in the book for people who just can’t sit still. I know that meditation makes some people squirm, which is the opposite of being at peace and feeling grounded. That used to be me. It took me a long time to feel comfortable meditating. So just know that going in. I have never been a model meditator. If I can do it, so can you.
After I meditate, I go into the creative output portion of my practice, which for me is writing. If you’re a fan of Julia Cameron and you’re already doing Morning Pages, this fits right into the creative practice that I advocate. I call my writing portion “expressive writing,” because I’m not sticking to that straight stream-of-consciousness format. Sometimes I will write that way — almost like journaling. But sometimes I write fiction. Sometimes I write down ideas for books or blog posts or podcasts. That’s why I called this expressive writing in the book.
But, if you’re not a writer, you can adapt this creative output part to your preferred medium, and I give suggestions for visual artists, photographers, poets, musicians, actors, makers, etc. in the book.
Eventually, you should be working in your primary medium, but if you’re new to a creative practice, writing is a perfect place to start. It doesn’t require any special materials. A notebook is highly portable. It’s just too easy.
And yes, I write longhand. With a pen. In cursive. I type all day long, and I know from experience that there’s something different about writing by hand. There is this physical connection from your brain through your arm to your hand to the page. You will write differently on paper than you do on a computer. So I highly, highly encourage you to go analog during your practice if you are a writer.
I’ll usually write for 20 to 30 minutes. Then I put my notebook aside and do the creative input portion of my practice. For me, this is reading. Very simple. I call this “contemplative reading,” because I think it’s important to distinguish reading for the sake of rapid consumption and reading to actually engage with the material on a deep level.
I try to bring the same mindfulness to my reading as I do to my meditation. We have become a society of skimmers. I’m a writer. I value the written word. And I don’t remember the last time I read every single word of a long article online.
Part of this is because it’s very taxing and tiring for us to read on a computer screen. And part of it is this false sense of urgency that we have living in our fast-paced world — and the fact that we are prone to distraction. We have unlimited resources at our fingertips, and as a result, we rarely engage with the material on a deep level. Our understanding stays superficial. So the contemplative reading portion is meant to counter that.
If you’re reading poetry, you take the time to savor each word. Maybe you read it two or three times. You’re really trying to get the feeling that the poet intended to convey. If I’m reading nonfiction, I’ll take the time to consider how the material applies to my life. Sometimes I will underline or make notes or dog-ear. I’m a big fan of engaging physically with reading material, so I also really advocate reading paperback books. (You also have to understand that I spend all day on a computer, and so the last thing I want to do in my free time is stare at another screen!)
I could spend hours reading in the morning, but usually I’m limited to 15 to 20 minutes. I might read more later in the evening, but if I don’t, at least I got a little bit of reading in. Reading is so important for writers, and it’s something that a lot of professional writers neglect.
If you’re not a writer, you should be getting your creative input in the way that makes the most sense for your craft. I offer lots of suggestions in the book, but, for example, if you’re a visual artist, you might need to take a walk to get your creative input for the day. If you’re a musician, you might need to spend 15 minutes listening to music. It just depends on your medium.
I suggest giving yourself an hour in the morning to complete your practice. That sounds like a lot of time, but when you think of the fact that you give at least eight or nine hours to your employer and spend who knows how much time commuting, giving yourself one hour a day really isn’t that much. If you think you don’t have time for that, look at your Netflix habits. You may need to cut out an hour of Netflix so you can go to bed an hour earlier and wake up an hour earlier to do your practice.
But if you truly do not have an hour that you can devote to this, you can shorten your practice. Any amount of time you can give to your creativity in the morning is going to be beneficial. I always say to my coaching clients that 20 minutes is better than nothing. I would rather my clients spend 20 minutes writing every single day then spending two hours writing one day in a week. It’s all about forming a habit and giving yourself some time every single day.
After my practice, I will go into my office and start working on my current work in progress or taking care of other high-priority tasks. I try to complete the tasks that require the most creative heavy lifting first thing in the morning. I’m just at my best in the morning. And usually I’ll work for a couple of hours in my office before I ever eat breakfast. I don’t know that this is healthy, but it really helps me be more productive.
I love breakfast, and I like to eat a big breakfast, but I can really only eat that big breakfast once I’m starving. It just takes me a few hours in the morning to work up an appetite. I’ll make myself an eggwhite veggie omelet almost every morning. One of the reasons I like the veggie omelet is because no matter what other crap I might eat throughout the day, at least I got a few veggies in. It’s kind of the same philosophy as doing my most important work first thing in the morning. It doesn’t really matter what happens for the rest of the day if I get something quality in first.
This is also the point where I make my bed and get ready for the day. I know a lot of freelancers and self-employed people who do work in their pajamas all day. But I really think that dressing is important for me.
After I eat a meal and get dressed, my second creative session of the day begins. I’m usually really strong for another three hours or so, and then I really can’t do any more heavily creative work. I might do some marketing, bookkeeping, or other low-value tasks. But I really only have five good writing hours in me each day.
This is something that took me a little while to realize after I first became self-employed. I was really ambitious in my thinking that I would be able to write for eight hours a day. But that’s just not realistic. And for me, learning how to best manage my creative energy has been really important.
Having this creative practice helps me continue to enjoy writing. It gives me time to do zero-pressure creative work. I don’t have to be writing on my current work in progress. I can go wherever my inspiration takes me. And a lot of times, the work I do in the morning during my practice will find its way into a published work. But there’s no pressure. The meditation and the contemplative reading are also key to keeping my creativity in good working order.
And this has been a hard-learned lesson for me. You cannot create and create and create to the point of burnout. You have to be taking care of yourself— your Inner Artist— every single day.
So that’s all I have for you today. I hope you found it helpful. If this routine seems remotely interesting to you, I would highly encourage you to pick up a copy of “Creative Morning Magic.” And, as always, feel free to get in touch if you have questions or comments about the show. I love hearing from listeners.
I’ll see you next time…Happy creating!