Tag Archives: productivity

What Habits Are Best for Creativity?

When I tell people that I’ve been working on Better Than Before, my book about habit change, many people ask, “What habits are best for creativity? What habits help people think creatively — and also, actually produce?

Often, people make the case for adopting a particular habit by pointing to a renowned figure who practiced that habit, with great success. For instance…

Maybe we should live a life of quiet predictability, like Charles Darwin.

Or maybe we should indulge in boozy revelry, like Toulouse-Lautrec.

Maybe we should wake up early, like Haruki Murakami.

Or maybe we should work late into the night, like Tom Stoppard.

Maybe it’s okay to procrastinate endlessly, like William James.

Or maybe it’s better to work regular hours, like Anthony Trollope.

Should we work in silence, like Gustav Mahler?

Or amidst a bustle of activity, like Jane Austen?

Maybe it’s helpful to drink a lot of alcohol, like Fried­rich Schiller.

Or a lot of coffee, like Kierkegaard.

Are we better off produc­ing work for many hours a day, like H. L. Mencken?

Or maybe for just thirty minutes a day, like Gertrude Stein.

The sad fact is, there’s no magic formula, no one-size-fits-all solution—not for ourselves, and not for the peo­ple around us.

We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.

In his fascinating book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, from which these examples are drawn, Mason Currey exhaustively examines the work habits of 161 writers, composers, artists, scientists, and philos­ophers.

These examples make one thing perfectly clear about creative habits: while brilliant people vary tre­mendously in the specific habits they follow, they all know very well what habits work for them, and they go to enormous lengths to maintain those habits.

I used to tell everyone that working slowly and steadily was the best way to produce creative work. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to encourage everyone to get up early, to work in the morning. Because that’s what works for me.

And I used to say that it was better to work in a reasonably quiet, calm environment. Because that’s what works for me.

But as I worked on Better Than Before, it became increasingly clear to me that the opposite habits work better for some people.

I’m a Marathoner, but some people are Sprinters.

I’m a Lark, but some people are Owls.

I’m a Simplicity-Lover, but other people are Abundance-Lovers.

We have to think about ourselves. It’s helpful to ask, “When have I worked well in the past? What did my habits look like then – and how can I replicate them?” Maybe you work more creatively with a team – or by yourself. Maybe you need deadlines – or maybe you feel strangled by deadlines. Maybe you like working on several projects at once — or you prefer to focus on one project at a time.

With habits, as with happiness, the secret is to figure out ourselves. When we shape our habits to suit our own nature, our own interests, and our own values, we set ourselves up for success.

How about you? What habits contribute or detract from your creativity?

Daylight Saving Time: A Potential Way To Get an Extra Hour in Your Day.

For Better Than Before, when I talk to people about the habits they want to change, they often mention that they lack the time for a new habit.

To clear time to schedule a new morning habit, many people try waking up a bit earlier, but this can be tough for people who struggle to get out of bed.

One trick? Use the autumn end to Daylight Saving Time as a painless way to add an extra hour to the morning. (Obviously this only works if you live in a place that follows DST.) Getting up earlier is a great way to make time for something important to you.

We all love to “fall back” and to get that extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning. It’s a great boon to get a little extra sleep. In fact, car accidents and heart attacks are more common in the week after Daylight Saving Time starts, because losing that hour puts stress on people’s bodies.

But while you may love that extra hour of sleep, consider not sleeping in, but instead get up after your customary amount of sleep. Your body is getting up as usual, but the clock will say that you’re up an hour early.  And there’s a lot you can do with that hour–especially if the people around you are still sound asleep.

Remember, when it comes to habits, it’s easier to change your surroundings than to change yourself or other people. It’s easier to get in the habit of waking up earlier by getting up at the same time, when the clock changes, than to train yourself to get up earlier.

A reader commented: “A couple years ago I decided not to reset my clock at the end of daylight savings. I had thought of myself as a night owl, but suddenly had writing/exercise time.”

You could use that time to do something like exercise or work on a project–or maybe you want to use it for pure pleasure. I have a friend who wakes up early to read for fun.

The morning is a great time to form a regular habit, because self- control is high, there are fewer distractions, and it’s highly predictable.

Now, this system wouldn’t work for true “owls” who stay up late and sleep late. But for many people, it’s possible to make a very satisfying use of that hour.

NOTE: If you try this strategy, you must also go to sleep earlier! It’s so, so, so important to get enough sleep, and if you lose an hour in the morning, you need to gain that time in sleep. (Here are some tips for getting yourself to go to bed on time.)

The question is: where would you rather have the hour? At the end of the day, or at the start of the day?

Most people would use those slots in very different ways.  The hour of 6:00-7:00 am looks very different from the hour of 11:00-mindnight. Which hour would contribute the most to your happiness?

If you suddenly had an extra hour in your day, how would you use it? Have you ever used this method–or any other–to shift your waking time?

Secret of Adulthood: Working Is One of the Most Dangerous Forms of Procrastination.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:


Agree, disagree? I know some people practice “constructive procrastination,” but in my experience, it’s usually not very constructive.

I write a bit more about this Secret of Adulthood, here, and I discuss it at some length in Better Than Before, my forthcoming book about how we make and break habits. (To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here. You can ignore that RSS business.

Before and After: “I Needed to Establish a Small, Non-Threatening Daily Writing Habit, and I Needed Accountability.”

I’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Brett Cooper.

I’d known some writing success: winning, for example, a 2003 screenwriting contest that awarded me $2,000, a yearlong contract with a Hollywood Literary Manager and exposure to dozens of top production companies. But I’d never been able to build momentum. I’d work in fits and starts, churning out a lot of content for a month or two and then sputtering to zero output for several months more. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the big power of small habits.


A teacher by day, I have always struggled to find the time to write. Typically, writing progress only came during my long summers off. One day, inspired by others who’ve traveled the happy road of habits and shared their glowing stories after, I was struck by an idea. I needed to establish a small, non-threatening daily writing habit, and I needed accountability.


100 words a day, I thought. Yes, I could do that. Even after the toughest of spells at school, surrounded as ever by my gaggle of delightfully squirrely eighth graders, I could collapse on the couch and tap out a paragraph or two. Small, non-threatening habit? Check.


Next I needed accountability. If not for that, I knew from experience that I’d fall off the wagon. I contacted a teacher friend who’s also a writer. I asked her if she’d be my “100 Words Accountability Partner.” All she had to do was agree to allow me to send her an email every day. In that email were to be 100 or more new words I’d produced for my daily bread. She could read the words or not. She could respond or not. Didn’t matter. I just needed to know that someone knew if I wasn’t keeping my promise. She agreed. I’m glad I chose her because I don’t see her every day. Now working at a different school, she’s distant enough that I don’t see her face so frequently as to feel self conscious that she’s in the habit of reading my words. Or could be, at least. Accountability? Check.


The results have been astounding. Whereas I used to write 5,000-10,000 words per two months of summer break, now I’m writing about 500 words a day 10,000 every three weeks or so. Once I get started, I can’t easily stop at 100 words. (Though it’s nice to know I can.) And so I don’t. I keep writing.


This is a game changer for me. My 100 Words habit never fails to provide me with a sense of success and a daily dose of creative energy. The hard part was conceiving of the idea. What small habit could I handle? How was I to be held accountable? The rest has been simple, structured, rewarding, possibly – dare I say it? – life-changing. I’d call that momentum.


This is a great example of using the Strategy of Accountability, by teaming up with an accountability partner. Accountability helps just about everyone — of course, it’s essential for Obligers. Accountability also requires Monitoring, which is another helpful strategy, and often involved Scheduling.

It’s also a good example of the Strategy of First Steps. Often, just taking that first step, over and over and over, and keeping that step small and manageable, is enough to keep us going.

I’m reminded of National Novel Writing Month, inspired by Chris Baty’s book No Plot? No Problem: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. With this program, you write 1,667 words a day for a month, which means you write a 50,00 word novel (which is about the length of The Great Gatsby.) As I described in The Happiness Project, I did this myself, and really enjoyed the process.

However, if you’re trying to form a habit, beware the lure of the “finish line.” Make sure that you’re really building a writing habit, not just sprinting toward Day 30. Have a plan for day 31! Because while starting is hard, starting over is often harder.

Brett fostered the habit of writing by starting small. This is an approach that works for many, many people: keep it manageable. But the opposite of a profound truth is also true, and for many people, it’s easier to start big.  I’m a mix of both approaches, myself. Here’s a post on Do you prefer to aim big or aim small? There’s no right way or wrong way, just what works for you. Different solutions for different people.

Have you ever teamed up with an accountability partner? For what habit? Or perhaps you joined an accountability group. These can form around anything; Weight Watchers and AA are two famous examples. For Before and After, I’m creating a “starter kit” for people who want to form their own Before and After accountability groups for habit-change.  (I’m in a writers’ accountability group, and it has really been useful.)

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here. (You can ignore that RSS business.)

Before and After: Work on a Ph.D. Thesis from 6:00-9:00 a.m.

I’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here.

This week’s story comes from Annelie Drakman.

I’m a Ph.D.-student, and I’ve always thought that it seemed dreadful to let finishing your dissertation drag out for years and years – just get it over with, I thought. And still I’d let weeks go by where I went to meetings, and read lots of books relating to my topic, and took courses, but did not spend one minute actually writing my text.

So I started getting up at 6 am. Now, whenever I have a free morning or a whole free day, I try to make sure to always get up this early. I think the reason it works is that I hate it. You see, if I get up at 6 am and don’t write on my dissertation, I got up early for nothing. I have to give up the comfort of my bed without the satisfaction of getting things done, and I can’t bear that. So I write. The hours between 6 am and 9 am just fly by and afterwards I’m always surprised at how much I got done. So it works! And, if I can’t get any useful work done during the afternoon, I know I’ve at least put in three or so hours towards my most important goal, and I can give myself a break about being obsessive about emails.

Excellent. I’ve identified sixteen strategies for habit-formation, and this is a great example of the Strategy of Scheduling. Just putting something on the schedule helps us to do it — and scheduling it first thing in the morning usually works best.

Also, although it doesn’t work for everyone, getting up earlier can be a great way to find more time for something you value. Mornings tend to unfold in the same way, so there’s more consistency and control, and less opportunity for conflicts — real or invented — to arise.  (For tips about how and why to schedule a habit for the morning, read here and here.)

I write about the Strategy of Scheduling in Chapter Two of Before and After. If you’d like to know when the book is available for pre-order (not for a while, I must confess!), sign up here.

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here.