Tag Archives: work

To Be Creative, What Are the Best Habits To Follow?

Assay: This post is back by popular demand, because when I tell people that I’ve been working on Better Than Before, my book about habit change, one of the questions that people most often ask me is: “What habits are best for creativity?” They want to know 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, orderly 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?

Do You Feel a Pull Toward Work, or a Pull Toward Leisure?

One of my most important happiness commandments — okay, my most important happiness commandment — is to “Be Gretchen.”

I’m always trying to understand myself, and how I’m alike or different from other people.  (For instance, I ask myself these questions.)

I’ve started to think about a new distinction I think I may have discovered…not sure what to call it…it’s like an “inner drive toward work or leisure.”

One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I feel an insistent pressure to work. If I’m not working, I feel a persistent, faint (or no so faint) pull back to my desk.

In Better Than Before, I describe several habits that I’ve acquired to help me stop working, like Quitting Time and my weekly afternoon adventure with my older daughter.

Nevertheless, though habits like those are helpful, I very often feel a slight uneasiness when I’m not working, even when the time is being used “usefully.” And this is true even though I absolutely value time that’s not being used “usefully.”

Intellectually, I embrace leisure, but still, I hear that “work, work, work” whisper in my brain.

That’s true for me; I think some people are the opposite. From talking to others, I think that some people feel that any time at “work” is somehow…less valuable. That work time should be kept as short as possible, so that there’s as much non-work time as possible.

I know people like this who are also very ambitious and driven. They want to work hard and well, and yet they do somehow feel that work isn’t quite “real life,” and they want to get back there as soon as they can.

This distinction just occurred to me, however…does it ring true for anyone else?  Do you feel an inner drive toward work, or an inner drive toward leisure?

The Perfect Office Design — How Does Your Office Measure Up?

I’m a huge fan of the work of Christopher Alexander, and yesterday, for the hundredth time, I found myself urging someone to read his book, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.

This strange, brilliant, fascinating book uses architecture, sociology, psychology, and anthropology to describe the most satisfying environments.

Instead of talking about familiar architectural styles and elements, it focuses on “patterns,” such as the Sitting Wall, the Front Door Bench, Child Caves, the Sequence of Sitting Spaces, Sleeping to the East. I love these! I want them for my own apartment!

Ever since I read this book, I’ve been working my way through everything written by Christopher Alexander. As Huckleberry Finn said of Pilgrim’s Progress, I would say, “The statements was interesting, but tough.”

A Pattern Language discusses houses, but it also covers commercial spaces and offices.

It offers insights about why certain offices are more or less satisfying to work in. Take this quiz to see how your office measures up.

I put a “yes” or “no” after each element, as it applies to my own office.

-there’s a wall behind you (so no one can sneak up behind you). Yes.

-there’s a wall to one side (too much openness makes you feel exposed). Yes.

-there’s no blank wall within 8 feet in front of you (or you have no place to rest your eyes). No, I sit right in front of a wall with a window.

-you work in at least 60 square feet (or you feel cramped). No; my office is tiny.

-your workspace is 50-75% enclosed by walls or windows (so you have a feeling of openness). Not exactly sure what this one means’ wouldn’t that give me a feeling of closedness?

-you have a view to the outside (no matter how large your office, you will feel confined in a room without a view). Yes—no nice view, but I can see outside. Having a window is enormously important to me.

-you are aware of at least 2 other people, but not more than 8 people, around you (less than 2, you feel isolated and ignored; more than 8, you feel like a cog in a machine). No, I’m all alone.

-you can’t hear workplaces noises that are very different from the kind of noises you make at work (you concentrate better when the people around you are engaged in similar tasks, not very different tasks). Yes.

-no one is sitting directly opposite you and facing you. No.

-you can face in different directions at different times. No.

-you can see at least 2 other people, but not more than 4. No.

-you have at least one co-worker within talking distance. No.

Most of us can’t change much about the design of our offices, but these elements at least furnish a few ideas.

My office is very, very small. If I had more room and space, I would love to have a horseshoe-shaped desk, with enormous amounts of surface space, as well as a treadmill desk. Oh, how I long for a treadmill desk! In Better Than Before, I describe how I did the next best thing: I bought a treadmill desk for my sister. She sometimes walks seven miles — during a work day!

I have to admit, that of all the habits that I changed, or that I helped other people to change, as part of writing that book, getting my sister that treadmill desk was one of the very most satisfying.

How does the design of your workplace measure up? Do you agree with these points? What would you add?

To state the obvious: this list sheds light on why many people don’t like the current trends in office design.

Secrets of Adulthood: Nothing Is More Exhausting Than the Task That’s Never Started.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:


Agree, disagree?

For the research for my forthcoming book about habit change, Better Than Before, I asked people about the habits they most wanted to change. I found that most habits fall into the “Essential Seven“:

1. Eat and drink more healthfully (give up sugar, eat more vegetables, drink less alcohol)
2. Exercise regularly
3. Save, spend, and earn wisely (save regularly, pay down debt, donate to worthy causes, stick to a budget)
4. Rest, relax, and enjoy (stop watching TV in bed, turn off a cell phone, spend time in nature, cultivate silence, get enough sleep, spend less time in the car)
5. Accomplish more, stop procrastinating (practice an instrument, work without interruption, learn a language, maintain a blog)
6. Simplify, clear, clean, and organize (make the bed, file regularly, put keys away in the same place, recycle)
7. Engage more deeply in relationships—with other people, with God, with the world (call friends, volunteer, spend more time with family, attend religious services)

Note #5. Finding habits that help fight procrastination can be very, very helpful. Because as exhausting as it may be to start that key project, it’s even more exhausting to keep putting off starting that key project.

Do you agree with the Essential Seven? Did I overlook anything important?

Better Than Before is now ready for pre-order. If you’re inclined to buy the book, pre-ordering is a big help to me. Pre-orders create real buzz among booksellers, librarians, the media, and publishers. Buy early, buy often!

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.)

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