Developing habits that protect the work

“True originality eschews its trappings.”  That’s about the only thing Freud ever said that I agree with.  Being a creative person — writing books, painting pictures, developing the theory of evolution — is incredibly time-consuming.  It’s hard.  It’s an awful lot of work.  If you’re spending all of your time on appearances, on the trappings, you simply don’t have enough left over to do the work. 

A few days ago, a writer I follow on Twitter sent out a link to a wonderful essay by Jennifer Crusie on protecting the work.  I first read this essay several years ago, and it resonated with me because I have always been a firm believer in finding your Three Most Important Things, and doing those, and not really anything else.  Jennifer Crusie has a similar approach to setting priorities and making sure she is working on them and not on things that don’t matter.  So we will pause for a moment while you read the Other Jennifer.

Back so soon? Now I want to connect the idea of protecting your work with some information that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (of Flow fame) writes about in his book Creativity.  This book is actually more useful than Flow for creative types who are interested in developing best practices for their work.  Although it came out in 1996, every sentence in it is as relevant now as it was then.

For our purposes today, here’s the concept that most interests me: in interviewing creative types for the book, Mihaly (yes, I’m being overly familiar but I’m not typing that last name more than once) found that they had fairly conformist lives outside their work.  Why?  Because it’s simpler.  And having a complicated life is the enemy of creative work.  Now, neither Mihaly nor I contend that this is true of all creative people throughout history, but for a good portion of them, a key ingredient to their success is not having to pay much attention to life outside their work.  Creative people, whatever their field, need a lot of unstructured time for staring out the window and coming up with the Unified Theory of Everything or at least this week’s plot twists.  Time spent trying to figure out how to update WordPress is not conducive to this endeavor (as I can attest from personal experience).  

Keeping life outside work simple doesn’t mean you should send your kids off to boarding school, nor does it mean you will never see Paris again.  It simply means the more we can build habits into our lives, the more time we have for the creative work.  Here’s the thing: every morning I get up, brush my teeth, take a shower, get dressed.  Depending on my habits, this can take fifteen minutes or it can take two hours.  It used to take two hours, because first there was the necessity for hitting the snooze alarm a time or ten (I am not a morning person), then of staggering out of bed and finding the coffee pot.  Then trying to remember what I did with the toothbrush, and discovering I was out of toothpaste, so now what.  Not to mention blow drying and styling the hair, putting on the makeup, picking out the right clothes, putting them back, picking out other right clothes, discovering the stain on the shirt that I meant to do something about but forgot — well, you can see why I had to get up at 5:45 to make it to work by 8:30.

When I realized how much time all this dithering took, and how much it ate into the little time I had for doing the work I wanted to do, I simplified it.  I got up when the alarm went off, period (despite the fact that I am still not a morning person).  I changed my wardrobe so that everything I owned went with everything else and everything fit.  If you look in my closet now, you will see four pairs of shoes: loafers, boots, casual sandals, dressy sandals.  That’s it.  I spend no time in making decisions about my clothes at home; all of the decisions are made at the store before I buy a single thing.

I make these kinds of habits in all areas of my life.  I put the keys and my wallet in a dish by the door every time I come into the house.  That way I know where they are every time I leave, and I don’t have to spend time or energy thinking about it.  Anything I have to take with me (a check to mail, a book to return to the library) goes by the wallet and keys so that they’re never forgotten.  I do the laundry every Saturday morning and only every Saturday morning.  It is washed, dried, and put away before my daughter and I go off on our Saturday afternoon adventure.  I have the Schwan’s guy deliver most of my groceries (on Wednesdays).  The things he can’t deliver I can pick up on my way home from dropping Jessica off at school. I do that on Tuesdays.  The dishes are loaded into the dishwasher and the kitchen cleaned every evening after dinner, no matter what.  I don’t own a television so I don’t have to try to make and enforce rules about when and where television shows can be watched.  (I call that a nonhabit.)       

This approach may sound overly rigid and too orderly for a free spirit like you, and that’s exactly what I thought before I started making these changes.  The thing is, the management of our lives eats up a lot of time if we let it.  If developing the habit of doing the laundry every Saturday and only every Saturday sounds like something only a drill sergeant could love, consider this: It’s not like there’s another way to get the laundry done that’s going to be more fulfilling.  But not having a habit guarantees that laundry issues will become a lot more frustrating and time-consuming.  For example, when you don’t do it regularly, you run out of clean underwear.  If you don’t put it away routinely, you have to dig through piles of clean laundry in a basket to pull out the insanely wrinkled shirt you were planning to wear for that important presentation. And so on.

Developing these habits not only helps you free up time elsewhere in your schedule, it gives you ways to protect your time by shunting those habits into their specified zones.  If you do the laundry on Saturday mornings, that means that Sunday through Friday mornings you are free to work on your book or your painting or your garden without thinking, Gee, I really need to get the laundry done.  The habit ensures that you will get the chore done and that you don’t have to do it at any other time.  Giving yourself the gift of mental space is just as important as giving yourself the gift of time.

Next time: Protecting the work by outsourcing.


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  2. Hey Jennifer,

    Great post. (Except for the catty little dig at Freud. How about this one: “Happiness is a childhood wish fulfilled.”)

    Nice point about habits; this is similar to the Quaker notion of simplicity in life. Not because they think it’s “cool to be like the Amish”, but because a conscious choice of a simple life leaves more time for the important things to one’s soul.

    On the other hand, a certain amount of “complication” may give you more good fiction material! Just sayin’… g

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