Whether we plan to create the likes of a recording, composition, concert tour or promo campaign, we have to launch our project and work on it regularly. But we all know that creative ventures often fizzle because we, the would-be creators, stall. We convince ourselves that no one will care. We procrastinate. In the end, far too many of us never get started on the things we hope to create and thereby cheat ourselves out of meaningful accomplishment.
Personally, I don’t intend to miss out on forging a meaningful life. I’m committed to doing the creative work that matters to me. The key to my output is that I live by the following six habits that enable me to get started on my projects every day.
- Set incremental goals. By working in increments, we carve out achievable goals that fuel our motivation. For instance, this week, I’m writing three short articles and learning 30 minutes of solo music for an upcoming performance. I’ve notched incremental goals for each article and in each composition. My objectives are clear and attainable, so I’m primed to begin working at any moment.
- Create first. Scheduling creative time becomes simple when we decide that our creative work will be our first task of the day. If an early meeting obliges me to get up at 6:00, I rise at 5:00 and practice or write for an hour. In doing so, I get things done and also prepare to resume working later on.
- Remove distractions. If we sit down to create and we leave the phone on and an email program open, then we’re baiting ourselves to flee into distraction. Before I start writing or practicing, I silence the phone, disconnect from the Internet, and ready my materials. That’s my opening ritual: off, off, on.
- Counter negativity. I suppose that there are people somewhere who have purged all of their negativity, but I’m not one of them, and I assume that you aren’t either. So instead of striving for saintliness, let’s aim for mindfulness. Let’s agree that we’re going to say unhelpful things to ourselves, but instead of believing what we say, we’ll notice our negative self-talk and replace it with positive steps. For example, if I sit down to write music or an article and I hear myself complain, “I have no idea what to do,” I laugh inwardly, because, of course, I do know what to do. I then compose some phrases. I begin.
- Take action. We’ve all heard stories about individuals who claim to have done brilliant work in a flurry of inspiration. “I was in the zone,” they say. Phooey, I say. We all get flashes of insight, but few, if any, creative achievements happen in a flash. Rather, significant work results from persistent effort. If we tell ourselves that we can’t start unless we’re in the right mood, we won’t get anything done. Truth is, we don’t need to be in the zone to produce excellent work. We just have to show up regularly and take action.
- Make peace with the process. The products of our creative work may be graceful, but the creative process seldom is. My work certainly isn’t. I write lousy first drafts, stir up vexing problems, and flub on the fingerboard. If missteps and predicaments caused me agony, I wouldn’t start at all. I accept my mistakes as essential. I know that creating is hard, messy, and, most of all, rewarding.
If you’ve been hoping to initiate a project, whether musical, promotional, or otherwise, I invite you to try this: Before you retire for the night, jot down several incremental goals and then set your alarm clock; when the alarm sounds, get up and get started.
You’ll find lots more information about music making, creativity, and living the musician’s life in my new book, The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness (Oxford 2009. 360 pages), along with its companion website MusiciansWay.com and blog.
© 2009 Gerald Klickstein
Gerald Klickstein is Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and an active guitarist, author, and arts advocate.