Everybody is different and different high-achieving people have different habits. Apple CEO Tim Cook wakes up at 3:45 AM every morning. YouTube personality and creative mastermind Casey Neistat doesn’t block out any time for free time or fun in his schedule (and only sleeps 4-6 hours per night, which is troublesome for various reasons). Berkshire-Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett drinks at least five cans of soda every single day. There’s no one tried and true set of habits that will lead you to success. Everybody has their quirks.
Nevertheless, I have failed to establish consistent creative habits that stick. It may be the nature of my schedule shifting every four months as a college studentnand this semester I have seen my overwhelming workload get in the way, but to quote writer E.B. White, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
So, I have taken a dive into the key habits of various creatives to see what has led them to success. I can’t tell you what your personal mission is or what to create, but I can tell you this: I would be hard-pressed to find many successful people that do not follow these key habits, whether they be a successful creative, athlete, entrepreneur, executive, coach, etc. I will be tailoring these to people looking to become successful creatives, since I’m writing this for myself, but these habits are pretty universal.
1. Sit in the chair.
I first read this phrase in a book called “Everything That Remains” by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, and the sentiment is simple yet powerful: you aren’t going to create anything by walking around everyday and aspiring to create something. You have to put in the time to create. Ideally, you’re going to want a distraction-free environment in which you can put forth your best work, but hey, putting in any work is better than nothing. A lifter needs to put in a certain set of reps every day to maintain their strength, a basketball player needs to put in a certain number of shots every day, and a marathon runner needs to get in their miles every day. If you want to write a book, or an album, or become a journalist who regularly publishes for an outlet, you’re going to have to sit down and put in the time to write and refine your work. How else are you ever going to grow as an artist?
2. Start early in the morning.
There are multiple reasons to start your work early in the morning. In general, I noticed a pattern amongst creatives that they all prioritize putting their most important work as the first thing they focus on in the day. Another reason is that it’s harder to enter a state of deep work without putting yourself in a distraction-free environment. In an age of increasing digital distraction finding a peaceful environment free from a barrage of notifications (and free from the concern that you are missing out on notifications because you are focusing on your work) is crucial for creating your best work.
3. Work hard (in proper conditions), be on time, and have deadlines.
Recently, Warde Manuel, the athletic director of the University of Michigan, took an hour to speak with my Coaching & Leadership class. He ended his lecture with a message: “practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” This was a great qualifier to a message that has been echoed by all of Michigan’s head coaches in their guest lectures to this class: you have to put in the work. Practice makes perfect and there’s no way to get around hard work. Other common themes that have consistently come up in the class include being punctual and establishing deadlines, because without deadlines there’s no sense of urgency that drives us to finish a project. There is also research that shows deadlines supporting original creative work. (Another note: Be sure to separate work and free time. Down time should be down time. In general, this habit is all about maximizing your time.)
4. Be passionate about what you’re doing.
There’s no way around it – you must be passionate about your work. If you lack passion for the work you’re doing, somebody else who is passionate about it will outperform you ten times out of ten. Consistently remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing.
5. Never stop learning.
Nobody will ever truly master their field – indeed, there is always something new to learn in your craft. In my music for example, I am constantly learning new audio production tactics to give my songs a different sound. Additionally, preferences and styles shift within different creative fields. Keep up to date with your field and its trends. Learn from older works in your field and allow them to inspire you. Finally, remember that there is a world outside of your field. There’s plenty there to learn. Check it out.
6. Establish your standards day one.
This tip may actually be more relevant for establishing your philosophy as a leader, but nevertheless, as a creative you are the leader of your own pursuits. If you are going to succeed in completing your projects establish how you are going to get there and your standards for yourself in advance and roll from there. Careful planning is crucial in completing an ambitious project. Give yourself a roadmap for the work ahead.
7. Don’t confuse simple with easy.
This tip seems intuitive on the surface but think about it for a second. Many things are simple. Sitting down and writing is a simple task. Sitting down and writing every day is also simple in theory. Sitting down and writing every day is not easy, however.
Creating something meaningful can be a marathon not a sprint. Acknowledge the difficulty in doing a simple task over and over again. Otherwise, you may never take the project seriously enough and may fall off before you ever get around to completing it. To quote John U. Bacon, a celebrated sportswriter and my former instructor, if you’re going to write a 300-to-350-page book, “You gotta write 600 to 700 pages.” (You’re going to edit that thing down hard.) If you write 3 pages per day, you’ll have 700 pages after about eight months of writing every single day. If you take one day off per week, it’ll take about nine. So, yeah: creating a book is as long of a process as having a baby – and that’s before you factor in the time to edit your work.
8. Emphasize execution, not innovation.
Similarly, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel in whatever you do. Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes succeeded in college football by prioritizing fundamentals in their team’s play not running some world-breaking offensive scheme that would confuse and baffle opponents. YouTuber Matt D’Avella has amassed over two million subscribers not because his documentary-style videos are groundbreaking in structure but because his shots are beautiful, his editing is clean, and his messages are meaningful. Do your job well and you will be rewarded. (Of course, it’s still good to innovate, but what good is innovation without a great foundation? You must know the rules in order to break them.)
9. Have the proper support network – and listen to them.
Simply put, working is hard. If you’re putting in hard work on a consistent basis, you’re eventually going to tire yourself out. One safeguard for this is to communicate your aspirations with the people around you. They can hold you accountable in pursuing your goals and can warn you when you seem burnt out. Be sure to communicate your boundaries with your loved ones as you go to work as well. If you communicate ahead of time your roommate will understand why you aren’t going out with them late on Thursday night because you need to be up early on Friday morning. If you communicate ahead of time your significant other will understand why you’re not texting them back in the morning because you set a rule to not touch your phone before noon.
10. Embrace your own personal style.
As a musician, I have spent years of my life trying to emulate the vocal technique and playing style of Thom Yorke from Radiohead. Yet, obsessing over matching his talent level has actually been detrimental to my creative routine. Be proud of your personal sound or writing style and let it loose. Don’t compare yourself to others and put your time into creation.