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Creative work is inherently fun. However, sometimes it’s also frustrating, slow, and difficult. In other words, it’s a lot like working out. We explore this connection in the following article and podcast.

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How Creative Work Is Like Working Out

I love creative work. I spend hours sketching out pictures, editing them, and transforming it all into short videos. I get up at four each morning and plug away at a book or a new blog post. I geek out on the revision process.

On the other hand, I hate working out. I have never experienced the so-called “runner’s high” that people gush about. I sometimes think that the people who refer to the “runner’s high” have never actually gotten high in their lives. For me, it’s like Magic Eye. I’m sure it works for some people but not for me. I don’t get pumped about pumping iron. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy hiking – though that’s mostly because I am consumed by the beauty of nature. If I could experience the beauty of it without having to exert myself physically, I might choose a lawn chair over a trail map.

In other words, the only way I enjoy exercise is if I’m completely distracted by the fact that I’m exercising. Whether it’s a podcast on a long run or a period of silence during weight lifting, my enjoyment comes from the distraction and not the exercise itself.

Don’t get me wrong. I work out five to seven days a week. But I don’t enjoy it.

I choose to work out because it’s necessary.

I feel the benefits of working out. I’ve lost nearly sixty pounds in the last two years and I can move more easily. I feel less stressed out. I’m sleeping better than ever before. Furthermore, I enjoy the deeper periods of silence when I can reflect and plan and come up with random ideas.

I’ve also noticed that exercise helps me in my creative work. I know, for example, that a long run creates a boredom-induced mental rest that often leads to creative breakthroughs. There’s a great exploration of this in the book Rest. I know that weight-lifting makes me feel less stressed and more energized. I am more productive in my creative work when I am also sticking to an exercise regimen.

But it has me wondering if there are actually some overlaps between working out and creative work.

Seven Ways Creative Work Is Similar to Working Out

I’d like to explore the ways in which creative work is similar to working out.

#1: Creative work requires routines.

My friend Josh Stumpenhorst runs every day. Every. Day. It seems unfathomable. If he’s on vacation he runs. If he’s speaking at a conference, he runs. If it’s the day after Thanksgiving and his body wants to hibernate and it’s already below freezing in Illinois, he goes out there and runs. This has become a habit for Josh and, while I think it’s somewhat bizarre, it works for him.

I don’t have a run streak but I do have a creative routine. I get up at early every morning unless I’m on a vacation and I devote at least one hour to writing and then another hour to some other type of creative project.  Sometimes it’s a sketch-note video. Other times, it’s a part of a course I’m teaching or a video for self-paced professional development.

I treat this time like a professional work appointment and I guard that time in my calendar. If I don’t show up, I feel the same disappointment that I feel when I’ve bailed on a friend or a colleague.

Sometimes the creative process is easy. I sit down and get to work and things just click. Other times, it’s a full hour of never quite getting into the groove. But the end result is nearly always a finished product that I’m proud of. And, more importantly, I have developed a creative habit.

#2: Creative work requires rest.

There’s an interesting study cited in the book Rest, where they looked at the productivity of professors who spent 10-60 hours per week on research. Those who spent beyond 30 hours a week on their research ended up producing fewer papers and having fewer creative breakthroughs.

Rest is vital for creativity. The down time we experience when we go for walks, exercise, or take naps allows our brains to process seemingly disconnected ideas. This mental rest also creates the space for us to solve complex problems in a relaxed way.

This is similar to the value of rest time in exercise. Recuperation allows the muscles to heal (the whole idea of muscle protein synthesis). It’s why people will wait 24 to 48 hours between workouts. Your body needs rest and I would argue that your mind needs rest as well.

#3: Creative work can feel uninspiring.

Inspiration is critical to creativity. Those little sparks of ideas often ignite a passion for a project. But then there’s this less inspiring element where you fan the flames and tend to the fire. You will hit moments of frustration and boredom. Your work doesn’t turn out right and you can’t figure out what you need to do to fix it. You make mistakes. Huge mistakes. And for all the talk of “embracing failure,” these moments still feel lousy.

You have days when you don’t feel like getting started. You have a show you can binge watch or you have to watch or dishes and it’s tempting to take the day off. In these moments, the creative work can feel like a run in the icy rain when all you want to do is wrap yourself in a blanket and read. These are the moments when creative work can feel like climbing a switchback without being able to see the summit. But it’s always worth it in the end. Because, although it feels amazing to be inspired, it feels more amazing to finish a creative task when you didn’t feel like getting started.

See, there’s a common myth out there that you should do creative work when you feel inspired. You get excited about an idea and then you throw yourself into the creative process until you have something you love. But creative work is still work. It’s fun. It’s enjoyable. But it’s also a discipline that requires hard work and follow-through, even when you don’t feel like it. I created the following chart to remind myself that writing isn’t about feeling inspired:

Some of my biggest creative breakthroughs occurred on days when I didn’t initially feel inspired at the outset. I’ve learned that the inspiration is often the result, not the cause, of getting started and doing the work.

#4: Creative work is difficult at the beginning.

Creative work is frustrating at first. You feel like you don’t know what you are doing and you constantly ask yourself if you’re doing it the right way. You’re also slower. You haven’t hit that place of creative fluency where you can spend hours lost in a task. Everything seems difficult. Chances are you’re not that good at it, either. So you are able to identify quality work in others but you can’t seem to pull it off on your own.

The same thing happens when you start lifting weights or running. You’re slow. You’re sloppy. Everything takes a long time. Progress seems painfully slow. You don’t have the capacity or the stamina. Everything seems new to you – but not in that cool, exciting novelty kind of way. You feel lost. In other words, the early stages in your creative journey can feel like the first few weeks of getting into running or weight-lifting or yoga. It’s painful. It’s confusing. Everybody around you seems to know what they are doing.

However, it helps to start small and build up over time. We often think about building creative habits but it’s more about building creative momentum. I make the distinction of habits and momentum in the following visual:

Note that consistency alone can help build habits. However, combining consistency with continual improvement can help lead to creative momentum. Slowly, you start improving and building up your creative endurance and eventually it gets easier to engage in daily creative work. Even so, this can feel isolating and you may want to reach out to a community. Which leads to my next idea . . .

#5: Creative work thrives when we are part of a community.

Individual sports are rarely as individual as they appear. For example, runners will join running clubs and participate in larger communities. They network with one another and geek out about what type of gels to use for refueling or how best to prevent shin splints. They realize something critical: even when you work alone you never want to be entirely isolated.

So back to creativity . . .

Creative work is often solitary. Even in collaborative projects, you will spend hours working alone. You will find that you need people to affirm you, challenge you, and share their insights with you. This is why I’m a big fan of mastermind groups. A mastermind group is a tight community where people share their creative journey with other members of the group. Typically, a mastermind group will do the following:

  • Share your needs with others and ask for ideas or resources
  • Share your frustrations (there’s a power to being vulnerable)
  • Share your success stories
  • Share your hopes and dreams that sound crazy to the world
  • Share your goals and your progress toward those goals
  • Share strategies with one another and solve problems together
  • Share the emotional aspects of the creative journey
  • Talk about potential collaboration options together

I’ve been a part of a mastermind group for about two years now and it’s been a powerful experience. If you’re not familiar with a mastermind group, here’s how it works:

A mastermind group is a self-initiated, democratic community with members who share similar goals and interests. Members meet together in small groups of 3-6 people to provide accountability, structure, and feedback. Often, they share strategies and ideas. Mastermind groups are used in in the arts, academic communities, in entrepreneurial circles, and in the non-profit world. When you join a mastermind group, you will share your journey and learn from others around you. Together, you will also share your ideas, prototypes, or work and give one another feedback. You will share your challenges and frustrations. It’s a chance to be vulnerable. As a member of the community, you will listen and provide empathy when others struggle. But you might also help others problem-solve and find solutions. Members will share success stories and celebrate those successes together. Mastermind groups can meet in-person but also online through video chats. I am a member of two mastermind groups focused on creative work. I find that the informal community has been a sort of “soft accountability” that keeps me going.

Gamify Your Creative Process

Exercise apps and fitness organizations have found success in helping people develop fitness habits by using elements of gamification. Think of it this way. Video games are designed to be habitual. Whether you’re playing a simple game on your phone or a complex game with rich world-building on a gaming console, there is something inherent in video games that draw us in. This is by design. Game designers have crafted the user experience to make gameplay habitual. And it’s not just game designers. Social media apps use notifications, badges, and metrics to get us to spend more time on their platforms. Health apps use these game elements to get people to get active and eat right. What if we used principles of game design to gamify creative habits in real-life? I explored this idea in sketch video:

By using elements of gamification, we can develop creative momentum. Here are a few ideas:

  • Make it easy to start. Games work because the barrier of entry is low. Similarly, in developing creative habits, you might want to start with an easier goal. So you might be ten minutes a day learning to play a new instrument or you might start out writing just 100 words per day. You can also start off with smaller projects that allow you to hit the finish line faster. There’s actually a strong rationale for this approach. By making our goals easier to attain and experiencing some “big wins” early, we gain confidence and are then able to stick with a habit over time.
  • As you improve, you can increase the challenge incrementally. Here you create “levels” for yourself where you can hit benchmarks and increase the challenge level. This allows you to keep the challenge level just above your skill level. According to the Flow Channel model, if the skill level is too low, you’ll often experience worry and anxiety. But when the challenge is just above the skill level, you are more likely to hit a state of flow.
  • As you go, you can track progress. You might have a progress bar or a series of tally marks. You might create badges for yourself. Another option is to use three jars with marbles and move the marbles from a “haven’t started” to “started” to “finished.” You can also create a streak that builds with each day you have participated in the habit. If you’ve ever played Pokemon Go, you’ve seen how they keep track of consecutive days. Runners will often do a “run streak.” The same can be true of writing, painting, or reading. When you keep track of a streak, you build momentum. As you succeed, you might even create small rewards or celebrations for yourself as you hit key benchmarks.
  • You might also need to create visual cues. On phones, we have alerts and notifications for games. But you can also create notifications by creating visual cues in your physical environment. For example, if you want to read 50 books in a year, leave books throughout your home; on the coffee table by your nightstand, by your computer and maybe a few other places, just make sure things are sanitary. You might also put a book in your car or in your backpack. The point is to put these cues everywhere. You might also use sticky notes with reminders of your commitment to a creative habit. Finally, you might want to join a community. Gaming often includes social interaction. As a maker, you might create a mastermind group with fellow makers who nerd out on their craft. This can give you a sense of belonging and help you take creative risks. In the end, there is no single formula for developing creative habits. By using elements of gamification, you help make these habits stick. What creative habit would you like to form?

What Does This Mean for Schools?

Ultimately, creative work and working out are both habits and even disciplines. And they’re both vital to life.

But they both require time and effort. If we want students to grow into creative thinkers, they need more time to hit a state of creative fluency. Creative work can’t be a culminating activity or a fun project you do once the “real work” is finished. Creative work is the “real work.”

Teachers can’t control the bell schedule or the packed curriculum map. But they can still infuse their units with creative thinking. Project-based learning and design thinking are content-neutral (or maybe content universal). We, as educators, can incorporate creative thinking into our lessons if we’re willing to reimagine our lessons and units to provide as many creative opportunities as possible.

When this happens, it won’t always be pretty. Students will hit moments of boredom, frustration, and confusion. After all, it’s a lot like working out. But that’s part of the creative journey.

Looking for more? Check this out.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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