I stare at the blinking cursor — an apt term for the blank page rhythmically lulling me into a curse of nothingness, slowly gaining inertia with every passing second. It’s a silent metronome counting down the time I haven’t written. It’s a quiet loop on repeati setting the tone for my spiraling questions and fears and insecurities. What if this isn’t good enough? What if this is a waste of time? What if I’m not really a writer? Why do I even bother with fiction?
I’m a writer, I remind myself. It’s been seven months since I worked on fiction but I write daily. I publish articles. I work on education books. I write. All the time. But then the blinking cursor continues its loop as I stare into the white void of an empty document.
I take a deep breath and set my timer. Twenty-two minutes. That’s all I need to do. I turn the WiFi off on my laptop and take another deep breath. I glance at my notecard reading, “This could fail (and that’s okay).”
I remind myself that fail-ure is permanent but fail-ing is temporary. Success isn’t about quality. It’s not even about word count. It’s about twenty-two minutes of writing. I light my writing candle and press the start button on my timer. And so it begins. Awkward phrases. Clunky sentences. I feel the way I felt when I first got back into running. I can feel the pain of every step. But then, something clicks. I experience the “runner’s high” of writing. I get lost in the world I am creating. I slap the stop button on the timer and continue. When it’s done, I have 700 words. Not great words. Not well-constructed sentences. Certainly not an epic story. But I’ve done it.
I’ll continue this ritual tomorrow and the next day and slowly I’ll build momentum.
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Creative Habits Are Hard to Develop
Creative work is frustrating at first. Sometimes it’s the “tyranny of the urgent” that gets in the way. We have pressing demands that call upon our attention. For me, it’s grading. I’m teaching four courses this summer and I can easily justify focusing on student feedback before sitting down to write. It’s also a kitchen project. We bought a new house and I’ve been sanding the cabinets in preparation for painting them. The cabinets feel pressing and immediate. Fiction writing feels like a luxury.
Other times, it’s fear or insecurity. That tiny voice keeps telling you that your work isn’t good enough and you’re simply wasting your time. You feel like you don’t know what you are doing and you constantly ask yourself if you’re doing it the right way.
A dominant question is, “Am I good enough?” And often the answer is “not yet,” which can feel like it might actually be, “not yet and maybe never.” Things feel slower. You haven’t hit that place of creative fluency where you can spend hours lost in a task. Everything seems difficult. The quality isn’t quite there, either. You are able to identify quality work in others but you can’t seem to pull it off on your own and that feels frustrating.
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.
Sometimes you get up in the morning and you just don’t feel like getting to work.
Over time, though, you build momentum and if there’s enough momentum, you end up creating something epic. Over time, as you create more and more work, you become competent and then skilled and eventually prolific. But it all starts with momentum.
Creative Habits Versus Creative Momentum
My initial writing ritual probably seems silly. Turn of the WiFi. Read a note to myself. Set a timer. Light a candle. But there’s a purpose to this ritual. This ritual is a daily habit. However, it’s more than that. It’s a chance to build momentum. I’m creating “early wins” that build momentum so that I can face that blinking cursor and start writing.
I imagine it like an old school lawn mower. You pull that rope and the engine doesn’t go. You go repeatedly and eventually the engine turns over; slowly at first but then faster and faster until you’re ready to mow.
See, creative habits are important. Habits help us move into a place of automaticity. I love how Charles Duhigg puts it in The Power of Habit.
“Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”
But habits alone aren’t enough to keep going. There’s an inherent flaw in the automaticity of habit. We can shift into a place of stagnation. We end up like that band that creates a fourth album that sounds like a retread of the previously three albums. We grow risk-averse, not out of fear, but out of a sense of complacency. We hit a plateau and coast on that plateau. Meanwhile, we shift into a place where we work so quickly that we end up making key mistakes. This is why, as a classroom teacher, I changed from social studies to self-contained to a coaching role and ultimately photojournalism and STEM. I needed new challenges to avoid the complacency of automaticity.
Think of a habit like this. It’s a flat line.
That’s important. It helps you maintain consistency. But it’s not enough. To reach the next level, you also need to improve in your craft. You need to learn and grow. This is why we include skill development as the second variable in creative momentum. Skill improvement alone isn’t enough, though. Because without habit, it will be chaotic, with skills rising and then falling due to the lack of practice and consistency.
What we need is for skills to improve over time. Creative momentum is similar to a creative habit but it combines habits with improvements.
When you experience creative momentum, you take your craft to the next level by combining habits with skill development. You focus on the creative process but you’re also cognizant of the end result and the final product.
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. Meanwhile, your work becomes better. Better here might be faster, with improved fluency. But it also includes improving your craft, engaging in better processes, and often feeling better about the work you do.
It’s in this stage that you begin to experience a sense of flow in your creative work:
So, where do we start if we want to build creative momentum?
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.
- Create a ritual. Video games work because they are inherently ritualistic. You have a start screen with music and visuals and ushers you into the world you will inhabit. My ritual involves a candle, a timer, and a lack of WiFi. I have a friend who keeps a necklace (a lei) from Hawaii that he uses every time he starts writing. I have another friend who has a painting playlist and his goal is to have all of his supplies ready for painting by the end of the first song.
- 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?
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.” But to do that, we need students to hit a place of creative momentum.
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. We can design our lessons in a way that incorporates elements of creative momentum.
For example, when my students did their NaNoWriMo projects, they started in October by planning out their projects. We did several short stories connected to the novels they would write. We planned for tension and suspense. We went over character sketches. Then, we started early. In other words, we cheated on the rules of NaNoWriMo. Midway through October, they began writing their books. They started small, at 200 words per day and gradually built momentum so that they would start on November 1st with 4,000 words written already. This created a sense of momentum going into the project.
Ultimately, creative momentum will always be a challenge. But we can be intentional about designing our units in a way that gradually builds up the momentum so that students improve while developing creative habits.
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