“Genius is the capacity for receiving and improving by discipline.”
So said George Eliot some 150 years ago. Eliot is the author of Middlemarch – in my view, the finest novel in the English language.
Life moves much more quickly today than it did then. We suffer from information overload, sidetracked and distracted, with not nearly enough hours in the day. We try to seek out some kind of method in our lives to make sense of it all – and quite often, we fall short.
A current trend in personal development is the morning ritual. This involves setting yourself up for the day by going through a fixed process first thing which sets your mind positively. It can be a gratitude exercise, meditation, physical training, writing a journal or morning pages and setting goals.
Advocating rising early, meditating for 15 minutes, writing a journal, setting your goals for the day then training – before you’re even properly awake – seems to me more boot camp than beautiful.
Still, some do thrive on this process. In her book The Creative Habit, the choreographer Twyla Tharp describes her own morning ritual. She rises at 5.30am, gets dressed, hails a cab and heads to her gym to work out for two hours. A dancer’s life is extraordinarily disciplined – it has to be, they are athletes. The day starts with class, no matter what else is happening.
Whether that really needs to happen so early is debatable – fine if you’re a lark, not so good if you’re an owl!
But the idea of the morning ritual led me to think about what we need to do as creatives to be productive and work successfully.
I believe this boils down to three things: structure, discipline and focus.
One thing I’ve never had to struggle with is settling down to work. If a job needs doing, I deal with it – even if it’s a challenging or unenjoyable task. My take is that the sooner you start, the sooner it’ll be finished and you can relax and go and do something you really will enjoy.
Procrastination is not an option
My industry – publishing – is led by deadlines. Completing tasks and meeting dates are a fact rather than a negotiable. Time is most definitely money. Procrastination is not an option, and professional reputation and teamwork depend on knowing that certain tasks need to be completed by a certain time – everyone involved has to deliver.
Structure in how we organise our time is important – whether it’s a schedule for a project, or committing to be at our desk or studio by a particular time each day. Basically, it means some kind of routine that gives us a framework in which to operate.
This needs to be flexible of course, because routine should never mean imprisonment – but it does need to work for us.
Chaos isn’t a teacher
Chaos isn’t a great teacher, but regularity is. Structure gives us the freedom from which to let our creativity flow and imagination run riot. The basics are taken care of so, like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, our minds are released to reach a higher place.
Structure also gives us the space for self-care, relaxation and balance – all of which are as just as important to our creative process as activity itself.
As Eliot’s quote implies, we become masters in our work by actually getting down to work. Being unafraid to roll up our sleeves and get on with it. Refining our technique, editing, being rigorous: applying ourselves day in, day out.
I’ve talked about this before in terms of showing up: being committed and willing to do whatever is necessary in our own process to make work.
In the creative arts, it’s no coincidence that we call this our ‘practice’: it’s our method, our approach that is key. Practice does make perfect: being dedicated to our craft, being willing to learn and seek guidance, to try new things, to face down moments of self-doubt and insecurity.
Disciplined creatives show up
Truly disciplined creatives show up regardless of how they’re feeling. At the end of an hour or so they might still be staring at a blank screen, or a misshapen lump of clay, or paper as white as snow, but they accept this is part of the process.
They might take a break – but they come back and try again.
The difference between the successful and unsuccessful creative is discipline. As the writer Stephen King says, waiting for the muse is a waste of time. While we’re twiddling our thumbs, hoping for inspiration to strike, we could actually be making work.
Staying power is what gets you to that last full stop of your manuscript, that final brushstroke on the canvas. The sense of achievement is palpable and wonderful.
This is about our sense of purpose: how and where we choose to direct our energy. So many concepts for fantastic work can be frittered away through lack of focus and attention.
Are we scattergun in our approach, or laserlike? Do we have a clear idea of what we’re going to achieve, what task we’ve set ourselves? Have we sketched out a plan of how we’re going to make a start and see it through?
Productivity relies on focus
Our ability to be productive relies on focus as much as discipline and structure. We may be showing up each day but if our work lacks focus, we might just as well be whistling in the wind.
As creatives we know we already have the energy and ideas to make exciting, original work. Structure, discipline and focus are the tools we can use to help us get where we need to go.
If you’re finding it difficult to shape your creative life, try putting these in place one at a time.
The first to deal with is focus: think about what you want to achieve, and how. Then concentrate on structure: give yourself the practical, day-to-day framework to achieve it. From there, practice the discipline of showing up to do that work.
The chances are you’ll find your productivity goes through the roof. You’ll feel more organised and inspired.
The celebrated violinist and conductor, Yehudi Menuhin, said:
“Do we not find freedom along the guiding lines of discipline?”
As a great artist, he should know.