Using the power of routine to get back on track
The beginning of the summer marked a low point for me, and over the past few months, I have edged my way back to creating by making a routine for my weeks. It’s not an understatement to say the simple act of painting each morning and knowing how I planned to spend the rest of my day helped me to get back on solid ground. I feel much more balanced, my mind calmer, and my outlook more positive since I began painting regularly again.
When you find yourself waffling or feeling adrift for whatever reason, one way to get back to solid footing is to create a routine. Put in some limitations and structure and keep the tasks small and manageable.
Contrary to what you may think, this actually leads to creating more rather than less. It eliminates the need to decide what to do and makes it so that your efforts are simply to show up and do the thing at the time you set for yourself (which can be a small feat in itself). Each time you do, there is a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Even if the day’s results were not as hoped, there is an energy and momentum created by having shown up and done the thing.
Doing the same things at the same times each day and week train your brain and body to anticipate them and make it more likely that you’ll actually show up and do them.
Leveraging the rhythm of your weeks
I find that I work best when I can create a rhythm to my days and weeks. So, I try as much as possible to group similar tasks together. For example, grouping email/admin tasks to a certain time of day or day of the week, going for a run in the morning light, winding down the day with an evening walk…
Part of this rhythm includes my weekly planning session. Every Sunday, I sit down and look at my calendar and project task list. I then create any new tasks (there are many task managers out there, but I use Nirvana) for everything I need to do that week. I usually spend a few minutes shuffling them around and grouping them together, putting a suggested day for each at the start of the task name. This helps me to look at the week ahead and begin to get a feel for how it may play out.
Creating a weekly rhythm gives your mind time to acclimatize and pre-plan for tasks that are coming up. I find, often, I am thinking about writing topics or painting exercises ahead of a session and, by the time I get to the task, I already know what I will begin with.
Each day has its own rhythm, too. Each morning, I write my morning pages journal with a pot of oolong tea. In warmer months, I often go for a run in the park. The rest of the morning is spent painting. I am committed to painting for at least an hour, but ideally until lunchtime.
Afternoons are spent either exploring the world of natural textile dyes, learning to knit, or working on paintings for clients. Every Friday, I walk through the park near our house to my favourite coffee shop. I go there to write – usually either social media and blog content or preparing my Monthly Letter (sign up at the bottom of this page). I find myself looking forward to this focussed session that signals the last day of the workweek for me.
Doing the same things at the same times each day and week train your brain and body to anticipate them and make it more likely that you’ll actually show up and do them. It’s similar to leveraging triggers when building habits – ex. whenever I brush my teeth, the floss is sitting there and I use it. Or, I make a cup of decaf orange pekoe tea, put on my apron, and then sit down to paint. These very simple and easy-to-do acts of making the tea and putting on the apron signal that it is time to paint. Setting out your tools, can also be a good lead-in to a studio session. These simpler actions help lead into the slightly harder and more fear-prone action of picking up the brush.
Creating a weekly rhythm also gives your mind time to acclimatize and pre-plan for tasks that are coming up. I find, often, I am thinking about writing topics or painting exercises ahead of a session and, by the time I get to the task, I already know what I will begin with.
Things can get skewed when you are not creating – whether it be from a creative setback or an unrelated life event that knocks you down – and managing to get yourself back to making can be enormously healing.
When things feel skewed because you’re not creating
I find that when I am not making regularly, things begin to get out of whack. I get more stressed, feel more lost and unsure of my purpose or direction, and feel a sort of yawning sadness creeping in. It’s a pattern that I couldn’t see for many years. I eventually learned that, although it seemed like the last thing I wanted to do, if I could get myself to make something – anything, even something small… If I could just get myself to focus on a task and work with my hands, things would begin to fall back into perspective.
This is something I have noticed with other creatives, too. Things can get skewed when you are not creating – whether it be from a creative setback or an unrelated life event that knocks you down – and managing to get yourself back to making can be enormously healing. As well, setting aside a little time to refill your creative well can help to get your creative ideas flowing again.
While all forms of working with my hands help me to feel balanced. I have found that I need to be making images in order to feel really well, grounded, and energized. So, I have learned to listen to that. It’s much the same as eating healthy food, getting sleep, staying hydrated. Creating images is something that keeps me well.
The healing power of creating new work
Many of my mornings over the past few months have been spent in the studio, painting. I’ve been going back to the basics – making work for myself – because I feel more alive, balanced, and grounded when I am creating images. I am keeping things simple: a few brushes, smaller loose-leaf pages, my favourite tubes of colour… and painting what interests me. This has helped me to remember why I began painting in the first place and reconnect with the process of making.
Even if a studio session goes poorly, there is a deep sense of satisfaction and encouragement in seeing the pile of paintings grow each week. It’s a good reminder of how much is accomplished by simply showing up regularly.
That you show up regularly is key… Small, manageable steps taken regularly will give you strength. You will begin to see that you are the type of person who shows up and does what you intended to do. You and your work will evolve, change, and grow, as you show up for it consistently.
Showing up regularly is more important than doing it daily…
When learning a new thing or getting yourself to do anything that is meaningful to you and that tends to bring up fears (or inner critics), can be surprisingly hard. All kinds of things get in the way: perfectionism, fears, uncertainty of where to start, lack of ideas…
When I say that I am painting daily, I do not mean necessarily literally each and every day. Daily Painting, to me, does not mean you MUST paint each and every single day no matter what (which is honestly something I’ve come across a lot in the art world). I have learned that forcing myself to paint every single day tends to backfire. While it may work for a while, it begins to feel like a ‘should’, I stop enjoying it… and then, I stop doing it altogether. A little is much better than nothing at all.
So, I prefer a gentler, more open approach that is based on smaller steps… If I can integrate this desired new habit into my life in a way that does not feel too overwhelming, it is more likely to last. Leveraging the power of routine and rhythms, I set aside a manageable amount of time and then show up at those times. It’s possible that, over time, it will grow into longer or more frequent sessions, but it’s not a pressure I place on it. Further, if I get to the start of a session and it’s feeling difficult, I pick some exercises to do, or create some looser paintings that don’t need to be ‘finished’ but that get me into the studio.
That you show up regularly is key – if it takes smaller tasks to get yourself there, then start with smaller tasks. Small, manageable steps taken regularly will give you strength. You will begin to see that you are the type of person who shows up and does what you intended to do. You and your work will evolve, change, and grow, as you show up for it consistently.
For more learnings and tools to help you take action, see my post about Showing Up and Doing the Work. It can be applied to anything you are wanting to do more consistently.