Every night, he decides what he wants to write next morning, finishes all the research, and leaves a post-it note to himself on his writing desk, with the topic of the post he wants to write when he wakes up. He goes to bed with this intention, and gives his subconscious mind a 12 hour head start to process all his research, and structure his thinking.
In the morning, when he sits down at his writing desk with his cup of coffee, he doesn’t have to think about what to write. He has already decided the topic, he has already done all the research, he has already slept on it, his mind is fresh and uncluttered, and he can simply get to work and start writing.
I have adapted this practice in my own workflow. Every night, I decide what I am going to write in the morning, and create an outline in Ulysses, with all the research, quotes and website links that I want to use. I even decide the title and write the first sentence as a prompt to myself. Then, first thing in the morning, I sit down on my writing desk with my coffee, and write.
You can adapt this tip in your own life, even if you are not a writer. Every night, review your calendar and task list, and identify one to three important actions you would like to work on the next day. Visualise what’s the desired outcome and the immediate next steps. Perhaps, write them down in a Bullet Journal, to strengthen your intention. Then, sleep on it, and let your subconscious work on it for 8 hours.
If you already use a variation of this tip, and have had success with it, I would love to learn about your experience. And, if you have been inspired to start using a note to your morning self after reading this post, I would love to know what impact it has had. Do share your experience in the comments below or on Twitter @gauravonomics.
Sometimes, we discover books exactly when we need to read them. I feel like I needed to read these books now, when I am beginning to (re)build a daily writing, sketching and blogging habit.
When I was reading these books, I felt like I was reading letters to my present self from my younger self. I spent my late twenties and early thirties living, learning and creating in public, and benefiting from the network effects that Austin talks about. I have been asking myself if these practices are still valid five years later, in a post-blogging, selfie-obsessed world, and Austin’s books reassure me that they are.
Sometimes, you need to throw out old work to make room for new work. Sometimes, you need to take a month, or a year, or five years off to clear your head. Sometimes, you need to go away and grow up, perhaps fail a few times, before you begin again, with newfound humility. The good news is that when you do begin again, you are not really starting over. The lessons you have learned from your old work, and the lessons you have learned while you were away, will seep into and shape your new work.
I took almost five years off from this blog, and deleted 1500+ blog posts I had written over the previous five years. Now that I am writing again, I know that I don’t want to write about things that change constantly (like emerging technologies). Instead, I want to write about things that never change (like human behavior). While I won’t be able to reuse the 1 million+ words I have written before, I will be able to use the lessons I learned through writing them.
Lesson 2. Design an Apprenticeship
You can’t choose who your parents and ancestors are, but you can choose who your teachers are. Create a list of creators who inspire you, immerse yourself in their work, find out who inspired them in turn, and then immerse yourself in the work of those who inspired them. If they are active online, follow them, and follow the people they pay attention to. Going back in time, find patterns in how they built upon each others’ ideas. Then, connect the dots in new ways, and find ways to build upon their ideas, in turn. Go beyond their specific idea, or their specific style, and try to learn their way of thinking, their way of seeing the world, and apply it in your own work. Design a long-distance apprenticeship for yourself, watching them practice their craft, learning from their process and their products and improving upon both. When you share your work, share it as a public fan letter to your heroes, acknowledging their contribution, adding new dimensions to their work and introducing them to your own networks.
Here’s a short list of my own creative heroes: world-builders (George R. R. Martin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Stephen King), culture-mappers (Pico Iyer, Steven Johnson, Malcolm Gladwell) and life-hackers (Alain de Botton, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Timothy Ferris). As I design my own creative apprenticeship to learn from them, I’ll share what I am learning, so that you might learn along with me.
Lesson 3. Contribute to Communities
You don’t only need mentors, you also need peers. Seek out talented people who are asking themselves the same questions as you are, become a member of the communities they belong to, learn from the answers they have found, and share your own answers with them. Build upon each other’s work, introduce each other to your own networks, and help each other grow. Brian Eno calls these communities a ‘Scenius’ (versus lone genius), Seth Godin calls them a ‘Tribe’. Find your communities, join them, nurture them and contribute to them.
Here are some communities I am exploring at the moment: niche publishing, self-publishing, and life-hacking. As I map these communities and identify where their hubs are, I’ll introduce them to you, so that you might get an insider’s view of them.
Lesson 4. Collect Inspiration
You are a sum total of what you are curious and passionate about. You become the things you spend your time and attention on. You are shaped by the books you read, the artifacts you collect and the ideas you follow. Expose yourself to inspiration from a wide variety of sources. If you have multiple unrelated passions, nurture them all. Collect everything that inspires you, every creative work you want to steal, in an ‘swipe file‘ or ‘commonplace book‘, which can be digital or analog. Then, go through your file regularly, try to find patterns, connect previously unconnected dots, and remix your inspirations to create new creative works.
I collect things that inspire me in two places: an Evernote account on all my devices to save web stories, reports, photos and videos, and a Bullet Journal to note down quotes, sketch ideas, list resources, and write (sketchnote) book summaries.
Lesson 5. Become an Amateur
The best way to learn something new is to become an amateur again. When you behave like an amateur, you think of your work as a hobby instead of a profession. You free yourself to have fun, take risks and make mistakes. With a beginner’s mind, you allow ourself to be curious, ask silly questions and seek help from peers and mentors. You switch your focus away from perfecting the final product to the process of learning your craft. You look at criticism as feedback that will help you improve, not as judgement on your talent. When you become an amateur, you open yourself up to possibilities that are closed to the professional and the expert.
I am writing this blog as an amateur. I have hosted it on WordPress.com and used a free starter theme. I am writing about learning how to create a daily writing and sketching practice, instead of digital transformation or social innovation. My daily sketches feature my Persian cat Leela perched on various pieces of furniture in my house, and not sketchnote book reviews. My aim is to develop a daily writing and sketching habit, not to position myself as an expert. So, I focus on creating, instead of asking myself if what I am creating is substantial, or profound, or professional.
Lesson 6. Find Your Voice
You should think of the internet as a self-invention machine, instead of a self-promotion machine. Your website can be much more than a platform to distribute your ideas; it can be an incubator to develop your ideas. You don’t only share in public when you have something to say; you also think aloud in public when you want to find something to say. Thinking aloud in public will help you clarify your thinking, get valuable feedback, make new connections between ideas and find your voice.
I started blogging again partly to find out what I am curious and passionate about at this stage of my life, what life skills I might learn which will add meaning to the second half of my life, and what I might contribute in return to the communities I am learning from.
Lesson 7. Learn in Public
When you learn something in public, you end up becoming a teacher to others who are learning the same thing at the same time. When you wonder about something you are fascinated by, others join you to wonder together. When you share your obsession with something you love, you connect with others who love the same thing. Make a commitment to learning in public and, if your own work is not ready to share yet, begin by sharing your influences.
I am reading books and taking courses on writing, self-publishing, sketching, thinking visually, forming habits and lifehacking, and applying them in my own life. I’ll share my successes and struggles, but I am beginning by writing about my influences: Julia Cameron’s ‘Artist’s Way’, Ryder Carroll’s ‘Bullet Journal’ and Austin Kleon’s ‘Steal Like an Artist‘ and ‘Show Your Work‘.
When you are developing a creative habit, having a routine is more important than having unlimited time or resources. Use your constraints to channel your creativity, perhaps even create artificial constraints. Set ridiculously simple, easily achievable goals that you can consistently hit (Stephen Guise calls them ‘Mini Habits‘), create a chain of daily victories, and make a commitment to not break the chain. Start a daily journaling practice and use your journal to track your habits.
I have set myself a goal to write, sketch or blog daily. Some days, I do all three; other days, I do one or two of the three. For the first month, I have not set myself a goal to reach a daily or weekly word count; even one paragraph is enough, as long as I am writing (or sketching) every day. I am tracking my writing and sketching habits, along with other habits I am trying to develop, in a Bullet Journal.
Lesson 9. Become Findable
You can be found only when you become findable. You become findable when you do work that you love and then share your work. When you share your work, people who are interested in it will find you across geographical boundaries, and share it forward with their own networks. Over time, the network effect will kick in and your connections with likeminds around your work will create serendipitous opportunities that far exceed the benefits of traditional networking over cocktails.
I have experienced the benefits of being a part of global community of likeminds, and the network effects it creates, firsthand, and I am writing again party because I have missed it over the last few years.
Lesson 10. Tell Your (Back)story
Your creative process is as important, and as interesting to your community, as the product you create. Document your workplace, your process, and your work-in-progress product daily. When you finish the day’s work, share a snippet from it, and add context. Equally important is your own backstory; people want to know the person behind the creative product, and even value your product differently based on how they connect with your story. Learn to share your own story and how it has led to your current project, and learn to connect your story to your audiences’ stories.
Here’s my story and here’s what I think your story might be. Of course, all our stories are work-in-progress and I hope we can play a part in moving forward each other’s stories.
Lesson 11. Mix Analog and Digital
Your brain works differently in digital and analog modes, so learn to use both. Perhaps, create an analog workspace with paper, post-it notes, Lego blocks, pencils, pens and markers to think through your ideas, find connections between them, and figure out how they fit together. Then, use a digital workspace with a smartphone, tablet, scanner and laptop to create your work, publish it and share it. Or combine digital and analog in your workflow in different ways, by making part of your work digital and part analog.
I don’t have the space in my tiny apartment to have two workspaces, but I use a similar hybrid creative process. I sketch in my Muji sketchbook, then take a picture from my iPhone and post it on Instagram. Or, I write on my Moleskine notebook with a smart pen and the writing gets synced with my M+ Notes app. I am hoping to develop my sketching in both analog and digital modes, by learning to sketch in charcoal and learning to edit my scanned sketches on my tablet.
In Summary: Begin Again
Let me end this post with the lesson I started with. If you used to have a daily creative practice, if you used to learn in public, if you used to share your work, and you stopped, begin again. I would love to hear your stories of beginning again on Twitter or in the comments below.
I started a Bullet Journal last weekend and it seems that I have already filled half of my notebook.
The Bullet Journal was created by designer Ryder Carroll as a journaling system to track the past, organise the present and plan for the future, using a simple notebook. It’s called a “Bullet” Journal because you keep track of your tasks, events and note using short bullet points.
It has been adopted by a lot of creatives because it’s flexible enough to serve as a to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary, all at the same time. Here’s a short introduction video by Ryder on how to Bullet Journal:
To get a sense of what people are doing with their Bullet Journals, search for #BulletJournal or #BuJo on Instagram.
Ryder likes to use really specific terminology (stacks, modules, collections, rapid logging, signifiers, migration), to create a shared language for the Bullet Journal community. In the end, however, it’s just a journal, so use it in a way that works for you and tap into the Bullet Journal community for inspiration.
My BulletJournal stack includes all the collections people usually set up:
Index: You give each collection a page number and a title and put it in the index to keep track of where everything is. I have a main index, a book summary index and a projects index.
Key: You use a key to remember what or symbols you are using for different types of bullets (tasks, events, appointments, travel, notes) and what signifiers you are adding to them (important, completed, migrated, canceled). I also use different symbols for ideas, inspiration, questions, resources and quotes.
Future Log: You write down all the bullets that you can schedule in the future in advance, or wish to do sometime in the future.
Monthly Logs: At the beginning of each month, you write down all the bullets that you can schedule for the month or wish to do sometime in the month. You also migrate relevant bullets from previous months. You can also add your monthly goals and priorities.
Weekly Logs: At the beginning of each week, you write down all the bullets that you can schedule for the week or wish to do sometime in the week.
Daily Logs: You track all your bullets for the day, but don’t migrate bullets from day to day. I also use it to track what I have eaten during the day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack) and write down three good things that happened during the day.
Monthly Habit Trackers: You track all the habits you want to develop, by marking them on a calendar. This can be useful to create an unbroken chain for daily habits. This can also be useful to keep track of all the things you like to do (like: listen to live music) and remember when you did them last.
Monthly Mood Trackers: You track how you feel everyday, perhaps using a five point scale, and note down what triggers made you happy or unhappy, then proactively pursue your happiness triggers.
Monthly Gratitude Logs: You write down two or three things you are grateful for at the beginning of each day. I also plan to look back at each month and add three things I am grateful for at the end of the month.
Monthly Review: At the end of each month, you review your journaling practice, reflect on what worked and what didn’t work, and decide what changes you would like to make for the next month.
Writing Affirmations: I write down affirmations to support my writing and read them every morning before I sit down to write my morning pages.
Writing Visualisation: I create a visual dashboard of my ideal monthly word count and what it would result in, and look at it every morning before I sit down to write my morning pages.
Books Read: I keep track of all the books I am reading at the moment. I was surprised to discover that I am reading more than a dozen books simultaneously and I have finished six in the first week of August.
Quotes: I keep track of all the quotes I come across as I am reading books or online posts.
Visual Artist Date Summaries: I create a visual summary for all my artist dates (live music concerts, art gallery or museum visits, classes or workshops). It’s a powerful way to relive and remember my most meaningful experiences.
Creative Hero Genealogy: I am creating visual profiles for all my creative heroes, to understand who inspires them, how they look at the world, and what I can learn from them.
Blog Post Ideas: I am keeping track of my blog post ideas. It makes me happy to see that I have enough already to last a month.
Notes for My Novel: I am writing my novel using the Snowflake Method (Randy Ingermanson) where you start with a one line summary for your novel, then expand it into a paragraph with a three-part structure, then add character summaries and so on. Here’s Randy’s introduction to the ten steps in the Snowflake Method.
Four simple organizing principles will help you use your Bullet Journal effectively:
Index: You put your new collection on the next empty page, give the collection a page number and a title, and put it in the index. Don’t worry about pre-planning the number of pages needed for each collection. This way, you will be able to find what you need to quickly without having to flip through the journal.
Themed Index: If you know that you’ll be using your Bullet Journal to create a number of similar collections, it might be useful to create themed index pages for them. For instance, I have themed index pages for book summaries and projects. Then, put the page numbers of the themed index pages in the main index so that you can easily find them.
Threading: If you are continuing a collection on a page further along the Bullet Journal, write down the new page number in two places: in the index, next to the original page number, and at the bottom of the original collections page, next to the old page number. This way, you will be able to find where, for instance, all your quotes collections are, either by looking them up in the index or by going from collection to collection.
Migrating: At the end of each month, look through all your open bullets on the month’s daily logs and decide which ones are still relevant and which ones can be discarded. Then, migrate your relevant bullets to the next month’s monthly log, or the future log if it’s a back burner item, by drawing an arrow through the bullet’s symbol. This way, you’ll have closure on your bullets each month and you’ll be able to focus on the items that are still relevant.
The Bullet Journal community is extremely inventive and it’s easy to look at the immense variety in Bullet Journal stacks, keys, designs and templates and feel overwhelmed. Kendra has some good advice on how to keep things simple:
Signifiers: Don’t try to use so many signifiers that you need to refer to your key to remember what they are. Start with the simplest system with symbols for tasks, events and notes and signifiers for important, completed, canceled and migrated.
Collections: Don’t create collections just to fill up the Bullet Journal. Start with not more than three collections that you will use frequently.
Embellishment: Don’t feel that you need to make your Bullet Journal as beautiful as the ones you see on Instagram, with washi tape, stickers, stamps, calligraphy and color coding. Start with a black pen and create a system that you’ll use every day.
I will most likely update this post and add more Bullet Journal (and journaling) resources, but, for now, I’ll leave you with two videos on the importance of journaling:
The first practice is to rebuild my creative muscle by meditating, journaling and sketching every morning. The second practice is to replenish my creative spirit by creating space and time for my passions every day. The third practice is to reclaim my creative identity by creating and sharing my work every day.
These three powerful daily practices have had a transformative impact on my life, and if you are also a recovering creative, they can also transform your life.
1. Meditate, Journal and Sketch Every Morning to Rebuild Your Creative Muscle
Every morning, I wake up at 5am and follow the same morning ritual. First, I meditate to focus my mind. Then, I journal to empty my mind. Finally, I sketch to make sense of what’s on my mind.
I practice a combination of Pranayama and Vipassana meditation, first paying attention to my breath, then paying attention to the sensations in my body.
I journal and sketch in my Moleskine smart notebook with the Neo2 smart pen. Writing with pen and paper teaches me to trust my hands, and combine words and figures, and the M+ Notes app backs up my daily journal entries and sketches.
My writing desk has become my favorite place in the house. The rug under it has become the favorite perch for my Persian cat Leela.
Within a short time, this simple morning ritual has had a transformative impact on my life.
I am feeling both more connected with my dreams and more rooted in my reality.
Every morning now leads to resolutions small and large and a replenished will to realize these resolutions.
2. Create Space and Time For All Your Passions Every Day to Replenish Your Creative Spirit
I am learning to embrace all my passions, create space and time for them in my house and my life, and build connections between them.
I am reading graphic novels and teaching myself how to sketch using charcoal and color pencils. I am listening to jazz and western classical concerts and learning how to play the piano. I am learning to use my body as a canvas for creative expression, even if that’s sometimes simply an excuse for buying even more sneakers. I now want to start running long distance again, practice writing and speaking Mandarin regularly, and learn how to grow an indoor garden.
I recently redecorated my house to create space for all these passions. My little one bedroom apartment now fits a treadmill, a piano, a writing desk and an art supplies cabinet. Now, it’s not only a house for #LeelaCat and me, but also a creative studio filled with books, music, plants and art.
I have always read a hundred books every year; now I am reading a book every other day. I’m reading books related to my passions that either inspire me to become better or show me how to improve. I start my day at 5am with writing, and finish my day at 11pm with reading, and fit all these passions in the hours in between.
Within a few short months, I have gone from being a minimalist to being a maximalist and my creative spirit feels more alive than ever before.
3. Create and Share Your Work Every Day to Reclaim Your Creative Identity
I am blogging again, after years, as a public commitment to create and share my work every day.
I have always felt that I am meant to write books, many books, fiction and non-fiction. I have written a non-fiction book before on the future of engagement. Since then, I have tried to write the next book a few times. I have bought domain names for these books. I have even designed the book cover for one book. But, I haven’t finished any of these books. My mind is a graveyard of unborn books.
This time, I am telling myself that it is better to write 52 essays in a year, one essay a week, and see if they add up to a non-fiction book. I am telling myself that it’s better to write 52 stories in a year, one story a week, and see if they add up to a novel.
I am telling myself that the only way to reclaim my creative identity is to create and share something small everyday, even if it’s only a photo, sketch, or story about #LeelaCat. I am telling myself that if my inner artist child wants #LeelaCat as his muse, I should indulge his need for fun and whimsy.
My inner artist child is happy these days. For the first time in years, I am writing regularly. Some days, I write as many as 5000 words, between my morning journal pages, my stories and my essays. After years. I am also sketching regularly, and I feel that the writing and the sketching, just like the essays and the stories, are helping each other.
Creative Recovery is a Lifelong Journey
There’s good news and bad news about creative recovery.
The bad news is that creative recovery is not linear. I have good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks, good months and bad months. Every few weeks, every few months, every few years, I feel like I have returned to where I started from.
The good news is that creative recovery is not circular either, it’s spiral. With every cycle I go through, I learn more about myself and my inner artist child, and I become better at protecting and nurturing him.
Creative recovery is a lifelong journey, and I am hoping to develop and deepen these three daily creative practices for life.
I am rebuilding my creative muscle by meditating, journaling, and sketching every morning. I am replenishing my creative spirit by creating space and time for all my passions. I am reclaiming my creative identity by creating and sharing my work every day.
I hope you’ll join me on my journey, and share your own successes and struggles. You can sign up below to receive my updates via email, and follow my updates on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.