building a regular art practice: the nitty gritty

All of the writing and creativity advice on the internet seems to amount to the same thing, which is discipline, or: "Don't just talk about it; do it." I call this the butt-in-chair rule. It's pretty much the only actual rule of making art*.

But often this advice is the conclusion of the article or cute Pinterest pin, and it leaves us beginner, blocked, or demoralized artists going, "Okay, awesome—but how?" Sometimes people will ask that in the comments and these intrepid advice-givers will reply, "You just do; it's like brushing your teeth." And then we howl into the abyss in despair.

Showing up is the hard part—so how do we actually do it? Discipline is a great word to build quotes from famous people around, but what does it actually mean?

1. Discipline looks different for everybody

If I had a dollar for every g-ddamn writer out there who said, "Write a thousand words every day," I probably wouldn't need to ever sell a book. But I just can't do it. I make it about three days into NaNoWriMo before I bail, joyfully, with no regrets and a package of cookies. For the longest time, I thought that I was undisciplined and had no willpower, and I bemoaned my own bad habits and lackluster commitment. I couldn’t understand why I could run a half-marathon and then be unable to stick to a 3-times-a-week 3-mile running habit afterwards. How could I stay up all night working on a story but then be completely unmotivated to meet a work deadline? Why could I write for nine hours straight and then not be able to produce anything for months?

The answer is that discipline is about finding the right motivation and the right habits for you. You are not Hemingway or Claudia Rankine or Mark Zuckerberg. You are you, and you will almost always fail at trying to emulate somebody else’s routine, unless by sheer luck they work the same way you do. There is no “right way” to enact discipline, but there is the right way for you. You just have to identify it.

Which brings us to:

2. Learn to understand your own motivations and successful habits Take a few minutes to write down some ways you’ve been successful—in any area, not just art. Maybe you quit smoking, maybe you finally stuck to an exercise program or started flossing regularly. Maybe you’re excelling at your day job. Try to list at least three successes, and then think about how you achieved them. Were all of the successes based around a deadline? Did you have friends counting on you? Did you have creative control over methods and research?

To help you pinpoint the things that work for you, I really recommend Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies Framework. She divides people into four categories: upholder, questioner, obliger, and rebel, based on how they meet inner and outer expectations (side note: if you are immediately skeptical about the idea of categorizing people, you might be a questioner. Just sayin’. But also, lovely questioner, that’s not all you are—this framework is just a tool for helping to identify your motivations.). Recognizing that I identify with Rubin’s “rebel” category has helped me pinpoint what motivates me so that I can use it to achieve things I want to achieve. Rebels are motivated by identity and fun**. When I’m having trouble committing to something like exercise or a new writing routine, all I have to do is figure out a way to make the process itself either enjoyable or part of my identity, and I need to do what I can to strip away rules and performance expectations, because those derail me. I got into a regular everyday writing habit when I set a time expectation rather than a word count or checklist-based expectation. Promising myself that I would sit down for two hours daily and make the attempt made writing fun and easy. Whatever I accomplished was okay—there were no rules about what I had to write or how much.

I also realized that I had succeeded at my half-marathon because I trained for it with my very good friend—which made training fun. I got to see her three times a week and we had long talks. Trying to keep up the habit later, though, I felt pressured to keep up the level of training, and I was doing it solo. So I failed.

Sometimes the easiest way to recognize what motivates you is to recognize what doesn’t. What gives you trouble? When you didn’t succeed, why didn’t you? It’s a little painful to look at, but incredibly helpful, so don’t skip this step. Some people struggle mightily with deadlines or arbitrary dates; some people just can’t pull through on their commitments to friends. I had trouble doing things I didn’t feel like doing, which sounded dumb and weak to me until I realized that I have an easy time doing things I find enjoyable. Exercise became easy when I committed to outdoor hikes and a fun HIIT routine, and when I committed to it for the purpose of leveling out my anxiety (feeling good) rather than losing weight (self-criticizing).

3. Learn to obey

Even when you’ve got your motivations pinpointed and you know what kind of habits are going to work for you, there still comes the moment when you have to pry your meat sack out of the couch cushion and go do the thing. This is when you must learn obedience to your future self; or, alternatively, obedience to the work. I have a variety of mantras I use to talk myself into writing or exercising or whatever, including:

  • You have never once regretted doing this, but you regret not doing it

  • Put your butt in the chair and do the thing

  • If you want to be a writer, you must write

  • Just go do it for ten minutes/write one sentence

  • The perfect is the enemy of the good

In the case of learning obedience, it can be helpful to establish a routine or a physical place like an office or desk nook. I personally hate routines and don’t have a set time every day when I write, but some people really thrive on them to help establish the habit. I do have an office, and I keep it clean and super organized so that I want to be in the room, and that helps me get going.

You can also bribe yourself with hot coffee drinks, regular social media breaks, or post-practice rewards like video games or cookies. You can prime yourself for the task by putting a full face of makeup on or getting dressed up, amping yourself up with the Rocky theme song, putting yourself in the zone with a walk or five minutes of meditation, whatever. If it works for a dog or a small toddler, it will probably work for you. It might be a different thing every day. Whatever you do, you have to find a way to teach yourself to obey the command of practicing your art. Pay attention to the moments when it occurs to you that you should be doing art but instead you are doing something else, and practice putting down whatever it is to go do the art.

I also got a lot of mileage out of the realization that it’s an actual physical action. I have to put the book down, or shut down my browser, or get out of bed, or stop cleaning the house, and walk to the office and do the thing. It might be as small as a button click, but there is a physical thing I can do right now to prioritize my art.

4. Lower the Bar

Making your goals bite-sized is a cornerstone of habit-building. Leo Baubata of Zen Habits notably advocates for flossing a single tooth just to get the habit started. Gretchen Rubin, who I mentioned above, suggests simply putting on your workout clothes and letting the door shut behind you, and if you’re still not feeling it, you can turn right back around. An entire subreddit was built around the concept advocated in this comment: the Non-Zero Day. The idea is to make your task so easy that you can’t not do it. Write one sentence. Paint one brushstroke. Take one photo, of anything. Floss one tooth. Quality of the action is not important; only the action. And inevitably, you’ll find that if you write one sentence, you’ll go on to write two or five or sixteen. And worst-case scenario, you will have had a non-zero day.

Another way to think about this concept is that it is a shift towards percentages rather than completion. Doing 5% of the work 90% of the time is progress. Writing 70% of the days is progress. Whatever incremental task you can do to move your art forward—do it, whenever you can. It’s not necessary to achieve 100% of what you set out to do; it’s necessary to achieve more than 0%.

What other strategies do you use to build a habit? What motivations did you notice lurking behind your successes? What un-motivational factors contributed to your failures?

*There’s one other rule, which will be the subject of a separate blog post: everything is second to the work

**Being motivated by identity is also why categorization methods like the Four Tendencies Framework helps me succeed—and maybe that doesn't work for you. The important thing is to know yourself and what works. If identity questionnaires aren't your jam, I might suggest some journaling about your past successes and failures, what you like or dislike in a manager, or a series of experiments for yourself.

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