How to Build Creative Habits, Scientifically

by Starla J. King on November 13, 2014

[a version of this post was originally published in Creativity Calling, the newsletter of the Creativity Coaching Association]

What if we could find a reliable trigger that would launch us into creating mode with us barely thinking about it, allowing us to sidestep the dreaded power of procrastination (aka “resistance”) almost effortlessly?

It turns out that’s exactly what happens when we are able to turn our creative work into creative habits.

In his bestselling book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” Charles Duhigg reports that 40% of actions people perform each day aren’t actual decisions, but habits. “Left to its own devices, our brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit,” he says, because it is “constantly looking for ways to save energy.”

In fact, our brain’s mode of operation is so predictable that researchers have been able to identify a series of steps called “The Habit Loop” that, repeated often enough, creates automatic action–a habit.

The Habit Loop (basic):
Cue –> Routine –> Reward –> [repeat]

Cue: the trigger that says okay, it’s time to automatically do this particular routine now
Routine: the physical, mental, or emotional steps that make up the habit
Reward: a result that makes the brain decide it’s worth remembering this particular loop

If we do a particular habit loop often enough, our brains start to anticipate the reward as soon as we experience the cue, so we actually develop a neurological craving for the reward. That craving then becomes the fuel that turns an effort-filled routine into an effortless habit.

For example, a writer might walk into her office and pick up a pen (cue), which launches a craving for the physical feeling of the ink flowing on paper or a craving for the emotional feeling of expressive release (reward), so she automatically grabs her writing notebook, sits down, and begins writing (routine). Resistance doesn’t even have a chance to show up!

The Habit Loop (complete):
Cue –> Craving –> Routine –> Reward –> [repeat]

Although possible, creating an effective habit is not easy, so here are three questions to help you identify your desirable habit loop(s).

  1. What is the reward you’re going for — and the craving behind it) — with your writing [or ____ ]?
  2. What routine(s) will help you make meaningful progress towards this reward?
  3. What is that thing that will signal to your brain that it’s time to write [or ____ ] now?

For example, my answers go something like this:

  1. Reward(s) I’m going for with my writing:  the cleanse and release of self-expression; the clarity and learning of reading my thoughts; the satisfaction and fulfillment of offering understanding, entertainment, and/or education to others.  And the craving behind all that?  To experience peace, connection, love, and fulfillment (and the absence of guilt, striving, “shoulds,” and self-doubt) .
  2. Routine(s) to support my writing: um, well, actually writing regularly (I’m admittedly still defining “regularly” for myself).  And reading a variety of others’ writing daily.  And meditation or journaling daily.
  3. What signals my brain that it’s time to write: Sitting down with my morning coffee at the end of the couch in my writing room, picking up my pen, and starting the “Writing” playlist on my iPod.  Some days I also need to set a timer to light a fire under my resistance.

Oh, and one more thing… why even bother to create a habit?  Isn’t a routine enough? 

Think of it this way:  a routine is something you still have to consciously choose to do, whereas a habit no longer requires a conscious choice of “should I do this now?” because your brain is already just doing it already!  Freed up brain space and energy?  Not-so-mighty resistance cowering in a corner while I write? I’ll take it!

Get craving –> get creating.

~ Starla J. King is a CCA Certified Creativity Coach and writing coach at OutWrite Living, and author of the book “Wide Awake. Every Day. Daily Inspiration for Conscious Living.” 

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