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Habits & Routines

10 Creative Rituals You Should Steal

Insights into the days of Ze Frank, Garrison Keillor, Cheryl Strayed and more.


Benjamin Franklin made sure to end every day by asking “What good have I done today?” Maya Angelou only wrote in tiny hotel rooms. Jack Kerouac made sure to touch the ground nine times before writing.

Sustained creativity doesn’t come from a flash of brilliance or a single afternoon of inspiration. It comes from a consistent routine that serves as the bedrock for getting things done. At 99U we’ve spoken with dozens of entrepreneurs, researchers, and creatives about their unique routines. Below are some of our favorites.

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1. Take a Quarterly Vacation

Venture capitalist Brad Feld takes a week off every three months:

The most impactful thing I’ve done is to take a week off the grid every quarter. [My wife] Amy and I head to the airport on Saturday to go somewhere. I leave my computer at home and give her my smart phone at the airport. She gives it back to me the following Saturday when we return home. We always go somewhere – usually a relaxing place, but it’s always a trip rather than a staycation. I then spend 100 percent of my time relaxing and being with Amy. I usually read a book a day on these trips, we talk a lot, have plenty of adult entertainment, and sleep late every day. Whenever I return, I’m always refreshed.

Read the entire interview here.

2. Hold a “Retrospective” After Projects

Former Obama campaign CTO Harper Reed the importance of the daily “retrospective”: 

[The presidential campaign] had a really good team dynamic that relied quite a bit on the “retrospective” meeting at the end of a project that allowed us to stop and say: “What was it like to launch? What did we do right? What did we do wrong?”

Since we were practicing kind of a startup ethos of iterative development, we could usually see immediately what went wrong and what was right, and it was incredibly valuable. Just being aware of how things are going, and talking about it quickly, I think is incredibly important.

People forget to acknowledge, that especially in technology, work kind of hurts. People have feelings and it is important to talk about those feelings and address them. If you’re in a room and you say, “Okay, we launched today. How do you feel about that?” Then your team says, “I did not like it when this happened. I struggled with it and I was little bit unhappy that we put down this task, but I was super excited about this.” We just had a conversation, a real conversation, about real feelings.

Read the entire interview here.

3. Write Every Day

Best-selling author Cheryl Strayed on the importance of writing daily:

I often recommend writing as a tool for self-discovery because it’s helped me so much. I use writing in different ways: I write as an artist but I also write when I’m just trying to work through something or make a tough decision. And I think, a lot of times, even people who aren’t writers will write in crisis. They’ll write in their journals after breaking up with someone, even though they haven’t written for two years. That’s because it’s a way to essentially practice your thoughts and see what’s there. Writing forces you to locate your clarity.

Read the entire interview here.

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4. Create an “Interesting People Fund”

Writer and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha makes sure to invest in his “interesting people fund”:

The interesting people fund is a pre-commitment strategy: by pre-committing time and money to meeting interesting people, you increase the likelihood that you actually do it. Because many people know they ought to do it, and think about doing it, but when push comes to shove and it’s time to take an hour out of your day or spend $40 buying someone lunch — they punt on it.

In terms of the long view of networks, if you’re not taking the long view, you’re doing it wrong. Relationships — be it romantic, friendship, or professional – take time to develop. A lot of time. Rushing a relationship into a short term transaction can jeopardize the long-term relationship potential.

Read the entire interview here.

— 

5. Keep “Tear Sheets” to Get Inspired

When she’s stuck, Designer Sarah Foelske visits her tear sheets:

There’s usually a time in any project when a stuck moment happens, and I find that getting away from the computer and the busyness of the day is the most important part in successfully battling that. Even if it’s only for 10 minutes. When you rest your mind, the ideas will come easier. I find any exercise and meditation really helpful, as creativity is all about being focused and present to me.

I also have tons of things that I’ve saved, dimensional items, whether its tear sheets from magazines or invitations to events that I liked, or beautiful packaging, or just anything that inspires me. And, I have these books that are not categorized by anything but are just full of visual works, so I’ll flip through those for ideas.

Read the entire interview here.

6. Nap Every Day

News anchor Pat Kiernan makes sure to take a nap. Every day.

I’m super protective of my nap, and my schedule generally. You have to learn how to say no. I usually keep a pretty hard line about that. You have to be rested and healthy for your job in the morning, so you have to cut some things off, and resist the temptation to go to everything you’re invited to.

Read the entire interview here.

7. Envision What You Will Be Remembered For

Rapha founder Simon Mottram often writes fake business articles to help him plan:

One thing I used to do is write faux business pieces, “Financial Times” or “Wall Street Journal” articles, about a company in the future. So you can sort of say, “That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”I wrote one for Rapha in early 2005, when we’d been going for about seven or eight months. I wrote a piece that I pitched as being December 2010 in Fortune magazine. (Obviously the world’s a bit different now, and Fortune magazine isn’t quite what it used to be.)

But it talks about Rapha revolutionizing the cycling market and leading more people to discover road racing as a lifestyle and a fundamental part of their lives. It talks about 25,000 Rapha customers meeting at Rapha cycling cafes, going for rides together, consuming Rapha coffee, being all part of a club. It talks about some of the products, reading magazines that Rapha publishes… Five years on, the way it described the business was actually very accurate to where we were last year in December 2010.

Read the entire interview here

8. Brainstorm at the Bar

Designer James Victore does his “think-work” at the bar and his “work-work” in the studio:

[I do all my sketching on] paper, and not in the studio. I’ll go to a bar or a restaurant. When I did my book, I left the studio every morning and I went to the park and sat for an hour, hour and half. I brought an idea, and I wrote longhand in one of these big sketchbooks. Then I would come into the studio and work during the day. Afterwards, at 4 or 5 o’clock, I’d go to my bar, sit with a beer or two, and refine it. Or write on a new idea. So it became this really nice process of every day. And it became a habit.

I can’t do the think-work in the studio. The studio’s for putting stuff together – for work-work. And if we’re not doing work-work, then we leave. How many great architecture ideas have been drawn on napkins? Because they’re free, they’re not thinking about work.

Read the entire interview here.  

9. Get Out of the Building

Radio host Garrison Keillor makes sure to get into the “observable world”:

I don’t think that one should sit and look at a blank page. The way around it is to walk around with scrap paper and to take notes, and simply to take notes on the observable world around you. If you walk into this room and see these great columns and think this was once a savings bank, you could put those two things together, and make some notes here – that would be the start of something.

I think everything – everything – starts with the observable world, and even though you may cut that out of your final go, nonetheless I think this is where it always starts, and with overheard conversations. There are a lot of conversations here that could be overheard, and you’re probably more likely to get them in the back of the room.

Read the rest of the interview here

10. Engage in “Morphological Synthesis” 

Artist and filmmaker Ze Frank has a method to his madness when brainstorming: 

Morphological synthesis is a way of trying to segment your thinking process into parts. I definitely use it quite a bit. (Though not in the strictest sense of the word.) You take 4-5 adjectives or characteristics and then brainstorm in that direction.

Generally, when I have an idea I start with a sense of scale. Let’s say Procter & Gamble has a new toilet paper. If I’m trying to generate ideas around it, the first thing I’d do is take a general imagination run into scale. What happens if you have no toilet paper? What happens if you have way, way too much toilet paper? What’s the smallest type of toilet paper that you would ever use? What would an incredibly large toilet paper look like? Who is someone that never uses toilet paper? Who is someone that uses it constantly? What can you do with 10,000 rolls of toilet paper? What would a world with no toilet paper look like?

I flip back and forth between the extremes until something interesting comes out of it. And then you repeat the process based on that new idea. It’s a super-cool exercise only in that it forces you to explore the outside boundaries of things.

Read the rest of the interview here.  

Additional reading on routines:

How about you?

What are some rituals that you couldn’t live without?

Sean Blanda

Sean is the Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

  • http://medialoot.com/ Medialoot

    My creative ritual is somewhat like #9 – I love taking a walk, either around the block or to/from a coffee shop, and taking that time to gather my thoughts. It’s so funny how great ideas strike you when you’re away from your desk (whether it’s in the shower or out for a walk).

  • http://www.scoop.it/t/innovation-experts-insights/p/4013968503/2014/01/10/10-creative-rituals-you-should-steal 10 Creative Rituals You Should Steal | Innovati...

    […] Sustained creativity doesn’t come from a flash of brilliance or a single afternoon of inspiration. It comes from a consistent routine that serves as the bedrock for getting things done. At 99U we’ve spoken with dozens of entrepreneurs, researchers, and creatives about their unique routines. Below are some of our favorites. Insights into the days of Ze Frank, Garrison Keillor, Cheryl Strayed and more.  […]

  • http://www.scoop.it/t/attivazione-alla-trasformazione/p/4013970923/2014/01/10/10-creative-rituals-you-should-steal 10 Creative Rituals You Should Steal | AttivAzi...

    […] Insights into the days of Ze Frank, Garrison Keillor, Cheryl Strayed and more.  […]

  • http://www.scoop.it/t/daily-clippings/p/4013973070/2014/01/10/10-creative-rituals-you-should-steal 10 Creative Rituals You Should Steal | Daily Cl...

    […] Insights into the days of Ze Frank, Garrison Keillor, Cheryl Strayed and more.  […]

  • e21

    10 pushups before going into a design session, activates the body and mind.

  • http://www.nonprofitmarketingguide.com/blog/2014/01/10/mixed-links-for-nonprofit-marketers-49/ Mixed Links for Nonprofit Marketers

    […] And if you need some help with your communications and writing resolutions, here are 10 Creative Rituals You Should Steal. […]

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    […] Benjamin Franklin made sure to end every day by asking “What good have I done today?” Maya Angelou only wrote in tiny hotel rooms. Jack Kerouac made sure to touch the ground nine times before writing.  […]

  • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

    Before I start anything, I fist-pump while shouting “PAUL, PAUL, PAUL!”.

    • ninazivkovic

      I absolutely love this.

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    […] Insights into the days of Ze Frank, Garrison Keillor, Cheryl Strayed and more.  […]

  • Nigel B

    Should be titled “What to do with your Time if you are a Bougie Young White Male Linving in the West”. This article is written to those predisposed to the amount of freedom needed for an annual (let alone quarterly) sabbatical, or the amount of money to fund anything but your own basic subsistence.

    • Sean Blanda

      The length of time isn’t the focus here. It’s that we don’t forget to take some time when we can, how we can. For a long established VC like Brad Feld, yes he probably has more flexibility that the rest of us. But don’t miss the forest for the trees here.

    • Joe Nicklo

      It’s not just the young white males. I can’t afford sabbaticals either so I’m right there with you on this. The article does seem to assume that we all have this massive amount of time, freedom and funds to do whatever we want.

      • TomiCat

        Sigh. Sometimes people completely miss the point that it makes me wonder if they read the whole article before they comment. You get so hung up on the one that seems “impossible” that you seem to have missed the other 9 ideas that are practical, done all the time by many people and completely doable even by people who lack money or time. Apparently writing everyday, taking a nap, doing brainstorming/projects somewhere else other than their work place REALLY requires massive amounts of time, freedom and funds to do.

      • Joe Nicklo

        Sarcasm sucks.

  • http://www.scoop.it/t/creativity-innovation/p/4014011702/2014/01/11/10-creative-rituals-you-should-steal 10 Creative Rituals You Should Steal | Creativi...

    […] Benjamin Franklin made sure to end every day by asking “What good have I done today?” Maya Angelou only wrote in tiny hotel rooms. Jack Kerouac made sure to touch the ground nine times before writing.  […]

  • http://kimberlydhouston.com/ Kimberly

    Love this article in that it’s not the “usual suspects” when it comes to creative rituals.

    An absolutely perfect creative day would look like this: Start with #3: write every day, followed by #8: brainstorm at the bar, and finally, #6: nap every day.

    The ritual I couldn’t live without that I do actually follow is “write every day.” I find that meditation can be great for creativity too. So, not the kind where I try to empty the mind, but rather, sitting for 15-20 minutes and meditating on ideas or hooks I can use in my writing. Which actually works when monkey mind doesn’t interfere. : )

  • ONE HUNDRED TABLES

    Some excellent ideas here. Tony Akston

  • Suzi Banks Baum

    Great list here Sean. Real time living is what fuels my writing. Interruptions are loathsome, but it is in the re-settling that I often find interest, a bit of texture to the track that gives me more bite in to my writing. Daily writing, by hand, to me is key. And listening to people, being in conversation and having real time interchange keeps me grounded. xo Thank you! Suzi

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    […] Insights into the days of Ze Frank, Garrison Keillor, Cheryl Strayed and more.  […]

  • http://www.cultivatinghabits.com/ MK

    Reading, writing, meditating, and some kind of physical activity – walking or yoga. If I worked from home I would nap every day.

  • http://reallymostsincerely.com/i-love-the-internets-46/ I love the Internets - Really Most Sincerely

    […] 10 creative rituals you should steal. Golden, golden, golden advice that I needed to read. I’ve accidentally discovered some of these things (like quarterly vacations…not that *ever* take whole weeks each quarter) but hadn’t realized the importance of others (like daily writing). And, yeah, reading this really extra a whole lot makes me want to attend the 99U conference. ::sigh::  […]

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