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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 Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

Comments (83)
  • 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).

  • e21

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

  • 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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  • 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://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

  • 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.

  • Amanda

    I think taking a nap is a important one.Naps essential reviaitalise the body and mind, leading to a productive emplyee. Is a shame that time, job commitments and most society won’t allowed it be part of the job.

  • Joe Nicklo

    While taking quarterly vacations sound wonderful, how many companies give their employees 4 weeks of vacation time? Show of hands?

    I don’t have a “ritual” so much as a few things I gravitate towards doing when it comes time to “be creative” (and let’s face it, the word “creative” is such a joke these days). Writing, sketching/doodling seem to open my head up a bit. Reading as well. Sometimes playing video games does it.

    Naps kill it for me.

    • Ks

      Most European ones will. Are you from US? Then yes, you can be in doubts. But even in Russia you have 4 weeks of vacation. By law.
      Any other questions?

      • CN

        Why do you have to say “even in Russia” like it’s the extreme case of business development culture? Granted, many industrial nations offer 4-6 weeks of holiday, but Russia would be included in that list. It would be unlikely to be considered an exception.

        The only industrial nations to offer less than 4 weeks minimum is South Africa and the U.S. And in the U.S., people who’ve worked for their companies for more than 4-5 years generally qualify for at least 3 weeks.

        Notice how I didn’t say “even in the U.S.” even though it would qualify as an extreme case in this situation.

      • Sasha

        You’re right, EU countries are required by law to give at least 28 days paid time off per year, but most countries go higher than that (like France and Finland, which offer 40). The US? Zero!

      • Joe Nicklo

        I’m wishing that I had negotiated vacation time up front before accepting the offer at my current gig.

      • Finland

        EVERYONE MOVE TO FINLAND!

      • Clarisse

        40?! No, in France we have 25 days paid time off per year. Same in Finland. Which is great, by the way.

        “EU countries are required by law to give at least 28 days paid time off per year” is also not true. Check your facts.

      • Sasha

        Read the EU Commission’s labor laws: http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=706&langId=en&intPageId=205

        “The EU’s Working Time Directive (2003/88/EC) requires EU countries to guarantee the following rights for all workers…paid annual leave of at least 4 weeks per year.”

      • Sasha

        I was going off of the EU Commission’s labor laws: http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=706&langId=en&intPageId=205

        “The EU’s Working Time Directive (2003/88/EC) requires EU countries to guarantee the following rights for all workers…paid annual leave of at least 4 weeks per year.”

        4 weeks = 28 days off.

        There are other reports within the site that show each country’s “average” days off. France and Finland are listed at around 40.

      • Clarisse

        Nope. Weekends are not included, which makes sense since they’re not work days (for most people).

        So 5 weeks = 25 days.

        That’s what we get in France, and we’re quite happy about it. 40 would be pushing it, frankly🙂

        (Surprisingly, Wikipedia is a rather reliable source on this topic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annual_leave)

      • Sasha

        Interesting (especially to see Finland higher at 30 days off: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_statutory_minimum_employment_leave_by_country)! Always hard to know when they say “weeks” instead of “calendar days” or “work days” if they count weekends; and even then some only count Saturdays. Never thought to trust Wikipedia for this kind of thing before, although I do admit to being a skeptical at the low amount and quality of citation on the annual leave page… but the individual country pages have (obviously) many more citations to follow up with.

      • Kim Boe

        Norway has a mandatory 25 days vacation time per year, four weeks and one day (vacation-weeks include saturdays, but not sundays). Some groups get one more week for a total of 31 days. Workers above 60 years of age get one additional week of vacation for a minimum 31 days, or 37 if part of the aforementioned groups.

        This is paid vacation time btw, some salaried employees also get paid for other national holidays.

        By law you also get 10.5 to 14 percent of your annual salary for the previous calendar year as a vacation-bonus (precentage depending on whether you have 4 or 5 weeks of vacation time and/or are older than 60). Even if you have since quit your job.

      • AdamBergkvist

        I work in Sweden. I got 6 weeks.

    • Bob Sawyer ✌

      My (US-based, Fortune 500) company has “unlimited” vacation time. Meaning, they don’t track it, they don’t make you separate and track “sick days” from “personal days” and “vacation days.” Need a day off? Take it. Want a week to take your family on vacation? Great! Obviously, there are limits — we can’t take a month off at a time, certainly, and we have to coordinate with our coworkers so that someone is here to do the work.

      Obviously my company is the exception, but it’s nice to know they do exist and more are coming around to this way of thinking.

      • AdamBergkvist

        What is it that you do for a living?

      • Bob Sawyer ✌

        Web design/development + email marketing.

  • Greg Chalyan

    Its time for reality check. Just like Joe mentioned how many employees or owners get 4 weeks of vacation time? Also, how many companies give you nap time?

    Come on be serious – somehow these days everything we do needs to be sugar coated. We program ourselves with excuses for not getting something done.

    If you want to get some place you need to work hard and enjoy life.

    • Joe Nicklo

      No joke. It seems the people that write these articles work in some sort of utopian company where their bosses let them do whatever they want — or they’re self-employed.

      • http://FindingWhy.com/ Joel D Canfield

        And what prevents you from becoming self-employed, Joe?

        Sean addressed your question directly, but it confuses me when people say “That’s not allowed in my life. My life has other rules.”

        Make other choices. Delighted to teach you everything I know about creating a location independent business so you can have control of your schedule and live wherever you can afford.

        And take 4 weeks off a year, if you really want to work that hard. We take a day every other week, a week every quarter, and an extra week the end of every year, sometimes two.

    • Cynic

      ” how many employees or owners get 4 weeks of vacation time? ”

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_statutory_minimum_employment_leave_by_country
      It’s a reality in most developed countries and many developing.

    • Jeff Denton

      Everyone seems focussed on the 4 weeks of vacation. It’s not about “vacation” so much (at least not for me), it’s about making and prioritizing free time. I negotiated a 10 hour work day at my place of employment so I have 3 day weekends. Friday is MY day – kids are in school, home projects are done on Saturday or Sunday. Friday is the day I get out and see something new, go to the coffee shop, an art gallery, the beach, whatever. And I get 52 of those a year.

  • http://www.writerliz.com/ Elizabeth Armenta

    Taking breaks – often! – is a huge part of my creative ritual. Good post.

    I agree that this doesn’t apply if you’re a corporate worker bee, but for those of us who have cut the chains and struck out on our own, it’s a great read.

  • noname

    puzzling with this

  • http://laurenameliargh.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/things-i-read-today/ Things I Read Today | Lauren Amelia
  • http://campstevensjulian.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/wednesdays-whim-creative-process/ Wednesday’s Whim: Creative Process | When the Bell Rings

    […] 10 Creative Rituals You Should Steal […]

  • http://startrap.it/?p=53 10 Creative Rituals You Should Steal | Startrap

    […] Read the article > […]

  • bestvirtualhelp

    Switching off completely every quarter – what a fantastic idea! And it takes a really reliable team to be able to fully relax!

  • Victoria Montanez

    We have the luxury of standing tables, so stand up, headphones on (to cue coworkers that this is busy, IM in busy/no interruptions, ) , put lcassical music and aim for a next better version of whatever is I am working on. Schedule this type of work during my morning hours. Usually after 3 versions I have a solid new idea/proposal. If stuck, as counterproductive as it sounds, leave my desk, solo walk away for 10 min -15 min even if there is time pressure.

  • http://www.octopus-creative.co.uk/ Octopus Creative Design

    I’m a self employed graphic designer so I should have no excuses for adopting nap times or switching off every quarter. The reality is I don’t get paid if my hands aren’t at a drawing board or keyboard. I simplify routines and work them around my working day.

    Walking the dog before anyone’s up helps clear my mind for the day ahead. I also treat myself to a torturous spin class at the gym over lunch, once a week. I guess these routines are scalable.

    • Terry

      Napping and taking breaks are all about taking a longer term view than worrying about time wasted ‘here and now’. In the short term it seems like a waste of time, but the point is that you’re making a small sacrifice now to reap larger rewards further down the line. A 20 min nap can renew your psychological energy (we only get so much in a day), allowing you get much more out of the remaining hours of the day. Your quality of thought, mood and level of work will actually improve.

  • IowaOster

    Running a small creative ad agency I do several of these, especially getting out of the building since we don’t have any windows. But what about getting inspiration from the thought leaders in your industry? Take a break to regularly read blogs and watch videos from those you strive to be like?

  • Talitha Andrade

    (Y)

  • Jyoti Yelagalawadi

    I agree that routines are essential. I think each one of us has to find out what works best for us.
    I am a writer and I teach children the art of creative writer, so writing everyday seems second nature. I use part of my lunch break to free-write. I love reading, so I make sure to sit on my deck and read the newspaper while I sip a cup
    of tea every morning. Knowing what is going on in the world and what
    people have to say seems to put my day in perspective.Reading something
    new before I go to bed helps me cool down.
    I love the idea of taking a break each quarter. I take a weekend off as it is not easy to get a week every quarter. I spend the time with my family playing boardgames.

  • http://www.theconfidencelounge.com/ Aaron Morton

    I would say the rituals that keep me productive (sitting down and writing for a set period of time for example) are my most prized rituals as I can compare them to the times I dont do it and see how unproductive I am!

    I liked the advice from Ben Casnocha as it is an aspect of connecting that I imagine very few people do. It is still pretty prominent out there to see people as ‘useful’ and ‘not use rather than the development of a relationship so this piece of advice is valuable.

    Aaron Morton
    The Confidence Lounge

  • Kandla Towa

    “…super protective of my NAP schedule.”??!?!! What are you, four?

    • Ed Roper

      Spoken like someone who obviously doesn’t have a nap schedule…

    • MDM213

      Four-year olds aren’t protective over their naps, they hate them.

    • Valhalla

      Some people take cigarette breaks, some people nap. I opt for the latter. You should try it.

    • https://www.behance.net/ericmforest Mint

      i nap like boss

    • AdamBergkvist

      Naps are as common amongst old people as children.

  • http://krisefe.tumblr.com/ Kris Efe

    I would never be able to take a nap or go to a bar and work after that… I’m not able to do anything after a drink or after waking up.

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