“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
- Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is best known for his two longest works, War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky regarded him at the time as the greatest of all living novelists. British poet and critic Matthew Arnold said; “A novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life.”
Renouncing his aristocratic lifestyle later in life, Tolstoy's funeral procession saw thousands of peasants lining the streets.
Tolstoy’s Journal of Daily Activities
In 1846, at aged 18, Tolstoy began writing what he called the Journal of Daily Activities in which he would set out exactly how many hours to devote to various activities in his life (e.g., studying, writing, leisure), as well as leaving space to comment on his performance.
Here are three rules from that journal that can teach us a lot about Tolstoy's creative process, his productivity levels (War and Peace is well known as one of the longest books ever written), and his thoughts about being a creative.
Wake Up at 5 o’clock
Five a.m. may be a bit early for some, but what this emphasises is that a daily routine from is essential to creativity from the start.
Studies have shown that our brains are most creative just after waking up, when the prefrontal cortex (often regarded as the ‘seat of creativity’), is most active and when we haven’t been distracted by the distractions and comings and goings of the day.
Novelist Haruki Murakami is well known for running, an activity that forms an essential part of his routine.
"When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometres or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerise myself to reach a deeper state of mind."
As Gustave Flaubert said; “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
If you can’t work first thing at morning, make sure you schedule when you can and stick to it as much as possible.
Nothing gets created without commitment and hard work.
No matter what time you work, make sure you dedicate time to it each day.
There’s no such thing as the best schedule for creativity, each is personal.
Stop Caring About Other People’s Opinion of Himself
The great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius once said; “Never listen to critic, no statue has ever been erected in honour of critic.“ And it’s true (unless someone knows of one otherwise!).
On the one hand it’s important to work with an audience in mind - these are the people who buy your work, use your product, invest in your company, etc.
On the other hand, the worrying that you have of other peoples opinions its mostly a projection. That is, you are projecting your own fears and a self-judgement that don’t actually exist in your audience.
Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Soviet filmmaker responded to criticism over his 1979 film Stalker with; “I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman" (Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman - themselves both highly regarded and influential filmmakers).
Be aware of what others are creating, but stop comparing.
Everyone's journeys and artistic paths are different.
Hold yourself accountable to achieving your goals .
Only Do One Thing at a Time
Creative people come up with ideas - that’s the nature of what they do. Sometimes though, it’s hard to focus on the one thing or the most important thing that we should be working on, particularly today where there is so much more stimulus and distractions than they were in Tolstoy’s day (Facebook, email, televsion, etc.).
So many people regularly complain of being overwhelmed and burned out, yet do nothing to seek solutions to their problem.
Splitting your attention is a key factor in ineffective productivity. Partially engaging in many activities rather than focusing on one will only lead to overwhelm and burnout.
Doing more isn't the answer to key productivity and success - focus and discipline is.
Doing multiple things at one time leads to overstimulation.
Working on a single task (single-tasking), allows us to enter more deeply into our work. The most successful people always work from a sense of priority.
Writer and computer scientist (and non-user of social media), Cal Newport writes that: “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.”
If you are guilty of multitasking, try this simple exercise: set a timer for 20 minute and work on just one thing.
Figure out what matters most, what the most important work you need to do is and give it your undivided attention.
“Knocking out a hundred tasks for whatever the reason is a poor substitute for doing even one task that’s meaningful.” - Gary Keller (author of 'The One Thing')
"...from my experience I did my best thinking when not under pressure…." - Stefan Sagmeister
Rest and relaxation are important for creativity and productivity/
Just as we need to take regular breaks during our everyday life to optimise productivity, alleviate stress and tiredness, so we also need downtime from our creative projects.
Taking breaks from creativity can help shift your thinking from habitual thoughts.
For many years, Bill Gates took a twice yearly Think Week in which employees, friends and even family were banned.
Fiona Apple took six years off from performing before releasing her album Extraordinary Machine in 2010, stating that “I realised that after six years of not doing this kind of stuff, it doesn’t define who I am, and I’ll be just fine without ii…”
Every seven years, designer Stefan Sagmeister (who has designed album covers for Loud Reed, The Rolling Stones and Jay Z, among others), closes his New York design studio for a whole year in order to rejuvenate and spend time experimenting. Although he continues to be creative during this year, he has no clients.
And he’s strict about it, too. He turned down an opportunity to design a poster for Barak Obama’s campaign while he was on sabbatical.
The Rolling Stones, Bridges to Babylon by Stefan Sagmeister:
Of course, not everyone is in a position to take long periods of time off work for various reason, but if you can afford to take a day off your creativity or even just a few hours here or there, try.
Creativity will still be waiting for you when you get back.
Capture ideas, read, take notes, but don’t create!
Don’t think of being idle as a vice when it comes to creativity.
You will probably miss being creative, but you will go back to it feeling refreshed and with a clear head.
You may even find after a creative break that in retrospect you may have been spending too much time at creativity, working at it at a level that was detrimental.
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“Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.” - Leo Babauta
THE PROBLEM WITH PRODUCTIVITY
One of the most difficult aspects of creativity to cope with is that creativity and productivity doesn't always work the way you want it to.
Why is this?
Because creativity isn't always a linear process.
It comes and goes, it has peaks and troughs, success and failures.
So, how do you build a routine and optimise your life to maximise your creative output?
Many people fail at habits because they don't create the habits and environments that distract them enough.
If the time you've scheduled and the work you do isn't enough to distract you from actually procrastinating then you need to work on creating better habits.
START SMALL. WORK EVERYDAY
I know of many people who have been guilty of not working at something every day and as a result their project becomes a long and difficult task (sometimes taking years!).
They think that they can wait until inspiration strikes or that the muse will provide them ideas in her own time.
As Steve Pressfield write in his book 'The War of Art', “The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”
Because they don't work at it everyday, procrastination, rather than work, has become the norm. It has become the habit. It has become comfortable to be unproductive.
Their work isn't distracting enough.
This is not about finishing a task - that can wait.
This is about working at something consistently.
Creativity and productivity has to become more appealing than distraction. Habit-building often fails because habit-forming itself is an accomplishment.
GIVE YOURSELF A DIGITAL MAKEOVER
Notifications from email, Facebook, Twitter, etc., I think most people would agree, are probably one of our greatest distractions.
Unless your work involves customer communication, they can demand and claim much needed attention, time and concentration.
Switching between tasks and notifications takes time and energy.
Research has shown that it takes around 25 minutes to get back to focusing on a task after being distracted.
Which app do you spend most time on on your smartphone? I'll almost guarantee it's Facebook.
But, if you own both a desktop computer and smartphone, do you really need the Facebook app on your phone?
And vice versa; do you really need log into Facebook and email so often on your desktop if you have a smartphone?
Try making your smartphone "less smart". Delete your social media apps, if only for a few hours.
Remove Facebook from your bookmarks bar on your desktop.
Turn off email notifications
Turn on Silent (or Airplane) mode, unless it's essential for your work.
Log out of apps, rather than just close them.