How do successful people generate new and creative ideas? How do they manage to get the stuff done that turns their ideas into something real? According to a best-selling horror writer, you too can seriously increase your creative output – all by sitting in a chair.
Was Woody Allen right when he famously said that 80% of life is just showing up? While we can quibble over the specific percentage, some of the most successful people on the planet will tell you that much of what separates the super-creative and super-productive from the merely ordinary is the willingness to show up consistently.
Take Stephen King. He has written nearly 70 books which have sold over 350 million copies. He’s also written 200 short stories, and has movies and television series to his credit. What’s his secret?
According to King, in his autobiographical On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (which is a great read even if you’re not a writer), he credits what he calls “the muse” with giving him his best ideas. And King says there’s a surefire way to access the muse’s creative inspiration:
Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon. Or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.
In other words, show up at the same time in the same place in the same way day after day and your creative juices will start flowing. Whether you think of it as “the muse” or a habit or an internal neurological or psychological phenomenon, the simple act of showing up regularly will exponentially increase your creative and productive output.
This doesn’t mean you’re going to hit a home run every time just because you’re showing up. As King put it, “My muse may visit, she may not. The trick is to be there waiting if she does.” That is, the more you show up regularly, the more you create a routine where inspiration, creativity and accomplishment become more likely.
King isn’t the only successful writer to note this phenomenon. Bestselling author Steven Pressfield, in his seminal book, The War of Art, echoes King:
This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.
Anthony Trollope took this idea to an extreme. Trollope, who wrote nearly 50 novels as well as assorted other works, was one of the most popular writers of the Victorian era. Trollope also was a full-time postal clerk. How did he manage such great creative output while spending most of his waking hours dealing with other people’s mail?
Trollope wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. every day before going to work. As he put it, “By beginning at that hour, I could complete my literary work before I dressed for breakfast.” Trollope actually required himself to write 250 words every 15 minutes. He was so exacting that if he finished the novel he was working on before 8:30, he would immediately take out a fresh piece of paper and begin a new novel!
Not Just For Writers
Although this method is obviously applicable to writers, musicians, artists and other creative types, it’s also the secret to success in many fields. As I often tell my clients, what gets scheduled is what gets done. Whether or not you want to write the world’s next bestselling novel, you can significantly increase both the quality and quantity of your output by scheduling regular blocks of time to do your work.
We all understand this phenomenon from personal experience. You want to do something important – a task for work, exercise, learning a new subject. You put it on your to-do list. And very often, that’s where it stays.
Something seemingly more urgent comes along. You’re tired. You need to check Facebook before you begin. And if you’re resisting doing the task, then your list of other things you convince yourself you must do first multiplies as if by magic. And there the task remains at the end of the day, untouched.
But if you schedule the task for 1 – 2 p.m., then that’s what you will be doing during that time. Only a true emergency will derail your plan. Facebook will not. Because by scheduling regular time for a task, and committing to doing the task during that time, you are creating a window of time during which your brain attunes only to that task.
Stephen King may call it the muse. From a neuroscientific vantage point, you are priming your brain. You are giving it a regular cue that on certain days at certain times you will be occupied with a specific task. This makes it easier for you to focus on that task because you have wrapped your brain around it - and so it is more likely that good ideas will readily flow.
You also are creating a window of time devoted to only one task without distractions. While multi-tasking has become ubiquitous in modern life, a mountain of data shows that you will work faster and better if you focus on one thing at a time.
How to Show Up (and Get the Muse to Show Up Too)
The first step is to schedule regular blocks of time, either every day or at least a few times a week. Be realistic. If you schedule your task for a time when you are likely to be distracted by family or co-workers, or other events are likely to intervene, you are not setting yourself up for success. Find a time – and just as important, a place – where you can readily block out distractions and focus on the task at hand.
If getting going on a task is challenging (and it is for many of us), try starting with the Pomodoro Method. You can get full instructions here to implement the Pomodoro Method. But in essence, you set a timer for 25-minute blocks with 5-minute breaks in between. All you need to do is show up and work until the timer goes off.
If all this sounds a bit mechanical, remember that what you are doing is creating a framework for inspiration. Simply showing up, by itself, will not produce stellar work or creative ideas. You still need to be in the right head space and focusing the right way (which is what I spend the majority of my time working on with my clients).
But you can only get the work done if you first have created a framework for it. Remember that Stephen King compared his writing to “just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.” Elsewhere, he says that the muse is “not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level.”
So if you’re having trouble coming up with good ideas and making them happen, try starting with “the basement” – the foundation – by creating regularly scheduled blocks of time and then simply slogging through them like any other job. You’ll start noticing a lot more check marks on your to do list, and a lot better creative output.