On the creative power of discipline

We tend to think of creativity and routine as being polar opposites. Creativity is about freedom and spontaneity, while routine is about structure, discipline and constraint. Here’s the surprising truth — these seemingly opposite forces are actually partners in a powerful dance. Creative professionals understand we need both freedom and discipline to produce creative works. 

The Harmony of Structure and Spontaneity

recent study suggests that routine can be a secret weapon for boosting your innovative thinking!

Studies by Teresa Amabile and colleagues explored the impact of routinization on creativity in the workplace, shedding light on this connection. Their research suggests that routinization can positively impact incremental creativity, a form of creativity focused on making improvements to existing ideas.

When you’re bogged down with numerous tasks, your brain uses a lot of processing power just to keep up. But when those tasks become part of a routine, your brain can shift gears. Suddenly, you have more mental energy available to focus on new ideas and creative problem-solving.

Creative Powerhouses: Routine in Action

The study may have focused on incremental gains, but I believe a well-crafted routine or ritual can also unlock big creative ideas.

For example, choreographer Twyla Tharp’s famed “Creative Habit” (On Amazon) involves starting each day with a specific warm-up routine, priming her body and mind for artistic exploration. Author Isabel Allende finds inspiration through the discipline of writing until her candle burns out. Ernest Hemingway’s iconic morning routine – fueled by strong coffee – had a structured framework for his creative process, which started at dawn. Steve Jobs had a meditation practice. Disruptive innovators like the founders of Airbnb, WhatsApp, Spanx, and Whole Foods also meditate as part of their routine. 

Leading the Creative Charge

The power of routine isn’t limited to individual creativity. Leaders can leverage the benefits of routines to cultivate a thriving environment for creative thinking for their employees. When employees have streamlined processes and clear expectations for routine tasks, it frees up their mental energy and fosters a sense of psychological safety. This allows them to focus on collaborating, brainstorming new ideas, and tackling challenges with fresh perspectives. 

Imagine your team meetings – instead of getting bogged down in administrative details, you can use that time to spark creativity through engaging discussions and problem-solving sessions. 

Fostering Your Creative Routine

By establishing a structured routine that empowers each team member to actively participate in the creative process, you’ll cultivate an environment conducive to greater innovation and success for the entire team. Routine can take discipline to establish, but once established, it can actually boost your discipline.

Here’s why:

  • Reduced Decision Fatigue: Every decision, big or small, uses up your willpower. A routine minimizes the number of decisions you have to make throughout the day, leaving you with more mental energy for the things that truly require willpower.
  • Habit Formation: Over time, routines become habits. Habits require little to no conscious effort to maintain, freeing you up to focus on other tasks.
  • Improved Focus: Knowing what to expect from your day allows you to enter a focused state more easily. This can be especially helpful for creative tasks that require sustained attention.

So, while there’s an initial hurdle to getting a routine going, the long-term benefits for your discipline can be significant. In my experience, there is no freedom without discipline because if we don’t have discipline, we are slaves to our restless minds and thus susceptible to self-sabotaging behaviours, like procrastination and avoidance. 

The key isn’t to become a slave to routine but to create a framework that fosters creativity. Here are some tips inspired by the study’s findings on mental workload reduction:

  • Embrace the Routine: Don’t fight the repetitive tasks! Instead, see them as an opportunity to free up your mind for more creative pursuits. A designer once told me that repetition helped her find innovative solutions because the rather automatic nature of the task caused her to make mistakes. But those mistakes woke her up and became catalysts for new ideas.
  • Schedule “Thinking Time”: Block out dedicated time in your schedule to focus on creative problem-solving. Having dedicated space can help you switch gears and tap into your freed-up mental resources.
  • Mix Things Up: While routines can be helpful, it’s also important to seek out new experiences and perspectives to keep your creative spark alive. If you are stuck in a deadening routine, then change things up. Also, be sure to reward yourself for completing boring tasks.
  • Refine and Repeat: Regularly evaluate your routine and creative output. Don’t be afraid to adjust and discover what works best for you. 

Embrace Structure and Freedom

Routine isn’t the enemy of creativity; it’s the fertile ground where it flourishes. You might even think of some of your routines as rituals. I view creativity as a practice, and having a consistent practice boosts the quantity and quality of your output. Remember, creativity is a muscle that needs to be exercised.

By establishing productive habits, you cultivate an environment where your innovative spirit can thrive. Let go of the idea that creativity is a random act. Embrace the power of a disciplined routine, and watch your creative potential soar. After all, within every act of structure lies the seed of innovation waiting to bloom.

Do you need more discipline when it comes to your creativity?

Find out how coaching can help.