Why Your Creativity Insists You Break Out Of Your Routines

Routines can help you be more productive by automating certain decision-making processes. They take something you always do the same way and hand it off to your subconscious, similar to how you might hand off work to a machine or software. They allow your conscious mind to focus on more important decisions. Why would you want to break them?


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I’m glad you asked.

The last few weeks I talked about productivity and creativity through the lens of time and now routines. Last week I talked about the ways routines could give you a boost in productivity, by offloading less important tasks to your subconscious. This week I’ll talk about routines from the perspective of creativity.

I want to talk about why you want to break out of productive (and non-productive) routines just for the sake of shaking things up and forcing you to step outside your comfort zone.

The Medici Effect

In my post about time and creativity I mentioned that creativity needs to see things from different perspectives. I also mentioned how some ideas need to wait and be combined with other ideas before they become something.

This idea of mixing different ideas and different perspectives is central to the book The Medici Effect, by Frans Johansson. The book talks about how breakthrough ideas occur when the concepts from one discipline are applied to another.

Henry Ford is a good example. His idea to automate the manufacturing process of automobiles came from the meat packing industry which was already using an assembly line process.

Ford applied something that worked in one industry to another. He took an existing idea and applied it to something new and he made the manufacture of automobiles more efficient and consequently less expensive.

The more general idea comes from the Medici family in Renaissance Venice. Venice is a port city and during the Renaissance is was the port city where people from different cultures arrived and intermingled.

The Medicis were patrons of the arts and for a time Venice was the epicenter of art and culture and lots of different industries due to this mixing of different and independent ideas from different cultures and perspectives around the world.

Mixing new and disparate ideas is at the heart of creativity. You can’t do that by doing the same thing in the same way over and over again. That’s the old idea repeated. You need to take in new ideas from a wide variety of sources.

Be Open to the New and Different

Routines won’t help you be more creative aside from freeing up your conscious mind for other things. Routines help you be more productive, but they limit what you take in. They keep you in the same place. They aren’t going to make you more creative or fill you with creative ideas.

Aside: For the same reason I typically don’t sign into Google or Bing or whatever search engine and see personal search results. I think personal search leads to seeing the same sites over and over again. It can keep you from finding new things or rather leads you to continue to make the same choices and see the same sites again and again. It potentially leads to homogenized results and thoughts.

Be open. Being creative means taking in new information. You need to always be taking in new information and assimilating it with what you already know and then filtering the information through yourself.

You should constantly be coming up with new ideas, even though most you’ll never look at again. The new ideas and different perspectives change your filter and change what comes out the other side of that filter.

You need to be constantly and consistently questioning your assumptions and challenging the things you believe in to see what else you find.

Creativity is about the new, the different, the unknown. It’s about seeing things in different ways and from different perspectives. Creativity is about exploration and experimentation and trial and error. Routines are the exact opposite. They’re the same, the known, the old. They skip trial and error for the tried and true.

Flexibility and Adaptable

Creativity needs to be able to change quickly. You need to go with the moment, the flow, and be ready to explore and take in whatever presents itself in that moment. Follow the idea.

If a great idea strikes you, you want to follow where it leads while the muse is hanging around. If you get into a flow working on something creative, you don’t want to stop because you’re doing it the wrong way, or because your routine suggests it’s time to do something else now.

Your creativity needs to be ready at a moment’s notice to change and go in another direction. Follow your creativity. Be spontaneous and follow where the path leads. Walk off the path instead of predetermining where the path will take you.

Imposing Change for the Sake of Change

Sometimes you want to break a routine and force yourself figure things out again and discover new things along the way. You have to break out of routines at times.

While I like to set routines to help me be more productive, whenever I feel like things are getting too routine, I tend to shatter many of them, plunge myself into chaos for a time, and then rebuild new routines from the chaos.

The journey back to organization, structure, and routines forces me to look at the same old in a new way. I may go back to a routine, but the journey through the chaos is always worth it. I always learn new things, rethink old things, and notice patterns I hadn’t seen before.

The more stuck I feel, the more chaos I need to throw myself into. I’ve gone as far as packing whatever would fit into my car and driving about 2,000 miles across the country to a new city where I didn’t know anyone. I did this in part to break routines and established patterns and to force myself to start again. I don’t recommend that drastic of a change, but it did work for me.

A more sane and realistic example is that every so often I push myself to use a new tool or I replace an entire suite of tools with new ones. I’ve said a number of times that a tool doesn’t make you creative and it doesn’t take away your creativity. They offer different possibilities for you to express your creativity.

A different set of tools is one change you can make for no other reason than to force yourself to do the same old in a new way. New tools force you to exercise different creative muscles.

I bet whatever tool you use now to write or design or code has a feature that you would find helpful, but you don’t realize it exists. You’re probably so familiar with the tool that you don’t bother to look through the settings any more. You’re used to the way you do things.

Forcing yourself to use something new will force you to check its settings. It’ll force you to do a few things differently because the new app doesn’t let you do them the way you’re used to doing them.

Even if your change in apps is temporary, you’ll likely come back to your old app looking to see if it can do something you found you like in the new app or because you’ve reminded yourself your old app might do things you didn’t realize it could do. The change gets you to look through the settings of the old app again.

There are also changes in between the overly drastic and the mostly mundane. Look for things that are easy and comfortable and provide little to no struggle. Force yourself to do these things in a different way.

Think of it as adding another constraint or changing constraints. Don’t let yourself do something in the same old way. Challenge yourself to find a new way.

Closing Thoughts

Routines can help you be productive by automating some of the the things you do. Creativity doesn’t thrive under those conditions. It needs new, it needs different, it needs change. Routines are the opposite. They seek the same old thing in the same old way without ever changing.

The danger is in staying in routines too long to the point where you don’t try new things or worse give up all conscious thought. From time to time you have to break out of routines and explore something new for no other reason than to change and do something different.

Routines are safe. Creativity comes back with better results when it brushes up against the scary and the dangerous. The things you don’t want to reveal and are afraid to explore are often where the best creative ideas lie.

I like to mix periods of routine with short periods of chaos and unknown that force me to see and do things in a different way. I come back from the chaos with old and new routines. I learn and see so much during the journey from chaos back to an order I impose.

I come back with new understanding and new perspective. The journey back from chaos opens my eyes to possibilities and helps make me more creative.

It might seem like I’ve been talking about mutually exclusive things the last few weeks. One day I’m urging you to be more productive with your time and to develop routines. Then a week later I suggest you’re better off wasting time and breaking routines. Am I being hypocritical? How does this all fit together?

I have one last topic in this series and that’s how to make this stuff work together. How can you be both productive and creative with your time? How can you use routines to be more productive and break away from them to be more creative? Next week I’ll close the series and talk about how we can get creativity and productivity to play nice together.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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