Twyla Tharp’s guide to The Creative Habit has got me analyzing everything about the way I process the world and my art. The book details steps in which we can unravel our creative intricacies and understand the ways in which we work best. It also provides exercises that hope to unlock even more of our potential, as well as unnerve some of our fears. Below, I discuss some of my most recent thoughts as to how I live a creative life under the guidance of well-formed habits, and I study my own battle between being an artist and honing in that artistic quality into something more productive.
My whole life, I’ve struggled with choosing between following good habits for structured creativity and the transience of going with the flow. I lean towards following the former although my natural tendency is the latter. The dichotomy is what makes my life so productive and my art good but internally, it’s chaos.
It is now obvious to me that I was born with a creative soul to a mother who preferred a rigid structure. Growing up, I must have not been very good with a linear way of thinking, which explains why so much of my mother’s energy was spent on teaching me focus. My sister, to whom all subjects came naturally, was allowed to run more wild as reward for finishing her tasks efficiently. I was the child who was not allowed to get up from my chair until my work was done (and re-done) to standard, until all the food was eaten from my plate, until all the boxes were checked off of the list. My daydreaming always got the better of me, and I would watch my sister run off to play while I soured in acknowledging that it was my own darn fault for letting my imagination take the best of my precious time. My observant mother saw that my tendency to dawdle and dwell would hinder my ability to get anything done. At a very young age, she taught me some of my best habits for a productive life.
- Sit down and focus.
- Mute all distractions.
- Create a plan at the very beginning of your day.
- Make a strict timeline for all tasks.
- Aim for improving your efficiency.
- Figure out your weaknesses, and tackle those first.
- Do one thing at a time.
- Record every step.
- Re-assess (for improvement, always).
Eventually, I learned how to follow the lines, I learned how to ignore all distractions, and I learned to reject play. I was taught that if I just focused hard enough, I could finish sooner and would therefore have more time to do what I wanted. Ironically, once I developed these habits and became efficient, what I wanted to do started to embody exactly what I have been doing to be free. In other words, I spent my free time following the steps I was taught, making plans and listing improvements, and it was my sister who ended up having bad focus and less discipline (she’s still efficient though!).
Yet I see that structure is not my most natural way of unfolding. It’s evidenced by the fact that I am always late (to work, social obligations, class, et cetera). I tend to want to do things sporadically, out of order, based on emotion – so it’s great that my mother taught me how to prioritize and make lists, otherwise I would never even make it to work. Real work to me is not a job. It is the work inside of me. I see it in the tornado I leave behind on my days off when creativity strikes. I hear it when my excitability gets the best of me and my conversations jump from thought to thought. Sometimes it drives my husband bonkers, because I’ve asked seven questions before he can even get a word in. Structure is no good to me and I don’t like people telling me what to do or having society define my life. I know this is true when my math always requires a paper and pen. Don’t get me wrong, I was the best at it when I did it, but without every step written out, numbers got lost and left behind unlike words which I could always keep track of even if they’re left floating in my head, even when the sentence runs on and on. Most of all, I know it is so when I explain emotion with color, when I feel a connection with dough, when I empathize with a wilting flower or a forgotten pen.
Because of this dichotomy, I am constantly at war with myself. I wish to write, but I have a million ideas. I’ll want to pull out pen and paper, type on my phone, grab my camera, pull up social media, and soon enough, I’ve got a “text cursor” blinking forgotten and every art supply laid on my desk because somehow what I was typing about gave me an idea that I jotted down on paper which reminded me to take note of it on my phone but upon getting up to grab my phone from the sill I saw something that I wanted to photograph and put up on social media where the first image on my feed called for inspiration to pull out a pencil and draw. Such is life.
Or, I’ll pick up a book to relax but read a line that touched me enough to draw my head up to ponder and then see a bird outside my window that reminded me of a time when we were in New Zealand which made me feel like being an expat and now I am drafting a new plan to make my loans paid off faster to pursue the expat life – and how can I get my baking gig to take off to supplement this dream? And so you see the way my heart works.
Now imagine my mind trying to wrangle all that in. I pull myself from my drawing to relocate myself to my desk where the blinking cursor awaits. But now there’s a mess on the kitchen table and I cannot focus so I get up to clean the mess so that I get rid of the distraction even though the getting rid of distraction is distraction itself. I make a strict timeline for the writing to be done but because of all the creative interruptions, I am missing my marks. And because of all the structure, I am impeding my creative flow. So I try to chase my thoughts but it hinders efficiency thus in order to be efficient I force myself to do one thing at a time. Somehow between all this warring, some things get done. It’s a crazy back-and-forth process, but I do believe that this defines efficiency for a creative life.
I know people who are creative at their core, but unproductive in the real world. I know of people who have brilliant ideas, but also brilliant fear – without the structure to dismantle that fear. I know people who get bogged down by emotion but cannot find a release. It’s a shame when that energy burns a person from the inside. And so it goes that a creative person will not create without having the habit of creating, which is, simply put, good habits.
And after that stressful narrative of the inner workings of my mind and soul, I find comfort in knowing that somehow, I’ve got it right. The balance, which off course runs differently for each person. If you’ve got some creative juice in need of direction, I would highly suggest reading this book. It has a gold mine of thoughts and exercises which may change the way you pursue your most creative aspirations. If anything, I hope it brings you a closer understanding of who you are, as it did me. I highly recommend!
I wrote once about the word negligible, and how I refuse to allow it in my vocabulary. I believe in the power of action. I believe in our ability to change things, to move needles, to push past walls that were built. This belief itself is a habit that allows me to accomplish things which other people can only dream to. A quote from The Power of Habit sums up the importance of this belief.
“Later, he would famously write that the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating belief in change. And that one of the most important methods for creating that belief was habits. Habits, he noted, are what allow us to “do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all.” Once we choose who we want to be, people grow “to the way in which they have been exercised, just as a sheet of paper or a coat, once creased or folded, tends to fall forever afterward in the same identical folds.”
A habit of mine growing up was to always say yes. Granted, with the advent of minimalism and slow living, I have come to realize that such action easily leads to a place of overwhelm. But within that habit was born a particularly positive outlook towards our abilities as a human being. By saying yes, I was continually telling myself and others around me, “It can be done.” And whenever I failed at something, I always thought in the back of my mind, “If only I had done this”, serving as ammo for the next attempt I make. “Impossible” was not a valid excuse. Perhaps lack of resources, lack of focus, lack of inspiration were the causes of failure, but nothing that could not be improved or fixed.
When people start to dream of the life they wish to lead, there is a tendency to immediately berate ourselves with a list of reasons why dreams are separate from reality. But the truth of the matter is that our realities are shaped by us in our own heads, in the exact same space where dreams lie. The only thing separating the two is your ability to believe in their oneness.
All I promise is this.
It gets easier, by the day,
until eventually, you realize
you’re the writer of your own story,
a magician of your making,
and the creator of your universe.
May I start by saying that Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” was one of the first catalysts that pushed me to embark on a creative lifestyle. I read the book on our flight home from our honeymoon in New Zealand January 2016, and I remember how powerfully I was impacted by her words. Needless to say, I am a huge fan and attribute this writer-baker-dentist-dog-walking lifestyle to her work. As many of you who have already been in this space for a while know, Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” was the starting point of my decluttering journey. Since then, I have found that cleaning my home was a reflection of cleaning out all the parts of myself that felt unaligned with who I am and who I wish to be. Alas, it comes as no surprise that this interview between the two is brimming with “all-the-feels”, and stands as my top read for this week. If anything I write on this blog jives with you, perhaps it would be relevant to take a gander at this quick interchange of thought between two modern influential women at this time. If you have more than a few moments, perhaps immersing into either of their books would better suit your taste? Below, I highlight a part of the interview that speaks the most to me at this time, as well as my thoughts on the matter.
In the KonMari Method™, we encourage people to ask the question, “Does it spark joy?” to all areas of their lives. Is there a question or concept that you apply in making important decisions?
I always say this to women: “Start knowing.”
I say it to myself, too.
Enough of “Should I do this?”
Go deep and say, “It’s time to know.”
You have to believe that the force of knowing is in you. We’ve inherited it from our ancestors; they’ve passed on everything they went through. There’s an old version of you that lives in yourself.
Often times I feel like the big changes in my life have come when the one in me who knows is appalled by the way that I’m living.
She’s so ANGRY.
She just looks at the way I’m living and says,
“No! This isn’t it! This isn’t good enough! This isn’t what we came here to do. We came here for better things than this.”
I don’t mean not rich enough, not famous enough.
I mean not accurate, not honorable enough for who you are.
THIS!! ALL OF THIS.
They say that, sometimes, when something in you is unsettled, you get a feeling. Like when Will in Stranger Things gets that eerie tingling at the back of his neck as the Mind Flayer draws near, I think we all have that little inkling towards auras that are dangerous to our well-being. It CAN’T only be me (and Will).
It’s like your inner-self “that knows” is screaming at your oblivious outer-self to listen. We get these uncertainties, but they’re stronger than our anxieties. I’m not talking about a quiet voice that whispers in your head. What I’m referring to is something waaaay more visceral. Something that comes from your gut … but deeper. The gut of your soul, if you believe in that sort of thing. A learned lesson from your past life, if you believe in THAT sort of thing.
I believe that Gilbert’s addressing of women, in particular, is important. Unfortunately, centuries of societal norms have failed in teaching women how to listen to their inner selves. We’ve historically been taught to listen to someone else (ahem). BUT! Times are changing, and it’s time we listen to us. I hang out with a lot of guys. They point out, in particular, my habit of answering simple questions with, “I don’t know.” Easy decision-making that revolves around where to eat, what to do, how I feel… the easy way out is to say, “I don’t know”. They hate it because I revert most decision-making about what we do and where we eat to them. UGH. I know. Thankfully, I have very progressive guy friends who force me to decide by saying, “No. This is an equal relationship, and you have to decide sometimes.” Thank goodness!
But I do see it in myself and in female friends a lot. This unknowingness. This repulsive impulsive reaction to just let men decide what to do with the simplest of things. It’s a habit that needs to change. It’s a matter of believing in our ability to know. “Ask her,” she says. Sage advice, if ever I heard one.
So in asking her, a topic that has been unsettling for quite some time.
I’ve alluded to my addiction once before, here. I know my triggers (seeing my cell-phone) and my reward (public affirmation). I know my excuses (the need to have Instagram to grow my blog, the need to maintain my relationships however virtual, the need to have a creative output, whatever). I know the consequences (hours spent editing photos, writing up paragraphs, scrolling through feeds… mostly the latter). I know what it was like to quit for one month (more time, more calm, more REAL relationships, more energy, more creativity). From this, you gather that I know a LOT. So why is it that I always say, “I don’t know what to do about Instagram.”
Upon reading EG’s answer to MK’s question, something in me sparked. It wasn’t joy. It was a knowing. It was like that inner me was finally yelling loud enough out of absolute R.A.G.E. at my insensitivity towards the unhealthiness of the app. And it’s like EG spoke the exact words that my inner self was trying to get me to hear.
“No! This isn’t it! This isn’t good enough! This isn’t what we came here to do. We came here for better things than this.”
“I don’t mean not rich enough, not famous enough.” Everything I say Instagram promises for the blog.
“I mean not accurate, not honorable enough for who you are.” Everything that goes against what the blog represents. I always write about being good enough. About fighting societal pressures. About doing what’s aligned. All this and more clashes with everything Instagram sells.
The truth is this:
There are systems in place that sell us the things that are not good for us.
Added salts, sugars and fats that keep us returning to restaurant tables.
Advertisements that keep us spending hard-earned dollars on consuming goods.
Celebrities trying to sell us a glamorous lifestyle.
Wall Street analysts telling us that we can outsmart the market.
Instagram selling us a platform in order to stay connected and relevant.
You see what I mean? They all have their vested interest, while we are being stripped of things that matter most. Health, time, simplicity, financial stability, real relationships, all in that order.
Deep down, I know, just as well as you know. But do we listen?
It’s time to know.
It’s time to set boundaries and separate from Instagram.
It’s time to break the habit loop.
So here are the new rules.
I agree that platforms such as Instagram has its perks. But I also truly know that it has its consequences as well. So I will be deleting TheDebtist Instagram account from my phone. I will allow myself one day a month for ONE HOUR to log back on and post all my updates (new courses, new interviews, new happenings, all the pictures worth sharing – already curated) and check any missed messages, and then I will delete it again. This will allow me to break the habit loop and scrolling through feeds and forever editing in search of perfection. This will rid me of unhealthy dependence. This should free me to have more time to be HERE. I know this because it’s happened before. And it works. I started to wonder, “Why am I taking a picture of my avocado toast?”, and “Why am I carrying my camera on this run on the beach?” It brought awareness to all the little habits that were developed solely for the purpose of sharing on Instagram. Yikes.
Secondly, as I want to focus on growing the bakery, I will keep the AeroBakery account live, and limit my Instagram usage to 15 minutes per day. If I fail to hold myself accountable, I will also delete this account and limit it to once a month. If I had a true vested interest in growing my AeroBakery following, I will follow these simple rules. I know that I have the ability to enforce these parameters so I am not worried. If I am struggling, I have my husband. If I am still struggling, I have hundreds of you.
Instagram is a real addiction. Like alcohol, or over-eating, or gambling, debt, sex, drugs, hoarding, smoking, video-game addictions, emotional dependency and more, Instagram is a habit and the loop is difficult to break. It feeds on many things. The feeling of social acceptance and inclusion, the craving for public affirmation or approval, the creative outlet and the visually artistic appeal, the boasting of one’s life or accomplishments, the list goes on and on.
Worded like that, imagine how giving up Instagram could change a life.
Talk about catharsis.
Talk about Tidying the Mind.
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Sometimes in your life, you come across a kindred spirit. Usually, it’s at a time when you least expect it, and in the most unusual of characters. Fictional, for example, or in people who you have never met. Despite these peculiarities, you just know that they are of the same spirit and mind as you, even if they are miles away. Tara Jensen is one of these kindred spirits. When I picked up her book and sat it across my lap in a hidden, dusty corner of Barnes and Nobles, I was not expecting to meet anyone kindred that day. But after the first few words, I just knew. Her book, A Baker’s Year, “chronicles twelve months of baking and living the simple life at the Smoke Signals Bakery”, smattered with a few recipes and baking techniques, which is what roped me in in the first place, but it was her story that made me stay. Better yet, she was able to summarize a collection of very deep-rooted feelings that even I was not able to bring to the surface until her words dug them from their graves, feelings which all too entirely shape the view that I have of the world today, as well as drive the actions that I choose to take in my daily living. I think everyone could benefit from her words, even if they are not interested in baking bread for their communities. Below is an excerpt from the book that struck a chord with me so many times over the course of two pages (!!). Below is the story of Camille.
“Camille came to Madison County in 1972 with her husband, Dave. Dave’s father had grown up here, moving to Detroit at the age of nineteen for a better life. He couldn’t believe Camille and Dave wanted to return to what he remembered as a desolate region with nothing to offer. They were warned not to come, but their minds were set on it. Enraged by the Vietnam War, they wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible and learn directly from those who could still teach the way of the land. Less income meant minor tax payments, resulting in fewer dollars toward war machine. They took on cows, chickens, rabbits, sheep and a garden. “A farm is a big name for what we had,” she says.
What was big was their ambition. It had to be. It was up against a lot. War was a symptom of an entire broken social system fueled by overconsumption. Refusal of business as usual was crucial to Camille. “I know we have to live,” she pointed out, “but we don’t need to do it at this level – we don’t need to destroy.”
Camille had already experienced the horrors of war. In 1944, her childhood home in Normandy was bombed, and although everyone was safe, the devastation left only a corner of the original house. Her family first took refuge in a nearby graveyard, surviving only on milk. There her father decided they would take the two-day walk to his parent’s farm, where he was certain food could be found. In the summer, they returned home to rebuild.
Normal weekly rituals ensued, one of which was a trip into town for bread. One afternoon, her sister returned with more than a sack of loaves; she also bore toys she’d found scattered on the roadside. Thin metal rods, like long pens, with a coil wrapped around the middle. They played with them for days, knocking them on rocks like drumsticks. But they weren’t toys. They were cast-aside detonators, and while her mother was busy with the wash, one exploded in Camille’s hand, causing the loss of her right arm at the age of two.
A decade into their life of resistance, Dave was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The long list of daily chores became difficult to maneuver. The cow jumped the fence. The sheep ran away. The dog chased the chickens into the woods. They allowed their responsibilities to dwindle, eventually eating the cow. “It was part of the economy,” Camille explained, a firmness still in her tone. Despite changes in physical comfort and energy, they were as true to their original intentions as they possibly could be.
After Dave passed, Camille carried on the design of their home and land, every nook and cranny meticulously thought out and crafted. Stairwells fashioned after the golden spiral, massive mosaic projects, wood scraps and windows everywhere: ideals for a gentle society radiate from the walls. “I never had a course in building,” she said, “just an interest. I could look at an old building, I would see that it was still standing, and I would think, That is good.” Although Dave is gone, his presence remains, amidst a host of new and radical projects.
Never short on determination, Camille hired a carpenter to frame a door into a dirt wall so that she might dig herself a basement. Rigging up a bucket, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow, she chipped at the top of the wall, directing the dirt downward into the bucket. When the bucket was full, she’d take it to the wheelbarrow and empty it. When the wheelbarrow was full, she’d haul it outside and dump it in the gully. She kept at the work for days and months until rumors began to surface.
Her apprentice who frequented the local bar came to report back on the widespread speculation about what exactly Camille was up to. “You’ll never believe what they’re saying about you, Camille. They say you are digging out your basement single-handedly with a spoon!”
She chuckled. “Well then, let them think just that.”
I spoke with Camille recently. We wondered if it was even possible for future generations to go back to the land. There is increasingly less land to go back to, and the old-times who knew the plants and the ballads are passing each year. Besides, living the rural life isn’t for everyone. It seems that each spring, a new crop of young homesteaders arrive bursting with ideas, and only some of them make it to the next year for one reason of another. Many leave when they have children, and divorce is common under the stress of poverty. I like living here because it is so unchanged, and yet sometimes I forget there is a world past the blown-out streetlight. This landscape is a jungle that does not bend to human will easily. Some like the challenge. Some don’t.
Yet what we lack in finery we make up for in freedom. We have a choice. We can choose the detonator or the spoon. What will you leave behind? What will your legacy be? Free, gentle, and diverse is the culture I want for myself, my community, and my bread. Be an instrument for peace. Choose the spoon.”
To learn more about the nuances of simple living, or to learn about baking bread, please do go on and read A Baker’s Year. Our society can benefit from her words in more ways than one.