As a creative, staying productive in a world full of distractions, stress, and information overload isn’t easy. Unfortunately, no matter how solid your routine or process is, following that regimen day in and day out can get stale, leading to a lull in creative ideation and productivity.
That’s when you know it’s time to shake things up.
Thankfully, there are lessons to be learned from highly creative and undeniably productive icons we all know and love. These strategies might seem challenging (or maybe even obvious to you), but with an endorsement from these creative superstars, they’re worth a shot.
Shigeru Miyamoto: Make Space to Think
Game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Donkey Kong, Mario, and The Legend of Zelda, is a brilliant example of how creative work doesn’t necessarily take place where you’d expect.
Faced with saving Nintendo’s arcade game venture after their first title flopped, Miyamoto spent a feverish 5 months creating Donkey Kong. He used to unwind in the company bathtub (why Nintendo had a company bathtub is a whole other story!) and found it gave him space to think.
As he explained about this non-traditional approach to brainstorming: “It totally saved me! It was really effective at letting me put my ideas in order.”
The Takeaway: Where you work and where you think don’t need to be the same place. Changing your environment could help you find inspiration, mull over problems, and bring order to your thoughts, enabling you to work more efficiently when you return to work.
Alison Bechdel: Get Your Daily Workout
At this point, we probably don’t need to remind you that getting your reps in is great for your creative productivity. But cartoonist and graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel has literally written a book on it. She’s always been obsessed with movement, making it the subject of her 2021 book The Secret of Superhuman Strength.
As she explained in an interview with Vulture: “To get in that state creatively is very elusive. With athletic things, those are hacks for me to get to that place. And if I can get there in one way, maybe it will help me stick there creatively.”
The Takeaway: Many creatives consider exercise to be a key aspect of their routine. Incorporating movement into your day could help hone your focus and make it easier to sink into deep creative work.
Damien Correll: Create Constraints
Designer and artist Damien Correll, now creative director at Figma, likes a challenge.
When interviewed about his process as a designer, Correll explained he works best when constrained or pressured in some way.
He likes to use short deadlines to capitalize on his willpower. He says this ensures he’s relying on his gut feeling, rather than second-guessing himself. Correll also imposes other creative limitations on himself (like a pared-back color pallet) as a way of jump-starting his thoughts.
The Takeaway: Limiting your options and your timeframe may seem scary but they can help you start creating more quickly. Constraints nudge your brain into problem-solving mode and stop you from becoming paralyzed by the huge number of possibilities.
Stephen King: Stick to a Strict Routine
Better creative productivity doesn’t always mean you need to be constantly changing things up! Consistency can be just as important. With 65 novels and over 200 short stories under his belt, Stephen King is a prime example of a productive creative and of the power of persistence.
King has followed a strict writing routine for decades: he spends the morning writing, leaving his afternoons and evenings free for everything else.
When he was younger, he aimed to write 10 pages (around 2,000 words) per day. As age has caught up with him, he’s reduced his requirements to 4 hours of revising and writing, though that still nets him around a thousand words on a good day.
The Takeaway: Showing up every day – regardless of if you feel you aren’t accomplishing anything – helps you to make steady progress and to habituate your brain to be creative at a particular time. As Pablo Picasso said: “Inspiration exists but it has to find you working”.
Neil Gaiman: Be Intentionally Bored
Novelist Neil Gaiman’s vivid and imaginative worlds are born out of self-inflicted boredom.
Gaiman has one simple rule when he’s meant to be writing: he writes or he does nothing. This helps his brain get into writing mode as it has to start telling stories to entertain itself. Mind wandering has been linked to better cognitive function and could even lead to more creative breakthroughs.
Gaiman also likes to write first drafts using pen and paper. There are many reasons behind this, not least the pure, tactile joy of writing with a fountain pen. But it’s important not to underestimate the paper’s ability to protect him from boredom’s worst enemy: the internet.
The Takeaway: When it comes to getting creative work done, make it your only option. Remove anything that might distract you so that your brain will latch onto the creative activity by default.
Steve Jobs: Let Yourself Say No
Steve Jobs believed that saying no was the key to getting a creative project across the finish line.
When speaking at an Apple conference in 1997, he explained: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”
Jobs believed that it wasn’t enough to commit to his project and ignore external distractions. He also had to turn his back on all the other exciting creative possibilities that could spread his focus too thin.
The Takeaway: Don’t take on too many creative projects at once and try not to become sidetracked by “shiny object syndrome”. While it’s important to be open to ideas when they occur, actively trying to work on too many at once will erode your focus.
Leo and Diane Dillon: Take Advantage of Creative Collaboration
Award-winning illustration team Leo and Diane Dillon worked on a huge range of books and in a dazzling array of different styles.
Their regular creative collaboration made their long and varied careers possible. They could pool their skills and ideas and achieve a flow built on mutual inspiration. As Diane explained to Locus Magazine: “If a piece takes on a certain look when I’m doing it, and I hand it to Leo, it flows into something else, and he goes right along with it.”
It was one habit in particular, though, that helped them ensure their working dynamic was always smooth and productive: considering their joint illustrations as the work of “The Third Artist”. As Diane put it: “We could look at ourselves as one artist rather than two individuals, and that third artist was doing something neither one of us would do.”
The Takeaway: Having someone else there to inspire you and keep you accountable can make you far more productive. Collaborating also empowers you to create things you wouldn’t (or couldn’t) if working alone, particularly if you really lean into your differences and use them as a chance to step beyond yourself.
Discover Your Own Hacks for Productivity
Following the examples of productive creatives is useful but it isn’t necessarily a clear path (or the only path) to creative productivity. We’re all different and what works for Stephen King or Alison Bechdel may not work for you.
However, experimenting with, and acknowledging the potential for these strategies, while applying what you learn to inform your own process is a massive step toward finding a productive creative routine that truly suits you.