How having rituals will allow you to be more creative

Pablo Amargo

When I first left my full time job 7 years ago, I suddenly felt like a city mouse set loose out in the countryside. Time seemed to pass slowly at first, but then it got quicker and quicker. I had lots of opportunities for fresh air – but I found that often locked myself in, concentrating on work instead. More often than not, my hours were longer than a 9 to 5. Freedom was stifling.

My timetable was turned upside down. Where before I could tell what I would wake up, it now felt like I could do whatever I want, whenever I want. And it started to weigh down on me. But wait, having freedom is great right? People come up to me and say things like “Oh wow, that’s so cool, I’d love to work for myself, like you, so that I won’t have a schedule to follow.” Except that it’s not like that at all. It was debilitating.

Weird things start to happen when you get too much of anything. In this particular case, I suddenly had a lot of time freed up, so that I could concentrate on freelance work and on my website; instead of having an alarm wake me up at 8.15 every morning (after many snooze buttons prior) and cursing the traffic under my breath each time I set off to work. I felt odd. Almost in a surreal way. As though time was this continuous line that ran without stopping or pause, and I was just a mere beat that time skipped over.

I woke up at odd hours, and slept even later than when I was in a full-time job. Instead of dressing up and showering to go to work, I found myself lounging around in my pajamas and having extended breakfast while skimming over the newspaper (contents of which I wasn’t really interested in anyway). Hours could pass. And then it would be lunch, followed by a TV series that I missed. And pretty soon it was time for dinner. Where did the time go?

After a few weeks of this unstructured schedule, I found myself in a rut. My productivity plummeted instead of what I thought it would do – that I’d be super crazy productive and churn out lots to show. Alas, to my dismay, it wasn’t true at all. I couldn’t think straight – I felt like there’s a haze hanging over my head and weighing my entire being down. My work suffered. My happiness level went way down. I’d get irritable and defensive when anyone asked about my day. I’d get jealous of other people who had colleagues – my companion at home were two dogs who got to take a lot of naps during the day and wasn’t particularly interested in engaging in a two-way conversation with me, dog language or no.

I craved for something but I didn’t know what. And it was driving me nuts. I was a mice left out in the field too long and instead of thriving, I craved for a cage instead. A semblance of order. Walls too, so that I could figure out where I fit in the whole picture.

So I whipped out that alarm clock again, and set a time everyday for waking up. I took a shower. Dressed up a little. Put on make up. After that, it was straight to the table for a quick breakfast. An hour later, work began. No ifs or buts about it – non-stop working for an hour at which I could not surf the internet, read or watch anything non-related to work. And it felt good.

I felt a sense of purpose. I felt that I was in control of my situation. I found that when I focused my energy and attention towards a project I could get things done quicker and more creatively than when I dawdled around, aimless and listless. I went in search of inspiration, instead of waiting for inspiration to strike me like a proverbial bolt of lightning. I took constant, but shorter breaks in between, and felt my mind filled with ideas even when I did stop. I read a lot more, offline and online; I was ravenous for information and devoured everything in sight so that I could sort through things and find patterns and connect the dots. I organized like mad. I exercised regularly, and was able to set up a system where I could just stop my work and head down for dinner, and continue right back to where I stopped before.

I found that when I had a system in place, I didn’t have to worry about a lot of things. Having a schedule freed up my energy and time, so instead of spending them thinking “what’s next?”, I went on autopilot mode for the things that didn’t matter. My brain suddenly got a lot more room to think up new things instead of feeling guilty or having to keep track of things all the time. Go brain!

I wasn’t caged up, but I felt better. Instead of putting up permanent walls, I put up a chain link fence just so I can know where my boundaries are. I could peer out and see what’s out there, and I could also peer in to see if what I’m doing works. I had a structure. I had a ritual. I had a plan.

Year after year, the distance between me and the boundary that I set up in my mind grew. And after 7 years, the distance between me and that chain link fence is so vast that I don’t know where it began and where it ended. I’m not sure if there’s even a boundary anymore.

Freedom never felt so good.


Have you ever had to restructure your time, and did your productivity suffer? Do you have any specific rituals to get you through the day? I’d love to hear your experience and story, so do share them with me in the comments!

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[illustration: Pablo Amargo]

29 Replies to “How having rituals will allow you to be more creative”

  1. iHanna says:

    Well written! I so get this, and recognize how I get too when I’m in between office jobs or out of work. A lot of time feels terrible after just one day, because I can’t get anything done! 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

    1. amy says:

      It’s a vicious cycle, that’s for sure! 🙂

  2. bronwen says:

    Absolutely agree. My part-time work came to an end in the early summer but I’m not doing any more of my own work now – I’m doing less. It’s too easy to waste time and fiddle about on Facebook or drink cups of tea. Your article has reminded me of the need for discipline and a routine. Now to get on….!

  3. Monika says:

    Right now I’m working and traveling same time (actually I’ll be soon in Malaysia which I adore:) and routine is quite opposite to what I get and same at “home” (means wherever I stay longer than a month:) also doing stuff same time and same way is just killing me and my creativity – so that’s depends on person I suppose? from the other hand most of the time I have commissions with specific deadlines set by clients and I just have to be efficient:.. One thing for sure to-do list and other types of plan is a MUST!

    1. amy says:

      I agree with having lists Monika! I have tons and tons of them – I write them down meticulously and it never fails to help me clear my head.

  4. Dana says:

    I love this article! I can relate to it 100%. What works for me is balancing the joys of working on my own with the need for a purpose each day. I set small, achievable goals every single day, and I feel a consistent sense of accomplishment and forward movement. I have a general plan for the upcoming day before I go to bed at night so that I feel relaxed and purpose-driven. I enjoy my freedom by drinking tea, taking frequent short breaks, listening to music while I work. It’s like eating right — you can do it with a little planning and then you can leave behind the guilt and anxiety associated with just blowin in the wind.

    1. amy says:

      I so agree Dana! Personally, I also plan out the next day’s schedule before I head off to bed so that I can spring into action when I wake up instead of wondering “hmmmm, what’s next?”

  5. Tamara says:

    Amy, thank you so much for sharing this! I’ve been freelancing for 6 months, and experienced the same thing.

    At first I was very productive and still on a workday-ish schedule, then gradually that started to slip away. I too felt like I was working all the time, yet somehow not getting much *finished*.

    Finally, recently, I came to the same conclusion you did, and am now getting myself into a more structured day…but at least it’s designed around how I work best, not the rules of the office.

    Anyway, thanks again! I feel better hearing that others fell into the same rut. 🙂

    1. amy says:

      Good luck Tamara – you’ll find a rhythm soon enough!

  6. Pam says:

    Wow – you are an inspiration! When you work from home, sometimes it feels like you are the only one that struggles with this problem…and it’s tough to complain about your lack of productivity to people who drive to an office every day. I struggle with sticking to the schedule that I have created for myself – whether it is a friend asking if I want to go for a walk, another friend calling to chat, my husband telling me something, or me, just checking my email! You have inspired me to be more disciplined. I know I’ll feel better about myself and my work! Thank you.

    1. amy says:

      Pam, this is SO true. What I then tell people is that it’s not all what it seems. I tell them that if they (people who are employed) don’t show up for work, it’s just deducted from their off days. If I don’t show up, I don’t get paid. So the hustling is very real – whether it’s done in the comfort of our bedroom or at a studio.

  7. ella says:

    This rings so true for me too. I teach part time as well as freelancing and selling my own illustration. All of them motivate each other. I used to yearn for those times when I could just focus 100% on my own work but it is indeed so true that it’s easy to lose focus. There’s a great book about this called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, it really helped me win the battle on losing focus and procrastinating and I thoroughly recommend it. It’s quite an old one now so there may well be more relevant books on the market now too.

    The old adage “if you want something done ask a busy person” is so true, energy breeds energy so someone who isn’t busy probably won’t get round to it! I so often have students say “If only I had more time to do this” then not start working on their projects until week 8 of a 12 week module. Start it now! Even if you have only 5 minutes start it now, starting is the hardest part, after that the fun starts!

    1. amy says:

      I love that quote Ella! And I agree – starting is often the toughest hurdle of all! And procrastination can seep into the littlest excuses and when it comes to that, JFDI comes to mind (google the acronyms to see what I mean!)

  8. pve says:

    Makes me think of that great saying “time to make the donuts”-
    I think finding a “focus” – a “system” and then creating a routine or habits that are easy to keep is important. Then every 3-6 months re-evaluating one’s goals.
    Great post. Thanks for sharing.

    1. amy says:

      You’re welcome pve! And thank you for sharing your tips!

  9. It felt the same for me. My life as a freelance started with a big work to do and I was working day and night for a month, then I was free to do what I wanted to do and I’ve started procrastinating, this kind of life style was up and down for a lot of months, while I’ve learned how to manage my day. I’ve started getting dressed and waking up early, I’ve started to plan to go out everyday for a small thing to do (sometimes you don’t need it if you work at home), I’ve started to do some sports for having a break from the desk. This helped a lot my productivity and my mental health! 😀

    1. amy says:

      Yay Giulia!! Sometimes the favorite part of my day is going out too – just to be among other people!

  10. Jesse says:

    Oh yes! I finally got myself a studio away from home (10 minutes’ walk) and it’s made such a difference. I only print there, so I still work at home too, and on days where I have to stay home to finish illustrations, I make sure that I run at least one errand in the morning, just to get out of the house.

  11. cotey bucket says:

    Great stuff Amy,

    I can’t even begin to tell you how close this hits to home.
    Like with a hammer.
    I quit my job a while back and I had all these amazing plans I was going to do with all my free time but when I got rid of the job I also threw all sense of structure and ritual right out the window.
    It’s difficult at times since I’ve returned to voluntary homelessness but I feel like I’m starting to turn it around for the better.

  12. Kellee says:

    Wow, thank you for sharing this, Amy! I can relate to so much of it, particularly the notion that when you first set out working for yourself, time feels endless, and then at some point, it switches so before you know it, it’s 4.30pm and you wonder if it’s worth starting a work when you’ve been lounging all day…Ugh, such an easy rut to fall into.

    I have an odd rule that I set myself, and it always works: I don’t know why, but if I eat my breakfast in my pyjamas, the day gets off to a really slow start…I’ll sit around for ages, spot a knitting project that I spend a bit of time on, wash the dishes…before I know it, it’s 10am and it feels like the morning’s been wasted. So my one rigorous rule of the day is that I shower and dress pretty much as soon as I wake up. That way, I can eat and drink a coffee in half an hour and be at my desk fresh and bright. I know that working in pyjamas is a great pleasure to a lot of people that work from home, but for me, feeling like I’m ready to go for a walk the moment I feel like stretching my legs or getting some air, feels really important. It’s one of the great pleasures of being self-employed.

    Thanks once again for a beautifully written and totally relatable piece.

    Kellee 🙂

    1. amy says:

      Thanks for sharing Keellee! I did the same thing too and it totally helped – I even put on a spot of makeup to look presentable, and it really does make me feel prepared for what ever that’s coming my way. It’s odd, but it works!

  13. maria says:

    Rituals are essential.

    As a new entrepreneur I’m trying to configure my own ideal ritual and schedule.

    Thanks for this reminder!

  14. Amy, I’m always SO grateful for your insights, and this story in particular really rings true to my repeated experience. I left my job 6 months ago, and though the intention all along has been to find (meaningful) work along side my creative/ illustration endeavors, having so much time to work on my portfolio, Etsy shop, website… all of it… has been like falling into the rabbit hole. Ultimately the work has had a lot of room to grow, which is lovely, but I’ve also found myself 1) never going out 2) confused about my accountability 3) constantly critical of my work, even a work in progress 4) and stiffening up in my process because, you know, it can be so stifling to be your only resource for all things creative. Like everything else, our connectivity is a huge driving force, and becoming isolated as an artist (even in the temptation that is “free time”) can be quite frightening/ limiting. The first step for me was leaving the house with my sketchbook, rain or shine, and having an hour to draw in a local cafe. At least on days when I had many other obligations I was both getting out and finding a less stressful outlet for my projects to go through their birth stage. I’ve also found doing a little research at the local library instead of online gets me out among people, still doing work but happily engaged with the larger sphere. Add to that other scheduled things like meal prep and yoga, and I really enjoy my artistic days much more now! Sometimes I spend the whole day just writing lists or on Pinterest, still, and that is always a sure sign I missed one of my (ritual) steps.

    1. amy says:

      Oh wow, congrats on making the leap Laurie! It’s not easy, but once you get into a rhythm it will be much easier. One of my favorite days of the week is when I go to the local college to teach part time – I feel absolutely rejuvenated after spending time with fun colleagues and giving students a run for their money. Having specific deadlines and goals will help you to move along quicker too, from my experience – as well as networking for fun (instead of work). It will help you add perspective to your life and work! Good luck, and I’ll be cheering you on!

  15. Lorrie says:

    Yep..this is how my week has gone.

    Well, my husband and daughter are in South Africa visiting his parents, so for the first time in over ten years I am alone. It’s now day 5, and I have done nothing..nothing at all! I feel like I am in limbo. I got so angry with myself yesterday that I made myself a list, and went to bed at my normal time rather than 2.00 am which is what I have been doing. Today is better.

    However, I am a work at home Mum, and once I have got my girl to school, sticking to a timetable is hard. My biggest enemy is the web and my laptop. Leaving it downstairs is fatal, if I log on sitting on my sofa, then I am there for the day and get no work done. So now, I make sure it’s in my studio, so I still log on, but I am working at the same time, so it’s not my main focus or distraction.

    One thing I have done, is use my mobile and set alarms. So, one for mid morning break, one to remind me to go for a walk, one to eat lunch, and then the school run.

    Lastly, lists..lists…lists.

    Oh, and have you seen this? It’s good. It’s an animation called 29 Ways to Stay Creative. Janine posted it on Uppercase this week, but I had seen it before. Good tips.

    Stay happy everyone..
    Lorrie x

  16. halle cisco says:

    finally getting to read this post and i can totally agree. the more down time i have, the less productive i am. i need a routine and deadlines. often my own deadlines aren’t enough. if i am held accountable by someone else, it helps. another great post amy!

  17. Jane says:

    Funny. 17 years ago I was very lucky & nailed a job as a non-tenure assistant professor at a university. I was very young at the time and not well disciplined. As an OT I am skilled at structuring the environment for patients and making them move through the rituals of a day, but we all become what we need. I had the best of best… as long as I was in my office for hours 5 hrs/wk, at class (of course) and completed all my grading I could come and go whenever I wanted. There were semesters I had a 4 day work week, classes starting at noon and days ending at 1pm. Looking back, I was in my office more than 9 hours a day, frequently stopped in on weekends, graded papers while eating out and showed up at 7am to get a decent parking space. Returning to the clinic and real medical world was surreal and horribly restricting. At the moment I am between jobs and hoping to return to the world of me being in charge of my time. Thank you for the post & enjoy!

  18. Ananasa says:

    Amazing post! And so so true! We thank you for this! Home For Handmade

  19. Flossie says:

    Having read this I thought it was very informative.
    I appreciate you finding thee time and effort to
    put this article together. I once again find myself personally spending a lot off time both reading
    and commenting. But so what,it was still worthwhile!

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