How having rituals will allow you to be more creative

Pablo Amargo

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]

Artists: 5 things you can learn from Ylvis

So I’ve just been let on about Ylvis two weeks ago– two brothers, Bård and Vegard Ylvisaker from Bergen, Norway who has their own comedy talk show and has now garnered millions of new fans because of their viral videos (thanks VIvian & Shemei!). And if you have not heard of “The Fox” (shown above) and the lesser known video “Stonehenge” – you have got to check it out. Just hit play, and I’ll wait for you to be done – because if you didn’t, you’ll have no clue as to what the rest of this article is about.

Now, I’m not sure what your first reaction would be, but for me, when I heard their songs I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t drinking water or chewing anything because I could have spewed it out all over the screen. Like it or love it – there are many divisive thoughts about the brothers and the videos that got them worldwide attention since September 2013.

But clearly they must be doing something right – they’re on fully booked tours, contemplating signing record deals from the biggest companies, as well as interviews and guest appearances lined up to go. While the first viewing made me go WTF several times throughout; when I replayed their videos to Mr. T, I found myself enjoying (and yes, even appreciating) their weird sense of humor even more. The howling, the weird body spasms, the sheer randomness of it all, and how they’ve managed to create not just one, but a few tracks at that. It was pure silliness and they’re embarrassingly ingenious.

It reminded me of a time when my sister and I were young, I think I was about 12 – and we made recordings of ourselves on our mini compo (do people even call it that these days?). We sang the weirdest songs which we made up on the spot, and pretended we were hosts on a radio show – making up characters that were being interviewed as we went along. And we were so serious about it too (laughing out loud was only allowed during replays!) One time, we even interviewed our parents to find out what it felt like to be our parents. And suffice to say their response was hilarious (and no this little gem won’t find its way onto the internet.)

And so, listening to Ylvis brought back a lot of memories. While we did a lot of silly things when we were young – I realized that we as adults would hardly think to do the stuff that these brothers did; and that goes for the stuff that we used to do as kids. So in honor of the comedic duo, I’d like to list down 5 things that you can learn from them in your effort of growing your art (and business).

Lesson #1: Not taking yourself too seriously

Ylvis made a deal with one of the hottest producers in New York – a company called Stargate who has produced videos for Beyonce and Rihanna, and wanted to see how they would come up with something in response to their challenging material. They wanted to see how far they could push the producers (who were used to doing classy, normal, regular productions) and in their words, thought it was “more fun to abuse them somehow“.

I think that with all the seriousness of finding your way as an artist, and in an effort to reach certain financial goals; you’ll find that the element of fun goes away really fast, especially if you’ve been working hard without having much results to show for it. Not taking yourself seriously helps to remove the pressure from dealing with the necessary (although mundane) and to just allow yourself room to laugh and play.

Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid of being laughed at. Or criticized.

They are comedians, so they were obviously looking to get laughs out of their material – but beyond that, there were also the people who don’t get it. The people who would not hesitate to yell out “that’s stupid!”, or close the YouTube video that they’ve been watching, 2 minutes into one of their songs.  Bård and Vegard don’t really care what you think because clearly they’re enjoying themselves.

If you’ve ever shied away from putting up your work because you don’t believe you’re good enough, or because you are afraid of what other people think of you, it’s time to stop. People are going to have an opinion on what you do, no matter if you like it or not. The trick is to not let their thoughts and actions affect you – and you can do this by proactively not seeking them out in the first place. If you allow others to project their fears onto you, you’ve lost before you ever begin.

Lesson #3: Being true to yourself

While their videos were hilarious, I’m pretty sure it was also also because what they’ve put out was relatable. I’m sure there was more than one person who wondered what Stonehenge was about (hands up if you’re one of them). While being able to put those sort of questions (and their hilarious subsequent answers) makes for an interesting video, it was their offbeat charm of being true to what they do that makes them shine.

With artists, there’s a constant internal struggle between doing what you want and doing what others want of you. And while finding a balance is important (no one will ever pay you to sit on a couch for 12 hours to watch MadMen) there is a lesser-known path that might just hit the sweet spot and it’s about creating what others can relate to. This way, you’re able to tell your personal story, and you get to build an emotional connection with your audience. Give it a go.

Lesson #4: Don’t do it for the money

Did Ylvis hope to gain lots of money or eyeballs for their video? They weren’t looking to do so. In fact, they didn’t expect much from it at all (prior to The Fox video, their highest grossing views ever was 2.2 million, against The Fox’s 73 million.)

While there isn’t anything wrong with creating for the sake of getting lots of money in return, you’ll soon find out that if you don’t enjoy the process then it gets a lot harder as you go along. You’ll feel torn up inside, and very soon, you’ll look for a way out no matter how much the ends justify the means.

Which brings us to:

Lesson #5: Do your best work, and the rewards will come.

Ylvis didn’t do any of this for anyone – they were just being themselves, and they’ve worked hard to get to where they want to be. The videos that went viral was only the icing on top of the cake, built on a foundation that they’ve put in place for a long time.

For artists who have been putting themselves out there, and who have continuously put in the hard but necessary work to get to where they want to be, give yourself a pat in the back. But if you’ve found that you haven’t gotten to where you want to be, or can’t quite see what the future lies for you, I think that going through lessons #1 to #4 might be able to help shed some light to help you along your way.


I’d love to hear from you – is there someone who has inspired you in your creative journey? Whether it’s a celebrity, a personality, or perhaps it’s just your high school teacher – no one is off limits. Was it what they did, or what they said? Share your insights with us!


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