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]

Q+A: Should I follow my heart or my head?

Hi Amy!

I’ve recently seen a lot of similar styles out in the market (especially the mid-century style illustrations that seem to be very popular) and I’m wondering if I should just give in and give people what they want, instead of pushing my cute-sy, female illustrations instead. I’m torn between wanting to earn more money by doing the popular thing (which will eat me up inside) or keep doing the style I love, but doesn’t get me the recognition (and the money) I’m looking for because it’s just not what people want right now. What do I do?

~ Sandra J.

Hi Sandra!

I get this question a lot, and I want to let you know that you’re not alone in thinking about this!

While yes there might be certain styles that are more popular right now (also called trending), it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a market for your style. There’s a lot of reasons why you might not be getting the opportunities that you want. Right now off the top of my head the most glaring reason might just be that you’re introducing yourself (or even showing off your work) to the wrong market.

Going after clients who may only like a particular style will undoubtedly make your work harder. I’d suggest going off the beaten path here – instead of going after a company who might carry a variety of different styles (and unfortunately yours isn’t one of them), you would get better traction by being very specific in who you’re targeting. Instead of sending your resumes and portfolio en masse to every potential clients you come across, really know who their target audience is and make sure that your stuff works for them and helps add to their existing line; because otherwise it’s going to be an uphill climb for you, no matter how great your illustrations are.

Doing something that’s not your style will only crush your spirit in the long run, and that’s not healthy for any artist! You’ll end up jaded and confused, and not to mention lost when another trend comes along. It’s a vicious cycle that will only be doomed to repeat itself. So it’s not something I’d recommend to any artist – especially when your heart tells you that you should be doing something else.

Remember, just because you keep seeing styles that are more popular out there doesn’t mean that there isn’t a demand or room for your style. It might just take a bit more digging to unearth some cool companies that are looking for a someone like you! Sometimes it’s also helpful to put aside your dreams of working with big companies who are clearly not into your style right now too. Just because you’re not picked right now doesn’t mean you’re a failure! Don’t underestimate the pressure that you’ve put on yourself this way. You can always re-visit the idea again when you’ve worked with smaller, niche companies – you’d then have more to show, along with proof that your work sells. Those dream clients might just tune in after that, so don’t give up!


Have you ever harboured the same thoughts as Sandra – wanting to give in to what’s trending right now instead of just pushing through with what you believe in? I’d love to hear your story and any advice you have to offer for Sandra!

If you think this article is helpful, there’s more coming your way! Just sign up for our free and fun weekly email newsletter to get notified when a new post is up – precisely because I know how busy life can get!

How to draw like an artist

Moving my hand across the sheet of paper never really seemed like a big deal to me. I love the feel of paper, and how a brush feels in my hand. People come up to me all the time and tell me how great it is to be able to draw. And of course they turn their heads from side to side and pooh-poohed the notion that I put out – that everyone can draw. Someone asked “how does it feel like when you draw?”

I love swimming. I love pools, specifically. Not the ocean, because I freak out when I saw dead corals one time and I get anxious at the idea of not having my feet touch ground. I imagine that there are things in the water waiting to grab my legs and pull me down when my friends are busy playing. Yes, I’ve tried getting over it, but this was the only thing that I couldn’t get past. Heights? Repelling and roller coaster rides blunted the fear. Staircases? I hardly remember that I once was scared of it. Anyway, back to the water.

I didn’t know how to swim until I was a teenager. Back then I swam only on the shallow end. The end that when you stood up the water reaches your waist. The sissy end – my friends would call it. At first I didn’t want to join them, but it got lonely. I asked myself – what was the worst thing that could happen? Drowning? Just hang on to the side and you’ll be fine. What if your leg cramps up and you can’t move them? Just hang on to the side and you’ll be fine. Fine.

So I made my way over to the deep end.

And slowly over the next few weeks, I found that I could float quite well. And I drifted away from the edges, letting go of the reassuring feel of the mosaic under my fingers and the sound of the lapping water against the hidden water overflow outlets. Swimming wasn’t hard at all, I thought. I could tread water in a way that made my father proud (he’s a water baby!) with just my legs keeping me afloat. And I wouldn’t drown even if I just used my hands.

Bobbing against the water and I found myself relaxing – I was using my body to stay afloat, but it was rhythmic and automatic, and not struggling spasms, like before. It felt good. I felt great.

And I moved further away from the edge. I did underwater somersaults. Backward flips, front-freewheeling balls. I was weightless, and I never felt freer in my life.

Drawing, to me, reminds me of being in the water. Where not only is my mind free to wander and to do backflips, but my hand as well. I draw from my shoulder, and not just my wrist – I move my arm and my shoulder, just like I would as I float in a pool.

I don’t fight the water, I embrace it – and I can feel myself melt into the invisible pores of the water, as if we are one.

It’s exactly how I feel with a brush in my hand.

I allow it to take over; hand, body, mind, and heart. And it feels like I’m swimming.


How does it feel like for you? Whether you’re drawing, painting, or creating – what goes through your mind when you’re in the flow?

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[Illustration by Alessandro Gottardo]
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