When the average person thinks of an “Artist,” or even just a very creative person, that they don’t necessarily associate them with the idea of “discipline.”
Lots has been written about the business of being an artist, and what it takes to be commercially successful – planning, hustle and drive. Perhaps in this context, the idea of a “disciplined artist” begins to make more sense. I think that this is true, but I also think that the need for discipline as an artist goes well beyond the need to treat your work like a business.
As someone dedicated to a craft, it is not good enough to try to create only when the mood strikes. In fact, using this as your gauge seems almost destined to ensure that the mood strikes less. Building the habit of creation, in fact, is the best means to promote creativity.
After many years in the military, I have cultivated self-discipline. It is only in the past few years that I’ve come to recognize what a valuable tool it is in many aspects of my life. As a writer who works from home, it’s very easy to become distracted from my work. Social media, knocks on the door, that book sitting unread on my coffee table and looming household chores all beckon. What I use to defeat these distractions every day is self-discipline.
I’ve built a daily routine that makes it unthinkable not to spend time writing, but which also includes time for meditation, exercise, and quiet “unstructured” contemplation. By blocking off space in my daily schedule where I have time to merely think (while walking – I am an unrepentant flâneur) I unlock the creative flow that I then apply during my structured daily writing time. I try not to be overly rigid with my schedule – there has to be the space to spend time outside on an unexpectedly warm day, or to spend extra time with friends and family – but I have built a strong enough habit that not to write feels, well, wrong.
A second element of self-discipline comes into play when I am writing, but am feeling what Steven Pressfield calls “resistance.” (If you haven’t read “The War of Art,” I can’t recommend it more.) Self-discipline is what lets you lean into the discomfort and grind out the work. Admittedly, not everything that gets produced this way is salvageable, but just the act of getting some words onto the page often unlocks the mental log jam and makes the next draft easier.
The final element of self-discipline relates to working to completion. Many people start but don’t finish projects, for any number of reasons. Three unfinished screenplays in a drawer are as useful as an empty drawer. Completing a project, even though imperfect, creates a positive habit, as well as a “draft” that can become the basis of a more polished product. It can be easy to become discouraged with a project that is not working out as well as one hoped, and to abandon it. Self-discipline reminds us that if a project was worth starting, that it is worth finishing.
Whether you create full time, or in the margins of your day, develop a habit around your work. Structure the time you need to create, as well as the time you need to fuel your creativity, and you will build an unending flow of creations that will astound you.
It may be counter-intuitive, but: self-discipline unlocks creativity.