As I gain more experience in my music career (read: as I get older), I’m realizing that feeling successful has very little to do with what we accomplish or what is recognized by other people.
If I reflect on the various times I have felt the most satisfied with my work, it’s when I've made steady progress toward a worthwhile goal or when I've regularly created with intention. Those two things may sound inspired, but they’re often not.
It’s not the quality of daily progress or the value of your daily creations that produces the satisfaction, but the act of doing on a regular basis.
We have all experienced performances where we’ve been totally “in the zone” as well as practice sessions that feel like we are uninspired and banging our head against the wall. And yet we keep coming back to the art, to our practice.
Because we know deep down that the real satisfaction is in the making - in working through the ruts and the imperfections and coming out a little bit better.
The satisfaction in a creative career is not actually succeeding, but creating regularly with intention in a genuine way.
Realizing this is where we start to get to the magic.
Routine Inspired: Getting it done in spite of yourself
I was moved to action after reading Deep Work by Cal Newport and Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Both books were excellent from cover to cover but, coming off of a year (or two) of feeling relatively uninspired and mostly stuck, there were two main ideas that basically jumped off the page and hit me over the head.
Newport’s whole book focuses on the value of deep work (uninterrupted, undistracted time spent focusing on a cognitively demanding task), and he gives concrete advice on what we can do to make it fit into our lives.
Obviously as a musician or disciplined creative you are no stranger to deep work, but how often do you allow your phone to pull you away from a practice session or put off practicing for something that could wait, like answering emails? Newport stresses making time for deep work each day and tracking it somewhere you can see it.
Essentialism by Greg McKeown focuses on being more selective about what we deem worthy of our valuable time, sacrificing what is good for what’s great, and choosing to focus our efforts toward what we deem essential.
These two concepts together have the potential to completely shift what we can achieve in our day to day life as creatives by implementing routine, something that McKeown stresses is a must, and pairing it with Newport’s suggestion to track yourself doing the deep work.
“Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles. Without routine, the pull of nonessential distractions will overpower us. But if we create a routine that enshrines the essentials, we will begin to execute them on autopilot.” - Greg McKeown
After reading these books I considered, did I have a daily routine? What did it look like? Had I actively and consciously chosen what was included in it?
The answer was that while I had things I did each day, there was not a lot of intention behind what was essential and I was, in fact, getting pulled in a million directions all the time. So I let myself daydream a little bit - what would I do every day if I could choose to focus on what was absolutely essential? What might that look like in a morning routine?
All that daydreaming made me realize that the only thing stopping me from doing deep work and what was essential every day was me. It was my lack of planning and intention that was leaving me in a creative rut feeling lost and rudderless.
Putting it into practice
I proceeded to make a morning routine with a focus on what I know needs to happen for me to focus on my essentials: being a good musician, feeling balanced and being creative. During this routine my laptop stays closed, and my phone is on silent somewhere I can’t see the screen.
It looks roughly like this:
Some days I’ll flip writing and yoga, and you’ll notice this is not militaristically timed. It does leave me a small window to answer emails, but not until I have done the most essential tasks with uninterrupted attention.
Starting my day this way means I don’t get conned into sacrificing something non-negotiable for something that needs done “immediately.”
I don't keep this routine on the weekends. Instead I fit these things in at whatever point they make sense (or leave them out if they don't). Having done these tasks so deliberately during the week, I can afford to be flexible on the weekends when I might have other things I want to do, like hang out with my husband, run errands, or read more.
You may think this all seems obvious, but the difference is that I am truly treating my morning routine (as inspired by Essentialism) as the deep work that Cal Newport discusses. I allow myself to fully engage in the tasks at hand, and therefore can tackle creative challenges in a way that stretches my abilities each day.
Although I wasn’t taking on any remarkably new and earth shattering tasks, giving new attention and priority to my routine created a significant and noticeable difference in less than a month:
1. Clearing mental clutter: Having a routine in place that I follow without having to figure it out each morning frees up mental space. I know that once I’ve had my coffee I will meditate, and that once I do that I will practice. It’s not up to how tired or awake I feel - each task gets done because it's part of the routine. (Think of the famous anecdote about successful people like Steve Jobs owing seven of the same outfit so they don’t have to think about what they wear each day).
2. Create more by default: I was writing more blogs, creating more resources for teaching, learning more music, etc. All of that was without any herculean effort on my part, only that I made sure there was time to do these things each day.
Generating more output automatically helps us feel more successful as creatives. Whether we’re making a defining element of our work or not, we are exploring our potential and making.
3. Reduce internet "faffing" and self judgement: Another massive benefit of this routine is the way it has reduced my internet scrolling and browsing in the morning. I intentionally read a few daily blogs that I love and may or may not shuffle through a few friends posts before it’s time to start the routine. I spend so much less energy on wondering why I’m not accomplishing what other people are and spend it figuring out what I can create on any given day instead.
Have I have measurable success since I started this morning routine? Maybe it depends on what lens you are viewing things through, but I feel productive, inspired, and creative and I would call that a win for routine.
Give it a try
I hope this inspires you to implement your own routine by considering what is essential to you and how much deep work you are really doing (I’d also encourage you to read the books I listed above!). If you want to give it a shot, I’ve found it helpful and motivating to see my dedication in writing.
You’ll find a free download here of a routine tracker that you can use to tally the days you do deep work/stick to your routine. Tape it up somewhere you’ll see it each day when you begin your routine.
It takes time for things to sink in - this is a monthly tracker for a reason, so give it time. It’s also great to evaluate at the end of each month. What positive outcomes did you have? What’s not lining up with your essentials? Just because something is essential to us now, doesn’t mean that won’t fade with time and that's ok.
Establishing this type of routine has given me a tangible way to grow that has nothing to do with my perception of success or my feelings of self confidence.
No matter how good or bad I feel about myself on a given day, how inspired or uninspired I am, the routine isn’t about creative genius or accomplishment. It’s about investing in what I value, and I can always get on board with that.