. . .even when you’re busy or it feels really hard
Last month I offered my patrons on Patreon the challenge to spend ten minutes a day making art. I took on the challenge too.
Just ten minutes, but every day. I gave them a blank calendar for the month to track the challenge and told them to keep those Xs going without breaking the chain.
Many artists have used this daily commitment to foster their creativity to good effect. Both Austin Kleon, author of the wonderful guide Steal Like an Artist, and Stephen Pressfield, author of the ground-breaking book The War of Art, champion this approach.
Benefits of the challenge
Taking on the challenge of creating every day for ten minutes can be very helpful for getting out of a rut and also learning to make time for your art.
Just ten minutes a day can restore your creative flow, your inspiration, and pretty soon you find yourself spending longer on the days when you can.
You’ll discover the time you do have, and how to break away from your distracting addictions to the internet or whatever it is you do instead of doing what you love.
Keeping the challenge to ten minutes helps reduce your resistance to creating (though you’ll still have to battle it) and helps ensure you don’t break the chain, no matter how busy your day is.
You will be surprised to see all that can get done in a very short amount of time. Stories get written. You learn to play the guitar. You fill up a sketchbook with drawings.
Best of all, you are making art every day.
Getting through the slog
But initially, the going can be tough. Here’s how I felt in the middle of the month-long challenge:
“So far the results have been awful. I have no inspiration. I’m dried up from a combination of overwork during the last few months and overstress at world events. I call this phase ‘grinding the gears.’
“Right now, I don’t like anything I write. Nonetheless, I keep writing, because by oiling the gears, I invite the muse to return. I show up reliably and she is likely to start showing up too.
“I know it works because I’ve been through this phase many times before, and it’s only through persisting in writing that I break through suddenly one day to a voice that excites me.
“Meanwhile, I experiment with different approaches to those ten minutes. Many days I spend much more than ten minutes.
“And, I also keep an eye out for what new sources of inspiration I need to feed my muse now to entice her out of hiding.”
Variations on a theme
Similarly, last month I suggested to one of my students, who has struggled to make time for her art, that she spend an hour a day in her studio for a month.
She had expressed that she keeps letting other things in her life take precedence and was feeling frustrated by this. So, I invited her to make a strong commitment to herself and her art for one month and see what happens.
I advised her to do this in the morning before everything else starts to get in the way. I told her she could use the time any way she wanted as long as she was in the studio. She could doodle. She could flip through art books for inspiration. She could stare out the window. She should let this be free playtime.
Here is what she discovered.
Sometimes she would spend an hour in the studio early in the day. Sometimes she wouldn’t get to it until the end of the day, when she would sit in bed with her sketchbook. Both felt good.
She worked both on a big painting, a much larger canvas than anything she is used to, and on small projects.
She also discovered that, after five days she needs a weekend off to replenish. This is her rhythm, and it’s right for her. It helps her return to the studio with new energy, refreshed.
So, she needed to let go of holding fast to the idea of having 30 uninterrupted days crossed off on her calendar.
She also discovered that sometimes after, say, 40 minutes, she felt done, but she would force herself to do a full hour, and those last 20 minutes were just painful. In other words, that wasn’t helping her be in a good relationship with her muse, her creativity. It turned out she needed to let go of holding so tightly to the full hour every day too.
So, she discovered a better intention was to gift herself an hour a day of creative time five days a week.
And, if she was faithful to the intention, not letting other busyness eat up all her time, then she didn’t need to be a tyrant with herself about it. She could allow a little flexibility, surprise, variation into the mix, and ultimately that benefitted her creativity.
But she also acknowledged it’s a delicate balance to maintain.
Finding your own rhythm
Each of us has to find what works for us. What truly works to support our best creative flow and our best life.
What makes this so tricky is that many of us are masters at lying to ourselves about this, fooling ourselves, letting our resistance get the better of us. And then suddenly, weeks go by and we haven’t made any art, and our lives stop feeling joyful and meaningful.
The challenge is finding and maintaining your own creative flow. When you give yourself permission to vary your routines or spend less time than you planned in the studio, you have to be careful that you aren’t sliding back into making no time for your art.
Or, when you tell yourself that you can’t create unless you have at least two hours uninterrupted, but then rarely give yourself those two hours, that is just sabotage.
So, you have to find a middle way, like the Buddha taught, between asceticism and indulgence, between structure and flexibility. You have to find your own way, through experimentation and self-honesty.
Half-way through this past month I skipped one day but played music instead of writing on that day, so I counted it. That weekend I skipped Friday completely, too fried from the onslaught of the world crisis to do anything. It seemed like a kindness to myself. But then I skipped that Sunday too and that didn’t feel good.
The next week I was back in the saddle, writing daily at least ten minutes, recommitted to the challenge, and finally inspiration was beginning to flow. By the weekend, I needed both days off, or at least, I thought I did.
The balance between structure and spontaneity
Most of us have both an inner taskmaster and an inner rebel. They go hand-in-hand.
Neither one in its extreme form is our friend, though both have gifts that can be channeled in service to our art.
One gives us the commitment and structure to show up devotedly for our art. The other grants variety and zest that helps keep things new and not turning into dull routine, feeling like a should or have to instead of a get to or want to.
Life is hard in many ways. Making art should bring joy and pleasure, as well as meaning, to our lives. So, we want to preserve the pleasure and not turn our art-making into drudgery.
Artists need structure and commitment to get past resistance to creating, but once past it, we also need self-kindness and an understanding of what truly fosters our best creative flow and our best lives. And we need a little wildness to keep things fresh and alive.
I find it’s less important to create every single day than it is to find a consistent pattern and stick to it devotedly.
If it works best for you to create five days a week for an hour, then make that your religious practice. If it’s one day a week all day or every day for at least ten minutes, stick to that. You have to find what works to maintain your best inspired flow, and what’s possible, given the real constraints of your life.
If you don’t yet know, experiment. I highly recommend trying the 10-minutes-a-day challenge for a month.
Taking on small challenges, conducting month-long or short-term experiments, inspires and motivates you to create and helps you gather information about your creative rhythms and what truly works for you.
Then, take what you’ve learned from the experiment and use it to foster an ongoing, joyful, inspired creative life. A life that is uniquely yours.
To your best life,
P.S. Every month I give my patrons a creative idea, challenge and/or theme to play with, along with many other rewards. I’d love to have you join us. Click here to find out more: https://www.patreon.com/maximakahn