How to Develop a Creative Ritual

I’ve known since I was a child that I wanted to be a writer, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been making up stories in my head. But when it came to taking all the worldbuilding and character development and snippets of scenes rolling about my mind and actually recording them in a story, I got lazy, often getting distracted when I sat down at my computer to write.

In the past few years I’ve improved greatly on that front, and I’ve currently got two novel drafts sitting on my e-reader waiting to be revised and am working on a third. One of the things that helped me immensely was the realisation that if I really wanted to share my stories with the world I couldn’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. I had to create it myself.

I started reading about productivity, and one of the things I came across was this post from Susan Dennard (who happens to be one of my favourite writers) on the importance of creative rituals, in which she shares her own and other authors’ creative rituals.

I started playing about with my own ritual, and my productivity skyrocketed. It’s not the sole reason I went from scattered scenes to two full drafts, but it’s one of several productivity techniques that I’ve implemented that have helped me greatly.

I’m talking about writing primarily in this post, as that’s where I have the most experience, but much of this advice will still be helpful if your creative outlet is another art form.

Use a creative ritual to increase your productivity and develop a writing habit

Why use a creative ritual?

As Dennard explains, a ritual is essentially a way of creating a habit cue, so that when you do X, your brain knows it’s time to create. By implementing my own ritual, I’ve found that not only do I get less distracted, but my creative output is often of a higher quality. The ritual helps form a habit, which means I get myself in the best headspace to not just write, but to write well and to write fast.

Some days I sit down at my laptop and struggle to eke out a handful of words, words I’ll almost certainly end up deleting when I return to the story. Other days I have an entire scene before me within an hour.

There are a lot of factors that go into this disparity, many of which are outside my control, but one of the ones that is within my control is whether or not I’m following my own creative rituals.

This form of ritual helps to get into the creative flow quickly and, often, stay there for longer, because you’re not using willpower to reach your creative flow, but habit.

Do you need a creative ritual?

I think just about anyone who is creative would benefit from a creative ritual, but there are certainly those who would benefit more.

If you wish you were more creative than you (think you) are

Before I started experimenting with my own creative ritual, I was the kind of person who wished I was more creative than I was. I wanted to write stories, and I was always coming up with kernels of ideas, but they never really blossomed. At times I became convinced that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer; surely if I was, I would have written more by that point.

By implementing a creative ritual, I learnt that I did have the capacity to write stories. It wasn’t some innate failure in me that had prevented me in the past, but a failure in my method. It’s true that those unrevised drafts aren’t something that should ever see the light of day, but they’re a far better starting point than I had before.

If this sounds familiar to you, then I encourage you to experiment with your own creative rituals. For me – and I’d hazard a guess for you, too – it wasn’t an inherent lack of creativity, but a failure to nurture it.

You know how people like to say that willpower is a muscle, and if you don’t exercise it, you lose it? I think creativity is similar. If you don’t nurture your creativity and put it to use, you’ll struggle to find it when you look for it. Turning it into a habit, through the use of a ritual, means you’ll be exercising it on a regular basis without needing to seek it.

If you’re starting a new creative routine

NaNoWriMo is coming up and, while I’m not participating this year, I know many in this sphere of the blogverse are. For those of you unfamiliar with it, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month (though it is, in fact, international these days), in which participants aim to draft a 50,000-word novel during the month of November.

For NaNo-ers, a creative ritual has two benefits. For one thing, it helps you to establish a routine, particularly if your ritual follows on from a daily event (for instance if your ritual is getting up in the morning, making a cup of coffee, then sitting down at your desk).

For another, as I discussed above, it can help increase your writing speed and quality. Speed is, of course, important, if you’re writing a minimum of 1667 words every day. Personally, that takes anywhere from half an hour to an hour and a half, so if I’m racing against the clock anything that moves that closer to the 30-minute end of the spectrum is welcome.

Quality is also valuable, however. No one expects their NaNo novel to be publication-ready by December 1st, but most participants do want a draft that is workable at that time.

You’re not setting out to write 50,000 words of rambling nonsense, but 50,000 words that have some decent characterisation, world building, and plot – and, let’s be honest, probably a fair bit of rambling nonsense, too. As with speed, anything that pushes that draft closer to the ‘we can work with this’ end of the spectrum will be helpful.

You don’t have to be doing NaNoWriMo for this to be relevant, of course. Any time you’re setting out on a new creative routine, for instance if you’re picking up a hobby you abandoned a few years previously, a ritual will help you for the reasons outlined above.

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How to create your own ritual

We’ve established by now that a ritual is important, but how do you go about developing one?

Essentially, developing a creative ritual is a way of building a habit. While the ideal would be to get to the place where you can perform your ritual at any place and time of day and sink into that creative flow, when you’re trying to implement a habit it’s best to do it a the same time and place each day.

If you choose to write in the morning, for instance, then perhaps your creative ritual will be performed when you first get up; it might even incorporate your existing breakfast routine.

Alternatively, you might choose to write after work, in which case removing your coat and shoes might lead into making a cup of tea and sitting at your desk.

Because you’re trying to set up a habit cue here, it’s important that your ritual only be used for creativity. If you listen to a playlist, for instance, that is your creative playlist, and you should only listen to it while/before brainstorming or creating. Don’t listen to it while going for a run or doing the dishes – unless that forms a part of your creative ritual.

What we’re trying to do here is associate a particular action (ritual) with a particular result (creating), which is why it’s so important to ensure the ritual only ever precedes the creative work.

The computer dilemma

Computers pose a problem to this monotask aspect of creative rituals. While setting up an easel and picking up a paintbrush might be enough of a ritual for a painter, sitting down at your computer isn’t enough of a ritual for a writer, because chances are writing is not the only thing you do at your computer.

If you’re a fellow writer, I’m sure you’re familiar with what I’m about to say. You sit down at your computer to write (and for you, it must be at the computer, because your handwriting’s slow or illegible or you need to share your writing promptly), but you get an email notification when you turn it on. It’ll only take a few seconds to read the email and then you’ll be on your way.

Only the email contains a link, which you follow, and that reminds you of something else you wanted to do. You finish it up, and you close all the tabs you opened, until a little voice at the back of your head says, “Hey, while I’m here, I’ll just check Facebook quickly.” An hour or two pass before you realise you haven’t written a single word.

The issue here is that you’re sitting at your computer to write, but your brain doesn’t associate the computer solely with writing, but with social media, blogs, the news, watching movies, and more. If you spend, say, an hour a day writing at your computer and three hours browsing the internet, then when you sit down at your computer the habit you’re triggering is browsing the internet, not writing.

There are ways around this. You can use an extension like Leechblock to prevent access to time-sucking sites, or even turn off your WiFi, but neither of those deals with the fact that your writing habit is the same as your browsing habit, which means that you’re relying on willpower and external forces rather than your own habit cues.

Fortunately, there is another way, and it’s very simple. You just need to find a way to make your writing habit different from your browsing habit.

My creative ritual

For me, location is the key to solving my computer problem. When I’m browsing the internet or checking emails, I’m on the sofa or my bed, curled up like a cat, just as I would be if I were reading a book. When I’m writing, either fiction or blog posts, I’m seated at the dining table.

This is a ritual that started back in middle school but that I didn’t consciously realise – or take advantage of – until recently. When I was younger, I only ever used a computer for schoolwork, so when I got my own it sat on my desk – the same desk at which I sat to do my math problems or history homework. When I wasn’t doing homework I was most likely on my bed, reading.

Now that the internet has gotten more interesting I’m as likely to spend my leisure time on my computer as with a book, which means that my leisure habit, of sitting somewhere comfy and nuzzled into the pillows, has added a laptop to the mix – the same laptop I use to write on.

It took me a long time to figure it out, but after a while I realised that I write better and with less distraction when I take my laptop to the table (I don’t have a desk) for writing and then return to the sofa afterward. And so that became my writing ritual.

Sometimes I do write while sitting on the sofa, but anytime I feel like I should be writing but don’t have the motivation, I unplug my laptop and carry it over to the table, and I’m in writing mode.

For you, it might be something else, such as drinking coffee instead of tea or listening to a particular playlist. All you need to do is find a way to make your writing habit different from your browsing habit, so that when you perform the writing ritual your brain knows it’s writing, not browsing, you’re going to do.

Your existing habits

The key to developing my own ritual was examining my existing habits. I found what it was that my mind associated with relaxation versus creating, and set things up so that when I’m preparing to create I move to a location for creation.

Look to your own habits as a guide. If you’re a morning person, then try doing your creative ritual first thing. If you always listened to music when you studied at school, then build some creative playlists. If you find a walk clears your head, maybe that should form part of your ritual.

Likewise, consider which habits are detrimental. If you get home from work every day and turn on the TV, then either work around that by doing your creative work in the morning or break that habit. If you check your email first thing when you turn on your computer, then close your email client (or turn off notifications) and close any browser tabs for your email.

Use your habits as a guideline for developing a ritual that helps you to slip effortlessly into that coveted creative flow.

My creative ritual is simple, and what’s more, it’s portable. If I have my computer with me on holiday, I just need to set it up on a desk in the hotel room or a table in a café and I’m ready to go. There are other things I incorporate when I’m struggling, like doing it first thing in the morning, listening to the right music, having a cup of tea, etc., but the bare bones of it are simple, and that works best for me.

Over to you

Do you have a creative ritual? What form does it take?

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2 Comments

  1. Shari

    Thanks Nicola!
    I’ve enjoyed three of your posts today. The one on afternoon routine is what caught my attention on Pinterest. I really enjoyed this one on a creativity routine. I didn’t know I wasn’t the only one who always had stories in her head, but never got them to paper much. It was very encouraging and at a time I’ve been thimking more of trying to write. At this time it’s more for my Church’s newsletter and Facebook page than stories or poetry but it’s a start. Thanks again.

    -Shari

    • I’m so glad to have helped! I think it’s actually pretty common; all my writing friends are daydreamers first and foremost, and when you throw in a measure of perfectionism it can be hard to get that daydream on paper without losing some of its perfection.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

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