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RSS Creativity: Routines, Systems, Spontaneity

Not just a single process, creativity is really a series of interlocking activities. A look at how to lay the groundwork for your "aha!" moment.

Most stories about creativity are stories about the 1%. We hear about the moment of inspiration – Archimedes leaping from his bath, Coleridge hallucinating “Kubla Khan” in an opium reverie. We don’t hear so much about the years of perspiration – Archimedes plugging away at failed experiments, Coleridge learning his craft by writing notebooks full of dull poetry.

Most of us don’t like to think about the labor involved in creativity. It takes away the glamour and the magic. But real creators know different. They know that creative work isn’t particularly glamorous. It requires discipline, routine, and a nitpicky attention to detail. But they also know that none of that takes away the magic.We often talk about “the creative process,” but it’s really several interlocking processes. The magic happens at the point where they intersect.

Here are three core processes you need to coordinate in your work as a creative professional:


Many creative people lead apparently boring working lives, sticking to the same routine every day. They do this because they understand instinctively what neuroscience has now confirmed – routine is a key that unlocks creative inspiration.

Circadian rhythms of arousal and mental alertness mean that certain times of day are especially conducive to focused creative work. The effect is magnified when familiar objects, surroundings, and other stimuli (coffee, background music) become associative triggers for creative states of mind.

Here’s how it works for Stephen King:

“There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”- via Daily Routines

Takeaway: Notice what time(s) of day you are most alert and creative. Dedicate that time to focused creative work. Use the same tools, in the same surroundings, even the same background music, so that they become triggers for your “creative zone.”


A rock-solid productivity system performs a dual function for your creativity: (1) It ensures that all ideas and action steps are captured, so that nothing slips through the cracks, in your own work and within your team, and (2) When you are confident that everything important has been captured, you are free to focus fully on the task in hand.

Systems are different from routines, since they are not dependent on circumstances. Major events can play havoc with your routine. When this happens, a good system acts as a safety net.

I discovered this over the summer, when I became a father and my daily routine went out the window for a couple of months. But having a decent productivity system in place meant that nothing important was forgotten and it all got done (eventually!).


Take a few moments to review how you spend your time. Study productivity systems and experiment to see what works for you. (Behance’s Action Method is one of the many tools available to streamline your workflow.)


Real creativity involves spontaneity and surprise, whether a simple “Aha!” moment or the lightning bolt of inspiration. Paradoxically, the harder you work at routines and systems, the more likely you are to experience that bolt from the blue.

Archimedes wouldn’t have had his bathtub revelation if he hadn’t been working hard on problems of volume and density. Coleridge’s notebooks show that much of the groundwork for “Kubla Khan” had been done in the months leading up to his famous opium trip.

But nose-to-the-grindstone productivity won’t get you very far unless you take a break, relax in the bath, have a beer with friends, browse the internet or a bookshop, or go for a walk and “wander lonely as a cloud,” as Coleridge’s friend Wordsworth put it. (Probably best to draw the line at opium though.) One of the best things about being a creative professional is that all of this stuff technically counts as work!

Takeaway: Take breaks from the usual routine. Be open to new people, places, and experiences. Welcome the thoughts that appear from nowhere. Have a notebook or phone handy to capture them.

How Does It Work for You?

What role do routines and systems play in your creative work? How do you leave room for spontaneity?

More Posts by Mark McGuinness

Comments (26)
  • george

    wow, this is a Really Simple Step to creative process. These action work help to narrow down points. I find it interesting of the rules of 3’s almost always applies in to keeping things in our memory.

    Thanks Mark for this, i am always searching for new ways of explaining what and why we as creatives do.

    This is now bookmarked and it may be a jumping off point for me to write something!


  • Maicon Sobczak

    Precisous observations. A liked specially the one about routine. The music have a strange power in unlock the creativity.

  • Ian Greenleigh

    My spontaneity tends to rationalize a lack of routine, and the worst part is, I’m completely conscious of this. I know–I just know–that if I develop a productive routine, I will be infinitely more successful. This post will hopefully spur me to do so once and for all. I really appreciate it, Mark.

  • Vanessa Knipper

    Great article! #3 lends credence to the justification of allowing employees to access social media sites (responsibly) on-the-job. Taking a quick break to check their Facebook or Twitter can give employees just the mini-break they needed to get back to churning out creative ideas.

  • Nathanael Boehm

    I find I often have “Ah-ha!” moments in the shower … and then forget the inspiration once I finally get in front of a keyboard or notepad to write it down. Happens when I’m falling asleep or wake up in the middle of the night … can’t quite wake up enough to write it down, and then have forgotten in the morning.

    Being primarily V and secondarily K in the VAK prefs visual stuff is ok, I can sometimes recall that. But audio stuff like music composition etc I have no chance. It’s gone within 30 seconds.

    Also, re “One of the best things about being a creative professional is that all of this stuff technically counts as work!” – yeah only if your employer recognises you as such. Being a technical creative type it’s a bit hard because I border on programming (which is most definitely not viewed as a creative occupation even though we all know that a lot of creativity goes into crafting elegant code) so you can get the evil glare when you chose to take your time with a problem … even though an hour break and then an hour’s work will be more productive than bashing your head against a problem for six hours straight.

  • Ryan Le Roux

    I too agree with the importance of setting up a daily routine to ensure all dimensions of your work flow get the special attention that they need. Through the familiarity of my own routine, it allows me to work most efficiently when I’m in the center of my working universe. Being able to reach out and grab the information I need is easy because I know where it is, and exactly what it is I am reaching for.

    I would highly recommend that all creative professionals do as well as understand and further develop their own creative process.

    Brilliant article! Thank you for sharing Mark.

  • Steve Benedict

    I’m 61, have owned several business including radio stations, a weekly paper and a real estate company. My favorite work was as a copywriter at the stations. I liked to get to my office by 7am…get my managerial duties out of the way by 10 am…and then let myself have some fun. I didn’t need to write my own ad copy, as we had 2 full time copywriters. However, I loved that creative time. I had my routines, too, including closing my door to EVERYONE. I liked to meditate for 5 minutes, have a bottle of cold water at hand and put some Led Zep or Queen on my CD player and noodle on how to distill down to 60 seconds…a hook, copy info and a catchy closing! Best time of my day!
    This is a great article. Complete but distilled to key points.

    Steve Benedict

  • Matthew

    Wow, that was a really good read – thank you!
    Now it’s time to wear my mexican hat, listen to some groovy tunes and get some work done! 😉

  • Gabriel Novo

    Mark, your article is spot on. When my life gets crazy and loses cohesion (its current state), not only does my creativity diminish, it downright disappears. I will admit, routine is a struggle, but I keep seeing that it’s the key to unlocking that inner potential, so at least I know I’m fighting the good fight.

    I love how this advice flies in the face of what most people consider the stereotypical creative type, a whirlwind of chaos and impulse, pulling magic from the ether seemingly at random.

  • Rachel Lynette

    I find that taking a break is particularly valuable. It feels like I am giving my brain a break, and I sometimes even feel guilty for taking a bath in the middle of the day (one of the perks of working from home), but often when I return to the computer, I have new insights.

    I think it is also valuable to know when you are at your most creative. An article I read recently in Psychology Today claims it is 9-11 am for most people. That seems about right for me as well.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • Flavio

    Hello Mark,

    I just loved your articles, please, continue doing this AWESOME job and GOD bless you!!!

  • Flavio


    I’ve just forgot to mention something that works for me.

    Always when I do some presentation that contain my creative ideas inside and I get some type of very positive feedback, I’m used to record that moment in mind using as trigger during “routine”, its all about motivation.

    I hope it helps someone either.

  • Simon Lopez

    Very nice tips, thank the internet for behance network. As for me, my creative process depends on a lot of things: my mood sometimes, the pressure, my surroundings. I try not to rush into a new project, chilling at first (talking), then do some research (explore), sharing ideas (push things), then start the creative process (Just do it!). All the time with music, always some different music, to get a different energy and so it will make that one project unique. It sounds confusing, but I always find it hard to stay on a ritual while working in teams.

  • Andrea

    I always consider your emails and writings as quality and very inspirational. Thank you.

  • My Happimess

    Mark, thank you so much for sharing this post and your thoughts on the creative process. I have been working on building a business based on creativity, which right now requires undoing everything I’ve been taught I *should* do. I love finding others I can relate to. It makes me feel like my way and my routine is not wrong, as long as it works for me. I do have a system that definitely reminds me of the process you have so eloquently outlined, it just doesn’t mirror the typical 9-5 (for me).

    Thank you again for sharing. I feel seen, heard and inspired 🙂

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks everyone, glad the piece struck a chord for you.

    It’s interesting to hear that you can all relate to this way of working – a mixture of discipline and relaxation – as being true to your own experience as creative professionals. And yet, as some of you have pointed out, it’s not always easy to convince the boss that “all of this counts as work”.

    Nathanael Boehm summed it up nicely: “so you can get the evil glare when you chose to take your time with a problem … even though an hour break and then an hour’s work will be more productive than bashing your head against a problem for six hours straight.”

  • John Hunter

    I like your focus on systems. I get frustrated with those that think having well functioning systems impedes creativity. As you mention, by removing the worry and time consumed by “fire-fighting” you free yourself to take time and energy to focus on innovation. You create the ability for time to be devoted to long term success. I agree having some time that is available to be used as you see fit is a good way to design a system for innovation. I have posted on this idea http://management.curiouscatbl

  • Christine

    I am afraid I let spontaneity play far to much a role in my creativeness than routine or systems. I write when I feel like it and I knitt when I want. It has left me short of work to submitt and lots of unfinished projects. To begin a routine is my goal. It poses a problem when every 3 to 4 months my routine changes some, and this has been happening for the last 5 to 6 years since I went back to college and have both children in school now. Spontaneity is convenient, but becoming unrealistic where productivity is concerned. Also, my creative efforts are not projects I necessarily want to be working on, or have initiated, but are assignments. I love learning though, and can’t see myself very far away from academia, it is now my goal to remain in some capacity within the walls of a university. (That sounded morbid, in a Stephen King kind of way.) So, onward to routine and maintaining a system that works to get myself in that place of productive creativity!

  • JC

    Really important part of creativity is hard work. Wonderful article. Thanks.

  • Brittany

    I totally agree – routine and systems can totally support creativity. Sometimes the sequencing is an important part to integrate as well. It’s interesting to notice how it makes a difference in terms of focus and inspiration

  • resume

    what a great post! thank you for sharing this information!

  • Jack

    It’s not about doing something when you feel like it, it’s far far from that. No artist, writer or musician would ever be able to ever do enough to make a living. It’s about all the times when a driven person forces themselves to work when they are feeling like doing something else. It is about not getting bogged down with routine, everyone will only enjoy something as much as a person joyed in creating it.

    You seem to be confusing spontaneity with DRIVE. It is not natural for a person to sit down and create, we are wired for taking care of primal business like securing food and taking care of our families. (or putting up a savings for security) For a person to want to sit down and create it has to have an importance attached to create a drive.

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    sharing such an interesting information. I think this is really a very nice
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  • Pixeldesigns1

    most of the time i have my zone in the morning i have my bureau next to my bed, so when i wake up i go directly to my office, i somethimes do art for inspiration or facebook to see good times i had or have with my friends.

  • Claire Bear

    Cool article. Speaks the truth. Gotta find that balance.

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