Not long ago the popular business coach John Di Lemme broadcast a simple idea that applies to anyone wishing to succeed. It goes like this:
“I am your constant companion. I am your greatest helper or heaviest burden. I will push you onward or drag you down to failure. I am completely at your command. Half the things you do you might just as well turn over to me and I will be able to do them quickly and correctly. I am easily managed — you must merely be firm with me. Show me exactly how you want something done and after a few lessons I will do it automatically. I am the servant of all great men, and, alas, of all failures as well. Those who are great, I have made great. Those who are failures, I have made failures. I am not a machine, though I work with all the precision of a machine plus the intelligence of a man. You may run me for a profit or run me for ruin — it makes no difference to me. Take me, train me, be firm with me, and I will place the world at your feet. Be easy with me and I will destroy you. Who am I? I am a habit!”
Favourable habits reap favourable results. It seems that simple habits contribute more to success than luck, happenstance, or even a favouring economy. Further, recent studies on the nature of genius indicate that self-generated habits are mighty muscles indeed. While all of us who wish to master specific skills need to tailor our habits accordingly, here are a few for starters:
Squeeze out paint in the morning before your coffee is cold.
Program creative work balanced with rest, exercise and study.
Train yourself to be regular, punctual and workmanlike.
Shoot down your lazy tendencies before they shoot you.
Do whatever it takes to honour your personal perception of quality. This may mean slowing down, speeding up, multitasking, single-tracking, going back to basics, being risky, being cautious, dreaming, concentrating, winging it or even reading the instructions. Apparently, one of the most common bad habits these days is not reading the instructions. This can apply to artists. We need to regularly refresh the habit of truly looking, truly seeing and truly understanding. No big deal. It’s just a habit.
Esoterica: John Di Lemme was a 24-year-old stutterer working in his family art gallery who dreamed of becoming a motivational speaker. Over a seven-year period of hardships, challenges and obstacles, John focused on his dream and ultimately built a marketing team of over 25,000 representatives in 10 countries. His idea was simple: with the right habits one could see progression to a higher state. In the words of the great art mentor and teacher Robert Henri, “If a certain activity, such as painting, becomes the habitual mode of expression, it may follow that taking up the painting materials and beginning work with them will act suggestively and so presently evoke a flight into the higher state.”
In praise of no habits
by Brett Busang, Washington, DC, USA
Working on a sort of conditioned impulse is as good as any habit in the book. If you want to do something, “habit” will follow. Regularity is good only for the bowels. One’s best work often comes out of a prolonged absence or voluntary exile. Having fresh paint on the palette every morning can lead to a routine-oriented performance. I will grant you, however, that if the paint isn’t there, nothing can happen.
Duke Ellington said that he had no discipline at all — a shocking thing to hear if you subscribe to the notion that you MUST do something rather than WANT to. Because he was responsible for the musicians who introduced his work to the public, he had to keep them up in style. That took a calculated approach. Touring with the band was something that may have also required pin-point reliability. But, once these things were done, he could do any damned thing he wished. His best work was composed in hotel rooms or while he was sitting around in his Washington Heights apartment “doing nothing.”
The artistic license — or, rather, licentiousness — favored by myth-makers is anathema to sustainable creativity. But so are habits of almost any kind. Art (what there is of it) is ultimately mysterious and can’t be prompted — though I will admit it can be edged along. And I’m talking about art, not a reliable product that does reasonably well in the marketplace and challenges no one.
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Discipline has a better outcome
by Tim Adams, Eureka Springs, AR, USA
For those of us that get our wisdom out of the Bible, it says “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Establishing great habits and a solid work ethic takes not only consistency and discipline, but also a vision of your future. Visualizing where you are going in life can be a pretty foggy concept, but as you start to see through the fog, you know that your hard work, your discipline and your overcoming attitude in life will have their payoff one day. The word “discipline” comes from the Greek sophronismos, which means the saving of the mind. It stands to reason that disciplined people in life have a better outcome than those that work in short bursts and don’t stick with it. Or, at the very least, they won’t go crazy.
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Success with number one
by Sal Fuess, CA, USA
I tried number one this morning: “Squeeze out paint in the morning before your coffee is cold” and “Wow!” what a difference. I usually get up, coffee then computer… bad idea – by 10:30 I will have wasted 4 hours in that black hole of cyberspace and it just goes downhill from there. Also, they complement nicely with Napoleon Hill’s Laws of Success which I am working my way through.
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The habit of breaking habits
by oliver , TX, USA
One must have good habits, agreed. However, one must structure them to force change or break them to continue to grow. Some habits of how to look at and represent the world, if not challenged, will lead to the same results again and again. Some habits, if not challenged, will prevent you from exploring technological change. I know some who still use their pens, paper and type writers and shun computers and the Internet. Some photographers reject digital. I’m sure that when paint first became available in tubes, some rejected using them even though it opened up painting outside.
Be careful, but a habit of intelligently breaking habits or trying new things and looking at things differently — at least occasionally — may be important.
Artists in need of process
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA
I have a 19 year old student whom I have taught to always study his work before he even thinks about a brush or paint. He has adapted this habit completely, and it shows in his work. It has improved his concentration, determination, analytical skills, recognition of various problems in a painting and enabled him to discover better solutions to them — and, indeed, has helped him become more creative and imaginative about these solutions. It is a process. Even artists must have a process.
Habits clear the brain
by Nicoletta Baumeister, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I used to jeer at people with habits believing that such persons could not be truly creative, free thinkers. Now I believe that all potential requires discipline to become actuated.
The best thing about habits for me is that it clears my brain of unnecessary decision making thus freeing my time for the very real work of creating. If I already know I am going to be in the studio at nine, I don’t have to consider if I should do the dishes instead. If I know I am going to answer phones at lunchtime, I can work blissfully ignoring every jangle and ring till twelve. If I say dinner is at seven, I don’t have to think about what to cook until six; you get the idea. I remember reading about a very successful manager who had five identical sets of suits, shirts, ties, socks and shoes and who spent winter and summer vacations every year on exactly the same dates in exactly the same locations.
Also, there was a study discussed today on CBC that demonstrated that the quality of one’s decision-making goes down as the amount of information one has to process through memory goes up. Apparently memory and decision-making are in the same area of the brain. I think that is what they were saying anyway. I was busy painting.
Habit of large to small
by Vivian Anderson, Sydney, Australia
It has always been my habit to indeed go into the studio before the coffee’s cold. It’s also recently become a habit for everything we don’t use, or is boxed for future use, to be stored in a “small” corner of the studio, but that corner has grown to take up much more space than fair. It also was my habit to work on very large canvases and swing the trowel freely. Not so now: no space to swing the cat, either. Sooo, I took up another habit, which required not so much physicality, but just as much seeing, thought, and understanding. I now work at 5 x 7 inch canvases and have narrowed it down more by use of a tight, limited palette… a great exercise in seeing and control. I call them my ‘SMALLS.’ I’m not missing the “big picture” because I see almost as much in the small space I work in (canvas and studio!)… and can almost do a “painting a day,” as suggested by you a while back… very satisfying… no use complaining about the space… I just reinvented my habits.
Habit of regular painting
by Charles Peck, Punta Gorda, Florida, USA
Lucidity in paint or in words comes from clear thought stripped of embellishments. After 40 plus years of painting and living various rhythms, if there was one thing I had to pass on, it would be your letter on habits. All else comes from this.
I have just had a change of habit and it was kindly forced on me by events resulting in personal growth both artistically and in my understandings. It was nothing but a need to schedule regular painting sessions. I have in the past proudly made it a point to not follow a schedule for most of my life and still managed to accomplish most of what I sought or tried by focusing and diving in full, so I have been surprised at the result of just knowing that I shall be painting at such and such a time and day.
It is mental, and of course some physical, but I am sure 90% of the increase is simply from my “body” (which includes the grey tissue in the noggin) knowing what it is I’m going to be doing. It is remarkable. I doubt anyone younger will get it but if they will take a chance and trust it they will never regret it.
The miracle of small steps
by Pamela Ellis, Mission, BC, Canada
I have recently come to realize the enormous significance of habits in my daily life and how they have been affecting me. It seems that, on any given day, I am either stuck in one unconsciously, or striving to create a new and improved one, or attempting to break free from an old one that I find is no longer serving me. I have found that even the way I think is a habit. What I place my attention on, or for that matter what I do automatically with no attention paid to it whatsoever, my actions, my reactions… good, bad or indifferent, it’s all habit. Even trying something new, breaking free and seeing true is an ongoing attempt at creating the habit of conscious awareness.
Old recordings, new experiences, neural pathways flooded with sparks of energy, thought and idea… wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of our habits were healthy, productive and leading us along the path to our highest potential as artists and for that matter in our lives in general? So why aren’t they?
Fear! We’re afraid to leave the safety of what we know, what we’re used to. We do want to change, to improve, but how? We may start off the year with all of these wonderful resolutions, but in short order most, if not all of them, pass away and eventually we fall back into our old ruts. Why? Because it’s comfortable. Our brains are programmed for it. The question is… is there a way that we can change this? Can we change our programming? I honestly believe the answer is yes. And I think that I may have found a way to do this.
Currently I am in training to become a Kaizen-Muse creativity coach. Your article connects very closely with what I am learning at the moment. In the Kaizen philosophy it has been proven that small steps — often ridiculously small steps taken in a steady and progressive manner — can actually bypass the fear center in the brain allowing us to move into the direction of our choosing. The steps may be small but they can definitely produce wonderful, significant results.
Asking small questions, thinking small thoughts, taking small actions, solving small problems, giving yourself small rewards, and identifying small moments all combined with the occasional burst of innovation now and then when the time is right, can actually produce amazing results. They say that it takes 28 days to instill a new habit. Most of us, me included, cannot stretch our willpower to fight the fear and discomfort of radical change for that long. And that’s why we give up. But if we take a different approach and become gentler with ourselves… taking one small step at a time, keeping the process easy and comfortable, and taking care to avoid waking the fear center, it is guaranteed that the results will be well worth it.
In closing I would like to recommend two books that I have found incredibly helpful. They are the base to the coaching method that I am involved with. These are:
These books have helped me immensely and I’m sure that they could help anyone who would like to create happier, healthier, more productive habits in their life.
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Happy work habits
by Lucy Schappy, Comox, BC, Canada
I am writing today as a painter who has recently officially changed from a career as a dentist to a career as an artist. Now that I have decided to pursue painting without the distraction of my other job I am finding an increased seriousness and some wonderful, naturally occurring changes in the way I work. I believe that these ‘habits’ are already having a positive impact on my work.
I have turned off the music, which I relied upon in the past to help me find my way, stimulate me, energize me… whatever. Not only did the music dictate the mood, it tended to regulate the speed and abandon with which I proceeded. Now, instead of using music to guide me, I can hear my own voice more clearly. I am realizing that it was more distraction than help and I can concentrate more fully without it. The combination of turning off the music and having more time to paint than I had previously is causing me to paint slower and more carefully. I am more present and better able to make the myriad of decisions that are necessary in this kind of work. Refining a daily routine that incorporates the other demands such as managing the home, family, exercise, dog, community, etc, while guarding a stable slot in the schedule for my work will allow me to give it all I’ve got.
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Bird and Flowering Plum
sumi-e painting by
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Trish Booth Pieterse who wrote, “We create our own reality and if we create with purpose then we may succeed with ease.”
And also Diane McClary who wrote, “As well as painting, I teach. I need to do both, as they are both a passion to me and feed my soul. The artists that benefit from the classes are willing to create new habits, and learn by leaving the old habits behind.”
And also Lisa Chakrabarti of Los Angeles, CA, USA, who wrote, “It takes approximately three weeks for a new habit to become hardwired into one’s brain and psyche. Three weeks! There’s no excuse for not establishing a (good) habit when it just takes three weeks. The harder part is to find — and address — all those habits.”
(RG note) Thanks, Lisa. It seems that younger people can learn habits in hours or even minutes, whereas older people may indeed take weeks to properly entrench new neural pathways. Desire and imperative are factors of course, and a felicitous mind can speed new adoptions at any age. Self-sabotage is rampant at any age, as well, and the tiniest of children are not without inexorable stubbornness.
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