4 Habits of Highly Disciplined Creators

A lot of people think of creativity and discipline as opposites. But nothing could further from the truth…

Creative discipline is the difference between wishing you were creative and actually creating stuff.

Many of the most creative people the world has ever known were surprisingly disciplined in their approach to creation:

  • When he’s writing a new novel, Haruki Murakami wakes up at 4:00 am every day, writes for 4-5 hours, then goes for a run or swims.
  • Beethoven was notorious for composing symphonies while going for walks religiously each day.
  • And Thomas Edison relied heavily on a serious power napping routine to fuel his creative inventions.

In my own creative journey, one of the things I’m most proud of is that I’ve never missed a week of writing new essays and guides in over three and half years since I decided to start a newsletter.

If you asked me what my “secret” was to that kind of consistent creative output, I think it’s that I see creativity and discipline not as enemies at war with each other but as teammates who help each other grow and succeed.

If you want to be more consistently creative, embracing discipline as your friend is the way to go.

These 4 habits of creative discipline are a good place to start.

1. Outline your creative work the day before

Good writers outline before they actually start writing.

For some, it’s just a nice ritual. For others, it helps them organize lots of separate pieces of research and information. But for me, the most important reason to outline before I write is that it makes it easy to start writing.

When I procrastinate and avoid my work, 9 times out of 10 it happens before I even get started. On the other hand, no matter how much resistance I feel to a piece of work, if I can just get started, I almost always see it through.

I outline my articles before I write because it makes the transition to writing smoother, which means I’m less likely to procrastinate.

I think this same principle applies to any kind of creative work:

  • If you’re a woodworker, drawing a diagram of the bench you want to make will smooth out a lot of the friction to actually preparing and assembling the bench.
  • If you’re a software developer, making a rough plan for how you might structure a section of code will make it easier to dive into the work of actually writing the code.
  • If you’re a graphic designer, mocking up a website design on pen and paper or with wireframes first makes it a lot easier to dive in and start building the site.

If you frequently procrastinate on your creative work, try to be more disciplined about your “outlining” process.

My own rule is that I always outline an article the day before I start writing it.

Then the following morning, my outline is like a recipe waiting for me to simply follow instructions. I don’t have to think about what I’m going to write because that’s already taken care of. All I have to do is fill in the gaps of the outline I already created.

When creative people struggle to actually do the work they love, very often it is a discipline problem, just not in the way they think…

But if you’re trying to be more disciplined at the moment of creation, you’re too late. Discipline is the practice that prepares you ahead of time to create more easily.

So ask yourself two questions:

  1. What’s an important part of my creative work that I don’t do as consistently as I would like?
  2. What would it look like to “outline” that work ahead of time?


Discipline is about making things easier on yourself, not harder.

2. Create a warm-up ritual

In college, I got into a strange habit…

Whenever I needed to study or write a paper, I would wander around campus in the evening and find an empty classroom. Then I’d spread out all my notes and books across a table and open up my laptop. Next, I’d pull out my nice big pair of studio-quality headphones, cue up this one particular Dave Matthews Band song, close my eyes, and just listen. When the song was over, I took my headphones off and got to work.

I didn’t know it at the time but this was my warm-up ritual.

A warm-up ritual is a brief, repetitive activity you do immediately before you begin your work.

Like outlining your work ahead of time, there are numerous benefits to having a warm-up ritual for your creative work.

But the biggest benefit I get from it is this:

A warm-up ritual quiets your monkey mind and allows your creative energies to really flow.

Your monkey mind is that obnoxious, incessant, and overly negative voice in your head that won’t shut up about how dumb a particular idea is, how likely you are to fail or screw up, or all the awful things people will think if you actually ket your work see the light of day.

Negative self-talk is another term for it.

Whatever you want to call it, one thing is clear: nothing kills the creative mood more than a judgmental inner narrator.

Of course, you can’t just tell your inner critic to be quiet. And in fact, the more you argue with it and fight with it, the worse it gets (and the lower your odds of actually getting any work done become).

So you need a way to indirectly quiet the monkey mind. Enter, the warm-up ritual.

Warm-up rituals work because of their repetitive, unthinking, and almost hypnotic quality. And once you’ve quieted that overly verbal and critical part of your brain, the more creative and productive part is free to do its thing.

Ready to create your own warm-up ritual?

Don’t overthink it. The simpler the better:

  • It could be listening to a particular piece of music like my example from college.
  • It could be sipping a warm cup of coffee or tea watching the sunrise (or set).
  • It could even be answering mindless emails for a few minutes (Although he didn’t frame it as such, I heard organizational psychologist Adam Grant explain that he usually does this before he starts his creative writing for the day).

The goal of discipline is to unleash your creativity by eliminating obstacles to it.

3. Stop fighting your procrastination and validate it instead

Procrastination is the single biggest reason I hear from people who are struggling to do their creative work.

And while everything from social media to work from home policies has made it harder to stay focused and do the work, I think the biggest reason people procrastinate is because they are confused about what procrastination really is.

Most people confuse the urge to procrastinate with the act of procrastinating, usually to devastating effect:

  • When you sit down to start working, you feel a little anxiety about how to actually proceed. And as a way to distract yourself from that anxiety, your mind suggests a more appealing alternative: Check social media!
  • Like gravity, you glance down at your phone and feel a pull to open it up and lose yourself in the stream of novelty and outrage.
  • But crucially, you haven’t actually procrastinated on your work yet. At this point, it’s merely a suggestion from your mind (with a little feeling behind it).
  • This is the stage where creatives get into trouble… Most people’s natural reaction to feeling the urge to procrastinate is self-judgment: Ugh, I’m such a procrastinator… Why can’t I just focus?!
  • The problem with this knee-jerk self-criticism is that you’ve added a second layer of painful emotion onto your experience. So now, in addition to the initial anxiety and desire to procrastinate, you’ve also got a bunch of shame and anger weighing you down too.
  • At this point, you’ve got so much painful emotion on board that the urge to procrastinate is far stronger because the potential for relief in distraction is far greater. This means your likelihood of actually acting on your urge to procrastinate and check social media is much higher. And more often than not, you will.

On the other hand, consider this:

  • You feel the urge to procrastinate as a way to alleviate your anxiety.
  • But instead of criticizing yourself for feeling the urge to procrastinate, you instead validate it: I do feel kind of anxious, but that’s pretty normal and okay. Even great creators feel anxious about creating. And everybody feels the urge to procrastinate—it’s just my mind trying to be helpful. Maybe I’ll try doing a little bit of work for a few minutes and see how I feel then…
  • Because you’ve validated your urge to procrastinate—reminded yourself that it’s understandable and okay to feel that way and that you do have other options—not only do you not add a bunch of painful emotion onto yourself, but you actually bring on board more values-aligned feelings like compassion and relief from remembering that you’re not the only one, for instance.
  • As a result, you are much more likely to get over the initial hump of wanting to procrastinate and stay focused.

If self-judgment is the worst vice you can fall into as a creator, then self-compassion is the best virtue you can aspire to.

When you understand the difference between feeling the urge to procrastinate and the act of procrastinating, you open up a space. And in this space, you can choose to build a new habit that’s far more conducive to your creativity and productivity: You can validate your procrastination instead of fighting it.

The highest form of discipline is learning to be gentle with yourself.

4. Quarantine your busywork

If you visualized how most creatives work, it would look something like this:

  • Busy Work (5 min)
  • Busy Work (20 min)
  • Busy Work (15 min)
  • Creative Work (25 min)
  • Busy Work (5 min)
  • Creative Work (20 min)
  • Busy Work (5 min)
  • Busy Work (10 min)
  • Creative Work (10 min)
  • Busy Work (15 min)
  • Creative Work (35 min)
  • Busy Work (5 min)
  • Busy Work (20 min)
  • Busy Work (5 min)
  • Creative Work (30 min)
  • Busy Work (10 min)
  • Creative Work (20 min)
  • Busy Work (10 min)
  • Busy Work (5 min)
  • Busy Work (5 min)

The obvious problem here is…

It’s hard to get high-quality creative work done when your focus is constantly fractured by busywork.

If you want to consistently produce creative work you need to defend your creative energies against the relentless onslaught of pesky tasks, tiny to-dos, and annoying busywork.

One of the biggest reasons this is so hard is because many creatives fall into a subtle psychological trap:

Using busy work as a break from creative work.

Focused creative work is hard, no doubt about it. So the idea that you need to take some breaks makes perfect sense!

But if you decide to try and kill two birds with one stone by getting a little busy work done at the same time that you break from creative work, you really only give yourself the worst of both worlds: You don’t really get a break from the demands of high-intensity creative work, and shifting your focus to busy work makes it harder to shift back into creative work.

Instead, here’s what I recommend:

  1. Try to do more creative work in one stretch than you think you’re capable of. The ability to stay focused on high-intensity creative work is a muscle. And if you train and practice, you can grow that muscle—and along with it, your stamina for longer and longer stretches of creative work.
  2. Take genuine breaks. Instead of trying to use your break from creative work to sneak in some pesky busy work tasks, schedule in time to seriously relax. Make a cup of coffee and gaze out the window for 10 minutes; put on some nice headphones and listen to some music; go for a walk.
  3. Quarantine your busy work. Instead of peppering your busy work throughout your schedule, or trying to take care of it the instant it arrives on your radar, batch process your busy work. For example, you might make a rule that each day, 3-5 pm is email time and you don’t even open your email client until then. But when you do, you go hard on answering emails.

When you get in the habit of protecting your creative work by taking genuine breaks and quarantining your busy work, your schedule should look more like this:

  • Creative Work (90 min)
  • Relax (10 min)
  • Creative Work (60 min)
  • Relax (30 min)
  • Creative Work (30 min)
  • Relax (10 min)
  • Busy Work (90 minutes)

And more uninterrupted time for creative work means both the quality and quantity of your work will improve.

So try to build a habit of protecting your creative work by taking genuine breaks and quarantining your busy work into one or two discrete periods per day.

And if you can pull it off, quarantining all your busy work like meetings, email, documentation, etc. into two or three specific days so that you have a couple days you can dedicate solely to creative—that’s where things really get powerful!

All You Need to Know

If you want to be creative on a more consistent basis, discipline is your friend. These four habits are a good way to start adding more discipline to your creative process:

  1. Outline your creative work the day before
  2. Create a warm-up ritual
  3. Stop fighting your procrastination and validate it instead
  4. Quarantine your busywork


Add Yours


Great article. I’m very disciplined, but never thought of “creativity and discipline” as Teammates. I love that perspective, it makes so much sense. Your newsletter has helped me tweak my life in positive way’s. Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge.

Hi Nick,

Thank you so much for your selfless advices and guidance on how to unleash the sense of our creative being by first love our emotion not blaming self & have an on going neat schedule (discipline). This hand in hand would definitely feed my urge to be a creative writer ever since I was a young girl had a dream about doing. Thank you
Molly S.

Hi Brenda,
This is perhaps one of the most useful articles I ve ever read on the web! Seriously, it’s pure GOLD! THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR THE EFFORT!????????

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