The Myth of Inspiration: 5 Productivity Tips from Iconic Artists

We’ve seen this cliche so many times in movies and TV: all an artist needs in order to create is inspiration. Maybe they will go looking for it in the worst parts of town, maybe they’ll wait patiently or find a muse. Being out of it means being out of a job and it’s usually the inciting moment for our protagonist’s wacky adventures.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way in real life. Creating lasting art and staying productive, regardless of medium, takes discipline, focus, determination and the patience to stick with it through days of tedium and unsatisfactory output. It also requires that you get to know yourself and learn to strike a balance between your creative work and the other aspects of your life that make you happy and healthy.

I know that sounds daunting, but I can help. Here are five productivity tips from some of the most iconic artists in recent history. 

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

E.B. White

1. Stay active

Physical activity has been shown to have a profoundly positive effect on our bodies and minds. Whether it’s walking, running, swimming, hiking — it can help you clear your mind and even teach you how to deal with difficulty in your work and life.

The writer Ernest Hemingway was well-known for his love of sports and the outdoors. He famously enjoyed running with the bulls in Pamplona, skiing, hiking, walking and, more controversially, hunting. A Movable Feast, a collection of short autobiographical stories depicting the writer’s life in 1920s Paris, offers a glimpse into his daily habits.
Hemingway’s studio was a rented attic room in the Latin Quarter. There, he would start working before dawn and continue until satisfied.

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.
You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there.
You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.” 

After a good day’s work, he was free to roam through the streets of Paris. He visited his favourite sights, explored new neighbourhoods and stopped in parks and cafes to observe passers-by, listen in on conversations or meet friends for a drink. This way he could put work out of his mind and instead stay present and learn from his surroundings.

The American painter Georgia O’Keefe also believed in the importance of staying active. While living in New Mexico, she would start her day with a 30-minute walk through the desert, always equipped with a walking stick, for any rattlesnakes unlucky enough to cross her path. 

Well-known for his intricate world-building and long novels, Japanese writer Haruki Murakami approaches both life and his work with the mindset of an endurance athlete. His daily exercise routine alternates between a 10 km run and a 1500 meter swim. He believes that this helps train his mind to better deal with difficulty and enter more easily into the state of flow necessary for writing.

2. Set goals and hold yourself accountable

Artists often only have themselves to answer to. While liberating, this can be a huge challenge for those of us struggling with procrastination. Setting achievable goals for yourself and doing whatever it takes to follow through is a great way to tackle that.

The famously-prolific horror writer, Stephen King sets out to write six pages everyday, no matter what. In an interview with Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, he opens up about how this works:

King: The way that I work, I try to get out there and I try to get six pages a day. So, with a book like End of Watch, and … when I’m working I work every day — three, four hours, and I try to get those six pages, and I try to get them fairly clean. So if the manuscript is, let’s say, 360 pages long, that’s basically two months work. … But that’s assuming it goes well.
Martin: And you do hit six pages a day?
King: I usually do.
Martin: You don’t ever have a day where you sit down there and it’s like constipation? And you write a sentence and you hate the sentence, and you check your email and you wonder if you had any talent after all? And maybe you should have been a plumber? (Laughs) Don’t you have days like that?
King: No. I mean, there’s real life, I could be working away, and something comes up and you have to get up … but mostly I try to get the six pages in.”

The American writer, filmmaker and essayist, Susan Sontag, had a list of resolutions which helped her set and stick to creative goals on a daily basis: 

“Starting tomorrow — if not today:

I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)
I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. (‘No, I don’t go out for lunch.’ Can break this rule once every two weeks.)

I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)
I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.
I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.)
I will answer letters once a week. (Friday? — I have to go to the hospital anyway.)”

(Source: Susan Sontag & David Rieff – journals and notebooks, 1964-1980)

3. Have a daily routine

One thing all great artists have in common is a regular daily routine tailored to their specific creative, professional and personal needs. Scheduling in blocks of uninterrupted work, along with more social pursuits and everyday errands will help you achieve your goals without the danger of burn out that may accompany a too tightly-packed agenda. As a bonus, developing your own daily routine can be a great opportunity to learn more about yourself.

Take a page out of Henry Miller’s book. The mid-20th century American writer kept a list of 11 commandments to help him stay productive and true to his goals:

1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
5. When you can’t create you can work.
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
9. Discard the Program when you feel like it — but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.”

(Source: Henry Miller On Writing)

The famous Spanish painter, Joan Miro, religiously followed his daily routine, as he believed it could ward off the severe bouts of depression he’d suffered as a young man. He would wake up at 6:00 AM sharp and, following a light breakfast of coffee and bread, paint without stopping from 7:00 AM until noon. He would then work out for an hour, which he saw as another method of preventing depression. 

4. Stay human

This is one of Henry Miller’s 11 creative commandments and generally sound life advice. It’s important to balance your work with a fulfilling social life. You don’t have to party like Hunter S. Thompson, but spending time with friends, going out to see a concert or movie or simply people-watching at the park can be a great way to take care of yourself and reconnect with the world.

The French existentialist writer and philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, deliberately penciled socialising into her schedule. She would work between 10:00 AM and 1:00 PM, see her friends in the afternoon and, invigorated, return to her work at 5:00 PM and continue well into the evening.

The mid-20th century painter-sculptor couple, Willem de Koonig & Elaine Fried shared a studio. They would work together in silence for long stretches of time and then break for coffee, cigarettes and conversation. In the evenings, they would often go to concerts, parties or meet with friends.

Ever the eccentric, Andy Warhol would start his days with a 9:00 AM telephone call to his friend, Pat Hackett, in which they would go over the previous day’s events. This began as an attempt to keep track of the artist’s finances, but evolved into a daily ritual and later, an intimate memoir, The Andy Warhol Diaries.

5. Make your space comfortable & hospitable to creativity

Your environment should be comfortable and appropriate for the kind of work you’re doing. Working somewhere that’s too loud, over-crowded, messy or simply filled with distractions will definitely have a negative impact on your productivity. Instead of trying to fight that and ending up frustrated and dissatisfied, try to arrange your space in a way that works to your advantage. That could mean something as simple as blocking out noise or as drastic as changing your schedule.

Jane Austen, for example, preferred to write in the family sitting room, often while her mother and sister sowed quietly nearby. Whenever they had guests, she would put her writing away and join in on the conversation, only to pick it back up as soon as they left.

The brilliant and eccentric French-American sculptor, Louise Bourgeois, demanded absolute silence when working in her studio, as, according to her assistant of 30 years, the slightest noise would upset her.

The American essayist, Joan Didion, would reserve an hour before dinner to review and edit her work from earlier in the day. She also liked to travel to her native Sacramento whenever she was finishing a book. There, she said,

“nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.”


So…

Artist’s block is a real challenge that almost everyone has faced, regardless of their craft. But, instead of waiting for inspiration and becoming demotivated, try to implement a few of these tried and true methods from some of the most iconic artists in recent history. Sticking to your goals and daily routine, making some changes to your space and remembering to stay active and present with the world around you can truly improve creativity, productivity and satisfaction with your work. Good luck!