Intention and Attention, Part One: Creativity, routine, and order
Intention is everything
Intention is everything. I have done most things in my life rather mindlessly. But recently I have started to ask myself what I want to get out of a given situation — what is my intention? The more I’ve thought about it, the more this simple question has proven rather transformative for me.
I did not want to write any of this. I hate productivity culture. I’m convinced that most of the content said culture produces is either lazily and sloppily recycled / remixed, or clickbait. This post feels like that sort of thing, but I think it’s worth sharing. In fact, it was supposed to be a single post, but I found I have too many ideas for one post. I’ve therefore sketched out an outline for this to be a series of posts, so make sure to subscribe to the mailing list for free to get the next instalment in your email inbox.
Creativity thrives in conditions of routine and order
This seems like a nightmare on paper for someone who struggles with executive function. Goodness knows I have tried countless methodologies, hacks, tools. The sole takeaway really has been to learn what hasn’t worked. But I realised I hadn’t really thought about when I’d do things — it was always about what or how. There are some brutal accounts of creatives who have unflinching daily routine, from which one cannot deviate even a hair. Anthony Trollope, for example, is know for his prolific output. He put this down to his routine. He would sit down every morning at 5:30am, requiring that he wrote 250 more words of his current work. If he finished a work before his allotted time was up, he would immediately start the next. I was surprised when I read Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by just how routine-based most of the accounts were. Indeed, this was the scope of the book: Daily Rituals , so there’s an inherent selection bias, but Currey features a real range of creatives, from across the centuries and across disciplines. The composer John Adams said in an interview that his ‘experience (was) that most really serious creative people’ he knew ‘have very, very routine and not particularly glamorous work habits’. The late painter Chuck Close concurred: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” And William James warned himself in his diary that ‘only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action’.
Related to this is another common factors in artists’ rituals: Successful work is closely related to the time at which it is attempted. In fact, the most important factor I’d say in terms of getting meaningful work done is time. There is, he added
no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.”
I quote this last because it reminded me of myself. Having been diagnosed with ADHD last year , and having since been through an intense and protracted period of titration to get the medication right, I realised why I so often felt paralysed by indecision. I would work in manic, last-minute bursts, time-blind, to get things done. I lived a boom-and-bust life. I would be unable to do things (if indeed I was aware of them and their time horizon at all); suddenly, they would rear their head like Wordsworth’s ‘black and huge’ peak and I’d either tackle them (if they were for my job, because the consequences of not doing would terrify me) or, more likely, just quit. This latter behaviour was most common with any sort of creative project; beyond the initial spark of inspiration, I couldn’t hold it all in my head. I’d write it down, but then I’d forget where I’d put it. The rushing ‘boom’ stages would exhaust me. ‘Bust’ would see me do very little, my senses overloaded to the point that it was hard to even open my eyes. Eventually, I would have to catch up with everything I didn’t do, so a ‘boom’ cycle would begin.
My current medication — the second I tried — has cleared things up tremendously. I’m going to write more about how later in this series when I take a closer look at ADHD perceptions of time, but it has helped me get to a position from which I can build a simple routine. A routine, I realised, was not so much a case of going full Trollope and measuring things exactly — there are too many variables for me to even attempt this. Instead, I realised that a good routine needed to account for the fact that I find certain things much easier to attempt and complete at different times of day. So that’s where I started: I looked at what I wanted to do and when in the day I should do it. I realised that my energy levels varied in great peaks and troughs throughout the day. I used this to build a simple daily routine:
Academic writing. I have an overarching goal to write a book about what it’s like to be a neurodivergent educator, taking in my perspectives, the perspectives of other neurodivergent people, and a significant body of research and scholarship. I noticed in Currey’s book that virtually none of the featured creatives worked in the afternoon; they would do their creative work either early in the morning or late at night — first or last thing. Moreover, they tended to spend only about three hours of the day working, but those hours were purposeful, focussed and intense. I tried working at night — I’ve been a night owl a lot of my life — but it clashed with having to get up early for my job as a teacher. As I’ve got older, I’ve found myself waking up earlier anyway, so now I do work that requires creative intensity in the morning. I’ve gradually built a morning writing routine that I’ll elaborate on it subsequent posts.
Exercise. I have tried and failed to exercise in the mornings, which means that though I enjoy it, it doesn’t stick. However, I hit a major slump in energy in the mid-afternoon, and I have found exercising around then perks me back up. During the holidays I can be quite flexible and do it when I want; during term time I try to get home as close to four as I can so I can head straight out.
Family time. I make sure to spend time with my daughter. I’ve started to bring her into my exercise; she likes yoga!
Reading. I used to write a lot in the evening, but most sessions were fuzzy and abortive. I did get some good stuff written, but it was hard to predict when this would be.
Practicing the guitar
Here, it’s clear how central time is for my creativity. But I restrict time further by making sure, if I’m doing something important, to set a timer that has an intention attached. More about this soon — it’s a natural progression from my post on beautiful limitations.
I do want to stress that I’m only now able to manage these things because I’m finally on the right medication. If you have ADHD and you’re reading this, please don’t let it make you feel guilty. I cannot stress enough just how much of a positive impact the right medication has had.
Later in this series, I’ll be looking at some of the following ideas:
Planning and flexibility
Accepting personal idiosyncrasies
The importance of rest
Forming habits is hard
How do neurodivergent people respond to traditional habit-forming methodologies?
States of creativity: messy thought and neat thought
Reading in the secondary English classroom: intention and attention
Until then, be well — and make beautiful things.