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The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

Reading creative habit forces me to face a part of myself which I have been avoiding – Sticking to a routine. It reaffirms my yet lack of a regimental schedule around my life and the persistence to keep to a timetabled life.

At the same time, the book assures me that this is not too late. The act of picking or making a choice to purchase this book out of the many recommended text is the first step in committing to this change.

Coming to New York straight-off from a 12 -year-work routine in my home country is a undesirable yet unavoidable circumstance. Three months into New York City sets me thinking, whether my old way of life still applies.

The daily routine was determined by my job for the past 12 years. The day job; serving the bond & providing for my family precedes art making.

This new life forces me to reassess my own creative process which in the past had been driven by a major project e.g an upcoming performance or exhibition. Art making has yet to become part of my daily routine which I followed religiously, something which I truly admire about Twyla Thrap.

In the book, she describes her daily ritual for the past 20 years. Waking at 530am to head for the gym on a cab. Followed by 2 hard-boiled egg breakfast, coffee, shower and rehearsal at the dance studio. Surprisingly, the most fulfilling part of the ritual was the cab ride. It is her little reward for herself for staying committed to this ritual.

In the further chapters, she talks about the creative process of geniuses like Mozart who started  his creative ritual at the age of 3. Transported from palaces to courts as a show monkey for his father, he had the most rigorous training in piano performance techniques, composition and arrangements.

Each day they spent fair amount of time doing the same ritual.

Be it heading to the gym.
Sharping a pencil.
Type 1500 words by noon.
Remembering a face on training & writing it down.
Warming up the body for 2 hours.

A little action that drives you forever.
Meanwhile I am looking for this little action.
Reading on the train.
Writing on the train.
Writing… I have not put pen to paper while riding since i was 16…
Long bus rides to finished assigned homework…
Little moments of listening to urban murmurs while waiting for the bus…
Quiet time to ponder, reflect & marinate a thought or an idea…


6 comments to The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

  • Erin Finnegan

    Wait, so, you were already some kind of creative performer in your previous job, but you weren’t working on your own art?

    Certainly, I can identify that not having a routine means less gets done. When I was totally unemployed, I found it nearly impossible to turn in deadline-less manga reviews for a website or to update my podcast on a schedule. When I started writing a weekly (paid) column I developed a routine to help jump from blank page to deadline in less time.

    Perhaps more interestingly, I’ve heard some reports about creative professionals having a certain designated creative “thinking space” in their home or office, like a special chair or a nicely decorated room. Being in the special thinking chair (or whathaveyou) helps them brainstorm. I’m sure Tharp would approve.

  • Natalie "Tschechaniuk"

    I am a routine oriented person. I get a lot of satisfaction from knowing exactly what’s coming next but I also have a hard time adjusting when my routine is broken and I find it really difficult to incorporate new elements into an established routine (why can’t I ever get to the gym?). I recently heard on NPR that each decision you make negatively impacts your ability to make the following decision ( So if you have to make a series of decisions, it will become more and more difficult to actually decide. Hearing this comment made me understand the mental benefit of routine. When you don’t have to decide what time to wake up, what to have for breakfast, or even what to wear, your mind becomes free to better handle important decisions. Does this relate to creative routine as well? If you know that every day you’ll spend a certain amount of time in a particular place generating an amount of content, does that allow you to better decide what that content is? Or to be more open to inspiration? I’ve never thought about the fact that creativity might benefit from routinization, but this notion is inspiring me to test it out.

  • Nancy

    Routine, or positive addiction is, I believe, the most important tool a creative person can have.
    You can’t wait to be inspired, you have to just show up for work. Maybe what you do will be lousy. So what, you throw it away..but at least you showed up!

    Here’s the problem I’ve found. When you’re in your routine, it’s great, you feel wonderful. You’re doing it. You’re keeping your agreement with yourself. Life is rosy. When you get out of the habit–for whatever reason..SAndy, people coming to stay, the flu, vacation…’s SO hard to get back in it. Like starting exercising again.

  • Jonathan Sparks

    I am definitely a creature of habit, and I have tried many times to create routines to either curb or create various behaviors. For me, the amount of success I am able to accomplish in a new endeavor (school for example) is a direct reflection of how well I can incorporate that thing into a routine. I can’t just assume I’ll make time for something here and there, because I won’t.

    I found that the “creative space” idea is definitely helpful. No matter my best intentions, I am never as productive at home than when I am on the floor. Too many familiar distractions and entrenched bad habits.

    I heard it phrased once that bad behavior is just a series of bad decisions, similar to what Natalie mentioned. The more you make those choices, the more you reinforce that behavior, and the harder to break it. I have thought about this a lot in the few times I have tried to quit smoking. I have yet to come up with a routine that can match that habit in a fight.

    The hope I have in trying to create a new routine, and thereby change behavior is that, supposedly, it only takes 30 days to solidify it. As the theory goes at least, those first few weeks you will have to be diligent and determined to follow through, but after that month it will be like second nature. As I know from experience, a month is still a long enough time to challenge your resolve, but it helps to have an idea of when it will become easier when you are tempted to stray.

    I once had a friend who decided to test this idea and see if she could stop using a pillow when she slept (not sure why she chose this exactly) After a month, sure enough, she no longer needed/wanted to sleep with a pillow.

    A bit odd, but it may serve as hope in the early stages of developing a solid routine.

  • wln211

    Erin, I had a day job that pays rent & art-making is often a conscious effort to stay-away from this day-to-day routine. Interestingly, it is a routine to keep away from another routine.

    I guess the biggest ‘undesirable’ habit i have to overcome now would be procrastination. It seems like fear could possibly be a greatest hinderance to it all (for myself). As Nancy puts it, to throw yourself into a situation and stick to it. And like Jonathan describes, it took me a good 30-day routine to solidify an exercising habit, and it takes less than 2 weeks to fall trap to laziness again. I believe that having a routine is also about giving yourself a little reward for this commitment eg. a cuppa tea, a cookie. Further to this, Natalie’s link makes me ponder “If you have to make a series of decisions, it will become more and more difficult to actually decide”. Moments like this cripples me – having too many decisions to make. Which bring me to a little quotation

    “Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything.”

    Probably I need to start with my thoughts.

  • wl379

    Very sobering to read these thoughts. I find myself working hard but erratically at times, and I am excellent at finding perfectly good excuses to justify the lack of consistency in my routine (Nancy, you hit the nail on the head with those examples). Before I came to ITP I was a yoga teacher (I still do teach regularly, but not the the same extent). My love of yoga crept up on me gradually, over years, and what struck me the most about it at the end of the day was the concept of “practice”. At first I might have been motivated to practice so that I could get in shape and stand on my head, but it dawned on me that practice is an action that exists for itself. Yoga was something I did every day, and in retrospect the biggest benefit of those years was the simple dedication to creating the time and space for myself. I’m coming to the revelation now, as I type, of how much I’ve lost since I stopped… I’m embarrassed to say that since school started I hardly practice anymore and what was once an active dedication has fallen by the wayside. I digress, the reason I bring this all up is because the thoughtful responses in this thread confirm what I have experienced from all that, the importance of habits and action. Dedication to process and practice. Nothing sounds less sexy, but nothing happens unless you do it, and continue to do it. Without commitment, motivation becomes nebulous and misdirected. Priorities become skewed and choices become harder to make (great link, Natasha). Jonathan, I think you’ve inspired me to try that 30 day theory. That sounds manageable. I’ve felt scattered without a set routine the past few weeks, and I’m realizing that despite what I’d like to tell myself, there is something very practical I can do about it. Thanks for the reassurance, Lei, that it is not too late!