It's been said that Beethoven required precisely 60 coffee beans in each cup of coffee, Charles Dickens demanded complete silence in order to write, and Victor Hugo indulged in a daily rooftop ice bath. We're all dealt the standard 24 hours in a day, but the creatives of the world tend to schedule their hours a little "differently" than everyone else. In this blog, members of the Belief Agency team discuss the ideal setups that get them in the zone with creativity flowing—no freezing-cold baths included.
I once heard a successful CEO say, in regard to success, “early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise.” I personally subscribe to at least three of those four things. I’ve become accustomed to an early morning routine, and it’s somewhat of a ritual for me. I wake up at 5:30 a.m. I stopped using the “snooze” button a while back, especially after I’d found that by repeatedly pulling out of deep morning sleep, it actually made me more and more tired each time. It’s a bad habit to get into. I get right up, stretch, and run on the elliptical for 15 minutes. Next, I fry three eggs over hard. Then shower. Everything is set out the night before: my workout clothes, a plate, fork, napkin, cup, my towel (hanging over the shower curtain), the day's clothes (sitting on the sink), and my lunch (waiting in the fridge). All of this prep means I can be efficient in the morning.
On my drive to the office, I need to make the most of my time in the car. I will either listen to a podcast, make “business” phone calls, record song ideas into my phone, write notes for current projects, or write general ideas for future ones. I will occasionally sit quietly, mentally prioritize my day, and eat raw almonds. I’ve got a very crucial stop on my commute: coffee. I order a 20 oz. iced Americano with coconut milk. It’s the first of two or three coffees throughout the day.
I know this sounds more like a general morning routine than a specifically creative one, but to me they’re one and the same. When everything is in its place and my day begins in this organized fashion, I can focus. I think having a very thorough morning routine makes for very productive days.
When starting a day’s work, I first catch up on emails, bills, invoices, reminders, and send files requested the night before. Tending to each little thing can easily take four hours or more. For this, I usually need silence. When I really start to dig into design work, I can listen to music or podcasts, but the latter is only helpful for mindless busywork. I like the space to be set relatively dark; that’s just best for viewing my work on a display. I use only a Wacom tablet, no mouse. It’s faster.
I don’t love to work late at night anymore, but I’ll do it when necessary. Sometimes I can really get into a groove at night, but most often it doesn’t feel like my most inspired time. After my daughter goes to bed around 8 p.m., my favorite thing to do is just sit in bed and watch TV. It helps me decompress.
—Ryan Clark, Art Director
I do two types of work at Belief Agency: production design and creative design. If I’m working on production design that only involves resizing or editing images, copying and pasting text, or exporting multiple formats, it’s like using muscle memory. This makes it really easy to get into the zone and churn the work out. The room could be loud and distracting; I could even carry on a conversation and still get a lot done. However, if I’m working on creative design or illustrations which involve deeper, conceptual thinking and a more creative touch, then I need a subdued environment to do my best work.
The preferred environment to do my best creative work is low lighting, and not a lot of people around. If the office is full, then I put on my headphones to concentrate. Headphones are the most important tool I use, second only to my computer. I don’t have go-to music for concentration, and listen to whatever suits the mood I’m in. If I’m stressed out, then it’s gotta be instrumental in which case my go-to album is 'Radiance & Submission' by CFCF. I do my best work when I’ve got the mental space to only focus on one thing, so I typically power through short projects or revisions in the mornings. This allows me to have longer periods of concentration in the afternoon. By getting a ton of stuff out of the way, I feel like I’ve got room to slow down and focus on more challenging work.
—Matt Naylor, Senior Graphic Designer
My creative routine includes reading three nights a week, from selections of Plato to C.S. Lewis’ 'Perelandra.' I also watch one movie a week—something like 'Apocalypse Now' or 'The Apartment.' I watch strictly good films. “Garbage in, garbage out,” as they say.
One night a week is reserved for writing. I don’t allow myself any digital tools to write, and only make progress with pen and ink. Walter Hooper, who became C.S. Lewis’ secretary in his later years, said that Lewis only used pen and ink to write. When you write that way, you have time to think, talk, and even laugh before committing your sentences to paper. Lewis would speak out loud what he intended to write before committing it to paper, because he believed writing to be an extension of constructive conversation. I find it far more joyful writing this way, rather than agonizing over digital text under artificial light.
On the weekends, I go adventuring with my wife Neenah, including hikes, shopping, and sightseeing.
—Andy Maier, Partner & Post-Production Supervisor
I find that my brain often gets in the way of things, so loud and rhythmic music can help distract that part of my brain. Oddly enough, loud music helps me focus. My creative routine is also helped by finishing any small, easy, or urgent tasks. Doing so clears my head. Then I like to read about the subject; new information produces more mental connections.
James Webb’s great book, 'A Technique for Producing Ideas,' gives a helpful five-step plan. Webb argues that you have to do the hard work of researching the topic before writing about it, and you have to go do something that inspires you. When your subconscious has enough material to make connections, that is where "genius" comes from. Some people turn to the opera, a movie, nature, or something else for such inspiration.
Coffee also helps me, as well as a drink called Neuro Sonic, which has a ton of B12. B12 is helpful in every form, as is another supplement called Cortex which can help produce thought energy.
The groove I look for is produced by consumption, thoughts, connections, writing, and then inspiration. For me, that groove is a state at which tons of information begins to take form, or be organized in a new or helpful way.
—Joel Cummings, Director of Marketing
Creative routine is a tricky thing for me, because there’s the ideal world where I have total quiet: it’s late at night, inspiration strikes, and I can work for hours knowing that I won’t have to wake up early or interrupt the inspiration. That might be describing a manic state, but those are the times I love.
In an office, it’s difficult to set the perfect creative vibe, because I need total silence and no distractions to focus. But in a room full of working people, that doesn’t happen. So, when I don’t have the ideal situation I can still be creative, but doing so just takes some…creativity.
I start with a clean workspace. If things are messy, I can’t focus. I put on my “don’t fuck with me” headphones and select some sort of instrumental music to drown out distracting noises. It’s taken me a few years to be able to focus with any noise, but instrumental music does the trick. I start with blank paper and a Sharpie and sketch out what I’m thinking. It can be words, pictures, or charts. That leads me to a rough outline. Then I need a break, so I get up and go for a walk. Normally I go out to grab a coffee; that’s the perfect amount of time to be gone. By this time my desk is messy, so I quickly clean it up and begin writing. In an ideal world, I like to have a day or two to work on a piece of writing. In that scenario, day one is for drafting, and day two is for revisions. Day three I hand it over for the red pen.
When it comes to writing, I love:
When it comes to writing, I hate:
- Markers, paper, sketching (transforming pictures and charts to words)
- Drafts (many drafts)
- Having a copyeditor
—Rachelle Cummings, Associate Creative Director
- Procrastinating and waiting until the last minute. I don’t thrive on the adrenaline from a deadline.
- Writing when there’s a lot of distractions. It’s mentally exhausting to have to focus on focusing, instead of focusing on writing.
When I need to edit all day every day for other people, I drink a lot of water and try to avoid conversation with anyone. That's because the physical act of editing is easy—you push buttons and move footage around. So I eliminate as many distractions as possible, and stay hydrated.
For the life-sucking, soul-crushing time warp that is editing a personal, unpaid, creative project, I need to wake up late (like noon), smoke a cigarette, drink a cup of black coffee, and eat something (usually with cheese, bread, and meat). I then need to watch videos on the internet, talk to people, drink a beer or two, watch more videos, get a second cup of coffee, pretend to watch footage, and probably lie on the couch in the edit bay with the door closed and attempt to think about the edit (but end up just thinking about life). I’ll also think about other things (usually depressing things and question what the hell I'm doing with my life), smoke a cigarette, turn off the lights in the edit bay, and proceed to edit from about 10 p.m. to 3 a.m.
When there are endless possibilities for how to construct a scene, you slowly begin to lose your mind, and wonder how there was ever a time that you actually enjoyed this. It's sad because an edit is never "finished," and that's where drinking Scotch comes in. To cope with the fact that an edit will never be done and will never be perfect—you drink whiskey and try to be OK with that. I will always only be able to see the flaws in my own edits; they become the unwanted punctuation marks in happy texts from my mom, screaming at me that they are there, and demanding my attention. And that is why it is so damn hard to just sit there and edit, deciding what needs your limited attention. But once I'm in the 10 p.m. - 3 a.m. zone, time flies by. That's where things happen for me; where it all gets done.
—Ryan Ford, Filmmaker
The creative juices don't tend to flow until I'm completely alone, often after everyone I care about has gone to bed. If there's writing involved, I always use a G2 Pilot 0.7 mm pen with black ink (there should be no other color for pens). If it's digital work I’m doing, all my words are drafted in Evernote on my phone. Coffee is a must.
Because nearly every project I undertake involves music, tunes are essential. Whiskey doesn't help my process, but it sure helps me forget about petty distractions— like 'shit, I need to do laundry'—and enjoy the task at hand. I have also found that my mind is twice as sharp after exercise; I will not have the patience to sit and create if I feel sluggish. Ultimately, creativity is a tertiary privilege, not a “right” of expression; I cannot focus if I have neglected more important areas of my life.
—David Faddis, Filmmaker
When it comes to creative concepting (like writing a treatment or creative direction for a spot), my ideal process starts with ingesting as much content and research as possible including creative briefs, market comparisons, and references. I fill my thoughts with as much content as is available, then I work on writing in shorter bursts. During this time I get up and walk away every one to two hours to think about something else before coming back to think about it again in a couple hour block.
I will follow that cycle for a full work day and get out as many ideas as I can. I try not to think about the creative concepting for the rest of the night. During my hour commute to work the next morning, I drive in silence and think through the creative again. After a night of sleep and not thinking about it, this drive is when I will have a flood of 30 percent more creative ideas. These are generally better concepts than the first batch I worked on the day before, and often ends up being what is pitched to the client.
—Jonathan Dunn, Director of Production
I read a lot. I wake up early (5:30 a.m.) to read for 30 minutes, and I often read a book a day on weekends and holidays. I use Pocket to help me discover and track online articles that seem interesting. I have a long commute, so I listen to a lot of audiobooks—often suspenseful fiction, which has the benefit of making me excited to get back in the car to find out what happens next and teaches me how the best writers play with anticipation. It’s surprising how often something I read from one of those three sources comes back as a bolt of inspiration during a project.
My favorite place to write is my local library. It's clean and bright with huge windows, and when I sit at my favorite table I'm literally surrounded by words in the form of books. Wherever I am, I listen to classical music (mostly slow cello with a lot of minor chords). Anything with lyrics drowns out the words I'm trying to form. And I never work on an empty stomach—hunger is way too distracting. I edit on paper, with a MUJI 0.38 mm red pen.
—Heather Croteau, Lead Copywriter/Editor
1. I usually stay up late. I find that I learn quicker and get more things done at night. Also, sometimes I think outside of the box better when I am tired.
2. I work and/or learn best in fertile solitude in a calm, comfortable setting. I don’t want to have too much activity swirling around to distract me.
3. Whether studying another language or trying to come up with creative solutions, I prefer to work in intense 30-45 minute bursts, then take a five or 10 minute break, brisk walk, or even a short nap because that tends to break any blockages in learning or creative thought.
4. On many occasions, I get on a roll and have worked for hours until I'm exhausted, then collapsed in a heap once the work is complete. It sounds weird, but when I wake up I usually feel more alive and happier looking back at what was accomplished. This is especially true when writing analysis for intelligence reports or when finishing a paper or thesis for school.
5. I also find that I work best when there is a deadline or the pressure is on. For fuel I will down three or four cans of Coke and a bag of wasabi peas or nacho chips with jalapeño dip.
6. If writing, I prefer to pencil the outline on a pad of paper in a stream of consciousness fashion, make lots of doodles in margins and make any corrections. I will read it out loud to myself and make any other corrections. Then I go to the computer (now—before it was a typewriter) and complete the project.
7. When studying languages, I like to read out loud while pacing around. I will write vocabulary on sticky notes and place them all over the relevant items in the house with, for example, the Korean word for that item written on it. For verbs, I will pronounce them out loud and if applicable, mimic the verb. (eg. "To run"—then I will start to run while pronouncing the word.) Conjugations I try to put to music, usually Metallica or AC/DC: "Amo, amas, amat da da da."
8. At times when it seems that I am stuck or getting nowhere, I like to listen to hard rock and read foreign newspapers or scroll websites on the Google pages for Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, or Thailand.
—Don Bryan, CFO (& former intelligence analyst—hence the talk of intelligence reports and multiple foreign languages.)
Lately I've been re-watching old movies like 'My Fair Lady' at night after my kids go to bed. In the morning, I'm usually up at 6:00 a.m. and to the office by 7:00 a.m. When I'm driving I'm listening to an audiobook, and that kind of gets my brain going. The morning is the best time for me to do any creative work, as far as concepting for scripts or pitches, anything like that. I have between 7:00 and 9:00 before most people get here. After 9:00, all bets are off; it depends on what the team needs.
Unless I'm listening to an audiobook in the car, I have music on 99 percent of my day, and I tailor the music to the task. If I'm storyboarding a certain type of scene, I find the right music for that scene, like it's a soundtrack. If I'm writing it's the same thing. Music helps me find the emotional core. The nature of our work is that we jump between projects all the time, so I use the music as a way to help speed up the startup time. I make a playlist for projects, and I listen to the same tracks on repeat while I'm working; that way it forms a memory map.
I have to have an emotional connection to the work, and I usually do that by having an emotional connection with the person I'm working for. What drives me is the relational side—the impact it would have on that person if I let them down.
My ADD is so bad that it's hard for me to concentrate if I'm not fiddling with something in my hands or listening to music. I need something to distract the part of my brain that's jumping around. Being dyslexic on top of that—I used to get in so much trouble in school because I just couldn't concentrate; I would just mess around all day long. I lived in the disciplinary teacher's office. So I had to learn to cope. Now I have a walking desk in my office. I think better when I'm walking, but when I'm walking outside, I can't be writing. The treadmill desk is great because I can walk and be on my computer at the same time. If I'm walking, I can concentrate more, I can think more clearly because I don't have to worry about being fidgety. My body is doing something. It's like hacking your brain. I just need part of my brain—the rest of it can go do whatever it wants.
Most of the patterns I follow are in place to compensate for my learning disabilities. I've never really thought about these things as being my "routine.” It's never been about optimizing a program for myself, but more about finding a way to survive in spite of how my brain is wired.
—Jesse Bryan, Principle & Chief Creative Director