Creative work has a semi-mystical allure. People envy what they imagine the painter’s or writer’s lifestyle to be: artists living in a magical world divorced from the crude realities the rest of us have to deal with. Until they actually talk to an artist, that is, and realize those poor schlubs have to deal with it too. They have to live life and transform it into art. 

Image from @ibrsoul on instagram

The truth is making art of any kind demands mental toughness and discipline. Every hour of productive, creative work is built on hours of behind-the-scenes preparation. Oh, I’ve tried to circumvent it. How I’ve tried! Just this morning I hopped out of bed, showered, made myself a mug of something hot, and snuck straight over to my writing desk. Sure, I got some emails out of the way. Then I hit the wall and didn’t have the momentum to break through. It was back to the drawing board. Naturally, these moments of frustrated wheel-spinning are just when the demons of self-doubt and self-loathing come clawing at the gates to undermine your creative projects before they get off the ground.

It’s okay. You’re used to these demons and don’t pay them too much mind. So the shortcut turned out to be a dead-end: big surprise. It’s not too late to backtrack and attend to the work-behind-the-work. I’m talking about the necessary steps that keep you focused and inspired—and in the case of my chosen medium, ready to apply seat to chair for the long hours it takes to get anything worthwhile done. 

If you’re unsure if this work-behind-the-work thing applies to you, consider these common creative ruts: there’s (1) overcaffeination-procrastination land, (2) the ever popular social media trap, (3) the too-many-cookies blues…you get the idea. We’ve all visited these creative dead-ends. When you’re ready to leave them behind, it’s time for some wholesome discipline. 

Now before you close the browser window, consider this definition of the dirty d-word: “discipline is remembering what you really want.” Where to start? By putting the oreos away (even if there’s only two left in the package). By swearing off Twitter for the day. By getting outside for that walk, whatever the weather, or putting on tunes and dancing around like a madman in your living room. Either way, exercise is key—take Haruki Murakami, who runs upwards of ten miles before settling in for the day’s writing. Diet is key, whoever you are. Healthy of mind and body are the foundation for any and all good creative work, and if you’re not attending to it, the edifice you build will never rise as high as the one in your dreams. 

Discipline isn’t only about hard work or deprivation, though. It’s about being strict in some ways, but generous in others. It’s about giving yourself the things that you really love. Taking the time to treat yourself with care, instead of whipping yourself like a mule to squeeze out a few extra miles before you collapse. It’s through living well—not richly, but well—that you charge up the creative battery. 

It’s counterintuitive, but with the structure that discipline provides in place, you can actually relax and find your way into flow. Healthy routines won’t make you boring. They’ll provide the foundation for something beautiful.