Improve Your Art by Forming New Habits

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"I have found that allowing myself a day of not drawing can quickly spiral into two days, then three, then a week, a month…and before you know it, you have fallen off the wagon completely. I’ve made it a habit to draw every single day and I’ve been doing this for the past 11 years now.  Not one day missed.  Not one."

- Sycra Yasin, Concept artist

Why should habits matter to you as an artist? They might seem trivial, insignificant and about as exciting as washing your hands before a meal or putting on your shoes before you leave the house. But a closer look reveals that what may seem mundane is in fact anything but. Mastering your habits and strategically adding new ones can be incredibly powerful in helping you grow as an artist. Here is why - and how.

You Are What You Habit

It is no exaggeration to say that habits form who we are. In fact, psychologists estimate that we spend around one-third to half of our waking time performing habitual tasks! What we do on special occasions or under extraordinary circumstances is just that - extraordinary, and not representative of the norm. It is our day-to-day behavior, that which repeats itself every day as if on autopilot, that forms the core of our lives. And because you are reading this, odds are that being creative is a significant part of yours. It is no secret that an artist is part talent and part muscle and it is the part that eats that benefits from habits the most. It’s a simple “use it or lose it” rule: you may be a mix of Da Vinci and Ton Roosendaal but without practice, you won’t realize your full potential. So if you are ready to start a new talent-workout routine without much sweat, read on!

So really, what are habits?

Habits differ from our other behavior in that they are performed always, regardless of circumstances (scientists refer to this as automaticity). Unlike projects which have a beginning and an end, habits are done no matter what. You brush your teeth every day (if not, please take a long hard look at yourself). You walk your dog every morning. You read a few pages of a book each night before going to bed. You never procrastinate when it comes to doing these things - your auto-pilot kicks in and you go through the motions, because that is what you do, always. No cartoon angel and devil sitting on your respective shoulders telling you to skip, just this one time. 

Keeping Your Willpower Cup Full

Why is this important? It turns out that we are all affected by a phenomenon called “decision fatigue”. In short, this means that you have a certain amount of willpower per day, which you can imagine as a cup that is full when you first wake up. As you go through day and make hundreds and thousands of choices, from what shirt to wear to how to respond to a work email, your willpower gets depleted, the cup gets emptier with each choice made and decision fatigue kicks in. And once your cup is almost empty, your ability to make decisions become progressively worse, costs you even more effort to make and making decisions may even irritate you. This happens to everybody, including people making incredibly important decisions like parole judges (Really. Read more about that here). How does this relate to habits? You guessed it - to perform a habitual task, no willpower is needed. It is an automated process and as such you will be able to approach it with a clear mind and never skip it, while also reserving your willpower. Score!

Practice Makes Perfect

Yes, we all know that practice, practice and practice again is needed to achieve mastery of a subject - be it 3D modeling, concept art or sculpting. But if you are practicing this skill in your free time while having a day job, school assignments and a personal life to attend to, the time for practice may be hard to get together on a busy day. This is where we can bring together what we learned so far: habits are automated, willpower-neutral processes that you won't skip. The simple message is this: turn sculpting / modeling / drawing into a habit, practice more and become better at it. Easier said than done?

“My approach as a practicing artist used to be to draw and/or model every single day over coffee, always starting something from scratch as a sketch. This is something I cannot recommend enough: practicing every single day, even if only for 15-30 minutes, can make all the difference in the world.” - Jonathan Williamson, CG Cookie

Forming a New Habit

Much has been written about how long it takes to form a new habit; in fact, a whole field of psychology called (rather predictably) habit formation has emerged, focused on researching the process. This means that we have quite a lot of studies to lean on, telling us which strategies are successful when it comes to starting a new habit. We also have a better idea of how long the process takes; while highly individual, new research suggests that the period of habit formation averages 66 days (ranging between 18 and 254, to be exact). So let’s spill the beans: when forming a new habit, what works?

Tip #1 When Defining a New Habit, Go For Simplicity

The most successful habits are simple. That doesn’t mean that learning 3D modeling is easy, however, deciding “I will practice modeling each day before breakfast” certainly is. It is a simple goal, not too ambitious so you aren’t setting yourself up for failure, yet clearly defined. This decision is your new mantra and by making it, you are effectively removing the burden of decision from all your future days - remember, you want to avoid decision fatigue! There is no need to contemplate over whether to model today or not; you have made your decision already.

Tip #2 Create the Right Context

Notice the word “breakfast” in the previous example? This is a specific event that anchors your habit within your day. Rather than giving yourself leeway in saying “I will practice modeling every day” which is quite vague, you know that before you have breakfast, you better fire up Blender or Photoshop. This ensures you don’t postpone the activity until later, perhaps indefinitely. You are also creating an association for your desired activity, a context in which you will be performing it. In a research paper about habit formation, a team of psychologists concluded: "Many everyday activities not only are performed frequently but also are performed in stable circumstances—meaning in particular locations, at specific times, in particular moods, and with or without certain interaction partners."[1] In a great book called “Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t and How To Make Any Changes Stick”, psychologist Jeremy Dean seconds this: “The connection is context. We tend to do the same things in the same circumstances. Indeed, it’s partly this correspondence between the situation and behavior that causes habits to form in the first place.”

Tip #3 Implement Triggers

Related to context is the use of triggers. A trigger is a specific “thing” that rings a little bell in your head: Aha! I have to go model now. In our example, this would be, simply, waking up in the morning and knowing that modeling is the first thing you do, always (yes, you are allowed a trip to the loo first). The power of triggers is that over time, you integrate the associated action and subconsciously act upon it. And there are other, very powerful tools you can use. Music, for instance, has been shown to be a particularly effective trigger, as are drinks or smells. CG Cookie crew members have been known to crank up Spotify or grab a cup of coffee each time they are about to create new content for the site - the choice is yours.

 

Tip #4 Make it as Easy as Possible

Another effective approach is making the habit as easy to execute as possible. If you are planning on practicing modeling every morning, why not open your project before bed so it is ready for you when you wake up? Make sure your workstation is already set up for you and all you need to do is to bring your coffee over (but remember, you are only allowed cereal afterwards!). 

Tip #5 Use Technology to Your Advantage

There are hundreds of apps out there designed to help you stick to a new habit. Here are a few free ones (at least in their basic version) that we particularly liked. 

Way of Life  “The Ultimate Habit Building App” uses a simple green and red color code to indicate whether you hit your target for the day, allowing you to keep track of various activities on a daily basis. You can add a note for each date and see the bigger picture with long-term trends. Your goal doesn’t need to be daily: you can decide that you want to draw 3 times per week. Way of Life sends you daily reminders so you remember to record how you did each day. 

Balanced has neat design that lets you track your daily habits with a simple swipe. You can add several habits to your list (limited to 5 in free version); the ones you haven’t “swiped off” for the day will rise to the top. The app is very simple and intuitive to use, but you need to go premium ($3.99) to see all your activities over the past 30 days . However, the free version will have you covered for all the basic functions you need, making it a great app for a first-time habit tracker. 

 

Habit Streak challenges you to build the longest streak for your chosen habit and rewards you by unlocking new themes as you keep going. If you like this extra motivation, this app is the way to go. It also sends you reminders and shows simple stats for each habit. There are many, many more apps out there, some with fancy functionality that can cost a pretty penny and include a detailed calendar, sophisticated analysis of your past performance or even in-app coach support. We liked the ones listed above for their simplicity and the element of gamification they add to your habit forming.

Tip #6 Find Buddies 

Last but not least, you can find people on our Community Forums looking for kindred souls to work towards their goals with. Psychologists agree that a healthy level of peer pressure can work wonders for sticking to your goals and boost your motivation significantly. By sharing your goals and progress with others, a positive team spirit can make you stick to your guns more effectively than you would on your own. This advice is shared by Sycra Yasin, a successful concept artist and a friend of CG Cookie: “Having a partner really boosts my desire to work hard, especially when I see them making progress or doing more pages than I did.  Constructive competition can be a good thing as long as you both share the same goals.  It’s not about knocking the other person down but about both of you building each other up.” (for more from Sycra, read his 5 Tips to Help You Draw More).

Ancient Words of Wisdom

“It doesn’t matter how slow you go, as long as you don’t stop.” - Confucius

Quoting ancient philosophy is generally a desperate effort to make any text seem smarter - and this one is no exception. Confucius almost certainly wasn’t referring to bettering yourself in digital art, but his advice rings as true as ever. The point is this: you can arrive at any goal quickly by exerting tremendous amounts of energy, effort and stress. Or, you can take your time and get there step by step, with a little bit of effort made every day. 

And today is as good as any day to get started with your new habit, now that you know how.


Do you have habits that make you a better artist? What approaches work for you? Tell us in the comments!


  [1] Wood, W. & Tam, L. & Witt, M.G. "Chaning Circumstances, Disrupting Habits" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2005, Vol. 88, No. 6, 918933.For further reading on habit forming, check out Dr.Jeremy Dean’s PsyBlog or his book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits”. Another great read is The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg.  

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    qupo

    I would also recommend https://habitrpg.com for all the geeks out there.

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    Pavla Karon

    I just checked out HabitRPG...that's pretty amazing, taking the gamification aspect of habit creation to the next level! Thanks for the tip ;)

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