Please note: Since this is a very popular post that is relevant to creative process and managing your time and direction when you’re working on creative projects, I keep re-posting it each year so that new Creative Sage Arts readers can check it out. It was originally published on November 10, 2008.
Several years ago, I read an interview with artist/songwriter/performer Joni Mitchell, where she talked about “rotating creative crops.” In that context, she was speaking about the different eras in her artistic life, where she had focused more on her painting or music and songwriting, and how allotting her creative time that way had helped her process. Since then, I have spoken or written about rotating creative crops a bit differently, in the context of a single day, a week, a month, or a year, in terms of my own creative work. I have applied this principle to both my artistic and business pursuits, with interesting results. I now also use some of these ideas when I do creativity coaching with individuals or groups.
Earlier in my career, I worked with adults in a mental health agency, as an activities program director and arts therapist. I also worked in a group home with teenagers who had been runaways, or who had run into trouble with the law. In both situations, I was given the opportunity to design programs that involved rotating artistic modalities with the clients (I prefer to call them “clients,” rather than “patients”). I discovered that the order in which I had them rotate through different art forms affected the results we obtained and had an impact on the success of the therapy. For instance, I found that when I started with music or movement, the clients seemed to enjoy themselves and open up more, producing a different quality of writing when I later facilitated them in poetry or story writing processes. When I started out with writing, the clients’ work was (as a whole) not as insightful or deep, more stilted, and some clients were unable to write at all. I also found that taking them from music and movement to visual media, such as painting or collage-making, and then writing also produced more insightful results and a greater ability on some clients’ part to be playful with others as part of a group.
Although the results varied to a degree by individual and psychiatric diagnosis, as well as other factors, I found that these results were fairly consistent, and I began to keep a detailed log of the procedures, artistic modality rotation and results so I could observe patterns and correlations. Even though I was working with adult psychiatric clients or troubled teenagers, in these two separate contexts, I wondered if similar findings would apply to high-functioning adults who were not psychiatric clients, in a corporate creativity or business innovation training context. The answer was basically yes, although the processes and exercises were much different. Helping people to loosen up first through the use of music (listening, singing or playing instruments), movement or dancing enabled them to open up with each other more effectively later on, when we were doing teamwork or group exercises involving creative and strategic thinking, writing, storytelling and other methods to enhance innovative thinking. I have also used visual media and dramatic improvisation in business innovation programs, customized to the specific group or individuals involved. My business creativity and innovation training, consulting and coaching includes many other dynamic methodologies as well.
In my own work as an artist, I have applied the principle of “rotating creative crops” and have found that it significantly enhances my work in each artistic medium. It also helps me think and work more effectively in my business. For instance, on some work days, when my schedule permits, I begin the day with a walk outdoors or listening to music that resonates with my mood. Then, I might play music for an hour or two at a time. If I don’t have an hour that day, I’ll play or sing for fifteen minutes. I find that my mind is much more awake, and my creative thinking has been stimulated. It also enables me to feel less anxious and overwhelmed by the demands of my business.
Periodically through the work day, I will alternate 1-2 hours of playing music or singing, creative writing, or a visual medium with 1-3 hour time slots of work for my business. I also try to rotate that work as much as possible, designating specific times to check email, interact on social networks. return or make phone calls, do marketing outreach tasks, and work on client projects. Often I do have to accommodate the needs and schedules of my clients, but that’s fine—I simply adjust the “crop rotation” to a different time line. For instance, on days when I must do client phone conferences or call media people in a different time zone, I do that first, and take a walk, gardening, or music break later in the day. I find that this rotation of activities literally stimulates different parts of my brain, enhances both my strategic and creative thinking, and keeps my attention more focused. It also enables me to enjoy each day and retain a positive outlook.
On days or weeks when I have many business deadlines, it is harder to spend 1-2 hours at a time playing music during each day. Rather than completely skipping the music, I came to realize I can still do it, but for 15-30 minutes at a time, rather than two hours. That enables me to continue doing something I love, and yet still meet my deadlines.
Often we think we have “no time” to pursue our artistic or other beloved interests during a busy work day, but that’s because we think of it as an “either—or”; either I do my art or do my job. I’m here to tell you from practical experience that we can do both, if we think more flexibly and creatively about how we do it. We can write that novel, paint that painting or compose that music and hold a job or run a demanding business if we find some time-saving tricks and don’t think about it as an “either—or,” but instead, think about rotating creative crops throughout the day, or over a week or month. Some people are weekend composers, novelists, painters or actors, while devoting their week days to their job or business. It’s a matter of experimenting and finding a method that works for you.
I also rotate creative crops throughout the course of a year, sometimes by season, quarter or bimonthly, depending on what kinds of artistic projects I’m working on. If you’re a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary artist, you have probably developed a system that works for you, so that you can spend time developing in each of the art forms that you love. For instance, often in October through December, I write a new novel, timed with National Novel Writing Month, in which I have participated for [updated] nine years, from 2001-2008, and in 2011.
Although I perform at different times during the year, I often designate winter through spring as being a time when I kick off new musical compositions, or I take on a music or sound design project that has an endpoint or a deadline. At certain times of the year, I work on revising my novels, writing articles, or recording my new music compositions. It’s not always cut-and-dried by season, but I do make an annual calendar where I map out my priority artistic projects and assign each project or art form a color (on my computer, or with magic markers, if I’m making a large paper wall calendar). I find that prioritizing and organizing my creative projects this way enables me to stay focused on specific goals and feel that I’m accomplishing even small steps on the way to a larger goal.
Thinking strategically and creatively about my artistic projects has helped me think and act more strategically and creatively in my business as well. I find that I need to remain flexible and keep experimenting and shifting my methods as needed, depending on opportunities that I foresee, new projects that come my way, and to coordinate with the schedules of people I’m collaborating with. I often get new ideas, so I’ve needed to find ways of sorting through them and prioritizing which ones to work on first, which is a subject for another blog post. However, I’m convinced that my methods of rotating creative crops have enabled me to work more efficiently and with more joy, and I know I think better when I honor my own system of creative work.
What methods have you found that help you think or work creatively? How have you managed to integrate your life as an artist with another job or business? I’m eager to hear how other people work, so feel free to leave a relevant comment about your experiences.