Breaking Old Habits for Breakthrough Creative

by Meredith Cooper

posted on 07-17-2018

Innovation and change — you can’t have one without the other. Every technology advancement comes with new ways of doing things, and that creates a very human paradox. Although technology is a core part of the human experience, we’re also creatures of habit. Once we’ve found success in doing things a certain way, we’re naturally resistant to trying something new — we get stuck in the familiar. In these cases, progress is not dictated by innovation, but by psychology.

It’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about. We’re constantly working to innovate and bring new capabilities and features to the creative profession. But that also means we’re constantly evolving the creative workflow.

We need to make it easy to try out new features, tricks, and capabilities. To do that effectively we have to understand why people develop creative habits, how those habits can turn into ruts, and what we can do to break out of them to achieve maximum creativity.

In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg breaks down the formation of habitual behavior into a three-part loop — cue, routine, and reward. It starts with a trigger that tells the brain to go into habit mode. There’s the habit, or routine behavior, itself. And, finally, there’s a reward that helps reinforce and establish the habit.

The problem is that habits can persist long after they’ve outlived their benefit. It’s because they’re so deeply ingrained. Neuroscientists have known that habits reside in the part of our brain that controls automatic behaviors and emotions — instead of the part where intentional decision-making resides. It makes sense. The value of a habit is that it allows learned behavior to take place automatically and efficiently without the burden of conscious thought. The downside it that it makes it really hard to think our way out of a bad habit.

In many cases, the best way to break an old habit is to form a new one. A 2012 study at MIT showed that a small part of the prefrontal cortex acts as a sort of control gate for habitual routines, triggering the formation of, and slightly favoring, new habits. Therefore, although habits are deeply ingrained, it is possible to replace old habits with new.

How can we apply this in our creative lives? To better understand these dynamics, we spoke with Chevon Hicks, one of our incredible creative partners and advisors who has spent the better part of his career thinking about how to maximize creativity and embrace new ways of working.

Chevon has produced outstanding creative for more than 20 years at places like MGM Creative Advertising, Attitude Network, Sony Online Entertainment, and Universal New Media. He’s built and sold his own agency — Heavenspot — twice, creating award-winning work for brands like Hasbro and Motorola along the way. Today he runs PatternBreak, a consultancy that helps workplaces integrate mindfulness with marketing and design practices.

Chevon says effective behaviors can become bad creative habits when they are too automatic. “Designers create routines because they find something that works. A way to do something faster. A presentation template that helps win a client. So you start to repeat it — eventually it becomes a habit. Good habits can be a powerful tool for productivity, but they can also lure you into a rut when you start to react without thinking about it. If a habit becomes the only thing you know, then you lose options and you can’t evolve. Your creativity suffers.”

His solution? Practice mindfulness to break out of routine patterns. It boils down to two key steps:

Chevon’s inspiration for PatternBreak came from his own creative struggles. “After I sold my agency, I was a little disillusioned. I didn’t know what to do myself and became stuck in a lot of routines. I was doing the same thing everyday — waking up at the same time, taking the same walk, going to the same coffee shop. I knew I needed to make a change, but wasn’t sure exactly what to change or how to go about it,” he says.

Chevon talked to friends. He confided in his wife. He sought inspiration from books like “The Artist’s Way.” But it was simple meditation that led to a breakthrough. “I realized instead of trying to make one big radical change, I could simply start by tweaking one small thing at a time, and see how that works. So I started practicing the daily pattern breaks. I’d go to a new coffee shop, walk a different way, or say yes to something I would normally say no to, and amazing things would happen. I’d meet somebody new, or get inspired by something unexpected. It was working so great in my normal life that I started thinking about how to apply it in my creative life and in my work with clients.”

Check out Chevon’s blog for more ideas and practical exercises to help you break out of unhelpful patterns and habits in your own life and creative work.

Topics: Creativity