How to make habit-making a habit.

We’re not talking nail-biting, hair-twisting, or bonbon-wolfing. We’re talking creative habits that make your life a better place to be.

In fact, we’re literally talking — me and my pal Ronnie Lawlor chewing over the subject, part of a series we recorded to get you (and me ) on track for 2017 and the launch of her new kourse, A Drawing A Day (click here to sign up).

What habit would you like to acquire in 2017?

A Drawing a Day

One of the hardest things about starting something new is developing a habit that will help you carry on. Even though I’ve been drawing for quite a while now, I occasionally need some sort of kick in the butt to get back on track.

Here’s what works for me: a reason to be consistent. It could be a absorbing project I devise that keeps me engaged — so I am eager to keep working at it. It could be a collaboration with other people who I don’t want to let down — so I keep showing up and making stuff.

We’re about to kick off a new undertaking that combines both. It’s called A Drawing A Day. The first phase of it is a Sketchbook Skool kourse, taught by a teacher I admire enormously: Veronica Lawlor. (If you took our kourse, Storytelling, you remember her amazing, epic demo in which she made over 100 drawings of a pair of dancers.)

We’re beginning this kourse on the first Monday of the January so the year starts off right. Every day Ronnie will do a demo for us and each Friday we’ll go on a virtual field trip. We’ll get encouraging emails every day to keep you on track and engaged. Like all of our new kourses, this will initially be a “Community” kourse, meaning we’re all going to do it together in January, supporting and encouraging each other to keep going.

I think it’s gonna be great. We put a lot of work in to producing this kourse and it’s gorgeous, exciting, smart and fun. Kinda like Ronnie.

That’s not all, though. We’re also launching a year-long project to really make this new habit stick. A year of prompts, interviews, demos and ideas. We’ll be sharing encouragement through a special Facebook group and on other forms of social media. It’ll be a great adjunct to the kourse.

As I said, the kourse begins on January 2nd, but 1) you can sign up now and 2) we will make the kourse available again after January so you can sign up whenever you want and take the kourse immediately.

A Drawing a Day is gonna make 2017 a beautiful, creative year. I can’t wait.

Wanna join me and Ronnie and the rest of Sketchbook Skool? Click here.

Inspiration Tuesday: Michael Nobbs

My pal Michael Nobbs suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and yet is a creative and productive artist. We had a chat recently about how he does it and how we can all use his techniques to get more done each day.

Michael is also a teacher in the newest kourse at Sketchbook Skool. If you would like to more tips, suggestions and perspectives from him and our other new fakulty, check out Expressing at SBS.com.

The Resolution Solution

As the last pages are plucked off the calendar, it’s time to feel the pleasure of accomplishment and the pressure of regret. Regret at the things one intended to do over the year past but lacked the stick-to-it-iveness to, well, stick to it.

The waning days of December are a time of familiar patterns. Chestnuts, figgy pudding, wrapping paper cuts, family squabbles, and vows to launch the New Year with fresh and transforming habits. Gym owners rub their hands with glee at all the self-deceivers stuffed with goose fat renewing their dusty memberships, full of the great and ephemeral intentions. Would-be artists line up at the art supply store, baskets loaded with sketchbooks and palettes and workshop catalogs. Blog keepers vow, once again, to truly stick to their publicly announced pledges to post five times weekly.

Let’s zoom down from the heights of generalization to survey this particular oath breaker. Why is it so hard for me to adhere to my own intentions? Why do I still steal the occasional late-night tablespoon of Ben and Jerry’s? Why do days, weeks even, pass without my cracking the cover of my sketchbook? Why do I still gnaw my cuticles in the darkness of the movie theatre?

Let’s get more specific still. Rather than a blanket condemnation of my many shortcomings, let’s focus on my blog keeping and try to extract some lessons from its intermittence that might apply to other habit breaking.

  1. Time and place. When I am successful at regular writing, it’s because I get up early, pee, then sit right down at my desk. Before breakfast, I am done and posted. I don’t allow myself time to question whether or not I should bother to write today. I just get up, pee and write. I’ve said this here before — habits are easier to establish by tying them to a ‘sparking event’. In my case, peeing.

  2. Inventory. To lubricate this dry start, I think about what I want to write days in advance, then jot down a word or two that might be the basis for a post. When I sit down, bleary eyed, I have a grain of sand to drop in the oyster.

  3. Structure. I have a loose agenda for each weeks’ post. On Monday I write about things that have inspired me from the previous week, Tuesday and Thursday I freeform things like this, Wednesday I find or make a video, Friday is some sort of instruction. It’s not a rigid structure but it gives my ideas a trellis.

  4. Temperance. Certainly not drinking too much is a good idea, but what I mean here is that if I temper my ambitions, I am more likely to keep producing. For instance, I had a vague notion about what to write here today, but soon my ambitions swelled and I imagined writing a really long posts with scores of ideas, research, quotes… and the thought of all that work made me want to just crawl back in bed. Instead I said to myself, just write a paragraph or two and try to encapsulate the idea. Even though now it appears I am writing much more than that, I couldn’t have started with such a hike in mind. Just planning a slow jog to the curb to pick up the paper is a more fruitful place to start. Underpromise, overdeliver.

(Incidentally, long bits of writing are not an indication of industry. I find it a lot easier to go on and on than take the time to go back and prune. By now, you’re probably feeling the consequences of my editorial laziness.)

Before I commit myself to any new regimes in early 2016, I will think about how to help myself stay true.

  1. What are the sparks that I can connect to the habit to reinforce it? For example, if I want to draw every day, I should put a sketchbook by the coffeepot and draw the view out the kitchen window each morning as it perks.
  2. What sort of preparation can I make to make the new pattern easier to adhere to? If I want to avoid eating carbs, maybe I should start by clearing the pantry of cookies and the freezer of Chunky Monkey.

  3. What sort of structure can I give my habit so it isn’t just open-ended? If I want to go to the gym several times weekly, I can put a recurring appointment in my calendar and make sure nothing else gets booked at that time. And I can add details to those appointments, thinking through what sorts of exercises I want to do on any given day.

  4. How can I set realistic expectations? I can come up with reasonable goals that won’t be a barrier to my getting going — like drawing for ten minutes or walking for twenty minutes or not drinking caffeine after ten a.m. — goals that can then be inched forward over time as I adjust to the idea of the privation or activity.

In sum, I can be like a good parent. I can provide reasonable goals, set myself up with clear and achievable markers of success, be supportive and understanding without being either a wimp or a tyrant, and remind myself that failure is not catastrophic but just a detour from a path one I still return to.

Let’s do great things in 2016 but in a reasonable, supportive, human way. And let’s start by giving up regret.

Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

This is annoying as hell. My dogs, Tim and Joe, are obsessed with the trash chute in our vestibule. Whenever I drop a bag of garbage down the chute, they go nuts, growling and barking and trying to leap up and into the chute in pursuit of the disappearing bag. This has been going on for years. In fact, it’s so obsessive that whenever we open the garbage can in the kitchen or even the dishwasher next to it, they go scrambling to the chute, waiting for something that’s just. Not. Going. To happen. It’s a habit, a pure, Pavlovian habit.

Habits can be a pain, like biting your cuticles or forgetting to floss, but they can also be a real boon to a creative person. They are a little subroutine we can plug into to our neck-top computers to make sure we draw or write or play the dulcimer on a regular basis, a basis that will make us more skilled, more expressive and happier with our work.

Habits have three basic parts. First, there’s what I call ‘the Spark’. That’s the event that triggers the habit. In my dogs’ case, it’s anything to do with throwing out garbage. Garbage in, the madness begins.

Next, there’s the habitual behavior. In this case, running like a lunatic across the apartment and gnashing your teeth at a small steel door in the wall.

Third, is the reward. Tim and Joe never actually get the reward which must be diving down the garbage’s burrow to throttle it deep in the ground (they are dachshunds after all, bred to kill badgers in their lairs). Or maybe it’s just the thrill of the chase.

In any case, think of those three steps in setting up whatever brain program you want to write. Let’s say you want to find time to draw on a regular basis but the monkey voice in your head tells you to watch TV instead. So let’s create a habit. 1. Put your sketchbook on the coffee table next to the remote. When a commercial comes, (spark), grab the remote, mute the TV, pick up your sketchbook and draw whatever’s in front of you (your feet, your coffee table, your slumbering Rottweiler, scenes from the commercial on the screen)  (habit) until you fill you up your sketchbook with awesome drawings (reward).

Think of other sparks you could link to habits. Every time you make a pot of coffee (spark), draw the view out the kitchen window (habit). Every time you sit on the toilet (spark), draw on a sheet of toilet paper (habit). Every time Donald Trump says “Mexican”(spark), draw your neighbor’s Chihuahua (habit).

Or, subscribe to my blog (sign up in the column on the right) and get an email three times a week when I post (spark), and do a drawing based on my featured image (habit). That will be rewarding for us both.

El niño dibuja cada día

My French, Latin, Urdu and Hebrew are rusty and dim but I kinda have an itch to learn a new language. So I downloaded a free app called Duolingo.

Each day it emails me to remind me to do my lesson. The email has a picture of a little green owl who says, “Hi Danny, keep the owl happy! Learning a language requires practice every day.”

I diligently open my app and spend a few minutes going through my lessons. I might be waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting for the F train, waiting for the elevator, and I fill the pause by repeating “naranja, naranja“. When I am done, the app goes bing-bong and rewards me with some pointless points. It’s painless and fun and soon I am sure I will be able to order a burrito from the food truck on the corner.

Now we just need a genius to come up with a drawing app that’ll do the same thing. Bing-bong! Time to draw a bagel. Ding-dong! Sketch your shoe. Ting-tong! Get out your gouache. Five or ten minutes a day of gentle prodding to keep me in tiptop drawing shape.

Any coders out there?¡vámonos!

Getting back in shape

The last year has not been a great one for drawing. At least not for me. After being a dad and an employee and a housekeeper, the little spare time I have had left has been consumed with the two books I have been putting together. I’ve had to do a lot of drawing to get those books done, of course, but it’s certainly not been the sort of art that fills my dozens of old sketchbooks. It’s not really a record of my daily life.

A few weeks ago, once the last of my book files was picked up by the FedEx man,I had to admit that I had pretty much lost the habit of drawing and I’d better do something about it. I just kinda didn’t wanna.

Even though it’s been a mild winter, it’s not been conducive to drawing outside so I sat for in the kitchen for a while and looked at the odds and ends on the counter and tried to psych myself up. Instead, I sighed. I just can’t draw my pepper mill again, nor a box of raisins or my knife block. I have a new, great-sounding but boring-looking radio — its a black rectangle with a small monitor and two knobs. Most of the view out my window has been blocked by two newish NYU buildings. They are as dull looking as my new radio and, in any case I’ve drawn them over and again over the years. My mind whined: there’s nothing to draw. But really, beneath my feigned boredom, lurked fear. An anxiety that maybe I had lost my ability to draw. Look at Tiger Woods — even great talent can slip away in the night and leave you swatting the air.

I had to find a way to ease back into the water without scaring the muse away. I didn’t want the pressure of making great journal pages or writing witty marginalia. I just wanted the visceral pleasure of making lines and slowly and carefully studying something, anything. I unearthed an empty, spiral-bound journal with not terribly nice paper and filled my fountain pen. Then I picked up the dogeared copy of last week NY Times Magazine and let it fall open to a random photo. Then I began to copy the picture into the book, focussing on cross hatching, spiraling lines in neat rows, lining up a smooth gradation of micro dots, making ribbons of greys and undulations of silky blacks.

The old pen was a little rusty but not nearly as bad as I feared. And soon the sweet flood of neurotransmitters swept over me, like emptying a too full bladder, and I entered the zone.

So I made a small deal with me. Each morning after my breakfast was chewed and the French press was still half full, I would do one drawing from the morning paper on one page in the book. At least one. If the urge was there and the coffee held out, maybe I’d make a second.

Most mornings I fill a page (and I don’t beat myself up about it if I miss a day to give the dogs some extra time in the park or to make an early meeting). And the fun is back.

Granted, I’m making drawings of unknown faces from news photos, not the sort of things I want to fill books with, but I figure, what the hey, it’s spring training, and the season will eventually  start for real. Meanwhile, just keep loosening up the shoulders, stretching the hamstrings, and shagging those flies.