Episode 3: Small Changes that Pay Big Dividends

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This week I’m talking about how tiny changes–taking a different route to work, stopping to notice your surroundings–can give you a fresh perspective. Can doing little things over time dramatically change your life? Spoiler alert: yes!


Here’s what I discussed on this episode:



You’re listening to How to Be Creative, a podcast about what it means to be creative across different disciplines, industries, life circumstances, and career structures. You’ll learn tips for fitting creativity into your daily life and hear from a bunch of different people about how being creative has helped them reach goals, open doors, and live a more rewarding–or at least more interesting–life. I’m your host, Kat O’Leary, and I’m excited to introduce you to some of my favorite creatives, as well as to the tools that help me get my most crucial work done.


Hi, and welcome to the third episode of How to Be Creative. Today I wanted to talk about tiny changes that pay big dividends. So what does that mean? Well, sometimes when we want our lives to look different, we think it has to be this massive undertaking, right? So you need to change jobs or move across the country, end a relationship, win the lottery, whatever. You know, whatever comes to mind for you when you think about making a big change. And yeah, sometimes changing your life does involve a big thing, like one of those. But dramatic events or choices aren’t the only way to change your life for the better. So I wanted to talk about some small ways to switch things up that will hopefully result in your feeling more energized and having a fresh perspective, even if the specifics of your day-to-day life look more or less the same.

The goal here is to take some of these small things and turn them into some kind of regular creative practice. So it doesn’t have to be daily. Obviously we all have obligations including work, family, friends, volunteer work, things like that, but maybe you could try to incorporate something small on a weekly basis to get started. So I recently attended a retreat with Nicole Antoinette, who is the host of the podcast Real Talk Radio. Real Talk Radio is a really fantastic podcasts that I’ve listened to for about a year or two. And Nicole has been doing these amazing goal-setting retreats all around the country. And actually in the UK as well, so not just in the U.S., throughout the year.

So I attended one of those in early July in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. And one of the most valuable things that came out of this was that we did this two-day process where there were seven of us participants and Nicole sitting around a table for a total of four two-hour sessions–two on Saturday, two on Sunday–and worked our way through this goal setting book that Nicole had pulled together for us. Um, and so, uh, one of my goals coming out of that weekend was to have a bigger life. And what that means to me is that I want to feel alive and like I’m firing on all cylinders as many days as possible. It’s hard to maintain that amid a pretty standard routine, which for me looks like usually work Monday through Friday, tutoring on Tuesdays and Thursdays, attending a committee meeting for my volunteer work on Tuesdays, writing group Wednesday morning, meditation Thursday morning, et cetera. And I’m sure you have some variation of that on your end that may or may not involve additional things like getting the kids off to school or daycare, working around a spouse or other partner’s schedule, dealing with doggy daycare, things like that.

So all of us have stuff, right? I think it can be very easy to go on autopilot when you have sort of a set routine of things that need to happen each week. So for this week’s episode, I thought I’d share some simple ways to get out of your routine, even for just a few minutes. Over the past couple of years, doing little things regularly has turned into a habit for me, and I would say my entire life is actually different as a result, which I guess sounds a little bit dramatic, but in thinking it through as I was preparing for this episode, I discovered that honestly it really is true and I’m hoping that you will have a similar experience if you try to do some of this on your own. My experience has been that the little things, when taken en masse, can end up serving as the foundation for major life changes as well.

So I wanted to just run through a few things I’ve done myself that I’ve gotten value out of, in the hope that either these specific things will be of use to you, or possibly that listening to this list and thinking through it a little bit will help you figure out some things that might be more interesting to you. So, trying new coffee shops. So I don’t know about you, but I’m a huge latte snob. I’m always excited to check out a new place in the morning. Maybe you tend to go to the same coffee shop all the time. Maybe you are a lot more responsible than me and make your coffee at home every day. And this is a pretty low-cost, low-hanging-fruit way to change up your day.

Another way to do that that’s similar is take a different route to work. So if you’re an urban dweller like me, you might take a different train, take a different bus. If you happen to walk to work, maybe walking a block or two out of your way and seeing a new block that you’ve never walked down before, find a park you’ve never been to near your home or office. Obviously this one’s a little bit easier in a bigger city where there are more parks on an absolute basis and there’s more ground to cover so it’s less likely that you’ve seen every park in the vicinity. But that I always get a lot of value out of, or sometimes I’ll go to a park that I’ve been to before and I will just sit and meditate with my eyes closed for a few minutes before going on with my day.

Go to a museum you’ve never been to before, with the addendum that you may find that museums in your area have certain nights or hours where they are free either to local residents or to everyone. And sometimes those will also involve additional programming. Another example is to look at a website like Atlas Obscura for things to see or do in your city that you may have missed. So for example, I work close to grand central and I realized recently through Atlas Obscura that the Daily News Globe wasn’t far from my office. So the Daily News used to be in a building on East 42nd Street and in the lobby of that building is this enormous globe that’s absolutely beautiful, and I didn’t know about it and had never seen it before and it was something that I could just take a little quick trip on my lunch break and go look at, take pictures of observe and read about, which was very cool.

It’s sort of like going into a mini museum for a quick break from work and doing something new. It doesn’t have to be anything big or expensive. You can listen to a new podcast, go to a reading at a local bookstore, pick up a new magazine, try a new flavor or brand of seltzer. There are a lot of really small ways to create the feeling of newness or novelty. And I think that the reason why that’s important is that there’s been a lot of research–and you can Google this yourself, but I’ll also include some links in the show notes–there’s been a lot of research around the good things that novelty does for our brains. So it helps with learning and motivation and it helps keep you grounded in the present moment.

Okay. Another idea, and I think this is one that some people are going to have resistance to, is to try something you assume you won’t like. We have a lot of ideas about who we are and what we enjoy, especially once you’re adults. I think it’s a lot easier to get into the mindset of “I’m this type of person. I’m not that type of person. I like these things. I don’t like these things.” And it can be easy to build an identity around that stuff. This can prevent us from trying new things because we’re closed off to the possibility that old information about us has changed. So if someone in your life invites you to join them for an event or activity, that wouldn’t be the type of thing that you’d seek out yourself and you’d be inclined to say no, maybe try saying yes and just see what happens. You might find that actually that thing that you thought you didn’t like–or that you knew you didn’t like five years ago– you’ve grown and changed as a person and it’s now something you’re a little bit more interested in or open to.

Another idea is to learn a new language. Right? Okay. So this sounds like a big thing to incorporate, but what if you just download Duolingo and pick a random language? Um, and it doesn’t have to be something like, oh, I need to learn French for work. Pick something completely random, and then with Duolingo, you really only have to study it for a few minutes a day to see an impact. And the annoying Duolingo owl will ping you if you don’t do it by close to the end of the day. Another idea is to join a club that is kind of a low commitment thing. So maybe a book club that meets once a month or even once a quarter. Something I’ve also been hearing about is people doing these article clubs where you simply pick a five-page article versus a 300-page book and you meet up with other people and talk through your perspectives on what you read.

That’s something that’s definitely a lot lower effort than being in a book club. And if you don’t know anyone who has an article club, you can always just start one yourself. And it’s actually also a great way to form a new type of relationship with people you already know. Another idea is to think of things you loved as a child but don’t do anymore. So for me, this has been crafting any sort of visual arts. Um, recently I’ve started making pompoms, I’ve started doing these alcohol ink art paintings that are very, very cool. Things like that. When you’re a kid you are more open to trying things and being bad at them, right? You’re not going to sit down to an art project when you are seven years old and think there’s no point in doing this if it’s not going to end up in the Met Museum.

But as adults, we can often get into this mindset that all of our time needs to be spent on things that we’re good at or that have some sort of capitalistic purpose for us or that will somehow move us forward. And I’ve gotten a lot of value out of accepting that there are certain things that I’m just going to be bad at and that doesn’t mean I should avoid them and to just sitting down and doing something really simple where I end up with a finished product at the end. Um, I also think art as a mindfulness practice has been pretty significant for me over the past couple of years. I definitely tend to sit down and just zone out when I’m making one of these alcohol ink paintings and it’s become one of my favorite ways of kind of getting in quality time with my creative self.

So actually that segues nicely into my next bullet, which is learn a new art form. So in my case I just mentioned alcohol inks, that’s actually a very, that’s a great possibility because I’m someone with pretty much no visual artistic skill and I’ve been blown away by the quality of the works of art that I’ve been able to produce using this method. I will try to include some information about that in the show notes. I’m not sure what resources are online for it, but it’s something that I’ve begun doing in the last I three months and it’s now something I do on a semi-regular basis and they’re absolutely beautiful. They look kind of like, there are a couple of things they look like. So one, they kind of look like those oily stickers that we used to have when we were kids. I don’t know if anyone knows what I’m talking about. And then they also kind of have this glasslike finish to them where they sort of look like a slice of agate or crystal, which is very cool.

So then I wanted to talk a little bit about what if you are interested in formalizing this a little bit more. And, um, for example, what if you’re interested in developing some kind of daily creative practice? So I recently read this great book called Atomic Habits by James Clear, which looks at the impact of tiny habits on our behavior. For example, it can be daunting to set a goal of, let’s say, writing for an hour every day, right? Maybe you can keep that going for a day or two or even three. But then you skip a day and then it’s hard to get back on track after that.

So what if instead of committing to an hour a day, you said, I’m just going to write for five minutes, that’s a pretty easy goal that most of us can set and follow through on. Most of us can find five minutes in every day, right? So I thought that was a great piece of advice. And another example he gave was if you’re trying to develop a habit of flossing every day, start by just flossing one tooth. In most cases with flossing, you’ll start, you’ll do one tooth and then you’ll end up doing more than one tooth. Right? And he, he also gave the example of someone he knew who had been trying to start an exercise practice and finally just made the simple commitment of going to the gym for five minutes every day. And that ended up becoming a bigger commitment because the guy figured out, oh, well, if I’m going to take the time to get ready to go to the gym, travel to and from the gym, I might as well stay a little bit longer than five minutes.

Once I managed to, you know, make that commitment and stick to it. And one tool, I really like to stick to these habits once you’ve created them. It’s called Way of Life. So it’s an app–it’s definitely on iOS; I believe it’s on Android as well. I’ll include the link in the show notes. And this is an app that just has these simple checkbox journals for habits you’re trying to form or avoid. So, for example, if one of your daily goals is to write a thousand words every day, when you open up the app, it will have a series of check boxes that will form a chain after I think three in a row. And if you don’t fill it out, it’ll prompt you. I think you can set, set the prompt to go off whatever time makes the most sense for you, but it’ll remind you that you haven’t done the thing yet.

And I think for that app, I’d recommend doing things that are very manageable. So let’s say you set your reminder to go off at 9:00 PM. There are certain things that you’re not going to want to do after 9:00 PM. Right? And then another thing that I probably talk about a lot that I think can make a big difference, if not in the specifics of your life, um, then in your feelings about your life is mindfulness. So in order to be more mindful, um, which is something that I’ve found really kind of helps with every area of my life, it helps me manage stress. It helps me make better use of my time. It helps me value things more. Um, a way to do that is to set a reminder on your phone for a time each day that works for you.

And that can also help. It can also help if you tie it to another habit. So for example, you can say to yourself, um, after I take a shower every morning I do my mindfulness practice, or after I wake up in the morning, I do my mindfulness practice before I get out of bed. And this can be meditation, but it also could be just kind of slowing down, paying attention to the world around you for a minute or two, things like that. So, to give an example, I recently, I attended a Caveday, which is, Caveday is this organization that runs these productivity sprints. And so I was at an in-person Caveday a couple of weekends ago and we did this mindfulness practice where we were each given a raisin and we were asked to simply place the raisin in each of our mouths and not start eating it yet, not start chewing. And then the the leader of the Cave walked us through this mindfulness practice. And I’m not a big fan of reasons that said during this practice, I actually found that the flavor and the raisin was a lot more complex and layered than I had known. And I enjoyed eating a raisin for the first time, probably since I was a kid as a result, which was interesting to me.

So it can be something really small. It can just be paying more attention to something you look at every day. So after a while, if everything in your surroundings is the same, it all kind of blends into the background. So just pick one thing that you haven’t really observed in awhile and pay attention to what color it is or how big it is, or, um, how, how the light is hitting it, things like that. So these are just a few things to consider incorporating into your life, but I bet you can come up with some more that are more in line with your own interests and maybe a better fit for your, how your life is structured. So next week I will be chatting with writer Theodora Blanchfield on creativity as a mental health practice. I hope you’ll join us. In the meantime, you can follow us on Instagram at @howtobecreativepod.


So that’s this week’s episode of How to Be Creative. As always, you can find show notes, including a complete episode transcript and links to everything discussed at howtobecreative.org.

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