Pandemic or not – there are plenty of people who just don’t leave the confines. You know the confines, right? The box we put ourselves in (or let others put us in) defines our existence.  Here try this out and see if it rings any bells…

Wake.  Bathroom. Coffee. Food(maybe). Commute(maybe). Work. Break. Work. Food. Work. Break. Home. Planned or Routine “Fun” (TV, Gym, Video Games…). Bathroom. Bedroom. Reset and Repeat.

I won’t deny that routine has benefits…

but if IT defines your existence rather than serving your needs, it can grind away your identity until nothing’s left but the routine. I’m guilty – and I hate admitting it – especially with 2 small kids that I absolutely love!

The point I’m trying to make is not explicitly that you should go outdoors. (Although outdoors IS a great option)

The point is also not to up and ditch routines entirely.

What I’m saying is that you should get out of the confines of routine that is defined purely by external factors without consideration for YOUR needs. If the routine is inevitable – and it often is – then bend it to your personality. Better still, build it to your specifications… and make sure that one of the specifications is creativity/fun!

I’ve learned and re-learned this lesson multiple times in my life – so it stands to reason maybe someone else could benefit from the concept too.

Now in my case – out really IS outside.

I learned that about myself when I got my first non-training duty assignment in the Navy… Groton, CT! (My family has been in SC since before the US existed…) My arrival in CT was in summer – so it wasn’t until a few months in that I really understood how much I needed to physically be outside. And so ultimately – I learned to snow ski as a way to ensure that I had an active winter outdoor outlet. (That was the 90s by the way.)

Enter current times…

It’s year two of pandemic life, and I’m self-employed and buried so deeply into my “business” routine that going outside to drop kids at daycare was about it. Stress and other factors got me into old bad habits of seeking out comfort food (junk-food) and stress-eating – and exercise was non-existent. One day I reconnected with the fact that I really liked being outside, AND that physical activity helped me sleep better… (probably the same week my wife looked at how awful my sleep was on my Fitbit app…). So, I went to one of our Columbia-area Riverwalk locations and walked. For like two hours. I hurt. I was sore. I ached. I had at least one blister. But I did sleep GREAT! Almost a week went by before I thought “if you don’t actively make yourself do more – and a LOT more at that – you’re going to be worse than you were to start with!” Now after three weeks of daily vigorous walks, along with the accompanying clarity of thought and sheer joy of being outside immersed in a fairly dense-growth river basin environment, I actually have it on my radar as a must-do.  But just putting words onto a white screen won’t ever do this justice – there are photos as well…

Most of my walks are on the banks of the Saluda, Broad, and Congaree rivers – all very readily accessible to me and with miles of Riverwalk available.

An example of my own “tailored” routine is this (now daily) walk. It’s really gotten into a place mentally where I can get free of whatever is bogging me down, and let my mind loose to explore creative space – and I’ve gotta tell you… it’s great!  What I realized is that when I’m actively doing something that reduces stress (especially a physical activity), my ability to reach into my creative arsenal functions WAY more efficiently.  Sometimes that is creating a fantastic fiction, but often it’s dwelling on existing knowledge and learning, and tying together thoughts that I have never before connected.  Sometimes these thought-amalgams are really profound (to me). And I like to chase them a bit deeper.  It’s like having a really awesome dream… but with the ability to stay on a topic and not have myself jarred out of it by being woken up or having my subconscious take a one-way turn down some extremely obscure rabbit hole.

I want to share a bit of the mental prep that goes along with this, but first a bit of sidenote…

It can be tremendously helpful to acknowledge that you’re about to do something potentially creative and give your mind “permission” so to speak, to start “woolgathering”. I actually never liked the expression woolgathering until now… I think it’s apropos. Etymology lesson for today –

“woolgathering” literally meaning “gathering fragments of wool torn from sheep by bushes” it meant a LOT of basically aimless wandering. The current definition of the noun by Webster: “indulgence in idle daydreaming”. 

While this may not seem terribly useful… for a creative mind, especially one that has been through as much rigid formal training as mine has – it has lots of benefits. One is that the permissiveness lets me get the weight of planning for business or family or social things off of my mind, and while my “daydreaming” still has some structure these days, it’s a LOT more free-form than when I’m problem-solving or working on a project or task.

Now, before I go for a walk or some other outdoor activity – I usually have at least 5 or 6 minutes of driving. I put this time to use by sending my creative thought processor out on a little woolgathering mission. The cool part is that I have no real set process – I literally let my mind wander through whatever is on the surface – which, when I’m getting ready for something like an outdoor walk or bike ride tends to be very different from what’s on the surface when I’m trying to maintain focus on tasks and projects.  After a few minutes or whenever I’m about to park to start my activity – I sift through the last few minutes of brainstorming for what I want to explore on any given day. Sometimes – I don’t have to sift much because what I want to think about is obvious! Sometimes there are lots of good options and I just pick one and start – and make adjustments as I go.  Regardless – when I go out for a planned activity – I’m usually out for at least an hour, so I spend that time doing a combination of exploring my current thoughts on the subject, adding new insights, making obvious and obscure connections, and trying to see if I can come up with either something new or possibly a fresh new way to look at something old. Either way – it’s great mental exercise, and it really does help boost my ability to be creative.

Besides getting outside, another outlet for me to help manage my mental health is “writing”.  These days, “writing” might still happen on paper, or at a computer, or… maybe when I’m out on the Riverwalk. It’s not so much about “writing” as capturing the ideas and thoughts that seem to endlessly roll through my brain. And “capture” has to happen by any means possible.  The most important thing is that when inspiration hits, the product needs to be retained, whether to share directly, to inspire me later, or both… but if I don’t save that thought train – like really quickly, it just rolls on down the rails into never-never land, and I’m lucky if I can recall 10 or 15% when I get home!  So now during these outside activities, I bring a way to record neat ideas or thoughts. This could be a simple pad of paper and pen, a go pro… or hey, maybe that gizmo that we almost always have on us nowadays… (yeah, my wife had to point out to me that “voice memo” is an installed app that’s pretty much standard on just about every phone *sigh* I’m an old fart).

Seriously though, the smartphone is a great tool – mine has several playlists including one for running, as well as a wireless mic adapter… so when I decide to stop running and work through some thoughts instead of listening to “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” it’s effortless to start capturing a monolog of ideas!  It means I almost never allow the cool ideas to get lost in the expanse of my wandering mind – the really awesome part is that not only do I get to save these thoughts and thought processes, but I do it while I’m exercising, (which helps lower stress and improve my ability to sleep). And I virtually eliminate the constant sense that I’ve wasted an opportunity and lost some key ideas that might be integral to my goals and vision… which also lowers stress and helps me to sleep better!!!

Hey another sidenote – the photos here – I took those.  Not saying that to brag… it’s just a part of my creative side that I include in the “writing” process… I love taking pictures, and unsurprisingly, it helps stimulate creativity for me. It goes back to the idea that no matter what you do – find ways to include things that you love! It really adds depth and purpose to what you do – not to mention fun!    

Something important that I really need to stress – you are you, and I am me and we’re NOT the same!

(Like… no duh, right?) Yeah – but this is a thing that I have an ongoing issue with… it goes something like this: If I hit a solid vein of gold in creative processing for… well, anything… And if that came to light as a teachable method, someone would be on my doorstep tomorrow with plans to make it into a boxable kit or book series for “How to Tap YOUR Creative Potential”! Which… in the world we live in, would be like hitting a giant lottery win for most people! Cash in! Sell the heck out of it! SHOW ME THE MONEY!!! But in reality – my way of thinking and how I do things work for me because of ME! My experiences, my mind, my genetics, how my brain works. While someone else might benefit from some of my insights… I guarantee that everything that works for me is NOT going to work for most other people on a direct attempt to duplicate it… because everyone has different experiences, different thought processes, and different ways of engaging their creative abilities. I am happy to share some of my thoughts and processes, but I will not submit my way of doing anything as a step-by-step how-to for someone else – because what works for me might be a sure-fire way to hold you back!

My one actual suggestion to anyone – find an activity you like and do it – for no other reason than because you enjoy it – and make it part of your routine!

If it helps – take a look at my approach. Don’t try to take notes or anything – just look it over and then walk away and think about it.  See what (if anything) resonates when you let your subconscious have it for a day or two to play around with. THEN… come back and take any parts of it that speak to your own creative spirit and use or modify to suit YOU! I’ll also encourage you to read about others who found success and to seek advice from other creative people.  Learn as much as you can, but unless you’re planning on engineering a bridge or taking up the medical practice – again, pick and choose ONLY the pieces that fit YOU, and work for YOU!

Next put it into PRACTICE.

DO whatever the creative thing is that captured your attention. DON’T be overly critical of your first efforts… just review what you did and look at everything as part of the process of growing and learning. The more you practice – the better you become, and if it is something you’re extremely interested in, and/or passionate about, you tend to be more engaged and focused, and frankly to spend more time on the activity which only increases your development!

Most of us bury our creative spirit very early in our lives. It doesn’t jive with conformity and being “normal”, plus it interferes with the nice orderly process of churning out the next batch of “good citizens”.  (No I’m not against education, just the fact that our process for education seems to devalue the unique and the creative in favor of consistency and “normalcy”.) So try to remember what really made you light up or dream as a kid – and find ways to thread elements of those things back into the routine you make for yourself.  Your older you might be a bit younger for the efforts, and that you will thank the one reading this for the effort.

Remember: the routine you make for yourself… that’s the one you want!

Make it, own it, and change it as much or as little as you want… it’s yours!