Responsive YouTube Video

Listen or watch on your favorite platforms

When it comes to our creative projects, we often fall into the trap of waiting for inspiration to strike before taking action. But what if we shift our mindset and commit to showing up every day, regardless of whether we feel inspired or not?

In this episode, we explore how to create structure and discipline in our creative projects, allowing us to tap into our creativity consistently. We'll discuss the importance of having a structure for our creative work, while also leaving space for spontaneity and discovery.

Join me as we dive into the tension between structure and creativity, and discover how staying in that tension can unlock a world of magic and possibility.

Topics Covered

  • The importance of structure in fostering creativity
  • The tension between structure and stability vs. creativity and imagination
  • Different examples of structure in creative projects
  • The role of discipline in empowering structure
  • The balance between structure and creativity
  • The concept of staying in the tension between structure and creativity
  • An invitation to be in an inquiry about finding the balance between structure and imagination
  • The significance of curiosity and discovery in the creative process

⏱︎ Time Stamps

00:09 • Introduction to the Zen Habits podcast

00:36 • The importance of structure in creativity

00:57 • The tension between structure and creativity

06:45 • Different examples of structure in creative projects

11:55 • The role of discipline in empowering structure

15:08 • The balance between structure and creativity

16:37 • The concept of staying in the tension between structure and creativity

20:45 • An invitation to be in an inquiry about finding the balance between structure and imagination

21:07 • The significance of curiosity and discovery in the creative process

22:23 • Invitation to share experiences and insights

23:40 • Conclusion and next steps

📄 Transcript

Welcome to the Zen Habits podcast, where we dive into how to work with uncertainty, resistance, and fear around our meaningful work. This is for anyone who wants to create an impact in the world and cares deeply enough to do the work. I'm your host, Leo Babauta, creator of the Zen Habits blog.

Okay, so today, my friends, we're going to talk about structure when it comes to creativity and specifically the creative project that you're going to be working on here in this season of the Zen Habits podcast.

And even more interesting to me is that we're going to look a little bit at the tension between structure and stability versus creativity and imagination and freedom and the unknown, mystery, enigma, openness.

And so there's a tension between those two over here on one side, we have stability and structure. And over here, we have imagination, creativity. And so we're going to dive into that and why being able to stay in the tension is going to be a magic key that unlocks so much magic for us here as we look at love and creation.

Okay, so before we dive into that, let me remind you that in this season of the Zen Habits podcast called Love and Creation, we're going to be looking at creativity... and the act of creation and and bringing of our hearts and love into that space. And in order to do that, I really highly recommend, urge you to actually choose a creative project, and dive into that with us in this season. And we talked about that in the last episode. So go back and watch episode zero and episode one watch or listen to it.

But I'm just going to remind you of that here is have a project to choose. And if you haven't done that, actually get going with that, actually choose a project. And what I'll say about that before I move into structure and stability and creativity, what I'll say about that is that people will tend to put that off. It's like "Okay, great. It sounds like a good recommendation, Leo. But right now I just don't have a project that I want to choose or like I will, but soon."

And this is a way. That our resistance and fear keeps us safe. It's just not choosing something. It's easier to put it off, to not decide right now. What I encourage you to do right now is actually stop this podcast. Give yourself a few minutes, five, ten minutes, longer if you need it. But just sit with what is in your heart. What are you being called towards? And what would you like to choose as a project to take on?

Do you want to sew something, do you want to knit something, do you want to record something, do you want to create some music, some art, visual art, painting, it doesn't matter, drawing, do you want to write something. Maybe it's something else, another kind of creative act, and really you're not limited to any of the traditional creative acts, but choose something now. Because what we're going to talk about in the rest of this episode... it really becomes enriched, if that's even a word, I might have just created a word, becomes richer through actually having something on the table that you're working with, a project.

So, I've paused. And I'm assuming that you've done that. So anyone listening to this now, you have something to work on. And of course, there's going to be some of you who still haven't done it, keeping yourself in safety. And in that case, you can still listen or watch to the rest of this episode, but please, when this episode is done, get on this. It's my biggest encouragement here.

Okay. So let's talk about structure as it applies to creative projects. So first of all, one way to do a creative project is just to say, "Hey, I want to, I'm going to paint this huge painting, right? So a huge painting that I want to paint. And, I'm just going to do it when I feel like it. When inspiration hits me, when my muse just strikes me with lightning."

This is something talked about in the well-known book called "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfield. His book is a play on the name "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu, and a much more ancient book, but "The War of Art" is Steven Pressfield's book. I think he came out with it in the, if not early 2000s, late nineties, somewhere in that range.

But it's one of the best books on actually showing up and meeting resistance and facing that. And we're going to be diving deep into that topic here, but one of the things he talks about is just not relying on the muse to strike us, and Steven Pressfield isn't the first one, nor will he ever be the last one to talk about that topic.

Waiting for the muse to strike you is folly because it won't. You know once in a while it will, but you're really not going to be showing up on a regular basis so that it really puts you at the mercy of inspiration striking you and you just like being in the right place in time to actually make use of that. It's like,"When lightning hits me".

First of all, what are the chances of that? And second of all, do I have any kind of structure in place to make that lightning actually create some good in the world? Do I have some wires hooked up to me so that I can actually take that lightning and bring it into some kind of work, some kind of amazing magical creation?

And right now, if I'm just going to be like "Any time lightning strikes me, then it'll be amazing. I'm going to go and do it." There's no structure to that. And so you actually won't take advantage of it. Maybe you're out for a walk when lightning strikes you, then you're like, "Oh, cool. But I'm not in front of my desk to actually start to make use of this. So when I get back, maybe it'll still be here."

So in this kind of loose way, we really aren't making the most of whatever inspiration does hit us. And second, we aren't actually creating the space where inspiration will hit us regularly. And there's more to that, but you can see that this kind of "let me just do it whenever I feel like it, let my intuition guide me and do it so I don't have to feel like restricted".

This way doesn't work. It's kind of floppy, right? There's no structure to it. It's like a structure with a river is the bed and the sides of a river. That's what actually makes the water flow in a certain way. Imagine if a river didn't have any banks to the river. There are no sides to the river. It was just flat. What happens in that case, the water just distributes in all directions, and there's no real flow.

And that's what happens with structure. If we decide we don't want to have any structure because it's restricting, it means we don't have any flow. There's no actual place for the creative energy to go to. And this is the mistake that a lot of people will make. They will just have no structure. They decide they don't want to be tied down. They want that inspiration or intuition to just guide them.

So that's the mistake of no structure. Structure instead could look like, "I'm gonna sit down and have a writing practice every day, or a drawing practice, or a music practice. I'm gonna sit down every day for 30 minutes, an hour, it doesn't really matter, but you set a time. I'm gonna do it first thing in the morning after coffee. I'm gonna do it first thing in the morning after I have a cup of coffee and I meditate", maybe I'll flip that. "I'm going to meditate first, make my coffee, sit down with the coffee, and actually start to write."

So that would be structure. Daily at a certain time, you actually have time to practice. That's one way to put it. Another way to do structure is you might have, you might do it with other people. So I have a, let's say I have a group that I meet with three times a week, and we get together and we knit together. Okay, great. That's structure. "I have people I'm meeting. I've committed to meeting them. We have it at a certain time on certain days."

What other kinds of structures can really support us? And by the way, we're hearkening back to season one, where we talked about resistance and structure. You're gonna hear some of the same things, but I'm hoping that this time, if you've listened to that in that season, this time you'll start to see it in a different light because you're gonna have a different project. Maybe it's the same project, but you're gonna be a different person facing that project with new knowledge. And we're gonna go a little bit deeper in this episode than we did last time. So if you're hearing some similar things, don't worry about it.

Okay. So those are some examples of structure. Another example is, "I would like to have a hundred thousand words written by the end of these four months, and I'm going to try and hit X number of words by the end of this month, and X number by the end of that month, and X number of words by the end of this month. And in order to make that work, I'm going to have a daily five-day-a-week writing session for 30 minutes."

So, that structure is like you've set an end goal, an actual result, and then you've set some milestones along the way. I highly recommend that. Set an end goal, some kind of result that you want to hit by a certain date, and actually make that your commitment. And then you have some sub-commitments. End of this month, end of this month, end of this month. "These are the things I want to do that's actually going to help me make that goal."

This is structure, and then of those sub-commitments, let's say "by the end of this month I'm going to do this many words", how are you going to meet that? Hold yourself accountable to others, and then set some focus sessions, a certain number, a practice, a ritual to show up for. This is structure. That's what I highly recommend for this.

That's the kind of structure I recommend. There are other ways to do structure. Consequences and accountability. Like, "I'm going to check in with my writer's group at the end of each day on WhatsApp, email, or whatever. And if I don't hit my word count or minute count by the end of that day, I have to do five pushups." So this is structure. There's some accountability. There are some consequences. There's a thing that you have to do each day. So structure.

What I'm giving you are some examples of structure that are really helpful for calling you forward when you just don't feel the inspiration hitting you. What you're doing is you're training a discipline. And not the discipline that a lot of people think of and relate to in a really disempowered way, which is, "I have to do this, or I'm forcing myself, or it's like someone is pushing me towards something I don't really want to do." It's a coercive discipline.

The discipline we're talking about here is the discipline to empower your structure, the structure you set for yourself that you choose into, that is going to be supporting you in what you want to create. It's going to be giving you the space to actually bring forward your creativity, your imagination, and your love.

And so if you empower that structure, it's like trusting yourself. "This is what I said. I'm going to show up for it and really pour myself into it, be devoted to it." That's empowering your structure. And so what we want to do is empower that structure and show up and relax into the structure. Bring our heart to it.

And some days we're just not going to feel it. And when that happens, we're just going to be like, "You know what? I'm going to show up for it anyway, with commitment. I'm going to sit there and do nothing and just struggle for that 30 minutes. And try and write a few words or paint, a few strokes of brushes, brush strokes. Do something in that 30 minutes." It doesn't have to be the most amazing thing. I don't have to have the most incredible output, but I'm going to keep showing up.

And that's what discipline is. It's this willingness to empower your structure, trust yourself, and show up despite your resistance or tiredness or not to the point of burnout or killing yourself, but really just a willingness to show up even when you're not feeling inspired, even when the muse is not with you today, even when you're feeling like "Oh, I'm sluggish, I'm in a slump."

Discipline is a willingness to keep showing up. I recently was re-reading, or actually in this case, listening to an audiobook by the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. He wrote a book in the first decade of the 2000s, 2008, I think, called "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running," something like that.

So I'm listening to this book, and he describes himself as a runner and a writer, almost in parallel. They're not exactly the same thing, but there are a lot of parallels, for him at least, and I think for me as well. So I was listening to this audiobook as I'm running, and in this book, Murakami talks about the discipline of showing up every day to run, even when some days he's just not feeling it. And what happens is you start to cultivate this discipline. You just show up and you run. It's just a part of your day. It's a part of who you are.

And then he does that too for writing. He says he's, with running, he's not a racehorse. He's a Clydesdale, someone who shows up and puts in the work. And he's the same thing with writing. He said he's not necessarily the most talented writer, but he's not competing against any other writers. What he's doing is setting a standard for himself and then just showing up for that. Day after day, he wakes up early and gets started, sits down and writes and then ends before he's out of juice.

While he still has some inspiration, he stops writing, which he referred back to Hemingway as someone who did the same thing. Hemingway would stop in the middle of a sentence so that the next day it was much easier to start. Murakami does something similar, which is that he still has some creative juice in him. He's still, "Ooh, I still want to keep writing." He stops before he gets to the end of that so that he has some more to look forward to the next day.

But what he's doing, what he's describing here is a way to develop some discipline as a runner and as a writer, just continually showing up and actually empowering your structure and showing up even when we don't feel it, feel like it when we don't have that juice in us. You just show up anyway and you do what you can. That's discipline.

So what I'd like to do next is to deepen a little bit here and talk about the tension between what we've just been talking about is structure and stability. And on the other side is freedom and creativity and imagination and mystery.

This is a tension spoken about in a book, completely different topic. It's a book on relationships and sex, and it's a book by a woman named Esther Perel, a fantastic author and therapist. She does couples therapy and counseling for people who are in long-term relationships who might be struggling with sex and juiciness and having that sensuality and excitement.

And what she says is that we might have that in the early days is this juicy, sexless, mystery to us, to the relationship and this exploration and excitement. It's an imaginative act. And then we start to, as we deepen into a relationship and decide we want to be with this person long-term, we start to trade away that creativity, that imagination, excitement, the juiciness of it. And we trade it away for stability.

And that's often a conscious choice, or if we're not consciously saying, I want stability, there's something in us that makes a willing trade there. It's like "I want stability. I want some safety. I want someone who I can trust, who I can count on. I want a relationship that's not going to be wild every day where we know that there's money in the bank and we can raise kids together and buy a house and have some predictability."

And what happens there is that we start to have stability, but then that starts to kill the romance, that sense of mystery and exploration and discovery and juiciness and sex and creativity and imagination. So we trade it off.

But the thing is, and here I'm coming back to the creative project, we don't have to have only one or the other. This is the mistake that a lot of people make is, "I want stability and structure, and therefore I'm going to give up imagination and creativity and sex. Juiciness and like the vitality of our lives." But for others, they're like, "No, I'm unwilling to give up sex or sensuality or vitality or imagination or creativity. I'm unwilling to give that up, and therefore I want no long-term relationships or in the case of creativity, no structure."

That's what we talked about in the beginning is that you want to only have one thing, which is only freedom and intuition and flow and creativity. You don't want structure because it feels constraining, but that leads to a floppiness. Because you're not actually harnessing your creativity.

But on the other side, too much structure and stability can actually kill creativity. And so how do we find the balance between those two? And for me, what I've been finding for myself and what I want to encourage you to be in an inquiry about. An inquiry isn't "I have the right answer. Leo's given me the right answer or some expert, Steven Pressfield has given me the right answer or Haruki Murakami or Esther Perel or whoever it is, Hemingway, has given me the answer."

An inquiry is a willingness to have an open mind, bring curiosity and discover something for yourself. So I'm encouraging you to be in the inquiry here, which is what I've been in. And the inquiry is, do we need to have only one or the other? Does it need to be a balance? Or for me, what I've been discovering is, can we stay in the tension between the two sides?

So imagination and structure, freedom and stability, creativity and discipline. Can we stay in the tension between those? So what do I mean by tension?

Let's talk about that for a minute. A tension between the two is, I am not choosing one or the other completely. I'm choosing both to some degree. I need to have structure because that's going to have me showing up every day. But once I show up and practice the discipline of showing up and I'm going to leave some space for creativity, for sacredness, for magic, for imagination, for the unknown.

And I think that's so important as an artist, as a creative, as an entrepreneur, as someone in a relationship, as someone who is working with the creative act in any kind, are you willing to show up with discipline and structure. But then leave space for discovery for not knowing.

Structure is like "I need to know stability is I need to know", but creativity is "I don't know. And I'm willing to not know." It's not that we always have to not know; we can say, "I know that I'm committing to showing up at this time every day. Some days I might miss it if I'm sick or some crisis is happening, but for the most part, every day I show up and I run. Every day I show up and I write, or I paint, or I make music. Every day I show up and I create my new business or my new nonprofit organization. Every day I show up and I make magic."

We have the discipline of it, we have the structure, the stability of that, but then we open up a space for what could be created here today. Where can I put my heart? How do I bring sacredness to this ritual that I'm practicing? How do I bring discipline but then fully open as love, as my full heart, as the fullest expression of who I am in this moment, which I don't know what that means.

And so there's a space of exploration and imagination, but that isn't going to happen unless we have the structure. And so we want to be willing to stay in the tension of here between knowing and not knowing, stability and imagination. And what that means is "Let me just find out what that space is. I don't know the answer, but let me find out and discover it day after day. And maybe today it's going to be different than it was yesterday. Maybe it doesn't have to be a pat answer where I know what's going to happen. What if tomorrow is going to be different than today and tomorrow I could discover something new and that."

That kind of discovery over and over, like a new discovery each day, is only possible if we are willing to stay in that tension and keep an openness of like "Huh! I wonder." And that freshness can happen for years if we every day show up. Every day show up with that discipline, but every day show up with a curiosity. "What is it today? What's going to flow out of my unconscious mind, my creative self, which we're going to get into more and more today, when I show up with discipline, when I empower my structure, when I trust the self that said, this is the time to actually do your creative act."

So that's what I'm encouraging you to be in the inquiry about. What does that mean for you? I don't know the answer. I don't know it for myself and I definitely don't know it for you. But if you're willing to stay in there, then something new could get created. And that's the exciting part. Are you willing to show up with discipline, with structure, and then see what happens that is unexpected and unknown, imaginative and new and fresh?

Let me know how this goes for you. I'd love to hear. How this plays out in your life and your creative act and your project that you chose before you did this episode. And then send me an email [email protected]. I would love to hear from you how this is going, what you're discovering.

If you haven't already, please subscribe to this podcast in your favorite podcast app. If you found this episode useful, please share this podcast with someone you know, who cares deeply. That would be really meaningful to me. And, if you'd like to dive deeper with me into this work, please check out the blog at or get in touch at [email protected].

Thanks for listening, and I hope you'll join me every Wednesday for more episodes of the Zen Habits podcast.

Connect with Leo


Zen Habits

The Fearless Living Academy


Music: Salem Belladonna & Robrecht Dumarey

Editor: Justin Cruz

Post-production: Diana C. Guzmán Caro & Amanda Goddard