Routines, Overlearning, and Jackson Browne’s Teapot

Photo of TeapotWhen I went to college oh-so-many years ago, I rolled my eyes at schedules and routines. You see, I knew that I performed best without too many restrictions or limitations, when I was free to do whatever, whenever. It had worked for me in high school, so college would be no different. Or so I thought.

I was wrong.

I learned the hard way—and, if I’m to be honest, not really until long after graduation—not only that college-level work requires a much greater sense of discipline than high school but, perhaps even more important, that not having a routine or schedule keeps me from tapping into creativity. If I start each day as a blank slate, I spend most of my mental (and creative) energy simply figuring out what to do next and prioritizing.

However, if I wake up already knowing what I’ll start doing and what comes next, I have more space and time to engage with the activity before me. I wish it were a habit I’d begun earlier rather than later.

Many people who are successfully creative have detailed or even rigid routines that both allow them to hone their skills and give them mental room to focus on what’s important to them, routines that have built-in opportunities for overlearning. In the History of the Eagles documentary (watch the trailer, below), Glenn Frey talks about what he learned about the creative process from Jackson Browne’s teapot when Frey lived above Browne’s apartment in Echo Park:

“Around nine o’clock in the morning I’d hear Jackson Browne’s teapot going off with this whistle in the distance, and then I’d hear him playing piano… Jackson would get up, and he’d play the the first verse and first chorus and he’d play it twenty times, until he had it just the way he wanted. And then there would be silence, and then I’d hear the teapot go off again, and it would be quiet for ten or twenty minutes. Then I’d hear him start to play again, and there was a second verse. So then he’d work on the second verse and he’d play it twenty times. And then he’ go back to the top of the song and he’d play the first verse and the first chorus and the second verse another twenty times until he was really comfortable with it… And I’m up there going, so that’s how you do it: elbow grease, time, thought, persistence.”

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