Michael Ashcroft

June 21, 2021

Greasing the creative groove

Greasing the groove is an expression from the world of strength training, apparently coined by the god of kettlebell training Pavel Tsatsouline, which means to put in consistent regular practice around a specific exercise. For example, if you had a pull up bar in a doorway at home, doing one or two pull ups every time you walk past it would be greasing the groove. This gradual, consistent practice helps you put in a lot of volume(total number of pull ups) that you would struggle to do all at once, and it conditions you to become better at pull ups in general.

I’ve noticed a similar effect around my creative output.

If I’m in a period where I’m making and publishing something every day then making and publishing something every day feels easy. I have a sense of competence, I can see my skill improving, and the idea of sitting down to write an essay or record a YouTube video seems welcoming.

The inverse is also true.

If I take some time ‘off’ making things then it’s inevitable that getting back into the creative routine will feel excruciatingly difficult. Returning to the pull up analogy, going from zero to high volume all at once is difficult, will exhaust me very quickly and may even injure me. Doing one or two pull ups every couple of hours lets me do a lot of pull ups without breaking myself (although doing high volumes of only one movement may create its own wear and tear problems, so still make sure you have a well balanced training routine).

I think this is why ‘make 100 things’ is excellent advice for people getting started on a creative journey, because it sets up a volume-based frame that clearly can’t be done all at once. If you want to write 100 newsletters, you’ll need to do that regularly and consistently enough that it doesn’t feel like too much of a chore.

But this principle is also useful to bear in mind when returning from a creative break, whether intentional or not. I just spent a couple of weeks on holiday (well, my partner was on holiday and we went somewhere, but holidays take on a different meaning when there’s no job to holiday from). But even before that I was in a bit of a creative meh zone.

And that’s okay. Upon falling off a wagon, chastising oneself for not being on the wagon is possibly the least helpful thing that can be done. Certainly it’s useful to consider the conditions that led to falling off the wagon, but ultimately the point is to get back on it.

That’s where greasing the creative groove comes back in. After a few weeks of not doing pull ups, doing pull ups again is hard. After a few weeks of not making things, making things again is hard. So grease the creative groove. Create a kind of re-start routine that reminds the nervous system (or whatever it is) how to make things again.

The flywheel analogy also works well here. Once spinning, the angular momentum of the flywheel will tend to keep it spinning. When stationary, the lack of angular momentum will tend to keep it stationary, and it takes a lot of energy to get it back up to speed.

When the flywheel is stationary, again, don’t yell at it for not spinning. Give it the consistent energy it needs to spin.

For me, greasing the creative groove looks like my single-take ad lib YouTube videos and these notebook posts. Activities like these help spin up my creative flywheel, the energy of which I need in order to make more challenging things, like long-form essays and online course materials.