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Cheating discipline - I’d rather cheat than sit in a basement in my undies!

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

You won’t always be motivated, so you have to be disciplined - Leanne Hainsby

Certain words can make me uncomfortable and discipline is one of them

It conjures up an image of hard, relentless, unsatisfying slog! Like the time I tried to do a daily workout at home, or joined the gym, or went swimming every night for a week - negotiating plasters and hair balls in the public pool. Or the burpees my sister-in-law got me doing which turned me into a wobbling mass of hysteria. You get the picture, and yes there is a theme - I'm not a fan of exercise!

I am a fan of a good podcast however and a couple of weeks back I listened to - How to Fail with Elizabeth Day, episode 96. This was an interview with the first female Peloton trainer Leanne Hainsby, who needless to say is super motivated, but her reliance on discipline when motivation falters, got me thinking. If I’m ill disciplined how will I stay the course to achieve my artistic goals?

Firstly, I got to correcting a misapprehension I have about myself. Whilst I have a track record with not sticking to exercise routines, this is only a part of my character and on reflection, I find I am tenacious and focused when I want to be. If it matters I stick with it.

That’s true for many of us I suspect. But if leanne is right, and I suspect she is, when motivation wanes, how do I push on through, what keep me going? I figure that understanding my tactics will help me if in future my motivation seeps away, and let’s face it at the moment our resilience is being sorely tested. After some thought I’ve distilled it down to 5 ways that I cheat discipline so that I keep turning up?


My most crucial tactic to KOBO (keep on buggering on - Churchill I think?) is tricking myself into action. Telling myself that I only need to pop into the studio for an hour, then before I know it I’ve done three hours. I persuade myself that I don’t have to attempt the big painting which is going nowhere, all I have to do today is some sorting or tidying, whilst I listen to a podcast, then hey presto, I get caught up in the work and I’m painting!

Mixing it up:

Boredom is my no one enemy so I regularly mix things up to keep me interested. I work in a series, several paintings started at the same time, and progressed together, and I have several series going at the same time. This sounds chaotic and in some ways it is, but it’s a flexible system that enables me to match the time I have available with a creative endeavour that I want to do that day. If I have a few hours, I hop off to my studio. If I have an hour between the demands of home and life, (or waiting for an amazon delivery which seems to be pretty damn often lately with 3 almost, adult children at home), it maybe sketching at the kitchen table.

Currently I’m working on 6 small panels in a limited and neutral palette, whilst I continue to explore coastlines on paper in larger, more colourful and textured pieces. I work in altered books to capture motifs, compositions and doodles in an evening or a spare half hour, where I tend to use dry mediums like pastels, paint sticks and pencils which are quick to pick up and put down. Over the last month, when the weather’s been ok I’ve managed to do a little plein air painting, so I work on these sketches back in the studio, creating collages and compositions for future paintings.

And there’s often 30 mins here and there to have a cuppa and pick up with YouTube or a podcasts, make a quick instagram post, a Pinterest pin or visit Facebook. Out of this list there is always something I don’t mind spending time on. Sounds crackers now I write it all down, but it seems to work for me.


Studio time is always under threat from the demands of daily life so I have found planning my week ahead on a Sunday evening, really helpful to protect the most important thing which is the art making itself. I use an A5 paper diary as a log for my daily work and at the end of each week I review my wins, record my studio hours and plan out the coming week. I allocate time to studio work, an admin session and note down areas for exploration. I use an academic diary which runs September to January, so I can use 12 months as a diary and 6 months of pages for all my notes: materials I need; sales; expenses; ideas for future work; exhibitions I want to enter and anything else that I think will come in handy. There are of course electronic formats but for the day to day workings of my art practice and business, this does me well.

This year however as well as my diary I’ve tried out Trello, an electronic system for my annual goal setting and planning. The basic version is free to use and is really flexible and quite fun to use. It took me a couple of hours to get my head round it, but I was helped enormously by a great YouTube video posted by Laura Horn, an Australian artist many will know. I’m still working through how the paper and electronic systems work together effectively, but I think there is a place for them both.

Checking in:

Until now I have been answerable only to myself, and as a relative newby to full-time art, this hasn’t be a problem. But this year I’ve set myself the challenge of becoming an active part of an artist community. With the world as it is this will be virtual for the time being, but I can see the benefit of committing to a group to help my practice and commitment, especially if I feel motivation slipping. Being part of a group also sparks creative inspiration, which in a time of lockdown can be hard to find.

There are lots of online communities to choose from and many artists offer free taster courses with online groups continuing after the course, or lead on to a fee paying programme, where relationships with participants cement. These forums can provide guidance, inspiration and friendship. I’m a member of a couple of groups with a monthly membership fee and love the variety and content they provide, but I’m not massively active on their Facebook pages - there never seems to be the time and for me it’s not how I connect with people. I also find it can eat hours of my time when I should be painting.

I have however just joined an artist book club, primarily because if I have to check in with someone to chat about it, I will most definitely read the many exciting books gathering dust on my shelves.

Creating a habit:

Joining a # project on Instagram can also be a relatively painless, and fun way of building a creative habit. I was new to this until I got nominated recently as part of #10daychallenge, whereby you post your work daily for 10days and nominate someone new each day to do the same - a bit like the chain letters of old. There are lots of similar #, many with themes or prompts that can be really useful in introducing you to new artists and their work. If you listen to Art Juice - Alice Sheridan and Louie Fletcher’s podcast, you may have heard the interview with Lindsey Thomson who is co-ordinating the #100dayproject, running from 31 Jan to May 10 2021. The idea is that you pick something creative that you want to do every day for 100 days and you post about it each day on instagram or Facebook. There is a strong community element to this with lots of support and inspiration to be had. You can find out more and sign up for a news letter at

I really enjoyed reading the founder Michael Bierut’s article about the origins of the project and this part really struck a cord:

People have asked me many times to say what, exactly, is the point of this project. I've always had a fascination with the ways that creative people balance inspiration and discipline in their working lives. It's easy to be energized when you're in the grip of a big idea. But what do you do when you don't have anything to work with? Just stay in bed? Writers have this figured out: it's amazing how many of them have a rigid routine. John Cheever, for instance, used to wake up every morning in his New York City apartment, put on a jacket and tie, kiss his wife goodbye, and take the elevator down to his apartment building's basement, when he would sit at a small desk and write until quitting time, at which point he'd go back up. (When it was hot in the basement, he'd strip down to his underwear to work.)

The only way to experience this kind of discipline is to subject yourself to it. Every student who has taken this project had a moment where the work turned into a mind-numbing grind. And trust me: it won't be the first time this happens. The trick is to press on. For each new day (whether it's Day 28, Day 61, even Day 100) brings with it the hope of inspiration.

Here’s the link to an article about the project by its founder Michael Bierut

I also gained inspiration from reading Helen Terry’s blog about her daily practice challenge. It’s amazing how the most mundane ritual done repeatedly can lead to inspiration and creative development.

As for me I’m going to trick my brain into some daily discipline and employ all my tactics to complete the #100dayproject 15 - 30 mins a day to complete a small painting 6x6, based on the lines within the landscapes I love. Week 1 panels of landscape landlines are dotted through this blog and you can see the remaining 90 days on instagram #suzannenicholl100 & @suzanne_nicholl_art

Sticking at anything for 100days will test my patience & resilience, but at least it doesn’t involve lycra or a pair of running shoes and most certainly won’t involve me sitting buck naked in a basement!! 🤗

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