Daily Rituals: How to Become Your Most Creative Self

April 13, 2015

Is there a magic bullet that could help you become a more creative and productive person? A secret formula that requires just the right mix of ingredients (time + dedication - distraction) to get you to creative success? The answer is yes, but that yes means something different for everyone. Read on to see what we mean.

Every morning, Mason Currey woke up at 5:30am, made some coffee, and spent the next two hours writing.

What resulted was Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a book that details the daily (and nightly) routines and rituals of great writers, sculptors, filmmakers, poets, philosophers, composers, choreographers, playwrights, and scientists. Here's just a taste of what he found.


Daily Rituals Are Important
"Nearly every weekday morning for a year and a half," Currey writes, "I...sat down to write about how some of the greatest minds of the past four hundred years approached this exact same task — that is, how they made time in each day to do their best work, how they organized their schedules in order to be creative and productive."

By sketching out "entertaining, small-bore portraits of the artist as a creature of habit," by focusing on the how of their lives — shining a light on the "manufacturing rather than meaning" of their work — Currey hoped to discover the answer to key questions: "How do you do meaningful creative work while also earning a living? Is it better to devote yourself wholly to a project or set aside a small portion of each day?" Should you "work smarter, not harder," giving up things like a sleep, a clean house, or an active social life to achieve your dreams? Or, conversely, "Is finding a basic level of comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?"

How do you do meaningful creative work while also earning a living? Is it better to devote yourself wholly to a project or set aside a small portion of each day?

Have (or Build) a Routine
For Beethoven, three things were essential: strong coffee, extensive walking, and copious amounts of water. Jane Austen, because she wrote primarily in the family sitting room, required that a creaky door, which normally would be fixed, continue to creak. That noise acted as a warning, giving her time to hide her works-in-progress before visitors entered. And in order for W.H. Auden, the poet, to work and live, the strictest of timetables was nonnegotiable. "Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition," he wrote.

Anthony Trollope was so prolific that he managed to keep his "day job at the post office" for 33 years while publishing over two dozen books in that time. In his autobiography, he wrote, "three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write." He was so diligent that, "If he completed a novel before his three hours were up," Currey writes, "Trollope would take out a fresh sheet of paper and immediately begin the next one."

Last night I began my novel. Now I foresee terrifying difficulties of style. It's no easy business being simple.

Gustave Flaubert, however, took upwards of five years to write Madame Bovary. He wrote at night, his way of avoiding the distractions of the day, and often managed just two pages per week. "Last night I began my novel," Flaubert wrote. "Now I foresee terrifying difficulties of style. It's no easy business being simple."


The creative people at Podio mapped out a number of the routines covered in Daily Rituals in the infographic below. Click the image to check out an interactive version (via Podio).


To Thine Own Strengths Be True
How do you know which routine would suit you best? Factor in your daily energy levels — whether you're at your most productive and creative in the morning, afternoon, or the middle of the night —and the other things that need your attention, such as work, family, and household chores.

For each of the individuals featured in the book, one thing is apparent — each one decided to place their talent at the center of their lives, and finagled ways to design the rest of their lives around it.

All I needed was a steady table and a typewriter.

Agatha Christie, for instance, proclaimed that, "All I needed was a steady table and a typewriter." Frank Lloyd Wright peppered his working hours (which began at 4am) with naps, while Victor Hugo would power through for 18- to 20-hour stretches at a time. Thomas Mann forbade his children from making a peep between the hours of 9am and noon, his prime writing hours, and Anne Rice, whether she's writing on at nighttime or during the day, makes sure to clear her calendar of social engagements.

"Because you won't get those four hours if you're spending most of the day worried about getting to an appointment and back," Rice says. "You have to clear all distraction. That's the bottom line."

How Do You Find the Time? Simple. You Find the Time.
Between work, family, friends, and community and social obligations, how exactly can one carve out the time needed to create? For some, it means asking for help from friends, family, and loved ones.

Nabokov relied on his wife Vera for everything from preparing meals to typing up drafts of his novels. Karl Marx, who never held down a steady job, relied on Friedrich Engels to sustain him with the petty cash Engels was able to sneak out of his father's office. "I must pursue my goal through thick and thin and I must not allow bourgeois society to turn me into a money-making machine," Marx wrote. And Jane Austen wouldn't have been able to write nearly as much without the presence of her sister Cassandra, who kept the household going. As Austen wrote, "Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton & doses of rhubarb."

Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton & doses of rhubarb.

But for others, it means finding the time to do their work and take care of everything and everyone. Alice Munro would fit in hours of writing while one child was at school and the other was napping. "She was 'very big on naps' in those years," Currey writes. And Maya Angelou, who wrote in a hotel room from 7am to 2pm each day, relished being able to create "a semblance of a normal life" with her husband, preparing drinks and dinner to enjoy together when he returned home from work.

The Secret to Making It Work: Show Up
As you'll be able to tell from both the book and the chart above, there are as many routines as there are people setting their clocks and lives by them. But maybe the secret to producing work is this: Doing it. Maintaining consistency. Showing up, day after day, no matter what time of day or night provides the freshest creative canvas to bring your thoughts, ideas, projects, pieces, and works to life. Remaining dedicated and diligent, regardless of whether the muse shows up to inspire you.

I am putting everything I have into this, I don't have any more than this. If you want it to be better, you've got to show up and do your part of the deal.

As the writer Elizabeth Gilbert said during her first TED Talk, "I am putting everything I have into this, I don't have any more than this. If you want it to be better [she's talking to her muse, or creative inspiration, here], you've got to show up and do your part of the deal. But if you don't do that, you know what, the hell with it. I'm going to keep writing anyway because that's my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job."


Discover More About Daily Rituals
The rituals chronicled within the pages of Mason Currey's wonderfully compelling book are introductory glimpses into the lives and routines of the thought leaders and luminaries contained within. To dig deeper into any (or all) of their individual habits and histories, reference the source materials listed in the book's Notes section.


By Lisa Merlini

Tag: Exploring Education

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