The book this week is Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. It is a fairly quick read with short chapters about how successful creative people crafted their own working days. I found myself enjoying a glimpse into these people’s world, even if I often separated the person’s work and lifestyle that supports the work from their sometimes flawed character.
While this book comprises of a collection of anecdotes about creators over time, similar themes continue to pop up that point to those habits most productive people share in common. These include routine, reflection, exercise, time-blocking, focus, and steady progress.
A danger of works like this is that it possibly fetishizes habits where a reader can keep going on gathering stories about work habits as opposed to distilling the essence of the obstacle these routines are addressing. One can go on requesting “one more” story as opposed to simply enacting basic changes to their lives and, by doing so, making them more prolific.
Below is more color on some of the themes that I pulled from this book.
He keeps another, mirror-image studio in a remote wooded location along the California coast, where he goes to work for short periods – John Adams – Composer
Daily Rituals details the working schedule behind the artists it highlights. A reader finds that often days are consistently split up in order to foster creativity. A night-owl works best after everyone has gone to bed. Conversely, an early worm starts their day off with their most crucial task: breathing life into their ideas.
Similarly, creatives clearly delineate how they split their day up. Most will split their day between work and leisure; seeming like they are the life of the party during their daily respite. Others will find, especially once successful, not all of their workday can be spent creating, so they will split time between work that is creative and administrative work.
From a management standpoint, I and those that I have supervised, have discovered a fairly simple routine. An important item is completed in the morning and another in the afternoon. Out of 260 working days in a year, that is 520 important things done, per person. Sometimes an item will take so long that it will bleed from the morning into the afternoon. Alternatively, as is more often the case, that important task takes fifteen minutes. Having completed that critical thing, the rest of the time during that period can be used to pursue other things (like “checking” social media for 3 hours).
“Routine” can encompass even more than how a day is planned. It can also influence the setting for productive work. As the cited quote suggests, even on “vacation” those that create establish an environment where they can be as productive as possible without wasting any effort on variety in their surrounding environment.
Tangentially, this “retreat” workplace is particularly capturing. Bill Gates would have a “Think Week” in a remote cabin in the woods. Neil Gaiman has a cabin as well, J.K. Rowling is making Hagrid’s Hut into a writing oasis (more authors’ creative space are also included in that link). I had a boss once who would disappear every few months, escaping to his own “cabin in the woods”, only to return with a fully formed project a few days later.
Working remotely is a danger to this “routine” concept; only making it more important to establish one. A dedicated and well-organized workspace is a must, and I am continually tweaking my own.
Acknowledging those times of the day or even week that should be highlighted for work while establishing limits to when one is “on” or “off” is also crucial. As I often say, “When you work from home, you never leave work.” Leave work. Additionally, there is a time to do deep work and there is a time to deal with the small mundane stuff that is also part of one’s job description. Tiny tasks go back to the earlier notion of administrative work.
Lastly, and this is mostly timely during a pandemic, routine’s are really difficult! Being legalistic about a routine right now is a recipe for disaster. However, a loose idea of what your day and working process will look like is more important now than it ever was.
On his walks, he carried a pen and ink to record his thoughts. – Jonathan Edwards – Theologian
The idea of reflection is something that I have been contemplating for a while now. There are many types of reflection which include:
- Read Books
- Nature Walk
Most of these things are promoted by lifestyle guru’s in some fashion as a way to tap into a slower and even spiritual side. This goes as far as seeing a lot of “30 Day Challenges” associated with this broad reflection category (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here….I could go all day).
The real takeaway from this is to incorporate a habit into your everyday life (just one) that allows for some quiet personal time to reflect.
Additionally, there is an idea that your subconscious mind is working creatively while you are not. Dreams or showering can at times synthesize a solution to a problem that you had been actively addressing while “at work.” Taking time away from your work ends up assisting your process. The quote above acknowledges such passive resolution to creative problems and serves as a reminder to have a crude/quick way to record those thoughts once they come to you.
For me, you can tell that I write as reflection. However, what is not as apparent digitally is that I write long-hand, in cursive. I adopted this strategy when I was writing down personal feelings in the midst of other short notes in my to-do list style journal. Thoughts were written in cursive, to tell them apart from tasks. I found that those quick notes turned into a page or more of brain-dump reflection.
After dinner, Freud went for a walk around Vienna’s Ringstrasse. This was not a leisurely stroll, however; his son, Martin, recalled, “My father marched at terrific speed.” – Sigmund Freud – Neurologist
Walking is repeatedly referenced in Daily Rituals. Artists will walk to and from work to create separation from home; it is a way to get into or out of work mode. Alternatively, they will walk as a means to separate their working day from creative to non-creative work, even if they will simply be going back to their office. As an example of reflection, walking can be a means to continue being passively creative.
The walking in this book tends to be vigorous, though! There are cases of fast walkers or people who walk for miles on end. The walking highlighted in this book seemed primarily to be exercise. Creatives would largely loathe traditional exercises like running, aerobics, or lifting weights. Walking does not have that same stigma as no special clothes, equipment, or facilities are needed to do so. Walking is like stealth-exercise. That is probably why “walking” is the preferred choice in this book.
If “walking” is broadened to “exercise” then this active habit can be even more applicable. Walking may be too specific. Perhaps one does not live in an area conducive to walking (cold or in the middle of nowhere with no sidewalks). Maybe “walking” is too time-intensive or walking for distance/speed is just not that interesting to some people. Lifting weights or running might check those boxes instead.
Either way, a regular habit of exercising is good for work productivity not to mention it is good for overall health (duh). Exercise falls under the heading of “You know you should do it, even if you don’t” which is similar to sleep well, don’t eat junk food, and stay away from toxic people. Googling “exercise, good for health” may have been the stupidest thing I have ever typed into the search bar.
Be active! Exercise! Build it into your everyday life, even if you walk like a maniac everywhere.
“…It’s always a search for the uninterrupted three- or four-hour stretch.” – Anne Rice – Author
Time-blocking goes back to “routine.” Creators have found that an extended period of uninterrupted work is an important component of their process. Once in the “zone,” the tiniest nuisance can ruin substantial work, which successful workers would like to avoid.
Half of time-blocking is removing distractions. Working in the morning or late at night helps limit these pesky diversions as most others are sleeping or at least not working. In the past, I did some of my best work late at night because during the workday, emails with “urgent” tasks to respond to would keep popping up. Alternatively, I would sit down to address an item that needed focus only to have the phone ring, typically with someone on the other end that I could not ignore. I say “in the past” because working a full day only to do meaningful work at another additional time is a quick path to sleep deprivation. Doing that deep work is only part of my routine at special times now.
The other half of time-blocking, aside from minimizing distractions, is to move all of the little annoying things to a certain part of the day, or preferably week. Not only does that include pesky administrative things like filing, following up on delegated tasks, or “not important” tasks. Distractions from creative work also include meetings and calls. The unproductive activity is preferably clustered together on a calendar, leaving a glorious block where true deep work can get done.
One last thing on this topic. I have only recently been breaking my work sessions up into 50-minute chunks, and then actually setting a timer for those 50 minutes. That simple device has been really helpful. The 10 minutes remaining in the hour are spent literally standing up and walking away from my workspace. Maybe I go to the bathroom or get some food. Maybe I just read the newspaper for a few minutes. Either way, the 50-minute rule is a way to a) measure the time for producing and b) add some pace. Working productively for four hours straight is not reasonable. Taking a regular break seems to work better.
“I always began my task by reading the work of the day before” – Anthony Trollope – Author
How does one get into a flow state quickly? The trick is to get into the mindset of creating by jump-starting the work process. Without a catalyst, one could spin their wheels for a while before they actually start to produce anything of use.
To get into a flow state, a ritual is usually repeated at the beginning of each session. As the above quote illustrates, oftentimes it is reviewing work that was done the previous day. Hemingway would leave a sentence unfinished so that he would have a tail to grab onto in the next writing session. Others would regularly stop early before the act of creating got dull leaving them fresh with ideas to start the next day.
Another catalyst for production is to promote an environment in which to focus in. We talked earlier about writers and their cabins as one form of crafting a working environment. Maya Angelou would work from a hotel room she rented. Some have mentioned simply having a lamp and turning it on when working. Others literally wear hats when they are performing different tasks.
Most people these days listen to headphones at their office. A podcast or a playlist of pop-music is most workers’ soundtrack these days. Real productive people utilize non-verbal music, like jazz, classical, movie scores, or even rain sounds. Others will get themselves in a trance by listening to the same album on repeat over and over (and over) again to the point that the songs recede into the background creating a hypnotic cocoon. Either way, the idea is to create a symbol that says “I am in work-mode.”
Lastly, there are some people that cannot turn focus on or off quickly. When they aren’t creative (writer’s block) they just won’t even try to force it. However, when those artists are in a creative mindset, there is no turning off that faucet. With these people, we often see long periods of pause where they don’t create. Maybe they are sociable, work some mundane job, or just leisurely pass the time. When they do work, they can pump out a massive amount of work in a short time (think a book in a week).
“…I have acquired the reputation over the years of being prolix when in fact I am measured against people who simply don’t work as hard or as long.” – Joyce Carol Oates – Author
Most are not maniacal about creating masterpieces in short bursts. Instead, those others look to practice steady progress. They are like a motor that keeps going regardless of how long it has been running. Like a motor, revving the engine too much wears it down. Fuel along with regular maintenance is required. But a well-cared-for motor should produce a reliable output. Creatives can be considered prolific simply by regularly churning out a standard amount over a long period of time, as the quote suggests.
The most common form of regular output comes from authors who target a word-count per day. It can be 250 words up to 3,000 words depending on the other constraints on their time. Some are so strict with this rule that when they complete a book and haven’t hit their word count for the day, will start another book.
The amount of compounded output using steady progress can be breathtaking. At 1,000 words a day, one can write 365,000 words in a year (though edited down it may result in only 100,000 words). A normal adult book is about 90-100k words. A writer with that regiment will create a book a year or ten books in a decade.
As just mentioned, writing (or creating anything) is only part of the process of creating. The other more laborious component is editing. Often artists will balance unfettered creating with rigid editing. Editing is thinking critically about what one has produced and is not necessarily creative (though it can be). Editing however is important to make sure that the work that one produces actually gets “shipped.” These tasks (creating and editing) often occur on two distinct pieces so as to keep the two works completely separate in the mind of the creator.
Another way that an artist can be considered prolific is by simply creating a lot regularly without rules governing the process. Picasso worked most days and created about three works per day. We tend to think of Picasso as creating these impactful works that probably took a great deal of time. He also made sketches and small little pieces as well, more or less tinkering frequently. As the above article suggests, he made 16,000 works, most of them not very prized and certainly not rare. My wife’s aunt has some Picasso dishes she picked up which were not prohibitively expensive. They dont belong in an art gallery but they are nonetheless the fruit of his toiling.
Lastly, deadlines serve as a way to pace the creative process. Deadlines can come from an external source, like a publisher with a deadline for a manuscript or an art gallery for a date to open an exhibition. Other times, and for someone that is driven to produce, those deadlines are internal and arbitrary. Creatives can pick a point on the calendar, knowing that the date will be the finish line for that work, and work feverishly towards it. To an outsider, an arbitrary date is no big deal; just move the date out if one cannot complete their work by that time. To a driven creative, moving the date is not much of an option and can be looked at painfully as a failure. That failure can spiral. The internal monologue goes, if the creative was not productive enough to meet that deadline, what makes them so sure that they can meet another?
Things To Consider
- What are some ways that your day can be split up?
- What tasks can you move to clusters of your day/week so as to free up time to do deep work?
- What one thing can you incorporate into your day to give pause for reflection?
- What is one active habit that you can do every day?
- Is there a ritual/setting that you can create that can get you into a “flow” state?
- Can you create a rule that allows for slow and regular production allowing you to diligently accomplish a large project that is important to you?