Chances are you’re more than familiar with the traditional 8 hour day.
Let’s take some inspiration.
In at 9, out by 5. It’s commonly regarded as the “norm” for working class citizens. While it may be arguably one of the most common rituals throughout society, it’s not necessarily the most productive one. In fact, hardly any of history’s greatest minds adhered to this ideal.
Honoré de Balzac, the French playwright, was asleep by 6pm each night. He then woke at 1am to start writing, continuing through until 8am when he had another short nap.
After this nap he worked again from 9.30am until 4pm. Surely exhausted at this point, he took 30 minutes of exercise and then bathed, ate, and socialized before an early bed again. To get through this monumental working regime, he imbibed up to 50 cups of coffee per day. To underscore how this should not be an inspiration to you, Balzac died of a massive heart attack at the age of 51.
But you get the point.
Now, if you’re thinking: “Try telling this to my boss”, you’re probably not alone. The lesson here is not to quit your day job, but to learn how to work around it to maximize your creativity.
Let’s take some inspiration from history’s greatest minds. That’s what Mason Currey did, in his recent book: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Bringing together the rituals and routines of writers, artists, scientists, and architects, Mason set out to determine common habits from their varied routines.
One thing is for sure from this book – there is no one way to get things done. Each of the routines in the book is as unique as the next, and the obvious takeaway from this book is that you have to find the routine that will work for you, rather than trying to follow someone else’s rituals.
After all, creating a routine is an incredibly efficient way to maximise your creativity. Here I’ll show you how to break down any ideas you might have about a “normal” ritual, and create a new one that works for you.
Not convinced? Let’s take a look at poignant reasons your 9-5 lifestyle needs a shake up.
Probably the most common theme is that creative people tend to be early risers rather than night owls.
This is the opposite of the stereotypical idea of the artist or writer, slaving over the canvas or typewriter late into the night.
Some people have taken this idea to the extreme. Writers Milton and Voltaire both got up at 4 a.m. every day. Voltaire started work immediately and continued through to midday, whereas Milton at least allowed himself some breakfast before getting down to some poetry. John Milton was the very epitome of ‘early to bed, early to rise’. He was always in bed by 9 in the evening, and then awoke at 4am for meditation. He would then spend the early hours being read to by an aide, who I guess also had to be an early riser.
Kant rose at 5 each morning for weak tea, a smoke of his pipe and some meditation. He then found time for an hour of writing between 6 and 7 before starting his morning lectures at the University of Königsberg. He took a 4 hour lunch at a nearby pub. And then a, presumably unsteady, walk for an hour to clear his head before sitting down with friends in the evening to discuss morals, ethics, and logic.
This super-early rise and shine isn’t something from history. Japanese author Hakuri Murakami also rises early and starts work immediately. Each person has their own circadian rhythms that dictate when they are most alert and when the start to feel sleepy. For some the alertness comes in the morning and for some it comes late in the evening – there are in fact ‘early risers’ and ‘night owls’.
So, if you are a morning person you should get up with the birds and you will be at your best? Well, not so quickly. There is some evidence that this drowsiness can aid the creative mind. A study from Michigan, USA has shown that the fuzziness of your non-optimal time may be better for problem-solving. With this in mind, it might be best for ‘early risers’ to take notes and think more in the evening just before they fall asleep, whereas the ‘night owls’ out there should make sure that they are doing their thinking in the shower each morning.
If you want to try the early riser routine to see how it works for you then set your alarm for a suitable ridiculous early time, 5am say, and get out of bed as soon as the alarm sounds. Then get straight down to the task. No shower, no email, no nothing (literally – Ben Franklin would sit naked in the morning, what he termed ‘air baths’). Then don’t try and get an early night, you will not sleep well. Just wait until you are naturally sleepy and head to bed then. Repeat. You might find it difficult for a few days, but once your circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock, adjusts you will find yourself naturally waking at the right time.
‘A healthy mind in a healthy body’ is an old adage and one that makes sense. A number of the greatest thinkers in history took regular exercise, be it a simple walk or vigorous exercise. Again, Hakuri Murakami is a serious runner and often composes his writings off the page as he is out running marathons.
In particular, if you are having trouble with your musical compositions, a long walk might shake your brain into gear. Tchaikovsky said that if his midday walk was less than two hours long, he knew that his work would be ruined. He regularly slept from midnight through until 9am. Once he awoke he would have tea, smoke and read the bible before taking a short walk. Then he would start his first of two major composition periods of the day, interspersed with a long walk. Beethoven’s favorite activity of the evening was a long, vigorous walk, which had to be at least 2 hours long, otherwise “great misfortunes would befall him”. He always took a pencil and paper along with him on these walks to jot down any inspiration.
Don’t think you have to be away from your desk for two hours to spark insight. Simply getting up and getting the blood flowing can greatly help. A small walk at lunch time, or to break up bouts of concentration, can be enough to reinvigorate the mind.
There is also the mental inspiration that comes with getting up and stepping away from your desk and computer screen for a moment.
Out walking, thinking, without any distractions can help clear the mind and become more creative.
Victor Hugo always took long walks on the beach each day after spending his morning writing or bathing in cold water on his rooftop.
Exercise in this case can be categorized into three different types: a quick stretch, exercise under an hour, and exercise that takes more than an hour. You should get up for a quick stretch every twenty minutes or so, not so much for your mind but for your body. The hunched posture people adopt at a computer is not good for you, neither is the glare from a computer screen. Secondly, exercise of less than an hour can help to increase concentration for work later that day.
W.H. Auden said “Decide what you want or ought to do with the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you know trouble.”
Though each of the routines described here and in the book are unique, all are routines. This is what each of these writers and artists did each day. It doesn’t matter so much whether you do get up early, or chose to stay up late, just as long as you do the same thing each day.
Unfortunately, this is the part that a lot of people have the most difficulty with, but setting and sticking to a strict routine in your work is an important element in creativity.
W.H. Auden was a particular workaholic. He slept until 6am and then had coffee and completed the crossword before starting work. He wrote from 6.30am through until 6.30pm with only a short half hour break for lunch. He kept a few hours few in the evenings for friends and dinner before retiring with a sleeping aide to make sure he got good rest.
Contrast Auden to Darwin who woke at seven, exercised, ate, worked, did his day job of editing and teaching, worked, exercised, ate, day job, slept, exercised, day job, ate, day job, work, and slept (for a final time at midnight).
By having routines you are taking unimportant decisions out of your conscious thoughts and moving them into the unconscious, leaving more energy for important decisions. Some people take this idea even further, choosing to keep extraneous decisions to a minimum to help clear their mind and make better decisions.
For instance, what do Albert Einstein, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg all have in common? It’s their dress sense.
OK, so Einstein may be known for his tweeds, Obama for his sharp business suits, Jobs for his roll necks and Zuckerberg for his hoodies, but the common element is that each of them chose to wear that, and only that, every single day. By choosing not to choose they removed a fundamentally unimportant decision point form their lives, making them more capable of decisions later in the day. When people don’t do this, it is known as decision fatigue and it has been shown that judges have more difficulty making decisions later in the day, after they have had to make so many.
So, keep extraneous decisions to a minimum by getting up at the same time, eating the same, and setting a specific schedule, and your brain will have more time and energy for creation.
Any creative knows that works expands to fill the time allotted. A ten minute task can take two hours if two hours is what you have got. This is known as Parkinson’s Law. What you will find about many of the greatest creative minds in history is that they made sure their minds and lives were busy, and not always with the creations they are most famous for. Most of the time they were not working on their most famous creations.
For some this was a matter of necessity. Writing, music, and art do not always pay the bills. Flaubert only worked at night, from 9.30 pm through to 3 am. He then slept well, getting up at 10 for a cold bath and a breakfast of cold chocolate. The rest of his day was taken up with lessons for students and reading. He had to work at night as his days were used for paying work.
If you are lucky enough that you have a creative main job, then consider a hobby that will keep you occupied and your mind fresh.
Though you might feel guilty giving time to superfluous interests, in reality you are giving your brain a much needed rest and adding to your creative abilities.
Another parallel theme that you will have seen throughout these little portrayals of daily rituals is that most found ample time for friends and family. This socializing is paramount to relaxation and clearer thinking, so always make sure you have time to properly unwind at the end of the day.
A common complaint of the creative is that they need everything just so before they can get down to work. The music has to be right, the chair comfortable, and the light just so, but what is common is that people will often work whenever and wherever they can if the ideas are there.
True, Charles Dickens always worked in the mornings in complete silence in his study. He would write for 5 hours before then taking a walk for as much as 3 hours, whether through the Kent countryside, or through the streets of London when he was in the city. He only ever worked in the mornings, choosing to keep his evenings free for friends and family.
Maya Angelou always chose to work in hotel rooms throughout her working life and visitors to Agatha Christie’s home were often disappointed not to be able to see the desk where some of the world’s greatest detectives come to life. In reality, Christie would happily write wherever she could rest her typewriter.
Dickens may have chosen silence but then he may not have been writing to his true potential. If he had taken his pen and paper to his local coffee house he may have written even more beautiful stories. A study looking at the impact of background noise on creativity found that having some moderate level of noise around you makes you think at a higher, more abstract level, thus increasing creativity. It may be that all those people you see in the coffee shop really are working well.
If you feel that you have ended up too specific about where and how you can work you have conditioned yourself to believe this.
These associations (I can only write well when lying in bed) develop over time and can be difficult to break. Start small by changing one aspect of your creative behavior that you think is holding you back the most. Again, do not expect overnight miracles, but over time you will find that your bond with certain negative rituals, places and routines can be broken as easily as positive rituals can be made.
If not now, when? Start your creative routine today!
So get up early, go out for a run, make sure you do it at the same time every day, and find something else to take up your time…
…or realize what all these people really had in common – hard work. If you look through the daily rituals of the best minds in human history you will find that the one trait they all had was persistence.
It doesn’t really matter whether you get up early or work late, or whether love running or love your couch, what matters most is whether you can sit down and do what needs to be done.
The early mornings, the walks, the schedules and the coffee can all help – but what will eventually make you a success is the sweat you put in.