I recently read this article: The Pace of Productivity and How to Master Your Creative Routine on the Brainpickings Blog. (If you are yet to check out this blog, run as fast as you can to the site. It’s a gem.) In it, Maria Popova discusses Jocelyn K. Glei book, Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind. My initial reaction to the article split me in half – one side felt that putting the words routine and creative in the same breath was surely an oxymoron. However, the other side grabbed hold of the idea with both hands, desperate for some advice on how to build my own creative routine. The grabbing half won, so I bought the book and dove head first into structuring my own creative routine around its contents.

Most appealing to me were the inspirational quotes that seemed to pour off every page. Words of wisdom from the likes of Gretchen Rubin, Anthony TrollopeScott Belsky, and Seth Godin, to name but a few.

Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly. Gretchen Rubin

A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules. Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity. Anthony Trollope

For almost an entire month, I structured my writing around the following routine:

  • 6:30-7:00am: Morning Pages: An exercise from The Artists Way
  • 7:00-8:00am: Yoga, and or, meditation
  • 9:00-11:00am: Start the day with most important writing project
  • 11:00-12:00pm: Check emails and social media for the first time.
  • 12:00-1:00pm: Lunch followed by a book/article and a walk
  • 1:00-5:00pm: Turn attention to “real” job

Result: A lot of good writing, produced with more focus than I had given in a long, long time. I felt great. I wasn’t multi-tasking, I was actively creating during my brains most productive time of the day, and I was happy.

Until . . . . I got stuck!  I received some feedback about my writing and just could not for the life of me shift gear and re-think my angel. A brick wall emerged and the creative routine I had so carefully built began to feel like a straightjacket.  I actually felt like it was standing in my way. The structure felt rigid and suffocating, and I was angry at it and myself. I pulled hard on the reigns and stepped out of the routine. I instantly relaxed, no longer feeling the pressure to stay within the confines of a routine I had placed myself in. I had given myself permission to stop for a minute, and I recharged my creative juices out in the woods, the beach, an art gallery, and listening to bird song in the back yard.

During this time my “real” job workload increased, and I began putting my writing second. Then it moved to the bottom of the list, and sometimes I didn’t get to it at all.  Days, weeks passed, and I realized that I had let myself spiral into a multi-tasking octopus again. Getting things done, but without the same focus and sense of calm accomplishment. The sense of freedom that had initially felt liberating was beginning to feel like failing.

Eager to find a solution, I looked to the creative routines of others. Close friends, composers, writers, painters, et al. and I began to read.  Articles, books, you name it. Anything and everything I came across about creativity and routines.

Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, was one of them. It has been my close companion ever since. For over a year and a half Currey got up at 5:30am to write about how some of the most fantastical minds of the past 400 years or so organized their days in order to be creative and productive.

Some of my favorites:

“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.”  W.H. Auden 1958.

Benjamin Franklin worked around a thirteen-week plan in the hope of achieving moral perfection. “Each week was devoted to a particular virtue – temperance, cleanliness, moderation, etc. – and his offence against these virtues were tracked on a calendar. Franklin thought that if he could maintain his devotion to one virtue for an entire week, it would become a habit.”

Beethoven made his own coffee, and prepared it with the utmost care. “There should be 60 beans per cup, and he often counted them out one by one for a precise dose.”

“While I work I leave my body outside the door, the way Muslims take off their shoes before entering the mosque.” Picasso

When Haruki Murakami is writing a novel he wakes a 4:00am and works for five to six hours straight.  In the afernoons he runs, swims, reads, runs errands listens to music. Bedtime is 9:00pm.  “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism.  I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”  I’d recommend reading Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk of Running. Great read!

The one that made me laugh out loud the most was Victor Hugo’s. “He wrote each morning, standing at a small desk in front of a mirror.  He rose at dawn, awakened by the daily gunshot from a nearby fort, and received a pot of freshly brewed coffee and his morning letter from Juliette Drouet, his mistress, whom he had instilled on Guernsey just nine doors down from Hauteville House.  After reading the passionate words of “Juju” to her “beloved Christ”, Hugo swallowed two raw eggs, enclosed himself in his lookout, and wrote until 11:00am.  Then he stepped out onto the rooftop and washed from a tub of water left out overnight, pouring the icy liquid over himself and rubbing his body with a horsehair glove.  Townspeople passing by could watch the spectacle from the street – as could Juliette, looking out the window of her room.”

So, while I, like Mason Currey, still regularly feel that I barely manage to get the laundry done on a weekly basis, let alone sit down to write, and while I’m not totally convinced I’ve found my own creative routine yet, what I do know is this . . .

The daily routine that seems to work best for me involves the great outdoors, meditation, mornings, my cat, and a new mantra, “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while. “ (Gretchen Rubin).