I am a hopeless sucker for stories about the daily habits of geniuses — you know, the ones that reveal Hemingway used only knife-sharpened, German-made #2 pencils, or that Balzac sucked down 50 cups of coffee a day. I love these stories partly for the voyeuristic buzz, and partly because they sometimes contain useful tips.
I just found the mother lode: Daily Rituals, a new book by Mason Currey, which details the habits of 161 notable scientists, playwrights, philosophers, and writers. (Here’s a sample, from Currey’s blog.) It’s a useful read, because it changes the way we think about creative types — specifically about how they organize their days.
We’re usually taught that creative geniuses live spontaneous, eccentric, anything-goes lives — you know, lots of turmoil, cigarettes, and questionable hats. And from a distance, this seems true enough.
But when you look closer, you find a different reality. Beneath that colorful Wes Anderson veneer, a factory is humming, driven by strong work habits. This marvelous book lets us see those habits clearly in the lives of creatives from Churchill to Plath to Faulkner to Ben Franklin to Darwin, and in a way that reveals useful truths about the conditions in which all our brains work best.
Rule #1: Build a simple regimen, and stick to it obsessively. The people in this book never wake up and chase whatever daily crisis comes along. They have an unbreakable routine, which they treat as almost holy. As Tolstoy put it, “I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.”
Rule #2: Embrace weird little rituals. It’s striking to see how many of these creatives start their workday with a compulsive ritual: whether it’s Stephen King arranging the paper-edges just so, or John Grisham feeling compelled to write the first word of the day at precisely 5:30 a.m. It’s utterly OC/D-type behavior, but it’s incredibly useful, because it gets things moving.
Rule #3: Work in two phases: 1) production and; 2) review. Many of the people in this book use mornings to produce their work, and set aside evenings to review, evaluate, and plan. Which makes perfect sense: these are two distinct skill-sets; putting time and space between them helps you be better at both.
Rule #4: Do your most important work right after you wake up. Almost to a person, the people in this book accomplish their best work first thing in the morning. This is no accident: our brains function best after sleep, when it’s spent hours churning on the problems of the previous day. While there are some night owls in the book, others testify to the fact that working at night can be deceptive: the work flows easily, but proves subpar in the clear light of morning. (Yep, they’re talking about you, Kerouac!)
Rule #5: Save socializing for later in the day. Socializing seems to serve as crucial creative fuel, and most people in this book did their visiting in the afternoon and evening. Which was easy if you lived a century ago, and a good deal tougher in our hyperconnected age. Some modern creatives solve it by getting up insanely early; others limit email and internet to afternoons (way easier said than done, in my experience).
Rule #6: Exercise. Sure, Currey’s list has its share of alcoholics and agoraphobes, but a surprising number make daily time for vigorous exercise. Whether it’s Dickens and his marathon hikes around London, or Hemingway and boxing, they prove what researchers are finding: regular workouts sharpen the brain.
When you survey these habits they seem to be surprisingly mundane — I mean, Exercise? Get up early? But in a deeper way perhaps that’s the most powerful and paradoxical idea of all: reliable, effective creativity is built on orderly foundations. To be truly creative, you have to be brave enough to be boring.