The Guardian has published an interesting survey article by Oliver Burkeman in response to a new book by Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration And Get To Work, which details the daily habits and routines of creative people:
"Benjamin Franklin spent his mornings naked. Patricia Highsmith ate only bacon and eggs. Marcel Proust breakfasted on opium and croissants. The path to greatness is paved with a thousand tiny rituals (and a fair bit of substance abuse)."
Illustration: Jean Julien for the Guardian
Burkeman breaks these habits down into six common themes which seem to have currency among most creatives toiling at the frontiers of genius:
1. Get Up Early
It was good for Marcel Proust, Mozart, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jonathan Edwards and Ernest Hemingway who wrote: “There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.”
2. Make An Honest Crust
"I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me," wrote Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive and poet. “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life.” Others who also had day jobs and squeezed their creative pursuits into the wee hours of their days and nights were William Faulkner (power plant worker); TS Eliot's (Lloyds bank); and William Carlos Williams, a paediatrician, who scribbled poetry on the backs of his prescription pads.
3. Keep on Walkin’
Just about every blues artist worth his or her salt has a song about walking so it makes sense that some of the deepest thinkers on the planet found plenty of time to pop on their slippers and gown and take a walk in the woods. Again Hemingway was a fan of the long afternoon walk, as was Beethoven, Mahler, Erik Satie and Tchaikovksy.
In fact, in researching the book Currey found that “It’s long been observed that doing almost anything other than sitting at a desk can be the best route to novel insights. These days, there’s surely an additional factor at play: when you’re on a walk, you’re physically removed from many of the sources of distraction – televisions, computer screens – that might otherwise interfere with deep thought.”
4. Have A Plan - And Stick To It!
When working it is important to observe routine, (some more eccentric than others): Gustave Flaubert (took hot baths and demanded ritualistic dinner times), Le Corbusier, (was up at 6am for his 45 minutes of daily calisthenics), Immanuel Kant (a strict 3.30pm walk), and Patricia Highsmith, (consumed bacon and fried eggs for every meal every day).*
Research into “cognitive bandwidth” and the limitations of willpower have largely substantiated a hunch by William James, the progenitor of modern psychology: “if you waste resources trying to decide when or where to work, you’ll impede your capacity to do the work. Don’t consider afresh each morning whether to work on your novel for 45 minutes before the day begins; once you’ve resolved that that’s just what you do, it’ll be far more likely to happen.”
5. Practice Strategic Substance Abuse
One wonders why this wasn’t number one. Tales of the Romantic poets awash with opium and absinth, the beat generation wired on amphetamines, the Stones on heroin, pot and JD, The Beatles and the Dead on LSD, Hemingway pickled by noon, Scorsese’s midnight coke fueled storyboards, Fatboy Slim pinging on Brighton Beach at 2am, the list goes on:
“Auden, Ayn Rand and Graham Greene had their Benzedrine, the mathematician Paul Erdös had his Ritalin (and his Benzedrine); countless others tried vodka, whisky or gin. But there’s only one that has been championed near-universally down the centuries: coffee. It’s been suggested that the benefits of caffeine, in terms of heightened focus, might be offset by a decrease in proficiency at more imaginative tasks.”
6. You don’t need a desk
I know I am notoriously stubborn about my desk. I am almost child-like in my fist pounding temper tantrums when I am trying to write with Microsoft Word on a Mac when I am not near my beloved desktop PC. But sometimes I find it liberating and a wholly focusing experience when I venture out somewhere busy - a bar, cafe or restaurant - and set up shop for the afternoon. Everything I need is there: sparkling water, coffee and sustenance (and I make sure the cafe has a license in case I get really inspired). I find the general buzz of the other patrons forces me to concentrate harder than I otherwise would, often to great effect.
But there are many work habits which are defined by their site of action: Somerset Maugham (faced a blank wall), Jane Austen (wrote mainly in the family sitting-room), while Agatha Christie was happy working anywhere she could find a stable top for her typewriter - she didn’t even own a desk!
The journalist Ron Rosenbaum cherishes a personal theory of “competing concentration”: working with the television on, he says, gives him a background distraction to focus against, keeping his attentional muscles flexed and strong.
So there you have it, six themes for a more productive life. Common human rituals we could all probably subscribe to in one way or another. However, I dare say we could also spend a lot more time debating the merits of each and in what combination, which could breed that one commonality which does not feature herein: procrastination.
So methinks best just to make a plan and stick to it. Now, get cracking!
(* Although Highsmith also collected live snails and, in later life, promulgated anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, so who knows?)
via the guardian