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Routine, rituals and creative work
A schedule is a net for catching days
The importance of routine and rituals in creative work
I must admit this was fun to write and I will tell you the conclusions from the start, so we can all relax: there is no perfect, one-size-fits-all routine for (creative) work. In the end, it is really, whatever works.
‘One’s daily routine is a highly idiosyncratic collection of compromises, neuroses, and superstitions, built up through trial and error and subject to a variety of external conditions’ - Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
We all have great-days, ok-days, meh-days and I-wish-it’s-all-over-soon-days. A routine will get you through the day and help you make the most of it.
‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.’ - Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
‘When you don’t know what to do next, your routine tells you. When you don’t have much time, a routine helps you make the little time you have count. When you have all the time in the world, a routine helps you make sure you don’t waste it.’ - Austin Kleon, Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad
You pretty much get the gist of it. To establish a routine, you have to spend some time observing your days, your moods, your needs, your personality. Are you a morning person? A night owl? Where are your free slots of time? You don’t have any free time? What to cut to make some time? Do you have rituals or superstitions that get the creative juices flowing and put you in a working mood?
In my readings I did stumble upon a few suggestions about what a morning routine could look like and driven by the saying ‘if you win the morning, you win the day’ (cheesy, I know, but stick with me) I leave them here for you to take whatever fits. There is no particular order to them, you can of course mix and match.
It helps to wake up early and use the first part of the day for work. If you’re a night owl, this does not apply to you, as night owls do their best work around midnight and prefer to spend the first part of the day sleeping. One thing I gave up upon waking is checking my phone. I realised it’s a sure way to ruin the whole day. When you reach for your phone you’re inviting anxiety and frustration into your life. It’s the easiest way to get your feelings hurt first thing in the morning. Leave the phone for later, after you’ve went through your morning routine or even after you’ve done some work. Don’t worry, the irritating, outraging content will still be there.
Another piece of advice that I found doable is: ‘make your bed’. Even if it’s the only thing you will do that day and the rest is a mess, at least it’s a small but sure accomplishment.
“If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another. And by the end of the day that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed.” - U.S. Navy Admiral Seal William H. McCraven, Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life...And Maybe the World
It doesn’t have to be something fancy, five-star hotel like, just tidy it up so it looks in order. It will also help with your going-to-bed-routine.
Then many people do some sort of physical exercise or movement, to get connected with their body. It can be meditation, some sort of yoga, light movement or heavy lifting, dance or a small walk in your backyard. Whatever fits and your body can take.
Then there’s the grooming part (showering, washing face, brushing teeth) and the eating/drinking part. Some start the day with a glass of water and then coffee/tea, some eat something, and others eat nothing until noon. I think with this we are all pretty clear on our preferences.
Then some people move to the more mental part of the routine, and this could be journaling, writing down an intention for the day, something they are grateful about (to focus the mind on the positive, not the negative), they make a to-do list and set priorities (this reduces the anxiety when you feel overwhelmed and gives a feeling of control), read from a book (not the news), listen to some music.
‘Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense’ - Gertrude Stein, Selected Operas and Plays
Now, about rituals. The difference between a routine and a ritual is the attitude behind the action. While routines can be actions that just need to be done - such as making your bed or taking a shower - rituals are viewed as more meaningful practices which have a real sense of purpose. Rituals do not have to be spiritual or religious. What matters is your subjective experience. With rituals, you are fully engaged with a focus on the experience of the task, rather than its mere completion. Being mindful of your daily routine can invite ritual in. It can be lightning a candle while setting an intention, cleaning rituals (yes, you can turn showering into a ritual), a little prayer, making tea and so on. Rituals help you enter a state of flow in your work, they provide solid ground when faced with the uncertainty of your daily work. They are reassuring, lower anxiety, bring you to the present through focus.
I found two routines that I enjoyed reading, one of Jack Kerouac (which also involves rituals) and one of Kurt Vonnegut.
Jack Kerouac describes his rituals and superstitions in a 1968 Paris Review interview:
‘I had a ritual once of lighting a candle and writing by its light and blowing it out when I was done for the night… also kneeling and praying before starting (I got that from a French movie about George Frideric Handel)… but now I simply hate to write. My superstition? I’m beginning to suspect the full moon. Also I’m hung up on the number nine though I’m told a Piscean like myself should stick to number seven; but I try to do nine touchdowns a day, that is, I stand on my head in the bathroom, on a slipper, and touch the floor nine times with my toe tips, while balanced. This is incidentally more than yoga, it’s an athletic feat, I mean imagine calling me ‘unbalanced’ after that. Frankly I do feel that my mind is going. So another ‘ritual’ as you call it, is to pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity and my energy so I can help my family: that being my paralyzed mother, and my wife, and the ever-present kitties. Okay?’
He then adds a few thoughts on the best time and place for writing:
‘The desk in the room, near the bed, with a good light, midnight till dawn, a drink when you get tired, preferably at home, but if you have no home, make a home out of your hotel room or motel room or pad: peace.’
Kurt Vonnegut’s routine recorded in a letter to his wife in 1965:
‘In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.’
Feeling stuck? When in doubt, tidy up. Clean your desk, arrange your tools. Something will shift inside your mind or you might stumble upon an old piece of creation that might be a new answer to your situation. Move. Go for a walk in nature. ‘Solvitur ambulando’ is a Latin phrase that means it is solved by walking. Stare at a tree - if you stare long enough, something will eventually come up.
‘We got rid of the day as well as we could’ - Nathaniel Hawthorne, Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa
‘Finish each day and be done with it. Not every day is going to turn out the way we want it to. All routines and to-do lists are aspirational.
When the sun goes down and you look back on the day, go easy on yourself. A little self-forgiveness goes a long way. Before you go to bed, make a list of anything you did accomplish, and write down a list of what you want to get done tomorrow. Then forget about it. Hit the pillow with a clear mind. Let your subconscious work on stuff while sleeping’. - Austin Kleon, Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad
Tomorrow is a new day.