What comes to mind when you see these names?
Ludwig van Beethoven.
Simone de Beauvoir.
Maybe you see an image, or hear their words, or remember how they made you feel.
These people made amazing things.
Yet were they themselves exceptional?
How much were they like the rest of us? Did they also struggle to make time for their passions? Did they procrastinate? Did they also have to maintain a day job?
Did they employ all kinds of daily tricks to get any creative work done?
Yes, they did.
Writer Mason Currey has researched the daily routines of artists ever since one Sunday afternoon when he was procrastinating an article on an entirely different subject (due the next day, obviously).
To record his findings, Currey created a blog called Daily Routines that same afternoon. His blog described how famous artists and thinkers regularly carved out space for their work amid the Grand Distraction of life.
In 2013, Currey revised his posts on 161 luminaries, including novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, and published the collection as Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.
One of my own daily rituals is to read fiction for at least a half hour at night to relax and wind-down. So I doubted that Daily Rituals would really be the right book for me.
But I’ve been fascinated.
First, it’s a terrific spread of all the thoroughly individual and sometimes bizarre daily habits these people used to get their creative work done.
There’s something comforting in it all. We all have to eat and sleep. We all need a means of income. We all have family and friends. We all have vices. We all have 24 hours.
Second, I’ve been amazed to see how often three daily habits recur among artists.
1. Coffee. You might presume booze is the drink of choice among famous artists, but actually it’s often coffee. Nearly everyone mentions coffee as an important part of their morning routine, including W.H. Auden, Francis Bacon, Frederico Fellini, Voltaire, Carl Jung, James Joyce, Immanuel Kant, Toni Morrison, and Marcel Proust.
Perhaps the most hilariously detailed about his coffee was Beethoven. It was his only breakfast and he prepared it himself, counting out exactly 60 beans per cup.
2. A walk. Taking a walk – especially at midday – is mentioned even more frequently than coffee. Many artists or thinkers who had regular jobs, including Einstein, walked to and from work.
Writers and musicians especially seem to use walks to generate their best ideas. Beethoven, Gustav Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Erik Satie all composed as they walked, often stopping to jot down notes.
Satie’s walks were perhaps the most curious.
At age 32, Satie moved from Paris’ Montmartre district out to the suburb of Arcueil where he lived the remainder of his life. Despite the move, Satie was still drawn to his old neighborhood, walking six miles there and back every day, using the same route to visit all his favorite cafés and friends.
“The scholar Roger Shattuck once proposed that Satie’s unique sense of musical beat, and his appreciation of ‘the possibility of variation within repetition,’ could be traced to this ‘endless walking back and forth across the same landscape day after day,’” writes Currey in Daily Rituals.
This made perfect sense to me; at once I recalled this song, which I have listened to countless times. It's always made me think of drifting leaves across a sidewalk on an autumn day.
3. Three hours. This quantity of time comes up with remarkable regularity in Daily Rituals. Many people routinely worked three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon, often filling their midday break with lunch and a walk.
Some, like British author Anthony Trollope, believed that only three hours total per day were necessary for successful literary output. What’s amazing is that he’s real proof of that. Ostensibly sticking to only this schedule, Trollope produced 47 novels and 16 other books in his lifetime.
Prolific writers Stephen King, Patricia Highsmith, and Somerset Maugham also wrote three to four hours daily and required a daily word quota of themselves. Writing just 1,000-1,500 words a day, Maugham wrote 78 books total before he died at age 91.
This daily schedule really adds up.
What this means
I talk a lot here, and with clients, about daily habits and the importance of doing things each day to renew your energy.
Some of my clients are writers, musicians and other artists – and some are not. Yet profession doesn’t matter to me when we talk about energy, because fundamentally I think we’re all the same in that we all want to create something beautiful and meaningful with our lives.
Whether it’s raising great kids, launching a social enterprise or growing local food.
All this takes a lot of energy.
And where does all our energy come from? Our routines.
The better your routine, the more carefully tailored it is to support and nurture you, the more you will accomplish.
What change in your routine today would support you to do more of what you really want in life?
Personally I’m feeling inspired by the idea that by only writing 1,000 words a day I could write multiple books in my lifetime!
That would really be incredible.