How Mundane Routines
Produce Creative Magic
BY MARK MCGUINNESS
Every day, you take the same route to work. You stop at the same coffee shop and order your coffee
exactly the same way. When you get to the office, clutching the same branded cup, you place it in the same
place on your desk. You fire up the same computer, tidy the stuff on your desk into the same pattern, settle
into the same chair and open the same tabs on your browser. You follow the same routine, sipping your coffee,
browsing your email, skimming through the same blogs, the same news pages, the same social networks.
As your colleagues arrive, you exchange the same greetings, the same gripes and gossip. As you drain the
cup, you get the same itch for the same music, take your headphones out and plug yourself in. You open the
same blank document, give it the same hard stare. The music kicks in.
Now you can begin.
If that sounds anything like your morning routine, you’re in good company. Over the years, as a coach
and trainer, I’ve heard a similar story from hundreds of creative professionals. Of course, the details will
vary—if you’re like me, your trip to work will be the “30 second commute” known to freelancers the world
over, and you’ll be making your own coffee. You may incorporate meditation, or other exercise into your morning
routine. And you may use a camera, easel, guitar or whatever instead of a computer.
But the chances are you’re living proof of one of the great paradoxes of creativity: that the most extraordinary
works of imagination are often created by people working to predictable daily routines. There’s even
an entire blog (sadly now on hold) devoted entirely to accounts of the Daily Routines (http://dailyroutines.typepad.com/daily_routines/) of writers, artists, and other interesting people.
Here’s the architect Le Corbusier, as described by his colleague Jerzy Soltan:
During these early August days, I learned quite a bit about Le Corbusier’s daily routine. His schedule was
rigidly organized. I remember how touched I was by his Boy Scout earnestness: at 6 a.m., gymnastics and . . .
painting, a kind of fine-arts calisthenics; at 8 a.m., breakfast. Then Le Corbusier entered into probably the
most creative part of his day.
Filmmaker Ingmar Bergman (http://dailyroutines.typepad.com/daily_routines/filmmakers/):
He does not like noise–”Quiet” signs are posted around the Dramaten when he’s at work. He does not
like lateness: he positions himself outside the rehearsal hall at 10 each morning in case the cast wants to fraternize,
and rehearsals begin promptly at 10:30; lunch is at 12:45; work finishes at 3:30. He does not like
meeting new people or people in large groups. He does not like surprises of any kind.
And novelist Haruki Murakami:
When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon,
I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed
at 9:00 p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important
thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.
There are plenty more examples over at Daily Routines (http://dailyroutines.typepad.com/daily_routines/)
but you can probably start to see the family likeness.
Murakami may have been joking when he mentioned mesmerism, but as a trained hypnotist I can tell you
he was bang on the money. By repeating the same routine every day, all these creators are effectively hypnotizing
themselves, deliberately altering their state of consciousness in order to access the “deeper state of mind” that
allows them to work their creative magic. The different elements of the routine become associated with this
creative state of mind, so that they can re-enter it by simply repeating the steps of the routine.
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