5 Surprising Habits of Super-Creatives

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UnknownI 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.


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10 Responses to “5 Surprising Habits of Super-Creatives”

  1. Rich Kent says:

    Disclaimer: I’m not a super-creative, but I do write books….

    A friend of mine who teaches at the local high school organizes a job shadow program for the 11th and 12th graders. Kids get matched up with professionals and spend up to a week with them. My brother, the local veterinarian, usually takes students and the kids are enthralled by the surgeries, diagnoses, the puppies…. When my friend wrote asking if a student interested in writing could job shadow me, I smiled and wrote back: “Sure,” I said. “Tell the student to show up at 6:30am and be prepared to sit and watch me at my computer for the next 5 hours. Oh, at 10am I give my dog a carrot.”

    I agree, Dan: “To be truly creative, you have to be brave enough to be boring.” I am.

  2. djcoyle says:

    Hey Rich, Thanks for that; I love it. Your day sounds a bit like mine!
    Can you give us a link to your books? Thanks.

  3. Dan:

    I love this post!! I’ve been tweaking my routine lately, and actually TRYING to become more OCD, because I’ve heard about the benefits! Good to see it all confirmed here. Great story: I heard of a high-powered CEO whose routine including getting all his reading done in the early morning hours in his office, before everyone else got in. He used a certain kind of highlighter to mark important text. Eventually, it got to where he had to have that particular kind of highlighter. One day he got word that the company that made them was going out of business. So he got in touch with someone there and arranged to buy all the remaining ones they had left – which was several CRATES. That’s pretty OCD, I’d say – but in a good way, I guess.

    As for #6 on your list (exercise), I’ve long known how powerful it is. I suppose I’m a little OCD about it. I have a spin bike in my home and another one in my office so I can get a ride in in any weather, to recharge myself in between work/writing sessions. (Riding my spin bike is usually what I’m doing at 5:30 am, listening to my iPod. It’s a great way to get my thoughts flowing for the day.)

    A great book on exercise and the brain is “Spark” by John Ratey, MD. It’s just your kind of book. It pairs well with The Talent Code. Maybe you and Ratey should do a podcast together or something. :-)

    Best,
    Susan

  4. It all brings to mind a quote by Albert Einstein:

    “The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind”

  5. Robnonstop says:

    Not being creative in planning our day, allows us to be creative in our work instead.
    There is a limited amount of Glucose available, we have to make sure we spend it ONLY on the most important task.

    RE: Susan Alexander
    I enjoyed John Ratey’s TED Talk on the “Spark”.

  6. Robnonstop says:

    Oh, that was Peter Brenson. But John Ratey has one too.

  7. Aleks George says:

    In relation to your last sentence – that’s why I love this quote … “Be regular and orderly in your life so you can be violent and original in your work” – Gustave Flaubert

  8. Dan says:

    Great article. If you want to set-up repeatable checklists and routines you can use this web application:

    Gtdagenda

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote and Google Calendar, and also comes with mobile version, and Android and iPhone apps.

  9. One famous painter boiled a bunch of eggs and ate them when he was hungry in order to save time on fixing food.

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