Learning to Love Waking Up Early or: Why Keeping a Daily Routine is Vital to the Creative Process
"Inertia is the death of creativity." - Austin Kleon
For me, creativity has always existed within a whirling dervish of inspiration, insecurity, misery, joy, and self-loathing. My writing process would go like this: I’d drink a ton of coffee, wander around the room, get myself amped up like an NFL player on the verge of a hike, and attack the keyboard like I just caught it breaking into my house. I would leap into the aforementioned Tasmanian Devil-like whirling dervish and allow him to chew and beat on me like the the grumbling, jibbish-spouting beast he is. I’d get a few bruises and scratches, but at the end of the whooping, I’d have a nice piece of writing. This worked for a bit, sort of. I successfully finished and published a novella using this method of, let’s call it, pace and assault, but, the model hasn’t proved sustainable. Not only is it unhealthy for me to force my body and mind into a state of caffeinated panic, but it’s undisciplined, and — I can’t believe I’m saying this — unprofessional.
Yes, I said it, unprofessional.
And I want to be professional.
This is something I’ve had to come to terms with over the years. I’ve had to to learn to deal with the fact that being a professional means acting like one, working like one, and (gulp) conducting business like one. Yeah… business. This is all a business.
Serious person business.
You see, that chaos business just doesn’t track for the long term. At least not for me. That chaos business doesn’t translate very well into the serious person business. Business business. It just leads to a lot of distraction, wasted time, and missed opportunities. Trying to invoke the whirling dervish has led me down a path of, well, endlessly invoking something that only comes along every so often. A Tasmanian Devil disguised as Hayley’s Comet, perhaps? I don’t know. All I know is I’ve come to a place in my creative career where I need a schedule to work. Hell, I want one. I like the feeling of accomplishing tasks, and creating tasks for myself that I must complete each day means I always have something to accomplish.
It’s really a self-fulfilling prophecy. You create the change you need, and that change can be created by initiating just a few simple changes. So you have to create the creation that changes the creative process which leads to more creation.
Let’s talk more about this.
In search of triggers
In a post titled “How Mundane Routines Produce Creative Magic,” 99u highlighted just why assumedly “mundane” activities can lead to more (and more fulfilling) creativity by accessing a “deeper state of mind” with the help of this quote from writer Haruki Murakami:
“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am 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 pm. 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.”
99u says that the repetitive nature of your daily routine trains your brain to associate these acts with being creative, which in turn creates a “creative trigger.” There’s that creating creative changes again. 99u breaks down what a trigger is into three conditions:
“1. Uniqueness – it should be something (or a combination of things) you don’t associate with other activities, otherwise the effect will be diluted.
2. Emotional intensity – the kind you experience when you’re really immersed in creative work.
3. Repetition – the more times you experience the unique trigger in association with the emotions, the stronger the association becomes.”
This reminds me of a recent installment of our Daily Inspiration series in which the amazingly prolific Stephen King explains how he has mastered the art of “creative imaging,” or what essentially is bringing on a waking dream state. He said:
“I know that there are certain things that I do if I sit down to write: I have a glass of water or I have a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down around eight o’clock—or 8:15 or 8:30—somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill; I have my music; I have my same seat; and the papers are all arranged in the same places. It’s a series of things. The cumulative purpose of doing those things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind: you’re going to be dreaming soon.”
Austin Kleon, author of the indispensable book “Steal Like an Artist” explains that all artists should “Be Boring.” He says:
“I’m a boring guy with a nine-to-five job who lives in a quiet neighborhood with his wife and dog. That whole romantic image of the creative genius doing drugs and running around and sleeping with everyone is played out. It’s for the superhuman and the people who want to die young. The thing is: It takes a lot of energy to be creative. You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff.”
“Eat breakfast. Do some push-ups. Go for long walks. Get plenty of sleep.”
Kleon explains that in order to be a successful (PROFESSIONAL) artist, one should:
- Stay out of debt
- Keep your day job
- Get yourself a calendar
- Keep a log book
- Marry well
Each of those bullet points can fall into the category of “routine existence” but it’s the “Keep your day job” part that really jumps at me. Kleon says, “Establishing and keeping a routine can be even more important than having a lot of time.” He goes on to say:
“Inertia is the death of creativity. You have to stay in the groove. When you get out of the groove, you start to dread the work, because you know it’s going to suck for a while–it’s going to suck until you get back into the flow.
The solution is really simple: Figure out what time you can carve out, what time you can steal, and stick to your routine. Do the work every day, no matter what.”
Doing the work every day creates a flow which feeds the will to do the work which creates the flow which feeds the will to do the work which…
Creativity feeding creativity.
You get the idea.
What good did I do?
Ben Franklin kept to a strict daily routine:
Tim Goessling from the Good Men Project, chose to live Franklin’s routine for a day, and here’s what he had to say about it:
“Having spent a day on Franklin’s time I can say that it felt both similar and radically different to my life now. It was similar because, like many people, he spent a bulk of his time working away at his job. It was way different because he scheduled time for goal setting and self-evaluation, an area I’m currently lacking in. It made me examine not just HOW I was spending my time, but also WHY, which is something, in my opinion, that we never think about enough.”
Taking into account Franklin’s propensity and insistence for reflecting on his own work (and existence) was the most illuminating part for Goessling, and without that time being specifically written into his daily schedule, he might not have taken the time to do so.
Mr. Kleon addresses this when he points out why it’s important to “keep a logbook.” Kleon says, “The small details will help you remember the big details.” A logbook is essentially a document of everything you did each and every day, including the food you ate and the TV you watched, in addition to art you created. He says:
“…keeping a simple list of who/what/where means I write down events that seem mundane at the time, but later on help paint a better portrait of the day, or even become more significant over time. By ‘sticking to the facts’ I don’t pre-judge what was important or what wasn’t, I just write it down.
Best of all, limiting each day to one page and breaking it down into a list instead of prose makes it easier for me to scan through it later, and get a real feel for the passing of time as I flip the pages.”
Get a club
I’ve initiated a hardcore daily routine to which I plan to strictly adhere. In a nutshell, I’ve decided to get up earlier (5AM!), work harder, and quit thinking inspiration is something that’s just going to spin its way into my life. What’s the quote from that Jack London guy? “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
I don’t necessarily want to club my inspiration like a baby seal, but I’m not going to wait for it to show up Tasmanian Devil-style and trash my apartment. Instead — to stick with the “Looney Tunes” motif — I’ll get a hold of my creative life and “I will name him George, and I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him…”
Or we can just go with the Hunter S. Thomson routine. But I don’t think that would end well.