Daily rituals, or complete lack thereof.

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“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” -Gustave Flaubert

IMG_1585 I don’t know how violent or original I am in my work but the above quote, along with the research I’ve recently done, has influenced my perspective on how best to structure my day. I’ve been spending some time learning about the routines of influential figures throughout history (mostly while myself procrastinating) and looking for anything consistent or novel among their daily rituals. I’ve held to various morning routines over the years but I’ve always felt that scheduling the day into predictable, consistent time chunks that don’t alter over months and years would result in just too draconian and boring a life.  The sentiments of WIlliam James offered me an alternative perspective,

“The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.”

This “effortless custody of automatism” stuck with me, especially when instead of hindering creativity it, in James’ perspective, could set free the “higher powers of mind.” Of all the routines I’ve explored David Foster Wallace’s seemed to be most similar to mine. Like him I tend to work in three or four hour bursts followed by some kind of break like a walk or as he said “do-something-with-other-people things in the middle.” Also like him I only tend to apply a strict routine when the work is struggling, or a deadline is looming, or some similar problem comes about. Then there is someone like Nikola Tesla who regularly worked from 10:30 am until 5:00 am the next morning, regularly, like Every Day.  I want more of a consistent routine than Wallace, one that would reign prior to things getting so bad I needed some structure, but at the same time probably not quite the total nothing-but-work routine of Tesla.

Earnest Hemingway got up around 5:30 or 6:00 everyday, regardless of alcohol consumed the night before, and said in a 1958 interview, “When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” He also had the tendency to track his daily word output on a chart––”so as not to kid myself.”

The painter Chuck Close said in a recent interview, “In an ideal world, I would work six hours a day, three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon.” He also echoed Thomas Edison’s sentiments when he said “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

The filmmaker Ingmar Bergman would be up at 8:00, writing from 9:00 until noon, then an austere meal. “He constantly eats the same lunch,” the actress Bibi Andersson remembered.  “It doesn’t change. It’s some kind of whipped sour milk, very fat, and strawberry jam, very sweet –– a strange kind of baby food he eats with corn flakes.”After lunch, Bergman worked again from 1:00 to 3:00, then slept for an hour. In the late afternoon he went for a walk or took the ferry to a neighboring island to pick up the newspapers and the mail. In the evening he read, saw friends, screened a movie from his large collection, or watched TV (he was particularly fond of Dallas). “I never use drugs or alcohol,” Bergman said.  “The most I drink is a glass of wine and that makes me incredibly happy.”

The Poet Sylvia Plath wrote about the struggle to find a routine in her journal, “From now on: see if this is possible: set alarm for 7:30 and get up then, tired or not, rip through breakfast and housecleaning (bed and dishes, mopping or whatever) by 8:30.… Be writing before 9 (nine), that takes the curse off it.” She was using sedatives to get to sleep, and when they wore off at about 5:00 A.M. she would get up and write until the children awoke. Working like this for two months in the autumn of 1962, she produced nearly all the poems of Ariel, the posthumously published collection that finally established her as a major and searingly original new voice in poetry.

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, “One can be very fertile without having to work too much, three hours in the morning, three hours in the evening. This is my only rule.” Though Sartre said this the biographer Annie Cohen-Solal inculded, “His diet over a period of twenty-four hours included two packs of cigarettes and several pipes stuffed with black tobacco, more than a quart of alcohol—wine, beer, vodka, whisky, and so on—two hundred milligrams of amphetamines, fifteen grams of aspirin, several grams of barbiturates, plus coffee, tea, rich meals.” All of which may explain why it took him until 1956 to realize what was going on in the Soviet Union.

The painter Francis Bacon worked in a cluttered unorganized studio, supposedly only slept a few hours a night (with the help of pills to doze off) consumed about six bottles of wine a day before heading to the pub and then nightclub. Nevertheless he still managed to wake at first light and work for a few hours each day calling it quits around noon.

I don’t subscribe to the hard drinking, substance loving, no sleep image of the artist (that sadly is brought about either by addiction or worse the desire to try and emulate this cliché image so as to possess in character what one fails to achieve in their work).  Of course someone should do it if it truly works for them but keep in mind what Scott Fitzgerald said, “It has become increasingly plain to me that the very excellent organization of a long book or the finest perceptions and judgment in time of revision do not go well with liquor.”

Another series of articles now traveling the inter-webs mentions the consistent, pre-made, little decisions that people find effective in locking down their routine and productivity. Supposedly Einstein bought several versions of the same grey suit because he didn’t want to waste brainpower on choosing an outfit each morning. Zuckerberg said he owns about 20 grey t-shirts while Obama structures the mundane stuff so that, in his words, “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make.” Though some of this has been regarded as brand identity, and doubtless it is, I think the primary function relates back to James’ quote above and Obama’s mention of research that suggests “the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions.”

I’ve scheduled to wrap this post up by 3:00pm today and it’s nearly time.  The majority of what I’ve written here comes from the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, from a Forbes article by Jacquelyn Smith, and of course from Wikipedia.  I can’t claim to have a routine that’s been so consistent over the years I can call it mine.  Lately it’s been 6:45-7:15 out of bed, a quick run and quick workout, 20 minutes meditation, and then work in the studio.  The morning part of my routine is solid and makes me feel great, but the hours accountable for working in my studio are not. I get the work done, but I could get it done much more effectively and without the continuous dependency on urgency to motivate me towards regular structure. With the help of of all the information I’ve recently taken I plan to get more of a steady ritual and welcome some of that “effortless custody of automatism.”