Do You Need a Daily Ritual for Creativity?

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Marketing is increasingly data-driven, but at heart it’s still (and always will be) a creative pursuit. Sometimes we struggle to stuff our creative impulses into the confines of a campaign; at other times we beckon the muse in vain.

""Most of us realize that creativity is just as useful, and as necessary, for business as it is for art. A creative consideration of mold gave us penicillin. Creativity took us to the moon, gave Steve Wozniak the ability to invent the Apple I and II, and sparked ad exec Shirley Polykoff to change the way American women regarded hair color with her 1960s advertising campaign for Clairol: “Does she, or doesn’t she?”

We’re all familiar with the clichés of the absent-minded genius and the disorganized artist. Are those old tropes true? For his new book, “Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration And Get To Work” Mason Currey researched the routines of 161 choreographers, comedians, composers, caricaturists, filmmakers, philosophers, playwrights, painters, poets, scientists, sculptors, and writers to learn about and catalog their routines. The result is a “zestful survey” of the working habits of “some of the greatest minds of the last four hundred years.” Benjamin Franklin swore by “air baths” (his term for sitting around naked in the morning). V. S. Pritchett had a daily lunchtime cocktail. Philip Larkin attempted to evade the passing of time by “making every day and every year exactly the same.”

Oliver Burkeman, reviewing the book in The Guardian, said he’d tried out some of the rituals described in the book; the martini lunch lasted only one day, but others were useful. One technique he liked came from the writer and consultant Tony Schwartz: using a timer to work in 90-minute sprints, interspersed with significant breaks. “Thanks to this,” says Burkeman, ”I’m far better than I used to be at separating work from faffing around, rather than spending half the day flailing around in a mixture of the two.”

Burkeman says six common habits emerge among the most creative:

1. Be a morning person
Although some people work well at night (Marcel Proust, for one), early risers form a clear majority, including such creatives as Mozart, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Burkeman says psychologists categorize people by “morningness” and “eveningness” but it’s not clear that either is objectively superior. “There is evidence that morning people are happier and more conscientious, but also that night owls might be more intelligent,” he notes.

If you’re naturally an owl but decide to become a lark, make it a point to get up at the same time each morning, but go to bed only when you’re truly tired. You may be tired for a few days, but you’ll adjust more quickly.

2. Embrace your day job
You may be a songwriter at night and a headline writer by day. If so, penning songs is probably making your headlines better. Creative pursuits feed business innovation – and conversely, the discipline of business can aid creativity. Many successful artists had (or have) serious day jobs. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Wallace Stevens spent an entire career as an insurance agency executive. “I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” he wrote. “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life.” Nobel laureate Nobel laureate T. S. Eliot worked as a banker and later as a publisher while also becoming one of the most noted poets of the 20th century. Pierre Ouellette, an award-winning PR professional, wrote what he considered his best annual report when he interrupted work on a novel to take over a lagging project; he says the creative energy from writing fiction infused the report.

If you’re stuck at work, perhaps you should buy some paints and use them. It doesn’t matter whether your efforts are good; it only matters that you’re stimulating your creative brain, which will pay off by influencing your work.

Charles Dickens running3. Take lots of walks
Currey found that walking was ubiquitous, especially in the daily routines of composers such as Beethoven, Mahler, Erik Satie, and Tchaikovsky. Charles Dickens walked for miles every night. “It’s long been observed that doing almost anything other than sitting at a desk can be the best route to novel insights,” said Berkeman. “These days, there’s surely an additional factor at play: when you’re on a walk, you’re physically removed from many of the sources of distraction – televisions, computer screens – that might otherwise interfere with deep thought.”

As a follow-up to the acclaimed The Artist’s Way, a book about stimulating creativity, author Julia Cameron wrote Walking in this World: The Practical Art of Creativity, in which she recommends…walking (among other things).

4. Stick to a schedule
“Decide what you want or ought to do with the day,” W. H. Auden advised, “then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.” (One might wonder what this most passionate of men meant by “passion will give you no trouble.”)

Berkeman points to William James, an American often considered the father of modern psychology (whose brother Henry James became a successful novelist), as championing the notion that a strict routine can help unleash the imagination. “Only by rendering many aspects of daily life automatic and habitual, he argued, could we ‘free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.’”

Berkeman also points to subsequent findings that show “If you waste resources trying to decide when or where to work, you’ll impede your capacity to do the work. Don’t consider afresh each morning whether to work on your novel for 45 minutes before the day begins; once you’ve resolved that that’s just what you do, it’ll be far more likely to happen.”

It’s worth mentioning that a regularly scheduled sleep time is an aide to creativity. The adage “Why don’t you sleep on it?” is a reminder that today’s creative mind can surprise you with solutions to yesterday’s insoluble problem  – after a night of sleep.

coffee5. Practice strategic substance abuse
People have used and abused a wide range of chemicals, from Benzedrine to whiskey to marijuana to LSD to a wide range of pharmaceuticals. The one that’s persisted the longest (legally) is probably caffeine. Whether you get yours from Starbucks or British tea or Red Bull, caffeine is known to heighten focus. (Although Berkeman suggests that focus may be offset by a decrease in proficiency at more imaginative tasks.)

Legend has it that Beethoven counted out 60 coffee beans for each cup of his coffee. And Balzac famously said, “Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live.”

6. Learn to work anywhere
It may be that you really want an office with a closed door. Or a desk facing a window. Or a certain type of background music – or none at all. Berkeman chastises those of us who count on the right environment: “The stern message that emerges from many other artists’ and authors’ experiences is: get over yourself.” Agatha Christie, Currey writes, had “endless trouble with journalists, who inevitably wanted to photograph the author at her desk” – a problematic request, because she didn’t have one. Any stable tabletop for her typewriter would do.

Berkeman comments that a little bit of distraction might work in creativity’s favor: “One study recently suggested that some noise, such as the background buzz of a coffee shop, may be preferable to silence, in terms of creativity; moreover, physical mess may be as beneficial for some people as an impeccably tidy workspace is for others.” (Thank you, Mr. Berkeman, for the positive mention of physical mess. I’ll tell my boss.)

In the end, the real work is done by sitting down (or standing up) and just doing it. But it’s amusing, and perhaps instructive, to consider how others have fed their creative fires. Perhaps in this book there’s a new habit that will work for you.