Most of us begin our days with a series of ingrained non-decisions. Turn off the alarm, get in the shower, eat the same breakfast, head out the door on time, drink coffee, catch up on emails, tick a few things off the top of the to-do list – or some variation of this. We don’t always think of it as a routine, but that’s what it is. We subconsciously eliminate tedious choices and reserve our cognitive energy for higher-stakes decisions that collectively make up the bulk of our “work.” By removing potential options we condition ourselves to be able to accomplish more with less active thinking, almost as if on autopilot.

For people who do creative work, routine can be fraught territory. The relationship between structure and inspiration is not always harmonious. By definition, creativity implies the generation of fresh ideas and unconventional solutions. In fact, Oxford Reference’s entry for creativity informs us that “in order to qualify as creative, a process of production must in addition be heuristic or open-ended rather than algorithmic.” If we think of our routines as carefully constructed formulas to maximize our output while consuming minimal resources (specifically our time and energy), “algorithmic” is not too far of a stretch.

Algorithmic Production vs Serendipitous Creation

For those looking to feed their creativity, the challenge is in navigating the ambiguous space between algorithmic production and serendipitous creation. Is a strict methodical framework really the best way to nurture the flow of creativity? Does it impose invisible limitations? And what about the artistic genius who finds inspiration and enlightenment in a life of chaos and disorder – a myth?

The Case for Routine and Ritual

The occasionally outlandish habits of virtuosos have long fascinated us, sometimes as a point of entertainment, but more often because we seek to uncover the elusive secret recipe for genius. Long before they caught record-breaking marlins, shaved their heads or cut off their own ears, many creative types throughout history have sworn by the monotony of their daily rituals.

In his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, author Mason Currey presents the lives and routines of 161 creative geniuses. He observes that in most cases “grand creative visions translate to small daily increments.” He also draws comparisons between very deliberately orchestrated “circumstances of creativity” and manufacturing.

What many of his subjects have in common is an almost religious devotion to blocks of undistracted time reserved for engaging in generative or cognitively demanding work – what we now understand as “deep work.” As Charles Darwin, James Joyce, and W.H. Auden might opine, one way to safeguard precious time for deeper work is to tame the tedium by restricting it to a predictable format. Darwin is an example of a creative genius who had an especially strict schedule: wake up at 7:00 and take an early morning walk, intense 90-minute work session from 8:00-9:30, break to read mail, another work session beginning at 10:30 that he’d wrap up at around noon, with the rest of the day allocated to alternating periods for correspondence, reading, and rest.

The nature of creative work is that it can be frustratingly slow going to realize big, consequential projects. Or in the words of Prof. Shane O’Mara for Psychology Today, artists and creatives nurture concurrent expectations: low in the short-run (a couple hundred words, a scene, a sketch or mock-up) and high in the long-run (a book, a movie, a rebrand). Gertrude Stein herself was never able to write for more than thirty minutes a day, but she would do so each morning after soaking in an enormous custom-made bathtub. Regimented discipline is often a necessity for reaching daunting long-term goals and critical when progress is hard to gauge. There is only one way to do something creative: to sit down and get to it. Doing it at the same time, in the same place, the same way every day can make it easier (and less traumatic, says O’Mara).

At nearly 80 years old, Twyla Tharp jumpstarts each day by getting in a two-hour workout before the sun even rises. “The best artists are extraordinarily practical,” insists the prolific choreographer and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient.

Great Ideas Resist the Algorithm

If creativity implicitly involves divergent thinking, surely removing any variety from our day-to-day would narrow those horizons. Do we limit ourselves without even knowing it by choosing the comfort of structured productivity and automating the extraneous minutia?

Morning routines may do just that. Many people feel that their morning sets the tone for how the rest of the day might go, and Groundhog Day-like humdrum doesn’t necessarily inspire a wealth of potential.

The slightly harried routines that may involve getting kids to school, racing against rush hour traffic or fighting for personal space on public transit are worst of all for our creative brains. As we wake up to shrieking alarms, frantically rush to get down to business, or read the too often upsetting news over breakfast, our brain releases stress hormones. These slow down our synapses and negatively impact cognitive flexibility.

Even springing out of bed, doing a two-hour workout, and serenely rolling into the workplace caffeinated and ready to go does not necessarily prime us for realizing our creative potential. Research shows that because most problem-solving benefits from a “broad, unfocused approach,” we are at our creative peak when we ourselves are groggy and unfocused. So you’re actually more likely to come up with your next big idea while a little “out of it” and less inclined to rein in your thoughts – not being a “morning person” could even be advantageous.

The cultural insistence on hyper-focusing our attention at all costs can be a curse for creative people, who are more prone to (and even require) distraction. Studies show that those nagging distractions are akin to a superpower. “Although it may sometimes be a hindrance to creative work, this distractibility also seems to be distinctly beneficial to creative thinking. […] Taking in a greater volume of information increases your chances of making new and unusual connections between distantly related pieces of information” says a piece by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire for Scientific American.

While Stein held herself accountable to short daily bursts of prose, the majority of her creative time was spent in the countryside gazing at livestock, or alternately at a rock, idly willing it to fuel her writing. She saw her craft as a process of discovery, and not something that could be fixed to a timeline with a predetermined end result.

As we strive to find the precise conditions for honing in fully and completely on a particular creative challenge, we may actually be shutting ourselves off from unconsidered possibilities. Vitaly Friedman of Smashing Magazine says that “the beauty of good ideas lies in their unpredictability.” Because groundbreaking thinking can’t be scheduled, it might be better to give in to whims and meandering thoughts.

Finding a Middle Ground

Unfortunately for most of us, the utopian ideal of an unstructured and impulse-directed creative existence may be out of reach. It’s true that Stein spent a whole lot of time waiting around for inspiration to strike and incite those daily thirty minutes of brilliance. But she also had generational wealth and a partner who executed the less glamorous parts of her life on her behalf – including brushing the French poodle’s teeth every morning. Georgia O’Keefe, who relished an early start to a long day of painting, had a cook to prepare her meals. The utility of some amount of routine is an unavoidable truth for those of us with material concerns like food, filing taxes, client deadlines, and brushing our own dog’s teeth.

The Routine of Creativity and Planned Serendipity

Perhaps the key to preventing our processes from becoming too algorithmic lies in holding room for controlled deviation from well-worn patterns. Friedman advises “scheduling breaks outside of the comfort zone” by approaching a project from an entirely foreign angle, talking to strangers, or switching up some other habit. Prof. O’Mara champions the power of long-distance walks and good sleep hygiene as mysterious forces that help build out cognitive maps and refill creative wells, leaving us with a greater capacity to be fully engaged in more parts of our lives.

Ultimately, we need to distinguish between suffocating routines that hold us back and meaningful rituals that allow us to overcome creative block and entertain new ideas to feed our creativity. Go for a long walk, get lots of sleep, try new things sometimes, and don’t be too hard on yourself.

Remember that you can plan creative habits, but you can’t always plan a breakthrough.

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