Carving out a Creative Routine

From Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon:

In his book Daily Rituals, Mason Currey catalogs the daily routines of 161 creative individuals: when they woke up, when they worked, what they ate, what they drank, how they procrastinated, and more. It’s a wild collage of human behavior. Reading about the habits of writers alone is like visiting a human zoo. Kafka scribbled into the night while his family slept. Plath wrote in the morning before her children woke up. Balzac slugged fifty cups of coffee a day. Goethe sniffed rotten apples. Steinbeck had to sharpen twelve pencils before starting his work.

It’s undeniably fun to read about the routines and rituals of creative people, but what becomes clear after a while is that there is no perfect, universal routine for creative work. “One’s daily routine is a highly idiosyncratic collection of compromises, neuroses, and superstitions,” Currey writes, “built up through trial and error and subject to a variety of external conditions.” You can’t just borrow your favorite artist’s daily routine and expect it to work for you. Everyone’s day is full of different obligations—jobs, families, social lives—and every creative person has a different temperament.

I’m not always sure that what I do here qualifies as creative work, but it’s so easy to fall into the jealousy trap looking at the routine of a full-time professional creative. It’s not hard to read a book like Cal Newport’s excellent Deep Work and think, yeah, that’s how you do it–if you’re an academic or knowledge worker.

I’m an academic physician working in a private practice. When you break it down transactionally, I trade time for money and then do a whole bunch of unpaid work on top that helps give my job extra meaning.

I’m a dad and a husband.

And that’s why it’s so much easier to have an amateur’s mindset instead of a professional’s: to do something because you like it or when the stars align.

But I’ve also found that I do better work and find more satisfaction in the work when it’s part of a routine (i.e. a modified professional mindset). My routine just isn’t one that involves long uninterrupted periods of deep work or a cabin in the woods.

I think the key is carving out a habit–or maybe a better word is a pattern–that allows you to fold in your avocations in a way that allows for regularity despite dominant competing obligations, recharges your battery, and still results in enough forward progress on your larger projects (if you have them) as to not be demoralizing (and it’s actually that last part that’s the hardest).

1 Comments

  1. Excellent post. I’m gearing up to write a novel and this is exactly the topic I’ve been mulling over for the last several days. Wish I’d come across your words sooner! I think I’ve arrived at a similar conclusion on the importance of incorporating creative work into a routine or habit. Tricky part for me is making sure my limited time apart from radiology and the family is actually productive…and not spent daydreaming about the cabin in the woods. Going to check out Austin Kleon’s book. Thanks.

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