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How Mundane Routines Produce Creative Magic

Can creativity be triggered? Find out how to heighten your ability to produce great work by tapping into the power of the daily routine.

Every day, you take the same route to work. You stop at the same coffee shop and order your coffee exactly the same way. When you get to the office, clutching the same branded cup, you place it in the same place on your desk. You fire up the same computer, tidy the stuff on your desk into the same pattern, settle into the same chair and open the same tabs on your browser.

You follow the same routine, sipping your coffee, browsing your email, skimming through the same blogs, the same news pages, the same social networks. As your colleagues arrive, you exchange the same greetings, the same gripes and gossip. As you drain the cup, you get the same itch for the same music, take your headphones out and plug yourself in. You open the same blank document, give it the same hard stare. The music kicks in.

Now you can begin. If that sounds anything like your morning routine, you’re in good company. Over the years, as a coach and trainer, I’ve heard a similar story from hundreds of creative professionals. Of course, the details will vary – if you’re like me, your trip to work will be the “30 second commute” known to freelancers the world over, and you’ll be making your own coffee. You may incorporate meditation, or other exercise into your morning routine. And you may use a camera, easel, guitar or whatever instead of a computer. But the chances are you’re living proof of one of the great paradoxes of creativity: that the most extraordinary works of imagination are often created by people working to predictable daily routines. There’s even an entire blog (sadly now on hold) devoted entirely to accounts of the Daily Routines of writers, artists, and other interesting people. Here’s the architect Le Corbusier, as described by his colleague Jerzy Soltan:

During these early August days, I learned quite a bit about Le Corbusier’s daily routine. His schedule was rigidly organized. I remember how touched I was by his Boy Scout earnestness: at 6 AM, gymnastics and . . . painting, a kind of fine-arts calisthenics; at 8 AM, breakfast. Then Le Corbusier entered into probably the most creative part of his day.

Filmmaker Ingmar Bergman:

He does not like noise – “Quiet” signs are posted around the Dramaten when he’s at work. He does not like lateness: he positions himself outside the rehearsal hall at 10 each morning in case the cast wants to fraternize, and rehearsals begin promptly at 10:30; lunch is at 12:45; work finishes at 3:30. He does not like meeting new people or people in large groups. He does not like surprises of any kind.

And novelist 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.

There are plenty more examples over at Daily Routines, but you can probably start to see the family likeness. Murakami may have been joking when he mentioned mesmerism, but as a trained hypnotist I can tell you he was bang on the money. By repeating the same routine every day, all these creators are effectively hypnotizing themselves, deliberately altering their state of consciousness in order to access the “deeper state of mind” that allows them to work their creative magic. The different elements of the routine become associated with this creative state of mind, so that they can re-enter it by simply repeating the steps of the routine. If you want to develop your ability to enter the creative zone at will, you should know that there are three conditions for a really effective hypnotic trigger:

  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.
So to fine-tune your daily routine for maximum creative magic, make sure the key triggers have these qualities. For example you might want to save a particular album for listening to while you work, or be careful not to use the same notepad for sketching ideas as for your to-do list. And when you have a particularly good day, make a note of something in your routine for that day, that you can associate with the emotional state – and use the same trigger the rest of the week.

And next time you’re waiting in line for your morning coffee, next to people facing a day of mundane toil, think yourself lucky that your daily routine is a springboard to inspiration.

How about You?
Do you have a daily routine that helps you create? What are the most important triggers for your creative state of mind? What happens to your creativity if your routine is interrupted?
Comments (72)
  • Aaron Butler

    here’s a question for all of you….

    i tend to split my days between ‘manager’ days (where i do paperwork and run errands and take meetings and work through my to-do lists) and ‘creator’ days (where i totally disconnect from the phone, email, TV, internet, etc. and get totally absorbed in my creative projects without interruption).

    when it comes to creating a repeating morning routine, would i want to have different routines for manager and creator days? do productivity and creativity require different routines? or would a single daily routine suffice for both?

    thanks for your thoughts!

  • David Robinson

    I’m the Creative Director at a small design agency. I started as a graphic designer. In 15 years, I have very little sameness in my mornings. I think that’s a personal thing though. I use three different scheduling tools in any given month. But when I get into creativity, it usually is one of three ways. At my desk, I have my feet up and music on. At home, it’s chillin’ with my sketch pad, or in the shower.

    I admire your idea of manager days and creative days. I switch between diverse tasks often. I find it very hard to shift between process-driven tasks and creative-driven tasks several times in the same day. Whichever I do, I find it takes an hour to get into my efficiency grove.

    Whichever task you’re pursuing, I support having something that gets you through the first hour, and the strength to stay there for as long as you can.

  • Mark McGuinness

    I like the idea of having entire days devoted to different activities, if you can (ahem) manage it. 😉

    I’d say you definitely want a different routine for each day, so that you’re activating different states of mind and emotions. They don’t have to be entirely different, but there should be some significant differences – enough for your unconscious mind to get the message that different skills are required.

    E.g. Personally I can’t imagine taking my coffee any differently, but when I’m writing articles I walk around the room and dictate to the laptop via speech recognition software; when I’m writing emails or doing admin work I sit at the keyboard.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Actually maybe ‘consistency’ would be a better word than sameness. You’ve got consistency in your three different ways into creativity, even if they aren’t the same. (And it always helps to have a back door in case the front door gets stuck!)

    something that gets you through the first hour, and the strength to stay there for as long as you can.

    I think that’s what we’re looking for a lot of the time. Once you get over the initial hurdle, it’s (usually) very enjoyable, it’s getting past the initial resistance that’s tough.

  • Matthew

    Really great insights Mark. I am a young designer who has been freelancing, but am finally lucky enough to find myself in a local in-house position. I still get my coffee at the same place, but I’ve been noticing when certain creative triggers aren’t there. With the help of your insights, I can see that the discipline of a rigid and consistent schedule is indeed what draws out it’s opposite – infinite and unbound creativity.

  • Dglaze

    I suspect this routine has less to do with magic and more to do with muscle memory and established patterns freeing one to focus on other things.

  • Mark McGuinness

    You’re right about muscle memory and focus – but I didn’t say the process was magic, just the product!

  • Mark McGuinness

    I like the way Flaubert puts it: “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

  • Matthew

    That is a great way to put it!

  • Matt

    Great break-down in this article, both of technical aspects and the emotional sides of these processes. It’s nice to also be able to peek into the routines of highly creative people and see a bit of what makes them tick, and know that at the core they’re just people too. Nice article.

  • Stan

    Then there is Edward DeBono who has developed systematic ways of generating creative ideas.

  • Maicon Sobczak

    The routine help us to organise the mundane process and allow to us focus the rest of the time in important work.

  • Custom term Paper

    You are really spot on muscle memory

  • K-eM

    Routine allows focus. You don’t have to engage as much energy and focus into things part of a routine which frees up focus for your creativity.

    Unfortunately, some jobs make routine difficult when you’re constantly being asked to shift between/among tasks that are out of order, unrelated at the project level, or unexpected.

  • Jonathan Patterson

    I use gym time to think about a creative problem that I need to solve. I always have some unique/cool idea and scurry home and write it down right after I’m done working out!

  • Unbiased Brain

    wonderful article.
    I’m going through a difficult time and worrying that my creative side has been burnt out.
    still couldn’t figure it out, what really happen.
    may be learning tools alone, without practice creative thinking. or my environment…etc.
    -from this article-
    i decided to put my life in to daily routine with more specific. Hope this can make a change 🙂
    if anyone willing to suggest, i would like to hear.
    thank you.

  • Rich Rawlyk

    I completely believe in the daily creative ritual, it informs process and the discipline required to follow through can give you longevity as an artist. I believe the power of blogs and other social media outlets for artists is there ability to parallel your development and enable an outlet for experimentation.

    Thanks for a great article, sometimes like minded people are required on the path.

  • liquidandliquid

    Is this a left-brain attempt to explain right-brain activity?

    There is no routine or no-routine to creativity. It is emersion to both organized and unorganized experiences, activities and interactions, consciously and unconsciously absorbing these experiences for later spontaneous spark of imagination/inspiration.

    I maybe wrong or right. Just my 5 cents.

  • Roisin Cure

    This is very interesting. I often wonder why I don’t vary my routine, now that my mornings are my own (after eight years of rearing kids to school age). Why don’t I go and enjoy myself meeting my pals, wandering around the shops…? Well, for one thing, I would feel guilty if I was not working (and I would not reach my deadlines), but I think the main reason, in the light of your article, is that my routine helps me slide into the zone where the creative force is unleashed.
    I hate interruptions. I hate anything being different – even losing my internet connection (an all-too common occurrence here in the sticks) will throw me, even when I don’t need it for whatever I’m doing. If the radio host is off for the day, I go to pieces, even though I don’t listen to him when I’m concentrating anyway.
    Of course, it makes perfect sense: make your life so you don’t have to think about it, make it the same as every other day so you don’t have to make any decisions, and your brain is freed to start soaring…

    Thanks for the insight.

  • LesliToday

    Interesting take on the daily routine. I often see it as the opposite and crave spontaneity, but the reasoning behind this article does make sense and is worth considering. Thanks for the insight!

  • Sherilynn Macale

    I really dug this article. I guess I never noticed the correlation between waking up and sitting in my bed all morning, procrastinating on social networks for a bit, and then finally setting myself down to “work”. Heh.

  • Michelle Gorenstein

    It has taken me a long time to learn that structure and creativity can co-exist. In fact, for me, they need each other desperately. It’s been fun and inspiring to read everyone else’s responses, and I’ve got to go check out that blog you mentioned, daily routines.

  • Alan Webb

    I have noticed that nearly all of my most creative work has occurred on trains, in cars, on runs… anything, generally, that puts me in motion. The people I work with know that and often go hiking or on runs with me while working through a difficult problem.

  • Marianne

    The more I *try* to be creative, sometimes the harder it is! I love the idea of using mundane and routine events and experiences to tap into the creative zone. As much as I like to think I am widely spontaneous in my life, I also realize I thrive on structure. Finding the balance between these is one of my personal goals. I do think that creating a “habit” of a creative routine can be very effective to let you mind/body/spirit be present (even if you are resisting it!)

  • Brenna McCormick

    I think one of the responsibilities of a creative or creative thinker is to find the balance between routine, which drives the completion of a project, and the inspiration and the spontaneity that sparks new ideas. I love this article as I have always suspected that my morning routine was an important part of my creative process. When the routine felt like it needed some changing, that gave me a gut feeling to introduce something new that lead to other sources of inspiration. When I get to follow my routine, I find that it gives me a feeling of owning my own time. I have also noticed a feeling of being either less creative or productive when my routine is at the mercy of others and when that happens, I look forward to the days that I can “refill” through my own patterns.

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