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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)
  • 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.

  • Beachscriber

    I think this article conflates productivity and creativity. Routine and productivity obviously go hand-in hand. Creativity, inspiration, solutions, insights, epiphanies, etc are small, quick things and more often had in odd moments or when the comfort zone is challenged. I’d rather think of the creativity as the spark and the routine as the wind and the dry grass.

  • Xaime Aneiros

    Thanks fue the article. I was worry lately about my life’s routine, now I suppose I should give it another thought. I will. Thanks.

  • Ruthann

    Interesting discussion. It took me years to think of myself and to be recognized as “creative” and ever since I haven’t worried about it. I have my imaginary friends (Bertie the Rat is on facebook, Mokiethecat twitters and, since 2000 has his own short story Website) keeping me from getting too stuck in reality. I guess a lot depends on whether you think creativity comes from above or below, or, rests like the soul inside somewhere. Routine seems to favor being grounded, but not necessarily conscious.

  • dan

    Enjoyed the article thanks – the ideas being worked here become particularly relevant if like me you feel creatives are expected to switch their modes of thinking faster and faster all the time.

    PS: the whole Murakami book is worth a read…”what I think about when i think about running”.

  • Gaurav Mishra

    Thanks! I was worried about the same daily routine, that it may erupt my creativity levels. Good to know this!

  • Rice

    NOW This is an eye opener. excellent examples *applause*
    now i have to start doing some very boring routine.

  • Doodah70

    am really glad to hear this!! i thought that this routine will kill my creativity eventually :'(

  • Mark McGuinness

    I think you’re conflating creativity and “inspiration, solutions, insights, epiphanies”. 🙂

    To me, the latter are very important elements of creativity, but not the whole thing. You can have lots of insights without actually creating anything. It takes work to turn an idea into reality.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yep, took me a while as well!

  • Mark McGuinness

    All part of a day’s work. 😉

  • Mark McGuinness

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

    No. It’s about the effect of routines on creativity. Creativity as a whole is a much bigger subject.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Good luck with the new routine!

  • Mark McGuinness

    “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.”

    Yes, creativity needs both.

  • Bartjan

    The book called “The Creative Habit” written by Twyla Tharp (a very succesful dance choreographer) is dedicated to her personal take on this subject. The subtitle is: “Learn it and use it for life”.

    Some examples from her routines are: getting up every morning at the same time. Hail a cab. Work out for 2 hours with the same personal trainer she’s done that with for years.

    She also incorporates other work-benifiting factors: for each new idea or project she makes a box. In the box goes everything that inspires her about the project, all the idea’s. At the end of a project she might have filled several boxes. This is her archive. Knowing that when she puts something in the box she won’t forget it and it will be kept safe is very important.

    Basically it’s a manifesto on habits leading to creative productivity. It’s a nice read.

    Good look with your routines!

  • Tam

    i started to believe *i can see the future cox i repeat the same routine*

    but now theres a brighter side to it

  • sharkeysmalls

    While I find this to be true, I also heard repeating the same routine, especially the drive to work, can lead to Alzheimer. Routine, while needed, can make the brain lazy. It important to mix it up every once in a while. I like to have a routine and throw off one thing a day. Whether that is make vs buy my coffee, drive vs bike vs public transit, ect. I essentially do the same thing (drink coffee, get to work), but not always in the same way.

  • Tarigaan

    i have no set routine what so ever- am i doomed?

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, Tharp’s book is excellent! I second your recommendation.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, you need to be sure the routine is supporting your creativity, not just mindless repetition. And mixing it up is essential – I wrote about this in my first piece for the 99%, Routines, Systems, Spontaneity:

  • Mark McGuinness

    No! Everyone’s different. Some thrive on order, others on spontaneity. I once interviewed two famous poets who were completely opposite in this respect.

    Ultimately comes down to the results you achieve, not the process you use.

  • Lalao

    I love the subject; it just points out to a phenomenon so obvious, I’ve come to totally neglect it. OR, was that the point?

    My creative work is my life. Period. All the vast practicity-focused activities that must be done to sustain a living are just adding up to the noise in my melody. But you cannot do without all that noise right?

    The only way to handle noise is to organize it. My routines help me enter “auto” mode when dealing with everyday life and free my mind of all the unecessary loads and hassles. Necessary, unappealing things get done and I’m not commited. At all.

    Now I realize how Alzheimer’s could strike me in this department. I’m already paying no attention at all, though.


  • Nick Coleman

    Loved this post… inspired me to share my own Creativity Triggers (… ). I’m a big Murakami fan, and have always been in awe of not only his creativity but his devotion to structure.

  • Amarissa Cale

    Great post! Funny, now that you mention it, I realise that I work far better when I’m listening to audio books containing ancient literature. Be it Homer, Shakespeare, or Virgil, the words seem to flow freely. A lot of this may have to do with my main WIP being ancient in nature… Most likely!

  • Robin Richards

    Sharing with you an infographic I created about my daily work routine –

    I find keeping to the morning routine the most important as the day can change as it goes along, but setting myself up from the morning helps to manage energy levels and mood for the rest of the day.

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