Conditions of creativity: Why rhythms and rituals are great for creative thinking

Describing himself as a ‘horizontal author’, American novelist Truman Capote once said, ‘I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.’

And if you thought that sounded peculiar, imagine Agatha Christie eating apples in the bath while brainstorming new murder plots, Edith Sitwell lying in an open coffin as inspiration for her macabre verse, and Marcel Proust beginning every morning with a breakfast of croissants and opium.

These rituals probably (hopefully) sound a little different to your daily commute-work-commute-sleep cycle. But, nevertheless, they’re routines all the same. And they demonstrate how even the most creative minds rely on rigid and repetitive rituals to trigger creative thought.

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It sounds like a paradox – creativity is all about free flowing thought liberated from restrictions, right? But, actually, following a predictable routine is the best way to help you enter your creative zone and stay focused within it. And there’s much evidence to support this on Mason Currey’s Daily Routines site, and in this great little infographic, which document the rigorous rituals of famous creatives (beware – you’ll be browsing for hours).

Getting into the flow of a routine makes it easier for your mind to shift between work mode, creative mode and any other mode you use on a daily basis, so that you can float seamlessly between each, and perform well at each task. Limiting your time for each type of activity helps you to stay focused and increase your productivity.

So, contrary to popular belief, the strict structure of your 9-5 slog is in fact the perfect prep for a creative project. After all, novelist, William Faulkner, wrote in the afternoons before beginning his night shift at a power plant, and poet/insurance executive Wallace Stevens once said: ‘I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me. It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life.’

‘I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me. It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life.’

Wallace Stevens

You might not think that your job is the best thing to have happened in your life, but you should stop using it as an excuse for your creative hiatus. Your Monday-Friday routine puts in place the perfect structure for creativity - whether you're hoping to find your groove in or out of office hours. Your work life and creative life have great potential to benefit from each other. 

When digging further through the Daily Routines blog, it became clear that most creative people can be split into morning or evening workers. Mozart claimed that his ideas flowed most abundantly during the night, while poet W H Auden once remarked that, ‘only the Hitlers of the world work at night; no honest artist does'.

A contentious issue, clearly; but most of us will instinctively know of those camps we fall into. Don’t do your day’s admin in the morning if this is when your creative thoughts are ripe, and don’t waste time forcing out creative ideas when the clock hits midnight if your brain is begging you for sleep. Your routine should be organised to nurture your creativity, so be smart about how you plan your day.

'I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.’

Haruki Murakami

Beethoven, Mahler, Erik Satie and Tchaikovsky all dedicated two hours of their day to walking, and believed it would bring bad luck upon their work if they broke the routine.

We're not sure luck had much to do with it, after all, there’s a wealth of research online to support the benefits of regular exercise. So, as part of your daily routine, it’s probably a good idea to find some time to stretch your legs away from your desk and the multiple screens that have likely invaded it. It’ll clear your mind and help you to focus.

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But, to a certain extent, the details of your routine are irrelevant. All that matters is that you try to stick to it. When novelist, Haruki Murakami, is writing a novel, he adheres to a routine that would terrify most mortals. He wakes at 4am, works until mid-morning, then he spends his afternoons running or swimming long distances. He leaves himself just enough time to read, run errands and listen to music before bedtime, strictly at 9pm. 

He says: ‘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.’

So, even if your routine isn’t quite as eccentric as the ones above (it’s okay – we, too, would choose a morning coffee over Victor Hugo’s early morning ice bath), getting into any kind of disciplined daily rhythm is a great way to help you enter your creative zone. 

Of course, not all of us need our creative resources to finish a great novel, or paint a masterpiece. And, here at Scriberia, we don't think that creativity should be saved for such lofty pursuits. Creativity is, essentially, problem solving - and that's a skill that comes in handy, whoever you are and whatever you need to achieve.