5 Work Habit Hacks from 12 Creative Geniuses

Today I’m going to dive into the work rituals of 12 widely influential creatives — writers, musicians, artists, and others.

I’m swiping these snippets of creative rituals from a fun book by Mason Currey called How Artists Work: Daily Rituals. (Link in the show notes below.) I was struck by both the similarities and the differences in the ways that different brilliant people worked.

If you like, you can count along and see if you can identify my 12 highly influential creatives. Some of them are mentioned only in passing.

And no, I’m not counting myself. 🙂 Neither am I counting Currey, engaging though his book is.

In this 17-minute episode, I talk about:

  • Staying out of the realm of precious
  • Defining work cycles to produce more work with less pain
  • The magical power of walks
  • Creating boundaries that allow for solitude (and thoughts on what to do if you can’t)
  • Twyla Tharp’s insight on creative rituals

The Show Notes

Sonia: Greetings, superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me, I’m a co-founder and the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital.

I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

I’ve been reading a fun book on How Artists Work: Daily Rituals, by Mason Currey.

Different artists, writers, painters, scientists have different rituals — but almost all of them have something. People will tell you you have to get up early, or you have to work late, or whatever — but someone has been successful doing none of that. Figure out your own ritual pattern that supports your work.

You may need to tweak it to get it exactly right. Vladimir Nabokov, for example, wrote his drafts in pencil on index cards. When he was on a road trip across the U.S., he wrote the first draft for Lolita — at night in the back seat of his parked car.

Adapt your rituals to the circumstance you find yourself. Not being able to do your specific ritual is an utterly lousy reason for not working.

I chose 12 immensely influential creatives for this post — some of them providing great examples, and some giving examples that might show you the more painful path.

1. Don’t be precious

One striking characteristic about remarkably creative people is that they don’t sit around thinking about how talented and creative they are. They just get to work.

Anthony Trollope worked at the post office for 33 years and published two dozen books in that time. Here’s what he had to say about daily production:

All those I think who have lived as literary men — working daily as literary labourers, — will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But then, he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours, — so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him …

Trollope was so regular in his habits that if he finished one of his novels in the middle of his three-hour work period, he would get some fresh paper, blot the ink on the finished page, and start the first page of his next book. He’s legendary among writers for this; this is not the behavior of a normal person.

There’s something there to be learned about not fetishizing your work, though. Whether it’s writing or business or a sales letter or a podcast, it’s just work. Show up and do it, and don’t get super tied up in what it all means. You may very well want to think about that, but don’t do it during production time.

Fiction writer Donald Barthelme, by contrast, would take the whole sheet of out the typewriter and throw it away if he didn’t like a sentence. (A typewriter is a noisy laptop that can only do word processing, for you younguns.) At the end of the day, he might have a couple of pages, or he might have a sentence, or he might have nothing.

You could create great work this way, but you’ll also discover why some creative people drink. I’m not saying don’t edit — that would be silly. But separate out the draft and the edit, and allow the draft to be crummy if it needs to be.

2. Define your work cycles to produce more work with less pain

Gustav Flaubert and Ayn Rand both went at their work by bashing at it — sitting there until their assigned work for the day was finished. They both had drug problems.

Most of the creatives in the book worked in cycles. Some have one work period, some have two, a few have three. So it might be between breakfast and lunch, which was by far the most common. Then they took a break, had a walk — more on that later — and often did some socializing. Then they might have another work period between lunch and dinner, and some had an additional work cycle later at night.

Any kind of creative work — which is most of the important work that we do, the work that can’t be done by a robot or an offshore low-wage freelancer — is draining, and you need to allow for time to refill the well. In fact, making space for that refilling is one of the things your creative ritual will do for you.

3. Walks are magic

Tchaikovsky & Freud were both great believers in walks, walking for hours at a time every day. But it’s striking how many of these creative forces included walking in their daily ritual.

Some of them walked for a few hours, some of them for a half hour. I am not a genius, but I do use walks in my daily habits. They clear the mind and let your brain come up with a freshened perspective. And John Medina argued in his book Brain Rules that your brain has actually evolved to think better when you’re walking.

Some people run, or Oliver Sacks swims, to the same effect. You know what works for you.

To counter the effects of excessive screen and sitting time, which is a big issue for our culture, I take numerous smaller walks throughout the day. A social pedometer like a Fitbit can help make this ritual a regular one for you.

Short or long, but make it a habit.

4. Create boundaries that allow for solitude

A tiny, tiny minority of artists — Charles Dickens was one — can work when they’re around someone else. Nearly all of them create well-defined boundaries around their space and time, in which they can do creative solitary work.

Georges Simenon literally had a “Do Not Disturb” sign he would hang up — but he also worked in periodic bursts, rather than daily, so maybe that’s why he needed the sign. He wrote 425 books, so he figured something out.

And yet — in office spaces, the private office is nearly dead, there’s no acoustic privacy, there’s no visual privacy. This is not a space where people can do their best creative work. I think companies like mine have a real advantage — in being virtual, we can offer our employees the solitude that accompanies strong and original creative production.

Solitude is relative — a coffee shop can offer solitude, if you don’t know anyone there.

Creative work needs focus, and focus means you have to find a place and time where the people you know and like won’t disturb you, ideally someplace that doesn’t smell bad or have irritating noises.

If you’re stuck with a traditional office space and you need to create, you can always try headphones. But also look for hidden corners of the building where you can hide out and get some work done.

And it’s always worth the effort to try to convince who you’re working for to let you do your deepest-focus work from home. That’s one really nice benefit of working for yourself, at least it is for me.

5. The beginning of the ritual is the ritual

Choreographer Twyla Tharp is known for an intense work ethic, and for her extended creative ritual. She gets up at 5:30 in the morning, puts on specific clothes, hails a cab because she lives in Manhattan, goes to the gym for two hours, then that day extends to a tremendous amount of both creative work and physical effort as a dancer and choreographer.

But here’s what she has to say about her ritual:

The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go, I have completed the ritual.

That’s how rituals work, and it’s how I would advise you to create your own. You can come up with something that’s 20 steps and ultra-specific, and over time you might do exactly that. But don’t start there. Start with the one step. Start with a small habit that you can build so you do it ideally absolutely every day. Once the habit ball is rolling, it’s much easier to build momentum by adding steps. But your ritual is the cab. It’s the one relatively small signal that starts your process.

There’s no one way …

Currey’s book closes with a fitting quote from writer Bernard Malamud on the specifics of the creative ritual:

There’s no one way — there’s too much drivel about this subject. You’re who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. There’s no particular time or place — you suit yourself, your nature. How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help. The trick is to make time — not steal it — and produce the fiction. … Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you.