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Shane O'Mara D.Phil.
Shane O'Mara D.Phil.

The Importance of Daily Rituals for Creativity

Regular daily routines drive creativity in artist's lives.

Just work at it every day!

I’ve read a lot of books in the past year—some good, some not so good, some great. Here, I want to highlight a book published in 2013 that I came very late to: ‘Daily Rituals – How Artists Work’ by Mason Currey. This book is an absolute delight from start to finish, offering a view of the psychology of creativity that is utterly different from the lay view that a mysterious force of inspiration strikes, and the artist is the conduit for inspirational forces beyond their control: that all you need do is wait for inspirational lightening to strike you.

Thomas Edison, the famous inventor, once remarked, '“Bah! Genius is not inspired. Inspiration is perspiration.” All of the artists surveyed here would pretty much concur—turn up and get working. All of the artists surveyed would seem to score very highly on the Big Five personality factor of conscientiousness in particular (and most would seem to score highly on openness to experience as well). They are focused, organized, have an overall plan in mind, and are comfortable with working through lots of sub-goals to fulfill the overall plan.

How do artists (and the few scientists mentioned) do creative work? Remarkably, the 161 artists highlighted lead what seem to be utterly routine lives: There are particular emphases on getting lots of sleep, engaging in lots of regular daily walking, drinking lots of coffee, (and for some, drinking tea). Of course, some occasionally do drink lots of alcohol, and many of the older generation of artists smoke—and often chain-smoke (something that, of course, is a profoundly ill-advised habit. Smoking is catastrophic for health.)

What is particularly apparent is that creative work requires enormous amounts of discipline—the act of turning up and sitting down and working every day, and doing so generally without fail. The case studies also suggest that creative artists oscillate between two distinct states: they have low short-run expectations (producing a page or two of writing per day), but high long-run expectations (they know that producing a page a day every day becomes a big book over the course of a year). Keeping the long-term goal in mind seems to be a key way of overcoming the daily trauma of working, sometimes fitfully, toward some creative end.

In a rebuke to romantic theories of creativity, none of them wait for inspiration to strike—none. To do something creative, you get working, and inspiration follows. A consistent theme is what seems to be the hardest thing of all—getting a solid, uninterrupted two or three hour block of writing time, and doing that every day, instead of doing busy stuff. Some of them despair over their lack of productivity but use the despair as a goad to productivity, getting bits written here, there, and everywhere. The Kafka quote on the flyleaf is brilliant. “Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.”

Many of the artists emphasize how important regular, long daily walks were for supporting their creative production (something I also discuss in my forthcoming book, ‘In Praise of Walking‘). Ingmar Bergman took a daily hour’s walk at lunchtime to recharge; Beethoven used his walks to write music; Kierkegaard walked everyday, using the walk to turbocharge his writing; so many others do likewise.

Sleep is also highlighted as utterly central to the creative process—a mysterious but wondrous source that refills creative wells every night. Chronotypes vary: Some are early risers (sometimes of necessity); others are late night workers; others take early afternoon naps. All of them insist on the importance of sleep for recharging their creativity; sleep solves intractable problems of text, plotting, and the like. Marilynne Robinson describes herself as having a ‘benevolent insomnia’, waking in the middle of the night, not being able to sleep, but being driven to write in the quiet and dark. Unfortunately, regular good quality daily sleep for normal, healthy psychological function and productive living is often unrecognized, or even disparaged, in modern life. But we know that regular good quality sleep is essential for productive living.

‘Daily Rituals‘ is an absolute delight to read if you’re interested in the logistics of how artists do what they do, rather than their creative output. It offers larger life lessons about how to foster creativity in all of our lives, beyond the stories of the creatives studied.

Here’s a books podcast I did on five books that I have particularly adored over the years for NewsTalk FM.

About the Author
Shane O'Mara D.Phil.

Shane O’Mara, D.Phil., is a professor of experimental brain research and a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator at Trinity College Dublin, with a research interest in brain circuits.

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