I came across Daily Rituals on Malan Darras’ blog. There used to be a little widget on the right hand side that recommended this book, so I got it. Or maybe he recommended it on twitter? I don’t remember and it doesn’t matter.
The title appealed to me quite a bit because rituals are something I’ve become quite a fan of lately. No, not those good ol’ satanic rituals. By rituals I mean daily habits, routines, and systems that free up the brain for more creative thought and impactful work.
Routine, in the right hands, can be finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of limited resources: time, willpower, self-discipline, and optimism
Is this book an A-Z to guide on how to become rich and famous? No.
What you will get is insight into how some of the most famous creators of our time, and from centuries ago, are able to do what they do.
If you consider yourself a maker of things, a creator, then you should definitely have Daily Rituals on your bookshelf. It is a collection of anecdotes about 160-some different writers, artists, playwrights, composers, musicians, mathematicians, scientists and other professionals giving insight into how they create what they create. Each “artists” is given a page or two, some more. Some stories are compiled from other sources while others are told from the first person.
As I read the book, I noticed a few common threads popping up. Of course, every person is different. But there are a few key takeaways and insights I’m about to list which applied to most of the artists in this book.
Some of these “insights” are great advice and coincide with many “success principles” that you might read elsewhere. But there’s also some bad advice. In fact, some of these people were leading very shitty lives and didn’t even become famous until after their deaths. Some stories were, quite frankly, miserable and depressing.
Read at your own risk
Common Thread #1 – Repetition, Consistency is Key
No shit, huh? That’s what a routine is, isn’t it?
My experience has been that most really serious creative people I know have very routine and not particularly glamorous work habits. – John Adams
Almost all of the artists felt that they were far more productive in their lives by creating routine. This means doing the same thing, day in, day out.
The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. – Haruki Murakami
What About Waiting for Inspiration?
George Gershwin was…
dismissive of inspiration, saying that if he waited for the muse to he would compose at most 3 songs a year. It was better to work every day. “Like the pugilist, the songwriter must always keep in training.”
Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. -Chuck Close
Seriously. Don’t Fall Out of the Routine
“One link dropped undoes an infinite number.” Leo Tolstoy said, “I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of my work, as in order not to get out of my routine.”
A solid routine “saves you from giving up” said John Updike.
Common Tread #2 – 3-6 Hours of Focused, Distraction Free Work
For many artists, a typical day went like this: Wake up. 3 hours of focused, distraction free work. Quick lunch. Another 3 hours of distraction free work.
Few artists, if any, were able to create with distraction. In fact, many of the artists had strict rules about noise (their kids weren’t allowed to make noise before noon) and distraction.
Anne Rice, a mother first and writer second, was quoted
It’s always a search for that uninterrupted three or four hour stretch. (On engagements) Because you won’t get those four hours if you’re spending most of the day worried about getting to an appointment and back. What you have to do is clear all distraction. That’s the bottom line.
The lesson is that when you’re habitually getting into that ‘zone,’ you’re far more productive and creative. Just a few hours of concentrated effort in a day will produce more in a week of work where you’re checking your phone, email, Facebook, and Twitter every 10 minutes.
On the flip side – Few, if any, of the artists were hustling out 12-14 hour days. There’s a happy medium for us all. You can’t force out quality work for such an extended period of time.
That’s not to say you can’t work that much. You just have to separate the creative stuff from work that requires less effort. For me, the creative, concentrated work is programming. The less effort work is writing blog posts like this one.
“Three hours in the morning, three hours in the evening – that is my only rule,” said Jean-Paul Surtre. He lived to 75 and did a lot of drugs.
Common Thread #3 – A Daily Goal or Quota
I know, I know. We hate goals right?
I’m not talking about long-term goals that span months or years. I’m talking about a daily goal, or quota, that you can handle in bite-sized chunks. This is ultimately what makes up your daily routine or ritual.
Edmund Wilson wrote six pages. Somerset Maugham had a daily requirement of 1,000 to 1,500 words. Graham Greene wrote 2,000 words.
The great Charles Dickens wrote 2,000 to 4,000 words. “He stuck to his work hours without fail; absolute quiet.”
Stephen King has a 2,000 word quota, every day, even on his birthday and holidays. He said, about his routine,
And as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night – so can you train your working mind to ‘sleep creatively’ and work out the vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful to works for fiction.
Although it was novelists and poets featured in this book, this applies to anyone whose job it is to be creative.
Do you write copy? Do you write code? Then you should have a daily quota!
That Daily Quota Adds Up Over the Course of a Year
The most striking thing I found is how some of the writers worked. A few would just stare at paper for hours, squeezing out just a few paragraphs in a couple of hours (sound familiar, bloggers?)
It’s the power of compound interest. Even a few paragraphs or a few lines of code over the course of a year add up to something extraordinary.
Although he’s not in this book, Nathan Barry recommends a 500 word goal in his Authority Course (highly recommended by the way if you want to make money writing)
Where were you a year ago? Where would you be today if you had stuck to that routine? Would you have a book, product, or software of value to sell?
Common Thread #4 – Get Up Early
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what have written and go from there. -Ernest Hemingway
Some people got up even earlier than that. Frank Lloyd Write worked from 4 to 7am when “when the mind is clear.”
I think the early morning thing works because it’s biological. There were a couple of night owls in the book, but they were few and far between. This should match your temperament. For the most part, I think we’re all naturally morning people.
Common Thread #5- Alcohol, Cigarettes, Sex, and Amphetamines
I’m kind of joking here, but at the same time, I’m not.
A number of artists were straight up alcoholics. Not a routine I’d recommend.
Many, especially the ones before the mid 20th century, were powered by cigarettes. Balthus engaged in heavy smoking for “exquisite moments of contemplation.”
A few were sex addicts. Georges Simenon, author of 425 books, would “have sex every day and every months indulge in a frenzied orgy of work.”
And then there are amphetamines. The drug of choice, before Adderall and Modafinil came along, was Benzedrine.
Graham Greene upped his daily quote of 500 words to 2,00 by taking Benzedrine tablets twice a day. Ayn Rand was able to pump out “a chapter a week fueled by Benzedrine pills.”
I think the best story in the book was from Paul Erdos, a genius mathematician and workaholic. Friends were worried he was dependent, so they bet him that he couldn’t quit for 30 days.
Erdos quits successfully for 30 days then writes,
You showed me I’m not an addict. But I didn’t get any work done. I’d get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas like an ordinary person. You’ve set mathematics back a month!
We all have our vices. If they help you do your work, go for it. Just try to keep them from becoming addictions. Keep that shit under control!
I think Daily Rituals is an entertaining insight into how famous creative people work. The book probably won’t change your life, but that’s not why it was written. It’s simply a collection of stories of how and why people (just like you yet slightly more famous) developed their habits and routines to get the work that matters done.