The Routine of Creativity

Do you avoid having a daily routine for fear that it will stifle your creativity?

cover of CreativityAs someone who enjoys—almost craves—flexibility, I used to avoid routine, well, routinely. Then I discovered the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who argues that people who use their creativity successfully often have strict, daily routines that free their minds to do the creative work they love, by eliminating the need to spend time deciding what to do when, what to eat, or even what to wear:

“Most creative individuals find out early what their best rhythms are for sleeping, eating, and working, and abide by them even when it is tempting to do otherwise. They wear clothes that are comfortable, they interact only with people they find congenial, they do only things they think are important. Of course, such idiosyncrasies are not endearing to those they have to deal with…. But personalizing patterns of action helps to free the mind from the expectations that make demands on attention and allows intense concentration on matters that count.” ~ Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, p. 145 [emphasis added]

Recently I’ve had a string of calm, productive days. Why? I don’t know for sure. I like to think that my morning pages practice has something to do with it. Also, I’m at a good place right now in terms of how many responsibilities are on my plate (I do better with fewer that I can do more slowly, rather than more that require a frantic pace). However, as I think about the passage above, I also realize that I’ve been able to stick to a comfortable routine recently, especially in the morning, even down to my usual breakfast (which has been a fruit and yogurt smoothie followed by a bagel with chive-and-onion cream cheese, and a toothpaste chaser).

Why do these kinds of routines matter? I spend no mental energy at all thinking about what to do when I wake up. Instead, I can let my mind work on what to write.

Do you have routines that free your mind for creative work?

How do you handle those inevitable days (or weeks) when you cannot stick to your usual routines?

Are there times when it’s good to break up your routine?

24 thoughts on “The Routine of Creativity

  1. I don’t always have to stick to the routine. Sometimes I just decide to write for hours, letting my mind flow. Or I just take a few minutes a day so I can catch up on other work. But, I definitely need to write to free my mind. I find if I don’t write for a few days or so, it becomes harder to think just in general – which become frustrating. My mind needs the creative release.

  2. Echo Ketch here, I don’t always follow my routine, but I know what works best for me, and I usually end up writing daily. I find that a schedule helps prevent writer’s block. If I expect my body to write, pretty soon the words come easy.

  3. Since the start of this year I set a daily routine of getting up early at 6am – so before work – to write, plus on work breaks. And this works wonders for me.
    My mind just frees itself of everything else, because those one and a half hours are for writing, and writing only.

  4. I really need to create a tight schedule in order to get anything done. During the time before I realized that I worked best with lists and schedules I would go to bed at night wondering why it felt like I had done absolutely nothing creative.

  5. At work I have a schedule to keep for the same tasks every freaking blessed day. So, when I sit down to write, I really want to not be in the same place. I take my writing tablets and pens with me so I can just go baby go after work. Sometimes I just get on a bus, any bus, and ride and write to the end of the line.

  6. Thank you so much for that post!
    I, too, have noticed that I have become a lot calmer since I’m doing morning pages again (though I don’t write three pages, but 20 minutes nonstop).

    Somehow it braces me for all the small catastrophes lurking in the shadows as I go through the day, trying to get me … 😉

    During the last weekends, I sometimes couldn’t keep up with the routine, though. Fortunately, I’ve had some other nice thing instead: Time with my lover, also great. 😉

  7. Thank you all for such thoughtful comments.

    Kelsey, I know just what you mean about the creative release of regular writing.

    A.M.: “a schedule helps prevent writer’s block” That’s it! I also love the idea of expecting our bodies to write, so that we don’t mistake writing for a purely “head” activity.

    Marion, early morning is my favorite writing time. 🙂 I’m so much more efficient then than any other time of the day.

    justifieddesign, thanks for the link! That’s a good list.

    Lady Jane, oh, yes–that dreadful feeling before bed of not having the creative release Kelsey mentioned. Sometimes avoiding that feeling is motivation enough.

    knotrune, I have felt that way, too. I still am not a routine person in the way a natural routine person is, if that makes sense. 🙂 I try to think of routine as a tool I can use when I need it.

    keroome, I love the idea of writing on a bus!

    notizbuchfragmente, it’s so nice to know that morning pages bring calm to you, too! (I also do 20 minutes instead of 3 pages). Sounds like your tradeoff recently is worth it. 😉

  8. Fascinating topic, Lisa! I’ve only recently realized that I do, in fact, have a fairly strict routine.

    It shifts over time, but mostly I wake up and start writing and keep writing off and on throughout my day, taking breaks at nearly the same time every day.

    I think my practice of morning pages kicked off this routine for me. But I’ve noticed recently that I’ve backed off this practice, primarily because I don’t necessarily need it anymore to get started on my writing.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Ami, I find the process of creativity to be fascinating! It’s interesting that your routines are in place without your necessarily having been aware of them. I agree that morning pages serve a purpose, and sometimes that purpose can be fulfilled better in other ways or the need changes, so that morning pages may come in and out of our lives as needed.

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. 🙂

  9. This is an excellent post! I have often asked the question myself whether those who follow a routine life are creative or if creativity comes when we have disordered lifestyle.

    You make a good point that when we have a routine we don’t have to think what we needs to be done next!

    I am a kind of bothered if you think about it this way. Let’s say you have breakfast routinely at 7.00 a.m. and on a sunday if you got a creative idea after you wake-up at 6:30 and you are still in bed, would you rather sit down and develop that idea, instead of preparing your breakfast or would you keep the idea at the back of your mind and worry about breakfast. Of course, you can still think about your creative idea while you are preparing your breakfast but keep in mind that we often mess things up if the mind is not focussed on our current engagement.

    I would like to hear about your thoughts on this.

    • Viji, you make an excellent point about using routines as a tool but not being a slave to them. In the example you mention, I think I would forgo my usual 7 a.m. breakfast and develop the idea. I think it’s part of that dualism of playfulness and discipline that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about (“The Creative Personality“), so that we can go back and forth as we need to.

      Thanks so much for the question! What are your thoughts?

  10. Cool post. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and here I find your post articulating my wishy-washy thoughts. I spent the first twenty-odd years of my life avoiding a routine (and any kind of fiscal responsibility… ooh, and resposibility in general…) from the mistaken belief that I didn’t have to worry about things because I was going to be so artsy and creative.

    Not to knock anyone able to finish work without a routine, I know everyone is different, but for me I had to actually develop some discipline to create. as in do the work, haha. stil a work in progress…
    anyway, thanks for this post!

    • Jen, I think we are twins separated at birth! “the mistaken belief that I didn’t have to worry about things because I was going to be so artsy and creative” lol That’s it.

      I love the Elvis Costello tagline on your blog. For some reason, his music always puts me in a writing mood–maybe because the lyrics are so intense.

  11. Routines are helpful I reckon but not as straitjackets more as frames in which to coral one’s work.

    I’m new to your blog, via Lizislifelines. I look forward to reading more.

    • Elisabeth, thanks so much for stopping by and for letting me know how came here!

      Yes, I completely agree about the straightjacket aspect. Good reminder.

  12. Lisa,

    You have shared another one of my absolute favorite books. So much wisdom.

    I think routines are a great way to give your mind permission to be creative and have a special space that is reserved for productive work. And, it also helps to break the routines and get out in the world for inspiration!

    • Anne, thanks so much for stopping by here. Yes, it always seems to come down to balance, doesn’t it? I am a latecomer to the value of routines, so giving myself to break them isn’t usually a problem. 😉

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