Recently finished up Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, per Tim Ferriss’s recommendation. The book explores the routines and habits of many great novelists, poets, artists, philosophers, scientists, musicians, and mathematicians. When did they work? How did they work? How did they take their coffee? What role did ‘inspiration’ or ‘motivation’ play? What did their social lives look like (if they had one)?
I have always been fascinated by the process of work, sometimes more so than the final product. I remember when DVD’s were first coming out, I was so into the ‘behind-the-scenes’ and was usually the only one in my family who even cared to watch them. My YouTube subscription box is filled with people who talk about the details and processes of their craft, primarily those in filmmaking and teaching. This book was totally my jam.
I thought it’d be fun to share the rituals and insights that I found interesting, curious, brilliant, or odd, as well as the ones I felt I resonated with most.
Patricia Highsmith (writer) :
Her diet consisted of only bacon, eggs, and cereal at odd hours of the day. She also had an enormous snail collection and took them everywhere. When traveling, to get past regulations against bringing in live snails, she would hide them under her breasts.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (composer) :
Would wake up at 5am to compose for several hours. He attended various obligations throughout the day and then would return home around 11pm, only to compose for a few more hours before heading to bed and starting over the next day.
Søren Kierkegaard (philosopher) :
On preparing his coffee, he would first fill the cup to the brim with sugar. He would then pour his strong, black coffee into the cup and allow it to dissolve the sugar. He was usually done with the cup before all the sugar had even dissolved.
Voltaire (philosopher) :
Liked to work in bed. I found this funny because Sara loves working from her bed. I can’t do it.
Sigmund Freud (psychoanalyst) :
Had his wife lay out his clothes, pick out his handkerchief, and even put toothpaste on his toothbrush. He also smoked about 20 cigars a day for much of his life.
Chuck Close (artist) :
Would work in 3 hours chunks as he couldn’t do much more than that a time.
“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
I resonated with him as I find I do much better with big chunks of time, as opposed to little pockets here and there or working 8-12 hours straight as some of the others in this book did. I also appreciate the quote on inspiration; it keeps me from having excuses not to create videos or write more just because I’m not “feeling it” that day.
Nicholas Baker (writer) :
“What I’ve found with daily rituals is that the useful thing is to have one that feels new. It can almost be arbitrary. You could say to yourself, ‘From now on, I’m only going to write on the back porch in flip flops starting at four o’clock in the afternoon.’ And if that feels novel and fresh, it will have a placebo effect and it will help you work. There’s something to just the excitement of coming up with a slightly different routine.”
I haven’t actively thought about changing my routine but I have found a bit more motivation to continue on in a routine when I’ve begun to naturally shift and modify it.
B.F. Skinner (psychologist) :
Would notate on a graph his productivity levels every 12 hours.
James Boswell (writer) :
Had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning and fell into the “vile habit of wasting the precious morning hours in lazy slumber.” That’s how I feel when I’m not up and about early in the day. He contemplated building a bed where he pulled a lever and it raised the bed upright to force him out of his slumber.
Martin Amis (writer) :
Like Chuck Close, felt “most writers would be very happy with two hours of concentrated work.”
William Styron (writer) :
Had a line from the French novelist Flaubert on his wall that read “Be regular and orderly in your life like a Bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Alexander Graham Bell (inventor) :
This one was a bit sad. It’s an excerpt from a letter his wife wrote him regarding his devotion to his work:
“I wonder do you think of me in the midst of that work of yours of which I am so proud and yet so jealous, for I know it has stolen from me part of my husband’s heart, for where his thoughts and interests lie, there must his heart be.”
Buckminster Fuller (architect) :
Hated the need for sleep and performed some sleep experiments. The one that ended up working was to nap for about 30 minutes after every 6 hours of work or if he just lost interest in what he was doing. He had more energy than most of his younger colleagues.
Paul Erdos (mathematician) :
Lived on about 3 hours of sleep. Would be engrossed in his work from 8:00am – 1:30am. Fellow mathematicians had difficulty keeping up while collaborating. He took Benzedrine or Ritilan daily and to prove to a friend that he wasn’t addicted, he stopped cold turkey for a month but wasn’t able to get any work done. He told his friend the had “set mathematics back a month.”
Anne Rice (writer) :
“I certainly have a routine, but the most important thing when I look back over my career has been the ability to change routines.”
Charles Schulz (cartoonist) :
Had a private studio next to his house where he worked from 8am – 4pm, eating a ham sandwich with milk everyday for lunch. I’d love to have a separate video and voiceover studio in the future.
Marina Abramovic (performance artist) :
Whatever performance she was doing would consume her completely. One performance that lasted 11 weeks involved her sitting in a chair motionless in a museum for 7 hours a day. She had to train her body to go all day without food and without urinating. She spent those 11 weeks cut off from email, phone calls, meetings, and interviews and only spoke to the museum guard, her curator, her assistant, and her photographer.
Twyla Tharp (choreographer) :
Maintained a schedule that was anti-social.
“It’s actively anti-social but on the other hand, it’s pro-creative. When it all comes together, a creative life has the nourishing power we normally associate with food, love, and faith.”
Marilynne Robinson (writer) :
Could not write when she didn’t feel like writing. When she would do so, she typically created something she hated; it depressed her and she didn’t even want to look at it.
Saul Bellow (writer) :
Thrived in chaos and would write as he took phone calls and bantered with his son. He’d then occasionally stand on his head to restore concentration.
Jonathan Franzen (writer) :
To concentrate, he’d close the blinds in his studio, turn off the lights, wear earplugs, earmuffs, and a blindfold as he typed. It took 4 years to finish one of his novels. He’d often reach Friday and come to grips that he hated all the work he had done that week.
Bernard Malamud (writer) :
“Discipline is an ideal for the self. If you have to discipline yourself to achieve art, you discipline yourself.”
“How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. The trick is to make time – not steal it – and produce the fiction.”