Stuck in a rut? Re-examine your rituals.

A book found me recently, as they tend to every now and again. I was helping my hyper-successful cousin, Kim, clean out her Chicago office (she’s taking her shop to Manhattan) and the text revealed itself among a mountain of paperwork: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. I quickly looked over to Kim, shouting an homage to our cleaning inspiration, Marie Kondo, “This brings me joy!” And thus, the book became one less thing for Kim to ship to her new office and a new treasure for me to take home.

As the title suggests, each excerpt from Daily Rituals is dedicated to a famous artist’s day-to-day routines. It might sound mundane, but it’s incredibly intimate, detailing how many cups of coffee they found necessary that day, who they went to bed with that night, what time they woke up the next morning, and of course, just exactly how they worked. The variance between one “successful” artist to the next is shocking.

It’s also encouraging.

I don’t know about you, but I tended to imagine wildly successful people as content machines, capitalizing on each and every moment of the day. Constantly fighting to pump out words or sketches or songs. Kim, my cousin, fits this success-machine prototype, and it can be intimidating (even depressing) for someone like me who not only enjoys her naps, but needs them to function properly.  

I, on the other hand, found myself reflected in the pages describing a day in the life of artists like Voltaire, Matisse, and Agatha Christie: coffee, naps, baths, preferring daylight for working hours.

And I reveled in the stories of others completely unlike myself. The Francis Bacons, F. Scott Fitzgeralds, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrecs, and John Cheevers of the world: creatives wholly consumed by their chemical dependencies, abnormal sleeping habits, borderline deranged superstitions, and endless partying.

And then there were, of course, the ones who treated each minute of their day as more valuable than gold, like Benjamin Franklin, Joan Miro, and B.F. Skinner, planning every moment with military precision. The “Kims” of the world.

But the sheer diversity of schedules was empowering. It made me realize a few things: Yes, you can take breaks when you work for yourself. No, you’re not slacking. Or lazy. Or unsuccessful. You’re just like Voltaire, Matisse, and Christie. It’s okay to be that way.

Currey’s collection made clear the importance of crafting one’s own daily ritual. It highlighted the futility of trying to make someone else’s best practice your best practice.

So how do we go about crafting our own ritual? Consider these elements when crafting your schedule:

  1. Sleeping. How many hours work best for you? What time(s) do you engage in the joy of slumber?

  2. Waking. What time do you greet the day? Do you prefer a scheduled rise or a natural one? Toni Morrison describes finding the most inspiration from watching the sun come up each day, allowing its arrival to serve as her muse.

  3. Personal care. What’s your preferred toilette routine? Does it involve a shower, a bath, specific clothing, certain makeup, or a special hat?

  4. Environment. Are aesthetics as important to you as they are to me? A visible collection of art, books, and color may be necessary for you to be productive. Perhaps you prefer to be completely isolated in a minimalistic environment of your own design. Are you surrounded by family like Jane Austen, or do you prefer complete solitude like Samuel Beckett?

  5. Food & Sustenance. What are you eating, and at which times? Do certain foods energize you? Do others put you to sleep 30 minutes later? Vitamins, caffeine, drugs, and alcohol are all factors here.

  6. Work. There is work (think day-to-day obligations), and then there is the work. The latter is your higher pursuit, what you were put on the earth to do. The thing that pays the bills, however, may be something else entirely. T.S. Elliot, for instance, worked as a bank clerk for many years. It paid well, wasn’t emotional draining, and gave him insight into the “everyman’s” day. Whatever work you decide upon, always ask: Is this hindering or supporting my higher pursuits?

  7. Community & Relationships. What type and how much human contact will you need to thrive? Like so many artists, Picasso often found visitors to be an unwelcome distraction from his work. But at the same time, he needed these human interactions to feel energized and inspired. He designated Sunday as his day to stay in, inviting friends over to enjoy their company. That way, he could reconnect with his people all in one afternoon and work to his heart’s content Monday-Saturday.

  8. Connection. For many artists in Currey’s book, connection (oddly enough) took the form of long walks. This was time to engage with nature and solitude. Others, like Freud, would take a long walk through town to be amongst people. What practices strengthen your connection to nature, people, or the universe?

  9. Physical Activity. Author Haruki Murakami runs or swims (or sometimes both) every day. He believes that “Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.” What sort of movement do you need each day to feel happy, healthy, and engaged?

And finally, consider the level of discipline you hope to apply to each of these elements. Maybe you function best with a routine you can set your watch by (think Immanuel Kant) or perhaps you prefer to follow the whims of the day like Gertrude Stein. Maybe it’s absolutely necessary for you to have human contact but you’d be fine missing a couple hours of sleep. Or maybe not. Trial and error (and honest reflection) will be critical in the pursuit of your ideal ritual.

And know that these rituals aren’t static, either. They will change over time just as your body, relationships, income, and values do. And that’s okay. Every so often, pause to reevaluate, try something new, and remember Einstein’s sage wisdom: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Insanity is repeating the things that hinder your pursuits; ritual is repeating what advances them.
So, if you’re simply not wired the same way as your super successful best friend (or machine-like cousin), that’s okay. Neither was Matisse! Now’s the time to figure out what does work for you, to start the journey of designing your very own daily ritual.