By: Richard Coad [MDB Chief Creative Officer]
Benjamin Franklin spent his morning taking "air baths" and sat naked in front of an open window for an hour to stimulate creative thinking. Marcel Proust made himself a breakfast of croissants and opium. Beethoven counted on coffee and methodically measured out his coffee beans.
Historically, while creative minds have many different ways to jump start their work, in his new book "Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration and Get to Work," Mason Currey concludes "there's no one way to get things done." For example, at one extreme, there's the writer Anthony Trollope who timed himself to make sure that he wrote 250 words per quarter hour. At the other extreme is Sylvia Plath who was unable to stick to any schedule at all.
Nonetheless, here are six lessons that Mason Currey has gleaned from history's most creative minds.
1. Be a morning person.
Of course, there are exceptions. Like the previously mentioned Marcel Proust who rose anywhere between 3pm and 6pm, immediately smoked opium powders to relieve his asthma, then rang for coffee and croissant.
Nonetheless, Currey says early risers form the majority, including everyone from Mozart to Georgia O'Keefe to Frank Lloyd Wright. For some, waking at 5am or so is the only way to avoid interruption. As Earnest Hemingway wrote, "There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write." If there is a secret to making early rising the thing for you, it's making sure you always rise at the same time, but only going to bed when you're tired.
2. Don't give up your day job.
We've all heard the person who says, "If I could only quit my job I'd have time to write my_________." The truth is, many of the most successful creative people have done their creating before and after hours at the office. Historically, Franz Kafka, who worked in an insurance office, crammed in his writing between 10:30pm and the wee hours of the morning. William Faulkner wrote, "As I Lay Dying" in the afternoons before going to his night shift at a power plant. T. S. Eliot's day job at a bank gave him the financial security to write his famous poem, "The Wasteland." William Carlos Williams was a baby doctor and scribbled poetry on the backs of his prescription pads. Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive who became famous for his poetry, said, I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me. It introduces discipline and regularity into one's life." And in our modern world, the popular writer James Patterson was already a best selling novelist when he finally quit his life's work at an advertising agency.
3. Taking walks is good.
Plenty of evidence exists that says walking, especially in natural settings, or even just idling along amidst greenery, is associated with increased productivity and proficiency at creative tasks. In Currey's book, he notes that walking is commonplace in the history of creative thinkers. Composers like Beethoven, Mahler and Erik Satie all took walks each day. As did Tchaikovsky, who believed that he had to take a walk of exactly two hours each day and if he returned even a few minutes early, great misfortune would befall him.
Of course, this all makes perfect sense since virtually tons of evidence have shown that anything is better for productivity than sitting at a desk.
4. Stick to a Schedule.
Doing the same things at the same times each day seems to be the key to productivity, varied though such rituals are from person to person. Patricia Highsmith ate virtually the same thing for every meal, bacon and eggs. The architect Le Corbusier was up at 6am and did 45 minutes of calisthenics each day, rain or shine. William James, the "Father of American Psychology," said it brilliantly. "Only by rendering many aspects of daily life automatic and habitual can we free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action."
5. Does substance abuse help?
At one time or another in history, it might be safe to say that someone somewhere has tried every potential chemical aid to creativity. But only one has been championed universally down the centuries. Coffee. Beethoven measured out his beans. The philosopher Soren Kierkegard poured black coffee over a cup full of sugar, then gulped down the concoction. Honore Balzac drank 50 cups a day.
6. Learn to work anywhere.
One of the worst forms of procrastination is that you must find exactly the right environment before you can get down to business. While many famous artists have had their pet peeves and eccentric habits, the consensus over time seems to be, get over yourself and get to work where you can and when you can. Agatha Christie wrote on scraps of paper while her mother sewed. Somerset Maugham had to face a blank wall before words would come. One study suggests that the background noise of a coffee shop may be preferable to silence in terms of creative stimulus.
Nonetheless, the point is, the perfect workspace isn't going to lead to brilliant work. Nor will a certain routine turn you into a genius. Only immeasurable talent, hard work and perseverance can do that.