Daily Routines of Famous Creative People

Old fashioned pocket watch

Photo by a.drian

I discovered a fantastic blog at the weekend — Daily Routines: How writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days (via Undead Pixel). It contains what it says on the tin: first-hand accounts of how famous people optimise their daily routines for creative work.

For example, here’s Haruki Murakami‘s typical working day:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

With a collection including Vladimir Nabokov, Benjamin Franklin, Jasper Johns, Franz Kafka and Ingmar Bergman, the site is an Aladdin’s Cave for students of creativity and productivity. The entries are categorised both by occupations (Architects, Artists, Filmmakers, Musicians and Composers etc) and by habits. So you can browse to your hearts content through Drinkers, Drug Users, Early Risers, Exercisers, Nap Takers, Night Owls, Procrastinators and Smokers.

If you’re as fascinated as I am by creative rituals and routines, then you’ll know what a joy it is to discover this entry by Stephen King:

“There are certain things I do if I sit down to write,” he said. “I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning,” he explained. “I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.

Or this one from fellow novelist Will Self:

Rituals. Smoking–pipes, cigars, special brands, accessories, the whole bollocks. Coffee, tea, strange infusions–I have a stove on my desk. Fetishising typewriters, pens, etc.

Part of the fun of Daily Routines is that you could use it as an excuse for all kinds of bad behaviour in the cause of creativity. How do you fancy a whisky at 11am, followed by a three-course lunch with Champagne, Port, brandy and cigars; then another whisky at 5 PM to set you up for a large dinner washed down with lashings of booze? If it worked for Winston Churchill, it could work for you! Can’t be bothered to mow your lawn? Tell your partner you’re only following in the footsteps of German artist Gerhard Richter. Don’t see why you should stop smoking in bed? Neither did Gustave Flaubert. Unwilling to interrupt your work just because it’s your wedding day? Willem de Kooning would have sympathised.

Immanuel Kant is famous for having a daily routine so regular that his neighbours set their watches by his morning walks, but it turns out even he bent the rules a bit:

Apparently, Kant had formulated the maxim for himself that he would smoke only one pipe, but it is reported that the bowls of his pipes increased considerably in size as the years went on.

The only major disappointment is the Drug Users category, which consists of a single entry — the mathematician Paul Erdös, who wrote mathematical formulae under the influence of ‘Benzedrine or Ritalin, strong espresso, and caffeine tablets’. No harm to him, but it’s not very rock ‘n’ roll is it? Where are the poets on absinthe and opium, the musicians on LSD? Or is that kind of thing not very conducive to a daily routine?

Plus there aren’t many women featured on the site — they mostly appear in the background, as the wives of blokes like de Kooning and Darwin, whose lives were evidently arranged around their husbands’ routines.

Reading through the collection and seeing so many recurrent themes, it’s tempting to draw generalisations about the importance of routine in creativity. But of course the nature of Daily Routines means that it attracts accounts of creators like Flaubert, whose ‘Days were as unvaried as the notes of the cuckoo’. If your creative ‘process’ is a chaotic round of accidents, binges, coincidences, arguments and crises, you’re not likely to be submitted to the site. But don’t let that hold you back from the pleasures of a cup of cold chocolate for breakfast and a lethal martini at 6 pm — if you’re serious about your creativity and productivity, you’ll want to subscribe to Daily Routines.

What’s Your Daily Routine?

Do you have a daily creative routine? If so, what is it?

What are your favourite examples of famous creators’ routines? The more eccentric or plain boring the better!

Can you think of any counterexamples? i.e. creative people whose lives were ruled by chaos? You can include yourself if you like. 🙂

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post


  1. Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford are said to have slept polyphasically, along with a frequent list of others. Polynapping is using the power of naps to gain more awake time. It awakens an abundance of creativity, the place where invention are born.

    After being on the polyphasic sleeping pattern once before, for 273 days, it does not surprise me at all the link between polyphasic sleeping and famous creators.

    I encourage everybody to try it. However you should know that you have already been on it once before in your life. We were all born with polyphasic sleeping patterns. We all slept and awoke during the day and night. It is a quite natural way to sleep. It makes you wonder who came up with the idea of monophasic sleep and why it is mainstream, doesn’t it?

  2. I tend not to have strict rituals about being creative, but I do go through a structured pattern of getting work done, and as I’ve been writing more I’m noticing the pattern become more refined.

    1. Find a deadline
    Currently I write with a dealine in mind, whether an article, story, opinion, feature, I’m searching for a purpose to write. Rather than feel that this inhibits creativity (over writing as and when and what I want) I find it adds stimulus. I might choose a romance contest one week, a horror fiction the next, but there has to be a purpose for me to write.

    2. Ideas stage
    “What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.” ~Burton Rascoe

    I have to know that I have so long to slow cook my ideas in the pot. I might jot down randomly on paper, but there’s no structure. Knowing that I don’t have to produce any words at this stage frees the mind for me and things move a lot easier.

    3. First draft
    Rough plot points and then draft out from start to finish

    4. Refine – further research if required

    And finish.

    I don’t have a coffee at a set time or any other routinely administered external substances, but do follow this structure 99% of the time I am creating when writing.

    Like Will Self though, I have an array of favoutire pens, and notebooks and have an insanely heightened sense when anything is missing…or if alien pens have been left lazily in my pen pot by my boyfriend.

    I just can’t have my sturdy workhorse of a Parker Pen fraternising with the casual “i’m anybody’s” free biro from Barclays Bank…

    And I always write in black ink

    Perhaps I have more rituals than I realise?

    As for Polyphasic sleep – it is something I’m interested in trying but after selling the bed to convert the bedroom into an office, the idea of making up the sofa bed every few hours puts me off…for now 🙂

  3. I’m with Mister King here.. weird how it’s almost the same. I usually start to work at 8am, after I had a glass of water + vitamin pill and a small bowl of oatmeal, apple and almonds. I play the same kind of music every day (David Helpling) to get me into “work mode”..

    Then I set my egg timer to one hour and it’s like “okay, as long as this thing is ticking I tune out all distractions and concentrate”.. when it goes off i take a 5 minute break, drink water and unplug from work… then the same thing over, until my workday is over.

    I guess I just trained my brain over the years and created a trigger that says “It’s time to work, dude.” .. don’t know. 🙂

  4. I used to have routines. Then I had a baby. Now I have my daughter’s routines and sometimes parts of them will change direction with little notice. I fit my work-related creative endeavors around others’ schedules in a similar way – when is the office quiet, when do I need to be in the mixing room instead, and so forth.

  5. I have a routine too. But when it’s not working, I have an alternate, sometimes involuntary routine, and it’s very effective: Look at empty space where furniture would be nice. Look at checkbook. Blanch. Sit at keyboard.
    Works (nearly) every time.

  6. This is a very interesting post Mark, creative rituals, LOL. I never knew it had a name, this habit of following a particular course of action each time we want to engage our creative mind.

    Well for me, i also have a routine, but i wont consider it a daily routine. It’s more like a creative rather than daily routine. I get in this mood each time i want to write an article or conceptualise an idea.

    From the moment i wake up that day, i literally refuse to do anything, this include bathing, eating, brushing or even talking!

    I just sit down, get a book near by, most times i read any inspiring book before i start pouring out my ideas. I do this because it allows me to be filled up from within in order to be able to pour out from within my own ideas. I see it more like this; “you can’t give what you dont have”. During this times, nothing and i mean absolutely nothing matters to me and no external interruption is encouraged. Sometimes it takes 2 – 5 hours of staying in one position and carrying out this creative routine process.

    If it’s the conceptualization of an idea, this often begins either in the night or when i am either bathing or in the toilet (sometimes i go to the toilet with a notepad LOL). At other times, it’s in the bus while on a journey towards somewhere.

    Other than this, i cant seem to identify anyother creative routine i might have been engaging myself in. Most times, you may not even know that you are following a creative routine of some sort, unless when carefully observed by someone other than yourself?

  7. Maybe you’re a scanner.

    Chaotic types (like me!) might like to hear of a book by Barbara Sher now called “Refuse to choose!” (but used to be called: “What to do when you want to do everything”).

    Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Refuse-Choose-Interests-Passions-Hobbies/dp/B001810ZFA/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1234992837&sr=1-2


    Her point is that some very creative people have so many things that they want to investigate that they feel unfulfilled when they find later that they have nothing to point to as even a single achievement. They often get very excited at the outset, but then lose interest when they’ve “learned enough”.

    She gives such people the label “scanners” and some creative types have burst into tears after reading this book having realised that they were not alone, and had many feelings of apparent failure in common.

    The simplest method to help many of these people is to suggest that they get, say, 20 ring binders, and as they suddenly get interested in a new thing they grab an empty one and write the subject of their new interest on the cover, and then fill the interior with what they learn.

    Then as their focus of interest shifts throughout the day from one passion to another, they can put back the current folder and grab the one relating to their latest interest.

    Some people are “cyclical scanners” who come to find that they have a prescribed set of interests and lose interest in one of them and then come back later to continue on their investigations later.

    Some are “plate spinners” who attempt to keep multiple projects on the go at once.

    In terms of getting rich, one very successful entrepreneur found he could infect other more sedate types with a passion for one of his current interests, and then leaves them to continue on with the project to completion, but himself never ever “finishes” anything himself.

    Her key message is “don’t beat yourself up – accept that this is the way you are – and other, more pedestrian people may look down on you and laugh at the fact that you never seem to complete anything”. Indeed, you prove that you have actually made progress, although admittedly without reaching completion, by pointing to your pile of ring binders.

    And in terms of this particular posting, she also gives good advice on building timetables (cf. “daily routines”) that allow you to accommodate your multiple interests at various set times throughout the day, possibly also with a 15 month planner too to give you some kind of evidence that you are on a particular path, and somewhere to mark when you may have hit some milestones along the way.

    I too was relieved that my “problem” had been diagnosed, but the failure to nail anything down and take it to completion does still irk me. But the book was a revelation, and the techniques struck me immediately as clearly helpful.

  8. You probably know it, but I’ve always loved the quote attributed to Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you
    may be violent and original in your work.” (I first came across it in the Real Frank Zappa Book!)

  9. I’ve been ruled by chaos, experimented with everything, to truly paint is to transcend, to become lost in chaos, and build a bridge back to reason. The artist then paints that bridge for all to be able to safely enter the transcendent world upon a single viewing. In one moment in looking at my best works, like Fields V, I hope that you allow yourself to go where you have never been before, and to somehow understand what living in a purely creative way really means.

    No rules. No Schedule. Just genius.
    Humanity is bound by empty rules.
    You must spend a great deal of time alone with no distraction and learn that meditation is the path to the divine.
    Bend time and space to your will.


  10. Took me a while to figure out what works, but I know now that if don’t get cracking before youngest son wakes up, then not much writing will get done.

    So, I’ve trained myself to get up earlier, do 15 minutes of meditation, shower, coffee (set to start by itself so I don’t waste time making it) and then write as much as I can till he wakes up.

    And then sometimes, to set the mood, or if I’m planning to hunker down in front of the screen for awhile… I light some nag champa incense.

  11. Thanks for sharing everyone, some great examples.

    David – Great Flaubert quotation, I used it a while back when I wrote about Why You Need to Be Organised to Be Creative.

    Modern Painter – I like your bridge metaphor. I’m not so sure I can go along with ‘No rules. No Schedule. Just genius.’ – I’m a bit sceptical about the idea of genius. Would be interested in your take on this post.

  12. Mark, thank you, I hesitate to define genius. In my blog about the Secrets of A Modern Painter, besides technique and painting theory, I talk about my ideas about creativity and expanding the mind. To me, genius is an understanding and trust of the self and a unification of the conscious and unconscious into a willful flow of ideas. To move from one moment to the next in a state of mindful intelligent continuity, both focused and free, is the goal. It is usually the case with artists that we need to break free at first from the constraints of a conservative society and thus go to extremes to find transcendence, but to find our way back and hold on to the path will always lead to great strength. Typically though, after experiencing the purity of true individual freedom of consciousness, the artist is on the edge of mania during some of the heights of creation. To retain the power of creation and return to balance is the ultimate struggle. To me art and creativity are timeless; to create according to a schedule is for others.
    Thank you again for inviting me to respond,

  13. I think I’ll have to browse the procrastinators just to make me feel better. In fact, I could even browse the procrastinators as a form of procrastination. I should be doing some writing now, after all. In fact, I should have been doing it at mid-day. It’s now almost half past eight and I still haven’t done it. I suppose I’m just not a morning person.

  14. Gabriel – Personally I find the idea of ‘genius’ causes more problems than solutions, but sounds like it’s an inspiring and enabling concept for you, which is great to hear.

    Quentin – Why not follow Churchill’s example and treat yourself to a weak whisky and soda as you browse the procrastinators?

  15. In regards to genious and creativity, here is an very interesting point of view by Elizabeth Gilbert on youtube. I reccomend truelly. I never think the same about the meaning of word ‘genious’ since I’ve listen to her points. Very healing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA Great discussion – love it!

    • karen dampeer says:

      Thank you for the link, it was inspirational, amusing, and very pertinent.

  16. Yes, that’s a great video and a very interesting take on the idea of genius. I wrote about it here: Elizabeth Gilbert – Is Creativity Divinely Inspired?

  17. Very good post. Routine is a form of discipline, and only disciplined and focused dedication towards our work can bring out our creativity.

    We all are creative in one way or other…But we tend disregard many a time that. Lack of routine in our daily activities may be one of the reasons for that.

  18. Gabriela Sampson says:

    Hi friends,

    Many people think that Inspiration is a little fairy that flutters wings at high speed while descending on their left or right shoulder, depending whether they are left or right handed, of course. In other words, creativity is at the mercy of the little inspirational fairy’s flying route…what worries me is that if I subscribe to this belief and do not know the intent of the fairy, I can fall into the trap of accepting the landing of the mentioned being and wait… And wait… Not knowing that it came just to have a rest! So… let us get real about creativity and inspiration. It comes the moment we enter our creative space and set our intent and organize our tools. We sharpen our pencils, we stack our papers, we put on our ballet shoes, we sit at our piano or take the violin out of its case… We actually start with some ACTION that blows the cobwebs away. It is no point in having a studio, all set up but never entering that space unless we feel the calling. If you want to be a writer, write… If you want to be a better writer, write. Do not worry about quality, do the quantity, and the quality will shine through in time. Many of us are giving up too soon….

    To your successes!


  19. I connect with what Beth says regarding schedules and having children. It’s extremely challenging to follow any kind of artistic immersion with these amazing critters around. All the examples above- are about men. Men who lived at a time they had someone else, usually a woman, to take care of all the “messy life” things. And to my knowledge, Ms Gilbert also does not have children.

    Sooo, I love your ideas, and your writing, and I’d be grateful if the gender-race-economic reality issue will be included in the “organizing principle”…