Why Having A 'Boring' Routine Is The Key To Creativity

Artwork by Anna Jay.
When he is in writing mode, novelist Haruki Murakami gets up at 4am and writes for five hours. In the afternoon he runs 10km or swims 1500m and spends his evening reading and listening to music before going to bed at 9pm. Why? “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerise myself to reach a deeper state of mind,” he told The Paris Review.
And he isn’t alone. Ernest Hemingway got up at dawn to work (even when hungover). Beethoven methodically counted out exactly 60 beans each morning for his pre-work coffee. Kurt Vonnegut punctuated work with push-ups and sit-ups. Maya Angelou wrote from a sparsely decorated hotel room she kept. The more I learn about the lives of prominent creatives, the more it seems the path to excellence is paved not with erratic flashes of brilliance but instead, with routine.
I resisted this notion for quite some time. Having left the confines of a 9-5 office job a couple of years ago, I was delighted at the prospect of owning my own time and spending it exactly as I saw fit. But after a few months of PJ-clad freelance hedonism, I soon realised some semblance of structure is necessary for creativity to flourish.
“Routines are what make my world go around,” says Stella Heng, the cofounder and creative brains behind Sports Philosophy, a luxury sportswear line that combines athleisure with altruism. “At some point last year, we had major product development issues and the constant travelling disrupted my usual routine, which in turn really affected my ability to find solutions to design issues and marketing problems that we were facing. That is when I realised that sticking to a routine, which for me means ensuring I work out to clear my head, is really crucial to being able to think clearly and creatively, but also feeling good physically.”

There is nothing sexy about sitting at your laptop and putting in cold, hard time; far more alluring is the wild-haired genius who doesn’t have to try. But that is deeply flawed logic and a dangerous belief to hold.

The exact routine matters, too. It sounds obvious but it has to inherently suit you, as London-based Iranian singer-songwriter Golazin discovered. Feeling artistically stifled at university, she decided to radically alter her lifestyle to try and encourage creativity: “I started trying to sleep during the day and work on my music at night.” But it didn’t work out. “I ended up being more tired, my voice became hoarse, and I became far too fatigued to even write music.”
A few years on and she’s perfected her routine. “It takes three hours for my voice to wake up and I sound my best between 1pm and 4pm.” So on a typical recording day, she gets up at 10am, she goes to the gym and then on to the studio. “I will always do the same warm-up, blowing raspberries and singing my scales. I’ll be in the studio for about three hours; I’ll then have some food and have a well-deserved glass of wine to destress!”
The truth is, routines might work but they don’t jive with our cultural obsession with the ‘talented prodigy’. There is nothing sexy about sitting at your laptop (or piano, or sewing machine, or easel…) and putting in cold, hard time; far more alluring is the wild-haired genius who doesn’t have to try. But that is deeply flawed logic and a dangerous belief to hold if you want to be successful.
Why is it, though, that something as humdrum as routine is essential for coaxing out something as intangible as creativity? “Routine allows us to stay focused and motivated – even if you might not feel that you are in the mood to be creative and imaginative, settling into a familiar working routine can help your mind get in a state of ‘flow’ and stimulate your brain to produce new ideas,” says David Brudö, the cofounder of personal development and mental wellbeing app Remente. In other words, if you carve out time for your creativity and respect it, sooner or later you’ll find your groove.
“We tend to believe that inspiration should just come to us. However, we sometimes have to help it a bit by inducing the situations that help our inspiration,” says Zoë Chouliara, an award-winning clinical academic and psychotherapist at Click For Therapy. Zoë suggests implementing ‘positive sequences’ into your day, such as deciding to write a set number of words or building a notebook-carrying habit, so you can always catch random inspiration.

If you carve out time for your creativity and respect it, sooner or later you’ll find your groove.

Having a routine also means you can guarantee downtime – remember Murakami’s reading and music-listening? And it turns out there is a paradoxical nature to creativity; it benefits from both dedicated, focused attention as well as idleness. Whether you’re doing yoga, listening to jazz or relaxing in the bath, making time for activities which aren’t too cognitively taxing allows your brain to shift gears. Without you knowing what’s going on, your brain will hop from idea to concept to experience, knitting them together, and all of a sudden – hurrah! – you’ll stumble across something brilliant.
Stella is a big fan of exercising herself into this state and she’s come up with several innovative designs after a good sweat. "The kimono wrap was inspired from one of my usual workouts when I needed something to throw on that would keep me warm, but also look nice to and from the gym,” she says. “I come up with my best ideas after a gruelling session and on my way to food!”
I’ve been freelancing for two years now and one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that creativity needs the right conditions – focused work and downtime (I’m a slow learner). And I’ve found the most foolproof way to get both of these done is routine. I’m now a slave to routine 99% of the time and rather than feeling limited or frustrated, I feel more creative than ever. I think Gustave Flaubert said it best: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
And on that note, I’m off for my afternoon constitutional.

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