Dec 18, 2013

Lifestyle, Routines, and Creative Output

I've been writing now for 12 years, ever since I was 24 years old (before that I kept journals). Much or most of the writing has been done in bursts of up to several thousand words on a nearly daily basis for weeks at a time. Sometimes I've gone weeks and months without writing anything "productive" at all.

During my better periods the writing has gone into some larger project such as a website or a future book. During less productive periods I'll still continue to write, but in the form of essays or pieces that almost no one will read. It seems that during such periods I lack the will and purposefulness to work on large-scale endeavors and simply continue to write because thoughts and impressions build up in my mind.

Lately I've been building up a lot of momentum in life and seem to have begun a new highly productive phase where I'm working on projects that are going somewhere. It feels great to have overcome the doldrums and doubts of the past few years.

What's different this time around is that my lifestyle and routines are entirely self-crafted. I live alone and have no committed relationship that would require making compromises. It appears I've managed — finally — to find that odd combination of factors that keeps me in good spirits and allows for sustained high creative output. As I've mentioned in past posts, my particular formula includes nutrition, exercise, walking, and a variety of shared activities and often intense socializing.

Due to my high sensitivity, I also prefer to protect myself from sensory and information overload by limiting Internet access, shunning media entertainment, and spending large amounts of time alone. I find I (and probably other highly sensitive people) don't do very well in standard conditions, but flourish in special conditions.

Since my current lifestyle fills my needs well and is almost entirely immune to the most common types of external shakeups (relationship turmoil, job changes, addictive behaviors, etc.), I see no reason why I shouldn't be able to continue living this way for another 1, 5, 10, or 50 years. Indeed, there is a new sense of permanence that I haven't experienced for a long time, if ever.

Then I come across this book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. The book contains descriptions of the daily routines of over 150 well-known creative individuals who lived in during the past 400 years.

The typical creative person spends 2-4 hours a day engaging in the most important — and demanding — aspect of the creative process: writing, composing, drafting, or creating original work. This is usually done in complete isolation with no distractions. There are exceptions, but they are few. The creative work is usually done first thing in the day, before errands and socializing. If the creative person has a regular job, it is almost always something that doesn't tax the mind, leaving the person free to think their own thoughts.

Productive creative people also usually "self-medicate" in order to keep their mind in shape for their work. Tools used include: alcohol, nicotine, caffein, amphetamines, and sleeping pills. Other mechanisms include: exercise, meditation, long walks, and sex. I apparently am in a minority with my rejection of addictive substances, but I too do a number of things to influence my hormones and neurotransmitters in a particular way: I engage in near-daily varied exercise, I strip down and take sunbaths during the colder part of the year, and I swear by my fermented cod-liver oil with butter oil.

Another universal among productive creative people is that all of them have a lifestyle that satisfies their needs for communication and socializing on a daily basis. I've come to see this as perhaps the most crucial element of personal productivity. While socializing needs vary from person to person, there were almost no creative people who didn't need a hefty dose of interpersonal communication every single day.

Typically, to sustain creative output people need both someone to bounce ideas off of and share impressions with a regular basis (usually daily or on most days) and unstructured or unpredictable socializing (generally daily). This mirrors what I discovered from long-distance hiking: a good day includes conversation with a friend, a number of interactions with strangers or acquaintances, and at least some group interaction. It can all total up to as little as two hours. Productive artists have found ways to get these three components of communication in a high-quality form on a daily or near-daily basis.

For some more introverted types, it seems that some of this meaningful interaction can be had online. That definitely doesn't work for me or for most other people.

Recharged from an evening of socializing, boozing, card-playing, or whatever she finds relaxing, the productive artist goes to bed and wakes up the next day to continue the thing that their life revolves around — their creative work. They see it as their primary activity and move everything out of the way in order to engage in it.

It seems that creativity, like willpower, is a limited resource. In order to be highly creative in one part of life, one needs to automate other areas. This could mean taking a maid or a cook (yep, I've done that) or putting in the effort to learn those skills oneself and turn them into routines (I've done that, too). It could mean paying the bills through work that one doesn't have to think about much (my favorite was packing Pepsi-cola) or by doing work that is closely related to one's primary creative work.

Doing creative work requires a lot of planning and coordination of complex components, whether parts in a symphony, characters and plot in a novel, or elements of a building design. After straining his brain's executive functions for several hours, the artist may wish to let them rest for the remainder of the day. Having to plan, manage, coordinate, and execute logistics in one's everyday life almost always uses up energy that might have been spent on one's creative product. Developing near-fixed daily routines (i.e. planning once and then just following that plan) and outsourcing management are typical ways that artists maintain their productivity.

While there are a few basic commonalities in the lives of all productive artists, each has found a lifestyle formula that is well-suited to her personality and physical constitution. What works in one's youth may not work in one's maturity. In any case, the would-be artist must come to know himself and have the courage to craft a life that works for him.