Do you follow some kind of routine when you write? Most creative people I know (including myself) dislike routines but can’t get much done without them. Though we do try!
Routines can feel rigid, boring, mechanical, or lacking vitality—or so those who resist routines tell ourselves when we’re not implementing them (!). But those with routines swear by them. They experience comfort, reduced stress, and greater productivity. (All good things, but maybe not the shiny, sexy, spontaneous experience we secretly wish creation could be?)
Flaubert advised, “Be steady and orderly in your life so you can be fierce and original in your work.”* His words indicate how important it is to have a predictable environment and slate of habits that allow one to roam more wildly and passionately within the creative work itself. This makes sense to me, yet I still resist closing the door on wild and passionate living.
I agree there has to be order somewhere. But what about inspiration? Many productive writers dismiss those who whine about waiting for inspiration. They choose instead to show up regularly, routinely, at set writing times. Somerset Maugham famously said, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
Most of us know from experience that routine actions yield results. A good diet, regular meal times, exercise, and waking and going to sleep at set times has proven to lead to good physical and mental health. Partying, skipping meals, and being a couch potato yield unhealthily results over the long term.
And maybe that’s one of the secrets for reckoning with routines: setting the terms. Because routines don’t have to last forever. They could be implemented for a week, a month, a season, a year. Within a time frame, a routine has a chance to yield results.
A routine is a set of choices with an underlying implication that a change will occur over time. Like a controlled experiment, we create a hypothesis, limit conditions, measure incremental changes over time, and analyze the results. It’s worthwhile to experiment with different routines until we find one that works.
I’ve experienced for myself, and witnessed with others I coach, how a set amount of time, in which a reasonable routine is established, can yield an entire draft of a book (in this case the 3 month Drafting Circle—that’s a season). Right now I’m guiding a group of writers through a 6-month revision routine, and, while resistance still comes up, progress is made over time.
Routine’s roots go back to French and Latin meanings for carving out a route, course, way, or path. And that could be why some writers struggle with routines. Each writer has to carve out an individual path. None of us can follow exactly what works for someone else. We can only observe the successes of others, trying out borrowed bits to see what works, until we cobble together our own way of doing things. But we do have to find a way.
If you’re having a great life and meeting your chosen creative goals without any kind of routine, I’d say: Don’t change a thing! But if that’s not the case (as it is with me), it might be time to reckon with the resistance to routines.
One way to break through that resistance could be to write up a “dream routine.” What would an ideal creative day look like for you? (Tip: focus on what it is rather than what it’s not.) If it’s not too fantastical, try living it for one, two, or three days in a row.
Part of my resistance is that I can’t include everything in a routine; I have to choose a few things, at most, to focus on at any given time. Eliminating options makes me feel anxious. But if I’m really honest with myself, I feel more anxious over the long term if I’m not reaching the creative goals I set for myself.
Writers need to prioritize one project at a time (maybe two, though “priority” really refers to “one”). Then we have to follow through. We have to work on it until it’s done. We can’t give up when the going gets tough, but we can experiment with different routine time frames. We can set the terms (a season, not forever).
Here are four steps to try:
1) identify and prioritize the project to complete
2) design an ideal routine to support completion
3) set the terms of the routine (a season, not forever)
4) stick to the routine until enough data yields analyzable results
When we start getting the results we want (which includes feeling more at ease during the creative process), we’ll be converts, because we will have figured out our own way of creating regularly.