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Find Your Rhythm

October 19, 2016

One of my jobs as a writer is to learn what my rhythms are. That’s not easy because when it’s best for me to write changes throughout the year, when I’m teaching, from one year to the next, from one project to the next, sometimes even from one day to the next. For years, I worked mornings. Then when I wrote my memoir Vertigo (1996), I discovered I worked best on this particular book during the afternoons. (I later read memory functions best then, so that might be why.)

-- Louis De Salvo, The Art of Slow Writing

In his influential study of accomplished inventors, musicians, writers, and scientists, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that most creative people follow careful routines. They come up with the pattern for sleeping, eating, socializing and working that best supports their work, and then stick with it. Creative individuals keep their lives pleasant and predictable, so that they can concentrate intensely on problems that matter. They avoid draining social interactions, wear comfortable clothes, and cut out unnecessary demands on their attention. They also deliberately weave enjoyable activities into their day that take their mind off their work and help them recharge: the Nobel Prize winning chemist, Manfred Eigen, plays Mozart on the piano each afternoon; the Library of Congress Poet Laureate, Mark Stanton, walks his dog; Hazel Henderson, author and futurist, takes time out to work in her garden.

The writer May Sarton

The Physicist Edward Teller

The implications of Csikszentmihalyi’s finding are clear: if you want to do impactful creative work, you need a healthy daily routine. Modern life is littered with complications and surprises—flat tires, friends who pop in from out of town, unexpected visits to the dentist, children who remember that term paper due on Monday. Amidst this unpredictability, you’ve got to carve out whatever control you can over your schedule.

In addition to protecting your time, establishing a healthy work rhythm helps you stay in your creative zone—a tuned in mindset promoting inventive thinking. An example of this can be seen in the routine followed by novelist Haruki Murakami when he is working on a book: he wakes up at 4 am, writes for four to five hours into the afternoon, goes for a 10K run or a 1500 meter swim, then he reads and listens to music, before going to bed at 9:00 pm. He repeats this routine without variation, because it helps him establish a state of heightened perceptivity and concentration. As he puts it, “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

There’s no set formula for how to pattern your daily activities. You’ll need to experiment to find the routine that works best for you. Ask yourself: At what times do I do my best inventing, learning and reflecting? When should I eat, sleep, or socialize? What activities, such as going for a bike ride, swimming, or taking photos, free up my mind and recharge me? How much novelty do I need to stay stimulated? Do I feel more focused after a friendly conversation, or is my concentration replenished after spending time alone? Here are some ideas to keep in mind for finding your ideal daily work rhythm:

  • High-focus activities: Which of your work activities require intense concentration and are easily disrupted by unfavorable conditions (being tired, getting distracted, working in an unpleasant place)? These are typically tasks that entail generating new ideas or solutions. For a novelist, this might be when you start a new chapter or are writing a first draft. It’s important to schedule high-focus work for the time of day when you are the most energetic and least likely to be interrupted—typically, at the beginning of the day (although some creators do their best thinking and inventing later in the day).
  • Low-focus activities: What aspects of your work take a modest amount of energy and concentration, and can be done successfully under diverse conditions? For example, if you’re a writer, this might be when you’re editing existing text or looking up citations. It’s best to leave low-focus activities for later in the day, when you’ve already completed your more intensive work. (Procrastinators tend to start the day with low-focus tasks, so that they’re tired out and have an excuse to skip their more important work.)
  • Your Energy Cycles: Most people’s energy and mental focus goes through daily cycles. There are times when you’re quiet and reflective; this is a great time to think about your vision and priorities. There are the times when you are high-drive and eager to dig into substation projects; this is the ideal time to attack complex problems. Finally, there are times when you are feeling patient and mellow; this is a good time to handle administrative tasks.
  • Non-negotiable time: Set aside blocks of time for doing your high-focus creative work, and make this time non-negotiable: You won’t impinge upon it, no matter what!
  • Don’t Empty the Tank: Deeply creative work is a marathon, not a sprint. You need a work rhythm that allows you to deliver, day in and day out. Balance is the key to consistency—you want to push hard enough so that you make daily progress, but not so hard that you max out and burn out. So be realistic: set a daily work goal that is less than your optimal output. (A mistake that many people make is to begin projects with gung-ho, best-case expectations, which leads to disappointment with one’s productivity and unnecessary stress.)
  • Major disrupters: What activities or events tend to blow out your energy and concentration and make it difficult to get back to work (e.g. overly strenuous physical exercise, redeye flights, drinking at parties, reading political blogs, giving public talks). Be careful to avoid (or minimize) such disruptive activities as part of your routine.
  • Nourishers and Restorers: Come up with easy to do, enjoyable activities that take your mind off work and restore your energy (e.g. gardening, walking the neighborhood, having tea with a friend, reading fiction), and incorporate these activities at regular intervals in your schedule; ideally, they should be part of each day.

 

Organizational Tip: Providing personal freedom days can improve employee creativity and wellbeing

In numerous organizational studies, personal autonomy—or the freedom to choose what to work on and how to do it—has been shown to be crucial for employee creativity and wellbeing. Teresa Amabile, a Harvard researcher who focuses on the factors leading to creativity, says that giving employees the freedom to choose how to approach their work enhances motivation, promotes a sense of work ownership, and results in increased creativity.

An important part of autonomy is in having the freedom to establish your preferred daily rhythm. A simple way to encourage this is by providing personal freedom days, when employees get to set their own work schedules. These free days should be protected blocks of time, without meetings, unexpected tasks (e.g. “I need this by 5 pm”),  or email response requirments. Yasha, a managing engineer I know who working at a local tech company, has a personal freedom day on the third Friday of each month. Although it’s a regular work day, he finds it so rewarding to choose his own routine that it almost feels like a holiday—even though he still clocks in a full eight-hour day. Here is the work schedule he chose: 

8:30 am to 9:30 am: quiet time at home for planning and prioritizing
10 am to 2 pm: at the office, focusing on core developmental work
2 pm to 2:45pm: lunch
3 pm to 4:15 pm: trail run
4:15 pm to 5:45 pm: back at home, emails and administrative tasks
6 pm to 8 pm: walk with wife, have dinner, relax
8 pm to 9:30 pm: project planning and documentation

Yasha’s schedule exemplifies some of the considerations that I mentioned for establishing a healthy daily rhythm: he assigns work activities to blocks of times suited to the task type (e.g. high-focus activities earlier in the day; low-focus activities later) and his own energy cycles (quiet prioritizing in the morning; administration and email in the afternoon); and he intersperses his work with restorative activities (going for a run, walking with wife). 

 

References:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Harper Perennial, 2013.

Wray, John. "Haruki Murakami, The Art of Fiction No. 182". The Paris Review (170), 2004.

Teresa Amabile. “Motivating Creativity in Organizations: On Doing What You Love, and Loving What You Do”. California Management Review. Vol. 40, No. 1, 1997

Teresa Amabile. “How to Kill Creativity”. Harvard Business Review. September – October Innovation Issue. 1998. https://hbr.org/1998/09/how-to-kill-creativity

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