Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

How Mundane Routines Produce Creative Magic

Every day, you take the same route to work. You stop at the same coffee shop and order your coffee exactly the same way. When you get to the office, clutching the same branded cup, you place it in the same place on your desk. You fire up the same computer, tidy the stuff on your desk into the same pattern, settle into the same chair and open the same tabs on your browser.You follow the same routine, sipping your coffee, browsing your email, skimming through the same blogs, the same news pages, the same social networks. As your colleagues arrive, you exchange the same greetings, the same gripes and gossip. As you drain the cup, you get the same itch for the same music, take your headphones out and plug yourself in. You open the same blank document, give it the same hard stare. The music kicks in.Now you can begin.

If that sounds anything like your morning routine, you’re in good company. Over the years, as a coach and trainer, I’ve heard a similar story from hundreds of creative professionals. Of course, the details will vary – if you’re like me, your trip to work will be the “30 second commute” known to freelancers the world over, and you’ll be making your own coffee. You may incorporate meditation, or other exercise into your morning routine. And you may use a camera, easel, guitar or whatever instead of a computer.

But the chances are you’re living proof of one of the great paradoxes of creativity: that the most extraordinary works of imagination are often created by people working to predictable daily routines. There’s even an entire blog (sadly now on hold) devoted entirely to accounts of the Daily Routines of writers, artists, and other interesting people.

Here’s the architect Le Corbusier, as described by his colleague Jerzy Soltan:

During these early August days, I learned quite a bit about Le Corbusier’s daily routine. His schedule was rigidly organized. I remember how touched I was by his Boy Scout earnestness: at 6 AM, gymnastics and . . . painting, a kind of fine-arts calisthenics; at 8 AM, breakfast. Then Le Corbusier entered into probably the most creative part of his day.
Filmmaker Ingmar Bergman:

He does not like noise – “Quiet” signs are posted around the Dramaten when he’s at work. He does not like lateness: he positions himself outside the rehearsal hall at 10 each morning in case the cast wants to fraternize, and rehearsals begin promptly at 10:30; lunch is at 12:45; work finishes at 3:30. He does not like meeting new people or people in large groups. He does not like surprises of any kind.
And novelist Haruki Murakami:

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.
There are plenty more examples over at Daily Routines, but you can probably start to see the family likeness.

Murakami may have been joking when he mentioned mesmerism, but as a trained hypnotist I can tell you he was bang on the money. By repeating the same routine every day, all these creators are effectively hypnotizing themselves, deliberately altering their state of consciousness in order to access the “deeper state of mind” that allows them to work their creative magic. The different elements of the routine become associated with this creative state of mind, so that they can re-enter it by simply repeating the steps of the routine.

If you want to develop your ability to enter the creative zone at will, you should know that there are three conditions for a really effective hypnotic trigger:

  1. Uniqueness – it should be something (or a combination of things) you don’t associate with other activities, otherwise the effect will be diluted.
  2. Emotional intensity – the kind you experience when you’re really immersed in creative work.
  3. Repetition – the more times you experience the unique trigger in association with the emotions, the stronger the association becomes.
So to fine-tune your daily routine for maximum creative magic, make sure the key triggers have these qualities. For example you might want to save a particular album for listening to while you work, or be careful not to use the same notepad for sketching ideas as for your to-do list. And when you have a particularly good day, make a note of something in your routine for that day, that you can associate with the emotional state – and use the same trigger the rest of the week.And next time you’re waiting in line for your morning coffee, next to people facing a day of mundane toil, think yourself lucky that your daily routine is a springboard to inspiration.

How about You?Do you have a daily routine that helps you create?

What are the most important triggers for your creative state of mind?

What happens to your creativity if your routine is interrupted?

More insights on: Focus, Time Management

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach. He is the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, and the free course for creative professionals, The Creative Pathfinder.
load comments (72)
  • Linda Woods

    This is the truth about routines — they are actually little obsessions. Obsessive-compulsive behaviors. I also use them/have them. I try to avoid anything to do with finances when I’m in “creative mode.” I find that to be the most distracting of anything. Usually I put my music on repeat and listen to the same song over and over again. I can write pages upon pages that way…. the music turns into “background” and shuts my mind off from thinking of anything other than what I’m writing at the time.


  • Mark McGuinness

    “OR, was that the point?”


  • Laura Jacquelin

    Great read, thanks! I began a “creative routine” a few years back, and it has helped immensely toward staying focused & productive, but I never realized the 3 elements: unique + emotion + repetition. I have a busy morning getting kids off to school & such — but then I return home to one routine: brew a pot of french press, light a candle, and turn on the music (a station on pandora I created just for writing time). I use one software program “just for writing” (scrivener). Using the one tool is a visual reminder to stay focused & not switch efforts to non-creative productivity.

  • Elaine

    Absolutely loved your article.Thanks for sharing!

  • Dave

    As a musician, I wasn’t really successful at practicing until I developed a routine. First I’d take out a sheet of paper, and write down what I was going to practice that day, in bullet form, 30 minutes per session. Then I’d go to a room where all I did was practice, take my sheet of paper, turn over a 30-minute hourglass, and begin. Not having to think “what to practice” (since it was written down), or whether to practice (since I was in the room where that’s all I did), I was able to begin. When the 30 minute hourglass finished, unless I was inspired/oblivious to the time, I would stop.

  • charisseb

    Wow I never saw the monotony of my days being a college student as something I can get creativity from. Thanks for this diff point of view you introduced me. :)

  • Ardanipersada

    After reading this, I just realized that I do have some routines before I start my creative work. I usually took a bath, or have a coffee before I open my word document and writes my novel. I feel most energized doing it late at night. And when I have to do it any other time, I have to make sure i don’t play my video games in the morning.

    I wouldn’t know that they’re this important to start my creative juice flowing. thanks for the post

  • Jup

    A valuable, creative tip off from a great man. One needs to follow it.
    Success is something we would really enjoy. No doubt.

  • Applet

    Mines less of a routine as I have limited free time which I can apply to my personal creative work, eg. an hour or two at night mid-week, and the occasional ‘full day’ at some weekends…  but I feel much more mentally prepared when Ive resolved any little chore (clean up/empty the bins..) or activity (run/bike/even replace worn brake pads on car..) that may be sitting in the back of my mind blocking my free thinking..

    If I havent done it, then it usually, and rather annoyingly, raises its head at some point when I least need it.

  • Sharonthoms

    Hi I liked your article.  I also believe that unless daily routines are strictly adheared to, all sorts of chaos is likely to abound.  Our morning routines are what set us up for a good day and by not having to concentrate on those repeated tasks as they are a routine and habit, we are able to put all our focus on the creative work thats about to take place on completion of that routine.  At my blog “” the entire focus in on experts in all manner of fields and their routines which bought about their success, in order to serve as a reference for people looking to follow in their footsteps.  One catagory is web stars routine habits and i’m going to include a link to your article, i’m glad i found it and your site.

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    Bing & Yahoo.Some of the issues covered are;* “ The Free
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  • Kathy McDonald

    I often help clients come up with the tools that prime the pump, and having a routine or practice before they get started is a go-to strategy.  Great summary of WHY it works and the 3 important ingredients.  The only exception I’d make is uniqueness is not as important, if it’s part of a regular routine.

  • Lea Antonio

    When I’m embarking on a big project, I take 10 minutes to organize my workspace, clean and polish my table, empty the trash, and basically get ride of any distractions (unopened mail, unwashed coffee mug, sketches of other projects) to create a blank slate.  That ten minutes of mindless drudgery usually get me in the right frame of mind to start work and stay in that creative zone.

  • Tom McCracken


  • designbynuff

    On the one hand, I recognise the power of triggers, and how a routine can optimise those triggers once you learn the patterns.

    On the other hand, I am extremely uncomfortable with the idea – to me there is something rather superstitious and confining about it.

  • Cladonia

    Creativity seems to be part of biological processes.


  • amruta @

    This is very interesting blog. Every day my routine is same. Now i have some changes in my daily routine. This article inspires me to do changes. Thanks a lot.

  • Renee

    largely, for me the thing about routines is partly down to ritual. Twyla Tharpe talks about the role of ritual in her book about the artist’s daily life. No mater what area you create in, we all face blank white space, into which we must create …. something. Rituals help give us momentum (if not courage) to carry us through that blank nothingness.

  • Renee

    Hit enter too soon … Ie, they help to make us productive. Changing things up, will often bring in new divergent ideas which you can explore later when it is time to create. I think it is actually best to have a mixture of the two things, routines that drive productivity, plus a good bit of scratching in the dirt to drive inspiration.

  • Cat

    Yeah, there is a very strong element of routine to it. You have to turn up and do the thing.

  • Kelen Conley
  • Andreas Björkman

    mm… my trigger would be putting on headwear (today it’s a fedora and headphones, yesterday it was headphones and a beanie (the specific headwear doesn’t matter as much as it being headwear)) and getting my coffee, those are the two single most important parts of my routine.

  • Royan Kamyar, MD/MBA

    App for creating Routines and optimizing them:


  • El Fyre

    just take acid and skip all these steps the world has to offer on finding your creative spirit

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