What we can learn from the routines of the greatest artists.

For years, my daily (morning) routine was as follows: I woke up, walked downstairs, pressed the “on” button of my coffee maker and while it was grinding the Brazilian coffee beans, I grabbed my pack of Gauloises red, lit a cigarette butt and turned on my laptop. Then I grabbed my delicious freshly brewed coffee, sat down at the laptop and scoured the net for news on nu.nl. parool.nl etc. That was my recharging moment, it calmed me down and at the same time energized me to start the day nicely.

So for years this was my morning routine. Until a year ago. I turned out to have a thyroid disorder. From that day on, I had to take my medication every morning on an empty stomach. For the rest of my life. Well, no problem right? I thought. Butrrr, translated to my morning ritual: sober, so means: take pill, wait half an hour, then coffee. Drama. Everything confused.

Meanwhile, after some fiddling with my habits (I quit smoking for about 4 years, by the way!), I have a new routine. My strip of thyroid medication is on my nightstand, along with a bottle of water. I wake up and the first thing I do is take myn medication. Get up, get dressed, dog on leash and walk. Upon returning home, it is finally time for my renewed moment of coffee, laptop on, news reading. I don’t think about it anymore.

Why was I so confused now, I thought to myself later. What does such a ritual or routine get me?

I had a client the other day who had quite a few balls to hold high. I asked her: how do you start your day, tell me? Her day appeared to start like a whirlwind. All at once, complete chaos. Thus, she started the day very restless and it affected the rest of her day.

What do routines and rituals actually provide us with?

Daily routines appear to have tremendous benefits for your physical and mental health. Many use them to free up time for healthy eating and exercise – two important but difficult to maintain habits. Moreover, routines have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety.

Routines and rituals can work in combination to systematize your daily tasks and help you move smoothly from one to the other.

There are 2 ways in which these benefits come about. The first is preventing decision fatigue. Studies have shown that as the day progresses, our brains become tired and less able to make good decisions. With a routine, many decisions are made for you, saving your brain for later in the day.

Routines also reduce your cognitive load, or the mental effort required to complete a process. By repeating the same actions every day, you learn how to perform daily tasks without thinking about them too much. This frees up space in your mind to learn new tasks or focus more on difficult ones.

Rituals are useful for changing mindsets when you begin a new task. For example, if you always drink a cup of coffee before going to work, you will slowly associate a meaning (it’s time to work) with a routine (your morning coffee). Eventually, your morning cup of coffee will put your mind in the mood to get things done. Rituals are therefore very useful if you find that you have trouble concentrating. Using a ritual trains your brain to help you approach your work – or any task you are struggling with – in a more productive state of mind.

In addition to preventing decision fatigue and reducing cognitive load, routines and rituals offer other benefits. They help bring structure and stability to our daily lives. By following a consistent routine, we create a sense of control and predictability. This can reassure us and reduce stress because we know what to expect and how to manage our time.

Routines and rituals also serve as anchors in our busy lives. In a world full of distractions and constant change, they are a familiar and unifying element. They give us a sense of identity and belonging because they are often linked to our personal values and goals. By regularly incorporating healthy habits and self-care rituals into our daily routine, we show ourselves loving care and prioritize our own health and well-being.

Moreover, routines and rituals can help us become more efficient. By automating tasks and performing them routinely, we can save valuable time and energy. This leaves more room for creativity, reflection and personal growth. Routines can also serve as triggers to encourage other desired behaviors. For example, by grabbing a book right after brushing our teeth, we encourage ourselves to read daily and expand our knowledge.

Finally, routines and rituals provide a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. When we systematize and check off our daily tasks, we feel productive and successful. This motivates us to go on and shape our lives in a purposeful and fulfilling way.

And now…the artists

Yes, you may have been thinking, where did that title come from? Well, let me tell you that I have fully immersed myself in everything related to routines and rituals. During my search, I stumbled upon a great little book called “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. This book describes as many as 200 routines of the greatest icons of the past 400 years: novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists and mathematicians. From counting 60 coffee beans to obsessively showering, they all had their peculiar but sometimes simple habits. Just like you and me (maybe not the excessive wine, pills and meals, but who knows?). These routines contributed to the success and productivity of these icons, and allowed them to practice their art in a state of mental calm.

I can tell you that my client has since built some great routines into her day and is now more resilient to the stress she previously experienced. It is inspiring to see how small changes in our daily routines can make a big difference in our well-being.

What about me? No longer loyal to Brazilian coffee, I have my heart set on Guatemalan beans! (Maybe not 60 coffee beans, but that’s okay.)

Here is a summary of 2 of the artists, enjoy!

Francis Bacon

Bacon (1909-1992) was an Irish-born British painter whose abstract portraits of grotesque, distorted figures made him one of the most distinctive and controversial artists of the postwar era.

To the outsider, Bacon seemed to thrive in disorder. His studios were environments of extreme chaos, with paint smeared on the walls and a knee-high jumble of books, brushes, papers, broken furniture and other clutter piled on the floor. (Pleasant interiors stifled his creativity, he said.) And when he wasn’t painting, Bacon lived a life of hedonistic excess: he ate several rich meals a day, drank huge amounts of alcohol, took every stimulant available, and generally stayed out later and partied harder than all his contemporaries.

And yet, as biographer Michael Peppiatt has written, Bacon was “essentially a creature of habit,” with a daily schedule that changed little over the course of his career.

Painting came first. Despite his late nights, Bacon always woke up at first light and worked for several hours, usually around noon. Then followed another long afternoon and evening of partying, and Bacon did not dawdle. He would have a friend come to the studio to share a bottle of wine, or he would have a drink at a pub, followed by a long lunch at a restaurant and then more drinks at a series of private clubs. Evenings included dinner at a restaurant, a tour of the nightclubs, perhaps a visit to a casino, and often, in the early morning hours, another meal at a bistro.

At the end of these long nights, Bacon often demanded that his companions join him at home for one last drink – an attempt, it seems, to postpone his nightly battles with insomnia.

Bacon depended on pills to get to sleep, and he read and reread classic cookbooks to relax before going to bed. He still slept only a few hours a night. Nevertheless, the painter’s constitution was remarkably sturdy. His only exercise was pacing for a cloth, and his idea of dieting involved swallowing large amounts of garlic pills and avoiding egg yolks, desserts and coffee – while drinking half a dozen bottles of wine and eating two or more large restaurant meals a day. His metabolism could apparently handle this overconsumption without his mind slackening or his waistline growing. (At least, not until late in his life, when drinking finally seemed to get him). Even the occasional hangover was, in Bacon’s eyes, a blessing. “I often like to work with a hangover,” he said, “because then my mind is buzzing with energy and I can think very clearly.”

Maya Angelou

Angelou (b. 1928) is an American writer and poet best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which began in 1969 with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Angelou has never been able to write at home. “I try to keep it very beautiful at home,” she has said, “and I can’t work in a beautiful environment. It confuses me.” That is why she has always worked in hotel or motel rooms, the more anonymous the better. She described her routine in a 1983 interview:

“I usually get up around 5:30 and am ready for coffee at six, usually with my husband. He goes to work around 6:30 and I go to mine. I have a hotel room where I do my work – a small room with only a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a sink. I have a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If work goes badly, I stay until 12:30. If it goes well, I stay as long as it goes well. It’s lonely, and it’s great. I edit while I work. When I get home at two, I re-read what I wrote that day and then try to put it out of my mind. I shower, prepare dinner so that when my husband comes home, I’m not completely immersed in my work. We have a semblance of a normal life. We have a drink together and eat something. Maybe after dinner I read to him what I wrote that day. He doesn’t comment. I don’t invite anyone to comment except my editor, but it’s good to hear it out loud. Sometimes I hear the dissonances; then I try to straighten them out in the morning.”

In this way, Angelou has managed to write not only her acclaimed series of autobiographies, but also numerous poems, plays, readings, articles and television scripts. Sometimes the intensity of the work triggers strange physical reactions – her back goes out, her knees swell, and her eyelids once swelled completely shut. Still, she enjoys pushing the limits of her abilities. “I always have to be the best,” she has said. “I am definitely compulsive, I admit that. I don’t see that as a negative.”

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