How to Enter a ‘Flow State’ on Command: Peak Performance Mind Hack Explained in 7 Minutes

You can be for­giv­en for think­ing the con­cept of “flow” was cooked up and pop­u­lar­ized by yoga teach­ers. That word gets a lot of play when one is mov­ing from Down­ward-Fac­ing Dog on through War­rior One and Two.

Actu­al­ly, flow — the state of  “effort­less effort” — was coined by Goethe, from the Ger­man “rausch”, a dizzy­ing sort of ecsta­sy.

Friedrich Niet­zsche and psy­chol­o­gist William James both con­sid­ered the flow state in depth, but social the­o­rist Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi, author of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Flow and the Psy­chol­o­gy of Dis­cov­ery and Inven­tion, is the true giant in the field. Here’s one of his def­i­n­i­tions of flow:

Being com­plete­ly involved in an activ­i­ty for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, move­ment, and thought fol­lows inevitably from the pre­vi­ous one, like play­ing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

Author Steven Kotler, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Flow Research Col­lec­tive, not only seems to spend a lot of time think­ing about flow, as a lead­ing expert on human per­for­mance, he inhab­its the state on a fair­ly reg­u­lar basis, too.

Chalk it up to good luck?

Good genes? (Some researchers, includ­ing retired NIH geneti­cist Dean Hamer and psy­chol­o­gist C. Robert Cloninger, think genet­ics play a part…)

As Kotler points out above, any­one can hedge their bets by clear­ing away dis­trac­tions — all the usu­al bad­dies that inter­fere with sleep, per­for­mance, or pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.

It’s also impor­tant to know thy­self. Kotler’s an ear­ly bird, who gets crackin’ well before sun­rise:

I don’t just open my eyes at 4:00 AM, I try to go from bed to desk before my brain even kicks out of its Alpha wave state. I don’t check any emails. I turn every­thing off at the end of the day includ­ing unplug­ging my phones and all that stuff so that the next morn­ing there’s nobody jump­ing into my inbox or assault­ing me emo­tion­al­ly with some­thing, you know what I mean?… I real­ly pro­tect that ear­ly morn­ing time.

By con­trast, his night owl wife doesn’t start clear­ing the cob­webs ’til ear­ly evening.

In the above video for Big Think, Kotler notes that 22 flow trig­gers have been dis­cov­ered, pre-con­di­tions that keep atten­tion focused in the present moment.

His web­site lists many of those trig­gers:

  • Com­plete Con­cen­tra­tion in the Present Moment
  • Imme­di­ate Feed­back
  • Clear Goals
  • The Chal­lenge-Skills Ratio (ie: the chal­lenge should seem slight­ly out of reach
  • High con­se­quences 
  • Deep Embod­i­ment 
  • Rich Envi­ron­ment 
  • Cre­ativ­i­ty (specif­i­cal­ly, pat­tern recog­ni­tion, or the link­ing togeth­er of new ideas)

Kotler also shares Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na psy­chol­o­gist Kei­th Sawyer’s trig­ger list for groups hop­ing to flow like a well-oiled machine:

  • Shared Goals
  • Close Lis­ten­ing 
  • “Yes And” (addi­tive, rather than com­bat­ive con­ver­sa­tions)
  • Com­plete Con­cen­tra­tion (total focus in the right here, right now)
  • A sense of con­trol (each mem­ber of the group feels in con­trol, but still
  • Blend­ing Egos (each per­son can sub­merge their ego needs into the group’s)
  • Equal Par­tic­i­pa­tion (skills lev­els are rough­ly equal every­one is involved)
  • Famil­iar­i­ty (peo­ple know one anoth­er and under­stand their tics and ten­den­cies)
  • Con­stant Com­mu­ni­ca­tion (a group ver­sion of imme­di­ate feed­back)
  • Shared, Group Risk

One might think peo­ple in the flow state would be float­ing around with an expres­sion of ecsta­t­ic bliss on their faces. Not so, accord­ing to Kotler. Rather, they tend to frown slight­ly. Good news for any­one with rest­ing bitch face!

(We’ll thank you to refer to it as rest­ing flow state face from here on out.)

Relat­ed Con­tent

Cre­ativ­i­ty, Not Mon­ey, is the Key to Hap­pi­ness: Dis­cov­er Psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s The­o­ry of “Flow”

David Lynch Explains How Sim­ple Dai­ly Habits Enhance His Cre­ativ­i­ty

“The Phi­los­o­phy of “Flow”: A Brief Intro­duc­tion to Tao­ism

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

The Psychology of Messiness & Creativity: Study Shows How a Messy Desk and Creative Work Go Hand in Hand

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

You may have come into con­tact at some point with Tracey Emin’s My Bed, an art instal­la­tion that repro­duces her pri­vate space dur­ing a time when she spent four days as a shut-in in 1998, “heart­bro­ken”: the bed’s unmade, the bed­side strewn with cig­a­rettes, moc­casins, a bot­tle of booze, food, and “what appears to be a six­teen year old con­dom”…. If you were savvy enough to be Tracey Emin in 1998—and none of us were—you would have sold that messy room for over four mil­lion dol­lars last year at a Christie’s auc­tion. I doubt anoth­er buy­er of that cal­iber will come along for a knock-off, but this doesn’t mean the mess­es we make while slob­bing around our own homes are with­out their own, intan­gi­ble, val­ue.

Those mess­es, in fact, may be seedbeds of cre­ativ­i­ty, con­firm­ing a cliché as per­sis­tent as the one about doc­tors’ hand­writ­ing, and per­haps as accu­rate. It seems a messy desk, room, or stu­dio may gen­uine­ly be a mark of genius at work. Albert Ein­stein for exam­ple, writes Elite Dai­ly, had a desk that “looked like a spite­ful ex-girl­friend had a mis­sion to destroy his work­space.” Ein­stein respond­ed to crit­i­cism of his work habits by ask­ing, “If a clut­tered desk is a sign of a clut­tered mind, then what are we to think of an emp­ty desk?”

Mark Twain also had a messy desk, “per­haps even more clut­tered than that of Albert Ein­stein.” To find out whether the messi­ness trait’s rela­tion to cre­ativ­i­ty is sim­ply an “urban leg­end” or not, Kath­leen Vohs (a researcher at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta’s Carl­son School of Man­age­ment) and her col­leagues con­duct­ed a series of exper­i­ments in both tidy and unruly spaces with 188 adults giv­en tasks to choose from.

Vohs describes her find­ings in the New York Times, con­clud­ing that messi­ness and cre­ativ­i­ty are at least very strong­ly cor­re­lat­ed, and that “while clean­ing up cer­tain­ly has its ben­e­fits, clean spaces might be too con­ven­tion­al to let inspi­ra­tion flow.” But there are trade-offs. Read about them in Vohs’ paper—“Phys­i­cal Order Pro­duces Healthy Choic­es, Gen­eros­i­ty, and Con­ven­tion­al­i­ty, Where­as Dis­or­der Pro­duces Cre­ativ­i­ty.” And just above, see Vohs’ co-author Joe Red­den, Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Mar­ket­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Minnesota’s Carl­son School of Man­age­ment, dis­cuss the team’s fas­ci­nat­ing results. If con­duct­ing such an exper­i­ment on your­self, it might be best to do so in a space that’s all your own, though, like the rest of us, you’re too late to cre­ative­ly turn the mess you make into lucra­tive con­cep­tu­al art.

Below, as a bonus, you can watch Tracey Emin talk about the dark emo­tion­al place from which My Bed emerged.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Albert Ein­stein Tells His Son The Key to Learn­ing & Hap­pi­ness is Los­ing Your­self in Cre­ativ­i­ty (or “Find­ing Flow”)

Why You Do Your Best Think­ing In The Show­er: Cre­ativ­i­ty & the “Incu­ba­tion Peri­od”

John Cleese’s Phi­los­o­phy of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Cre­at­ing Oases for Child­like Play

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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How to Manage Your Time More Effectively: The Science of Applying Computer Algorithms to Our Everyday Lives

Who among us has­n’t wished to be as effi­cient as a com­put­er? While com­put­ers seem to do every­thing at once, we either flit or plod from task to task, often get­ting side­tracked or even lost. At this point most have relin­quished the dream of true “mul­ti­task­ing,” which turns out to lie not only beyond the reach of humans but, tech­ni­cal­ly speak­ing, beyond the reach of com­put­ers as well. “Done right, com­put­ers move so flu­id­ly between their var­i­ous respon­si­bil­i­ties, they give the illu­sion of doing every­thing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly,” says the nar­ra­tor of the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above. But in real­i­ty, even they do one thing at a time; what, then, can we humans learn from how they’re pro­grammed to pri­or­i­tize and switch between their many tasks?

A com­put­er oper­at­ing sys­tem has an ele­ment called a “sched­uler,” which “tells the CPU how long to work on each task before switch­ing.” Sched­ulers work quite well these days, but “even com­put­ers get over­whelmed some­times.” This used to hap­pen to the open-source oper­at­ing sys­tem Lin­ux, which “would rank every sin­gle one of its tasks in order of impor­tance, and some­times spent more time rank­ing tasks than doing them. The pro­gram­mers’ coun­ter­in­tu­itive solu­tion was to replace this full rank­ing with a lim­it­ed num­ber of pri­or­i­ty ‘buck­ets,’ ” replac­ing a pre­cise pri­or­i­ty order­ing with a broad­er low-medi­um-high kind of group­ing. This turned out to be a great improve­ment: “The sys­tem was less pre­cise about what to do next, but more than made up for it by spend­ing more time mak­ing progress.”

The les­son for those of us who habit­u­al­ly list and pri­or­i­tize our tasks is obvi­ous: “All the time you spend pri­or­i­tiz­ing your work is time you aren’t spend­ing doing it,” and “giv­ing up on doing things in the per­fect order may be the key to get­ting them done.” In the case of e‑mail, bane of many a 21st-cen­tu­ry exis­tence, “Insist­ing on always doing the very most impor­tant thing first could lead to a melt­down. Wak­ing up to an inbox three times fuller than nor­mal could take nine times longer to clear.

You’d be bet­ter off reply­ing in chrono­log­i­cal order, or even at ran­dom.” Robert Pir­sig mem­o­rably artic­u­lat­ed this in Zen and the Art of Motor­cy­cle Main­te­nance, whose main char­ac­ter offers advice to his son frus­trat­ed by the task of writ­ing a let­ter home from their road trip:

I tell him get­ting stuck is the com­mon­est trou­ble of all. Usu­al­ly, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re try­ing to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is sep­a­rate out the things and do them one at a time. You’re try­ing to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard. So sep­a­rate them out. Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then lat­er we’ll fig­ure out the right order.

We don’t write many let­ters home these days, of course, and even e‑mail may no longer pose the direst threat to our time man­age­ment. More of us blame our lack of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty on the inter­rup­tions of instant mes­sag­ing in all its forms, from tex­ting to social media, anoth­er prob­lem with an equiv­a­lent in com­put­ing. That a com­put­er can be inter­rupt­ed by any num­ber of the process­es it runs neces­si­tat­ed the devel­op­ment of a pro­ce­dure called “inter­rupt coa­lesc­ing,” accord­ing to which, “rather than deal­ing with things as they come up,” the sys­tem “groups these inter­rup­tions togeth­er based on how long they can afford to wait.” Even if we can’t elim­i­nate inter­rup­tions in our lives, we can group them: “If no noti­fi­ca­tion or e‑mail requires a response more urgent­ly than once an hour, say, then that’s exact­ly how often you should check them — no more.”

This TED-Ed les­son comes adapt­ed from Bri­an Chris­t­ian and Tom Grif­fiths’ book Algo­rithms to Live By: The Com­put­er Sci­ence of Human Deci­sions. If you’d like to hear about more of the ways in which they apply com­put­ers’ meth­ods of deci­sion mak­ing to areas of human life — home-buy­ing, gam­bling, dat­ing — you can also watch their talk at Google. We also have plen­ty of sup­ple­men­tary time man­age­ment-relat­ed mate­r­i­al here in the Open Cul­ture archives, on every­thing from the neu­ro­science of pro­cras­ti­na­tion to the dai­ly rou­tines of philoso­phers, writ­ers and oth­er cre­ative peo­ple to tips for read­ing more books per year to the pres­i­den­tial­ly-approved “Eisen­how­er Matrix.” By all means, click on all these links; just don’t over­think the order in which to do it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Use the “Eisen­how­er Matrix” to Man­age Your Time & Increase Your Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty: The Sys­tem Designed by the 34th Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States

The Neu­ro­science & Psy­chol­o­gy of Pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and How to Over­come It

The Dai­ly Rou­tines of Famous Cre­ative Peo­ple, Pre­sent­ed in an Inter­ac­tive Info­graph­ic

The Dai­ly Habits of High­ly Pro­duc­tive Philoso­phers: Niet­zsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

The Dai­ly Habits of Famous Writ­ers: Franz Kaf­ka, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Stephen King & More

7 Tips for Read­ing More Books in a Year

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

The “Feynman Technique” for Studying Effectively: An Animated Primer

After win­ning the Nobel Prize, physi­cist Max Planck “went around Ger­many giv­ing the same stan­dard lec­ture on the new quan­tum mechan­ics. Over time, his chauf­feur mem­o­rized the lec­ture and said, ‘Would you mind, Pro­fes­sor Planck, because it’s so bor­ing to stay in our rou­tine, if I gave the lec­ture in Munich and you just sat in front wear­ing my chauffeur’s hat?’ Planck said, ‘Why not?’ And the chauf­feur got up and gave this long lec­ture on quan­tum mechan­ics. After which a physics pro­fes­sor stood up and asked a per­fect­ly ghast­ly ques­tion. The speak­er said, ‘Well, I’m sur­prised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an ele­men­tary ques­tion. I’m going to ask my chauf­feur to reply.’ ”

That this intel­lec­tu­al switcheroo nev­er actu­al­ly hap­pened did­n’t stop Char­lie Munger from using it as an open­er for a com­mence­ment speech to USC’s Law School. But when a suc­cess­ful bil­lion­aire investor finds val­ue even in an admit­ted­ly “apoc­ryphal sto­ry,” most of us will find val­ue in it as well. It illus­trates, accord­ing to the Free­dom in Thought video above, the dif­fer­ence between “two kinds of knowl­edge: the deep knowl­edge that Max had, and the shal­low knowl­edge that the chauf­feur had.” Both forms of knowl­edge have their advan­tages, espe­cial­ly since none of us have life­time enough to under­stand every­thing deeply. But we get in trou­ble when we can’t tell them apart: “We risk fool­ing our­selves into think­ing we actu­al­ly under­stand or know some­thing when we don’t. Even worse, we risk tak­ing action on mis­in­for­ma­tion or mis­un­der­stand­ing.”

Even if you put lit­tle stock into a made-up anec­dote about one Nobel-win­ning physi­cist, sure­ly you’ll believe the doc­u­ment­ed words of anoth­er. Richard Feyn­man once artic­u­lat­ed a first prin­ci­ple of know­ing as fol­lows: “You must not fool your­self, and you are the eas­i­est per­son to fool.” This prin­ci­ple under­lies a prac­ti­cal process of learn­ing that con­sists of four steps. First, “explain the top­ic out loud to a peer who is unfa­mil­iar with the top­ic. Meet them at their lev­el of under­stand­ing and use the sim­plest lan­guage you can.” Sec­ond, “iden­ti­fy any gaps in your own under­stand­ing, or points where you feel that you can’t explain an idea sim­ply.” Third, “go back to the source mate­r­i­al and study up on your weak points until you can use sim­ple lan­guage to explain it.” Final­ly, “repeat the three steps above until you’ve mas­tered the top­ic.”

We’ve fea­tured the so-called “Feyn­man tech­nique” once or twice before here on Open Cul­ture, but its empha­sis on sim­plic­i­ty and con­ci­sion always bears repeat­ing — in, of course, as sim­ple and con­cise a man­ner as pos­si­ble each time. Its ori­gins lie in not just Feny­man’s first prin­ci­ple of knowl­edge but his intel­lec­tu­al habits. This video’s nar­ra­tor cites James Gle­ick­’s biog­ra­phy Genius, which tells of how “Richard would cre­ate a jour­nal for the things he did not know. His dis­ci­pline in chal­leng­ing his own under­stand­ing made him a genius and a bril­liant sci­en­tist.” Like all of us, Feyn­man was igno­rant all his life of vast­ly more sub­jects than he had mas­tered. But unlike many of us, his desire to know burned so furi­ous­ly that it pro­pelled him into per­pet­u­al con­fronta­tion with his own igno­rance. We can’t learn what we want to know, after all, unless we acknowl­edge how much we don’t know.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Richard Feynman’s “Note­book Tech­nique” Will Help You Learn Any Subject–at School, at Work, or in Life

Richard Feynman’s Tech­nique for Learn­ing Some­thing New: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics, The Most Pop­u­lar Physics Book Ever Writ­ten, Is Now Com­plete­ly Online

The Cor­nell Note-Tak­ing Sys­tem: Learn the Method Stu­dents Have Used to Enhance Their Learn­ing Since the 1940s

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Use the “Eisenhower Matrix” to Manage Your Time & Increase Your Productivity: The System Designed by the 34th President of the United States

“What is impor­tant is sel­dom urgent,” said Dwight D. Eisen­how­er, “and what is urgent is sel­dom impor­tant.” Or at least many believe Eisen­how­er said that, even if he might have been quot­ing some­one else. Whether or not the 34th Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca ever spoke those exact words, he must have had a high­ly effec­tive method of deal­ing with life’s tasks. Dur­ing Eisen­how­er’s two terms in office, writes Atom­ic Habits author James Clear, “he launched pro­grams that direct­ly led to the devel­op­ment of the Inter­state High­way Sys­tem in the Unit­ed States, the launch of the inter­net (DARPA), the explo­ration of space (NASA), and the peace­ful use of alter­na­tive ener­gy sources (Atom­ic Ener­gy Act).”

Eisen­how­er accom­plished all that after “plan­ning and exe­cut­ing inva­sions of North Africa, France, and Ger­many” as Supreme Com­man­der of the Allied Forces in Europe dur­ing World War II” (and while being the most avid golfer ever to reside in the White House).

Though we may nev­er boast such a range of accom­plish­ments our­selves, we can still inject a shot of Eisen­how­er­ian pro­duc­tiv­i­ty into our lives with the “Eisen­how­er Matrix” — or, in the plain­er phras­ing “Ike” might have pre­ferred, the “Eisen­how­er Box.”

Its ver­ti­cal axis of impor­tance and hor­i­zon­tal axis of urgency cre­ate four box­es for cat­e­go­riz­ing tasks. Clear explains these cat­e­gories as fol­lows:

  • Urgent and impor­tant (tasks you will do imme­di­ate­ly)
  • Impor­tant, but not urgent (tasks you will sched­ule to do lat­er)
  • Urgent, but not impor­tant (tasks you will del­e­gate to some­one else)
  • Nei­ther urgent nor impor­tant (tasks that you will elim­i­nate)

Impor­tant tasks, writes Life­hack­er’s Thorin Klosows­ki, “are things that con­tribute to our long-term mis­sion, val­ues, and goals,” pur­suits that put us into a “respon­sive mode, which helps us remain calm, ratio­nal, and open to new oppor­tu­ni­ties.” At Busi­ness Insid­er, Drake Baer pro­vides exam­ples of all four cat­e­gories of tasks. The urgent and impor­tant include “attend­ing to a cry­ing baby, tack­ling a cri­sis at work, and mail­ing your rent check.” The impor­tant but not urgent include “sav­ing for the future, get­ting enough exer­cise, sleep­ing your sev­en to nine hours a night.” The urgent but not impor­tant include “book­ing a flight, shar­ing an arti­cle, answer­ing a phone call.” The nei­ther urgent nor impor­tant include “watch­ing Game of Thrones, check­ing your Face­book, eat­ing cook­ies.”

Eisen­how­er had it easy, you may say: he lived before binge-watch­ing, before social media, and before cook­ies were quite so addic­tive. Hence the greater impor­tance today of a time-man­age­ment sys­tem with the stark clar­i­ty of the Eisen­how­er Matrix, and not just for pres­i­dents. (Barack Oba­ma, Baer points out, made time for din­ner with the fam­i­ly when he was in the White House as well as an hour’s work­out every evening, both impor­tant but not urgent tasks.) So as not to lose sight of what’s impor­tant, Clear rec­om­mends keep­ing in mind two ques­tions: “What am I work­ing toward?” and “What are the core val­ues that dri­ve my life?” And though Eisen­how­er did­n’t have to deal with nui­sances like app noti­fi­ca­tions, he also did­n’t get to see the day when a pro­duc­tiv­i­ty app (whose expla­na­tion of the Eisen­how­er Matrix appears at the top of the post) has his name on it.

via James Clear, author of Atom­ic Habits

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Dai­ly Rou­tines of Famous Cre­ative Peo­ple, Pre­sent­ed in an Inter­ac­tive Info­graph­ic

The Dai­ly Habits of High­ly Pro­duc­tive Philoso­phers: Niet­zsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

The Dai­ly Habits of Famous Writ­ers: Franz Kaf­ka, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Stephen King & More

Richard Feynman’s “Note­book Tech­nique” Will Help You Learn Any Subject–at School, at Work, or in Life

Eisen­how­er Answers Amer­i­ca: The First Polit­i­cal Adver­tise­ments on Amer­i­can TV (1952)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People, Presented in an Interactive Infographic

Click the image above to access the inter­ac­tive info­graph­ic.
The dai­ly life of great authors, artists and philoso­phers has long been the sub­ject of fas­ci­na­tion among those who look upon their work in awe. After all, life can often feel like, to quote Elbert Hub­bard, “one damned thing after anoth­er” — a con­stant mud­dle of oblig­a­tions and respon­si­bil­i­ties inter­spersed with moments of fleet­ing plea­sure, wrapped in gnaw­ing low-lev­el exis­ten­tial pan­ic. (Or, at least, it does to me.) Yet some peo­ple man­age to tran­scend this per­pet­u­al bar­rage of office meet­ings, com­muter traf­fic and the unholy allure of real­i­ty TV to cre­ate bril­liant work. It’s easy to think that the key to their suc­cess is how they struc­ture their day.

Mason Currey’s blog-turned-book Dai­ly Rit­u­als describes the worka­day life of great minds from W.H. Auden to Immanuel Kant, from Flan­nery O’Connor to Franz Kaf­ka. The one thing that Currey’s project under­lines is that there is no mag­ic bul­let. The dai­ly rou­tines are as var­ied as the peo­ple who fol­low them– though long walks, a ridicu­lous­ly ear­ly wake up time and a stiff drink are com­mon to many.

One school of thought for cre­at­ing is summed up by Gus­tave Flaubert’s max­im, “Be reg­u­lar and order­ly in your life, so that you may be vio­lent and orig­i­nal in your work.” Haru­ki Muraka­mi has a famous­ly rigid rou­tine that involves get­ting up at 4am and writ­ing for nine hours straight, fol­lowed by a dai­ly 10km run. “The rep­e­ti­tion itself becomes the impor­tant thing; it’s a form of mes­merism. I mes­mer­ize myself to reach a deep­er state of mind. But to hold to such rep­e­ti­tion for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of men­tal and phys­i­cal strength. In that sense, writ­ing a long nov­el is like sur­vival train­ing. Phys­i­cal strength is as nec­es­sary as artis­tic sen­si­tiv­i­ty.” He admits that his sched­ule allows lit­tle room for a social life.

Then there’s the fan­tas­ti­cal­ly pro­lif­ic Bel­gian author George Simenon, who some­how man­aged to crank out 425 books over the course of his career. He would go for weeks with­out writ­ing, fol­lowed by short bursts of fren­zied activ­i­ty. He would also wear the same out­fit every­day while work­ing on his nov­el, reg­u­lar­ly take tran­quil­iz­ers and some­how find the time to have sex with up to four dif­fer­ent women a day.

Most writ­ers fall some­where in between. Toni Mor­ri­son, for instance, has a rou­tine that that seems far more relat­able than the super­man sched­ules of Muraka­mi or Sime­on. Since she jug­gled rais­ing two chil­dren and a full time job as an edi­tor at Ran­dom House, Mor­ri­son sim­ply wrote when she could. “I am not able to write reg­u­lar­ly,” she once told The Paris Review. “I have nev­er been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hur­ried­ly, or spend a lot of week­end and predawn time.”

Above is a way cool info­graph­ic of the dai­ly rou­tines of 26 dif­fer­ent cre­ators, cre­at­ed by And if you want to see an inter­ac­tive ver­sion of the same graph­ic but with rollover bits of triv­ia, just click here. You’ll learn that Voltaire slept only 4 hours a day and worked con­stant­ly. Vic­tor Hugo pre­ferred to take a morn­ing ice bath on his roof. And Maya Angelou pre­ferred to work in an anony­mous hotel room.

Note: The info­graph­ic above is very light on women. For any­one inter­est­ed in the dai­ly habits of female cre­ators, see this post and Mason Cur­rey’s relat­ed book: The Dai­ly Rit­u­als of 143 Famous Female Cre­ators.

An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in Jan­u­ary 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Dai­ly Habits of High­ly Pro­duc­tive Philoso­phers: Niet­zsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

Ursu­la K. Le Guin’s Dai­ly Rou­tine: The Dis­ci­pline That Fueled Her Imag­i­na­tion

The Dai­ly Habits of Famous Writ­ers: Franz Kaf­ka, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Stephen King & More

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of bad­gers and even more pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

Deliberate Practice: A Mindful & Methodical Way to Master Any Skill

Each and every day we eat, we sleep, we read, we brush our teeth. So why haven’t we all become world-class mas­ters of eat­ing, sleep­ing, read­ing, and teeth-brush­ing? Most of us, if we’re hon­est with our­selves, plateaued on those par­tic­u­lar skills decades ago, despite nev­er hav­ing missed our dai­ly prac­tice ses­sions. This should tell us some­thing impor­tant about the dif­fer­ence between prac­tic­ing an action and sim­ply doing it a lot, a dis­tinc­tion at the heart of the con­cept of “delib­er­ate prac­tice.” As the Sprouts video above explains it, delib­er­ate prac­tice “is a mind­ful and high­ly struc­tured form of learn­ing by doing,” a “process of con­tin­ued exper­i­men­ta­tion to first achieve mas­tery and even­tu­al­ly full auto­matic­i­ty of a spe­cif­ic skill.”

Psy­chol­o­gist Anders Eric­s­son, the sin­gle fig­ure most close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with delib­er­ate prac­tice, draws a dis­tinc­tion with what he calls naive prac­tice: “Naive prac­tice is peo­ple who just play games,” and in so doing “just accu­mu­late more expe­ri­ence.” But in delib­er­ate prac­tice, “you actu­al­ly pin­point some­thing you want to change. And once you have that spe­cif­ic goal of chang­ing it, you will now engage in a prac­tice activ­i­ty that has a pur­pose of chang­ing that.”

As a post on delib­er­ate prac­tice at Far­nam Street puts it, “great per­form­ers decon­struct ele­ments of what they do into chunks they can prac­tice. They get bet­ter at that aspect and move on to the next,” often under the guid­ance of a teacher who can more clear­ly see their strengths and weak­ness­es in action.

“Most of the time we’re prac­tic­ing we’re real­ly doing activ­i­ties in our com­fort zone,” says the Far­nam Street post. “This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activ­i­ties eas­i­ly” — just as eas­i­ly, per­haps, as we eat, sleep, read, and brush our teeth. But we also fail to improve when we oper­ate at the oth­er end of the spec­trum, in the “pan­ic zone” that “leaves us par­a­lyzed as the activ­i­ties are too dif­fi­cult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to oper­ate in the learn­ing zone, which are those activ­i­ties that are just out of reach.” As in every oth­er area of life, what chal­lenges us too much frus­trates us and what chal­lenges us too lit­tle bores us; only at just the right bal­ance do we ben­e­fit.

But strik­ing that bal­ance presents chal­lenges of its own, chal­lenges that have ensured a read­er­ship for writ­ings on the sub­ject of how best to engage in delib­er­ate prac­tice by Eric­s­son as well as many oth­ers (such as writer-entre­pre­neur James Clear, whose begin­ner’s guide to delib­er­ate prac­tice you can read online here). The video above on Eric­sson’s book Peak: How to Mas­ter Almost Any­thing explains his view of the goal of delib­er­ate prac­tice as to devel­op the kind of library of “men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tions” that mas­ters of every dis­ci­pline — golfers, doc­tors, gui­tarists, come­di­ans, nov­el­ists — use to approach every sit­u­a­tion that might arise. Devel­op­ing those men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tions requires spe­cif­ic goals, intense peri­ods of prac­tice, imme­di­ate feed­back dur­ing that prac­tice, and above all, fre­quent dis­com­fort. Every­one enjoys mas­tery once they attain it, but if you find your­self hav­ing too much fun on the way, con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty that you’re not prac­tic­ing delib­er­ate­ly enough.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Richard Feynman’s “Note­book Tech­nique” Will Help You Learn Any Subject–at School, at Work, or in Life

The Cor­nell Note-Tak­ing Sys­tem: Learn the Method Stu­dents Have Used to Enhance Their Learn­ing Since the 1940s

Wyn­ton Marsalis Gives 12 Tips on How to Prac­tice: For Musi­cians, Ath­letes, or Any­one Who Wants to Learn Some­thing New

How to Prac­tice Effec­tive­ly: Lessons from Neu­ro­science Can Help Us Mas­ter Skills in Music, Sports & Beyond

What’s a Sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-Proven Way to Improve Your Abil­i­ty to Learn? Get Out and Exer­cise

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

The Daily Rituals of 143 Famous Female Creators: Octavia Butler, Edith Wharton, Coco Chanel & More

Cer­tain kinds of con­tent have flow­ered on the inter­net that we can’t seem to get enough of, and if you fre­quent Open Cul­ture, you may well have a weak­ness for one kind in par­tic­u­lar: the dai­ly sched­ules of notable cre­ators. When we know and respect some­one’s work, we can’t help but won­der how they spend their finite time on this Earth in such a way that allows them to cre­ate that work in the first place. Mason Cur­rey, cre­ator of the blog Dai­ly Rit­u­als, knows this well: not only did all his post­ing about “how writ­ers, artists, and oth­er inter­est­ing peo­ple orga­nize their days” lead to a book, Dai­ly Rit­u­als: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspi­ra­tion, and Get to Work, it just last month pro­duced a sequel, Dai­ly Rit­u­als: Women at Work.

“In the first Dai­ly Rit­u­als, I fea­tured far more men than women,” writes Cur­rey. “In this sec­ond vol­ume, I cor­rect the imbal­ance with pro­files of the day-to-day work­ing lives of 143 women writ­ers, artists, and per­form­ers,” includ­ing Octavia But­ler, “who wrote every day no mat­ter what,” Isak Dine­sen, “who sub­sist­ed on oys­ters and cham­pagne but also amphet­a­mines, which gave her the over­drive she required, Martha Gra­ham, “who eschewed social­iz­ing in favor of long hours alone in her stu­dio,” and Lil­lian Hell­man, “who chain-smoked three packs of cig­a­rettes and drank twen­ty cups of cof­fee a day (after milk­ing the cow and clean­ing the barn on her Hard­scrab­ble Farm).”

You can read a few excerpts of the book at the pub­lish­er’s web site. Coco Chanel, we learn, usu­al­ly arrived late to the office but “stayed until late in the evening, com­pelling her employ­ees to hang around with her even after work had ceased, pour­ing wine and talk­ing non­stop, avoid­ing for as long as pos­si­ble the return to her room at the Ritz and to the bore­dom and lone­li­ness that await­ed her there.” Edith Whar­ton, by con­trast, “always worked in the morn­ing, and house­guests who stayed at the Mount — the 113-acre estate in Lenox, Mass­a­chu­setts, where Whar­ton penned sev­er­al nov­els, includ­ing The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome — were expect­ed to enter­tain them­selves until 11:00 a.m. or noon, when their host­ess would emerge from her pri­vate quar­ters, ready to go for a walk or work in the gar­den.”

The oth­er sub­jects of Dai­ly Rit­u­als: Women at Work, a full list of which you can read here, include every­one from Maya Angelou to Diane Arbus, Joan Did­ion to Mar­lene Diet­rich, Dorothy Park­er to Emi­ly Post, and Agnès Var­da to Alice Walk­er. Not only do no two of these cre­ators have the same rou­tines, their strate­gies for how best to use their time often con­flict. “Screw inspi­ra­tion,” said Octavia But­ler, but her col­league in writ­ing Zadie Smith takes quite a dif­fer­ent tack: “I think you need to feel an urgency about the acts,” Cur­rey quotes her as say­ing in an inter­view, “oth­er­wise when you read it, you feel no urgency either. So, I don’t write unless I real­ly feel I need to.” For all tips as you might pick up from these 143 women, as well as from the cre­ators of both sex­es in the pre­vi­ous book, the most impor­tant one might be a meta-tip: devel­op the set of dai­ly rit­u­als that suits your per­son­al­i­ty and no one else’s.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ursu­la K. Le Guin’s Dai­ly Rou­tine: The Dis­ci­pline That Fueled Her Imag­i­na­tion

The Dai­ly Habits of Famous Writ­ers: Franz Kaf­ka, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Stephen King & More

The Dai­ly Rou­tines of Famous Cre­ative Peo­ple, Pre­sent­ed in an Inter­ac­tive Info­graph­ic

74 Essen­tial Books for Your Per­son­al Library: A List Curat­ed by Female Cre­atives

A Space of Their Own, a New Online Data­base, Will Fea­ture Works by 600+ Over­looked Female Artists from the 15th-19th Cen­turies

The Dai­ly Habits of High­ly Pro­duc­tive Philoso­phers: Niet­zsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.