Suffering from writer’s block? Take a page from the daily routines of Einstein, Asimov, Beethoven, Freud, Faulkner, Kafka, Hobbes, Descartes, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Tchaikovsky, Darwin and Dickens. Get outside for a nice, long walk.
That’s one of the many big takeaways from Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, in which Mason Currey compiles short biographies of dozens of prominent writers, thinkers and creators — Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou and Ben Franklin to name a few — with a focus on the routines that helped them harness their time and energy to get great work done.
This is a great book to have at your side because it’s divided into fascinating, bite-size chunks that you can easily wrap up during a 10-minute break. You also don’t have to read it chronologically — you can jump around to biographies about people of particular interest to you. Starting with your favorites will lead you into insights about people whose names you didn’t know before cracking this book open.
The protagonists’ lives span 400 years, so when you take it as a whole, it reveals broad themes that apply to innovators across the centuries.
I was struck by how many people had a clearly defined ritual of going for a long daily walk. Sometimes it was in the woods, sometimes through the city, but in every scenario this was considered sacred time for allowing one’s thoughts to percolate and taking in one’s surroundings in a relaxed, unencumbered way. The stories repeatedly cited great ideas “striking” people during this time away from the grind.
In many ways, it must have been easier to do this before the age of unlimited information, because there were natural, necessary lulls — if you ran out of stuff to do or read, you couldn’t just sit there scrolling through your news feed for stimulation. Today, it’d be outside of most of our comfort zones to leave work for an hour to take a walk and explicitly do nothing — and even more challenging to do it with your phone turned off.
Daily Rituals also illuminates the fact that many of its subjects struggled for months and years at a time with writer’s block, procrastination and outright failure. And that’s part of the fun of the book — by peeking in on the boring, mundane, daily lives of prominent people, you get a sense of what it might have been like to really be them, in every random moment, not just the flashes of greatness.