Excerpt
Nearly every weekday morning for a year and a half, I got up at 5:30,
brushed my teeth, made a cup of coffee, and sat down to write about how
some of the greatest minds of the past four hundred years approached this
exact same task-- that is, how they made the time each day to do their
best work, how they organized their schedules in order to be creative
and productive. By writing about the admittedly mundane details of my
subjects' daily lives-- when they slept and ate and worked and
worried-- I hoped to provide a novel angle on their personalities and
careers, to sketch entertaining, small- bore portraits of the artist as
a creature of habit. "Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you
what you are," the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
once wrote. I say, tell me what time you eat, and whether you take a nap
afterward.   In that sense, this is a superficial book. It's
about the circumstances of creative activity, not the product; it
deals with manufacturing rather than meaning. But it's also,
inevitably, personal. (John Cheever thought that you couldn't even
type a business letter without revealing something of your inner self--
isn't that the truth?) My underlying concerns in the book are issues
that I struggle with in my own life: How do you do meaningful creative
work while also earning a living? Is it better to devote yourself wholly
to a project or to set aside a small portion of each day? And when there
doesn't seem to be enough time for all you hope to accomplish, must
you give things up (sleep, income, a clean house), or can you learn to
condense activities, to do more in less time, to "work smarter, not
harder," as my dad is always telling me? More broadly, are comfort
and creativity incompatible, or is the opposite true: Is finding a basic
level of daily comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?  
I don't pretend to answer these questions in the following pages--
probably some of them can't be answered, or can be resolved only
individually, in shaky personal compromises-- but I have tried to
provide examples of how a variety of brilliant and successful people
have confronted many of the same challenges. I wanted to show how grand
creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one's
working habits influence the work itself, and vice versa.   The
book's title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really
people's routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of
thought; to follow a routine is to be on autopilot. But one's daily
routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right
hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of
a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all)
as well as willpower, self- discipline, optimism. A solid routine
fosters a well- worn groove for one's mental energies and helps
stave off the tyranny of moods. This was one of William James's
favorite subjects. He thought you wanted to put part of your life on
autopilot; by forming good habits, he said, we can "free our minds
to advance to really interesting fields of action." Ironically,
James himself was a chronic procrastinator and could never stick to a
regular schedule (see page 80).   As it happens, it was an inspired
bout of procrastination that led to the creation of this book. One Sunday
afternoon in July 2007, I was sitting alone in the dusty offices of the
small architecture magazine that I worked for, trying to write a story
due the next day. But instead of buckling down and getting it over with,
I was reading The New York Times online, compulsively tidying my cubicle,
making Nespresso shots in the kitchenette, and generally wasting the
day. It was a familiar predicament. I'm a classic "morning
person," capable of considerable focus in the early hours but
pretty much useless after lunch. That afternoon, to make myself feel
better about this often inconvenient predilection (who wants to get up
at 5:30 every day?), I started searching the Internet for information
about other writers' working schedules. These were easy to find, and
highly entertaining. It occurred to me that someone should collect these
anecdotes in one place-- hence the Daily Routines blog I launched that
very afternoon (my magazine story got written in a last- minute panic the
next morning) and, now, this book.   The blog was a casual affair; I
merely posted descriptions of people's routines as I ran across them
in biographies, magazine profiles, newspaper obits, and the like. For the
book, I've pulled together a vastly expanded and better-researched
collection, while also trying to maintain the brevity and diversity of
voices that made the original appealing. As much as possible, I've
let my subjects speak for themselves, in quotes from letters, diaries,
and interviews. In other cases, I have cobbled together a summary of their
routines from secondary sources. And when another writer has produced
the perfect distillation of his subject's routine, I have quoted it
at length rather than try to recast it myself. I should note here that
this book would have been impossible without the research and writing
of the hundreds of biographers, journalists, and scholars whose work I
drew upon. I have documented all of my sources in the Notes section,
which I hope will also serve as a guide to further reading.  
Compiling these entries, I kept in mind a passage from a 1941 essay by
V. S. Pritchett. Writing about Edward Gibbon, Pritchett takes note of
the great English historian's remarkable industry-- even during
his military service, Gibbon managed to find the time to continue his
scholarly work, toting along Horace on the march and reading up on
pagan and Christian theology in his tent. "Sooner or later,"
Pritchett writes, "the great men turn out to be all alike. They
never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing."
  What aspiring writer or artist has not felt this exact sentiment
from time to time? Looking at the achievements of past greats is
alternately inspiring and utterly discouraging. But Pritchett is also, of
course, wrong. For every cheerfully industrious Gibbon who worked nonstop
and seemed free of the self- doubt and crises of confidence that dog us
mere mortals, there is a William James or a Franz Kafka, great minds
who wasted time, waited vainly for inspiration to strike, experienced
torturous blocks and dry spells, were racked by doubt and insecurity. In
reality, most of the people in this book are somewhere in the middle--
committed to daily work but never entirely confident of their progress;
always wary of the one off day that undoes the streak. All of them made
the time to get their work done. But there is infinite variation in how
they structured their lives to do so.   This book is about that
variation. And I hope that readers will find it encouraging rather than
depressing. Writing it, I often thought of a line from a letter Kafka
sent to his beloved Felice Bauer in 1912. Frustrated by his cramped living
situation and his deadening day job, he complained, "time is short,
my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy,
and if a pleasant, straight-forward life is not possible then one must
try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers." Poor Kafka! But then
who among us can expect to live a pleasant, straightforward life? For
most of us, much of the time, it is a slog, and Kafka's subtle
maneuvers are not so much a last resort as an ideal. Here's to
wriggling through.   W. H. Auden (1907- 1973)
(Continues...)