How Daily Rituals Foster Individual Productivity

How do you make the time each day to do your best work? Or organize your schedule in order to be more creative and productive? We all have our personal quirks that get us going in the morning, whether it be a routine cup of coffee, or a 20-minute treadmill session. Pondering about unique productivity hacks is what inspired me to pick up the book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. In his book, Currey demonstrates how grand creative visions translate into small daily increments of how one’s working habits influence work itself, and vice versa. Although not everyone’s mechanism to productivity may resonate with us, we can learn to appreciate the uniqueness of such routines and start to adopt our own productivity hacks. 


The book’s title speaks to daily rituals, but Currey admits that his focus in writing it was on people’s routines. So what does he define as a routine exactly? A routine implies ordinariness, even a lack of thought; and to follow a routine is to function on autopilot. That being said, a person’s daily routine does not come without choice. In fact, a routine is a whole series of choices. In the right mindset, a routine can be an artfully calibrated mechanism for making use of a range of limited resources, that being: time (our most precious!), willpower, self-discipline, and optimism. A good routine fosters positive mental energies and helps veer away the tyranny of negative moods.

"By forming habits, we can free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action." - William James


In his book, Currey shares descriptions of renowned people’s routines as portrayed in various mediums such as biographies, magazine profiles, newspaper obituaries, and so on. I thought it would be neat to share some of the vignettes from his book, which may just prompt you to reflect on your own daily routines.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

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The Dutch Post-Impressionist painter’s work had a far-reaching influence on 20th-century art. He was best known for his portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, still lifes, and wheat fields. Here is a glimpse into his daily routine:

  • “Today again from seven o’clock in the morning till six in the evening I worked without stirring except to take some food a step or two away”
  • “I have no thought of fatigue, I shall do another picture this very night, and I shall bring it off"
  • "Our days pass in working, working all the time, in the evening we are dead beat and go off to the café, and after that, early to bed! Such is our life.”

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

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The German-born theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner who developed the general theory of relativity honed a surprisingly simple routine:

  • Between 9 and 10 in the morning, he ate breakfast and read the daily paper
  • At 10:30, he left for his Princeton office, walking when the weather was nice; otherwise a station wagon from the university would fetch him
  • He worked until 1, then returned home for lunch at 1:30, followed by a nap and a cup of tea
  • The rest of the evening was spent at his home, continuing his work, seeing visitors, and dealing with the correspondence that was previously sorted by his secretary
  • Supper was at 6:30, followed by more work and more letters
  • Interesting fact: Einstein wore his hair long to refrain from visits to the barber and avoided socks and suspenders, which he considered to be unnecessary 

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

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The American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist was never able to write at home. “I try to keep home very pretty…I can’t work in pretty surrounding. It throws me.” As a result, Angelou had always worked in hotel or motel rooms, claiming the more anonymous the better. Here are some personal insights from her daily routine:

  •  “I get up at about 5:30, and I’m ready to have coffee by 6, usually with my husband. He goes off to his work around 6:30, and I go off to mine.”
  •  “I keep a hotel room in which I do my work – a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room.”
  • “I edit while I’m working. When I come home at 2 [in the afternoon], I read over what I’ve written 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 totally absorbed in my work.”
  • “Maybe after dinner I’ll read to him what I’ve written that day. [However], I don’t invite comments from anyone but my editor, but hearing it aloud is good. Sometimes I hear the dissonance; then I try to straighten it out in the morning.”

Woody Allen (b. 1935)

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The American actor, comedian, filmmaker, playwright, and musician admits that when he is not shooting a film, most of his creative energy goes towards mentally working out the problems of a new story. To keep himself from getting stuck in a rut, he has adopted a few rituals of his own:

  • “I’ve found over the years that any momentary change stimulates a fresh burst of mental energy. So if I’m in this room and then I go into the other room, it helps me. If I go outside to the street, it’s a huge help. If I go up and take a shower, it’s a big help. So I sometimes take extra showers. I’ll be down here [in the living room] at an impasse and what will help me is to go upstairs and take a shower. I’ll stand there with steaming hot water coming down for thirty minutes, forty-five minutes, just thinking out ideas and working on plot.”

Twyla Tharp (b. 1941)

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The American dancer, choreographer, and author who lives and works in New York is something of an expert on daily routines. She believes in forming good, consistent work habits in order to function at an optimal creative level. Here is her routine:

  • “I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30am, put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym…where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment where I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.”
  • “I repeat the wake-up, the workout, the quick shower, the breakfast of three hard-boiled egg whites and a cup of coffee, the hour to make my morning calls and deal with correspondence, the two hours of stretching and working out my ideas in the studio, the rehearsals with my dance company, the return home in the late afternoon to handle more business details, the early dinner, and a few quiet hours of reading. That’s my day everyday. A dancer’s life is all about repetition.”

For more neat vignettes and productivity inspiration, I urge you to read this book in its entirety. Although there is much variation in these individuals’ routines, the bottom line is that you have to foster the right rituals for YOUR life – a routine that makes sense to YOU!

What are your daily rituals? What have you learned from these rituals and how do they improve your work output? Let us know in the comments below!


Currey, M. (2013). Daily rituals: How artists work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf., a division of Random House Inc.

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