The Power of Strict Habits

In my post Productivity Hack Discovery, I noted 3 Hacks that made for a massively productive week.

  • First-Things-First
  • Task Specificity
  • Accountability

I felt sure that F-T-F was the most significant and vowed to stick with it.

The Results . . .

The following weeks were better than usual, perhaps not as great as that one magical week. The number of curve-balls life throws at us is obscene. Adhering to a strict routine every day is freaking impossible.

Which brings me to the book, “Daily Rituals” by Mason Currey. It’s about the obsessive routines of world renowned creatives. Their days were examples of rituals in the extreme, probably OCD.

Examples of Strict Habit Rituals

  • Counting the number of beans to grind for a cup of coffee (Ludwig van Beethoven)
  • Not allowing any human contact before lunch (Gustav Mahler)
  • Only writing while lying in bed (Marcel Proust)
  • Scheduling two-morning bursts of energy each day (Nicholson Baker)

The routines were NOT arbitrary. Each one was uniquely suited to the idiosyncrasies that primed the individual for their best work, and we’re talking about genius stuff.

The purpose of the routine was to keep the priority on the most important thing—the work. So, it’s basically the premise of First-Things-First on steroids.

The book focuses of creatives such as artists, authors, musicians, philosophers and an occasional inventor tossed in.

I wondered if the rigidity of the rituals might seem counterintuitive to creativity. Or, could it have the opposite effect? Does an element of extreme inflexibility prime the individual for their most creative output?

Is this congruent with how some artists are their most creative early in their careers when their resources are most limited and choices few?

Limits to Creativity

Let’s think of creativity as a limited resource. We start each day with a fully charged battery of creativity and it can’t be recharged until we sleep.

Every time we’re required make conscious decisions, the battery gets drained a little.

If we make decisions about routine bullshit like paying bills, managing the Inbox and such, when it comes time to get down to real work, the battery is at a 33% charge.

Thinking of creativity this way harmonizes with research that suggests willpower is a limited resource. The idea is popular, but not universally accepted. Willpower.

The book mentions a quote from Gustave Flaubert, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”


Let’s get obsessive about our strict habit rituals. Design them in a way that eliminates decision-making and primes the mind and body for the real work.

If we can discern our personal drivers to success—what makes us more creative and what does not, then the research doesn’t matter.


Before reading this book, I thought my habits were solid. But, they paled in comparison to the Mozart’s of the world. I set out to create a meticulous and strict habit routine, designed to prime me for creative work and apply it Monday–Friday.


I ran into problems instantly—long-standing events on my calendar that refused to budge, such as meeting friends on Tuesdays for breakfast. A lunch date on Wednesdays with my spouse.

I talk about these as if they have a mind and will of their own. That’s the POWER strict habits have over us. It’s kinda scary.

If I back down and refuse to eliminate these events from my calendar, does that mean I’m not truly committed to succeeding at my craft?

What about the big picture. What makes life worth the grind, the work we perform or the time with friends and family?

Death Bed Perspectives on Strict Habits

There’s a cliché that people on their deathbed wish they had spent more time with loved ones and less at work.

Sounds like some deep wisdom stuff, right?

Well, I don’t’ think that describes most of the world-renowned artists in this book. They lived for their work; friends and family were a distraction.

Which is more important? Creating something that will last and influence future generations or living a well-rounded “normal” life?

Are we really required to make a choice?

Aren’t there exceptions—artists that balanced both worlds? Perhaps, but those aren’t nearly as interesting and their stories won’t sell books.

Integrating Strict Habits into a Normal Life

I need a middle ground. Routines, YES— but, ones that don’t make me a miserable SOB to live with.

Set aside for a moment the allure of an ACD routine, what are the actual benefits of the strict habit routine?

#1: Minimizes decision making except for the essential work.

#2: Primes the mind and body for optimal performance.

Minimizing decision making means focusing all the hours before lunch on my work. Morning is when my mind is sharpest. I think this is true for the majority of us.

Priming my mind and body? Examples from the book include exercise, walking, bathing, swimming, reading, listening to music, coffee, drinking, smoking . . . (The number of people in the book that drank, smoked or used narcotics to stimulate their routine was amazing. They also died young.)

How Does This Change The Clarity Journal?

One of the prime reasons I developed this journaling process was to help me (and others) identify triggers, what’s working for me vs against me. So, I’ve already got that covered.

I also have a habit component in the process. It’s focused on a morning and evening routine. If the examples in the book have taught be anything, it’s the importance of extending the habit process through an entire day.

And, don’t be concerned about how crazy it might appear to others. If you need to wake-up at 3.00, work for two hours.Go back to bed and wake again at 7.00, then do it. You may just get two creative bursts of energy before lunch.