"There's something fascinating about discovering the routines of accomplished individuals." Photo: Stocksy
There's something fascinating about discovering the routines of accomplished individuals. It's as if finding out how someone constructs their day hour by hour will somehow reveal the ingredients to their success and creativity, as well as their happiness, charm and wealth.
As American film director and artist Miranda July puts it, "All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life – where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it." After all, also contained within our days are our vulnerabilities – awkward interactions with colleagues, inner turmoil spurred on by repetitive thoughts, bouts of procrastination watching Netflix.
After interviewing numerous creative Australians about their daily routines, it struck me that I didn't really have a regimen of my own. Newly conscious of my erratic sleep patterns, absent exercise program and tendency towards procrastination, I decided to create a "super-routine" based on my accumulation of wisdom and embark on a 30-day "habit experiment".
It is believed that successful habit formation requires focusing your attention on just one habit at a time. My translation of such advice was to adopt or discard a different habit each day until I'd accumulated an entirely new set of habits over the course of a month. Day 1 would be wake up early. Day 2 would be wake up early and exercise. Day 3 would be wake up early, exercise, and turn my phone off by 10pm to avoid spending two hours reading the entire internet.
Sound exhausting? Here's a breakdown of Day 30: my experiment's final day.
MY ULTIMATE ROUTINE
6.00 I hit the snooze button when the alarm sounds – some habits die hard.
6.08 Resisting a second round of snoozing, I gulp down half a litre of water. Some mornings I add Himalayan salt and lime juice, which supposedly helps to reset your biorhythms.
6.10 Out of my pyjamas and into an "air bath" – a habit borrowed from 18th-century revolutionary Benjamin Franklin, who believed in the health benefits of nudity. He would sit naked for 30 minutes in a cold room to boost his immune system. I cave in after 10 minutes without detecting any benefits from having a cold toosh.
6.20 Having quit coffee on Day 24, I make a cup of green tea before settling down at my desk to complete 10 minutes of free-flowing creative writing. When I'm finished, I set an intention for the day, such as "smile more" or "be kind".
6.35 Although monotonous, eating the same thing every day is a common time-saving habit. I alternate between microwave scrambled eggs with spinach and a pre-prepared frittata.
6.45 Eating breakfast at my computer, I dedicate some time to answering emails and transcribing interviews.
7.30 Exercise in the morning seems to be a popular habit among busy creatives. I head out the door for a short run around the park. While still breathless, I listen to a "positive thinking" meditation recording during my warm-down stretches. Bundling habits has become key to create automatic cues for behaviour and manage my growing to-do list.
7.55 Before hopping in the shower, I pop a tablespoon of coconut oil into my mouth and do 20 minutes of "oil pulling" while getting ready for work – the idea being that toxins cling to the oil, so spitting them out improves oral health, whitens teeth and clears skin.
8.20 Social media has been restricted to twice-daily checks, so instead of mindlessly scrolling Facebook during my morning commute, I listen to a new podcast and enjoy the view of passengers staring at their iPhones.
9.00 The Pomodoro Technique has been a recurring favourite among interviewees. It involves working for bursts of 25 minutes followed by a five-minute rest. I find it to be a great way to get started with my working day.
10.00 To ensure I take my vitamins, I put them right next to my computer and set a daily alarm to remind me.
12.30 Many creatives I've interviewed have enforced breaks. I make a concerted effort to get up from the computer each day to take in some fresh air and go for a walk or run an errand.
14.00 Mastering the art of saying no, I politely decline when a colleague asks me out for a drink, the reason being I don't have the funds as I have to stick to my daily budget. Part of the experiment has been to track my spending in the notes section of my phone.
17.20 Head to the op shop with a bag of dresses I haven't worn for a year – part of my give-something-away habit.
17.30 Aware of my restrictive comfort zone, I push myself to do something that scares me every day. Like doing a cartwheel in the park, it feels liberating to connect with my daring, playful side. So I take the plunge and ask out a guy I've become fond of through Instagram.
19.00 Cooking in bulk on weekends, combined with a sugar and alcohol ban, means that dinner is meatloaf and vegetables Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
20.00 It has been years since I've made something with my hands. For this experiment, I do a sketch each night. There was an initial fear of putting the pencil to the page, but then I reminded myself of a mantra common among artists I've interviewed – don't worry about it being good, just create.
21.00 I hop on the piano for 20 minutes' practice. I gave up learning when I was nine and have regretted it ever since, so I've taken up lessons again for this experiment. I follow up with juggling practice for brain-training while I listen to another podcast.
21.30 With the early mornings, by this time of the evening I'm exhausted. I drag myself to the bathroom for my nightly routine: remove make-up, dip face in ice-cold water to banish under-eye bags, cleanse and moisturise.
21.40 To cultivate gratitude, before bed I scribble a list of all the things I did well on a Post-it note – from clearing out my email inbox to paying someone a compliment – and stick the note to the wall as a positive reminder.
21.59 Social media can be a time-waster, especially in those moments before bed when clickbait articles seem appealing in your sleepy haze. I switch my phone to flight mode and pick up a book instead.
22.00 I read four pages of a novel before falling into a sweet slumber.
After 30 days, I wondered if I had been transformed. Did the habit experiment turn me into a successful, happy, charming and exceedingly wealthy individual with a perfect routine? Not quite.
I certainly slipped up during the experiment – I slept in, I checked social media outside my allocated time, I forgot my juggling practice. Maintaining the perfect routine is exhausting, and daily life becomes centred around productivity rather than how you would really prefer to be spending your time.
Slipping up during the experiment led to the creation of what is now my favourite habit: the sabit. It's a sabbath from your habits and means that for one day each week, I can break from my strict routine. There's this pressure to fill our days from morning to night – to seize each day – but learning to be comfortable with doing nothing, and free from being enslaved by a to-do list, was the most important takeaway for me.
There are certainly habits that I've kept, but I've learnt to frame them as "good to do when I can". Things like turning my phone off as soon as I get into bed, exercising, reading and writing daily, and avoiding coffee and sugar. A routine is just a structure that allows us to make time for the good stuff, and shouldn't be another unrealistic expectation we place on ourselves.
After all, the perfect schedule doesn't equate to living a perfect life. There is no such thing. We needn't strive to follow another person's idealised routine in the hope of attaining their version of success. All we can do is experiment with what works for us.
Madeleine Dore is the founder of Extraordinary Routines, an online project uncovering the routines of creatives.