Reflections on Routines and Scheduling

In his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey sets out to demonstrate the importance of small daily activities which can add up together to fulfill one’s vision.

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.

Positive habits which are a result of a good routine can allow one to perform tasks to the best of their abilities. Rather than having to force yourself, trying to make up for wasted time, or hurrying up, playing catch up, a routine allows designated time for each task where one can chip away at their craft, slowly improving, getting closer to their goals.

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 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.

The book is filled with many lessons. Each individual mentioned in the book has their own routine and their own reason for needing a routine. However, an underlying theme that is present is that many view their routine as a necessary part of their work. Meaning that the routine aids their craft. It allows them to focus, stay disciplined and complete projects.

From the many lessons, the following are a handful that I found useful. Later on, I will do a follow-up post of other lessons.

A lesson from Mozart: Find the pocket of time that works for you and stick to it, without making any excuses. This lesson is drawn from the fact that Mozart was a busy man. He was wanted by many people, his time limited and hence, he would wake up early and compose and then compose for a little while before going to bed. Making time for his craft, rather than excuses.

A lesson from Voltaire: Have a pocket of concentrated work, followed by a break, then more concentrated work, break and so on. Simply stating, Voltaire divided his day into small portions which allowed him to focus on his tasks and then get quick relief in the form of meeting someone, eating snacks, drinking coffee before returning to his work for another period of effort. Such a routine is manageable.

A lesson from Thomas Mann: First, get the most essential work done. For Mann, he would write from nine to noon. In this period of time, no one was allowed to call him, disturb him or contact him. Having finished the most important work by noon, one can then continue the momentum of positive action and flow throughout the rest of the day.

A lesson from Haruki Marukami: Do not deviate from your established routine. When working on a novel, Marukami’s day started at 4 am and ended at 9 pm. The day was filled with writing, which he did first thing in the morning, running, swimming and spending time with his wife. Essentially repeating the same day over and over, one comes to build their focus and endurance and most importantly, the work gets done.

A lesson from Samuel Johnson: You’re not the only one who falls of the path and gives into laziness. As Johnson writes:

“My reigning sin, to which perhaps many others are appendant, is waste of time, and general sluggishness,” he wrote in his diary, and he told Boswell that “idleness is a disease which must be combated.” Yet, he added, he was temperamentally ill-equipped for the battle: “I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together.”

It may be that you find it hard to stick to a routine. Chances are you’re not the only one. Artists throughout time have failed, recalibrated, adjusted their routines, shifted to working in the morning, or in the evening, and then failed again but that does not matter. Never accepting the failure is more important, for even if you are unable to stick with a particular routine, you can still get back on the path easier once you have fallen off.

Routines then allow one to see what the path looks like and what you should be doing, how you should be acting, rather than being blind, trying to navigate through this world.

 

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Haruki Murakami On Writing

There are many articles written on the do’s and don’t’s of writing. I don’t know if such a thing exists for each person who wishes to write must write their own way. Through the act of writing, they will come to discover what they like and what they don’t like and in doing so, create their own do’s and don’t’s which may be contradictory to the public consensus. If that is the case then so be it. Contorting your writing in order to fit into how someone else thinks, takes away from the uniqueness of your own thought and style. So, one has to be comfortable with their own writing and write for the purpose of writing and not to become popular or to sell a bunch of books. At least that is how I view it. Writing for the sake of writing.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami expresses similar notions. The book is a combined effort on his views on running and on writing and how the action of running has influenced his writing.

What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can’t fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.

It is an inner standard that one must aim for and not some external validation. In running, you are trying to beat your previous time even if it is only by one minute or trying to go further than you have gone before. Similarly, with writing, you are trying to create something that is approved by your own standards and limitations. Text that pushes you slightly further than your comfort zone and it doesn’t matter if one person reads that or a million, the inner validation is all one needs.

Specifically, when it comes to writing itself, Murakami believes that there are three important factors. The most important being talent and below it are focus and endurance. Talent being innate, it is something you have or you don’t have. Focus and endurance are what one can build and increase with time and effort. These two factors are in your control.

In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning.

After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance. If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction—at least one who hopes to write a novel—is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, two years.

Naturally, in order to increase one’s focus and endurance, you have to be patient. It takes time and effort to develop these two qualities. Murakami relates these factors to running throughout his text. The idea is that just how one works his or her way up from being able to run 1 mile and then 2 miles and then 3 miles as their muscles adjust and grow and their cardio improves and their running technique gets better and so on. Similarly, one has to slowly work the focus and endurance muscles for writing. Perhaps you may have to start with 30 minutes of pure focus where all you think about is writing and then after a week of that, you increase that to 45 minutes and once your body adjusts to that speed, you increase your focus time to an hour. Endurance works the same way. Three days out of the week for writing and then four days and then five days and you may keep the five days for a few months until your body and mind have adjusted to this new level and then you increase it to six days.

It is in the practice of your routine that you get better as a writer and also as a runner. Murakami shares a funny story about the writer Raymond Chandler who seemed to share Murakami’s belief in endurance and focus.

In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him.

In doing so, writing then becomes a form of manual labor and not some creative output that seeps out of your pores and that one just needs to write it all down and that’s it. Furthermore, it may be through the grueling task of focusing every single day for weeks on end that one may discover that they have some talent. Your talent may not be known to you until you start your work. Murakami himself is an example of this. It was not until he was in his late 20s that he even got the idea to write and it would not be for a few more years until he discovered his own writing style and understood what kind of novels he wished to write.

This discovery was simply aided by writing. The more effort he put into his work the better he understood it and clearer his vision became. He had an understanding that his talent was not enough and that he needed to supplement the talent he did have by building up his focus and endurance. Murakami gives credit to running for building these two qualities that could then aid the talent he did have.

Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate—and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different.

Talent may be out of your control but focus and endurance are not. You can set yourself up for success if you build up those two qualities. Furthermore, the action that aids in this growth will help your understanding of writing, what you wish to say, what you wish not to say, your own do’s and don’t’s and perhaps even discover that talent that is within. In fact, such an action will benefit you in all aspects of life and not just writing.

For me it is hard to say if I have a talent for writing or not, I just simply know that I enjoy it and that it brings a sense of fulfillment and achievement into my life. It is a freeing notion, knowing that focus and endurance are under my control. If I am able to improve these qualities perhaps then my writing will continue to live up to my own standards.

Unresolved Issues & Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is one of the few writers I have come across who is able to put in so much feeling into his text with the use of simple words and simple sentences. This ability is on display in his work, Norwegian Wood. Often times it is what you don’t include in the story that matters. Murakami seems to know exactly what to omit and this leaves behind these blunt sentences that get straight to the point and when you read them, not only do you see the story unraveling in your mind, you can see the characters sitting around talking to one another, watch the subtle gestures, observe the conditioned habits but on top of that, you feel as if you are part of the scene. You are not a distant viewer, an omniscient presence, rather, you are there sitting alongside the characters and they are not characters, they are people you know, they are you for Murakami brings them to life in such a manner that, well, that they are real.

With this in mind, Norweigian Wood can come across as a bit depressing. After all, there is much discussion of trauma and suicide and general struggles of life. These themes are prevalent in many of Marukami’s work and perhaps it is the fact that he is not afraid to go into the darkness and try to understand it, that I find his work so attractive.

However, the passage that I like is the opposite of that. Amidst the trauma and sadness is the truth. Where there is suffering, there is also the relief. Or at least the possibility of relief. This possibility also keeps hope alive. That one-day things can be better.

The main character, Toru Watanabe, is trying to deal with his own troubles, at the same time, trying to understand the troubles of a woman he loves, Naoko. This woman is scared by a childhood incident, who has by this time, admitted herself into an institution for help. Like anyone would, Watanabe only wishes to help Naoko, to understand her, to be there for her, to be her support and yet it is never that simple.

To ease Watanabe’s mind, Reiko, Naoko’s roommate at the institution, gives him two simple pieces of advice after Naoko has another incident and Watanabe is left confused and lost.

“Did I say something I shouldn’t have?” (Watanabe said)

“Not a thing. Don’t worry. Just speak your mind honestly. That’s the best thing. It may hurt a little sometimes, and somebody may get worked up the way Naoko did, but in the long run it’s the best thing. That’s what you should do if you’re serious about making Naoko well again. Like I told you in the beginning, you should think not so much about wanting to help her as wanting to recover yourself by helping her to recover. That’s the way it’s done here. So you have to be honest and say everything that comes to mind while you’re here at least. Nobody does that in the outside world, right?

There are many issues that Naoko is dealing with. Everything piles on together and adds on top of previous unresolved issues. It is never just one thing. You cannot just unplug the drain and watch all the filth get swallowed up and now everything is nice and clean. All the leftover garbage washed away, the baggage, the bits of food clinging to the plastic containers, the feeling of helplessness, all rinsed out by the water afterward. If only it was that easy. Perhaps if it was, then a lot of great art would have never come to be. Anyways, in reality, people don’t work like that. Life doesn’t work like that.

“The most important thing is not to let yourself get impatient,” Reiko said. “This is one more piece of advice I have for you: don’t get impatient. Even if thing are so tangled up you can’t do anything, don’t get desperate or blow a fust and start yanking on one particular thread before it’s ready to come undone. You have to figure it’s going to be a long process and that you’ll work on things slowly, one at a time. Do you think you can do that?”

What else can you do?