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Is having a strict routine really the key to upping your creativity?

Boring, or the secret to success? We discuss...

What do Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama both have in common?

Apart from how successful and clever they are, it’s that they each wear the same thing every day: Obama a blue or grey suit and Zuckerberg a grey T-shirt.

And they do it for the same reason: decisions.

When you’re in a position of making huge decisions all the time, having a strict routine you stick to actually protects you brain from what psychologists call decision fatigue.

So, it’s why research, as well as case studies, are now suggesting that regimental routines are the key to creativity in your career. Take novelist Haruki Murakami, Ernest Hemingway or Beethoven for example, they all had a methodological way of doing things. Whether it was getting up at a certain time every day (no matter what happened the night before…) or counting the exact amount of coffee beans they consumed in a morning (it was 60 for Beethoven, FYI), they never faltered.

And, maybe that is how they could become masters in their field? Maya Angelou once said: ‘The more I learn about the lives of prominent creatives, the more it seems the path to excellence is paved not with erratic flashes of brilliance but instead, with routine.’

So, does being a slave to routine really help your brain focus on other things?

Digital features editor Delphine Chui and digital assistant Megan Hills debate.

Delphine: OCD, anal, crazy organised, whatever you want to call it, that’s me. My Google calendar is full of plans and reminders because I’m a creature of habit and without routine, I’m met with anxiety. I wash my towels the same day every weekend and I do the same with my bedsheets. In fact, I actually have a reminder in my iCal so I don’t forget to do it… And yes, people laugh at me for it but anything that makes my life easier and gives my brain space to think is good for me because I constantly feel like it’s chock up there.

Megan: My life couldn’t be any more different from yours. The only part of my life that’s dictated by routine are my work hours. Then I let the rest of the pieces fall into place where they may. Sure, trying to arrange a big girls’ night last minute is essentially a no go in London since everybody’s schedules are all over the place. Okay, what does your day-to-day look like? I have a feeling it’s going to be really different from mine.

Delphine: I wake up every morning at 7.30AM (although, naturally earlier in the summer and spring months), and I have the exact same routine every day around work. I eat breakfast around the same time and I’ll head to the train station for 8.36AM every morning. Afterwards, if I don’t have plans, I get home around the same time every evening, make dinner, tidy up, do some general browsing, do laundry, shower off my day (yes, I’m a night showerer), watch a show and go to sleep before midnight. Don’t you find it difficult planning things with other people though?

Megan: Hm, well having less of a strict routine has actually led to some of the best times I’ve had in London. For example, a friend messaged me just as I was packing up my desk and I wound up at a brass house concert. I’d never even heard of the band – or the genre – before but it’s still one of the best nights I’ve had. I used to be a massive planner when it came to things like that, but I can be a little sensitive and used to take people flaking really personally. (Maybe it’s a London thing? I don’t know.)

Now, the only thing I do religiously is shower every morning, do my skincare routine and catch up on my YouTube subscriptions. Beyond that, breakfast is a give or take depending how much time I have and I’m lucky enough that the buses run every few minutes or so, so I don’t need to leg it for a specific bus that comes every half hour. Then – well, you know how I am at work. You’re so organised at the office, I don’t understand it.

Delphine: At work, I have a systematic way of doing things, I’ll carve out time to do the most urgent first, to check my e-mails and then to work on bigger projects – nothing about it is random.

Megan: I’m totally different since I have a pretty loose to-do list in the office. I guess we have slightly different roles because I deal with lots of different people who may sometimes need things urgently at the drop of a hat. I’ve had to learn to be a little more flexible to accommodate for that. I don’t think I could handle having a really strict work routine, it would just give me so much anxiety if I missed something – though what about after work? Are you super organised about that too?

Delphine: When it comes to evening plans, I hate it when someone says ‘let’s just decide on the day,’ as I’m someone who likes to book and have solid plans – which is probably why I’m the organiser of my friendship group.

I’m less regimental on weekends but I still have things I like to do when I can control it, like go to the farmer’s market on Saturday and grab my veg for the week, and then go see my mum and walk the dogs in the park but these all vary around social plans. Although, by Sunday evening, I’m strictly back home on my usual sleep pattern again. What about you?

Megan: Eh, I’m the total opposite. I only really start thinking about what I’m doing in the evening as I’m about to pack up my desk. If I’m feeling like I want to see friends, I’ll send a shout into my Facebook/Whatsapp group messages to see who’s kicking about and go from there. Since I’m pretty laid back, if somebody tells me what time to meet up and points me in the right direction, I’m pretty happy. It’s not going to break my heart if a reservation falls through – it’s just onto the next place that’ll take us.

I don’t know, there are some things in my life I try to be really organised about, but for the most part I don’t like feeling trapped by the dates in my calendar. I like the freedom it gives me and I definitely feel like it gives me room to be more creative (for the better and worse), but I guess I can see the benefits to planning things out like you.

Delphine: Personally, I think this has something more to do with my neuroses than creativity – but I do notice that when I focus on a task, I do it very efficiently. Although, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that modern technology doesn’t distract me so if routine is the friend of creative energy, social media surely is its enemy.

So, which one are you?

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