Gertrude Stein had a routine of driving into the French countryside with her beloved partner to view cows. The American writer, poet and art collector needed to gaze upon one – the right kind of one, reportedly – in order to feel calm and happy. She would get out of the car, set up a camp stool, paper and pencil in hand, hoping for inspiration to write, while Alice Toklas took a switch to a cow to coax her into the author’s line of vision. If the cow didn’t suit Ms. Stein’s mood, off they would go in search of one that did. (Apparently, she had a thing about looking at rocks, too.)
Writers are often ritualistic. They need their routines, perhaps because a fervid imagination needs a little structure to keep it running along nicely: to start it up; give it rest; enhance its endurance. It’s a bit like breaking in a wild horse. Stephen King insists on going to sleep with the open end of his pillowcase pointed toward the other side of the bed. John Grisham has to have written his first word of the day by 5:30 a.m. Once, I interviewed John Waters, the Prince of Puke, as the American writer and maker of cult films ( Hairspray, Pink Flamingos) is popularly known. He told me he sets his alarm for 6:10 every morning and has to get out of bed by 6:14 if he wants his day to go right.
But apart from the legendary (and often superstitious) eccentricity of writers and their habits, rituals and routines play an important role in creating a sense of well-being for many people, happiness studies show.
Children like routines because of the security such predictability creates. And feeling secure makes them happy. But is comfort and predictability what we still need as adults? In that regard, we never really grow up, psychologists say. The world’s capacity to overwhelm its inhabitants never diminishes, after all. Habits tamp down anxiety over the uncertainty about what will happen – or not. No matter what, there will always be a bath before dinner with a bar of delicately scented Roger & Gallet soap.
Anthropologists will point out that routines and rituals are the stuff of human civilization. But routines also tell us who we are.
Sure, they’re a mild form of subjugation – a control of self, subconscious or not – but I also think of them as powerful markers of identification. Even bad ones, such as addictions, tell us how we think and feel. But when we develop good ones, they can be celebrations of self, a way of honouring who we know ourselves to be. I like the way Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen described her habits. She called them “tender ties.” They’re what tether us to our specific being.
A friend of mine, who lives alone, has a habit of starting her day with a beautiful breakfast that she cooks carefully for herself. She sets the table. She puts on classical music. She sits amidst a collection of flowering plants, the perfection of their blossoms a source of joy and quiet contemplation, she says. It’s about setting up her day with calmness; holding the world at bay until she’s ready to enter it.
Robin Sharma, the motivational speaker and leadership coach whose latest book is The Secret Letters of The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, is devoted to his routines, which he calls “my personal institutions.” For more than 12 years, he has indulged in “Holy Hour,” which begins at 5 a.m., when he rises each day. He exercises to jump-start his metabolism and promote happy-making endorphins. He drinks water; listens to books on his iPod; drinks coffee; writes in his journal and reads.
“The world can take you off course. And rather than being reactive under other people’s priorities, it’s important to be leading proactive lives, advancing our own priorities,” explains the former litigation lawyer whose first book, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari – self-published in 1996 and edited by his mother – went on to sell two million copies worldwide. Far from being restrictions, his routines “create freedom,” he says.
His habit of scheduling his upcoming week on a Sunday is his way of “connecting with what I stand for,” he says. He writes in his weekly massage, his family nights with his children, his meetings, his workouts. “Just doing these things keeps me feeling at my best. I think of them in the context of the professional athlete. The best tennis players don’t just show up on the court and play brilliantly. They have engaged in rituals off the court which have allowed them to get themselves into the best state of mind and body.”
Mr. Sharma’s routines tell him that he’s a performance-driven individual, who still has a lawyerly “billable hours” mentality about effectively parcelling up his day to maximize productivity.
And then there are the famous routines of Winston Churchill. He woke at 7:30 every morning and remained in bed to eat breakfast and read his mail and the newspapers, according to the website dailyroutines.com. He even gave dictation to his secretary from bed. He got up at 11, bathed, went for a walk, and took a weak soda and whiskey to his study. A three-course lunch was served at 1 p.m., including champers and a cigar. At 5 p.m., he had another weak whiskey and soda. Then he napped for an hour and a half. He bathed again at 6:30 p.m., dressed for dinner at 8 p.m., and worked into the wee hours when everyone else went to sleep.
What does that say about him? Well, he knew what gave him pleasure, and he was unapologetic about it. So, go ahead, say you’re Churchillian in your habits. It sounds very grand, and you can do what makes you happy.