Early morning habits
Too long ago, I went to the gym every day. At seven a.m., the doors opened and a small group of us would shamble in and begin lifting weights. I had a little notebook in which I charted my regimen and recorded my progress; accumulating the little pencil scrawls kept me committed for close to a year. I was pretty intense about it, seven days a week, rain or shine, always at 7 a.m. If I overloaded the stack of iron and strained a rhomboid, I would switch to a leg routine for the next few days until I healed. But I had to keep going
I took a fair amount of pleasure in how my body developed. I wasn’t a steroid freak or anything though some of the other 7 a.m. crew were a little scary, particularly a couple of the women with lats like pterodactyl wings and neck as thick as my thighs. For me, weight lifting felt like a creative act; I liked how my arms felt like they belonged to someone else, like touching a horse or a large dog’s back. I had made my body into something, something essentially useless as I rarely had to lift toppled trees off cars or open jars of pickles, but something hand-crafted nonetheless. I don’t even know how healthy the whole thing was: I almost always hurt somewhere and woke up each 6:30 wincing and groaning.
When it was still cold and dark outside, Patti would urge me to stay in bed but I would refuse. There was simply no room for discussion. If I missed a day, I would lose momentum, my streak would end. I was convinced that I had to be 100% committed to my routine. The pathological drill sergeant in my head gave my will zero room for excuses.
Then my sister said she wanted to join me. For a week or so, she met me every 7 a.m. and it was fun to have someone to work out with. Till one morning she called me at 6:45 and croaked that she didn’t feel like going today, that I should take the day of too. So I did. And the day after that and so on. I never went back to the gym again.
Habit is enormously powerful. The bad ones are easy to pick up and a drag to shake. Each bad habit starts by stifling a voice in your head, the one that knows better, and says ‘go ahead, just try it’ and leads you to drag that first cigarette though you know it’ll lead to the grave, to accompany every burger with fries, to flop on the couch in front of the tube, to drink too much, talk too much, do too little…. The angel on your shoulder doesn’t stand a chance.
For me, developing good habits requires the same sort of censorship. However, this time I have to stifle the voice that leads me astray, to be absolutely rigid in my refusal to capitulate. It works best when I have an inflexible routine, like my 7 a.m. appointment at the gym.
These days, NPR wakes me up at 6:57 a.m., and I go mechanically through a series of maneuvers that have me walking up the street and arriving at my desk at 8:30 while the office is still cold and empty. I am at my most productive in that first hour. I’d love to add another hour to my morning, to rise before six and really get something done with my first cup of joe. I haven’t muscled myself into that harness yet.
What does this sort of rigidity mean when it comes to creativity? Can you be so iron-clad and expect your imagination to function just because you have put it on a regimen? Will the ink lie cold in the pen? Will the mind stay half-asleep?
Not if you insist. The muse can be put on a tight schedule. I have had to come up with ideas, on deadline for decades and, if anything, things flow more easily when you bear down on the brain. It’s not guaranteed but showing up is half the job. If I am focussed, resolved, and present, ideas will come.
I’d like to be more disciplined about my drawing. When I have an illustration assignment or a commitment to another like sketchcrawling, I can deliver. I just did it in Paris, crawling out in to the cold rainy dawn to draw. But it’s not as much fun as when I am suddenly inspired to pick up the pen. It feels like work. But maybe that’s because I am irregular in my early morning sessions. I mean, I could stagger over to the gym tomorrow at 7 am and bench press something but it would not be fun.
My pal, Tom Kane, has a great habit. When he walks into his office each morning, he snaps on his computer, loads the NY Times homepage and draws something from one of the lead stories in a Moleskine reserved for the purpose. Each day, at least one drawing of a newsmaker. Only then does his work day begin. His book is full now, brimming with great caricatures and portraits, built one drawing at a time. His drawings muscles ripple. Of course, he does not stop there; he draws New York City most days, detailed pen and ink drawings that fill the page from corner to corner. Tom’s compulsive too. He cannot stop until every square inch of paper is covered and crosshatched. He tells me he doesn’t do it because he enjoys it; he does it because he has to. He’s got the habit.