Why Are We Obsessed With Other People’s Daily Habits?

I’m starting to doubt that anyone’s “process” alone can solve the problem of how to do creative work in a cutthroat, capitalist world.

In 2017, I received a fellowship that came with a preposterous gift: an empty year, mine to fill with whatever I consider my work. As the first installment of freedom slid into my bank account, my partner got a temporary job in the middle of the prairies where we didn’t know anyone. We drove 2,200 miles and moved into an Airbnb. I jerry-rigged a desk out of broken Ikea parts in the living room/eat-in kitchen, bought a $10 office chair off Craigslist that emitted impressive polyphonic screech-groans every time I moved, and told myself to write like no one was watching. No one was.

I’ve always been a creature of habit, but that year — with what many would recognize as too much time on my hands — I became a kind of habit formation zealot. I drew and redrew borders around different activities, fine-tuning when and where and how to write, eat, move, sleep. Strategies that had helped me work in the past were elevated to sacred rites, codified into an evolving list of rules: I deployed technology to impair my other technology, rerouted my blood flow with headstands, inhaled essential oil mists, drew pictures of my plants. I sewed a fleece blanket into a “writing cape” with an enormous periphery-swallowing hood and started calling a precisely timed daily walk “taking my constitutional” — one of those moves that starts out ironic and then just becomes who you are. I wrote to a friend that I was learning to “build a day from scratch.”

At one point, deep in the frostbitten winter, I dedicated a whole evening to an elaborate hand-drawn, color-coded account of how I would spend the coming week, detailed down to the minute. My rationale was that by prefabbing a week’s worth of decisions, I would save every iota of intuitive energy for the choices I make when I type words on pages. The exaggerated imposition of order on my freedom was, weirdly, intended to turbocharge my ability to work freely.

And maybe this kind of military-precision scheduling would be a reasonable exercise for someone whose life has a lot of moving parts, but in my case the granularity of the form was totally out of whack with the no-stakes content. Not one thing on my schedule was mandatory. All of it was self-imposed and, quite literally, self-serving: The only guiding principle was my own well-being, and the only reason to be well was to do better work.

My obsession with routine started to feel a bit like fad dieting. And in the same way that restrictive eating totally messes with how you see food, the quest to perfectly ritualize my work life was warping my relationship to time. Everything I did both was and wasn’t work, both did and didn’t count. Months passed. Was I working? I spent all my days recipe-testing the ideal day.

The internet has widened our spheres of access to other people, and with it the ability to peer at how they live. It used to be that the most threatening thing about social media was that it was mundane: Tweets were prompted by the question “What are you doing right now?” and that seemed likely to validate a generation’s worth of narcissists in the belief that our petty lives are worth publicizing. (Instead we just responded until no one needed to ask, because the answer was obvious: “I’m on Twitter.”)

It’s been a quick cultural trip from guileless self-exposure to manicured self-presentation: The unfurling scroll of social media has mostly revealed how we would all like to be seen living, rather than how anyone is really doing it. And so online life seems to have only lightly brushed an itch to witness other people in action — to understand how they approach the basic task of moving through the world. Despite the fact that our social media is supposed to be a 24/7 all-access pass to everyone else’s mundanity, we’re still eager to see one another’s lives broken down and spelled out. And many popular publications give us just that: granular breakdowns of how other people — notable and normal and somewhere in between — eat, have sex, laze around, spend money, and generally get it done.

Life has become something you’re meant to “do” and “hack,” which has given rise to the feeling that only a sucker would just tromp along messily and inefficiently living through it. When every mundane activity from eating a cupcake to slicing bread to taking a dump is one you’re probably doing wrong, it’s no wonder we yearn for glimpses of how other people live their smallest moments. Optimization is all about getting ahead, and getting ahead is about not falling behind. In this climate, converting other people’s experience into a template or a cautionary tale seems only prudent. The lives of others can be converted into cheat sheets: a way to grade our own performances and see how we measure up.

When Mason Currey’s first book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, came out in 2013, it seemed inevitable that it would be a hit. Compiled from letters, diaries, interviews, and other archival artifacts, the book is a well-researched compendium of mini biographies of writers, painters, musicians, inventors, etc., told in the form of their most mundane daily activities, pet preferences, tastes, and schedules: Truman Capote’s voluntarily bedridden days spent “sipping and puffing”; Benjamin Franklin’s “air baths”; Gertrude Stein’s oversize bathtub and penchant for staring at cows.

Each of the entries in Daily Rituals is entertaining on its own, but as they accumulate, second orders of meaning reveal themselves. One through line is chemical: You could come away from the book prepared to make the somewhat bleak argument that what we call “artistic process” is just a never-ending alternation of uppers and downers moving through the central nervous system. The other big takeaway from zooming all the way into the bedrooms and living rooms and workrooms of history’s “great minds” is that it exposes just how much of the creative canon has been made outside the purview of market capitalism.

Many of these artists never really made a living from their work, and more often than not their idiosyncratic routines were directly sustained by the labor of spouses and servants, afforded by independent wealth, or both. Flaubert lay in bed all morning being tended to by domestic help and pounding on the wall when he felt like having a chat with his mummy; Stein’s cow-gazing was enabled by her partner Alice, who was tasked with physically driving the right bovine into the writer’s line of view; Freud’s wife Martha did everything for him, right down to squeezing his toothpaste onto the brush (isn’t that just a little bit, um, Freudian?). Likewise, those without the resources to hold themselves apart from the grinding demands of survival often suffered for it in direct and striking ways — both in their work and often in their health. None of which is new information, just hard to miss when you inhale a dozen descriptions of different variations on cocktail hour in a row.

The lives of others can be converted into cheat sheets: a way to grade our own performances and see how we measure up. 

Now Currey has produced a follow-up volume called Daily Rituals: Women at Work, published in March, which he introduces as “a sequel, and a corrective” to its predecessor’s “major flaw” of having included just 27 women among the original 161 artist profiles. Currey explains that this coda to recalibrate the gender balance is not only the right thing to do but a more robust realization of his original intention to provide modern readers with inspiration for their own creative pursuits. Focusing on women, Currey writes, opens up “dramatic new vistas of frustration and compromise” with which human beings contend in the ongoing struggle to figure out how to integrate their artistic work into their lives. Currey takes it as a given that frustrated and compromised is a state most of us will be able to relate to.

There are plenty of charming and funny and harrowing and otherwise readable anecdotes in the latest iteration of Daily Rituals, many of which have decidedly gendered valences: British modernist author Radclyffe Hall wearing a man’s velvet smoking jacket for its “loose and comfortable sleeves”; prolific 20th-century sculptor and installation artist Niki de Saint Phalle realizing she needed to abandon her family to “live her artistic adventure”; the late French filmmaker Agnès Varda literalizing her domestic tether with an 80-meter cable plugged from her home to her camera.

Where the first installment of Daily Rituals delighted in the anecdotal for its own sake, the second is a little less sprightly. This working woman’s version seems more self-conscious: chastened by the canon-reproducing sins of its predecessor, eager to make itself useful. As a result, many entries read as simultaneously overdetermined and thin: too burdened to be quippy, yet lacking enough context to make a larger point.

Octavia Butler held a series of “horrible little jobs” that made her feel “like an animal” before she achieved success as an author. Kate Chopin didn’t start her writing career until age 40, only once she’d given birth to six children and her husband had died of malaria. French novelist Colette was literally imprisoned by her husband while she worked, locked in a room to write coming-of-age stories he would punch up and publish under his own nom de plume (Colette wrote under her own name after they divorced).

What are we supposed to make of these stories? “Of course I’m aware of the danger of separating women artists from just artists (and in a book by a man no less!),” Currey writes. And yet, once the separation has been made, it’s not like it’s possible to read these portraits of working lives with any kind of neutrality.

I’ll be real: Women at Work left me kind of bummed out. And it made me think in a different way about how fetishizing habit plays into larger cultural trends around creative labor. Calling the thing you want to make “art” used to be embarrassing and pretentious because it implies a wish to hold oneself above the pedestrian demands of everyday life. Now, we have creative empowerment texts like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, or the 1992 cult classic The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron. Books like this don’t just provide road maps for doing creative work, but prescriptions for how to live.

These kinds of models are both antidotes to and extensions of the kind that promises to optimize performance: The 4-Hour Workweek, or Tony Robbins seminars, or whatever Joe Rogan’s on about this time. Where ambition meets wellness culture, we find a kindlier and more nurturing vision of what success looks like: the idea that any fully realized person can make art, and likewise, an art-making habit will transform you into a fully realized person.

These models encourage us to view everyday living as an act of artistic self-expression unto itself. And the nice thing is that anyone can do it: These programs posit that genius is a practice, not an innate quality. Following an artistic program is a journey toward an inner wellspring; a mission to “tap” and “tune in” and “access” all the things you already know. The magic is in the details, and the details are the minutes and hours of the time you spend doing, well, pretty much anything.

That’s not something I’m prepared to shit all over. I agree that intuition is a powerful force that is simultaneously over- and undervalued, and I think it’s healthy to cultivate an ability to listen to yourself, no matter what you do for work or fun. But as the offense of navel-gazing has evolved to something more like tender and fastidious navel-grooming (I would know — I once had the most well-tended navel on the prairie!), I wonder if there’s something being missed, here.

This hit me hard when I read How to Not Always Be Working: A Toolkit for Creativity and Radical Self-Care by Marlee Grace, who is a dancer, writer, improviser, podcaster, shop owner, workshop facilitator, creative adviser, and all around ur-millennial maker. Grace is probably best known for her Instagram account Personal Practice, which is a compelling and delightful documentation of her daily improvised dance habit.

How to Not Always Be Working is a kind of manifesto crossed with a workbook for the confused, burned-out, phone-addicted creative who just wants to know where life ends and work begins. In the book — with chapters like “What Is My Work?”; “What Is Not My Work?”; and “How to Not Work When You’re Not Working,” Grace does not position herself as a guru. She offers tips and tricks and best practices gently, almost reluctantly, hedging anything that might be read as prescriptive with anecdotes about her own failures to work (and not work). She also gives up the floor by weaving in asides from other creative types detailing their own work habits and leaves fill-in-the-blank exercises for the reader.

Grace’s relationship to work is openly confused: “There is no real answer, it’s all work,” she writes. “It’s also all not work. Work is subjective.” That she’s all mixed up about these distinctions is part of her point: There’s no such thing as doing it wrong when all you’re trying to do is exist.

I liked How to Not Always Be Working. It also made me feel like I’d lost my goddamn mind. This book is more like a bundle of symptoms than a cure — and whatever it’s got, I’ve got it bad too. The conflation of living and creativity seems well and good when it’s an attempt to find meaning and connection, but it’s also a recipe for having no idea where the borders are between what you are and what you make.

Are any of us capable of doing good work without longing to be recognized or rewarded for it?

The elevation of our habits to sacred acts aims to reappraise what counts as time meaningfully spent. But valuing every part of your life as part of a “process” is a holistic act only if you can actually decouple it from how you measure and value the result — whether that’s a hand-knit sweater, an essay, or a line of code. How many of us can really do that? Can we afford to? Where would we start? As long as everything we do is potentially monetizable — from our creative hobbies to our social influence to the data we generate by performing basic tasks online — I’m not sure it will ever be possible.

Finding your artistic way may sound like a spiritual pilgrimage, but isn’t the point of such a sojourn away from worldly demands ultimately to return to the playing field with better work? And are any of us capable of doing good work without longing to be recognized or rewarded for it? I’m starting to think that even the gentlest, most self-caring versions of creative habit formation — something I enthusiastically give myself to all the time — still show trace quantities of competitive edge-seeking.

Much in the same way that the fetish for wellness swallows and camouflages the desire to be thin, maybe getting in touch with your most authentic creative self is at some base level still about increasing productivity and status. Which forces me toward some unpleasant questions: Is real creativity even possible under capitalism? Does worshipping at a creative altar just mean finding new ways to win?

When I was a kid, I seem to recall that “creative” was a euphemism for spacey and messy and bad at math. Now, corporate America has coopted creativity into a marketable identity for both workers and jobs, and yet our economic system fails to sustain the vast majority of people who actually create things. It doesn’t matter — at least it doesn’t matter enough — how good they are: Even the most rarified artistic talent requires large-dose infusions from catalysts of privilege and/or luck not only to be rewarded, but to survive.

I once attended a Q&A where novelist Zadie Smith addressed a room full of grad students in the humanities and fine arts. The audience was small enough to feel like we were getting to see something up close, too large to really be intimate. Of course someone asked the usual questions about art and life, art and parenting, art and work (questions I’m always burning with and might have asked if they hadn’t): How does it all fit it all together? How do you do it? What’s your advice?

“Have money,” Smith said. The room laughed like this was a clever joke, but she wasn’t being glib — just real. I felt like I’d been slapped. Her answer was so simple and honest it might have been mistaken for confession, were the tone not totally undemanding. It lingered near my solar plexus for days: Zadie Smith hadn’t made time to work; she’d bought it.

That truth was a far more valuable gift to me than even the most appealing, elegant, mystical enunciation of her daily routine. Smith was willing to offer herself up as a model only of the privilege success affords, and in doing so she might have been revealing a broader truth: that no one’s life is a model for anything but themselves.

To be honest, I haven’t gotten over my infatuation with habits. I still relish all of it — the headstands and constitutional speed-walking and burying myself upright in that ludicrous, world-denying cape. These are repetitive movements, gestures I know by heart, ways I’ve conjured to disappear within the confines of presence. Truth is, I’m a sucker. And I’m desperate. I’ll do just about anything if I think it might jolt or coddle or lure me there: that gray and aching place where the alchemy of converting an inner life into an outer one feels nearly possible. The process isn’t time I pass; it’s time I worship. It’s the closest I can picture myself coming to prayer. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be allowed to call doing it my work.

My year of freedom came and went. The jury’s still out on whether I made the most of it. One might notice the failed book proposal, the unimpressive word count, the fact that I was diagnosably lonely and ridiculous. But the real failure was obviously this: Everything in my life was designed to serve an aesthetic purpose rather than an ethical one. I was chasing the shadow of a shadow, serving only myself — worse, an idea of myself. I wasn’t making myself responsible to any other human being.

That’s no way to live. And I don’t plan to make a habit of it. ●

Suzannah Showler is a poet and nonfiction writer. She is the author, most recently, of Most Dramatic Ever, a book of cultural criticism about The Bachelor.

Spot illustrations by Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Getty Images.

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