Study the routines of geniuses and you'll find some commonalities, according to Harvard Business Review editor Sarah Green. They tend to have set, distraction-free workspaces, understanding better halves, quiet social lives, and wiggle room-free accountability metrics (yup, even dreamy, arty types like novelists and mad scientists).

But what's one thing the highly productive and extremely creative just can't seem to agree on? How much routine is right.

Recently, for instance, I reported on the push back against those who argue for automating most of your day with fixed routines, such as always wearing a single color suit (a technique used by President Obama) or eating the same breakfast day in and day out in order to spare your brain and save your mental horsepower for more important tasks. 'Great idea!' some of you will respond. Others' gut reaction, however, is an instant 'Ugh!'.

Team Anti-Routine

Among the latter was developer Vitaly Friedman who wrote this about the idea of that level of routine: "The beauty of good ideas lies in their unpredictability. You can't schedule good ideas, and you can't come up with just the right sparkle of innovation at just the right time. They come up when you don't expect them, and often the best way to approach a problem is to leave it alone for a while, walk away, study something completely unrelated," he says.

"Routine is deadly for creativity. It's deadly for innovation and challenging design problems, too, because it hinders spontaneous decisions, random experiments, and weird ideas," he continues. The essential argument here is that creativity feeds off of unexpected connections and seemingly unproductive incubation. Keeping constantly busy and on task and you're likely to miss out on these key ingredients of ground-breaking ideas.

Team Pro-Routine

But not everyone is buying this loosey-goosey approach to scheduling and creativity. On A List Apart recently, another developer named Susan Robertson took the other side of the debate in a post entitled "Routines Aren't the Enemy."

"Routine comforts me," she declares, before noting that she recently read something that suggested she's in good company. "I read David Brook's piece in the New York Times, where he discusses routine and creative people. I am a creature of routine, so reading that so many creative, smart people are too, gives me a bit of hope," she says, before explaining exactly how routines function to support her creativity and productivity.

A relatively fixed schedule, for Robertson, seems to be the best route to the sort of 'incubation' time that Friedman fears set hours discourage. "Routine, for me, means making sure I'm taking breaks and putting some structure around my days," Robertson reports, and that includes time for ideas to marinate. "My favorite part of the day has become when I finish work and move into cooking mode. While cooking, my brain relaxes and I process things," she writes, adding that "when we allow our brains to process in the background, we're giving ourselves space to 'incubate' what we've been working on previously."

She also feels that, for her, "the 'work whenever you want' idea actually turns into working more because you work all the time."

It's an interesting contrast of perspectives. For one developer, routine is a incubation and downtime killer. For the other, an essential tool to make sure she leaves adequate space to marinate ideas and refresh her brain.

Which side of this debate do you fall on--for you, is routine an essential prop to creativity or its enemy?

Published on: Oct 17, 2014
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