When Madeleine Dore first started up her Extraordinary Routines website, it was to uncover the secrets of living an organised and creative life. Five years later, she’s realised there is no secret – and that respecting our quiet, unproductive days is just as important as relishing our busy days. She talks to Capsule about that learning process and why her new book, I Didn’t Do The Thing Today, busts open this productivity myth.
Somewhere along the way, our fascination with other people’s personal lives tipped into a fascination with their professional lives as well – how did they spend their time? How did they live their most productive and creative lives? It felt like, armed with a bit more information, we were all only one or two life hacks from being Our Best Selves, and that what Elizabeth Gilbert calls our ‘elusive creative genius’ would suddenly become untapped.
It’s a fascination that Extraordinary Routines creator Madeleine Dore knows all too well. It was part of her very first job, working as an intern for a Danish entrepreneur magazine, while she was finishing her journalism degree in Copenhagen. “I loved asking people specifically what their days looked like, because it was so mystifying to me – what a creative career could look like,” she says.
Once she returned to her native Australia, Madeleine went about trying to break into the industry as a graduate – not an easy or swift process – and decided to start her blog Extraordinary Routines as a side project. Between working freelance and working in full-time roles, she kept the blog going, interviewing creative people like Ashley C Ford, Zoë Foster Blake, Ann Friedman… a collection of writers, podcasters, poets, ceramicists, artists and more.
“It started by looking how to perfect a routine, and then through doing that, realising that’s a total myth!”
Over the past five years, the blog has grown and grown in scope, and was ahead of the curve of our global obsession with morning routines/evening routines/workplace and creativity hacks. Madeleine also added a podcast to the mix, called Routines & Ruts, and now a book. Called I Didn’t Do The Thing Today, the book speaks to the journey that Madeleine went on with the blog itself.
“It started by looking how to perfect a routine, and then through doing that, realising that’s a total myth,” she laughs. “And actually, we’re setting ourselves up to fail by chasing these productivity hamster wheels. The creative people I’ve been speaking to for half a decade are the ones that are ahead of the curve in the sense that they are able to go with the ebb and flow of life.”
When you consider that a lot of the ‘productivity hacks’ we learn about tend to come from the harsh, Silicon Valley Stoic-inspired start-up mentality, or the equally crushing #girlboss/#hustle culture, there’s a real shift when reading or listening to the meandering and flexible routines of the creative people interviewed by Madeleine. Instead of force, there’s forgiveness. And creativity, like productivity, is treated as an elusive thing that comes and goes – and part of the process is understanding that sometimes, there is no process.
“Often in those moments of loafing about, you get the best creative ideas,” she says. And nowhere did this come into play more than when Madeleine was given a book deal, after three years of pitching the idea, just as a global pandemic hit and the idea of what the New York Times referred to as ‘languishing’ because a lot of people’s reality.
“We’re like sponges – we have phases when we’re absorbing a lot, and it might look like we’re not doing a lot, but that’s when all the inspiration is there. And then we have periods where we squeeze and we let out all the juicy ideas.”
“There were lots of days of languishing or, actually, ‘not doing the thing,’” she laughs. “But I’ve come to appreciate that’s part of the process. We’re like sponges – we have phases when we’re absorbing a lot, and it might look like we’re not doing a lot, but that’s when all the inspiration is there. And then we have periods where we squeeze and we let out all the juicy ideas.”
Letting go of productivity guilt has taken years, Madeleine says. She notes that it’s something we have to reframe constantly “because we live in a culture that says what we do equates to our worth.” But the best part of the job she created for herself is that it gives her free licence to follow her interests.
“It was very much just bobbing along and following my own curiosities, whether that’s an interview or an experiment or a podcast. It’s been a place to dabble and acquire skills I might need, like learning how to edit a podcast for example!”
Curiosity can be an easier inkling to follow than the old ‘follow your passion’ line, she says. “If you don’t know what your passion is, you feel like you’re failing. But curiosity is lighter, isn’t it? You can pick it up and put it down.”
As a long-term freelancer, who’s been dabbling across all sorts of creative fields, the idea of focusing on just one project in the form of a book was a little intimidating, Madeleine says. But now that it’s out in the world, it’s also a good reminder that we’re never ‘done’ with our career path; there are always, always opportunities to keep learning and keep trying new things.
“We can chase these goals, thinking that when we arrive, we’re going to feel complete and we’re going to be great and be these perfect beings.”
“It’s beautiful and daunting at the same time, because we can chase these goals, thinking that when we arrive, we’re going to feel complete and we’re going to be great and be these perfect beings,” she says. “And then you arrive and you realise there’s a whole other staircase.”
“But as long as we’re okay with the fact that there’s no such thing as ‘arriving’ as a completely happy, content and perfect person, then we can be okay with the perpetual non-arrival, and just survey the landing of where we are, from time to time.”
One helpful marker is to think of what her younger self would think of her current life and choices, Madeleine says. “Five years ago Madeleine, would she be dazzled by this life? That’s the most important measure, rather than ‘I finished a book.’ Is the younger version of me pretty chuffed about how things turned out? And then relishing in that moment for a bit, before moving onto the next thing.”