Daily Rituals

Mason Currey’s book “Daily Rituals” (2015) offers interesting insights into the daily activities of creative people like writers, artists, musicians, movie directors, or scientists, and reading through these various accounts there is no common or uniform pattern, as some artists are morning persons while others are night owls. Some write an hour a day, while others are ceaseless workaholics, who find joy in overwork and overexertion. Some people write in their bed and go out very little, while others keep up a regular exercise or social life regimen along with their individual creative work. The only running theme of commonality is embedded in Currey’s book title: the ritual, or the regularity with which a task is done, and which I also briefly discussed in my bon vivant essay (Liu 2016).

Few creative people have been as conscious about their daily rituals as Immanuel Kant, who after he turned age 40 did everything on his schedule to the minute, including his daily hourlong walk at 3.30pm. Kant by that time had formulated his “categorical imperative”, which the dictionary defines as “an unconditional moral obligation that is binding in all circumstances and is not dependent on a person’s inclination or purpose”. In other words, people have to define certain binding ethical principles of moral thought and behavior and then act according to it without any deviation. Kant’s strict adherence to these ethical principles was certainly helped by the fact that he lived as a lifelong bachelor in Konigsberg, on the other reaches of Prussia (today Russia), never traveling outside given his fragile health. I have a daily and weekly ritual that is pretty watertight, which has to be somewhat thrown overboard once traveling outside the confines of Princeton.

So what are my daily rituals? Following Kant’s imperative, I define certain desirable objectives and then try to live by them. It does not work out perfectly each day, as with Kant, but it provides structure to daily life. Research and reading related to work, research and reading for fun, hobbies (music, soccer, learning foreign language, blogging), nutrition, sleep, exercise, socializing. Each element has to be fulfilled in order to fill out the day and the week.

I tend to be a night owl, which means that my sleep schedule is between 2 to 10 or 11am. When I took 9am classes, I still could not get to bed before 1.30am, and would have to take occasional naps after lunch to re-energize after about 6 hours of sleep. Since I no longer have to take these classes, I operate according to what turns out to be a “normal” schedule for me. Upon waking up, I eat breakfast, which leaves me with three choices, all influenced by my European upbringing. It is one of the three: (1) oatmeal with milk warmed in the microwave followed by two slices of whole grain wheat bread with a fruit jam and peanut butter and one banana. (2) Muesli or flaxseed cereal with cold milk followed by two slices of bread with fruit jam and Nutella, and one banana. (3) Self-made crepe with Aunt Jemima syrup and confectionary sugar and one banana. I have to drink tea, which usually is Hong Kong/ PG (black) milk tea in the morning, using evaporated milk and sugar. After finishing breakfast, I take my morning dump, which is either the only time of the day or the first of the two times, depending on the things I ingested the day prior. I then brush my teeth and put on my clothes before heading out to the office.

My clothing choices are strictly regimented, dividing between summer and winter wear (with winter wear being worn for 8 months out of the year). Summer wear is short sleeve button down, which is unbuttoned to the third button, and basketball shorts. Winter wear is a long dress shirt with a necktie and dress pants. I also wear long-johns and a sweater during the deep winter season. I have two jackets, which are worn on top of each other during the winter season. On Saturdays I don a suit jacket (of which I own 4) instead of a sweater, as I think they have to be worn occasionally. The choice of shirts, pants and neckties is non-random. Once I am done with the laundry for the week (on Saturday mornings), I iron my shirts and pants and then place them at the bottom of my clothing pile, so whenever I pick a pant or shirt from the top of the pile, it has been worn the longest time ago relative to the other clothes. Per week I use up two shirts and one pant, so I own 10 shirts and 5 pants, which means that each pant is matched with two shirts. The neckties are switched along with the shirt, i.e. twice a week (Friday and Tuesday evenings in preparation for the next day). Neckties are usually not cleaned (would be difficult to clean) and hung up on the shirt hangars in the shelf. Each shirt hangar has two or three ties and once I wore them, I shift the hangar to the right, while the unworn ones are concentrated on the left. When they are all used up, the hangars are shifted back to the left and I begin with the first tie again. Limited clothing choices allow me to spend no time on considering what to wear.

Before checking and replying to emails when heading to the office, I head downstairs to Stokes library for my daily consumption of New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, skimming most headlines and articles, and reading in-depth the stories of interest. I usually begin the research part, which is usually doing a literature review, coding up and cleaning data and writing the paper, immediately after checking the mailbox and social media (a perennial time sucker). While in the office, I listen to pop, jazz or classical music or I listen to lectures and podcasts. I would leave the office around 2pm to return home for lunch. Almost all my meals are self-cooked (unless I go out for food, which happens mostly with friends, and by myself only when I develop uncontrollable cravings for a cheesesteak or ramen). Self-cooking makes me appreciate food and ingredients more. Another problem is that the outside food in Princeton is either too greasy, cost too much and/ or lack flavor. I also find it therapeutic to think about what to buy in the supermarket and wash the dishes after the meal. I consume exactly three meals a day, and rarely snack (my favorite snack is ice cream, usually consumed after dinner). My office has a few cookies during occasional hunger pangs, and a giant supply of green, jasmine, white, oolong and wuyi tea, which is consumed along with water. Generally, hunger pangs tend to be rare if I consume enough on the three occasions, but I do notice that vegetarian meals (usually consumed outside) tend to be digested much quicker, and induce more snacking.

The content of the food is usually a mixture of Indian and Chinese dishes, which is in line with my cultural upbringing. Lunches and dinners have the same three essential ingredients: a carbohydrate (rice, noodles (Chinese or Italian), potatoes, paratha or naan bread); a meat (chicken, duck, pork, beef, occasionally a fish like salmon or cod); and a vegetable (spinach, cabbage, green beans, avocado, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, okra, bok choy, asparagus, bell pepper, tomato etc.). Supporting ingredients are ginger, garlic, onions (pre-chopped and stored in the freezer), olive oil, sesame oil, various spices (salt, pepper, chili, turmeric, coriander, cumin, all spice, star anise, five spice, curry, paprika, cayenne and similar, all in the form of powder), various sauces (soy, oyster, fish, hoisin) and herbs (basil, coriander, mint, parsley). Further condiments are laoganma chili oil, Mango pickle and bamboo shoots. Lunch is enjoyed along with a cup of Turkish tea with sugar and cardamon, and dessert is usually an apple and an orange. For dinner, I don’t have a dessert, but I add two fried eggs to the meal. For me eating is a comforting activity, which I double up with Youtube entertainment, which is watching food videos by Gordon Ramsey or the food vloggers Mark Wiens, Trevor James, Mike Chen and Sonny Side. The pleasure of eating tends to be doubled when watching food videos (but suffering is quadrupled when you watch food videos while hungry, which I strongly advise anyone against!). I also watch political news, Ted talks and documentaries while munching the meals.

At 3pm, I return back to the office and usually stay there until 8pm, when dinner time starts. I then return back to the office and stay until 1am. The most productive time is in the afternoon and after dinner. I generally stop any work after 11 or 11.30pm, and move to leisure reading or movie watching after that (usually action movies with plenty of shootings and explosions). I head home around 1am and fortunately live close to the office. I then brush my teeth, take a quick shower and head to bed, though often I would scroll through my newsfeed and read newspaper (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Spiegel, Der Standard) on my phone before closing my eyes for sleep.

Aside from food, the exercise schedule is strictly regimented. On Monday and Friday, I go swimming from 7 to 7.30pm exactly for half hour each, alternating one length in freestyle and one length in breaststroke, which is more relaxing. On Wednesday, I do weightlifting on three devices training different muscle parts going up to the physical max, which is either 90 or 110 pounds, followed by 20-30 minutes of cardio exercise, usually running. On Sunday afternoon, I participate in the soccer matches with other graduate students (I tend to be a poor runner and dribbler, but it forces me to run; I play either goalkeeper or striker, which minimizes the struggle and contact with the ball), and on all the other days, I bicycle for 20 minutes before or after dinner, which means going four times around the block of Wallace Hall, half of which is going uphill and getting my heart rate up. Without the exercise schedule, it would be difficult to sustain the research life.

As for social life, that tends to be more random, as I have a network of friends from Philadelphia, New York, Oxford and locally at Princeton. If there is an opportunity to meet either virtually by phone or in person (the latter is preferred), then I pursue it, and the pleasure is usually greater with bon vivant and intellectual friends than those that are not. As an introvert, I like small-group meetings more than large-group gatherings, but I will join the latter as well, usually when colleagues organize parties or bar outings, where I drink no more than one beer or wine glass.

The research for fun and hobbies usually revolves around writing my blogs (thanks to you for reading them!), which keeps my writing skills fresh, and producing podcasts, which are either based on the blogs or revolve around recorded conversation with friends and colleagues. I do extensive political commentary and read newspapers, systematically scouring the Princeton University library stacks on Saturday afternoons, consuming publications like Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek, Science, Jeune Afrique, L’Express Internationale, Spiegel, Time, Atlantic, Le Monde, Guardian Weekly, Die Zeit. To keep up with the research literature, I have a list of sociology and specialist (labor, economic sociology, social policy, political economy, China studies, European studies) journals, where I go through 3 or 4 journals a week, reading 1 or 2 articles of greatest interest from beginning to end. When I see interesting book titles, I order them right away at Amazon, and consume them in 2-3 days, usually at night before bed. I try to keep my Chinese skills fresh by reading the Chinese version of New York Times, and the French-language newspapers help me train my French. I have bought an acoustic guitar for the office, because of my fascination with funk and Nile Rodgers, but I have not gotten around to practice much. The 168 hours that a week has is surely not enough to do all I want to do. “Ein Leben ist nicht genug” (one life is not enough) is the title of the autobiography of Gregor Gysi, German politician, and I suffer from the same affliction.

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2 Responses to Daily Rituals

  1. Søren W says:

    Where can we listen to your podcasts?

    best regards

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