The Daily Routine of Genius

| July 7, 2014

daily-routine-of-geniusTo many people “routine” means a boring, repetitive pattern of events. But evidence is growing that a disciplined daily routine can be the foundation of great productivity.

In his recent book Daily Rituals, How Artists Work, author Mason Currey examined the daily schedules of 161 painters, writers, composers, and scientists; and concluded that “solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies.”

A similar study was done by Sarah Green of the Harvard Business Review who reviewed the daily activities of geniuses like Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, and likewise found that having a set routine lets you put all of your energy into your work. Rather than spending your time deciding what to do, your time is spent doing it. In the words of author John Grisham, he had “these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important.”

The stories reported by Currey and Green are fascinating and fun. Mark Twain would go to his study after a hearty breakfast and work there uninterrupted (and smoke cigars constantly) until dinner at 5 PM – this from the man who famously said “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”

Winston Churchill awoke about 7:30 a.m. and remained in bed for a substantial breakfast, reading his mail and all the national newspapers, and dictating to his secretaries, not getting out of bed until 11 AM.

C.S. Lewis described his day this way: “I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. … At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road.”

Perhaps the most thorough routine was that of Benjamin Franklin, who wrote that “The precept of Order requiring that every part of my business should have its allotted time, one page in my little book contained the following scheme of employment for the twenty-four hours of a natural day.” That page of Franklin’s little book is shown above.

Of course, we cannot reverse-engineer the genius of great minds by replicating their routines. Nevertheless, those who study these routines of genius have found several things most of them had in common, and which can be adapted to the lives of us more common folk.

  1. They minimized distractions. Researchers are finding that constant distractions make us not only more distracted, but also less creative. The great minds knew to block out the noise and work in quiet space.
  2. They went for a daily walk. Daily exercise was important to them. Friedrich Nietzsche took a two-hour walk twice a day, once in the morning and again after lunch. Immanuel Kant, Charles Dickens, Soren Kierkegaard, and Ludwig van Beethoven all did their thinking while walking.
  3. They had a set time for busywork. Green writes that “Many [creative geniuses] would divide the day into real work (such as composing or painting in the morning) and busywork (answering letters in the afternoon).” They would know their most productive time of day, and schedule their most important work then, with the less important work in down times.
  4. They had their own accountability metrics. This seems to be especially important to authors. Green notes that Ernest Hemingway tracked his daily word output on a chart “so as not to kid myself.” Anthony Trollope required of himself a rate of 250 words for every 15 minutes. BF Skinner started and stopped his writing sessions by setting a timer, “and he carefully plotted the number of hours he wrote and the words he produced on a graph.”
  5. They would not work to exhaustion. There is an old saying for athletes training for endurance events: rest before you are tired, drink before you are thirsty, and downshift before you have to. The great geniuses seemed to follow that pattern; working in a creative rhythm, rather than running on empty. Mozart, however, was an exception to this rule, and would work from 6 AM to until 1 AM the next morning (and died at age 35).
  6. They had a supportive partner. Most had a devoted spouse, or one close friend, who supported, encouraged, and protected them. They had limited social activity, but one person they chiefly relied upon.

The power of a positive routine can also be seen in many of the great people of the Bible. Job was a blameless and upright man. He would rise early every morning to make prayer for his children, and “thus Job did regularly.” (Job 1: 5). Daniel prayed and gave thanks to God three times each day “as was his custom since early days.” (Daniel 6: 10). The Psalmist writes of the godly person who meditates on the Word of God day and night. (Psalm 1: 2). Most of all, Jesus seemed to have a daily schedule of prayer each morning (Mark 1: 35). In the words of the great athlete, Congressman, and Christian Jim Ryun: “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

Category: Lifestyle