If you want to be creative and productive, how should you organize your day?  An answer is suggested in a fascinating book by Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. It describes the work routines of 161 famous writers, painters, musicians, and other creative people including a few scientists.

The individual entries are charming, but Currey draws no general conclusions. So I went over his well-documented stories, annotating them with respect to the times of day that the people did their most creative work. I was wondering how many used a routine similar to my own, which usually involves writing in the morning, reading in the afternoon, taking it easy in the evenings, and sleeping at night.

The first striking result is that most of the people—88%—did have an identifiable routine, with relatively few reporting no standard schedule. Nevertheless, some remarkable people were productive without a routine, including Federico Fellini, William James, and David Foster Wallace.

It is hard to know whether Currey’s sample is representative of creative people in general, because he does not say how he chose his particular figures. Perhaps there are more people who would say they don't have any particular routine but just didn't leave any documentation. I suspect that people who are not organized enough to have some sort of daily routine are not usually productive enough to become famous. But a larger and less arbitrary sample would be a more reliable guide to overall patterns.

The second striking result is that very few of the famous people worked all the time, from morning to night. Fewer than 10% were capable of this grueling schedule, which I find encouraging. Workaholics included Benjamin Franklin, George Gershwin, Philip Roth, and Alexander Graham Bell.

The third striking result is that a large majority of the famous people worked in the mornings, around 72%. This contrasted with 48% who worked in the afternoons, 22% who work in the evenings, and 15% who worked at night.

In the whole sample, around 25% did their creative work only in the mornings, which fits with my personal writing pattern. But around 27% managed to work creatively both morning and afternoon. Other patterns of work such as working only in the afternoons, evenings, or nights were rare, as were combinations of these. Among the very few reported to work only at night were Gustave Flaubert, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Franz Kafka, and Marcel Proust.

So if you want to advise someone how to be productive and creative, it seems best to tell them to work in the mornings and whatever other time they can manage. Unfortunately, people may be unable to take this advice because of genetic variations in circadian rhythms. The emerging field of chronobiology is identifying a genetic basis for whether people are morning larks or night owls. We have no reason to think that morning people are morally superior, just lucky in the genes that they inherited from their parents that enable them to get a quick start to the day.

Other interesting observations in Currey’s book concern the artists’ drugs of choice. Not surprisingly, the most frequently stimulants for creative people are caffeine and tobacco, but a few people are notable for their use of amphetamines to fuel their work, including the poet W. H Auden, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and the mathematician Paul Erdos.

The book doesn't contain much information about exercise, which is part of my late-afternoon routine, but daily walks were important for Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Kierkegaard, and Darwin.

How do you like to organize your day?


Thanks to Paul Bloom for pointing me to the Daily Rituals book. 

Related blog posts:

How to Write Productively

How to Be Creative

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