Learning from the lifestyle of geniuses

It’s safe to say I’m a schedule girl. Ever since my eight-year-old self was sketching out plans for my summer days under the excellent tutelage of my mother, I’ve loved to see a day come together—from a blank white page to an organized list of times, places, and tasks. So I was, of course, fascinated by the premise of Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work—descriptions of the daily routines of 161 famous writers, poets, playwrights, journalists, artists, and other interesting and creative minds.

I couldn’t put the book down, and devoured it at some detriment to my own schedule—but what I learned along the way was definitely worth it. Even if your own hours don’t permit reading this interesting and inspirational book, here’s what I learned, with some suggestions for applying these (sometimes wildly different!) life stories to your own time and place.

01. Let your preferences be weird.

Something that really stuck out, right from the beginning, was how willing genius minds were to do things that other people would find really bizarre. The famous philosopher Kierkegaard would pour sugar straight from the bag into his coffee cup until it was in a huge pyramid and then pour coffee on top of that. Picasso made a resolution to “drink nothing but mineral water or milk and eat only vegetables, fish, rice pudding, and grapes.” (Why grapes?) Maya Angelou left the house in the morning to work in a hotel or motel room furnished with “a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry.” My personal favorite might be famous preacher Jonathan Edwards, who would go on horseback rides while thinking and employed a truly unique way of remember the ideas that came to him on those rides: “For each insight he wished to remember, he would pin a small piece of paper on a particular part of his clothes, which he would associate with the thought. . . . At the end of trips of several days, his clothes might be covered by quite a few of these slips of paper.”

And who are these people? Only some of the world’s most famous geniuses of all time. Sometimes we get a little too worried about being normal. So you only like to work at windows with south-facing light? So you can only write in one particular sweatshirt? So you only get creative ideas when you blast Arcade Fire? That’s okay. Work your funny little preferences into your schedule, rather than pretending you don’t have them. At least you’re not galloping through early American countryside with a million little pieces of paper pinned to your coat.

02. Okay, yes, get up early . . . maybe.

You knew it was coming: a recurring theme in these schedules was an early morning. Ben Franklin (Mr. “Early to Bed, Early to Rise”) rose at 5; Victor Hugo “rose at dawn, awakened by the daily gunshot from a nearby fort”; Oliver Sacks was another 5 a.m. devotee (“not out of virtue, but because this is the way my sleep-wake cycle goes,” the neurologist and author confessed). But there were plenty of (famous and successful) exceptions. Voltaire stayed in bed until noon. F. Scott Fitzgerald began his day at 11. Beside the late birds, there were crazy night owls: Nikola Tesla worked every day from 10:30 am to 5:00 the following morning. Glenn Gould would record his music from 7 p.m. to 1 or 2 a.m. (he “slept until the late afternoon, often making a few phone calls to help himself wake up”). And then there were some schedules that might sound like yours: Sigmund Freud rose at 7. Igor Stravinsky rose at “about eight” and then did “physical exercises.” Albert Einstein had breakfast and read the paper from 9 to 10. Alice Munro “wrote in the slivers of time she could find between housekeeping and child-rearing duties.”

There are lots of articles out there about how waking up at 5 a.m. will change your life, or why it’s always worth it to wake up early for yoga or meditation or drinking hot lemon water. And these are worthwhile goals. But what I learned from these idiosyncratic schedules is that whatever your ambition is—writing, or art, or even some extra time to journal or read—it’s not your rising time that’s getting in your way. All these artists are successful in dramatically different ways; it’s important to find what works for you, not fit yourself into a preconceived paradigm of what success looks like.

03. You can be as repetitive as you want to.

This one blew my mind: how many famous people would eat the same thing. Every. Single. Day. You remember Picasso and the grapes; the composer Mahler’s regular breakfast was “freshly ground coffee, milk, diet bread, butter, and jam.” Haruki Murakami eats “mostly vegetables and fish.” Abstract artist Gerard Richter has a regular lunch of “yogurt, tomatoes, bread, olive oil, and chamomile tea.” Charles Schulz (the cartoonist behind Peanuts) had a lunch that was “almost always a ham sandwich and a glass of milk.” Not only would they eat the same thing, they would follow the same routine over and over again. In the words of poet Philip Larkin, “I suppose everyone tries to ignore the passing of time—some people by doing a lot, being in California one year and Japan the next. Or there’s my way—making every day and every year exactly the same.” 

I think we sometimes oversubscribe to the idea that “variety is the spice of life.” In our modern American culture, we’re always being prodded to reinvent ourselves—get the next iPhone, subscribe to the latest fitness trend, try yet another food protocol. In many countries around the world, the daily diet is more or less the same day in and day out, often even meal to meal. And the principle of repetition extends beyond food. The elusively-chic French woman, for example, is not afraid to wear the same outfit today that she wore earlier that week, as this article emphasizes: “The American impulse is to look in the closet and say, ‘I can’t wear that, I just wore it on Tuesday!’ French women, on the other hand, say, ‘That looked great on Tuesday—I think I’ll wear it again.’”

Why are we so afraid of repetition? There are probably many reasons, but try giving yourself permission to eat the same thing every day, or wear the same scarf a few times a week. These artists, writers, and composers were able to accomplish so much, perhaps in part because they were not plagued by the decision fatigue so common today. A good place to start might be eating the same thing for breakfast each morning. I’ve tried this, and it’s astonishingly helpful—why bombard your early-morning self with fifty decisions about yogurt or kefir, orange juice or milk, eggs or one of your six different kinds of cereal? Making this one decision ahead of time and eating the same thing every morning could set you up for success.

04. Walk.

The amount of walking in these pages was truly striking. Currey writes of Kirkegaard, “The Danish philosopher’s day was dominated by two pursuits: writing and walking.” Beethoven took a daily walk after lunch, “a long, vigorous walk, which would occupy much of the afternoon.” Other dedicated walkers include Immanuel Kant, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov (who said he liked to take “a short stroll with my wife around the lake” in his work break). Often, it seemed that these great minds generated a lot of their ideas over their walks. Spending the time to let their minds go free allowed them to reap the benefits in creativity and intuition.

You might not have “much of the afternoon” to walk, but we all know that we could do more walking than we currently do. Try a quick walk over your lunch break or the classic trick of parking your car further from the store to get your blood flowing and your mind more agile. Or you can try Cal Newport’s technique and take a productive walk with a particular question or problem in mind that you’re trying to solve. If you’re in an unpredictable climate, have a backup walking plan: maybe there’s a nearby gym or indoor walking track where you can take refuge if the weather is against you. Walking on a treadmill is still walking, and you’re following in the footsteps (I couldn’t resist) of many great minds whose best ideas were sparked by a brisk walk.

05. Work hard. Or, alternatively, hardly work.

There were, of course, serious workaholics in these pages. T.S. Eliot held down a day job in a bank and did all his poetry and criticism on the side (as did Wallace Stevens, though he worked in insurance). And don’t forget Nikola Tesla’s 10:30 a.m.–5:00 a.m. gig (that’s an 18 and a half hour work day, if anyone’s counting). But it was surprising how little some of the famous people in these pages worked. According to philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, “One can be very fertile without having to work too much . . . Three hours in the morning, three hours in the evening. This is my only rule.” Famous composer Stravinsky worked from 9 to 1. According to Currey, Henry Miller was another hardly-worker: “Two or three hours in the morning were enough for him.” But even less was possible. “In Everybody’s Autobiography, [Gertrude] Stein confirmed that she had never been able to write much more than half an hour a day—but added, ‘If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day.’” 

We often think that our success is directly proportional to the time and effort we spend on something, but examples like these prove that it’s possible to get a lot of work done in a limited period of time, if we are dedicated and serious about what we are working on. Applying this idea directly might not be doable for everyone, but maybe there’s a major hobby or project that you’ve been feeling you just don’t have the time for. Take a leaf from Gertrude Stein’s book and work for just half an hour a day—and reap the benefits “year by year.”

Since reading the book, I’ve become inspired to build myself a daily routine that is functional yet quirky. As Currey himself emphasizes, the point of reading all these daily routines is to realize that there’s no automatic formula for success: your routine can be a catalyst for your ideal life in whatever unusual way your heart desires!