For countless centuries (and especially since the rise of industrialism), our definition of productivity has been tethered to strict conceptions of the daily routine. Many bosses, for example, still believe the employee that is contributing the most to the team is the one who comes in at 7 a.m. and leaves at 9 p.m. At the very least, most of us feel like we’re somehow slacking if we’re not at our desks from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

But as is shown in this cool interactive productivity chart (and below), which is based on Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, most of the world’s greatest thinkers and artists haven’t had schedules even remotely close to a 9 to 5.


While they do have very regular patterns, great artists pay far more attention to the ebb and flow of their creative energy, and ensure their daily lives are enriched with a variety of activities related to self-care or mental stimulation. The life for our great cultural influences is about controlling their work schedules and then making the most of their own time. Here are five quick tips to help you follow in their path.

1. Set Your Own Routine, Then Stick to It

Take one look at that productivity chart, and it’s obvious that each of these great minds had their own distinct routines. Balzac, for instance, saved his creative work for when most people were sleeping (1 a.m. to 8 a.m.), napped for a couple of hours, then picked his creative work back up, and finally relaxed with friends and dinner before sleeping for six hours.

Flannery O’Connor, on the other hand, woke at 5 a.m. to attend church, did her creative work between 9 a.m. and noon, then spent the rest of her time painting, receiving guests, taking care of her birds, and practicing her other hobbies. These two routines are entirely distinct; whereas Balzac spent most of his waking life working, Flannery O’Connor spent only the morning working, then focused on other activities, which surely enriched both her creative work and her life as a whole.

Which is to say, your routine is whatever you want it to be. However, you do need to be sure to set one and stick to it, or else you’ll wind up wasting mental energy making excuses, drifting from thing to thing, and spending more time figuring out where and how you’re going to work rather than actually doing it. A routine helps you simply get out of bed in the morning and go.

2. Get Up With the Sun

Clearly, there are some thinkers on the chart that do better in the evening rather than the morning, and if that’s you, definitely stick to your night owl ways. However, many thinkers do their best work when they rise early, because there is immediacy and momentum to it. Your brain has just spent the night sorting through neural connections, strengthening some and pruning others, and it also has yet to pile up with new stresses. In this way, the morning is the clearest your head will ever be. What’s more, if you get up super early, no one else will be about and you’ll have plenty of peace and quiet. Night owls can get this same feeling by starting work once everyone has gone to bed.

3. Pump It Up

Okay, maybe you don’t have to go Arnold Schwarzenegger levels of fitness, but getting some exercise can be extremely helpful to creativity. Many artists and thinkers do well with a casual walk, as it allows their minds to focus in a slightly different way and opens them up to unexpected interactions with the world. Letting your mind drift will help it reset, and it may even give you much needed perspective on the task at hand.

4. Keep Your Day Job

Kafka famously kept his incredibly boring administrative job in Prague, and William Carlos Williams often wrote in breaks between seeing patients in his pediatrician practice. It turns out, for most people, having the structure of a day job can actually be stimulating, as it forces you to organize your life and prioritize goals in a way being “just” an artist can’t. In fact, many people theorize this is why so many artists drift into alcoholism. What’s more, a day job keeps you acquainted with the daily struggles of life, providing you with characters, emotions, and stories. Dull as it may be, it may be, the mundane aspects of life can actually be a great source for inspiration.

5. Learn to Work From Anywhere

Many young artists are romantic about where they work, but most of the greats just took whatever they could get. Sure, there are many famous examples of wacky offices, but art happens wherever the artist is — especially when that artist is an adult with many responsibilities. To get things done, you need to learn to work in any environment — especially if you find yourself most creatively stimulated when on the road. Our digital devices make that easier than ever now, so don’t let your workspace be an excuse.

As the great thinkers and artists know, talent is important, but what separates potential greatness from actual greatness is hard work and determination. To unleash your inner genius, you’ve got to sit down and do like the greats do. Good luck!

Featured photo credit: Héctor García via flickr.com

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