I have always wondered what great minds do daily — the tiny details that help them achieve their goals and purpose? Do they strive to read or work a certain number of hours a day? How much impact does their downtime have on their work? What do they think about in solitude? And why do some of them devote a lot of time to their work, while others spend very little but still achieve more?
Mason Curry’s book Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration And Get To Work has answered a lot of my questions. The path to greatness is paved with habits, routines and rituals.
The one true lesson of the book, says Currey is that “there’s no one way to get things done”. Still, some patterns do emerge.
Great Minds Stick To A Predictable And Stable Routine
Extraordinary minds start their day on purpose.
Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Routine provides a sense of structure and familiarity. You wake up with a sense of ownership, order, and organisation of your life.
Routines are the secret weapon of great minds and have been for centuries. Many thinkers do what they do with iron regularity.
It’s how they function at their best without thinking too much about daily structures for high performance. Habits and routines free our brains from continual small decisions, so we can easily do our best work.
Poet W.H. Auden recommended a routine approach to better work:
“Decide what you want or ought to do with the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”
A lot of highly productive philosophers and creative minds depend on predictable daily routines as a safe place for work.
Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher who became one of the most influential of all modern thinkers was an early riser and spent a lot of his time alone at the peak of his career — mostly by choice.
In his book, Friedrich Nietzsche: A Biography, Curtis Cate wrote:
“With a Spartan rigour which never ceased to amaze his landlord-grocer, Nietzsche would get up every morning when the faintly dawning sky was still grey, and….work uninterruptedly until eleven in the morning.”
“He then went for a brisk, two-hour walk through the nearby forest or along the edge of Lake Silvaplana (to the north-east) or of Lake Sils (to the south-west), stopping every now and then to jot down his latest thoughts in the notebook he always carried with him.”
And Nietzsche worked — a lot. He used almost the same routine to focus on writing, reading and understanding ideas. His schedule was disciplined, consistent, but a lot of wandering and thinking.
He once said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
Immanuel Kant, an influential German philosopher and one of the most influential philosophers in the history of Western philosophy was also a man of stable routine. Here’s his schedule according to Manfred Kuehn, the author of Kant: A Biography:
“He got up at 5:00 A.M. His servant Martin Lampe, who worked for him from at least 1762 until 1802, would wake him. The old soldier was under orders to be persistent, so that Kant would not sleep longer. Kant was proud that he never got up even half an hour late, even though he found it hard to get up early. It appears that during his early years, he did sleep in at times. After getting up, Kant would drink one or two cups of tea–weak tea. With that, he smoked a pipe of tobacco. The time he needed for smoking it “was devoted to meditation.”
“His lectures began at 7:00, and they would last until 11:00. With the lectures finished, he worked again on his writings until lunch. Go out to lunch, take a walk, and spend the rest of the afternoon with his friend Green. After going home, he would do some more light work and read.”
A life without a daily routine or structure is so much more draining mentally, physically, and emotionally than you can ever imagine!
Without a routine, life just sort of happens to you. The day either gets wasted as you try to decide what to do, or you find yourself tangled up in the wants and needs of everybody else. Routines help you achieve your goals.
Benjamin Franklin asked himself each morning (at 5 am), “What good shall I do today?”; every night before bed (around 10 pm), “What good have I done to-day?”.
He used this habit to help him focus on his most important priorities. What’s your answer to the question What good shall I do today?
Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon, and what he observed informed his writing.
Ludwig van Beethoven also took long walks after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck.
Ernest Hemingway tracked his daily word output on a chart “so as not to kid myself” he said.
Not only do routines and rituals allow you to do more, but, as with all daily structures, they simply give your life more rhythm, order and even pleasure.
Marie Curie, a renowned scientist and known for her huge contribution to the fight against cancer was literally described as a “mad scientist” or a “maniacal worker” because of how insanely interested she was by what she was doing.
Nikola Tesla, who made dozens of breakthroughs in the production, transmission and application of electric power maintained a rigid schedule.
He used to walk about ten miles a day, thinking through ideas for new inventions — the habit eventually becoming something of a compulsion.
“As a young apprentice in Thomas Edison’s New York office, Tesla regularly worked from 10:30 in the morning until 5:00 the following morning,” writes Curry.
History’s great minds knew the relevance of stepping away from work every now and then to think, make better connections and ponder over existing problems.
Studies have shown that regular downtime (taking breaks on purpose) boosts alertness, energy, productivity, creativity, and mental focus.
Although Charles Darwin followed a rigid schedule, he made time for contemplative walks.
While working on his famous theory of evolution, Darwin took daily walks to think, and most importantly to observe and notice nature. Walking the same route each day from his house, through shady woods Darwin referred to this as his ‘thinking path’.
Albert Einstein played the violin to take a break and think about his projects. claiming that it was in some ways an extension of his thinking and that it helped him to solve tricky problems.
Einstein apparently slept contentedly for up to 10 hours a night, on top of which he’d take several naps during the day.
Modern life, increasingly defined by unpredictability can be stressful. A productive routine can provide the anchor of predictability you need to function at your best. Pablo Picasso once said:
“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.”
History’s greatest minds optimized their daily lives to get on top of their games. Routine was their secret weapon. Daily routines help us make time for what matters most to us.
Daily practice is a game-changer for your life and career — but it pays to review it once a while to find out what works and what doesn’t. That way, you can keep doing more of what works whilst wasting less time on unproductive tasks and activities.
This article first appeared on Medium.