I recently finished reading Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a book detailing the daily rituals and work habits of 161 prominent creatives. A fascinating look into the daily lives of well-known composers, writers, scientists, and more.
Incredibly accomplished people who have won Nobel Prizes, wrote dozens of novels or movies, published influential research, or established entirely new fields.
Yet, in reading about their daily lives, what stood out to me most was just how few hours most of them worked.
They didn't work from sunrise to sunset, most of them worked just three to four hours per day!
George Orwell, who ranked second among "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945", did all his writing in about 4,5 hours per day when he was on a break.
“Waking at 7:00, Orwell went to open the shop at 8:45 and stayed there for an hour. Then he had free time until 2:00, when he would return to the shop and work until 6:30. This left him almost four and a half hours of writing time in the morning and early afternoon, which, conveniently, were the times that he was most mentally alert. And with his writing day behind him, he could happily yawn through the long afternoons in the shop and look forward to free time in the evening”
Stephen King, who published 63 novels and approximately 200 short stories, had a set output goal. Sometimes it would take him around five hours to reach that, other days he would be done in less than three and enjoy the free afternoon and evening.
“He works in the mornings, starting around 8:00 or 8:30. Some days he finishes up as early as 11:30, but more often it takes him until about 1:30 to meet his goal. Then he has the afternoons and evenings free for naps, letters, reading, family, and Red Sox games on TV.”
Ingmar Bergman, who directed over sixty films and documentaries and is universally ranked as one of the most accomplished and influential filmmakers of all time, worked from 9am to 3pm with a 1-hour lunch break. He then took a long nap and enjoyed his free evening.
“There he followed essentially the same schedule for decades: up at 8:00, writing from 9:00 until noon, then an austere meal. After lunch, Bergman worked again from 1:00 to 3:00, then slept for an hour. In the late afternoon he went for a walk or took the ferry to a neighboring island to pick up the newspapers and the mail. In the evening he read, saw friends, screened a movie from his large collection, or watched TV”
Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology whose work has been influential in a number of other fields, set aside two hours in the morning to get his work done.
“He generally set aside two hours in the morning for concentrated writing. The rest of his day would be spent painting or meditating in his private study, going for long walks in the hills, receiving visitors, and replying to the never-ending stream of letters that arrived each day.”
Igor Stravinsky, one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century, could not manage much more work than three hours per day. Although he would do some less demanding tasks later in the afternoon.
“I get up at about eight, do physical exercises, then work without a break from nine till one,” Stravinsky told an interviewer in 1924. Generally, three hours of composition were the most he could manage in a day, although he would do less demanding tasks—writing letters, copying scores, practicing the piano—in the afternoon. ”
Patricia Highsmith, who write 22 novels and numerous short stories, had a set output goal just like Stephen King which she would usually complete within three or four hours in the morning.
“Highsmith wrote daily, usually for three or four hours in the morning, completing two thousand words on a good day. ”
Although they didn't work many hours per day, they did make sure those hours were focused and without distractions.
Thomas Mann, a Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, would make himself completely unavailable during his focused work hours and also imposed strict rules on his children so they don't disturb him while he is working.
“Then, at 9:00, Mann closed the door to his study, making himself unavailable for visitors, telephone calls, or family. The children were strictly forbidden to make any noise between 9:00 and noon, Mann’s prime writing hours. It was then that his mind was freshest, and Mann placed tremendous pressure on himself to get things down during that time. “Every passage becomes a ‘passage,’ ” he wrote, “every adjective a decision.” Anything that didn’t come by noon would have to wait until the next day, so he forced himself to “clench the teeth and take one slow step at a time.”
Sylvia Plath, a poet, novelist, and short-story writer, would wake up before the rest of her family so she would have undisturbed time to write in the morning.
“She was using sedatives to get to sleep, and when they wore off at about 5:00 A.M. she would get up and write until the children awoke. Working like this for two months in the autumn of 1962, she produced nearly all the poems of Ariel, the posthumously published collection that finally established her as a major and searingly original new voice in poetry.”
Anthony Trollope, an English novelist, only worked three hours per day but stressed the importance of training yourself to work continuously, without distractions during those three hours.
“All those I think who have lived as literary men,—working daily as literary labourers,—will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But then, he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours,”
Our traditional eight-hour workday has its roots in factory work and was started at a time when knowledge work was very rare.
Now that developed economies have shifted mostly to knowledge-based work, we should reconsider if the eight-hour workday is still optimal.
Some of the most prominent creatives of the 20th century showed that three or four hours of focused work was enough to produce both high-quality as well as a large quantity of work.
Perhaps it's time we start experimenting with shorter workdays and make sure workers have more interrupted time in their days.