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10 Ways History’s Finest Kept Their Focus at Work

Post written by Albert van Zyl from the blog HeadSpace.

The lives of great people give us interesting clues about how to organise our days.


All of them attached great value to their daily routines. This is because they saw it as being part of ‘becoming who they are’, as Nietzsche puts it.

For the same reason they were also highly individual in their routines. They had the courage to go against popular opinion and work out often strange daily plans that suited them.

This is perhaps the first lesson that we can learn – that it takes courage and resolve to design and stick to a routine that suits you. But as Emerson reassures us: ‘The world makes way for the man who knows where he is going’.

There are at least 10 other lessons that the daily routines of the great can teach us:

1. Don’t work long hours

Despite the modern obsession with physical presence at offices (also known as ‘presenteeism’), very few of the great worked long hours.

Philosopher Michel Foucault would only work from 9am to 3pm. Beethoven only worked from sunrise until the early afternoon. No 12 hour days here. Author Tom Robbins schedules only 3 hours of writing at his desk per day.

2. Take breaks

Even during these short days, the great took plenty of breaks.

Socrates would sometimes simply stop and hold completely still for several minutes. Beethoven was known to punctuate his mornings by running outside and walking around – he called it ‘working while walking’.

3. Take even longer breaks

The great all spent a single long period away from their desks every day to give their minds time to recover and regain its creative poise.

Beethoven started work at daybreak, but wrapped up by two or three in the afternoon which left him a good 14 hours away from work. Victor Hugo wrote in the mornings and took afternoons off entirely. Churchill would do nothing work-related between noon and around 11 at night.

4. Stop work and sit down for meals

Churchill would even have a bath and dress for meals. For us mere mortals, this injunction could simply mean sitting down with your sandwich away from you desk, on a bench in the park or somewhere else. Or resolving to chew and taste your food properly.

5. Don’t work in the afternoons

There are some exceptions, but very few of our heroes did any serious work in the afternoon.

After writing in the morning, Victor Hugo spent his afternoons riding around Paris in double decker busses, watching his brethren about their work. For us this might mean blocking off afternoons for long tea breaks and non-essential tasks.

6. Mix it up

The days of the great contain a surprising variety of activities. It seems that we don’t have to focus on a small range of things to succeed.
Even the grim German philosopher, Immanuel Kant went for afternoon walks and sat down for lunch with friends each day. Gandhi walked, spun, had a long bath and massage.

Churchill painted, fed his fish, played card games and constructed buildings all over Chartwell farm. He famously claimed that our minds don’t need rest as much as they need variety.

7. Aim low

Don’t schedule every minute of your day. Leo at Zenhabits suggests that we have morning and evening routines, and leave the middle of the day open for completing key tasks and other things that come up.

Daily routines are supposed to make things easier, not more complicated. Micro managing every minute of your day does not work.

8. Take time to relax

The great all reserved time to relax. And this doesn’t mean engaging in some semi-productive activity like reading a book or washing the dishes. No, they blocked out time to do nothing at all.

Gandhi would often spend time just staring at the horizon. Churchill would sit down to smoke a cigar after lunch and Beethoven would stop off for a few beers after his afternoon walk. In his recent autobiography, Alan Greenspan mentions that he too makes time to reflect each day.

9. Get up early(?)

This one is the subject of hot debate. Samuel Johnson, Churchill and Dylan Thomas got up late. Gandhi, Franklin and Mandela all got up early.

But whether they were early birds or night owls, the great all make sure that they had long periods of uninterrupted quiet time; whether late at night or early in the morning.

10. Exercise!

Al Gore interrupts his work day at 3pm to go for a run. Emerson, Beethoven, Nietzsche, Victor Hugo and Gandhi all went for walks. Nietzsche said that he ’scribbled’ notes while he took his walk and claims that some of his best thoughts came in this way.

Mandela’s 5 am walks are legendary. The story goes that he once invited a persistent journalist to interview him during this morning walk – but she ended up being too out of breath to ask any questions.

Albert’s blog provides weird, insightful and funny bits that allow you to protect and enhance your Headspace. Check it out or subscribe to his feed.