famous thinkers’ daily rituals: an inspiration

Posted on March 31st, 2010

I am pretty much obsessed with how other people run their lives. Since I was a kid I’ve asked others what time they wake up, how they organise their mornings, what little things do they stick to to get through their day. Because I think these kind of details give an insight into their success, and the vulnerability of their character. And vulnerability is often the portal to connection. I find. 60206_6_468

Me, I start my day at 6.30 and exercise for 40 minutes, generally at the beach because the ocean wakes me up and sets the mood for my day (my Qi Gong teacher said 15 minutes in the ocean is enough to ground you for the day). I don’t phaff around the house. It’s clothes on and out, down the hill, on my bike. Then I meditate for 20 minutes, generally at the beach.

My ritual works to this point. Then it’s chaos for the rest of the day. But so long as this start-t0-the-day is in place, most things flow OK from there.

This rundown of famous thinkers’ daily rituals from onlinecollege is inspiring right now. I’m really scatty with my rituals and it’s making me scatty all over.

I like how neurotic some of the rituals are (having to eat an apple under the Arc de Triomphe every morning). And how stringent most are in adhering to them.

Interesting observation: many  famous thinkers go to bed by 9.30 every night.

  • Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway described his writing ritual as starting just as the sun began rising, then working straight through until whatever he had to say was said. He likens completing his morning of writing to making love to someone you love–being both empty and fulfilled at the same time. Upon completing that morning’s work, he would wait until the next morning to begin again, going over his ideas in his head and holding on to the anticipation of starting again the next day.
  • Fred Rogers. (from the long-lasting PBS children’s show). Each day he would wake at 5:30 and begin his day with reading, writing, study, and prayer. He would take a swim most days of his life, take a late-afternoon nap, and go to bed at 9:30 each night. Perhaps the most idiosyncratic of his rituals was that he kept his weight at 143 pounds his entire adult life. He saw his weight one day and realized it aligned with the number of letters in “I love you” and vowed to maintain that weight, which he did.
  • Stephen King. This famed writer keeps to a strict routine each day, starting the morning with a cup of tea or water and his vitamin. King sits down to work between 8:00 and 8:30 in the same seat with his papers arranged on his desk in the same way. He claims that starting off with such consistency provides a signal to his mind in preparation for his work.
  • Gertrude Stein. This famous writer discovered inspiration in her car. Apparently she would sit in her parked car and write poetry on scraps of paper.
  • Immanuel Kant. Kant would begin his day with one or two cups of weak tea and a pipe of tobacco. While smoking, he would meditate. He would then prepare for his lectures, conduct lectures from 7:00 to 11:00, write, then have lunch. Lunch would be followed by a walk and time with his friend. The evening would consist of a bit more light work and reading.

I think a lot of success comes from being firm in your convictions and in creating your parameters. In my experience chatting to various writers and thinkers, success only comes when you work out your own routine. Most people with normal jobs have their routine dictated to them…but when you work for yourself, you have to build one yourself.  Toni Morrrison stresses this:

  • Toni Morrison. Writer Toni Morrison describes not only her daily routine, but the importance of rituals to writers. Morrison describes her own ritual involving making a cup of coffee and watching the light come into the day. Her habit of rising early was first formed as the mother to three children, but after her children left home, she discovered a routine of her own–that still includes early mornings. Morrison urges all writers to look at what time of day they are most productive and what type of surrounding is most conducive to their work to help form rituals that will promote creativity.
  • Barack Obama. Taking care of physical fitness and family are two important elements of President Obama’s daily ritual. He starts his day with a workout at 6:45, reads several newspapers, has breakfast with his family, and then starts his work day just before 9:00 in the morning. He may work as late as 10:00 some evenings, but always stops to have dinner with his family each day.
  • Alexander Dumas. Whether or not he had heard the adage about keeping the doctor away, the writer of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, Dumas started each day eating an apple under the Arc de Triomphe.
  • Benjamin Franklin. Franklin kept to a tight schedule, starting his day waking at 4:00 am. Until 8:00, he would wake, wash, eat breakfast, and think about what he would accomplish for the day. From 8:00 to 12:00, he worked. Lunch was from 12:00-1:00, where he ate, read, or looked over his accounts. He then worked until 5:00. The evening was filled with dinner, cleaning up, music or conversation, a look back over his day, and then bed at 10:00.
  • Haruki Murakami. This popular Japanese novelist sticks to a specific daily schedule that begins at 4:00 when he awakes. He writes for five or six hours, then either runs 10k or swims 1500 meters (or sometimes, both). After his workout, he reads and listens to music until he goes to bed at 9:00. Murakami claims that writing a novel requires both the physical and mental strength that his routine provides.
  • Franz Kafka. Kafka started his day at his job at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute from 8:30 to 2:30. Afterward he would lunch until 3:30, then sleep until 7:30. Upon waking, he would do exercises and have dinner with his family. He began writing at 11:00 in the evening, usually working until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning–sometimes later.
  • Charles Darwin. In his middle and later years, Darwin stuck to a very rigid schedule that started at 7:00 in the morning with a short walk, then breakfast. He would then work throughout the morning. Lunch, at 12:45, was his biggest meal of the day. His afternoon was also scheduled and consisted of two walks, reading, and backgammon. Darwin could not tolerate much socializing, and kept it to a maximum of 30 minutes at a time.
  • Kingsley Amis. This British comic novelist and poet was also famous for his love of alcohol. He kept to a strict routine of writing in the morning until about 1:00, when he would take care of his dressing and shaving, then begin the afternoon with a drink and a smoke. He would work until lunch at 2:00 or 2:15, sometimes going back after lunch to work and sometimes not. He considered any work accomplished in the afternoon a bonus. When the bar opened at 6:00, he would fortify himself with more alcohol and work again until 8:30.
  • Winston Churchill. While Churchill’s routine may not be for everyone, it seemed to revolve around lots of food and drink. He would rise at 7:30 and stay in bed until 11:00 where he would eat breakfast, read several newspapers, and dictate to his secretaries. When he finally got out of bed, he would bathe, take a walk outside, then settle in to work with a weak whisky and soda. Lunch began at 1:00 and lasted until 3:30, after which he would work or play cards or backgammon with his wife. At 5:00 he napped for an hour and a half, then bathed again and got ready for dinner. Dinner was considered the highlight of his day, with much socializing, drinking, and smoking that sometimes went past midnight. After his guests left, he would then work for another hour or so before heading to bed.
  • James Thurber. Another writer with difficulties seeing, Thurber would often compose his work in his head at almost anyplace he found himself. His wife would recognize the look in his eyes and interrupt him mid-paragraph while they were socializing at a party, and his daughter saw him retreat into his private world over dinner. His method later in life was to spend all morning composing his text in his head, then between 2:00 and 5:00 he would dictate about 2,000 words to his secretary.
  • Gunter Grass. This German writer starts his day at 9:00 or 10:00 with a long breakfast that includes reading and music. Afterwards, he begins working, taking only a break for coffee in the afternoon, and finishes at 7:00 in the evening. He claims that he needs daylight to work effectively. When he writes at night, the work comes easily, but upon reading it in the morning, appears to be of lesser quality.
  • John Grisham. When Grisham first began writing, he still had his day job as a lawyer. In order to do both, he stuck to a ritual of waking at 5:00 and shower, then head off to his office, just five minutes from home. He had to be sitting at his desk with a cup of coffee and a yellow legal pad by 5:30. He gave himself a goal of writing one page per day. Sometimes this page went as quickly as ten minutes while other days required one or two hours. After finishing his daily page of writing, Grisham would then turn his attention to his day job.
  • Gerhard Richter. Famous German artist, Gerhard Richter, sticks to the same basic routine he has for years. He wakes at 6:15 and makes breakfast for his family, then takes his daughter to school. By 8:00 he is in his studio, where he stays until lunch at 1:00. After lunch, he returns to this studio until the evening. He claims that his days are not usually filled with painting, but with the planning of his pieces. He puts off the actual painting until he has created a kind of crisis for himself, then pours himself into it.
  • Simone de Beauvoir. French writer and lifelong companion to Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir reported that she got bored if she didn’t work and tried to work every day except the few months she would take off to travel. While writing, she woke with tea, then began her work around 10:00. She would work until 1:00, then have lunch and socialize with friends. At 5:00, she would resume working, usually at Sartre’s apartment, until she would stop for the day at 9:00.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre. In a letter Sartre wrote to de Beauvoir some thirty years before her recounting of her daily working routine, Sartre describes his days, which is noticeably similar to the pattern later described by de Beauvoir. Sartre writes about waking early and having coffee in a cafe, then reading, teaching classes and private lessons, then lunch. After lunch, he would do more reading and letter writing.
  • Jacques Barzun. This French-born American historian and cultural critic celebrated his 100th birthday just two years ago and still enjoys a life of routine and work. He starts his day at 6:00 with coffee and the local newspaper, followed by 45 minutes of exercise, then a morning of work in his study. He spends his afternoon reading. Cocktails are at 6:30, followed by a light dinner. Barzun’s evening is spent reading the New York Times, no TV, and bed by 9:30.

I also like this other post on insidecollege about successful people who failed first. Like Thomas Edison who created 1000 light bulbs before he got it right.

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  • Paul

    Aristotle says it all for me: “We are what we repeatedly do, therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

    (Commonly known but only just realised it’s been misattributed to him > http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Aristotle).

    I just LOVE my daily rituals and feel very lost when out of step with them. I’m like a 5 year old who needs routine.

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  • Alarna

    I would love to be an early riser. Imagine all you could get done in the early dawn hours when the world is quiet and still…. But alas it’s one habit I’m yet to master. I rarely go to bed before midnight so makes it hard to get up at 5am!

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  • http://www.katiecrackernuts.blogspot.com/ katiecrackernuts

    Oh God. So pleased I am not the only one who asks inane questions like that. I want to know about people’s routines, and I have honed the art of asking people how old they are. I am desperate to know where people are in their “life stage”. I’m 36 and almost an empty-nester. Of four – aged 23, 21, 19 and 16. Do the math, go on. You see, it’s interesting. (Just to clear things, all my step-children but raised by moi and their real parent).

    Anyhoot, glad you liked the black and white ones. Still my favs too.

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  • http://www.sharnanigans.com sharni montgomery

    right, if my thoughts are to become famous I must stop hitting the sack at midnight. Going to try and get a strict routine into place, I too would like exercise, meditation and coffee to be part of the daily equation. I’m an early riser due to baby but would like to get up before he does to have some me-time. That could mean 4.30am? Nuts!
    Thanks for the food for thought…

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  • Mr MacDougall

    Oh well, my Mother was once told by one of my Year 5 primary school teachers, at one of those post-term-report meetings, that I was taking too great an interest in other students and that I was more pre-occupied with the progress of others than with my own.

    Now, I’m a Sociologist! So, it merely demonstrates that there is a niche for everybody, whatever foibles were observed and documented by their childhood overseers.

    That is a great morning routine, Sarah! I don’t know if it would be conducive to my inclinations, but the cardio routine is working wonders for me!

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  • fi

    I find this piece inspiring (as well). Who’d have thought discipline has a strong presence in the seemingly carefree and creative lifestyles of these great writers/thinkers?

    I do (did) have similar experience. An early rise around 7am was once a ritual… Fresh and ready to take on the world. It’s extremely effective when it comes to learning and writing. Contrary to that, when Im doin drawings/presentation, night-time to the wee hours in the morning is usually the case. I wonder why.

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  • http://www.kcseiferth.com K. C. Seiferth

    Love this! I’m a new writer trying to form a routine so this was very inspirational!

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