By Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
On Darwin's schedule:
After his morning walk and breakfast, Darwin was in his study by 8 and worked a steady hour and a half. At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters. At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary, greenhouse, or one of several other buildings where he conducted his experiments. By noon, he would declare, “I’ve done a good day’s work,” and set out on a long walk on the Sandwalk, a path he had laid out not long after buying Down House. (Part of the Sandwalk ran through land leased to Darwin by the Lubbock family.) When he returned after an hour or more, Darwin had lunch and answered more letters. At 3 he would retire for a nap; an hour later he would arise, take another walk around the Sandwalk, then return to his study until 5:30, when he would join his wife, Emma, and their family for dinner.
On John Lubbock’s schedule, who was Darwin's neighbor and “one of the most accomplished of England’s amateur men of science, one of the most prolific and successful authors of his time, one of the most earnest of social reformers, and one of the most successful lawmakers in the recent history of Parliament”:
And Lubbock practiced what he preached. It could be hard to manage his time when Parliament was in session, as debates and votes could extend well after midnight, but at High Elms he was up at 6:30, and after prayers, a ride, and breakfast, he started work at 8:30. He divided his day into half-hour blocks, a habit he’d learned from his father. After long years of practice, he was able to switch his attention from “some intricate point of finance” with his partners or clients to “such a problem in biology as parthenogenesis” without skipping a beat. In the afternoons he would spend a couple more hours outdoors.
That summarizes similarities in their schedules pretty well:
Darwin and Lubbock, and many other creative and productive figures, weren’t accomplished despite their leisure; they were accomplished because of it.
I wonder if their approach with long walks, naps, and regular breaks is especially well-suited for scientist and deep thinkers. They weren’t talking on the phone or listening to audiobooks during their walks, but probably thinking about their work.
On Hardy’s schedule:
G.H. Hardy, one of Britain’s leading mathematicians in the first half of the 20th century, would start his day with a leisurely breakfast and close reading of the cricket scores, then from 9 to 1 would be immersed in mathematics. After lunch he would be out again, walking and playing tennis. “Four hours creative work a day is about the limit for a mathematician,” he told his friend and fellow Oxford professor C.P. Snow. Hardy’s longtime collaborator John Edensor Littlewood believed that the “close concentration” required to do serious work meant that a mathematician could work “four hours a day or at most five, with breaks about every hour (for walks perhaps).” Littlewood was famous for always taking Sundays off, claiming that it guaranteed he would have new ideas when he returned to work on Monday.
And some research results to back all of this up:
Scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working 35 hours a week were half as productive as their 20-hours-a-week colleagues. From there, the curve rose again, but more modestly. Researchers who buckled down and spent 50 hours per week in the lab were able to pull themselves out of the 35-hour valley: They became as productive as colleagues who spent five hours a week in the lab. Van Zelst and Kerr speculated that this 50-hour bump was concentrated in “physical research which requires continuous use of bulky equipment,” and that most of those 10-hour days were spent tending machines and occasionally taking measurements.
On Charles Dickens’ schedule:
After an early life burning the midnight oil, Dickens settled into a schedule as “methodical or orderly” as a “city clerk,” his son Charley said. Dickens shut himself in his study from 9 until 2, with a break for lunch. Most of his novels were serialized in magazines, and Dickens was rarely more than a chapter or two ahead of the illustrators and printer. Nonetheless, after five hours, Dickens was done for the day.
What unites them all is a deliberate practice:
First, the great students didn’t just practice more than the average, they practiced more deliberately. During deliberate practice, Ericsson explained, you’re “engaging with full concentration in a special activity to improve one’s performance.” […] Second, you need a reason to keep at it, day after day. Deliberate practice isn’t a lot of fun, and it’s not immediately profitable.
“Deliberate practice,” they observed, “is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day.” Practice too little and you never become world-class. Practice too much, though, and you increase the odds of being struck down by injury, draining yourself mentally, or burning out. To succeed, students must “avoid exhaustion” and “limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”
And finally, on sleep and napping:
The top performers actually slept about an hour a day more than the average performers. They didn’t sleep late. They got more sleep because they napped during the day. Of course there was lots of variability, but the best students generally followed a pattern of practicing hardest and longest in the morning, taking a nap in the afternoon, and then having a second practice in the late afternoon or evening.
I am a big fan of rebooting with an afternoon nap. Long naps knock me off for a while, so my go-to recipe is a 20 minute nap followed by an espresso. For me it works better than just a coffee break, a walk, or mental switch.