In the last lesson (before we were interrupted), we were talking about morning rituals. I recently read a book entitled Daily Rituals, by Mason Curry.

Curry cataloged the daily habits of more than 150 famous artists, thinkers, writers, painters, and composers. The list included notables such as Kant, Beethoven, Marx, Picasso, Dickens, and Hemmingway. Some of what you would imagine about this crowd was true. Many used liquid courage to fuel their work. Others chain-smoked while they wrote, and some used drugs to enhance creativity, but this was not the norm.
This is an oversimplification, but the more artsy, the more likely they were to abuse drugs and alcohol. The keys to success for the vast majority, however, were routine and discipline.
The discipline that went into their art was surprising. Very few of these authors and composers  stayed up until 3 AM partying only to rise at noon. This is more myth than reality. In fact, Curry documented a fairly consistent framework for most of them.

A Day in the Life

A typical day might look something like this: The author or composer would rise reasonably early—perhaps  7 AM.  Then he might engage in some sort of ritualistic exercise or habitual activity (e.g., read, journal, smoke a cigar). Then, he would dress and eat breakfast.
He would be at work promptly by 9 AM. He would work till twelve whether he was done with his work or not.  At this point, he would consider the difficult work of the day accomplished.
Next, he would enjoy a leisurely lunch. Often, this would be followed by a long, regular walk where he would enjoy nature while thinking about his writing.
He would return at one thirty or two and take up less-demanding activities (e.g., correspondence and other paperwork). Then he would be done for the day and he would enjoy the evening, relax and perhaps see friends.

A minority might come back for a second round of hard, focused work for another few hours after lunch, but this was not the norm. An even smaller minority would go back to work after dinner, but Curry did not find a great deal of difference in productivity between those who tried to get more done by working after dinner and those who stopped working before lunch. In fact, Curry found few workaholics that put in 12 to 15-hour days.
The majority only put in three solid hours of concentrated work and many of them said that three hours of focused work was about all that one could reasonably expect. Working more led to diminishing returns. But they also were quick to explain that consistent effort added up. They did it every day, and that was the key to their success.
Consider an author, writing a novel. The average novel is roughly 100,000 words or 333 pages. That is a daunting task. Especially when the author might only write 1,000 words per day (this is only about three double-spaced pages). He will work very hard to write those three pages. He will agonize over every word—the rhyme, the cadence, and the tone—but he will produce 1,000 words each morning. With roughly twenty weekdays each month, if he is disciplined to write, he will complete his novel in roughly 5 to 6 months.
Let me recap with a few observations:

  1. Surprisingly, these productive artists and writers rarely work themselves to the bone.
  2. Often, they only worked for three hours of concentrated, focused time.
  3. They were highly disciplined to maintain those few hours of focused time.
  4. There was a clear distinction between focused work time and time for other business activities (e.g., correspondence and other administrative work).
  5. They let time regulate their work rather than let work regulate their time. Some used word-count to regulate their work ( e.g., three pages of a novel)
  6. Their routines guided them to be productive.
  7. They knew how to relax after work.

Whether you are an author who needs to write a novel, a salesman who needs to make more cold calls, or an independent agent who needs to network more, these men and women teach us something about balance the rhythms of life.

What About You?

How is your work-life balance? Do you feel like you work too much but you get too few results? If so, how might you concentrate your time on your most productive tasks?