Late in 2020 I read Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. The book takes a look at how 161 various artists work, or worked, using a mix of diaries, first-hand accounts, interviews, articles, etc. The list includes notables like Charles Darwin, Andy Warhol, John Updike, Twyla Tharp, Benjamin Franklin, William Faulkner, Jane Austen, Anne Rice, and Igor Stravinsky. It’s a diverse group for sure. There was some tedium to just reading the different schedules people keep, but a couple of things stood out.
Many, many of the artists, maybe most, focused on their craft from 3-4 hours a day. That’s it. They wrote, painted, sculpted, whatever, for about 4 hours. The revelation here was that it’s less about spending an entire day doing something, and more about intense focus for a shorter period of time.
That intense focus for a shorter period of time was also very consistent. It was at least every weekday, for some, every day. What it was not, was painting into the wee hours of the morning or writing when the mood struck. A workman-like approach is as important for creative endeavors as it is for any other important thing we’re trying to do.
Without doing the math, at least a plurality of artists worked better in the morning. Somewhere in the 7a to 1p timeframe, they found 4 hours that worked for them. Some artists were late risers and would get rolling around 9a, but they’d push for 3-4 hours and break for lunch.
Not everyone does their best work in the morning, but a lot of people do. The key here is to figure out when we do our best work and use that time for intense focus. Hint: it’s probably morning.
If all these artists only “worked” 4 hours a day, what were they doing the rest of the day? Was this a collection of lazy Bohemians? Not all. The list of global artists was extensive spanning hundreds of years. Everyone was different, I’m just pointing out patterns that struck me.
Many, many of the artists profiled took some downtime in the afternoon. They went for walk, took a nap, etc. Yes, many of them drank and would head somewhere for a drink earlier than we would today. Reading between the lines, they were also doing work at the bar or the pub in the afternoon and early evening. This is where word of mouth, the social media of the day, spread to others. Being in a consistent place at a consistent time was part of communication. If you needed to talk to an artist, you could find them every afternoon at their favorite watering hole.
The key, successful artists tackled the more mundane aspects of their art during a less productive time of the day.
Finally, a key theme was saying ‘No’. A relentless focus on trying to do something great requires NOT doing a lot of other things. That means saying ‘No’, a lot.
When I think about a typical corporate job, taking control of your calendar by saying ‘No’ or delegating tasks to others allows us to consistently spend our most productive time of the day intensely focused on our most important items, but only for a few hours. After that, there is plenty of time to deal with the more routine items.
Yes, this is a bit of an ideal, but shooting for the ideal and falling short can still make us much more productive today than we were yesterday.