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Inventing the perfect day: daily routines of famous scientists

What’s the most productive way to structure your daily routine? Is it better to start early or work late into the night? Work steadily through the day or take lots of breaks? Here’s a look at how some of the great scientific minds planned their days.
Written on Jun 19 2017

What’s the most productive way to structure your daily routine? Is it better to start early or work late into the night? Work steadily through the day or take lots of breaks? Here’s how some of the great scientific minds planned their days:

Morning: should you rise and shine, or have a lie-in?



Some liked to get going at the crack of dawn - Benjamin Franklin would routinely rise at 5 a.m. to “contrive day's business and take the resolution of the day”, i.e. work out what he should do that day. Neurologist Oliver Sacks would also get up at 5 a.m. in order to pack in breakfast, a swim and a visit to his psychoanalyst before getting down to business at 9.

Primatologist Jane Goodall has always tended towards early starts, but it was especially important when making observations of the animals she studies. To observe chimps in Gombe, Nigeria, she would get up at 5.30 a.m. and climb a mountain after a breakfast of just coffee and a slice of bread.

But not every scientist is an early riser - physicist Brian Cox has said that he likes to get up at 9 o’clock, “if I can get away with it”. Alexander Graham Bell would often have to be forced out of his bed for breakfast at 8.30 a.m., having stayed up late working. Writer Orison Marden once called round at 11 a.m. to find the inventor still in bed. Even the great Albert Einstein would typically start his day with breakfast at 9am and only begin work at his Princeton office at 11 a.m.

Lunch: take a break and walk your way to greatness?



For Charles Darwin lunchtime meant more than a meal. He would take a break to walk his dog along The Sandwalk (a strip of forested land he’d leased from a neighbour and surrounded with a wide gravel path), gathering his thoughts. After a light lunch he’d then read the Times and answer letters.

Oliver Sacks was also an advocate of a lunchtime walk to help gather your thoughts, albeit typically in the less leafy environs of Manhattan.

Nikola Tesla used to walk about ten miles a day, thinking through ideas for new inventions - the habit eventually becoming something of a compulsion: after walking around a block once he would insist on walking around it twice more before moving on.

Some are just too preoccupied with work to eat at all. As a student at the Sorbonne, Marie Curie was so obsessed with her studies that she rarely ate a hot meal and once passed out in the library from malnutrition: after which her brother eventually forced her to start eating properly.

Afternoon: could you get more done with a nap and some wine?



While for some the afternoon just means a return to work, others break up their routine. Einstein would return home after lunch and work from there, occasionally seeing visitors. Behavioural psychologist BF Skinner claimed that his afternoons were “not profitably spent”: he’d do a little work in the garden and swim in his pool.

Darwin would have his wife read to him whilst smoking on his sofa, then take yet another walk before finally returning to work at 4.30 p.m. Oliver Sacks would attempt to write, but often found himself either sleeping or falling into a “deep reverie”, which sometimes helped to clarify his thoughts.

According to Brian Cox the canteen at CERN nuclear research complex starts serving alcohol at 3: he credits “a little bit of red wine” with helping the scientists to get more creative and think outside the box.

Evening: time to chill out, or time to really get going?



Physicist Stephen Hawking and astronomer Sandra Faber have both talked about the importance of stepping back from work and spending time with friends and family at the end of the day. Some break up their evenings but can’t stay away from work completely - during his time at CERN Brian Cox would go for a beer with colleagues then spend a bit more time on physics before going for a meal. He’d then read, but never physics - or “I wouldn’t go to sleep”.

But others found it hard to tear themselves away at all: when chemist Dorothy Hodgkin was working on her ground-breaking insulin research she would work well into the evening - only taking a break at the end of each day to write to her husband Thomas, who she would only see at weekends. And Alexander Graham Bell would only stop work at 7 p.m. because his wife insisted that he eat dinner and spend time with her: Bell claimed he would only really start to get things done when she allowed him to return to his lab at 10 p.m., working late into the night.

Sleep: too much, not enough, or precisely the right amount?



Sleep has sometimes been seen as a hindrance to the most creative inventors: Nikola Tesla attempted to eschew it entirely, claiming to have once worked in his lab for 84 hours straight, and that he never rested for more than 2 hours at a time. He may have picked up this habit when working for Thomas Edison, who believed that most people “oversleep 100 per cent, because they like it” and that sleeping for more than 4-5 hours dulled the brain: Edison was, however, a prodigious power-napper.

Charles Darwin, on the other hand, followed a rigid schedule that had him in bed by 10.30 p.m. until 7 the next morning, although reportedly he slept quite badly. And Einstein apparently slept contentedly for up to 10 hours a night, on top of which he’d take several naps during the day.

The most unfortunate sleeping habit was that of Marie Curie, who took her work home quite literally in the form of a small jar of radium that she kept by her bed: her near constant radiation exposure eventually led to severe health issues later in life.

But fittingly it was behavioural psychologist BF Skinner who developed most rigorous sleep schedule, tailored to enabled him to wake up and work for an hour in the middle of the night - he kept a special flashlight clipped to a clipboard for this purpose. He eventually developed a system of timers that would wake him to work from midnight to 1, and then again from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. Perhaps it’s Skinner who had the right idea: developing a routine that worked for him through years of careful experimentation.



Jane Goodall: A Biography, Meg Greene
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey
Stephen Hawking’s Productive Laziness, Cal Newport, Study Hacks Blog
The Strange Sleeping Habits of Five Great Geniuses, Frank Apodaca , The Sleep Judge
I followed Benjamin Franklin's daily schedule for a week..., Anisa Purbasari, Business Insider
Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life, Georgina Ferry
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