Anyone who does creative work knows how difficult it can be to structure your day to maximize productivity. Do you wake up and write immediately? Eat a hearty breakfast, go for a walk, and then get to painting? Do you set aside five hours before bed to compose, because that’s when you work best? Other questions arise beyond the work, too: How many hours of sleep do you need a night? How many cups of coffee should you drink per day?
It may take us years, even decades, to get our routines right (and they’re subject to change), so in the meantime we look for guidance. Plus, the question of how our creative forebears organized their time makes for fascinating fodder. This is the subject of Mason Currey‘s 2013 book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, which RJ Andrews, of Info We Trust, has now mined to create data visualizations of the daily routines of a number of historic creative figures.
Beethoven, it seems, was obsessive about his coffee, counting out the 60 beans per cup every morning from roughly 1822 to 1827. Balzac was perhaps more obsessive, drinking as many as 50 cups of black coffee per day while he spent some 13.5 hours working (he slept from 6 pm to 1 am). Freud, Dickens, Tchaikovsky, Darwin, and John Milton took daily walks, while Le Corbusier did morning calisthenics and Victor Hugo did “long strenuous exercises on the beach.” Flaubert seems to have spoken with his mother every day, at least for the five years during which he wrote Madame Bovary, and in 1781, Mozart devoted substantial daily time (two hours) to courting Costanze (they were married the following year). Maya Angelou, seeming to evidence Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own theory, left her home every morning in 1983 to go work seven hours in a hotel or motel room. On average, the 16 creative individuals included in Andrews’s chart slept an impressively solid seven hours a night (Mozart slept the least: an unhealthy five hours per night).
Astute viewers will notice that, with the exception of Maya Angelou, the creative people in the chart are all white men, and most of them lived and worked in the 18th and 19th centuries — meaning they mostly also did not need to allot much time to Andrews’s category of “making ends meet.” (In this, Kant and Mozart tie, with four hours a day each devoted to teaching.) Andrews explained over email that the biases in the chart come from a combination of factors: his personal knowledge and inclinations, the availability of enough data on an individual in Currey’s book to construct an entire average day, and, of course, historical conditions.
“There is probably a sweet spot beginning with people being more aware of precise time (because of the availability of affordable clocks and other timepieces) and ending sometime in the 20th century when technology completely fragments lives and fewer and fewer people live creative routines for every hour of the day,” Andrews wrote to Hyperallergic. “This sweet spot (clocks to tech fragmentation) is pretty well aligned with western enlightenment types taking over the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.”
So, we shouldn’t take it too much to heart that most of us can’t, like Victor Hugo, be awoken by a “daily gunshot from fort,” or like Darwin, spend two hours lying in bed every night solving problems, or like W.H. Auden, cap off every evening with roughly four and a half hours of guests, “strong vodka martinis,” and dinner. There are only so many hours in the day, and most of us would like to make ends meet and be creative while we can.
h/t Huffington Post