25 Daily Rituals of History’s Most Successful People

And what you can learn from them

(Photo: Unsplash)

(Photo: Unsplash)

Beginning 2016, I resolved to do one thing: stop believing in life hacks. The things the Internet tells us will make us better, more efficient humans. From the “I Thought I Finally Knew All The ‘Life Hacks’ Out There. But These 23 Proved Me Wrong…” to the “37 Essential Life Hacks Every Human Should Know.”

Instead, I’ve thought better of it. Turn to history’s most successful people, for example. If they’ve succeeded through trial and error, who am I to ignore their teaching? So I resolved to learn what I could, whether by studying their works, speeches or styles. Yet what I often missed was how they lived. The day-to-day routines that made up far more of their lives than we witness outside their work.

It’s these routines I wanted to learn about and emulate. The true “life hacks.” Because that’s how the sausage is made. The formula for success, as evidenced by history. The daily writing session, the refreshing bath in the Potomac River or even the solitude in the mountains.

I wanted to learn to make myself better by their example. And to share it with my readers. So I turned to Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, and never looked back.

Here’s what I learned.

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1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Life doesn’t bend to your schedule. Find the time.

When Mozart couldn’t find a wealthy patron, or a post with European nobility, he had to hustle to make a living. He gave a frantic number of piano lessons. Attended and produced almost daily concert performances. Mozart even visited wealthy patrons throughout Vienna to win their favor. Add the courtship of his future wife, Constantine, and he had every right to relax…when he could.

But to achieve his dreams, he didn’t allow the demands of life to get in the way. Arriving home around 11 each night, Mozart composed before allowing himself to sleep. That meant crashing in bed at 1 a.m., only to rise again at 6 a.m.

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2. Voltaire

Find the place where you work best. Make it your “cell.”

For the French Enlightenment writer and philosopher, that meant working in bed. From there, Voltaire would read and dictate new work every morning and evening. Not due to laziness, but because of the solitude and frame of mind it put him in. Allowing him to concentrate on his work without interruption. Later during the day, Voltaire would dress and be social, often roaming the grounds on horseback, and having meals with family.

But every evening he’d seal himself back into his cell. Spending 18 to 20 concentrated hours a day working in the place that worked best for him.

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3. Benjamin Franklin

Don’t be afraid to deviate from your schedule.

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The father of electricity enjoyed giving advice to others throughout his life. Whether he followed it himself though, few can say. In his older years though, he drafted a 13-week plan to achieve “moral perfection.”

With every week devoted to a different virtue, from cleanliness to moderation. He had hoped to create a habit from each. But after following course several times in a row, he realized its diminishing returns.

Instead, and more important, Franklin set aside his ego. Having the strength of character to change his well laid plans and devise a new schedule. His new ideal schedule drew upon his experiences with the rigid adherence to virtue. Dropping the minute-by-minute scheduling, and allowing creativity to arise. Till his dying days, he would continue to tinker with his ideal schedule. But he’d always allow for creativity to inspire going forward.

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4. Jane Austen

Distractions are no excuse. Learn to cope.

Never married, Austen lived in bustling houses all her life. Yet, she never let the near constant distractions deter her. Rising before anyone else, Jane organized the family breakfast every day. It would be her sole, but necessary, contribution to the household. One that she designed herself to feign acquiescence from her sister, and buy precious time to write. Finishing in a flash, she would then have time to think and write in the sitting room. It would be the only time she could write away from prying eyes, though distractions were common.

In fact, Austen would resort to scribbling on small bits of paper when others weren’t looking. Given her intense fear of reproach, she did not want others to know that she authored stories. This would continue until visitors turned up, or dinner was served at 3 p.m. The rest of her evening would be lost reading aloud from novels, with Jane waiting till the next day to continue her work.

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5. Thomas Mann

Set a time for concentrated work.

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Thomas Mann knew that his most productive hours of the day were from 9 a.m. to noon. So he designed his day according. After waking at 8 a.m., Mann bathed, dressed and had a cup of coffee with his wife. Free of distraction or decision making, he primed his mind for a day’s work. Mann would then shut himself away for those three hours, strictly forbidding distraction. Working feverishly, he placed tremendous pressure on getting things on paper during those hours. Anything after noon would have to wait till the next day. His work day complete though, he felt free to let his mind and time wander the rest of the day.

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6. Karl Marx

Have a goal—die trying.

A political exile in London, Karl Marx dedicated his life to the revolutionary struggle. Aiming to write three volumes of his masterpiece, Das Kapital, he would only complete one. Yet his drive to complete even the sole work proved exemplary. Working at a fever pitch in the British Museum reading room from 9 to 7 daily. Suffering through frequent attacks due to liver disease, boils and eye inflammation. Even sacrificing his entire fortune and life to the completion of his work. The man wanted to complete something that would change the world. Even if that meant spending two decades of suffering to do it.

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7. Ernest Hemingway

Keep track of your output—kidding yourself is for amateurs.

A man prone to passion, Hemingway had a surprising rigidity to his work life. Waking every day at first light despite the previous night’s drinking. He spent the quiet hours before others awoke drafting his stories in longhand. Preferring to later move to the typewriter only when the work went well. After draining himself of thought, he’d review his word count for the day.

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He suffered no illusion of his output, demanding precise numbers of his work. Once satisfied, he’d be free from “the awful responsibility of writing” and knock off for the day. His mind ready for a chance to recoup from many hours work.

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8. F. Scott Fitzgerald

Time constraints sharpen the mind.

A tale of two personalities, Fitzgerald’s work regime waned from exemplary to cautionary. As a 21-year-old Princeton dropout, he drafted the 120,000 word debut novel This Side of Paradise in three months. Years later he’d blow past deadlines and promises. Why the difference? Just before writing his first book, he enlisted in the Army. As a private with little time, he first started scribbling notes on a pad of paper hidden in an army textbook. Later, after being discovered, he switched to writing from 1 p.m. to midnight on Saturdays and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays.

Without the rigid constraints, he spent the rest of his life aimless. Turning to the bottle for inspiration, and procrastinating to create artificial pressure.

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9. William Faulkner

There is no ideal environment to work in.

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Faulkner wrote late at night as a night shift manager for a university power plant. Other times, he wrote in the mornings before noon, renovating the dilapidated family estate the rest of the day. Sometimes he even scribbled in the town library, taking the doorknob home with home to “lock” the door. The rest of his days he worked and relaxed with a glass of whiskey on the porch. He had no use for discriminating where he wrote, or when. Life proved far too chaotic to be picky.

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10. Charles Darwin

Guard your first draft with your life.

Running away from London to the English countryside, Darwin had good reason to be afraid. His radical theory on evolution would shake the arrogant Victorian society to its core. Not to mention risk personal and social disgrace. To fortify his standing, and make his work irrefutable, he decided upon an interesting course. Biding his time over 17 years and bolstering his credentials in the scientific community. Making himself a known expert on barnacles, and earning a Royal Medal for his work. Telling only a sacred few about his theory. The result was a man of impeccable scientific standing who worked for countless hours everyday on secondary goals. Achieving status no one could easily refute. And then unleashing his work onto the world.

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11. James Joyce

Finish.

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An avid drinker, procrastinator, and partier history should have forgotten Joyce. Terrible with money, he had debt collectors lined up at his door daily.

To make ends meet, he worked sparingly. Giving random piano and English lessons during the day. But come each night heading for the bars, his family never knowing when he’d come home… or if they’d money for food the next day. For all his vices though, he knew his masterpiece Ulysses was worth it.

Using the nightly bouts with friends to clear his mind for the next day’s writing. And plodding away at the novel he’d forever be remembered for. In the end, he estimated he’d spent 20,000 hours writing the book after seven years of work.

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12. Pablo Picasso

Stay in the zone, whatever it takes.

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Shutting himself in his studio at 2 p.m. after a late start, Picasso often worked till at least dusk. With friends and family left to their own devices until dinner. Even then, emerging from his studio, he’d rarely speak. Often never uttering a single word, except when company turned up. He would come off as anti-social. Throughout his life, his long term girlfriend Fernande would blame his foul mood on a bad diet.

In reality, though, Picasso never wanted to break his concentration. If not forced to leave his canvas to be social, he could stand and work for three or four hours without fatigue. Once in his zone, he’d fight like hell to stay in it, no matter his family obligations.

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13. Agatha Christie

Don’t work places just to be seen.

Christie, like Austen, had a terrible time recognizing her own accomplishments. Not even considering herself a “bona fide author” after writing 10 books. Instead, she considered herself at best a “married woman.” Albeit one prone to occasional bursts of writing that produced bestselling books. It was this fear of reproach from others that made her embarrassed to be seen writing. And made her friends claim, “I never known when you write your books, because I’ve never seen you writing, or even seen you go away to write.”

Instead, Christie enjoyed getting away from others. Freeing her from interruptions, and her mind from (false) ridicule. Whatever it took to find a way to speed full ahead, Christie did.

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14. Louis Armstrong

Bleed the hours of your life, if your work is worth it.

Armstrong knew from an early age that his work required sacrifice. Feeling as though he spent 20,000 years on planes and railroads, he always traveled. From set to set, he never tried to prove anything.

Music was life, “but the music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public.”

So he sacrificed his life to bring his art to the world. Even running through a daily routine of Maalox, chronic lip problems, pot, herbal laxatives. The art came first. He just needed to bleed to share it with others.

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15. Maya Angelou

Embrace the loneliness.

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Never one to work at home, Maya spent her working hours by herself. Always in a hotel or motel room near home, completely anonymous. Her day started at 5:30 a.m., only leaving for “work” after a cup of coffee with her husband at 6:00 a.m.

Her hotel room would be spartan. “A tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if i can find it, a face basin.” She’d also allow herself the company of a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry. Alone, Maya worked from 7:00 to 2:00, deep in silence and thought. When the time came to leave, she put the work out of her mind. Leaving to fill the lonely void she’d created that day.

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16. Charles Dickens

Walking restores your soul.

A robot in the Victorian Age, Dickens’s schedule remained unchanged. Rising at 7 a.m., breakfast by 8:00, he’d be in his study by 9:00. Working with haste until a brief lunch with his family where he’d be lost in thought. Then he’d continue till 2 p.m., when he’d finally leave his desk for a three hour walk to refresh his mind. During these walks, he’d search “for some pictures I wanted to build upon.” Always returning home bursting with energy that oozed from every pore. Giving him something exciting to look forward to creating in his work the following day.

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17. Victor Hugo

Inspiration is everywhere—carry a notebook.

Exiled off the coast of France, Hugo spent his days working as much as possible. Which, due to his station in life, was not much. Waking every morning at the sound of gunshot from the nearby fort, Hugo would write till 11 a.m. Then, the pressures of society and life forced him to retreat. Lunches with visitors (a daily occurrence) forced his social bone to stretch. Two hour walks on the beach with strenuous exercise cleared his mind. A daily visit to his barber made him feel fresh. He even went on a carriage ride with his mistress every afternoon. Attending to his family and wife in the evenings.

Because of his other “occupations,” he carried small notebooks everywhere he went. Stealing away moments and the slightest ideas he mentioned. As his son later said, “Nothing is lost. Everything ends up in print.”

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18. Herman Melville

Find your zen.

In the throes of writing Moby-Dick, Melville worked eight hours a day on his story. Shackled by the monotony around him, though, he knew he’d need a mindless task to relieve the stress. Moving to the Berkshires, he found the perfect solution: farming. Rising every morning to tend to his livestock, he’d soon move over to the desk, feeling alive. After a full day’s work, he’d turn his brain off and return to the animals and his fields. Shedding the story from his mind and finding peace. So hard was his work in fact, that even after returning home at night, skimming any book hurt. Only the perfect zen he found in farming could occupy his mind.

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19. Leo Tolstoy

Never miss a day.

“I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.”

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More prophetic than he knew, Tolstoy’s writing as a muscle theory is a veritable fact today. Without it, he may never have finished War and Peace. Or, like many who’ve read it, he might have lost a grip on its myriad of characters. Like his habit of writing though, his daily routine stayed constant. Waking around 9 a.m., breakfasting with his family, and shutting himself away till dinner. Combined with his writing routine, he found strength in the monotony. Freeing his mind from decision making in every arena, except the one that mattered most to him. His work.

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20. Mark Twain

Find what works for you, and exploit it.

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Retiring to a farm in upstate New York every summer, Twain had a simple routine. Eat a hearty breakfast every morning, and then lock himself in a private room built for his purposes. Here he would stay till dinner at 5:00, a prisoner of his mind. No lunch, no distractions, no excuses. The only permissible interruption coming from the blow of a horn under grave circumstances.

After finishing, his mind unburdened, he’d eat dinner with the family. Later retiring to the study to read aloud his writing from the day to win his family’s approval. With this routine, Twain produced a tremendous volume of his most famous works.

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21. Vincent van Gogh

Time melts when you find your purpose.

For all his trappings, van Gogh knew his life belonged to his work. Learning to paint, he could spend countless hours throwing himself at it. From sun up, to well into the evening, he worked without the slightest fatigue. His passion and work ethic had nothing to do with grit and determination though. Instead he found the hours dribbled away without a moment’s thought. Often forgetting to eat, except what he could reach within an arm’s length of his canvas. What van Gogh realized was that he’d discovered a zone of being that few artists ever do. And like those lucky enough to find it, decided exploited it with a drug-like addiction.

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22. Alexander Graham Bell

When you hit upon a moment of clarity, don’t let it go.

In his youth, Bell worked around the clock. Bursting with ideas that often kept him at work for 22 hours straight. Even getting only three or four hours of sleep at most. His mind would not allow him to leave while in the throes of a new idea. Later, his pregnant wife compelled him to save three hours after dinner to be together. But when his inventions got the best of him, let him go on occasion. Knowing his work stole his heart from her.

As Bell later confessed to his wife, he had “periods of restlessness when my brain is crowded with ideas tingling to my fingertips [and] I am excited and cannot stop for anybody.”

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23. Ayn Rand

Don’t cheat. It’ll get you in the end.

Some sacrifices in life bear fruit. Others, as Rand came to learn, don’t. Under pressure to finish The Fountainhead, Rand faced a fundamental problem. A chronic sufferer of fatigue, the deadline proved impossible. Turning to a doctor for help, he proscribed Benzedrine. A drug designed to increase her energy levels.

It worked. Working day and night, without sleeping for days, Rand produced a chapter a week. Finishing a book in less than 12 months that took years to write and plan just the first third. After, Rand would continue to use Benzedrine and amphetamines for the next three decades. The drug that produced her work became a crutch for the rest of her life. Leading to mood swings, paranoia, and emotional outbursts. She’d never be the same.

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24. L. Frank Baum

Outside interests create idea sex.

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For Baum, writing served as second fiddle to his true passion — gardening. Moving to Hollywood from Chicago with his wife, his new home included a large backyard. Learning about gardening, Baum became obsessed. Waking each morning with the thought of his prize-winning flowers on his mind. His books a distant second.

After an 8am wake up call, and five cups of coffee, he’d devote his entire morning and early afternoon. Only after lunch at 1 p.m. did he sit down in his garden and begin writing in longhand.

But here, surrounded by his flowers, he drew inspiration. Writing for a short, but intense period with cigar in hand. Though his time spent in the garden chair writing was not long, he produced much. Including an eventual 13 Oz sequels, and dozens of other stories.

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25. Stephen King

Habit is the bed of creativity. Tuck yourself in.

Artists (and writers) live and die by ritual. The daily act of sitting down and bleeding on paper. And no greater modern day proponent exists outside Stephen King.

Author of a shocking number of books, King writes every day of the year. No matter his birthday or a holiday. Under no circumstances will he leave his desk without two thousand words being written. To do this, he begins his work at 8:00 or 8:30 every morning. On a good day, his work ends at 11:30. Most days, he’s finished by 1:30. His afternoons and evenings open, he lounges around. Watching Red Sox games, answering letters, and going for walks. But does so with a free heart, never worrying whether he’s wasting his time.

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25 Daily Rituals of History’s Most Successful People