As time goes on and we begin to realize that perhaps success is more a practice rather than a serendipitous streak of luck and privilege, we begin to become more and more fascinated with what remarkable people do routinely. Interestingly enough, their daily schedules tend to bear striking resemblances. Most wake up early, do their most important work immediately, and then schedule downtime for later in the afternoons and evenings, to reflect, and recuperate. Of course, this is not true of every single successful person in existence, but it’s common enough that it warrants exploration.
Here are the self-described daily routines of some of the most famous people in history – past, present, writers, presidents, CEOs and developers among them. They are most commonly broken up hour by hour, if not “morning,” “afternoon,” and “evening.” Below each are comments on what you may want to consider adopting into your own routine. After all, if we aspire to be remarkable, let us not overlook the resource right in front of us: the daily life of those who did it first.
Routine #1: Barack Obama
6:45 AM: Works out, reads several newspapers, has breakfast with his family.
8:50 AM: Begins work just before 9.
10:00 PM: Works well into many evenings, but always stops to have dinner with his family each day.
What you should take: Barack’s routine is all about simplicity. He focuses just on what matters. (By the way, he also wears a “personal uniform” to eliminate any decision making that isn’t crucial.) He works out, reads, eats, and then gets down to business. Nothing fancy here, and perhaps that’s key.
Routine #2: Franz Kafka
8:30 AM – 2:30 PM: Worked his day job at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute.
2:30 PM – 3:30 PM: Had lunch.
3:30 – 7:30 PM: Sleep.
7:30 PM – 11:00 PM: Time with family (and dinner).
11:00 PM – 2:00 AM: Writing.
What you should take: You have to remember that sometimes, arranging a schedule around your natural “flow” is what works best of all, especially if you don’t have a 9-5 you have to show up for. Many people are most creative at night, so you’d be cheating yourself to force yourself asleep only because you think that’s “normal.”
Routine #3: David Karp
9:30 AM: Checks his email for the first time (never before, and never at home).
What you should take: Learn to separate home and work. The less they bleed into one another, the happier and more present you can be in each.
Routine #4: Winston Churchill
7:30 AM: Wake up, stay in bed until 11:00 AM eating breakfast, reading several newspapers, dictating to secretaries.
11:00 AM: Bathe, walk outside, settle into work with whiskey and soda.
1:00PM – 3:00PM: Lunch and then work and card playing/backgammon with his wife.
5:00PM: ½ hour nap.
5:30 PM: Another bath, and dinner (the highlight of his day, with socializing, drinking and smoking for hours afterward.)
12:00 AM: An hour of reading before bed.
What you should take: Taking your time to get up in the morning and making leisure out of reading, eating and (uh, dictating?) is definitely great, but not for three and a half hours. Not much else to go off of here, not at least for people who don’t have his particular privileges.
Routine #5: Steve Jobs
Morning, whatever time he woke up: Re-evaluation of work and desires. Looked in the mirror and asked: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” If the answer is ‘no’ for too long, he would know to change something.
What you should take: Keep your mortality in mind, always. It seems dark (perhaps a bit stoic, even?) It may be the most cliché saying in the book, but if you can honestly live as though every day “is your last,” you’ll live a life you’re more than happy with, in the end.
Routine #6: Anna Wintour
6:45 AM: Rises for an hour of tennis.
7:45 AM: Has her hair blown out.
9:00AM: Is in the office for the day’s work.
What you should take: Don’t be afraid to claim a beauty routine as essential if it’s what makes you feel most like yourself (also, the earlier you get your adrenaline pumping, the better).
Routine #7: Benjamin Franklin
4:00 AM: Wake, wash, eat breakfast, think about what he wants to accomplish for the day.
8:00AM – 12:00PM: Work.
12:00PM–1:00PM: Lunch while reading or looking over accounts.
5:00PM: Conclude work, finish the day with dinner, cleaning, music and conversation, reflect on the day.
What you should take: Ben is famous for his routine, particularly being such an early riser. You may not want to rise at 4AM, but do consider taking a moment to focus on what you’d like to accomplish for the day before it begins – this sets an intention. He has a pretty regular work schedule (8–5, essentially) but he does only get about 6 hours of sleep a night, and some people need more.
Routine #8: Ernest Hemingway
Sunrise: begin writing, and do not stop until what he had to say was said.
Afternoon: complete writing for the day, go over ideas in his head and hold onto anticipation of starting again the next day.
What you should take: Ernest had incredible impulse control, and his ability to only work at certain times of the day (and work vigorously at that) left him with plenty of downtime to focus on what he’d say next, debate ideas in his head, and become inspired (and eager) to begin again. His routine is a lesson in controlled scheduling, and the importance of downtime.
Routine #9: Joan Didion
Morning: various work.
Hour before dinner: Time alone, to drink and go over what she’d done during the day. Cannot be in the late afternoon, there has to be separation between work and reflection.
What you should take: The separation of work and reflection on work, certainly. That “period of incubation,” as evidenced in other routines as well, is crucial for creativity, it seems.
Routine #10: Susan Sontag
8:00 AM: Wake up
Lunchtime: Lunch only with Roger (Straus). Can break ‘no going out for lunch’ rule once every two weeks.
Afternoon/night: take and respond to phone calls (she told people not to call in the morning, or she didn’t answer the phone).
Evening: reading, to escape from writing (but only in the evening).
Fridays: letter answering day.
What you should take: The specificity of what she will and will not do at certain points in time. Make a “no email before 9” rule, or agree to spend one day of the week on chores. When you do this, you upkeep with your life routinely and avoid becoming stressed when things aren’t taken care of.
Routine #11: Henry Miller
Mornings: If groggy, type notes and allocate as stimulus. If in “fine fettle,” write.
Afternoons: Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.
Evenings: See friends. Read in cafés. Explore unfamiliar sections – on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry. Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program. Paint if empty or tired. Make notes, charts, plans, corrections.
Notes: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make occasional visits to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.
What you should take: Doing things well and completely the first time you sit down with them (though perhaps there is always room to review and edit with a clean eye?) also saving time to walk outside and explore or bike, definitely.
Routine #12: Haruki Murakami
4:00 AM-10:00AM: Work.
12:00PM: Run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or both). Read, listen to music.
9:00PM: Go to bed.
Notes: Keep routine without variation when working on a project. Repetition becomes the important thing, it’s a form of “mesmerism.” “I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
What you should take: The idea that steady repetition induces flow (it does). When done regularly enough, your brain will grow to crave certain actions at certain times of day. Allowing yourself to simply flow with your set routine lets you work more diligently at the appointed times (though another 4AM wakeup call is a bit harsh).