Amy M Haddad

5 Things Artists Can Teach Us about Productivity

By: Amy M Haddad


Society portrays artists as eccentric people, lounging around their studio or office waiting for inspiration to strike. But after reading Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, you’ll come away with a different view: artists know how to get stuff done.

Currey’s book is a collection of short descriptions detailing the daily routines of artists. Taken at surface level, you’re a voyeur peering into the lives of Jane Austen, Voltaire, Mark Twain, and Andy Warhol, among many others. You learn how they start their day; how and where they work; and what they eat.

But learning about artists’ idiosyncrasies is not why this book is important. It’s valuable because it teaches us how to get the most out of our day to create great work. Although each routine differed, I notice several commonalities that can teach us how to work better.

1. Protect your most productive time of day

The artists included in this book knew when they worked best and protected those hours.

Georges Simenon hung a “do not disturb” sign on his office door when he wrote, typically from 6:30 A.M. to 9:30 A.M. And Thomas Mann “made himself unavailable for visitors, telephone calls, or family” during his peak working hours, from 9 A.M. until noon.

Anyone can benefit from this practice. Determine when you work best and make yourself inaccessible during that time. If you work best in the mornings, use this time to program or write, and leave checking email and attending meetings for later in the day.

2. Work in large blocks of time

Many artists in this book worked in blocks of time — as opposed to here and there between other commitments. We learn that Haruki Murakami, for example, gets up at 4 A.M. and works for five to six hours when he’s working on a novel. He leaves the afternoons for exercising, reading, running errands, and listening to music.

It takes time to make things, whether you’re an architect, artist, or programmer. “You can’t write or program well in units of an hour,” Paul Graham points out. “That’s barely enough time to get started.” That said, people who make things commonly use what Graham calls a “maker’s schedule.” It involves working in large units of time “of half a day at least.”

3. Take breaks

It’s important to take breaks after long stretches of work. Creative work is taxing. Breaks, like taking walks, give the mind a rest and let new ideas form.

Jonathan Edwards engaged in physical activity, like “chopping wood” or “horse riding or walking,” to break up his work day. Walking was a commonly cited activity in the book. Charles Dickens, for example, went for a “vigorous three-hour walk” at 2 P.M., after spending several hours in his study. Other examples of breaks included having tea or coffee, visiting friends, running errands, or reading a book.

4. Work without distraction

A common theme throughout the book was working without distraction. George Sand, for example, worked at night since those “hours were her only chance to be alone and think,” Currey writes. Similarly, Dickens required complete silence. In fact, another door was added to his study at one of his houses to block out the noise.

This way of working is at odds with how most people operate today. Offices, for example, are filled with visual and audible stimuli: smartphones are beeping, people are chatting, and email notifications are flying across computer screens. Follow artists’ lead and escape the chaos. Find a quiet place to work, close your email browser, and put your smartphone on silent and move it out of sight so you can work without distraction.

5. Start your day with intent

The structure of each artist’s day differed. Some, like Jean-Paul Sartre, held themselves accountable for working a certain number of working hours each day. Sartre reportedly worked three hours in the morning and three in the evening. Others, like Stephen King, have a daily quota. He typically begins writing around 8 A.M. or 8:30 A.M. and ends after he writes 2,000 words. The common theme, however, is beginning your day with intent.

This is an important lesson for all of us. Instead of reacting to the world around you, begin your day proactively and with purpose. Determine your daily priorities, find the time to work toward them, and hold yourself accountable for getting the work done.

Currey’s book ends with a quote from Bernard Malamud telling an interviewer: “How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help . . . The real mystery to crack is you.” In other words, find what works best for you and make your own routine; then, stick with it.

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