Getting stuff done

You have as many hours in your day as Beyoncé and Beethoven, so what can we learn from the daily routines of productive people?

By: Nicola Robey,   5 minutes


If you’ve used the internet in the last year, then you’ll all be aware that ‘you have the same amount of hours in a day as Beyoncé’. No pressure then.

With the calendars flipping over to reveal a new year, your inboxes – like mine – will be bulging with calls to banish the bad habits of our past and approach 2015 like bastions of productivity.

But while Beyoncé may have a team of twenty to help her slip into those lovely snug leotards, the rest of us have to rely on good old will power alone to get us through our to-do lists.

So when I heard about The List 2015 – a series of monthly challenges sent to subscribers throughout the year – calling me to adopt someone else’s routine for a day, I decided to dig down into the daily schedules of some seminal minds to determine whether there’s a pattern for generating genius.

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Gustave Flaubert

Whether writing culture-quaking novels, painting big ceilings (looking at you Michelangelo), or spearheading whole new ways of thinking, some people just seem to be able to do more with their time. If you think on it, you all probably have that one friend who seems to spin every minute of the day into a masterclass in being an amazing human; they’ve conquered the art of wood carving, they’ve completed a Masters on the side of a full-time job and they just happen to have some kind of sourdough in the oven. And while I don’t have the desire to go down the same tortured late night writing sessions as Flaubert, who once wrote “sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brain doesn’t melt away”,  it might be nice to get a little more out of the precious time that I’ve been given.

In a Feed quest to find the most productive way of ‘getting stuff done’, I stumbled across Mason Currey’s ‘The Daily Routines of Famous People’,  a visual representation of how creatives such as Voltaire, Darwin and Maya Angelou structure their days – and best of all it’s colour coded.

Famous creatives' routines

Favourite ‘Other’ activities include Victor Hugo’s ‘taking an ice bath on the roof’ and Auden’s ‘having a strong vodka martini’ – now that’s one I could roll with. To illustrate where I might be able to free up some time, I took the liberty of drawing my own productivity chart:


Perhaps those hours of SMG (social media grazing) could be used for something slightly more constructive.

So is there a tried a tested formula for how you should be spending your day? Turns out, no. Darn it.

Through years of studying the most brilliant minds’ routines throughout history, in his book ‘Daily Rituals’, Mason Currey has discovered that trying to find a common thread for cracking the creative whip is a relatively fruitless task. However, one thing that does stand out in reading the day-to-day routines of everyone from Greek philosophers to Steven King, is that individual patterns of behaviour often evolve into a steadfast ritual. From taking a stroll after breakfast to brewing a potent concoction of amphetamines and aspirin for breakfast like Sartre (not recommended) – rituals become an antidote to the chaos of the mind.

But to know how you work best, you have to be really honest with yourself. Learn the cues that distract you – are you a secret bathroom cleaner when your to-do list beckons? Or do you rise to the productivity plate with the help of white noise? 

Although there isn’t an easy answer to the question of how to get stuff done, here are four little ways I’m going to approach productivity this year:

Get outside more: At Stranger Collective we try and clear our heads with walking meetings (when it isn’t blowing a hooley outside). The visual stimulation and fresh air can help generate new ideas that don’t flow as easily from sitting in front of a screen. Helen’s post on brainstorming is full of tips like these to help you get loads more from your time. In fact, I’m off out now and it’s gale force seven.

Forget those detailed to-do lists: Thinking about it, ticking things off a list so you can do more things isn’t actually productive at all. Surely it’s better to do a few things really well, than dip in and out of everything in a half-arsed attempt to be more productive.

Watch this video:

Whether you want to learn a new language, write the next Girls or simply remember to unload the dishwasher at night – this TED talk by Matt Cutts on 30 day challenges, will help to etch those routines into your daily life.

Listen to this playlist:

Full of tracks to help you think and not an Enya song or whale call in sight.

Have a purpose: When was the last time you really thought about what you wanted from your life? In a very Sartrean way, we should all probably think, ‘What do I want to be remembered for?’ If it’s writing a novel, then get cracking with a routine that works for you: if it’s simply being a good person, then get out there and do something that reflects that.

And finally, it’s time to man up: There is no secret weapon to battle procrastination. Sure, productivity apps can aid the daily grind, but in essence it boils down to you and your overall ambitions. So be strict with yourself;  and if that involves a vodka martini, then so be it.

So whittling it down, for my January 2015 List challenge I’ve decided to spend a day in the life of Slaughterhouse-Five author Kurt Vonnegut, as detailed in a letter to his wife in 1965. Swimming, scotch and the ‘Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ sound like a good place to start. Wish me luck:

“Dearest Jane,

In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach of prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and I feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.”

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