The author of such beloved books as “A Tale of Two Cities” and “A Christmas Carol” was notoriously fussy about his working conditions. He kept to a military-strict schedule, always writing in his study between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. before striking off on three-hour walks. Dickens demanded total silence in his house during his work hours, and required that his pens, ink and a small collection of statuettes be specially arranged on his desk to help him think. The author carried these talismans with him wherever he traveled, and he would even rearrange furniture in hotels and guesthouses to recreate the layout of his home office as closely as possible. Dickens’ bizarre habits also extended to his bedroom: he only slept facing north, believing that it better aligned him to the electrical currents of the Earth.
Ludwig Van Beethoven did much of his work while on the move. After a daily breakfast of coffee—he often obsessively counted out 60 beans by hand—the composer would put in a few hours at his desk before heading out for long, meandering walks. These countryside jaunts supposedly helped spur his creativity, and as he walked, he often stopped to jot down a few measures of music in a large sketchbook. If the notes were slow to come, he might copy down another composer’s work to study their technique. Beethoven may have also composed while bathing. According to his secretary, Anton Schindler, he would often pace around his room and repeatedly pour jugs of water over his hands while humming tunes and staring off into space in “deep meditation.”
While penning his mammoth, 3,000-page novel “In Search of Lost Time” (also known as “Remembrance of Things Past”) in the early 1900s, the French writer Marcel Proust lived largely from within the confines of his bedroom. He usually didn’t wake up until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, at which point he dined on coffee and croissants (often his only meal of the day) and inhaled fumes from opium-tinged tobacco powder, which he believed helped his asthma. Proust worked from the comfort of his bed, usually while propped up on several fluffy pillows. Despite the seemingly relaxed work environment, the writer still claimed that crafting his classic novel was incredibly taxing. “After ten pages,” he complained, “I am shattered.”
Salvador Dali was one of the undisputed masters of surrealism, a school of art that aimed to tap into the unconscious mind and access the buried treasures of the imagination. To help produce the hallucinatory imagery of paintings such as “The Persistence of Memory” and “Swans Reflecting Elephants,” Dali used mental tricks to try and blur the line between his dreams and reality. One of his tried and true techniques involved holding a metal key over a tin pan while napping. As soon as the artist began to drift away, he would drop the key and wake up, giving him a chance to record the strange images that had flashed through his mind. Dali also devised what he called the “Paranoid-Critical” method, a creative approach that required him to work himself into a paranoid state by intentionally brooding over bizarre and illogical thoughts. Once feelings of “concrete irrationality” overwhelmed him, he would paint the unusual visions they produced in his mind’s eye.
The famed poet and author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was famous for doing very little of her work at home. Finding the comfort of her house too distracting, Angelou elected to write in the anonymous tranquility of what she described as “tiny, mean” hotel rooms. She typically rented the rooms for months at a time, and arrived early in the morning armed with only her writing materials and a Bible, a bottle of sherry and a deck of cards (which she claimed helped busy her “little mind”). Angelou ensured that the rooms were as spare as possible to sharpen her focus, and she often wrote while reclining on her side on the hotel bed. In an interview with the “Paris Review,” she confessed that one of her elbows was “rough with callouses” from lying on it for long hours each day.
The 18th century Christian preacher is perhaps best remembered for the fire and brimstone rhetoric of sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but he was also known for his meticulous approach to work. Edwards typically rose before sunrise and spent as many as 13 hours a day poring over books and penning his sermons, often skipping meals to avoid interrupting his studies. Even when he took brief breaks to chop wood or go for walks, he carried a pen and paper so he could write along the way. If struck by a particularly valuable insight while traveling on horseback or otherwise away from his desk, Edwards resorted to using a mnemonic device. He would pin a small piece of paper to a part of his clothing that reminded him of the idea, and then remove the slips one by one and scribble down the associated thoughts as soon as he had the chance.
In the mid-20th century, B.F. Skinner was the world’s leading proponent of behaviorism, a school of psychology centered on the idea that human beings are blank slates whose behavior can be controlled by external circumstances. Skinner was famous for putting his ideas into practice—he raised his second daughter in a specially-designed, temperature controlled environment called an “Air Crib”—so it comes as little surprise that he also applied them to his own work life. He operated on a regimented schedule and made use of a timer to remind him when to start and stop writing. For “every twelve hours recorded on it,” he wrote in his personal journal, “I plot a point on a cumulative curve, the slope of which shows my overall productivity.” Along with precisely timing and analyzing his workday, Skinner was also a proponent of what is known as “segmented sleep.” Rather than snoozing through the whole night, the psychologist often woke after midnight and returned to work for an hour before going back to sleep until morning.
The ancient Greek statesman Demosthenes was known for his stirring and seemingly effortless speaking ability, but his oratory prowess was the result of a rigorous and often outlandish work regime. He spent long hours studying rhetoric and law in a specially made underground study, and trained with an actor to learn how to properly control his body movements. To defeat a lisp and shortness of breath, Demosthenes practiced speaking with pebbles in his mouth, shouted his speeches aloud while running uphill and even belted them out over the sound of crashing waves at the beach. Strangest of all was his strategy for fighting procrastination. As a young man, Demosthenes shaved off all the hair on one side of his head in the hope that if he made himself look ridiculous, he would be more inclined to stay at home and concentrate on his studies.