The Odd (And Effective) Routines of Famous Minds like Beethoven, Maya Angelou, and Francis Bacon

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Wine is part of my creative process. How I use it has been influenced by other writers. Why reinvent the wheel?

Sometimes, peculiar routines are the key to sanity… and productivity.

For years, I wrote from 11pm-4am or so, fueled by carefully timed yerba mate tea, Malbec, and Casino Royale left on repeat in my peripheral vision.

But who am I? Let’s explore the odd and effective routines of several creative icons: Maya Angelou (author), Francis Bacon (painter), W.H. Auden (poet), and Ludwig van Beethoven (composer).

Here’s an appetizer, before we get to the full routines:

Maya Angelou rented a “tiny, mean” hotel or motel room to do her writing;
Francis Bacon preferred to work with a hangover;
W.H. Auden took Benzedrine the way many people take a multivitamin; and
Beethoven counted out 60 coffee beans (exactly!) each morning, and developed his compositions through walking and obsessive bathing.

Enjoy the detailed profiles below.

All were excerpted from one of my favorite books–Daily Rituals: How Artists Work–which contains nearly 200 routines of some of the greatest minds of the last four hundred years: famous novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians…

Maya Angelou

Angelou (b. 1928) is an American author and poet best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which began in 1969 with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Angelou has never been able to write at home. “I try to keep home very pretty,” she has said, “and I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.” As a result, she has always worked in hotel or motel rooms, the more anonymous the better. She described her routine in a 1983 interview:

“I usually get up at about 5:30, and I’m ready to have coffee by 6, usually with my husband. He goes off to his work around 6:30, and I go off to mine. I keep a hotel room in which I do my work–a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous. I edit while I’m working. When I come home at 2, I read over what I’ve written that day, and then try to put it out of my mind. I shower, prepare dinner, so that when my husband comes home, I’m not totally absorbed in my work. We have a semblance of a normal life. We have a drink together and have dinner. Maybe after dinner I’ll read to him what I’ve written that day. He doesn’t comment. I don’t invite comments from anyone but my editor, but hearing it aloud is good. Sometimes I hear the dissonance; then I try to straighten it out in the morning.”

In this manner, Angelou has managed to write not only her acclaimed series of autobiographies but numerous poems, plays, lectures, articles, and television scripts. Sometimes the intensity of the work brings on strange physical reactions–her back goes out, her knees swell, and her eyelids once swelled completely shut. Still, she enjoys pushing herself to the limits of her ability. “I have always got to be the best,” she has said. “I’m absolutely compulsive, I admit it. I don’t see that as a negative.”

Francis Bacon

Bacon (1909–1992) was an Irish-born British painter whose abstract portraits of grotesque, distorted figures made him one of the most distinctive and controversial artists of the postwar era.

To the outside observer, Bacon appeared to thrive on disorder. His studios were environments of extreme chaos, with paint smeared on the walls and a knee-high jumble of books, brushes, papers, broken furniture, and other detritus piled on the floor. (More agreeable interiors stifled his creativity, he said.) And when he wasn’t painting, Bacon lived a life of hedonistic excess, eating multiple rich meals a day, drinking tremendous quantities of alcohol, taking whatever stimulants were handy, and generally staying out later and partying harder than any of his contemporaries.

And yet, as the biographer Michael Peppiatt has written, Bacon was “essentially a creature of habit,” with a daily schedule that varied little over his career.

Painting came first. Despite his late nights, Bacon always woke at the first light of day and worked for several hours, usually finishing around noon. Then another long afternoon and evening of carousing stretched before him, and Bacon did not dawdle. He would have a friend to the studio to share a bottle of wine, or he would head out for drinks at a pub, followed by a long lunch at a restaurant and then more drinks at a succession of private clubs. When evening arrived, there was a restaurant supper, a round of nightclubs, perhaps a visit to a casino, and often, in the early-morning hours, yet another meal at a bistro.

At the end of these long nights, Bacon frequently demanded that his reeling companions join him at home for one last drink–an effort, it seems, to postpone his nightly battles with insomnia.

Bacon depended on pills to get to sleep, and he would read and reread classic cookbooks to relax himself before bed. He still slept only a few hours a night. Despite this, the painter’s constitution was remarkably sturdy. His only exercise was pacing in front of a canvas, and his idea of dieting was to take large quantities of garlic pills and shun egg yolks, desserts, and coffee–while continuing to guzzle a half-dozen bottles of wine and eat two or more large restaurant meals a day. His metabolism could apparently handle the excessive consumption without dimming his wits or expanding his waistline. (At least, not until late in his life, when the drinking finally seemed to catch up with him.) Even the occasional hangover was, in Bacon’s mind, a boon. “I often like working with a hangover,” he said, “because my mind is crackling with energy and I can think very clearly.”

W. H. Auden

Auden (1907–1973) is widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets. Born and raised in England, he became an American citizen in 1946. Auden won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for his long poem The Age of Anxiety.

“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” Auden wrote in 1958. If that’s true, then Auden himself was one of the most ambitious men of his generation. The poet was obsessively punctual and lived by an exacting timetable throughout his life. “He checks his watch over and over again,” a guest of Auden’s once noted. “Eating, drinking, writing, shopping, crossword puzzles, even the mailman’s arrival–all are timed to the minute and with accompanying routines.” Auden believed that a life of such military precision was essential to his creativity, a way of taming the muse to his own schedule. “A modern stoic,” he observed, “knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”

Auden rose shortly after 6:00 a.m., made himself coffee, and settled down to work quickly, perhaps after taking a first pass at the crossword. His mind was sharpest from 7:00 until 11:30 a.m., and he rarely failed to take advantage of these hours. (He was dismissive of night owls: “Only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night; no honest artist does.”) Auden usually resumed his work after lunch and continued into the late afternoon. Cocktail hour began at 6:30 sharp, with the poet mixing himself and any guests several strong vodka martinis. Then dinner was served, with copious amounts of wine, followed by more wine and conversation. Auden went to bed early, never later than 11:00 and, as he grew older, closer to 9:30.

To maintain his energy and concentration, the poet relied on amphetamines, taking a dose of Benzedrine each morning the way many people take a daily multivitamin. At night, he used Seconal or another sedative to get to sleep. He continued this routine–“the chemical life,” he called it–for twenty years, until the efficacy of the pills finally wore off. Auden regarded amphetamines as one of the “labor-saving devices” in the “mental kitchen,” alongside alcohol, coffee, and tobacco–although he was well aware that “these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.”

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven (1770–1827) was a German composer and pianist, and one of the most famous and influential composers in classical music.

Beethoven rose at dawn and wasted little time getting down to work. His breakfast was coffee, which he prepared himself with great care–he determined that there should be sixty beans per cup, and he often counted them out one by one for a precise dose. Then he sat at his desk and worked until 2:00 or 3:00pm, taking the occasional break to walk outdoors, which aided his creativity. (Perhaps for this reason, Beethoven’s productivity was generally higher during the warmer months.)

After a midday dinner, Beethoven embarked on a long, vigorous walk, which would occupy much of the rest of the afternoon. He always carried a pencil and a couple of sheets of music paper in his pocket, to record chance musical thoughts. As the day wound down, he might stop at a tavern to read the newspapers. Evenings were often spent with company or at the theater, although in winter he preferred to stay home and read. Supper was usually a simple affair–a bowl of soup, say, and some leftovers from dinner. Beethoven enjoyed wine with his food, and he liked to have a glass of beer and a pipe after supper. He rarely worked on his music in the evening, and he retired early, going to bed at 10:00 at the latest.

Beethoven’s unusual bathing habits are worth noting here. His pupil and secretary Anton Schindler recalled them in the biography Beethoven As I Knew Him:

“Washing and bathing were among the most pressing necessities of Beethoven’s life. In this respect he was indeed an Oriental: to his way of thinking Mohammed did not exaggerate a whit in the number of ablutions he prescribed. If he did not dress to go out during the morning working hours, he would stand in great de?shabille? at his washstand and pour large pitchers of water over his hands, bellowing up and down the scale or sometimes humming loudly to himself. Then he would stride around his room with rolling or staring eyes, jot something down, then resume his pouring of water and loud singing. These were moments of deep meditation, to which no one could have objected but for two unfortunate consequences. First of all, the servants would often burst out laughing. This made the master angry and he would sometimes assault them in language that made him cut an even more ridiculous figure. Or, secondly, he would come into conflict with the landlord, for all too often so much water was spilled that it went right through the floor. This was one of the main reasons for Beethoven’s unpopularity as a tenant. The floor of his living room would have had to be covered with asphalt to prevent all that water from seeping through. And the master was totally unaware of the excess of inspiration under his feet!”

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To download the nearly 200 daily routines in Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, click here.

Posted on: December 16, 2013.

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Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

86 comments on “The Odd (And Effective) Routines of Famous Minds like Beethoven, Maya Angelou, and Francis Bacon

  1. Hi Tim, just been re-reading The Kindle version of the 4HB book and noticed that the instructions for The T-Handle have an error in them that needs to be fixed. The pipe dimensions are written as 8mm (3/4 inch) but surely this should be 18mm (3/4 inch) no?

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  2. I have to say I was much happier in myself when I had a slight routine, nothing to the extent of these brilliant people but even a routine just for the afternoon kept me calmer than my normal self.

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  3. I love quirky habits. I never understood why Maya Angelou did the hotel thing versus an alternative like renting an office or buying an apartment to go to, but hey, whatever worked. And boy did it work.

    I usually write early mornings – waking up at 4:30 and writing until the kids wake up. I do this six or seven days per week and just trounce up to the attic/office to get my work done.

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  4. Tim what a beautifully crafted post. I had my routine set with all of its Idiosyncrasies then everrything changed when I decided to change my career from university professor to company owner. I have started a consultancy supporting people to learn to adapt intenionally by using their Adaptive Intelligence. So, finding my perfect routine is is all part of my own adaptation. I am still searching for the right recipe but I now have lots of ideas to experiment with!
    Regards
    Gary

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  5. This is awesome! I came across this book in December and got it as a gift for my cousin who is a photographer. I wished after that I had bought myself a copy, and I’m going to now!
    I’m always fascinated by the routines of other creative people. Helps to know that we all have a process…or maybe helps me explain my quirks and complete immersion process in my work to people who find hanging out with me a little odd at times haha.

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  6. Very interesting. I’m going to have to read the book now.

    I just have to say that I could never work with a hangover…I can’t even get the stairs with a hangover. My mind just doesn’t work.

    And, I find the fact that Maya Angelou went to motel rooms extremely interesting. My grandpa always had a deck of cards nearby, and I can remember him using it as a way to think things over. I’m assuming it stimulated his creative mind. Very cool.

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  7. The importance of a ritual to start off work is so important and I’m realizing it more and more as my RESISTANCE becomes stronger and stronger. This happens when I try to do my best work – but the ritual is something I haven’t developed before. I’ll get right on it. Thank you TIM! LOVE your work. xx Ritu

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  8. I’m currently reading it. Superb book!

    I love learning about how masterpieces were written with pencil on top of a fridge at 4am on post cards and the like…

    It makes my complaints about, software and noisy neighbours seem a little obsolete!

    Thanks for the recommendation.

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  9. I have always thought of starting to take afternoon walks just to get the creativity flowing. I write during my free time or when I get stressed, and I’d like to take a step up with my writing, but it really takes the guts to get a new routine going.

    Even waking up early is a feat for me. How do morning people do it?

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  10. Hi Tim,
    I can only imagine the vast volume of comments you and your team receive everyday, so I wanted to begin with a ‘thank you’. I’m a writer and entrepreneur also, and I really enjoyed the interview that you did with Remit Sethi. I really appreciate the specific suggestions and techniques you shared. I’ve already put your advice into practice, such as designing a morning routine, which includes preparing jasmine pearl tea or green tea from China, listening to my “power songs” that inspire and energize my body as I make food for the rest of the day. I find that focusing on meal prep at the beginning of the day allows me to have healthy food throughout the day — so I don’t have to stop my “writing flow” during working hours whenever I get hungry. I also followed your suggestion of researching gaps in the market via Amazon Reviews and checking out the 3 and 4 star reviews. SUCH a cool idea! A generous and valuable insight to share. Thanks so much!
    I appreciate your work to provide reading spaces and clean water for communities – especially children. I’m a pediatric and orthopedic Physical Therapist who spend 2 years volunteering at an orphanage in Southeastern China, so your actions that improve the quality of health and education really touches my heart. If there is anything I can do to assist you with any of your health or wellness projects, please feel free to contact me. I’d be happy to offer my support and expertise.
    Wish you continued success,
    Jaleh Marta Zandieh

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  11. Ha…I saw this featured on Reddit and fully clicked the link so that I could share it here, thinking ‘This sounds like something Ferriss would be into’…I chuckled when, after clicking, seeing that you ARE the article’s source. Well played Ferriss, well played.

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  12. Ok this is my first and probable last “blog”. This message goes against most of you rules/suggestions but here it is (I should be cold calling you at 7pm :) Some personal background, I am an ob-gyn totally burnt out after 8yrs (make that 16 counting residency and med school) of nonstop sleep deprivation, stress etc. I have taken the past year to do per diem and locums (travel work) which has afforded me the time to actually ask myself “what do I want to do today” how lucky I feel for this opportunity. Making it short, I have developed quite a crush on your mind and perspective, I have always believed in taking the crooked path and coloring outside the lines. I was really happy to hear you gave yourself permission to go to Bali, can only imagine what it felt like to come back. So glad to hear that you meditate every day (Im trying) and to PRINCE…my god could you be any more fascinating (huge fan of prince myself) came across a song that I would like you to try for meditation…pump up before writing etc…”The man” by Aloe Blacc b/c you are the man! Ha! add that to your ritual! Oh and by the way…if you ever find yourself in Portland Maine (fantastic restaurants and people..just saying…) I happen to live down the road from your friend Dr. Oz off of rte 88 (no joke he summers up here…see him running all the time and his wife frequents the spa down my street. Please find me :) Here is to putting it out in the universe…screw the rules! Oh and please let me know how to find out if you are giving a lecture anywhere on the east coast (maybe at my medical school UNE where I will start teaching this summer :) All the best – Lisa Parsons

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  13. routine life is not for me.i like random life , like roaming eating dancing etc.because we are here for few time.in this time if we spent our time in tight schedule then i think life is for you is very pale.so go and enjoy………

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  14. Well, to each his own!

    I have once read an almost identical piece of content before through an email newsletter. It tackled weird but persistent habits that many writers do on a routine to let them keep going. It is nice that more and more people are now getting aware of these mundane things that happen to amazing minds from history. It’s rare, it helps us normal folks feel that these legends were too, once, humans like us.

    The peculiarities may be different in all of us but the key to it is embracing the oddness from within then identify ways to make it work for our betterment.

    Also, this one is going to be shared! Thanks for inspiring the weird in me again Tim!

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  15. I especially liked Maya Angelou’s approach to what some might refer to as the “flow state”. If she was not feeling it, she would hang it up and head home early. If she was in the zone, she would ride that wave until she lost it.

    I have experienced this time and time again, and it is hard not to beat yourself up for putting down the work sooner than you feel you should. But if you walk away and find something to fill the time that is equally productive, just in another realm (i.e. getting some exercise, calling a good friend for a long meaningful convo, etc) then you will find it easier to return to that flow state next time you sit down to do the work.

    By not beating yourself up over a slow day, and pushing yourself further every time you get into the zone you will find it easier to justify taking a random day off if you really need it… you just better be willing to work on that friday night when your friends are all throwing down, but you are in a flow state and need to get shit done!

    Great post, Tim. Thanks!

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  16. Wow, Since I’ve started working from home completely this has pretty much been my schedule. Wake 7am, coffee shop to work until 1pm-ish, then training or rock climbing until 3pm, then evening coffee where I do not work but read, then home with the family around 5pm.

    So, pretty much I am on the right track.

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