Why Creative People Shouldn't Work 9 to 5

You need to sleep, take breaks and eat in addition to getting work done. Start with sleep and things will fall into place. (Photo: Ollyy/Shutterstock)

Sit back and think about it: If you could choose your work hours — the same number of hours you work now, but you could choose when you worked them — when would they be?

If you have no idea, you're not alone. Many people have no clue what kind of schedule works for them for the simple reason that they've never had the opportunity to figure it out. But especially if you do creative work, you might want to take the time to determine what is best for you. As the infographic about famous creatives shows, it's probably not 9-5.

But establishing some kind of schedule, even if it's unorthodox, does seem to be the key to getting it done. W.H. Auden said, “Decide what you want or ought to do with the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”

When famous creative people work

As you can see, there's quite a bit of variety in the schedules above, so don't feel locked into someone else's idea of the "best schedule." Make your own.

Of course, there's more to it than the just time you work; you need to fit in the rest of life's necessaries too. Here are the top considerations for crafting the best schedule for you:

Start with sleep

Begin with the basics: What is your preferred time to sleep? I've written before about the legitimate and well-documented biological differences between early risers and night-owls, so figure out your chronotype, including when you like to sleep and when you're most productive.

How many hours do you need to sleep? Don't skimp, but also know that oversleeping is a waste and can make you groggy.

Can you nap? (You should consider napping; it makes you smarter and more productive, and is an easy way to hit a creative reset button in your brain.)

Once you have your sleep charted, you can build other parts of your schedule around that.

When to work

Figuring out when you're most productive might take some experimentation, but I'd bet that you have a pretty solid idea of when you get the most done. Most creative people get their best work done in the mornings and later at night, but again, that all depends on your body, your chronotype, the type of work you do, and other considerations like when you eat or drink, when you socialize and when you exercise.

Flaubert worked from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m., Karl Marx famously wrote all night, and Joyce Carol Oates works from 10 p.m.-3 a.m. when she's traveling because she can't sleep well on the road. The lesson? Don't feel guilty if you're a night owl; roll with it.

Don't forget breaks

Many people think that if they're truly successful, they are so busy that they won't need or want breaks. Nothing could be further from the truth. Vladimir Nabokov told the New York Times that he began his day at 6 or 7 a.m. and took a break at 11 for a 20-minute bath, and then "A stroll with my wife along the lake is followed by a frugal lunch and a two-hour nap, after which I resume my work until dinner at seven." It might sound like a long break, but that's still about nine hours of work each day.

If you look at the chart above, there are very few successful creatives who work without at least one break (so they will have at least two separate work sessions in a day, and some have more).

Science has shown that taking breaks is good for the brain, and it's especially good for those who depend on the spark of the new.

Exercise matters too

Most creatives end up sitting for much of the day, so exercise is important. Almost all long-term successful artists, writers, scientists and thinkers do something, the most common being walking (proving you don't need a gym membership to follow this rule). Do what you like: Emily Dickinson did calisthenics; Saul Bellow rode a mountain bike and did yard work; Charles Darwin walked twice a day (once at length); T.C. Boyle hikes and swims; Le Corbusier did gymnastics, and J.M. Coetzee takes long bike rides.

Novelist Haruki Murakami is famous for running — he even wrote a great book about running's connection to writing. He described why his schedule is imperative to his process in the Paris Review: "When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind."

Don't worry so much about your workspace

Many people put off creative projects because they don't have a place to work. But while "a room of one's own" is a wonderful thing, it's also not entirely necessary. Joyce Carol Oates says, "I get a lot of work done in hotel rooms." Jane Austen wrote on a portable writing desk on small squares of paper that she could secret away when she heard the door squeak before someone entered the room.

Ray Bradbury, prolific beyond compare, wrote: "I can work anywhere. I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time. Later on, when I wanted to write 'Fahrenheit 451,' I went up to UCLA and found a basement typing room where, if you inserted ten cents into the typewriter, you could buy thirty minutes of typing time."

Your work schedule is more important than where you do the work.

Get outside

There are numerous links connecting time in nature to increased creativity. Try to make some of your exercise outside near a body of water or even in a park. Gardening is both meditative and nature-focused, and even 10 minutes listening to birds can be a way to connect with the natural world.

C.S. Lewis loved company, but thought walks in nature should be taken on one's own: "Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned."

Don't work too much

If you've followed the advice above, you'll probably find you have a solid work-life balance. Working more than 50 hours a week can easily lead to burnout, which can be especially bad for creative types. Aim for 40 hours — or fewer. Even the folks at Google say that's smart thinking.

Want more? Check out Mason Curry's excellent book, "Daily Rituals: How Artists Work" for lots more helpful details.