How Geniuses Of The Past Would Spend Their Time Today

Note: I previously published this article in 2014 on my previous blog, Hack the System. HtS is no longer updated, I now focus on Pavlok, the wearable technology that helps you wake up early and change habits for good.

Productivity sucks.

Over the last 5 years, advice on how to squeeze more and more time from our days has flooded the web.

“No email before breakfast!
“No breakfast before stretching!”
“Organic açai berries are the only way to start your day!”

Let’s be honest — even with all these “tips,” isn’t it still extremely hard to actually get anything done?

You don’t have to tell me. I know it is. That’s why I’ve been so focused on building a technology to overcome some of these barriers.

But all my research on maximizing the day begs a question: What does an ideal day actually look like?

To answer that question, first, I needed somebody to model an ideal day after. Why not model my expectations after history’s best?

Check out this chart on the creative routines of the world’s most brilliant people.


Click to enlarge. Trust me, it’s worth it.

One small caveat I think is worth noting here: All of the people displayed in this chart except for Maya Angelou are white males who did most of their work in the 18th and 19th centuries. The creator, RJ Andrews, explains:

The biases in the chart come from a combination of factors: his personal knowledge and inclinations, the availability of enough data on an individual in [Mason] Currey’s book to construct an entire average day, and, of course, historical conditions.

That being said, let’s tease out the details from one of America’s greatest thinkers, Ben Franklin, and look at his ideal day — then compare it to our own contemporary routines.

(I also pulled some data from here and here — look at the chart from his autobiography!)

See the animated infographic here

Roll over the chart to see the categories

What does this all mean?

Roughly, Franklin spent:

  • 7 hours sleeping
  • 3.5 hours planning, preparing for his day, and reading
  • 9 hours doing focused, task-oriented work
  • 3.5 hours relaxing

The information is a little vague (what, no time for LA fitness, Ben?) But it’s also very telling. In the past, people had less to do, and more time to do it in!

How does that compare to the day of an average American, with massive distractions like Facebook, Candy Crush and Kim Kardashian? A quick glance at the statistics shows:

Clearly, times are a-changing.

To be fair, we live in a much different world now. Unlike Franklin, we can’t simply turn off work when the candle runs out. In fact, I’m writing this post in the mall as we speak!

Our lives are 24/7, and the perpetual need to be “on” makes it very hard to maintain the delicate balance between all of our responsibilities (doesn’t it seem like there are dozens of them?)

So what’s the solution? Should we just throw up our hands and resign ourselves to the fact that our days will never be as productive as if we would have been born in 1723?


My suggestion: Embrace the modern challenge, and find the “Middle Path.”

Let me show you what I mean.

The Ideal Day, reimagined…

The first element to consider when creating a more realistic “ideal day” is that unlike Franklin, we have many more places to be and many more opportunities to lose focus. We have to account for this, not fight against it.

For example:

  • We know that we’re going to get stuck in a commute at least once a day — account for it
  • We know that we’ll use our computer, and cat memes will present themselves — account for it
  • We know that Game of Thrones is on tonight, and we’re going to watch it — account for it
  • We know that we’ll be stressed and need to do some type of physical activity (did Ben Franklin lift?) — account for that, too

We need to reimagine the ideal day with the simple pillar stones of balanced life — adequate sleep, healthy eating, relaxation and focused work — while also accounting for the things that we know are going to pop up in 2014 life.

The Modern Ideal Day. Click here for the animated infographic.

Roll over the chart to see the categories

The modern ideal day includes all the things that we’re already doing, but adds in all the other stuff we SHOULD be doing (but probably neglect):

  • Sleep: 8 hrs
  • Physical Activity (Exercise): 1.5 hrs
  • Focused Work: 6 hrs
  • Fooling Around on the Internet: 1.5 hrs
  • Getting Ready/Getting to Work: 3 hrs
  • Food & Relaxation Time: 4 hrs

In our attempts to master our time and be more productive, I think we often adopt an “all or nothing” mentality. We try to forcefully rip out any unproductive activity and we use rigid schedules to control our time.

We take good tools like RescueTime and use them to the extreme, often getting frustrated in the process. Sometimes, we even hire people to slap us in order to get back on track (ahem.)

But what if it wasn’t about controlling every aspect of our day? What if it was just about controlling what we could, anticipating the bottlenecks and focusing on the big wins (sleep, fitness, short bursts of focused work, etc)?

How much better would our lives be? How much more peaceful would they be?

My prediction is they’d improve dramatically in both areas.

What does your ideal day look like?

This was just my interpretation of an ideal day based on the research I’ve done.

What does your perfect day look like?

Let me know in the comments.