Charles Darwin & Charles Dickens’ Four-Hour Work Day: The Case for Why Less Work Can Mean More Productivity

We all oper­ate at dif­fer­ent lev­els of ambi­tion: some just want to get by and enjoy them­selves, while oth­ers strive to make achieve­ments with as long-last­ing an impact on human­i­ty as pos­si­ble. If we think of can­di­dates for the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry, Charles Dar­win may well come to mind, at least in the sense that the work he did as a nat­u­ral­ist, and more so the the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion that came out of it, has ensured that we remem­ber his name well over a cen­tu­ry after his death and will sure­ly con­tin­ue to do so cen­turies hence. But research into Dar­win’s work­ing life sug­gests some­thing less than worka­holism — and indeed, that he put in a frac­tion of the num­ber of hours we asso­ciate with seri­ous ambi­tion.

“After his morn­ing walk and break­fast, Dar­win was in his study by 8 and worked a steady hour and a half,” writes Nau­tilus’ Alex Soo­jung-kim Pang. “At 9:30 he would read the morn­ing mail and write let­ters. At 10:30, Dar­win returned to more seri­ous work, some­times mov­ing to his aviary, green­house, or one of sev­er­al oth­er build­ings where he con­duct­ed his exper­i­ments. By noon, he would declare, ‘I’ve done a good day’s work,’ and set out on a long walk.” After this walk he would answer let­ters, take a nap, take anoth­er walk, go back to his study, and then have din­ner with the fam­i­ly. Dar­win typ­i­cal­ly got to bed, accord­ing to a dai­ly sched­ule drawn from his son Fran­cis’ rem­i­nis­cences of his father, by 10:30.

“On this sched­ule he wrote 19 books, includ­ing tech­ni­cal vol­umes on climb­ing plants, bar­na­cles, and oth­er sub­jects,” writes Pang, and of course not fail­ing to men­tion “The Ori­gin of Species, prob­a­bly the sin­gle most famous book in the his­to­ry of sci­ence, and a book that still affects the way we think about nature and our­selves.” Anoth­er tex­tu­al­ly pro­lif­ic Vic­to­ri­an Eng­lish­man named Charles, adher­ing to a sim­i­lar­ly non-life-con­sum­ing work rou­tine, man­aged to pro­duce — in addi­tion to tire­less let­ter-writ­ing and cam­paign­ing for social reform — hun­dreds of short sto­ries and arti­cles, five novel­las, and fif­teen nov­els includ­ing Oliv­er Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expec­ta­tions

“After an ear­ly life burn­ing the mid­night oil,” writes Pang, Charles Dick­ens “set­tled into a sched­ule as ‘method­i­cal or order­ly’ as a ‘city clerk,’ his son Charley said. Dick­ens shut him­self in his study from 9 until 2, with a break for lunch. Most of his nov­els were seri­al­ized in mag­a­zines, and Dick­ens was rarely more than a chap­ter or two ahead of the illus­tra­tors and print­er. Nonethe­less, after five hours, Dick­ens was done for the day.” Pang finds that may oth­er suc­cess­ful writ­ers have kept sim­i­lar­ly restrained work sched­ules, from Antho­ny Trol­lope to Alice Munro, Som­er­set Maugh­am to Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez, Saul Bel­low to Stephen King. He notes sim­i­lar habits in sci­ence and math­e­mat­ics as well, includ­ing Hen­ri Poin­caré and G.H. Hardy.

Research by Pang and oth­ers into work habits and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty have recent­ly drawn a great deal of atten­tion, point­ing as it does to the ques­tion of whether we might all con­sid­er work­ing less in order to work bet­ter. “Even if you enjoy your job and work long hours vol­un­tar­i­ly, you’re sim­ply more like­ly to make mis­takes when you’re tired,” writes the Har­vard Busi­ness Review’s Sarah Green Carmichael. What’s more, “work too hard and you also lose sight of the big­ger pic­ture. Research has sug­gest­ed that as we burn out, we have a greater ten­den­cy to get lost in the weeds.” This dis­cov­ery actu­al­ly dates back to Dar­win and Dick­ens’ 19th cen­tu­ry: “When orga­nized labor first com­pelled fac­to­ry own­ers to lim­it work­days to 10 (and then eight) hours, man­age­ment was sur­prised to dis­cov­er that out­put actu­al­ly increased – and that expen­sive mis­takes and acci­dents decreased.”

This goes just as much for aca­d­e­mics, whose work­weeks, “as long as they are, are not near­ly as lengthy as those on Wall Street (yet),” writes Times High­er Edu­ca­tion’s David Matthews in a piece on the research of Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia pro­fes­sor (and ex-Gold­man Sachs banker) Alexan­dra Michel. “Four hours a day is prob­a­bly the lim­it for those look­ing to do gen­uine­ly orig­i­nal research, she says. In her expe­ri­ence, the only peo­ple who have avoid­ed burnout and achieved some sort of bal­ance in their lives are those stick­ing to this kind of sched­ule.” Michel finds that “because aca­d­e­mics do not have their hours strict­ly defined and reg­u­lat­ed (as man­u­al work­ers do), ‘oth­er con­trols take over. These con­trols are peer pres­sure.’ ” So at least we know the first step on the jour­ney toward viable work habits: regard­ing the likes of Dar­win and Dick­ens as your peers.

via Nau­tilus

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Dai­ly Habits of High­ly Pro­duc­tive Philoso­phers: Niet­zsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

The Dai­ly Habits of Famous Writ­ers: Franz Kaf­ka, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Stephen King & More

John Updike’s Advice to Young Writ­ers: ‘Reserve an Hour a Day’

Thomas Edison’s Huge­ly Ambi­tious “To-Do” List from 1888

Leonar­do Da Vinci’s To Do List (Cir­ca 1490) Is Much Cool­er Than Yours

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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