What The Sleep Habits of Famous Writers Reveal About Their Productivity

Getting up early is a real chore for many--especially when it doesn't come naturally. Here's a look at the wake-up times of famous writers. (Illustration credit: Giorgia Lupi at Accurat)

The Really Early Birds

de Balzac was an insomniac with the absurdly early wake up time of 1 a.m. While a few others writers were also up before the sun at 4 a.m.

The 5 a.m. Group

Writers including Ben Franklin and Toni Morrison got up at 5 a.m.

More 5 a.m. Risers

Toni Morrison and Immanuel Kant both got up at 5 a.m. and Kant wrote many books in his lifetime.

The 6 a.m. set

Hemingway woke up at 6 a.m. but wrote many more books than Twyla Tharp who rose at 5:30 a.m.

More 6 a.m. wake up times

Hemingway woke up at 6 a.m. but wrote many more books than Twyla Tharp who rose at 5:30 a.m.

More 6 a.m. wake up times

Hemingway woke up at 6 a.m. but wrote many more books than Twyla Tharp who rose at 5:30 a.m.

8a.m. and still prolific

Stephen King’s 8 a.m. rising still gives him plenty of time to crank out books faster than most of us can read them.

8a.m. and still prolific

Stephen King’s 8 a.m. rising still gives him plenty of time to crank out books faster than most of us can read them.

8a.m. and still prolific

Stephen King’s 8 a.m. rising still gives him plenty of time to crank out books faster than most of us can read them.

8a.m. and still prolific

Stephen King’s 8 a.m. rising still gives him plenty of time to crank out books faster than most of us can read them.

8a.m. and still prolific

Stephen King’s 8 a.m. rising still gives him plenty of time to crank out books faster than most of us can read them.

Writers that slept in

You can still get great things done (like writing The Great Gatsby) while rising late.

Writers that slept in

You can still get great things done (like writing The Great Gatsby) while rising late.

What The Sleep Habits of Famous Writers Reveal About Their Productivity

Getting up early is a real chore for many—especially when it doesn't come naturally. Set your alarm earlier, and you may be surprised at how easily pen meets page.

I am somewhat obsessed with what the most successful people do before breakfast. Mornings are simply a great time to get things done. Our supply of willpower is at its peak early in the day, and consequently, it makes sense that people would be better able to focus and do difficult things like, say, crank out great literature.

Indeed, many great writers have created prodigious bodies of work by rising early. But many others have created prodigious bodies of work by rising late. So perhaps it’s all a wash in the end—more a matter of personal preference than anything else.

Click to expand. Illustration credit: Giorgia Lupi at Accurat

That’s my take from an infographic of famous writers and their rising times, created by Maria Popova and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, and published at Brainpickings.org. Popova looked at quantity of titles, and awards won, and compared people’s rising times, from the 4 a.m. wake-up of Haruki Murakami to relatively late risers like C.S. Lewis and Leo Tolstoy (both 9 a.m.) and James Joyce (10 a.m.) or F. Scott Fitzgerald, who apparently hauled himself out of bed around 11, shortly before most of us break for lunch.

There is no obvious correlation between rising time and fame or prestige. Popova notes that, in general, early risers win more awards while late rising writers produce more works. Stephen King’s 8 a.m. rising still gives him plenty of time to crank out books faster than most of us can read them.

Of course, writing is what Stephen King does. The reason that mornings are important for many other people is that they have day jobs that require them to be somewhere at 8, but they have aspirations beyond what they are doing from 8 to 5 each day. If you’re working at the post office a la Anthony Trollope, then rising early to write for three hours allows you to make progress toward these goals before your day job wipes you out.

But as Popova’s analysis shows, you can still get great things done (like writing The Great Gatsby) while rising late. The key is seizing your most productive hours and using them. If you work great from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., and you don’t need to be anywhere in the morning, then there’s no reason to change that situation.

If, however, you live in a world of 9 a.m. conference calls, emulating Benjamin Franklin, who was early to bed, and early to rise at 5 a.m., is probably still the smartest approach for getting great things done.

Hat tip: Brainpickings

[Infographic by Maria Popova & Wendy MacNaughton]

Add New Comment

4 Comments

  • I didn't even get to start reading the article before I found a factual inaccuracy. Haruki Murakami is listed as having written twice as much nonfiction as fiction. In reality, he's only written two nonfiction books, and tons of novels. So already I'm doubting the accuracy of all the rest of it.

  • Ginny Fischer

    Winston Churchill was an enormously prolific writer, whose daily schedule involved waking at 8 a.m., reading a half-dozen daily papers, briefings, letters, etc., while still in bed, rising at noon, working until evening, entertaining various important/interesting people at dinner until midnight, and then writing from midnight till 4 a.m., when he finally went to bed - and did it all over again the next day. He wrote by dictating to his secretary(ies).

  • Paula Lozar

    I totally agree that it's best to work with one's natural rhythms. I always gravitated towards a late to bed/late to rise sleep schedule (to bed at 1 or 2 AM, get up at 9 or 10 AM), but for most of my working career I had to get up at 6:30 or 7 AM. But I was also doing my own writing, and when I was in the throes of creation, I'd stay up till midnight or 1 AM anyway. Getting up earlier does NOT work for me: I'm useless until 8:30 or 9 AM, no matter how early I went to bed the night before.