The Workday Secrets Of The World’s Most Productive Philosophers

Nietzsche, Marx, Kant. Also: lakes, museums, pipes.

The Workday Secrets Of The World’s Most Productive Philosophers
[Image: Flickr user Andrea de Poda]

Haters gonna hate, thinkers gonna think, philosophers gonna philosophize.


But how does one philosophize? Would someone whose thoughts would later shape the world shape their days differently than you and I? As Josh Jones notes at Open Culture, the answer is “not really”–aside for some serious devotion to long, lonesome walks.

As we’ll see below, the irregularly outsize output of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Immanuel Kant was marked by exceedingly regular days. As the literary saying goes: “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

So let us get to the orders.


What made Nietzsche peachy?

Before they called it “self-help,” they called it “philosophy,” and to learn to be a Highly Successful Ubermensch, you can’t do better that Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, the philologist turned philosopher who endlessly exhorts us to shrug off the shackles of received wisdom and intellectual laziness in favor of becoming our true selves. While we might expect such an iconic iconoclast to lead a rollicking lifestyle, the intellectual rock star had a simple, even monastic life in the Swiss Alps.

Like many super-productive people, Nietschze’s routine evidenced a respect for a finely tuned, insanely early morning. As Curtis Cate records in her Friedrich Nietszche:

With a Spartan rigour which never ceased to amaze his landlord-grocer, Nietzsche would get up every morning when the faintly dawning sky was still grey, and, after washing himself with cold water from the pitcher and china basin in his bedroom and drinking some warm milk, he would, when not felled by headaches and vomiting, work uninterruptedly until 11:00 in the morning.

After that uninterrupted state of flow, Nietszche would then get his body involved in his day with a brisk two-hour walk through the forest or by a nearby lake. And, of course, the thinker brought his ever-present notebook with him, since productive people take better notes.


He would return to the Hotel Alpenrose and eat his lunch of beefsteak and fruit alone. Then he’d be off for another, longer walk up the mountainside with pencil and pad in hand, before returning home around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. to eat biscuits, bread, honey, and tea, work even longer–until about 11 p.m.–when he finally went to bed.

How Karl got so hot

When he was living in London, Karl Marx made manifest a lifestyle still scholarly, though slightly more rock and roll, than Nietzche’s. The economist, philosopher, and world-shaper’s daily routine shows how creativity is as much about inputs, like study, as outputs, like writing.

Here’s how Isaiah Berlin described Marx’s daily routine on Open Culture:


(Marx’s) mode of living consisted of daily visits to the British Museum reading room, where he normally remained from nine in the morning until it closed at seven; this was followed by long hours of work at night, accompanied by ceaseless smoking, which, from a luxury, had become an indispensable anodyne; this affected his health permanently and he became liable to frequent attacks of a disease of the liver sometimes accompanied by boils and an inflammation of the eyes, which interfered with his work, exhausted and irritated him, and interrupted his never certain means of livelihood. “I am plagued like Job, though not so God-fearing,” he wrote in 1858.

The lesson here: If you want to start a revolution, well, you know, you might want to head to the library. And the tobacconist.

Kant touch this

After Plato, every philosopher had to react to Plato. Then, in the 18th century, a certain Immanuel Kant came around, and though he barely left his native city of Königsberg, then part of Germany, his foundational works like the Critique of Pure Reason have traveled far–indeed, people are still shooting each other over his thought. And, quite categorically, Kant, too, thought a well-crafted day was imperative.

Again from Open Culture:


His daily schedule then looked something like this. He got up at 5:00 a.m. . . . Kant was proud that he never got up even half an hour late, even though he found it hard to get up early. It appears that during his early years, he did sleep in at times.

Once roused, the central figure of modern philosophy would spend his time savoring concentration:

After getting up, Kant would drink one or two cups of tea–weak tea. With that, he smoked a pipe of tobacco. The time he needed for smoking it “was devoted to meditation.” Apparently, Kant had formulated the maxim for himself that he would smoke only one pipe, but it is reported that the bowls of his pipes increased considerably in size as the years went on.

Then, post-pipe, Kant prepped his lectures, wrote his books until 7 a m , then taught until 11a. m. The rest of his day sounds awesome: He’d resume writing until taking lunch, after which he’d go for a walk–again with the walks!–and then he would spend the rest of the afternoon talking with a friend. Then he’d go home, work a bit more, and read.

Which sounds absolutely productive, but not at all busy.


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.