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Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens only worked four hours a day—and you should too

Sebastian Wahlhuetter / National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest
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Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

An underlying assumption driving today’s pervasive cult of productivity is that the more hours you work, the more you get done. This seems like a logical enough formula, but it is also leading to an epidemic of job-induced stress and burnout. Regardless, being perpetually “busy” has become a 21st-century status symbol; the option to work fewer than the average American’s 34.4 hours a week (or a whopping 47 for full-time workers) is usually a privilege reserved for the leisure class.

But according to a growing anti-workaholism movement, the counterintuitive key to greater productivity could be working fewer hours. In Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang makes the case for a four-hour workday. “Decades of research demonstrate that the correlation between the number of hours worked and productivity is very weak,” says Pang, a Stanford University visiting scholar and founder of the Restful Company.

One study from Illinois Institute of Technology in the 1950s found that scientists who spent 25 hours per week in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working 35 hours a week were half as productive as their 20-hour-a-week colleagues, while workers who put in 60 hours or more were the least productive of all. More recent research echoes these findings.

While implementing shorter workdays might be a hard sell for managers and executives, “a few companies, including Tower Paddle Boards, as well as many companies in Scandinavia, have found their businesses actually grew—and employee satisfaction surged—after cutting employees’ work hours,” Pang says.

The daily routines of some of history’s most influential thinkers also support the notion that knocking off work at lunchtime won’t necessarily kill your productivity for the hours you do work. “When you examine the lives of history’s most creative figures, you are confronted with a paradox: they organize their lives around their work, but not their days,” Pang writes.

By today’s standards, the likes of British naturalist Charles Darwin and writer Charles Dickens were total slackers: They worked just four to five hours a day. So did authors Alice Munro, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, W. Somerset Maugham, Anthony Trollope, and Peter Carey, scientist John Lubbock, director Ingmar Bergman, artist Arthur Koestler, and mathematician Henri Poincare. The hours these luminaries spent in “deliberate rest,” Pang contends, were as important to their work as time spent actually working. “When we stop and rest properly, we’re not paying a tax on creativity,” he writes. “We’re investing in it.”

While plenty of creative geniuses burned the midnight oil, the daily routines of these five writers, mathematicians, and scientists might encourage you to leave work early and get some rest—if you can get away with it.

Charles Darwin

In his 73 years, British naturalist Charles Darwin managed to publish 19 books, from a monograph about barnacles to On the Origin of Species, which is possibly the single most influential volume in the history of science. The time Darwin spent doing scientific work—theorizing, writing, and experimenting—usually consisted of just three 90-minute periods a day. After a morning walk and breakfast, Darwin worked in his study from 8am to 9:30am, at which point he’d take a break to read, write letters, and listen to a novel being read aloud. At 10:30am, he’d return to paradigm-shifting experiments in his aviary or greenhouse. By noon, he’d declare, “I’ve done a good day’s work,” and set out strolling on the Sandwalk, a path by his house in Down, near London. After lunch, more letter-writing, and an hour-long nap, he’d take another walk, then return to his study from 4:00pm until 5:30pm. Dinner with his family followed. “If [Darwin] had been a professor in a university today, he would have been denied tenure,” Pang writes. “If he’d been working in a company, he would have been fired within a week.”

G.H. Hardy

G.H. Hardy, one of early 20th-century Britain’s leading mathematicians, started his day with a close reading of the cricket scores over breakfast, then focused on mathematics from 9am to 1pm. Tennis and long walks filled his afternoons. “Four hours creative work a day is about the limit for a mathematician,” Hardy told his fellow Oxford professor C.P. Snow, according to Pang. Hardy’s close collaborator, John Edensor Littlewood, agreed, saying that the “close concentration” required to do serious work meant that a mathematician could work “four hours a day or at most five, with breaks about every hour (for walks perhaps).”

Charles Dickens

After an early life as a night owl, Charles Dickens, author of more than a dozen novels, adopted a schedule as “methodical and orderly [as that of a] city clerk,” his son Charley said. From 9am until 2pm, he wrote in absolute quiet, with a break for lunch. After five hours, Dickens was done for the day.

Thomas Mann

German writer and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, who published the acclaimed novel Buddenbrooks when he was 35, shut himself in his office daily from 9am to lunchtime to work on novels. After that, he was off the hook. “Afternoons are for reading, for my much too mountainous correspondence and for walks,” Mann said. After an hour-long nap and afternoon tea, he would spend another hour or two working on easy short pieces and editing.

Edna O’Brien

In a 1984 interview with The Paris Review, prize-winning Irish writer Edna O’Brien spoke about her daily four-hour writing routine: “I get up in the morning, have a cup of tea, and come into this room to work. I never go out to lunch, never, but I stop around one or two and spend the rest of the afternoon attending to mundane things. In the evening I might read or go out to a play or a film, or see my sons… I never work at night because by then the shackles of the day are around me, what James Stephens [author of The Crock of Gold)] called ‘That flat, dull catalogue of dreary things that fasten themselves to my wings,’ and I don’t sit down three hundred and sixty-five days a year because I’m not that kind of writer. I wish I were.”

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