12 Productivity Tips from Famous Historical Figures

by | July 21, 2016


Congrats on being an entrepreneur!

The good news is – you are your own boss and you set your own hours.

The bad news is – you are your own boss and you set your own hours!

One of the reasons you wanted to be an entrepreneur was the pursuit of freedom, but as you probably quickly learned, freedom doesn’t necessarily equate to free time

Your days are filled with trying to get everything done while wrestling with all the things that want to steal your attention away. As a founder, you know firsthand the struggle of managing time effectively and trying to be productive.

Having a solid productivity plan is paramount to success, but it’s hard to picture what that plan looks like amidst the chaos of your day-to-day activities.

As it so happens, there have been a number of famous figures who shared the same struggle, and developed habits and routines to help improve their productivity – from King Otto’s desire to shoot peasants each morning, to Anne Rice’s schedule of only writing at night.

With the exception of trying to execute your followers, it can be helpful to take some productivity cues from well-known historical figures, both past and present, and examine how they got the most out of each day.

1. Productivity Comes With the Right Environment

We’re all wired a little differently, so we react to a variety of environments differently. You may work well in a bustling open-office environment, while another founder requires a quiet, sterile, and unassuming office space in order for their creativity to flow.

Finding the right environment is important, and you can see the diversity in work preferences among several notable historical figures.


If I Fit, I Sit

Well-known author Agatha Christie never owned a desk. For the 80 novels and 19 plays she produced, along with various other works, her simple approach was to write wherever she could sit down.

On Your Feet, Soldier

For example, Kierkegaard, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, and Ernest Hemingway all preferred to do their writing standing up. Although Thomas Wolfe was 6’6,” he also wrote standing up.

He used the top of a refrigerator as his desktop.


Sip, Focus, Write

Poet, civil rights activist, and Pulitzer Prize nominee Maya Angelou had a very strict approach to separating her work and home life to remain productive. Rather than trying to work in “comfortable” surroundings, she would check into small, sparsely-decorated hotel rooms. She would bring along very few items, such as a bible, a deck of cards and some sherry, and she would write from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day.

What You Should Do:

  • Limit your distractions
  • Create or find an environment that puts you in a productive mindset
  • Surround yourself with things or people that contribute to your productivity
  • Eliminate things that impede productivity, especially people

2. Be More Productive by Setting and Attacking Goals

It’s incredibly easy to get overwhelmed by everything you have to do. As a business owner, your plate is constantly full of one-off projects and tasks that are part of a larger plan.

Setting goals and milestones will help you organize the chaos and create a roadmap for efficiency and productivity. Goals are the most effective way to prioritize what’s important so you can delegate or eliminate the most unnecessary tasks that slow you down.

Bruce Lee created Jeet Kune Do not only as a martial art form, but also to represent a general philosophy. In essence:

  • Eliminate movement and thought so you’re limited to only the most essential actions
  • Decrease activity rather than increase it; hack away at the inessential


Jeet Kune Do is about explicit, direct attacks that bring you to your target as quickly and forcefully as you possibly can.

This gets you to your destination with minimal effort.

When applied to productivity in entrepreneurship, this means taking the most direct route to your goals and discarding – or delegating – everything else.

3. Set Goals and Do the Work to Get There


Victorian author Anthony Trollope wrote for hours starting at 5 a.m. every morning and did nothing else until it was time to dress. He stopped writing after getting dressed and eating his breakfast.

Authors Mary Higgins Clark and Sylvia Plath were both caregivers for their children while they pursued their writing careers. To stay productive and meet their goals, they woke up early each morning and wrote in the early hours before their children woke.

While not a major historical figure, Stephen King is a well-known and highly-productive author. For years, he has stuck to his goal of writing at least 2,000 words per day, every single day.


“I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words,” writes King in his book, On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft. “That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book…”

Setting that goal and striving for it is critical to his productivity.

Historical Habits Backed by Research

Research has proven that productivity can improve when you challenge yourself with realistic goals. In one study from University of Maryland and University of Toronto, researchers Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham analyzed the performance of more than 40,000 goal-setters across a variety of industries both in lab and real-world settings.

Among their findings, Locke and Latham wrote that “specific, difficult goals consistently led to higher performance than urging people to do their best.” They also found that “the highest or most difficult goals produced the highest levels of effort and performance.”


What You Should Do:

  • Identify the major goals you want to achieve
  • Plot a roadmap to your major goal with smaller, achievable milestones to attack daily
  • Focus primarily on the actions that help you achieve your daily goals

4. Sleep Habits

If you’re an adult over the age of 18, the Sleep Foundation says that you’re supposed to be getting 7-9 hours of sleep every night.

How often does that actually happen for you?

If you look at influencers and self-help recommendations, you might hear the clichéd “go to bed early, wake up early, tackle the day” approach to sleep.

But science says that might not be the best approach for some people.

early-night.pngAccording to newer research, scientists revealed genetic variations that explained why some people naturally have different Circadian clocks that separate the night owls from the early birds.

These findings could explain why some historical figures and successful people were able to remain productive in spite of having very different sleep patterns.

Jerzy Koziński and Split Sleep

Award-winning Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosiński did get his full 8 hours in every day, but he didn’t pack in all his sleep at the same time. Kosiński would wake at 8 a.m. to begin his work, but he would stop for a 4-hour nap in the afternoon. He would then wake and write into the late hours before sleeping another 4 hours and waking up at 8 a.m. to begin again.


Anne Rice – A Creature of the Night?

While writing Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice slept all day and worked through the night, but her motivation for doing so was not to immerse herself in the mindset of her characters. Instead, she wanted to maximize productivity by working when distractions were minimal.

One thing we know by looking at historical figures and successful people is that they understand the impact sleep has on their productivity, but ultimately it’s different for everyone.

In 1735, Ben Franklin published the popular phrase “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

But this is not an optimal approach for many people. Productivity is best achieved by listening to your body, which is something that Arianna Huffington learned quickly and shared with her followers:

“My single most effective trick for getting things done is to stop doing what I’m doing and get some sleep.”

What You Should Do:

  • Get at least 7 hours of sleep daily
  • Find a sleep pattern that works best for you and stick to it consistently; day, night, or split
  • If you’re tired, take a nap and use resting periods to refresh your brain and spark your productivity

5. The Art of Staying Focused


When you think about the distractions we have now compared to previous decades (or centuries) past, you might say historical figures had it easy:

  • No email notification chimes
  • No social media
  • No mobile technology
  • No constant news blasts

It sounds like a vacation to a busy entrepreneur, but distractions aren’t unique to the Digital Age.

Greek orator Demosthenes reportedly had an intriguing way of limiting distractions for himself. He shaved only a portion of his hair off. This forced him to focus on his work for months, because he wouldn’t be tempted to leave his home and procrastinate for fear of public embarrassment.

Staying Productive in the Buff

Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables, had a similar approach to minimizing distractions. While battling writer’s block and struggling to remain productive, Hugo would strip off his clothes and lock himself away to write. He instructed his servants to withhold his clothing until he was finished writing a new chapter.

Fire At Will. He Won’t Mind.

To keep a “fresh mind” (he was actually quite mad) and stay focused, Bavarian ruler King Otto insisted on shooting a peasant every morning to start his day. To limit the actual bloodshed, his advisors provided him with pistols loaded with blanks while one of them would dress as a peasant and act out their death when they were “shot.”

While some of these examples are extreme, the theme remains the same:


Focusing the Mind to Remain Productive

Ben Franklin has long been a source for valuable advice. In this case, an applicable quote is “Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”

If we were to translate that for modern times, it would be more akin to “Stop binge-watching Netflix and quit playing Pokémon GO when you have real stuff to do.”

Focus doesn’t happen naturally. Like in the examples above, it’s an active decision you have to make and remind yourself of constantly.

What You Should Do:

  • Minimize distractions during peak work periods
  • Disconnect from social media and your email so notifications don’t drag your attention away
  • Reduce your meetings schedule or ask someone to attend in your place
  • Simplify your modes of communication or hire a virtual assistant to handle the communicating for you

6. Be Productive Tomorrow by Focusing on Today

Ben Franklin also swore by a daily set-up and nightly recap. He began each day by asking himself, “What good shall I do today?” Each night, he finished with “What good have I done today?” He recorded his thoughts in writing each day to carry over into the next, creating a roadmap to follow in order to stay productive.


Prose and Productivity

Army Colonel Steve Rotkoff, a highly-decorated military intelligence officer, tracked his daily struggles and events in a journal in the form of Haikus.

By focusing at the start and end of each day and tracking their progress in a journal, these historical figures concentrated on their goals and maintained productivity every day.

Cut Out the Crap

Steve Jobs has been hailed as an unparalleled innovator, and he once offered invaluable advice to a new Nike CEO, Mike Parker:

“Nike makes some of the best products in the world,” said Jobs. “Products that you lust after. Absolutely beautiful, stunning products. But you also make a lot of crap. Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff.


What You Should Do:

  • Recap each day and look for ways to curtail activities that waste time and money
  • Create a list each night to organize tasks and activities for the next day
  • Review your tasks in the morning; prioritize tasks to ensure you and your team are as productive as possible

7. Putting in the Hours (or Not…)

Why does it seem like entrepreneurs treat being busy as some kind of badge of honor? The harder we work, and the more we deprive ourselves of a good work/life balance, the “better” we are.


Gary Vaynerchuk might convince you that hustle is the secret to success, but too much hustle can have you spinning your wheels pointlessly. There comes the “diminishing returns” point where productivity and quality plummet, no matter how many hours you put in.

John D. Rockefeller offered an alternative approach. In the book Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., author Ron Chernow details how careful Rockefeller was with his time and energy:

“He worked at a more leisurely pace than many other executives, napping daily after lunch and often dozing in a lounge chair after dinner.”


In his book, Chernow quoted Rockefeller as saying, “It is remarkable how much we all could do if we avoid hustling, and go along at an even pace and keep from attempting too much.”

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Rockefeller was no stranger to hard work. At the turn of the 20th century, he was one of the richest men in America and had created the country’s first monopoly with the Standard Oil Company. But he wasn’t constantly working. He maintained a steady pace and approached everything like a marathon: conserving energy and dividing his actual waking hours between working and resting.

“It is not good to keep all the forces at tension all the time,” said Rockefeller.

That’s a sentiment echoed by many other historical figures. Very few of the “greats” actually put in extended working hours:

  • Philosopher Michel Foucault only worked from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  • Beethoven limited his work from sunrise to the early afternoon
  • Winston Churchill would do nothing work-related in the afternoon and evening
  • German philosopher Immanuel Kant spent his afternoons walking instead of working
  • American author Tom Robbins only scheduled 3 hours of writing per day

Being productive doesn’t necessarily mean packing as much work into your day as possible. Prioritizing your workload, delegating the less important tasks, and creating a better work/life balance are key to staying productive and healthy.

In one study examining over 700 organizations worldwide, researchers on the U.S. President’s Council of Economic Advisers found a significant positive relationship between work/life balance practices and increased productivity. Where flexible work scheduling was lacking, productivity and attendance decreased.


What You Should Do:

  • Scale back on your working hours each day
  • Focus on the important tasks, delegate the rest
  • Consider outsourcing to a freelancer, contractor or virtual assistant so you can reduce hours and focus on only mission-critical tasks
  • Create programs to improve work/life balance for employees

8. Exercise the Body to Keep the Brain Sharp and Productive

If there’s anything you can learn from reviewing the habits and activities of historical figures and successful entrepreneurs, it’s that many of them work intensively when they wake up but leave plenty of time later in the afternoon for exercise and activities.

An interactive chart from Podio lets you examine the daily routines of famous historical figures and creatives.


You can see that a variety of people filled their afternoons with leisure activities and exercise to keep the mind and body sharp, including:

  • John Milton
  • Haruki Murakami
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Mary Flannery O’Connor
  • Charles Darwin
  • Richard Strauss

Exercise was a regular part of their routines, not only for the opportunity to take a break from work, but also for the health benefits.

Science Says Exercise = Productivity

According to research cited by Huffington Post, a set exercise routine can give you more energy throughout the day. Most of your cells contain components called mitochondria, which are usually referred to as the cell’s “power plant.” Mitochondria produce the chemical that your body uses for energy, known as ATP. Physical exercise stimulates the development of new mitochondria within your cells, which means your body will be able to produce more ATP over time. That gives you more energy to push yourself physically, and it also means more energy for your brain by boosting your mental output.


This doesn’t mean you need to adopt a “lift things up and put them down” mindset. You can increase your productivity with a variety of exercises.

What You Should Do: 

  • Set a consistent schedule for daily exercise and stick to it
  • Stay physically active with simple exercises such as walking, swimming, riding a bike, gardening, etc.
  • Exercise the mind by reading books or magazines, socializing, solving puzzles, playing games, etc.
  • Participate in an active hobby such as fishing, paintball, tennis, or geocaching
  • Go all in: join a gym, start jogging, get a treadmill, sign up for an exercise class

9. Motivation – You and Those Around You


Leaders know how to spark and motivate others to perform,” says Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric. “They outline a vision and are able to direct other people to carry it out. Energizers know how to get people excited, and they are able to give credit when due and accept responsibility for mistakes.”

Finding ways to be productive in your own life and motivating your team to be productive are two very different things. It’s not uncommon for budding entrepreneurs to lose sight of their position, focusing on authority over leadership and letting power go to their head.

Unfortunately, that can have a terrible impact on morale and the productivity of your team.

People like Jack Welch knew how important it was to engage with people, pull them into your vision, and share success with them.

He knew it was critical to be human, and necessary to put yourself on the same level when engaging your employees. That dynamic approach makes employees work their hearts out for the company, and it creates a highly-productive environment.

Power-Up Your Productivity Through Leadership


Shigeru Miyamoto, former general manager at Nintendo and creator of some of the most critically-acclaimed video games of all time (Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong) was consciously aware of the trappings of management and ego, and in an interview with Time, he talks about his efforts to avoid that trap.

“What I am trying to do is not to create an atmosphere where they feel like, ‘I will do better than Miyamoto does’ or ‘I will make a game just to please Miyamoto,’” said Shigeru. “Based on my own experiences, I try to encourage directors to have courage and work toward the goal they set, and pose questions to them about whether the game is actually delivering the experience to the player as envisioned. I try not to get too deeply involved in the content of the games they’re developing.”

You won’t improve productivity by cracking the whip and barking orders. You have to embrace the creativity of your team, empower them, and challenge them to improve.

Increasing team productivity begins with your leadership.

What You Should Do:

  • Understand your personal strengths and the strengths of your team, then leverage each to shore up weaknesses
  • Passionately share your vision and show your team how they can help achieve the company’s goals
  • Improve two-way communication; listen and act on feedback and ideas
  • Be willing to admit to and learn from failures and mistakes

10. Improve Productivity With Consistency


Consistency isn’t always easy to maintain, but it’s that continuous effort that yields the highest productivity.

“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” wrote W. H. Auden, Pulitzer Prize winner and well-known 20th century poet. In the book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a guest of Auden’s was once cited as saying “Eating, drinking, writing, shopping, puzzles, even the mailman’s arrival…all are timed to the minute and with accompanying routines.”

According to Daily Rituals, Auden believed that a life of such military precision was essential to his creativity. The consistency of that routine fueled his productivity.

That level of commitment might sound terrible, and it really can be for some people. It takes work. And consistently sticking to a routine that strict is hard. It’s not fun.

Developing Consistency Sucks

Look at exercising: anyone who won’t readily admit that exercise just sucks sometimes isn’t being honest with you. The sooner you accept that work is hard, and thus being consistent is hard, the better off you’ll be.

Olympic and professional boxer Muhammad Ali did an interview with Newsweek in 1978 where he discussed his consistent training:

“I hated every minute of it. But I said to myself, ‘Suffer now, and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”

You may not be training to be a world-class champion, but you’re training yourself to improve productivity and the operational efficiency of your business. Ali’s simple words teach you how important it is to suffer now and develop that consistent routine so you can kick butt later and be more productive.

What You Should Do: 

  • Create routines for yourself: blog daily, set aside specific break times, routinely delegate, etc.
  • Test what works; it’s ok if you slip, but keep testing your routines until you find one that works
  • Start small; schedule a few things to make it easier to adapt, then build on that consistency each week
  • Reward yourself and celebrate the victories you and your team achieve together
  • Look back and use previous victories to motivate you and your team when consistency becomes hard to maintain

11. Use Passion to Drive Your Productivity


You likely launched your business – or you’re in the process of doing so – because it’s something you care about. It’s easy to lose sight of that with everything you have to keep track of. When stress hits all-time highs, the workload gets heavy, and you’re backed into a corner, you can lose your grip on the passion or forget about it.

When you get bogged down, it’s important to remind yourself what you’re here for; why you’re doing what you’re doing.

That passion can rekindle a struggling fire.

Edward Murrow was an American journalist well-known for his passion to attack events and people he felt were unjust. He routinely put his job on the line to get stories out, and he wasn’t scared of conflict.

The New York Times ran a long obituary after he passed, stating:

“His independence was reflected in doing what he thought had to be done on the air and worrying later about the repercussions among sponsors, viewers, and individual stations. The fruits of his determination are shared today by newsmen at all networks; they enjoy a freedom and latitude not yet won by others working in the medium.”

Murrow’s actions show how important it is to let your passions drive you to be productive and tackle projects or ideas that you believe are worth fighting for.

Mouse Ears Over Money

Early in his career, Walt Disney worked at a small studio that developed early forms of cartoons. He found great personal fulfillment in this gig, so he passed up other opportunities, no matter how big the offers were, or how easy the other jobs seemed.

His passion was cartooning.


In a biography of Walt Disney, author Neal Gabler wrote:

“The fact that it was a primitive technique, though, made no difference to Walt, who just wanted to gain experience. ‘I got a fine job here in K.C.,’ he wrote one of his old Red Cross compatriots proudly a few months after joining the Slide Co. ‘And I’m going to stick with it. I draw cartoons for the moving pictures, advertiser films… and the work is interesting.’”

Even when times were tough and Walt Disney suffered from a lack of money, his work was outstanding and he was passionate about it. He didn’t get discouraged and quit. He stuck with it.

“Despite the pressure and the lack of funds,” Disney said, “I am going to sit tight. I have the greatest opportunity I have ever had and I’m in it for everything but my false teeth.”

Tough times can wear down even the hardest working of entrepreneurs. It’s hard to stay on top of your game when you’re stressed or overwhelmed, and you might feel consumed by pessimism at times.

During darker moments like these, you should shift your attention to what brought you to this place and use your passion to drive your productivity in a new direction.

What You Should Do: 

  • Don’t focus on things you can’t immediately control; attack what is in your control
  • Prioritize your tasks around core responsibilities that grow your business, your passion
  • Play the long game and be patient: set milestones and tackle them as you navigate the roadmap to your desired destination; today’s productivity leads to tomorrow’s success
  • Get your team excited about your passions; excitement leads to greater productivity as goals are met

12. Don’t Let Your Ego Slow You Down

If you ever hit a point where you feel like you’ve made it, you can finally settle down, and you’re better than the ones you’ve passed up, then it’s time to check your ego. That’s the kind of thought process that can shut down productivity.

You’ve been sidetracked by your own success.

There’s a fairly thin line between confidence and ego, between celebrating success and bragging. Rockefeller realized this early on in his career and made every effort not to get distracted by the hype generated by his success.

In Titan, Chernow wrote about what Rockefeller would say to keep himself in check:

“Because you have got a start, you think you are quite a merchant; look out, or you will lose your head. Go steady. Are you going to let this money puff you up? Keep your eyes open. Don’t lose your balance.

Rockefeller went on to say, “These intimate conversations with myself, I’m sure, had a great influence on my life. I was afraid I could not stand my prosperity and tried to teach myself not to get puffed with any foolish notions.”

Too much focus on your successes will cause you to stop pursuing growth and productivity. The end result is stagnation and falling behind your competition.

What You Should Do:

  • Celebrate success in moderation
  • Give credit where it’s due; it’s hard to inflate your ego when you’re celebrating the success of others
  • Treat victories as stepping stones, not finish lines

Productivity Starts With You 

Whether it’s for yourself or for your team, the secret to being more productive is you. You’re the figurehead of your organization, and you’re the only one capable of enacting change in your own life. If you’re struggling with improving efficiency throughout your day, then look to the success of others – from fellow startup founders and entrepreneurs, to historical figures – for cues on how to ramp up your productivity.

What productivity tips have you learned from famous people and historical figures? Share your tips with me in the comments below:

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