The great English mathematician John Littlewood wrote an essay called “The mathematician’s art of work,” published in The Mathematical Intelligencer in 1978. (Here’s a link, though it’s behind a firewall.) It’s full of great advice, but on this Sunday morning when I’m up early to try to finish a piece that’s been on my desk for months, this bit jumps out at me:
Before World War I it was usual in Cambridge to do our main work at night, 9:30 to 2:00 or later. Time goes rapidly-one has a whiskey and soda at 11:30 and another later- and work seems to go well and easily. By comparison the morning seems bleak and work a greater effort. I am sure all this is one of the many powerful illusions about creative work. When put out of action by a severe concussion in 1918, I consulted Henry Head, an eminent psychologist, and known for wise hunches as a doctor. The traditional prescription was complete rest, but he told me to work as soon as I felt like it (I had leave of absence) and as much as I felt up to, but- only in the morning. After a month or two I discovered, that, for me at least, morning work was far the better. I now never work after 6:30 p.m.
Lots of very creative people start their lives as night owls, only discover that the early morning is a great time to work (especially after a good night’s sleep). They find that the mind is at its most creative, you can be your most productive in early undisturbed hours, and that getting work out of the way leaves more time for leisure.
Littlewood was a terrifically productive mathematician, but he was also– as he explains in the article– very strict about taking time off every week, and going on long vacations (three weeks, no more, no less). Getting up early was one way to make sure that he had time for that rest.
The paragraph also illustrates something else that happens to lots of the people I write about in REST: they come to aware of “the many powerful illusions about creative work” that keep us from finding new and better ways of working, and get in the way of doing our best work.
There are LOTS of stories we’re told about how we need to work– how many hours we have to put in, how we need to approach our work, how much time we have, how we should present ourselves to our colleagues and bosses— and many of them are so pervasive and well-entrenched that we never think to question them; or they’re never formally articulated, which makes it especially hard to recognize their effect on us. But people who manage to craft lives that are satisfying, and that support really great work, learn not to take for granted that the world has figured out the best way to work.