LIFESTYLE Routine Investigations: The Strange Ways Athletes and Creative Minds Double Their Day


Only 24 hours in a day? Not with these life hacks.

Mark Wahlberg’s now infamous routine is the stuff of legend – the actor wakes up at 2:30 am. Every, single, day (or should we say, every night?). Then comes half an hour of prayers, breakfast at 3:15am, 95 minutes of exercise, another meal, a shower (which, for some mysterious reason, takes an hour and a half), a snack, and 30 minutes of golf. Exhausted yet? Don’t worry, there’s a ‘cryo chamber’ recovery-period coming next – aka submerging the body in a -100C pod filled with liquid nitrogen. Which, one can only imagine, would rouse any lazy slacker beginning to drowse off at this point. And all before 10:30am. Simple, right? 

Daily routines have fascinated the popular imagination for centuries – there’s something about great achievement that makes us wonder, ‘how did they do that?’ We all have 24 hours a day: these people seem to have double. And it’s tempting to examine the way people live from minute to minute for clues, wondering if some bizarre life hack might be the key to excellence. Perhaps if we too ate 20 pounds of pure protein before dawn, our biceps would outclass Schwartzenegger’s – or maybe working in the nude will prove the key to sudden genius?

But does starting your day in the middle of the night, or counting out your coffee beans really make us more efficient, effective, or expressive?  And can the right routine revolutionise our lives?  Despite their association with tedium, fixed routines have been a vital aid to artists, thinkers, and high-achievers of all kinds – from Leonardo DaVinci (who slept only 20 minutes at a time, every four hours) to Truman Capote (who wrote in bed all day surrounded by a mountain of food and cigarettes). We’ve explored the weird and the wonderful, the eccentric and extreme routines and rituals of some iconic figures in history – and come up with a handful of habits that might just stand the test of time. 

Truman Capote photographed by Carl van Vechten in 1948.

Naked Ambition

The renowned writer John Cheever notoriously kept an eccentric routine during the 1940’s.  He’d wake up, put on a suit, leave his apartment and get in the lift.  But when the rest of the commuters emptied out onto the ground floor, Cheever carried on to the cellar – where he’d take up residence in a storage room, remove all his clothes, and write in his underwear until lunchtime.  

And it’s not just Cheever who discovered the power of eliminating distraction, whether socks or smartphones. Psychologist William James believed that the more we automate our routines, “the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work”. CEOs and Tech whizzes have taken the hint, and cultivate an almost superhuman ability to limit decision-making in daily life.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and former Apple CEO Steve Jobs have become synonymous with the habit of ‘uniform’- multiple versions of an identical wardrobe, to be worn every workday. Studies have shown that the human mind has a limited capacity for decision-making in any given day. By reducing those made in our personal lives (what to eat, wear, when to rise and when to work out etc.) and sticking to a habitual routine, it’s said we increase our capacity for good decisions and creativity in our work. 

Courtesy of Unsplash. Photo by Konsepta Studio.

Brain Boosters

Coffee is perhaps the reigning ’nootropic’, or brain-enhancing compound, on the market – not to mention a common starting point for ritual and morning routines. Everyone’s favourite caffeine source may have played a larger part in western culture than we realise;  Beethoven, so the stories go, counted out exactly 60 espresso beans for every cup of coffee (there were up to 20 per day), while Voltaire, the famous satirist, reportedly consumed a stimulating 40 to 50 cups a day of a chocolate-coffee mixture.

Yet another way to get the grey-matter going? Apart from building physical strength (Marky Mark-style washboard abs are NOT required), breaking a sweat has been shown to increase mental stamina too; increased blood flow, improved circulation, and detoxification may have something to do with the effect of exercise on brain performance. One tip from the top? Regularly working out first thing in the morning can improve your chances of sticking with a routine, as many high achievers have a habit in common: doing the things they don’t  want to do first. Procrastinate at your peril!

Sleep scheduling and meditation. Credit: iStock Getty Images

Switching Off

Two more tried-and-true habits that might find a place in your daily routine? Sleep scheduling and meditation. From Buddhist monks to Olympic Athletes, the precise timing of sleep and contemplation have been used to focus thoughts and cultivate discipline. Many NBA stars have revealed that strict sleep schedules are a critical part of training, while Olympic gold winner Usain Bolt swears by 8-10 hours every single night. And it’s not just quantity but quality that counts –  during training, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps slept in a chamber that simulated an altitude of 8-9k feet, to improve sleep quality and circulation! 

Meditation is no longer found only in the morning routine of Tibetan monks, (who often rise at 3am for three hours of contemplation before breakfast). Just ask David Lynch, filmmaker and twice-daily transcendental meditator. Lynch once stated his most important daily rituals for over seven years were meditation, and a single ‘Bob’s Big Boy’ chocolate milkshake, every day at lunchtime. Today? The milkshake failed to make the Director’s Cut, but daily meditation has survived. Other notable meditators include basketball stars LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant, who’ve used it to develop a kind of hyper-focus which keeps their ‘eye on the ball’ in more ways than one.

Find your Fit

But which routine is right for you? Tempted to strip like Cheever – or uniform up like Jobs? Rather than early-adopting the strangest or the most extreme habits of your heroes in order to hack the system, perhaps there’s a simpler solution.  What made these extraordinary people extraordinary most likely dwells somewhere beyond their breakfast choices, but there’s some evidence that our daily habits can cultivate both our creative output and certain character traits. The key? It has to work for you.

So rather than stressing over sleep quality while setting the alarm for Wahlberg’s early rise, it might be more effective to choose your own schedules, however eccentric, and stick to them. Place your watch in a velvet box before bed, for instance; with an in-house manufactured Heuer 02 movement, the 80-hour power reserve means timing your shower the next morning (down to a millisecond, if you wish) is a breeze. Or check out our article on the Pomodoro Technique and ‘Pom’ your way obsessively through the workday – or indeed your gym sesh. 

The infinitely personal nature of our habits doesn’t always match those of celebs or sports stars– and if the wild spectrum of routines we’ve investigated teaches us anything, it’s that there’s no ‘right’ answer. Whatever works! So go on, find some unusual daily rituals of your own – and you might even make your way into the history books.