I’ve said it myself. Often. Perhaps too often. And I believed it when I said it.
During these last weeks of the semester, I hear students say it too. Often. And they believe it when they say it.
But it isn’t true. Wasn’t true when I said it; isn’t true when they say it.
The statement takes several forms, each sharing a common theme: “I work best under pressure.” “My mind is clearest the day before the paper is due.” “Desperation is the mother of invention.” “It’s all in my head. I just need to write it down—no problem.” “I can do another all-nighter—there are no distractions then.”
You know how this works. Under time constraints, and perhaps suffering (slightly) the effects of procrastination, fueled by energy drinks and fear, running a hasty spell-check (and perhaps offering a prayer that the toner cartridge is not empty) before sliding papers still warm from printing under the professor’s door.
Or perhaps you have more exalted reasons. For you it’s not a problem of discipline and time but a romantic commitment to spontaneity. Real thought, you insist, authentic thought, doesn’t happen on a schedule. The Muses do not keep a calendar or follow a plan; inspiration is never bourgeois, but bohemian, shirking off the shackles of deadening routine. You smoke French cigarettes in cafés until lightning strikes.
But it isn’t true. Wasn’t true when I said it; isn’t true when you say it.
Human beings flourish when keeping rhythm, when following set times and seasons, rituals and litanies. There is a time for everything—for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot—and a time to read and think and write and worship. Intellectual labor is not magic, nor is it done by pure intellects, but requires the laborer to work well, to be well.
In his classic treatise The Intellectual Life, A. G. Sertillanges devotes several chapters to the organization of and time for intellectual work. Desultory reading, scattered notetaking, and frenetic bursts of energy may very well complete the task, but they do not allow us to become reflective, sustained, careful, or virtuous intellectuals. We may finish the assignment, but doing so in a hurried, frenzied way does not let the work perfect us as workers, as persons. Despite the etymology, inspiration, a divine guidance, even madness, which seems to happen to us, occurs most often to those who have done the grunt work in a methodical, cautious manner.
Routine also, quite simply, works. Productive people tend to follow a routine, even in writing. No one is more prolific or inventive than Stephen King; he writes ten pages a day, every day, no matter whether a birthday or holiday. Or take Winston Churchill, who worked from bed and bath every morning, dictating to secretaries just out of sight, before taking luncheon and a nap—even during the war—and then embarking on a long and energetic evening of work.
Not only work but also play and leisure are routine. If you doubt this, consider how serious is the play of children, including the nonnegotiable preliminaries and customs that only the most gauche would ignore or bypass for expediency or spontaneity. There is no spontaneity in play; it’s far too reasonable for such nonsense. C. S. Lewis, no slouch in either productivity or imagination, knew this, relishing a patterned or “normal” day modeled on the “archetype” of his schoolboy days.
I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. A step or so out of doors for a pint of beer would not do quite so well; for a man does not want to drink alone and if you meet a friend in the taproom the break is likely to be extended beyond its ten minutes. At one precisely lunch should be on the table. . . .
Breakfast, tea, writing, exercise—all precisely choreographed—but in the midst of that great dance of time emerged Aslan and the White Witch, Lucy and Jill, The Great Divorce and Miracles, Mere Christianity, and Perelandra. However obvious and dull, the regimen did not deaden but enlivened and enabled a great soul for its great works.
It may be simply too late to recover the pattern this semester, although I do often tell students the best thing they could do for the upcoming exam is to take a nap. But summer is for recovery, and leisure, and soul building. No better way to free your mind and soul than to do the same things, every day, all summer, with a time for everything and everything in its time.
R. J. Snell is professor of philosophy at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA, and executive director of the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. His recent books include Authentic Cosmopolitanism (with Steve Cone), The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode, and the recently released Acedia and Its Discontents.