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3 Lessons from Einstein’s Productive Life

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Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The year was 1955, and the most famous scientist of the 20th century had been pronounced dead in a New Jersey hospital.

As journalists gathered to get the scoop, a renegade LIFE magazine photographer decided to tell another story. He headed to the Institute for Advanced Study to find Einstein’s office. As he entered the office, he found what he was looking for.

A wooden desk.

A flurry of papers, tobacco pipes, and coffee cups covered the entire top. Books were stacked in piles and shoved into bookshelves. A small chalkboard was covered in scientific symbols.

The photographer focused his lens and snapped the photo. The iconic photo of the desk would fascinate the public for years to come.

That messy desk belonged to the late, great scientist, Albert Einstein.

For those of us who have an interest in productivity, Einstein’s hurricane of an office is a contradiction. We always talk about how to keep a clear, clutter-free workspace. How clutter slows us down. How clutter confuses us.

So, how did a man with such a disorganized desk remain so productive? He clearly violated the Clear to Neutral principle. How did he stay so focused surrounded by clutter? How did he even find anything?

Messy desk aside, Einstein did do the things many highly productive people do. Over the course of his life, these rituals would have an enormous effect on his productivity. Perhaps this is why he tolerated habits that had no positive impact on his success, such as cluttering up his office. He published over 300 articles in his lifetime, so his messy desk clearly did not slow him down.

Einstein used 3 simple principles to be productive:

  • He had a daily ritual and schedule.
  • He lived a minimalist lifestyle.
  • He focused on his most important work.

We discuss this all the time at Asian Efficiency: how creating a daily ritual is the key to living a more productive life. Routines help us gain control over our world, whether that be in the way we run our households, our work spaces, or the way we set up a buffer against the unpredictable things that affect our daily lives.

This would have appealed to Albert Einstein. Despite his success as a scientist, he was faced with instability in his career and personal life. Although he later taught at Princeton University for years, he clashed with his professors and rebelled as a young student. After 1933, it became too dangerous as a Jewish man to return to Germany and he spent years as a displaced person. He often struggled to find employment. A daily ritual would have provided him with a sense of stability and purpose in an uncertain world.

Some of Einstein’s productivity methods are still used today since they are highly effective. At Asian Efficiency, several of our core concepts closely align with Einstein’s daily rituals and practices:

  • to live a minimalist luxury lifestyle
  • to have a morning ritual
  • to use the Pomodoro Technique

Although most of us will never develop a new theory, or win a Nobel Prize, using these 3 tips can help us become more effective in our own lives.

1. The Minimalist Luxury Lifestyle

Living a minimalist life doesn’t mean going without. We’ve discussed this before on the blog as the minimalist luxury lifestyle. Basically, what would you prefer? A closet full of low quality clothing, or a wardrobe comprised of fewer but more durable, high quality items? The idea is to have fewer, but better items.

Albert Einstein embraced minimalism in his lifestyle. He gave most of his Nobel prize money to his wife. He rarely wore socks or suspenders. He couch surfed when he traveled. When he was scheduled to visit a group of prominent scientists, he emerged from the third-class train car to greet them. I don’t know if I could do it like that (I like my luxury hotel stays and first-class seats anytime I can afford them).

Like everyone else, we all have special things that we put no price limit on. So what did Einstein splurge on? Good cigars, coffee, and musical instruments.

Einstein believed it was more important to focus on the things that mattered, whether that was playing violin with a group of other musicians or drinking a gourmet cup of coffee. He could have embraced a much more luxurious lifestyle, but he chose not to (and I respect that).

When we focus on acquiring possessions that have true value for us, we may end up with fewer possessions, but also less clutter. Without the clutter of objects that physically and mentally block us from our goals, we can free our minds to focus on creating more success for ourselves and others around us.

The minimalist luxury lifestyle is:

  • owning fewer things
  • owning things of good quality
  • valuing our possessions and freeing our time for other pursuits
  • de-cluttering our lives to free our mental space

What we can learn from Einstein is how minimalism helped him stay focused on his passions and commune with other people, instead of things. He made a conscious choice to own possessions that had exceptional value.

2. Einstein’s Daily Ritual

By the time Albert Einstein was teaching at Princeton, he was one of the most recognized faces of the 20th century. Rarely could he walk the streets without being approached by the public. He even devised a simple way to explain to curious people on the street his theory of relativity!

Einstein’s daily walk was sacred to him, because it was a component of a daily ritual.
There are endless numbers of articles online about rituals and how important they are for productivity. Entire books have been written detailing the daily routines of celebrities and public figures. The reason why this dialogue continues to happen is because routines work.

Albert Einstein had a simple, daily ritual:

  • breakfast
  • walk or drive to work
  • work
  • lunch
  • tea time
  • nap
  • more work
  • dinner

As you can see, there’s nothing strenuous or extraordinary about this schedule. Many people may have this routine without even realizing it. With routine, it isn’t always about the components. What’s important is that Albert Einstein could wake up in the morning knowing what the structure of his day would be like.

Some people are not creatures of habit and establishing a daily ritual takes time and practice. For Einstein, I think his need for schedule and ritual was tied to the constant instability of the world around him. Routine allowed him the time and headspace to tackle the scientific concepts that swirled around him.

At Asian Efficiency we talk about the importance of a morning ritual all the time. If you’re new to working on being more productive, this is a good practice to start with. Like Einstein, you probably already have certain things you do every morning, such as walking the dog, eating a certain cereal, meditation, or exercise. We even have a mini course on this called the Morning Ritual Starter Kit that has a template you can download and use right away.

By creating a dedicated time frame to these tasks and consolidating them, you’ve created a morning ritual for yourself. Let’s quickly review what a morning ritual is:

  • a series of steps that form a sequence to help you go from waking up to being ready for work
  • a daily practice that sets the right tone for your day
  • this can be movement, meditation, meals, or other practices

Looking at Albert Einstein’s daily routine helps us understand that we can create order in our life by following a basic schedule. As you continue to experience success with a morning ritual, you can expand this to implement more daily rituals. As we learned from Einstein’s messy desk, he chose efficiency concepts that worked and ignored others that didn’t. This is a good reminder for people who are intimidated by trying new productivity concepts.

3. The Pomodoro Technique

In 1915, Einstein was in a state of acute anxiety. After three years of work on his new concept of gravity, he realized the mathematical equations were flawed. He was due to give four lectures on his theory that November to Berlin’s Prussian Academy of Sciences. Also, a colleague who had attended Einstein’s lectures was attempting to present the same concept of gravity with his own equations.

Einstein was in a race against time and at risk of losing it all. But he did what he always did in situations like this. He focused on the task at hand and worked until it was complete.

For months, Einstein focused on nothing else but the equations that would explain his concept of gravity. He worked in almost total isolation. The punishing work schedule caused his hair to turn white and caused considerable strain on his marriage.

This is an extreme example, but it speaks to Einstein’s ability and willingness to concentrate on one important task and work on the task to completion. Luckily, most of us don’t have to isolate and work for months on end to complete our work. But we can take away from this example how staying on track with one task helps us be more Asian Efficient.

The Pomodoro Technique is a method that helps us focus on a task and eliminate distractions. This is similar to the “Einstein principle”. It’s the idea that we are most productive when we focus on a very small number of projects to which we can devote a large amount of attention. With the Pomodoro Technique, a timer is used as a way to create work blocks where we focus solely on the task at hand.

This may seem strange in a world where multitasking is normal (but really shouldn’t be), depending on your personality and work style. Einstein, in 1915, was in a race to change the way the scientific community would view the world. His laser focus on finishing his theory is how he made it happen.

How can you stop multitasking and start applying the Pomodoro Technique to your daily life?

  • Choose the task that has the most importance for you.
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  • Work until the timer rings.
  • Take a break to recharge yourself.

Notice I mention choosing the task of most importance—or, as we also like to call it, Eating Your Frog. Instead of trying to do many things, by focusing on our primary goals, whether that be in our work, personal, or academic life, we can narrow our focus. Einstein became known for his wild hair, but he let it grow long for a reason; he could avoid the barber shop and spend more time on his work.

The Pomodoro Technique is great for knowledge workers, but it can work for things like meditation as well. By setting the timer first thing in the morning, you can eliminate distractions and focus better. This is also a great way to see what works as part of your morning ritual.

Einstein was also known for taking time simply to think. Along with his laser focus on his work, he enjoyed just looking out a window and letting his mind wander. Want to daydream? Why not? Set the timer and spend some time observing the birds and trees outside your window. This time of reflection was critical to Einstein, as he keenly understood that his ideas had extraordinary value.

Integrating productivity rituals into our daily lives is a process. There will be stops and starts, since this is ultimately a personal journey. What makes Einstein so relatable to us is his ability to try something, fail, and then try something else. When we look at the rituals of people like Einstein, we can learn how to become more productive and successful in our daily lives. Messy desk included.

 

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