When Winston Churchill left the military at age 26 to pursue a writing career and a seat in Parliament, he looked forward to being free of “discipline and authority, and set up in perfect independence in England with nobody to give me orders or arouse me by bell or trumpet.”
Yet even though his day-to-day life was no longer structured by a schoolmaster or a superior officer, he did not in fact do away with having a daily schedule altogether. Instead, he created a routine he actually delighted in – because he had created it himself.
A visitor to Chartwell, his home in the English countryside, might have been forgiven for missing this routine, or for thinking it disorderly. Yet while his daily schedule was quite unusual, it was in fact very strict. As one of the researchers who assisted Winston in writing his books recalled, “He was totally organized, almost like a clock. His routine was absolutely dictatorial. He set himself a ruthless timetable every day and would get very agitated, even cross, if it was broken.”
Let’s take a look at a day in the life of Winston Churchill, and then discuss the way that establishing your own daily routine can greatly enhance your adulthood.
Winston Churchill’s Daily Routine
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from The Last Lion by William Manchester.
Churchill’s day begins at 8 am, as he removes his black sleeping mask and pulls the covers off his naked body. He always sleeps in the nude, and believing that nakedness is quite natural, often walks around the house in the buff as well. He will generally don a robe in the presence of others and when staying over at another’s home (“in deference,” he says, to his hosts’ “views of propriety”), but the unexpected sight of the pale, rotund statesman occasionally surprises one of his servants – or a fellow head of state. While boarding with FDR at one of their wartime meetings, the president wheeled over to Churchill’s room to share an idea, only to find the prime minister in the nude, getting ready for a bath. With a hint of impish pride, “Churchill later told King George that he was the first British prime minister in history to greet a head of state naked.”
After getting out of bed, Winston “moves toward the bathroom with an alacrity surprising for his age and weight and quickly shaves himself with a safety razor while his valet draws the first of his two daily baths.” Churchill thoroughly enjoys soaking in the warm water, and lolls about, “reciting Kipling, rehearsing speeches or lectures he will soon deliver, or singing, not in the virile baritone familiar in Parliament, but in a soft, high tone.” After his bath, he puts on either a blue velvet dressing gown, or one made of green and gold silk with a dragon emblazoned on the front.
Bathed and clothed, the Old Man climbs back in bed. Churchill sits propped up on some pillows and reads through a stack of the day’s newspapers for the next two hours. If he finds something particularly interesting, he will pad over to his wife Clementine’s room to share it with her. She’s reading through the papers as well, and will similarly visit with her husband to discuss a bit of noteworthy news.
As Churchill reads, he chews on a cigar and sips “a weak scotch and soda,” that will be “refreshed with soda throughout the morning.” This is only his first drink of the day; at lunch he’ll enjoy some champagne, a couple of brandies, and a port or beer; at dinner he’ll imbibe more champagne and brandy; and he’ll finish the evening with another watered-down whiskey. His alcohol consumption is prodigious, and his enemies and critics gladly paint him as a drunkard. But he is decidedly not. He very rarely lets his drinking affect his behavior or interfere with his day-to-day functions. Robert E. Sherwood, FDR’s speechwriter and biographer, writes that while Churchill’s “consumption of alcohol… continued at quite regular intervals through most of his waking hours,” his tolerance for it was “Olympian,” and his drinking had no “visible effect on his health or mental processes. Anyone who suggested he became befuddled with drink obviously never had to become involved in an argument with him on some factual problem late at night.” Churchill’s doctors have encouraged him to drink more moderately, but he spurns their advice, declaring, “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
Once all the newspapers have been perused, it’s time to answer the enormous amount of mail Churchill receives each day. A secretary stands by as Churchill dictates (his preferred method of “writing”) correspondence to private citizens and government officials. Once the mail is finished, it’s time to dictate memoranda and greet any visitors who have stopped by Chartwell. “He will receive anyone except the King in his bedchamber,” and visitors are often tickled by the image which greets them; Vice Admiral Sir Douglas Brownrigg said he presented “a most extraordinary spectacle, perched up in a huge bed, with the whole of the counterpane littered with dispatch boxes, red and all colours, and a stenographer sitting at the foot — Mr. Churchill himself with an enormous Corona in his mouth.”
Churchill’s next task is to look through galley proofs of the latest book he’s working on, and ask his chief researcher to check and verify certain details. At this point, he often begins to work on his speeches. He paces the room, issuing phrase after phrase at a speed his secretaries have trouble keeping up with. Churchill, one of them recalls, would be “dashing around in shorts and undershirt and a bright red cummerbund while I trotted behind him from room to room with a pad and pencil struggling to keep pace with the torrential flow of words.” This flow of masterful oratory increases as the wordsmith warms up and finds his groove; “By noon the cadences of his prose have begun to trot; by 1:00 P.M. they are galloping.”
Lunch is at 1:15, so Churchill sets aside business and gets dressed to the nines (hence the aforementioned cummerbund). Churchill loves good food and good company, so he absolutely cherishes his mealtimes and enjoys making them unrushed, formal affairs. Several visitors and eminent guests invariably join him for both lunch and dinner. Churchill always dominates the conversation, but, because he is so fascinating, his guests don’t mind.
Once the mid-day meal is over, Churchill dons his Stetson hat and walks to the goldfish pond on his property to feed the ducks and swans that flock nearby. As he nears the birds, he calls to them with “Arf! Arf!” and “Yoick!” Thus begins a ritual that serves as “an integral part of the Churchillian day”:
“he sinks into the wicker chair, dismisses his servant, and remains, companionless and immobile, for at least a half hour. A table beside the chair bears another weak Johnny Walker and soda, a box of cigars, a pagoda-shaped ashtray, and a container of long Canadian matches, useful in a rising wind. The squire of Chartwell prefers solitude here. Long afterward, servants will recall his reciting Housman and Kipling to himself, or reading, or simply staring out across the Weald, alone with his reflections, a great hunched figure whose cigar smoke mingles with the many scents of an English country home, including, in season, the fragrance of freshly cut grass.”
After this period of reflection by the pond, Churchill heads inside to either paint, read, or listen to music. Then, around 3 o’clock, he changes into a silk sleeping vest and climbs back into bed for a nap. Churchill adopted the habit of taking an afternoon siesta after being introduced to it while working as a war correspondent in Cuba. Ever after, he has sworn by its benefits:
“The rest and the spell of sleep in the middle of the day refresh the human frame far more than a long night. We were not made by Nature to work, or even to play, from eight o’clock in the morning till midnight. We throw a strain upon our system which is unfair and improvident. For every purpose of business or pleasure, mental or physical, we ought to break our days and our marches into two.”
Churchill believes his afternoon naps help him be much more productive. He has found that he can only produce good writing for a few hours at a stretch, before his brain gets tired and the quality diminishes. So by breaking up his schedule with a nap, he is able to have two creative working periods each day – one in the morning and one late at night – while also having time for socializing and duck feeding. During the war years, when relaxing by the pond becomes a privilege Churchill is no longer able to enjoy, he will find that his daily nap allows him to put in 16-17-hour workdays. Even being advanced in age, with the weight of the war on his shoulders, as long as he gets a total of 8 hours of sleep a day – it doesn’t have to be in a single stretch – he will be able to maintain the energy of a indefatigable steam engine.
After a two-hour snooze, Churchill awakes around 5:00 pm and plays card games with his family. At 7, it’s time for the second of the day’s baths. As he relaxes in the water, he mulls over possible wording for some future speeches.
Now it’s time to dress up again and sit down for dinner at 8:30. Once more the table is filled with family, visitors, and friends. After the meal is complete, the gentlemen retire to the drawing room for cigars, brandy, and conversation about politics and the news of the day. “He will sit until 10:00 P.M., or later, talking of his school days, the great political issues of the past, the MPs who fought over them, battlefields of his youth, [and] strategic innovations in the American Civil War.”
When the guests have gone home or retired to their bedrooms to stay over, Churchill begins his second working shift of the day. It’s 11:00 PM, and most of his fellow Englishmen are sleeping, but Churchill is rearing to go. He slips into something more comfortable and asks his aides to join him in the library:
“His appearance heralded by the harff, harff of his slippers, he enters the room in his scarlet, green, and gold dressing gown, the cords trailing behind him. Before greeting his researcher and the two secretaries on duty tonight, he must read the manuscript he dictated the previous evening and then revise the latest galleys, which arrived a few hours earlier from London. Since Churchill’s squiggled red changes exceed the copy set—the proofs look as though several spiders stained in crimson ink wandered across the pages—his printers’ bills are shocking. But the expense is offset by his extraordinary fluency. Before the night is out, he will have dictated between four thousand and five thousand words. On weekends he may exceed ten thousand words.”
Churchill’s night usually ends around 2 am, but when there is extra work to be done, he may not retire until 3 or 4. Then he’s up again at 8 am, ready to enthusiastically romp through another quintessentially Churchillian day.
Takeaways from Lesson #2
When we’re children our lives are tightly scheduled by our parents and school, and we look forward to the time when we’ll be able to do whatever we want with our day.
When we first move out and this privilege is finally experienced, the freedom can sometimes be a little heady at first; we do away with every semblance of a schedule…to our ultimate detriment. I know as a freshman in college, I had no routine whatsoever. Woke up when I felt like it (and frequently overslept my early classes), studied whenever the mood struck (not often), and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning playing video games. The unsurprising consequence? I almost flunked out.
Such an experience is common. For me, and for most of us, we end up adding a bit more of a schedule into our daily routine by the time we graduate – though our day-to-day lives are still led in a fairly willy-nilly fashion. And then, we get our first real job, and our experiment with completely setting our own schedule seems to come to a quick end.
Yet while most of us won’t ever be able to set the schedule for our entire day the way Churchill did, all of us, even those who work a 9-5, have two glorious expanses of time to shape whichever way we’d like: our mornings and evenings. These time slots are blank canvases that, when guided by a regular routine, can be turned into the richest parts of our lives. Unfortunately, most adults instead squander them away.
Within every grownup there’s a child who doesn’t want any rules, and wants to be totally free to do whatever he pleases. This inner child chafes at the very word “routine” – much less the idea of scheduling his leisure hours. When we have time to ourselves, we just want to let it all hang out, and see what we feel like doing in the moment.
While an open schedule could hypothetically turn into an opportunity for doing some fun, productive, and/or creative activities, more often than not, it simply leads to the path of least resistance. You grab some take-out, piddle around with the kids while checking your phone repeatedly, and then surf the internet for “just a few minutes,” which turns into two hours – and whoa, is it really time for bed already?
Imagine this instead:
From 6 to 6:30 pm you sit down at the table for a homecooked meal with your wife and kids. From 6:30 to 7:30, you play a board game with the fam. Then you help the kiddos get ready for bed and read them a story before tucking them in.
Now that the little ones are asleep, you spend 8-9 working on your new hobby: woodworking. You then give yourself a half hour of just-for-fun internet surfing, before spending the next half hour reading a book. At 10:00 you read your scriptures and write in your journal. Afterwards you take a James Bond shower to help you sleep, and then jump into bed at 11:00, ready to awaken in 7 hours to begin your equally fulfilling morning routine.
Why Establishing an Evening and Morning Routine Is Important to An Awesome Adulthood
One of the most important paradoxical truths to learn in adulthood is this: some rules, rather than constraining, can actually be incredibly freeing. As the novelist Gustave Flaubert put it: “Be regular and orderly in your life…so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Morning and evening routines can help you be much more productive and make the most out of life. You don’t always have full control over your workday, but you do over these two time slots. You can use them to make sure the most important stuff gets done – from working out, to spending time with friends and family, to developing a side business, to reading and engaging in other hobbies. Far from being stifling, they can unleash your creativity and ensure you put it to use. For grownups, morning and evening routines constitute the frontline defense in fighting that most common malady of adulthood: “I feel like life’s just passing me by” syndrome. You waited your whole childhood to do whatever you wanted – don’t waste it with TV and mindless internet consumption!
Not only do morning and evening routines allow you to do more, but, as with all rituals, they simply give your life more rhythm, texture, and pleasure. As you author your own life, they play a key part in “setting the scene” – creating your own rich, interesting world around yourself. If your life was a film, would you even want to watch it, or would you be bored to tears? As Manchester writes, Churchill made sure that each day was a story worth reading, a journey worth taking:
“The ritualistic unfolding of a Chartwell day, from dawn to Kent’s long blue twilight, is for him a kind of private pageant. He enjoys it; he considers it as efficient as it is delightful, and he never doubts—nor does anyone else sleeping beneath this roof—that he alone is qualified to be the playwright, producer, director, stage manager, and, of course, hero of the performance.”
What kinds of activities should you write into your routines? We’ll talk more about the importance of work, play, and hobbies in a separate post, but for now simply know that the sky’s the limit. One of course need not follow the outline of Churchill’s routine; I could not in good faith suggest mirroring his drinking habit! (Though I also can’t help sharing Manchester’s quip about it: “It could of course be argued that had he exemplified the ideal of moderation—more exercise, less drink, less reckless behavior, fewer cigars—he might well have lived a full and rich life for many years beyond the ninety he was granted.”). One’s routine should include time for pursuing pastimes, building relationships, developing the mind, centering the spirit, and yes, some “indulgences” too – however you define them. As a teetotaler, you won’t find me nursing a watered down whiskey, but some might consider working out every day an “indulgence.” Yet it brings me such enormous pleasure, that it constitutes a sacrosanct part of my morning routine.
As a child you couldn’t wait to free yourself from routine; as an adult, have the wisdom to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. You just may find that a routine you create yourself will actually turn out to be the key to having the kind of adulthood you always hoped for as a kid.
The Last Lion Trilogy by William Manchester