Isaac Newton, backstabbing workaholic

"Time to him was the arch-enemy of man, something never to be squandered but devoured."

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously, we talked to the filmmaker Erin Lee Carr about her quarantine routine.

Isaac Newton (1642–1727)

The other week, I ran across an article suggesting that the great English physicist and mathematician may have discarded a portrait of his scientific rival, Robert Hooke, in an effort to discredit and suppress Hooke’s work, which contradicted Newton’s own law of universal gravitation.

This rather delicious story of scientific backstabbing inspired me to do a little digging into Newton’s work habits. Not surprisingly, he was a workaholic. The biographer Gale E. Christianson has written:

Newton’s work habits, both in early life and in middle age, were pathological in their addictiveness. Time to him was the arch-enemy of man, something never to be squandered but devoured, before it devoured you. . . . Indeed, for Newton there was no natural end of the day, only work to the point of exhaustion, then merciful sleep.

One of Newton’s employees took note of the physicist’s habits in the 1680s, observing that Newton rarely went to bed before 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and sometimes not until 5:00 or 6:00 a.m.—and yet, “In a Morning he seem’d to be as much refresh’d with his few hours Sleep, as though he had taken a whole Night’s Rest.” During the day, Newton was never seen taking a walk or engaging in other recreation, and his assistant could recall hearing Newton laugh only once. Food was also a dispensable luxury; Newton dined sparingly and often forgot to eat at all. If reminded that he had failed to touch a meal set on the table for him, Newton would reply “Have I?” and absentmindedly take a few bites before plunging back into his work.

Isaac Newton, fun guy to be around


On Twitter, the writer Jaime Green asked other writer-parents who get up early to write how they actually do this. “Do you go to bed at 8?” she asked. “Survive on five hours of sleep a night?” Dozens replied with their real-life, not-always-pretty-but-workable solutions to carving out writing time on a daily basis. For those struggling with this perennial dilemma of the writing life, the entire thread is worth a read. The following replies especially resonated with me.

For what it’s worth, this non-parent goes to bed at 9:30 p.m. and gets up at 5:30 a.m. to write—4:30 if I have a pressing deadline. I do this not because I’m some kind of super-productive writing machine but because I’ve discovered through trial and error that the early morning is, inconveniently, the only time I can really dig in and get good writing done. Also, I agree with what Emily Gray Tedrowe wrote above: “doing it every day is much, much easier than doing it once in a while.”


My occasional advice column is turning into a monthly advice column! Going forward, I’ll be tackling your creative dilemmas in the last newsletter of each month. In the meantime, feel free to peruse my past advice on:

Have a question of your own? Email it to (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

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