On the strange fascinations of other people's schedules

Varwwwclientsclient1web2tmpphp6 Gb1ebFor as long as I can recall, I've been unreasonably fascinated by other people's daily schedules. It thrills me to learn, for instance, that Karl Lagerfeld always sleeps for exactly seven hours, no matter when he goes to bed; that he drinks only Diet Coke, and rarely exercises "because my doctor said it's not necessary". My bursting mental library of similar trivia includes, naturally, Churchill's daily 90-minute siesta, but also the fact that Paula Radcliffe is usually in bed by 10ish and that Will Self keeps a stove on his desk to brew "strange infusions" of tea while he writes. These days, I encounter such nuggets most frequently in media profiles of web entrepreneurs, presumably because they're our era's most envied role models. Thus I've discovered that Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey divides his week thematically: Tuesdays for product development, Wednesdays for marketing, etc. Maria Popova, who runs the popular Brainpicker account on Twitter, gets so much reading done by taking her Kindle to the gym. And Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, leaves the office at 5.30pm daily, for dinner with her children at 6pm. At any hour of the day, I can tell you what four or five famous people are probably doing, should you wish to know. Which, I appreciate, you maybe don't.

I could claim high-flown motivations for this, and they'd be partly true: to grasp the finer textures of another person's life is surely the best way really to understand others. Mainly, though, I just want tips. I want to steal the bits of Dorsey's routines that lead to Dorseyesque success. So I was never going to be able to resist reading Laura Vanderkam's new short ebook, What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. How you use the early morning, she argues, defines the rest of your day; you can seize control before momentum sweeps you away. The Rev Al Sharpton, we discover, hits the gym at 6am; others have replaced family dinners with family breakfasts. "If it has to happen," she writes, "it has to happen first."

Yet lurking behind my fixation, as you've probably realised, is a bright red sore thumb of a logical fallacy. There's simply no good reason to assume that adopting a morning ritual like the former CEO of Pepsi – a four-mile run at 5am – will make your own corporate titanhood more likely. Though we can't know, it makes far more sense to conclude that the kind of person destined, whether by genes or upbringing, to become a corporate titan will also be the sort prone to leaping into their trainers before sunrise. And that's before even considering whether corporate titans are happy.

But this doesn't cure my fascination, I'm afraid. The best defence I can offer is that poring over others' schedules makes me, in a fruitful way, more conscious of my own; experimenting with the tricks I learn is fun, and making daily tasks a little more entertaining surely isn't a crime. One trick I've borrowed is that of ringfencing time. Dorsey's themed days and Sandberg's leaving times both rely on a kind of reverse Parkinson's law: rather than trying to fit everything in, decide on the hours in which certain work will be completed and, surprisingly often, you'll find that it is. (We don't all have their limitless freedom to set our work schedules, of course – but many of us have some.) Next, I'm going to start drinking 10 Diet Cokes a day, to see if I become an eccentric fashion designer.

[First published in Guardian Weekend magazine. Photo by robstephaustralia on Flickr.]

Oliver Burkeman I'm a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. My new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in This Column Will Change Your Life I write about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and make unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

I also blog about things for Guardian US and write a monthly column for Psychologies magazine. Hello.

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