Daily rituals of scientists: The meticulous routine of B.F. Skinner

Welcome to another episode of our series, “Daily Rituals of Scientists.” In this series, we uncover what shaped the daily lives of famous scientists. Did their daily rituals contribute to their genius, or were they just unique preferences of the eccentrics? Most importantly, we discover whether there is something we could use to better our habits.

As we strive to see whether the brilliant minds of the past have something to teach us, who better to study than a man who himself believed only what he could prove, a meticulous scientist and a revolutionary psychologist: B. F. Skinner. Join us as we uncover the rhythms of his days, from his structured morning routines to his night-time sessions.

Who was B. F. Skinner?

Burrhus Frederic Skinner, known as B.F. Skinner, was a pioneering American psychologist, behaviorist, author, inventor, and social philosopher, born on March 20, 1904, in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. His life and work left an indelible mark on the fields of psychology, education, and beyond.

Skinner’s early years were marked by curiosity and intellectual prowess. He displayed an early interest in building different gadgets and contraptions, a fascination that would shape his future endeavors. Much like Einstein, his creativity and free thinking did not go well with the conventional schooling system. He often criticized the traditional methods, and as one of his sayings goes: “Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.”

In 1926, after completing his undergraduate studies at Hamilton College, he tried to become a professional writer. This dream did not pan out (although he published some of his works later on!), so he decided to pursue graduate studies in psychology at Harvard University. There, he began to develop his theories on behaviorism, drawing inspiration from the pioneering work of psychologists such as Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson.

Brave innovations and harsh criticism

Skinner’s most significant contribution to psychology was his theory of operant conditioning. Through his experiments with laboratory animals, particularly pigeons and rats, Skinner demonstrated how behavior could be modified through reinforcement, paving the way for a deeper understanding of learning and behavior.

He came up with the notion of the “black box,” a term now often used in psychology and behaviorism. The black box refers to the idea that while we can observe an organism’s environment and behavior, we can’t understand the internal mental processes or mechanisms that connect the two because there is no way to look into the mind. In other words, according to Skinner, psychology should focus solely on observable behaviors rather than attempting to infer mental states.

One of Skinner’s most famous inventions was the Skinner Box, a controlled environment for studying behavior in animals. This apparatus allowed researchers to manipulate environmental variables and observe the effects on behavior, providing insights into the principles of operant conditioning. In addition to his academic pursuits, Skinner was also an inventor. He developed the “air crib,” a temperature- and humidity-controlled crib for infants (yes, that’s right! :-D).

Skinner was a peculiar individual. Idealistic and devoted to behaviorist principles, he often faced criticism and controversy for his radical ideas and methods. His detractors mocked his dismissal of genetics and physiology, his overly reductionist approach, and his promotion of a behaviorist perspective that was at times perceived as dehumanizing and manipulative. However, Skinner remained steady in his beliefs, advocating for a scientific approach to understanding behavior and learning. He passed away on August 18, 1990, leaving a legacy that continues to shape our understanding of behavior and learning.

A day in the life of B. F. Skinner

In 1963, Skinner provided a glimpse into his daily routine through a journal entry, offering insight into his structured yet productive lifestyle.

Skinner’s day typically started between 6 and 6:30 a.m., often after catching up on the radio news. His morning ritual included a simple breakfast of cornflakes, accompanied by a cup of coffee prepared automatically by the stove timer (what else would you expect from a behaviorist!). As he ate, he would read a few pages of scientific journals or newspapers, like the Boston Globe and N.Y. Times.

By 7 a.m., Skinner retreated to his walnut-paneled study in the basement, a sanctuary for focused work and contemplation. Here, he meticulously recorded his work hours using a special desk lamp that, believe it or not, activated a clock! This clock would then track the time spent on work. For every twelve hours recorded by the clock, Skinner would draw a cumulative curve, which highlighted his productivity. Sounds like a productivity-tracking app to me… but before the internet, of course. Alongside his work desk, an electric organ provided him with a much-needed musical break. He would play the organ a few minutes a day, normally practicing his Bach Chorales.

B.F. Skinner and his wife, Yvonne Skinner
Skinner and his wife, Yvonne

Afternoons were dedicated to activities such as working in the garden or swimming in the pool, providing much-needed relaxation and rejuvenation. Skinner knew the importance of hobbies.  Evenings were reserved for family time and leisure pursuits, with Skinner and his wife, Yvonne, enjoying light reading, games, and music together.

As the day drew to a close, he did some light reading and “little to no work,” as he stated. Despite retiring to bed by 9:30 or 10:00 p.m., he often woke up for an hour or so during the night, utilizing this time for reflection and note-taking.

What can we take from Skinner’s habits and rituals?

Morning routine: Starting fresh

Skinner was an early riser, a characteristic he shares with several successful scientists. There’s a reason for that: Mornings often offer a window of peak focus and productivity.  Of course, after coffee and breakfast!

Early morning is a good time to catch up on some reading, journal, or prepare for your day. By prioritizing your most demanding work in the morning, you can chip away at the bigger tasks while your energy is high. This leaves you feeling accomplished and frees up your afternoon for less intensive activities or unexpected events. Plus, tackling challenging tasks first thing in the morning eliminates the temptation to procrastinate.

Conditioning work: Tracking your progress

Skinner obviously “walked the walk.” In his behavioristic fashion, even before apps and trackers, he would measure his productivity and cue his working bout with the help of a lamp. He used this lamp as a signal for the start and end of his work session. Turning on the lamp became a conditioned response, priming his mind to focus.

Just like Skinner’s lamp, you can create your own work cues. These could be a designated workspace, specific work music (like I do!), or any trigger that signals to your brain “It’s time to work.”  These cues separate work time from leisure and train your mind to associate the signal with getting focused.

Ingeniously, the lamp was connected to the clock, which tracked his work bouts! He would plot a curve, tracking his productivity, which gave him objective feedback on the work he was putting in. Tracking your work, much like Skinner did, allows you to see real progress and identify areas for improvement. We even made a writing tracker just for that reason!

Segmented sleep: Working in the night

While science doesn’t endorse segmented sleep, some historical figures did swear by it. This approach, often called a “polyphasic sleep schedule,” might offer a few benefits.  Some people report enhanced creativity and alertness during late-night hours. Some just enjoy the peace and quiet that nighttime offers. However, consistently broken sleep can disrupt your natural sleep cycle and lead to grogginess. 

Ultimately, whether to try a polyphasic schedule depends on your individual needs and sleep patterns. If you’re curious, prioritize your overall health and goals before experimenting. And this might not be the best solution for those (like me) with less-than-ideal sleep schedules already.

Afternoons are for family and relaxing

No matter how organized, productive, and well-behaved you are, it’s important to leave free time for the things that matter—and for some spontaneity as well! This usually means family, friends, hobbies, and just doing the things you enjoy without the pressure of work.

Leisure time gives refreshment and much-needed distance from everyday tasks and worries. Ironically, it can even boost your productivity when you return to focused work.

Conclusion

In summary, B.F. Skinner’s daily rituals offer valuable lessons in discipline, productivity, and the pursuit of knowledge. His structured and intelligent routines, combined with moments of leisure and familial bonds, demonstrate the ideal fusion of work and life, a balance many aspire to achieve.

We might often feel like we are not doing enough or even doing something wrong when it comes to the organization of our lives. That is why it is important to learn from those who have walked the path before us and learn from their wisdom.

If you enjoyed this article, make sure to check out others in this series (such as Einstein’s and Darwin’s daily routines). And make sure to check out our Toolbox option as well, where you can download other useful resources and tools, such as our Writing Tracker!

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