Napoleon the Workaholic

Napoleon Bonaparte was an incredibly hard worker. He had tremendous energy and self-discipline, was action-oriented, and possessed an innate drive to achieve. Napoleon’s obsessive devotion to work made it possible for him to command armies – he fought more than 70 battles in 22 years – while also being a hands-on ruler of France and a vast empire. Here are some of Napoleon’s workaholic habits and characteristics that enabled him to accomplish so much.

Napoleon at the battle of Friedland

Napoleon at the Battle of Friedland in 1807, by Edouard Bernard Debat-Ponsan

Long hours

Napoleon worked long hours. He often said to one of his private secretaries, Méneval, that he had constantly worked 16 hours a day ever since leaving military school. He told another colleague:

I am always at work…. I work all the time, at dinner, in the theatre. I wake up at night in order to resume my work. I got up last night at two o’clock. I stretched myself on my couch before the fire to examine the army reports sent to me yesterday evening by the Minister of War. I found twenty mistakes in them, and made notes which I have this morning sent to the minister, who is now occupied with his clerks in rectifying them. (1)

Napoleon would typically be up by 7 a.m. and would work almost the entire day, taking short breaks for meals. He was impatient and he hated wasting time. Even when shaving or having a bath, he would have someone read the news to him. His day would be filled with meetings; perusing reports and correspondence; dictating letters and decrees; attending sessions of administrative bodies; and working on his many projects, such as the Napoleonic Code, or a palace for his son. He did not have hobbies, although he did enjoy reading and going to the theatre.

Napoleon worked at least as hard when he was travelling or on a military campaign. His carriage was fitted out with a desk and lights, and was filled with plans, maps and reports, so he could work even while on the road. He spent long days consulting his officers; formulating strategy and tactics; supervising preparations for battle; receiving and sending dispatches; making frequent inspections on horseback; speaking to soldiers; and generally attending to details. For example, when planning an invasion of England (an attempt that was never carried out):

He superintended the fitting out of the boats [at Boulogne], and tested different systems of stowage, being anxious to ship munitions and provisions for twenty days. … He had the soldiers and sailors drilled, ordered sham embarkations and landings both at day and at night, and spent the best part of his time with the sailors or the soldiers, sharing their labours, urging them on to renewed effort, and inspiring them with the confidence that he felt. He scoured the beach on foot and on horseback, followed by the admiral and the principal naval and military officers. (2)

An official bulletin put out during the campaign in Germany in 1805 proclaimed:

The Emperor sets the example on horseback night and day, he is continually in the midst of the troops, and in every point where his presence is necessary. (3)

Night work

Napoleon working at night

Napoleon working at night

Napoleon often worked during the night. When he was on campaign in Italy in 1796, he wrote to the Directory: “My life here is inconceivable; I return fatigued to my quarters, and it is necessary to sit up working all night, and to go everywhere to re-establish order.” (4) He might have exaggerated for effect – just as he would later leave candles burning all night in his study at the Tuileries to give the impression he was always working – but he did have a habit of getting up to work in the middle of the night.

It was not that Napoleon slept less than most people. It is rather that his sleep tended to be discontinuous. He would go to bed relatively early, sleep for several hours, then wake up and do some work, go back to sleep, and then get up and start the day. His secretary Bourrienne wrote:

[Napoleon’s] flatterers, probably under the idea that sleep is incompatible with greatness, have evinced [a] disregard of truth in speaking of his night-watching. Bonaparte made others watch; but he himself slept, and slept well. His orders were that I should call him every morning at seven. I was, therefore, the first to enter his chamber; but very frequently when I awoke him, he would turn himself and say, ‘Ah, Bourrienne! Let me lie a little longer.’ When there was no very pressing business, I did not disturb him again till eight o’clock. He in general slept seven hours out of the twenty-four, besides taking a short nap in the afternoon. (5)

Méneval recalled:

The Emperor used to have me waked in the night, when – owing either to some plan which he considered ripe for execution, and which had to be carried out, or to the necessity of maturing the preliminaries of some new project, or to having to send off some courier without loss of time – he was obliged to rise himself. It sometimes happened that I would hand him some document to sign in the evening. ‘I will not sign it now,’ he would say. ‘Be here tonight, at one o’clock, or at four in the morning; we will work together.’ On these occasions I used to have myself waked some minutes before the appointed hour… [H]e used to make his appearance, dressed in his white dressing-gown, with a Madras handkerchief round his head. When, by chance, he had got to the study before me, I used to find him walking up and down with his hands behind his back, or helping himself from his snuff-box…. His ideas developed as he dictated, with an abundance and a clearness which showed that his attention was firmly riveted to the subject with which he was dealing…. When the work was finished, and sometimes in the midst of it, he would send for sherbet and ices. He used to ask me which I preferred, and went so far in his solicitude as to advise me which would be better for my health. Thereupon he would return to bed, if only to sleep an hour, and could resume his slumber, as though it had not been interrupted. …

When the Emperor rose in the night, without any special object except to occupy his sleepless moments, he used to forbid my being waked before seven in the morning. On those occasions I used to find my writing-table, in the morning, covered with reports and papers annotated in his writing.” (6)

Strong focus

Napoleon at the siege of Toulon in 1793, by Édouard Detaille

Napoleon had an admirable ability to focus his attention on whatever he was working on. Pierre Louis Roederer, who helped organize the coup that brought Napoleon to power and served in various government positions during the Consulate and Empire, wrote:

What characterizes the spirit of Bonaparte is the strength and constancy of his attention. He can work eighteen hours at a stretch, on one or on several subjects. I never saw him tired. I never saw him lacking competence, even when weary in body, even when violently exercised, even when angry. I never saw him distracted from one matter by another, leaving the one he is discussing to think about the one he has just discussed, or on which he is going to work. (7)

Méneval noted:

Napoleon would deal with in turn, at one sitting, matters relating to war, to diplomacy, to finance, to commerce, to public works, and so on; and rested from one kind of work by engaging in another. Every branch of the government was with him the object of a special, complete and sustained attention; no confusion of ideas, no fatigue, and no desire to shorten the hours of labour, ever making themselves felt.

Napoleon used to explain the clearness of his mind, and his faculty of being able at will to prolong his work to extreme limits, by saying that the various subjects were arranged in his head, as though in a cupboard. ‘When I want to interrupt one piece of work,’ he used to say, ‘I close the drawer in which it is, and I open another. The two pieces of business never get mixed up together, and never trouble or tire me. When I want to go to sleep, I close up all the drawers, and then I am ready to go off to sleep.’ (8)

As this analogy suggests, Napoleon was well-organized. This was reflected in how he arranged his study and his libraries.

[N]o one knew so well as he how to sort papers, documents, and statements. Lists were to be all of like dimensions, clothed in uniform binding, arranged in identical order. The same with estimates. … For foreign armies and fleets he has boxes with compartments in which slide cards inscribed with the regiments and vessels. … On all subjects he has a collection of information of the same order, dictionaries of individuals arranged by classes or by states. … It is this machinery, this spirit of order and method which he brings to bear on everything, that choice of those around him, which alone are capable, not of explaining, but of rendering credible, the amount of work which Napoleon got through, and which is actually ten times more important than one imagines; for he was not content to grasp the whole, he entered into the smallest detail, and for fourteen years it was he who thought for eighty millions of men. (9)

Attention to detail

Napoleon was a details man. He wanted to know everything about a subject. He was intellectually curious and was constantly thinking. He regularly subjected his staff and his ministers to long interrogations on political and military matters, as well as other subjects. Even in social situations, he peppered his companions with questions. Napoleon was extremely well-informed, thanks to his centralization of the French state, which funneled information to him, as did his network of spies and informants. He also read voraciously. According to Méneval:

There were on his writing-table reports of the exact state of the land and sea forces….supplied by the Ministers of War and Marine…and…renewed on the first of each month.  They were divided into columns indicating the number of the infantry and cavalry regiments, the names of the colonels, the number of men composing each battalion, squadron, and company, the departments where they were recruited, and the number of men drafted from the conscriptions, the places where the regiments were garrisoned, the position and strength of the depots, and the state of their troops and material. If marching regiments had been formed, particulars as to their composition, destination, and the dates of their departure and arrival were mentioned in these reports…. The corps of engineers, and of artillerymen, and the batteries of artillery, were also described in these reports. …

The columns of the report referring to the state of the navy contained the names of the officers commanding them, the composition and strength of the crews, the names of the departments where sailors and marines were levied, the names of ships which were in docks and particulars as to what progress had been made in their construction.

The Emperor always had a strange pleasure in receiving these reports. He used to read through them with delight, and would say that no work of science or literature ever gave him so much pleasure. (10)

Excellent memory

Napoleon’s work was aided by his excellent memory. In reference to the reports mentioned above, Méneval remarked:

[Napoleon’s] marvellous memory grasped all their details, and retained them so well that, better than the Ministers of War and Marine, he knew what was the composition and the materials of each corps. The spelling and pronunciation of names were less familiar to him, and he never remembered them rightly. But if he forgot proper names, it needed but the mention of them to bring a man or a place most vividly before his eyes. When he had once seen a man, or visited a place, he forgot neither the one nor the other; and anything connected either with the individual or the locality was never effaced from his memory. (11)

Pons de l’Hérault, the manager of the iron mines on Elba, where Napoleon was exiled in 1814, recounted:

Napoleon remembered perfectly all the work he had ordered and all the measures he had taken for the island of Elba [when he ruled France]. The dates were present in his memory as if he had never occupied himself with anything else. Memory was an immense advantage for the Emperor. The entire past of the Empire was classified in his immeasurable head. There resided in there, at the same time, his codes, his monuments, his battles, and the nomination of a mayor or a priest. He was particularly miraculous when he spoke of armies; he witnessed their evolutions, their marches, their attacks, their defenses, their sorrows, their pleasures, and this with a precise clarity that retained everything. (12)

Abundant resources

In addition to his workaholic tendencies, Napoleon was able to get a lot done because he had the resources of the French state at his fingertips. There were plenty of people to attend to his needs and carry out his orders. He set a high example for his subordinates, made considerable demands on them, and benefited from their efficiency and productivity. Napoleon tended to micromanage people, which was not always a good thing. Even Méneval – a generally sympathetic observer – wrote:

The initiative in the drafting of all laws and regulations almost always came from Napoleon. His ideas of amelioration, improvement, and construction kept his ministers sufficiently occupied to need all their time in prescribing and supervising the numerous details of execution. If any regret can be expressed on this subject, it is that the unceasing activity of the highest intellect which has ever been granted to a human being should have accustomed his agents to await his inspiration and to distrust themselves; and that in consequence, so many men of talent should have found themselves paralysed and taken by surprise in moments of danger. (13)

Periods of inactivity

Napoleon After The Battle Of Waterloo by François Flameng

Napoleon After The Battle Of Waterloo, by François Flameng

Despite Napoleon’s strong work ethic, he occasionally sunk into periods of inactivity. Sometimes this downtime gave him a chance to think, and he would emerge with a fresh round of projects and decisions. Méneval wrote:

He used sometimes to spend whole days without doing any work, yet without leaving the palace, or even his work-room. In these days of leisure, which was but apparent, for it usually concealed an increase of cerebral activity, Napoleon appeared embarrassed how to spend his time. He would go and spend an hour with the Empress, then he would return, and sitting down on the settee, would sleep, or appear to sleep for a few minutes. He would then come and seat himself on the corner of my writing-table, or on one of the arms of my chair, or even on my knees. He would then put his arm round my neck, and amuse himself by gently pulling my ear, or by patting me on the shoulder, or on the cheek. He would speak to me of all sorts of disconnected subjects, of himself, of his manias, of his constitution, of me, or of some plan that he had in his head. (14)

However, Napoleon could also be seized with lethargy when facing bad health (to which his excessive work probably contributed) or great setbacks. During the invasion of Russia, many of Napoleon’s companions observed that he lacked the energy and enthusiasm with which he normally conducted campaigns. He returned to his usual level of activity in early 1814, during the campaign in France. This was not enough to save his throne, and after his abdication in 1814, and again after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he became listless and indecisive.

Captain Maitland, who commanded the British frigate that removed Napoleon from France in 1815, commented:

From his having become corpulent, he had lost much of his personal activity, and, if we are to give credit to those who attended him, a very considerable portion of his mental energy was also gone. It is certain his habits were very lethargic while he was on board the Bellerophon; for though he went to bed between eight and nine o’clock in the evening, and did not rise till about the same hour in the morning, he frequently fell asleep on the sofa in the cabin in the course of the day. (15)

Napoleon was exiled to the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he busied himself with dictating his memoirs, among other things. He died of stomach cancer in 1821, at the age of 51.

Thanks to Joachim Tran for suggesting a post about Napoleon being a workaholic.

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  1. Oeuvres du Comte P.L. Roederer publiées par son fils A. M. Roederer, Vol. 8 (Paris, 1859), p. 494.
  2. Claude-François de Méneval, Memoirs to Serve for the History of Napoleon I from 1802 to 1815, Vol. I, translated by Robert H. Sherard (London, 1895), p. 308.
  3. Official Narratives of the Campaigns of Buonaparte Since the Peace of Amiens (London, 1817), p. 7.
  4. D.A. Bingham, A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Vol. I (London, 1884), p. 72.
  5. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. I (Philadelphia, 1831), pp. 269-270.
  6. Méneval, Memoirs to Serve for the History of Napoleon I from 1802 to 1815, Vol. I, pp. 368-369.
  7. Oeuvres du Comte P.L. Roederer publiées par son fils A. M. Roederer, Vol. 8, pp. 488-489.
  8. Méneval, Memoirs to Serve for the History of Napoleon I from 1802 to 1815, Vol. I, p. 375.
  9. Frédéric Masson, Napoleon at Home: The Daily Life of the Emperor at the Tuileries, Vol. I, translated by James E. Matthew (London, 1894), pp. 197-198.
  10. Méneval, Memoirs to Serve for the History of Napoleon I from 1802 to 1815, Vol. I, pp. 370-371.
  11. Ibid., p. 371.
  12. André Pons de L’Hérault, Souvenirs et Anecdotes de l’Île d’Elbe(Paris, 1897), pp. 61-62.
  13. Méneval, Memoirs to Serve for the History of Napoleon I from 1802 to 1815, Vol. I, p. 375.
  14. Ibid., p. 376
  15. Frederick Maitland, Narrative of the Surrender of Buonaparte (London, 1826), pp. 209-210.

6 commments on “Napoleon the Workaholic”

  • Dick Holdstock says:

    Fascinating information about Napoleon. that make sense for how else could he do what he did.
    Cheers
    Dick

  • Dale Flowers, LT USN (Ret) says:

    The military has a way of inculcating a work ethic into its members in order to achieve the mission. It does it to their leaders and followers through inspiration or rote. When you have that in a man like Napoleon from day one, you can get a guy who rises to the top and La Grande Armée sweeping across a continent with an excess of ambition.

    Enjoy reading your articles.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, Dale. Great point about the military work ethic.

  • Addison Jump says:

    Thanks. One can’t help comparing N with the majority of the political leaders of today. The world needs leaders who busy themselves finding out the actual facts. If only, if only, he had not become obsessed with his personal ambitions. A truly tragic life.

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I work all the time, at dinner, in the theatre. I wake up at night in order to resume my work.

Napoleon Bonaparte