Paul Erdos, perhaps the most prolific mathematician of the 20th century, was an eccentric. Crisscrossing the globe and living out of a pair of suitcases stuffed with tattered suits, he never learned to boil water to make his own tea, insisting that whoever’s company he’d foisted himself into rise at 4am to brew him tea so he could go to work.
Even during meals, he worked furiously, scribbling notes on napkins, usually sleeping less than four hours a night.
At one point, Erdos accepted a bet to give up stimulants for thirty days, what he considered the secret ingredient to his creative output.
Thirty days later, he’d won the bet and came to his friend to collect his money.
In describing the experience he said, “I’d get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You’ve set mathematics back a month.”
A couple of years ago I discovered the blog, Daily Routines, which cataloged the daily habits and rituals of hundreds of the most prolific artists, scientists, writers, and entrepreneurs in history.
The blog was converted and expanded into a book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.
I’m in the process of sending out an early draft of my upcoming book and went back through Daily Rituals to understand how I could improve my creative process. Erdos was, apparently, a fan of amphetamines.
In any endeavor, there is always a small number of activities which produce disproportionate results. Typically categorized under the 80/20 Principle, there are a small number of inputs (often around 20%) that drive the majority of output (iften around 80%). There’s always one marketing channel that drive the vast majority of sales, one product that accounts for the vast majority of revenue, or one salesperson that accounts for the majority of sales.
For any entrepreneur or creative, one of the biggest struggles is not finding advice or guidance, but filtering out what’s worth listening to. There are so many truisms and generalizations that people spout out, but what’s the core of it?
What are the few 80/20 principles that lead to disproportionate results that “ordinary people” don’t do?
The most prolific and impactful individuals in history have had no more inputs or time, than the rest of us. Yet from Erdos, to Steve Jobs, to DaVinci, they’ve produced staggering output.
What is the wisdom that Erdos and other great entrepreneurs, writers, and artists have that we can learn from?
The discussion this time will center on writing a book and how to become a nonfiction writer, so I’ll leave it up to you to carry over the principles to other creative and entrepreneurial projects.
How To Become A Nonfiction Writer:
1. The First Draft is “like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor”
“I write and write and write, and rewrite, and even if I retain only a single page from a full day’s work, it is a single page, and these pages add up,” she told one interviewer. “As a result I have acquired the reputation over the years of being prolix when in fact I am measured against people who simply don’t work as hard or as long.” This doesn’t mean that she always finds the work pleasant or easy; the first several weeks of a new novel, Oates has said, are particularly difficult and demoralizing: “Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”
–Daily Rituals: On Joyce Carol Oates (who published fifty novels as well as dozens of volumes of poetry and short stories)
You’ve probably heard other creatives say this, and now you’ll hear it from me:
It’s all downhill after the first draft.
Writing a book, like any creative project, is mainly a problem of definition. You start with this vague idea nebulously floating around in the ether, and the first draft forces you to condense that down into something.
Even if that something is terrible, it’s take shape, it’s defined, and that’s a broad step forward. In retrospect, I’m still mildly embarrassed by how crummy the first draft I had alpha readers go through was, but getting something down on paper and then out of my head for feedback yielded a much better second draft.
You see this principle pop up in other metaphors around starting a business or launching a new product. In Good to Great, Jim Collins uses the metaphor of pushing a fly wheel. At the beginning of a business or new project, you have to grind for it to move just one little inch, but slowly you build up momentum, and the wheel starts to spin on it’s own.
When in doubt, stay on the bus.
2. The 15 Hour Rule (Or How To Avoid Creative Work Debt)
“All those, I think, who have lived as literary men—working daily as literary labourers—will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.”
–Daily Rituals: Anthony Trollope (who published forty-seven novels and sixteen other books)
I used to subscribe to the five hour rule, that you need to find five hours of high level work each day. I’ve discovered five hours a day of high-level synthesis for me is a pipe dream. If I get three hours a day, that’s exceptional. Often it’s only two. I tried to bang out a 16-hour day a few weeks ago and then sat down to define the nature of freedom and what the implications of that are for entrepreneurs.
I got to the point where I saw all the wires could be connected, but was just too brain dead to do it.
15ish hours per week appears to be maximal high level creative output across domains and across time. It’s about what Stephen King gets. It’s what most all the authors, artists, and entrepreneurs in Daily Rituals were able to get.
I fought this for years until I finally understood the principle of creative work debt. Technical debt, a concept well-known among software engineers, is where code or system architecture is done sloppily and will have to be fixed at some point in the future. Sometimes, this can be strategic and worth doing to hit certain deadlines and eat up market share by releasing features faster, but eventually, you have to pay for that debt.
The concept can be applied to writing and creative work broadly. I realized that all the writing I was doing above fifteen hours per week was creating creative work debt. I would spend the first five hours of my next week paying off that debt by editing and cutting the excess, then only getting five to ten hours of high quality writing done, be frustrated by the slow progress and then plow into creating more debt by logging another ten hours of debt inducing work, which I then promptly had to pay off the next week. Hello there negative spiral? Lovely to see you again.
This has been difficult to accept, fifteen hours feels like a slothful week—though I still do a fair amount of non-creative work outside of that. Squeezing even fifteen hours of writing out of a week is epic for me, I’m happy with ten.
How you structure those fifteen hours though is variable. You can borrow from one day for another for example., i.e., I usually do five to six hours on a Friday before a new article goes live on Saturday, but that means my Saturday is toast from a writing perspective. It also seems possible to do writing days and spend five hours each, three days a week. You can chop it up however you like, but you ain’t getting past ‘dem fifteen hours.
3. On Rhythm, Routine and Ritual
“One’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.
The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.”
–Daily Rituals: William James, Psychologist
“Murakami wakes at 4:00 A.M. and works for five to six hours straight. In the afternoons he runs or swims (or does both), runs errands, reads, and listens to music; bedtime is 9: 00. ‘I keep to this routine every day without variation,’ he told The Paris Review in 2004. ‘The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.’”
–Daily Rituals: On the routine of novelist Haruki Marukami
“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
–Daily Rituals: Chuck Close
Overwhelmingly, the biggest commonality artists, entrepreneurs, and writers chronicled in Daily Rituals have in common is a unerring commitment to ritual (based on the title, who’da thunk it?).
Just as Amara’s Law leads us to overestimate technology in the short term and underestimate it in the long term, we often overestimate how much we can get done in a week or a month, yet dramatically underestimate how much we can get done in a year, five years, or a lifetime.
By establishing rituals, we’re able to achieve prolific results with fifteen hours of work a week. Increasingly, I see rituals as the key to the “more output, less input” question.
I’ve found my emphasis on ritual to be to closely correlated with my creative output: I do the same thing every single morning I plan to write.
Travelling and having to reconfigure my routine (find a grocery store, find a gym, find somewhere with good internet, etc.) cuts into my output by eating up creative energy in the short term, but can be recharging in the long-term. I generally keep my trips to less than three days or a more than month to minimize the downside and maximize the upside.
Alcohol the day before will destroy a writing session for me, as will staying up past 10pm. If I’m in bed by 10, I can be up at 6am, read for an hour, perform my morning ritual for an hour, start writing between 8 and 9, and get in my three hours before lunch.
I can write in the afternoon as long as I don’t do anything super high level in the morning, but I’m toast if I don’t get my hands on the keyboard by 2pm.
While rituals seem to be essential, the make up of the ritual appears to be highly personalized.
My magic time is definitely mornings, but everyone’s seems to be different. I’ve talked to people whose magic time is around the 10pm-2am window, and many beat themselves up trying to shift it into the mornings out of some puritanical belief about waking up early. My general advice is to find your fifteen hours and embrace it.
I fought going to bed early for about a decade and tried to be cool by staying up late, but I got happier and more productive as soon as I accepted that I have the sleep schedule of a seventy-five-year-old.
The same appears to be true of “substance-abuse.” Alcohol wrecks me but coffee is magic juice. I know some people that do their best writing late at night after a couple of glasses of wine, which has never turned out anything useful for me, yet can’t focus after a half cup of coffee.
4. Marginal Returns Set in (Relatively) Fast on Individual Projects
One of the things that stood out to me reviewing Daily Rituals was just how many projects the artists and entrepreneurs had released. It made me realize everyone hits marginal returns relatively fast on an individual project, and the real gains come over a career, not a single project.
If you look at the way strength progression works, it’s actually an effective analogy for creative projects individually and over a career.
In this case:
- Genetic Potential = Creative Potential
- Strength Performance = Project performance
- Training Complexity = Project complexity
There’s a clear point where the project starts getting gruelling without much more upside potential, which would be the time to release or launch the project.
The counterargument is that it’s the best 20% of projects which enjoy 80% of the rewards per the 80/20 principle. Which is true of individuals, but it ignores that the diagram is fractal, meaning it can be endlessly “zoomed in” and “zoomed out.” (If you don’t understand fractals because you also hated calculus in high school, Perry Marshall’s 80/20 Sales and Marketing is a good way to brush up on your marketing chops and get an understanding of it—read the appendix.)
In other words, each creative project over the course of a career can be fit into the diagram:
You’re better off getting the first out the door as soon as you hit diminishing returns, because you’re second one is going to start at a much higher baseline and it’s the projects later down the line that can start to achieve disproportionate results.
There weren’t any individuals in Daily Rituals that had the success they became known for early in their career, they all had massive catalogs of work they’d shipped consistently over time from staying on the bus and the pushing the flywheel.
Shipping one project per year for ten years is going to end up producing a much better net output than spending ten years obsessing over a single project. I’ve read crappy first books and seen crappy first projects, but I’ve never seen a crappy tenth books or tenth project. I’m always inspired by reading early work from some of my favorite writers or seeing early projects from some of my favorite entrepreneurs. Have you ever read a blogger’s first post? They’re universally cringeworthy! I tried to re-read mine and almost vomited at all the cliches. The faster you can get to the tenth project, the better.
The best way to know you’re in marginal returns?
5. “Am I Overthinking This?”
“Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.”
-V.S. Pritchett quoted in Daily Rituals
It turns out overthinking actually behaves in exactly the same way as kissing a cute date. As soon as you think, “Should I kiss them?” the answer was “yes” fifteen minutes ago.
If you ever ask yourself, “Am I overthinking this?” the answer is always “yes,” and you’re into marginal returns.
Once you’ve established you’re overthinking it, you either don’t have enough information to make a decision or the choice is arbitrary.
Either way, the problem is solved by setting deadlines. Start with a project ship date and then work backwards to set deadlines for individual elements of the project. I let myself collect as much data as I want up until the deadline for choosing a title, designing the cover or anything else, but on deadline day, I make the call.
Data collection follows the 80/20 principle, so you can usually get 80% of the data in a relatively short amount of time, and at that point, you’re best off just making a decision—you’re deep into marginal returns.
Here’s a piece of a conversation I had with myself a few weeks ago:
“If I abstract out concept blah blah to three levels of this, then it clearly conflicts with concept yadda yadda two chapters later, and no one cares because they just want a way to understand the impact of technology and the internet on their work and careers, not a Hegelian system for Life, the Universe, and Everything.”
Shifting to focus on the core of the argument that “jobs are getting more competitive and less profitable while entrepreneurship is more accessible, safer, and profitable than ever,” and knocking a reader on their butt with that core argument instead of trying to overreach, was an effective heuristic for deciding where to allocate my focus in the revision of the second draft.
The impact of a few key points clearly demonstrated is far greater than of points not well demonstrated. The quest for grand, unified theories has driven men to madness with little benefit to humanity to show for it (see Einstein’s late career and Marx, among others).
Asking my first round of alpha readers questions around this idea of “simplifying” was helpful:
- If you HAD to remove 20% of the book, which 20% would you remove What are the weakest sections? (The nice thing about self publishing is you can make it any length you want so you don’t have to pad it with fluff that no one wants to read.)
- What’s not clear or credible? What statements do I make that make you furrow your brow in doubt? Are there terms that won’t make sense to [person in target market]?
- Anything you particularly liked, anything that should definitely stay?
h/t @Sebastian Marshall for inspiration on these.
6. Use Systems To Avoid Fear of Loss AKA Start Second Drafts Fresh
I started the second draft of the book in a fresh Scrivener file and spent about a week copying in sections from the first file and re-organizing the pieces based on the feedback from alpha readers. I have lots of “fear of loss” moments when I’m working in Scrivener because it doesn’t auto-save versions like Google docs.
I kept thinking, “What if I want to use this later?”
One way to confront this problem is to rationally explain to myself that I’ve not once gone back to an old revision of anything I’ve written in the last three years. Neither The Resistance nor the lizard brain likes this argument so simply starting from a fresh copy and keeping an old Scrivener file let me ruthlessly cut down without much in the way of emotional pain. I would say about half of the first draft got thrown out with relatively little agony.
If I’d cut from the original file, I suspect much less would have been removed, or what was cut would have been far more painful.
Starting a new file let me move around sections without any sunk cost nagging at me and not copy over some sections were weak or not relevant, and the book is better for it.
7. Get Help
“It was my practice to be at my table every morning at 5.30 A.M.; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy. An old groom, whose business it was to call me, and to whom I paid £5 a year extra for the duty, allowed himself no mercy. During all those years at Waltham Cross he never was once late with the coffee which it was his duty to bring me. I do not know that I ought not to feel that I owe more to him than to any one else for the success I have had. By beginning at that hour I could complete my literary work before I dressed for breakfast.”
–Daily Rituals: On Anthony Trollope
One thing that stood out to me in the book is that all of the people had individuals in their lives that helped them manage side activities to focus on their work.
Almost everyone in Daily Rituals had someone that helped them. For Freud, it was his wife Martha, who “laid out Freud’s clothes, chose his handkerchiefs, and even put toothpaste on his toothbrush—the founder of psychoanalysis was able to maintain a single-minded devotion to his work throughout his long career.”
Having an assistant come in and help me out with the formatting and other admin and marketing work so I could focus on the writing created visibility and leverage. (Thanks Marissa!)
Getting an editor was also something I put off for years, and has given me tremendous leverage. Editing is something that cuts into my fifteen hours so anything that lets me buy back a section of those hours is a no-brainer.
There’s no money (or fun) in martyrdom.
8. Go for Long Walks
“The Danish philosopher’s day was dominated by two pursuits: writing and walking.”
-Daily Rituals: On Soren Kierkegaard
“After dinner, Freud went for a walk around Vienna’s Ringstrasse. This was not a leisurely stroll, however; his son, Martin, recalled, “My father marched at terrific speed.”
–Daily Rituals: On Sigmund Freud
There seems to be something about walking which promotes creativity. I don’t know what the mechanism is, but the phenomenology of it is abundantly clear.
The word “walk” appeared ninety-eight times in Daily Rituals.
Steve Jobs was well known for his walking meetings and Nietzsche claimed that the idea which inspired the Ubermensch, his most well-known concept, came to him during a walk in the Swiss Alps.
I like to write in focused twenty five or fifty minute Pomodoro sessions interspersed with ten minute walks, usually around the park near my apartment or just a city block if I’m working at a cafe or co-working space.
9. Baking in the Marketing
“Writing is marketing, you need to realize. Too many books fail because it was written in a vacuum, without ever considering anything beyond your own immediate tastes and needs. You wrote without ever thinking: How the hell are people going to hear about this and why would they care if they do?”
–Ryan Holiday, 6 Reasons Your Book Will Fail
Far and away the most effective marketing tactic I’ve found across industries is baking in the marketing. How can you make the product itself a part of the marketing? While not explicitly stated in Daily Rituals, all the authors, entrepreneurs and artists created products which were themselves truly remarkable. Go read Carl Jung, Sartre, or T.S. Elliot for the first time and try not to talk to someone about it.
Seth Godin calls these products purple cows, and they’ve been branded under of different phrases, but they all share a common phenomenon: the most sustainable, best ROI marketing in the long-term is invariably word of mouth. It takes work to get a product off the ground with marketing, but if the product itself isn’t good in and of itself, good luck getting it to stay there.
It took a Herculean effort up front for Picasso to get people to figure he was pretty good at painting, but once they did, he wasn’t launching PR campaigns everytime he finished a new painting.
Here’s the three principle ways I see authors doing this right now that I’m using in my process.
- Interviewing experts to use their ideas, concepts and stories.
For authors looking to expand their platform as opposed to authors with large platforms, leveraging existing experts is a way to both improve the quality of the book and bake in some marketing. The Alliance by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha as well as Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares both did a good job of leveraging their respective books to create a framework out of the ideas from established thought leaders in their fields and bake them into the marketing in doing so.
I’m still in the process of doing interviews and they’ve already helped me clarify the concepts, add examples in the book, and I’m going to release the interviews with the book as part of the marketing. (Stay tuned.)
Just like in, Daily Rituals, seeing the patterns that emerged across people’s businesses and careers clarified the most important principles and their stories provided ways to illustrate them.
Pro-tip: When it was possible, I’d interview people in the afternoon and then sit down and cook their stories into the manuscript the next day though logistics don’t always permit.
- Use the book to start the conversation, not end it.
Both Tim Grahl’s Your First 1000 Copies and Traction did a good job of using the book to take people that were just getting exposed to their brand for the first time and provide a way for the narrative to keep going by setting up relevant resources on landing pages online.
If you applied to be an early reader, I’d love to hear your thoughts on more resources I could include (details going out soon if you applied). If you didn’t apply to be an early reader, it’s because you’re not on the email list! (sign up for the email list if you’d like to get the behind the book updates).
- Bake readers and customers into the product creation process
About a years and a half ago, I watched Minaal launch their travel bag to the tune of a $350,000 Kickstarter and it instilled in me the power of getting a core group of customers involved not after the product was ready, but before. With each new prototype they took it out to their core audience and had them test run it and give feedback. Not only did it make the product better by getting it in the hands of users and tailoring it to their needs sooner, it made them a part of the story of the product and they all promoted the bag when it came out.
I’ve posted sections of the book on the blog already and your response to those posts have helped shape the overall book as well as which sections should get chunked. Also excited to get feedback from early readers (currently overwhelmed by the number of applications, thanks!) over the next few weeks.
Useful Book Marketing Resources:
- Tim Grahl’s Your First 1000 Copies
- “How to Self-Publish a Bestseller: Self-Publishing 3.0″
- “The Complete Guide to Book Marketing” from WP Curve
- “How to Write a Bestselling Book This Year — The Definitive Resource List and How-To Guide” by Tim Ferriss
- “How to Hit # 1 on Amazon’s Bestseller List” by Noah Kagan
- “How I’m Marketing My Self-Published Book” by Charlie Hoehn
- Getting Traction for Traction by Justin Mares and Gabriel Weinberg
- The Tim Ferriss Effect: Lessons From My Successful Book Launch by Michael Ellsberg
- How to Successfully Launch Your Book with Rachel Rofe Charlie Hoehn
Amphetamines and Forecasting the 80/20
The 80/20 principle is easier explained than applied, you usually don’t know until you’re looking in the rear view mirror. It’s not clear on the front end which product or marketing channel will yield disproportionate results until you’ve tried dozens.
Yet, wisdom seems to be only light shrouded, not densely cloaked: looking broadly across domains, time periods, and people gives us insight we can’t get from our own perspective.
It turns out, for the prolific mathematician from the start of our story, Paul Erdos, the magic ingredient was amphetamines.
His friend had bet him he couldn’t give up the drug for a month. After winning the bet, Erdos quickly resumed his daily amphetamine habit and added coffee and caffeine tablets to the mix for good measure.
“A mathematician,” he liked to say, “is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”
Maybe it’s just coffee after all? God, I hope so.
Last Updated on July 30, 2019 by Taylor Pearson