How to Be Prolific: A Look into the Mindsets of Prolific Creators

PaulJuly 16, 2017

The one thing that really impresses me about someone is if they are continually shipping stuff.  

A writer that is continually pushing out novels, an artist that relentlessly produces music, a blogger that's been publishing videos for years... and so on. 

In a word, these people are prolific, and they generally have one thing in common.  

Prolific people make results happen.​

I'd hire someone prolific over someone who is smart and currently has a great skill set any day.  

Why?  

The ability to grind on your craft day in, day out for extended periods of time, is itself a skill

Rather it's a meta skill; If you know how to grind and be prolific, then you develop other skills faster, more deliberately and more effectively.  

Simply put: If you can focus on something relentlessly and consciously for long periods of time (read: years) then you can get really good at anything.  You'll also end up surpassing most of those who were previously more skilled than you.

That's Why I'm Working on Being More Prolific

​I'm not bad at what I do.  I work hard.  But I'm not prolific...

And that's something that I'm working on right now.  Literally, right now, as I write this sentence.​

In "Peak", Anders Ericsson mentions that an important component for deliberate practice (the currently best known method of getting good at stuff) is to either get lessons from a world-class teacher, or in absence of that, closely analyse what top performers are doing to be so good.

So, as I don't have access to a world-class teacher in the art of being prolific, you can find below a continually updated log of golden nuggets extracted from the minds of prolific creators.

The Prolific List

1. Anthony Trollope (author)

He published 47 novels on top of an array of other publications in 38 years.  His ability to publish works so prolifically left him the envy of many authors who didn't understand how he could achieve such a rate.  

He said that he was never late for a deadline and while one book was being published, he'd usually have two or three finished ready to go.

He's one of the most prolific writers of his generation.

So how did he do it?  I picked up this from the great book, Willpower:

  • He woke up early (at 0530), had a coffee, and spent the next half hour reading the previous day's work to get himself in the right voice.
  • He then wrote for 2 and a half hours, monitoring the time with a watch placed on the table.  By breakfast he could produce 2,500 words.
  • He kept a running log of his word count, planning for 10,000 words per week.

    Here's a quote:- "In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour so that the deficiency might be supplied."

Anthony Trollop's Habit System 

We can see clearly that the reason for he was so prolific was because of his habits.

  1. ​He had a core habit of waking up early
  2. The trigger for his reading and writing habit was caffeine
  3. The reward for his habit was the satisfaction of keeping a log of all the hours that he produced (possibly he followed his habit up with other things but they aren't specified in the book)
  4. He clearly focused on the action of writing than the result.  In other words, he didn't focus on producing 47 novels, but simply writing 10,000 words per week.  By focusing on that action alone, he knew the result would take care of itself.
  5. He kept a visual log of his habits.  

    "If at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face".  

    I've mentioned the idea of using visual reminders as a positive feedback mechanism before, but Anthony seemed to have a different approach.  He used the visual reminder of his failures to meet his word count to kick him into action again.  
  6. Clearly he liked to work with minimal distraction, engaging consistently in deep work.
2. Adam Grant (Professor at Wharton)

I learned about Adam Grant from a great book called "Deep Work" by Cal Newport.

Adam has been able to progress through the ranks in his profession and is now the youngest full professor at Wharton.  

And the reason for this incredibly fast progression is that he produces at a rate far superior to most of his colleagues.  

For example, in 2012, he published seven articles in major journals which, according to Cal Newport, is an absurdly high rate for his field.  He's since gone on to publish 60 peer-reviewed research papers and, at 34, became a New York Times bestselling author from his book, Give and Take.

It turns out that this is not accidental.  Apparently Adam has spent a lot of time thinking about productivity and how he can get the most out of his time.

Adam Grant's Habit System 

  1. He batches hard and important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches. During periods where he is writing, he closes his door to students and isolates himself to focus completely and without distraction on a single research task.   His environment is in alignment with his goal.
  2. During periods of intense writing, he'll put an out-of-office autoresponder on his email so correspondents will know not to expect a response. Again, streamlining his environment.
  3. Here is a quote from Adam:- "I can sit down for 15-30 minutes and plant the seeds of an idea. I actually write every single day for at least 15 minutes based on that."

    Clearly, the act of writing down the seeds of an idea is, at this point, habitual for him.  

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