At the age of just 35, Ryan Holiday has published 13 books, at a rate of one book per year, for a decade. He also writes two email newsletters that go out every day, as well as a monthly email newsletter.
That’s just the writing output. Add to that a Youtube channel with a million subscribers, a podcast, a book store, and a marketing agency and you start to get an idea of his full output.
What’s the secret behind this prodigious level of productivity? How does one man do so much? Surely this man knows some hidden trick, or possesses some level of talent we mere mortals do not?
In an article from 2013 called “This is how I work", Ryan reveals his big advantage.
“I plod along. I’m not the best or the smartest, but I’m always moving forward.”
That’s it? He just plods along?
He puts his butt in the chair, and he writes. It’s not glamorous or exciting, but it works. As NYT columnist David Brooks says, “Great creative minds think like artists, but work like accountants.”
Ryan has a 30 minute video which documents the months-long process of writing a book. Part way through that process, his agent rings him to tell him that his latest book, just published, has hit the New York Times bestseller list.
“Great!” Ryan replies. “That’s awesome, thanks.”
Then he returns to what he was doing, which is writing the next book.
This is something we’ve talked about in the past. Remember this Top Goal framework from Matt Mochary:
Schedule two hours each day to work on your Top Goal only. And do this every single workday. Period.
Only work on your top priority during these two hours. If you follow this pattern each workday, you will achieve amazing things.
Ryan’s most important thing each day is writing — so he blocks out time to get it done, every single day. He plods along, adopting the well-trodden writing principle of two crappy pages per day. That’s all.
As Ryan says in this video:
You sit down and you write. People think writers write all day — you can usually only get a couple of hours at most. 90 minutes of really concentrated writing — that’s what I needed today, and I did my couple of crappy pages a day. Then I’ll come back tomorrow and do the same thing.
The beauty of this approach is that if you prioritise getting your two crappy pages out of your head and onto the page, every single day, then after a couple of months, you’ll have a book. Sure, it’ll need some editing to whip it into shape. But it’s written.
I know this seems overly simple. On any given day it might not look like you’ve accomplished much — only two crappy pages? But you’re moving in the right direction, which is the most important thing. To quote James Clear:
You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.
Put in the work, and trust the process. Impatience with action, patience with results. Over time, good things happen.
There’s a good reason this principle works so well particularly in creative work. This is illustrated rather wonderfully by the parable of the pottery class.
A pottery teacher decided to run an experiment with his class. He divided the class into two groups. Group A would be graded on the quantity of pieces they produced over the next 30 days. Group B only needed to produce one single piece, and they’d be graded on the quality of that piece.
Group A spent all 30 days cranking out piece after piece. Group B spent all 30 days obsessing, fretting, worrying about quality.
At the end of the 30 days, the teacher collected the best ten pieces the class had produced, and put them at the front of the class for everyone to see. She then asked the creators of those pieces to step forward.
Every single one of the best pieces had come from Group A. This group, caring only about how many pieces they produced, had inadvertently created some masterful works of art.
The trick is that Group A was working like accountants. Butt in chair, do work, every day. With that mindset you don’t fear failure, you don’t think too much, you don’t get in your own head, and you don’t worry about whether what you’re doing is good enough. You just do the work. And over time, you get better, until by day 30, you can create wonderful things.
Writing is the same. Some days, everything is flowing wonderfully. Other days, it’s not. Either way, you sit in the chair and write.
Whether your long-term goal is writing a book, building a business, getting in shape, saving and investing, or trying to be a wonderful parent, the process is the same.
Plod along, consistently, in the right direction, for a long period of time. Impatience with action, patience with results. Depending on the size of your goal it might take one year or ten years, but keep moving forward, slowly and consistently.
You’ll get there.