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5 Productivity Tips From Mark Twain

mark twain

Popular pictures of Mark Twain show the American man of letters in a relaxed slump, enjoying a cigar, and sheepishly scanning a warm summer afternoon in a comfortable, white linen suit. A calm, restful smile resides on Twain’s lips and his wild, white hair appears to have recently departed from a goose feather pillow.

On first glance, Twain doesn’t seem like a very productive soul, but you can’t judge a book by its cover.

The fact is Twain was a steady, consistent, and productive writer who tirelessly worked on his craft. There’s a reason why Hemingway called Twain’s most popular book, Huckleberry Finn, the root of all modern American literature.

Twain’s impressive work rate is the result of his happy outlook on life and his unique principles. Even if you aren’t a writer, the following list of Twain’s productivity tips will help you work harder and smarter:

1. Don’t be a perfectionist:

Twain observed, “I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.” Twain didn’t let misspellings and rules of grammar get in the way of his storytelling. He believed in telling simple, humorous tales. Twain left the editing to the editors. This carefree attitude spurred his creativity and let him develop his own style that wasn’t beholden to established rules of fiction

Don’t waste all of your time editing and making things perfect. Give yourself time to be sloppy, creative, and messy. It gives you the opportunity to express yourself without barriers. You can edit, retool, and tweak later.

2. Mind your company:

Productivity isn’t always about waking up early, setting a schedule and trying your best to ignore your email and phone. Sometimes it boils down to confidence and Twain believed only certain people inspire self-assurance.  Twain writes, “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

Ignore the naysayers, the cynics, and the folks who are always sucking their teeth whenever a new idea is brought up. They are the “small people” and all they want from you is to join them in their misery. You must associate with people who allow, encourage, and demand big dreams.

3. Laugh at work:

Everyone has their favorite Twain joke. Mine is, “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.”

Twain knew that humor, jokes, and laughter soothed many headaches and ills. “Humor is the great thing,” Twain writes, “the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

If you have a mountain of work and stress dogs your daily life than take time to seek out humor. Laughter will help you relax. Once you’re relaxed you can get back to work with more clarity and focus.

4. Develop good habits with incremental steps:

Twain knew that good habits are hard to acquire. While it’s easy to say you’ll get up early and visit the gym, it’s another thing completely to obey your screeching alarm clock before the sun begins its day.

Twain had a hack to instill good habits and it goes as follows, “Do something every day that you don’t want to do; this is the golden rule for acquiring the habit of doing your duty without pain.”

He went on to observe, “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out the window by man, but coaxed downstairs, a step at a time.”

Twain knew that one can’t simply pull a positive habit out of the blue. Good habits have to be worked at incrementally.

Twain also writes, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex and overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

Don’t jolt your system into new, better habits. Gradually work your way into them so they stick.

5. Don’t follow conventional wisdom:

Twain didn’t believe in dieting or maintaining a healthy lifestyle. He smoked cigars, he drank, and he didn’t believe in abstaining from fattening foods.

When it came to cigars he had an especially large appetite. He writes, “I ordinarily smoke fifteen cigars during my five hours’ labors.” It is not exactly a habit one should replicate, but it illustrates that Twain allowed himself small pleasures while he went about his work.

There’s no rule forbidding yourself from small pleasures while you toil over your projects. Faced with a monumental task one should bear down and get to work while allowing for the odd indulgence.

After all, Twain writes, “There are people who strictly deprive themselves of each and every eatable, drinkable and smokable which has in any way acquired a shady reputation. They pay this price for health. And health is all they get for it. How strange it is. It is like paying out your whole fortune for a cow that has gone dry.”

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Leaders, Russian Literature & Ping-Pong: The Value of Daydreaming

In a soon to be published paper in Psychological Science written by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara state, “creative solutions may be facilitated specifically by simple external tasks that maximize mind-wandering.”

In other words, daydreaming may help you solve complicated problems.

In a series of tests Baird and Schooler gave students tasks that required inventive problem solving skills. When the students were given a break half of them were told to sit and do nothing while the other half were given a tedious task–like reading  a dry passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

When the break was over the group that had free time performed worse then the group who were told to complete monotonous chores. Why?

Those that were given a boring job were driven to daydreaming. They let their minds idle, wander, and explore whereas the group that had all the free time in the world busied themselves with more proactive thoughts.

To the researchers surprise the mind lost in daydreams isn’t lazy. In fact, it’s busy subconsciously untangling large, looming problems. As Jonah Lehrer of the New Yorker points out, this is the very reason why Silicon Alley businesses have so many ping-pong tables. Ping-pong, played leisurely, helps the mind wander while it addresses larger, more complex problems. It encourages productive daydreaming.

With this in mind, leaders need not feel guilty if they want to tuck into a bit of Tolstoy instead of checking their emails before bed. Taking time to yourself and allowing your mind to wander can help you figure out looming problems.

As an aside, if you’d like a ping-pong table at work, show this article to your boss.

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Upcoming Inc. Magazine Talk

Sam Bacharach will be talking at Inc. magazine’s Leadership Forum on June 8th. He’ll be giving two talks on the following subjects:

1. When Charisma and Vision Are Not Enough: Moving From Potential to Execution

Charisma may get you in the front door, but unless you have the ability to actually deliver on your promise, you will be remembered more for your personality than your leadership. Do you know how to rally people to your side and build focus and consensus? How to keep them there and nurture their entrepreneurial instincts? How to build a strong, dynamic, loyal team of dedicated, innovative managers and implementers? How to create a “pool” of talented people who will be your company’s leaders of tomorrow? In this groundbreaking session, you’ll learn how to master the skills of political and managerial competence. Recognize the benefits of developing these capabilities in yourself. Foster the leadership potential of others. And create a more dynamic, proactive and energetic organization.

2. Leading Your Team: The Skills of Engagement and Enhancement

In a world of Generation Y, in a world where companies are moving from products to solutions, and in a world where agility is critical, you need to engage your team members and enhance their capacity. Your team will deliver and commit only if you know how to lead it. What are the key things you need to keep in mind in leading a creative, dynamic, aspiring group of people? How do you coach and develop others to meet their potential while executing the business strategy? How do you challenge them so that they are fully engaged and committed? Dynamic organizations and creative agendas succeed because leaders know how to invest in others. In this session, you will learn the critical leadership skills to make sure your team will stay with you and go the distance.

The Inc. Leadership Forum will feature:

The Inc. Leadership Forum brings together the knowledge and experience of industry experts, academics, seasoned entrepreneurs and fellow company leaders to share their methods on how to implement leadership strategies that help businesses flourish.

What’s Included:

– A cocktail reception

– 2 power-networking breakfasts and lunches

– High-profile speakers

– More than 15 hours of education

– Informative break-outs and panel discussions

– Book signings

– A working night out! Join us for a baseball game at the brand-new, state-of-the-art Marlins Park (ticket, transportation and $20 refreshment voucher included with registration

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Lessons From a Dumpling Stand

Tricia Wang, an ethnographer and writer, recently followed a Chinese migrant family around and helped as they set up a dumpling stand outside of a sprawling factory.

Her observations are stunning and remarkable.

The family wakes up at 4:30AM and starts making dumplings with limited tools, little water, and equipment that doesn’t work. On top of that the family’s dumpling business is hounded by local police who want to shut them down.

Making matters worse the family is only netting 100 RMB a day (around 12 bucks). They want to make five times that much, but large social obstacles get in there way and small, unexpected, costs start to add up.

While a road side dumpling stand doesn’t supply a lot of business lessons–it is an example of the hard work demanded of the 200 to 300 rural migrants in China. It’s a must read.

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A Promising 12 Point Program to Success, Happiness, & Riches

Jesse Thorn is a self-made man who considers himself successful. He’s got a family, money in the bank, and a growing radio business he loves.

Thankfully, Jesse isn’t a secretive man. He’s written down his road-map to success and given it the modest title: Make Your Thing: 12 Point Program for Absolutely, Positively 1000% No-Fail Guaranteed Success

Every one of Jesse’s points is illustrated by a quirky, real-world, example. He suggests you build a community much like Insane Clown Posses. He recommends you “Keep Your Legs Moving” just like the rapper Killer Mike. He also doesn’t think it’ll be a bad idea if you keep it ‘real’ in the same vein as rock musician Andrew W.K.

Jesse isn’t saying that you must paint your face like a juggalo, start a record label like a fringe rapper, or thumb your nose at the establishment like a punk rocker in order to become successful. He’s arguing that you can learn from the accomplishments of people who have been briefly acquainted with success.

However, his 12 point program comes with a caveat. Point 12 demands that you actually get to work and start exercising your talent. I was hoping he’d have horse racing tips.