BLG Leadership Insights

7 Productivity Tips From Ernest Hemingway


Ernest Hemingway may go down in the history books as a hard-drinking, big-fishing, Nobel-Prize-winning writer, but he was also a productivity guru. Throughout his career he often gave advice to young writers and openly talked about his work habits and writing style. Even if you aren’t a writer Hemingway’s tips and tricks can help you increase your productivity.

Follows is a list of productivity tips that come from Hemingway himself…and they aren’t just for writers.

1. Don’t Waste Words and Be Clear: Hemingway is famous for getting to the point and killing unneeded adjectives. When he was challenged to write a six word story, he wrote “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Clearly, he knew how to be economical with his words. If you want to get things done you need to exercise the same verbal restraint. Meetings, email exchanges, and conversations often spill into the late afternoon because people employ too many words. Keeping it short, simple, and clear will save time, cut down on confusion, and get everyone back to work.

2. Make a Schedule: Everyday Hemingway would  wake up at 7am and try to write between 500 to a 1,000 words. The rest of his day he devoted to a combination of fishing, hunting, and drinking. Give yourself a schedule. As Jeanette Winterson, another writer, says, “Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.” Routines and schedules give leaders the ability to be creative and consistent.

3. Quit While You’re Ahead: Hemingway said “The best way [to write] is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day…you will never be stuck.” If you do one task well and you know what to do next, it might help to pause and tackle it the next day. Getting something done every day will increase your confidence and keep momentum going.

4. Keep Your Mouth Shut: According to Hemingway, it’s bad form for a writer to talk about his work. He said discussing writing takes off “whatever butterflies have on their wings and the arrangement of hawk’s feathers if you show it or talk about it.” Don’t discuss your project or new idea until you are certain it is clear and well thought out. Talking about a new proposal or plan too soon can give your competition time to coalesce against your idea. Productivity will suffer if you spend more time talking about your idea than acctually moving it forward.

5. Don’t Give Up: Hemingway once told F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.” You need to be able to be critical of the work that you do complete. Not everything you do will be perfect. Increased productivity will help you make a lot of progress, but you need to approach it with a critical eye. Don’t get frustrated and give up because you feel you are doing a bad job. Keep producing and moving forward. Eventually you will do one thing very well.

6. Work Standing Up: Hemingway wrote standing up because of a minor leg injury he got in World War I. But, his vertical habit isn’t that odd. Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, and Donald Rumsfeld, among other popular figures chose to stand up while they work. Standing while working can increase productivity by fighting fatigue, the allure of napping, and minor distractions. According to the New York Times, it can also help you lose weight.

7. Lastly, Hemingway said, “Never mistake motion for action”:  Leaders have to remember that productivity is about action and getting things done–not running around in circles.

Photo Credit: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Pulp Leadership

Mickey Spillane, a crime novelist who sold over 200 million books, teaches us that pretension never gets us far. “Authors” he says “want their names down in history; I want to keep the smoke coming out of the chimney.”

Spillane started his writing career in the comic business. He helped write stories for Batman, Superman, Captain America, and other popular superheroes. But comics didn’t pay well so Spillane decided to give the pulp fiction world a shot. 9 days later he was done with his first book, I, The Jury and it was published soon after.

Critics hated it. Anthony Boucher, a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote at the time of its publication, “Able, if painfully derivative, writing and plotting, in so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods that the novel might be made required reading in a Gestapo training school.” The 25-cent paperback sold 3 million copies and Spillane made a name for himself instantly. It also marked the debut of Spillane’s popular character Mike Hammer, a hardboiled detective who fought for justice without following any rules.

Critics today still haven’t quieted down. Spillane’s work at its worst offends and at its best shocks. “It was just after the war and there was rough stuff all around” Spillane said in defense of his gritty prose. “That was the way it was.”

Spillane was also trying to hook readers, “Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.” Spillane wasn’t in the business of finesse or thoughtful prose–his literary influences he once said were “dollars.

“I’m a commercial writer” he boasts, “not an author. Margaret Mitchell was an author. She wrote one book.”

Spillane frankly assessed his priorities and wrote for a wide audience without bothering to craft master works filled with literary themes and symbolism. “Hemingway hated me.” Spillane said, ” I sold 200 million books, and he didn’t. Of course most of mine sold for 25 cents, but still… you look at all this stuff with a grain of salt.”

And this brings us to our point. Spillane found success by being direct and bold. He sold 200 million books by focusing on his audience–not his critics. He never let them get him down or tie him up. He was the Mike Hammer of the literary world–he did whatever it took and broke all the rules to make his audience happy and keep them reading.  While it’s always sound to listen to critics and revise your approach to problems–it can, as Spillane proves, be better to stick to your proverbial guns.

But I’m not advocating bullheadedness–I’m just suggesting you assess your priorities clearly and go after them regardless of what high-nosed critics might say.

And if you make a mistake it won’t be so bad. “If you’re a singer you lose your voice.” Spillane said, “A baseball player loses his arm. A writer gets more knowledge, and if he’s good, the older he gets, the better he writes.”

I think the same goes for the field of leadership.

Photo Credit: Digital Sextant (Illustration from Spillane’s book The Big Kill)

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Top 10 [Unconventional] Leadership Books

vonnegutSince I write and teach about leadership I’m often asked, “What are the best leadership books?”

It’s always a hard question. First, there are so many great books on the subject and second, not everyone has the same tastes. While one person might like The Art of Woo they may yawn over a reputable academic volume dedicated to 17th century organizational behavior.

However, there are a handful of books that can teach us a lot about leadership while captivating most people. They are as follows:

1. Moby Dick (Melville): Captain Ahab can teach us a thing or two everything about vision as it relates to leadership.

2. Catch-22 (Heller): If Heller didn’t invent and define the phrase “Catch-22” modern organizations would have.

3. Dead Souls (Gogol): How do you go about buying the ‘souls’ of dead peasants for a personal profit? You need good  sales skills…to say the least.

5. Walden (Thoreau): Keep it simple, stupid.

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Leadership Link Round-Up: May 11-15

Visualizing Leadership: Seaching for Leadership With My Camera

  • Take a deep breath. This isn’t another Great Depression. Whew!
  • Chinese Premier, Zhao Ziyang, refused to suppress the protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Read about his inspiring stand.
  • Full-time, paid, employees are disappearing…and being replaced by studious interns who work for free.
  • Does getting a Ph.D. now often means the end of an academic career rather than the beginning of one?
  • Hemingway’s upcoming posthumous book lets you revisit his dirty Left Bank and his old problems.
  • Where’s the best place to be unemployed? The simple answer is nowhere–the longer answer is cute.
  • Given a marshmallow, how long would you wait until you ate it? The ability to wait for gratification may mean you are better suited for academics. Can we learn from this?
  • Interesting take on Generation X’s attitude problems in the workplace.
  • Here’s a great look at employee theft–the causes and possible solutions. Very interesting.
  • We talked about the ‘rules’ of social networking sites–now the WSJ has created their own rules, forcing staffers to use 2.o websites carefully.
  • The crisis of credit…visualized. I’d imagine this video would be a great tool for classrooms.
  • I know Mother’s day was last weekend–but here’s a great post on leadership and motherhood.
  • On a fun note…why can’t all flight attendant’s rap their boring seat-belt talk?! It would be a lot faster!