I’m always eager to learn new ways to stay organized and productive. Often I’ll do what many of you do: read blog posts, listen to podcasts, and read books. Many people are doing great work in these areas today, which I appreciate. However, my focus on contemporary work often causes me to overlook fantastic advice from the past, which is why I wanted to feature a little helpful advice from someone from the past: Henry Miller.
Henry Miller was the American-born writer whose works Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn, defined a new style of semi-autobiographical novel. Miller also wrote Henry Miller on Writing, in which he described how he set goals, stayed focused, and got stuff done. It included, among other things, a fantastic list of his “11 Commandments of Writing”:
- Work on one thing at a time until finished.
- Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
- Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
- Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
- When you can’t create you can work.
- Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
- Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
- Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
- Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
- Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
- Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
Henry is taking about writing, of course, but his ideas can be applied to almost any work you do. I also think some of his words could use a little interpretation. Since Henry is no longer around, we can’t ask what he meant, but I’ll do my best to decipher his list.
Number one is self-evident and frankly, something I struggle with. It can be so simple to work on another project to distract yourself from what needs to be finished. Number two was clearly along these same lines, but specific to what he was working on at the time he created the list.
I like number three and four. Recently I was sitting in front of my computer at 11:00 p.m. and, after three unproductive hours, called it quits for the night. I was miserable and producing nothing, so I stopped. The next day I had renewed energy and a new perspective.
Number five is a great point: You can always work, or be productive, even if progress on your intended goal seems to elude you. There is always something to be done, and it doesn’t always have to be creative. Being in a creative slump doesn’t get you off the hook.
I think number six goes back to number one: Don’t start (fertilize) “Project B” until Project A is complete.
Seven and eight are good perspectives because they remind you not to spend too much time in your head, which is especially easy to do when you’re working on a big and important project.
Nine is similar to his earlier points three and four. And ten is again very similar to one.
Finally, the idea behind eleven is to tackle the most important things first. When you have the most energy, focus that energy on the most important work you need or want to do.
There is solid wisdom to be found from smart folks who are long gone. If you search for it, you might be surprise at what you find.