Note: This article is a summary of 50 interviews I conducted over 10 months. To get instant access to all 50 interviews, click here! Over 150 pages of content, the top 3 tools of each expert, top 3 tidbits, 8 pages of recap, 15 extra long interviews…
At the time of this writing, it will soon be a year since I started blogging consistently. Before that, I always had tons of projects on my todo list, which I either never started or started and dropped a few weeks later. After years of back and forth, I decided to stick to one thing for at least 6 months: blogging.
This decision has been one of the biggest in my life, and it has brought me many opportunities, the biggest one being the ability to interact with like-minded people who also blog, and who are much further along the path of success than I am.
I published my first interview piece in August 2019. It was a roundup of 10 Medium writers, with 5 questions per person. The interviews focused on the morning routines of these people. At the time, I wanted to learn more about this magical time I was reading about everywhere: early mornings. That’s when most productive people seemed to get ahead of everybody.
Gathering all the answers and writing this first piece was a huge source of inspiration for me, and I went on to write 3 more roundup pieces (4 in total). I also published 18 individual interviews through a project called The People Who Do. The wealth of information, knowledge and motivation I acquired through my interviews has been absolutely invaluable, and I wanted to give you a glimpse of it in this article. You can get access to all the 50 interviews (and much more) here.
This is not a generic productivity guide. These are practical tips based on interviews with real people who do real things, in real life. This is road-tested advice, not simple theory. This is not to say you will instantly become successful if you follow the advice to the tee. There’s no magic recipe, and these interviews are case studies. This article highlights the commonalities and patterns I noticed throughout all the interviews, which I identified as main drivers for motivation and productivity. It’s a fine brewed selection of the best advice on productivity out there, and it took me months to put together.
Choose the advice relevant for you. Tailor it to your needs and wants. Apply it, and enjoy the ride. It will change your life.
1. Wake up early
You don’t have to wake up early to succeed in life. But if you have a rather normal life with a 9–5 job and/or a family to take care of, this is usually the only way to move ahead with whatever it is you do on the side. Some people I interviewed still have their normal job on a daily basis. Others live off their passion. Regardless, 60% of them wake up before or at 6am.
What is early?
For most of us, early is defined as any time (usually 1 to 2 hours) before the time we normally wake up and have our day. So if you are used to waking up at 7, then 6 or 5 would be early for you. If you normally wake up at 8, then 7 or 6 would be early. Out of all the people I interviewed, the one who wakes up the earliest is Jun Wu at 3am, because she has to take care of her baby in the early morning. She works from 3 to 6. Kudos to her!
Take the experts’ word for it. Anastasia Basil says:
“The stillness of early morning creates an illusion of time slowing down, which makes me think I have more of it (plus, no one is texting me at 5am).”
Leah Fessler adores the early morning:
“I adore the early morning — when it’s quiet, cool, and none of the stress of the day has piled on.”
Corey McComb points out the gain of time you get from waking up early:
“A lot of people think they need heroic blocks of time to make something. But even if you set aside one or two hours in the morning to chip away, the project will come into view and you’ll soon have the momentum you need to finish.”
Brian Pennie’s morning routine is extremely important for him:
“My morning routine centres me, gets me focused, sets my intentions, triggers me to be present, grateful, positive throughout the day. It’s such an important component of my life.”
These are only a few quotes about the mornings of people who rise early. The overarching reason is always the same: to get the most important, meaningful and motivating tasks done first thing in the morning. As Linda Smith says:
“I’ve found that if I start my day with intention and routine, the rest of the day runs more smoothly.”
Thomas Oppong makes sure all his most important work is done before 2pm:
“I work on my 3 Most Important Things (MITs) before 2pm. I do more as the day progresses, but my focus will be to finish at least three MITs.”
This is all very well, but what if you’re not a morning person? What if you just can’t seem to drag yourself out of bed early? Well, the answer to that question can be summarised in one word: passion.
2. Be passionate, be consistent
If you’re not passionate about the reason why you’re waking up early, it’s going to be very hard to keep up the routine in the long run. You need something to motivate yourself at the highest level possible. As Reece Robertson puts it: “When you really have a compelling reason to do a morning routine, it will not be hard, it will be easy.”
If you don’t have a compelling reason to get out of bed early, there’s literally no point in doing it. And if you think you found the reason but still can’t seem to wake up, you need to commit more. Try for a week or two, and check in after that. Your body needs to adjust at first. If even after a few weeks you can’t seem to wake up feeling motivated, you’re probably not passionate enough about your project.
“If you lack clarity and direction, dig deeper into yourself, do more research, create a plan and take massive action.” — Prakhar Verma
Working on your passion project is not just about mornings. It’s about consistency, everyday.
“Getting clear on the reason why you want to do something makes everything easier, especially when times get tough.” — Marvin Marcano〽️〽️
You will hit rough patches, you will go through major lows, you will feel like quitting many times. That’s how it is with a lot of things in life, especially when following an unconventional path. The more you try to create your own way, the harder it will be. But as long as you don’t quit, you’ll be fine.
“Consistency takes you to your goals. It all rests on a 4-word phrase: Small progress, every day.” — Anthony Moore
Adrian Drew reminds us that by working on your passion, you also create the right conditions to be happy. It’s not just about working, it’s also about finding fulfilment.
“People often look for quick fixes for unhappiness. There aren’t any. To be truly happy, you have to create the right conditions for your happiness to flourish. If you’re working a job you hate, you’re unhealthy, lack routine, good friends… you’ll never be happy. You have to create a life for yourself in which it’s almost impossible to be unhappy.”
3. Just start
The powers of self-discipline, commitment and consistency are untapped potential for most people. You have no idea how far you can get if you just try and give it a go, I truly mean that. I’m not saying you will become the world’s best at what you do, that you will be able to live off your passion for the rest of your life, that everything will fall into place. But I guarantee you that you have no idea how far you can get. I had no idea how far I would go down the path of blogging. I just decided to commit to it for 6 months.
“99% of people quit new projects before six months, maybe more. Make it to month 7 and you’re fine. The beginning 20% of the journey accounts for 80% of the total progress. After you get traction, the rest is just a matter of time to get things to pop.” — Ayodeji Awosika
Back when I interviewed Ayodeji, I hadn’t been at blogging for over 6 months, and it did feel hard sometimes. Now that I’m coming closer to the 1-year mark, I can’t agree with this quote more. After a while, the way you work around your project will feel a lot more natural, all the routines will be in place, and you’ll put in the work a lot more easily. Then, it’s just a matter of being consistent. Don’t stop.
“Showing up for 5 years again and again while trying to get better from each day to the next is what worked for me.” — Niklas Göke
And it can work for you. Niklas Göke is now a medium top writer with over 60K followers. He manages one of Medium’s top publications, and makes a living off his passion. 5 years ago, he was just getting started. Whatever journey you want to go on, imagine how far you’ll be in 5 years from now, just by putting in the work and not giving up. Actually picture that journey. Here is a very interesting tip from Jordan Gross:
“Take a couple hours to sit down and write out what your journey would look like for this endeavour that you’re going on. Actually walk yourself through the steps of success. Write down all those amazing steps. Write down all the hard work you’d have to put into it, all the behind the scenes work, all the hours. The accomplishments you’re going to have, the people you’re going to have to meet. Create that story of what your life is going to look like once you’ve accomplished all these amazing tasks in getting to where you want your project to go. By doing so, you’ll not only build up motivation, you will validate your journey (or not) to yourself. You will be able to judge whether or not you want to go through the process that will turn your vision into reality.”
Finally, here is one last tidbit for you on “just starting”: most successful people didn’t really have an idea what they were doing in the first place. Through his company Digital Press, top author Nicolas Cole has worked with top CEOs, thought leaders, famous Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, grammy-winning musicians, best-selling authors… When I asked him if there was one big lesson he had learned from them all, here is what he had to say:
“The one takeaway I can say has been universal is this constant sense of believing in yourself. Every single person I’ve worked with has admitted to me they didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into. They just decided to trust themselves and follow the path. They kept putting one foot in front of the other, and trying their best to learn as they went along.”
I promise you that just starting will take you places. That’s the number one thing you should remember from all this, and it was also pointed out by many of the people I interviewed.
60% of the people I interviewed journal, either digitally or physically on paper. Once a day, once a week, at a certain time, any time… Scheduling varies, but the practice of it is a big component of the answers.
In my opinion, journaling is a keystone habit. This is a term coined by Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of habit. Keystone habits are habits that tend to automatically lead to positive behaviour and effects in your life.
When you journal, your clarity will increase. Your life will become more organised, you will have priorities, and you will understand your self more. With journaling, you can track metrics about your life (how much you eat, read, exercise, watch Netflix…). You can identify patterns in the data you would have never noticed otherwise. You can can get a backlog of your days for years at a time if you’re consistent enough.
Amy Chan uses a One Line a Day Journal. It has 365 pages for each day of the year, with 5 entries on each page, to last for 5 years. Every day she writes in that journal, she’s able to compare her situation to what it was 1, 2, 3, 4 years ago. She also has a regular journal she uses when she feels like writing more.
Nicolas Cole journals all the time, and reads all his notebooks every year:
“At the end of each year, right after Christmas, I read back through my 2 journals for the entire year, end to end, and set a new intention for the year to follow. I’ve been doing this every single year for the past 10 years.”
Now that’s consistency. Here is what Barry Davret has to say about journaling:
“It’s accounted for about 90% of my story ideas. It’s also been a wonderful tool of self-discovery. I recommend it to anyone who ever asks about personal development.”
Josh S. Rose draws in his journal:
“I started keeping a journal when I was about 13. I’d draw on one page and write on the facing page. I kept this up for most of my life and found it to be an effective way to deal with emotions and to put myself in a creative mindset.”
Journaling can be done in so many different ways, there’s no right way to do it. Try it out and find your own.
“Someone takes years of their life trying to figure something out and then they put it in a book you can digest in a few hours. It’s like you get to absorb the souls of the smartest and most successful people.” — Ayodeji Awosika
Reading saved Ayodeji’s life. The year of his change, he read 75 books. He reads everyday, about everything. Megan Holstein read 77 books in 2019. Dan Moore reads everyday, as much as he can.
Books have the power to teach, educate, change lives, inspire and go much further than what you thought possible. Whether fiction or non-fiction, they transport you to a realm of limitless possibilities. Books can truly show you the way to a new life, to a new you, and also to a new way of seeing things.
“Read the works of far greater minds than your own.” — Anastasia Basil
I asked a lot of my guests about their number one productivity/self-improvement book recommendation. The same books were mentioned multiple times by different people. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, mentioned 3 times
- The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod, mentioned 2 times
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, mentioned 2 times
In total, 28 books are mentioned in the 50 interviews.
6. Systems over goals
When I asked Anthony Moore: “How do you find the drive to keep going when it would be so easy to rest on your laurels, watching TV?”, he started his answer by saying this:
“It’s much harder to stay king of the hill than it is to climb the hill. Climbing the hill feels fun, competitive. You’re beating people around you, you’re striving and doing great. But once you’re there, it’s a bit like: Well, now what?”
Anthony has a point here. The truth is, he doesn’t even think of it as “resting on his laurels” versus “working hard”. He just focuses on doing the work every single day.
Thinking of success as a competition and a series of goals can work for some people. But most of the time, it’s a recipe for feeling stressed, anxious, and like you’re always behind on schedule.
Instead, focusing on the journey (rather than the outcome) will help you feel like you’re always learning and moving forward. The results you want to achieve shouldn’t be tied to your goals, but to the system you put in place to get where you want to be.
If you keep working at your craft, keep improving, and focus on the long-term progress, you will get results whether you have goals or not. What matters is to put in work, the rest happens automatically. Jordan Gross had a great way of summarising the “systems vs goals” approach:
“The way that I view goals is by not so much focusing on the goal itself, but rather on me becoming the person who has the best opportunity to achieve that goal.”
When I asked Darius Foroux: “What tips do you have for people who struggle to start working on the projects they have?” he had this to say:
We can’t do everything in one day. But we can achieve a lot over a long period of time. That all starts with making daily progress.
25% of my guests included exercising in their answers, while none of my questions were about exercising. Most of them exercise in the morning and make it a full part of their routine. Nearly all the answers that mention exercising put the emphasis on the psychological benefits of the activity, not the physical ones. Here is what Aytekin Tank, CEO of Jotform, had to say about morning exercise:
“I find that about 20 minutes into the workout I start to feel really energized and ready to take on the day. Sometimes that energy can carry with me throughout work.”
Jonah Malin says: “I function better if I make decisions based on how I am feeling physically and mentally.” You will often find him typing notes into his iPhone mid-workout.
Thomas Oppong reminds us that “Both mind and body need exercise to stay healthy and keep performing as required.”
8. Techniques and tools
I often asked my guests about their favourite productivity techniques and tools. The number one answer was a journal. We’ve already talked about journaling, so what other techniques and tools do they use?
Project management tools
Project and tasks management solutions definitely took the cake. Here is the Top 3:
I personally use TickTick the most. Notion is a close second. I only use 6 apps in total. My advice is to keep things simple. If your system is not broken, don’t go and try to fix it.
Lists make it easier to organise your workload. They give you structure and clarity through actionable items.
Michele Koh Morollo writes here todo list on one small Post-It, to prevent herself from writing too many things and losing track.
To be honest, I was surprised at how many times the Pomodoro technique is mentioned, because I don’t use it at all myself. I work in long blocks of time without breaks.
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 80s. It’s extremely simple. Use a timer to break work into 25-minute intervals, and have a 5-minute pause after each session. That’s a cycle. After 4 cycles, have a longer break (15–30 minutes).
At least 6 people explicitly mentioned the Pomodoro Timer technique, while others mentioned some technique derived from it. Basically, working in splits.
Doing the work
Whatever tools and techniques you decide to use, it all comes down to doing the work. You can set up as many systems as you want, read as many books, use as many tools. At the end of the day, if you don’t put in the work, nothing will happen. This is how Megan Holstein puts it:
“No app, journal, or tool is the key to discipline. Discipline comes from within. Those who are disciplined will find a way, regardless of whether they have an iPhone XS Max or a tattered journal.”
Barry Davret recommends simplifying your pre-work routine as much as possible if you have trouble getting to work. It’s easy to use “getting ready” as an excuse to never start:
“If you struggle to start working on a project, eliminate as much of your routine as possible, and just get to work.”
9. In conclusion
As I said before, the decision to stick to blogging consistently for almost a year now has unlocked doors I didn’t even think I had the keys to. Within the span of those 10 months, I was able to:
- Reach over 150K people through my work
- Write well over 100 articles, and counting
- Start my weekly newsletter
- Post new articles at least 3 times per week (often 4) without fault for the past 35 weeks
- Launch my website
- 20x my following on Medium
- Reach out to dozens of people further along the path of success
- Interview the author of one of my favourite productivity books ever: Laura Vanderkam
- Get help and advice from some of my favourite Medium authors
- Wake up earlier than I ever have consistently
- Focus on one thing and only one: my blog, writing every morning (like I am doing right now)
This is only a list of blog-related achievements. Overall, I definitely noticed an increase in my self-discipline and willpower as well. I cannot stress enough the importance of just starting. I promise you also have a set of keys you didn’t know could open so many doors. I promise you that just starting will take you places. If there is one thing you should remember from all this, here it is: just start.
6 months, 1 year, many years… When you choose to pick up something and stick to it for 6 months, it will change your life. You need to consider it like a job, and rethink your life around this one activity. It can be anything.
Consistency brings massive change, because instead of just living day to day, you start to have a purpose. You get home from work knowing what you’re going to do. You wake up in the morning excited about your project. You spend your weekends doing something meaningful. You say no to going out for drinks because your project is a lot more fun.
I realised this as I went ahead. Over 10 months later, while writing this article and keeping at my blog, I can connect the dots in hindsight. Self-discipline, consistency and commitment are the 3 things that took me this far.
And if you decide to start and commit, I promise they can take you places too.
Pick one thing. Start working on it now. Don’t drop it.
And see you in half a year.
Thanks so much for reading! To get access to all 50 interviews, click here! Over 150 pages of content, the top 3 tools of each expert, top 3 tidbits, 8 pages of recap, 15 extra long interviews…
A huge thank you to everyone who took part in the project: Sarah Aboulhosn, Jari Roomer, August Birch, Melissa Chu, Kendra Kinnison, Niklas Göke, Anthony Moore, Thomas Oppong, Prakhar Verma, Anastasia Shch, Marvin Marcano〽️〽️, Corey McComb, Shannon Ashley, David Kadavy, Barry Davret, Nat Eliason, Jonah Malin, Jun Wu, Megan Holstein, Dan Moore, Alex Mathers, Josh S. Rose, Michele Koh Morollo, Jordan Gross, Jessica Wildfire, Lydia Sohn, Adrian Drew, Brian Pennie, Sophia Ciocca, Matthew Kent, Tara Blair Ball, A boy, a girl and a chicken, Linda Smith, Laura Vanderkam, Amy Chan, Stephanie St.Claire, Nicolas Cole, Aphinya Dechalert, Darius Foroux, Gillian Sisley, Aytekin Tank, Ezinne Ukoha, Rachel Anne Williams, Reece Robertson, Jennifer Taylor Chan, Leah Fessler, Keisha N. Blain, Ayodeji Awosika, John Gorman, Anastasia Basil.