Lessons in Productivity from Ralph Waldo Emerson
Editor's note: This is a guest post from Brett McKay, editor of The Art of Manliness
Before there was Steven Covey, or GTD, or Zen Habits, before simplicity was hip, and even before the advent of a crushing load of modern technology from which people would long to be freed, there were the American Transcendentalists. The OG of simplicity. Foremost among these was Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the finest American minds, and a man who espoused principles that resonate even today.
1. Write everything down
Men are born to write… Whatever he beholds or experiences, comes to him as a model and sits for its picture. He counts it all nonsense that they say, that some things are undescribable. He believes that all that can be thought can be written, first or last; and he would report the Holy Ghost, or attempt it. Nothing so broad, so subtle, or so dear, but comes therefore commended to his pen, and he will write. In his eyes, a man is the faculty of reporting, and the universe is the possibility of being reported.
A problem that Emerson faced his entire life was the possession of an unmanageable mind. His thoughts leaped quickly from one idea to another. He had moments in life where insights sprang from his mind like water from a broken dam. During these times, Emerson had trouble organizing his thoughts effectively. Yet these deluges were gone in a flash and he was then beset with an intellectual dry spell. He compared the challenge of managing his mind to that of harnessing thunderbolts.
In order to manage these fluctuations, Emerson kept a journal. Every day he collected even the smallest thought, idea, or dream that crossed his mind. This enabled Emerson to better organize his thoughts when they flowed freely and to spur new ideas when he hit a dry spell. Writing helped Emerson make sense of the world. He would revisit the ideas he had recorded and add to them as he gained new insights. Thanks to Emerson's journaling habit, we are blessed today with his great essays on simplicity and self-reliance.
How to apply Emerson's lesson in your life
Take the 30 day challenge and focus completely on collecting your thoughts in a journal. Anytime a thought flits across your mind, record it. Make capturing your thoughts ubiquitous by carrying a small notebook with you everywhere. Personally, I carry around a pocket Moleskine. They're wonderful to write in and are small enough to fit in your back pocket.
2. Eliminate Distractions
The one prudence in life is concentration; the one evil is dissipation: and it makes no difference whether our dissipations are coarse or fine; property and its cares, friends, and a social habit, or politics, or music, or feasting. . . Friends, books, pictures, lower duties, talents, flatteries, hopes, – all are distractions which cause oscillations in our giddy balloon, and make a good poise and a straight course impossible. You must elect your work; you shall take what your brain can, and drop all the rest. Only so, can that amount of vital force accumulate, which can make the step from knowing to doing.
Emerson understood early on his career as a writer that if he was to succeed, complete focus had to be given to the task at hand. By eliminating distractions in his life, Emerson created an environment in which he could completely focus on his most important work. This is not to say that Emerson was a hermit who lived only for work. He loved to engage in pithy conversations with friends in his home and visit them at home and abroad. But he did not let such things take away from his passion for writing and lecturing.
How to apply Emerson's lesson in your life
Emerson eliminated distractions by limiting the amount of books he read, streamlining "lower duties" like household chores, and avoiding relationships with people whose nervous temperaments upset his focus. While today there are many more distractions than in Emerson's day, we too can reduce our information consumption. Put Haiku Productivity in practice by limiting the amount of stuff you own, RSS feeds you read, and times you check email. By doing so, you'll create an environment conducive to getting things done.
3. Keep moving
"Ah!" said a brave painter to me, thinking on these things, "if a man has failed, you will find he has dreamed instead of working. There is no way to success in our art, but to take off your coat, grind paint, and work like a digger on the railroad, all day and every day."
Emerson understood that it is human nature to "lapse . . . quickly into flesh and sleep." Nature is constantly pulling us toward the path of least resistance. To battle this natural tendency for laziness, Emerson stressed that we must "use all the exalters that will bring us into . . . a productive state." For Emerson, the most effective tonic for laziness was work.
Emerson knew that once motivation dies it is hard to resuscitate. He kept his motivation alive by constantly working. When times were difficult and ideas didn't come to him, Emerson continued to work knowing that inspiration would come soon. In a letter to an acquaintance, Emerson compared the mind to a pear-tree that goes through a season of bareness only to suddenly burst forth in fruitful growth. However, the farmer must continue to prune and graft even during these moments of sterility in order to reap the harvest.
Applying Emerson's lesson in your life
Keep working even if you're tired, feel uninspired, or apathetic towards your goal. Use this list of 20 great motivation hacks to help you stay moving in the right direction. While these simple tips are not the cure to restoring your high powered motivation completely, they're great for keeping working until your season of motivation returns.
Read more from Brett McKay on the excellent blog, The Art of Manliness.