NAME: Jeff Haden
CLAIM TO FAME: Jeff is Inc.com’s most popular columnist, one of LinkedIn’s most widely-followed Influencers, and the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
WHERE TO FIND HIM: On his website, Amazon, Twitter and LinkedIn
WHY WE’D PICK HIM IN 10 WORDS OR LESS: Jeff teaches us how to never run out of ideas.
Let’s start with the basics: What time of day do you start writing? Is it easier for you to write early in the morning? Late at night?
I always take a few minutes at night to set up for the next morning. I have everything ready for whatever I want to work on first: files open, notes handy, etc. I get up and, while brushing my teeth, I check my email on my phone to see if there’s anything urgent that I need to respond to. (There almost never is.) And I place a bottle of water and a protein bar beside my computer for breakfast.
My goal is to create the path of least resistance to getting started, to avoid any distractions, and most importantly to having to choose what I will work on first. (Choices are willpower killers.)
So: since my commute is usually two flights of stairs, I’m working within ten minutes of waking up.
For me, momentum is everything. Completing what I planned to work on first feels good, motivates me to work on whatever is next. Once I’m rolling, I can stay rolling. (And I ensure my most important task gets done.)
Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer silence, or something else in the background?
Over time I’ve lost the ability to filter out music or podcasts. (I can’t even listen to music and text.) While research shows that certain types of music helps spark creativity, for me, it’s distracting.
Yet somehow I can filter out the noise in airports, press boxes, restaurants…who knows what that’s all about.
Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits?
I like to write, so I don’t need to warm up or create a schedule or set word count limits. But I do follow two basic guidelines.
The first is that I always stop if I’m struggling. Say I’m writing a column for Inc. If I can’t write a solid 800-word draft that requires minimal (or almost no) editing in about 25 minutes, then I haven’t figured out what I want to say or how I want to say it. So if I’m ten minutes in and still fighting to get past the first couple of paragraphs, I put it away and work on something else. At some point it will come to me (usually when I’m exercising; I “write” in my head all the time when I’m working out.)
The second is that I try, whenever possible, to stop working at a really good point. Try it: When things are going really well, when you’re totally engaged and really hitting your productivity stride, whenever possible, don’t finish. Stop at a really good place. That way you leave yourself a fun place next time.
Stopping in the middle of doing something awesome—or stopping right before you’ll start doing something awesome—ensures you’ll avoid the temptation of procrastination. Stopping short ensures you’ll ignore all the distractions that inevitably pop up when your motivation fades. Stopping short allows you to instantly focus and concentrate when you pick back up whatever you were doing.
That way you will dive right in because you’ll be excited to get started, and that initial enthusiasm will create momentum that will positively affect whatever you work on next.
In your new book, The Motivation Myth, you disabuse your readers of the idea that some people are just born more motivated, having more willpower to accomplish things, etc. and instead show us that motivation is a process, and how we can cultivate it in our work. Specifically regarding the act of writing, why do you think so many writers struggle to find motivation? What are your tips to writers about how to stay motivated?
The first step is to do what Simon Sinek recommends and figure out your “Why?” I write because I like to write, but writing is also a big chunk of how I make a living. Putting food on the table provides plenty of motivation.
I also like the discovery aspect. Through time and effort I’ve reached a place where I can largely decide what I write about. (And I get to decide when I want to end a sentence with a preposition.) I get to meet fascinating people, learn new things, have great experiences…being able to follow my interests is also motivating.
But really it’s all about success—not in terms of money or name recognition, but feeling personally successful. If I write something I’m proud of, that motivates me to work hard to write something else I’m proud of. If I write something that helps a few people, that motivates me to work hard to write something else that helps a few people.
External sources rarely provide sustainable motivation. Figure out why you’re writing, make sure those reasons are personal—and personally gratifying—and then do the work. Each time you work hard and write something you’re proud of (by your standards, not the standards of other people) you’ll feel good about yourself, and that will help motivate you to work hard and repeat the cycle.
What’s your process for editing your own work if you have one?
I’m not edited by Inc. I don’t get assignments, don’t have deadlines…I publish what and when I want, within the basic editorial position of the magazine and website, of course. And since I write in a fairly conversational style, editing is easy. I tend to edit on the fly, and then do one quick pass at the end just to make sure.
For something longer, the best case scenario is I’ll write a draft, do one quick polish, and then put it away for a few days. That way when I come back I have fresh eyes. Fresh eyes are everything.
But I also accept that what I write will never be perfect. If I look at anything I wrote, say, a year ago I’ll find plenty of things I want to change. But perfect really is the enemy of really good. You can craft and wordsmith and polish all you want, but if what you’re trying to say isn’t meaningful or entertaining or informative or beneficial to your readers, who cares? The best “writing” is irrelevant if you have nothing to say. And if you do have something great to say, even average writing is okay.
So don’t get too precious about your writing. And definitely don’t try to write like a “writer.” Value matters much more than polish. Like Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett told me: “When I’m onstage, my job is to entertain thousands of fans…not a couple of my musician buddies who might be watching.”
Everyone says that the first step to being a good writer is to read good writer’s’ writing. What do you read? How much do you read? Do you have a favorite author, perhaps someone you try to emulate?
Everyone is right as long as step 1-A is to write—a lot. I read for fun, not for work, which is actually the perfect approach for me. Fiction, non-fiction, short form, long form…as long as it’s good, I’m there. I probably average 1.5 to 2 hours a day.
If I admit to emulating anyone that will only point out my failure to do so. But I admire a ton of people. With fiction I tend to like people who make me forget I’m reading: Robert B. Parker, John Sandford, Lee Child, Bernard Cornwell…
For non-fiction it’s hard to beat Michael Lewis, Tim Egan, Dexter Filkins…Daniel Coyle is great. So is Charles Duhigg. Ryan Holiday always makes me think differently, especially about myself. And the book that probably made the most impact on me in the last few years is Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King. Any company trying to improve and embrace diversity should just hand every employee that book.
You’re Inc.com’s most popular columnist and one of LinkedIn’s most widely-followed Influencers. Do you find that you have different writing routines for your short-form work on those platforms versus your longer form books?
Short-form should be quick, to the point, and leave readers with something they can do to make their personal or professional lives better. So I tend to focus on broader themes that apply to most of us: Happiness, success, goals, relationships, finding meaning and purpose, becoming better than who you currently are…
As for routine, I keep a running list of ideas. Some are in headline form (because headlines matter), some are a couple of bullet points…whenever I think of an idea, I write it down or it’s gone forever.
Some ideas stay on the list for years. Others I may write about the same day.
Often people ask how I keep coming up with ideas. If I feel stuck, all I have to do is think about something I don’t do well, or a mistake I once made, or a failing I have…and then I try to figure out how I can do better. That approach means I have an endless source of ideas, because I suck at an endless number of things.
You’ve also done more than your fair share of ghostwriting in the past. When ghostwriting a book, where do you start? A conversation? Research? How do you shape those books while still retaining the clients voice and goals? How does that differ from your writing habits with your own books?
Everything starts with how a reader will benefit. When a reader finishes the book, what will she know, or be able to do, or be able to change? What value does she receive? Then we figure out the flow: How will we get the reader to the end of the book so that he is informed, entertained, motivated, inspired, capable…
That’s the skeleton; the “rest” is just fleshing it out. Sometimes a little research is required, or a lot of conversation…but often I take that initial blueprint and do the rest. It all depends on the client’s needs and interests.
Sum all that up and the process isn’t very different from writing for myself. I have to know what I want to say before I try to say it.
If you were thinking back to your younger literary self and give some advice, what would that be? What are common traps you see aspiring authors fall into?
I feel lucky that I started as a ghostwriter. I couldn’t “express myself” or embrace my “artistic vision” (not that there’s anything wrong with that), or write what I wanted to write—I had to write what my clients wanted. My job was to meet their needs and expectations, not my own. That was a great early grounding in writing for the reader, and not for myself.
That’s a trap aspiring authors often fall into. They want to write what they want to write, which is fine, but if you want to be read, and especially if you want to be paid, you need to write what an audience wants to read.
So if you find yourself complaining that no one ever reads what you write, or no one will pay you to write, stop thinking they’re the problem. You are the problem. Change your approach. Change your perspective. Serve your audience first and foremost. Work hard to do that, and with time and effort you’ll find that, almost without knowing when it happened, that you enjoy writing what your audience wants to read.
And that’s a very cool place to be.