Productivity vs Presence: Maria Popova Nails It!


Maria Popova is a writer, blogger and curator of content. She is the one-woman architect behind the wildly popular BrainPickings, an online collection of beautifully constructed insight and information harvested from a wide array of literary resources.  Readers and subscribers peruse the site to discover a new perspective on, learn more about, or draw inspiration from a range of interesting articles pertaining across a wide range of subjects including science, art, history and philosophy.

BrainPickings began in 2006 as a weekly email that Maria circulated to seven friends before it was brought online and now has an impressive readership of over five million readers a month. Self described as “a reader, writer, interestingness hunter-gatherer, and curious mind at large”, Maria spends an estimated 450 hours per month reading and editing for her site.

Maria typically writes two to three articles per day born out of hours of extensive reading and information gathering. How does she manage her workflow, and how does she manage the balance between productivity and presence? How does she structure her day to ensure she completes her tasks while finding joy in what she does?

Like everyone else, Maria tries to bridge the oftentimes disconnect between job performance and personal fulfillment in her daily tasks, and while she told interviewer Tim Ferris,  in a recent podcast, there really is no holy grail or ritual for proven success, she gave some insight into some simple routine steps that help set her up for a predictable yet productive day.

Morning Meditation

Maria’s morning starts with 15-20 minutes of guided audio meditation: Her favorite track is “Smile” by Tara Brach. Meditation has actually been proven to help concentration, memory, and improve energy and boost moods, according to a study by University of Washington.

Working While Working Out

Next, she works out. Her preferred exercise is the elliptical for cardio and pushups and pull ups for body weight training. Maria also uses this time to source content. She typically reads from the Kindle app on her iPad while using the elliptical, and will even bring the older, non digital; print pieces to read with sticky notes and pens in tow. And when weight training, Maria listens to podcasts through her earphones. This affords her the ability to boost her energy, stay at peak health, and also maximize her time to grab and digest the content she wants to use to inspire her articles.

The Prepping Process

One of Maria’s talents is the ability to find excerpts and quotations in literary works and weave them together to provide inspiration or shed light on a subject. Her process in finding these gems is very methodical. Recognizing the voice and purpose of the author in the pieces she reads, she notes the themes that permeate throughout. In digital publications, she keeps track by simply highlighting passages and making notes in Evernote, which features optical character recognition (OCR) for easy content searches. In printed pieces, she will create an index in the back page and note the themes that reoccur coupled with the page number to create an easy-to-reference tool for pulling content together.

Tackling The Task

There are countless articles and studies that suggest exercise boosts creativity, so it seems smart that on completion of a workout, Maria tackles her writing. Writing typically two to three articles per day, she selects the longest article of the articles to work on first while she is at her most alert. She prefers her environment to be people-free to limit distraction from her writing. After completing the first article, she takes a short break and deals with administrative work and emails before she resumes writing again. In the evenings she likes to enjoy the practice of having some personal time “unburdened with deliberate thought” before spending the remainder of her evening reading and writing again.

Simple Tip For Success

Regardless of the industry you work in, there are some fundamental takeaways and nuggets of valuable advice you can glean from anyone enjoying success in their field. Maria’s top tip? Get some sleep.  Maria tries to sleep eight hours per night, and believes that a lack of sleep does not equate to being worthy of a badge of honor, it instead actually reflects poor priorities. And why? Because when we are sleep deprived we aren’t operating at peak brain level, and she’s right, according to research, poor sleep has a damaging impact on cognitive performance resulting in higher rates of rates of failure for attention focused tasks.

There you have it, you can work over 450 hours per month and still make time to have a decent night’s sleep!

For more musings from Maria Popova, visit BrainPickings and follow her on Twitter @brainpicker.

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