The Secret of Getting Ahead Is Getting Started: The Productivity of Mark Twain

Photograph of Mark Twain in 3/4 profile

Just about any picture you find of Mark Twain will have him in one of two poses. The first is one of furtive reflection as he wears his signature white linen suit and most likely smokes a cigar. The second pose is a much more intense, straight-into-the-camera look that gives you a view into how he attacked life.

Both types of pictures speak to the man born as Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He believed in relaxation, but only as a reward for his hard work and productivity.

Twain is easily one of the most quoted, misquoted, and prolific literary figures in American history. We can learn a few solid tips about productivity from him.

Get Started

Photograph of Mark Twain with quoted text

Get started.

No matter what methodology you follow or what tips you find inspiring, getting started is better than all of them.

Most people have great ideas and big plans, but never take the first steps to get them started. Remember, an object in motion stays in motion, so getting started on a task gets the momentum going and will help you get more done.

Don’t Try to be Perfect

Photograph of Mark Twain with quoted text

Too often, people try to make things perfect the first time around. There are some professions in which this is a good thing, but unless you’re a surgeon, you’re going to misspell a few words, file a few documents incorrectly, and royally screw a few things up from time to time.

Understand that these things will happen and don’t let it stop you from moving forward with the tasks at hand. It’s easy to procrastinate when you don’t think you can finish a task perfectly, but in reality it’s a lot easier to finish something with a lot of mistakes and then go back to fix the mistakes.

Do the Hardest Work First

Photograph of Mark Twain writing

If there’s a terribly difficult or unpleasant task on your to-do list, the best way to not only get it done but get the rest of your work done is to do the worst task first.

While most of us don’t have frogs to eat in the morning, the idea still holds true. Do the worst task you have first thing in the morning and the rest of your day will be better.

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Understand That Habits Take Time

Photograph of Mark Twain at billiards table

Good or bad, no habit is formed in a minute. It takes time to build a habit — whether you’re talking about a good one or a bad one.

Build good habits by taking small steps every day until you have a quality set of productive habits. Same thing if you want to break bad habits: Take small steps every day.

It’s easy to get discouraged when you aren’t immediately good at something or when you just can’t seem to stop doing a bad habit, but remember: Both take time. Take that one minute every day to work on that habit and soon enough you’ll be there.

Keep Better Company

Sepia photograph of Mark Twain with quote

If you want to keep a productive, positive attitude then you need to surround yourself with like-minded people. Mean-spirited or little people will try to knock you down to their level when you succeed.

So how does this affect productivity? Well, imagine how much it means to talk to someone who is positive and not fake, but excited about what he or she is doing. Now, think about how it feels to talk to someone who doesn’t have that productive spark.

Keep better friends and talk to better people at work and you’ll see how big a difference it can make.

Twain counted among his friends presidents, artists, industrialists, and royalty. Not only did this help keep him productive, but it elevated his thinking.

Know When to Stop

Sepia photograph of Mark Twain writing

Knowing when to stop is a skill few people have. Many writers and speakers will ramble, artists will over-work their projects, and managers will micro-manage.

If you over-work a person or project, you’re wasting time that could be used in a much better way.

Do the work you need to, but no more.

Twain knew when it was time to stop. And on that note, so shall we.

(All photos taken from Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons)

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