Notepaper with to-do list written on it. The list is 1. wake up, 2. coffee, 3. the rest

Are You Crippling Your Output by Trying to Copy the Habits of Others?

I often find myself looking at the habits of people I admire, to see if there’s anything I can learn from them (hint: a tonne). Sometimes I have to stop myself going down the magic-bullet route. You know, that belief that just one change in behaviour, diet or attitude will transform my life in a heartbeat. If only it was that easy.

It’s the ‘maybe if I [stop watching TV forever] [never eat sugar again] [get up at 5am everyday], I’ll be so productive I’ll end up with six successful businesses by the time I’m thirty’ kind of mentality. I’m twenty-eight.

I sometimes wonder if I’m missing something. Is there a trick to unlocking my best self? You’ve seen the headlines – Do this one thing to finally succeed. Find your soulmate in three simple steps. Unlock small business success with this secret. Don’t they sound great? Who wouldn’t want to read them? I always do.

Perhaps I should wake up earlier, like so many entrepreneurs. Or give up caffeine. Or drink more coffee (it seems to fuel the nation these days). Steven Fry found that when he quit smoking, he could no longer write, and he had a deadline to meet. So he took it back up again – temporarily. That one’s definitely not for me.

I’m always looking to improve my writing, and I’ll buy books by Stephen King and Steven Pressfield (what is it with all the Stevens?) on writing, creating and productivity. The most disappointing tip I ever read was that bestselling author and novel-making-machine Cecilia Ahearn burns a Jo Malone candle while she writes. Snoring-hell. Couldn’t she have bashed out a first draft while off her face on gin or something? (Sorry, C. I love your books).

But do any of us really think that eating the same cereal as Richard Branson is going to make the difference we’ve been looking for?

What if, by looking to others for the answers, we could be ignoring our own personal formula for success?

Last night I was reading an interview with William Bernbach, American advertising legend of the 1940s. In it he talks about what he looked for in a copywriter for his advertising agency. Remember, what he says can be applied to any discipline, not just writing:

“One problem here is that we’re looking for a formula. What makes a good writer? It’s a danger. It’s this attitude that makes for poor writers.”

He continues: “I remember those old Times interviews where the reader would talk to the novelist or the short story writer, and say, ‘What time do you get up in the morning? What do you have for breakfast?’… And the whole implication is that if you eat cornflakes at 6.30 in the morning, and then take a walk and then take a nap and then start working and then stop at noon… you, too, can be a great writer.”

Yes! This is exactly what I mean. I’ve seen dozens of articles that claim waking early – like this 80-year-old bodybuilder who gets up at 2.30am – is the key to success in anything. On the other hand, many creative people will tell you they work better at night.

What if there IS NO magic bullet? *shudders*

One of my clients is a talented interior designer who doesn’t really get cracking until the evening. She likes to potter in the mornings, catching up on domestic chores, arranging flowers around her gorgeous home. She often goes to the gym or walks the dogs. Pottering is one of her pleasures in life, and I think it’s great that she honours that without feeling pressured to stick to a more conventional working-day timetable. She heads over to the office when most people are thinking of lunch. At about 5pm, when most of us are heading home, she really gets the bit between her teeth. She enjoys this quiet time of day best. And after supper, she’ll often head back over and keep working until after dark.

For me, it’s all about personally productive habits. There’s no way I can force myself to do something I don’t want to do every day. It’s just not sustainable. I have to keep incorporating new, better ways of working, refining them, and making them habitual. In essence, I focus on incorporating things I WANT to do, rather than things I feel I SHOULD do. Otherwise, my resolve crumbles at the first 5am alarm.

So my question is: what if there IS a formula for success – but one that’s unique to you?

In the words of Bernbach:

You have to try to find out what [your] talent is and nurture that, because that’s a natural thing. Instead of trying to make everybody do exactly that same thing and winding up boring everybody.

What a guy. I wonder what he ate for breakfast…?