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Productivity Hints from Booker T. Washington

Productivity Hints from Booker T. Washington



    When life gets hard, when things don’t go my way, when a project doesn’t quite work out the way I planned, or when I want to sleep but can’t—like right now—I think of thinkers and leaders from the past and I remind myself that things could be much, much worse. 

    Friedrich Hayek had to flee when the London School of Economics was moved to Cambridge during World War II (his friend and intellectual rival John Maynard Keynes apparently helped him find accommodations). 

    Ludwig von Mises was chased out of Europe by the Nazis. 

    The Apostle Paul was beaten, shipwrecked, stoned, imprisoned, and all sorts of horrible things. 

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    Millions of people have lived as slaves.

    One of those people was Booker T. Washington, who would have been 155 this month.

    Washington’s Up From Slavery is one of most inspiring books I’ve ever read ($0 version here).  It tells Washington’s story of going from slavery, poverty, and illiteracy to a position of intellectual and moral leadership in the United States and the world.

    It includes an interesting chapter entitled “The Secret of Success in Public Speaking.”  In it, Washington details the habits that made him a successful educator, public speaker, fundraiser, and leader.  Principles of “effective leadership and action”—which is one of the key clauses in my institution’s Vision statement—are evident throughout.  Here are a few highlights from a very rich chapter in a very rich book:

    1.  Do what you believe in, and believe in what you’re doing. 

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    Here’s Washington: “I believe that one always does himself and his audience an injustice when he speaks merely for the sake of speaking.  I do not believe that one should speak unless, deep down in his heart, he feels convinced that he has a message to deliver.” 

    Have you ever been in an audience where it was clear that the speaker wasn’t passionate about his subject matter?  Bored speakers create bored audiences; if the speaker doesn’t care about what he or she is saying, why should the audience?  Also, your time and energy are very scarce.   Devote them only to tasks that deserve them.

    2.  “The number of people who stand ready to consume one’s time, to no purpose, is almost countless.” 

    In a series of entertaining examples Washington discusses some of his dealings with people who want to consume his time and attention with schemes for saving the world by closing all the national banks, for example, or by adopting a particular process for cultivation of a particular type of corn. 

    I’m sure we all have story upon story about how we have wasted others’ time or had our own time wasted.  That such a thing would occur should not be surprising.  Over time, however, we learn how to install the right filters that increase the signal-to-noise ratio in the information we receive.

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    3.  Success involves inspiration, perspiration, and delegation. 

    Here’s Washington again:  “I am often asked how it is possible for me to superintend the work at Tuskegee and at the same time be so much away from the school.  In partial answer to this I would say that I think I have learned, in some degree at least, to disregard the old maxim which says, ‘Do not get others to do that which you can do yourself.’  My motto, on the other hand, is ‘Do not do that which others can do as well.’” 

    In short, Washington anticipated one of Timothy Ferriss’s most important principles by about 100 years.  Washington writes that, at the time, “the organization is so thorough that the daily work of the school is not dependent upon the presence of any one individual.” 

    In the language of modern-day business books, by surrounding himself with trusted, talented people, and by integrating them into effective workflow processes, Booker T. Washington was able to leverage the talents of those around him and create value for himself, his organization, and his organization’s stakeholders.

    4.  Staying organized and on top of things. 

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    His is a routine that might work for some people but not for others; the fact of the matter, though, is that he did what needed to be done.  Washington also found dignity in his work.  In this respect, it’s worth quoting him at length:

    “As far as I can, I make it a rule to plan for each day’s work—not merely to go through with the same routine of daily duties, but to get rid of the routine work as early in the day as possible, and then to enter upon some new or advance work.  I make it a rule to clear my desk every day, before leaving my office, of all correspondence and memoranda, so that on the morrow I can begin a new day of work.  I make it a rule never to let my work drive me, but to so master it, and keep it in such complete control, and to keep so far ahead of it, that I will be the master instead of the servant.  There is a physical and mental and spiritual enjoyment that comes from a consciousness of being the absolute master of one’s work, in all its details, that is very satisfactory and inspiring.   My experience teaches me that, if one learns to follow this plan, he gets a freshness of body and vigour of mind out of work that goes a long way toward keeping him strong and healthy.  I believe that when one can grow to the point where he loves his work, this gives him a kind of strength that is most valuable.”

    Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery is an inspiring tour de force from an American hero.  Among other things, it shows how someone who started with nothing—not even a right to his own person—was able to change the world. He still has much to teach us, and his lessons on productivity remain relevant even today.

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    16 Productivity Secrets of Highly Successful People Revealed

    16 Productivity Secrets of Highly Successful People Revealed

    The same old motivational secrets don’t really motivate you after you’ve read them for the tenth time, do they?

    How about a unique spin on things?

    These 16 productivity secrets of successful people will make you reevaluate your approach to your home, work, and creative lives. Learn from these highly successful people, turn these little things they do into your daily habits and you’ll get closer to success.

    1. Empty your mind.

    It sounds counterproductive, doesn’t it?

    Emptying your mind when you have so much to remember seems like you’re just begging to forget something. Instead, this gives you a clean slate so you’re not still thinking about last week’s tasks.

    Clear your mind and then start thinking only about what you need to do immediately, and then today. Tasks that need to be accomplished later in the week can wait.

    Here’s a guide to help you empty your mind and think sharper:

    How to Declutter Your Mind to Sharpen Your Brain and Fall Asleep Faster

    2. Keep certain days clear.

    Some companies are scheduling “No Meeting Wednesdays,” which means, funnily enough, that no one can hold a meeting on a Wednesday. This gives workers a full day to work on their own tasks, without getting sidetracked by other duties or pointless meetings.

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    This can work in your personal life too, for example if you need to restrict Facebook access or limit phone calls.

    3. Prioritize your work.

    Don’t think every task is created equal! Some tasks aren’t as important as others, or might take less time.

    Try to sort your tasks every day and see what can be done quickly and efficiently. Get these out of the way so you have more free time and brain power to focus on what is more important.

    Lifehack’s CEO has a unique way to prioritize works, take a look at it here:

    How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster

    4. Chop up your time.

    Many successful business leaders chop their time up into fifteen-minute intervals. This means they work on tasks for a quarter of an hour at a time, or schedule meetings for only fifteen minutes. It makes each hour seem four times as long, which leads to more productivity!

    5. Have a thinking position.

    Truman Capote claimed he couldn’t think unless he was laying down. Proust did this as well, while Stravinsky would stand on his head!

    What works for others may not work for you. Try to find a spot and position that is perfect for you to brainstorm or come up with ideas.

    6. Pick three to five things you must do that day.

    To Do lists can get overwhelming very quickly. Instead of making a never-ending list of everything you can think of that needs to be done, make daily lists that include just three to five things.

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    Make sure they’re things that need to be done that day, so you don’t keep putting them off.

    7. Don’t try to do too much.

    OK, so I just told you to work every day, and now I’m telling you to not do too much? It might sound like conflicting advice, but not doing too much means not biting off more than you can chew. Don’t say yes to every work project or social engagement and find yourself in way over your head.

    8. Have a daily action plan.

    Don’t limit yourself to a to-do list! Take ten minutes every morning to map out a daily action plan. It’s a place to not only write what needs to be done that day, but also to prioritize what will bring the biggest reward, what will take the longest, and what goals will be accomplished.

    Leave room for a “brain dump,” where you can scribble down anything else that’s on your mind.

    9. Do your most dreaded project first.

    Getting your most dreaded task over with first means you’ll have the rest of the day free for anything and everything else. This also means that you won’t be constantly putting off the worst of your projects, making it even harder to start on it later.

    10. Follow the “Two-Minute Rule.”

    The “Two-Minute Rule” was made famous by David Allen. It’s simple – if a new task comes in and it can be done in two minutes or less, do it right then. Putting it off just adds to your to-do list and will make the task seem more monumental later.

    11. Have a place devoted to work.

    If you work in an office, it’s no problem to say that your cubicle desk is where you work every day.

    But if you work from home, make sure you have a certain area specifically for work. You don’t want files spread out all over the dinner table, and you don’t want to feel like you’re not working just because you’re relaxing on the couch.

    Agatha Christie never wrote at her desk, she wrote wherever she could sit down. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. Thomas Wolfe, at 6’6″ tall, used the top of his refrigerator as a desk. Richard Wright wrote on a park bench, rain or shine.

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    Have a space where, when you go there, you know you’re going to work. Maybe it’s a cafe downstairs, the library, or a meeting room. Whenever and wherever works for you, do your works there.

    12. Find your golden hour.

    You don’t have to stick to a “typical” 9–5 schedule!

    Novelist Anne Rice slept during the day and wrote at night to avoid distractions. Writer Jerzy Kosinski slept eight hours a day, but never all at once. He’d wake in the morning, work, sleep four hours in the afternoon, then work more that evening.

    Your golden hour is the time when you’re at your peak. You’re alert, ready to be productive, and intent on crossing things off your to-do list.

    Once you find your best time, protect it with all your might. Make sure you’re always free to do your best uninterrupted work at this time.

    13. Pretend you’re on an airplane.

    It might not be possible to lock everyone out of your office to get some peace and quiet, but you can eliminate some distractions.

    By pretending you’re on an airplane, you can act like your internet access is limited, you’re not able to get something from your bookcase, and you can’t make countless phone calls.

    Eliminating these distractions will help you focus on your most important tasks and get them done without interruption.

    14. Never stop.

    Writers Anthony Trollope and Henry James started writing their next books as soon as they finished their current work in progress.

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    Stephen King writes every day of the year, and holds himself accountable for 2,000 words a day! Mark Twain wrote every day, and then read his day’s work aloud to his family to get their feedback.

    There’s something to be said about working nonstop, and putting out continuous work instead of taking a break. It’s just a momentum that will push you go further./

    15. Be in tune with your body.

    Your mind and body will get tired of a task after ninety minutes to two hours focused on it. Keep this in mind as you assign projects to yourself throughout the day, and take breaks to ensure that you won’t get burned out.

    16. Try different methods.

    Vladimir Nabokov wrote the first drafts of his novels on index cards. This made it easy to rearrange sentences, paragraphs, and chapters by shuffling the cards around.

    It does sound easier, and more fun, than copying and pasting in Word! Once Nabokov liked the arrangement, his wife typed them into a single manuscript.

    Same for you, don’t give up and think that it’s impossible for you to be productive when one method fails. Try different methods until you find what works perfectly for you.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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