Over the course of his 39 year writing career—from 1843 to 1882—Anthony Trollope wrote 47 novels, 17 non-fiction books, 2 plays, and over 20 articles and letters, that made him famous. 7
As a further testament to his incredible work ethic, Trollope juggled his writing whilst holding down a full-time job with the Civil Service in the General Post Office, for the first 20 years after his first publication.
But Trollope’s superhuman-like productivity didn’t happen by chance.
In his Autobiography—and as noted in Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (audiobook) —Trollope explains how he created a morning routine of writing in 15 minute-intervals, which helped him to produce over ten pages a day:
“It was my practice to be at my table every morning at 5.30 A.M.; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy….
It had at this time become my custom,—and is still my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient of myself,—to write with my watch before me, and to require of myself 250 words every quarter of an hour….
This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year.” 2
This daily routine was the engine that helped Trollope write approximately one book each year over the span of 39 years.
Let’s uncover the hidden secrets within Trollope’s morning routine that will help you be more productive in life and work.
The Hidden Productivity Secrets of Anthony Trollope’s Routine
Like most authors, Trollope had writing deadlines set by book publishers.
But unlike most authors, Trollope didn’t wait till the last minute to deliver his finished manuscript. In fact, he often finished them well in advance.
Here are three key takeaways from Trollope’s daily routine to improve your productivity.
1. Pay someone to keep you accountable.
In Trollope’s autobiography, he describes paying an assistant to wake him up at 5:30 am every morning:
“An old groom, whose business it was to call me, and to whom I paid £5 a year extra for the duty, allowed himself no mercy. During all those years at Waltham Cross he never was once late with the coffee which it was his duty to bring me.”
This is an example of what psychologists refer to as a “commitment device.” 3
A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future.
For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, you could buy small plates to avoid overeating.
By designing your environment with commitment devices, you can make it easier to stick to good habits and break bad ones.
2. Track your progress.
Another powerful strategy Trollope noted in his autobiography, was keeping track of the number of pages he wrote each day:
“When I have commenced a new book, I have always prepared a diary, divided into weeks, and carried on for the period which I have allowed myself for the completion of the work.
In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour…”
This is another example of a commitment device used by Anthony Trollope to keep himself accountable to writing over ten pages each day.
Specifically, the last few sentences written by Trollope above, reveal a simple, yet overlooked productivity secret: when you see your daily progress—or lack of it—you’re more likely to stick to your goals over the long run.
As an example, for several years I struggled to stay consistent with my reading habit—reading an average of 20 books each year.
Over the past 6 months, I’ve experimented with tracking the number of pages I read each day and sharing my monthly reading list to the public.
The results have been astonishing.
So far this year, I’ve read 26 books—a reading rate of approximately 5 books per month.
This ties well with a growing body of research which has discovered that tracking and measuring your progress significantly improves the odds of following through on your plans. 4
3. Focus on the system, not the goal.
Goals are useful for pointing you in the right direction, but not sufficient in showing you how to get there.
When we focus obsessively on our goals, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, discouraged by lack of progress, and fail to finish what we start.
Trollope’s work around this problem was to breakdown his goal of publishing books into daily writing quotas.
In other words, he focused on the “system” of writing pages daily, not the ultimate goal of writing a book.
The same logic applies to other types of goals.
For example, if you want to build a successful business, one of your systems could be sending 5 pitch emails to potential clients each day.
Within a month, you’d have sent 150 emails, and in one year, over 1,500 emails—significantly improving your odds of success.
When in doubt, ask yourself this question:
What do I need to do each day to make achieving my goals inevitable?
Small Habits, Big Results
“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules. It is the tortoise which always catches the hare.”
— Anthony Trollope
Come rain or shine, Anthony Trollope would wake up early in the morning each day to read and write his novels.
His incredible output of 47 books is a testament to the power of these small habits repeated on a daily basis: although you may not see the effects today, small habits compound overtime to create big results.
When we let the schedule drive our behavior, we stop waiting for inspiration like amateurs do, and become professionals who show up and get things done.
Because the only difference between successful people and everyone else, is that they do what others hate to do, but do it like they love it.
2. Trollope quotes originate from Anthony Trollope: Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography (1883; repr. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1922); Pamela Neville-Sington, Fanny Trollope: The Life and Adventures of a Clever Woman (New York: Viking, 1997).
3. Gharad Bryan, Dean Karlan, and Scott Nelson, “Commitment Devices,” Annual Review of Economics 2, no. 1 (2010), doi:10.1146/annurev.economics.102308.124324.
4. Harkin et al. (2016). Does Monitoring Goal Progress Promote Goal Attainment? A Meta-Analysis of the Experimental Evidence. Psychological bulletin. 142. 10.1037/bul0000025.
5. Kendrick, Walter M. The Novel Machine: The Theory and Fiction of Anthony Trollope. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1980. Print.
6. Trollope was one of the most well traveled people of his time—often writing his books whilst travelling—which begs the question: does changing the location of our daily routine help us to stick to our goals?