Maria Popova: The Science of Productivity and the Art of Presence

Maria Popova of Brain Pickings kicked off Typo San Francisco 2014 with a keynote on the science of productivity and being present. Brain Pickings is a log of curiosity and the cross pollination of different fields that enrich each other.

Photo by: Amber Gregory

Maria loves reading and sees books as holding “slivers of wisdom” on how to live and live well. She quoted various writers and artists including Mary Oliver, E.B. White, Chuck Close and Isabel Allende on rhythm and work ethic. Rhythm is structure to manage the overwhelmingness of life and manage the flow of creative work. Work ethic is more reliable than waiting for inspiration. She quoted Chuck Close, “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up and get to work.” Showing up is the most important part to a body of work. As Isabel Allende says, “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”

Maria then discussed her research on sleep and productivity. In researching famous writers’ sleep habits vs. literary productivity, she found that late risers write more but win less awards compared to the early risers – quality over quantity. You can read about her research at (illustrations are by Wendy Macnaughton).

“Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity.”

However while it is important to show up, it is equally important to be present. Presence and productivity, not work-life balance, is the key to achieving creative success. She doesn’t like the phrase, “work-life balance,” because it implies that work is bad while life is good, and one needs to balance the two.  Work-life balance is the delicate balance between presence and productivity. Maria summed up her point with, “Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity.” In our culture, we tend to think of life as a series of tasks, which makes it easy to show up while being absent. We mistake doing for being. She closed her talk by having us ask ourselves, if how I spent today is how I will spend the last of my days, would I be happy, fulfilled and feel sense of purpose? How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Does this cosmic day indicate a good life?

Maria Popova

Maria Popova is the founder and editor of Brain Pickings an inventory of cross-disciplinary interestingness spanning art, science, design, history, philosophy, psychology, and more. She has written for Wired UK, The Atlantic, Nieman Journalism Lab, The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, and Design Observer, among others, and is an MIT Fellow.

– By Diana Banh @dibanh