Would you like to write nonfiction articles that get thousands if not millions of views?
If so, meet Jeff Haden.
He’s a nonfiction writer and author I’ve admired for some time.
Jeff has written thousands of popular articles for Inc.com over the years. He also recently published The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win
In this interview with Jeff, we talk about
- Why goals don’t always work (and what you should do instead)
- What his research process for articles and books looks like
- How he writes viral articles on Inc.com
- His method for handling articles that get lots of views… and ones that don’t
And lots more
I started by asking Jeff why he wrote…
Bryan Collins: So Jeff, I’ve read The Motivation Myth. It’s a great book for people who want to become more productive or for entrepreneurs who want to find the motivation to achieve their goals and business elsewhere. So could you tell me a little bit about why you decided to write the book in the first place?
Jeff Haden: It’s kind of long winded so bear with me, but the real genesis of it, I was talking with Venus Williams, which if you’re going to drop a name, Venus is a good drop and name to drop. And she was … you think about her and clearly she’s a world class tennis player, but she also does a number of other things. She runs a design company, she runs a fitness, apparel company. And they’re not just things that she’s put her name on, she actually runs them. So she’s succeeding at a high level in a number of ventures. I just said to her, “Clearly these are all things that you wanted to do from childhood and you had a passion for,” because we’re taught that you have to have a passion first. And she said, “No, they’re just things I was interested in and decided to try to get better at.” And so I’ve contrasted that with all the people that write to me and talk to me about how they can’t find that passion, they can’t find the one thing that they want to do with their lives and they feel stuck.
Jeff Haden: And if you look at that, a lot of the really successful people I’ve talked to, they didn’t have that lightening bolt moment of, “Oh, wow, this is my path, this is my purpose, this is my vision, this is my passion.” They just had something they were interested in and they tried to get better at it. And the process of doing so, of putting in a little bit of effort, making a little bit of improvement, which makes you feel good, because it’s always fun to do better at something and that gave them the motivation to keep going. And so they had this little virtue of cycle of constant effort, improvement, validation and motivation that fed on itself basically forever. Whereas everyone that felt stuck was waiting for this major lightning bolt that said, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve got all the motivation I need for the rest of my life, and here I go.”
Jeff Haden: And I don’t really think that it works that way. And so that was mainly the purpose. If you feel stuck or you’re not sure what you want to do, you don’t have to have the perfect path or the perfect idea or this lightening bolt of passion that will get you the motivation you need. You can just explore something you’re interested in and the process of doing that, if you create a process to improve that pretty much guarantees you will make improvements that will give you all the motivation you need. Sorry, that was a long winded, but hopefully you can make something out of that.
Bryan Collins: Yeah. Yes. So, if I’m going to get started on something that I want to improve. Another idea that you talk about in the book is how writing down a goal isn’t necessarily the best approach either, and there’s another way that I should go after something that I want so to speak.
Jeff Haden: Well, I think you have to have a goal, but the goal, we’re taught we have to maintain this laser like focus on our goals, and you should have a poster on your wall that reminds you of where you’re trying to go and all that stuff. A goal is important because it informs the process you create to get there. And I know it’s a cliche, but if you don’t know where you’re going, then it’s hard to create a process to get there. But really the ideas, and I’ll use a really simple example if on your bucket list, is that you want to run a marathon, okay, running the marathon is your goal, but you don’t need that on your wall and you don’t need posters and you don’t need to remind yourself of that every day. You just use that goal as the foundation for the process that you create that will get you there. And then what you focus on every day is whatever you need to do that day, that is part of your process that will get you to that end result of running the marathon.
Jeff Haden: So the focus has to shift immediately from, “This is my end goal,” to, “Okay, I’ve created a process, so what is it that I need to do today?” And if you do what you set out to do today, you get to feel good about the fact that you did it. Feeling good about it is motivating and inspiring and that will give you that little dose of motivation you need the next day to do whatever it is on your process for that day, as opposed to sitting back and thinking, “I’ve got to constantly picture myself crossing the finishing line and getting my finisher medal or else I won’t have the motivation to get there.” Because in those dark early days of, when it’s hard to even run a couple miles, it’s hard to be inspired by the thought of crossing the finish line when you feel like hot death. And that the big problem there is that whole distance between here and there, where here … and I write about that too.
Jeff Haden: Where here is wherever you are and then there is accomplishing this really huge goal and that goal just seems way too far and it becomes demotivating because you think, “How am I ever going to get all the way across there, based on how I feel here?” But if all you have to do today is based on your process, run that one mile and you do it, you get to feel good. Your here is much closer to your there and that allows you to stay motivated and stay the course.
Bryan Collins: And have you rode the marathon?
Jeff Haden: I do what? [crosstalk 00:05:22]. No, no. I do lots of cycling stuff. So I’ve done Centuries and I’ve done Grand Fondos. The biggest one was a hundred and some miles and 11,000 feet of climbing and so I tell them to do that sort of stuff, but the principle still applies because the first Grand Fonda I rode, I hadn’t been on a bike at all. And I decided to ride this hundred mile one and I had four months to train. And so the first day I went out and rode, it was awful and I didn’t get that far and I felt terrible and I just thought, “There’s no way I can do that.” Had I only been focused on the fact that I someday needed to be able to do the hundred miles and 11,000 feet of climbing, I would have quit. But if by focusing on, “Okay, today I have to do X and Y and Z,” I could do that. And if I did that, okay, I get to feel good, I get to check that off the list and tomorrow I’ll go out and do whatever it is tomorrow.
Jeff Haden: So you really just have to keep your head down and do the work as long as you’ve created a process that allows you to get to where you want to go. And that’s a really important point.
Bryan Collins: And another idea that you write about in the book is how one question can provide nearly all of the answers, so perhaps some body wants to become fit or trim or healthy. So what is that one question?
Jeff Haden: Well, it varies. I got that from, Herb Kelleher, the CEO of Southwest Airlines. So I think he passed away recently. I’m not sure. But his one question, if you think about a guy that’s running an airline, they’re answering probably dozens or hundreds of questions a day. And so the way he did that is he framed everything through the lens of, “Will this make Southwest Airlines the low cost provider?” If the answer is yes, then the answer to the question is probably yes or at least it’s worth exploring. And if it’s no, well then you say, no, we’re not doing that. And so you can apply that one question principle to whatever big thing you’re trying to achieve. So if we use the marathon example, and you don’t feel like running today, but you’re supposed to, the question you ask is, “What a person who runs marathons skip a workout?” And obviously the answer to that is no, because that’s not how that works.
Jeff Haden: You can apply it to leadership. You see two employees that are having some kind of interpersonal issue and you can say, “Would a good leader ignore dysfunction in a team?” And the answer to that of course, is no, and that guides your decision. So it allows you to unclutter what seemed to be complex situations and just boil them down to that simple thing, the idea of, “If you’re on a diet, would a person who’s trying to lose 20 pounds eat two pieces of chocolate cake after dinner?” Well, no, non of that sounds trite, but it works because what it does is that it puts you in the mind space of I’m thinking about becoming the thing I want to do. I am worried about what I do, but I want to [inaudible 00:08:31] what I eventually want to be is that thing. So if you want to be a runner, you want to be a runner, you don’t want to be a person who goes running every day. You want to actually be a runner and have that be part of your identity.
Jeff Haden: And so that one question thing allows you to frame it in terms of identity and who you want to be. The example I use is anybody that has kids, do you have to wake up every day and say, “Wow, am I going to take care of my kids today?” Well, no, you just do it because you’re a parent and is part of your identity, but you can apply the identity principle to just about anything else that you want to be. It just requires you to do the work for a while until you in your mind become that thing. Hopefully that makes sense.
Bryan Collins: Did you use that question for writing your book?
Jeff Haden: Oh, yeah. Yeah. The hard thing about my book was, and we can talk about this in the writing section, is that, that’s not the only thing I do. And I do a lot of work for other clients and my bias is always towards taking care of clients’ stuff rather than stuff that I would call “personal.” So writing the book was for me. And yeah, if I had people that wanted things from me, then I would tend to always fall over on that side because I want to serve those people well and be a good provider of services. And so I had to stop and say, “Okay, here’s a guy who’s trying to write a book and who has a deadline. Going to ignore that today and work on something else that can wait.” And so I would constantly have to be saying … basically, it was, “Will I ever finish my book if I do this?” The answer was no. But it was really hard. I don’t know if that happens to you, but-
Bryan Collins: It does. It certainly does.
Jeff Haden: … [crosstalk 00:10:20] for me to do something for someone else than it is for me to do it for me.
Bryan Collins: Could you describe how somebody can, or why somebody should work on their number rather than trying to work smarter up?
Jeff Haden: A lot of the things that we do ultimately come down to … You know what? It’s not a new phrase, but I’ve called it the power of numbers basically. And if there is something that you are doing where the number of repetitions or the number of efforts or any of whenever you want to call that, that’s a foundation of the success that you can have, then that’s the way to go. Like say with cycling, this is probably a bad example and I’ll try a better in a second. If I haven’t been riding for a while and I know I want to go ride a hundred miles for Mountain Gran Fondo, I know now that I need to put about 2,500 miles in my legs, so to speak. And so that’s just basically the number and I know that if I go and do that and I train to that degree and when it comes down to ride, I’ll be ready.
Jeff Haden: I was talking to two ladies that founded a marketing company and they were talking about how cold calling wasn’t much fun and it seemed like it took them 10 calls to get one new client and how burdensome that was. And I stopped them and said, “Well, how many new clients do you knew a month?” And they said, “Five.” And I said, “Well then you know your number.” If nothing changes, you need to make about 50 calls. And if that gets you the outcome that you need, then that’s an okay process. You can still work to improve your strike rate and you can get better at pitching and all of the other stuff. So maybe it becomes two out of 10 or three out of 10 or whatever. But nonetheless, if that’s the outcome you need, then you know your number.
Jeff Haden: And so instead of seeing the 10 calls for a client as burdensome, just see it as the opportunity of, “If I do this, I’m going to get that.” And so the power of numbers applies whenever you can look at something and say, “If I do this, then I will get to that.” And it really simplifies things because then you can just focus on clicking off the numbers that you need, knowing that you will get to an outcome. And I know it’s not always that simple, but it’s surprising how frequently it is actually that simple.
Bryan Collins: I like your example of the sales person trying to find new customers who perhaps didn’t like placing all of those calls on once they hit their number, they don’t have to do as much. I think that’s something that you talked about in one of the last chapters of the book. Do more by doing less. Are there other ways people can do more by doing less.
Jeff Haden: Well, one of the things … How do I say this? Let’s see. I think this is probably a broader answer than the question you’re asking, but let’s see if it works. I think it’s too tempting to assume that we need to have about five different major projects and goals going at the same time. I think the more things that you are trying to achieve, especially if they are big, then the less likely you are to achieve any of those. And so that’s why I like the concept of being a serial achiever and saying, “Okay, I know that I want to do X and Y and Z, but, which one makes the most difference in my life right now?” Whether that’s financial or career or fulfillment or whatever your version or definition of success might be, which one makes the biggest difference? I’m going to focus on that one, and I’m going to create a process that allows me to accomplish that.
Jeff Haden: And when you get to the other end, then you can look at it and say, “Okay, have I gotten everything I wanted out of this? Does this lead to something else? Is it time to try something new?” And maybe you do, and it doesn’t mean that you wasted all that effort you put into that first accomplishment because you take all that stuff with you to some new pursuit and most importantly, you take the knowledge, and the self confidence that comes from having accomplished something big. So when you set out on something else that’s huge, you can say, “Okay, this is going to be really hard, but I did that. So I know I can do these things. I know, I know how to do it. I can accomplish this too.” And I think that’s really important. So one of the ways probably to accomplish more by doing less, is just to weed out your list of goals and say, “Okay, I probably only have time for a certain number of things, so I’m going to work really hard at those and achieve them.
Jeff Haden: And if I have to put something off, that’s okay because I can get to it someday. Or maybe I never get to it, I don’t know.” But at least you will have accomplished more things than if you’re putting 10% into 10 different things, that means you’ll never get there.
Bryan Collins: Yup. Yup. And your processes enables you to become a fairly prolific writer and author. So could you describe how your writing process unfolds on a typical day?
Jeff Haden: Sure. Let’s see. How should I start? Is this for your podcast?
Bryan Collins: Well, I was going to use the whole episode for the podcast, so-
Jeff Haden: Oh, okay. You’ll cut my question.
Bryan Collins: … Yeah.
Jeff Haden: That kind of evolved and probably the biggest thing that I’ve done from a process point of view is to try to strip away everything that is not essential. And that keeps me from actually sitting and writing. It’s really easy to get caught up in all of that other stuff that you think you need to be doing and in order to support the “business of writing.” But really it comes down to you make your money when you’re actually writing. And so what I typically do the night before is I pick out whatever it is that’s most important for me to do the next day, and I get that all set up and ready so that when I wake up, and this is going to sound non-hygienic. But when I wake up, I get up, I brush my teeth, my commute is two flights of stairs. I have a bottle of water and a protein bar sitting by my computer. I have whatever stuff that I think I need there. I have whatever document I need open on my computer, I have all that stuff all set up.
Jeff Haden: And so I literally wake up, brush my teeth, go downstairs, sit down, and I have my protein bar while I start working. And so my time from waking up to working is a couple of minutes, which is perfect for me because right away I’ve eliminated all that resistance you have to getting started. And I get started and I’m working on something that’s important and it’s when I’m fresh. And so when I get it done, it feels great because it always feels good to knock off the thing that you really needed to get done. And I’ve got that cool momentum that comes from having gotten started and having accomplished something, then that makes you feel good and you’re like, “Okay, what’s next? And what’s next?” And that carries basically throughout the day. If I get up and ease my way into work, then I don’t know, I find it really hard to click over to, “Okay, let’s focus and let’s work.” But if I get started that way, that kind of goes and then I always know what I want to do the next day, the night before and I work on those things.
Jeff Haden: And of course other stuff comes up and sometimes that changes. But if you have that momentum going, then I think it’s really easy to keep it going the rest of the day. As far as … I’ll answer a question you haven’t asked yet and maybe you weren’t going to, but the whole idea of like writer’s block or struggling, my approach to that is … let’s say I’m writing an article for Inc which tend to be somewhere between 600 and 1000 words, depending on what I’m doing. Usually I can do seven or 800 words and have it be 98% what I want it to be within about a half an hour. And so if I’m 15 minutes in and I am struggling, what that says to me is that I haven’t figured out what I want to say and I put it aside. I don’t try to fight my way through it and I don’t try to cobble it together somehow, because really for me, I don’t start something unless I already know in my head what I want to say.
Jeff Haden: Now, how you say it kind of emerges sometimes in the process of writing, but what I want to say, if I sit down with a blank piece of paper and I don’t know what I want to say, then I’m wasting my time because it’s not just going to magically appear. So I’m really quick to set something aside if it isn’t flowing. I did have to learn the difference between, if it truly wasn’t flowing and I just was being lazy, because it is tempting to get, “Ahhh this isn’t going very well. I’m just going to put it aside.” And sometimes you do need to fight through that, but over time you do learn what that balance is and I can tell when I’m being lazy and when I’m truly like, “You know, I thought I had an idea but I really don’t.” And I need to do something else.
Bryan Collins: Yeah. So figure it out what you want to say, your articles have a lot of research and interviews in them. And I know you referenced Venus Williams there at the start. So when do you find time for research or how do you approach research for your articles for your book?
Jeff Haden: I actually don’t do it. I don’t do a tremendous amount of “research.” If I have an idea for something, then I will take a quick look around to see if there is something that I can use to support that, but usually what happens is that I’ll be reading something else or I’ll be looking at something else or I’ll have a conversation with someone and that will spark an idea and then I will use that. So it’s almost like the “research” comes first and that gives me the idea because I’ll say, “Uh.” So talking about like for instance, one of the things that my book is the whole idea about, if you tell people what your goal is and you describe it in great detail, then oftentimes that means you are less likely to achieve that goal. And research supports that, because you’ve kind of seen yourself at the finish line and you’ve seen yourself accomplishing these things and that already feels good to you and you’ve got less impetus to want to get there.
Jeff Haden: So I remember reading that study and I thought, “That’s kind of cool and it’s very counterintuitive.” And so I thought, “That’s a perfect idea for an article.” So I had the research already and then I just fleshed it out for my own experience and from what other people had seen and done, and I did it that way. So I tend not to be like let me dig into scholarly journals for four hours and hope that I come over some nugget. I think if you’re just curious and you read a lot and you kind of look around and you’re always on the alert for something, then plenty of stuff can come your way, depending on what it is that you write about obviously.
Bryan Collins: So what makes for a good non-fiction article today? Like you’ve written a lot of articles, some of which have gone viral and others which I’ve heard you describe as getting not many views.
Jeff Haden: Well, first that depends on your audience. I write for a business audience, so that’s different than some other long form thing or something political or whatever it might be. So I write for a business audience. So we’ll preface with that, but the stuff that tends to get the widest play and be read by the most people is: actionable, useful, helpful, practical, something I can use, something I can learn from something that motivates me, something that entertains me. I know that’s a lot of stuff, but then a really big key to it, especially in terms of people sharing things. Because oftentimes that’s where the viral audience comes from, is you have to find a way for the reader to find themselves within that article. So they have to be able to go, “Okay, I’ve been there,” or, “I’ve seen that,” or, “I’ve done that,” or, “I felt that way,” or, “I’ve been in this situation,” or whatever those things may be.
Jeff Haden: They have to be able to find themselves in it and be able to relate. And then for them to want to share it, it has to be something that they either feel reflects well on them or that they feel other people would benefit from, which takes you back to actionable, practical, useful, helpful, all of that other stuff. So it’s all about … I know this is another cliche, but it is all about the reader. If you serve the reader and then you have a really good chance of something being widely read or viral or however you want to turn that. And if there’s even a hint of self serving or showing off or whatever it may be that serves you, then people sniff that out instantly and that’s the end of it. There used to be this standard that people would apply saying, if you’re writing for a business audience, but you’re also hopefully helping to sell something, whether it’s your services or products or whatever else, then you can do 10% promotional and 90% serving the reader. And I think it has to be 100%.
Jeff Haden: And when I interview business people who they want to be interviewed, because they are hoping that it will gain either them attention as a thought leader or their company attention. They want something, and many will want calls to action or they’ll want long product descriptions and all that other stuff. And I always say, “You need to be looking at this as if you can only bask in the reflected glow of your witted wisdom.” So if you provide great information to readers, if you teach them something, if they learned something from your experience, if you’re a cautionary tale, whatever it may be. If they get to the end and say, “wow, that was really good, that was meaningful to me.” And they noticed that you run this company or you do these things, they may check you out.
Jeff Haden: But if in the middle you’re trying to shoe-horn in some thinly veiled advertisement, then they’re leaving and they’re not going to think well of you and you’re not going to have accomplished anything that maybe you hope to do with this. So that same principle applies, you can’t be self-serving as a writer and the people that you talked to can’t be self-serving or at least can’t come across that way or nobody cares.
Bryan Collins: Where can people find you online Jeff?
Jeff Haden: I write for Inc. It’s inc.com. You search my name and there’s … Oh gosh, I don’t know. I’ve probably got 1500 articles there now. I’m on LinkedIn and I’m on Influencer, which is the only time in my life, I’ll be able to list with Richard Branson and Bill Gates. And I do connect with people and I do answer questions and things. I don’t always answer them within six hours. It may take me a day or two to get to you, but if people won’t take the [inaudible 00:25:34], I certainly do that. And that’s probably the best.
Bryan Collins: That was great. Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff Haden: You’re welcome.
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