Anthony Trollope was a prolific English novelist in the Victorian era who managed to churn out 47 novels, an autobiography, 2 plays, short stories, travel books, and articles. You might assume he did nothing but write day-in and day-out. But for much of this time, he actually maintained a successful career at the Post Office as well.
"How did he do it all?"
Well, he built himself a system that depended on, at its simplest, showing up. Showing up when tired. Showing up when frustrated. Or distracted. Or upset. And so on.
Showing up is the hardest part. But by committing to that one simple thing, the rest fell into place more easily. Trollope wrote every single day, starting at 5:30 a.m. He did it whether he felt like it or not. With his watch in view, he would commit to writing 250 words every 15 minutes for 3 hours. Using this process, he would write 10 pages a day. And over the weeks and months, those pages added up.
You see, a typical roadblock for accomplishing a big goal is that it’s just that: a BIG goal. It’s hard to see progress, and it’s easy to get frustrated by the challenges. Trollope’s system allowed him to deconstruct those big goals into smaller ones, and his routine simply required that he show up and do it. No ifs, ands, or buts.
As simple as his system sounds, we can break it down into the 6 elements that make it work. Knowing these 6 elements and putting them into practice will help you find success, too.
So here they are.
The Six Elements of Trollope’s Routine That Make it Work:
Most of us understand the word commitment. It’s a trustworthy, dependable word that we nod in agreement with. But at its core, the word is raw and sometimes brutal. Because it means sticking with something when all signs point to giving up. In those moments, it feels like we’re going against all reason and logic for this thing to which we’ve promised commitment. And these are the very moments that it matters the most.
By making a commitment to your goal and this process of showing up for it every single day, you must take into account those days when every bone in your body wants to do something else. Upfront, you are acknowledging that day will come sooner or later, and you are prepared to tough it out and do the work anyway.
What makes the commitment a little bit easier is when it becomes a habit. There are various ideas out there of how long it takes for something to become a habit — from 3 weeks to 6 months (and beyond). But however long it takes, it doesn’t happen on autopilot. We make the commitment to building the habit, and then as it becomes more of a habit, the commitment becomes easier.
I think of commitment as Trollope’s willingness to show up every day, and the habit as his daily 5:30 a.m. start time. The habit is the specific act of time and place and going through the motions of what he does in those time slots.
Think of the habits that you keep that have become automatic. Whether it’s brushing your teeth first thing in the morning or perhaps coming home from an errand and placing your keys on a certain hook by the door. Maybe the apple (or the cookie) you grab for a snack is habit. Or perhaps the type of response you give when your kids fight is a habit.
Good or bad, our habits make us the people that we are. When we claim control over them, we have the power to accomplish so much more.
3. Greater goal
Without the greater goal shining like a beacon ahead of us, building habits and commitment are quite the challenge. But with a specific objective and a deeper why motivating us, we know what we are fighting for.
Trollope wrote 10 pages a day because he wanted to complete books. A book doesn’t happen on one sitting, but each time he completed his daily commitment, he knew he was one step closer to his bigger goal. Without an idea of the achievement at the end of the line, what do you think happens when we are supposed to show up for the day but we feel overly tired or stressed? We likely think, “What does it matter if I miss this one day?” There is no consequence if we “fall behind.”
So, identify what you are working towards. A greater goal makes all the difference.
4. Small wins
Tied to the idea of a greater goal is the idea of small wins. Because, as we said before, a big goal is often too big to achieve in one sitting. Even if we build our habits and make the commitment, we need to see the progress being made. We need to feel a sense of accomplishment along the way — not just at the very end when the big goal is reached.
With Trollope’s system, he had mini-goals every day. Two-hundred-and-fifty words every quarter hour. According to his autobiography, Trollope kept track of his progress in a diary. He’d enter the pages written every day and, doing so, had an organized record of his progress.
If you simply put “Write book” on your to-do list each day, and it takes you weeks to finish that single task, you never have anything to check off or cross out. Not until the very end (if you get there). So every day, no matter what you do, you are subconsciously left with the sense that you didn’t finish the task.
On the other hand, if your daily task is writing 10 pages or a certain number of words — well, you are much more likely to be able to cross that out on a daily basis. And it feels really good! Those little wins can make the difference between reaching the big goal or not.
5. Time limits
Human beings have organized time into years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. We clearly work well within a container of time organization. And this system also gives us a sense of forward progress and allows us to measure our productivity.
Trollope used small increments: 15-minute chunks. He didn’t simply say “I’ll write 10 pages every day,” or even, “I’ll write 10 pages within 3 hours.” Not even, “1000 words in an hour.” Nope, he went even smaller. Why did he do that? Perhaps because it’s doable. It’s realistic and achievable and not overwhelming. As a writer, he could look at a goal of 250 words and say, “Oh! Two-hundred-and-fifty words, that’s totally doable and easy!”
He was making the small wins inevitable, the path to the bigger goal more clear, and the likelihood that he would stay committed greater. We often make things so hard on ourselves. We set goals that are truly unrealistic and set these ridiculously high expectations on ourselves. We make it so easy to fail. Trollope did the opposite. And it worked quite well for him.
Going it alone is the hardest route to take. Having another person on your team — someone to hold you accountable — is truly valuable. In his autobiography, Trollope mentions having an assistant who helped him reach his goals. What did this assistant do? He simply woke him at 5:30 a.m. every morning, bringing him a cup of coffee to start his workday.
It’s simple, and you might wonder, “How did that help him write a book? He isn’t doing the work for him.” The simple fact that he wakes him is a motivational force. (I wonder how many productivity hours I could get back if I didn’t have a snooze button available to me!) There is also the feeling that you don’t want to let down the other person. Or that you don’t want to look lazy. Involving another person is a powerful indirect mode of motivation that works wonders.
It doesn’t have to mean having an assistant who wakes you up each day. But it could mean a friend you check in with daily — perhaps someone who is also working toward a goal. Maybe you have a “Mastermind” group that you check in with weekly. Or perhaps the type of goal you are working towards allows you to have a partner. Maybe you simply declare your goal to your social media networks!
If you don’t have another person to hold you accountable, at the very least you can take steps to hold yourself accountable. By keeping his diary, Trollope was tracking his progress and noting his small wins, but he was also able to see his shortcomings. If he failed to meet his small goals for a few days, he felt compelled to ramp up his progress because the written record of it was staring him in the face.
Big Progress in Small Steps
Trollope’s routine isn’t revolutionary. It’s not fancy, and it doesn’t require buying any special books, equipment, or subscriptions. At its core, it is simply about showing up and doing the work.
Taking the fear and intimidation of “bigness” out of the equation and making it small and achievable. Reducing the likelihood of failure and increasing the chance of success. It’s practical and real, and I highly recommend giving this system a try if you have a goal you’d like to accomplish.