Multiple New York Times bestselling author Daniel Pink stopped by The Writer Files to chat about his secrets for getting words onto the page.
Mr. Pink is the author of five provocative titles on the subjects of business, work, and human behavior — including To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others — and has written for The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, The Sunday Telegraph, Fast Company, and Wired.
In addition to having one of the most viewed TED talks of all time — “The puzzle of motivation” — Dan recently hosted and co-executive produced the TV series “Crowd Control” for the National Geographic Channel.
In this file Daniel Pink and I discuss:
- Why You Should Never Check Email Before You Write
- The Effectiveness of Word Count Quotas
- Why the Adage “Butt-in-Chair” Really Works
- How to Structure Your Writing Schedule to Beat “Resistance”
- The Author’s Exhaustive Reading Recommendations
- His Fantasy Chipotle Table Guests
- And Why You Need to Get Over Yourself and Get to Work
Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...
The Show Notes
- Dan Pink’s TED talk: “The puzzle of motivation”
- Crowd Control on National Geographic Channel
- Daniel Pink on Twitter
- Kelton Reid on Twitter
How Bestselling Author Daniel Pink Writes
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Kelton Reid: These are The Writer Files, a tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of working writers, from online content creators to fictionists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and beyond.
I’m your host Kelton Reid: writer, podcaster, and mediaphile. Each week, we’ll find out how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid writer’s block.
Multiple New York Times bestselling author, Daniel Pink stopped by The Writer Files to chat about his secrets for getting words onto the page. Mr. Pink is the author of five provocative titles on the subjects of business, work, and human behavior, including To Sell Is Human, The Surprising Truth About Moving Others.
He’s also written for The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, The Sunday Telegraph, Fast Company, and Wired. In addition to having one of the most viewed TED Talks of all time, The Puzzle of Motivation, Dan recently hosted and co-executive produced the TV series Crowd Control for the National Geographic Channel.
In this File, Daniel and I discuss why you should never check email before you write, the effectiveness of word-count quotas, whether the adage ‘butt-in-chair” really works, how to structure your writing schedule to beat resistance, and why you need to get over yourself and get to work.
If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please do me a favor and leave a rating or a review in iTunes to help other writers find us. Thanks for listening.
Dan, thanks so much for agreeing to come on The Writer Files and update your file.
Daniel Pink: I’m happy to be here. Actually, I thought that this was The Rockford Files.
Kelton Reid: I think that’s been off the air.
Daniel Pink: I thought it’d be so cool. I’m going to be on The Rockford Files. I thought that show was off the air.
Kelton Reid: Now that you know that you’re not on The Rockford Files, would you like to update your writer file?
Daniel Pink: Sure, why not.
Kelton Reid: Absolutely. Let’s talk about you the author. For listeners who may not know you or your work, who are you, and what is your area of expertise as a writer?
Daniel Pink: Who am I? I am Daniel Pink. I am a middle-aged white man who lives in Washington, D.C. For the last 18 years, I have been working for myself and mostly centered around writing books. The books tend to be about business, work, and human behavior.
Kelton Reid: Where can we find your writing?
Daniel Pink: You can find it at your local library, in your favorite online or offline bookstore. You can find it online at DanPink.com.
Kelton Reid: What are you presently working on, Dan?
Daniel Pink: I am working on anticipating your next question. No, I’m not. Actually, believe it or not, Kelton, I am in the throes of trying to write a few book proposals to see which is the next book I want to write.
Kelton Reid: To see which one sticks?
Daniel Pink: Yeah. Here’s the thing. Even though I’ve been doing this for a fairly long time, I still try to write fairly thorough proposals before I launch into a book. That’s less for the publisher than it is for me. It offers me a way to stress test the idea to see whether I’m interested in it, to see whether it holds up, to see whether I want to spend the next two years working on this kind of thing. That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m actually writing multiple proposals just to see which one or ones feel the best.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, technically this is what nonfiction writers do to get the ball rolling there. Actually, listeners may not know that you are also a TV producer.
Daniel Pink: Well, barely, yeah.
Kelton Reid: TV producer is code for also writer. Were you writing your National Geographic show as well?
Daniel Pink: A little bit of it. What I was doing more than anything else was actually helping conceive the segments, figure out the segments, lay them out. Also, the way that we did the show required a lot of on-the-fly decisions.
For the handful of listeners who didn’t see every episode of the show, Crowd Control, I should point out that the show was a really great show on National Geographic. We did 12 episodes of a series where we took problems out there in the world, things like people speeding, people jaywalking, people parking in disabled spaces, kids peeing in pools. Then, using social science and some cool design technology, we would put a solution in place, turn on our cameras, and see what happened.
A lot of the ‘producing’ was actually on the fly where we do the experiment and see how people reacted. You had to figure out, “Okay, what’s going on here? How are we going to cover this?” and so forth.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. Thinking on your feet quite a bit.
Daniel Pink: Yeah.
Kelton Reid: Very cool. When you’re getting ready to launch into a bigger writing project, how much time would you say per day that you’re researching or reading about your topic?
Why You Should Never Check Email Before You Write
Daniel Pink: It really depends. My process, generally, for a nonfiction book, is to begin with a skeletal outline. It depends on how I’m doing the research. If it’s research that involves reading a lot of papers and so forth, that’s one thing. If it involves doing actual reporting where you’re going out interviewing people, watching stuff happening, that’s another story. In the reporting and research phase, I like to spend, where I can, most of the workday on it.
Kelton Reid: Before you sit down to actually get clacking there, do you have any pre-game rituals or practices that get you in the mode?
Daniel Pink: Pre-game rituals, no. What I will do many times is I’ll check my email just to make sure that there isn’t something urgent. That’s always a really bad idea. You just go down the rabbit hole of useless email.
In terms of do I say any prayers, have rosary beads, or spin three times on my desk, I don’t do anything like that. I just open the door and put my butt in the chair.
Kelton Reid: Very nice. Do you write every day when you’re working on something big?
The Effectiveness of Word Count Quotas
Daniel Pink: When I’m working on something big, I do. When I’m working on a book or it’s at that stage where I’ve done enough research, where I feel like I’ve more or less mastered a lot of the material and can move on to executing it, I actually think of it as bricklaying where I’ll come to my office, show up in my office at a certain time, like say 9:00.
I’ll set myself a word count for the day. Let’s say 500 words. I will then turn off my phone, turn off my email, and then I will do nothing, truly nothing, until I hit my word count. If I hit my word count at 11:00 in the morning, hallelujah. If it’s 2:00 in the afternoon and I still haven’t hit my word count, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll cancel meetings and cancel phone calls in the afternoon if it takes me till. 8:00 in the evening, which it actually has unfortunately. I won’t do anything else.
Kelton Reid: Got you. Is your most productive locale your office there that we’ve seen pictures of?
Daniel Pink: Ah, yes, the beautiful Pink Ink world headquarters, which is a refurbished garage behind my house in Washington, D.C. That’s where the magic happens.
Kelton Reid: Are you a writer who can listen to music while you write, or do you prefer silence?
Daniel Pink: I can listen to music when I run or exercise. That’s it, or just listening to music for the sake of listening to music. I actually have the exact opposite view when I write. I have these little foam earplugs that I sometimes will put in just in case some imaginary sound is out there.
I also even now have noise-canceling headphones that I will wear. I like silence. That way I can tune in more accurately to my own anguish.
Kelton Reid: I like that. Are you someone who believes in writer’s block?
Why the Adage ‘Butt-in-Chair’ Really Works
Daniel Pink: No. I think writer’s block is a crock. I really do. I think that most writers agree with that. Writer’s block is for amateurs. Get your butt in the seat, and get to work.
Kelton Reid: Let’s talk about your workflow. What hardware or typewriter are you using there in the garage?
Daniel Pink: I’ve moved beyond typewriters, fortunately. Here’s what I’ve got in the setup. I’m looking at it right now. I have both a MacBook Air laptop and a 21-inch screen, maybe 25-inch screen iMac. I use my laptop, my Air for a lot of things. I actually will write books or even articles on the iMac. I don’t know why I do that. Because the screen is so big, I can put up a lot of stuff. The other thing that it does is it does fix me in place.
Even though the files exist in Dropbox, I could do it anywhere. There’s something about that fixedness of coming to the same spot every single day, looking at the same screen every single day that helps me do stuff.
Kelton Reid: What do you find in your workflow your most used software for writing and staying organized?
Daniel Pink: For writing, I have made a dramatic leap into 1996 by using Word, although, as I said before, Dropbox is my co-pilot. I’ve become so reliant on putting everything in Dropbox. I have, though, being a modern guy, I’ve started to use Evernote a little bit. I can easily get by with Word and Dropbox.
Kelton Reid: Your crucial outlining, that’s part of your organizational method. Do you have any other hacks, or are you a Post-it note guy at all?
Daniel Pink: You know what I am? It’s interesting. It’s interesting to me because it’s about me. I’m not sure it’s interesting to anybody else. I use what I refer to as an — and this is a term of art — big-ass stickies, which are these giant Post-it notes. I prefer the graph paper versions of them. There’s something about graph paper that I love. It just makes me feel like I’m imposing some order on a world moving toward entropy or something. I don’t use whiteboard. I will use these big-ass stickies and put them all over my office.
I like to write on stuff. I like to outline. I like to see it. I like to see stuff. I face a window, but if I turn my chair around, there’s a wall of cabinets. When I was writing this book, To Sell Is Human, I would have various outlines and things there. Sometimes, it sounds bizarre, but it actually works for me. Sometimes I will just turn my chair and look at the outlines, just look at them, and let it simmer a little bit. For me, seeing that stuff on the walls is really helpful.
Kelton Reid: Do you have any best practices for beating procrastination? I know you’ve mentioned it. Are you someone who leans into the procrastination?
How to Structure Your Writing Schedule to Beat ‘Resistance’
Daniel Pink: Yeah, I think that I and many people, most writers face what Steven Pressfield calls the ‘Resistance’ every single day. All of the forces of the universe are conspiring to make you stop writing. I think that what helps beat procrastination is as weird as it is, is a structure. When I go to sleep the night before, I know what I’m doing that next morning. I’m writing 500 words.
I don’t want to get to the office, turn on my computer and say, “Huh, what should I do today? Should I type in ESPN.go.com and spend an hour there, or should I write 500 words? Hmmm, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll do the ESPN thing.” I don’t want to have that. I want to have the structure to say, “The choice is made for me. Here’s what you do.” That’s how I beat procrastination.
Kelton Reid: Nice.
Daniel Pink: Sometimes procrastination wins. Procrastination is a ferocious opponent.
Kelton Reid: Well put. At the end of a long day, how do you unplug?
Daniel Pink: I’m a pretty boring guy. I don’t really do all that much, Kelton. My wife and I have three kids. I actually spend a lot of time, compared to maybe some other people, I like to spend time with my family. I just like talking to them, hanging out with them. That’s one thing that I do.
Especially when I’m writing, I try to run every day if I possibly can. When we’re done here today, I will go for a run, probably go faster because I’m so exhilarated by talking about myself. I like to eat good food and drink good wine. Because I’m on the verge of being an old man, I like to listen to baseball on the radio.
Kelton Reid: Very nice.
Daniel Pink: I basically just ensured that no one would ever want to hang out with me.
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Kelton Reid: Let’s talk about creativity a little bit. I know in your work creativity is a big part of getting into … a lot of what you talk about involves storytelling and even though you talk about social behavior and psychology, can you define creativity in your own words?
How Dan Defines Creativity, Sans a Muse
Daniel Pink: Creativity is giving the world something it didn’t know it was missing. That’s my favorite definition. I think that the definition originally came from Paola Antonelli at the Museum of Modern Art.
Kelton Reid: When do you personally feel the most creative?
Daniel Pink: Aside from right now?
Kelton Reid: Yes.
Daniel Pink: Yeah, when do I feel the most creative? It’s weird. I actually sometimes feel the most creative when I’m in motion, whether I’m running or traveling somewhere. I get a lot of good ideas when I’m in motion.
Kelton Reid: I’ve had many of guests actually mention that they get a lot of work done on the plane. Do you find that phenomenon as well?
Daniel Pink: I can’t write on planes. I probably could if I had to. I don’t like writing on planes. It’s just not the right environment for me for whatever weird idiosyncrasies. I can focus pretty intently on planes. I can edit on planes. I’ll edit pages. This is just another just really exciting facet of my life. I will sometimes batch my email and spend an airplane ride answering 70 emails.
Kelton Reid: Circling back to our friend who talks about Resistance, do you have a creative muse?
Daniel Pink: No, come on. I’m a bricklayer who happens to use a computer. Do people really give you a serious answer to that?
Kelton Reid: I don’t know.
Daniel Pink: I’m serious. Come on, do people say, “Oh yes, my creative muse is named Daphne and she appears to me in the corner of my office every day at 8:00.”
Kelton Reid: Sure.
Daniel Pink: Come on.
Kelton Reid: It probably should be redacted.
Daniel Pink: No, I like it. It’s basically a test to see who’s full of it and who’s not. I think if the answer is yes, you should cease the interview.
Kelton Reid: This interview’s over … so, in your opinion, what makes a writer great?
Daniel Pink: That’s an interesting question. What makes a writer great? I think it’s the ability to look at something that other people have looked at and see something entirely different, if that makes any sense.
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Daniel Pink: I think that’s part of it. I also think it’s the ability to linger in somebody’s mind long after the encounter is over. I think that’s a mark of a really good writer.
Kelton Reid: Do you have some favorite authors at the moment?
Dan’s Exhaustive Reading Recommendations
Daniel Pink: Gazillions of them. I think there’s so many, so many, so many good writers out there. I think that you can learn from lots of them. I would have to give you not an exhaustive, but just a gigantic, massive list.
For instance, Michael Lewis, the guy’s unbelievably good. It’s irritating how good he is. He’s really just extraordinary. I would put Michael Lewis on the top of any list. Katherine Boo, who is a journalist, I think she’s extraordinary. I like the short story writer, novelist sometimes, Edgar Keret, Israeli guy, who writes these super short, iddy biddy short stories.
I like the Japanese novelist Haruki Muraukami. I like Junot Diaz. I love Colson Whitehead, another novelist. In my world, I also like Malcolm Gladwell. Some people think it’s uncool, but I think he’s awesome. I like sheer business writers like Seth Godin and Tom Peters. My favorite novel in the last decade is a book called Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by a guy named Ben Fountain.
I like Phillip Roth. I like Toni Morrison, those kind of legendary writers. I like George Pelecanos, a local guy who writes. I like Adam Kilgore, who’s a sports writer for The Washington Post. I used to love reading Gary Smith’s stuff in Sports Illustrated. I think that Derek Thompson at The Atlantic is one of the best young writers around. There’s so many, so many great people. There’s so many.
Kelton Reid: You share a lot of great quotes in your work and in your speaking. Can you share maybe a best loved quote that floats to the top right now?
Daniel Pink: That floats to the top. I like the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that says, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” I like that. Also, there’s a great Viktor Frankl quote. Viktor Frankl says, “Live as if you were already living for a second time and as if you had made the mistakes you are about to make now.” I think that’s incredibly good advice.
Kelton Reid: Absolutely. Let’s do a couple of fun questions next.
Daniel Pink: I thought the first ones were fun.
Kelton Reid: Good. I shouldn’t preface it like that. Who is your favorite literary character?
Daniel Pink: Favorite literary character, it’s going to be weird because he’s just so deranged. I would say Nathan Zuckerman from the Phillip Roth Zuckerman novels. Please do not, listeners, impute any psychological meaning to that.
Kelton Reid: That’s right.
Daniel Pink: I just love his level of derangement and his obsessiveness. Also, I like the fact that Roth was able to carry him through multiple books.
Kelton Reid: If you could choose one author from any era for an all-expense paid dinner to your favorite spot, where would you go, and who would you take?
Dan’s Fantasy Chipotle Table Guests
Daniel Pink: Just one?
Kelton Reid: I’m sorry. Well, in your case, you can bring two.
Daniel Pink: Yeah, I’m going to break this rule a little bit. I actually have an answer to that. It doesn’t quite conform to the structure that you’re giving me.
I say this in all seriousness. If it were somehow metaphysically possible, I would like to sit down with Mohammed, Buddha, and Jesus. I would make sure that I had my voice recorder, maybe even iPhone video to record the whole thing.
I think it would be a great documentary. I think it would be an awesome book, too. The reason for that is that if you think about writers, thinkers, philosophers, whatever you want to call them, who had a long-reaching affect, those guys did.
There are people out there who still care about Jesus, and still care about Mohammed, and still care about Buddha. We like to think, “Oh, Shakespeare had such a great influence.” Jesus has about 1,600 years on him.
Kelton Reid: Interesting. Where would this meal take place?
Daniel Pink: It’s got to be Chipotle. Can you imagine, just walk into Chipotle with Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha? Those guys, I’d feel chagrined taking them to a fancy restaurant. It’d be antithetical to a lot of what they stand for. I think we’re going to Chipotle.
Kelton Reid: I can only imagine the faces of the other diners at Chipotle. Hopefully … I won’t make a political crack there. Do you have a writer’s fetish at all?
Daniel Pink: What do you mean by a writer’s fetish?
Kelton Reid: It could be metaphorical. It could be something physical.
Daniel Pink: I get it now. Believe it or not, I use pencils. I really like using pencils for editing. I hate mechanical pencils. I think mechanical pencils are Satan’s creation. I like regular old pencils that I sharpen. I use those for almost everything that I do at my desk.
Kelton Reid: Cool. Who or what has been your greatest teacher?
Daniel Pink: My mistakes, no question.
Kelton Reid: Can you offer any advice to fellow writers on how to keep the ink flowing and the cursor moving?
Why You Need to Get Over Yourself and Get to Work
Daniel Pink: There’s a theme to this. It’s the same thing, which is basically get to work. Get over yourself. Get to work. Sit in the chair, and start working. If the ink isn’t flowing or the cursor’s not moving, maybe take a walk or something like that, but otherwise, make it move.
Again, it’s like the question about the muse. If you’re waiting for the muse to strike you, you’re going to be there for a long time. That cursor’s going to be blinking forever.
Kelton Reid: I want listeners to remember that the muse question is really the disqualifier.
Daniel Pink: It’s the disqualifier for this.
Kelton Reid: Where can fellow scribes connect with you out there?
Daniel Pink: Fellow scribes, you can connect with me on the website DanPink.com. I spend more time than should on Twitter where my handle is @DanielPink. Those are two good ways to reach me or find out what’s going on.
I do an email newsletter. It’s an irregular and irreverent email newsletter that I do just to stay in touch with readers, that lists maybe some tips that I’ve learned over the years, or stuff that I’m reading that I like.
Kelton Reid: I am signing up for that as we speak.
Daniel Pink: Thank you.
Kelton Reid: Thank you so much for coming on The Writer Files and updating your file. I’m a big fan. I look forward to seeing your latest and greatest. Hopefully, we’ll see your face some more on television as well.
Daniel Pink: We’ll see. I appreciate it. These are fun questions. For the print version of what you do, I like reading other people’s answers, too. It’s really interesting. I’m surprised that some people take themselves more seriously than I think that they should. Other people give some really, really great insight into what it’s like.
I also think that there would be some insight in somebody going through a lot of your interviews and finding the common themes.
Kelton Reid: Absolutely.
Daniel Pink: If someone were to go through the interviews and say, “What are the common themes among all the people you talk to?” I think that would be fascinating.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, definitely. I will also remind the listeners that the transcripts from all of the shows are posted to the website, WriterFiles.FM, shortly after the interview goes live out there in the world. You can actually find all of the printed versions of these. They are edited as well, so they actually spell things correctly.
Daniel Pink: Wow.
Kelton Reid: Yes, I’m telling you. Thanks again, Dan. I really appreciate your time.
Daniel Pink: All right, appreciate it. Thanks, Kelton. See you later.
Kelton Reid: Cheers.
Thank you for tuning in to The Writer Files. Get your butt back in the saddle.
Cheers. See you out there.