Maria Popova on Writing, Workflow, and Workarounds (#39)

Maria Popova

“Why put in the effort to explain why it isn’t a fit, if they haven’t done the homework to determine if it is a fit?”

– Maria Popova [1:23:00]

Maria Popova has written for amazing outlets like The Atlantic and The New York Times, but I find her most amazing project to be

Founded in 2006 as a weekly email to seven friends, BrainPickings now gets more than 5 million readers per month (!). I read very few blogs regularly, but BrainPickings is one of the few that makes the cut.  It’s a treasure trove.

BrainPickings is Maria’s one-woman labor of love — an inquiry into how to live and what it means to lead a good life.  From Mark Twain to Oscar Wilde and everyone in between, Maria finds the hidden gems. She is also PROLIFIC and makes me look like a sloth.

In this in-depth conversation, we cover just about everything: how it happened, her workflow, how she writes (and workarounds to problems), how her site generates revenue, her workouts, and many more details. If you want to know the habits of a hyper-productive person, this episode is for you.

You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

Stream with the player below:

Ep 39: Maria Popova on Writing, Work Arounds, and Building

If you can’t see the above, here are other ways to listen:

This podcast is brought to you by 99Designs, the world’s largest marketplace of graphic designers. Did you know I used 99Designs to rapid prototype the cover for The 4-Hour Body? Here are some of the impressive results.

This episode is also brought to you by ExOfficio, which I’ve personally used since 2005 or so. They make ultra-lightweight, quick drying, antimicrobial clothing for men and women. Here’s my own ultra-light packing list (scroll down for video), which went viral.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received or read?  Please share in the comments!

Scroll below for links and show notes…


Who should I interview next? Please let me know on Twitter or in the comments.

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Selected Links from the Episode

Where to Start? BrainPickings Recommendations from Maria Popova

Show Notes (Times Are Approximate)

  • What percentage of New York Times best sellers are a result of Maria’s coverage? [4:55]
  • How to live a meaningful happy life. [10:00]
  • The importance of writing for an audience of one. [12:10]
  • Contending with the temptation to create Buzzfeed-like content. [15:45]
  • Maria Popova’s daily rituals, beliefs on sleep, distraction-avoidance habits, meditation, and exercise routines. [23:25]
  • Maria Popova’s note-taking system. [31:45]
  • Seneca and the time-tested challenge of presence vs. productivity. [37:36]
  • Start-up opportunity? Build a note-taking tool for heavy readers/highlighters. [41:58]
  • About the team behind BrainPickings. [48:45]
  • Maria Popova’s process for editing within her team. [51:12]
  • Self-reliance pathology and how to overcome it. [53:56]
  • How to find a professional personal assistant and delegate. [56:40]
  • What Maria Popova’s weight lifting regiment looks like, plus her favorite bodyweight-only exercise. [1:02:14]
  • Blogging strategies [1:05:22]
  • Social media strategies [1:15:00]
  • How cultivate a personal inner circle, how to pre-screen book review requests [1:20:30]
  • Why there are no dates on the posts on BrainPickings? [01:12:30]
  • Scheduling (and automating) social media [01:22:10]
  • How do you deal with friends who want you to read their books? [01:27:10]
  • What donation model works best for site revenue? [01:31:45]

People Mentioned

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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161 Replies to “Maria Popova on Writing, Workflow, and Workarounds (#39)”

  1. Tim Ferriss, you are my greatest find on the Internet. Thanks for bringing such interesting people on your podcast, asking them great questions, thanks for your prolific notes and multiple links.

  2. I enjoyed this episode thoroughly – Maria is an incredible person, undoubtedly!

    I think it would be fantastic for you to interview a writer of fiction/literature at some point. Denis Johnson would be a dream, or perhaps Steven Galloway? The deconstruction of fiction writing/writers would be incredibly interesting!

  3. As a user of Microsoft’s (M$) awesome, almost unknown program, OneNote much note editing can be done, easily, as for example, in Word or Excel, then copied or moved easily over into OneNote…Using Word’s (and OneNote, too) Style feature is an easy way to set up a quick way to adjust notes TO WHAT YOU WANT

    Some quick thoughts on M$: the new CEO is making significant changes to bring its products into easier use…I am amazed how few will go to YouTube to learn basic M$ Office product use, as well as simply checking out YouTube to see how to do something you may think only you needs…Obviously, some YouTube presenters are better than others…The one downside, but also upside, to OneNote is how many notes you find you make, which are easy to find with Search–The key is making sure you use easy to remember keywords so you can search on this, for example, make a page informally called Table of Contents, which are really your abbreviations, etc., to make Searching easier

    I use Google, but this warning: Google is more obtuse to the user than M$, because Google will yank stuff (e.g., its RSS reader), or its products can look weird, e.g., Google Chrome (FireFox lets me go with the Chrome look or what I consider the normal look of a browser)…I would not be shocked the day comes when Google yanks Gmail, so I make sure I back up Gmail

  4. I hope this is the best place to provide suggestions? I loved your interview with Maria Popova! I would love to see an interview with Tara Brach, who Maria mentioned in the show as being an instrumental influence on her. I have been a long time listener of Tara’s podcast and she infuses wisdom with stories, neuroscience and meditation. Seems like a good fit for your show! Thank you for putting out so much quality content!

  5. The two best pieces of writing advice I have read were in Stephen King – “On Writing”. 1. Don’t use unnecessary adverbs. 2. Write in the active voice.

  6. Regarding writing advice: I’ve always found value in the concept of simply setting a daily word count goal (e.g. 500 words).

    This was a great podcast and interview. In particular, I enjoyed the depth you went to regarding Maria’s deep reading and writing practices (and the difficulties of digital annotation). Seeing her project from from 7 to 5 million readers is an inspiration to me!

  7. Listened to this one twice. Thank you for getting Maria on the show – she is a true craftsman. I was fascinated to hear about her personal disciplines with exercise and meditation – inspiring for all of us that strive to be better at our craft.

  8. I just discovered your site through a friend. Love Maria Popova and have been following “Brian Pickins” for a while now and now looking forward to following your work as well:) All the best, Zornitza Natcheva

  9. Thanks for the show. Interview as inspiring. I did have one question though and I was curious to know how Maria manages to read and exercise at the same time? I’d love to apply whatever she’s doing as it would save me so much time. Also, I wonder if there are any suggestions around consuming information and how to absorb the amount of content she does… Is she speed reading or has the rate of information she consumes just grown due to all the reading she’s had to do?

  10. During the interview, you mentioned finding Seneca via anthologies on minimalism & simplicity. Names of said anthologies please? Muchos gracias!

  11. Solving the note-taking problem on Amazon Kindle:

    Highlight text on in your Kindle book > Share > Send to Evernote.

    That’s it!

    This also works on Aldiko book reader, Calibre, and probably many other readers.

  12. From Julia Cameron’s “The Right to Write” – writing in the cracks of your life (think, in line at the store, waiting for the kettle to boil, etc.) and looking at interruptions as corrections in your trajectory.

  13. From Julia Cameron’s “The Right to Write” – writing in the cracks of your life (think, in line at the store, waiting for the kettle to boil, etc.) and looking at interruptions as corrections in your trajectory.

  14. Love your show Tim! Would it be possible for you to start putting up the entire transcripts of your podcasts? I personally love it when I watch TedTalks and other long-form interviews that have a transcript to refer back to. The transcripts helps accelerate my annotation process.

  15. Tim,

    I read the Four Hour Body and have been on the Tim Ferriss bandwagon ever since. I find your podcasts not only motivating and informative, but also witty and funny. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I especially love episodes where you read your own personal essays or give tips.

    P.s. These show notes are super helpful.


  16. I had never heard of Maria before listening in and you can tell how deeply introspective and thoughtful she is just by observing her choice of words, cadence, tone, and presence.

    There were a few very poignant things I certainly took down as notes to remember for life and I am damn thankful sir. That said…

    About five minutes after listening, while smoking another Newport, I had an extremely stark realization hit me about what I had just experienced. It was simply this…

    Knowing that Maria ostensibly devotes her life to the question of living a good and authentic life (and without reading her work as of yet) it seems that the fact that the question “What have you learned in your quest?” (or something of the sort) not being brought up at all is kinda tragic.

    The most nascent of values that could have been birthed was sidesteps for question like “What tech tools do you use?” and I’m left wondering why?

    With that realization, now in retrospect, I’m left feeling hollow. So much potential for could have been, but isn’t. That said…

    Tim mad props son.

    I dig all you do and your journey that you bring us along on with you in these podcasts.

    I am very grateful and am even happy to be able to openly share this thought without a second though. That, my friend, speaks to how open and giving you truly are.

  17. It’s amazing and refreshing to hear Maria talk about the importance of sleep. It seems, in the last year or so, my hyper productive friends are those who comfortably “miss out” on the nighttime social activities. Maybe this is a byproduct of getting older, but I don’t think so – I think it’s part of a larger trend of people waking up (or going to bed) because being well slept feels AMAZING.

    I’ve thought a lot about this question: “Why do people wear lack of sleep as a badge of honor?” Perhaps this has been a constant throughout history, or maybe it’s something more recent. [Moderator: link removed]

    I think Maria’s comment goes a step further: viewing slept as a *necessary* tool for her creative process.

  18. My second listen, long drive on Labor Day weekend.

    A reminder as to just how wise and rich Maria and Brain Picking’s “avenue” of literature is. And great to think back and check in with earlier days of Tim’s podcast! Signed up to Brain Pickings to get this profound curatorship into my life, after procrastinating that out last time…thank you Tim, thank you Maria. Kevin

  19. I love words and literature and I adore Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings. I am in AWE of how prolific she is. The way she manages to deliver high-quality posts week in and week out is incredible.

    Just downloaded this episode. Will give it a listen later. 🙂 Thanks for this podcast!

  20. Hey guys, just curios, Maria’s donation model, I know it works very well, however, please tell me what you think: she tells it’s ad-free while the whole site is full of Amazon ads. How do you think it works in an ethical way – maybe legal way?

    Ad-free, please donate? Oh, sorry, Amazon ads/links doesn’t count as ads? Why not just say “donate me?”

    P.S I love that she uses ads, of course it’s great. I’m sure no one would be negative about it.. And her followers would still donate regardless.



  21. I don’t think so positively about her anymore for multiple reasons, but I will keep the reasons to myself. We don’t always have to think positive about the person to benefit from her work (though who she is reflects on her work too), but I personally don’t need book excerpts. I like reading books as a whole.

    Best x

  22. I officially listened to my first Tim Ferris podcast. And what a gem this was. Words of gold from Maria. Reassuring to surround ourselves her enlightenment. It felt very validating to hear her say why she does what she does and how she does it. Thank you for this little breadcrumb because it feels like a loaf of fresh goodness to satisfy.

  23. Hi, Tim. If would be interesting if you interview the psychologist and best-selling author of 12 Rules for Life Jordan Peterson. Not sure if he has recovered from his medical issue but if he did, it would be a great one.Thank you for considering this suggestion. Rebekah

  24. Hello, I know this is an older podcast, but stumbled across it looking for some ideas for making reading notes. Once you have made your alternate index for the book, do you translate that somehow to Evernote? I assume you keep the book but I wondered if there’s some digital overlay to the book notes so they are searchable? Thanks so much for any response.

  25. Awesome episode! Have you tried Readwise? I’ve found it to be a great way to integrate Kindle highlights and notes into Evernote. (I’m not affiliated with them in any way — just a happy customer!)