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How to Train Your Brain for Content Marketing Greatness

At Content Marketing World 2016, I was cheered by the emphasis placed on content quality.

Clearly, “good is no longer good enough.” Less and better are more important than “good.”

The emphasis on quality was introduced in keynote talks and reinforced by numerous presenters:

  • Joe Pulizzi stated “Mediocre content will hurt your brand more than nothing at all.”
  • In his keynote address, Andy Crestodina of Orbit Marketing defined quality content as “content that shares research or a strong opinion.”
  • Ann Handley from MarketingProfs emphasized the value in slowing down. Later, she expressed the sentiment in stronger language: “Slow the *&%^$ down and do your content marketing right — or don’t do it at all.”

Paraphrasing Joe’s summary of the previous year’s Content Marketing World: Don’t just create content in one sitting and think you’re done. Walk away. Play. Noodle the ideas. Go to sleep. Meditative thinking makes the best use of your brain power — and you can’t tap into your intelligent unconscious if you don’t take the time when you create.

Clouds on the horizon

I’m concerned about a potential downside to the expectations for consistently excellent content.

  • How many employers/clients are going to be willing to wait (and pay more) for outstanding content?”
  • Will there be increased pressure on content creators to produce the same quantity of content as at present, but produce it at consistently and significantly higher quality?

At the same time that content quality expectations are increasing, Content Marketing World 2016 reflected the growing role of technology in content marketing success. This leads to the question, “Will increasingly sophisticated tracking tools, social media promotion, and trends like marketing automation and account-based marketing distract content creators from their primary roles?”

Productivity as a coping strategy

Clearly, content marketers looking for career advancement and a sustainable, balanced life have to become more productive. At first glance, there appear to be only two ways to do this:

  • Make better use of existing productivity planning, research, and writing tools like Evernote, Scrivener, Trello, mind mapping, etc.)
  • Bite the bullet and agree to work longer hours for the same pay.

Luckily, there’s a third alternative. You can train your brain to be more productive. As Cal Newport describes in his book Deep Work, you can become a well-rewarded new economy “star” instead of a commodity.

Become a well-rewarded new economy ‘star’ instead of a commodity, Cal Newport via @RogerCParker. Click To Tweet

Resources for training your brain to be more productive

Recent brain research is emphasizing neuro-plasticity: You can train your brain.

Your brain is not set in stone. You’re not stuck with the brain capacity and functionality that it has now. It’s possible for you to get more done in less time.

Below are four recently published books that represent the tip of the iceberg of current neurological research and its implications for the business world — including the world of quality-oriented content creators. They can open your eyes to the importance of neuro-plasticity and how you can intentionally take steps to increase your brain’s productivity.

I was originally saving the books until my fourth annual roundup of books for content marketers. But I’m sharing these now because of their relevance to key themes of Content Marketing World 2016.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth


Angela Duckworth’s Grit was an instant New York Times best-seller this year. It’s not hard to understand why. Grit is partly her story and partly a description of her research into the psychological traits that separate those who succeed from those who don’t.

Throughout childhood, for whatever reason, Angela’s father frequently told her, “You’re no genius!”

Luckily, in college, she discovered psychology, leading to a career in brain research. For her efforts, she was awarded a MacArthur fellowship, often referred to as a “genius grant.” It’s an award based on accomplishment. No one can “apply” for it.

Grit describes her research, which showed that what we accomplish may depend more on passion and perseverance than our skills. As she puts it: “Grit may matter more than talent.”

Stated differently, “Grit is mutable, not fixed.” Grit describes specific techniques you can use to nurture the power of passion and perseverance to accomplish your goals. She describes it as “holding the same top-level goal for a very long time.”

Her book is divided into three parts:

  • Part One: What Grit Is and Why It Matters. Chapter 4 — How Gritty Are You? — contains a Grit Scale, a simple exercise she developed for her research conducted at the West Point Military Academy and elsewhere.
  • Part Two: Growing Grit from the Inside Out. These chapters focus on four key ideas: interest, practice, purpose, and hope.
  • Part Three: Growing Grit from the Outside In. This part includes a fascinating chapter on parenting and a Grit Grid, which is a measure of follow-through.

Grit’s closing two paragraphs are worth sharing:

“If you define genius as being able to accomplish great things in life without effort, then (my dad) was right. I’m no genius, and neither is he.

But, if, instead, you define genius as working toward excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being — then, in fact, my dad is a genius, and so am I, and … if you’re willing, so are you.”

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg


Charles Duhigg’s first book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, was one of the first books I reviewed for the Content Marketing Institute. It’s still on my “highly recommended” list. It’s based on a simple three-step habit loop: cue, routine, and reward. By manipulating routines and rewards, you can replace bad habits with positive habits.

Smarter Faster Better, published earlier this year, goes further by offering practical tips for intentionally boosting your productivity in eight different areas:

  • Motivation
  • Team-building
  • Focus
  • Goal-setting
  • Managing others
  • Decision-making
  • Innovation
  • Absorbing data

Captivating stories bring each chapter’s lessons to life. I was most impressed by Chapter Three, Focus: Cognitive Tunneling: Air France Flight 447, and the Power of Mental Models. It’s one of the most compelling stories I’ve read. (When the first line of a chapter begins, “When they finally found the wreckage, it was clear that few of the victims had realized disaster was near even as it struck,” you know you’re in for an engaging reading experience.)

The above is Duhigg’s way of introducing the way our brains rely on “cognitive automations” that let us choose, almost subconsciously, what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

The problem is that, unless we monitor this reactive thinking, our habits and reactions can overpower our judgment. The story, told through the pilot and co-pilot’s words recovered from the ocean floor, is followed by another aviation story that describes a similar situation that lead to a positive outcome.

The story of Quantas Flight 32 describes the importance of mental modeling, by “developing the habit of telling ourselves stories about what’s going on around us, we learn how to sharpen where our attention goes.” In this case, with the majority of the plane’s engines disabled and the plane’s computer giving conflicting advice, the captain used mental modeling to ask himself “What would I do if this was a small private plane?”

By drawing upon a familiar mental model, and disregarding the conflicting advice from the plane’s computers, the pilot was able to safely land the plane. The chapter concludes, “To become genuinely productive, we must take control of our attention; we must build mental models that put us firmly in charge.”

To become genuinely productive, we must build mental models that put us firmly in charge says @cduhigg. Click To Tweet

Each chapter communicates its lessons in a similar way, using stories that drive home its lessons.

Overworked and Overwhelmed [The mindfulness alternative] by Scott Eblin


Scott Eblin is an executive productivity coach and trainer who has 20 years of experience working with thousands of executives at all levels of corporate responsibility. His experiences, since the introduction of the 24/7 smartphone world, have lead him to conclude that “professionals today are so busy doing things that they often don’t see what needs to be done.”

He defines mindfulness as the intersection of awareness and intention: Awareness involves paying attention to what’s going on around you, and inside you, at any given moment. Being aware enables you to act in the moment with the intention of creating a particular outcome or result.

Overworked and Overwhelmed shares simple, practical, and applicable routines that will help you align your work and the rest of your life with the results that matter most. The emphasis isn’t on “overnight transformation,” but small steps that, when taken consistently over time, lead to big results. As he points out, “If you improve the quality of your life by 5 percent in the next month, in six months you’re going to be 30 percent more effective.”

Small steps that, when taken consistently over time, lead to big results says @ScottEblin. Click To Tweet

Overworked and Overwhelmed contains 14 chapters, organized in four sections:

  • Part One focuses on helping you define the nature and sources of the overworked and overwhelmed state you put yourself in. It helps you recognize the choice between mindful and mindless living. The last chapter in the section shares some basic information about your brain — your “operating system.”
  • Part Two provides a framework for you to paint the picture of what your life would look like if you weren’t overwhelmed and overworked. It introduces the Life GPS® personal planning model that integrates all aspects of your life. Chapter Five addresses the question, “How are you at your best?” This will help you clarify your version of peak performance.
  • Part Three is Overworked and Overwhelmed’s action and resource center. These six chapters help you answer the question, “What are the simple, practical, and immediately applicable routines that will enable you to show up at your best?” Each chapter includes a coach’s corner to help you review and act on the information.
  • Part Four wraps up by helping you integrate mindfulness into all aspects of your life, and offers advice for continuing your journey.

The author’s experience as an executive coach and trainer is reflected in the way hundreds of ideas are grouped into chapters that logically build on each other.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport


Deep Work introduces a compelling concept certain to resonate with anyone interested in training their brain for content marketing greatness.

It starts by describing the new economy where “stars” are worth the often hefty incremental fees they can charge because they can get significantly more done in less time than their almost-as-good competitors.

What does it take to be a star in the new economy? Cal Newport summarizes two key characteristics:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed

What gives the stars their ability to quickly master hard things and produce at an elite level?

The starting point is to acknowledge the technology-fed distractions of today’s business world. As Newport puts it: “… deep work struggles to compete against the shiny thrum of tweets, “likes,” tagged photos, walls, posts, and all the other behaviors that we’re now taught are necessary.”

The brain, marvelous as it is, has limited working memory. “Stars” are those who take maximum advantage of their brain’s limited working memory. They resist the lure of wasting their working memory on easy tasks that only provide short-term accomplishment but don’t contribute to their long-term goals. Newport calls this “busyness.”

Instead, they are committed to a harder path. They structure their workday and habits in ways that allow them time to “go deep,” i.e., focus their attention, part of each day on projects that contribute to their long-term success. This frees their brain to observe and create the connections required for creative breakthroughs.

Deep Work is not a textbook, however. It’s filled with anecdotes and stories, like the way Carl Jung had the only key to the Swiss retreat where he was able to focus on countering Freud’s theories. It also describes the specific steps Newport took on his journey to maximum productivity and the rewards he currently enjoys as a result. By being able to “go deep” on demand, he annually publishes three times as many research papers as the typical adjunct professor, yet he manages to go home — work free — at 5:30 each evening.

Tips for training your brain for content marketing greatness

Here are 10 steps to consider, based on the principles in the four books and my own personal experiences.

1. Eliminate uncertainty. Procrastination and stress come from fear of the unknown. You’re setting yourself up for failure if you leave choosing topics and titles until the last minute. Instead, select a different theme for each month that you’ll address through your various content and social media channels. Likewise, choose headlines and titles for weekly projects as far in advance as possible. Making these decisions engages your brain before you start to write.

2. Get an early start. Stress is another by-product of procrastination. Progress builds its own momentum. I encourage you to create a file for each upcoming blog post as soon as possible. Add the title, the mission statement, subheads for the main ideas, and the next-step call to action. Print the framework, and jot down ideas in it as they occur to you throughout your day. Review the printout just before you go to sleep, and upon rising. Update your files and print out a fresh copy as you continue to add ideas before you start to write.

3. Establish realistic expectations. Beginning today, track how much time you spend on planning and writing your blog posts, preparing graphics, and promoting your content. You may be surprised to find that you’re trying to do too much in too short a time. Avoid impatience. Remember the learning curve you went through while learning how to play baseball or ride your bicycle. Content marketing requires the same type of practice to become proficient.


4. Give yourself more deadlines. Paradoxically, the best way to avoid the frustration, stress, and lost opportunities caused by last-minute deadlines is to give yourself more deadlines. Instead of an overall project deadline, break your projects into tasks, and assign a start date and due date for each phase of your project.

5. Isolate yourself. Deep work requires isolation — even if it’s only for 30 minutes a day. Recent research shows that each time you’re interrupted during a working session, it takes 25 minutes to get back on track.

When you’re interrupted during a working session, it takes 25 minutes to get back on track says @rogercparker. Click To Tweet

6. Reduce your workload. Do less. Delegate tasks like research, graphics, or promotion of your content. Doing less benefits you by allowing you to do a better job on the tasks where you excel.

7. Get an outside perspective. Avoid publishing content immediately after you finish it. Allow a couple of hours to go by before rereading it. Read your post out loud to locate long sentences. Print your post rather than trying to proof it on-screen. Your brain is good at supplying missing words; after all, you know what you meant to say. Finally, whenever possible, invite your coworkers or a professional editor to review your work from a fresh perspective.

8. Focus on outcomes. It’s not what you’re selling that matters, it’s your ideal client’s frustrations, problems, and priorities that matter. Frequently review and update your buyer personas to make sure your message is relevant to your ideal prospects.

9. Invest in relationships. Avoid creating content in a vacuum. Call, ask, and present as often as possible. Speak to your clients and prospects. Ask probing, open-ended questions. Attend events and converse with speakers and attendees. Listen more than you talk.

10. Follow the metrics. Measure and track traffic, shares, and conversions. Focus on topics with the highest relevance to your priority prospects. Test topics, headlines, and titles as early as possible. This helps you avoid wasting time preparing content your ideal prospects aren’t interested in.

Most importantly, commit to constant improvement. As Joe Pulizzi often emphasizes, “Content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint!”

How are you going to train your brain?

Are you ready to go deep and train your brain to be more productive?

What’s your next step? I encourage you to visit the Amazon page displaying each book. Be sure to click the “Look Inside” cover image. In most cases, the sample content will include a table of contents, sample content from one or more chapters, plus selections from the index. While you’re there, explore some of the related books described as recommended or “often purchased with.”

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute