Lessons Learnt

How Maria Popova Builds Discipline, Routine & Discovery into her Work

In our latest edition of Lessons Learnt, we have Maria Popova, a writer, blogger, and cultural critic; most widely known for her online publication, Brain Pickings, described as “an inventory of the meaningful life.”

What started out in 2006 as a weekly newsletter to a small group of friends has blossomed into an online phenomenon and glimpse into Maria’s never-ending journey to satisfy her curiosity and find meaning “intellectually, creatively, spiritually, poetically.”

Don’t let other people’s ideas of success and good or meaningful work filter your perception of what you want to do. Listen to your heart and mind’s purpose; keep listening to that and even when the “shoulds” get really loud, try to stay in touch with what you hear within yourself.


With over a million monthly readers and featuring a staggering amount of content, both curated and original works by Maria, Brain Pickings covers a wide range of topics, including literature, science, art, philosophy, culture and much more.

After studying Maria Popova and learning how she’s grown Brain Pickings from a tiny newsletter to a media empire, there are a number of valuable lessons I’ve learnt around routine and discipline, staying in discovery mode, writing for an audience of one, combinational creativity and more.

Lessons Learnt is a series by Balance the Grind profiling individuals, brands or companies that inspire us. For more profiles, check them out here.

Lesson 1: Stay in discovery mode

The only way Maria is able to create and curate so many content pieces for her audience is by reading. A lot of reading. In an interview Copyblogger about writing, she said broke down her non-stop consumption process:

  • Long-form reading at the gym, with pens and Post-Its for highlighting tidbits.
  • Scans the news while she’s eating.
  • Listens to podcasts on philosophy, science or design while commuting on her bike.

However, the key to this consumption is that she’s not necessarily researching, “in the sense that one deliberately sets out to find something already of interest.” Maria is always on discovery mode, reading on a wide range of topics and letting different ideas to connect and flourish in her, a concept known as ‘combinatorial creativity.’

Researching with a purpose is great, but sometimes it’s also good to just stay in discovery mode and your mind wander. Some of my best ideas have come from reading something completely random, and connecting it with my usual subject matters.

We tend to conflate “research” with search, which is always driven by looking for something you already know you’re interested in; but I think the richest “research” is driven by discovery, that intersection of curiosity and serendipity that lets you expand your intellectual and creative comfort zone beyond what you already knew you were looking for.

Here’s How Maria Popova of Brain Pickings Writes | Copyblogger

Lesson 2: Write for yourself first

Even with over a million monthly readers, and many more millions of pageviews per month, Maria views Brain Pickings as “simply a record of my own curiosity, of my personal journey into what matters in the world and why.”

She writes for herself, first and foremost, and has grown a vast community over the years of people who are curious and want to learn about the same topics. Maria never claims to be an expert in any of the topics she covers, she’s just learning.

This is something that I’ve embraced as I’ve built up Balance the Grind. I’m not an expert in work-life balance, productivity, company cultures, or anything those things. I’m just a life-long learner trying to surround myself with smart, interesting people.

Every article I write on Balance the Grind, I’m learning as I go along. These topics are genuinely interesting to me, and I write for myself, first and foremost. If there are people out there who find anything I publish interesting, then that’s a bonus, but if not, that’s ok too, I’m just going to keep writing for myself.

I post the ideas that reflect what I’m interested in, that augment how I see the world. I see myself as recording the process of my own education rather than sharing ideas. Brain Pickings is first and foremost for my own enhancement.

Maria Popova is a brain picker | Dumbo Feather

Lesson 3: Build routine and discipline into your work

In a 2012 profile for the New York Times, Maria shared a typical day in her life, which included: starting every day with a workout – 20 chin ups, 50 push ups, then a series of planks and stretches. She then gets on the elliptical where she does her reading and research. After that, she’ll returns to her apartment where she’ll begin an endless cycle of more reading, publishing and updating social media, all while balancing on a wobble board.

Routine and discipline form the backbone of Maria Popova’s success. There’s no other way to run a website as big as Brain Pickings with only one person. Each month, she dedicates over 400 hours; made up of reading hundreds of things every day, publishing three blog posts a day, and relentlessly updating her social media networks.

For a content creator, building a routine has helped me immensely with forming a daily writing habit. As I write this now, it’s 5.30am on a Sunday morning, but getting up early every day to write is now part of my life, and there are no more excuses good enough to stay in bed (even though I’m slightly hungover from the night before).

Because the volume of what I need to get done in a day is so enormous, I’m super disciplined and there’s a routine to my day that helps center and move me along. It’s pretty much always the same day.

Maria Popova on The Great Discontent (TGD) | The Great Discontent

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.