Productivity Tips from Jane Eyre and Sherlock Holmes

Jane Eyre's cousin Eliza and Sherlock Holmes dish out some tough love and productivity tips.

Sometimes when I'm reading a book, I stumble upon an idea which feels like bumping into an old friend in a crowd. I'm a productivity nerd – I think about accountability, organization, systems and processes of productivity all day – and suggest them to other people too. So when you see these familiar thoughts in a book that's hundreds of years old, you realize how connected we are across the ages.

For example, just this week, I was rereading Jane Eyre after several years, and came across an interesting instance of time blocking.

Jane Eyre - A true masterpiece. Sitting atop a park bench in Oxford.
Photo by Hannah Smith / Unsplash

Eliza Reed's Time Blocking in Jane Eyre

Eliza Reed is the eponymous heroine Jane Eyre's detestable cousin. Eliza and Jane don't have the best relationship – and no surprise, since Eliza, together with her family, cruelly bullied the poor orphaned Jane as a child.

As she grows up, Eliza becomes prim and uptight. At one point, she gives her frivolous sister Georgiana, of whom she deeply disapproves, the following advice:

Have you no sense to devise a system which will make you independent of all efforts, and all wills, but your own? Take one day; share it into sections; to each section apportion its task: leave no stray unemployed quarters of an hour, ten minutes, five minutes—include all; do each piece of business in its turn with method, with rigid regularity. The day will close almost before you are aware it has begun; and you are indebted to no one for helping you to get rid of one vacant moment: you have had to seek no one’s company, conversation, sympathy, forbearance; you have lived, in short, as an independent being ought to do. Take this advice: the first and last I shall offer you; then you will not want me or any one else, happen what may.

If you don't like time blocking 1840s style, Cal Newport tells you how to do it today, and why you should plan every minute of each day.

Cal is much nicer about it too, and doesn't tell you, as Eliza does, "Neglect it—go on as heretofore, craving, whining, and idling—and suffer the results of your idiocy, however bad and insufferable they may be." Ouch!

Though Eliza is not a sympathetic character, and the author gives her this dialogue merely so Jane Eyre can wonder at the strange way Eliza chooses to lead her life, I must admit I have a soft corner for the time blocking nun of Gateshead.

Photo by Keiteu Ko / Unsplash

Sherlock Holmes's organizational system

We have Notion, Roam Research, Obsidian, and other spiffy tools to organize our "second brain", to cultivate a personal garden of interlinked documents and ideas.

In the gray gloom of the London of the 1800s, Sherlock Holmes relies on his extensive reading to solve problems that befuddle Scotland Yard. Several stories hinge on Holmes's knowledge of arcane trivia. (Spoiler ahead!)

For example, in The Adventure of the Lion's Mane (also noted for being one of the few stories narrated by Holmes himself, rather than Watson), the mystery is solved when Homes connects a phrase uttered by a dying man, "the lion's mane," to the Lion's Mane Jellyfish.

Holmes says, "I am an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles. That phrase 'the Lion's Mane' haunted my mind. I knew that I had seen it somewhere in an unexpected context."

Incidentally, this is rather contradictory, because in the beginning of the series, in A Study in Scarlet, Watson is astounded to learn that Holmes doesn't know the earth circumlocutes the sun. At this time, Holmes claims that the brain is like "a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort ... Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic ... It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

This begs the question of how one is supposed to know what esoteric botantical or biological fact will come in handy for some future investigation – on what basis did Holmes decide to accept the trivia of the Lion's Mane jellyfish into his brain-attic?

But of course, the Adventure of the Lion's Mane was towards the end of Holmes's long career, and A Study in Scarlet is the beginning, so one can assume he changed his mind along the way – or Conan Doyle did.

Anyway, to organize this mass of trivia and potentially useful information, Holmes uses a system that will be familiar to Second Brain fans, a filing system he calls his "index." In A Scandal in Bohemia, Watson says, "For many years he had adopted a system of docketing all paragraphs concerning men and things, so that it was difficult to name a subject or a person on which he could not at once furnish information." Holmes delves into this whenever he needs information on anything.

I would love to make a compilation of this wisdom from the classics! Please write in if you can think of more such!

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