Below is a transcript from today’s episode of my podcast, The Weekly Briefly. You can listen to the episode here.
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On my weekly newsletter, The Fight Spot, I ask people what their biggest challenge is related to focus and doing their best creative work.
One very common issue is the issue of having more ideas than time. People have so many interesting, exciting, or important projects they are working on that they don’t know where to start. They feel overwhelmed by options. They have too much to do. And so one very common question is “How do I get it all done?”
Last summer, I was in San Francisco for WWDC, and I was talking about this issue with a friend. He’s an iPhone app developer and he literally has dozens of apps and web services out there. I ask him how he juggles his focus and priorities.
For me, at times I feel stretched thin with “just” my 3 websites and podcast. I know that I do my best work when I am head down and focused on just one project and it’s all I think about until I’m done.
But sometimes that’s not an option (or is it?).
My friend said that to have multiple projects you have to be okay with letting one or more of them be neglected for a time while you work on the others. And, in his experience, coming back to an app and working hard to ship a big update, he often wouldn’t even see a big spike in new sales. So the update wasn’t even worth it all that much in terms of the short term, only.
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Let me start by saying that I don’t know the answer, here. There isn’t one universal rule here. You have to trust your gut and know your situation to make the call if you’re going to keep juggling many projects or if you’re going to let some go to focus on one.
That said, for those of us who have several projects and ideas all going at the same time, how do we juggle them?
Here are some suggestions:
Identify your roles and goals: you need balance in your life, so step back and identify your roles (parent, boss, employee, self-improver, etc.) And make sure that you’re not spending the vast majority of your time in just one of those roles.
Reduce the scope: consider scaling back what “1.0” looks like, so it’s something that is attainable. And consider lowering your bar of perfectionism — my friend Sean McCabe says we ought to aim for 90% complete (instead of 99%).
Reduce your project load: do you have to be doing all the projects right now? Can one or more of them be put on pause? Instead of doing three projects all simultaneously, can you do one at a time? Even on a week-to-week basis?
Get help: consider delegating and/or hiring others to help you.
Learn to say no to your own ideas: In The Focus Course, there is a day dedicated to ideation and strengthening our creative imagination. One of the benefits to this exercise is that you learn you have more ideas than time, and you don’t have to be a slave to your good ideas. We all will have ideas that we want to do, but the existence of them doesn’t mean we are now obligated to flesh them out.
Spend less time on counterfeit rest: things like television, video games, social media, mindless internet surfing — these things can be time sinks. Moreover, they don’t leave us feeling refreshed, motivated, or recharged. You most definitely need breaks and time to rest, but there are some great ways to do it other than zoning out.
Plan ahead: your productive tomorrow starts today. What is one thing you can do now that will improve life for your future self? Go to bed on time, set out your clothes for tomorrow, write down the first thing you’re going to do when you sit down to work in the morning, etc. This will give you a head start on your projects.
“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life’s made of.”
– Benjamin Franklin
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Protip: There are four ways to help yourself avoid squandering time:
- Plan ahead (make a schedule)
- Awareness of how you tend to spend your time
- Don’t be dumb
Regarding (1): There are a lot of resources available to help you improve how you spend your time. Heck, I’m building an entire course to help you be more focused and do more meaningful work (and then some).
Regarding (4): well, that’s up to you.
Regarding (2) and (3): There’s an online service called Rescue Time that I think is pretty awesome.
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In the past 8 weeks, I’ve logged more than 400 hours of my time using Rescue Time. They say hindsight is 20/20, and the Rescue Time service is a way to see how you’re actually spending your time. Its insight and data can help you make better decisions about what you do with your day.
In a nut, Rescue Time is an online service that tracks and categorizes how you spend your time. It’s ideal for folks who spend most of their time working from a computer.
You start by signing up on their website. Then you download and install the app to your Mac (they’ve a PC version as well), and then you register the app with your online account.
Once your computer is connected, you create your profile. Rescue Time asks you what your top three most distracting activities are and what your top three most productive activities are.
I put (a) Social Networking, (b) News & Opinion, and (c) Shopping as my top three most distracting activities.
Then I put (a) Reference & Learning, (b) Design & Composition, and (c) Business as my top three most productive activities.
I also asked Rescue Time to prompt me for time spent away from my computer. This way, when I return to my Mac after taking a lunch break, reading break, or going for a run, the Rescue Time app will prompt me to ask what I was doing while I was away.
Once your Rescue Time profile is created, you’ll have some default preferences set up for you. The two goals Rescue time starts you with are:
- More than 2 hours spent daily on your first-listed, most productive activity.
- Less than 2 hours spent on all of your most-distracting activities combined.
I changed my first goal to be 2 hours spent on writing each day. I feel like all the things which fall into my top 3 categories would easily be accomplished in 2 hours and then some. I wanted to try and have 2 hours focused just on writing itself. This is, for me, my most important thing every day.
Unfortunately, after my first week, I didn’t hit my goal. [Shakes fist in the air.] But it turns out Rescue Time was set to average my goal of 2 hours of writing across a 24/7 schedule. Since I take Saturday and Sunday off, that was messing with my average. So I adjusted the goal to be 2 hours/day between Monday-Friday 6am-8pm. And boom.
For the first week I tried to log all of my offline time including sleep and personal time in the mornings before sitting down at my desk. That proved to be tedious. So I just stopped logging sleeping hours. I’m not going to try and let Rescue Time keep tabs on all 168 hours of my week, just the ones when I’m at the computer.
It’s been 8 weeks now, and twice I’ve gone in to my Rescue Time dashboard to fine tune the categories and productivity score (between 1-5) of my activities. For example, I do a lot of basic note taking and writing in Simplenote (I’m doing my initial notes for this Rescue Time review right now, in Simplenote). But Rescue Time defaulted to seeing Simplenote as being a Business-related activity, not a writing-related one. Well, I want Simplenote to count toward my 2 hour goal of writing.
This is easily changed when viewing the activity page for Simplenote: I just Edited it and changed what activity category it should fall under. I also changed its level of productivity (on a scale of 1-5 from very distracting to very productive).
The productivity level of each activity contributes to the overall “productivity score” that you receive at the end of the week. Right now for the 8 weeks I’ve been using Rescue Time, my overall productivity score is 79. Which I think is pretty good.
I know there is some margin of error in there. For example, not all the time I spend on Twitter is distracting. But sometimes it is. I suppose that to keep a clear distinction between “productive Twitter” and “distracting Twitter” I could set the twitter.com website as distracting and Tweetbot as productive. But that’s easier said than done when it comes to keeping yourself on track. So I just let Twitter be distracting and try not to be too productive on there lest I feel cheated.
For the paid, Pro level of Rescue Time you can choose to have certain websites blocked. This is called “Get Focused”.
So far as I can tell, when you “Get Focused” it only blocks websites. Which means you can still launch certain apps. So, for instance, twitter.com would be blocked but Tweetbot still works.
(Matt Gemmell has an article about this, and shares about some certain apps that run on your computer and full-on block websites and APIs and apps and more.)
The slight conundrum about Rescue Time’s Get Focused tab is that things like checking Twitter and email are a mixed bag. I often use Twitter for productive work, but also it can be a time sink. So it’s not this one-to-one direct ratio where Twitter equals unproductive every time. But it can be unproductive. And I think having at least a little bit of understanding about how much time I tend to spend on Twitter can be helpful to keep myself on track.
When you’ve met a goal you can get an alert, or when you’ve spent too much time on “distracting” activities, you can get an alert. I’ve gotten pretty good at hitting my daily goal of writing for 2 hours, so I don’t get an alert for that. But I get an alert if I spend more than one hour on distracting activities.
Also, Rescue time works with Zapier. I haven’t figured out just how I’m going to exploit this, but it’s awesome nonetheless. You could use it to log your WordPress blog posts, MailChimp email campaigns sent, and who knows what else.
As I mentioned earlier, Rescue Time knows when I’m away from my computer via inactivity. Which is awesome and kind-of annoying. When I come back to my Mac, Rescue Time prompts me to categorize the activity I was doing while away.
I can define and set these categories so that my time away options suit my most common time away activities. And I can give a description detail about the time away if I want.
Some other apps I’ve used for time tracking like this don’t do a great job at watching when I’m away. And so they’ll say that I spent 5 hours one day in OmniFocus b/c I left that as the frontmost app when walking away from my computer or something like that.
Since I try to spend a good amount of my time reading and working away from my Mac, I like that I can still log that time and have it count.
One thing I don’t like about Rescue Time is how bent it is on office work as the center of everything. I had to go to the Miscellaneous category and create two new sub-categories: one for “Family” and another for “Personal”. And then I had to set those as “Productive” times. Oy.
I’m not sure if Rescue Time assumes I treat family time as non-productive (as if time with my family means time when I’m not doing anything of value) or if they just assume that I don’t take breaks in my day to be with my family.
But for me, I often take breaks in the afternoon and into the evening to be with my kids. (It’s a huge reason why I quit my job 4 years ago to work from home.) But then I may come back to my computer in the evening to wrap up some tasks or work on photos or something. Rescue Time’s default was to log that Family time as uncategorized and neutral. But no way — it’s just as much a valid use of my time as writing is.
So, that said, my biggest gripe against Rescue Time is its bias toward defining productive as “working”. But with a little bit of customizing my reports and categories, I’ve been able to change the definition of Productivity to something more along the lines of “doing what’s important”. (Now that’s what I call meaningful productivity.)
Rescue Time and the Small Wins
And this ties in with something I wrote about a while ago regarding celebrating progress.
Acknowledging our daily progress is a way to strengthen our inner work life. In our efforts to create meaningful work, it can be easy to get lost in the mundaneness of our day-to-day.
And so, one way we can thrive in the midst of the daily chaos is to recognize the few things we did today that made progress on meaningful work or that strengthened an important area of our lives.
When we take the time to celebrate our small victories — to celebrate progress — then we are re-wiring our brain (our thought process) to seek out the reward found in doing meaningful work instead of the quick-fix high we get from putting out meaningless fires and filling our time with busywork.
I’m an advocate of journaling my daily progress as a way to give myself a daily boost of confidence and motivation. Which then impacts my behavior to keep on doing the important work, which leads to better and better results and increased performance.
Rescue Time plays a role here as well. It’s a 3rd-party telling me that I met my daily goals and had a productive day / week. Rescue Time’s report is mostly just the amalgamation of time spent in productive and very productive categories. But since I’ve defined those categories and their level of “productivity” for me, I trust the reports and use them to boost my own motivation.
Having a 3rd-party service track your time may sound crazy to you. But I think it’s worth it, if even for a short season. It’s not always easy to view our habits, workflows, and calendars objectively. But if we can learn about how we spend our time and use that knowledge to rescue even just 15 or 30 minutes a day, wow! That time adds up fast.
As I was getting the links for this article put together, I discovered Rescue Plan has an affiliate program. If you want to sign up for the Pro account, use this link and I get a small kickback. Their free plan is great, too. And a good way to test the waters. Thanks!
On a recent edition of The Fight Spot, I wrote about one of the aspects of doing our best creative work: stepping out of the echo chamber.
The dictionary definition of echo chamber is “an enclosed space for producing reverberation of sound.”
An enclosed place where the majority of what you hear is unoriginal (a multi-dimensional repeating of what was once said) and whatever you say is echoed back to you.
Echo Chamber is also a metaphor. Here’s the Wikipedia definition: In media, an echo chamber is a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored or disallowed.
By nature, each of us tend to sit in the center of our own echo chamber.
When we get too absorbed in the platform, the new, and the feedback, then the echo chamber becomes the place where we compare ourselves by ourselves. It becomes noisy. Inspiration runs dry. Our creativity gets stifled. We grow cynical and sarcastic. And it serves as an ever-present distraction and pacifier from doing work that matters.
When we look to the echo chamber as our sole source of inspiration, it’s like looking to a bag of chips for our sole source of nourishment. The constant barrage of our timelines and inboxes — those “little updates” — are like snacks and junk food. They will fill you up but they are not a significant form of nourishment.
How can you become a voice — how can you provide something original, unique, and valuable — when all your inputs are unoriginal echoes?
The inspiration and motivation needed for your best creative work will not come from the echo chamber.
Limit your feeds and inboxes. Subscribe only to the people and sources of input that enrich your life and give you the motivation and tools to do your best creative work.
Seek out inspiration from offline sources. Such as books, nature, conferences, silence, prayer and meditation, relationships, journaling, building your own projects, etc.
Create something every day. Write in your journal, come up with 10 ideas, take a photograph, draw a sketch, etc.
Curate what you share. Be a source of motivation, encouragement, and equipping to those who follow you. Put thought into the work you publish. Even your tweets and Facebook updates can be nuggets that motivate, equip, and encourage.
A Challenge to You
At some point this week, do one of these things:
Unsubscribe from one RSS feed or email newsletter, or unfollow one person on Twitter or Facebook.
(You should feel free to unsubscribe from my site / newsletter / unfollow me on Twitter — if what I am writing isn’t helpful to you at this time, or isn’t providing you with the motivation and tools to do your best creative work, then cut it out. You only have so much time, and the last thing I want is to be a non-helpful source of input in your day.)
- Take 15 minutes to find inspiration from an offline source. Read a chapter from a favorite book, put your phone in another room and just sit in silence, take a walk outside, etc.
Create something. Write a journal entry, take a photograph, draw something, come up with 10 ideas for little ways you can show your friends and family how much you love them (you don’t even have to act on the 10 ideas you come up with).
Do something to encourage or equip someone else.
Before you move on from this article, decide which one of the above challenges you’re going to do and make a time in your week for when you’re going to do it.
Is the stay-at-home dad who spends most of his day changing diapers and cleaning up messes any less productive than his wife who is the CEO of a charity organization?
Productivity tends to be defined by how well we use our task management systems, how organized our calendar app is, how fast we can blaze through a pile of emails, and how fluidly we flow from one meeting to the next. But those metrics can skew toward rewarding effective busywork while giving little dignity to meaningful work.
What if we started defining productivity differently?
Less focus on our party trick of balancing many plates at once.
More focus on consistently giving our time and attention to the things which are most important.
When Ray Bradbury was first staring out as a writer, he thought the path to success was to do what everyone else was doing. He found inspiration in other people’s work, but he lacked originality. It wasn’t until later in his career that he began to discover what he called the truths beneath his skin and behind his eyes.
Last Wednesday on The Fight Spot, I wrote about removing ourselves from the Echo Chamber. An echo chamber is “an enclosed space for producing reverberation of sound.”
Have you ever felt that you’re spending too much time in an enclosed place where the majority of what you hear is unoriginal and whatever you say is echoed back to you?
When we get too absorbed in things like the platform, the analytics, the new, and the feedback, then the echo chamber becomes the place where we compare ourselves by ourselves. It’s noisy. Inspiration runs dry. Our creativity gets stifled. We grow cynical and sarcastic. We lose motivation for doing meaningful work; it serves as an ever-present distraction and pacifier from doing work that matters.
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I’m going to ask you a question. And I want you to answer honestly.
Don’t answer to me or to your peers. Don’t answer with what you think you should say. Take a breath and answer honestly to yourself.
Okay, here’s the question:
Do you want to do work that matters?
Pause for a moment.
Think about it.
Okay. One more question:
Are you willing to be foolish?
Pause for a moment.
Think about it.
Are you willing to be foolish in order to do work that matters? Are you willing to fail? To be honest with others? Are you willing to create something even when life is still messy? Are you willing to take risks? Are you willing to put your work out there even when you’re afraid it might not work? Are you willing to try something different than what everyone else is doing because your gut says “why not”? Are you willing to make space in your schedule so you can show up and create something every day?
In our heart, we say, “Yes!” Then we tell ourselves we’ll start tomorrow.
Most of us want to do work that matters. But most of us don’t want to be foolish. At least, not right now. Or, we’re okay with being foolish so long as it’s calculated, planned out, polished, and then distilled down to the lowest common denominator until it’s so insipid it couldn’t possibly be confused as foolishly original.
Here’s a tip: it’s easier to be foolish and to take risks when you are surrounded by people who are also being foolish and taking risks.
If you want to do work that matters, then run from the risk averse and put yourself right in the middle of the foolish crowd.
How can you become a voice — how can you provide something original, unique, and valuable — when all your inputs are unoriginal echoes?
As you may or may not know, a few weeks ago I started an email newsletter. It’s called The Fight Spot. It goes out every Wednesday (like today!), and it’s about creativity, focus, and risk. All of which are moving targets; all of which are a fight.
Over the past several weeks, many of the The Fight Spot newsletters, plus several blog posts here on shawnblanc.net, as well as some Shawn Today and Weekly Briefly podcast episodes, have been on the topic of procrastination.
A lot of you have emailed me or tweeted to say thanks for these articles. Such as Ryan, who wrote me to share this:
I’m typically one who will skim an email and archive it, but this is one I’ve already read multiple times and it’s still in my inbox. It’s likely going to end up as a pinned note in Evernote so I can refer back to it often. This is exactly the kind of thing I strive to consider and focus on… this is the perfect reminder to keep focused on the essential.
I wanted to put all the procrastination-centric content together into a single document. It’s called The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress.
It’s a completely free, refined and organized PDF version of all the blog posts, newsletters, and podcast episodes I’ve been putting out there related to procrastination over the past month.
It’s 40-pages long, 8,500 words and change, and is comprised of 13 short sections.
On Monday I sent the guide out to everyone on The Fight Spot newsletter list and the feedback has been great.
Here’s what Greg Colker wrote me to say about the guide:
This morning I read the Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress and it’s really good! I love how concise it is and yet packed with the best principles for being the best person you can be. I also like that you included a suggestion to pay attention to procrastination, to learn from it. That’s important, but often overlooked.
If you want to subscribe to The Fight Spot newsletter, I’ll send you The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress for free:
I was scared to death to tell everyone I was quitting my job to try and be a full-time “blogger”.
I had been writing this site on the side for several years, but in 2011 I decided to quit my job as a creative and marketing director. I quit so I could write here as my full-time gig.
Aside from the fear of rejection, the fear that my membership drive would be a colossal embarrassment, and the fear that I was throwing my future away, one of the things I feared most was that I’d run out of things to write about.
That was four years ago. The fears about rejection, the membership drive, and my wasted future all turned out to be for naught. As did the fear of running out of things to write about.
What I didn’t anticipate was just how easy it could be for a full-time writer to never actually write.
About two months ago, as the holiday season was winding down and the new year was upon us, I realized something about my morning work routine. I was spending the best part of my day checking inboxes and analytics.
Every day when I came downstairs to my office to work, my first instinct was to check all the things. Were there any urgent @replies? What about urgent emails? What was our website traffic like yesterday? How much did we make on affiliate income?
I told myself these stats were important metrics, and it was okay to check them right away. Who knows if someone may have emailed me with a problem on one of my websites that I needed to know about as soon as possible?
In truth, there were never any urgent emails or Twitter replies. Traffic and income were almost always exactly what they always were. And the process of checking all these inboxes and statistics usually would spiral into an hour or more of just surfing.
I was wasting the best part of my day.
This was not how I wanted to spend the first hours of my work day.
Which is why I decided to change my habits.
I made a commitment that every morning I would write for 30 minutes no matter what. This writing time would be the first thing I did each morning when I started my work day.
Additionally, I committed that I would not check any statistics or inboxes until at least 9am. I start my work day at 7:30am, so I knew I had a good 90 minutes of time where my only goal was to write, think, or plan.
Lastly, I started playing the same music every morning during my 30 minutes of writing time. I have a soundtrack playlist on Rdio. I’d put on my headphones and hit play on that playlist.
For the first several days, it was a mental workout. My mind rebelled. I literally went into inbox withdrawal. I wanted to check the inboxes and the stats. But I would keep my commitment to write for 30 minutes no matter what. If I every finished writing at 8:59am, I would wait one more minute — until it was 9:00am — before I moved on and began checking the stats and the inboxes.
It took about a week before began to get into the groove. When I’d walk into my office I knew that the first thing I was going to do was write. It didn’t matter if I wanted to or not. I was committed to write for at least half an hour.
Before I made this habit change, I was usually writing 500 to 1,000 words every day. But I didn’t have an exact time for when I’d do my writing, nor did I have a clear idea for what I’d be writing about. It was hit or miss, honestly. Some days I didn’t write at all. And I certainly wasn’t making daily, iterative progress on my long-term writing goals.
However, since I made this change a month ago I’ve written over 40,000 words.
40,000 words in one month.
I’m glad I decided to change my morning habits.
I still am keeping my commitment to write for 30 minutes no matter what. But those 30 minutes almost always spill over. Most days I write for 2 to 3 hours in the morning. Sometimes more. And I often spend an hour writing in the afternoon as well because I have so much momentum left over from what I began working on that morning.
This is funny to me.
Because here I am writing a book about living with diligence and focus. And yet I realized I was not being very focused with my writing habit, nor was I working with clear goals in mind. Sure, I was writing every day, but I wasn’t doing my best creative work.
All throughout my book I hit on this one very important point: focus and diligence are moving targets.
We never just “get it”. It’s something we always have to be working on, reassessing, and re-evaluating. But it’s worth the work. If we make a small change that brings us just a slight increase to our productivity and creativity, the returns we’ll get over the course of our lives will be immeasurable.
The worst assumption I could make would be that I have it all together. That I have it all worked out and never have to change my lifestyle, habits, or work routines.
If I had assumed that, then I never would have realized I’m not reaching my best potential in this season of life. By making a small change (to write for 30 minutes each morning before checking Twitter) I drastically increased the quantity and quality of my creative output every day.
They say that after the age of 30 you begin to reject new technology. The things that existed or were invented before you turned 30 you accept and adapt into your life. But the things invented after you turn 30 you reject as being crazy or evil or who knows what.
If people do that with technology how much more so with lifestyle habits and practices and workflows?
After four years of being a full-time writer, I’m glad I allow myself to reevaluate my workflows and my habits and my routines. These things just degrade over time, and so they need to be evaluated. And I need to keep learning how to do things a little bit better.
My friend, Justin Jackson, wrote an article about the potential pitfalls of following in your heroes’ footsteps. He writes:
As creators, there’s a temptation to seek out our heroes and ask them how they achieved their success. We think if we follow their instructions, we’ll be able to reproduce their winning magic.
Justin goes on to make some excellent points. We can’t follow in the footsteps of our heroes because the path has changed since they first took it. Also, their personality is different than ours. So too their circumstances — perhaps they were single with no kids when they started their company, or perhaps they were 65 when they got started.
However, there are mindsets and lifestyle commitments that we can emulate. What where the underlying principles that led them to be consistent, focused, and successful?
I think we could sum it up thusly:
A commitment to honesty and clarity with a bias toward action.
A Commitment to Honesty and Clarity. This means we don’t shy away from the truth of who we want to be, where we are, where we want to go, what capacity we hold, what we want to build, and how we will build it. Don’t shy away from being honest with yourself and finding clarity about your vision, values, goals, and resources.
A Bias Toward Action: This is doing the work. Showing up every day. Focusing on what’s important but not necessarily urgent. Getting things done.
If you’re familiar with Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits, you’ll see that this sums up the first three habits, but especially so the 2nd. The habit of beginning with the end in mind is all about the balance between leadership and management.
Covey writes about how things are created twice: first there is the idea and then there is the manifestation of that idea. First we build with our imagination, then we build with our hands. Both stages of “creating” are vital because we need both clarity and action.
Too much focus on ideas and we’ll never do the work. But too much focus on staying busy and we may find ourselves spinning our wheels without making progress or creating anything of value.
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Coming back to Justin’s article about not following in our heroes’ footsteps. It’s true that our heroes have possibly forgotten the exact path they took (because it was 10 or 20 years ago for them), or that the landscape is different now than it was then, or just the fact that we and our heroes are alltogether different people with different life circumstances, etc.
And so, when we glean from those whom we look up to, the goal isn’t to peer over their shoulder and peek at their to-do list and their agenda. Rather, we should glean from their values, their approach to problem solving, and their work ethic.
And at the end of the day, I believe we’ll find a common denominator amongst so many of the succesful people we look up to. Those who create incredible businesses, who are prolific in their art, who serve others well:
They have a commitment to honesty and clarity, and they have a bias toward action.
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Drilling down a bit further, there are more than a few lists and charts I’ve come across in the reading and study I’ve been doing for my upcoming book. And as I was comparing these lists and charts, two that have stuck out to me are Tony Robbins’ 5 questions as a way to help us with honesty and clarity and then Stephen Covey’s 7 habits as a way to help us with action.
Tony Robbins’ 5 Questions
Marc Benioff’s V2MOM method (Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, Measurements) which are based on Tony Robbins’ five questions help us be honest.
- What do I really want? (Vision)
- What is important about it? (Values)
- How will I get it? (Methods)
- What is preventing me from having it? (Obstacles)
- How will I know I am successful? (Measurements)
Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits
Stephen Covey’s book helps us develop a lifestyle with a bias toward action. The 7 Habits are:
Be Proactive: Taking responsibility and chosing to do something with our life. A commitment to making forward progress — to just getting going. To act instead of be acted on. To cease blaming external circumstances. To be solution oriented. To focus on what we can control and what we can do something about (called our “circle of influence”).
Begin with the End in Mind: Imagination and leadership. Knowing who you want to be and what you wan to do. Also, knowing that vision isn’t enough — we also have to take those ideas and make them a reality. We have to think and act. Plan and do. The need for both leadership and management.
Put First Things First: Have a bias toward action, but have that action be in line with your vision, values, and doing important work and making progress on meaningful work.
Think Win-Win: Life is not a zero-sum game. We can put others first and serve them without endangering our own goals. Cooperation not competition.
Seek first to understand, then to be understood: It’s important to listen with the intent to understand. Don’t be selfish or narcissistic. (This is what Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, is all about.)
Synergize: We go further together. Two heads are better than one. Teamwork, cooperation, open-mindedness. The differences in our peers, co-workers, and family members should be seen as strengths, not weaknesses.
Sharpen the Saw — Being commited to personal growth and renewal in the four areas of our life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.
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As I mentioned above, there are so many lists and methodologies for personal growth and becoming a person who gets things done. None of them are “the only one”. There is no secret potion. Which is why I’ve been trying to see if there’s a common denominator. Is there just a simple concept or idea to keep in the front of mind as we try to stay steady in our pursuit of doing our best creative work?
I think there is. It’s having a commitment to honesty and clarity with a bias toward action.
You’d be hard pressed to find a successful musician, athlete, programmer, designer, writer, singer, or businessman who didn’t have a goal in mind and who didn’t show up every day to practice and work hard.
By the way, I just kicked off The Fight Spot newsletter — my weekly email about creativity, focus, and risk.
If you want to stay in the loop with the creativity and productivity-centric writing I’m doing (as well as be notified when my new book comes out, The Power of a Focused Life), then joining the email list is one of the best ways to be notified.
My grandmother used to say, “don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today.” Tomorrow will have enough craziness of its own, right?
All through high school and college, I pretty much lived the opposite of my grandmother’s advice. Why do now what I can put off until the very last minute?
To play devil’s advocate, in some ways putting off a project or task until the last minute can have some benefits. Eventually you’ll be forced to make a choice: are you going to do the project or not? Assuming you decide to do it, then by nature of waiting until the very last minute, you’ll be forced to focus on it (though probably immediately and under stress). But at least you’ve finally started to work on it and at least you’re focused. Right?
Meh. The disadvantages of procrastination far outweigh the (occasional, if any) advantages there may be. Chances are you’re not doing your best work because you’re feeling stressed and rushed. You have to complete the task by a certain time and so there may not be enough time to do your best work. Moreover, consider the period of procrastination and all the time that was degraded. When you’re putting a project off (deferring it with no clear plan of attack other than “later), your brain won’t let go. You’re operating at a sub-optimal capacity because you’ve got this weight of the undone project and its undefined plan of attack.
You know this. I know this. Yet still we procrastinate. Why?
Why do we procrastinate?
- Because we lack motivation.
- There are other things we’d rather be doing.
- We don’t know what the first step to get started is.
- We’re afraid.
- We’re easily distracted.
- We think we lack the resources to start / complete the task.
- The project feels overwhelming.
- We’re stubborn.
- We have a history of procrastinating and not seeing our tasks through to the end.
Surely the most common reason to procrastinate is a lack of motivation. If we were motivated (or, instead of “motivated”, use the word “excited”) to accomplish a task, then we’d be doing it.
Oftentimes it takes that looming deadline or some other external force to motivate us to finally take care of the task. Or, if it’s a task with no deadline, we may find ourselves putting it off for months, if not years. “I’ll get to it someday,” we tell ourselves.
Meanwhile, there are other things we have no trouble staying motivated to do. Such as making time to eat, sleep, be with our family, read a book, watch a movie, go to the mall, go to our job, play video games, etc. And oftentimes it is these other tasks and hobbies that we turn to when we are procrastinating. For example, instead of cleaning out the garage like we’ve been meaning to, we watch a movie. Or instead of working on the next chapter of our book, we play a video game.
How then do we beat procrastination? Is the answer to only ever work on projects we’re excited about? If you were making a living from your passion, would you never deal with procrastination again?
The adrenaline we get from fresh motivation only lasts so long. It’s awesome while it lasts, but it comes and goes. Don’t blame your tendency to procrastinate and your lack of motivation on external circumstances.
In a few weeks it will be the four-year anniversary of when I quit my job to write for a living. And just a couple days ago I was asked if I ever get tired of writing. My answer was that yes, I often get tired of writing.
When I come to the keyboard to begin writing, a million potential distractions stand at my doorstep. There are many days when I’d rather give in to one of the distractions instead of doing my writing. But I choose not to. I write when I’m tired. I write when I’m uninspired. I write when the weather outside is beautiful. I write when I’m not even sure what to write about.
I have an appointment with my keyboard every day. Every time I cancel that appointment, it becomes all the easier to cancel it again. And then again. And that, my friends, is a slippery slope.
One big myth about creativity is that it cannot be harnessed. That creative folks should float around aimlessly, waiting for the muse to show up. And while I’m all about being able to capture inspiration and ideas whenever and wherever they strike, I’m not about to let my creative life rest on the whims of the muse.
It is silly to think a creative person should live without routine, discipline, or accountability.
The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.
Sure, inspiration often comes when we least expect it, and so by all means, let us allow exceptions to our schedules. But sitting around being idle while in wait for inspiration is a good way to get nothing done. And worse, it is also a way to let the creative juices get stagnant.
My all-time favorite Benjamin Franklin quote is: “Little strokes fell great oaks.”
Everyone longs for major victories and big breakthroughs in their work. But those would never happen if it weren’t for the little progress we take every single day by staying committed and showing up.
In a blog post about his writing process, Seth Godin concluded with the sentiment that there is no “right way” to write. He says: “The process advice that makes sense to me is to write. Constantly. At length. Often.”
And, to quote Ray Bradbury: “Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.”
Procrastination robs us of this. It keeps us from showing up every day. It tells us that instead of showing up every day, we can just cram at the last minute. It tells us that there is always tomorrow. It lies to us, saying that just because we’re ignoring this task again and again doesn’t mean we’ve quit.
The only difference between a quitter and an habitual procrastinator is that the latter is lying to herself.
If what I’m saying is true, then procrastination is perhaps the greatest enemy to producing meaningful work. Because not only does procrastination keep us from doing the work, but in so doing, it also robs us from the process of sitting down every day to be creative. It’s in the day-to-day mundane and difficult work of showing up that our ideas take shape and take flight. It’s in that place that our skills are forged bit by bit.
The path to success (both in our career and in accomplishing our life goals) is rarely glamorous. It’s usually mundane and repetitive. Underachievers will waste their time daydreaming about when their big break will come while they procrastinate doing work they don’t see as important.
Meanwhile, true achievers will do the work, day in and day out, with vision and strategy. I once read that successful people don’t work harder than unsuccessful people; they work much, much harder
Procrastination left unchecked gains momentum
The longer you put something off the easier it becomes. And that unchecked procrastination bleeds over into the other areas of our life.
People who are disciplined with their finances are usually disciplined with their time and diet as well. Having structure and focus in one area of our life gives us clarity and momentum to bring structure to the other areas of our life.
Inversely, when we are unstructured and lacking discipline in one area, that lack of discipline will bleed over to other areas of our life.
Which is why procrastination is far more lethal that we think. By procrastinating, we are lying to ourselves. We say we’ll do something, but when the time comes, we don’t. We put it off.
Breaking your own commitment to yourself causes your subconscious to distrust your conscious. Our personal integrity is eroded just a little bit every time we defer a task, snooze the alarm, or cancel an appointment. Thus, making it increasingly more difficult to follow through with your self-assigned goals, plans, and tasks.
Making consistent progress on our goals is as easy (and difficult) as eating healthy, exercising, and living within our means. Anybody can do it, but most people don’t.
Regaining your personal integrity
Here is a paraphrased excerpt from a book I read years ago that changed my life. The book is by Peter J. Daniels, titled How to Be Motivated All the Time.
This is from the chapter on Deep Personal Integrity (emphasis mine):
“If you are having difficulty in staying motivated all the time, examine closely your personal integrity. Root out past and present commitments you have made and ask yourself the question, ‘Would I treat another person with the same level of integrity I display toward myself?’ My guess is that we treat other people with much more commitment and integrity!
“One of the major reasons we do not remain motivated all the time is we do not retain integrity towards ourselves in the same measure as we do towards others. Highly motivated people are those who keep commitments to others, but who also keep commitments to themselves. That is why they always look and sound so confident and why they achieve and keep on achieving.
“We are good at justifying in the moment when we don’t want to do something.
“When you make a commitment to yourself you decide on a change of attitude. In effect you announce to your whole being that you are going to do something which requires total attention and help. But if you renege on your commitment, in effect you prevent all your conscious and subconscious faculties from completing the task and render them useless. What happens then is, that next time you become excited about the possibilities of a project and make a commitment, your subconscious responses will be slightly slower and less enthusiastic than before. It is as if they remember the previous broken commitments, consider the new project may not be fulfilled and decide that full effort is not required.
“If you continually break commitments you almost bind yourself totally from completing anything because there is no track record of success in your subconscious.
“If it helps, make less commitments to yourself but follow through completely on even the most frivolous. It’s not so stupid to start by placing your shoes in exactly the same position each night without fail. Do this irrespective of what time you get home or how you feel from one day to the next. As crazy as this seems it will actually increase your sense of integrity. You will prove to yourself that you can keep a long-term commitment at the most menial level.”
The difference between motivation and work ethic
The answer for beating procrastination won’t ultimately be found by changing your external circumstances. Now, there are things you can change to help you stay focused (such as quitting the Twitter app when you’re trying to write). And there are certain distractions you can remove altogether (such as giving up television). However, these changes in and of themselves are not the ultimate answer. They can be powerful and helpful, but at the end of the day, overcoming procrastination is about building up a strong work ethic towards the tasks and projects you’re prone to put off.
Showing up every day is hard, hard work. Once the honeymoon phase of a fresh idea is over we’re faced with the reality that we have a lot of difficult and mundane, work to do. If I were to only do the work when I felt excited, then I’d have a hundred half-started projects sitting around and zero completed ones.
For me, the best part of a project is everything before and after. I love to dream and brainstorm about it. And I love it when I’m done. But the whole part in-between — the actual doing of the project — that’s hard work.
But the hard work is the only part that counts. By making a habit of showing up to do the work every day, you build a resistance to the mundaneness of it. And eventually it just becomes part of what you do every day. You don’t have waste energy thinking about if you’re going to show up or not, you just do. And,in the words of President Obama, that routinization helps you focus your decision-making energy for the work and choices that matter most.
How to overcome procrastination
With all that said, here are some ways to help overcome procrastination. Perhaps you’re a habitual procrastinator. Perhaps there’s just that one project you’ve been putting off. Or maybe it’s just various things here and there, and you want to get better at completing your tasks in a timely and disciplined manner.
If so, consider one or more of these different approaches to help overcome procrastination.
Set an appointment: Do you know when you’re next going to work on your project? You don’t find time, you make it. Set a daily or weekly appointment with yourself. Tell your spouse about it. Now, that is the time slot when you’ll work on that project. Honor that appointment just as much as you would if it were with someone else.
Plan first, act later. If you already have a time set aside for when you show up to do the work but often find that you lack inspiration when it’s time to work because each time you sit down you first have to think of what the next action step is, you’ll just get discouraged. Consider having a separate time for planning from the time when you are doing the work on a project. Come up with the ideas and action steps elsewhere and then when you sit down to do the work, you’ve already identified what you need to do.
Get accountable: Having accountability goes a long way in helping us keep our commitments. (This is why we finally stop procrastinating at the last minute, because we’re accountable to the deadline.) Some ways you can be accountable include putting yourself into a position of leadership and responsibility where others are counting on you to get the job done; get an accountability partnership where your peers are asking you about the progress you’re making; make a public commitment on your social network, blog, etc. and state what you’re doing and what the timeframe is.
Set the initial bar of quality low: Give yourself permission to produce a crappy first draft or to have a bunch of horrible ideas right off the bat. This is one of my most important “tricks” — I allow my first draft to be the child’s draft. The point is to show up and write. And then I know I can edit and iterate on my article later. But if I wait to write until I can say it just perfectly, I’ll never get it done.
Delegate or delete: If there is a task or project you’ve been continually putting off, try to delegate if you you can. Or, if it’s something you don’t have to do, consider just dropping it altogether. If it’s important, it will re-surface. And it’s better to be honest with yourself (and others) that you’re not going to get to the project than it is to keep putting it off.
Clean your workspace when you’re done: That way, when it’s next time to do the work, there are no distractions or road blocks standing in your way. You have a tidy workspace and you know what next you need to work on. Then, when you’re done working, clean up again so you’re ready for the next time.
Make a lifestyle change: Even a temporary one. Eliminate the most common distraction sinks from your life. Say to yourself: “I don’t play video games.” Or, “I don’t go to the movies.” Or, “I’m not on Facebook.” Or, “I don’t check Twitter or email before lunch.” Now stick with it.
Act fast on your ideas: Seize that initial wave of motivation and momentum. Ideas demise over time; act on them and begin iterating as fast as you can. Set milestones which can be accomplish in a week’s time or less, and work toward that goal riding the adrenaline for 5-7 days. Then, set the next milestone and repeat.
Track your small wins every day: By recognizing and logging the daily progress you’re making on your work, you’re able to see the small victories you make each day. You realize that you are making progress on meaningful work. This increases your morale and momentum — contributing to a healthy inner work life — and thus gives you a boost in your ability to be more productive and creative.
By the way, a version of this article was sent out this morning to The Fight Spot newsletter — my new, weekly email about creativity, focus, and risk.
If you want to stay in the loop with the creativity and productivity-centric writing I’m doing (as well as be notified when my new book comes out, The Power of a Focused Life), then joining the email list is one of the best ways to be notified.