Creativity and business are both packed to the rafters with risk. If you’re trying to do your best creative work or if you’re building a business, then you’re going to have to take risks.
But they don’t have to be wild, all-in bets. And, you can have fun in the process.
* * *
Risk is part of creativity
Have you ever found yourself staring down the barrel of a project, and you say:
“This might not work.”
Hopefully that’s a common phrase for you. Because when you’re not sure if something will work, that’s when you know you’re on to something.
Perhaps the idea or the project itself won’t prove to be successful, but that’s okay. Merely trying something out that may or may not prove to be great is worth the effort.
Ernest Hemingway’s advice was to “write drunk, edit sober.”
Create without inhibition. Create without fear of failure; without mind for other people’s opinions; without fear of rejection; without feeling like an impostor.
As Derek Sivers writes in his book, Anything You Want:
Business is as creative as the fine arts. You can be as unconventional, unique, and quirky as you want. A business is a reflection of the creator. Pay close attention to what excites you and what drains you. Pay close attention to when you’re being the real you and when you’re trying to impress an invisible jury.
Risk will always be a part of the creative process. Because creativity is not a science — it’s filled with objectivity that changes from within and without based on the weather.
There’s no sure fire way to make something awesome. There’s no proven formula to go viral. There’s no such thing as literal overnight success.
Get comfortable with risk. When you know that risk is just part of the game, it helps you in your fight to stay creative.
Moreover, if you can be comfortable with risk in your creative work, you will, in turn, be more comfortable with risk in your business.
That’s important because…
Risk is Part of Business
Five years ago, when I quit my job and began working for myself, I took the “leap” to writing full time.
It’s called a “leap” for a reason.
Going full-time with my writing was a risk.
I was standing at the edge of a cliff. There was a gap, and there was another cliff across from me. I had to leap from not-full-time and hope made it across to the other side.
Standing at the edge, there was no bridge that was going to come build itself. I had gone as far as I could with the time and the resources I had available to me. I could either remain there in that spot, or I could take a leap and hope to make it to the other side.
So many people get get to that same spot. That spot where they’ve gone as far as they can with the time and resources available to them. But then, once they’re there, they stop and wait.
Who knows what they’re waiting for. More time? More resources?
It’s (probably) not time or money that’s the biggest issue holding them back. I think it’s fear.
However, that’s not to say you should throw caution to the wind. When I took the leap into my full-time writing gig, I most certainly did my due diligence and was prepared financially. (Which is a topic worthy of its own book.)
You’ve got to make sure you…
Minimize Financial Risk
When I quit my job, I had:
- No kids, no debt, an emergency fund saved up, my wife had a part-time income.
- My website was already making some money ($1,000 / month).
- I also had a plan to front-load 90-days worth of income by having the membership subscription charge people quarterly instead of monthly.
The best-case scenario was obviously that I would be able to earn enough revenue to pay all our bills and keep writing full-time. Fortunately, that’s how things have turned out so far.
But the worst-case scenario really wouldn’t have been that terrible. If, after having given the writing gig my full-time attention for 90 full days without seeing any traction, I would have gone to get a part-time job somewhere and then returned to the drawing board.
Basically, if the membership model hadn’t worked out, it would have been embarrassing but not catastrophic.
Over the years, as I’ve slowly built a business around writing and publishing, I’ve continued to minimize financial risk by doing things like staying out of debt and moving at the speed of cash and saving up a business emergency fund.
But there is more at risk than just the financials themselves. You also want to make sure what it is you’re creating is actually of value to others. You want your creative endeavors to fly.
How can you do that?
Minimize the Risk of Failure
There are so many ways you can minimize the risk of your project failing. The way I know best is through consistently writing.
Writing helps you get your thoughts out onto paper. It helps you get your ideas in order. And it gives you assets you can use for your business and creative endeavors.
It’s also what you have to do first before you publish anything. Writing an article, a podcast outline, a video outline, etc. You’ve got to write if you want to publish content.
And, quite frankly, publishing content is one of the best things you can do to minimize the risk of your next big project being a flop.
By writing and publishing, you’re doing three huge things:
- Opening a feedback loop between you and your audience (the people who will buy from you, spread the word about your work, etc.).
- Giving away value and helping others.
- Establishing yourself as someone who is credible and who cares.
And so, yes, you minimize the risk of failure by showing up every day. It’s not about numbers, it’s about connections.
As Jeffery Feldman says (quoted from Austin Kleon in in Show your work!):
What you want is to follow and be followed by human beings who care about issues you care about. This thing we make together. This thing is about hearts and minds, not eyeballs.
Showing up every day, teaching what you know, and connecting with your audience by being honest is how you actually connect with folks.
Now that you’re comfortable with risk, it’s time to…
Celebrate Your Progress
When you’ve taken a risk, give yourself a high five. 🙌
Keep track of what you create, what you ship, what you sell, what you were expecting to happen, what actually happened, what worked, what didn’t work, etc.
I do this by journaling in Day One.
Celebrating progress keeps up your intrinsic motivation. It’s also an excellent way to keep track of your growth and lessons learned.
Because in a few months time, you’ll have forgotten all about that risk you just took because you’ll be on to the next one.
Which is why next week I want to share about how to set creative goals and actually make progress.
The risk part is just one big step. But then, after you’ve taken that initial leap — the first big risky move — what comes next is all the hard work of iteration.
Setting creative goals is also critical because you’ve got 100 ideas for inspiration. You need a goal so you know what to focus your time and energy on. Without creative goals, you’re like a wave in the ocean, being tossed to and fro with the wind.
* * *
This was part five in a series of articles I’ve been writing about creativity and entrepreneurship lessons learned after five years as a full-time self-employed writer. You can find the previous four articles here:
“Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.”
That’s Robert Louis Stevenson.
I love that quote for two reasons. Not only is it good life advice, but it’s also a word of warning.
To be perpetually devoted to something does require perpetual neglect of many other things. This is one of the huge themes throughout The Focus Course: finding clarity about what to focus and also what to let alone. (In the words of David Allen, you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.)
Stevenson’s quote is also a cautionary one. Among the most common regrets of the dying is having worked too hard and, in turn, neglecting relationships, values, and even their own happiness.
May devotion to our business not be sustained by neglect of our health, relationships, values, and even our own happiness.
* * *
I’ve got an “all in” type of personality.
When I’m working on a project or an idea Iget very single minded. I focus in on that project and I can hardly think about anything else.
It’s why I spent an inordinate amount of time trying out clickey keyboards.
It’s why I took 10 days off of work to move my family into a new home.
And, since building a business is a project in an of itself, I discovered early on that because of my “all in” personality my business had the potential to take over every other area of my life.
I want my business to add to the quality of my life. Not only is it something I’m building with long-term goals in mind, but it’s also something I enjoy working on today — right now.
While I’m a firm believer in the importance of showing up every day to do the work, after so many hours worked in the day there is a point where time spent at work is pretty much just wasted time.
How pitiful and ironic would it be if our creative work took over our time and attention so much that it suffocated the creativity right out of us?
* * *
For the past few years on my birthday, I have been writing down a retrospective of sorts into my Day One journal.
I write down what highlights I remember from the past year, what projects and events I was proud of, what things I regret having done (or regret having not done), and more. I also write down what I want to do more of in the future.
Examples of things from the past year I’m glad I did:
- Building and launching The Focus Course
- Putting energy into building a thoughtful approach to content “marketing” and “strategy” through my email newsletter. (Something I plan to write much more about.)
- Taking a week-long vacation in Steamboat Springs with my wife to celebrate our 10-year anniversary.
- A last-minute trip to Atlanta to connect with a new friend.
- Attending and speaking at Circles Conference.
- Attending game 6 of the ALCS before the Royals went on to win the World Series.
- Reading more books
These are just a few things. And they remind me that the day-to-day minutia of running a business is necessary, but it’s not nearly as urgent as it often feels. And that I’m happiest when I’m on a memorable trip or event or else creating something of substance with a long-term shelf life.
Choosing something until it chooses you back
Last July, on my birthday, I wrote this in my Day One:
Life is almost entirely a series of small, nearly-inconsequential choices and moments. All the little things that I do (and don’t do) are what paint the picture of my life. If I want a different life, make a small change to sone thing and stick with it.
It’s a choice to live a life with healthy boundaries. It’s a choice to give our time and attention to the things that matter most.
And, probably the best way to learn how you best balance work and life is through trial and error.
Life will zig and zag. It will ebb and flow.
Something I can’t unpack right now is the idea that margin in your work schedule can actually give you the strength to take risks and have fun in the process.
Don’t let the boundaries between your work and family life be dictated by social expectations. Rather by authenticity to your goals, visions, and values.
P.S. The podcast interview I did with Havilah Cunnington was awesome. We discussed balancing family with creative entrepreneurship.
As I type this, I’m surrounded by cardboard boxes.
My desk is temporarily crammed here in the corner of the guest room.
The Monument Valley soundtrack is playing (as always), but this time it’s via my iMac’s not-so-great, built-in speakers.
You see, we just moved.
I feel like the above photo sums up my life pretty well right now: a bunch of stuff packed into a bin; mostly construction tools plus my Baron Fig notebook and trusty pen.
Here in my “office” (a.k.a. the guest room), I see boxes of kids toys and books we haven’t yet unpacked. There are all of our picture frames and paintings leaning against the wall. Even a couple of lamps sitting on the floor.
To my right: more boxes! Pretty much my entire office is in those boxes. Cables, podcasting gear, even the books I’m currently reading (or at least was reading before we packed them up two weeks ago).
And all this is after I spent the past 3 days ruthlessly unpacking what was in this room. It’s a miracle we’ve slimmed it down to just the 10 boxes here right now. (Whatever you do, don’t look in the garage.)
* * *
It was a little less than 12 weeks ago that my wife, Anna, and I first had a conversation about moving. Now, three months later, we’ve sold our old house, bought a new one, and are moved in (ish).
It was a sprint. But we also had incredible fortune along every step of the way…
The first day we went out looking for houses with our realtor, we found the home we wanted. A few days later we put in our offer, and, despite it being a seller’s market here in Kansas City we were able to buy our new home for less than market value.
To sell our old home, the only fixing up we had to do was refinish the hardwood floors. When we listed it, we got 3 offers the first day and sold it for asking price in less than 24 hours after putting it on the market.
Despite everything going so smoothly, the process itself of moving has still been incredibly time consuming.
I completely underestimated how much time it would take to move.
I also underestimated how many boxes we’d need, how much would be left over to pack up or throw away after we got the obvious stuff taken care of, and how much time it would take to unpack.
Friends warned me about all of that. And I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the scope of work. But I was wrong.
And, the way things landed, we closed on our new on April 4th. The very same day as the 5-year anniversary of when I began writing at shawnblanc.net full-time.
I had a series of articles I had written out for that week to share what I’d learned after 5 years of being an indie writer and running a small business.
But the events surrounding our closing completely took over my time.
Our scheduled closing on the new house was delayed by 72 hours.
And the delay in closing had a whole slew of challenges that came with it, and it ate up all the margin I had in my work schedule.
I had to choose to take some unexpected time off of work in order to focus on moving and being as present as I could with my family during the transition.
Though I had planned ahead for my writing schedule, I clearly didn’t plan ahead enough. I ended up not writing for 10 days in a row. Which is why it’s been silent here for so long.
My apologies for the extended period of silence.
This morning is the first time I’ve been able to sit down and write in almost two weeks time. It feels great to be writing again.
Now that we’re past the craziness and things are slowly returning to normal, so too will my writing and podcasting schedule.
This week I’ll be picking back up where I left of with my series about creativity and entrepreneurship. You can catch the first three articles here, here, and here. And the timing is actually pretty great — on Wednesday I’ll be sharing about work-life balance and always keeping family first. Something I literally just walked through.
* * *
Also, on the nerdy side, I’ll soon be posting an update to my Sweet Mac Setup. Right now we’re still in the middle of building out my office space here at the new house. Though it won’t quite be my dream workspace, it will certainly the best so far.
A few days ago I asked this question:
Is there a path to creative success?
As I’m sure you know, the answer is yes.
Now, the definition of success varies wildly. But I like to define creative success like this:
The ability to do creative work we’re proud of and to keep doing that work.
By that measure, most of you reading this are already creatively successful. You just might not know it yet.
If there is a path to creative success, what is it?
Here’s part of it: Consistency.
Choosing to show up ever day.
Choosing to do the hard and frightful work, day in and day out. Not waiting for permission. Not waiting for inspiration. Not waiting for a faster, fancier, more expensive gizmogadget.
Whatever it is you want to do with your art, you have to show up every day and make something. Failing to do this will be your single biggest roadblock to doing your best creative work.
As you know, I’ve been at this full-time writing racket for 5 years now. And still, day after day, for 5 years, one of the biggest challenges is to get my butt in the chair and write.
Once I’m here, typing, the second biggest challenge is to be honest.
Because — as I mentioned yesterday — when it comes to creativity and entrepreneurship, I consider the most important advice I to be this: focus on consistency and honesty.
Consistency and honesty are, I believe, the backbone for how you can make a living as a creative entrepreneur / artist.
Consistency is important for two reasons:
First off, the internet thrives on patterns and regularity; showing up every day lets people know they can rely on you to be there. It also keeps things moving and is the “machine” you use to build your business assets and stock and flow content.
Secondly, even if you’re a talentless dweeb like me, writing (or doing anything) every day will help you become better at that craft.
Honesty is important because it’s how you build trust with others. (Obviously.)
Do you want to earn the respect and long-term attention of your audience? Be honest. Always seek to provide at least 51% of the value between you and your readership.
Regardless of how you serve your audience, always give as much as possible. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
Do this and you’ll be signing up to play the long game. By building trust and providing “preeminent” value, you’re proving to folks that you’re the real deal and you have something to offer.
Five years ago, when I first announced that I was quitting my job to write here for a living, I asked people to sign up for a subscribing membership at $3/month.
400 of you signed up the first day.
As much as I like to think you signed up because my sales pitch was awesome and heart-felt, the truth is that it was awesome and heart-felt… No, seriously, those of you signed up for a membership back in 2011 did so because I’d been writing consistently on my site for several years. Over those years I built up trust you guys — with my readership — and so when I asked for your direct support, it was an easy decision for hundreds of you.
A few years later, when I launched The Focus Course, 600 of you signed up in that first week. And it wasn’t because The Focus Course has an awesome landing page (Though it certainly does. Thanks, Pat!). It’s because I’d been writing about focus for so long that you guys trusted the course was not just snake oil.
* * *
To sum this all up:
People want to connect to the artist as much as (if not even more than) they want to connect to the art. That’s why a signed book is so much more valuable than the Kindle version; a live concert more memorable than listening to an album on iTunes.
Consistency means relationship building. Remember from 1,000 True Fans? This is where you connect with your readership, audience, customers, and provide ongoing value to them.
Consistency is also means doing the work every day. Never wait until you’re inspired to do the work because quantity leads to quality. (Which is a whole other topic we’ll dive into later.)
Honesty means making the choice to be transparent and genuine. Have fun.
Showing up to do the work every day isn’t easy. And there’s more to it than just putting your butt in the chair and writing for an hour.
You’ve also got to think about how you’re spending your time and energy when you’re not in the chair. Up next, I’ll be sharing about keeping life in balance.
Quitting my job to blog for a living was so embarrassing.
It didn’t seem like a “real job”.
People would always ask me questions like: “So what exactly is it that you do?” And I never knew how to answer them.
(Actually, I still don’t know how to answer that question.)
It’s been five years now, and I’m so glad I took that dorky risk.
As I reflect on these past five years and share what I’ve learned, my default is to focus on the creativity aspect. I love talking about how to show up every day or how to build an audience of awesome and smart people. I want to dive in to to the topic of doing our best creative work.
But over these past five years I’ve also learned about bootstrapping and running a business. I’ve learn the ins and outs of starting and building a business through experience, trial, success, and error.
There is so much involved with being an independent creative entrepreneur.
For one, you have to have the creativity side. This includes:
- Finding own vision and voice for your creative work;
- Showing up every day to do that work;
- Being focused with your time and energy;
- Staying inspired;
- Having fun.
Creativity is critical. And, as we’ll get to another time, it’s so important to show up every day to do the hard, creative work.
But just as important as creativity is the entrepreneurial side…
- You’ve can’t be so romantic about making money that you never get around to earning a dollar.
- You have to be willing to take risks and experiment with new ideas.
- You have to get good at making money.
- You have to learn how to budget, project, save, invest, make a return, and live well beneath your means. Otherwise your business will never get the financial root system it needs in order to thrive.
Creativity and business chops. You need both.
Later this week I’ll be sure to share some of the things I’ve done over the past five years to make money. But first…
Knowing that both the creative aspect and the business aspect are so important, I want to dive into what’s I think is needed to write on the internet for a living.
(This could go for just about anything, really. Writing is what I know best, but this stuff goes for podcasts, newsletters, photography, etc.)
Basically, if I were brand new and starting out fresh… if I were giving advice to my past self… these would be the highlights of that conversation.
Show up every day: I’m going to touch on this more, but showing up every day is vital. This is how you strengthen your own creative muscle, it’s how you improve your skills, and it’s also how you build your audience. (Recommended reading: Show Your Work.)
Plan ahead: It took me years to figure this one out. You’ll do better work in less time with less stress if you know where you’re going. (Not sure how to have a plan for your creative work, The Focus Course will get you there.)
Invest in mentorship, learning, and courses: Because you don’t have all the answers, you have blind spots, and you need someone to cheerlead for you and help you figure things out.
Celebrate your progress: When you’re able to recognize that you’re making progress in your work, it helps you stay motivated. Also, journaling about your business and creative endeavors as you go through them today is an asset you can use in down the road as a sort of “advice to your future self”.
Sell stuff: You get good at making money the same way you get good at anything else: practice. So, sell early and sell often. This will help you learn about pricing, sales, and providing value to others. It also helps you to get comfortable with charging money for the work you do. Something many of us aren’t naturally comfortable with.
Automate / eliminate / delegate as much as possible: It seems everyone know says they waited too long before learning to delegate. This is a great way to break your broken workflow habits and free yourself up to spend your time better. And it’s not just for the sake of being more “productive” at work — it’s also so you can have more down time to rest, think, and be with friends and family.
The tools you have are almost certainly good enough: This one applies to the nerds in the room. I’m an incessant tinkerer. While it’s fun to always be looking for the next best thing, it’s also a huge distraction. Maybe it’s my old age, but I’m far more content with the tools I have today that I ever have been. If it works well and helps me do what’s important, then I’m not going to try and replace it just for the sake of change.
Always be honest and sincere: This is critical because the best way to build an audience is through trust. Being genuine and telling your story is how you build trust.
Work hard, but don’t work nonstop: Easier said than done for many of us. The ideas and action items are never-ending. That’s why I schedule my time off and even plan ahead for how I’ll spend that down time. Otherwise my tendency is to work on just one more thing.
Have an ideal reader / customer / client / fan: When I first began writing, there were two specific people who I wrote for. I would always gauge my articles and topics through their eyes, making sure I was writing something that would be interesting and helpful to them.
Now that I’m working on building The Focus Course website, we’ve spent a ton of time defining what our ideal customer looks like. We’re using surveys, personal emails and conversations, and more. It’s a much different approach than just guessing or making stuff up, and it means we’re actually able to help people with what’s most important to them.
Take risks: Every time I’ve felt out on a ledge, not sure if something would work, it turned out pretty great in the end. This is not an advocation to be reckless, but it is permission to try something new.
Trust your gut: I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time second guessing myself. I question if I’m doing things right; if I’m missing something; if I’m even making progress. Other people can give advice and input, but to do your best creative work you’ve got to follow the dream in your heart.
Not to go all Mr. Rogers here, but it’s true. If you’ve got an idea or a hunch that just won’t let go, then focus on it.
Which is why, if I had to boil it all down to what I consider to be the most important advice I have for creative entrepreneurship, it would be this: focus on consistency and honesty.
We’ll dive more into that one tomorrow.
It was Monday morning.
My first day on the job. And I was completely underprepared with no idea what to write about.
I felt terrible.
That was exactly five years ago today.
What I did end up writing about has turned into a piece I return to often:
“Writing should be about standing behind your work and truly caring about what it is you have to say,” I wrote. “If you happen to be good with words then congratulations. Dispassionate beautiful prose, however, is still dispassionate. Or, as Anatole France put it, ‘a tale without love is like beef without mustard: insipid.'”
It has always been a challenge for me to write with honesty and passion.
When you put your heart into something and then get criticized for it, that hurts. And so, in a way, we shy back a bit and put just enough transparency into our writing to give it a hint of breath and no more.
To make it worse, once the economic success of this site hinged in no small part on the continued growth of a strong membership base, there was a sudden pressure to write for everyone all at once.
Not only did I feel a great expectation on my work, I had no clue what I would publish on that first day. Or what would come the next day or the next.
(I’ve learned that this is just one of the who-knows-how-many roadblocks there are to doing your best creative work. And that’s something we’ll definitely dive into more later this week because it’s so important.)
In that article from 5 years ago, I shared that though the pressures and expectations were new, I was intent on staying steady in my writing pursuits. I planned to continue doing the same writing with the same focus that had brought me the opportunity to write full-time in the first place.
Five years of that day-in-and-day-out work, here we are today. And things certainly look different.
Back then it was just me with just one website: shawnblanc.net. Now there is a small team of us and a small network of websites: shawnblanc.net, Tools & Toys, The Sweet Setup, and The Focus Course. (Hi, Bradley, Chris, Stephen, Jeff, Josh, and Isaac!)
Yes, the scope of the writing has certainly grown. But I believe the focus of the writing has not.
That focus is still two-fold:
- To help you, the reader.
- To have fun in the creative process.
If you care about doing your best creative work, you’re in the right place.
I continue to look forward to iterating, improving, and generally upping the overall awesomeness of our humble network of websites.
Perhaps you’ve been here since the very first post. Or perhaps you are brand new to this site. Thank you! I am grateful that you’ve chosen to show up, sign up, and be part of this journey.
This week and next I’m going to be sharing stories and more about the past five years. We’re going to talk about the creative side as well as the business side.
After being in this racket for 5 years, I want to share what I see as the most important things about writing on the internet for a living. How to improve your craft. How to balance work life and family life when your work life is tied to the internet that’s in your pocket.
And, the elusive question I’ve been wondering about most for the past half-decade: Is there a path to creative success?
Next week my family is moving to a new home about 5 minutes down the road.
Anna and I are expecting our third child this fall (!). So we are about to officially outgrow the small home we’ve lived in for the past 11 years.
I’ve been thinking about this massive life transition — selling our current home, moving to a new one, having our third child.
And I was also just thinking about the past few months.
2016 continues to march on, one day at a time.
What were your plans for 2016?
What was one of your goals? Was there a hint of an idea of something you wanted to do?
Three months into the year… how are things going?
Today, I don’t have any answers or advice for you.
Just a question…
If you’re not yet where you were expecting be, what are going to do about it?
* * *
Speaking of 2016, for those keeping track at home, in just a few days — on Monday, April 4 — it will be the 5-year anniversary (!) of when I quit my job to start blogging for a living.
(Some of you folks have been reading my dorky writing for 5 whole years (maybe even longer). Wow, thank you!)
As I look back at the creative work I’ve done over the past five years, I feel proud of it.
But I also envision so much more that I hope to do, and so much more ground to cover in my skills as a writer and business owner.
And so all this has made me think about what it is that helps us get from where we are to where we want to be.
Not just for my humble journey, but for all of us.
How can you, dear reader, get from where you are today to where you want to be in 5 years from now.
Next week, let’s talk about it. See you then.
Yesterday I shared with you about how I ended up as the marketing and creative director for a large Christian ministry.
In that role I had complete autonomy of my schedule. And I learned quickly that I had to set priorities and boundaries for my time, and choose how my time needed to be spent. If I didn’t then I would literally fail at my job.
Today, as promised, I want to share about some of the things I did to protect my time and stay in control when I was in the midst of a very busy office culture.
Tomorrow, I’m going to share about some of the things I do now to protect my time as a self-employed, work-from-home dad.
First, an aside about meetings…
What’s the deal with meetings?
Just about everyone I know seems to have a strong dislike of meetings.
Even the word… “meeting”… it sounds like “meatloaf” — another thing that many people have a strong dislike of.
I recently received an email from a reader who said one of her biggest challenges related to managing her time was dealing with the deluge of meetings:
I work on a team where there are meetings to prep for the meeting, and then meetings that come from meetings with follow up meetings for action items from the meetings. If you were to look at my outlook calendar you would see I rarely have blocks of time for focused work. It’s more like 30-60 minutes before the next meeting…
When I was the marketing director and leading the in-house design team, I was so afraid of having too many meetings. I treated meetings like fire. I knew they were necessary, but I didn’t want them to get out of control.
I also had to be careful about which meetings I allowed myself to attend. So often I’d spend an hour or two in a meeting with no outcome whatsoever. A literal waste of time. (I quickly learned how to spot time-waster meetings and began avoiding them at all costs.)
But meetings in and of themselves aren’t bad. (Same goes for meatloaf, too, actually. My wife has a meatloaf recipe that’s to die for.)
Meetings can be an invaluable tool for making forward progress.
The problem is that most meetings don’t result in progress.
Or, the forward progress is disproportionate to the length of the meeting.
Or the number of people in the meeting is 5x what it should be.
If you can relate, consider if there is something you can do about it. I’m serious.
What can you do in order to take control of your time at work?
You have a job to do. Are meetings and interruptions standing in the way of doing that job?
As I mentioned yesterday, when I took over as the marketing director, I had to get proactive with my time. That meant doing some crazy things to protect my schedule. And I’ll share those in just a minute.
But the reason it’s so important for you to have control of your schedule is that if you don’t, you’re not doing your job.
If your job is to work on a certain project but you’re also in meetings all the time, respectfully and honestly ask your managers which they’d prefer you do.
You can’t be a maker while working in a manager’s schedule.
Protecting Your Time is Always Applicable
After three years working as the marketing director, I quit that job in 2011 to work from my basement as a writer.
I’ve been writing full time for 5 years now. And so much of what I learned then about protecting my time still applies today.
Except these days, instead of protecting my time from meetings and interruptions, I have to protect it from shiny object syndrome and the incessant tug to peruse Twitter.
The things I learned also apply to my home life. So much of what I learned about being productive in the midst of a busy job also helped me with being productive once I became a dad. (Which, by the way, is something I talk about at length in the Time Management class.)
If you can get hold of a few basic skills for protecting and managing your time then you can use them in all sorts of seasons of life.
A Few Tricks
As promised, here a few of the tricks I used as the marketing director to thrive in the midst of that wild and crazy job position.
I would (politely) turn down meeting requests, even with people who were my superiors. When I was invited to a meeting I always tried to find out what it was about. And sometimes I’d ask to be excused if I felt that my presence there wouldn’t be valuable to the group nor to my own job.
I got one of those super-dorky bluetooth earpieces so I could call my mom more often. We had three different campuses. My office was at campus C but most meetings were at campus A. I drove back and forth often. And, in order to make the most of that 15 minute drive, I got a bluetooth earpiece so I could more easily have conversations while commuting. It was an excellent way to “meet” with someone over the phone. And it was great for catching up with my folks on a regular basis.
I’d schedule meetings with nobody. This was a trick I learned from someone wise. He would schedule meetings with nobody. What I mean is that he was always getting meeting requests. So, on his weekly schedule were two blocks of open time set aside for meetings. When someone would ask to meet, they would get slotted into the next available time.
I even scheduled meetings with myself. I needed at least 2 hours every day to work without distraction. So… I scheduled it. Then, if someone wanted to meet with me during that time I could tell them I already had something booked (because I did).
I worked from home on Fridays. Not only did I need 2 hours a day of uninterrupted time, I also needed one whole day of deep work. This was when I would do the sort of tasks such as planning, strategizing, etc. that should take a couple of hours minimum to really make meaningful progress.
It seems like a pompous thing to say “I’m taking the whole day on Friday to work from home. Nobody call me.” But, it was the right thing to do. It was necessary.
If I hadn’t taken time to focus on things such as planning and budgeting then my department would have ended up in big trouble and I’d have been out of a job.
I had to take that time so I could focus on the important work and plan for our long-term goals and objectives.
When it comes to office culture and meetings, there’s this sense that if you’re not in the meeting your missing out. We think people who skip out on meetings are slacking off. When, for all we know, maybe they’re actually getting real work done. 😳
After I took the role as marketing director, I decided early on that I wanted the results of my work and the culture of my team to speak for my ability rather than my meeting attendance record.
Looking busy and being seen is a mighty poor substitute for doing work that matters.
Sadly, meetings and busywork are what so much of our corporate culture values these days. Because it’s what’s easiest to quantify in the short term.
* * *
Now that I work for myself, I have new tactics. But the ideas behind my tactics are still the same.
Next, I want to share with you what I do nowadays to keep in control of my time.
It was April of 2008. My wife, Anna, and I were driving to St. Louis from Kansas City.
Somewhere in the middle of nowheresville on I-70, I got a phone call.
There are a few moments in my life that I look back to as being keystone moments. Small events that signified and connected to something big.
This phone call was one of those.
Before I continue, let me give a little bit of context…
Just a few weeks earlier, my boss at the time had informally offered me her job as the Marketing Director for a large Christian ministry. We had met in her office where she told me she was quitting and asked me if I was interested in taking over her job.
The chance to be a leader? The chance to have my own office? The chance to pick my own hours!? You bet I was interested.
However, before I could “officially” be offered the job I had to be vetted and interviewed.
The vetting process took about a week. They had me come to a meeting where they asked me lots of questions. And they had a meeting without me but where they talked about me and the job I was up for.
I had no clue if they would actually offer me the job or not.
I was just a kid. Or at least I felt like one. I was a mere 27 years old. Everyone in those meetings had at least 10 or 20 years on me. Plus, I was a college drop out — I had quit after my freshman year to go play drums instead.
The final interview meeting was at the same time I was driving to St. Louis. They said they’d call me. And that’s the phone call I got.
I was ready. If they offered me the job, I knew I wanted to accept.
Though the job would mean more work, more hours, more responsibility, and more unknowns, I knew it would be a ton of fun. I knew it would be a huge opportunity to learn.
Well, they did offer me the job.
For the next three years I served in that role as the marketing director.
It was a trial by fire, and I loved it. The job, the team I was privileged to work with, the work we did — I’m so proud of it all.
I learned so much during those three years. I learned about management, team dynamics, budgeting, leadership, communication, marketing, audience building, and more.
But what I learned about most was time management and decision making.
I had to learn the hard way how to get good at spending my time.
I discovered very quickly that I alone had to be the one to take ownership of my time and attention.
I’d spent the previous 27 years of my life being told how to spend my time. From childhood, going to school, having a job — everywhere I went there was someone telling me when to show up, what to do, when to take lunch, when to go home, when to go to bed, etc.
But suddenly, in my new job as the marketing director, I had complete autonomy of my schedule.
I quickly learned that I had to set the priorities, the boundaries, and choose how my time needed to be spent. If I didn’t then I would literally fail at my job.
I’ll say that again:
If I hadn’t been proactive about taking control of my time, then I would have failed at my job.
This meant I did crazy things to protect my time.
And now that I work for myself, I have to be even more proactive with my time (though not quite as crazy).
I’ll share more about all of that tomorrow.
For now, think about this: Being in control of our time is a lot like keeping a clean house. A few hours of hard work over the weekend can transform a cluttered home into a peaceful space. The challenge is in keeping the home tidy on a daily basis (especially if you’ve got kids).
So too with how we spend our time. Once we get that initial grasp of control, the challenge becomes how to stay in control (again, especially if you’ve got kids). Staying ahead of the whirlwind. Keeping the time to do meaningful work even though our entire office culture seems to thrive on incessant meetings.
Next, I want to share some of the tricks I used as the marketing director to thrive in the midst of that wild and crazy job position.
1. Be Thankful
This seems like a no-brainer, right? But it’s not. At least, not for me.
When you’ve got time off from work, your family is in town, and you’re in a good mood, it can be easy to feel thankful. Which is awesome. So why not express that? Say it out loud.
Tell your family how awesome they are. Tell your spouse and kids how thankful you are for your family and this season of life.
2. Ask Your Spouse What is Most Important For Them This Week
I think we all know that a few days with a ton of food and a ton of family isn’t always a recipe for joy. Sometimes the holiday vacation is actually more work than regular life.
So, try this before you and your family head in to an action-packed holiday. Ask your spouse what it is that’s important for them this week. Then, no matter how busy or crazy the holiday may be, you and your spouse can fight for each other to make sure you each get to experience something that’s most important to you.
3. Use This Pumpkin Pie recipe
And, don’t tell anyone, but if you don’t want to use actual pumpkin glop from the pumpkin, canned pumpkin will usually do just fine.
4. Do Whatever Meathead Says
Want to make the most incredible turkey you’ve ever made? Just to go amazingribs.com and do what Meathead says.
5. Read a Fiction Book
You know what else makes for a good holiday? A good book. Most days I’m reading non-fiction, but when I’m on vacation I read fiction.
I’m totally a fan of Tom Clancy and other good spy-thriller types of novels. (What?) Over the weekend I began reading Transfer of Power, by Vince Flynn.
I’m not yet sure if I like it. The book’s opening paragraph felt a bit overwritten to me (a fine line to walk with books like this where details and nuance not only set the scene but can play a huge role in plot development.) However, by the end of the first chapter I already felt connected with two of the main characters.
A few other favorite reads:
- The Once and Future King
- Without Remorse
- Rainbow Six
- The Martian
- Creativity, Inc. (Not a fiction novel, but it’s such a darn great book and a fun read that it deserves a mention.)
6. Get Your Christmas Jams From Pandora
If you think it’s too early for christmas music, you’re weird.
For the best stream of Christmas music that doesn’t suck, start a new Pandora radio station built on the classic 1965 album, A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Where Vince Guaraldi and his trio do some great Christmas songs. From there Pandora does the rest, and you get hours and hours of instrumental, jazzy Christmas tunes.
* * *
P.S. Thank You, Dear Reader
As I look ahead to the remaining weeks of 2015 and on in to the next year, I feel extremely excited. For one, the free class we’re doing next month is going to be fantastic, and my gut tells me that 2016 is going to be a lot of fun.
I’ve been at this full-time blogging racket for almost five years now. And that is thanks entirely to you, dear reader.
So, please allow me to take my own advice (see #1 above), and say out loud what it is that I’m thankful for: You.
And I mean it!
I am incredibly thankful that you would show up and read my dorky articles and my half-formed ideas. Some of you have been reading this site for years. Amazing! And not only that, you are generous enough to support my work so I can keep on writing dorky articles — something I do not take lightly.
Have a very happy Thanksgiving!
Fall is by far and away my favorite time of year. There’s awesome about the combination of crisp weather, a lit candle, a hot drink, and a blank page to write on.
And here we are. It’s November! Except I’m not ready for it.
I feel as if I’m standing at the entrance to a tunnel and I can see 2016 coming down the track. But it’s moving too quickly for me and I feel unprepared and, honestly, a little bit anxious.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the holiday season is busy enough in its own right. My wife and I will be hosting family here in Kansas City for the former, and we’ll be driving to Colorado for the latter. I can’t wait.
But, in addition to the holidays and family time, November and December are the two biggest months of the year for Tools & Toys and The Sweet Setup. Our website traffic and revenue during these months will be roughly 3 times that of any other month of the year. And we’re doing all we can to make the most of it. Over on Tools & Toys we just put up our annual Christmas Catalog post, and we also have a massive photography guide that is coming out soon. And over on The Sweet Setup we’re just finishing up a new ebook that we expect to publish in a week from now.
On top of that, I am making some huge improvements to The Focus Course for a “re-launch” of the course that will go live on January 1. Later this month I’m going back to the studio to record 50 new videos. 40 of them are for the Focus Course and 10 of them will be for a new training series I’m working on — kind of like an introduction to the Focus Course.
I’m sharing all this because you probably feel in a similar situation.
- You’ve got several work-related projects (all of which are important).
- You’ve got some personal projects (all of which you really want to make progress on).
- You’ve got several books you want to read (all of which look awesome).
- And you want to spend as much time with your spouse and kids as possible (especially with the holidays coming up).
You feel the tug of wanting to work on too many things at once and not knowing which to choose. This in and of itself can be stressful. It also can lead to procrastination and paralysis due to uncertainty and indecisiveness, which just compounds the issue even further.
“How am I supposed to get all this done?” You’re asking.
That is a great question. And you’re not the only one asking it.
By far and away, one of the most common challenges I hear from people is their challenge of having too much to do. Too many spinning plates. Too many important tasks. Too many areas of responsibility.
For me, I know that this current November and December are going to be an intense couple of months. It’s a perfect storm of holidays, family, and business opportunities. I don’t mind putting in extra hours to get all the work done now, because I know that this is not the norm for me. Come January and February, my workload will return to normal. This is the ebb and flow of work.
Sometimes, however, the overwhelming business is a sign that something’s broken. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask yourself if it’s because you’re on the edge of doing something awesome or is it life showing you that something needs to be cut out.
If the latter — you’re overwhelmed and you know something’s got to give — then do this: Take inventory of where you’re spending the bulk of your time and energy (not where you wish you were spending it, but where you’re actually spending it). Now ask yourself what can be subtracted to give your calendar, your mind, and your emotions some breathing room.
If the former — if you’re on the edge of breakthrough in a project — then sometimes the answer is to keep working and just hold on and persevere for the season. But don’t persevere to the detriment your health and relationships.
When you’re in an intense and busy season, what’s important is to keep your sanity and health. This way you ensure that you are actually making progress every day and not just suffering under the weight of being busy. This will also help ensure that when the busy season is over, you don’t hit a wall and get sick or depressed.
When life is at its busiest, is when it’s all the more important to be overly diligent and intentional with how you spend your time.
That said, here’s how I’m staying focused in my busy season of life:
Making sure my day is filled with intentional work. Step one is knowing what to do and having a plan of when I’m going to do it. This is so important, that I’ve actually been spending more time managing my time. The days can so quickly get away from me that I’m upping my intentionality to make sure my daily and weekly schedule is providing me with the time I need to do the most important work.
If I’m mostly in a reactive state — giving my attention primarily to the incoming inboxes of email and Twitter — then chances are I’m wasting time. Which is why I’ve been spending even less time than usual on email and Twitter…
Dialing back on Twitter usage. I love Twitter. It’s a great place for conversations, dialog, and finding cool stuff. But it’s not where I do my aforementioned most important work.
Which is why, for the past month, I’ve been using Buffer and Edgar as tools to help me post to Twitter. And then I’ve been setting aside time to jump in and reply to any conversations or questions. So far it’s been working out well as a way for me to stay engaged and active on Twitter while not getting too easily sucked in to the Black hole of the real time web and YouTube fail compilations.
For me, this is just about the only “noisy and distracting area” that I have left to dial back. I don’t read the news. I don’t have Facebook. And I’ve hit pause on my RSS reading while I work my way through my current stack of books (which now includes 3 more since I took that picture).
My “Now” Page. This is something I picked up from Derek Sivers, who created a page on his website, simply titled “Now”. On there he listed out the few things he is most focused on. Not just work-things, but life, hobbies, etc. It serves as a personal reminder to him about where he wants to be focusing his time as well as a public statement to others about what he’s doing (and what he’s not doing).
I love this idea. I’m a big proponent of what I call meaningful productivity. Which just means you’re actually spending your time doing the things that you want to do. The problem is that most of us spend our time doing what we don’t want to do — usually just by default. We forget, we’re tired, or whatever, and so we just default into something (such as mindless email checking) that is not on our “now” list. The Now page can serve as a plumb line for you.
And the other cool thing about having a publicly available “Now” page is that it gives a sense of accountability. You’ve told the world what’s important to you and how you’re spending your time, and now you need to keep that commitment.
Recognizing progress. This is huge. When you’re down in the thick of it, one of the best ways to keep your momentum going is to recognize and celebrate the progress you make each day. I use Day One because it’s awesome. And at the end of the day I’ll write down the small wins from my day.
Health. This is the one that goes out the window the fastest for me. Which is unfortunate, because it’s also the one that matters the most. A good night sleep, a diet that gives you energy, and some regular out-and-about exercise is so good for you.
All these things come together to help give space to think, to breath, and to focus on doing what’s most important.
But there’s more to it than just another listicle of tips and tricks and hacks for being awesome.
It ultimately comes down to taking ownership of your time and attention.
If you regularly find that you’re not able to do your best work in this season of life, ask yourself whose fault that is. Sometimes things are outside of our control. But more often than not, there is something we can do about it.
The person who is frustrated at how long it’s taking to write their book, yet is watching a few hours of television every day, may want to reconsider how they’re spending their evening.
When you take ownership of your time and attention, everything changes. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
* * *
And I would be remiss if I didn’t take a chance to mention just how helpful and powerful The Focus Course can be in this area.
I designed the Focus Course to guide you along a simple path that starts out fun and easy and then builds into something resulting in deep and lasting change. The course enables you to experience deep satisfaction in work and in life by making meaningful progress every day to accomplish that which is most important.
If what I’ve written about today hits home for you, but you don’t know where to start… then start here.
My friend, Sean McCabe, recently published a podcast episode talking about how to send valuable and and relevant emails.
But the show was about much more than just email.
For me, the most valuable takeaway from Sean’s podcast was this:
“Relevancy is more important than recency.”
The context was that with email, what makes it so powerful is not the ability to send a recent message to 1,000 people right now. Rather, that you can send one single relevant message to one person at just the right time.
Sean posted his show almost a month ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
It pairs perfectly with another idea I’ve been chewing on: a business model that (surprise!) is based on providing the most amount of value to the most amount of people.
Which begs the question: What’s more valuable for your content: relevancy or recency?
Put another way, is the relevance of your content based on the content itself or the timestamp?
The Bias Toward “Fresh”
Be careful when you presuppose that the newer something is, the more relevant it is. While it’s true for many news sources, it’s not true of all content. Not even all the content published on the Web.
Our bias toward fresh content is a huge part of why we prefer Twitter over books, and TL;DR over long-form.
The real-time web is awesome, but it’s not the only source of information. Especially not so if we’re seeking to gain a deep understanding of a topic and expand our knowledge in an area.
Twitter is fine in its own right, but it’s a mighty bloodless substitute for learning.
Relevancy vs Recency for you, the reader
Last month I read Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
The book is not new — it’s three years old. But the contents in it were exactly what I needed to hear right now.
There were two huge takeaways from the book that gave me some clarity and insight into the exact challenges I’m facing right now in my business. Despite the fact that the contents of the book were not new, they were still very relevant.
For a book, we don’t really think too much about new-ness equating to relevancy. In fact, a three-year-old book is still pretty new. But for the (real-time) web, three years sounds like an eternity. When we go to a website, we want to know what is fresh and new — we assume that the newer it is the more relevant it is.
Obviously for a news website such as CNN, et al., the newest content is almost always the most relevant. But what about for the millions of other sites that don’t publish news? That are writing and publishing things without a shelf life?
hen you recommend a book, you don’t say “it’s old, but still good”. Yet, if you recommend an old website article (and by old I mean anything not written in the pas 12 months), it’s not uncommon to mention that it wasn’t written in the past 24 hours.
We have so many people writing incredible things on the web — it’s time to stop using the time stamp as the primary qualifier for relevancy.
And, for those of us who are creating great content for the web, it’s time to think more about how we can keep that content relevant for months and years to come.
Relevancy vs Recency for you, the writer
Long-time readers of shawnblanc.net will know that my pattern for writing has long been about “recency.”
The long-form software and hardware reviews I used to write were primarily valuable because of how “fresh” they were. And while many of those reviews still stand today, it’s only because they’re interesting and they can serve as a point of reference. They are’t exactly helping solve any problems or challenges you’re facing right now (that is, unless you’re considering buying a used G4 PowerBook.)
One down side to a Recency-Over-Relevancy mindset when it comes to content production is that it means much of what you create has a very short shelf life.
Consider if the content model you’re building on is focused on “new-ness.” If so, then it means that if you don’t have something recent, you don’t have anything at all.
I know this because it’s exactly how I approached the writing here on shawnblanc.net for the first six years. This website started in 2007 as a place where I could write about technology news.
But I’ve realized that “new-ness” is not the long-term game I want to play here. Even on Tools & Toys and The Sweet Setup, we are working to build a content strategy that’s not primarily dependent on “new-ness”. (But I’ll share more bout that another day.)
* * *
The question I continue to re-visit is this: What can I do that will be the most helpful and provide the most value to you, the reader?
To peel the curtain back just al little bit, I know that the answer to that question is something far beyond some weekly emails, podcast episodes, and blog posts.
While the regular writing and podcasting I’m doing here is a critical component that keeps things moving, there are a LOT of past articles I’ve written and podcast episodes I’ve recorded that are still immensely valuable. Yet they’re buried underneath that reverse waterfall.
Someone new to this site is probably interested in what’s happening right now, but they are also likely to find immense value in the articles I’ve already written. Such as the those from earlier this summer regarding productivity and diligence, or the ones from last year about sweating the details in our work.
While I don’t have anything firmly in the works, yet, I do have a few ideas about what I could do to improve the relevancy of my content in a way that doesn’t put recency as the primary metric.
Some ideas include:
- A redesign of the shawnblanc.net website that puts less emphasis on the reverse-waterfall blog and more emphasis on the most valuable content I’ve produced, regardless of when it was published.
- Going through the archives here on shawnblanc.net and putting together certain posts and articles into a series around specific topics (such as writing, creativity, productivity, workflows, etc.)
- Using the awesomeness of ConvertKit to offer training and relevant content “on-boarding” via email.
Basically, I’m looking at better ways of packaging and presenting all of my writing and podcasting into products and training materials (both free and paid) that can be as valuable as possible to you regardless of if you’ve been a long-time reader or this is the first article you’ve read of mine.
* * *
To wrap this up, I want to thank all of you who support this site, show up to read, listen to the podcast, and share your thoughts and feedback. Many of you are brand new. (Welcome!) And many more of you have been around for months and years.
Thanks for reading. And thanks for letting me learn and iterate in public. I think it’s more fun that way, and I hope you do, too.
You are awesome.
P.S. If you want to stay in the loop with what I’m working on, you should join The Fight Spot newsletter.
Just punch in your info below to get on the list.
And as my way of saying thank you, I’ll send you my popular ebook, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, for free.
I have a quick question for you:
What’s one of the biggest challenges you’re facing right now?
You can answer by clicking the link that feels most important to you right now:
The reason I ask is because I want to help provide the resources, momentum, and courage you need to make meaningful progress in the areas of life that matter.
If you’re curious, I’m tracking the click-throughs on the links above. The way you “vote” for your biggest challenge is by clicking on it. Your feedback will give me insight about what to focus on in order to best help you.
Plus… As my way of saying thank you, once you click through you’ll discover that I’ve already hand-picked a couple of resources I believe can help you right now with the respective challenge you’re facing.
So don’t be chicken; click on one of the options up above.
And as always, thanks for reading and thanks for being awesome!
As I write this, I’m preparing to spend a week in the mountains. And, in fact, by the time you read this I’ll already be in the mountains.
When you rest well, it should leave you feeling recharged and re-energized, ready to get back to work. I love to work. I love creating things and connecting with people. But work needs and ebb and and a flow.
I’ve discovered that I work best with seasons where my focus is solely on the idea and task at hand. Where I eat, sleep, and breath one particular project. And then, I need time away from work. To give my mind space to breath.
Perhaps you can relate, or perhaps you think I’m crazy, but taking time off isn’t easy for me. My tendency is to work, work, work.
Though I don’t let my work time come before my family time, I do have to remind myself that even my working hours aren’t all about “creating”. It took me several years before I realized it was just as important for me to read, study, and learn as it was for me to write, make, and ship.
In this short and sweet interview with Cameron Moll, he shares about his work and life as a designer and the founder of Authentic Jobs. I love this quote:
I was always building stuff with my hands growing up. Like always. Wood projects, go-karts, radio-controlled airplanes, that sort of thing. I think we underestimate sometimes just how much those kinds of activities, the ones that seem completely unrelated to our careers, play a vital role in shaping who we become and what we do with our working lives. The tools I use now in business are totally different from those I used in my garage twenty years ago, but in the end they’re all the same. They’re just tools that facilitate synthesis and creativity. And ten or twenty years from now, those tools will be totally different again. Mastery of creation and composition is much more important than mastery of tools.
I love that sentiment: “Mastery of creation and composition is much more important than mastery of tools.”
Here, Cameron is talking about the tools we use to build things. But I believe that this could also be applied to our workflows and our lifestyles as well. That mastery of creation is much more important than mastery of workflows.
We often ask people about the tools they use to get the job done. We’re curious about their work routines, their schedule, their priorities, etc.
But we rarely ask them what they are doing to stay sharp. What do they do in their off time? What hobbies to they keep? What does their family life look like? How do they spend their free time?
Who we are and what we do when we are away from our most important work is just as important as the energy and focus we give to doing that work. Because we are who we are, everywhere we are. Eating a healthy meal, having a good night’s sleep, telling our spouses that we love them — all these things impact the quality of the work we produce.
The lines between work and life are much more blurry than we like to imagine.
Another article I read just recently is this story about how William Dalrymple writes his books.
It takes Dalrymple 3-4 years to write a book. The first 2-3 years are spent reading, researching traveling. Then, the final year is spent writing.
Dalrymple shares about how his writing year is “completely different from the others”. He stops going out much. He gets up at 5:30 every morning to write. He works out in his back shed where there is no internet connection. He doesn’t look at his cell phone or email until after lunch.
In the final year I go from a rambling individual to almost autocratically, fixatedly hardworking and focused and that is the one discipline of being a writer. One year in four or five you are completely eaten up by the book. If it’s working, you’re really dreaming it, it’s not a figure of speech, it’s a literal thing. You’re harnessing the power of your subconscious.
As artists we so often hear about these seasons of other artists’ lives: the intense, focused, eat-sleep-work seasons. And we think that this is what life is like all the time.
But it can’t be. Dalrymple couldn’t spend a year focused on his writing without the preceding 2-3 years of reading, researching, and traveling.
You have to be inspired first before you can create.
You have to learn before you can teach.
You have to experience before you can share.
There is no shame in taking time “off” of your work, in order to learn something, experience something, and be inspired.
This is the ebb and flow of work. This is having multi-year cycles where we grow in our mastery of creation beyond just mastery of tools and workflows. This is why resting well is so valuable and why learning, thinking, and discovering cannot be underrated.
* * *
P.S. Just a side note to mention that the challenges of work-life balance, fighting a sense of overwhelm, and giving ourselves space to think and margin for thought are all foundational topics to The Focus Course. If this article hits home for you, I bet you would find immense value in taking 40 days to work your way through the course.
Just because you know about something doesn’t mean you do anything about it. There are overweight dietitians, sleep-deprived sleep researchers, broke business coaches, and angry counselors.
Common knowledge is not the same as common action.
* * *
The balance between our work and personal lives isn’t so much a perfect balancing act. It’s more of a zig and a zag. We spend a season of time focusing on a particular area of life, then we pull back and spend a season focusing on something else. We work hard at the office and then we go on vacation with the family.
It has been three weeks since the Focus Course launched. And now that this chapter of my life is closed, in the zig-zag of life I am taking some time off during the next month to be with and visit family as well as to celebrate 10 amazing years of marriage with my wife.
And during this down-time I’ll be thinking about what’s next.
* * *
This morning I was leafing through the notebook I used to jot down most of my research notes related to The Focus Course.
I came across one page, right in the middle of my notebook, that had several unordered bullet points on the importance of a focused life. These are some of the original ideas that later got expounded on as part of the course. I want to share them here with you.
- If you want to do everything, be everywhere, and control everything you’re more likely to do, be, and control nothing.
- Energy and motivation go further when they’re focused / channeled into a specific area.
- Clearly defined boundaries empower us to do better work. Hence the value in having daily routines. Also boundaries for how we will not spend our time, money, energy, etc. We have a finite amount of motivation, so keep in mind that if we commit to something new then it will need energy from another area of life.
- Goals and action plans allow all your energy to know where to take aim. Your motivation has a path to run on.
- Quality relationships are critical! Get around people with a sense of humor, who are high performers, who are fun and funny, and who are generous.
- We need humor and enjoyment in life.
- If you feel that you don’t have enough time, realize you have all the time you’re going to get. It’s impossible to be motivated when operating under other people’s unreasonable timezones and the tyranny of the urgent. Time is infinitely more valuable than money.
I have such a propensity to want to do everything, be everywhere, and control everything. But I know that the times I’ve done my best work are the times when I had one specific goal and one main project that I was focused on.
Reading my own notes this morning was a reminder to myself that just because I know a little bit about focus and diligence, doesn’t mean I’m immune to ever being un-focused. As I take some time to think and plan for what is next, I also need to remember to take my own advice: clearly defined boundaries empower; life needs humor and joy; I have all the time I’m going to get.
If you’re also slowing down this summer to think about what’s in store for the next season of life, instead of trying to figure out how you’re going to do it all, maybe try to do one thing really well.
My life has been mile-marked by my first son’s birth day.
There is life before I was a dad and there is life after his birth. And this. Now. This is the real and the good life.
My wife and I have two boys: our oldest, Noah, is nearly 3 and a half; our youngest, Giovanni, is nearly 2. They are sweet, noisy, wild, fun, frustrating, and delightful. I can’t imagine life without them.
Fatherhood is, by far and away, the most wonderful role in the world.
To all the other dads out there — now or yet to be — happy Father’s Day. May our sons and daughters grow up with clear minds and full hearts.
Every now and then an idea just hits you like a ton of bricks.
Have you ever experienced that?
You’re reading something, or listening to something, or driving to work and thinking about nothing in particular, but then a couple of dots connect in your head and kapow!
As I’m writing this, I’ve got one particular idea in mind that I want to share. Something that connected for me several years ago and has had a profound effect on me ever since.
It’s the idea of living like nobody else.
I first heard this phrase 10 years ago when my wife and I were newlyweds.
We were young and living on a humble missionary salary. I brought several thousand dollars of consumer debt to the marriage because when I was single I’d owned a truck that I didn’t know how to stop buying things for.
During our first six months of marriage, we focused very intently on getting our finances in order. We read Dave Ramsey’s book, and that helped us tremendously with getting a budget and building the courage to tackle our debt.
Something Dave Ramsey says repeatedly in his book is that if you will live like nobody else, later you can live like nobody else.
His point is that it’s time to stop living like a child. Assess your own life and be mature and intentional about how you spend your finances.
He writes about how so many lower- and middle-class Americans try to live as if they were millionaires: driving new and expensive cars, living in large homes, eating at fancy restaurants, etc.
However, most real millionaires actually live like middle-class (this is what the book The Millionaire Next Door is all about). The average millionaire’s annual household much lower than you may think (around $150K). However, since they live far beneath their means, they pay with cash, and they invest early and often, they’ve accumulated enough wealth to be worth $1,000,000 or more.
* * *
This metric of living differently than most people goes far beyond just how you spend your money. It’s also an excellent metric for how to spend your time, energy, and attention.
I love how my friend Aaron Mahnke said it just yesterday in a tweet:
Do as much as you can with as little as you can for as long as you can.— Aaron Mahnke (@amahnke) June 17, 2015
Lifestyle creep and workflow creep put a ceiling on our potential. They rob us of our much-needed resources of time, money, and energy.
Coming back, this is the idea I wanted to share with you today. The idea of living like nobody else. Of being careful of lifestyle and workflow creep (especially when it’s rooted in dissatisfaction).
Did you know…?
- The average American spends 5 hours or more watching television and 2 hours on social media every day.
- The average retiree at age 65 has only enough in savings to pay for less than 2 years worth of living expenses.
- One of the most common regrets of the dying is that they worked too hard and neglected their relationships, values, and even their own happiness.
- And who knows how many men and women have a dream to start a business, write a novel, paint a painting, or build something meaningful, but never try.
Unless our hope is in the lottery, it’s a logical impossibility that we can waste our money and end up wealthy. The same is true for our time and attention.
As I’ve written about before, unfortunately, most of us aren’t surrounded by focused and successful individuals who can set an example for us and remind us to keep on keeping on. We have few examples of intentional and considered living. However, we probably have plenty of examples of how to watch TV, check Facebook, and live above our means.
What then if you lived like nobody else?
- Don’t spend hours each day watching television or scrolling through social networks.
- Don’t let your work life dominate over family time, personal values, or happiness.
- Don’t ignore the importance of investing over the long-run and planning for the future.
- Live as far below your means as is reasonable, and don’t derive your happiness or self-worth by the fanciness of the things you own.
- Don’t let laziness or busywork keep you from building something meaningful.
- Don’t assume you need a better tool in order to do better work.
It’s funny. Simply doing the opposite of what most people do can actually open up many opportunities for you to do meaningful work.
* * *
It’s hard to change. We fear it. We get overwhelmed by all the areas we want to see change in. We get paralyzed by the options for how we could change. Or we’ve been there and done that, and since it didn’t work out that one time we’ve thrown in the towel for good.
Here’s the truth: You can change.
When Anna married me, I was an habitual spender. For years had been living paycheck to paycheck; I had thousands of dollars in consumer debt and no real grasp on how to consistently live within my means. But now we meet with and counsel others who are in debt and struggling to keep their finances under control, and we help them make changes to their spending habits.
* * *
I realize that this all sounds so serious. Like we’re still little kids who don’t know how to behave. Hey, you! Watch less TV. Turn off Facebook. Do your homework.
Yes. It is serious. But that’s because it matters. It’s also awesome and fun. Getting ahold of your life is liberating to say the least.
Of course, the choice is yours to make.
Ask yourself if you would prefer to be up-to-date on all the latest TV shows and summer movies, or if you want to create something every day?
Do you want to stay in the loop with the lives of your Facebook friends, or do you want to help your kids build a fort or do their homework?
Do you want to squeeze in one more thing at the office, or do you want to go on a date with your spouse?
Now, I realize all these options aren’t continually at odds with one another — they’re not mutually exclusive. And it’s not that TV, Facebook, and late nights at the office are always “bad” all of the time.
Life is a messy, zig-and-zag balancing act. Rarely, if ever, is it a state of perfect harmony.
I’m being dramatic to make a point. Because I know that in my own life, and in the lives of my close friends and family, if we aren’t careful and intentional then over time the natural trajectory of life begins to move downward.
Focus, diligence, relationships, wealth, art — anything at all that is worth pursuing — is a moving target.
And we are guaranteed to face resistance when we take that path of doing our best creative work, living a healthy and awesome life, and building meaningful relationships.
In short, if you want to watch more TV, the universe won’t bother you. If you want to do work that matters, it’s going to be a fight.
* * *
Today’s article is the fourth in my countdown to The Focus Course, which launches on June 23.
For me, this one is perhaps one of the most personal yet. To be transparent, I am extremely passionate about keeping that healthy balance where I’m able to do my best creative work while also having thriving relationships with my close friends and family. It’s top-of-mind for me pretty much every single day.
If this article hits home for you as well, then I believe you will love the course.
As I wrote above, you can get breakthrough. You can do work that matters, build momentum in your personal integrity, establish habits that stick, bring a healthy balance between your work and personal life.
And the Focus Course can be the secret weapon to help you get moving in that direction. The course leads you along a path that starts out simple and fun and culminates in deep and lasting impact.
I hope you’ll consider taking a chance on yourself and signing up for the Focus Course this coming Tuesday.
Over the next few days I’ll be sharing some stories and testimonies of those who’ve already taken the course and how it impacted their life.
You can now sign up for The Focus Course right here.
My life changed forever when my wife and I had our first child.
Becoming a dad was one of the most incredible and defining moments of my entire life. In fact, I’d say fatherhood is perhaps the most prominent milestone marker of my life. That my life is divided into two parts: before I was a dad and after.
But there’s more to the story.
Before our first son, Noah, was even born I decided to quit my job and try to work from home and write for a living.
It was Christmastime in 2010. My wife and I were having dinner after returning from Colorado. We had just gone through a deeply challenging loss in our family and out of that Anna and I began talking about having kids.
The jolt of the personal tragedy combined with the excitement of starting a family brought my whole life into slow motion. Things that were so important at the time suddenly seemed meaningless. Things that were once side passions now seemed immensely important. So many of my “priorities” got completely uprooted.
I knew that it was time to quit my job of 10 years and try my hand at something new.
Sometimes You Need a Jolt to Help You Make a Choice
It sounds so “bold” — to quit my job on the cusp of starting a family — but it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. And once I made the choice to quit my job and to start writing my website as my new full-time gig, everything else fell into place.
Do not underestimate the power of decisiveness and action.
Decisiveness brings motivation for action. Action brings clarity. And clarity helps us make future decisions.
* * *
Long-time readers of this site will know just how much I love to geek out over things. I will spend hours and hours researching something to death. I love it. It’s fun; it’s play
For example: A few years ago I bought way too many keyboards and used them, tested them, recorded the sound they make when clicking, and studied how the different key switches actuate.
But sometimes my need to hyper-research and test something can be dangerous. In my office I still use an uncomfortable chair because I’ve never made time to do a deep dive research on “just the right” ergonomic chair for me.
When I want to make a change in my life, or when I want to invest in something that I know will be a critical part of my everyday life, I can obsess over it. Researching, thinking, and talking with people about it. It can literally take me months or years to make a decision (if ever).
My love for learning about and sweating the details is one of my greatest strengths. But it can also be a weakness.
Part of the reason I leave a note out for myself is because if I didn’t then I might never get any writing done. There are times when I need to be told what to do — times when I am paralyzed by decision. But then, once I’ve begun moving, then the action brings with it so much clarity.
Action brings clarity.
* * *
Here’s a story.
A little over a year ago that I finally began running. I’d been putting it off for years because I wanted to do “the best” workout routine possible. What would have the maximum impact in the shortest time with the least effort? Ugh.
One day I realized that if I didn’t just start doing something — anything — then I may never start.
So I did the easiest thing I could do:
I bought a Couch to 5K running app that literally told me what to do. All I had to do was listen and follow the instructions.
I went to a store where they analyze your gait and help you get the right running shoes. They were only a bit more expensive than just going to a factory shoe store, but the extra cost was worth it for me because I didn’t have to think and research shoes. I let someone else help me and it took less than an hour.
And then, I came home and started running.
Starting simple and allowing someone else to tell me what to do removed a huge barrier of activation energy. And now, a year later, I’m still running regularly.
* * *
Sometimes it takes a tragedy or other type of wake-up call to give us the push we need to get moving. Other times, we need to shut up and let someone else tell us what to do so we can just get started already.
In part, that’s exactly what The Focus Course is. It’s like “Couch to 5K” but for doing your best creative work and getting your life in shape.
Do you need a Couch to 5K app in order to start running? Not really.
Likewise, could you go on your own to get clarity on the principles and action items found within the Focus Course? Most likely. In fact, I have nothing to hide here: I’ve listed out all of the books, articles, podcasts, white papers, and other resources I read as part of my research to create The Focus Course.
What makes The Focus Course so valuable is how approachable it is.
The course starts out simple, easy, and fun. And over 40 days the course builds on itself so that by the end you’ve seen significant progress and change and have actually done something.
Peter Drucker says that “the greatest wisdom not applied to action and behavior is meaningless data.”
Knowledge alone is not enough to create lasting change. Which is why The Focus Course is about more than just head knowledge — it’s an introduction to experiential knowledge.
Without any hyperbole, I mean it when I say that The Focus Course can change your life.
Every single person who went through the pilot of the course and provided feedback said that The Focus Course had a positive impact on them, and that they learned about the things they were wanting to learn about and they saw change in the areas they were hoping.
* * *
However, I’m not just here to try and convince you of the power of the Focus Course.
I’m also using it as an example to encourage you that not every decision or project should be researched to death.
If there is something you’re putting off because you think you need to research it more, consider if it’d be better to just start now with the easiest point of activation. And then, let your experiential knowledge bring clarity about what to do next.
Something I have learned — that is still a struggle for me, honestly — is that sometimes I just need to start. Oftentimes what I call “research” or “prudence” is actually just procrastination.
Procrastination left unchecked will gain momentum. The longer you put something off the easier it becomes to keep putting off.
I’m still learning to listen to my gut and to make a choice about something quickly. And I’m learning not to despise setting small goals, trusting the advice of others, starting simple, and making incremental progress.
* * *
One of the primary goals of The Focus Course is to lead you along a path that starts as simple and fun and then culminates in something with deep and lasting impact. Check it out:
Long-time readers of this site will know that I’ve been a hard and fast OmniFocus user for almost five years now. However, for more than a year, I’ve actually been using a hybrid system for my task management: combining both digital and analog in my everyday juggling act.
If you’re familiar with the Eisenhower / Covey Matrix then you know all about Urgent vs Important. Of course, you don’t have to be familiar with the Urgent/Important Matrix to know that many tasks are urgent but that doesn’t mean they’re important. And, how often does the truly important work we need to do sit quietly for us to act on it, instead of crying out for our attention?
For digital, I use OmniFocus. And for analog I have a Baron Fig notebook and Signo DX 0.38mm pen. These two tools each serve as the different storehouses for the different quadrants of urgent and important.1
In general, my most important activities for the day are written down in my Baron Fig notebook — and almost always they are written down the day before.
OmniFocus is where I keep anything with a due date, as well as all the other administrative miscellany of my job. OmniFocus is for work that is important but not Most Important. Like many of you, I suspect, I’m at my computer for the bulk of my working hours. Thus, virtually all of the incoming tasks I need to capture are of the digital kind: they deal with emails, bills, invoices, website edits, servers, files, graphics, etc. And OmniFocus is great for this (as would be any digital task management app worth its salt).
I break up my day with writing and important-but-not-urgent tasks in the morning followed by administrative and other tasks in the afternoon. Or, in other words, I spend the first half of my day with the Baron Fig and the second half with OmniFocus.
There’s no reason I couldn’t just keep everything in OmniFocus or in the Baron Fig.2 But I like this hybrid approach.
There is something concrete to the act of using a pen to write down my most important tasks onto a piece of paper. And there’s something ever-so-slightly less distracting about coming downstairs and having a notebook open and waiting, listing out in my own handwriting what it is I need to get to straight away.
When I open up OmniFocus, as awesome as it is, it’s still full of buttons and colors and widgets and options. While these can be minimized (something I love about OF), I’m still an incessant fiddler and the last thing I need is something to fiddle with when I’m supposed to be writing.
The Black Belt test was the hardest thing I’d ever done.
I was 15, and at that point I’d literally spent half of my entire life as a martial artist. It feels like another lifetime ago. But even still, I can remember vividly just how physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting the testing and training was.
It was a Saturday. There were about 12 of us who tested for Black Belt that year. Afterwards everybody went out for pizza to celebrate. Also, we were starving.
The school was closed on Sundays.
Monday I was back at the studio, training and studying for my 1st Dan test that would be in a year.
Getting my Black Belt was a huge milestone in my life. However, though the belt rank was a goal, it wasn’t the goal.
You don’t show up every day, until. You simply show up every day.
It’s a miracle that I was able to grab hold of that concept at such a young age. Even now, almost 20 years later, it’s still so easy for me to forget that life is lived in the day-to-day. There is much more satisfaction in the small daily wins and the joy of consistently choosing doing the things which are meaningful, valuable, and important.
If you’ve got a habit of showing up every day then I guarantee you that along the way you’ll pass milestones and accomplish big goals. You’ll also have massive failures. When you do, celebrate them, learn from them, and then you keep on going.
Don’t let the accomplishment (or failure) of your goals define your success. Nor are they the primary factor upon which your happiness hinges.
“Once I get my black belt, then I’ll finally be a real martial artist.”
“Once I get out of school, then I can finally do something meaningful.”
“Once I get married, then I’ll finally be happy.”
“Once I buy a nice house, then I’ll finally be settled.”
“Once I get my dream car, then I’ll finally be able to have fun.”
”Once my website has 10,000 readers, then I’ll finally feel validated as a writer.”
No you won’t.
Once you get your black belt, you’ll discover just how much of a beginner you truly are. Once you get out of school, you’ll find out that corporate bureaucracy can be demoralizing and you’re still going to have to choose yourself. Once you get married, you’ll find out that sharing a life with someone is a lot of work. Once you buy that nice house, you’ll see that the new mortgage payment is double what your old rent used to be. Once you get that dream car, you’ll discover that it has car trouble, too. Once your website gets traffic and attention, you’ll discover there is a pressure to produce that can choke the creativity right out of you.
Black belts, college degrees, marriage, beautiful homes, awesome cars, and huge audiences are all wonderful things. But these milestones — these goals — don’t define your worth, character, or happiness.
They are milestones. You celebrate them. And then you get back to work.
The reason is this: if you are committed to showing up every day, only until, then you’ve set yourself up for disillusionment.
When you think about someone who is a black belt, you think about someone who has mastered martial arts. But the black belt test was the hardest thing I’d ever done. It was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. I was tired and afraid and nervous. You’d think a “master” could breeze through something at that point.
If you’re doing something that matters, there will always be resistance. Distractions, excuses, and challenges will always be right at your doorstep.
Don’t wait for the fear to go away, because it won’t.
Don’t wait for the risk to disappear, because there will always be risk.
Show up every day when it’s frightful. When it’s risky. When it’s tense. When it hurts. Because it will always be that way — the “finally” moment never comes.
Don’t seek to eliminate the tension. Instead, learn how to thrive in the midst of it.
This is why I created The Focus Course
Thriving in the midst of tension is one of the primary themes behind The Focus Course. And I’m so happy to finally announce that The Focus Course will be launching in just 3 weeks (on June 23)!
Over the past year I have read so many books regarding creativity, productivity, focus, etc. And it made me realize that my own writing on this topic needed to be of a different kind. A book (much like a website or an email newsletter), in and of itself, is awesome for communicating ideas and imparting inspiration. But then the action is left to the reader.
There are many topics where ideas and inspiration are exactly what you need. But for topics such as doing our best creative work, overcoming distractions, breaking our inbox and urgency addictions, building our personal integrity, and defining what meaningful productivity is in our lives, it can be immensly helpful to learn by doing.
Peter Drucker said that the greatest wisdom not applied to action and behavior is meaningless data.
* * *
Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing more about what’s in the Focus Course and what sets it apart from anything else out there. In short, it’s an action-centric, 40-day course that will change your life.
Here’s a testimony I just got in yesterday from one of the Pilot Members, Tyler Soenen:
This course forced me to beat the resistance and do the work. The result is that I learned so much more because I actually did the work and tasted the fruit that so many productivity books talk about. And this was huge for me. In all of the reading I’ve done, the The Focus Course had something new and original that was very beneficial to my life.
And here’s the video I just finished that shares the “why” behind the Focus Course:
What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to doing work that matters?
A lot of people say money. As in, a lack of money.
A lack of money can certainly be an obstacle. But it can also be an excuse.
It’s awesome to have the funds we need to give us the time and other resources that will help us do work that matters. But if we say we can’t do anything meaningful because it’s not our full-time job, that’s fear talking.
Now, there are cases where money truly is a debilitating issue. I have friends and family members who just can’t seem to get ahead — at times they feel as if they’re drowning. Money problems can be extremely demotivating, crippling, and depressing.
However, right now I want to talk about those who see money as their biggest challenge to doing work that matters and yet have never stopped to consider if there are alternatives. Or perhaps you see the paycheck as a validation of the work you’re doing — you need the promise of income as a pat on the back that you’re doing something valuable.
But the truth is…
Money is a tool, not a validation
You with money may have an advantage over you without money, but it’s not a guarantee. At the end of the day, what money does is buy opportunity.
Opportunity of time: if you had a million dollars in the bank to pay all your monthly living expenses and to pay someone else to handle all the menial tasks of your life, then you could spend all your time working on your craft. But even if you had all the time in the world, it doesn’t guarantee you’d choose to do meaningful work.
Opportunity of collaboration and community: if you had a million dollars, you could hire a team to work with. But even with a hundred million, there’s no guarantee that you’d be able to hire an all-star staff of hard-working, kind, fun, brilliant, self-starters who all get along.
Opportunity of networking: if you had a million dollars, people might invite you to their fancy dinners, and ask you to collaborate with them. But even if so, there’s no guarantee that the right people will notice you
Opportunity of research and discovery: if you had a million dollars you could buy all the books you need to learn up on a subject, travel somewhere to a conference to meet new people and learn new things, and more.
Opportunity to use better tools: if you had a million dollars you could buy the nicest camera, the fastest computer, the highest quality paint brushes. But even then, there’s no guarantee that the tools at your disposal would empower you do to work that matters.
If money is your biggest challenge to doing your best creative work, ask yourself what advantage or opportunity it is that you’re looking to money to solve. Once you figure that out, ask yourself if there’s a different solution to your challenge.
If you say you need money so you can have more time to do the work that matters to you, and yet you’re watching an hour of TV every day, then money’s not the first problem. How you’re spending your time is.
If you say you need money to afford the right tools, yet you go out to eat every day and have a monthly car payment, perhaps you should assess your spending and budgeting.
The real obstacles are fear and not being willing to sacrifice
I spent four years writing shawnblanc.net during evenings, weekends, and lunch breaks before I was able to quit my job and take the website full time. Jason Kottke had been writing online for 7 years before he quit his job to take kottke.org full-time. Myke Hurley spent four years podcasting before he was able to take his passion full-time. John Gruber wrote Daring Fireball on the side for 4 years before making it his full-time gig.
In short, it takes time — years, usually — before doing the work you love can get to a point where it is also the work that pays the bills. But sometimes, it never pays the bills.
Are you willing to show up every day for 4 years?
Talking to a friend about this just this morning, he said that he doesn’t think it’s about money at all — it’s about how much people are willing to sacrifice to do the work they love. People don’t want to give up all the things they need to give up, so instead they place the burden of action on having more money.
* * *
In her book, The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna writes that there are four obstacles to doing our most important work: Money, Time, Space, and Vulnerability.
While money, time, and space are the reasons given most often for not choosing Must, there’s another fear that’s far scarier and spoon about much less.
Choosing Must means that you have to confront some very big fears. It will make you feel vulnerable.
Doing our best creative work day in and day out is difficult. As anyone who writes, draws, or takes pictures on a regular basis can tell you, thinking and creating something awesome every day can be hard and frightful.
I don’t want to minimize how helpful it can be to have a financial safety net in place, nor how frightening it can be when you’re barely scraping by. I’ve been in debt, I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck even though I didn’t have to, I’ve survived on less than minimum wage, and I’ve had enough money to take a year off if I wanted. In all those seasons, there were still challenges and fears that I had to press through in order to do work that mattered.
Elle Luna also writes: “It is here, standing at the crossroads of Should and Must, that we feel the enormous reality of our fears, and this is the moment when many of us decide against following our intuition, turning away from that place where nothing is guaranteed, nothing is known, and everything is possible.”
With all kindness and tenderness, let me challenge you: If it’s mostly about the money, then perhaps it’s not about doing your best creative work after all. If you see money as your biggest challenge, perhaps you’re not being honest with yourself.
On this week’s episode of The Weekly Briefly I talk about how thirsty we are to do meaningful work. It takes more than just showing up every day to do our best creative work. And if we focus too much on just the output we are doing (without taking time to learn and grow) then it can easily lead to burnout.
This week’s show is sponsored by Wired In: Eliminate Distractions. Stay focused. Get a custom, wireless, LED ‘Busy’ sign from Wired In.
And below is a transcript of the episode for those who prefer to read.
Show Notes and Transcript
I used to hate to read. I didn’t think I hated it, but I did.
I never wanted to read. I never enjoyed it. Reading felt like a waste of time. Unless I was on vacation. But reading during work hours? No way.
Four years ago I had no idea what I was doing. When I first started writing shawnblanc.net full-time, I was clueless and afraid.
In the words of Ray Bradbury, “I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”
Those early years of writing this site were difficult. They were fun, to be sure, but they were hurried. I held on to this sense that I had to keep up with the pace of the internet. And on top of that, I didn’t know what sort of writer I wanted to be or what sort of things I wanted to publish on the site. So I was running around in a hurry to publish who knows what.
Nearly all my attention was focused on publishing.
Frequency (not consistency). That was my primary measure of success. Or, at least, that’s what I assumed all the paying members wanted: more published words every day.
They tell you to ship early and ship often. As a writer, shipping means getting your words onto the page and then getting them out there into the world.
My focus was so intent on the frequency of my publishing that I rarely felt liberty to do anything that took me away from getting at least one or two links up every day. This was folly.
In his book, First Things First, Stephen Covey writes about what he calls “Sharpening the Saw”.
We often get so busy “sawing” (producing results) that we forget to “sharpen our saw” (maintain or increase our capacity to produce results in the future). We may neglect to exercise, or fail to develop key relationships. We may not be clear about what’s important and meaningful to us. If we fail to build our personal capacity in these areas, we quickly become “dulled,” and worn out from the imbalance. We’re unable to move forward as effectively in the other roles of our lives.
Maintaining and increasing our capacity is foundational for success in every area of our life. In short, don’t stop learning; don’t stop training.
But I rarely ever took time to read and study. I never took mid-day breaks. Even though I could set my own schedule, I usually worked evenings and weekends just to keep up frequency (not because I was working on something specific that had me motivated).
My intense focus on frequency burned me out. Many times. By the grace of God, I didn’t quit.
Here’s an entry I wrote in my Day One almost two years ago:
What do you do when you look at the work you’ve been doing for the past day or week or month and you think, this sucks? I don’t know if there’s an answer or not for getting past crappy work, but I bet you a sandwich the answer probably involves doing more crappy work.
Do as much as you can. Keep writing. Keep making. Write 1,000 crappy words every day. Then put them in a drawer and pretend they don’t exist lest you get depressed.
In my years of writing and doing creative-y stuff, I’ve discovered the difference between burnout and frustration. Between immaturity and fear.
Doing our best creative work every day is a hard and frightful task. But we’re in it for the long haul. We have to remember that there is a lot more to it than merely showing up to do the work.
Showing up to do the work is the brave and noble part of the endeavor. It’s what all the books and motivational posters focus on. And for good reason: if we don’t show up, well then, we’re not actually doing the work.
But let us not get so busy producing that we forget to maintain or increase our capacity to keep producing results.
For me, there were a lot of reasons I hated the idea of learning and improving in my “early years” as a writer. (I put “early years” in quotes because I’ve been a full-time writer for all of 4 years now. I’ve still got about 46 years to go before I’m out of the “early years”. But, the reasons I despised learning in those days were because:)
- I was focused on the new and the now.
- I cared too much about my site’s stats.
- I thought I needed to keep up with the speed of the Internet in order to be interesting and relevant.
- I didn’t have a long-term goal for any of my writing endeavors, other than to write about what was interesting to me today.
This is not to say that the work I was doing was bad, or wrong. Not at all. I’m exceedingly proud of the links and articles I have published here over the years. But where I needed change was in the foundation from which my writing grew.
I’m still as nerdy about apps and gadgets as I always was. Over the years, however, I’ve found a different pace that works better for me. Partly necessitated by becoming a dad.
I don’t want any of my websites to publish at the speed of the Internet. Because it is impossible to keep up with unless you neglect everything else in your life. And even then, you can only keep up with a tiny sliver of the real-time Web. It can be fun for a while, but it’s not healthy or sustainable for anyone who wants to do meaningful work for decades.
Far more valuable to me than speed and ”First!” are things such as thoughtfulness, whimsy, helpfulness, and long-term relevancy. In my experience, many of these values hide themselves from environments where urgency is the dominant motivational factor.
Who can be thoughtful when they’re in a rush?
Hurry up and be thoughtful! Hurry up and be clever! Hurry up and be helpful! Hurry up, but don’t mess up!
For me, I find much more satisfaction creating something with a long-tail of relevancy than a momentary flash in the pan. And it’s out of this contentment to publish at a slower frequency that I re-discovered the value of learning.
* * *
The value of learning
Would you scoff at the farmer who spends time keeping his tools in good working condition? Would you scoff at the painter who spends time cleaning her brushes? What about the scientist who spends time doing research and experimenting? Or the athlete who practices?
Of course not.
There is a strong connection between practicing and learning and then doing.
You must have both. Some people spend their whole life in school, never creating anything on their own. Others create, do the work, but think that’s the only thing that matters.
I know I fell into that latter group. All my focus was on making and doing and publishing. So much so that I despised learning and researching and giving my mind time to rest and think.
Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Cheeck-sent-me-hai—lee) is a noted psychologist, and the architect the notion called Flow.
Csikszentmihalyi’s theory is that people are happiest when they are in a state of Flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.
Finding flow in our everyday lives is important for several reasons.
- It increases our happiness
- It gives us a focus on effectiveness
- It’s where we do our best creative work
- It’s how we make progress
- It helps us to learn new skills
However, finding flow can be challenging; it requires more activation energy. It’s much easier to just turn on the television than it is to get out the paint brushes and a new canvas and change into our artist’s painting clothes. But the latter is where we are more likely to get in the zone, to become lost in our work.
But here’s what I’m getting at: The experience of flow acts as a magnet for learning.
When we are working on something that is challenging to us and which requires the highest level of our skills, then we want to learn. Not only do we learn in the midst of our work, but our work drives our desire to learn more.
And learning — or, as Stephen Covey puts it: “sharpening the saw” — is critical to growth and quality for all the areas of our life: spiritual, physical, relational, recreational, vocational, and economical.
How Thirsty Are You?
As part of my own journey in creating The Focus Course, I’ve become a student of topics such as doing meaningful work, diligence, focus, distractions, work/life balance, and more.
I’ve always been a student of these, but mostly through my own trial and error. Now that I am building a platform to teach others, I wanted to know what smarter men and women than I have had to say about these topics.
Between my bookshelf and my Kindle there are more than 50 books about creativity, business, time management, goal setting, imposter syndrome, productivity, workaholism, parenting, and more. I’ve read all but the last few.
For a while I was getting a new book delivered 3-4 times per week (thank you, Amazon Prime). My wife, lovingly, joked that I’d gone off the deep end…
Hubby is writing a book on productivity. Either that or the self help books arriving daily in the mail are a serious hint hint. #okayalready— Anna Blanc (@annablancihop) March 17, 2015
I bought the books in paperback or hardback because I wanted to highlight them, write in them, dogear them, put sticky notes in them, and have three books open all at once to compare and contrast them if I wanted to.
In his book, What to Do When it’s Your Turn, Seth Godin writes that “the internet means you can learn anything you want, if you are thirsty enough to do the work to learn it.”
And yet, despite this vast ocean of awesomeness, most of us don’t really want to learn anything. We’d rather zone out on Twitter or Netflix. Or burn out trying to make something with the sole aim that it’ll go viral.
More than 100,000 people regularly sign up for advanced computer science courses online, courses that are taught by great professors and are free to all who enroll. Shockingly, 99 percent — 99 percent! — of the students drop out before they finish the course.
Not thirsty enough.
Learning is a chance to take a risk. To try something new. To observe and evaluate. To ask a question and then listen to the answer. It’s a chance to discover. To have a revelation. To have a conversation.
We learn by reading, listening, observing, doing, teaching, failing, fixing.
We can maintain and increase our capacity in all areas of our life. Ask your spouse if she has a new favorite song. Ask your co-workers what they’re struggling with at work. Watch a YouTube video about woodworking and spend the weekend making a wobbly bench with your kids.
Learning helps us to do better work. It also helps us connect with others.
It took me a few years to come to grips with the fact that it was okay for me to take time away from “producing” in order to maintain and increase my capacity to do creative work. And once I did, I realized how valuable it was to always be learning.
This is what my home office workspace looked like in 2007:
(I still have that trashcan. And the weird blocks underneath the legs of the desk are there because I mis-measured by about 3/4 of an inch when I was shortening the height of the desk to something more comfortable.)
It was dorky, but it was also inspirational. Inspirational for what it stood for, really. That photo was taken around the same time as the beginning of my weekends-and-evenings freelancing career. I had just bought that refurbished Mac Pro and 23-inch Apple Cinema Display, and now I was ready for the big leagues. It felt great to have a new machine (doing print design on the 12-inch PowerBook was not very ideal), and a newly organized workspace with some semblance of organization and structure. You know the feeling.
A few years later, we ripped out the carpet to reveal the hardwood underneath. Painted the walls, got a new desk from IKEA, and bought a lamp.
That’s the desk where I launched my full-time gig writing shawnblanc.net.
A few years after that, we moved my office downstairs because the upstairs room was to become a nursery for our first son, Noah.
Here’s what my space looked like last year:
Since that time things have de-cluttered a bit. Mostly thanks to the Retina iMac (which is still incredible by the way).
Here’s what my desk looks like today:
As desks are wont to do, mine certainly gets cluttered and messy. But I try to keep it clean and not just let the mess get out of control. For me, inspiration and ideas and calm are more prevalent when the peripherals are dealt with.
My desk is where I spend so much of my time. It’s where I work and where I create. I write, design, pay bills, ignore emails, edit and share pictures with my family, and more… all from here. I’m here right now, in fact.
When I think about showing up every day and doing my best creative work, I think about this space. It has certainly changed and evolved over the past decade, but one thing it’s always had has been a surface to work on, a keyboard to type on, and an internet connection to publish through.
Your creative workspace may be different. But regardless of what or why you’ve got what you’ve got, here are a few things every good creative workspace needs:
Ritual: As I wrote last week, by far and away, the best thing you can do for your creative workspace is to build some ritual / routine into it. When you combine the power of a consistent “where” along with a consistent “what and when”, then you’re basically putting your creative genius on autopilot.
Fun: Having fun is an excellent way to do our best creative work. If there’s nothing playful, enjoyable, or fun about your workspace how can you hope to create anything inspirational or vibrant? All work and no play makes our creative work very dull indeed.
For me, I have fun built right into the very core of what I do: writing. My keyboard is as clicky as they come, and I love it. Secondly, I have a computer that I love to use: the Retina iMac which is a marvel. As someone who works with words all day long not only do I have my favorite way to type them with, I also have a jaw-dropping display to view them on.
Inspiration Rich: Speaking of fun, a good workspace is inspirational. A few friends of mine who have some pretty great workspaces include: Sean McCabe’s office, which is filled with art prints; Cameron Moll’s space which is very open and organized, but yet also is clearly lived in; and Jeff Sheldon’s office studio, which, like Cameron’s is very organized but very lived in.
I have a bit of inspiration in my place. My bookcase is packed with hardbacks, paperbacks, magazines, Field Notes, Moleskins, and Baron Figs. On the walls are prints of photographs I’ve taken over the years. But looking at some of the aforementioned office spaces, I know there is much I could do to enhance the life, vibrancy, and overall inspiration of my own workspace.
Distraction Poor: A good workspace empowers us to do our best creative work. Distractions are pretty much the opposite of inspiration and motivation. In addition to not letting myself check any stats or social media before I’ve put in my morning writing time, I also get rid of physical distractions in a couple of ways.
For one, I clean up my desk at the end of the day so that tomorrow when I come down to work, there’s nothing left undone that I need to tend to first. Secondly, I put on headphones. I work form home, but right upstairs are two toddler boys whose superpowers include turning into tornadoes.
Efficiency: This is threefold. For one, it’s critical to have the right tools for the right job. You wouldn’t want a butter knife when you’re trying to cut down an oak tree. Secondly, get the best tools you can. I don’t mean get the best tools period, get what you can afford and what you can handle. Lastly, a good workspace is efficient in that it can accommodate what you use on a regular basis and that everything is easily accessible while not also being in the way.
Multiple Spaces: This one’s a luxury, but it’s also so great. If you checked out the photos of Sean, Cameron, and/or Jeff’s offices you may have noticed that there were multiple “stations”. Their offices have more than one physical place to do work.
In my office there is my desk, but on the other half of the room is a couch and coffee table. And, even my desk converts between a sitting and standing desk. I have these different stations because not all creative work is created equal. I spend at least as much time writing as I do reading and researching. And that latter activity is better spent not in front of my computer.
* * *
In her book, The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna lists Space (as in Workspace, not Outer Space), as one of the four obstacles that stand in the way of us doing our most important work — what she calls our “Must”.
You need a physical space — private, safe, and just for you. When you are in this space, you are not available. I repeat, you are not available. This is your sacred space to be by and with yourself. We all need safe containers. How might you create a safe space that you can spend time in daily? How might you get creative with where it begins and ends? Find this place and make it your own.
The unsung hero of showing up every day and doing your best creative work is your workspace. You may think it’s your determination, zeal, and creative genius. And it probably is. But it’s also that you’ve somehow managed to carve out a spot where you can think and work without judgment, inhibition, or distraction.
Your space doesn’t have to be made with a desk or a computer. I read about one woman who made her workspace by using painter’s tape to section off part of her living room. She ran the tape across the ceiling, down the walls, and back over the floor.
I’ve had many productive days at coffee shops. Find a table where nobody will give you the stink eye if you’re there for too long, put on headphones if you like, and make your space with an Americano as your wingman.
Perhaps you’ve created your workspace intentionally, or perhaps unintentionally. But either way, if you find that you’ve been doing some of your best work lately, take a moment to thank your space.
However, if you’re struggling — if you don’t have a space — it’s time to make one.
It was February of 2011 when I announced I was quitting my job and would be going full-time with shawnblanc.net. At the time I’d been writing here for just shy of four years.
Now, it has been another four. As I sit here this morning, writing these words, my heart is filled with gratitude. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to pull back the curtain and share from my heart this morning.
Looking back at the launch of my membership, in some ways, it seems like I did it all wrong. I “launched a product” four years ago without an email list, without any forewarning, and I probably totally undersold my value and left money on the table.
Literally all I did was publish a blog post telling everyone I was quitting my job and asked them to pitch in $3/month to support me. Oh, and I made a super dorky video using the iSight Camera on my MacBook Pro.
By today’s standards, there’s no way that should have worked.
But it did. By golly, it actually did work.
I’m sure I could have done things better. But at the same time, maybe not. There are a few reasons I think it did work, and if I take out any one of those dynamics who knows but the whole thing might have failed.
For one, I’d already been writing my site consistently for almost 4 years. This is something you, as a maker and an artist, can’t get away from. A maker makes. And I’d proved myself — both to you, the reader, and also to my own self — that I was in it for the long run. It wasn’t about an end goal — it was about the journey. And it still is. I’m not looking for an exit, I’m looking for a lifestyle and a community.
The consistency I had built up was an invaluable foundation upon which I was able to ask people to support my work. The whole pitch of the membership drive was along the lines of: “if you like the writing I’ve been doing here already, then pitch in a few bucks per month and I’ll be able to keep writing and write more frequently.”
If I hadn’t already been writing consistently for years, then there’s no way I could have asked people for their support.
My site archives served as the portfolio. My consistency was my résumé. And my new employer, the readers, decided to hire me.
But consistency is the obvious part, right. We all know that, part, right? We know we’ve got to show up every day if we want to build an audience or whatever. But there is more to it than that.
If you’re an artist and you are showing up every day as a means to an end, it will blow up in your face.
You get back what you give out. You reap what you sow.
So yes, consistency is the foundation. But it’s not the solution in and of itself.
There are a thousand million other websites out there, all publishing something every day. But there is one thing that separates them from you. That one thing is you. YOU!
Once you show up, it’s time to be honest. To bleed. To have fun. Roll your sleeves up and put your hands in the dirt. Smile. Laugh. Cry. Be genuine.
For eight years now I’ve been writing for shawnblanc.net, and I still get nervous every time I’m about to hit publish. At first, I thought the fear was just my novice-ness showing through. I assumed that once I got more experience under my belt, I’d be less afraid to publish. But I know now that’s not the case.
That edge of fear is what keeps me on track. If I’m afraid, then chances are I’m publishing something worthwhile. If I’m working on a project and constantly asking myself if it’s even going to work, then it means I’m probably making something of value.
If I pause for a moment before hitting “publish”, then it means there is probably someone who will find value in what I’ve just written. And so I hope to never get comfortable and never stop taking risks. From the small, daily risks of publishing an article, to the big crazy risks of starting a new website, trusting my team, writing a book, or creating a massive online course that I hope will literally change people’s lives.
* * *
Let me wrap this up by saying two things.
To the fellow makers, writers, podcasters, designers, and artists, out there: Thank you for making what you make. Keep showing up. And, most of all, keep being genuine. Keep dancing with that fear.
And to you, dear readers: A million, billion thanks. From the bottom of my heart. Thank you for your support over these years. I’m having more fun writing now than I ever have. It’s hard as hell, but that’s the point. In some ways I feel like we’re just getting started.
- April 1, 2011 was a Friday. I took a 3 day weekend to give myself some breathing room after quitting my job the day before, and didn’t publish my first article as a full-time, indie blogger until April 4, 2011. Details.↵
At the root of most bad writing, Stephen King says you’ll find fear. It’s fear — or timidity — that holds a writer back from doing her best creative work.
Ray Bradbury admitted this outright: “I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”
You’ll also find fear at the root of most non-writing. Shame, doubt, worry, second-guessing, and all their cousins stand guard against us when we sit down to deal with the blank page.
As someone who writes for a living, I can tell you this: anything that keeps me from writing is public enemy number one. And the one thing that most keeps me from writing is fear.
Fear works against me more than my lack of time, focus, ideas, and talent combined. Time, focus, ideas, talent — these are all quantifiable. But fear? Fear is completely irrational. You can’t argue with it, you can’t tell it to go away, you can’t schedule around it, and you can’t bribe it or distract it.
But you know what else about fear? It’s universal.
We all feel afraid and timid when facing that blank page. Look around at some of your favorite writers and creators. They are more than talented and hard working. They are brave. They’ve found a way to keep writing in the midst of their fear.
* * *
To pull the curtain back just a little, oftentimes the thing which most keeps me from writing is a fear of putting my own narcissism out on display for all to see. So often my first draft is little more than my own self-centered view of the world — a world where I sit at the center. This is not the world I am trying to build up, but when writing, how can any of us write about anything else but what we know and what we have heard? We write about what we know and what we feel. We write from our own soul and our own heart and we share what we’ve seen through our own eyes and what we’ve heard through our own ears. We write from the inside out.
Here is how I deal with my own fear, doubt, worry. When writing that first draft, it’s allowed to be as horrible and ugly and awkward and egocentric as it needs to be.
This first draft is the personal draft. It’s the crappy draft. Nothing is off limits. I can write whatever I want and say it however I want. Everything is fair game so long as it keeps the cursor moving.
When the first draft is done, then the work of editing begins. It’s time to edit not just for flow and grammar and clarity, but edit for the reader. It is time to take this story that was once built with the author at the center and to instead put the reader at the center.
When you are writing, write however you must. Don’t let fear or timidity keep you from being honest and exciting. And when you are editing, improve your words so they serve the reader. Write for yourself, but edit for your reader.
“Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
* * *
Like many of you, no doubt, I spent some time thinking about personal goals and ideas for this upcoming year. The new year is always a good time to reflect, take stock of where we are, and make sure we’re still on course for where we want to be.
In a few months I will begin my 5th year of working from home and working for myself (thanks in no small part to you, dear readers). One of the most empowering lessons I have learned over these past 4 years has been regarding my own limitations. Not merely my limitations of time, but also of energy.
In any given day I have 2 maybe 3 hours of good writing time in me. A couple hours of reading. Hopefully an hour or two of researching, thinking, or decision making. And maybe an hour of admin and other busywork.
If I push my day to include more than that, I often find myself not making much progress. There is a point when the responsible and productive thing for me to do is leave my office and stop working altogether.
The workaholic in me wants to squeeze in a few more tasks. I have friends who can crank out hours upon hours of productive, creative work. Alas, I’m not one of those types. And so I’m trying to let myself quit while I’m ahead and go upstairs to be with my family, or go run errands, or just lie down and stare at the ceiling while I listen to what is going on in my imagination.
Although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.
I’m an advocate of productivity as much as the next guy with a blog, but over my years of working from home, I feel that too much focus on productivity is to miss the forest for the trees.
Being productive is not what’s ultimately important. I want to do my best creative work and I want to have thriving relationships.
Time management, GTD, focus, diligence — these can help keep me on track. But they are not the end goal in and of themselves. I want to focus first on creativity. What do I need to do my best creative work?
Have I written today? Have I daydreamed? Have I been contemplative? Have I had an inspiring and encouraging conversation? Have I helped somebody? These acts are far more important than the progress I make against my to-do list.
When you work for yourself, there is an oceanic undercurrent that pulls you into the details of your job. The thousand responsibilities of administration and communication and infrastructure. These are important, to be sure, because without them your business would cease to be. But (at least in my case) these are the support structures at best. The foundation of my business is not the ancillary administration; it is the muse.
In The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, there’s this great line: “Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject…”
Mann’s line carries the same truth as the quote by Robert Louis Stevenson which is at the beginning of this article. Our devotion to a subject can only be sustained by the neglect of many others. Finding something we want to do is the easy part. Now we must decide what we will neglect — we must simplify where we spend our energy.
In this new year, as our thoughts are on what we can do and what we want to do, perhaps we should first think about what we will not do. What tasks and pursuits will we give up or entrust to others?
* * *
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” — Henry Thoreau
For the past 3 months I’ve been working on my next book. It’s called The Power of a Focused Life and is all about things like life goals, time management, work-life balance, creativity, the tyranny of the urgent, focus, and more.
Over the past several months, most of the episodes of my members-only podcast, Shawn Today, have been about the topics and ideas I’m writing and researching for the book.
I just recently finished the crappy first draft, and it’s around 16,000 words. I wanted to start by getting everything written down that I had in me — the first draft is just me straight-up writing down the things I know and the things I do regarding these topics. It’s a great start, but there is a lot more ground I want to cover.
And so now I’ve begun the second phase of writing, which involves intentional research. I’m now reading articles, books, and teaching series from others so I can find out what I’m missing and add more content to my second draft of the book.
All that to say, I recently read an article and book about identifying and changing habits.
It got me thinking about one of my own worst habits: checking Twitter.
One of the reasons I wear a watch is to help keep me from pulling my phone out as often as I would. If I want to check the time I look at my watch. Because as soon as I’m holding my phone, it’s instinct at this point to swipe-to-unlock the thing. And then, once the phone is unlocked and I’m staring blankly at my Home screen of icons, I’m going to want to launch an app. But because I unlocked the phone without any clear plan for what I needed to do, the next thing I know I’m checking Twitter. And all the while, I don’t even know what time it is. See? It’s a bad habit.
There are three components that make up a habit: Trigger → Response → Reward.
The keys to changing a habit are to start by figuring out what the reward is — what is it that you’re seeking to gain by carrying out the habit action? Then, learn what the trigger is so that you can head it off at the pass or prepare for it. Finally, you insert a new, healthy action as the trigger response instead of your bad action.
Now, let’s just assume that compulsive checking of Twitter, Facebook, and email are bad habits. And by that I mean they are habits we want to change. I know I personally would like to check Twitter less often. (Have I ever gained anything by checking Twitter while standing in line at the grocery store or while waiting at a red light?)
For me, here’s what my Twitter checking habit loop looks like:
Trigger: I have down time; I’m bored; I’m waiting for something or someone. Common times this occurs are when I’m standing in line somewhere, when a commercial break comes on during a football game, when I’m waiting for water to boil, etc.
Response: Pull out my iPhone, launch Twitter, and just scroll through tweets.
Reward: Pacify my boredom and/or get a short-term gain of social interaction because someone @replied to me or whatever.
What I need is a new action to do when I have down time.
Of course, it’s important to mention that there is nothing wrong with being bored. In fact, those little moments of mental down time can do wonders for our long-term ability to create, problem solve, and do great work.
For the times I do want to use my iPhone when I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, I’ve come up with a few alternatives instead of just checking Twitter.
These are a few alternatives to the Just Checks:
Scroll through your Day One timeline and read a previous journal entry or browse some old photos and memories.
Launch Day One and log how you’ve spent your time so far for the day. Doing this for a few weeks can also be super helpful for getting a perspective of where your time and energy are being spent.
Write down 3 new ideas. These could be articles you want to write, business ideas, places you want to visit or photograph, topics you want to research, date ideas for you and your spouse, gift ideas for a friend, etc. These ideas never have to to be acted on — the point isn’t to generate a to-do list, but rather to exercise your mind. Ideation and creativity are muscles, and the more we exercise them the stronger they get.
Send a text message to a friend or family member to tell them how awesome they are.
Don’t get out your phone at all.
These alternatives are meant to be healthy. Meaning they have a positive long-term effect and satisfy the same reward as before. The point here is to not default into the passive consumption of content (it’s so easy to do that anyway). If you’ve got any ideas of your own, let me know on Twitter.
Take advantage of those down time moments and allow our minds to rest for a bit or else engage our minds by doing something active and positive.