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.
In the meantime, if you’d like to sign up for my newsletter you’ll be the first to know when The Focus Course becomes available next week. Also, I’ll send you my free ebook, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, that has been downloaded by nearly 7,000 people.
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.
And, speaking of procrastination, in my free ebook: The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, I’ve also tackled the issues of procrastination and personal integrity.
If you’d like to sign up for my newsletter you can get the guide for free, and you’ll be the first to know when The Focus Course becomes available next week. Sweet!
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 tried to 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”. They’re 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.
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.
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 sectioning 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.
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.
In my article a few weeks back regarding working from home, I touched on the importance of staying physically healthy. Especially for those of us who sit at a desk and do pixel-related work all day.
The boiling point for me came about 6 weeks ago. My legs were to the point where they felt sore pretty much nonstop because of poor circulation. This was a combination of sitting all day and sitting in a not-great chair.
And so, I took action. I turned my desk into a standing desk, started running, and made a few small changes to my diet.
If you’re like me, sometimes you get paralyzed by indecision. There are so many options and opinions for how to stay healthy that it can be daunting. And so we put off making any sort of choice because we’re afraid we won’t make the perfect choice. Something I’ve learned over time is that when you’re facing a decision and you know you need to act, it’s often best to just do something — anything — and then figure it out as you go.
And that’s what I did with my health. My health changes have centered around three areas: diet, my desk, and doing something active. Of course there are other answers to these problems, but this is what I’m doing right now. And, perhaps, if you’re in a similar boat this will give you a spark to give something a shot and see where it takes you.
While physical activity is important, it’s only part of staying healthy. And for those who want to lose weight, they say that what you eat is more important than what your exercise routine looks like.
I’m not on a special diet or anything like that, but I have made a few changes to my eating habits. I’ve tried to cut out sugar and white flour as much as possible. This is a surprisingly easy way to improve what I eat. Instead of counting calories or any of that stuff I just don’t eat or drink things that have sugar. In the past month I have had sugar twice.
Additionally, for breakfast, I make this shake (thank God for our Vitamix):
- 1 medium cucumber
- 2 cored apples
- 2 big handfuls of spinach
- 3 ribs of celery
- 2-3 small carrots
- 1 teaspoon ginger root, peeled
- Juice of 1 lime
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
The lime and ginger dominate. And cucumbers, apples, and carrots are naturally sweet when juiced. So it’s surprisingly refreshing and sweet. It’s a bit thick, but that’s okay.
It makes about 32 ounces. Which is enough for 2 or 3 people.
And for lunch, after my workout, I have this: * 3/4 C non-fat milk * 1/4 C non-fat greek yogurt * 1/4 C natural peanut butter * 1 big banana * Two big leaves of kale, or a big handful of spinach * Giant handful of blueberries * half scoop of protein powder if you have it (hopefully strawberry flavored) * ice to taste (5-6 cubes perhaps)
This protein smoothie is sweet and delicious. It’s full of dairy, protein, and fiber. It’s low in calories. And since the peanut butter, banana, and blueberries dominate the flavor, it tastes like a milkshake.
Back in 2011 I converted my IKEA Galant into a standing desk. It lasted about 6 months before I went back to sitting. I felt better when standing, I worked better, and it was great to come downstairs after a day standing at the desk and to sit down to relax for the evening.
But standing while writing never felt right to me. I preferred the more “contemplative” posture of sitting.
Six weeks ago I once again converted my IKEA desk back to the standing desk. This time it has been different. Perhaps writing full-time for the past three and a half years has removed my sentiment that sitting while writing is best. Because I’ve been getting great work done while standing here. (I’m standing right now!)
But my IKEA retrofit wasn’t ideal. Primarily it was about 1 inch too short. I’ve been at this desk for nearly 4 years now, it was time to invest in something better. So I got one of those electronic adjusting desks at the recommendation of my friend, Ben Brooks.
The adjustable-height desk I got is this Jarvis desk. It is sturdy, fast, quiet, and amazing. I wish I had bought it years ago.
You can get just the legs and put your own desk top on, which is much cheaper. While it’s pricey compared to a cardboard box for hoisting your keyboard up on your current desk, the Jarvis is quite affordable when compared to many other options out there.
When I ordered mine it was shipping free on Amazon Prime. Currently it’s not available on Amazon.
I got it about a month ago and had it set up in an evening. I’m glad I got the electric version and not a hand-crank version. If anything, having the precision of getting the desk to exactly the right heigh for standing and sitting each time is huge. I can tell if it’s not quite right and that precision is worth it.
(And while you’re at it, be sure to get an anti-fatigue mat.)
I’m at my desk probably 6-8 hours per day. I stand for 4-5 of those. For the times I am sitting, I need a chair that will help encourage circulation in my legs and better posture. In fact, it was the poor circulation in my legs that brought this whole thing to a boil in the first place. At the end of the day, my legs would be sore because they weren’t getting enough activity and circulation.
I haven’t yet gone to a fancy chair dealership to sit in the different ergonomic chairs, but it’s on my list.
From the age of 7 to 18 I practiced martial arts, and was extremely active in my later teen years. I was at the Do Jang 5 nights a week, my friends and I competed in the Colorado Karate Association, and I taught regular classes at the studio.
All those years kicking and punching took a toll on my joints. When I was 18 I found out I had rotator cuff tendinitis in both my shoulders. This is something that has severely limited my ability to do too much physical activity that involves my arms.
Finally, I asked a friend of mine who is a personal trainer if he would help me get a weights routine that would accommodate my shoulder pain. I’m not trying to buff up, just want to be fit. Also, having the set workout plan that he drew up is so helpful. I know what to do when I go to the gym, and that in and of itself was a huge obstacle to overcome.
Also I started running. I run on the elliptical machine because it’s significantly easier on my knees (which are also bad thanks to martial arts). At first, I assumed the elliptical machine was for wimps and so I avoided it. But boy was I wrong. Every time I’m at the gym it’s always the huge football dudes who are on the elliptical machine.
Thoughts on going to the gym instead of going outside
This past month is the first time I’ve ever gone to the gym to work out. Growing up in Colorado all my activity was outside. But for the past month, going to the gym has proven to be great.
For one, it’s an excuse to get out of the house every day. The 10 minute drive serves as a transition time to let my mind get pumped up for my workout. If I’m not in the mood to work out, I tell myself that at least all I have to do is show up and I don’t have to go running once I’m there.
But once I’m there and I’m around others who are working out, I feel ready to exercise. That community aspect is a great motivating factor to do my workout.
And, to top it all off, the gym offers a discount to businesses. As a self-employed LLC, I brought in a copy of my business license and get a deal on the monthly rate. Which also means that my gym membership is a tax-deductible expense.
Using the iPhone at the Gym
Apps: Having a plan for what to do is huge. I started using this Couch to 5K app, and I love it. I’m also slowly building a good workout playlist in Rdio.
iPhone arm band: I got this Belkin sport armband because it’s the only option they had at Target. It’s fine I guess, but I bet there are better options out there. The plastic cover over top of the iPhone isn’t snug against the face, and so it takes a bit of focus to tap on buttons. Which, when you’re running and this thing is strapped to your arm, it’s not exactly easy.
However, when running on the elliptical machine I don’t use the band because I can just set my iPhone in the cup holder. Of course, then I don’t get all those step counts in Pedometer++. Ah well.
Earbuds: Finding good earbuds was a must. Over the past month I tried my go-to RHA buds, the Apple buds, and some Sony buds. The Wirecutter recommends the Relays, but I wanted wireless because three weeks with wired earbuds and I was going nuts every single run.
These JayBird BlueBuds X were the Wirecutter’s 2nd recommended (and didn’t take top place because of their price). They’re not cheap ($150). But when I asked about them on Twitter, I received a significant number of replies from people who use them and love them. Nothing but positive reviews. So I picked up a pair and am very happy I did.
It took me 3 days to get the fit figured out, but it was worth it. Though I wouldn’t say they’re perfect (still can start to slip out of my ears towards the end of my run) they are significantly more comfortable, more permanent, and better sounding than all the other options I’d used before. Just gotta remember to keep them charged up. Also, get these Comply Foam Tips to go with the BludeBuds X — they are much better than the rubber tips that come with the JayBirds.
Two years ago, Google started bringing fiber to Kansas City. And it took them until today to make their way to my house.
In the 2 years between their original announcement and when service became available in my neighborhood, I thought quite a bit about if I was willing to let Google be my Internet Service Provider.
The biggest question I had to ask myself: will Google be using my online activity to sell me ads? The answer is: certainly.
So then I had to ask myself if I was okay with that. And the answer is: yes I am.
Google is already trying to sell me ads. They have been ever since I signed up for the Gmail beta back in 2006 or whenever.
Obviously, now that they’re my ISP, they will be able to garner more information about my house. Basically they now have visibility into anything we do online that’s not an encrypted transaction, such as the movies we stream from Netflix, the products we browse on Amazon, what songs we stream over Rdio, every website we visit, and who knows what else. It sounds creepy when you put it like that, but it’s also no different than any other ISP relationship I’ve had (AOL, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T). It’s just that none of the others were in to Big Data as much as Google is.
And it’s not dangerous. All our most sensitive information is still safe because it’s transferred over encrypted connections (emails, passwords, iMessages, SSL encrypted sites like my bank, et al.).
All that to say, I am comfortable with Google as my ISP. Because in exchange, I now have internet speeds that are 20 times faster than the fastest I could pay TWC to provide. And it’s for the same price of $70/month.
In many ways, the faster speeds won’t have a huge impact on my day-to-day life. Just because I have 20x faster internet doesn’t mean I will get 20x more work done. My Rdio songs won’t sound any better, my emails won’t send or receive all that noticeably quicker, etc.
But Netflix will stream in higher quality. My daily podcast now uploads in one second (literally). Safari will connect to websites and servers quicker thanks to the fantastic ping rate with Google Fiber, and media-rich sites will load sooner. Big file downloads will be noticeably faster. And who knows what else.
Moreover, it seems worth mentioning that the entire signup and installation process for Google Fiber was incredible. Believe it or not, Google was extremely organized, friendly, clear, and efficient. All of the automated systems they had in place for contacting me when Fiber became available, and for helping me schedule the installation were clear and easy. The technicians who came to my house to run the lines and set up the network box were very friendly. And the one time I had to call customer service to re-schedule an appointment, the lady I spoke to on the phone knew exactly what she was talking about. So far, I’ve been impressed with the whole process and service.
My grandpa was a teacher by trade and a woodworker by passion. My grandmother never did get to park their car in the garage because it was my grandpa’s wood shop.
In my garage are a few tools handed down to me from my Grandpa. Here’s a photo of a few of the more sentimental items I’ve been given: a level and a hand plane.
The level is least 50 or 60 years old — it has my great grandfather’s initials carved on it. And the plane is probably as old as I am.
I am also a woodworker by passion, but not nearly to the extent my grandpa was. I enjoy building tables and benches on the weekends as a way to give my mind and hands a change of pace from the pixel-based work I do the rest of the week.
The tools of my trade are digital.
A lot has changed in the personal computing industry since 1985. For me, the first computer I ever called my own was a Dell laptop back in 2000. Aside from my Yahoo ID and my AOL AIM account,1 I am not using any of the apps or services that I began using back in 2000.
Sometimes I wonder if the software I’m using today will still be around 20 or 30 years from now. If I put a reminder into OmniFocus to renew my passport in 2024, will that to-do item be preserved until the time it’s due?
For equal parts fun and research, I was digging around to see what Mac apps have been around for the past couple of decades and which are still relevant and under active development.
Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
Pro Tools: 1991 (Fun fact: did you know when Pro Tools first launched it cost $6,000, and that “Livin la Vida Loca” was the first number 1 single to be recorded, edited, and mixed entirely in Pro Tools?)
I’m sure there are more. Though I’m not trying to make this list exhaustive, if you know of any apps that should be on this list let me know on Twitter. I’m @shawnblanc.
- Which I need for Flickr and AIM respectively. Though iMessage has largely usurped AIM over the past year or so. ↵
Speaking of backyard cooking, here is one of my all-time favorite recipes: grilled artichokes with a vinegar cheese dipping sauce.
Artichokes are in season during the summer, and this recipe makes for an amazing appetizer, side, or even a whole meal if you want.
It’s surprisingly easy to do, and it’ll impress the heck out of your friends.
The Dipping Sauce
- 3T Mayo
- 2T vinegar
- 1T parmesan cheese
- 2T chives
- 2t golden mustard
- Some dashes of parsley
Directions: Add vinegar and parmesan cheese and warm up in microwave to melt the cheese. Then add mayonnaise, mustard, chives, and parsley. Mix.
Melt and mix 2T Butter with 1t salt and 1t ground pepper for each whole artichoke being cooked.
One artichoke per 2 people is usually enough.
Fill a pot with enough water that all the artichokes can be submerged. I also will add a cup or two of chicken or vegetable broth.
Boil artichokes in water until the stem is tender enough that a butter knife placed into the top of the stem can easily pierce. (Takes about 45 minutes.)
Remove artichokes from water and cut them in half from top to bottom.
With a spoon, scoop out the Inner Petals and the Choke (basically all the parts that you don’t want to eat) from each half.
Spread the butter marinade onto the inside of the artichoke and get it in between as many of the petals as you can.
Place the artichoke halves onto a hot grill with the Heart facing down
Cook for 3-5 minutes (sear them; don’t burn to a crisp).
Flip over after a few minutes to sear the other side.
Add more butter marinade if you have any.
Once both sides have been cooked and have grill marks, remove from the grill.
Eat it by plucking a petal off at a time and dipping it into the sauce.
Having fun is an excellent way to do our best creative work.
But as anyone who writes or draws or takes pictures for a living will tell you, thinking and creating something awesome every day can be excruciatingly painful. Doing our best creative work day in and day out is difficult. Creative work wears on your mind and your emotions instead of on your joints and muscles. Not to mention the sheer horror involved in the act of taking something you’ve created and putting it out there in public in the hopes of making a dollar so you can make something else and put it out there again.
* * *
On Episode 5 of The Weekly Briefly, Patrick Rhone was my guest and we were sharing some bits of writing advice for people wanting to build a website audience. One of the foundational principals we both agreed on was the immeasurable importance of having fun, which is not as easy as it sounds. As I mentioned above, publishing your creative work to the internet for all the world to see is often a very not-fun thing to do.
Patrick said something that is an excellent guiding principal to help you keep your writing fun: write the internet that you want to read.
There is something freeing about creating for yourself. When we take hold of that baton and create for that second version of ourselves, it’s like having a permission slip to do awesome work. And what better way to have fun than to do awesome work? There’s an inverse truth here as well: most of our best work comes from the place of delight. When we are excited about a project, that creative momentum propels us to think outside the box and to dream new ideas as the project takes residence as the top idea in our mind.
Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, would agree. Here’s an excerpt from a speech he gave in 1990 at the Kenyon College commencement ceremony:
If I’ve learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it’s how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year. If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.
And here’s James Altucher in a Facebook status update about how to write for a living:
The most important thing for me: writing without fear. Writing without judgment. Writing without anger. Making writing fun. Writing right now. Writing is about freedom and not money.
Now, as you probably know all too well, in practice it’s not that easy. But you and I are not alone in our fight to stay creative. We can (and we should!) set ourselves up for success. By identifying the things that suffocate fun and creativity, as well as knowing the things that encourage creativity, we can wage war against the former and cultivate the latter.
Let’s start with the bad news first.
Stiflers of creativity
Below, I’ve listed the things that will cut off our ability and/or desire to do our best creative work. These are things that will whisper in our ear that our idea is pathetic and our implementation of it even worse. They urge us to give up, to move on, to quit, and to pacify our minds. They tell us that we have nothing unique to offer, that we have no value, and that everything will come crashing down any minute, so why even bother.
Isolation: Being alone from any community, any peer group, and anybody who you can bounce ideas off of, get feedback from, and just other general human contact that reminds you of the fact you’re a real human being.
Ambiguity: Having unknown goals and trying to complete them in an undefined manner with a hazy schedule. Without clear goals, an action plan to accomplish them, and a schedule for when we are going to work, then we just meander around not actually doing anything.
Fear & anxiety: This includes fear of failure, fear of rejection. It can paralyze us from even getting started on our ideas because we fear it will come to nothing in the end anyway. Or we fear that when we are finished, people will reject our work and reject us as the author behind it. The problem here is that it puts all the value on the end result only, and places no value at all in the journey of the creative process itself. There is nothing wrong with failure and rejection — we can learn so much from those things! And there is no shortcut for experience. We mustn’t be afraid of failing nor of being rejected, and we must place more value on the act of creating so we can find joy in the journey and develop a lifetime of experience in making things.
Shame: Feeling inadequate as an artist at all, embarrassed about the work we’ve done, even embarrassed about the future work we haven’t even done yet. When we feel shame, we shy away from our big bold ideas and the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy and we make something completely devoid of life and opinion.
Doubt: Doubting that we have the skills to make anything at all; doubting our value as a creative person.
Comparison: There is a difference between learning and gleaning from others and comparing our work to theirs. Where there is comparison there is often envy as well. And this deadly pair will choke out any originality we have. Ray Bradbury, from his Martian Chronicles introduction, wrote: “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.”
Disillusionment: This is “a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be.” We can get disillusioned in a million ways, and often the result is a loss of vision for doing our creative work. I avoid disillusionment by steering clear of the things and the people that represent what I consider the “worst” things of my areas of interest and work.
When we live with these stiflers of creativity as a permanent ailment for too long, it can lead to burn out. The solution isn’t to quit our creative endeavors altogether, but rather to get rid of the ailment. I will say, however, that quitting (or taking a sabbatical) works sometimes because when you fully remove yourself from the situation you have a chance to deal with the ailment in a new environment.
Identify these enemies in your creative life and wage war against them. Give yourself permission to do what it takes to set yourself up to do the best creative work you can do. Quit Twitter. Move to Atlanta. Only write and publish after 9pm at night. Whatever.
Stimulators and proponents of creativity
These are the things we want to cultivate as much as possible. Build these into your life and guard them with tenacity. These are not replacements for talent, knowledge, and perseverance — rather they are the things that serve as both the seedbed and the greenhouse in which creativity grows and flourishes.
Community: You need community to help cultivate your ideas, encourage you to keep working, and to speak truth to you about the things you’re afraid of. If you work from home, community can be tricky. Have a chat room where some of your close friends are available; get out and go to coffee shops or parks; work from a coworking space regularly; eat meals with friends; actively engage in non-work-related relationships.
Clear goals: Having a defined goal can help us to focus on actually accomplishing our idea and making it happen. Looming, unanswered questions often lead to inaction and procrastination. Overcoming that is often as simple as defining an end goal. Of course, it’s worth noting that sometimes you just want to go out and take photographs and who cares what you shoot. Nothing wrong with that either, of course.
Trust: You have to trust your skills, trust your gut, and trust your value as a contributor. You’re not an impostor. And the more you learn and the more experience you gain, the more your skills will grow. But if you wait until you’ve “arrived” to begin your journey, it’s a logical impossibility that you will ever actually arrive. You have to step out the front door and start walking.
Experience: The more times we’ve gone down the same path, the more familiar with it we become. Experience breeds confidence. And confidence is the opposite of doubt. Thus, the more we do the work, the better we get at it. In part, we are getting better because that’s what happens when you practice. But also, we get better because the confidence which experience breeds helps us to loosen up, relax, and take new risks.
Rest: A surprisingly critical part of maintaining a consistently creative lifestyle is stepping away from the creative work at hand in order to recharge. The mind is like a battery, however — it recharges by running. Don’t default to TV and video games as your forms of rest. Get plenty of sleep. Take walks or drives. If you work with your mind, try resting with your hands and build something out of wood or plant a garden. Read. Etc.
Diligence: This includes spending our time wisely, having a routine, focus, and automation. Diligence isn’t a personality type, it’s a skill we learn. Some of us had a good work ethic instilled in us by our parents, some of us have had to cultivate it on our own later in life. It is silly to think a creative person should live without routine, discipline, or accountability. Sure, inspiration often comes to us when we least expect it, and so by all means, let us allow exceptions to our schedules. But sitting around being idle while we wait for inspiration is a good way to get nothing done. And worse, it is also a way to let the creative juices get stagnant.
Other factors and variables
There are some response-based factors that don’t make or break an artist in and of themselves, but, depending on what they are (and our response to them), they can empower or handicap us.
Tools: Tools do not an artist make nor break; but the right tools can empower us to be more efficient and the wrong tools can slow us down.
Constraint: Constraint often breeds creativity because it forces us to think outside of the box, but too much constraint can actually stifle a project’s full potential.
Praise & criticism: The positive and negative feedback of people can be dangerous. If we take it to heart too much, it can easily lead to pride or depression. We should glean from the feedback we get, but not let it steer us in our goals and direction. One of the most dangerous questions a creative person can ask themselves is: “What if the critics are right?” If they’re right, you’ll already have known it. Let the council of your peers lead you, not the one-off praise or rejection of strangers.
Success & failure: Similar to praise and criticism, success and failure can be dangerous. Our successes and failures should be things we learn from and use as stepping stones in our ever-continuing journey to make awesome things. Successes and failures should be celebrated and learned from, but don’t treat them as stopping points.
Environment: A positive work environment can do wonders for your daily creative productivity. A distracting environment can stifle things. Do what you can to set up and maintain an awesome environment that fosters inspiration, creativity, focus, and fun.
* * *
As Hemingway said: “Write drunk; edit sober.” Alcohol aside, the point is that creating without inhibition results in better work in the end. Have fun when making, and go back later to fix those typos and bunny trails.
But, that’s not to say fun is the premier goal that in the fight to stay creative. The goal — the hope — is that we can do our best creative work, day in and day out, for years and years.
What’s so great about having fun in our creative work is that it stands as a signal, telling us we are “in the zone”. When we’re having fun in our creative work it usually means we feel safe to dream big and to take new risks. Not to mention, when we’re having fun, it gives us a natural energy that helps us persevere and bring our ideas to life.
* * *
P.S. This topic of staying creative has a significant presence in my book, Delight is in the Details. It’s such a critical discussion that I also made a video about it. You can watch the video here and buy the book here.
With the recent post and podcast talking about kids and screentime and just the prevalence of touch screens in our day to day lives and relationships, here are two incredible illustrations on the topic that speak volumes.
First is this cover from The New Yorker’s 2009 Halloween edition. This artwork is from half a decade ago, and it’s just as relevant today if not more so.
Perhaps these two pieces are part of the same story. After taking the kids out trick or treating, mom and dad come home where they can be alone with their phones.
The more I read about smartwatches, the more I appreciate my “dumb” watches.
Here is an exhaustive rundown of all the functionality of my watches: They tell the time of day (albeit they’re imprecise, and usually off by half a minute or so) and the date. The Seiko, being fancy, also tells the day of the week. And since neither watch knows what month it is, a few times per year I have to adjust the date forward from “29” or “31” to “1”.
But I don’t just wear a watch to know what time it is. Part of the reason I wear one is as an excuse not to pull out my iPhone.
So often I’d be standing in line at the grocery store and I’d pull out my iPhone to see what time it was. Then, out of sheer habit, I’d swipe to unlock and the next thing you know I’m mindlessly scrolling through tweets or reading emails without actually acting on them. Then the line would move, I’d put the iPhone back in my pocket, and if you’d asked me what time it was I couldn’t even tell you.
My analog watches are my reminder that utility exists apart from an internet connection and usefulness doesn’t require the latest software.
My watches don’t have an interactive touch display. Nor do they have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, LTE, or USB. Heck, the Seiko doesn’t even have a battery — if I don’t wear it for a day or two then it stops working until I wind it again.
There are no apps for my watches. I can’t pair them with my iPhone, can’t give them voice commands, can’t get directions from them, nor can I use them to change my music to the next track.
On the flip side, my watches don’t require updates, and they won’t be “slow and outdated” in one year’s time after the next version comes out. In fact, they will never grow outdated and irrelevant unless they break altogether.
In 15 or 20 years my sons will hopefully think it’s special when I pass down one of my old watches to them.
That’s not to say vintage technology isn’t special. But an old watch is simultaneously special and usable. In 20 years my original iPhone, as special and nostalgic as it will be, probably won’t even power on.
My affinity for analog watches doesn’t mean I dislike the concept of the smartwatch. My iPhone is one of the most incredible items I have ever owned and used. But my experience with it has also taught me that the promise of convenient notifications and relevant information is almost always paired with the reality of constant distractions, tugs for attention, and perhaps even an addiction to the “just checks”.
When I look down at my watch I know exactly what it will show me: the time.
My grandpa is legally blind. He can see, but poorly. When he reads books they are the extra large print editions, and he holds them so close they’re practically resting on his nose. And when he watches an old western film from his VHS collection he sits about two feet away from his big-screen TV.
Last weekend, while in Colorado visiting family, we had a big family dinner at my parents’ house. I loaded my 2-year-old son, Noah, into the car and we drove to pick up my Grandpa from his apartment and bring him over for dinner.
My Grandparents’ homes were always filled with seemingly floor to ceiling photos of family. And his current apartment is no different. There are picture frames on the table and on the desk and on the dresser, and snapshots of grandchildren have been printed out (with the help of more tech-savvy relatives) and thumb-tacked to the walls.
At the apartment, I held Noah while my Grandpa gathered his things — his coat, hat, and walker. And, a new item now: his iPad.
The iPad was a gift from my aunt. It’s a 3rd generation and she doesn’t use it that often so she gave it to him hoping he could use it. (Perhaps as a giant remote control for the TV?)
But my Grandpa discovered a use for it that none of us had considered. It is the best camera he’s ever owned.
Before leaving the apartment, Noah and I had to pose for a picture. Holding the iPad about 10 inches in front of his face, my Grandpa snapped a few photos.
I know there are people out there who take pictures using their iPads, because I’ve seen — ahem — pictures of them doing it. But I’ve always thought it a bit funny and awkward.
And there I was. Posing to have my picture taken with an iPad.
At first, I wanted to snicker. But how could I? If my Grandpa wants to use an iPad to take a picture of his grandson and great grandson, then who cares? Certainly not me.
Back at my parent’s house, my Grandpa continued to spend the first part of the evening taking everyone’s picture. Several of my cousins were there, and many of us don’t get to see my Grandpa more often than every couple of months, if not longer. It was a prime time for snapshots.
Later, Noah quickly warmed up to my Grandpa thanks to the iPad. (As any parent knows, iPads and iPhones are captivating to a toddler. Noah is already quite fluent with iOS and has been sliding to unlock since before he could walk.) The iPad was a way for my Grandpa to spend some time with Noah at his side, as the two of them flipped through the camera roll.
With a smile, I’ve been thinking about that evening for the past week.
My Grandpa’s iPad has enabled him to do something that he’s been unable to do for as long as I can remember. The 9.7-inch touch screen has turned my Grandpa into a photographer.
The screen is large enough that he can see well enough to actually frame and take pictures. And then he has them right there, on that same large screen, where he can browse through them any time he wants.
To me, that’s pretty magical.
Yesterday was a day spent with family, enjoying each others’ company, laughing, and having great conversations. I hope you had a very merry Christmas and continue to have a blessed holiday season.
With some exceptions, Apple has announced just one major update to the iPhone and the iPad per year. Some say this one-per-year pace is too slow for such a competitive industry where consumers want to buy only what’s new, newer, and newest. But for anyone who is already an Apple customer, once a year can sure come around quickly.
When I’m able, and when it makes sense, I prefer to spend more on an item and get something high quality. The tools and toys I use the most should be as close to perfect as possible. I want something built with care and quality, that is enjoyable to use, and will last me a long time.
Apple, its products, its surrounding ecosystem all sit in this market.
There is an aura of craftsmanship and attention to detail that presides over most of Apple’s hardware and software. And this same care for product development attracts 3rd-party developers and engineers who have the same ideals and commitment to excellence. The Apple ecosystem is home to the best hardware and software in the world.
One of the reasons I spend my money on Apple products is because they’re innovative, cool, capable, and delightful. But also, they hold their value and their usefulness for a very long time.
Today my heart is full, and I’m feeling so thankful.
The past two weeks have been a sprint. My son, Giovanni Blanc, is 14 days old today, and we could not be happier to have another boy in the house.
My original intention was to take a few weeks off after Giovanni was born. But, bless his heart, he waited to be born until the day before Apple announced their new iPhones. I’ve never written so many words while changing so many diapers with so little sleep in such a short amount of time. (Achievement unlocked?)
As far as work goes, I spent a lot of time testing and reviewing several new and updated 3rd-party apps, covering iOS 7, keeping somewhat up to date with the lead up to the iPhone launch, and then standing in line for an iPhone 5s.
On the home front, the Blancs are now a 4-person family. And my wife, Anna, has quit her job and is now at home being an amazing mom to our two boys.
The work I am doing here at shawnblanc.net now completely supports our family. And the single biggest piece of that pie continues to be all the subscribing members. Thank you!
This coming spring will be the 3 year anniversary of when I began writing here full time. The past couple of weeks I’ve been reflecting much on the past few years as well as looking ahead to what’s next. And I just wanted to say thanks to the small group of you who show up every day to read this site and support the work I’m doing here. It means the world to me, and I’m working hard to make sure I’m doing my best work every day.
My day started at 6:45 this morning. With a cup of coffee in hand,1 I was about the 100th person to join the line at my local Apple store.
To make a long story short I decided to ditch my spot in line and go to the local AT&T store where I was the 20th person in line. The store opened at 8:00 and by 8:30 I was being helped by a sales rep to get a Space Gray iPhone 5s.
The look of the Space Gray is much nicer than I thought it would be. It’s not as “silver” as the band on the 4/4S was, which makes it look a bit more like the original iPhone.
I’m pretty sure this is the first year that the external appearance of the “s” model of iPhones has been so different than the previous generation. Though the iPhone 5 and 5s look nearly identical, they are less so than the 3G/3GS and 4/4S were.
Making a slo-mo video is super fun. On Twitter I joked that we’ll soon have tumblr accounts dedicated to iPhone slo-mo vids that are not as epic as their creators think they are. But who cares, right? If your iPhone can shoot 120FPS HD video and easily select scenes for slo-mo, then go for it.
Touch ID feels like equal parts the future and cheating. I have 6 years of muscle memory developed for tap-then-swipe, so I keep forgetting to tap then wait. Instead I swipe, the lock screen keypad shows up and I pause for a second, then oh yeah. Put my thumb back on the Home button and wait a second. The unlocking process truly is near instantaneous.
The way we joke that non-Retina displays are like sandpaper on our eyes, in a few months (days?) time we’ll all be joking that non-Touch ID devices are so annoying to unlock.
When I finished setting up my new phone, I thought back to something I wrote a year ago regarding the iPhone 5:
Here I have this gorgeous object of industrial innovation, and yet its proximity to my life is not due to my above average affinity for fine gadgets. No, the iPhone has earned its place by virtue of usefulness. The curiously-thin slab of glass and aluminum that I carry around in my pocket is my camera, my jukebox, my map, my newspaper, my phone, my email, my photo album, my schedule, my to-do list, my notebook, my Internet, and so much more.
A lot has changed since I wrote that a year ago, and those changes have made the statement even more true.
The iPhone 5s, with its better camera and Touch ID sensor, make it more useful (even if slightly so) to me than the iPhone 5. Moreover, with iOS 7 and so many new and updated 3rd-party apps, we are ever getting more utility, usefulness, and delight from of our iPhones.
That’s saying a lot for a tough little computer that fits in your pocket.
- I may or may not keep some to-go cups around for mornings like this. ↵
It all started with a few months ago with a week-long miniseries on Shawn Today. The topic was “the importance of delight in design.”
The feedback from that miniseries was quite positive, and I really enjoyed the subject matter. So I had this idea of re-record the miniseries, polish it up a bit more, and selling it for a few bucks as a for-pay podcast of sorts.
Well, as you already may have guessed, the project spiraled into what became Delight is in the Details.
As I was re-writing the outline for the updated miniseries, I began adding more and more episodes. It turned into 7 parts and then 9.
Also, my plan was to write out a script to read from so I could be sure to say exactly what I wanted to say in each episode, without rambling on and on.
So I thought why not pair the written version with the audio version? And, gosh. If I was going to do that, why not just make it into a book? And then I thought it would be fun to include some additional audio by doing interviews with some of my friends in the industry that know about this stuff.
It started as something I probably could have built and shipped in a few days, and turned into something that took me over 100 hours to complete. But I’m extremely proud of the end result.
Here’s a brief overview of some of the tools and services I used to write, edit, design, and ship Delight is in the Details.
Landing Page Design
I debated how I wanted to announce the book. There was either: (a) keep it secret until the day it came out; or (b) begin talking about it ahead of time.
I opted for the latter. So, obviously, I needed a landing page for the book — a place where I could tease what the book was about and encourage people follow to follow me on Twitter or enter their email to be notified when the book comes out.
My first version of the landing page was little more than a blog-post type page on this site. Over the course of a couple weeks I occasionally tweeted some links to the landing page, letting people know I was working on a book. I also wrote a few articles related to the content of my book, and linked to the landing page from within those articles.
Over those first three weeks, 173 people entered their email address to be notified.
Then, about two weeks ago, I designed a somewhat better landing page (which looked almost exactly like the page that’s there now, except instead of the buy buttons I had a big, “web 2.0″ email sign up form).
I tweeted a link to that landing page at 5:30pm on a Thursday evening. And within 24 hours I had 300 new email signups (in addition to the 173 that had already signed up). The excitement around the book seemed to skyrocket once I had that better looking landing page.
Even for the hype-averse, smart and considered audience that follows me on twitter and reads this site, a good-looking landing clearly made a lot of difference. The design of the page with the graphics showing the book’s cover and interior layout, with the different reading devices, a cleaner look, a more prominent and inviting email form, resulted in tripling my email signups in one day.
TinyLetter and MailChimp
TinyLetter was my email newsletter service of choice. It’s very easy to use and I like their clean design.
Alas, when I announced my new landing page, the influx of new email signups triggered an auto-defense mechanism with TinyLetter and a reCAPTCHA was put up to make sure those joining the mailing list weren’t spam robots.
The reCAPTCHA was annoyingly difficult to answer, and it added an extra hurdle. After contacting the TinyLetter support team, I was told there was no way for them to remove the reCAPTCHA. So, after that first day, I took the list off of TinyLetter and set up a MailChimp signup form instead.
When it came time to do the mailing, I had 635 people who had signed up to get an email announcement about the book. This was very encouraging.
At this point I had segments of the list: one in TinyLetter and one in MailChimp. I exported the names out of MailChimp and dropped them into TinyLetter to create the final master list.
Monday afternoon, the day before launch, I sent an email letting people know the book would be out on Tuesday. I then sent another email at 10:00 am EST, on Tuesday morning announcing the book was out.
I used Photoshop CS3 to design the hero image for the website, size the book cover for Kindle, and create the individual MP3 artwork “covers” for each chapter of the book and each audio interview.
All the rest of the design (the actual book cover typesetting, the book layout, and the interview show notes) was done in Pages.
I wrote the whole book in Pages, and even designed the cover in pages. I used Warnock Pro and Avenir Next as the typefaces.
(Side note: Jeff Abbott edited the book for me (he edits all the major articles I publish here). I’ve been working with Jeff since I took the site full time and highly recommend him if you are in need of an editor.)
For the PDF version of the book I simply printed from Pages and saved as a PDF — easy as pie.
The ePub, however, was not so easy. I exported from Pages to ePub, but the auto-generated xhtml and css turned out horrible. There were massive line breaks between paragraphs, the default font size was too small, and the chapter formatting was all a mess. I had to dig into the ePub source files and edit all the xhtml files, the manifest, and the css.
An ePub file is not unlike a zipped up website. Each chapter and section has its own html file. My crude explanation of what’s inside is this:
- There is a CSS file where you define line height and margins and padding.
- There is a table of contents file that tells the reading device which order the chapters go in and what their titles are.
- And there is a manifest file that gives an account of all the files in the zip, and which lists the “spine order” so if you wish to read from “cover to cover” the device knows which section and chapter to display first, second, third, etc.
My small experience working with ePubs has taught me one thing: they are a world of hurt.
Though the components are basic enough, I haven’t yet used an app that could generate a clean, basic ePub file. I’ve made two eBooks so far and molding each one to meet my standard of quality was a tedious and painful process.
The first ePub I did was for a book my wife wrote. We had the layout done in InDesign (CS3). I knew InDesign could export to ePub, but the whole process turned out to be quite a bit of work. I first had to rebuild the document as a new book file and apply new paragraph styles to all the text (even italics and bold). And, after export, I then had to dig into the source files and update the manifest to properly link and name the chapters, and fine tune the CSS a bit.
I thought that certainly Pages would be better when it came to ePub export but I was wrong. It turned out to be worse. Though, in part, it could have been due to operator error. I had section breaks, but not a proper Table of Contents set up and linked within my original Pages document.
If I write another book, I might build the ePub version from scratch.
Editing and Validating ePubs
A few months ago, this forum thread proved to be immensely valuable when I was making the ePub for my wife’s book. Not only did it help walk me through the process of building the document in InDesign, it also gave some helpful information about the ePub’s source files as well.
On a Mac, there is no easy way to just get in to an ePub file’s source documents. Through the aforementioned thread, I found this ePub zip/unzip app. It’s basically just an Applescript that takes an ePub file and unzips it so you have access to the source files. Then, when you’re done, you use it to turn the files back into an ePub document.
And so, after I had exported my book to an ePub file from Pages, I then unzipped it using the above Applescript, and then went to work cleaning up the source code using Coda. After I had changed some of the metadata, taken out the superfluous paragraph breaks, changed some of the CSS, and adjusted the TOC and Spine order, I zipped the folder to ePub so I could validate and test it.
I used the IDPF’s ePub validator tool to make sure I hadn’t broken anything after I had been fiddling with my document source files. If there are errors the validator tells you what’s wrong and in which document and line the error is occurring. It’s quite helpful.
Once I had a valid ePub (it took a few tries) I then “tested” it on my iPad. I did this by simply opening the file in Dropbox and sending it to iBooks. Once I was happy with the formatting, and table of contents, etc., I then made a Kindle version.
Making a MOBI file (what the Kindle uses) from ePub is a piece of cake. Using Calibre, you import the ePub file, then chose to convert it. And boom, you’re done.
I made a different cover source file for the Kindle, so it would fit on the screen of my Kindle touch. There are a lot of suggestions and opinions from Amazon and the rest of the internet about what the dimensions of a Kindle cover should be. Mine ended up being 1500×2030.
Recording and Editing Audio
Then I split the MOV track created by Skype Call Recorder, and dropped the two sides of the conversation into Garage Band.
I used Garage Band for everything audio related except recording the interviews.
Editing the interviews The finished interviews are, on average, 30 minutes each. After splitting the conversation sides and dropping the recording into Garage Band, it took me about 2.5 hours to edit each conversation. I would adjust the individual track volumes so that our voices were about equal, and then I would crop the front and end of the call, and then listen through to edit out as much of the dead space and as many of the “Umms” as I could. I wanted these interviews to sound like something you’d hear on NPR — a well-paced conversation that sounded natural, and was free from awkward silence, talking over one another, and the like. It took me an additional 20 hours to edit the interviews, but it was worth it.
Recording and editing the audio book Using my trusty Blue Yeti microphone, I recorded the shows directly into Garage Band in my home office.
I placed towels all on my desk and around where I was to help muffle the audio a bit. As I was recording, if I messed up a word or phrase, I’d just take a pause, say “again” into the mic, take another pause, and then start that paragraph over.
The finished audio book is 77 minutes, and it took me about 4 hours to record all the chapters. It then took me another 8 hours to edit out all of my misspoken words, etc.
For adding and editing the metadata and artwork of each audio file.
AudioBook Binder is a free app in the Mac App Store. You just drop in your MP3 files, and then it will bind them together into a single M4P file with chapters.
You can make an audio book Garage Band by lining up your files end-to-end and setting your own chapter markers and then exporting. However, since I already had the individual MP3 tracks, I preferred the easier, more automated approach of just dragging and dropping into AudioBooksBinder.
I am using Gumroad to handle payments and delivery of the book.
Spacebox or Gumroad were the ones that made the most sense.
Compared to Spacebox, Gumroad is a bit more expensive. To sell my $29 book through Spacebox would cost $1.431 (that is Spacebox’s 1% transaction fee and Stripe’s 2.9% + 30 cents fee). Spacebox also charges $12/month to sell digital goods.
To sell my $29 book on Gumroad costs me $1.70 per book. That’s 5% + $0.25 per transaction. There are no monthly fees, no limits on product sales, no extra costs whatsoever.
Obviously the more books I sell the more money I lose to Gumroad that I could have saved had I used Spacebox. But I went with Gumroad primarily because of its the way it integrates on my site and how it handles digital delivery.
The design of the product and payment pages in Gumroad are very clean and classy. I like how when someone clicks the buy button on my book’s site, the payment form shows up right within the page. On Mobile, you’re redirected to their site where you get a mobile friendly checkout page. The experience is pretty much exactly what I wanted, and works how I would have it work had I built the service myself.
I also like how they handle the digital delivery. When you buy the product you instantly get a link to download. Also, an email is sent to you with a download link in there as well. This is great because it means folks who buy the product on their computer can download it immediately. Folks who buy it on their iPhone, iPad, or work computer can download it later via the email link if they like.
For one, the checkout process simple and clean (they ask only for an email address and the bare essentials of credit card info). Equally simple is the seller’s dashboard. For me to sell Delight is in the Details I just made an account, uploaded my ZIP file, set a price, and was done.
And, as the seller, I see real-time sales results On launch day I was checking the Gumroad stats page about once every 10 minutes.
Launch Day Fears
On today’s episode of Shawn Today, I talked about this in great detail, and perhaps sometime I’ll write about it more here as well. But in short, the launch day was incredibly emotional for me. I was nervous, of course. But I also woke up feeling like a fraud, before I had even shipped the book. I felt fearful that people would consider the content of my book and the interviews to be not worth paying for, and yet here I was charging $29.
While waiting for my coffee, I decided I would continue as planned and not make any emotional decisions (or listen to the “lizard brain”) on launch day.
I wasn’t afraid that nobody would buy it, rather I was afraid people would buy it and be upset. But after a few days, the opposite has proven to be true. So far the feedback has been nothing but overwhelmingly positive.
A huge thanks to Marco, Cameron, Michael, Paul, Jory, Federico, Dan, and Chase who so generously gave of their time to contribute to the project. And a huge thanks to everyone who has bought the book. Your support and kind words mean the world to me. Thank you.
By the time you read this, my laptop lid will be closed and my iPhone’s push notifications turned off for the week.
I don’t know if it’s like this for others, but for me, taking time off is one of the biggest challenges I face as a self-employed person. In the past, when I’ve gone on vacations or spent holidays with the family, I still try to spend at least a little bit of time every day working to keep the site updated.
But for this year’s vacation, I am unplugging from all my inboxes and publishing responsibilities and leaving the writing to someone else.
Friends, I’m pleased to introduce you to my cousin, Nate Spears, who has agreed to step in as the first-ever guest writer for the week.
Nate is 29 days younger than I and was the best man in my wedding. When he and I were 14 we tried to start a comic book company — our drawing skills were pathetic, and my dad was our first and only customer. Now, Nate is a software developer living in Colorado while currently commuting to San Francisco every week bless his soul.
When I was considering who I wanted to hand the reins over to for this week, I knew Nate would be perfect. For one, Nate emails me links to random, interesting, and/or hilarious stuff all the time. This week, instead of sending links and commentary to me through email, I’ve given Nate the keys to the site so he can post things here for you instead. Also, Nate is a great thinker and storyteller, so who knows what he’s got in store for the site.