When I sit down at my desk in the morning, it’s time to write.
My phone is in Do Not Disturb mode. So is my computer. The outside world can wait. For the next half hour I’m pushing the cursor.
This is my writing routine.
It sounds a bit regimented, but I’ve become a believer in the routine. Having a set time and place for doing my most important work is genius. I used to write when I felt like it — at some point during the day I’d hope to write something. Who knows when it would be or what the topic would be (I certainly did’t).
Now, I write at 7:30am. If I don’t feel like it, too bad. I can at least suffer through 30 minutes of mud. But what’s wild is that most days it takes just 5 or 10 minutes for the writing to start feeling pretty good. Or, if the writing sucks, at least the calm of it being just my coffee and my words begins to take over and even if I’m not feeling in the zone, I at least feel comfortable putting my thoughts down.
This is my time to write without inhibition. I’ll have the whole rest of the day to edit and re-write and figure out what I was trying to say. But for a writer, the hardest part is that initial step. To put the words together in the first place.
By giving myself no room for wiggling around or making excuses, I’ve found that having this set time to write means I actually write more than if I were to wait only for inspiration to strike. I write more words in general (usually 1,500 words every day) than days when I wait for inspiration. And my writing is of a higher quality — my crappy first drafts are much less crappy.
And, though my timer is set for 30 minutes, more often than not by the time the half-hour is up, I’m firing on all cylinders and I will continue to write for another hour or three.
As someone who writes for a living, I cannot think of anything more important for me to do each day than to actually write.
I’m 33, and I’ve been writing part-time since I was in my mid-20s and full-time since I was 29. If I don’t write, I don’t eat. But more than that, if I don’t write for too long then I get fidgety and idle.
I’m already thinking about ways I can better improve my daily writing routine. Right now I rarely write on the weekends and I can totally feel it on Monday mornings — not only am I starving to write by Monday, but I feel rusty when I do. Imagine that, after just two days off I can tell a difference.
This morning is a Thursday. And the writing feels great.
Maybe it’s the weather. It’s cloudy and drizzly outside: the perfect weather for writing. But I’ve also had all week to write, and I’m riding the momentum from the days gone by already and it serves me well.
But there’s one more thing…
When I sit down at my desk, coffee and keyboard ready to go, there is something else.
There, waiting for me on top of my desk and in front of my computer, is a handwritten note.
It’s the note I wrote to myself yesterday evening when the day was done.
The note says one thing. Today it says: “My Digital / Analog System”
500 words ago, I lied to you. I said my writing begins at 7:30 every morning.
The truth is that my writing for this morning began yesterday when I put that note on my desk. That note is my topic for the day. That note is the single most important element of my personal productivity system. Because that note is the single most important thing I have to do today.
* * *
Distractions, diversions, oddities, and excuses to procrastinate are aplenty. I want to cut all of them off at the pass so I can have the time and space to do my best creative work every single day.
And The Note is a critical component to that.
Writing down the topic that I’m going to write about tomorrow gives me a few advantages:
It gives my subconscious a 12-hour head start. The well of my writing mind gets the whole night to fill itself up with what it wants to say on the topic. I don’t have to be anxious and keep it at the front of my mind, wasting my time and energy thinking about. Tomorrow is when I will write about it.
Thus, when it comes time to write, I have all my energy at my disposal. When I sit down to write, I haven’t yet spent any of my willpower on trying to muster up an idea, or comb through a list of possibilities, or scour the internet looking for inspiration. It’s time to write and I am not desperate. Nor am I lost, dazed, or confused.
I am clear. I know exactly what to write about because it’s there before me. All that’s left is for me to open up my writing program and to write.
“Here, Shawn, write about this,” I tell myself. And so I do.
Sometimes the most creative, inspired, productive thing you can do is try to be as lazy as possible while still showing up to do the work.
If I finish in one day then I will publish it. If not, I will come back and keep working tomorrow. Or sometimes, if it’s horrible, I’ll just put it away and at least I did my writing for the day. But no matter what, at least I’ve had a small victory: I’ve written something.
The premise of today’s article actually touches on four ideas:
- Doing something today that will make life for my future self a little bit easier.
- Having a daily habit that centers around doing my best creative work.
- Having the deep personal integrity needed to show up and do the work even when I’m not inspired or motivated.
- Celebrating the small victories.
Just recently, I got an email from a reader, Elisha, sharing with me about how many of us know we need to make change in our lives, and often we even know what things specifically need to be changed. But for so many, he said, the biggest challenge is actually getting off our rear-ends and doing something and actually being disciplined.
If the ideas in today’s article hit home for you, then I believe you will love my online course,The Power of a Focused Life. And if you can relate to the email I got from Elisha then the Focus Course will serve you well.
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:
Deleting Watch Faces
As you know, force pressing on your Watch face from the watch face screen gives you the option to change and customize your Watch’s watch face.
But I have a few additional tips I haven’t seen around:
First off, as you scroll through the list of faces, you can remove any face from this list that you don’t want in there.
Swipe up on the face and you’ll get the option to delete it. Note that you’re not actually deleting that face from your Watch, you’re simply removing it from the list of quick-access watch faces.
At the end of the watch face list is the option to add a new face. From here you can add a new instance of any one of the watch face types. So, if you deleted your previous instance of the Mickey Mouse face, you can bring him back.
Adding and Saving Watch Faces
Now, what’s especially great about the ability to add new faces isn’t to bring back ones you’ve deleted, but because you can have more than one customized version of a face.
In short, your list of watch faces can be a customized collection of various face designs and functionality to suit your needs. This is one of the main advantages of a digital smart watch.
As seen in the photo at the top of this article, my most-frequently-used Watch face is Utility. I have the dial set to show the least amount of detail as possible with day and date at 3 o’clock. The top-right corner tells me the outside temperature, and the top left corner shows my activity rings.
However, last weekend I was at a wedding and wanted something a bit more simple and classy to go with my suit. So I created a customized version of the Simple watch face with no dial at all, and no complications other than the weather in the top right corner. Furthermore, the second hand color was set to match my pocket square (I mean, why not?).
Another favorite watch face is Modular. Over a regular weekend, when chances are I’m outside, I often use Modular with all sorts of complications enabled: weather, timer, when sunset is, etc. These are all the things that are especially relevant and helpful to me if I’m doing yard work.
Modular for weekends and yard work. pic.twitter.com/ah5KjaZCz4— Shawn Blanc (@shawnblanc) May 30, 2015
While Modular certainly lends itself to being filled up with data, it also can make for an extremely simple face design — just turn off all or most of the complications.
Lastly, I have an alternate version of Utility that is just like the one mentioned above but with the Timer complication enabled in the bottom center. This is handy for when I’m cooking on the backyard grill and need to set (and see) repeating timers for checking the chicken, etc.
The watch face is the main “Home screen” of Apple Watch. And therefore the design and complications in use play a huge role in how you use and interact with your Apple Watch. Having a few different faces saved for quick-access is pretty helpful.
Read the Manual
In the box that your Apple Watch came in, there’s a small user’s guide. It outlines just a few of the basic interactions and functions of your Watch. If, like me, you ignored it when your Watch first came, take a moment to read over it. You’ll probably learn something new — I did.
(This tip, along with the next one, I picked up from John Gruber during his episode of The Talk Show with David Sparks.)
Set Text to Bold
This one is a non-obvious tip, and some may not like it, but you should at least give it a shot.
Go to the settings app within your Watch, tap on “Brightness and Text Size” and set Bold Text to be on. It will require your Watch to reboot (takes just a minute).
Here are a few examples of how bold (top) and non-bold (bottom) look:
As you can see in the screenshots, it’s not truly bold — it’s more like semi-bold, or medium. It makes certain text elements on your Watch ever so slightly readable, and on such a tiny computer screen that’s something that can be a nice change.
Try Force Pressing on Every Screen
One of the slightly non-obvious interaction methods with your Watch is to force press on various screens.
Force pressing on the watch face is how you’re able to switch and customize different face designs.
Force pressing in an iMessage thread with someone gives you the options to reply to that person, see their contact details, or send your location to them.
Force pressing on an activity ring screen (Stand, Move, Exercise) gives you the option to change your move goal.
And many 3rd-party apps implement force pressing as well. You never know where it will present something useful.
Disable the Option Prompt for Sending Audio or Dictation
If you’ve ever tried dictating a text message to your Watch, you probably know it’s a bit of a hassle. Cool, yes. Super seamless, not always.
For me, one thing that was an extra step was that after dictating the message to my Watch and waiting for Siri to roundtrip with my iPhone in order to translate, I then had to tap “Done” and then had to choose if I wanted to send the audio recording of my dictation or the actual text.
I always sent the text, never the audio. If you’re in the same boat, there’s a setting that will save you a step. Simply do this:
Launch the Apple Watch app on your phone, scroll down to “Messages” and then tap on “Audio Messages”. From there you have the option to always do just Dictation or just the audio recording of your voice.
Customize Your Default Text Message Replies
From the same settings screen as above (Apple Watch app on your iPhone → Messages), you can also set your own default replies.
There are six slots available for you to customize. And these default replies are what you see when you go to compose a new text message to someone from your Watch.
You also see these replies at the end of the list when you are replying to an incoming message. Apple Watch does a pretty good job at thinking for you about what you may want to say in certain situations, and so those canned responses are at the top. If you don’t like any of them, you can keep scrolling to get to your six default replies.
Locking the Screen
Did you know that if you put your hand over the entire Watch face it will lock the screen? Yes, you could lower your wrist. But if you need some closure and want to see that the screen has locked, simply cover the whole face.
Though I personally prefer the standard crown placement, if you’d prefer to have the crown on the left side instead of the right, there’s a setting for that.
Craig Hockenberry calls it the Reverse Crown and he highly recommends it.
Go to the settings app on your Watch → General → Orientation → and then tap “Left” for Crown placement.
This is also where you can tell your Apple Watch that you are left handed.
Over on iMore, Rene Ritchie has, naturally, put together a comprehensive rundown of what Siri can do on your Apple Watch. And it’s quite a bit, actually: set reminders, alarms, and timers; send messages; launch apps; show the weather or time for anywhere.
The things I most often use Siri for are setting timers and sending messages. Because Siri on your Watch has to go through your iPhone in order to parse what it is you’re saying and fetch results, it’s not always the fastest option.
I’ve tried setting location-based reminders — “When I get home, remind me to upload the files for Josh” — but they rarely work.
As you probably know, you can bring Siri up in one of two ways: either pressing and holding on the Digital Crown, or else raising your wrist and saying “Hey Siri…”
And so, my biggest tip for how to use Siri is this: when you bring up Siri by talking — “Hey Siri…” — keep on talking. Especially if you have a multi-layered command. Such as sending a message to someone.
So, for example, if you’re sending a message, say the whole command and the text message all at once: “Hey Siri, send a message to my wife I’m on my way.” Saying it all at once will bring up Siri, translate your message, and then put you into the Messages app with the text ready to send. From there you can say “Hey Siri, Send.” (Thanks, Jason!)
For the situations where you need hands free but can’t get Siri to work, fortunately Apple Watch recognizes touch input from your nose.
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.
Does this sound familiar? You pull your iPhone out to check the time, and the next thing you know you’ve been scrolling through Twitter for 6 minutes and now you’re reading about the migration patterns of cats. You don’t even like cats.
I’ve worn a wristwatch for years. For one, I like to know what time it is. But also, wearing a watch is an excellent solution to passively checking Twitter and Instagram when all I wanted to know was the time.
Last year I wrote an article in praise of my analog watch. In short it was about how my analog watch does one thing well: tell time.
Now, my affinity for analog watches doesn’t mean I’m against the concept of the smartwatch. But after 8 years of having an iPhone within arm’s reach, my experience has taught me that the promise of convenient notifications and relevant information at your fingertips is almost always paired with the reality of distractions, tugs for attention, and perhaps even an addiction to the “just checks”.
Having the Internet in your pocket isn’t always roses and ice cream.
* * *
Naturally, I pre-ordered my Apple Watch the morning it went on sale. The little critter arrived just over a week ago.
As a gadget geek, I think Apple Watch is awesome. It looks great, it has some gorgeous watch faces, the fitness tracking and goals are fantastic and healthily addictive, and it pairs so well with my iPhone.
But just because it’s an awesome and fun gadget doesn’t guarantee it’s helpfulness. As I wrote at the beginning of this article, one of the reasons I wear a watch is so I can check the time without using my iPhone.
Not to be all philosophical, but one of the big question that’s been looming in my mind regarding Apple Watch is this: For those who want to spend less time staring at their iPhone, will Apple Watch make that easier?
After a week — which, admittedly, is a very short amount of time — my answer to the above question is yes: Apple Watch makes it easier to leave my iPhone alone.
Apple Watch fits, appropriately, right between a smartphone and a dumb watch. Apple Watch is certainly more feature-rich and “connected” than my analog watches ever were, yet it’s not anywhere near an “iPhone 2.0” type of product.
In other words, Apple Watch is just powerful enough to be useful and fun, but not so powerful that it’s distracting or frustrating.
Apple Watch certainly could be distracting if you let it. But that’s easily avoided by not installing too many apps or allowing too many types of incoming notifications. Where Watch differs from iPhone is that the former is not very good at being a passive entertainment device.
While you can install apps such as Instagram and Twitterrific on your Watch, using them is like reading the news on a postage stamp. Doable but not delightful.
Just Smart Enough
For me, there are three things that make Apple Watch great so far: Notifications that matter, activity tracking, and Complications.
On my phone I already get only the most sacred of notifications: text messages, Twitter DMs, Slack Mentions and PMs, emails from VIPs, event reminders, Reminder reminders, new calendar events added to my shared calendars, Vigil alerts, Dark Sky weather alerts.
It sounds like a lot when listed out all at once, but aside from text messages, the vast majority of those things rarely ever fire. In fact, I take pride in how infrequently my iPhone beeps or buzzes.
And on my watch, I get tapped even less: text messages, event reminders, and Dark Sky weather alerts only.
We’ll see how this pans out over time, but so far getting just these few types of notifications on my wrist have proven to be immensely helpful and not the least bit annoying.
And using the Watch for messages is usually great. For the vast majority of the friends and family whom I text message with throughout the day, we communicate with emojis and short quips — something the Watch is perfectly suited for.
The activity tracking has is great. Too great, perhaps…
Totally waiting until after I go to sleep to install Watch OS 1.0.1. Don’t want to fall behind in steps counted and calories burned.— Shawn Blanc (@shawnblanc) May 19, 2015
Getting those rings filled every day has become so compelling. It’s too soon to tell if it’s simply the fun of a new “game” that will soon wear off, or if the awareness of my activity along with the daily goals will bring about an improvement in my healthy activity and behavior.
As for the Watch face, I’ve settled in on Utility. I have the detail dialed down to the most simple possible. And I’ve three complications set up: activity rings in the upper left corner, current temperature in the upper right corner, and day + date on the face. Each morning I change the accent color, usually to match my shirt, because why not?
At a glance I can see the time and the current temp, which is so nice. I’m getting ready to go for a run, should I plan to go to the gym or is it nice enough to run outside? … We’re about to load the kids up in the car, do they need jackets right now?
I have a secondary version my Utility watch face saved that has the timer complication at the bottom center. When grilling (which we do about 3 times a week now that the weather is warming up), it is great to have the timer just one tap away on my wrist.
Complications are invaluable, and the delta between pulling out your phone to check your calendar, or the weather, versus looking at your wrist is massive.
Agreed. It’s the complications and the basic notifications that make Apple Watch just smart enough. Taking a little bit of time to set up what I do and don’t want on my watch has already paid dividends.
There is still much to be improved about the Watch’s core functionality (such as improvements with Siri dictation (editing, anyone?), and 3rd-party apps that don’t have to round trip to the iPhone). However, my first impression of the Apple Watch has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s attractive, useful, and, most of all, fun.
On this week’s episode of my podcast, The Weekly Briefly, I seek to define what “Your Best Creative Work” actually means.
It’s a phrase I’ve been thinking and talking about for years. Does it only relate to “artsy” stuff? I don’t think so.
* * *
Here’s a picture of someone doing her best creative work:
She shows up every day. When it’s easy and when it’s hard. It doesn’t matter. She is committed.
This is something only she can do. Yet even still, it might not all work out as planned. There is no clear path about comes next. There is a lot of guessing. There is fear.
Some days the work is so much harder than others. Some days everything comes together and it’s amazing. At the end of the day, it’s always rewarding.
She is telling a story. Every day she is trying to connect with others. Her work is emotional. Relational. There is learning. Teaching. Guessing. Loving. She is a mother.
* * *
When we talk about “doing our best creative work”, it’s easy to define creativity as “artsy”. Writing. Designing. Taking photographs. But creative work happens in a variety of forms.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine who is a project manager, and he very much views his work as creative. Creating a spreadsheet to analyze data — that is a form of creativity, and it should be validated as creative. The way a mother or father raises their children and the tactics they deploy. The choices we make as freelancers, small-business owners, founders, or CEOs. It’s all creative
The scope of creativity and meaningful work goes far beyond art.
Any degree of freedom you use to do your work means you have a choice about how you go about it. And that is creativity. You’ve been given the gift of choice, and you can use that to give back and do work that matters.
* * *
What do you think about when you think about art and creativity?
I think about emotions. Fear, doubt, joy, happiness, love, and honesty.
I think about telling a story. Encouraging, inspiring, educating, and entertaining others.
I think about people. Relationships and connecting.
* * *
Doing my best creative work is an amalgamation of both doing work that matters and also taking joy in the journey.
Meaningful work, work that matters, is something that I have to do. I am compelled to do it. If it doesn’t work out, if nobody likes it, if I never make a dollar, that’s unfortunate. But I still had to do it. And so, if it didn’t work out or it didn’t make a dollar, I have to figure out how to keep doing it better. Meaningful work is also something which I hope will make the lives of other people better. Either by entertaining them, educating them, or helping them in their journey.
Having joy in the journey is just that. Having fun. Pursuing “mastery”. Being present in the moment. Getting in the zone. Creating without inhibition. Trusting your gut.
Put these two together, and boom. You’ve got yourself a recipe for your best creative work.
When you define your best creative work like this, it changes everything. Suddenly it’s less about the quality of art you produce and it’s more about being valuable, meaningful, and honest.
And you realize that your best creative work is part of every area of your life: work, family, rest, personal life, etc.
Doing your best creative work every day is a choice. You get to choose to do work that matters.
I try to make that choice when I’m at my keyboard, when I’m on a date with my wife, when I have half an hour of quiet alone time, and when I’m playing catch in the back yard with my two boys. In those moments, it’s not about the context. Art. Relationships. Business. Each one is a chance to choose to be honest, true, vulnerable, and personal.
Yesterday on Twitter I asked folks what challenges they face when it comes to doing meaningful work.
These are some of the answers I got back:
Fear that I’m too late.
Fear that my work won’t be good enough.
Fear that my work will be rejected.
Fear of unworthiness.
Giving in to distractions to escape / pacify the fear.
Finding something that I feel is meaningful to work on.
Stuck in meetings, leaving no time to do any meaningful work.
Having to put out fires and check inboxes, leaving no time or energy to do meaningful work.
Am I even capable or equipped to do meaningful work? If it’s out there, do I even recognize it?
Moving too fast; rushing into projects and ideas.
Holding back; afraid of success and the necessary changes it would bring.
Lack of financial resources. Having to spend time doing non-important work in order to pay the bills.
Spending too much time doing meaningless, trivial stuff.
Frustrated by my capacity. I could and should be doing more, and the days feel as if they slip away.
There are so many distractions. I have a hard time keeping focused.
Fear that those I look up to won’t respect the work I do.
Getting others around me to be motivated and make change.
The fight to stay creative is real.
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes that “any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity”, or, “any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower” is sure to elicit resistance.
Resistance comes in all shapes and sizes: Fear, distractions, diversions, interruptions, procrastination, hesitancy, shame, lethargy, doubt, et al.
In my experience, the greatest challenges to doing work that matters are these:
- Lack of clarity: Do you even know what meaningful, important work looks like and how to do it?
- Not thirsty enough: Not willing and eager to learn, grow, evaluate, try new things, and take risks.
- Fear: In all shapes and sizes, as listed above.
- Distractions (and diversions): which are both internal and external.
- Inconsistency: not willing to show up every day.
Therefore, if you want to do work that matters, this is what you need:
Where grit is tenacity. Work ethic. Stubbornness. It’s the willingness to press through your fear, overcome the your distractions, and show up every day even when it’s hard.
If you’re reading this, you’re thirsty. You’ve got grit, too. Probably more than you think.
But do you have clarity? Do you know what your meaningful, important work looks like? And if so, do you know what you need to do to make it happen?
Clarity is at the foundation of meaningful work and meaningful productivity. We need clarity about who we are, our values, our vision for life, what’s important, and what we can do every day to stay steady in our aim of doing our best creative work.
If you know what you want (clarity) and you’re motivated to go after it (thirst), then oftentimes the grit takes care of itself. Fear is less likely to hold you back. Distractions suddenly aren’t so distracting.
* * *
You are capable of doing work that matters. We all have fears. We all have opportunities for distractions and diversions. We all have to choose to show up every day. You won’t find someone doing meaningful work for the long haul who doesn’t have at least some measure each of clarity, thirst, and grit.
P.S. As you may know, I’m building a guided, online course about doing our best creative work and living a focused life. The Focus Course solves the very issues I’ve written about in this post. Well, mostly. While I can help you with clarity and grit, thirst, I’m afraid, is all up to you.
The Course is on track to launch in the late June! This week we are recording the 20 videos that will be part of the course (see below). The end is in sight and I am so excited to share this with you!
A few days ago I got an email from Ross Kimes who was a member of the Pilot course. He wrote to tell me about how the Pilot version Focus Course helped him, and with his permission I’ve shared it here for you.
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.
I have a tendency to edit things to death.
This part could be better, I tell myself. This section could be clearer. That little detail could be improved upon. Over and over until there’s nothing left but a sterile, vanilla, whatever.
I’ve been like this for years. And still I don’t learn. That’s why I set deadlines for myself.
Today is the launch of the new design and landing page for The Focus Course.
For the past year I’ve been actively working on this book and course. And the past couple of months it has been literally all I’m working on. I’m in cave mode. Monk mode. Whatever it is when you’re focusing on just one thing only and don’t come out until it’s done.
I’ve been writing 1,500+ words every day, spending all 8 hours of my work time (and sometimes more) putting together all the research and ideas into the modules for the course.
Though I’ve publishing less frequently here on shawnblanc.net than the average since 2007, the work I’m doing for The Focus Course is, I believe, some of the best work I’ve ever done. I have been loving it.
And yet, despite how excited I am about this, just yesterday, on the eve of launching the new landing page, I was filled with self-doubt.
Am I communicating clearly? Am I over-communicating? Is this interesting? Is it boring? This might not work!
I was up until midnight tweaking the words, rearranging the testimonials, staring at the landing page wondering if each section was in the right order and what I should edit or change.
Because honestly, shipping is scary.
You guys, I don’t know if you knew this, but there are SO MANY books, blogs, articles, magazines, and newsletters out there related to “productivity”. I know, because I read them. But, and just to be honest, after a while everything starts to sound the same.
But I know that I know that The Focus Course can and will be life-changing. It is definitely different. But I also know that everyone says that about their stuff.
Which is why my biggest challenge with telling the story of The Focus Course has been to define what sets it apart. If I’m going to add my voice to the “productivity community”, then I have to do something different.
The course itself is different than anything out there that I know of. But how do I communicate that? How do I communicate that this is different — better — than the alternatives?
A big part of communicating why the course is different is just to say so.
What sets The Focus Course apart is its guided, action-centric nature.
Have you ever read a book, thought it was full of great ideas, tweeted about it, and then put it back on the shelf and went on about your life? Me too.
After reading over 50 of the most influential and popular books that have been written about productivity and creativity during the past century, I often found myself highlighting stuff and feeling motivated but not actually applying change to my life.
I knew that if I wanted to help people (and help myself) I needed to do more than just write another book. I needed a way to apply the wisdom from those books into my daily action and behavior.
So yeah, that’s the story behind the Focus Course.
But there’s another way I wanted to communicate that the course is different — better — than the alternatives.
And that’s through design.
I’m using design as a competitive advantage for The Focus Course. Instead of something expected and typical I wanted something powerful, professional, bold, and awesome. Something with personality.
I’ve been working with one of the most talented designers I know: my good friend, Pat Dryburgh. Pat’s the man responsible for the design of the Focus Course website and, wow. Just wow. (Thank you, Pat!)
This is the first real detailed and official announcement of what the Focus Course is all about. I’m extremely excited to get it out the door later this summer. It’s been a a lot of hard work and good times over the past year. Thanks to all of you who read this site and support the work I do. And thanks to Chris, Stephen, Bradley, Jeff, and Josh for your excellence in what you do on the other sites. Because of you all, I’m able to put the time into building something like this.
* * *
Watch this space, or sign up for The Fight Spot newsletter. Over the next couple months I’ll be sharing more details about the behind the scenes of the what, why, and how of creating and building the course.
And, of course, if you’ve got a moment, go check out the new site. The design and typography are so great. And if you haven’t seen the video yet, I think you’ll enjoy it.
How do you keep focused doing the things that matter even when they’re a grind?
Reader Alan N. just recently asked me this question and it’s an excellent one.
Most of the time, the things that matter are a grind. Why is that? It seems unfair that the most important work is often mundane and difficult. Not to mention that usually the most important work is not even due today.
But that’s the truth of it. We have to define the things that matter and then seek them out and act on them. If we want to do the things that matter, we have to show up every day and do them.
The topic of meaningful productivity is central to The Focus Course. And since I’m almost done building the course, I could talk about this stuff for hours and hours — it’s all right at the top of my mind right now.
In short, at the end of the day, meaningful productivity is about consistently doing the things that matter. Contrary to popular belief, real productivity has very little to do with how many emails we can reply to and then archive in less than 60 seconds.
That said, the way we keep focused on the things that matter even when they’re a grind, is two-fold: (1) Make doing the most important work part of your routine; and (2) celebrate your daily progress.
On the other side of that coin is overcoming two of the greatest areas of resistance to doing meaningful work every day: Inbox Addiction and Urgency Addiction.
Make Doing the Most Important Work Part of Your Routine
I write for a living. And I’ve found that having a common time, common place, and even the same theme music for my writing has made a profound impact on my ability to show up every day and write.
When you look at it from the outside, it sounds silly or boring. But in practice it’s a bit cathartic, and it’s the time of my day I most look forward to. When I know when and where I’ll be writing, and what I’ll be writing about, I can’t wait to get to work.
It wasn’t until just three months ago that I actually set a routine in place for when and where I would write:
Every morning I write for at least 30 minutes no matter what. That’s my commitment: 30 minutes. This writing time is the first thing I do each morning when I start my work day. And though I’m committed to write for at least just 30 minutes, I usually end up writing for about 2.5 hours. Once I’ve pressed through that initial half-hour, I find a flow and just keep going.
I play the same music every morning during my 30 minutes of writing time. It’s the Monument Valley soundtrack. On repeat. I put on my headphones and hit play on that album. I probably listen to it 3 or 4 times every day. The advantage is that it just becomes like white noise — because it’s familiar it’s not distracting. And because I’m always listening to this music when I’m writing, the music itself now has a Pavlovian effect that helps me focus in on “writing mode”.
Additionally, I do not check any statistics or inboxes until at least 9:00 am. Since I start my work day at 7:30am, I have a minimum of 90 minutes where my only goal is to write, think, or plan.
Thus, not only do I have a commitment to do the work, but also a commitment to not give in to any potential distractions while I’m doing the work. As I’m sure you know, it’s one thing to show up and another thing altogether to actually create something in the time you’ve given yourself.
Since I began this morning writing routine three months ago, I’ve written somewhere in the ballpark of 90,000 words. This includes my Fight Spot newsletters, podcast scripts and talking points, 31 days (so far) of my 40-day Focus Course, and the first draft of a top-secret new ebook we will be publishing through The Sweet Setup in a few months.
Having this routine in place does more than just create the space for me to do my most important work. It also reserves my willpower and creative energy for that which matters most: doing the actual work.
When I start writing in the morning, I already know what I’m going to write about (because I choose each day’s writing assignment the day before). I also already know how long I’m going to write for (at least 30 minutes), and that I’m not going to do anything else.
There is literally nothing for me to think about other than moving the that big blue blinking cursor from left to right.
It’s most difficult at the beginning
The hardest part of turning our most important work into part of our routine is at the beginning. As we implement a new daily habit, the most energy required is at the outset.
They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. But that’s the minimum. For most people it is more like 66 days — about two months. But, once you’ve done something for two months then the discipline required to keep doing it is greatly reduced.
So, for example, writing 1,000 words every day can be extremely challenging for the first week. Then a bit less challenging the week after. Until, after about 8 weeks, you’re practically on autopilot. If you can muster the discipline and diligence to stick with it for a couple of months, then pretty soon the routine of it takes over.
Choose to do something every day until eventually it chooses you back.
Celebrate Your Progress
At the end of every day, I open up my Day One journal and write down the highlights of what I accomplished that day. It usually includes the topic I wrote about and how many words I put down, any meaningful connections or conversations I had, and any other miscellaneous thoughts.
By recognizing and rewarding these small wins each day, it builds up an intrinsic motivation that makes me want to keep doing the important work.
Celebrating progress strengthens our emotional and motivated state. Which means we are happier and more motivated at work and are therefore more likely to be productive and creative. It keeps the cycle going.
We may know what our most important work is. And we may know that we should be spending time on it every day. But oftentimes that head knowledge is not heart knowledge. We don’t feel the value in what we’re doing.
When we feel like cogs in a machine (even cogs who know they’re doing something they think is important) then we slowly lose our desire to be productive and efficient. We don’t care about coming up with creative solutions or fresh ideas. We just do what’s required of us in order to get our paycheck so we can go home to our television and unwind.
By cataloging and celebrating our small wins each day then we can be reminded that we are making meaningful progress. And, in truth, it’s the small wins which all add up to actually complete the big projects and big goals.
Note: I was recently interviewed for an episode of the Fizzle show where Chase Reeves discussed how to use a productivity journal. It’s an excellent podcast episode — tightly edited and constructed, like an episode 99pi or something you’d hear on NPR.
Inbox Addiction (“The Just Checks”)
Here’s how I define Inbox Addiction:
Inbox Addiction is an urge to continuously check one’s news feeds, social feeds, and message inboxes despite undesirable and even negative consequences or a desire to stop.
Inbox addiction poses a serious threat to doing our best creative work and staying on focus with our essential tasks. The addiction of checking and refreshing our inboxes, timelines, and stats robs us of our ability to focus as well as our ability to do substantial, meaningful work. It’s a drain on our time as well as a drain on our creative energy.
Last fall I wrote about some alternatives to The Just Checks. In short, when I’m in line at the store or have a moment of down time, instead of habitually checking Twitter or email or Instagram, I try to instead scroll through my Day One timeline (the Day One Today extension for iOS 8 that shows two random photos is great for this, btw) or send an encouraging text message to a friend.
Urgency Addiction in a Nutshell
In his book, First Things First, Stephen Covey defines Urgency Addiction as this:
Urgency addiction is a self-destructive behavior that temporarily fills the void created by unmet needs. And instead of meeting these needs, the tools and approaches of time management often feed the addiction. They keep us focused on daily prioritization of the urgent. […]
It’s important to realize that urgency itself is not the problem. The problem is that when urgency is the dominant factor in our lives, importance isn’t.
The reason urgency addiction robs us of doing our most important work is because essential work is often mundane.
One reason we love to give our energy and attention to doing what is urgent is because it feels exciting. There is a natural momentum and adrenaline that accompanies things which are urgent.
Contrast that against doing what is essential.
Back to the writing example: suppose you are writing a book. The essential work is that you must put words down. And yet, that is so often the very task we neglect and avoid. Because it’s difficult, boring, tedious, mundane. We instead let our days get filled with many other more pressing (“urgent”) matters, and never get to the foundational and important work of writing.
When something is essential, it is absolutely necessary. Essential is the very definition of what’s truly important
Urgent is relative, but essential is absolute. While urgency is usually defined by external factors, essentialness is fundamentally important to a project or goal, regardless of external factors.
Urgency in and of itself is not a problem. The problem is when we find ourselves craving projects, work environments, and scenarios where there is a fire to put out. And thus we never have the time to do the important task which doesn’t have to be done today.
Urgency addiction is when we allow our time to be taken over by whatever is most urgent in the moment. When that happens, we give no consideration to what’s down the road and no priority to the long-term goals. Moreover, it leaves no space for us to walk out our daily habits and lifestyle practices — they get set aside, sacrificed for the sake of yet another urgent crisis or pressing matter.
How often do you feel frustrated at the end of the day because your most important tasks are still not done? How often do you blame the rush and press of external things for your failure to do the work you know to be most important? How often do you find yourself giving up quality time with important people so that you can finish a project or respond to a crisis?
To let our lives be taken over by what is only urgent is to live like a child — caring only about what seems important right now with no regard for the future and without even knowing what is actually important today.
So long as our attention is focused on the urgent and the incoming, we won’t be able to do our best work. We won’t make any meaningful progress toward our goals because we will be dealing only with the tasks and situations which are urgent while we neglect the ones which are essential.
* * *
The newness of a project brings an energy that motivates us to get started. And the urgency of a deadline brings an energy that motivates us to finish. But what about in-between? How do we keep on doing the work in-between starting something new and finishing it? Because the vast majority of our life is lived in that “in-between state”.
Joy in the Journey
The best musicians in the world practice every single day. For hours a day. And they don’t just practice their favorite songs and coolest licks — they practice the techniques and scales and fills that they’re bad at.
I studied martial arts for over a decade, and we did the same stretches and basic moves at the start of every class every time. Even after I received my black belt, we were still practicing basic front stance and middle punch.
You write a book by writing it. Thinking about it, outlining it, researching for it, yeah you’ve got to do these. But you’ve also got to sit down and write it. Even if you can write 1,000 words every day, you’re looking at a couple of months to write the first draft.
Something the best musicians, the martial artists, and writers all have in common is more than just commitment and fortitude. More than just routine. They have a joy in the journey.
And while the musician, martial artist, and writer all have goals they’re working toward, the goal is not the primary motivation. When we delight in the journey, then the daily grind becomes what we get to do. Not something we have to do.
In his book, Mastery, George Leonard writes that “love of your work, willingness to stay with it even in the absence of extrinsic reward, is good food and drink.”
When we’re doing work that matters there is no finally moment. The tension and the difficulty never go away. The distractions and excuses will always be around. Hard work will always be hard work. The goal is not to eliminate the tension but to thrive in the midst of it.
P.S. I’ve built a guided, online course about doing our best creative work and living a focused life. If you’d liked this article, I bet you’ll love the course.
Let’s take two quotes, mash their ideas together, and see what we get:
“Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
“If I were to let my life be taken over by what is urgent, I might very well never get around to what is essential.” — Henri Nouwen
I’ve been working from home and working for myself for over 4 years. 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 usually have 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, the returns on that extra energy is very little. Though the workaholic in me wants to squeeze in a few more tasks, there is a point when the responsible and productive thing for me to do is leave my office and stop working altogether.
Honestly, at times it can be difficult to let myself quit while I’m ahead for the day 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.
Albert Einstein once said: “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.”
Over my years of working from home, I feel that too much focus on the “act of productivity” is to miss the forest for the trees.
Being “efficient” is not what’s ultimately important. I want to do my best creative work and I want to have thriving relationships. Meaningful productivity means showing up to do the important work on a regular basis.
Time management, task management, 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 the important work itself.
Have I written today? Have I daydreamed? Have I been contemplative? Have I had an inspiring and encouraging conversation? Have I helped somebody? These activities are far more important than the checkmarks I make on 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.
“You can do anything, but not everything.” — David Allen
I am in the fortunate position that I don’t have to deal with email to do my job. In fact, the inverse that is closer to the truth: the less time I spend doing email the better I can do my job.
There are a few types of emails that I always pay attention to, and a handful of people whom I try to always correspond with in a timely manner. But I have rules and flags set up for those so that they are always sure to get my attention in my inbox.
For the rest of my emails, chances are I won’t ever reply to them. The reason I’m such a poor email correspondent to most people is that I just choose not to spend much time in email. Instead, I choose to spend my time doing other things such as writing, reading, managing the the administrative and financial logistics that accompany working for yourself, and spending as much time with my family as possible.
I could easily spend 3-4 hours every day reading to and replying to the messages in my inbox. But it’s not just the time and correspondence aspects of email that I chose to say no to — I’m also preemptively avoiding the decision-making and judgment-making requests that incoming emails ask of me.
Many of the emails I get are requests for my time, in one way or another. Either a request for an interview, an app review, to be a beta tester, etc. I would love to give my time and attention to these things if I could — I know I’m missing some great opportunities and relationships. But that’s just the way I’m letting it be — it’s an unfortunate consequence of my choice to be “poor” at email.
But if I were focus on all the incoming emails, and pursue all the opportunities that those messages presented, then I’d have no time, energy, or focus left for what is my most important work.
My friend Chris Bowler wrote about this. Saying: “Can we all agree to just let go? To stop caring that we might miss something big, something important? Reality is, we are all missing something important in front of us every day, while we carefully scan our feeds, missing the suffering, the joy, the simple state of being all around us. Our families and friends, our neighbours, our complete strangers.”
If I said yes to all the requests and opportunities and potential new relationships coming to my inbox then I’d have another full-time job, and I wouldn’t be able to write anymore.
My approach to email is not unlike the approach with one of the co-founders of Google has. David Shin, a former Google employee, shared this story:
When I worked at Google in 2006/2007, Larry and Sergey held a Q&A session, and this exact question was asked of them. One of them answered (I don’t remember which) with the following humorous response (paraphrased):*
”When I open up my email, I start at the top and work my way down, and go as far as I feel like. Anything I don’t get to will never be read. Some people end up amazed that they get an email response from a founder of Google in just 5 minutes. Others simply get what they expected (no reply).”*
I spend about 20-30 minutes a day in my email, and whatever I get to I get to. And whatever I don’t, unfortunately, goes unanswered. Because for me, Inbox Zero is actually all about the outbox. Inbox Zero means I choose to focus my time, energy, and attention on creating something worthwhile instead of feeding some unhealthy addiction to constantly check my inboxes. It means I care more about this moment than I do about my narcissistic tendencies of knowing who’s talking to me on Twitter. It means I care more about doing my best creative work than about keeping up with the real-time web and being instantly accessible via email.
By “pre-deciding” that the majority of requests for my time and attention over email just go unanswered, it gives me a fighting chance at doing my best creative work every day. Not only does it give me more time to focus on that which is important, but it gives me more creative energy to do my best work during that time.
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 earlier quote by Robert Louis Stevenson. Our devotion to a subject can only be sustained by the neglect of many others. Our devotion to that which is important can only be sustained by the neglect of that which is non-essential.
Your story doesn’t have to be about email. I bet you a cup of coffee there is something you can decide to be poor at so you can be better at something else.
Finding something we want to do is the easy part. Now we must decide what we will neglect, and then we have to grow comfortable with being in that state of “perpetual neglect”. Something not easily done in a culture that tells us we can and should have it all and do it all.
But what happens when we try to do it all? In his book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown has an excellent diagram comparing the difference between our efforts when we have many pursuits versus focusing in on just one thing.
When we are spending a little bit of time on a million different projects, areas of responsibilities, tasks, and activities, then we make very little progress on any of them. And our efforts are stretched thin. However, if we focus our energy on only the most important things — that which is essential — then we make meaningful progress. Not to mention, it just feels more rewarding to focus on one important thing and do it with excellence.
When we take a moment to consider what our most important work is, we tend to think mostly about what we want to accomplish and do and be.
But why not also think about what we will not do? What tasks and pursuits will we give up or entrust to others? What areas of our time, energy, and attention will we simplify in order to create the space and the margin to do what we want?
We can do anything we want, but we can’t do everything. Which means that for every “yes” there are 1,000 “no”s.
P.S. I’m building a guided, online course about doing our best creative work and living a focused life. If you’d like to be notified when it comes out, sign up for here.
You’ll get my weekly emails regarding creativity, focus, and risk. And, you’ll get my 40-page PDF, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, for free.