In a word or two, how would you describe your average day?
For me, in this season of life, I’d say that my average day is a mixed bag. While most days are productive on paper, they feel a little bit too busy and a little bit too stressed.1
As a small-business owner, sometimes my responsibilities have me pulled in a half-dozen directions. Between Tools & Toys, The Sweet Setup, The Focus Course, shawnblanc.net, my Shawn Today podcast, and The Fight Spot newsletter… well, life can feel frazzled at times.
But I’m not alone here, am I? You’re busy, too. We all are.
From the rising of the sun until long after it sets, how quickly our days get filled with things to do. Important responsibilities. Urgent issues. Helping and serving the people who depend on us.
While my current, average day sometimes feels too busy and too stressed, what would my ideal day look like?
My ideal day would be fulfilling, with times that are both relaxing and productive.
I’m about as “Type A” as they come. I’ve always got more ideas than time and I feel most energized when I’m working on a project. The downside is that means it can be hard for me to stop working and even to stop thinking about work.
* * *
In his book, Margin, Richard Swenson, M.D., starts out with this statement:
The conditions of modern-day living devour margin. If you are homeless, we send you to a shelter. If you are penniless, we offer you food stamps. If you are breathless, we connect you to oxygen. But if you are marginless, we give you yet one more thing to do.
Not only are we given one more thing to do, many of us are even seeking out more to do — perhaps intentionally, but most likely unintentionally — simply because we struggle to say ‘no’ to requests of our time and attention and thus are busy beyond capacity. When we do have a spare moment, we fill it quickly without thinking by checking the news, social media, and email, almost as if by habit.
“No matter how busy life gets,” writes Jessica Turner in her book The Fringe Hours, “I’m here to tell you that you not only can but must make time to do things that matter to you.”
When you think of margin in your life, think of health. Physical health, emotional health, mental health, relational health, financial health, creative health.
- Margin in your finances means you’re living within your means and even have a rainy day fund.
- Margin in your schedule means you have time to do the things you need to do as well as the things you want to do.
- Margin in your emotions means you don’t live constantly on the edge — losing your temper or your patience at the drop of a hat.
- Margin for your thoughts means you have the wherewithal to make clear decisions and focus on your most important work.
All of these areas overlap with one another — they’re not isolated. Which is why, when a household lacks margin in its finances it can erode at margin in the marriage. Or when we lack margin in our schedule, it can erode the margin in our emotions.
Why is margin important?
We need margin. You need it. And so do I.
Without margin in our finances, we fall deeper in debt every time the car breaks down. Without margin in our schedule, we have no time to rest, recharge, or serve others. And without margin for our thoughts, we lack creative energy to make progress on our most important work.
Though, not always, oftentimes our lack of margin is self-inflicted.
We would love to have a rainy day fund, but when we see a bigger television for a cheaper price, we buy the TV instead of setting that money aside. We would love to have time at the end of the day to read a good book, but when we come home from work we instinctively turn on said television. We would love to make progress on our side-project, but when we have a break, we spend it check our social media timelines.
It’s like Paul wrote in the Bible: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”
Listening to Overwhelm
Again, Swenson writes:
No one likes pain. We all want to get rid of it as soon as possible. But physical pains are usually there for a reason, to tell us something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Emotional, relational, and societal pains, too, are often indicators that all is not well. As such, they serve a valuable purpose — they help us focus.
Modern-day living, however, opposes focusing. Surrounded by frenzy and interruptions, we have no time for anything…
Do You Need a Change or Are You On the Verge of a Breakthrough?
When you’re feeling the pain of overwhelm, listen to it.
There can be two reasons for the stress you feel:
- It may be that life is telling you you’re marginless.
- Or, sometimes that feeling of overwhelm is because you’re in a season of transition — you’re close to a breakthrough.
However, when it’s the latter — when you’re on your way toward a breakthrough in your skills — you need help and the perseverance to press through.
In a couple days, we’ll hit on some of the simple ways you can quickly restore margin in your life.
Also, we’ll be hitting on this topic (and more) in the free Elements of Focus class that begins in less than a week! If you haven’t yet signed up, you definitely should.
Update: Part two has been published. You can read it here.
- Over the years, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at making sure my time is spent only on the most important and necessary work. Obviously, there is wiggle in there because I’m just a regular person. But, so far as I can tell, just about as much of my time as I have is spent doing the things I want and need to be doing in order to keep things moving forward. The problem for me, it seems, is not in cutting back and dialing down even more, but that I clearly have things for which it is time to delegate. More on that another day. ↵
It’s the end of the day.
I work downstairs, so for me, closing up the office is as simple as stepping away from my desk and walking up the half-flight of stairs.
I’ve had this 30-second commute since 2011, which is when I quit my job to focus full-time on writing here at shawnblanc.net.
Despite the complete autonomy for how I spend my time, doing my best creative work is still a daily practice.
There have been seasons in my life when, at the end of my day, I walk up that half-flight of steps with a feeling that my day was a waste. I just spent hours at work, yet feel completely unsatisfied.
Usually this it’s because I got caught up in the seemingly urgent and pressing issues of the day. Things didn’t go as well as I’d hoped they would. I tried to make progress on a meaningful task but just kept hitting a wall.
It’s now been nearly five years since I began working for myself and working from home. And over the years, it has become ever more important to me that spend my time well. I’ve learned a bit about how I work (and how I should best be spending my time) so I have fewer “wasted days”.
For me, spending my time well means spending my time creating.
But that’s easier said than done.
Since I work for myself, I’m also in charge of all the budgeting and bookkeeping, server admin, customer support, marketing, income projections, content strategy, and more. Not to mention, you know, actually doing the work of writing and publishing.
I could spend hours and hours every day on email and other admin tasks. Or, I could spend hours every day making something.
This is not news, of course. You’re in the same position.
It’s the age-old conundrum of “urgent versus important”, right? We want to spend our time on work that’s important, not just work that’s all shiny right now but won’t matter one lick tomorrow.
Where everything changed for me was the day I realized that I alone was in charge of how I spent my time.
It’s I who has to choose how to spend my time. I can spend it on silly things or I can spend it on awesome things.
Sometimes, silly and awesome intersect (such as here).
But usually, when doing my most important work, it’s, well, it’s work.
Which is why it can be so easy to become desensitized to shallow work. All the email and admin tasks are easy to do, and I fool myself into thinking that checking email throughout the day is a totally fine thing to do — I’m being “productive”.
Below are some thoughts on what I call “Meaningful Productivity” — what it is, what it isn’t, and why it matters.
Productivity Isn’t Just for Business-y Stuff
Is the stay-at-home dad who spends most of his day changing diapers and cleaning up messes any less productive than his wife who is the CEO of a charity organization?
Of course not. Each is productive in his or her area of responsibility.
Productivity tends to be defined by how well we use our task management systems, how organized our calendar app is, how fast we can blaze through a pile of emails, and how fluidly we flow from one meeting to the next.
But those metrics skew toward rewarding effective busywork while giving little dignity to meaningful work.
Which is why I want to define productivity differently. With less of a focus on our party trick of balancing many plates at once, and more of a focus on our ability to consistently give our time and attention to the things which are most important.
Productivity is Not Primarily About Efficiency
Productivity, in and of itself, is just a metric for efficiency.
Yes, efficiency is awesome. But what’s more awesome is spending your time on the right things. Things of substance and value.
Besides. Even though productivity measures efficiency, it’s a sliding scale.
How fast you can get something done is not always the proper metric. Sometimes I spend 30 minutes or more on a single email. Because it needs to be worded just right. Sometimes I can fire off a reply in less than a minute.
Speed alone doesn’t matter. What matters was if I communicated the best I could.
While there is obviously no point in spending 30 minutes on a single email that could just as easily be written in 1. It’s equally poor form to spend just 1 minute on an email that requires more time and thought than that.
My point being: rather than concerning ourselves mostly with tips and tricks, we should make sure we’re actually spending our time well in the first place. Tips and tricks can help (and they’re fun), but they aren’t the main topic.
Meaningful Productivity Thrives on Deep Work, Focused Attention, and Relationships
More often than not, our best work is accomplished during times when we are in the zone. Or as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, when we are in a state of flow.
Focused Work, looks like an hour or more of single tasking. Practicing a musical instrument. Practicing a physical activity. Writing. Painting. Planning and architecting. Coding. Designing. Etc.
Shallow work, looks like “multitasking”. Email correspondence. Checking our social network timelines. Browsing the news. Etc.
We can’t pit deep work and shallow work against one another. Because they’re both important in their own right.
However, neither should we replace the former with the latter.
Sure, there are some people whose most important work is to live in their email inbox — communicating with others. For most of us, if all we did was check email we’d be out of a job.
And yet, when most of us sit down to “work” the first thing we do is open our email program.
Why do we open up our email? Because we don’t know what else to do.
It’s one thing to show up and set aside a few hours for focused work. It’s another thing to know what to work on during that time.
When you realize that you’re in control of your time and attention, you’ll see that you have two roles: boss and worker.
You are both the planner and the executer. The thinker and the doer.
Don’t try to do both of these jobs at the same time. Have planning, thinking, strategizing time. And then, later, have working and doing time.
For example, if you’re going to write something, don’t sit down when it’s time to write and ask yourself, “what shall I write about now?”
Know ahead of time what your writing topic will be. This way, when you sit down to write you have just one task: to write.
Meaningful Productivity is a Byproduct of Clarity
You can’t spend your time doing work that matters if you don’t know what matters in the first place.
Productivity hacks, daily routines, automation tools, and the like are all great. But they are a means for optimizing how you’re already spending your time. They’re just faster horses.
And what good is a faster horse if you’re on the wrong road, headed to the wrong place?
We need clarity about who we are, what our values are, 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.
You Have to Start With Meaning
If true (Meaningful) Productivity is doing that which is most important, then it means that productivity is not ultimately based on efficiency, but rather vision and values.
This is why having a life vision and life goals is so powerful. With them, you can define what it looks like to actually be productive (not just busy).
It is in the area of work that this fight to be meaningfully productive is perhaps the most difficult. Our offices, workflows, managers, reports, and meetings all center around the act of being busy with little in place to recognize or reward meaningful productivity.
Productivity “hacks” and “tricks” that promise real and lasting change apart from a foundation of personal values, vision, and integrity are merely skin deep.
The foundation of meaningful productivity is having values (or purpose), vision (or priorities), and the personal integrity to walk them out.
Ask yourself this:
- What is most important to you in life?
- What are your most valuable relationships?
- What are the values you most want to impart to others?
Answer those questions and you’ve got a strong foundation to direct how you spend your time and energy. Because now you can measure your tasks against your vision and values and use them to define meaningful productivity for your life.
* * *
Speaking of… If this topic interests you, then you should sign up for the free class I’m hosting in a few weeks. You can find out more here.
1. Be Thankful
This seems like a no-brainer, right? But it’s not. At least, not for me.
When you’ve got time off from work, your family is in town, and you’re in a good mood, it can be easy to feel thankful. Which is awesome. So why not express that? Say it out loud.
Tell your family how awesome they are. Tell your spouse and kids how thankful you are for your family and this season of life.
2. Ask Your Spouse What is Most Important For Them This Week
I think we all know that a few days with a ton of food and a ton of family isn’t always a recipe for joy. Sometimes the holiday vacation is actually more work than regular life.
So, try this before you and your family head in to an action-packed holiday. Ask your spouse what it is that’s important for them this week. Then, no matter how busy or crazy the holiday may be, you and your spouse can fight for each other to make sure you each get to experience something that’s most important to you.
3. Use This Pumpkin Pie recipe
And, don’t tell anyone, but if you don’t want to use actual pumpkin glop from the pumpkin, canned pumpkin will usually do just fine.
4. Do Whatever Meathead Says
Want to make the most incredible turkey you’ve ever made? Just to go amazingribs.com and do what Meathead says.
5. Read a Fiction Book
You know what else makes for a good holiday? A good book. Most days I’m reading non-fiction, but when I’m on vacation I read fiction.
I’m totally a fan of Tom Clancy and other good spy-thriller types of novels. (What?) Over the weekend I began reading Transfer of Power, by Vince Flynn.
I’m not yet sure if I like it. The book’s opening paragraph felt a bit overwritten to me (a fine line to walk with books like this where details and nuance not only set the scene but can play a huge role in plot development.) However, by the end of the first chapter I already felt connected with two of the main characters.
A few other favorite reads:
- The Once and Future King
- Without Remorse
- Rainbow Six
- The Martian
- Creativity, Inc. (Not a fiction novel, but it’s such a darn great book and a fun read that it deserves a mention.)
6. Get Your Christmas Jams From Pandora
If you think it’s too early for christmas music, you’re weird.
For the best stream of Christmas music that doesn’t suck, start a new Pandora radio station built on the classic 1965 album, A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Where Vince Guaraldi and his trio do some great Christmas songs. From there Pandora does the rest, and you get hours and hours of instrumental, jazzy Christmas tunes.
* * *
P.S. Thank You, Dear Reader
As I look ahead to the remaining weeks of 2015 and on in to the next year, I feel extremely excited. For one, the free class we’re doing next month is going to be fantastic, and my gut tells me that 2016 is going to be a lot of fun.
I’ve been at this full-time blogging racket for almost five years now. And that is thanks entirely to you, dear reader.
So, please allow me to take my own advice (see #1 above), and say out loud what it is that I’m thankful for: You.
And I mean it!
I am incredibly thankful that you would show up and read my dorky articles and my half-formed ideas. Some of you have been reading this site for years. Amazing! And not only that, you are generous enough to support my work so I can keep on writing dorky articles — something I do not take lightly.
Have a very happy Thanksgiving!
I’m doing something crazy. And it’s going to be a lot of fun…
With the new year just around the corner, you’re thinking about what you want to do better in 2016. As you should. You have incredible things to create. You have something valuable to share with the world. You have friends and family.
Your best work, your best ideas, and your best relationships are all still ahead of you.
And that’s where The Elements of Focus comes in.
The Elements of Focus is a free video class that begins on December 13, 2015.
It will be fun, personal, and to the point. No hype and no tricks. Just a handful of topics (16 to be exact) that I believe are most important to meaningful productivity and doing our best creative work.
You should absolutely sign up for the class. And tell your friends to sign up too!
Check out the website for the class and sign up for free, right here:
This is my talk from the 2015 Circles Conference in Dallas, Texas.
Circles is an absolutely fantastic event, and it was such an honor to go. I was fortunate enough to be the very first speaker. Which meant two things: Getting to go first meant that once my talk was done, I was free to enjoy the rest of the conference without any pre-talk nerves or jitters.
It also meant that I had the unique privilege of setting the tone for the event. I spent months and months thinking about the one thing I wanted to convey to this audience of creative professionals. If I were in their seats, what would be the most helpful and encouraging takeaway?
My talk was titled “The Fight to Stay Creative”, and it was a modified and improved (if I do say so myself) version of this blog post.
In my short talk I share my story of how I quit my job to blog for a living; the fears and challenges I’ve faced in launching a half-dozen websites and products over the past 5 years; and what I believe are the most important factors that help us to do our best creative work every day.
I am extremely happy with the talk. It feels like this is a summation of my “message” — the convergence of diligence and focus with creativity and fun.
It’s all about doing our best creative work. And, as you learn in the video, doing our best creative work is a fight.
* * *
If you like this video, may I humbly suggest you sign up for my newsletter? There are thousands of others signed up, and every week I send out helpful articles, tips, and more to help you level up your creativity and focus. It’s an awesome newsletter for awesome people.
In addition to my own efforts to dial down and re-focus on doing the things which are most important and most enjoyable to me, I’ve come across a handful of other folks doing the same.
Below are a few links and quotes I hope you find useful.
CGP Grey, in his article “Dialing Down”:
“I have less to do. Why do I still feel overwhelmed? Why is it taking me longer to get less done?” I paused and listened and found another kind of background noise in my brain that had been increasing, ever so slowly, since I became self-employed a few years ago. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it ‘The Internet’ but it’s a broader than that: it’s the rise of all the digital vectors of information delivery pointed at me.
As a result, Grey is taking a month off from podcast listening, RSS, YouTube subscriptions, Hacker News, and more.
I love this line:
I firmly believe that boredom is good for brain health, and I’m banishing podcasts for the month from my phone to bring boredom back into my life.
* * *
Tim Ferriss is on a similar “attention vacation”. He is giving up VC investing so he can focus more on writing. Just like with Grey’s article above, it’s encouraging to learn about the “why” behind the choice.
There are a lot of nuggets of wisdom in Ferriss’ article. Such as:
Are you fooling yourself with a plan for moderation?
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool. – Richard P. Feynman
Where in your life are you good at moderation? Where are you an all-or-nothing type? Where do you lack a shut-off switch? It pays to know thyself.
If you’re suffering from a feeling of overwhelm, it might be useful to ask yourself two questions:
- In the midst of overwhelm, is life not showing me exactly what I should subtract?
- Am I having a breakdown or a breakthrough?
* * *
Third, is Cal Newport — always the advocate for being intentional about doing work that matters. In Newport’s article, he simply shares about how he spends a few hours per week organizing the rest of his week:
It’s hard work figuring out how to make a productive schedule come together: a goal that requires protecting long stretches of speculative deep thinking while keeping progress alive on long term projects and dispatching the small things fast enough to avoid trouble (but not so fast that the deep stretches fragment).
It’s true that many people approach their days with flexibility, perhaps hunkering down when an immediate deadline looms, but otherwise letting their reactions to input drive the agenda. But I want to emphasize that there’s another group of us who take our time really seriously, and aren’t afraid to spend hours figuring out how best to invest it.
* * *
One last thought on the importance of dialing down. Below is an adapted excerpt from part of Day 37 of The focus Course where we talk about finding boredom and creating margin for thought.
I’ve had an iPhone since the beginning. It’s my favorite gadget of all time. And for the past 8 years this thing has pretty much never been more than an arm’s distance away.
It’s not so easy to be bored anymore. You have to choose to be bored. It used to be that boredom chose you — you were somewhere and you were waiting and there was nothing to do and you were bored. Now, you’re never bored. You can see pictures of some stranger surfing on the other side of the world, or get a live video stream of someone’s hike over Tokyo. This stuff is amazing.
But it means we have to be proactive about our boredom and down time. It means we have to be intentional about creating margin for thought. If 100% of our down time is filled with passive entertainment and bits of information, then when does our mind have a chance to be calm? When do we have a moment to think without needing to think?
As we talked about during Day 5, the little moments of mental down time can do wonders for our long-term ability to create, problem solve, and do great work. Yet, so often we run from boredom at every turn and fill up every spare moment with some sort of pacifier. We need chunks of time where our minds can rest.
In my day, when I’m feeling restless or I find myself bouncing around between inboxes, I just stop and decide that it’s time for a break. I get up and go walk around for a bit. Or I lay down on my couch and listen to what my mind and imagination have to say.
My mind needs space. Your mind needs space, too. This space to think and breath could also be called margin.
In his book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson M.D., describes margin as this:
Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.
Margin is the opposite of overload. If we are overloaded we have no margin. Most people are not quite sure when they pass from margin to overload. Threshold points are not easily measurable and are also different for different people in different circumstances. We don’t want to be under-achievers (heaven forbid!), so we fill our schedules uncritically. Options are as attractive as they are numerous, and we overbook.
Swenson is mostly talking about time-management. However, the idea of margin for our thoughts is prevalent as well — our minds need space to breathe and room to think.
* * *
As I mentioned in yesterday’s article: take ownership of your time and attention. When you do, so much changes for the better.
Fall is by far and away my favorite time of year. There’s awesome about the combination of crisp weather, a lit candle, a hot drink, and a blank page to write on.
And here we are. It’s November! Except I’m not ready for it.
I feel as if I’m standing at the entrance to a tunnel and I can see 2016 coming down the track. But it’s moving too quickly for me and I feel unprepared and, honestly, a little bit anxious.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the holiday season is busy enough in its own right. My wife and I will be hosting family here in Kansas City for the former, and we’ll be driving to Colorado for the latter. I can’t wait.
But, in addition to the holidays and family time, November and December are the two biggest months of the year for Tools & Toys and The Sweet Setup. Our website traffic and revenue during these months will be roughly 3 times that of any other month of the year. And we’re doing all we can to make the most of it. Over on Tools & Toys we just put up our annual Christmas Catalog post, and we also have a massive photography guide that is coming out soon. And over on The Sweet Setup we’re just finishing up a new ebook that we expect to publish in a week from now.
On top of that, I am making some huge improvements to The Focus Course for a “re-launch” of the course that will go live on January 1. Later this month I’m going back to the studio to record 50 new videos. 40 of them are for the Focus Course and 10 of them will be for a new training series I’m working on — kind of like an introduction to the Focus Course.
I’m sharing all this because you probably feel in a similar situation.
- You’ve got several work-related projects (all of which are important).
- You’ve got some personal projects (all of which you really want to make progress on).
- You’ve got several books you want to read (all of which look awesome).
- And you want to spend as much time with your spouse and kids as possible (especially with the holidays coming up).
You feel the tug of wanting to work on too many things at once and not knowing which to choose. This in and of itself can be stressful. It also can lead to procrastination and paralysis due to uncertainty and indecisiveness, which just compounds the issue even further.
“How am I supposed to get all this done?” You’re asking.
That is a great question. And you’re not the only one asking it.
By far and away, one of the most common challenges I hear from people is their challenge of having too much to do. Too many spinning plates. Too many important tasks. Too many areas of responsibility.
For me, I know that this current November and December are going to be an intense couple of months. It’s a perfect storm of holidays, family, and business opportunities. I don’t mind putting in extra hours to get all the work done now, because I know that this is not the norm for me. Come January and February, my workload will return to normal. This is the ebb and flow of work.
Sometimes, however, the overwhelming business is a sign that something’s broken. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask yourself if it’s because you’re on the edge of doing something awesome or is it life showing you that something needs to be cut out.
If the latter — you’re overwhelmed and you know something’s got to give — then do this: Take inventory of where you’re spending the bulk of your time and energy (not where you wish you were spending it, but where you’re actually spending it). Now ask yourself what can be subtracted to give your calendar, your mind, and your emotions some breathing room.
If the former — if you’re on the edge of breakthrough in a project — then sometimes the answer is to keep working and just hold on and persevere for the season. But don’t persevere to the detriment your health and relationships.
When you’re in an intense and busy season, what’s important is to keep your sanity and health. This way you ensure that you are actually making progress every day and not just suffering under the weight of being busy. This will also help ensure that when the busy season is over, you don’t hit a wall and get sick or depressed.
When life is at its busiest, is when it’s all the more important to be overly diligent and intentional with how you spend your time.
That said, here’s how I’m staying focused in my busy season of life:
Making sure my day is filled with intentional work. Step one is knowing what to do and having a plan of when I’m going to do it. This is so important, that I’ve actually been spending more time managing my time. The days can so quickly get away from me that I’m upping my intentionality to make sure my daily and weekly schedule is providing me with the time I need to do the most important work.
If I’m mostly in a reactive state — giving my attention primarily to the incoming inboxes of email and Twitter — then chances are I’m wasting time. Which is why I’ve been spending even less time than usual on email and Twitter…
Dialing back on Twitter usage. I love Twitter. It’s a great place for conversations, dialog, and finding cool stuff. But it’s not where I do my aforementioned most important work.
Which is why, for the past month, I’ve been using Buffer and Edgar as tools to help me post to Twitter. And then I’ve been setting aside time to jump in and reply to any conversations or questions. So far it’s been working out well as a way for me to stay engaged and active on Twitter while not getting too easily sucked in to the Black hole of the real time web and YouTube fail compilations.
For me, this is just about the only “noisy and distracting area” that I have left to dial back. I don’t read the news. I don’t have Facebook. And I’ve hit pause on my RSS reading while I work my way through my current stack of books (which now includes 3 more since I took that picture).
My “Now” Page. This is something I picked up from Derek Sivers, who created a page on his website, simply titled “Now”. On there he listed out the few things he is most focused on. Not just work-things, but life, hobbies, etc. It serves as a personal reminder to him about where he wants to be focusing his time as well as a public statement to others about what he’s doing (and what he’s not doing).
I love this idea. I’m a big proponent of what I call meaningful productivity. Which just means you’re actually spending your time doing the things that you want to do. The problem is that most of us spend our time doing what we don’t want to do — usually just by default. We forget, we’re tired, or whatever, and so we just default into something (such as mindless email checking) that is not on our “now” list. The Now page can serve as a plumb line for you.
And the other cool thing about having a publicly available “Now” page is that it gives a sense of accountability. You’ve told the world what’s important to you and how you’re spending your time, and now you need to keep that commitment.
Recognizing progress. This is huge. When you’re down in the thick of it, one of the best ways to keep your momentum going is to recognize and celebrate the progress you make each day. I use Day One because it’s awesome. And at the end of the day I’ll write down the small wins from my day.
Health. This is the one that goes out the window the fastest for me. Which is unfortunate, because it’s also the one that matters the most. A good night sleep, a diet that gives you energy, and some regular out-and-about exercise is so good for you.
All these things come together to help give space to think, to breath, and to focus on doing what’s most important.
But there’s more to it than just another listicle of tips and tricks and hacks for being awesome.
It ultimately comes down to taking ownership of your time and attention.
If you regularly find that you’re not able to do your best work in this season of life, ask yourself whose fault that is. Sometimes things are outside of our control. But more often than not, there is something we can do about it.
The person who is frustrated at how long it’s taking to write their book, yet is watching a few hours of television every day, may want to reconsider how they’re spending their evening.
When you take ownership of your time and attention, everything changes. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
* * *
And I would be remiss if I didn’t take a chance to mention just how helpful and powerful The Focus Course can be in this area.
I designed the Focus Course to guide you along a simple path that starts out fun and easy and then builds into something resulting in deep and lasting change. The course enables you to experience deep satisfaction in work and in life by making meaningful progress every day to accomplish that which is most important.
If what I’ve written about today hits home for you, but you don’t know where to start… then start here.
My friend, Sean McCabe, recently published a podcast episode talking about how to send valuable and and relevant emails.
But the show was about much more than just email.
For me, the most valuable takeaway from Sean’s podcast was this:
“Relevancy is more important than recency.”
The context was that with email, what makes it so powerful is not the ability to send a recent message to 1,000 people right now. Rather, that you can send one single relevant message to one person at just the right time.
Sean posted his show almost a month ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
It pairs perfectly with another idea I’ve been chewing on: a business model that (surprise!) is based on providing the most amount of value to the most amount of people.
Which begs the question: What’s more valuable for your content: relevancy or recency?
Put another way, is the relevance of your content based on the content itself or the timestamp?
The Bias Toward “Fresh”
Be careful when you presuppose that the newer something is, the more relevant it is. While it’s true for many news sources, it’s not true of all content. Not even all the content published on the Web.
Our bias toward fresh content is a huge part of why we prefer Twitter over books, and TL;DR over long-form.
The real-time web is awesome, but it’s not the only source of information. Especially not so if we’re seeking to gain a deep understanding of a topic and expand our knowledge in an area.
Twitter is fine in its own right, but it’s a mighty bloodless substitute for learning.
Relevancy vs Recency for you, the reader
Last month I read Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
The book is not new — it’s three years old. But the contents in it were exactly what I needed to hear right now.
There were two huge takeaways from the book that gave me some clarity and insight into the exact challenges I’m facing right now in my business. Despite the fact that the contents of the book were not new, they were still very relevant.
For a book, we don’t really think too much about new-ness equating to relevancy. In fact, a three-year-old book is still pretty new. But for the (real-time) web, three years sounds like an eternity. When we go to a website, we want to know what is fresh and new — we assume that the newer it is the more relevant it is.
Obviously for a news website such as CNN, et al., the newest content is almost always the most relevant. But what about for the millions of other sites that don’t publish news? That are writing and publishing things without a shelf life?
hen you recommend a book, you don’t say “it’s old, but still good”. Yet, if you recommend an old website article (and by old I mean anything not written in the pas 12 months), it’s not uncommon to mention that it wasn’t written in the past 24 hours.
We have so many people writing incredible things on the web — it’s time to stop using the time stamp as the primary qualifier for relevancy.
And, for those of us who are creating great content for the web, it’s time to think more about how we can keep that content relevant for months and years to come.
Relevancy vs Recency for you, the writer
Long-time readers of shawnblanc.net will know that my pattern for writing has long been about “recency.”
The long-form software and hardware reviews I used to write were primarily valuable because of how “fresh” they were. And while many of those reviews still stand today, it’s only because they’re interesting and they can serve as a point of reference. They are’t exactly helping solve any problems or challenges you’re facing right now (that is, unless you’re considering buying a used G4 PowerBook.)
One down side to a Recency-Over-Relevancy mindset when it comes to content production is that it means much of what you create has a very short shelf life.
Consider if the content model you’re building on is focused on “new-ness.” If so, then it means that if you don’t have something recent, you don’t have anything at all.
I know this because it’s exactly how I approached the writing here on shawnblanc.net for the first six years. This website started in 2007 as a place where I could write about technology news.
But I’ve realized that “new-ness” is not the long-term game I want to play here. Even on Tools & Toys and The Sweet Setup, we are working to build a content strategy that’s not primarily dependent on “new-ness”. (But I’ll share more bout that another day.)
* * *
The question I continue to re-visit is this: What can I do that will be the most helpful and provide the most value to you, the reader?
To peel the curtain back just al little bit, I know that the answer to that question is something far beyond some weekly emails, podcast episodes, and blog posts.
While the regular writing and podcasting I’m doing here is a critical component that keeps things moving, there are a LOT of past articles I’ve written and podcast episodes I’ve recorded that are still immensely valuable. Yet they’re buried underneath that reverse waterfall.
Someone new to this site is probably interested in what’s happening right now, but they are also likely to find immense value in the articles I’ve already written. Such as the those from earlier this summer regarding productivity and diligence, or the ones from last year about sweating the details in our work.
While I don’t have anything firmly in the works, yet, I do have a few ideas about what I could do to improve the relevancy of my content in a way that doesn’t put recency as the primary metric.
Some ideas include:
- A redesign of the shawnblanc.net website that puts less emphasis on the reverse-waterfall blog and more emphasis on the most valuable content I’ve produced, regardless of when it was published.
- Going through the archives here on shawnblanc.net and putting together certain posts and articles into a series around specific topics (such as writing, creativity, productivity, workflows, etc.)
- Using the awesomeness of ConvertKit to offer training and relevant content “on-boarding” via email.
Basically, I’m looking at better ways of packaging and presenting all of my writing and podcasting into products and training materials (both free and paid) that can be as valuable as possible to you regardless of if you’ve been a long-time reader or this is the first article you’ve read of mine.
* * *
To wrap this up, I want to thank all of you who support this site, show up to read, listen to the podcast, and share your thoughts and feedback. Many of you are brand new. (Welcome!) And many more of you have been around for months and years.
Thanks for reading. And thanks for letting me learn and iterate in public. I think it’s more fun that way, and I hope you do, too.
You are awesome.
P.S. If you want to stay in the loop with what I’m working on, you should join The Fight Spot newsletter.
Just punch in your info below to get on the list.
And as my way of saying thank you, I’ll send you my popular ebook, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, for free.
Last week I asked you what your biggest challenge was.
The question was in the form of a very simple, 4-option survey where you just clicked the statement that sounded most true right now.
The statements were:
- “I want to do better creative work.”
- “I’m trying to be more focused with my time and energy.”
- “I’m trying to build and serve my audience.”
- “I want to improve my tools and workflows.”
The response to this “survey” surprised me. Though it probably shouldn’t have.
Long-time readers of the site no doubt remember when I primarily wrote about the latest apps and gadgets.
However, over the past year I’ve been primarily writing and podcasting about focus.
In fact, that shift happened on July 28, 2014. That’s the day I began a new topical series on my podcast, Shawn Today. The topics were components of a focused life, getting a life vision, planning your day, making lifestyle changes to support your goals, having deep personal integrity related to your own commitments, the tyranny of the urgent, and more.
Those podcast episodes were the beginning of my work to build The Focus Course. And their content overflowed into the writing and podcasting I’ve been doing on the Weekly Briefly and here on on shawnblanc.net.
I guess it should have come as no surprise that when I asked you what your biggest challenge is right now, the overwhelming response was this:
“I’m trying to be more focused with my time and energy.”
Here’s a chart showing the breakdown of responses to the survey:
- 12-percent of you are interested in audience building.
- 18-percent of you want to improve your tools and workflows.
- 23-percent of you want to do better creative work.
- 46-percent of you want to be more focused with your time and energy.
These results are exciting to me because the challenge of being more focused with our time and energy is something I’m extremely passionate about.
However, it’s also clear to me that I could be doing a MUCH better job helping you find solutions and make meaningful progress in these areas.
That said, I already have several things in mind for exactly how to better help you with focus (aside from the obvious solution of The Focus Course itself). Alas, the new ideas still need some ground work, so that is something which will have to wait for a future post.
I have a quick question for you:
What’s one of the biggest challenges you’re facing right now?
You can answer by clicking the link that feels most important to you right now:
The reason I ask is because I want to help provide the resources, momentum, and courage you need to make meaningful progress in the areas of life that matter.
If you’re curious, I’m tracking the click-throughs on the links above. The way you “vote” for your biggest challenge is by clicking on it. Your feedback will give me insight about what to focus on in order to best help you.
Plus… As my way of saying thank you, once you click through you’ll discover that I’ve already hand-picked a couple of resources I believe can help you right now with the respective challenge you’re facing.
So don’t be chicken; click on one of the options up above.
And as always, thanks for reading and thanks for being awesome!
My friend Mike Vardy and I just released a new product we’ve been working on for the past several weeks: The Awareness Building Class
In short, The Awareness Building Class is a 5-part series of audio teachings filled with real-life stories and actionable advice to help you stop guessing and start going.
Mike and I designed the class to go hand-in-hand with The Focus Course. All 5 of the Class modules fit in line with the key themes of The Focus Course, such as clarity, action, integrity, productivity, and meaning.
Listening to the Awareness Building Class and going through its workbook will complement the work you do in The Focus Course by giving you an additional layer of context and real-life examples from Mike and I related to the content and the assignments found within the Focus Course.
The Awareness Building Class includes
- 5 Audio sessions (each between 30–45 minutes) on the topics of Clarity, Confidence, Integrity, Self-Awareness, and Harmony.
- A PDF workbook for each session with highlights, key takeaways, and action items.
- Professionally edited transcriptions of all the audio.
The Class Topics
Clarity: What it is, how it relates to your work, your personal life, your hobbies, your time, your finances, and more.
Confidence: How Confidence relates to productivity, why it’s critical for doing your best work, how a lack of confidence is a form of Resistance, and more.
Integrity: A personal favorite, for this session we discuss Integrity’s vital role related to motivation and procrastination.
Self-Awareness: Self-Awareness is about understanding our Vision, Values, Most important relationships, Priorities, Goals (the why behind them), our Capacity, and our Default behaviors.
Harmony: Re-defining the idea of “work/life balance” and bringing all the areas of our life together into something where the sum is greater than the individual parts.
* * *
Because the Awareness Building Class has been designed to go hand-in-hand with The Focus Course, the class is available for FREE to everyone who signs up for The Focus Course between now and October 26. (Afterward, the class will only be available as a $79 stand-alone product.)
P.S. For those of you who are already Focus Course members: check your email. I believe in treating new customers and past customers equally awesome-ly. So everyone who is already a Focus Course member gets the class for free as well.
About a month ago I came across this 99u video of Cal Newport talking about skill versus passion. What he had to say really struck home for me. Particularly his thoughts on what he calls Deep Work.
If you’ve read the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, what Newport calls Deep Work in his 99u video he calls Intentional Practice in his book.
And, it’s not an entirely new idea. Deep Work / Intentional Practice is similar to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow.
What I love about Newport’s ideas on Deep Work is how he focuses it on the “knowledge worker”. I’ve read much about intentional practice and finding flow and most people discuss how it relates to athletes and musicians. But not many talk about how it relates to designers, writers, photographers, and entrepreneurs.
If you’re a writer, business owner, designer, freelancer, or podcaster, what does intentional practice look like for you?
Not sure? Don’t worry. You’re not alone…
In an article about Deep Work, Newport states that most knowledge workers are bad at working. Consider this…
Chess players know how to study chess, practice their skills, and systematically improve their game.
Musicians know how to study, practice, and systematically improve their skills with their instrument.
Athletes have a daily routine for systematic strength building and skill development.
But knowledge workers? Well, we spend most of our day checking email. D’oh!
* * *
As I mentioned above, there are a lot of folks who’ve written about the value of intentional practice / deep work. Not everyone uses the same language, but we’re all trying to solve the same issue…
You’ve got Csikszentmihalyi’s studies on Flow, Newport’s proposals for Deep Work, George Leonard’s keys to Mastery, Steven Pressfield’s writings about Resistance, Greg McKeown’s advice for Essentialism, Gary Keller’s action plan to focus on The One Thing, Charles Duhigg’s writings on habits, and Seth Godin’s advice to the Linchpins. To name a few.
In essence, the idea is that you need focused, uninterrupted time every day to do work that is both important and difficult.
Let’s say that again. You need…
Doing Important Work.
Doing Difficult Work.
If you spend all your day doing shallow work (meetings, emails, social networks, casual blog reading) then you’ll never build up your knowledge skill. You’ll never progress as a knowledge worker. You’ll never get breakthrough in your work.
As someone who writes for a living, I agree wholeheartedly.
By far and away, the most important time of my day is when I’m writing. And the most rewarding times of my day have been those when I am focused on an idea or topic and challenging myself to find a solution to a problem.
If I had to give one single piece of advice related to what I call Meaningful Productivity it would be this:
Make a routine of showing up every day to do your most important work.
It feels novel to focus on the “show up every day” part. But what about the “most important work” part?
Do you know what your most important work is?
What is the one thing that, if done today, will move the needle forward in an area of your life or business that matters deeply to you right now?
One of the most significant challenges when it comes to finding flow every day is knowing what to do. It’s one thing to show up. It’s another thing to make the most of your time.
If you have a plan for your Deep Work then it will remove a significant layer of activation energy.
This is why I always write out tomorrow’s most important task before I call it quits for the day. So that when I begin my day, the plan of action has already been established.
And this brings us to something I want to share with you…
The Awareness Building Class
Next Tuesday, October 20th, my friend Mike Vardy and I are launching something awesome.
Mike is a good friend of mine. He is also a writer, speaker, and productivity strategist.
Mike was one of the small handful of people I personally reached out to when enlisting help and feedback as I was building The Focus Course earlier this year.
Since launching The Focus Course a few months ago, the feedback has been far beyond what I expected. And thus I have found myself putting more and more time and energy into making the course even better.
(For example, in a few weeks I’m going back to the studio to record 40 additional videos to accompany the course. I’m also in the process of developing a coaching curriculum based on the 40-day progression of the Course.)
Something else I’m doing to make the Course even better is what Mike and I have been working on…
It’s a 5-part series of audio teachings filled with real-life stories and actionable advice to help you stop guessing and start going.
What’s nifty about The Awareness Building Class is that it’s been strategically designed to go side-by-side with The Focus Course.
All 5 of the Class sessions fit in line with the key themes of The Focus Course — such as clarity, action, integrity, productivity, and meaning.
And here’s what’s even MORE cool:
The Class will be available FOR FREE to everyone who signs up for The Focus Course before October 26.
After the 26th, the Awareness Building Class will be available as a standalone product for $79.
All of you who have already signed up for the Focus Course: you’ll also get the Awareness Building Class for free (I believe in treating yesterday’s customers just as good as today’s).
You can read more about the Awareness Building Class right here.
Getting the Apple Watch, I didn’t know what to expect.
I’ve worn a watch for years. In part because I often want to know what time it is, but also because it’s one more “barrier” to keep me from pulling out my iPhone.
Do you ever do this? Do you pull your iPhone out of your pocket in order to check the time. But before you know it, you’ve already unlocked the thing and you’re half-way through your Twitter timeline before you realize what you’re doing? And then you don’t even remember what time it is (which was the whole reason you got your phone out in the first place)?
I used to (still often do, alas) do that all the time. And it drives me nuts. I want to be more intentional about when I’m going to mindlessly check twitter.
Earlier this spring, after having the Apple Watch for just a week, I wrote about how it was Just Smart Enough.
So, several months in with the Apple Watch. Do I still wear it? Is it still “just smart enough?” How do I use it? Has Apple Watch changed my life and will I ever be the same?
The short answer to those questions is that yes, I still wear my Watch every day, and I think it’s fantastic and convenient and helpful. But if I didn’t have it, I would still get by just fine.
The longer answer to those questions is below…
The Main Complications
The vast majority of how I use my watch is to tell time, check the current temperature, or set a timer.
In fact, being able to see the weather on my wrist at a glance is awesome. It sounds so simple, but, it’s the little things in life, you know?
The Apps I Don’t Use
I thought I’d start off by sharing the apps I don’t use.
The promise of being able to check email, calendars, and stocks, and to answer phone calls from your watch are cool. But for me, I don’t want the Watch to replace my iPhone. I want the Watch to help me stay connected in the ways that are important to me, and allow me to use my phone less frequently.
Some of the apps I don’t use include email, the phone, (tip) calculator, podcasts, the Camera, OmniFocus, and Twitter.
Of course, now that I’ve got the iPhone 6s Plus (a.k.a. the Airplane Wing), I may start putting my shopping list on my watch.
The Apps I Do Use
Aside from the timer and the weather apps/complications, these are the other apps I use on a regular basis:
Fitness + Activity: I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve gotten out of my running regimen. Ironically, building and launching The Focus Course, followed by a long vacation to Colorado, a trip to Atlanta, another to Dallas, and then the building and launching of a new product (announcement about that coming soon), has all accumulated into a wrench being thrown into my daily fitness routine.
Remote: The remote to our Apple TV just stopped working about one week before the new Apple TV was announced. Instead of replacing the remote, we’re waiting to replace the whole box. And in the meantime, the Remote app on my Apple Watch has gotten much more use.
Alarm: With “nightstand mode” in WatchOS 2.0, I started using the alarm on my Watch instead of my iPhone. And I discovered that the Watch’s alarm is night-and-day less obnoxious than the iPhone’s. So now I use the Watch alarm to wake in the morning instead.
Messages: Getting incoming text messages on the Watch is one of my favorite features. Not only does it serve as an additional reason not to get my phone out all the time, but it also means that I can leave my iPhone on the mantle in our kitchen and still be reachable via text / phone call.
This is great for two reasons: (1) the iPhone 6s Plus isn’t as pocketable as my previous phones have been; and (2) it means my boys see me using my iPhone less frequently.
Slack: I also get notifications on my Watch for Slack messages. Since this is how the Blanc Media team communicates, it’s important for me to be reachable through private messages or mentions.
Music remote control: When using the iPhone to play music through a bluetooth speaker or to my bluetooth earbuds, the watch makes a very convenient remote control.
Apple Pay: Once you’ve used your Watch to pay for something, it’s hard to go back. So easy, so quick, so awesome.
* * *
After five months, the Watch gets far less “nerdy” usage than I originally thought it would get. And yet, at the same time, it has proven to be far more useful — and fun! — than I expected.
It’s an expensive little gadget, but I think it’s worth it. I’m excited to see what the future holds for the Watch.
On iPhone pre-order day, I lost my mind for a few minutes and decided it would be a good idea to order the gargantuan iPhone known as the 6s Plus.
I named it Hercules, because, well, it’s a hoss.
My friends who also use a 6/6s Plus told me to give it at least a week or two. It’s been 13 days, and I’m still not sure about it.
There are some things which I love about the phone. Namely: the superior mechanics for photography and videography, and the bigger screen real-estate. But I am not yet convinced that the tradeoff for those things — having a device that is unwieldy at best when using it with one hand — is worth it.
That said, here are some miscellaneous thoughts and observations about the iPhone 6s Plus.
For me, at least, this isn’t an issue. But it’s not because the Plus has made it a non-issue, it’s just that battery life has never been an issue for me with any iPhone I’ve owned.
Maybe my old 3GS would get into the red sometimes, but honestly I can’t remember the last time I had an iPhone that I had to regularly keep charged throughout the day.
I know people who say their iPhone has a dead battery by lunchtime, but I just don’t have a grid for that. So, the advantage of the better battery life of the 6s Plus is (unfortunately?) wasted on me.
The in-body image stabilization is pretty awesome.
Maybe its placebo, maybe not, but in the week and a half I’ve had this new iPhone, it definitely seems to contain a noticeably superior camera to my iPhone 6.
Here are two cute photos I’ve taken on the 6s Plus:
These don’t really show off just how great the camera of the 6s Plus is, but they are photos of my family so I think they’re awesome.
For a much better comparison of the in-body image stabilization, check out this video that shows a side-by-side comparison of shooting video with the image-stabilized 6s Plus and the non-stabilized 6s.
In addition to having a larger screen, the Plus also has a higher pixel density.
As for the pixel density, even when side-by-side with my iPhone 6 I can’t see the difference between the two phones. So while it’s a cool feature on paper that makes a good reason to get the bigger phone, it’s not actually relevant in day-to-day life. At least, not for me.
The larger screen is definitely nice for a lot of things. Such as editing photos in VSCO Cam, browsing the web in Mobile Safari, reading in Instapaper or Kindle or the News app, typing, and more.
This new tech is awesome. Apps that support 3D Touch from the Home screen are instantly more useful. OmniFocus’s “New Inbox Item” action is one of my favorites (aside from the Camera app’s Selfie shortcut, of course). As I was writing this, Fantastical just shipped an update to support 3D Touch. So now I’m just hoping Simplenote will add shortcuts for creating a new note and searching.
And then there’s Trackpad Mode. Which is awesome.
This might be the single best new feature for text editing on the iPhone since the addition of selection and Copy/Paste in iOS 3 in 2009. In addition to moving the insertion point around, you can press again and switch to selection mode — like double-clicking the mouse button on a Mac. Trackpad mode is a once-you’ve-used-it-you-can’t-go-back addition to iOS.
Agreed. This is the thing you demo to your friends about why getting the new iPhone 6s is worth it.
The Home Button (Literally)
That’s what it’s always been called, but that is literally what it is now.
It used to be that if you clicked the Home button while the screen was off then you’d see the Lock screen. But Touch ID is so ridiculously fast now that clicking the Home button is simultaneous with unlocking the iPhone.
This is both awesome and frustrating.
It’s awesome because the added level of security that Touch ID brings is anything but a burden. In fact, it’s now faster and easier to unlock your iPhone using Touch ID than it is to swipe with no security passcode at all.
Think about that. Having a more secure phone is also more convenient in day-to-day use.
However, the frustrating part of Touch ID’s speed is, ironically, that it makes it harder to get to the Camera app.
There are two ways to get around this. One way is to press the Home button with a finger that’s not registered with Touch ID. The other way is to press the Lock / Wake button. Alas, both of these options leave you in a spot that’s not easy to slide up on the Camera app icon that’s down in the bottom-right-hand side of the screen. On the 6s this wouldn’t be as much of an issue because it’s easier to hit the Lock / Wake button while still holding the phone comfortably. But for me, my thumb literally can’t reach the Lock / Wake button while holding the 6s Plus comfortably with one hand.
The iPhone 6s Plus works best when you’re in a calm and controlled environment. Such as the couch, or at your desk. Basically anywhere that you’re stationary and have both hands free. In this context the Plus is awesome.
It is extremely easy to hold and use with two hands. Typing on the larger-but-not-too-large keyboard is fantastic. And the bigger screen is an excellent size for Instapaper, Twitter, Instagram, Day One, VSCO Cam, the News, Safari, and more.
As many other iPhone 6 Plus users have said before, with the larger iPhone, there’s not a huge need for an iPad mini. Slowly, over time, you realize the Plus is big enough for most of situations when you would have used the smaller iPad, and so you actually don’t need both devices.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of my writing on the iPad. And from time to time I enjoy reading comic books. For the evening reading and research that I often do with the iPad, while I could see the iPhone 6s Plus taking over that role, the iPad is still a bit better suited to it.
Where the iPhone 6s Plus does not shine is when you’re out and about. Walking through the grocery store, pushing a shopping cart, wrangling two toddler boys, and trying to check-off items on your shopping list app is not the ideal environment for using the 6s Plus with one hand. I’ve quickly learned how to push a shopping cart with just my elbows.
In short, for me, the 6s Plus is equal parts wonderful and terrible. There are some people who find the size to be just right, and so they have no sense of trade-offs with the device. But it is just too large for me to comfortably use as a hand-held phone.
The question is: Are the advantages of the Plus worth the disadvantages? A lot of people say absolutely. Some still say no way.
For me, I’m honestly still undecided. I’ll have to give it another 13 days.
You’ve no-doubt heard of the Law of the Vital Few. It’s the 80/20 rule, which states that roughly 80-percent of the results come about from just 20-percent of the energy.
What if you took your 80-percent results and applied the 80/20 rule to them? And then one more time?
What you end up with is the idea that your initial 1-percent of energy spent brings about the first 50-percent of results.
That 1-percent of energy spent reaps a dispraportionate result. Tim Ferris calls it the Minimum Effective Dose.
In his book, The One Thing, Gary Keller writes that “success is about doing the right thing, not about doing everything right.”
If there was one thing you could do that represented roughly 1-percent of your time and energy. And if that one thing was a cause for the intial half of the results you’re seeking. Then it’s safe to say that it’s a good idea to keep on doing that one thing.
Step back for a moment and take stock of one area of your life that you want to improve. Perhaps it’s your health, your inner personal life, your relationship with your spouse or kids, your job, your finances, or your free time.
Looking at that area, you probably see right away the 1,000 things you wish were different and that you know you should change. But when you’re staring 1,000 important things in the face, you’ve no idea which one to start with. It’s totally overwhelming.
Which is why you need that Minimum Effective Dose.
Think again about that area of your life where you’d love to see change. What is one thing you could do that would have a disproportionate result compared to anything else you did?
Want to get in shape? Try walking for 30 minutes per day. Want to improve your marriage? Compliment your spouse every day. Want to get out of debt? Focus on paying off your smallest debt first to get it out of the way. Want to feel more recharged after the weekend? Read a book for 30 minutes before binge watching Netflix. Want to advance your career? Find someone new to have lunch with every week and ask them what you can do to help them.
These things in and of themselves will not revolutionize your life over night. But the power is in their simplicity and their do-ability. And once these things get into place as part of your day-to-day lifestyle then they create a momentum that you can ride as you incorporate new activities. For example, you start out just walkling for 30 minutes. And then you begin to jog for a while at first and then walk the rest of the way. Until pretty soon you’re jogging the full half-hour, and more…
But that’s not all. The other advantage to defining a Minimum Effective Dose is the simplification it brings.
Knowing the single most important thing you can do is liberating.
It simplifies your life because you know what it is you need to do, every day. Which, in turn, helps you know what you don’t need to do. You have just one task, one activity, one way to spend your energy. Go do it. Because the value in small things done consistently over time cannot be underestimated.
* * *
For further reading
Consider the components to a creative business (or any business, really), and here’s what you get:
Who, What, Why, How, and How Much.
- Who is your (ideal) customer or client.
- What is the product or service you’re creating or providing.
- How is a combination of your resources as well as your business plan (as in: how are you going to do the work, and how are you going to connect your product with your customer).
- How Much relates to the value you’re providing to your customer as well as the price you’re charging them.
- Why relates to the motivation, vision, and values of the work you do.
Two sidebars before we get started:
- This doesn’t just have to relate to indie entrepreneurs and start-up CEOs. It can relate to in-house designers, freelance developers, and more. Say you work for a design firm or a recording studio. Your “who” is your boss — your company. Your “How Much” is your salary.
- I used to think you had to start with why. But as I’ve been reading through Cal Newport’s book, I’m realizing that most of us start with what. In fact, Newport argues that you starting with why is actually bad advice. In short, it’s in the process of doing the work that we get much-needed experience and clarity about the sort of work we want to keep on doing, and in that process we are able to build up the relationships and resources we need in order to do the work that matters most to us.
That said, let’s break down the Who, What, Why, and How Much a bit more. I’m going to use The Focus Course as my example.
Who: My ideal customer for the Focus Course is someone who is eager to learn, do their best creative work, and has energy to move the needle forward in their life. Though I created the course so just about anyone can work through the 40 days of assignments, the person I most have in mind is someone who already has an internal drive to make changes in their life.
What: A self-guided, 40-day course that gives you insight and clarity into your values, goals, stress points, and distractions and then gives you an action plan for doing something about it all.
How: I built the course itself by writing every day, working with a pilot group to test and review the contents, and then working with a designer and developer to create the website that hosts the content.
How much: The price of the Focus Course is $249; the value, though it varies from person to person, is (I hope) much, much more than that.
Why: I’m someone who is naturally spontaneous, distracted, and seems to always have more ideas than time. In my early 20s I realized that I needed to get a grip on how I spent my time and energy or else I’d never make meaningful progress on the things that were most important to me. The ideas and tactics of The Focus Course are things that I myself have used and taught for more than a decade and I wanted to create a fun and even better way way to clearly teach these things to others.
Here’s a sketch I made (don’t laugh) to show how these elements interrelate with one another to form the components of a sustainable business.
As you can see in the chart above, when your product and your customer connect, then value is created and exchanged. It’s at this intersection that your business model exists. You have something of value to offer, and others are willing to pay for it.
Additionally, if your product or service is something that aligns with your own personal values and goals, then when you sell to your customer you’re also giving expression to your vision.
There is immense satisfaction in providing something of value to someone else in such a manner that also sustains the ongoing providing of more value. Consider the converse: when our work and actions don’t align with our vision and values, it can be a huge drain on our morale and motivation.
This is what a sustainable business model is all about: doing work you’re proud of, providing value to others, and having a means to continue doing that work. It’s what Walt Disney meant when he famously said, “We don’t make movies so we can make money; we make money so we can make more movies.”
The money serves a two-fold purpose. For one, it gives some measure of validation to our work because money is a neutral indicator of value. If nobody (as in, literally not one person) is willing to pay for what it is you’re offering, then it’s probably not valuable enough (at least not yet). When that’s the case, simply go back to the drawing board to find a different expression of your creative idea or find a different market (or maybe both).
For his book, So Good They Can’t ignore You, Cal Newport interviewed successful entrepreneur, Derek Sivers. Newport asked Sivers about what it was that led to his entrepreneurial success. Derek replied that he has a principle about money that overrides his other rules: ”Do what people are willing to pay for,” he said. “Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.”
Secondly, money allows us to buy food, pay the bills, and acquire the tools and resources we need in order to keep making art and doing work.
The whole goal of Walt Disney’s movie making business model was to sustain their creative outlet of animating and producing films. It wasn’t about the money for money’s sake — it was about doing work they loved and enriching the lives of their audience. And by selling their work they could keep on making more movies.
For most makers, it’s not about the money. It’s about the creative work. There is (most days) joy in the journey and satisfaction in being part of a creative community. And there is the dream of adding value and enriching other people’s lives.
* * *
Again, from So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport writes that “people who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.”
While there are many dynamics which contribute to the feeling of a career that matters, one of them is the realization that the work you do is valuable to others. As Sivers said, by aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.
* * *
On celebrating progress and why the recognition of making meaningful progress on a regular basis is also critical to the feeling that your career matters.
If you’re waiting for finances before moving forward with an idea, the real issue may be Fear, Not Money.
Balancing the margins between cost, price, and value is an art. How do you increase value to the customer without dramatically increasing your cost nor decreasing your price?