First off, you know I have to say it: In just a few short days the Denver Broncos will be on the world’s stage. I’ve been drinking out of my lucky Denver Broncos coffee mug every day this week. Here’s hoping Manning can go out in style.
Secondly, we are officially wrapped up with Margin Month. I thought this “themed” month was a great idea and it turned out so well. The three most popular posts were the one on time management, the one on creative energy, and the interview with Cal Newport.
I’m going to be diving back into all the material and compiling it into a single resource. Also, because I received so much feedback about schedules and time management stuff, I’ve begun putting together a new teaching resource on time management. I’ll be sharing more on that in the coming weeks.
That said, enjoy the links below and have an awesome weekend. Go Broncos!
P.S. Did you know there’s a Super Bowl 50 app for any and every one of your Apple devices (including Apple TV). Awesome!
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Or 4DX for short. I’m reading this book right now and it’s awesome. Next week, as we kick-off “Workflow Month” on the site, I’ll be going through this book on the Shawn Today podcast.
The Four Disciplines of Execution is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it. If you want to go through it over the next month and follow along in the podcast book club (oh my nerd), grab a copy and sign up for membership access to the show.
The Long Game
This is a 3-part video series about showing up every day to do the work. It’s fantastic. (Hat tip to Sean McCabe, of course.)
You can watch all three videos back-to-back in just under 21 minutes. They’re masterfully done and the message is one we all need to hear in our pursuit to do our best creative work.
I realize we’re already in to February. For me, now that the momentum of January’s new projects is underway, it’s a great time to audit the tools and workflows I use.
As I mentioned earlier, over the next few weeks I’m going to be writing about the tools and workflows I use to get the job done.
The New Day One is Here
Over on The Sweet Setup we’ve updated our review of the app.
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In other news: This week I wrapped up Margin Month with two podcast interviews: one with Cal Newport and one with Havilah Cunnington. And this coming Monday we’re kicking off the next month’s theme: Workflows. I’ll be writing about tools, workflows, and more. If you’ve got something specific you’d like to see me discuss, get in touch.
Today’s podcast episode wraps up our focus on Margin. And I’ve saved the best for last.
Over the past several weeks we’ve covered so much ground: what margin is; why it’s important; how to get margin in our schedule, in our finances, in our creative energy, and so much more.
For today’s podcast, I wanted to talk with someone I deeply respect: Havilah Cunnington.
Havilah and her husband, Ben, are two of Anna’s and my dearest friends. We’ve known them for over a decade (Ben and I used to be roommates).
The four of us often connect to talk about life, kids, family, entrepreneurship, building an audience, and more.
Havilah is the founder of Truth to Table, an online Bible study platform. Fun fact: I totally stole inspiration from Havilah’s training videos when designing the “look” of my Focus Course videos.
On the show, we talk about how to do your best creative work when you’re also raising kids, how to build an audience, how to keep a healthy work and personal life, and more.
Speaking of, if you enjoy this podcast with Havilay, you should check out my free class: The Elements of Focus. It’s a 10-day video class where we’ll talk about making time, finding clarity, and gaining traction in your business or side project.
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Havilah’s approach to building an audience was to start with tons of free training and resources. She knew that she had to build a brand people trusted. Her first training series, Radical Growth, was several short training sessions that were sharable and didn’t have any “homework” attached to them. This helped that training series gain momentum early on.
While some people (myself included) advocate the idea of showing up every day and putting out regular content, Havilah has found success in going “dark” for a season in-between her online teaching events. She takes a season of time (a few months) to muse, write, and create her next product. Then, she comes back strong with something big and new.
The challenge of balancing a busy traveling schedule with building a personal brand: When you’re on the road all the time, it’s hard to build your own brand. It’s difficult to build momentum with your own audience when you are putting most of your energy into serving someone else’s platform. This isn’t to say that serving other platforms is bad, but it you can’t always do both.
One of the ways you learn how to balance work and life is through trial and error. You have to listen to the season of life your in right now and go all in with the one or two things that are most important.
Parenting little kids is just a season of life. Aim to parent from a place of authenticity rather than social expectations.
You’ve got to have a few core values and boundaries that keep your life healthy.
Advice to overwhelmed moms and dads who want to build something: Stay inspired.
Do this by: (1) having a coach, mentor, podcast, book, album, or whatever that you can turn to in order to find and build motivation when times are challenging; and (2) look to those who are ahead of you and gain strength and motivation from the work they are doing.
Give yourself permission to be creative. Take ownership for your life and the space you need to do your best creative work. This usually requires that you challenge the assumptions of what’s normal and find what works best for you.
In today’s episode of Shawn Today I have the honor of talking with Cal Newport.
Cal Newport is one of my favorite writers and thinkers. His book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, was one of the most impactful books I read in 2015. And his brand new book, Deep Work, is equally fantastic.
The hypothesis behind Deep Work is this:
The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
In our conversation, Cal and I talk about time management, how to develop a lifestyle where you are consistently able to spend time in your day on the things that matter most, how it’s a skill to be able to do deep work and focus and how to develop that skill, and more.
This podcast continues in the series on Margin that I’ve been writing about for the past month. Check out this page for the central repository with I’m keeping updated with links to each article and podcast.
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There are so many components to doing your best creative work, but the very foundational one is the creative work itself. If you’re not showing up every day and practicing, then you’ll never reach your potential — you’ll never do your absolute best.
Deep Work, Deliberate/Intentional Practice, The Craftsman Mindset, Finding Flow — all of these are synonyms for showing up every day.
But they go beyond just showing up. Showing up and working hard isn’t enough. You need to make sure that the time you spend in deep work is productive time.
In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal writes that people will hit a performance plateau beyond which they fail to get any better. And his newest book, Deep Work is all about how to push through that plateau. Deep Work is about what to do when you do show up, and how to turn all of it into a part of your lifestyle.
In short, to do your best creative work, you need to hone the skill of being able to focus.
And that is exactly what we talk about on this podcast.
Key Takeaways, Etc.
Deep work and focus are skills; not personality types. To develop the “skill” of deep work you have to: (1) control and protect your time; (2) slowly spend time training yourself to focus without giving in to distractions; and (3) make lifestyle changes so that even in your down time you aren’t
To have an effective deep work session, you need to: (1) schedule the time; (2) have an expected outcome that you are aiming to accomplish during that time; (3) realize that you’re working the “focus muscle” and that it takes practice and time.
Deep work is not a natural activity. When it comes to doing important work and improving our skills, our mind and instincts can’t be trusted.
Schedule every minute of your day. This takes the guesswork out of where you should be focusing on, and all you have left to do is show up and do what you’ve planned to do.
If you work with your head, then rest with your hands. For the knowledge worker, a good down-time hobby could be woodworking, gardening, yard work, etc.
Reduce the amount of “novel stimuli” that you let in to your day-to-day life. When you have a strong baseline level of noise in all the little moments of your life, it makes it more difficult to focus on the task at hand when you’re doing deep work. Because you’re training your brain that boredom is bad.
By reducing the baseline level of noise, it helps us to focus for extended periods of time. It also helps your mind to rest as it should during your down time.
Quote from Deep Work: “To succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.”
There are four styles of deep work:
- Monastic: “This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.” (Think seclusion somewhere)
- Bimodal: “This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.”
- Rhythmic: “This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.”
- Journalistic: “in which you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule.”
Don’t let busyness be a proxy for productivity. For many of us, we put an emphasis on efficiency rather than effectiveness. We see time spent as being more valuable than the results themselves.
We can change that mindset and change our paradigm about what it means to be effective. First we have to challenge the culture that values “crushing it” — that says only those who are super busy are the ones who are super hungry. Realize that you can work effectively, and you can be focused without overworking yourself. There is a division between being out-of-control busy and being a hard worker.
Doing deep work in our everyday lives is important for several reasons: It increases our happiness, it helps us to learn new skills, it gives us a focus on effectiveness, it’s where we do our best creative work, it’s how we make progress.
If you want to do more deep work, but you’re not sure where to start, do this: (1) look at your calendar and block out 5 hours on your schedule over the next two weeks; (2) put your phone away when you get home so that you don’t get distracted; (3) find a balanced ratio of shallow work and deep work.
Shallow work and deep work are both necessary. The former is doing the things that need to be done for the sake of today. The latter is doing the things that need to be done for the sake of the future. Put another way: Shallow work keeps you from getting fired; deep work gets you promoted.
As mentioned earlier, this podcast episode is part of a series on Margin that I’ve been writing about for the past month. Check out this page for the central repository with I’m keeping updated with links to each article and podcast.
Download here. (01:15:32)
A week ago it was snowing outside and I had no idea what the outcome of the Denver Broncos game would be. And here we are, the Broncos are going to the Super Bowl (sorry, not sorry, Chris) and tomorrow it’s going to be 65 degrees in Kansas City.
This morning I had the honor of speaking to a crew of 100 creative entrepreneurs here in Kansas City. The monthly KC Coffee and Design meet-up is one of my favorite things. This morning we had a workshop entitled “Finding Your Creative Focus”. Here’s a picture (Thanks, Cherish!).
A huge thanks to everyone who came out for the workshop this morning. I had a blast!
Now, normally I like these Friday emails to be focused on the outgoing. But there is so much awesome and cool stuff happening with shawnblanc.net and The Focus Course right now that I wanted to take a chance to highlight it.
As always, thanks for reading.
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Several thousand folks went through the Elements of Focus this past December, and the feedback I received was fantastic.
Now that January is coming to a close — if you’re needing a fresh jolt of motivation, ideas, clarity, help, etc. Then this, my friend, is the class for you.
It’s 10 days, with a video for each day, delivered via email. The videos are on demand, so you can watch them at the time of day best for you. And they are shot (just 5 minutes).
Click here to sign up or learn more about the class. The next class begins on February 8th.
Speaking of, earlier this week I had the privilege of sharing with the Lean OmniFocus community about my OmniFocus workflow. Spoiler: I’m not nearly the OmniFocus nerd I used to be. But I still had a lot to share about time and task management and, of course, meaningful productivity.
It boils down to decision making fatigue. And if you can make some basic changes to help alleviate all the little inconsequential decisions you make throughout the day, it leaves much space for making the bigger decisions.
Two Awesome Podcasts coming up next week
If you enjoyed this week’s podcast with Corbett Barr, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve got two more fantastic guest shows lined for next week as we wrap up this month’s focus on Margin. Check back in on Monday for the first podcast, and Wednesday for the second.
The past few weeks we’ve been talking at length about margin.
Margin is so important because having that breathing room in your life is healthy. You need margin in your schedule, in your finances, and in your relationships. You need breathing room for your creative energy. Margin helps you show up every day to do and focus on your best creative work. And much more.
Sometimes, it’s easiest to see the importance of Margin when considering what life looks like without that breathing room. Consider:
- When you have no margin for your finances, there’s baseline level of stress. You can be prone to making irrational choices about how you spend your time and energy, and it’s difficult to keep the long-game in mind.
- When you’re overloaded in your schedule, it’s difficult to get the time you need to focus and do your best work.
- When you’re emotionally on edge, it puts a strain on your relationships and your work. And you don’t feel free to dream and create without inhibition.
In short, margin is liberating.
A healthy dose of margin in your life gives you the space you need to think, dream, strategize, wrestle through complexity, focus deeply, and, ultimately, do your best creative work. For those Wildly Important Goals you have, margin will help you accomplish them.
Margin helps us to push through the fears we face as creative folks. It gives us get the breathing room we need to come up with ideas and to create solutions. It helps us get the energy and motivation to show up and do the work. And it helps us to stay mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy so we can rest well and be recharged.
Pushing Through Fear
In the five years that I’ve been writing for a living, there is at least one common thread in all of the work and all of the projects I’ve done: fear.
It’s usually in the form of a nagging question in the back of my mind telling me that “this might not work”.
- When I quit my job to write shawnblanc.net full-time and started a membership drive, I had no idea if it would work or not.
- When I launched my book, Delight is in the Details, I had no idea if people would be willing to pay $39 for it.
- When I built Tools & Toys and The Sweet Setup, I had no idea if they would grow into sustainable websites.
- When I created The Focus Course, I had no idea how many people would sign up for it.
This is, of course, not to say that I went into all of these endeavors blind. I spoke with trusted advisors and did much due diligence about what people were interested in, etc. But even still, for every one of those projects, I was afraid that it might not work.
I had no guarantees that any of them would survive first contact with the real world. For just about every step along the path as I was building each of those projects, I kept hearing in the back of my mind “this might not work”.
When you’re on a quest to do something that matters to you, fear is going to be right there. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of loss. Fear of the unknown.
Truth be told, there is never a time in the creative journey that we stop dealing with fear. The challenge, therefore, is to acclimate to fear. When you’re working on a project and thinking to yourself “this might not work”, use that as a signal to yourself that you must push through the fear.
And it’s in that moment of pushing through the fear that margin is your friend. Because margin in your life will give you the wherewithal you need to keep going.
Time to Think and Dream
The CEO is the thinker, the dreamer, the planner, and the strategist. This is where you spend time mapping out the next day, week, month, year, 5 years, etc. What is the big picture? What’s the value you’re providing? How are you going to build your audience?
This is, by far and away, one of the most difficult states to get into on a regular basis. Because spending your time in CEO mode is rarely ever an urgent matter. There seems to be no harm in waiting another day or two or 30 before you plan out the contents of your next book.
It goes without saying the when you have margin in your schedule, you’ve got the time you need to actually sit and plan and think and strategize.
To do your best creative work, you’ve got to take the time to think and dream. Something that is much easier to accomplish without an overloaded schedule.
Doing The Work
After you’ve got your plan, it’s time to show up and do the work.
I strongly encourage you, that if you’re trying to do your best creative work, you’ve got to show up every day.
There are many reasons why it’s important to show up ever day:
- It helps you increase your skills.
- It establishes a consistency with your audience that leads to trust and reciprocity.
- It’s the most surefire way to keep making progress building your thing.
Without margin in your schedule and in your creative energy, showing up every day is an uphill battle. Well, it’s already an uphill battle, but, without margin, it’s like walking uphill, both ways, in the snow.
The average American watches 5 hours of television per day. We also spend an additional 2 hours on social media. Goodness gracious.
Not only does all that TV and social media eat up at the time we have available to do awesome work, it steals from our cognitive energy.
When you’ve got such a strong baseline level of noise and distraction in your life, your mind and creative energy never truly gets the downtime they need.
I love defining rest as an activity which leaves us feeling recharged and re-energized. I for one never feel charged up and energized after a 5-hour Netflix binge session. Neither do I feel energized after 2 hours of passively scrolling my Twitter timeline.
If the goal of resting is to be recharged and re-energized, what then can we do that will leave us with more energy than we started?
- Encouraging and serving others
- Physical activity
- Quality time with friends
- Focusing on a challenging task and making progress
Sometimes these activities leave us feeling recharged right away. While other times they contribute to our overall baseline level of energy and happiness.
So why don’t we read more often? Why don’t we spend an hour in the evening working on our side project? Because it’s hard to get started.
Watching TV is so much easier. There’s no activation energy required — you just plop down and hit the remote.
Whereas everything else — reading, serving others, having a deep conversation, going on a walk — requires a bit of energy to get started.
Which is why resting well is a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg conundrum. When you have breathing room in your life, it’s easier to spend your down time resting well. Also, resting well brings breathing room to your life.
Build, Maintain, Rest
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, margin gives us the space we need to think, dream, strategize, wrestle through complexity, focus deeply, and, ultimately, do our best creative work.
For me, these things all manifest in one of three ways. When I am “at work” I want to be doing one of three things: building, maintaining, or resting.
Building is doing work with the future in mind. This includes coming up with new ideas (many of which we’ll never even act on, but that’s okay), clarifying plans for a current project, making tangible progress on projects that haven’t yet shipped, learning something new, etc.
Maintaining is doing the work with today in mind. Such as checking my email, updating WordPress, writing show notes, etc. This is the day-to-day work that is vital to be done, but in and of itself usually isn’t a significant contributor to the growth of my business and my creativity.
Resting is simply taking a break from the work. Albert Einstein 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.”
All three of these are important as well as cyclical. Each one needs its own attention on a weekly basis if not daily. And each one comes and goes as being the most important overall for a season.
And margin in your life helps with all of it. A little bit of breathing room — a little bit of energy — goes a long way.
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Want more resources on margin? Check out this page. It’s the central repository of links to each article and podcast related to margin that’s been published so far. I’ve also got a very spiffy video presentation you can get access to.
I’ve got a very special episode of my members-only podcast, Shawn Today, this week. And I wanted to share it with everyone. In the show, I’m joined by special guest, Corbett Barr. Corbett is the co-founder and CEO of Fizzle, an online business training resource plus community for indie entrepreneurs.
In the show, Corbett and I discuss building an audience, building an online business, doing your best creative work over the long-run of a decades-long career, how to focus on doing the work, and more.
- Building an audience is different than serving an audience.
- Genuine relationships are critical. Do what you can to foster one-on-one friendships with people that will help you push through difficult seasons as a creative entrepreneur.
- Two ways to keep doing great creative work for years and years is to (a) get smart and energetic people on board who can help spark ideas and contribute to the content creation process; and (b) keep an idea journal and learn to synthesize incoming information so you always have something to pull from.
- Two ways Corbett recommends maintaining margin for your creative energy is to travel and exercise. Traveling gets you into a different environment and a change of scenery, where you will think about things and life differently. Exercise keeps your mind and body healthy, which contributes to both your short- and long-term creativity and productivity.
- Doing the work is a matter of self discipline. There is the “CEO” version of you that will have the ideas and strategy. And there is the “Worker Bee” version of you that needs to do the work.
- For the overwhelmed entrepreneur, you need to optimize. Do this by: (1) Look at your overall schedule and challenge any assumptions about how you “have to” or “should” be spending your time. Do what you can to create a few extra hours in your week. Then, (2) focus less on thinking and focus more on doing. Especially in the early days of building a business. Lastly, (3) focus on results. What are the things you can do that will bring doubt a disproportionate return on your energy investment. Also, experiment and learn.
- For someone who is trying to gain traction on their business or side project: the two main areas of focus should be building an audience and building a product. You want to start making money as soon as possible. Not big bucks, but just something to help you validate your ideas and begin turning your audience into customers.
- Advice to those in the “content creation” space is that the fears you have about making products for your audience and serving them are all in your head. There are mental hurdles you need to overcome as an entrepreneur, and as you do then you get more comfortable selling things to your audience and promoting your work with clarity and authority.
As I write this, the snow is coming down heavy in Kansas City and there’s a hot cup of coffee on my desk.
In just a few days, my hometown football team, the Broncos, will be playing the Patriots in Denver for the AFC Championship. It’s surely Manning’s last season in Denver (and probably his last season in the NFL entirely) — it would be great to see him get a ring while wearing the orange and blue.
This week’s Fantastic Friday is a bit different than normal. Less links, but I think you’ll enjoy.
As always, thanks for reading. I hope you have an excellent weekend.
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Ask Me Anything
Next month I’ll be writing about tools and workflows. It’s going to be super fun and nerdy. Some of the stuff we’ll cover includes a rundown of my favorite iOS and Mac apps, my writing routine and the tools I use, time and task management, how to perform a workflow audit, and more.
If you’ve got a workflow question, or an idea for something you’d like me to discuss, please let me know.
I just backed this game on Kickstarter. It looks simple yet fun. Because sometimes you want to play a game that’s not going to be an several-hour-long process.
Tweetbot Tip: Set a Twitter List as Your Main Timeline
Tweetbot is, by far and away, the best Twitter app out there.
Something in particular that I love about it is that you can create a list and then set that list as your main timeline. If you follow several hundred people, but you don’t want to keep up with everyone all the time, you can create a list with just a few dozen people and then set that list as your main timeline.
I think the easiest way to create a new Twitter list and populate it is via the Twitter website itself. Here’s how you do that:
- Open up Twitter
- Over in the top-left area where your profile box is, click on the number for how many people you are following. This gives you a list of everyone that you follow.
- Scroll through who you’re following, and for each person you want to add to your new list click on the gear icon
- Then click “Add or remove from list…”
- And then check the box next to the list you want to add them to (or create a list if you haven’t yet).
- Repeat for each person you want in your new list of awesomeness
- Once your list is mostly populated, go into Tweetbot and bring up your main timeline view.
- For Tweetbot iOS: tap and hold the word “Timeline” that’s up top. A list of your lists will appear; tap the one you want to set as your new main timeline.
- For Tweetbot on Mac: with your main timeline in view, right click on the word “Timeline” that’s at the top of the Tweetbot window, then select the list you want to set in its place.
I realize that: why not just unfollow folks until your main timeline is at a manageable size? Well, you could totally do that. But I found that it was significantly easier for me to go through my list of everyone I’m following and “start over” in a manner of speaking by creating a new list. Also, I have more than one list. I have lists of local KC people, a list of designers and developers whom I respect, and more.
Quote of the week
Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.
— Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
(Side note the above quote I discovered thanks to The Personal MBA. A book that’s a bargain at 20-times the price.)
In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport states that as our information economy grows, there is an ever-increasing advantage for knowledge workers who are able to focus.
His Deep Work Hypothesis is this:
The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then amen it the core of their working life, will thrive.
In this article, as we hit on the importance of margin for our mental and creative energy, I want to frame it in the context of deep work.
Making the Time and Choosing the Focus
If you want to do your best creative work, you’ve got to show up every day. But showing up is just half of it.
Once you’ve carved out the time you need to work, when you do sit down to focus, do you know what it is that you’re going to work on? And are you able to spend an hour or more of your time working without interruption?
For me, I have a minimum of two hours a day that I spend on what Newport would call deep work. In fact, it’s the very first thing I do in the morning: I write.
I set a note out for myself the day before that tells me what my writing topic will be. This way, when it comes time for me to do the work, all I need to do is open my text editor and begin writing. I don’t have to spend my time thinking about what to write about, I simply write.
Writing is not easy. It’s never been easy, and I suspect it never will be. I’ve been writing as my full-time vocation for half-a-decade now, and sitting down to write is as challenging, and cognitively demanding as ever.
Now, don’t take this as me complaining about my job. I love writing. I love the sound of my clicky keyboard. I love having a hot cup of coffee and a couple of hours to share a story or an idea. But no matter what, writing is hard work.
Challenging, demanding work is not mutually exclusive from work that is satisfying. In fact, the two usually go hand in hand.
And thus, I have a two very important reasons to show up every day and write:
For one, as I mentioned above, it’s something I can do each day that keeps me mentally sharp. It’s challenging, difficult, and rewarding.
Secondly, writing is my job. Literally everything about my business stems from writing. If I’m not writing, then the very underpinnings of my work and business will slowly unravel.
The Paramount Importance of Margin for Thought (or: Why Facebook Hates Your Muse)
As I mentioned above, one very important step in my writing routine is The Note.
The other is having margin for my mental and creative energy.
Margin is, simply put, breathing room.
Does your mind have breathing room? Do you have have a strong distaste for distractions? Are you comfortable with boredom?
Now, of course you dislike distractions. I know that you know that I know that when you’re trying to do something, the last thing you want is to be interrupted. But, when the rubber meets the road, do you honestly, truly, really, really dislike distractions?
It’s one thing to be annoyed at the external distractions of unwanted phone calls and passive aggressive taps on the shoulder by bored coworkers.
It’s another thing altogether to let yourself CMD+Tab over to your email app every 10 minutes.
That tug you feel when you’re at the far edge of your attention span…? That distraction from within that shows up when you sit down to do work that matters…? What are you doing about that?
I totally know how it goes. You’re sitting down to work on a project, but after 10 or 20 minutes you hit a roadblock. What then? Do you instinctively reach for your phone to check Facebook? Do you switch over to the Twitter app or check your email inbox real quick? Or do you stay focused?
When you are trying to focus on deep work, don’t give up after 15 minutes. Stick with it for an hour.
When Matt Gemmell is writing and he hits a mental block, he reaches for a ball to toss while thinking. Marco Arment wrote a computer script that quits out of Tweetbot and Email in case he accidentally leaves them open. John Gruber tends to spend his time reading through all his RSS feeds in one pass, then focuses on writing; he also has an Apple Script that takes all the read-but-not-yet-replied-to emails in his inbox and archives them at the end of the day.
These are brilliant behaviors and tactics. Because they state that, in order to do our best creative work, we need depth and focus. Depth is a result of uninterrupted focus on a single task. And uninterrupted focus is a result of, well, not being interrupted — not being distracted.
To do your best creative work, you have to do more than hedge off the distractions from outside (buzzing phones and office interruptions). You also have to cut off the distractions from within.
You do that by creating margin for your thoughts and margin for your creative energy.
Quit “The Just Checks”
When was the last time you had a few minutes of free time and you chose not to spend it checking email, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram? This morning, when you woke up, did you reach for your phone and spend some time perusing the news and your social network timelines before getting out of bed?
Here is, by far and away, one of the best ways you can keep margin for your thoughts and margin for your creative energy:
- Don’t check email when in line at the grocery store.
- Don’t check Facebook when in the drive-through.
- Don’t check the news before you get out of bed in the morning.
- Don’t check Twitter as the last thing you do before turing out the light and going to sleep.
Now, we all know that there’s nothing morally or instinctively wrong with checking your social media timeline before getting out of bed. And neither is there anything wrong with keeping your computer’s email app open all day and switching over to it every few minutes.
But what these moments of “just checking” do is teach our brains that boredom is bad. They put a ceiling on our creative energy.
You won’t reach the height of what you’re creatively capable of if you can’t go 60 minutes without checking your email or scrolling your Facebook timeline.
Choosing to allow yourself to be bored when standing in line at the grocery store is also a choice to set yourself up to do your absolute best creative work.
Finding Flow and Getting In the Zone
Having a set time for deep work is liberating. The days when I know I’ll have have several hours of uninterrupted time are the days I most look forward to.
Not only do I look forward to the task and process themselves, but I also love the work that is produced after a season of deep work and measured progress.
Again, to quote Cal Newport:
To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing — a task that requires depth.
Your best creative work happens when you’re in the zone. When, in the words of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, you’ve found flow.
Getting in the zone, finding flow, making progress on your best creative work, growing in skills as a creative, all of this requires intentional practice. It requires depth.
The good news is two-fold:
Making margin for your thoughts is something you can choose to do. It’s not at all outside of your control. Though, it may require a few uncomfortable lifestyle changes.
Deep work and diligence are skills. You can learn them, you can practice them, and you can get better at them. In fact, you can incorporate them into your everyday life!
How to Get Margin for Thoughts and Creative Energy
Just like with regaining margin for your finances you need: (1) a short-term, drastic change in behavior to get some quick momentum; and (2) a long-term commitment to doing things differently.
I suggest that you start with a week-long information diet. And then, try to implement one new “alternative” action to those moments when you’re bored and want to reach for your phone.
Try this: take one week — or, if you’re feeling timid, start with 24 hours — and spend it disconnected from news and media.
Try going a whole week with no television, no news, and no social media. Perhaps a whole weekend with no email. Or even a whole day with no digital devices at all.
It sounds wild, right? This is some serious living-on-the-edge stuff. And the positive impact will be great.
In Chapter 6 of The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferris quotes Herbert Simon. Simon says (emphasis added):
What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
You need margin for your thoughts and margin for your creative energy is so that we can have a reserve of energy and attention that you can spend focusing on doing work that matters.
During your information fast, here’s another tip from Ferris:
Develop the habit of asking yourself, “Will I definitely use this information for something immediate and important?” It’s not enough to use information for “something” — it needs to be immediate and important. If “no” on either count, don’t consume it. Information is useless if it is not applied to something important or if you will forget it before you have a chance to apply it.
Long-Term Alternatives to the Just Checks
Little moments of mental down time can do wonders for our long-term ability to create, problem solve, and do great work. So, what are some alternatives when we’ve got a moment of down time?
For the times I do want to use my iPhone when I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, I’ve come up with a few alternatives instead of just checking Twitter or email. These are alternatives to The Just Checks:
Scroll through your Day One timeline and read a previous journal entry or browse some old photos and memories.
Launch Day One and log how you’ve spent your time so far for the day. Doing this for a few weeks can also be super helpful for getting a perspective of where your time and energy are being spent.
Write down 3 new ideas. These could be articles you want to write, business ideas, places you want to visit or photograph, topics you want to research, date ideas for you and your spouse, gift ideas for a friend, etc. These ideas never have to to be acted on — the point isn’t to generate a to-do list, but rather to exercise your mind. Ideation and creativity are muscles, and the more we exercise them the stronger they get.
Send a text message to a friend or family member to tell them how awesome they are.
Don’t get out your phone at all.
These alternatives are meant to be healthy. They have a positive long-term effect and satisfy that need to do something during a moment of down time.
The whole point of having these alternatives is so that we don’t merely default into the passive consumption of content (ugh).
Take advantage of those down time moments, and allow your mind to rest for a bit. Or engage your mind by doing something active and positive that you can use the next time you’ve got an hour or two scheduled for your deep work.
What I love about having this bias against passive information consumption is that it helps cultivate a bias toward action.
Thus, instead of putting our energy into managing and watching the incoming — the inbox — we put our energy into creating, doing, and making.
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Looking for more information about Margin? Check out this page.
As we continue with this month’s focus on margin, today we’re going to talk about getting and keeping margin in your schedule.
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I love how David Allen says that you can’t actually manage time. If you start with 5 minutes, there’s no way to manage it well enough that it will turn into 6 minutes.
What you can do is manage how you spend your time. Which is more like time stewardship — because you alone are responsible for taking care of the time you have in the day.
And this is why margin in our schedule is so important. It gives us the breathing room and the wherewithal to steward our time and manage ourselves in how we spend it.
In his book, Margin, Richard Swenson states that there are four main areas of life that we most need margin in. They are our emotional energy, our physical energy, our finances, and our schedule.
And I would add one more area to that list: We also need margin in our mental energy — our thoughts, and with it, creative energy.
You can’t pit any of these against one another when looking for one that is more or less important. They overlap and intertwine with one another so much that when we have margin in one area, it helps open the door to margin in the other areas. And, conversely, when we lack margin in one area, it puts a strain on the others.
Over the coming weeks, we’re going to dive in to each of these. Today, let’s start with how to get some breathing room in our schedules.
When We LACK Margin in Our Schedule
When there is margin in our life, it brings with it a sense of contentment, simplicity, balance, and rest.
Consider this with your current schedule… do you feel content, balanced, and rested?
Is your schedule simple enough that you control it? (Or does it control you?)
At the end of the day, when you look back at how you spent your time, do you feel content? Or do you feel frustrated at all the things you didn’t and all the fires you had to react to and put out?
At the end of your day, do you feel that your day was balanced? Were you Meaningfully Productive? Did you spend your time on things that matter most to you in more than just one area of your life? Is there an area of your life that dominates your schedule and causes other areas of your life to get out of balance?
At the start of your day, do you feel rested and prepared to do awesome things? Or do you feel behind before you even begin?
Your answers to these questions can help you determine if there is any margin in your schedule. But my hunch is that you don’t need much self-assessment to know if your schedule has breathing room or not.
When We HAVE Margin in Our Schedule
Imagine waking up in the morning and being able to spend time doing what you want to do.
Perhaps it’s going to the gym or going on a walk. Having time in quiet to read, think, and/or journal. Being able to make a healthy breakfast and still have time to prepare for work and begin your day doing the things that are most important.
Margin in your schedule means your day has breathing room.
And that breathing room means two things: (1) that you can set aside time for doing the things that are most important; and (2) that there is space to account for the unexpected. That’s what Margin is all about: it’s space left over.
Conversely, when our schedule lacks any breathing room, it’s like waking up just minutes before having to rush out the door. Grabbing a Pop-Tart without even having the time to put it in the toaster. Then, getting to work and spending 8 or more hours putting out fires and responding to multiple urgent issues.
The person with margin has taken ownership of their time and has slowly established a routine that allows for health and breathing room. The other person is, honestly, a bit out of control.
Out of Control
I love how Dan Mall replaced the phrase “I don’t have time” with “it’s not a priority” for his internal dialog:
Recently, I’ve tried to stop saying, “I don’t have time.” It insinuates that I’m a helpless victim to the all-powerful stream of hours that mightily passes me by. It’s easy to adopt an “Oh well” attitude to what you’re giving up. It authorizes my apathy.
Instead, I’ve replaced it with the phrase, “That’s not a priority.” Suddenly, I’ve taken control of my own decisions. I’ve taken responsibility for what I do and don’t do. I’ve added clarity, condemnation, and encouragement, all in 4 short words.
How many people do you know who “don’t have time,” who are “so busy?” Everyone, right? We’re all so busy. None of us have any time.
This has kind-of become the standard answer we all give when people ask us how we’re going. It’s a badge of honor, even.
I used to think that the busier I was, the more important I was. The more people who wanted me to do stuff for them, the more meetings I was invited to, the more projects I was in charge of — all of it was proof that I was important. Each additional commitment was another badge on my uniform to display to those around just how important and responsible I was.
But there’s a difference between having a full schedule and being busy. My schedule is still very much full. But it’s full with all the things I am choosing to do. Such as three meals a day with my family. Time in the evening to read. Time in the morning to write. A whole day of the week where I build trains with my boys and don’t even look at email. A date with my wife every single week.
How to Restore Margin to our Schedule
There are so many ways you can restore (and maintain) breathing room in your schedule. Here are just a few suggestions:
Give yourself permission to have some breathing room: This is what the book Fringe Hours is all about. You need margin in your schedule; it’s okay to make that happen. Give yourself permission to create some breathing room and to spend your time doing the things that are most important to you.
Automate, delegate, and eliminate: Are you spending time doing things that aren’t important or could be done by someone else? Cut those tasks out or delegate them to someone else.
Cut out baseline noise: When you got up this morning, did you check your phone right away? Email, social network timeline, news feed? Did that help you start your day? Do you even remember what you read?
Minimum and Maximum time blocks: Give yourself a minimum amount of time to spend on important things and a maximum amount of time to spend on less-important things. For me, this looks like a minimum of two hours writing and a maximum of 30 minutes doing email. I have a minimum time I spend with my family each day and a maximum time to watch Netflix each week. A minimum amount of time spent reading and a maximum amount of time spent on Social Networks.
Schedule your most important tasks: If you know what is most important for you to do each day, then schedule it.
Single tasking: I’m terrible at this one, but trying to recover. If you look at my computer, there are about 9,000 open windows and browser tabs. In an ideal state, there would be just one open window — the one I’m using to write this text right now.
Single tasking goes beyond just focusing on one software app at a time, it also goes for other activities. For example: don’t check your email when playing ball with your kids. If you’re scheduling your most important tasks, then it’s safe to assume you’ve planned when you’re going to do all the things that are meaningful to you. So, trust your commitments to yourself and single-task the activity you’re doing right now. (This also helps create margin for your mental energy, which we’ll get to in a couple of days.)
Your Daily Plumb Lines
One of the quickest ways to take ownership of your schedule is to know what your most important work is. What are the areas of your life that you want to spend time on?
As I mentioned above, set a minimum and a maximum time allowance for different things.
We’re going to dive into this a bit more in March when we talk about showing up every day and hustling to do our best creative work.
But, in short, urgent tasks will always find us, which is why we have to be proactive about making time for the important tasks and then protecting that time.
Urgent issues always come up. If they don’t align with your vision and values, then you can feel comfortable saying no. Like Dan Mall says, “it’s not a priority.”
For me, I have a few areas of my life that I want to spend time developing every single day. These areas are my work, my personal self, and my family.
I have just a couple of things in each area that I want to do every single day. They are my Daily Plumb Lines. They include things such as: pushing the needle forward on at least one of my current projects; spend time away from my desk; Learn something; encourage and serve my wife; give my boys my full attention.
It can be easy to get distracted by something interesting, exciting, or urgent and to not even realize that I’m actually just wasting my time.
Sometimes when I sit down to work, I will feel overwhelmed at all the plates I know I have spinning. I’ll feel unsure about what my next action step should be. This is not an ideal state to be in, but it happens. It’s not the end of the world, and there are ways out.
For the days when I feel as if I have nothing figured out, at least I have clarity about what my Most Important Goals are because the goals don’t change from day to day. Therefore, I can still make meaningful progress on my projects and have a productive day, even if I’m not firing on all cylinders.
Because one thing I can do for certain is to make sure that my next action is something that falls in line with one of my aforementioned Daily Plumb Lines. This way, when I’m feeling overwhelmed or prone to distraction, I have options other than to just zone out and check Twitter.
Moreover, by having these Plumb Lines, it gives me permission to say “no” to much more than distractions. It also gives me permission to say no to opportunities that would encroach on the breathing room in my schedule.
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It’s not easy to restore and maintain breathing room in our schedule. Especially at the beginning, when some of us may need time to transition out of a few current commitments and establish a new routine.
I mentioned some suggestions above, so if any of those sound awesome to you, then go for it.
If you’re not sure where to start, perhaps start by saying no to the next incoming opportunity that doesn’t excite you and line up with what’s most important to you.
Secondly, take a few minutes and do an audit on how you’re spending your free time. When you get home from work, what does your average evening look like? For most Americans, they’re watching more than 5 hours of television every day. Perhaps all you need in order to buy back a bit of margin in your schedule is to sell some of that Netflix time.
When you have margin in your schedule, it’s liberating.
You have the time to get enough sleep, go on a date, have breakfast with your kids, invest in your own mental, spiritual, and physical health, and do your most important work each day.
And best of all, when there is margin in your schedule, you can be available to help and serve. You can respond to the needs of others without it disrupting your whole life.
Hello friends, and welcome to another edition of Fantastic Friday.
The past several days have been fun as we’ve been diving into the topic of Margin. In case you missed it, there is a running list of all the articles and podcasts related to Margin over here on this page. There is still quite a bit we’re going to cover. Such as, Monday’s article where we’re going to dive into the topic of Time Stewardship.
Have an awesome weekend.
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Some friends of mine, Joel Sorge and Caleb Culver, are kickstarting an incredible take on the Audio Bible. Their project is to create an audio Bible for the book of Psalm, composing original music and videography for each of the 150 Psalms. I think it looks and sounds awesome; I’m already in as a backer.
This episode of the Seanwes Podcast is excellent. Some great advice here about just how important it is to be able to say “no” to certain opportunities and commitments so that you can create the space to focus on that which is most important.
Old workflow habits die hard — I’ve been using the defaul email apps on OS X and iOS for ages. But for iOS I thought I’d give Outlook a try, and it’s pretty awesome. The design is simple and clean. The two inboxes (“Focused” and “Other”) are super helpful, as is the file browser. I don’t use the Calendar much, but it’s well done.
Way back in 2007, when I first set up shawnblanc.net, my motivation was a bit narcasstic. This site was going to be “Shawn Blanc on the Net”. It was meant to be my spot where I could write about whatever I wanted.
I’m all for having a place where, as a writer, I can write freely about the topics that interest me most and the ideas that have me most puzzeled. However, something I’ve learned is that to do work that matters, it can’t be mostly about me. It has to be mostly about you, the reader, the customer, the listener, the subscriber.
Oftentimes, the hardest work is the work of helping other people. It’s easy for us to hide behind the safety of saying that the work we are doing is for ourselves. Because then, when someone doesn’t like it or agree with it, we can shrug it off because we made it for ourselves. But when we say “here, this is for you“. That’s when it gets frightening. Becasue, what if they don’t care? What if they don’t want what we have to offer.
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In other news, this week on Shawn Today, I had had special guest, Mike Schmitz, join the show to talk about how Margin Enables Hustle. Over on The Sweet Setup we picked Television Time as the best app for tracking TV shows. And on Tools & Toys, Josh Ginter posted an epic review of the Olympus E-M5 Mark II.
What is margin?
Margin is breathing room.
It’s the opposite of overwhelm, overload, and overtime.
Margin means having some cash in the bank at the end of the month. It means having time during your day to spend on the things that are most important.
When we have this breathing room, it opens up a world of possibilities. Because when you have margin, you have the space to choose to be proactive instead of reactive.
We all need margin in our lives. From the stay-at-home parent, to the retiree, the 9-5 store clerk, the business executive, the pizza delivery guy, and the independent entrepreneur.
The reason we all need margin is because margin equals health.
Breathing room is good for our finances, our physical energy, our mental energy, and more. (Which, by the way, I dive into this topic much more in the free video presentation I put together. You can get it here.)
Today what I want to talk about is how Margin enables Intentional Living. You’re probably already putting the pieces together, so let’s continue…
What is Intentional Living?
Intentional living means being proactive in all areas of your life.
Jim Rohn said that “your level of success will rarely exceed your level of personal development, because success is something you attract by the person you become.”
I would also add that success comes about through diligence, hard work, and skill development.
Over the coming days and weeks we’ll continue to talk more about diligence, hard work, and skill development. But, in short, it takes intentional practice in order to be “successful” in each area of your life.
We know this is true for the athlete or the musician. Each day, the best athletes in the world train their hardest. Each day, the best musicians in the world practice and grow their skills.
The same principle of intentional practice holds true for every area of our life and any skill we wish to develop.
To reach the levels of success that are important to us (in our health, marriage, finances, vocation, side-projects, etc.) it takes intentional practice and development.
For a thriving marriage, you need to do something each day to strengthen your relationship with your spouse. The best writers in the world write every single day. One of the most sound financial investment strategies is to invest early and often.
Thus, intentional living is simply dedicating time each day to strengthen the most important areas of your life.
If you are doing that, then you’ll see success in those areas. If you’re not, then you won’t see success. It’s as simple as that.
So many of us “know” this truth. But so few of us do anything about it. Because it’s not microwaveable. It’s not easy to get started. It’s not easy to keep it up.
To be intentional — to live a focused life — takes a few things:
- Knowing which areas of your life are most important to you (at least in this season).
- Knowing what your goals are in those areas of life.
- Knowing what needs to be done to accomplish those goals.
- And then having the space to do the work. You need time, energy, and motivation to walk out your action plan. And that, my friend, is where margin comes in. Margin gives you that much-needed space.
These things boil down to simply having honesty, clarity, and a bias toward action. And it all gets just a little bit easier when you have breathing room in your life. Which is why margin enables intentional living. Margin enables you to live a focused life.
Margin Enables a Focused Life
In The Focus Course, the whole first module is focused on restoring margin to your life. We take 7 days and touch on topics such as personal integrity, relationships, creative imagination, finances, simplicity, and more.
The reason is because when you have a little bit of breathing room, it makes everything else that much easier.
Margin in your schedule keeps you free enough to have the time to do what’s important.
Margin with your thoughts keeps your mental energy strong enough to have the momentum you need to do the work when the time comes.
Margin in your emotions helps you with the motivation you need to do what’s important.
We’ll continue to dive deep on each of the aforementioned areas of margin in the coming weeks.
But for a start, do this: Unsubscribe from something or unfollow someone.
It could be a news feed, an email newsletter, or a person or brand on Twitter or Facebook.
Doing this will give you just a little bit more space. It’s one less thing to deal with in your day, thus giving you some time. And it’s one less area of “consumption”, thus giving you more mental and emotional energy to focus on doing your best creative work.
Also, this is a way to remind yourself that you are in charge of your information diet. You will never do your best creative work if you’re living in the middle of The Echo Chamber.
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Tomorrow, shawnblanc.net members will be getting a podcast conversation between me and my friend Mike Schmitz where we discuss how margin helps you to show up every day and do your most important work.
And on Monday, I’ve got an article for you about time stewardship and how you can get some breathing room in your crazy schedule.
If you want to keep up with all the articles, podcasts, and more that I’m publishing on the topic of margin, I’ve set up this page just for you. You can also get a free video presentation I made that shares an overview of what Margin is, why it’s so valuable, some quick wins for how to regain Margin in your life, and what I do to help maintain Margin in my own life.
Today I’m kicking off something a bit different than I’ve done before on shawnblanc.net.
We’re going to take the rest of January and go deep on one specific topic. I’ve also got February, March, and April planned out as well. Each one with its own topic.
The big picture is that I want to hit on ideas that are especially relevant to the creative entrepreneur. From work-life balance, to tools, to audience building and revenue generation, to building a successful creative business.
This summer we’re on track to have something put together for those who are building a business and/or working to gain traction in their side project. But more on that later.
January’s Theme: Margin
In short, Margin equates to breathing room.
Having breathing room in our schedule, finances, emotional energy, and mental energy is paramount. When you’re at capacity, there is no room for anything else. But when there is space left over — when there is margin — that space enables us to breath.
The feedback I received from those articles was extremely positive.
This is a topic that is so relevant to so many areas of our life. Over the past few months, I’ve received hundreds of emails from readers who’s biggest challenges are related to time, clarity, and their business or side-project.
Regarding time and clarity, I heard from many people who feel that they don’t have enough time in the day to do everything they want (or need) to do. I also heard from folks who aren’t sure how best to manage and schedule their time. As well as from people who aren’t sure where they should be focusing their energy.
When we have margin in our schedule, margin in our emotional energy, and margin in our creative energy, it can help tremendously. Moreover, when we lack margin in these areas, it leaves us feeling stressed out, anxious, and overloaded. No fun.
Which is why we’re going to take the next few weeks and dive deep on these topics:
- How Margin Enables Intentional Living
- Time Stewardship
- Regaining mental energy
- Margin in your finances
- Emotional energy and motivation
- Why margin helps you hustle and focus (do more in less time)
- Understanding overwhelm and how to move to the other side of complexity
- Overcoming distractions to do deep work and intentional practice
I’ve also got a few podcasts and interviews in the pipe with some good friends and surprise heroes of mine that have so much wisdom to share on this topic.
Keep tabs on everything-margin at this page we’ve set up:
That’s going to be the central repository, so to speak, with links to all the articles, podcasts, and other resources we put out over the coming weeks.
Free Video Presentation
To start things off today, I made a video presentation.
I thought it’d be fun to try something new. And so we put together this short video presentation.
In the video I introduce the idea of Margin, I give you some quick wins for how to restore Margin to your life, and I share some specific things I do in order to keep margin in my life as well as how I stay sane when life gets extra busy.
To get the video, just punch in your email below and you’ll get a link to the page where you can stream or download the presentation.
Welcome to the first edition of Fantastic Friday for 2016.
Fantastic Friday is something I’ve been sending out for the past several months to subscribers of The Fight Spot newsletter, and the response to it has been great. But I decided that it was something I wanted to publish here on the site as well.
In short, it’s a link roundup and other personal notes from me. It’s “Fantastic” because it has just four links in it (get it?).
The links could be anything. From an awesome book, to a quote, new gadget, incredible video, productivity tip, and more. All to give you something interesting, helpful, and fun as you head into the weekend.
Savvy readers have no doubt noticed a change in publishing cadence here on shawnblanc.net over the past year. A lot of that is due to the work I’ve been putting into The Focus Course. But it’s more than just that…
The scope of Blanc Media has grown tremendously in the five years since I quit my job to blog for a living. In 2011 it was just this website and my members-only podcast. But now it’s much more.
A few months ago I was at a crossroads. While I have a world-class crew of contributing writers, editors, and photographers that make Tools & Toys and The Sweet Setup possible. But things were at the point where I needed further assistance.
I knew I couldn’t keep up with managing everything that was going on with the business. And so I had to decide to either scale back the work we were doing or to bring on additional help.
After speaking with several close friends and mentors, the choice was clear.
And so, just this week, I hired my first full-time employee.
His name is Isaac and he’ll be helping me with a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that goes in to publishing podcasts, newsletters, and more.
If you want to know more about the motivation behind those choices, and what is next for Blanc Media, you can read my Day One journal entry from early December.
All this said, there are some awesome things in the pipe for this year that I am excited to dive in to. Including a massive update to the scope and perks of the shawnblanc.net membership as well as a new product I’m working on that’s for creative entrepreneurs.
Starting next week, and for the rest of January we’ll be diving deep on the topic of Margin, and I’ve got something fun I’ll be giving away on Monday.
For now, I hope you have an awesome weekend! Enjoy the fantastic links below, and, as always, thanks for reading.
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Cal Newport has quickly become one of my favorite writers and thinkers. His book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, was one of the most impactful books I read in 2015.
A few days ago, his new book hit the shelves: Deep Work. The hypothesis behind Newport’s book is this:
The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
Amen to that. Now, I’m still working my way through the book, and I will certainly be sharing more about it later this month, but you can bet your britches that this topic is going to be one we come back to many times this year.
As I wrote about in my 2013 article on the rough elements of a successful creative business, I believe that roughly 75-Percent of a successful creative business should be spent on the art itself — the “content”. This is the hard and frightful work of actually making stuff. If you’re not spending the majority of your time actually making something, you’re doing it wrong.
Doing deep work is all about actually making something. It’s about doing the strenuous and difficult work that comes with focus, intentional practice, finding flow, and getting breakthrough in our skills.
+ Bonus reading from Cal: Resolved to Live a Deep Life
On more than one occasion I’ve recommended the Fizzle podcast and their membership. Right now they’re having a huge sale on annual memberships to Fizzle. I highly recommend this site. In fact, Blanc Media just hired its first full-time employee, and one of the ways I’m doing on-the-job training for Isaac is to have him go through the Fizzle courses.
Just what it says on the tin. In GIF format.
I was recently interviewed by Eric Jorgensen for his U-Turn podcast. It’s a show where he interviews folks who started out on one career path and ended up somewhere else entirely. As you may or may not know, my career started out 15 years ago going to Bible college in Denver. I dropped out after my freshman year, life happened, and now here I am in Kansas City blogging from my basement.
To me, the path from there to here seems totally logical. There was a reason for each major transition in my life, and in retrospect I look back and can see the cause behind each major decision and how that moved me in this direction.
But, when you zoom out to see the big picture, the story seems more curious. So, all that said, if you’re interested in the “Shawn Blanc Origin Story”, or whatever it is, I think you’ll enjoy this show.
As you look back on your past year, did you make progress in the areas that matter most to you?
On the scale of “reactive versus proactive”, where do you think you landed in areas such as your best creative work?
What about with your relationships? Your health? Your finances? Your hobbies and down time?
As you learned about during the second session of the free Elements of Focus class, meaningful productivity is all about consistently giving our time and attention to the things that are most important.
Living with diligence and focus is not a personality type — it’s a skill you can learn.
The Focus Course can teach you how to practice that skill and develop it.
Here are five reasons the Focus Course is worth your attention…
1. Save Yourself a TON of Time
As my friend Sean McCabe recently said, there is a lot of free information you can find online about pretty much any topic. But it takes a lot of effort to find it, wade through it, and decipher what is worth your energy and what’s not. But a quality course will bring all of that information together and give you the most important nuggets — it saves you time.
The Focus Course is one of the fastest ways to get clarity and momentum in every area your life. We get right to the golden nuggets that will have the most amount of impact in the least amount of time.
In fact, this is one of the main reasons I created the Focus Course. I wanted something that was direct and to the point. I wanted something that taught you through doing.
In The Focus Course, we get right to the directives — the most powerful next steps that are also right in line with the most common conventional wisdom from these dozens and dozens of resources.
I have read my share of productivity books, blogs, and hacks, but nothing I have read comes close to your work in terms of helpfulness, depth, and significance.
— Tracy Banks, Attorney & Law School Professor
2. Help With Overcoming Procrastination
Sometimes, the best way to start making forward progress is to allow someone else tell us what to do.
If you’ve been procrastinating and you need to get clarity and/or momentum, the Focus Course is the easiest next step for you. You just sign up, follow the course, do the assignments, and you’re led along an awesome path.
The Focus Course helped me create a manageable plan of action that worked with my work and lifestyle that I could easily implement.
— Chris Wilson, Teacher
3. Support from a World-Class Community
Just over the weekend we had our 1,000th person sign up for the Focus Course.
I have been blown away by the activity, honesty, and just sheer awesomeness of the Focus Course community. There are people from all over the world and all walks of life, who are taking part, introducing themselves, and sharing their ideas and feedback as they go through the course.
You’ll get the support of this community as well as insight and ideas from others as they work their way through the same activities you are doing.
And the community forum is for more than just asking questions and sharing ideas, victories, and struggles. They are also there for the sake of accountability to help you as you work your way through the Course.
4. Get Back in Control
You may feel that you don’t have the time to take The Focus Course right now because life is already too busy. However, the busier you are, the more helpful the Course will prove to be.
Because the Course helps you improve how you are spending your time and energy right now, you’ll be able to get an immediate improvement in how you are spending your time and energy.
Just as I realized that I needed to rebalance things, I got the opportunity to take The Focus Course. It couldn’t have come at a better time, and I couldn’t be happier with the results it produced in my life. — John Voorhies, Attorney, iOS Developer, and Father
5. A Very Low Price
The Focus Course is normally $347. However, right now, during this first week of January, the Focus Course is just $297.
I look forward to seeing you inside.
I’ve been working on this version for the past several months, and there are some awesome updates.
On the nerdy side, The Focus Course has received several updates to the custom plugins and the membership management.
On the less-nerdy side, the Focus Course now offers (1) group and team licensing and (2) a slew of new videos. Sweet!
Group Licensing and Registration
Since launching the Course, I’ve spoken with a handful of companies and schools that have expressed interest in group licensing. This is ideal for offices that want their whole staff to go through the Focus Course.
The Focus Course has a strong emphasis on intentionality, self-governance, doing our best work, making progress on a daily basis, etc. While the course assists people with these areas for their “whole self”, the result has a profound effect on people’s work and their work-life balance.
Having your staff or team go through The Focus Course can greatly impact company culture, as well it being an awesome and valuable asset for leaders to sow into their staff.
You can now purchase licenses in bulk, with discounts are available for those purchasing 25 seats or more.
What’s great about the group licensing is that we custom-built a group admin dashboard. If you purchase for a group, then you can manage the licenses of your whole group and track the progress of each member as they make their way through the Course.
If you think the course is something your team would benefit from, shoot me an email and I’d love to help you get set up.
More Than 50 New Videos
The Focus Course now includes a teaching video for every single day. Plus over a dozen new bonus videos from the Elements of Focus class. You can take the entire course simply by watching the video for each day.
Of course, in addition to each day’s video there is also written content. Which means you can watch or read (or both) your way through the Course. And since The Focus Course was originally created as a written manual, the accompanying text stands on its own.
Early Bird Pricing
When you sign up for the course, you can start right away, or you can wait to begin until a time that’s best for you. Since you’ll get lifetime access to the website there is no rush to start immediately.
The ideal time to start the course is this week. I hope you’ll join me an hundreds of others who’ll be going through the Focus Course to get 2016 off to a great start.
Ready to get your life — or at the very least, your year — in to focus? Sign up for The Focus Course.
When I first launched The Focus Course last June, I did so with a 30-day Money Back Guarantee attached.
When my customers buy the course, it can be hard for them to know what they’re getting in to.
I’ve done my best to be as clear and up-front as possible. There are several testimonies from others who’ve been through the course already. And I’ve done my best to make sure the description text is as clear as possible about what all is in the course. I’ve even got a screencast walkthrough of the website.
As helpful as all of these things are, nothing beats actually seeing and experiencing the course first hand.
But as a customer, to sign up for the course takes a willingness for risk and a level of trust.
Anything I can do toward reducing the risk of my customers is a win. As is anything I can do to help establish trust.
Which is why I offer the refund policy. It takes all the risk off the buyer and puts it on me, the seller.
Which is why, as the seller, offering a guarantee is scary. Especially for a digital product.
A no-questions-asked money-back guarantee means people can effectively steal my product. They could sign up for the course, go through it, download the workbooks, and then ask for their money back.
To offer a money-back guarantee means I’m trusting my customers to do the right thing. I’m the one taking the risk on their behalf, assuming that the vast majority of my customers aren’t going to steal from me. And if I’m the one taking on the risk, then hopefully it means more people will feel safe to sign up for the course.
Now, assuming I was not willing to offer a money-back promise… in that scenario, it would mean I’m assuming the worst of my customers. To be unwilling to offer a money-back guarantee would mean I’m assuming most people will steal from me and that it’s not worth my risk.
Fortunately, that’s just not true.
After more than 6 months and over 900 sales of the Focus Course, less than 3% of people have asked for a refund. And most of them asked within the first 24 hours.
Which is why, for version 2 of the course (that comes out tomorrow morning), I decided to double the timeframe for the money-back guarantee.
Instead of 30 days, it’s now 60.
What I like about 60 days is that it’s enough time for someone to go through the entire course. That may sound crazy, but that’s just what I hope they will do.
I am far less worried about people stealing from me than I am worried that unsure course members will glance at the course contents and assume it’s not for them. Which is why I hope someone will go through the whole course before deciding to ask for a refund. Because if someone commits to doing it, I’m confident they’ll be happy.
Because the power of The Focus Course is not in the table of contents, but in the doing of the material.
A quick note: This is the second of a 2-part series on Margin. You can read Part 1 here.
In January, we’ll be going much more in-depth on this topic. There will be podcast interviews, resource recommendations, articles, and more.
That said, let’s talk about Margin…
* * *
Though they are related, Margin and Stress are not the same thing. A lack of margin can (and usually will) cause stress. Being overloaded and overwhelmed is usually what can lead to the pain of stress.
For example, when our schedule is filled beyond capacity, we feel the pain of our overloaded responsibilities, and we get stressed out trying to manage everything. When we are living beyond our financial means, we feel the pain of an unhealthy financial state, and we get stressed about money.
As I wrote in Part One of this introduction to Margin, 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 margin-less.
- Or, sometimes that feeling of overwhelm is because you’re in a season of transition — you’re close to a breakthrough.
When it’s the former, you need to dial down and create some margin. So often, when we are in desperate need of margin in our lives, it has to be explained to us or by us. It’s not instinctual. So, if you’re feeling the pain of a margin-less life, make sure you’ve got some things in place so you can stay sane and healthy.
If, however, it’s the latter — if you’re on your way toward a breakthrough in your skills — you need help and the perseverance to press through.
Today, let’s talk about these two things. How to dial down when you’re overloaded, as well as how to persevere when you’re on the cusp of a breakthrough.
Dial Down and Get Yourself Some Margin
In his book, Margin, Richard Swenson writes that “to be healthy, we require margin in at least four areas: emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances.”
If you’re feeling overloaded, I bet you could get one or two “quick wins” for your emotional energy, physical energy, time, or finances — little ways to give yourself some breathing room.
Start by taking inventory of where you’re spending the bulk of your time, money, and energy. (Not where you wish you were spending it, but where you’re actually spending it.)
What can be subtracted?
What can you do to give your schedule, your emotions, your mind, your body, and/or your finances some breathing room?
The low-hanging fruit and Quick Wins
Here are some suggestions for quick wins for you. These can help stop the bleeding. And, with a small victory, you can begin to get some momentum going in the direction you need.
There are some very simple ways to help get your body active if you’re feeling underachieved and not physically strong. Get enough sleep at night (which probably means going to bed on time). Take a 30-minute walk most days. Eat less sugar.
Not to sound like your mother, but these things are easy to give up when life gets crazy. I know that for me, my daily workout is usually the first thing to go when I’m feeling overloaded. So I certainly need the reminder about just how important physical health is to doing my best creative work.
You need social support (community). And you probably could do with less Screen Time.
For the former, ask a friend or family member for support. Even if it’s just to let them know you’re feeling overloaded and you need to talk about it. Also, take a moment to give to someone by encouraging, helping, or supporting them.
For the latter, next time you feel the urge to check your Social Network of Choice when you have a down moment, consider opening up your journal or notes app instead and writing down something you’re thankful for.
You’re smart enough to know that you’ll never “find” time. You have to make it. If your schedule is full, the only option is to begin saying no to things. I’d start with television if you haven’t already. Then I’d start with taking an hour or two at the beginning of your week to plan how you’ll be spending your time over the next 7 days.
Cut something small and simple out of your budget. Start making coffee at home; stop ordering drinks and dessert at restaurants; sell your car to get rid of the payments and buy something less fancy for cash. These types of changes aren’t easy to make, but they’re a way of taking charge of your finances and learning to live within your means.
I’d also highly recommend you set up a rainy day fund if you don’t have one already. Save $1,000 as fast as you can. Figure out how to get an extra $34/day and you’ll have that $1,000 in less than a month.
See also this article I wrote last summer about working from home and running a business. In it I talk some more about financial health, physical health, and relational health for the creative entrepreneur.
Staying Sane In the Midst of a Busy or Challenging Season
If you’re in a particularly busy or challenging season of life, what you need is the ability to press through. If you’re on the edge of a breakthrough, keep going and get yourself to the other side of the complexity.
What do I mean by “on the edge of a breakthrough?”
When you’re learning something new or transitioning to a different season of life, you have to “break through” from where you were to get to where you’re going.
Perhaps it’s that you’re starting a new business. Or you’re learning PHP. Or you want to get better at budgeting. Or you’re writing a book. When you’re first starting out and you’re at the very outside of that new skill set, it doesn’t seem quite so scary. But then, once you begin making a little bit of progress, you realize just how much you don’t know, and that state can be overwhelming.
It feels overwhelming because you suddenly begin to see so many open ideas, moving parts, and hazy concepts. You can see everything moving around, but it’s all in a fog and doesn’t make sense yet. You have a ton of unanswered questions, and you don’t even know who to go to for help or what you would even ask them.
Basically, you’re in the midst of a heightened season of “deep work,” and it’s not easy.
Instead of quitting, keep on learning. Keep pushing through. Eventually, the fog will lift, the dots will connect, and you’ll get that breakthrough.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on how I stay sane when life is extra busy.
You want to make sure that as you’re persevering in your busy or challenging season, it’s not to the detriment your health and relationships.
Why take out all the fun of learning a new skill or starting a new business? It’s hard enough as it is without letting yourself become habitually sleep deprived and neglecting your closest relationships.
By all means, keep your sanity and your health! This will actually help you. It will give you more energy and strength to learn, and it will expedite the crazy season, and even make it more enjoyable.
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, it’s all the more important to be overly diligent and intentional with how you spend your time.
Here are the ways I stay focused during especially busy or challenging seasons of life (such as the one I’m in right now, as a matter of fact):
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. This is why I’ve been spending even less time than usual on email and Twitter…
Dialing back on social media. I love Twitter. It’s a great place for conversations, dialog, and finding cool stuff. But it’s not where I do my most important work.
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’s sleep, a diet that gives you energy, and some regular out-and-about exercise is so good for you.
Date night, family time, and lunches with friends: Social support is one of the main ways to keep a healthy emotional state. It’s also one of the best ways to increase your baseline level of happiness and to help ensure a successful and satisfying career.
For me, when things get extra busy, the thing that next goes out the window is my time with friends. I’ll find myself wanting to cancel my standing lunches with friends, work late and infringe on family time, and even skip date night with my wife. All so I can work more hours.
While there are occasions here and there when I truly do need to work extra, they need to be the exception to the rule and not the default.
All these things come together to help give space to think, to breath, and to focus on doing what’s most important.
* * *
Thanks for reading! As I said, we’ll be diving more into this topic in January. In the mean time, I hope you’ll sign up for the free class I’m teaching. It starts in just a few days, and it’s going to be awesome!
And, in closing, here’s one more quote from Dr. Swenson:
Let’s stay busy to be sure. But together let’s also develop the necessary theological underpinnings for margin that will allow us to accept its importance without guilt. For just as we need to eat and sleep, so we also need to breathe.
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. ↵