You Can’t Manage Time

It’s Tuesday.

And I have something awesome for you.

My brand new class on time management is here.

This is not your typical “nerdy schedule party” type of class.

Because, the thing with managing time is that… you can’t.

You can only ever spend it.

If you’re interested in spending your time better, go here. »

A Focus on Time: Available Tomorrow (Here Are All the Details)

For the past couple months I have been putting together a class on time management. It will be available tomorrow.

The class was originally built in response to the feedback I’ve been receiving from those taking the Focus Course and the Elements of Focus. That, after completing the course, the topic people still wanted more training on was how to manage their time.

Since announcing the class a few weeks ago, we’ve received hundreds of emails from folks who are sharing their biggest challenges and struggles related to time management.

Because of the volume of feedback, the content of the class grew to more than double what I had originally planned.

There is a complete table of contents below, but some of the main themes addressed within the class include:

  • How to create a time management system that works.
  • How managing your time can empower a spontaneous and open schedule.
  • How to get breathing room in your day.
  • The importance of valuing relationships over efficiency.
  • Using your time to do work that matters and build your business, side project, etc.
  • Surviving in a meeting-loving, urgency-centric office culture.
  • And so much more…

The class consists of 30 MP3 lessons which add up to 5 hours worth of audio.

It also includes 7 PDF worksheets you can use for getting clarity about your time and scheduling your day.

* * *

Here is a complete breakdown of the class contents…

1. Introduction

A brief intro to the class and what to expect.

2. Meaningful Productivity

Any time I talk about focus, diligence, or productivity I have to lay the groundwork first. And so, before we dive into the nitty gritty, I give an overview of why it’s important to know what’s important to us in the first place.

3. Time Management Cliches and Myths

We all know that time management is a subject as old as… well… time. So let’s address some of the long-held cliches and myths head on.

4. Setting Goals and Priorities

As Benjamin Franklin said, “Do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life’s made of.”

Ultimately, managing your time is unto something — it’s a means to an end. And that end is the living of life. How we spend our time is, quite literally, how we are living our life.

Therefore, if we’re gong to focus on time, it helps to have an understanding of how to properly set goals and priorities.

5. Overcoming Specific Time Management Challenges and Struggles

Based on the hundreds of emails we received from readers interested in the class, we compiled the most common challenges and struggles and addressed them directly.

  • How to Make the Most of Our Time
  • How to Get a System That Works
  • How to Estimate How Much You Can Complete in a Given Timeframe
  • How to Keep From Overcommitting
  • How to Be On Time More Often
  • The Tyranny of the Urgent
  • How to Thrive with a Variable Schedule
  • How to Overcome Procrastination
  • How to Deal with Distractions and Interruptions
  • How to Create Margin for your Time
  • How to Keep Your Schedule
  • How to Be Productive at Home

6. Time Management Strategies and Tactics

In addition to addressing the above specific challenges, I share over a dozen specific strategies and tactics to help you with your own approach to time management.

The best Time Management system is one that empowers you to spend time doing the things you want and need. These strategies and tactics are practical advice you can use right now to get control of your time without having to memorize some sort of new-fangled, massively-complex productivity system.

  • Quick Wins, Strategies, and Tools for Time Management
  • Planning Long — and Short — Term
  • How to Create a Time Budget
  • The Note
  • Attention Charter
  • Pomodoro Technique
  • Themed Days
  • Media Consumption
  • Automation and Delegation
  • Accountability and Community
  • Cognitive Energy and Saving our Strength through the day
  • Better Defaults and Spending Down Time Smartly
  • Honesty, Clarity, and Action
  • Time Management: Recap (The Main Points)

Accompanying Schedules and Worksheets

  • Attention Charter
  • Annual Work Plan
  • Annual Family Plan
  • Monthly Plan
  • Weekly Schedule
  • Daily Rest and Work Focus
  • Daily Schedule

Available Tomorrow

Tomorrow (Tuesday, March 8), at 10am EST, the class will become available.

When you sign up, you’ll have access to all the MP3 and PDF files at once. You can go through them at your own pace in order, or listen to the individual lessons that are most relevant to you now.

Update: It’s available now.

Monday, March 7

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For just $5/month, you can securely back up all the data on your computer. It’s easy. Stop putting it off. Start your free trial, and get your backup started now.

* * *

My thanks to Backblaze for sponsoring the RSS feed this week. I’ve been using Backblaze for several years — highly recommended. Sponsorship by The Syndicate.

A System That Works (for You)

Everyone wants a time management system that works. One they can stick with. One that’s not a pain in the butt.

What does that even mean?

A system that works, looks like this:

  1. It empowers you to do the things you want and need to do.
  2. It aligns with your personality.

Without those two characteristics, your “system” will be little more than a burden.

That’s why I use paper. Even though it’s far more convenient and modern to use a digital system.

Keep this in mind:

  • Time management (and focus and diligence, et al.) is an ever-moving target. As seasons of life change, and as priorities change, it helps to make sure you’re still spending your time well.
  • There’s not a “one size fits all” system. What works for that girl over there may not work for you, and what works for you may not work for others.
  • Being focused with your time takes work. (If you’re looking for something that requires no maintenance, no thought, and zaps you into an organized, stress-free, productive individual let me know if you find it.)

The reason I use a pen and paper is because I enjoy it. The analog aspect adds a bit of joy, which, in and of itself, is enough grease for the skids to keep me on track with using my system.

I’m also stubborn enough that I stuck with my system long enough that it became a part of my day, and it’s no longer something I have to fiddle with. If you’re trying to incorporate something new into your life, it may be a few months before it takes root.

The details of how I manage my time, while they may be interesting, they aren’t all that important. It’s the underlying principles that inform my time management system. Ideas that can be used in any time management system no matter how busy or not someone is.

Diligence and focus are not personality types; they are skills that can be learned.

You have more power over your time than you think.

The Key to Success? Diligence.

As I mentioned yesterday, working from home brings a whole slew of unique challenges related to time management and focus.

We already know that busywork is a poor substitute for doing work that matters.

When you work for yourself it is so much easier to get caught up in the busywork.

I discovered this first hand about a year and a half ago just after our big relaunch of the new Tools & Toys website.

A couple of months after the relaunch I realized I was spending the best parts of my day checking traffic and affiliate stats. What a total waste of my time!

So I made some big changes to my day. I’m going to share some of them with you in a second.

But first…

My history with tasks and time

Lest you get the impression that I am a naturally organized and administrative person, I’m going to let you in on a little secret:

As a kid, my room was once so dirty that my parents literally brought in the snow shovel to help me clean up all the toys on my floor.

When I got older, I kept track of important things by writing them on my hand.

It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I even began to care about tidiness, organization, being reliable, etc.

I used to see a schedule like a jail cell. I considered schedules to be constricting and prohibiting. I thought a schedule would keep me from having fun or living a spontaneous and free life.

Actually, it’s the opposite.

Managing your time is liberating. (Just as a budget liberates your finances.)

A financial budget empowers you to spend your money on the things you want and need.

And a time budget — a.k.a. a schedule — empowers you to spend your time doing the things you want and need to do.

The key to success? Diligence.

It was five years ago that I quit my job to begin writing full time.

There are many things which have contributed to my ability to continue writing (as opposed to crashing and burning and having to go get a job at Starbucks).

But, by far and away, the most important component to building a business is diligence.

It’s more important than money, talent, relationships, audience, tools, or anything else.

Those resources and assets are all very important to be sure.

But unless you show up every day and give focused time on the most important work, you’re not actually building anything — you’re just shuffling the cards.

Without taking control of my time, there’s no way I’d still be here today, writing for you from my basement office.

There are many things that are part of my day-to-day life which help me to stay on track and show up every day.

But I think these are probably three of the most important “practices” which help me stay diligent with my writing.

  • I mostly ignore email. Just ask anyone who’s ever emailed me. I’m terrible at it. But I’m terrible on purpose. It’s something I’ve chosen not to give much time to so I can focus on writing and “creating” content.

  • The Note (a.k.a. my editorial calendar). This is something I’ve done for quite a while now and it helps tremendously with making sure that each day when I sit down to do my writing, I’ve already got a plan in place for how to spend my time.

  • Schedule every minute. Yep. I take about 5 minutes each morning and schedule out every minute of my day. This liberates my day and helps me make consistent and meaningful progress on projects without working wild hours or feeling anxious.

    (I share much more detail about my approach to planning and scheduling over here.)

* * *

Something I’ve learned over time is that diligence and focus are not personality types. They are skills.

You can develop the skill of being diligent.

You can get better at showing up every day.

You can work that muscle of focusing your time and attention.

I’m still getting better at it myself. (I’m not longer writing my schedule out on my hand, thank goodness.)

Next I want to share with you some thoughts about getting a system that works… a system you can stick with… a system that helps you.

Continue to the next post »

Dodging Meetings Like It’s My Job

Yesterday I shared with you about how I ended up as the marketing and creative director for a large Christian ministry.

In that role I had complete autonomy of my schedule. And I learned quickly that I had to set priorities and boundaries for my time, and choose how my time needed to be spent. If I didn’t then I would literally fail at my job.

Today, as promised, I want to share about some of the things I did to protect my time and stay in control when I was in the midst of a very busy office culture.

Tomorrow, I’m going to share about some of the things I do now to protect my time as a self-employed, work-from-home dad.

First, an aside about meetings…

What’s the deal with meetings?

Just about everyone I know seems to have a strong dislike of meetings.

Even the word… “meeting”… it sounds like “meatloaf” — another thing that many people have a strong dislike of.

I recently received an email from a reader who said one of her biggest challenges related to managing her time was dealing with the deluge of meetings:

I work on a team where there are meetings to prep for the meeting, and then meetings that come from meetings with follow up meetings for action items from the meetings. If you were to look at my outlook calendar you would see I rarely have blocks of time for focused work. It’s more like 30-60 minutes before the next meeting…

When I was the marketing director and leading the in-house design team, I was so afraid of having too many meetings. I treated meetings like fire. I knew they were necessary, but I didn’t want them to get out of control.

I also had to be careful about which meetings I allowed myself to attend. So often I’d spend an hour or two in a meeting with no outcome whatsoever. A literal waste of time. (I quickly learned how to spot time-waster meetings and began avoiding them at all costs.)

But meetings in and of themselves aren’t bad. (Same goes for meatloaf, too, actually. My wife has a meatloaf recipe that’s to die for.)

Meetings can be an invaluable tool for making forward progress.

The problem is that most meetings don’t result in progress.

Or, the forward progress is disproportionate to the length of the meeting.

Or the number of people in the meeting is 5x what it should be.

If you can relate, consider if there is something you can do about it. I’m serious.

What can you do in order to take control of your time at work?

You have a job to do. Are meetings and interruptions standing in the way of doing that job?

As I mentioned yesterday, when I took over as the marketing director, I had to get proactive with my time. That meant doing some crazy things to protect my schedule. And I’ll share those in just a minute.

But the reason it’s so important for you to have control of your schedule is that if you don’t, you’re not doing your job.

If your job is to work on a certain project but you’re also in meetings all the time, respectfully and honestly ask your managers which they’d prefer you do.

You can’t be a maker while working in a manager’s schedule.

Protecting Your Time is Always Applicable

After three years working as the marketing director, I quit that job in 2011 to work from my basement as a writer.

I’ve been writing full time for 5 years now. And so much of what I learned then about protecting my time still applies today.

Except these days, instead of protecting my time from meetings and interruptions, I have to protect it from shiny object syndrome and the incessant tug to peruse Twitter.

The things I learned also apply to my home life. So much of what I learned about being productive in the midst of a busy job also helped me with being productive once I became a dad. (Which, by the way, is something I talk about at length in the Time Management class.)

If you can get hold of a few basic skills for protecting and managing your time then you can use them in all sorts of seasons of life.

A Few Tricks

As promised, here a few of the tricks I used as the marketing director to thrive in the midst of that wild and crazy job position.

  • I would (politely) turn down meeting requests, even with people who were my superiors. When I was invited to a meeting I always tried to find out what it was about. And sometimes I’d ask to be excused if I felt that my presence there wouldn’t be valuable to the group nor to my own job.

  • I got one of those super-dorky bluetooth earpieces so I could call my mom more often. We had three different campuses. My office was at campus C but most meetings were at campus A. I drove back and forth often. And, in order to make the most of that 15 minute drive, I got a bluetooth earpiece so I could more easily have conversations while commuting. It was an excellent way to “meet” with someone over the phone. And it was great for catching up with my folks on a regular basis.

  • I’d schedule meetings with nobody. This was a trick I learned from someone wise. He would schedule meetings with nobody. What I mean is that he was always getting meeting requests. So, on his weekly schedule were two blocks of open time set aside for meetings. When someone would ask to meet, they would get slotted into the next available time.

  • I even scheduled meetings with myself. I needed at least 2 hours every day to work without distraction. So… I scheduled it. Then, if someone wanted to meet with me during that time I could tell them I already had something booked (because I did).

  • I worked from home on Fridays. Not only did I need 2 hours a day of uninterrupted time, I also needed one whole day of deep work. This was when I would do the sort of tasks such as planning, strategizing, etc. that should take a couple of hours minimum to really make meaningful progress.

    It seems like a pompous thing to say “I’m taking the whole day on Friday to work from home. Nobody call me.” But, it was the right thing to do. It was necessary.

    If I hadn’t taken time to focus on things such as planning and budgeting then my department would have ended up in big trouble and I’d have been out of a job.

    I had to take that time so I could focus on the important work and plan for our long-term goals and objectives.

When it comes to office culture and meetings, there’s this sense that if you’re not in the meeting your missing out. We think people who skip out on meetings are slacking off. When, for all we know, maybe they’re actually getting real work done. 😳

After I took the role as marketing director, I decided early on that I wanted the results of my work and the culture of my team to speak for my ability rather than my meeting attendance record.

Looking busy and being seen is a mighty poor substitute for doing work that matters.

Sadly, meetings and busywork are what so much of our corporate culture values these days. Because it’s what’s easiest to quantify in the short term.

* * *

Now that I work for myself, I have new tactics. But the ideas behind my tactics are still the same.

Next, I want to share with you what I do nowadays to keep in control of my time.


It was April of 2008. My wife, Anna, and I were driving to St. Louis from Kansas City.

Somewhere in the middle of nowheresville on I-70, I got a phone call.

There are a few moments in my life that I look back to as being keystone moments. Small events that signified and connected to something big.

This phone call was one of those.

Before I continue, let me give a little bit of context…

Just a few weeks earlier, my boss at the time had informally offered me her job as the Marketing Director for a large Christian ministry. We had met in her office where she told me she was quitting and asked me if I was interested in taking over her job.

The chance to be a leader? The chance to have my own office? The chance to pick my own hours!? You bet I was interested.

However, before I could “officially” be offered the job I had to be vetted and interviewed.

The vetting process took about a week. They had me come to a meeting where they asked me lots of questions. And they had a meeting without me but where they talked about me and the job I was up for.

I had no clue if they would actually offer me the job or not.

I was just a kid. Or at least I felt like one. I was a mere 27 years old. Everyone in those meetings had at least 10 or 20 years on me. Plus, I was a college drop out — I had quit after my freshman year to go play drums instead.

The final interview meeting was at the same time I was driving to St. Louis. They said they’d call me. And that’s the phone call I got.

I was ready. If they offered me the job, I knew I wanted to accept.

Though the job would mean more work, more hours, more responsibility, and more unknowns, I knew it would be a ton of fun. I knew it would be a huge opportunity to learn.

Well, they did offer me the job.

For the next three years I served in that role as the marketing director.

It was a trial by fire, and I loved it. The job, the team I was privileged to work with, the work we did — I’m so proud of it all.

I learned so much during those three years. I learned about management, team dynamics, budgeting, leadership, communication, marketing, audience building, and more.

But what I learned about most was time management and decision making.

I had to learn the hard way how to get good at spending my time.

I discovered very quickly that I alone had to be the one to take ownership of my time and attention.

I’d spent the previous 27 years of my life being told how to spend my time. From childhood, going to school, having a job — everywhere I went there was someone telling me when to show up, what to do, when to take lunch, when to go home, when to go to bed, etc.

But suddenly, in my new job as the marketing director, I had complete autonomy of my schedule.

I quickly learned that I had to set the priorities, the boundaries, and choose how my time needed to be spent. If I didn’t then I would literally fail at my job.

I’ll say that again:

If I hadn’t been proactive about taking control of my time, then I would have failed at my job.

This meant I did crazy things to protect my time.

And now that I work for myself, I have to be even more proactive with my time (though not quite as crazy).

I’ll share more about all of that tomorrow.

For now, think about this: Being in control of our time is a lot like keeping a clean house. A few hours of hard work over the weekend can transform a cluttered home into a peaceful space. The challenge is in keeping the home tidy on a daily basis (especially if you’ve got kids).

So too with how we spend our time. Once we get that initial grasp of control, the challenge becomes how to stay in control (again, especially if you’ve got kids). Staying ahead of the whirlwind. Keeping the time to do meaningful work even though our entire office culture seems to thrive on incessant meetings.

Next, I want to share some of the tricks I used as the marketing director to thrive in the midst of that wild and crazy job position.

Solve Those Distractions

In the past week I’ve gotten literally hundreds of emails from folks regarding time management.

As people are signing up for the time management class that launches next week, I’ve been asking them about their biggest frustrations in terms of managing and scheduling their time.

By far and away one of the biggest challenges I’m hearing from people is that of distractions and interruptions.

In light of that, I wanted to share with you a quick and simple activity you can do to help with those distractions.

Try this:

  • Take a sheet of paper, and draw a line down the middle from top to bottom.

  • At the top of the left-hand column, write “Distractions and Interruptions”.

  • Above the right-hand column, write “Solutions”.

  • Now, list out as many distractions and interruptions you can think of. Anything and everything that stands in the way of you doing what it is you want to do.

  • Then, next to each one, list a possible way for how you can remove that distraction or interruption.

This is a play straight out of The Focus Course, and the idea is 2-fold:

  1. For one, you won’t be able to implement a solution for every single distraction and interruption on your list. But I bet you can solve at least a few of them. And every little bit helps.

  2. Secondly, and most importantly, this gets you in the driver’s seat. It’s a way for you to be proactive when it comes to those external distractions that get in the way of doing your focused work.

Monday, February 29

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Save time and money all while keeping your company Apple devices secure. Sign up for free and try Bushel today.

* * *

My thanks to Bushel for sponsoring the RSS feed this week. Sponsorship by The Syndicate.

Fantastic Friday: Podcast Edition

Hello friends,

It’s Friday! I was recently asked by a reader about what podcasts I’d recommend.

While I don’t listen to podcasts frequently, I do listen regularly. Since I work from home, I don’t have much of a commute (unless half-a-flight of stairs counts). But whenever I’m in the car on errands I’ve got a podcast going.

And so, since I only listen to a couple of podcast episodes each week, I’m very particular about which episodes I listen to. Trying to choose only the ones that look the most interesting or relevant to me.

Which is why, as I’ve mentioned before, my number one feature request for Overcast would be a custom playlist that works like a “listen later” queue. I’d love to flag individual episodes from within Overcast and have them show up in a playlist and I could just work my way through that list.

But, that’s just details.

I mostly listen to business-centric podcasts these days. Below are are my four current favorite shows.

As always, thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.

— Shawn

1. Entreleadership

I just discovered the Entreleadership podcast about six months ago, and have listened to nearly every episode since. It’s an excellent combination of tight editing with candid conversation.

The episodes are short (usually 30 minutes or less) and usually feature 2-3 different segments and conversations.

Some recommended episodes:

2. The Fizzle Show

No surprise here. I’ve long been encouraging folks to listen to the Fizzle Show. It’s equal parts fun and helpful. From the practicals of starting and sustaining a business to the emotional ups and downs of entrepreneurship, these guys know their stuff.

Some recommended episodes:

3. seanwes podcast

The unsung star of the seanwes podcast is actually Sean’s co-host, Ben. Being a co-host is not an easy job and Ben does an excellent job! The seanwes podcast covers a broad range of topics, primarily centered around building an audience-based business.

Sean is an excellent communicator and his show is always filled with excellent advice.

Some recent and excellent episodes:

4. Tim Ferris Show

I mostly pick and choose which episodes of the Tim Ferris Show I listen to. They’re usually 2 hours long, but they tend to be jam packed with incredibly fascinating and helpful information.

Some of the best episodes:

* * *

In other news: Shawn Today continues with its series on 4DX. I announced my new class on time management. On Tools & Toys we reviewed an awesome pocket knife. And over on the Sweet Setup we picked the best 3rd-party email app for iOS: Microsoft Outlook.

Benjamin Franklin’s Daily Schedule

Ben Franklin Daily Schedule

That’s a copy of Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule. I’ve written about this before, but (for obvious reasons) I wanted to return to it today.

What I love about his schedule is how open and simple it is. Though it was a routine, it was very forgiving for all the nuances and variables that each day’s tasks and priorities seem to bring.

He had only six blocks of time scheduled each day:

  • Getting ready for the day: shower, breakfast, personal study, and prepare for work (3 hours)
  • Morning work (4 hours)
  • Review of current projects and to eat lunch (2 hours)
  • Afternoon work (4 hours)
  • Dinner and rest and wrapping up the day (4 hours)
  • Sleep (7 hours)

So simple yet still structured and helpful.

From time to time I take a look at my own daily schedule to make sure it’s serving me as well as it should be. Because I want to be the one who sets my schedule just like I am the one budgeting my finances.

A schedule, just like a financial budget, is there for the purpose of serving my goals. A schedule makes sure the minutes don’t get away from me. It helps me keep from squandering my time.

As a creative person, I’ve found the structure of a schedule is extremely empowering.

I used to think the opposite. Many folks still do think the opposite. They think “time budgets” are oppressive and that a schedule is something only prickly people do. Well, that’s silly.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

There’s no good reason a creative person should live without any sort of routine, discipline, or accountability.

What is margin if not a constraint that keeps us from overflowing our borders? It is by living with constraint that we are enabled to do our best creative work.

If you’re struggling to get a simple yet helpful schedule in place, maybe there’s something from Ben Franklin’s day that could inspire you.

Consider setting a block of time each day for something that’s important to you.

A Focus on Time

Speaking of time management — you don’t have to be (or live like) a founding father of the United States to get the most of your time each day.

I like to schedule every minute of my day, but that doesn’t mean you have to.

While you may be feeling bummed out at your current approach to time management (or lack thereof) the good news is this:

Diligence, focus, and deep work are all skills that can be learned.

As I announced yesterday, in a little less than two weeks I’m launching something that will help you tremendously. It’s a class on time management.

It’s a class for people who dislike schedules just as much as it is for those who love them.

(Go ahead and read that last sentence again.)

Now, if you’re asking how that is possible, let me tell you…

It’s possible because taking ownership of your time and attention is different than merely implementing a few quick tips for how to rock a Day Runner.™

Focus, priorities, time management, etc. are important because they’re about loving life. Again — not for prickly people, but for all people.

Which is why A Focus On Time promises to be equally relevant for those who adore spontaneity as well as those who thrive in administrative.

This is a class for those who want to get the most of their time — their life — every day.

Go here to find out all about the class and sign up to be notified for when it comes out. You’ll get first dibs at early-bird pricing, and I’ve got an updated version of my PDF ebook about procrastination that I want to send you as my way of saying thanks.

A Focus on Time

A Focus on Time

Things like diligence, focus, priorities, saying no, time management, and the like are important. But why?

This quote by Benjamin Franklin pretty much sums it up for me:

“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.”

Focus, priorities, time management, etc… These are important because they’re about loving life.

* * *

It’s been about 9 months since The Focus Course came out. And a few months ago I also began offering the free Elements of Focus class.

Between Focus Course members and those who’ve gone through the free class, the number one area of feedback has been a request for additional training on time management.

Therefore, I’m putting together exactly that:

A Focus on Time

This is a brand new class by yours truly, focused on scheduling, prioritizing, and time management. It launches in two weeks.

Click here to find out more about the class, and sign up to be notified when it launches.

Work Focus; Rest Focus

After breakfast, I sit down and schedule out the rest of my day.

I literally schedule every single minute.

scheduled minutes

An activity that takes no more than five minutes.

Scheduling my day used to take 10 or 15 minutes, but I’ve gotten better at it over time. And even if it took 15 minutes, it’d be worth it — time spent scheduling is not time wasted.

When I’ve got that plan for how I’m going to spend my time, and what I’m going to do when, I get more done during the day, and my day is significantly less stressful.

I used to think a schedule meant I’d never get to have fun. Because if you’re scheduling your time then you should only put Super Duper Important things on your schedule.

Well, I do only schedule Super Duper Important things. I just have a smarter definition of Super Duper Important.

Did you know I schedule time to watch Netflix? I schedule time for a mid-day nap if I want. Time to read for an hour and a half in the middle of the afternoon. Time to take my wife out for dinner once a week. Time to go running at the gym. Time to play trains with my kids. Time to have lunch with a friend. Time to help my wife with dinner. Time to write for as long as I can handle in the morning.

In fact, by scheduling every minute of my day, I help make sure I do all the things I want to do — for work and for play.


I’m not here to talk about the how and why of scheduling every minute (I’ll do more of that in a few weeks over here).

The Week’s Wildly Important Goals

What makes it easy for me to schedule every minute of my day is this: I already know what I want and need to do that day.

I get this because on Sundays, usually in the late afternoon, I sit down and list all the big things I want to accomplish over the next 7 days.

In 4DX terminology, this is me listing out what the Wildly Important Goals are for my week.

For a recent example, here are the outcomes I listed out for the week of February 1st:

Knowing what my desired outcomes are for the week means I can assign some time to them.

By assigning time I know when I will be doing the things that are important. This is far more effective (and stress free) than just having a list of things I want to do and hoping that I’ll get around to doing them.

Planning the Week’s Focus

With my week’s goals listed out, I then sit down and plan the main things I’ll be focusing on each day for my Monday – Friday.

For this, I have two areas of focus: work and rest.

  • Deep Work Focus: I have capacity for about 3 hours of deep work each day — 2 hours in the morning and 1 hour in the early afternoon.

    Thefore, for each day of the week (M-F) I list out what my one or two areas of “Deep Work Focus” are going to be.

  • Rest Focus: I know I’ll have down time in my day because, as I mentioned above, I schedule it. And so I also choose ahead of time how I am going to spend that time.

    For me, it’s important not to spend every spare moment I have checking Twitter, email, or watching TV. Having a few pre-chosen activities for how I’m going to spend my down time goes a long way in helping make sure my down time actually leaves me feeling more rested and re-charged.

    (This is what I was getting at when I wrote about some alternatives to the just checks.)

    For example, during the week of February 1, my down time was spent reading 4DX.

  • Other: Of course, you don’t have to stop at work and rest. You could also define a family and relationships focus, a health focus, and a personal inner-life focus. (For those who’ve gone through The Focus Course, this is exactly what we address in Modules Three and Five)

* * *

Being proactive with your time and focus is liberating.

Trying to plan ahead like this can be difficult at first. We are so used to being reactive and responding to the tyranny of the urgent. Or we are afraid of “boxing ourselves in” by making a choice ahead of time.

But the effort is worth it. In no time you’ll be able to whip up a plan in just a few minutes. And the freedom it will bring to your day-to-day life is awesome.

* * *

P.S. You may be interested to know that I’m putting together a time management class that promises to be equally relevant to those who thrive on spontaneity as well as those who nerd out over administrativia.

If you’re interested, sign-up here to be notified about the class. You’ll also be first in line for early-bird pricing.

Fantastic Friday: Instapaper’d

Hello friends,

This week’s Fantastic Friday comes to you from the Colorado Front Range. My wife and boys and I have been out here for the past week enjoying the unexpected warm weather and spending time with family.

And so, appropriately, this week’s four fantastic links are articles (and a video) straight from the best of my recent Instapaper queue. Enjoy.

— Shawn

* * *

Craig Mod’s Review of the Leica Q

What a review. What a camera.

I believe that in hindsight — and I realize this sounds kind of crazy, as if I’ve binge-inhaled all of the Leica Kool-Aid at once — the Leica Q will be seen as one of the greatest fixed-prime-lens travel photography kits of all time.

The Attention Charter

Cal Newport, of course:

I find that the occasions when I most despair about the tattered state of my schedule are almost always the result of the accumulation of a dozen yeses that each made perfect sense in isolation.

Though I don’t have a formal attention charter, having some pre-defined limits for external requests on my time and attention is something I’ve done since 2008.

In my days as a marketing and creative director for an in-house design team, I received constant requests for meetings. And so, I simply had on my schedule “open meeting time” twice a week. When someone needed to meet with me, I’d let them know of my next available time. Not only did this remove a ton of mental energy to “find a spot in my schedule” but it also kept my unexpected meetings to a minimum.

These days, I have some similar limits. For example, I only accept speaking gigs to events I want to attend anyway (and, this year, at least, I’m keeping my speaking to just 2 events). I also flat-out ignore almost all incoming requests for product reviews across all of our websites — I have no doubt that we get some awesome pitches, but most of the time they are bulk email requests, and so I don’t try to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Do You Have to Love What You Do?

Jason Fried:

If I were giving a motivational speech, I’d say that, if you want to be successful and make a real contribution to the world, you have to be intrinsically motivated by the work you do, and you have to feel good about spending your days on it. Love might grow — and it’s a wonderful thing if it does — but you don’t need it up front. You can succeed just by wanting something to exist that doesn’t already.

Related viewing: This 99U talk by Cal Newport about why it’s bad advice to follow your passion, and this Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee episode with president Obama.

I’m Possible

This is an absolutely amazing video from Jeremy Cowart. My wife and I had the privilege of seeing Jeremy perform this live last fall and, along with probably everyone in the room, we were deeply moved.

Thursday, February 18

This coming March 14-17, the organizers of CocoaConf will be holding a special event in the heart of Yosemite National Park. It’s called Yosemite, and it’s a conference for Apple developers, designers, and enthusiasts.

Speakers this year include Andy Ihnatko, Serenity Caldwell, Jonathan Mann, Neven and Christa Mrgan, Jean MacDonald, and Jim Dalrymple. The conference also features two photo walks led by TED photographer James Duncan Davidson, and a Breakpoint Jam with James Dempsey of James Dempsey and the Breakpoints.

Use code “BLANC” to save 20% on your tickets when registering at

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My thanks to CocoaConf for sponsoring the site this week.

Apps and Workflows: iPhone (6s Plus) Edition

Shawn Blanc iPhone Home screen 2016-02-15

Wallpaper via Unspalsh.

The First home screen is a peculiar spot. You want it populated only with the most frequently-used apps. But, what happens when there are but a few apps that you often?

My first Home screen has a few “classifications” of apps:

  • Those I use several times per day: Slack, Tweetbot, Weather Line, Fanastical, OmniFocus, Safari, Simplenote, Messages, and Music.
  • Those I use several times per week: Overcast, Day One, Google Maps, and Instapaper.
  • Those I use often enough that I like to know exactly where they are: such as VSCO, 1Password, Pcalc. I also a couple of folders with some miscellaneous apps related to work and life.

Just a little over two years ago, I wrote about all the iPhone apps I used at the time. Since then, things have changed quite a bit for me. Not only have I consolidated the amount of iOS apps I use now compared to then, but I’m also trying to use my iPhone less often.

Another big change (pun intended) is that I’m currently rocking the iPhone 6s Plus, which is just altogether a different device than the iPhones of yesteryear. As I’ll get to in a second, because the iPhone 6s Plus is a two-handed device, it lets me get away with having less apps on my first home screen. Since 95-percent of the time I’m using two hands, I don’t usually need to have the apps reachable by thumb when holding the device with just one hand.

If you’re wondering, I’m not nearly as thoughtful with my second, third, fourth, and fifth (!) Home screens. Those screens are basically no-man’s land. One of my email apps is over there; there are apps I’ve downloaded to try out that are now just floating around; some games; and other miscellany.

A Brief Aside About the iPhone 6s Plus

Last fall, I went big. I bought the iPhone 6s Plus, named it Hercules, and decided to give it a shot. It has definitely taken some time to get used to, but I think I’ve certainly acclimated.

The tipping point was when I no longer tried to treat the Plus as a one-handed device. For years and years my iPhone was something that could be used with one hand. The Plus? Not so much.

But, once it became natural for me to use both hands when dealing with the Plus, it stopped being an awkward device and the advantages of the larger phone — namely the larger screen and superior battery life — are absolutely wonderful.

With the battery life, I often forget just how spectacular it is. I can’t remember the last time my iPhone’s battery was in the red.

Another thing with the iPhone 6s Plus is that it somehow managed to take over the spot my iPad used to hold. It was such a sly move I never saw it coming. But somehow, over the course of a few months, I just stopped using my iPad for reading and note taking.

In part, I think it’s the speed. My 6s Plus is quite a bit faster than my 2nd generation iPad mini. But also, it’s that the iPhone is just big enough that it’s not worth bringing along and using another iOS device for the purposes of reading, researching, and note taking.

Perhaps I’ll get a new iPad when it eventually comes time to replace my 5-year-old MacBook Air, but I’m not sure. I’m pretty happy with my iMac in the office and my iPhone everywhere else. And, for when I’m on the road and need to work, my Mac Book Air still gets the job done.

That said, today’s article is all about the apps. So let’s dive in…

My iOS Apps and Workflows

This will almost certainly be far less nerdy than it sounds.

Today I mostly just want to share a bit about the iPhone apps I rely on the most, why I use them, and how they fit in to the day-to-day rhythm of my life.


We’ll start with Simplenote because if I had to pick just one single app to have on my phone this would be it.

There are many, many, many apps that allow you to create notes and sync them to your iPad and Mac. And most of those apps are far more feature-rich than Simplenote is. But I don’t mind.

I’ve never been let down by Simplenote’s speed, reliability, or search. It handles these features with flying colors and to me they are the most important features of all.

With Simplenote I have the ability to find any note I’m looking for within a matter of seconds, I’ve never lost a note, and I’ve never felt that I’m using the app wrong.

In a future post I’ll write more about my writing routine, what I do with all my bad ideas, and the like. But for now I’ll just say that Simplenote is pretty much at the heart of it all.


If I could have just two apps on my iPhone, the second would be Messages. Because I like to text with my friends and family. Who doesn’t?

Apple Music

First, a moment of silence for Rdio…

While Apple Music has a lot going for it, it is without its charms. But, nevertheless, I use it every day.

My home office is downstairs. And directly above it are hardwood floors and two toddler boys. Which means I wear headphones almost all morning.

The first thing I do when beginning my work day is to put on those headphones and hit play on the Monument Valley soundtrack and listen to that music for an hour or two while I write.


The best app there is for calendaring and remindering on iOS.


I’ve been a hard and fast OmniFocus user for more than half-a-decade. Something I’ve always liked about the app is that it can be flexible to work the way you work best.

When I first began using OmniFocus I was managing an in-house design team. At any given time we had roughly 45 active projects. It was crazy. And OmniFocus helped me keep everything moving forward.

Nowadays, I have about 3 or 4 active projects at a time. I’m managing far less action items. And in both situations OmniFocus could be as powerful or as simple as I need it.

I should say, however, that I’m considering a move to Wunderlist. At the beginning of this year Blanc Media hired it’s first full-time employee, and so now I’m looking at getting a task management system that allows for group collaboration.


Probably my favorite 1st-party app on iOS (Trailers is a pretty stellar second) and, if you count in all the in-app browsers that use Safari, this is surely the app I use the most on my iPhone.


For checking the Twitter, of course.

Weather Line

Every night before I go to bed, I set out my clothes for the next day. And so I’ll check what tomorrow’s weather is going to be so I can dress accordingly.

PCalc Lite

Yep. I can’t every post a picture of my iPhone Home screen without getting comments about how I use Pcalc Lite. Well, it’s not. I have the full version of PCalc via in-app purchase, but went with the “Lite” app because I prefer the looks of the orange icon over the blue one.


Who’s not using Slack these days? This is the app we use to communicate about and basically run Tools & Toys, The Sweet Setup, and The Focus Course.


This is the app I use to take photos of business expense receipts when I’m out and about. It does OCR on the receipt and uploads it to my “Receipts” folder in Dropbox.


Of course. Thanks to iCloud Keychain I don’t need to open up 1Password on my iPhone all that often, but it’s still a critical app.


While I still use Instapaper every day (to send things to it) I only read about a half-dozen articles in a week (if that).

Nearly all of my reading is with physical dead-tree books now a days. It started over a year ago when I ordered a whole slew of books off Amazon while researching for The Focus Course. It was far cheaper to order used books from Amazon than to by the Kindle versions. And then I just got hooked on how much easier and faster it was to read a paper book.

Speaking of reading, savvy readers may have noticed a lack of an RSS reader in my list. Since all the reading I do these days is with physical books, I haven’t check in on my RSS feeds in at least a year.


This is the app I use for listening to podcasts whenever I’m in the car. Which, since I work from home, isn’t all that often.

Even though I’m subscribed to a few dozen podcasts, I only listen to about 1-2 episodes per week. And so I’m very particular about which episodes I listen to, choosing only the ones that look the most interesting or relevant to me.

Which is why my number one feature request for Overcast would be a custom playlist that works like a “listen later” queue. I’d love to be able to flag individual episodes and have them show up in a list and I could just work my way through that list.

Day One

Though I use Day One all the time, it’s not always from my iPhone. I also do a fair amount of my writing from the Mac. But what I love most about the iPhone version is how I can quickly snap a photo and create a new journal entry with that photo, add in a brief caption, and the location data is automatically placed. Between a picture, the geo-tagged location, and a brief explanation, it’s pretty easy to have a robust journal entry in a few seconds.

* * *

When I first started writing this article a few days ago, my home screen had one more row of apps than it does now. But the process of writing about the apps helped me realized that I had more apps than I wanted. So, thanks to a couple folders on the Home screen and the ability to search for an app from any Home screen, I’ve simplified things a bit.

As I wrote last week, the apps and workflows we use need an audit from time to time. For me, just the process of writing this article caused me to think again about if the apps that were on my Home screen were the apps I still wanted there.

Fantastic Friday: Writing Edition

Hello friends,

It’s another fantastic Friday!

As I’m sure you’re already aware, the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl! I remember when Denver won in Super Bowls 32 and 33. My friends and I ran down to the main street of our little town in Castle Rock, Colorado. We had our Broncos flags and air horns and just ran up and down the street waving at people. It was so fun.

And while I didn’t go running through any streets this past Sunday, it was so great to see the orange and blue get the win. Especially since this is most certainly Payton Manning’s final season.

Okay, I’m done talking about sports for the foreseeable future.

Today’s edition of Fantastic Friday is all about writing. As I mentioned in Wednesday’s article, the next few week’s I’ll be sharing about my own tools and workflows.

Today, I’m sharing with you the four most important elements of my writing routine.

Yesterday on Twitter I asked if anyone had any questions or topics for today’s article. I’ve tried to answer a few of those questions here, but there are more questions that I’ll aim to answer in a future post.

As always, thanks for reading!

— Shawn

1. A Very Clicky Keyboard

Remember a few years ago when I went hyper-nerd in search of an awesome clicky keyboard? My motivation was two-fold: (a) I’d only ever been typing on the standard-issue keyboard that came with the computers I owned; and (b) as a writer, it would behoove me to have the best possible keyboard.

So I bought a half-dozen keyboards and spent an inordinate amount of time typing on them. You can read all about it here and here.

Ultimately, the keyboard that really clicked with me (ha!) was the Filco Ninja.

If I were to replace my current keyboard, I’d get a CODE keyboard in either Blue or Green switches. What’s awesome about the CODE is the backlighting.

2. ‘Monument Valley’ Soundtrack

Monument Valley is an splendidly beautiful game for iOS. It also has an incredible soundtrack.

I’ve probably listened to the soundtrack close to 1,000 times. Even now, as I write this very sentence, I’m listening to it. It’s what I listen to when I write.

I began listening to this album over a year ago when I drastically changed my morning routine to favor writing above all else as the most important part of my work day.

The soundtrack is awesome, to be sure. But, another reason I continue to play it every day is that there’s some cool science behind this routine. After a few weeks of having this soundtrack on while writing, it become Pavlovian.

Getting into the flow of writing is hard. It’s always been hard, and I suspect it will continue to be so. By having a routine that surrounds my writing time it helps me to get in the zone faster and to stay focused for longer.

+ Nerdy side note: I use the B&O H7 wireless headphones and Apple Music.

3. iA Writer

Lately, iA Writer has become my text editor of choice. Especially for one-off articles like this one.

I’m also a fan of Ulysses — and turn to it when I’m working on bigger projects that involve chapters / sections / etc. But I’ve found that (a) the sync between Ulysses on Mac and iPad is pretty slow; and (b) I rarely ever use my iPad these days.

4. The Note

Lastly is “The Note”. This is, by far and away, the single most important component to my writing routine.

For years I used to sit down at my computer in the morning and ask myself what I would be writing about today. Now, I decide topics far in advance.

Not only have I begun keeping an editorial calendar so I know what is being published and when over the next 4-6 weeks, but I also plan out what my writing topic will be each day.

The Note is what I use for planning out each day’s writing topic. It’s just something simple that I leave out for myself at the end of each work day, where, on the note I have written down the topic for tomorrow’s writing time. Then, the next morning, when it’s time to write, all I have to do is hit play on Monument Valley and put the clicky keyboard to good use.

+ Nerdy aside: For my “note” I write it in my Baron Fig Confidant notebook and a Uni-ball Signo DX 0.38mm pen. The same tools I use for my daily to-do list and schedule (something we’ll get into later).

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P.S. For more info regarding my writing workflow, check out this Q&A. »

How to Audit Your Workflow

Question: What does your car, your house, your coffee grinder, your budget, your work routines, and even your marriage all have in common?

Answer: They all require maintenance.

Pretty much anything and everything of importance requires our intentional and proactive care.

However, I find that the older I get, the more “set in my ways” I am.

Somewhere I read that after the age of 35 or so, people stop being excited about new technology. And they even begin to look at new technological inventions and advancements with a critical and negative eye.

If we’re weary to get the latest cell phone, how much more so are we prone to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them?

That stubbornness can be good and bad.

It’s good insofar as it keeps us on track to show up every day and do the work.

But that stubbornness does not serve us well if it keeps us from learning, maturing, and adapting. Our workflows, tools, and routines all need a good old-fashioned audit once in a while.

Auditing Your Workflow

It used to be that when a new operating system would ship for my Mac, then I would do my most serious tinkering. I would do a clean install of OS X and be forced to re-evaluate which apps I wanted re-install.

But nowadays updating OS X is about as easy as updating an app. And though I have made some significant changes to my daily writing routine, I haven’t preformed a good workflow audit in nearly a year and a half (since I bought this Retina iMac).

For the next couple of articles I’m going to be writing about my own workflows and tools in hopes to show you why it’s important (and fun!) take time out for a workflow audit.

As you’re getting to work on your goals and projects for the year, now is as good a time as any to reassess the tools you’re using and how you’re using them.

Maybe it’s time to find a more advanced tool. Or, maybe it’s time to switch to something more basic. How can your processes be enhanced? How can they be simplified? Does something need to be added? Can something be removed?

There’s no right or wrong answer so long as you’re at least asking the questions. (Put that on a stock photo and Pin it).

So, when I do a major workflow audit like the one I’ll be doing this month, there are several things I consider:

  • On my Mac and iPhone I consider what software I no longer use or need; what files can I archive away onto a backup drive; and what files can I delete?

  • In my schedule I consider how I’m spending my time over the course of a week; what would I like to add or remove to my routines; is my time being spent how I want it to be spent; at the end of a week do I feel a sense of accomplishment and contentment in the areas that matter?

  • With my team I look at how to remove bottlenecks and friction as well as ways to empower them, give them more autonomy, and increase overall team morale.

  • For my own day-to-day activities, I consider how I plan my day; how manage and accomplish my to-do list; how I deal with email; how I write, record, and publish articles and podcasts; how I read and study; and how I make consistent progress on big projects.

Because everything above interacts and interweaves with the others, a look at the entire workflow is needed on occasion. It’s valuable to just take a moment, look at the big picture, and ask if everything is running well.

Our lives are ever-changing. As are our interests, priorities, and availability. It’s worth the effort to take a look at our systems and tools to make sure they are still the ones serving us and not the other way around.

And then, as they advise in 4DX, if every other area of my operation remained at its current level of performance, what is the one area where change would have the greatest impact?

Fantastic Friday: 4DX and The Long Game

Hello friends.

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!

— Shawn

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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The Four Disciplines of Execution →

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.

Related material: the book Talent is Overrated and this 99U talk by Cal Newport.

Technology Resolutions for 2016 →

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

Speaking of tools and workflows, the new version of Day One is here, and it’s so great. Day One is certainly one of my favorite apps, and I love the updates that have come out for iOS and Mac.

Over on The Sweet Setup we’ve updated our review of the app.

* * *

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.

Permission to be Creative — With Special Guest, Havilah Cunnington

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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Episode Highlights

  • 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.

Show Links

Deep Work and Focus — With Special Guest, Cal Newport

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:

    1. Monastic: “This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.” (Think seclusion somewhere)
    2. 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.”
    3. Rhythmic: “This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.”
    4. 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.

Further Reading

Download here. (01:15:32)

Fantastic Friday

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!).


Yours truly at the Sprint Accelerator talking about focus.

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 and The Focus Course right now that I wanted to take a chance to highlight it.

As always, thanks for reading.

— Shawn

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The Elements of Focus — New Class Starts February 8th →

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.

Learn OmniFocus Webinar →

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.

Why Steve Jobs Wore The Same Outfit Every Day →

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.

Why Margin is Critical for Doing Your Best Creative Work

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 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

In my recent podcast conversation with Corbett Barr we talked about how the indie entrepreneur has two modes: “CEO” mode and “Worker Bee” mode.

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:

  1. It helps you increase your skills.
  2. It establishes a consistency with your audience that leads to trust and reciprocity.
  3. 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.

Resting Well

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?

  • Reading
  • 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Less Thinking, More Doing

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.

Show Highlights

  • 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.

Show Links

Monday, January 25

ReadBundle is an unbeatable collection of books and resources for entrepreneurs, designers, marketers, startups, and growth hackers. You can save 90% on 12 fantastic eBooks — usually $285, this bundle is yours this week for just $29!

In this bundle, books include Everything I Know by Paul Jarvis, Email Field Guide by David Sparks, Design for Conversions by Brian Casel, and Build & Launch by Justin Jackson.

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My thanks to ReadBundle for sponsoring the site this week.

Fantastic Friday: AMA, Card Games, and More

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.

— Shawn

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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.

You can email me, or ask me a workflow question on Twitter.

Control: A Simple, Strategic Card Game →

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:

  1. Open up Twitter
  2. 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.
  3. Scroll through who you’re following, and for each person you want to add to your new list click on the gear icon
  4. Then click “Add or remove from list…”
  5. And then check the box next to the list you want to add them to (or create a list if you haven’t yet).
  6. Repeat for each person you want in your new list of awesomeness
  7. Once your list is mostly populated, go into Tweetbot and bring up your main timeline view.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.)

Margin for Creativity

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

Information Fast

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.

Give Your Day Some Breathing Room

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 difference between a schedule with and without margin is far more than just one of getting up earlier. It’s an internal choice. The choice to take ownership of our time and attention.

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.

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