A few days ago I asked this question:
Is there a path to creative success?
As I’m sure you know, the answer is yes.
Now, the definition of success varies wildly. But I like to define creative success like this:
The ability to do creative work we’re proud of and to keep doing that work.
By that measure, most of you reading this are already creatively successful. You just might not know it yet.
If there is a path to creative success, what is it?
Here’s part of it: Consistency.
Choosing to show up ever day.
Choosing to do the hard and frightful work, day in and day out. Not waiting for permission. Not waiting for inspiration. Not waiting for a faster, fancier, more expensive gizmogadget.
Whatever it is you want to do with your art, you have to show up every day and make something. Failing to do this will be your single biggest roadblock to doing your best creative work.
As you know, I’ve been at this full-time writing racket for 5 years now. And still, day after day, for 5 years, one of the biggest challenges is to get my butt in the chair and write.
Once I’m here, typing, the second biggest challenge is to be honest.
Because — as I mentioned yesterday — when it comes to creativity and entrepreneurship, I consider the most important advice I to be this: focus on consistency and honesty.
Consistency and honesty are, I believe, the backbone for how you can make a living as a creative entrepreneur / artist.
Consistency is important for two reasons:
First off, the internet thrives on patterns and regularity; showing up every day lets people know they can rely on you to be there. It also keeps things moving and is the “machine” you use to build your business assets and stock and flow content.
Secondly, even if you’re a talentless dweeb like me, writing (or doing anything) every day will help you become better at that craft.
Honesty is important because it’s how you build trust with others. (Obviously.)
Do you want to earn the respect and long-term attention of your audience? Be honest. Always seek to provide at least 51% of the value between you and your readership.
Regardless of how you serve your audience, always give as much as possible. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
Do this and you’ll be signing up to play the long game. By building trust and providing “preeminent” value, you’re proving to folks that you’re the real deal and you have something to offer.
Five years ago, when I first announced that I was quitting my job to write here for a living, I asked people to sign up for a subscribing membership at $3/month.
400 of you signed up the first day.
As much as I like to think you signed up because my sales pitch was awesome and heart-felt, the truth is that it was awesome and heart-felt… No, seriously, those of you signed up for a membership back in 2011 did so because I’d been writing consistently on my site for several years. Over those years I built up trust you guys — with my readership — and so when I asked for your direct support, it was an easy decision for hundreds of you.
A few years later, when I launched The Focus Course, 600 of you signed up in that first week. And it wasn’t because The Focus Course has an awesome landing page (Though it certainly does. Thanks, Pat!). It’s because I’d been writing about focus for so long that you guys trusted the course was not just snake oil.
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To sum this all up:
People want to connect to the artist as much as (if not even more than) they want to connect to the art. That’s why a signed book is so much more valuable than the Kindle version; a live concert more memorable than listening to an album on iTunes.
Consistency means relationship building. Remember from 1,000 True Fans? This is where you connect with your readership, audience, customers, and provide ongoing value to them.
Consistency is also means doing the work every day. Never wait until you’re inspired to do the work because quantity leads to quality. (Which is a whole other topic we’ll dive into later.)
Honesty means making the choice to be transparent and genuine. Have fun.
Showing up to do the work every day isn’t easy. And there’s more to it than just putting your butt in the chair and writing for an hour.
You’ve also got to think about how you’re spending your time and energy when you’re not in the chair. Up next, I’ll be sharing about keeping life in balance.
Quitting my job to blog for a living was so embarrassing.
It didn’t seem like a “real job”.
People would always ask me questions like: “So what exactly is it that you do?” And I never knew how to answer them.
(Actually, I still don’t know how to answer that question.)
It’s been five years now, and I’m so glad I took that dorky risk.
As I reflect on these past five years and share what I’ve learned, my default is to focus on the creativity aspect. I love talking about how to show up every day or how to build an audience of awesome and smart people. I want to dive in to to the topic of doing our best creative work.
But over these past five years I’ve also learned about bootstrapping and running a business. I’ve learn the ins and outs of starting and building a business through experience, trial, success, and error.
There is so much involved with being an independent creative entrepreneur.
For one, you have to have the creativity side. This includes:
- Finding own vision and voice for your creative work;
- Showing up every day to do that work;
- Being focused with your time and energy;
- Staying inspired;
- Having fun.
Creativity is critical. And, as we’ll get to another time, it’s so important to show up every day to do the hard, creative work.
But just as important as creativity is the entrepreneurial side…
- You’ve can’t be so romantic about making money that you never get around to earning a dollar.
- You have to be willing to take risks and experiment with new ideas.
- You have to get good at making money.
- You have to learn how to budget, project, save, invest, make a return, and live well beneath your means. Otherwise your business will never get the financial root system it needs in order to thrive.
Creativity and business chops. You need both.
Later this week I’ll be sure to share some of the things I’ve done over the past five years to make money. But first…
Knowing that both the creative aspect and the business aspect are so important, I want to dive into what’s I think is needed to write on the internet for a living.
(This could go for just about anything, really. Writing is what I know best, but this stuff goes for podcasts, newsletters, photography, etc.)
Basically, if I were brand new and starting out fresh… if I were giving advice to my past self… these would be the highlights of that conversation.
Show up every day: I’m going to touch on this more, but showing up every day is vital. This is how you strengthen your own creative muscle, it’s how you improve your skills, and it’s also how you build your audience. (Recommended reading: Show Your Work.)
Plan ahead: It took me years to figure this one out. You’ll do better work in less time with less stress if you know where you’re going. (Not sure how to have a plan for your creative work, The Focus Course will get you there.)
Invest in mentorship, learning, and courses: Because you don’t have all the answers, you have blind spots, and you need someone to cheerlead for you and help you figure things out.
Celebrate your progress: When you’re able to recognize that you’re making progress in your work, it helps you stay motivated. Also, journaling about your business and creative endeavors as you go through them today is an asset you can use in down the road as a sort of “advice to your future self”.
Sell stuff: You get good at making money the same way you get good at anything else: practice. So, sell early and sell often. This will help you learn about pricing, sales, and providing value to others. It also helps you to get comfortable with charging money for the work you do. Something many of us aren’t naturally comfortable with.
Automate / eliminate / delegate as much as possible: It seems everyone know says they waited too long before learning to delegate. This is a great way to break your broken workflow habits and free yourself up to spend your time better. And it’s not just for the sake of being more “productive” at work — it’s also so you can have more down time to rest, think, and be with friends and family.
The tools you have are almost certainly good enough: This one applies to the nerds in the room. I’m an incessant tinkerer. While it’s fun to always be looking for the next best thing, it’s also a huge distraction. Maybe it’s my old age, but I’m far more content with the tools I have today that I ever have been. If it works well and helps me do what’s important, then I’m not going to try and replace it just for the sake of change.
Always be honest and sincere: This is critical because the best way to build an audience is through trust. Being genuine and telling your story is how you build trust.
Work hard, but don’t work nonstop: Easier said than done for many of us. The ideas and action items are never-ending. That’s why I schedule my time off and even plan ahead for how I’ll spend that down time. Otherwise my tendency is to work on just one more thing.
Have an ideal reader / customer / client / fan: When I first began writing, there were two specific people who I wrote for. I would always gauge my articles and topics through their eyes, making sure I was writing something that would be interesting and helpful to them.
Now that I’m working on building The Focus Course website, we’ve spent a ton of time defining what our ideal customer looks like. We’re using surveys, personal emails and conversations, and more. It’s a much different approach than just guessing or making stuff up, and it means we’re actually able to help people with what’s most important to them.
Take risks: Every time I’ve felt out on a ledge, not sure if something would work, it turned out pretty great in the end. This is not an advocation to be reckless, but it is permission to try something new.
Trust your gut: I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time second guessing myself. I question if I’m doing things right; if I’m missing something; if I’m even making progress. Other people can give advice and input, but to do your best creative work you’ve got to follow the dream in your heart.
Not to go all Mr. Rogers here, but it’s true. If you’ve got an idea or a hunch that just won’t let go, then focus on it.
Which is why, if I had to boil it all down to what I consider to be the most important advice I have for creative entrepreneurship, it would be this: focus on consistency and honesty.
We’ll dive more into that one tomorrow.
It was Monday morning.
My first day on the job. And I was completely underprepared with no idea what to write about.
I felt terrible.
That was exactly five years ago today.
What I did end up writing about has turned into a piece I return to often:
“Writing should be about standing behind your work and truly caring about what it is you have to say,” I wrote. “If you happen to be good with words then congratulations. Dispassionate beautiful prose, however, is still dispassionate. Or, as Anatole France put it, ‘a tale without love is like beef without mustard: insipid.'”
It has always been a challenge for me to write with honesty and passion.
When you put your heart into something and then get criticized for it, that hurts. And so, in a way, we shy back a bit and put just enough transparency into our writing to give it a hint of breath and no more.
To make it worse, once the economic success of this site hinged in no small part on the continued growth of a strong membership base, there was a sudden pressure to write for everyone all at once.
Not only did I feel a great expectation on my work, I had no clue what I would publish on that first day. Or what would come the next day or the next.
(I’ve learned that this is just one of the who-knows-how-many roadblocks there are to doing your best creative work. And that’s something we’ll definitely dive into more later this week because it’s so important.)
In that article from 5 years ago, I shared that though the pressures and expectations were new, I was intent on staying steady in my writing pursuits. I planned to continue doing the same writing with the same focus that had brought me the opportunity to write full-time in the first place.
Five years of that day-in-and-day-out work, here we are today. And things certainly look different.
Back then it was just me with just one website: shawnblanc.net. Now there is a small team of us and a small network of websites: shawnblanc.net, Tools & Toys, The Sweet Setup, and The Focus Course. (Hi, Bradley, Chris, Stephen, Jeff, Josh, and Isaac!)
Yes, the scope of the writing has certainly grown. But I believe the focus of the writing has not.
That focus is still two-fold:
- To help you, the reader.
- To have fun in the creative process.
If you care about doing your best creative work, you’re in the right place.
I continue to look forward to iterating, improving, and generally upping the overall awesomeness of our humble network of websites.
Perhaps you’ve been here since the very first post. Or perhaps you are brand new to this site. Thank you! I am grateful that you’ve chosen to show up, sign up, and be part of this journey.
This week and next I’m going to be sharing stories and more about the past five years. We’re going to talk about the creative side as well as the business side.
After being in this racket for 5 years, I want to share what I see as the most important things about writing on the internet for a living. How to improve your craft. How to balance work life and family life when your work life is tied to the internet that’s in your pocket.
And, the elusive question I’ve been wondering about most for the past half-decade: Is there a path to creative success?
Hopefully by now you’ve had a chance to make your cup of coffee. Because this week I have a few articles for you to read with your morning coffee.
But these quotes and articles are special for another reason.
On Monday, it will be the 5-year anniversary of when I began my gig as a full-time, indie writer. To “celebrate” I’m doing something special next week.
Today’s Fantastic Friday links are to particular articles that have been meaningful or impactful to me in some way over the past 5 years.
And, I have to say, picking out just 4 articles was nigh impossible. I had to print out the titles and URLs of at least 100 different articles from my Instapaper Likes and Pinboard bookmarks. Then I put them all up on a wall and threw four darts.* The four items below are the ones that got stuck.
* Okay, not really. But I should have thrown darts. That would have been awesome.
No doubt you’ve heard of this Kevin Kelly article, if you haven’t already read it once or twice (or a dozen times — ahem).
Kelly’s proposal is that an independent artist needs only about 1,000 True Fans to make a living. Ideally, the artist has a direct connection with his or her fan base and is able to create art directly for those people.
Over my years as an indie writer, I have tried to be honest and transparent with you: my “true fans”. I have tried to write about things and create things that are as helpful and exciting for you to read or use as they are for me to put together.
And, in my experience, it’s feasible.
Not that I have a count on how many “true fans” are around. But I do know that it takes less people than you’d think to help you earn a living, so long as you’re doing your best to provide as much value in return as possible.
I remember reading this article years ago, and I’ve never forgotten about it. Michael Lopp is one of my favorite writers, and his Nerd Handbook article is a riot.
(It’s funny because it’s true!)
If you’re a nerd, read it and weep. Then forward it to you significant other. If you’re not a nerd, you might be married to one, so you had still better read it.
Now we come to Frank Chimero. Frank’s writing is clear and incredible. His book, The Shape of Design, is one of my all-time favorite books.
And, as with most of Franks writing, in his article about What Screens Want you’ll find a secret message that’s not so much about design as it is about being intentional with our choices (and loosening up a bit).
Take the time to read Frank’s article straight through on the site. And be sure you’re in a setting where you can watch the short in-line videos.
This article from Jason Fried is just a little over 5 years old, and I have referenced it over and over again. In short: you get good at making money the same way you get good at anything else: practice.
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In other news…
Exactly five years ago today, I was taking the day off. Yep. I remember it clearly.
I had just quit my job as a marketing and creative director and was about to start my new job as a work-for-myself, work-from-home writer.
It seemed reasonable to give myself a 3-day weekend before starting my new job. So I took Friday off. Then, on Monday, April 4, 2011, I started my new job as a full-time, indie writer.
Five years later, I’m still here. Thanks entirely to you, dear reader.
Next week I’ve got each day planned out. I’ll be sharing stories about the past five years and more. Can’t wait!
Next week my family is moving to a new home about 5 minutes down the road.
Anna and I are expecting our third child this fall (!). So we are about to officially outgrow the small home we’ve lived in for the past 11 years.
I’ve been thinking about this massive life transition — selling our current home, moving to a new one, having our third child.
And I was also just thinking about the past few months.
2016 continues to march on, one day at a time.
What were your plans for 2016?
What was one of your goals? Was there a hint of an idea of something you wanted to do?
Three months into the year… how are things going?
Today, I don’t have any answers or advice for you.
Just a question…
If you’re not yet where you were expecting be, what are going to do about it?
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Speaking of 2016, for those keeping track at home, in just a few days — on Monday, April 4 — it will be the 5-year anniversary (!) of when I quit my job to start blogging for a living.
(Some of you folks have been reading my dorky writing for 5 whole years (maybe even longer). Wow, thank you!)
As I look back at the creative work I’ve done over the past five years, I feel proud of it.
But I also envision so much more that I hope to do, and so much more ground to cover in my skills as a writer and business owner.
And so all this has made me think about what it is that helps us get from where we are to where we want to be.
Not just for my humble journey, but for all of us.
How can you, dear reader, get from where you are today to where you want to be in 5 years from now.
Next week, let’s talk about it. See you then.
Unknown to both my wife and I, our coffee grinder was losing its edge.
Nearly four years ago, Anna bought me a Bodum Bistro Grinder for my birthday. It was an awesome little grinder for a great price.
I used it every single day. Until one day, it broke.
We replaced it with the king of the hill: a Baratza Virtuoso.
And wow. The first cup of coffee using our new grinder was a revelation.
Who knew a great coffee grinder was so important? I mean, I knew they were important, but seriously the difference was huge.
In addition to the new grinder, the other (somewhat recent) addition to my coffee arsenal is the Kalita Wave. We’ll get to it in a minute. But I have to say that the Wave has officially replaced the AeroPress as my daily brewer. What a time to be alive.
All that said, this week you get to peek into the four key components of my daily coffee. (Since I keep the list to just four things, one thing had to leave out was my kitchen scale.)
It all starts with beans. Freshly roasted coffee beans make all the difference.
However, you may prefer to have freshly roasted beans delivered to your door. This is great for folks who don’t like going outside or for those who don’t have a great coffee roaster nearby where you can easily get access to freshly roasted coffee.
If you’re searching for a coffee delivery service, I highly recommend Crema.co.
Crema.co is like Netflix but for coffee. You add the coffees that you want to your list, and then you select how often you want a bag of coffee shipped to you.
This differs from coffee subscription services like Blue Bottle, because Crema lets you pick what you get. Where as with Blue Bottle, you get what they’re roasting.
I’ve gotten beans from Crema and I was very impressed. Great service, great pricing, great coffee.
This is the grinder we went with, and it’s fantastic. Here at the Blanc household, we like to buy things for life. So we went with a grinder that is excellent at its job, but also should last us for quite a while.
As I mentioned last week, this pour-over coffee maker has become my new favorite.
What I like about the Wave is that it can make a larger cup of coffee than my AeroPress (350g+ versus 250g), and I think the coffee it makes is much better than what you get from the v60.
I know everyone says that the AeroPress is super duper easy to clean. And it is, but I think a pour-over contraption like this is even easier to clean. You just dump the filter into the trash and rinse out the dripper itself. There are no moving parts, no lids, etc.
There are about 150 different variations of this glass bottle on Amazon. I’m pretty sure they’re all made at the same place, and everyone gets a turn putting their logo on the front.
What I like about my double-walled glass compared to my stainless-steel thermos is that the bottle is easier to clean in the dishwasher and it doesn’t fiddle with the flavor of my coffee.
Of course, the tradeoff is that the glass bottle doesn’t keep my coffee as hot for as long.
The glass bottle is also great for cold drinks, since the outside of it won’t sweat onto your desk.
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What better to go with awesome coffee than something to read? I’ll be sharing some great quotes and articles in next week’s edition of Fantastic Friday.
About 18 months ago I stopped buying non-fiction books on Kindle.
At first, it was all about the money.
In my research for creating The Focus Course I was buying a slew of books. And used paperback books from Amazon are 50-75% cheaper than their Kindle counterparts.
Of course, it’s not just about the money. Used books also come with their own charm.
Getting a book with someone else’s highlights was a glimpse into what another person had gleaned from the same book I was now reading. Or, sometimes you knew the book had been given to someone because the first page had a note written from one friend to another. Some books were even signed by the author with a brief salutation to the reader — no doubt someone who had waited in line at a book signing.
In addition to the price and the history, buying physical books had another massive advantage:
Physical books are easier to read and digest quickly.
When reading for the sake of learning, it’s more efficient and more effective to have a physical book. For example, you can quickly skim through certain chapters if you want. Or you can jump forward and backward without losing context for where you are in the book.
I especially loved having a dozen books all spread out at once and pulling from different ones as I was working on different topics for The Focus Course.
Recently I picked up another trick for taking better notes within paper books…
An Alternate Index of Ideas
I learned this trick from Maria Popova during her podcast conversation with Tim Ferris. (The part of the conversation where they discuss note-taking begins just past 38-minutes, fyi.)
Your own index is something you put in the back of the book (or the front if you prefer). It’s a list of the book’s themes and topics that most resonate with you, and the pages which have the best quotes and ideas around those topics.
Your index doesn’t even have to fit perfectly in line with the main theme of the book you’re reading.
For example, my index for The Personal MBA includes a topic on Audience Building. Since, for me, that is a critical component to my business. However, there are no chapters or sections specifically about building an audience.
Here’s how to create your own index:
- Start reading the book.
- When you encounter a quote, phrase, statistic, or idea that stands out to you, highlight it.
- Now, think about what the theme or idea this highlight fits in to.
- Go to the back of the book where there will always be a few blank pages.
- Write down the name of the theme or idea.
- Write down the page number of your highlight.
- Return to your spot and continue reading.
Maria Popova says: “It’s an index based not on keywords, but on ideas.”
As I mentioned above, I’ve been working my way through Josh Kaufman’s fantastic book, The Personal MBA. (Speaking of, isn you’re interested at all in business and entrepreneurship, I can’t recommend The Personal MBA enough. It’s a bargain at 10x the price.)
Here’s a photograph of my Alternate Index so far from The Personal MBA:
You can see that so far, the main themes I’ve been taking away from the book are related to: (1) building an audience; (2) business in general; and (3) decision making.
The fourth index item you see — “B.L.” — stands for Beautiful Language.
Beautiful Language is just a catch-all for phrases or quotes that stand out to you but which may not necessarily fit into a particular category of your index.
Here are four phrases I’ve highlighted from The Personal MBA, categorized from my own index of the book:
On Audience Building:
“The more important you make [other people] feel, the more they’ll value their relationship with you. […] The more interest you take in other people, the more important they will feel. […] Make an effort to be present and curious.”
My takeaway: the best way to build an audience is to treat them with appreciation, courtesy, and respect.
“Bootstrapping is the art of building and operating a business without funding. […] Having 100 percent ownership and control of a profitable, self-sustaining business is a beautiful thing.”
My takeaway: Building a business is fun and rewarding. It doesn’t have to be about the money. It can be about the work itself.
On Decision Making:
“If you’re a natural maximizer, it’s tempting to overanalyze every decision to make sure you’ve chosen the very best option available, which can easily go well past the point of diminishing returns. Don’t get bogged down with all of the options available — consider only what appear to be the best alternatives at the time of your decision.”
My takeaway: Action brings clarity. Make the best choice I can, then move on and know that I can adjust course and make additional choices in the future.
A great quote (beautiful language):
Your business does not have to bring in millions or billions of dollars to be successful. If you have enough profit to do the things you need to do to keep the business running and make it worth your time, you’re successful, no matter how much revenue your business brings in.
My takeaway: Don’t get so caught up in the building of a business that I lose sight of the bigger picture of living a life without regret, loving my family, and providing real value to others.
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I’ve only recently begun using this Alternate Index approach in the past six months or so. But as I work my way through the queue of unread books on my shelf, I’ll be sure to share more ideas and quotes.
Before we dive into this week’s top four links, I have a challenge for you.
It’s Friday. Which means the weekend is upon us. And then, in just a few short days it will be Monday.
What’s your general attitude toward Monday?
Me? I happen to love Monday. I have looked forward to Monday for years. Because it’s the first day of my work week. (Of course, I love the weekend, too. I love them both. The workweek and the weekend — they’re both favorites.)
There are so many folks who hate Mondays. If that’s you — if you’re not a Monday person — think about how you normally spend your weekend.
My challenge to you is this:
Take this weekend and do one thing that will help you feel rested, recharged, or energized. I call this “resting well”.
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Now, on to this week’s Fantastic Friday links…
I’ve listed below four of my favorite email newsletters.
Each of the newsletters below are ones I read every week. I almost always find a helpful, interesting, or otherwise clever tidbit in each one. Enjoy.
Corbett Barr’s weekly email newsletter, Lifestyle Business Weekly, is a roundup of links relevant to the indie entrepreneur. Each week I find at least one or two articles in there that are interesting or helpful to me. Usually related to business growth, personal productivity, content marketing, or something similar.
+ And, speaking of Corbett Barr, I had the honor of interviewing him for my podcast a few weeks ago. We spoke about 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. You can find that podcast episode here.
Chris Bowler’s email, The Weekly Review, is a must read for me. It is, perhaps, the single most delightful thing to grace my inbox every week.
Chris is a clear thinker and a clear writer. Every issue of his newsletter contains easy-to-read and thought-provoking commentary on the creative life, online publishing, personal productivity, and more. He also includes a few sidebar sections with cool quotes, reviews of coffee or beer, and more.
I don’t know how they do it. MacStories Weekly is a feat in and of itself. If this was the only thing Federico and his team published each week, I’d be impressed. But no, they also publish an incredible website.
MacStories Weekly is a members-only newsletter. It’s $5/month to subscribe. It comes out every Friday (yay, Friday!) and is jam packed with app reviews, Q&A, tips and tricks, links, and more.
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P.S. A couple of months ago, my trusty coffee grinder died. I replaced it. And, while I was at it, I figured I’d try out a new coffee brewing gadget as well. I’ll tell you all about it in next week’s edition of Fantastic Friday.
You may remember a few weeks back when I shared my top four writing tools.
That article brought about some additional questions from folks regarding my writing workflows, etc. And so I’m going to answer those questions here.
If you have any additional questions you’d like to see in this article, just ping me on Twitter.
A Brief Aside About “Workflows”
Eleven years ago I bought my first Mac. And I also bought my first copy of Photoshop.
But those tools, in and of themselves, didn’t make me a designer. It took me a while to figure out what I was doing, and a little while longer to start doing any actual design work for clients.
The tools in and of themselves don’t make an artist.
Which is why, in some ways, talking about tools and workflows isn’t all that productive. Because it’s not about the tools we use.
Rather, it’s our tenacity to show up and do our best work every day. It’s that fight to stay creative that makes the difference.
I myself have gleaned so much from hearing about other people’s creative process. In part because hearing about someone else’s process helps remind me that we’re all just folks.
Moreover, I have improved many areas of my own workflows by hearing how someone else gets the job done. And so, hopefully, today I can give you some ideas and motivation of your own.
Q: When you started out, what was your hardest challenge when posting regularly?
The hardest challenge to posting regularly was knowing what to write about. I used to do it all wrong.
I would sit down in the morning with no plan about what to write about.
In part, this was because most of the things I wrote about were related to the current tech and design news cycle. But also, I just didn’t have a plan. I hardly ever thought ahead.
So, each day, I first had to observe what the latest happenings were in the news. Then, if anything cool was happening, I’d write about it or link to it.
Since I didn’t have a plan for what to write about, I also didn’t have a set time to write each day.
My approach since then has changed significantly.
For one, I no longer write about the latest in tech and design. I am still deeply interested in these topics (hence running two entirely other websites dedicated to them), but now, when I do write about them here on shawnblanc.net, it’s with a focus on doing our best creative work.
These days, my biggest challenge to writing regularly is the work at the beginning of the month to map out my editorial plan for the upcoming 3-4 weeks.
Some of the best — and most profitable — writing I’ve done has been a result of having an overarching theme and then showing up consistently to write about it.
My advice for those wanting to write regularly is simple:
- Have a plan for your topics in advance.
- Have a set time each day for when you will write. Thirty minutes is more than enough to get started.
With those two things in place, all that’s left is to show up and do the work.
Q: As you write The Note the night before, what’s your big picture for what to write about?
(Quick context for this question: as you may or may not know, at the end of my work day, I leave a note out for the topic I’m going to write about tomorrow.)
As I mentioned in the answer to the previous question, the big picture for the note comes from planning ahead.
For example, in January I spent several weeks on the topic of Margin. Over this period I wrote a slew of articles and podcast episodes.
But, before I began writing and publishing, I first sat down to plan it all out. This included figuring out what topics I wanted to cover, what order I wanted them to be published in, etc.
Then, once I had that plan in place, I just made sure I was writing each article ahead of time so it could be published according to my schedule.
For another example, over the past month I’ve been writing about workflows and time management. This topic was chosen in direct response to feedback I’ve received from my readers.
I asked members of The Focus Course and The Elements of Focus class what they were most challenged by. One of the most common areas of feedback was related to time management.
So I took that feedback and built a class just for them.
What’s great about this approach to writing is that it’s like writing with the lights on.
I’m not guessing about a topic. I’m not wondering if what I have to say is relevant to my readership. I know for a fact that I’m directly answering their questions and helping them as much as I possibly can.
It makes it easier for me, as a writer, because then I’m not pining for inspiration. And it makes my work more valuable to you, the reader, because I’m doing work in direct response to your challenges and interests.
Q: Where do you capture your ideas?
All of my ideas go into Simplenote.
I’ve been using Simplenote since the Stone Age. Back when the only other alternative was the iOS notes app that used IMAP syncing and its Legal-Paper-plus-Marker-Felt aesthetic.
This was back when there was no such thing as a Retina display. And the App Store was not yet packed to the rafters with markdown note-taking apps powered by Dropbox-sync. And dinosaurs still roamed the earth.
What I love about Simplenote is that it’s fast and reliable…
I have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of notes. I’ve been using it for the better part of a decade. And I’ve never lost a single character of text.
Simplenote is ridiculously fast. Especially when it comes to searching for a past note. I can find just any note in about 5 seconds or less.
Now, as for the whole idea capture thing… in addition to Simplenote, I also use a Baron Fig notebook. Since so much of the work I do is with pixels, I love to have a pen and paper nearby as well (more on this in a bit).
But, perhaps ironically, I treat my digital notes as the “official” copy and my analog notes as the temporary one. Most ideas that I write into my Baron Fig get copied into Simplenote.
All this to say, when it comes to capturing ideas, the tools aren’t all that important.
What is important is that you’ve got a commitment to coming up with as many terrible ideas as possible. Beyond that, all you really need is somewhere to put them so you can get back to work.
(Side note: If you need some help with scheduling and time management, I’ve got just the thing.)
Q: How do you schedule your posts? What is the frequency of your posts?
With Tools & Toys and The Sweet Setup, we manage our editorial calendar in a shared iCal (do people still say iCal?) calendar.
For all the writing and podcasting I do on shawnblanc.net, my editorial calendar is a giant sheet of self-stick easel pad paper, with the month drawn out and then yellow sticky notes on the dates with the articles.
This sticky note calendar is a new change to my writing and publishing workflow. Because, at the beginning of this year, I hired my first full-time employee. Isaac and I work out of the same office, so we have the month’s calendar up on the wall.
Right now my posting frequency looks like this:
- Monday: Sometimes I publish an article, not always.
- Tuesday: Shawn Today podcast episode
- Wednesdays: Newsletter (and corresponding article if nothing was published Monday)
- Thursday: Shawn Today podcast episode
- Friday: Fantastic Friday
For one, as long-time readers have observed, over the past year and a half, my publishing frequency has changed quite significantly. I write less frequently, but mostly publish articles (as opposed to articles and links).
Also, as a side-note, I’m beginning the work of making some massive changes to The Focus Course website. Instead of the website being home to only one course, we are working to expanding what the site can do and the types of content we publish there. But more on that another day…
All that to say, my editorial schedule seems to always be in flux. It’s an ongoing experiment in how to best balance the ideal output for myself with the ideal pacing and content topics for you, the reader.
Q: Does markdown help you write?
I write everything in Markdown. Even personal emails and text messages.
What’s great about Markdown is, as John Gruber said himself, it’s the feel of it, not the think of it.
Markdown is far faster to write than HTML and it’s easier to read.
Q: Do you shuffle Monument Valley every morning or listen straight through? Is it on repeat?
(A little bit of context to this question: I listen to the Monument Valley soundtrack every morning as my “writing music”.)
To answer the question, I listen to it straight through, on repeat. (It’s playing right now, in fact.)
Since I usually write for a couple hours each day, I probably listen to the soundtrack at least 2-3 times through. And (doing the math…) I’ve first began listening to this album in early 2015. So, gosh, I’ve probably heard this soundtrack well over 1,000 times.
Q: How do you use OmniFocus with a physical notebook?
The short answer is this:
- OmniFocus is where I capture all of my to-do items, and it’s where I put everything with a due date in the future.
- My notebook (a Baron Fig confidant) is where I write out my tasks and schedule for each day.
What that looks like in practice is that each morning I sit down with my notebook and OmniFocus.
First I write down my one or two most important tasks. Then I open up OmniFocus to see what (if anything) is due today. Then I schedule out every minute of my day.
I usually schedule a 30-60 minute window for doing “OF Admin” which is a time to work through the administrative or miscellaneous action items that are in my OmniFocus to-do list.
More Writing Resources
If you’re on the hunt for additional resources on writing, here are some recommendations:
My friend, Sean McCabe, has a course coming out soon. It’s called Supercharge Your Writing, and it’s for anyone who has a product or service they sell and wants to improve their writing chops in order to grow their business. (It’s the kind of course I wish I’d had put together first.)
Stephen King’s book, On Writing, is absolutely fantastic.
Also highly recommended is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
And, if you have any further questions beyond what’s here, just ping me on Twitter.
The first five minutes are the hardest.
To prove it, I just set a timer for five minutes.
You see, I’ve been thinking about this article all day.
Yet, despite all the mental preparation I’ve done for what needs to be written, now that I’ve sat down to do the work, I’m very disappointed to discover that it’s still not writing iteslf.
So, as I said, I set my timer.
I can muscle through.
Write anything and everything I want. Just keep writing for five minutes until I find a flow.
By the time my five minutes is up, the writing won’t be so hard. And then I’ll have the momentum I need to finish out the whole article.
You’re smart. And I bet you’ve figured out by now that the Five Minute Rule goes for so much more than writing.
Those five minutes it takes to crawl out of bed and into the car to drive to the gym…
The first five minutes of brainstorming for a new project…
The first five minutes of a new logo design…
You get the idea.
Any time we’re sitting down to focus on something other than the television, it takes time to warm-up to the task.
This warm-up time is also known as “activation energy”.
Activation Energy refers to the energy required to start a new task. Which, for the record, is always more than the energy required to maintain that task once we’re in the zone.
It’s not unlike sending a rocket up to the moon.
That rocket burns tons and tons of fuel just to get itself into orbit. But then, once that momentum is established, the amount of energy needed to stay on course is a fraction of what it took to get off the ground.
(And there’s my timer… Let’s keep going.)
What if you could set things up in advance so that you didn’t have to expend so much energy to get started?
If we know that the first five minutes are the most challenging, then the smart thing is to make those first few minutes a little less challenging.
You do this by reducing the activation energy.
Which is a nerdy, science-y way of saying:
Do something today that will make life easier later.
It’s right in line with the advice of my sweet and wise grandmother. “Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today,” she said.
My friends, this is also my single most important piece of advice to those of you wanting to get more control of your time and attention.
If you can get ahold of that concept then it will help you to be more proactive.
It will help you build up your personal integrity.
And it will make your day-to-day life’s work that much easier because you’re building your own momentum.
What is something you can do today that will make your life easier in the future?
* * *
P.S. Just a quick reminder that my class on time management is now available on demand.
Hello, and welcome to this week’s edition of Fantastic Friday.
Life in Kansas City has been a bit busier than normal. For one, earlier this week we launched a new class on time management. The response so far has been awesome, and I’m so thankful to all of you who have signed up and help spread the word.
Also, I have some exciting personal projects happening right now. I’ll definitely share more info once things settle down, but it’s been quite time consuming to say the least.
That said, this week I wanted to share four books that I’ve been gleaning from lately.
As you may know, I’ve been going through this book on my members-only podcast, Shawn Today. The Four Disciplines of Execution (a.k.a. 4DX) is about how to make significant and routine progress on your wildly important business goals. It’s designed for teams, and it outlines four “disciplines” that you incorporate into the way your company works in order to drive progress, reach goals, and boost morale.
As I mentioned above, my family has some exciting things going on. Let’s just say that this book is once again proving to be helpful. Even more so than when I first read it last year.
This book by J.D. Meier is fantastic and jam packed with ideas and practical systems for managing time and priorities. This book, combined with the ideas in The One Thing (see next book rec.) were both significant influences for what I put together in A Focus on Time.
This book by Gary Keller was one of the best books I read in 2015. It’s a very easy-to-read book with a massive takeaway about simplifying and focusing on the most impactful ways we can spend our time and energy.
* * *
In other news: Over on The Sweet Setup we refreshed our pick for the best general purpose weather app. Over on Tools & Toys we reviewed the Amazon Echo. And the early-bird pricing for the time management class ends on Monday.
My grandmother loved to print out inspirational quotes and phrases.
She’d either put them into the picture frames she bought at garage sales, or she’d just tape them up on the wall or refrigerator.
There was one printout in particular that I still remember well.
It had some of her values — the things she tried to live by.
They were short phrases:
“Be the first to say hello.”
“Compliment three people every day.”
“Live beneath your means.”
“Let the first thing you say brighten everyone’s day.”
“Always think the best of other people.”
“Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today.”
Lately I’ve been thinking about that last one…
“Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today.”
…and I think I may have had it wrong.
* * *
My grandmother knew that tomorrow would have enough craziness of its own. So her advice was to not put things off if you can do them today.
But I always thought of that in the context of work…
My grandparents started a new business in their late 50s. After they sold that one, they started another.
My grandfather — who lived to be 100 years old — told me that he tried to break a sweat every day.
If my grandparents had anything, it was work ethic.
But her advice wasn’t just about work and business.
I think it was also about relationships, finances, and more…
Don’t put off encouraging someone else if you can do it today.
Don’t put off living beneath your means if you can do it today.
Not that I’m going to print out an inspirational quote anytime soon.
…but I do need the occasional reminder to be proactive with my time and energy if there’s something I can do about it today.
* * *
P.S. If you also want to get better at doing what you can rather than putting it off, then I think this new class could help you tremendously.
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.
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…
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
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.
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:
- It empowers you to do the things you want and need to do.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Jim Collins — How to Build an Enduring, Great Company
- Seth Godin — How to Make Change Happen
- Shawn Achor — How Happiness Fuels Your Success
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:
- How to Grow — The 2 Types of Growth
- How We Deal With the Cesspool of Self Doubt
- How to Create Your Own Definition of Success
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:
- Get More Time in a Day, Increase Your Focus, and Accomplish All of Your Goals
- How to Build Business Assets the Smart Way
- The Long Game
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:
- Maria Popova on Being Interesting, Creating More Time in a Day, And How to Start A Successful Blog (I learned a fascinating technique from Maria in this episode about how to best take notes when reading a paperback book for research.)
- Tony Robbins on Morning Routines, Peak Performance, and Mastering Money
- Derek Sivers Part 1 and part 2 (absolutely must-listens!)
- How Seth Godin Manages His Life — Rules, Principles, and Obsessions
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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.
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.
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.
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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:
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.
After breakfast, I sit down and schedule out the rest of my day.
I literally schedule every single minute.
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:
- Build the Elements of Focus class into something that people could sign up for at any time.
- Finish migrating all of our email lists to our new email service provider.
- Work with my developer to finalize the plan and timeline for our next buildout and addition to the Focus Course website.
- Finish reading The Four Disciplines of Execution
- Outline the content for the Time Management online class we’re doing next month.
- Publish my two podcast interviews with Cal Newport and Havilah Cunnington.
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.
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P.S. You may be interested to know that I’ve put together a time management class that is as relevant to those who thrive on spontaneity as it is to those who love to nerd out over administrativia.
Everything I know and practice about time management, scheduling, and prioritization is in this class.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.