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.

Fantastic Friday

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.

Why Margin is Critical for Doing Your Best Creative Work

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

Less Thinking, More Doing

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.

Save 90% on 12 Fantastic eBooks With ReadBundle (Sponsor)

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.)

Fantastic Friday: AMA, Card Games, and More

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.

Margin for Creativity

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.

* * *


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.

Give Your Day Some Breathing Room

Fantastic Friday

Hello friends, and welcome to another edition of Fantastic Friday.

The past several days have been fun as we’ve been diving into the topic of Margin. In case you missed it, there is a running list of all the articles and podcasts related to Margin over here on this page. There is still quite a bit we’re going to cover. Such as, Monday’s article where we’re going to dive into the topic of Time Stewardship.

Have an awesome weekend.

— Shawn

* * *

Psallo Collective →

Some friends of mine, Joel Sorge and Caleb Culver, are kickstarting an incredible take on the Audio Bible. Their project is to create an audio Bible for the book of Psalm, composing original music and videography for each of the 150 Psalms. I think it looks and sounds awesome; I’m already in as a backer.

Sean McCabe on Time, Focus, and Goals →

This episode of the Seanwes Podcast is excellent. Some great advice here about just how important it is to be able to say “no” to certain opportunities and commitments so that you can create the space to focus on that which is most important.

Outlook for iPhone [App Store Link] →

Old workflow habits die hard — I’ve been using the defaul email apps on OS X and iOS for ages. But for iOS I thought I’d give Outlook a try, and it’s pretty awesome. The design is simple and clean. The two inboxes (“Focused” and “Other”) are super helpful, as is the file browser. I don’t use the Calendar much, but it’s well done.

Seth Godin’s Ten Questions for Work that Matters →

Way back in 2007, when I first set up, my motivation was a bit narcasstic. This site was going to be “Shawn Blanc on the Net”. It was meant to be my spot where I could write about whatever I wanted.

I’m all for having a place where, as a writer, I can write freely about the topics that interest me most and the ideas that have me most puzzeled. However, something I’ve learned is that to do work that matters, it can’t be mostly about me. It has to be mostly about you, the reader, the customer, the listener, the subscriber.

Oftentimes, the hardest work is the work of helping other people. It’s easy for us to hide behind the safety of saying that the work we are doing is for ourselves. Because then, when someone doesn’t like it or agree with it, we can shrug it off because we made it for ourselves. But when we say “here, this is for you“. That’s when it gets frightening. Becasue, what if they don’t care? What if they don’t want what we have to offer.

* * *

In other news, this week on Shawn Today, I had had special guest, Mike Schmitz, join the show to talk about how Margin Enables Hustle. Over on The Sweet Setup we picked Television Time as the best app for tracking TV shows. And on Tools & Toys, Josh Ginter posted an epic review of the Olympus E-M5 Mark II.

Fantastic Friday

Margin Enables Intentional Living

As announced on Monday, for the next couple weeks we are diving deep on a specific topic: Margin.

What is margin?

Margin is breathing room.

It’s the opposite of overwhelm, overload, and overtime.

Margin means having some cash in the bank at the end of the month. It means having time during your day to spend on the things that are most important.

When we have this breathing room, it opens up a world of possibilities. Because when you have margin, you have the space to choose to be proactive instead of reactive.

We all need margin in our lives. From the stay-at-home parent, to the retiree, the 9-5 store clerk, the business executive, the pizza delivery guy, and the independent entrepreneur.

The reason we all need margin is because margin equals health.

Breathing room is good for our finances, our physical energy, our mental energy, and more. (Which, by the way, I dive into this topic much more in the free video presentation I put together. You can get it here.)

Today what I want to talk about is how Margin enables Intentional Living. You’re probably already putting the pieces together, so let’s continue…

What is Intentional Living?

Intentional living means being proactive in all areas of your life.

Jim Rohn said that “your level of success will rarely exceed your level of personal development, because success is something you attract by the person you become.”

I would also add that success comes about through diligence, hard work, and skill development.

Over the coming days and weeks we’ll continue to talk more about diligence, hard work, and skill development. But, in short, it takes intentional practice in order to be “successful” in each area of your life.

We know this is true for the athlete or the musician. Each day, the best athletes in the world train their hardest. Each day, the best musicians in the world practice and grow their skills.

The same principle of intentional practice holds true for every area of our life and any skill we wish to develop.

To reach the levels of success that are important to us (in our health, marriage, finances, vocation, side-projects, etc.) it takes intentional practice and development.

For a thriving marriage, you need to do something each day to strengthen your relationship with your spouse. The best writers in the world write every single day. One of the most sound financial investment strategies is to invest early and often.

Thus, intentional living is simply dedicating time each day to strengthen the most important areas of your life.

If you are doing that, then you’ll see success in those areas. If you’re not, then you won’t see success. It’s as simple as that.

So many of us “know” this truth. But so few of us do anything about it. Because it’s not microwaveable. It’s not easy to get started. It’s not easy to keep it up.

To be intentional — to live a focused life — takes a few things:

  1. Knowing which areas of your life are most important to you (at least in this season).
  2. Knowing what your goals are in those areas of life.
  3. Knowing what needs to be done to accomplish those goals.
  4. And then having the space to do the work. You need time, energy, and motivation to walk out your action plan. And that, my friend, is where margin comes in. Margin gives you that much-needed space.

These things boil down to simply having honesty, clarity, and a bias toward action. And it all gets just a little bit easier when you have breathing room in your life. Which is why margin enables intentional living. Margin enables you to live a focused life.

Margin Enables a Focused Life

In The Focus Course, the whole first module is focused on restoring margin to your life. We take 7 days and touch on topics such as personal integrity, relationships, creative imagination, finances, simplicity, and more.

The reason is because when you have a little bit of breathing room, it makes everything else that much easier.

  • Margin in your schedule keeps you free enough to have the time to do what’s important.

  • Margin with your thoughts keeps your mental energy strong enough to have the momentum you need to do the work when the time comes.

  • Margin in your emotions helps you with the motivation you need to do what’s important.

Start Here

We’ll continue to dive deep on each of the aforementioned areas of margin in the coming weeks.

But for a start, do this: Unsubscribe from something or unfollow someone.

It could be a news feed, an email newsletter, or a person or brand on Twitter or Facebook.

Doing this will give you just a little bit more space. It’s one less thing to deal with in your day, thus giving you some time. And it’s one less area of “consumption”, thus giving you more mental and emotional energy to focus on doing your best creative work.

Also, this is a way to remind yourself that you are in charge of your information diet. You will never do your best creative work if you’re living in the middle of The Echo Chamber.

* * *

Coming Next

Tomorrow, members will be getting a podcast conversation between me and my friend Mike Schmitz where we discuss how margin helps you to show up every day and do your most important work.

And on Monday, I’ve got an article for you about time stewardship and how you can get some breathing room in your crazy schedule.

If you want to keep up with all the articles, podcasts, and more that I’m publishing on the topic of margin, I’ve set up this page just for you. You can also get a free video presentation I made that shares an overview of what Margin is, why it’s so valuable, some quick wins for how to regain Margin in your life, and what I do to help maintain Margin in my own life.

Margin Enables Intentional Living

Margin Month

Today I’m kicking off something a bit different than I’ve done before on

We’re going to take the rest of January and go deep on one specific topic. I’ve also got February, March, and April planned out as well. Each one with its own topic.

The big picture is that I want to hit on ideas that are especially relevant to the creative entrepreneur. From work-life balance, to tools, to audience building and revenue generation, to building a successful creative business.

This summer we’re on track to have something put together for those who are building a business and/or working to gain traction in their side project. But more on that later.

January’s Theme: Margin

A few months ago I wrote a 2-part introduction to Margin (part I, part II). In those articles I shared about what Margin in your life looks like and why it’s so important.

In short, Margin equates to breathing room.

Having breathing room in our schedule, finances, emotional energy, and mental energy is paramount. When you’re at capacity, there is no room for anything else. But when there is space left over — when there is margin — that space enables us to breath.

The feedback I received from those articles was extremely positive.

This is a topic that is so relevant to so many areas of our life. Over the past few months, I’ve received hundreds of emails from readers who’s biggest challenges are related to time, clarity, and their business or side-project.

Regarding time and clarity, I heard from many people who feel that they don’t have enough time in the day to do everything they want (or need) to do. I also heard from folks who aren’t sure how best to manage and schedule their time. As well as from people who aren’t sure where they should be focusing their energy.

When we have margin in our schedule, margin in our emotional energy, and margin in our creative energy, it can help tremendously. Moreover, when we lack margin in these areas, it leaves us feeling stressed out, anxious, and overloaded. No fun.

Which is why we’re going to take the next few weeks and dive deep on these topics:

  • How Margin Enables Intentional Living
  • Time Stewardship
  • Regaining mental energy
  • Margin in your finances
  • Emotional energy and motivation
  • Why margin helps you hustle and focus (do more in less time)
  • Understanding overwhelm and how to move to the other side of complexity
  • Overcoming distractions to do deep work and intentional practice

I’ve also got a few podcasts and interviews in the pipe with some good friends and surprise heroes of mine that have so much wisdom to share on this topic.

Keep tabs on everything-margin at this page we’ve set up:

That’s going to be the central repository, so to speak, with links to all the articles, podcasts, and other resources we put out over the coming weeks.

Free Video Presentation

To start things off today, I made a video presentation.

I thought it’d be fun to try something new. And so we put together this short video presentation.


In the video I introduce the idea of Margin, I give you some quick wins for how to restore Margin to your life, and I share some specific things I do in order to keep margin in my life as well as how I stay sane when life gets extra busy.

To get the video, just punch in your email below and you’ll get a link to the page where you can stream or download the presentation.

Margin Month

Fantastic Friday

Welcome to the first edition of Fantastic Friday for 2016.

Fantastic Friday is something I’ve been sending out for the past several months to subscribers of The Fight Spot newsletter, and the response to it has been great. But I decided that it was something I wanted to publish here on the site as well.

In short, it’s a link roundup and other personal notes from me. It’s “Fantastic” because it has just four links in it (get it?).

The links could be anything. From an awesome book, to a quote, new gadget, incredible video, productivity tip, and more. All to give you something interesting, helpful, and fun as you head into the weekend.

Savvy readers have no doubt noticed a change in publishing cadence here on over the past year. A lot of that is due to the work I’ve been putting into The Focus Course. But it’s more than just that…

The scope of Blanc Media has grown tremendously in the five years since I quit my job to blog for a living. In 2011 it was just this website and my members-only podcast. But now it’s much more.

A few months ago I was at a crossroads. While I have a world-class crew of contributing writers, editors, and photographers that make Tools & Toys and The Sweet Setup possible. But things were at the point where I needed further assistance.

I knew I couldn’t keep up with managing everything that was going on with the business. And so I had to decide to either scale back the work we were doing or to bring on additional help.

After speaking with several close friends and mentors, the choice was clear.

And so, just this week, I hired my first full-time employee.

His name is Isaac and he’ll be helping me with a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that goes in to publishing podcasts, newsletters, and more.

If you want to know more about the motivation behind those choices, and what is next for Blanc Media, you can read my Day One journal entry from early December.

All this said, there are some awesome things in the pipe for this year that I am excited to dive in to. Including a massive update to the scope and perks of the membership as well as a new product I’m working on that’s for creative entrepreneurs.

Starting next week, and for the rest of January we’ll be diving deep on the topic of Margin, and I’ve got something fun I’ll be giving away on Monday.

For now, I hope you have an awesome weekend! Enjoy the fantastic links below, and, as always, thanks for reading.

— Shawn

* * *

Deep Work

Cal Newport has quickly become one of my favorite writers and thinkers. His book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, was one of the most impactful books I read in 2015.

A few days ago, his new book hit the shelves: Deep Work. The hypothesis behind Newport’s book is this:

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Amen to that. Now, I’m still working my way through the book, and I will certainly be sharing more about it later this month, but you can bet your britches that this topic is going to be one we come back to many times this year.

As I wrote about in my 2013 article on the rough elements of a successful creative business, I believe that roughly 75-Percent of a successful creative business should be spent on the art itself — the “content”. This is the hard and frightful work of actually making stuff. If you’re not spending the majority of your time actually making something, you’re doing it wrong.

Doing deep work is all about actually making something. It’s about doing the strenuous and difficult work that comes with focus, intentional practice, finding flow, and getting breakthrough in our skills.

+ Bonus reading from Cal: Resolved to Live a Deep Life

Fizzle →

On more than one occasion I’ve recommended the Fizzle podcast and their membership. Right now they’re having a huge sale on annual memberships to Fizzle. I highly recommend this site. In fact, Blanc Media just hired its first full-time employee, and one of the ways I’m doing on-the-job training for Isaac is to have him go through the Fizzle courses.

Lightning At 7,200 fps →

Just what it says on the tin. In GIF format.

My U-Turn Interview →

I was recently interviewed by Eric Jorgensen for his U-Turn podcast. It’s a show where he interviews folks who started out on one career path and ended up somewhere else entirely.
As you may or may not know, my career started out 15 years ago going to Bible college in Denver. I dropped out after my freshman year, life happened, and now here I am in Kansas City blogging from my basement.

To me, the path from there to here seems totally logical. There was a reason for each major transition in my life, and in retrospect I look back and can see the cause behind each major decision and how that moved me in this direction.

But, when you zoom out to see the big picture, the story seems more curious. So, all that said, if you’re interested in the “Shawn Blanc Origin Story”, or whatever it is, I think you’ll enjoy this show.

Fantastic Friday

curbi gives parents peace of mind; helping manage screen time while providing the best solution so the entire family can enjoy the online world as much as the real world.

curbi is now available on Android as well.

* * *

My thanks to curbi for sponsoring the sites this week. curbi is pretty incredible, especially if you’ve got a family of devices you’d like to help safeguard.

curbi (sponsor)

Just a friendly reminder that the special price for 2016’s big update to The Focus Course ends today.

As you know, The Focus Course was just updated with about 50 new videos! It’s awesome.

The Course is normally $350, but right now it’s just $297. And, if you hadn’t noticed, today is the last day it will be available at this price.

If you’re ready to bring your life into focus, I’d like to humbly suggest that right now is an excellent time to sign up. It’s the beginning of the year, there’s a slew of new folks just starting out the course, and, well, the price is right.

When you sign up, you’ll get instant access to everything in the course right away.

Now, of course, you don’t have to start right now. The Focus Course is self-paced and you have lifetime access. Which means you can start The Focus Course whenever you’re ready, and you can move through it at a pace which works best for you.

(In other news, tomorrow we’ll return to our regularly scheduled publishing, as Fantastic Friday will be making its debut appearance here on the website itself. And there are some awesome things in the pipe for the rest of January and February. But more on that next week…)

FYI: The Focus Course Special Pricing Ends Tonight

Five Reasons to Join The Focus Course

As you look back on your past year, did you make progress in the areas that matter most to you?

On the scale of “reactive versus proactive”, where do you think you landed in areas such as your best creative work?

What about with your relationships? Your health? Your finances? Your hobbies and down time?

As you learned about during the second session of the free Elements of Focus class, meaningful productivity is all about consistently giving our time and attention to the things that are most important.

Living with diligence and focus is not a personality type — it’s a skill you can learn.

The Focus Course can teach you how to practice that skill and develop it.

Here are five reasons the Focus Course is worth your attention…

1. Save Yourself a TON of Time

As my friend Sean McCabe recently said, there is a lot of free information you can find online about pretty much any topic. But it takes a lot of effort to find it, wade through it, and decipher what is worth your energy and what’s not. But a quality course will bring all of that information together and give you the most important nuggets — it saves you time.

The Focus Course is one of the fastest ways to get clarity and momentum in every area your life. We get right to the golden nuggets that will have the most amount of impact in the least amount of time.

In fact, this is one of the main reasons I created the Focus Course. I wanted something that was direct and to the point. I wanted something that taught you through doing.

In The Focus Course, we get right to the directives — the most powerful next steps that are also right in line with the most common conventional wisdom from these dozens and dozens of resources.

I have read my share of productivity books, blogs, and hacks, but nothing I have read comes close to your work in terms of helpfulness, depth, and significance.

— Tracy Banks, Attorney & Law School Professor

2. Help With Overcoming Procrastination

Sometimes, the best way to start making forward progress is to allow someone else tell us what to do.

If you’ve been procrastinating and you need to get clarity and/or momentum, the Focus Course is the easiest next step for you. You just sign up, follow the course, do the assignments, and you’re led along an awesome path.

The Focus Course helped me create a manageable plan of action that worked with my work and lifestyle that I could easily implement.

— Chris Wilson, Teacher

3. Support from a World-Class Community

Just over the weekend we had our 1,000th person sign up for the Focus Course.

I have been blown away by the activity, honesty, and just sheer awesomeness of the Focus Course community. There are people from all over the world and all walks of life, who are taking part, introducing themselves, and sharing their ideas and feedback as they go through the course.

You’ll get the support of this community as well as insight and ideas from others as they work their way through the same activities you are doing.

And the community forum is for more than just asking questions and sharing ideas, victories, and struggles. They are also there for the sake of accountability to help you as you work your way through the Course.

4. Get Back in Control

You may feel that you don’t have the time to take The Focus Course right now because life is already too busy. However, the busier you are, the more helpful the Course will prove to be.

Because the Course helps you improve how you are spending your time and energy right now, you’ll be able to get an immediate improvement in how you are spending your time and energy.

Just as I realized that I needed to rebalance things, I got the opportunity to take The Focus Course. It couldn’t have come at a better time, and I couldn’t be happier with the results it produced in my life.
— John Voorhies, Attorney, iOS Developer, and Father

5. A Very Low Price

The Focus Course is normally $347. However, right now, during this first week of January, the Focus Course is just $297.

This is the cheapest the course will ever be.

I look forward to seeing you inside.

Five Reasons to Join The Focus Course