Todd Henry’s Challenge Stability Matrix

Todd Henry Herding Tigers Workshop

Last week my production manager, Isaac, and I went to a workshop hosted by Todd Henry. And it was absolutely incredible.

(I’ll tell you more about the workshop in just a second.)

Todd is the author of Accidental Creative and an absolute inspiration to me personally. He does so well at articulating the challenges of creative life while offering truly helpful solutions. A few years ago I was able to connect with Todd for an interview discussing how to thrive under creative pressure, how to stay creatively focused, and the “myth” of work-life balance.

Todd’s workshop here in Kansas City was from on his book most-recent, Herding Tigers, which is all about leadership. (Todd has an online course version here.)

Specifically, the workshop hit on the challenges of leading a creative team.

Since the creative process is largely opaque — with a lot of complexity and intricacies that aren’t always obvious or measurable — then there can be a natural pressure and strain within the workplace.

Needless to say, I took copious notes.

So. Many. Notes.

One thing I especially loved, which was brand new to me, was the Challenge / Stability Matrix.

As a leader, you need to ensure that your company, your team, and each person within your team has the proper balance of challenging work plus stability.

This balance is unique for each team, as well as unique for each person.

You have your own needs and definitions for work that you consider challenging. And you also have your own different needs for what helps you feel stable and supported to do that work.

As you increase a team members challenges at work, you also need to increase their stability. Otherwise people will feel as if you are expecting things from them without giving them the resources they need. They will feel angry.

With the proper balance of challenge and stability, then people will be able to thrive.

Todd Henry Challenge Stability Matrix

This balance of challenge and stability is variable for every organization as well as every person on your team….

If someone on your team often acts irrationally angry, then perhaps they don’t have enough stability.

Or if someone is always asking for more work, then perhaps they are not being challenged enough.

Consider yourself, your co-workers, those you lead, and ask yourself if there is the proper blend of challenging work along with the stability needed to be able to thrive.

Todd Henry’s Challenge Stability Matrix

Productivity and Promises

Your productivity and your moral character are not intertwined.

Meaning: Getting things done does not make you a good or better person. And, conversely, failing to be “productive” does not make you a bad person.


There is, of course, a connection between your character and your follow-through.

If you tell someone that you will do something, or if you commit to something, then, of course, you want to follow through on your commitment. You want to keep your promises.

So, in that way, productivity is a means by which we can consistently follow through on our word and our commitments.

But productivity can only be connected to our moral character in as much as it helps us to be the people we have set out to be.

But this has gotten blurry. Because many “productive type things” get thrust upon us by other people. People who have expectations which they’ve projected upon us without our consent!

They want us to reply to their email within their desired timeframe. Or they want us to be available on Slack when they need us. Or whatever.

And then they have the audacity to be disappointed at us when we do not meet their unfair and un-agreed-upon expectations of what they consider to be “productive behavior”.

Well, shame on them. We had better things to do.

Productivity and Promises

An Excellent Sugar-Free BBQ Rub Recipe

Here at the Blanc house, we love to grill. We’re also trying to cut out sugar from our diet. Alas, brown sugar is one of the key ingredients in a good BBQ dry rub. So I made my own that is sugar free, and I think it turned out excellent.

But! Before I get ahead of myself… I’d first like to insert a few thousand words about traveling and discovering my inner chef. Then, I’d like to say something about the history of this recipe and how it has brought my family together in ways we never thought possible.

Sadly, I didn’t capture any photos of the food itself after being cooked. But I do have this neat iPhone photo of the spice jar I bought at Target filled with the spices.

Sugar-Free BBQ Rub

Okay. All joking aside, here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

The Recipe:

  • 2.5 Tablespoons Paprika
  • 1.5 Tablespoons Chili Powder
  • 1 Tablespoon Kosher Salt
  • 1 Tablespoon Garlic Powder
  • 1 Tablespoon Oregano
  • 1.5 Tablespoons Rosemary
  • 5 teaspoons Mustard Powder
  • 1 teaspoon Cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon Nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon Celery Salt
  • 2 teaspoons Ground Pepper
  • 2/3 teaspoon Cayenne Pepper

Directions: Put all the ingredients into a jar or whatever, mix them up, and use liberally as a dry rub or marinade before and during cooking. Goes great with chicken, beef, and pork.

An Excellent Sugar-Free BBQ Rub Recipe

This article by Kevin Kelly is absolutely delightful and fascinating. Don’t miss out on page 2, where he shares a whole bunch of interesting tidbits about his photography and film during his travels:

I was photographing with 35mm film. I left home with 500 rolls of film in my backpack. I had 500 rolls of cellophane-wrapped boxes of film, worth a lot of money in those parts back then, and yet over 10 years, no one ever looked inside my backpack, incuding coming back to the US.

I would send home maybe 20 or 30 rolls of film at a time in a box. I asked my mom to put them in a freezer when she got them. The first thing I would do when I was back home and earning money was to start getting my rolls of film developed. It was close to $5 a photo in today’s money just to develop and print the photos. So I had to really think about it each time I pressed that shutter. It was almost too expensive to experiment. It sounds crazy now, but I often didn’t see my pictures until years after taking them! So as you could imagine, there was this really long feedback loop between when I took the picture and when I got to actually see what it looked like. That’s a horrible way to do photography where you never see your images. To make it worse, I only had a manual camera, not automatic, so my exposure and focusing could be off and I wouldn’t know it. Every few months I would buy a roll of black and white film and get it developed locally just to make sure my cameras were working.

I was shooting two rolls of film a day while traveling, about 70 photos. When I was growing up, my family would shoot a roll of 24 photos in a year, which was pretty typical. You’d have three holidays on one roll. It was considered radical, extreme to be shooting as many photos as I was. When I would tell people I shot 70 per day their jaws would drop. They couldn’t imagine how you could find 70 things to take a photo of in one day! That many pictures in a day was considered insane.

It’s amazing how much the accessibility of photography and its workflows have changed since then. And as a result, it seems as if the general interest in and love of photography is exploding.

Kevin Kelly: Backpacker and Photographer in Asia in the 1970s

After 191 Workouts in a Row, Here are Three Things That Have Helped Me

Six months and nine days ago it was the first of October 2018 and I decided to do a workout every single day for the whole month. And I’ve been able to keep that streak going. According to the activity app in my phone I am up to 191 workouts in a row so far…

As I shared with newsletter subscribers back in early December when I was just 70 workouts in, there are a few things that have helped me to keep this going. Here they are, revisited after an additional 120 workouts…

  • Just 15 minutes per day. I’ve discovered that I don’t have to focus on closing all my rings. Instead, all I have to do is get in a single, 15-minute workout. With that, pretty much everything else takes care of itself and I am almost certain to close all my rings.

  • Having a plan: By knowing when and where I am going to work out each day, I am far more likely to actually show up. (This goes for anything, by the way: from writing, to practicing basketball, to reading with your kids.) Knowing the when and where takes out all the stress and procrastination — all that’s left is to show up.

  • Accountability: I’ve got two forms of accountability: (1) my twice-weekly spin class and (2) my Apple Watch friends. Having these two groups of folks that expect me to show up is a pretty great motivator to help me actually show up consistently when I’m not feeling it.

    (Also, the achiever in me does not want to break the chain of all those closed rings and green dots on my Activity app.)

When I first began, it took a lot of mental energy to do a workout every single day. It was all I thought about — and it felt super inconvenient. It felt disruptive to my whole day.


If you choose the right actions long enough, they begin to choose you back.

At first, you are pushing yourself toward your healthy habits. But then, after a while, your healthy habits begin to pull you forward.

After 191 Workouts in a Row, Here are Three Things That Have Helped Me

Austin Kleon’s new book just came out a few days ago. My copy arrived on Tuesday, and I’m excited to read it.

The book starts out with Austin sharing about how he has been writing and making art for over a decade, and yet it has not been getting any easier.

He writes:

Everything got better for me when I made peace with the fact that it might not ever get easier. The world is crazy. Creative work is hard. Life is short and art is long.

Whether you’re burned out, starting out, starting over, or wildly successful, the question is always the same: How to keep going?

Austin’s book came out at just the right time for me. Today — April 4 — happens to be the 8-year anniversary of when I began writing and blogging as my full-time gig. Yay!

I can definitely attest that it does not get “easier” and there is always a challenge to keep going. A lot has changed in the past 8 years. But wow, what a fun time and what a great job it has been so far. Let’s keep going!

Keep Going

This is what my Ulysses writing interface looks like on my iPad (which is where I spend about 90% of my writing time):

I’m currently using a modified and simplified version of the default Freestraction theme along with the custom font, iA Writer Duospace.

What I like about Ulysses’ ability to let you adjust your own theme is that you can design the look and feel of your writing app to suit your own writing needs and preferences.

It sounds kinda obvious, but I actually think it’s a big deal.

You and I have have different writing styles, goals, and preferences. And having the ability to create a writing environment that you actually like is important.

For me, I want my text formatting to be nearly invisible.

Because, when writing, you want to focus on the feel of the text not the think of it (which is the entire point behind why John Gruber created Markdown in the first place).


With all that said, today we just posted a quick-start guide that shows you how to find, download, install, and customize your own themes within Ulysses.

When you are writing, what is the feel of the text that best helps you to focus and do your best work? If you don’t love the feel of Ulysses, here’s how to change it to suit your mood. Heck, you could even set up a Day Theme and a Night Theme.

How to Customize the Look of Ulysses

True story. I was up until 11:45 last night getting a few final details in place for this new course launch. (For context, I normally go to bed at 9:30.)

Even though we’ve been working on this update to Learn Ulysses for the past 4 months, a few things still came down to the wire (for me, at least).

And I have to say that wow, I am just so happy with how this course turned out! It never would have happened without the incredible team at The Sweet Setup — everyone worked together on this new course to make it something world-class. A huge thanks to Mike, Matthew, Josh, Jeff, Isaac, Chris, and Joanna!

I am someone who is constantly trying to wrangle ideas and keep my writing organized. And I am so glad that I went “all in” with Ulysses a few years ago — it has been a game changer for me. And even more so now that I use my iPad for just about everything. (The Ulysses iPad app is phenomenal.)

The whole reason The Sweet Setup exists is to help people find and use the very best apps. And so I love being able to put together these training courses for my “must-have” apps like Ulysses, et al.


Right now, since it’s the launch week, the new Pro tier of Learn Ulysses is on sale for 20% off. (That will be until Friday.)

And if you are one of the 2,500 folks who bought the original version of Learn Ulysses before today’s update then we’ve got upgrade info for you right here.

The All-New Learn Ulysses Course

Matthew Cassinelli put together this fantastic guide for quick capture in Ulysses on iOS. He goes over the built-in share sheet (which is what I use about 5 times a day). And he also gives several examples of custom Shortcuts (with download links) for automating the capture of ideas, notes, and more.

Side note: On this Tuesday 26 March, we are shipping a huge update our Learn Ulysses course over on The Sweet Setup. This article on Quick Capture is taken from one of the lessons in the new course.

The Ultimate Guide to Quick Capture in Ulysses

This is a short video showing a day in the life of Chef Nozomu Abe, who owns and operates Sushi Noz in New York.

It is so fascinating and educational to watch and learn the small habits, routines, mindsets, and idiosyncrasies of people who are masters at their craft.

I love that when he puts on his chef’s apron his whole mindset shifts from preparing the food to now putting on a presentation and hosting his dinner guests.

And I love how every single detail within the whole restaurant is considered.

And I love how he starts with the goal of having an excellent dining experience for his guests and then develops the constraints based on that goal. Such as the fact that they only serve dinner to 16 total people in an evening: only 8 people at a time, with only 2 dinner seatings per evening. An entire day’s worth of hard work with a team, all to serve dinner to 16 people. Depth over breadth…

What do a blog and a sushi restaurant have in common? Not much. But I love seeing how masters like Chef Nozomu approache their work. It gives me inspiration for ways I can improve and grow in the creative work I do and the websites that I run.

This video brings to mind a quote from George Leonard’s book, Mastery

“Consistency of practice is the mark of the master.”

A Day In The Life of Chef Nozomu Abe, Sushi Master

Over the past two years, my usage between Mac and iPad has flip-flopped. And these days I use my 11-inch iPad Pro for just about everything. Especially all writing. So over on The Sweet Setup I just posted an article that gives a look at what I’m using these days to do all my writing.

(Side note: If you’re looking for the wallpaper I’m currently using on my iPad, it’s from my Blurry Kansas City photos which you can find along with the the high-res versions here.)

My iPad Writing Setup

David and Stephen were generous enough to invite me back onto to the Mac Power Users podcast this week.

We spent a fair amount of time talking about my gradual move away from the Mac and toward to the iPad Pro. For those who’ve been waiting for my thoughts on why I switched from the 12.9- to the 11-inch iPad Pro, this is a great opportunity to catch that.

We also spent a lot of time talking about leadership, management, and team culture. Specifically, how I manage the team behind my two sites: The Sweet Setup and The Focus Course.

Here’s a direct link to open the episode in Overcast.

Yours Truly on Mac Power Users Talking About Workflows and Leadership

Over on The Sweet Setup we put together this list of great apps for thinkers.

If you’ve got ideas to wrangle, brainstorming to do, and thinking is part of your normal day, then you’re going to want to use some of these apps.

I quipped on Twitter that this list is like my app love language. These are the apps I live and work in every single day.

Two brief, personal side notes:

  • While we recommend Notability as the best app for taking handwritten notes on the iPad, I personally use and prefer Goodnotes. However… I use Goodnotes differently than as a note taking app. Goodnotes is the app I use to mark-up PDF documents. And, something new I’ve just begun fiddling with is the idea of having certain PDF templates stored within Goodnotes and then using those PDFs when working on certain types of projects or doing planning.

    So, for example, having a project planning outline template. Or a decision-making framework template. Or a marketing editorial calendar template. Etc. I could create these as PDFs and store them as blanks within Goodnotes, and then when I need to fill one out I can just duplicate the blank one and use it within Goodnotes.

  • A few months ago I was introduced to infinite canvas whiteboard apps, and it’s apps like Concepts that make the iPad plus Apple Pencil make perfect sense.
The Best Apps for Thinkers

Everything Requires Maintenance

A few months ago I bought one of the best drip coffee makers in the world.

Truly, as I was walking out of the store with box in hand, four — (4!) — different people stopped me to say how excited or how jealous they were that I was taking this coffee machine home.

Long-time readers of this site will know that I am giant coffee nerd. Probably the worst thing you can buy me is anything related to coffee. Chances are good that I’ve already seen it, researched it, bought it, used it, and have since moved on to something else.

Over the years my coffee shelf has been home to a V-60, French Press, Espro Press, AeroPress, Kalita Wave, Kone Brewing system, Moka pot, Siphon, and Clever dripper (to name a few).

After well over a solid decade of manual coffee making at home I finally aged out. I have moved to an automatic drip coffee maker. Gasp!

I bought the infamous Moccamaster. (It’s more than famous.)

A Brief Aside on Why I Bought the Moccamaster and What I Think About It

So, after all those years of manual coffee brewing methods, why did I get a drip coffee maker? It all boils down to my time.

The time I have between when I get up and when my day starts is never enough. And I wanted to spend those precious minutes on activities other than pouring hot water over coffee grounds.

I wanted to get back just a little bit of my time in the mornings without sacrificing the quality of my coffee, of course.

It’s been at least four months now since I bought the Moccamaster, and I love it. It certainly wasn’t cheap. The model I bought probably cost more than nearly all of my manual coffee makers combined.

One thing that makes the Moccamaster special is that it’s built to last. I’ve heard from many people who have owned their Moccamaster for years and years and still love them.

As far as quality of coffee… I would say that the Moccamaster makes almost as delicious of coffee as I could make with one of my pour over methods. If the Kalita or V-60 can make a cup that is 9/10 delicious, the Moccamaster makes one that is 8/10.

While I think I could get the coffee quality to be a bit better — you’d be surprised to hear about ways you can still get nerdy and fussy with a Moccamaster — I have intentionally chosen not to go that route because it would be the opposite reason for why I bought the thing in the first place.

I just measure my beans and water and I’m happy with the results. In fact, I’m drinking a cup of my coffee as I type this very sentence. Yum.

The one thing I do not like about the Moccamaster is that the carafe and brew basket are not dishwasher safe. It’s not a huge deal, but it just means every few days I have to wash everything by hand. It still requires some bit of maintenance.

Actually, now that you mention it…

Everything Requires Maintenance

Sadly, there is no gadget or system or process that is completely absent of all work and maintenance.

To some degree or another, everything requires your time and attention; everything requires maintenance.

Alas, even my “automated” coffee maker still takes some work to keep clean and operational.

As someone who doesn’t always like to trust the process, it has been helpful for me to keep this truth in mind: everything requires maintenance.

And it stands for more than just the things I own, such as my clothes, cars, lawn, and tax-receipt filing system. My physical self and even the productivity workflows I live within every day require attention to keep operational. (Ugh, right?)

Spoiler: There is No “Easy” System for Focus and Productivity

Perhaps one area I see the most hangup in this is related to productivity systems.

Staying in control of your time and your attention is an activity that requires some time in an of itself.

Lots of folks bemoan this fact. They have, no doubt, tried many systems and none worked for them. They feel frustrated because they don’t want to waste time managing their to-do list.

Now, side note, there is a lot of legitimacy to these frustrations. I definitely understand how frustrating it is to spin your wheels with an overflowing to-do list. A lot of productivity systems out there are way more work than they’re worth.

However, if you care about how you spend your time and your attention — then you also ought to care about the keeping up with the system that keeps you on track. And I think most people do care, which is why it can feel frustrating at times.

For me, I set aside about half an hour on Sunday evenings in order to plan out my week. (I go into the nerdy details of this in the “Analog” section of my All the Things course.)

During my weekly planning time I will decide what it is that I will focus on and how I will primarily spend my time each day for the upcoming week.

This brief weekly planning session never feels convenient. I am rarely in the mood and I’d almost always rather do something else. But my task list and calendar must get the appropriate amount of my time and energy in order for them to be effective and helpful.

When Inconvenience Becomes Opportunity

In the beginning, these inconvenient activities of maintenance often feel like speed bumps that are getting in the way and slowing things down. There is never a convenient and easy time to work out, or to eat well, or to plan my week or my day.

However, if you stick with it, then over time you will see how these activities of “inconvenient maintenance” are actually the foundational actions in our day in which we are choosing to live with intention.

The truth is, you won’t find anything that is free from all work and maintenance. This is as true for coffee makers as it is for productivity systems.

With that in mind, don’t try to find something that requires ZERO maintenance. Because it doesn’t exist. You’ll never find something that is devoid of all work and maintenance.

Rather, find a system that can work for you — one that you have the ability and the drive to to keep up with.

Everything Requires Maintenance