When you absolutely must get things done.
As I’ve mentioned many times before, two books I read in 2016 really changed my approach to life, and my work. They represent two concepts that work together to provide a powerful one – two punch combo that supercharges your ability to get things done.
The first book was “The One Thing” which I have written about. The One Thing offers the idea that only one thing really matters above all. On the macro level, there is the One thing you choose to make your life all about. In the day to day, there is the One Thing you could do that would make other things easier or unnecessary. It’s all about defining your vision and lining up your dominoes and whacking away at the first one until it falls and topples the next one with topples the next one and so on.
The second book is Deep Work by Cal Newport.
Deep work is the ability to focus on a hard task, to really concentrate for a long enough period of time. According to Newport, it is a skill that is becoming increasingly rare in a world filled with easy to access distraction. It is also a skill that is becoming incredibly important and useful in a networked world that needs you to learn skills quickly to thrive, and that allows you to affect millions with just your phone. We are too distracted at our work or at our businesses to give the right amount of effort and focus on the key tasks or projects that would make a definite difference. Doubly so for creatives or knowledge workers who need to expend considerable mental effort to produce good work.
There is a feature of the iPhone (and most other phones I would imagine, I’m hopelessly lost to the Apple hype train) that is irrefutably the best feature of the phone. It is not the above average camera (Samsung kicks its ass in my opinion), it’s not the design and how sleek it looks, it’s not the fact that it makes me look cool when I whip it out. It is the airplane mode function. With a swipe and a tap, I can turn the device from a portal to the infinite distraction machine that is the internet into a shiny paperweight.
Deep Work is the reason my phone is on airplane mode at least 50% of the time. This book is the reason I am many times unreachable, much to the chagrin of my friends and clients (I am so sorry guys but let me explain). It is also the reason I have been able to work on my business and my brand consistently over the past 18 months. It is the reason my design work has gotten stronger, the reason I’m learning faster and the reason my general productivity (the ability to get things done) has doubled or maybe even tripled.
It is also the reason I am less stressed and haven’t tried to hug a kitchen knife.
You see, regardless of how urgent and pressing everything feels, ultimately only a few things really matter. Out of the 100 or so different things you do or get asked to do today, probably none of them actually move you forward in any meaningful way towards a better life or better experience in 5 years. But if we know where we want to go, we can focus on the things that matter and move intentionally towards our BHAGs.
When you combine those two ideas, you are able to focus on what is most important and devote the kind of time and attention that it deserves. It is doing Deep Work on your One Thing.
In the midst of life’s noise, you can take the time to figure out what you want, count the cost, define the key activities and line up the dominoes. Now is the time to cultivate empty space, to block out some time that you can pay attention to the things that really matter. To learn the new skill, to work on the new business idea, to make some art, or simply to give back or build relationships. This is the time for Deep Work.
If I get anything done, and get it done well, or even quickly, my first step is always to switch the phone off. None of that ‘I’ll just put it face down’, that doesn’t work. Psychically I’m still attached, I’m still wondering about who’s trying to get in touch with me. It has to be off, and then finally I feel shut off from the world enough to allow my ideas and creative energy to bubble up to the surface.
Give it a try. If it’s too hard, put your phone in the drawer or the laundry basket or wherever. Just practice being cut off from your phone. See what that does for what you are working on.
When last did you give your full attention to a task? It feels very tempting to multitask. The pleasure of scrolling through our Instagram feeds, or losing hours of time to YouTube is very compelling and addictive. But if you are to get things done, if you are to move steadily to that BHAG, its very useful to learn how to switch off.
Even if it is just to think. From the moment we wake up, notice how we are mentally highjacked by our feeds. My first impulse when I wake up is to check my messages. First Whatsapp, then the Inbox, then Twitter (never Instagram until I’m mentally ready for that kind of mental and emotional assault). And just like that, my day can get highjacked by the needs and demands for others. Live like this enough days in a row and soon you are swept up in a fog of distraction, mediocrity and dissatisfaction. We all need space to think, to connect with ourselves, to heal, to spend some time in reflection or in the quiet pursuit of an interest or a craft.
The ability to go deep, both in your craft, in work and in your life will produce many benefits. It is a required resource in the marathon of pursuing your BHAG and cultivating a happy life. If you can isolate your main thing, and steadily devote time to it, you will stop feeling listless and more focused. And as you get better at it, that momentum of actually doing things will propel you to do some incredible things.
Photo by Cris DiNoto on Unsplash
The thing about being creative types, philosophers and bohemians in a largely capitalistic world is that we are continually faced with the tension of expressing our art, our soul, our spiritual gift to the world while somehow finding a way to survive. Monetization (making money from our art) or subsidization (having someone else donate) becomes necessary at some point.
True, not everything needs to be monetized and we live in a real world of people and interaction on multiple layers – physical, emotional, and spiritual. Not everything can or should be reduced down to currency. However, if you are looking to monetize your passion, this as an incredibly useful way to look at it.
You have to attach something to the art – a product, a service or an experience.
I learnt this principle from Gary Vaynerchuk, watching one of his gazillion videos. He is talking to this young man who is riffing off about the things he wants to do, the heart behind his brand, and how much he wants to impact people and so on. To do this, he needs to find money to execute. In response, Gary asks if there is something tangible attached to it. If he wants funding, is there an object that can be invested in?
Having feel-good ideas are fun and wonderful. Talking about them and sharing them can be very enriching and fulfilling.
But if you are in business, especially if you are a mission-led business seeking to change the world, or an NGO tackling much needed social work on behalf of humanity, you must respect this principle. You have to clearly understand what your idea is – your goal, your purpose, your mission. And this idea must become tangible as product, service or experience.
You cannot ignore the laws of the market place, unless you plan to loot or steal the money. Think about the places your purpose and people’s desires/needs intersect, and play in that space. Connect your work to value in people’s lives.
As nice as it is to exist in our little creative bubbles indulging in artistic revelry, if we will succeed as artists or creatives, we must relax our romantic ideas of a utterly free rein creative life and link our art (the essence of our creativity and passion) to a tangible thing. Your art, your brand needs a vessel. Put your thing into a container that can be invested in or purchased.
Think about music. Musicians make music, and sell the recordings and merchandise (product), or sell skills (service) or shows (experience). There are multiple ways of creating tangible things that express your idea. Attaching your art to an object allows you to share the art. Now your audience can take with them a tangible piece or object that will bring them back to the heart of your art every time they interact with it in any way.
And that’s win-win all round.
There is only one success. To be able to spend your life in your own way.
– Christopher Morley
We are surrounded by success porn. From Facebook to Snapchat, the digital sphere is littered with quote cards spouting off generic success platitudes and motivation. You know the ones, the images of the suave guy in the impeccable suit and nice watch. Or the flawlessly shot Instagram gym model showing off her perfect abs and toned body.
I like to look at it as what I call ‘priming’. When I sit to design, one of the first things I do is to pull up my favourite sites and browse for inspiration. I spend time looking at beautiful things. It primes and stimulates my mind to think in the same vein as my inspiration and helps me know what my benchmark of quality should be.
That’s what success porn does, or should do. It is a burst of inspiration, a certain smug satisfaction, a ‘hell yeah! high five! let’s get it’ sort of moment. And it’s good. Sometimes you need that spark, that reminder.
The main problem with success porn is that you can get that hit of self righteous dopamine so many times that you begin to feel satisfied without actually doing any work.
It is easy to brainstorm, and research and learn. It makes us feel good, like we are taking actual steps. And granted, it is a first step in the process of getting what you want. But consuming content, no matter how good, whether it be Gary V or Tai Lopez or Grant Cardone or whoever your guru is, is not the same as doing the work.
The path to success is the steady consistent grind, the work, the fears, the tears. It is not as sexy as success porn, but it is the thing that actually produces results. And there are a lot of things unique to your circumstance that you would have to navigate with your own wits and common sense as well as all the tips and knowledge you have gained from your blogs, podcasts and videos.
The second subtler problem with success porn is the narrative that success looks a certain way. Success for millenials in general falls in the same boxes – a great job, a great startup, lots of money, gadgets, travel to exotic places, self care, romantic love and baecations. All of which are absolutely wonderful pleasures.
But the thing with life is…it is life. It is varied, it is complex and it is nuanced. Success has to be something you define for yourself. You don’t need to subscribe to an idea of success. You just have to find what you like, what you believe, what fulfills you and be committed in the pursuit of that. That is what success is.
“Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days.”
– J.K. Rowling
I believe there is nothing more important than being creative (after food, shelter, etc.), and being creative for you. There are ideas placed in you that need to be birth, because doing so will give you experiences and gifts you could not otherwise comprehend, and they will touch the world in ways you could never imagine.
But the business of life can be very distracting. In between all the chores, the jobs, the social obligations and the daily hum of life, it is incredibly easy to lose yourself and your true desires. You hum along doing things and then you wake up with decades later wondering where all that time went and beating yourself up for actually accomplishing very little of your true goals.
I’ve had many creative ideas over the years – podcasts, books, clothing lines, stores, events, blogs, and magazines. It’s a long list I know, but not a lot of them have come to fruition. I hated that I would kick off the year with all these ideas and projects I wanted to get done, and then six months in I would be completely lost in the sauce, entirely busy working on clients or friend’s latest schemes, chasing down opportunities to make a buck. I was so consumed with everything else that I never pushed my projects forward enough.
To be honest, I did not understand what it took to get things done. But after multiple dead ends you start to learn a thing or two. For the past 10 months, I have been working consistently on my creative projects and pushing them towards completion. I know this is a long road, and its still early days, but I thought I’d articulate the mindset and tools that are enabling me to finally actually do the work I have in my heart to do.
- Stay awake
It is so easy to fall asleep behind the wheel of life. Urgent and pressing issues can crowd the truly important to the dark recesses of your mind to be randomly stumbled upon one day. You have to stay awake. And by that I mean you have to always be focused on your actual personal creative goals. It has to be a priority and something that is on your mind daily. Never lose sight of it. Write it somewhere you can see it, and engage with it every day.
- Think long term
Rome was not built in a day, and neither will your project. You have to be in it for the long haul. If you are trying to build a creative life that sustains your soul and your pocket, understand that it is going to take a while. Make peace with that.
- Focus on the process
If you are going to get any worthwhile creative work done, you have to respect the process. This is going to mean working on your projects daily or at least weekly. You are going to need to take consistent action over a long period of time – creating, learning, tweaking, editing, fixing, scrapping, restarting, etc. It’s a process; learn to enjoy it.
- Be realistic
There is nothing like ambitious timelines to excite you then ultimately defeat you in the creative journey. Be realistic with the amount of time you think it will take to get your project done, and then add more time to it. Things always take much longer than you’d expect.
- Protect your creative time and space
You absolutely must block off a portion of time for you to work on your things. That means phones off, Internet off, put on headphones, close the door. Deep creative work demands nothing less than your full attention and energy. That means being inaccessible sometimes and turning a blind eye to the other thousand things vying for your attention.
- Just make
As creatives we tend to be both very egotistical and fragile. We have high hopes and standards for our work. We wonder if people will like it, we fear being judged. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about the work. Right now, your job is to make! Focus on that.
Everything I have just said can be summed up in one word – Commit. To get your personal work done, you must commit to getting it done. That means making a firm decision to get it done no matter how hard or tough the road may be. It means discipline. It means giving up excuses and doing whatever needs to be done.
I heard the above quote from a Tai Lopez podcast sometime in 2015, and it stuck in my mind ever since. It even made it to the little pile of post-its I keep on my desk covered with odd notes and scribbles. It reminded of me something I heard Marc Ecko say back in 2012 – that the phrase ‘Artists and Instigators’ was a more apt way to describe what startups and entrepreneurs do. We get stuck sometimes on the nuts and bolts of creating businesses and launching brands, managing teams, balancing books, developing markets, we miss the essence of what these activities are, or what they should be. Which is making something we believe should exist to communicating an opinion, a point of view.
That is the true allure of being a designer for me. It is the chance to make something, the ability to offer my take / perspective on an idea, a product, a service, a business that wakes me up in the morning eager to get started.
I watched a talk by Sasha Strauss on ‘branding in the normal’ last week, and he so elegantly distilled the essence of what a brand is. As a matter of fact, the idea he put forward is the founding conceptual framework behind all the great institutions of our time – religions, nations, and so. The core of brand is this – there is the idea, and there is the belief around that idea. Religion has the idea that there exists a god or gods. The belief system in relation to this idea, i.e. how we interact with and behave because of this god or gods is what makes different religions appeal to different people. The Virgin Group takes on multiple markets and products but the core ideas are business, products, and services. Their belief is that business should be fun and that customer service is the most important thing a great company can have.
I don’t know what your motives are for getting into business if you are an entrepreneur, but the best businesses and the most creative works of art succeed because they have a point of view. There is something they believe in, and they stop at nothing to birth a world that expresses that. It might be in the way they treat the customer, it might be in the way they do business, but they believe something.
That goes double for the freelancer, the creative, the solopreneur. You got into this because deep down, you want to create a specific kind of life; you want to do something remarkable. You became an entrepreneur, to make something specific happen. There are a multitude of people doing the same thing you do – designing, writing, photography, coaching, etc. What will separate you from everyone else is the same thing that makes you unique. It is your DNA, it is your opinion, its your point of view, it is what you truly believe. Don’t hide away from it; don’t dumb it down to fit in. Embrace that and recreate the world in your image.
This is a slight rant on something I have been experiencing in the past few weeks.
I started out in this design/design business thing self taught. I learned to use the software and I’ve been sloughing away at it ever since. In the 7-8 years I’ve been doing this, I have probably designed up to thousands of pieces and artifacts – logos, mailers, flyers, websites, etc. Over time I have gotten good at delivering visually pleasing work quickly and within the chaotic constraints of the typical client service business.
For most creatives, the most exciting part of our work is the actual creative part, making the thing, the logo or the booklet or the poster. Many times I have fallen into the trap of becoming nothing more than a tool for the client, a pixel pusher. Do this, do that, move that there, without much regard for my opinion or ideas on what works. That was entirely my fault. I did not understand the value I brought to the table nor could I communicate that effectively.
In the chaotic landscape of client services, things tend to be frantic. Everything is always due yesterday. There is often not a good enough understanding of the connection between design output and business objectives. Design becomes a last minute exercise quickly producing pieces of communication without any form of strategy or intent.
This is a mistake.
Sure you can get a nice looking design out of a competent designer working this way. But creating design that actually works, design that clarifies your intentions and aims your efforts, design that sets u up for greater success beyond the project at hand, that is something else entirely. That is the love child of good process and talent.
The Design Method outlined by Eric Karjaluoto in his book goes as follows: Discovery – Planning – Creative – Application. Newbie designers and most clients are happy jumping right into the creative. However they miss out on the many benefits of engaging the first two steps.
Discovery allows you to fully understand the problem at hand, it gives you context. Ideally, the designer should be able to immerse himself/herself into the world of the client and understand how the business works, what the problems are and how the audience interacts with them. Discovery has the benefit of helping the client understand what’s really going on with the business. Are there gaps in the communications? Do you understand what you really do? Do you understand what you are selling? Do you have objectives, and do you know how you are going to achieve them?
Planning helps connect the insights from discovery to the nitty gritty of execution. It provides a plan of action of what needs to be done, targeted to whom and by when. It gives purpose to your efforts and ensures you don’t waste time going down rabbit holes.
Respecting the process transforms a simple brief for a website for a bus company to a holistic communication solution geared at increasing online sales. Instead of just a website, the client is steered towards adopting online marketing, referral campaigns and developing e-commerce solutions. A directive to design new labels for a budding craft beer brand now turns into the task of the defining and refreshing company brand in light of their new investment, offerings and aspirations. Instead of just labels, the brand is rewarded with a deeper understanding of itself and a roadmap for handling communications moving forward.
Rushing through the design process to the production bit might be satisfying in the short term, but you miss out on a ton of value left on the table in the long term.