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.
Last week I wrote about goals, covering the idea that we need Big Hairy Audacious Goals, because they have the potential to help us evolve to greater versions of ourselves. Combining that with smaller ‘checkpoint’ goals keep us on track, steadily stretching and progressing towards the BHAG. But beyond goals as we understand them, systems are an underrated tool and approach that work even better than just goals.
The power of a goal is readily compelling. It is the shining beacon that calls out to us, it is the big thing we want to achieve. And so usually we set it and then we hack away at it every day, or whenever we remember, trying things, failing, learning and trying again until we finally get there. This typical process requires a great deal of willpower, motivation and drive to get started and keep things moving.
Systems make things easier, and I’m going to unpack how. Like I mentioned last week, this is directly inspired by Scott Adam’s idea that “Systems are better than goals’ as expressed in his book. Check it out, it’s a great read and explains the idea in a fantastic way.
The idea of ‘Systems > Goals’ strikes a chord with me because it dovetails nicely with things I have blogged about before like ‘trust the process’, and ‘making time work for you’. It is understanding the incredible power of compound effect and leveraging that in your favor. There is a reason why the most prolific artists and creators of all time swear by some sort of system or routine. Routines free up energy to be creative where it counts, doing the actual work. Systems provide the framework to achieve greatness over time.
Using systems to achieve your goal
Everything we eventually become are the sum of the decisions we make and the actions we take in the day to day. The habits we pick up or develop become stronger every time until they become our default settings. If you can control that process and make sure your habits are the right ones, it becomes that much easier to attain success.
The systems approach works backwards by looking at the thing you want to achieve and reverse engineering the conditions needed to eventually get there. A simple example would be the goal to get to a certain level of fitness, or to get a certain body weight. We can guess that the key things needed for this to happen would be eating right, exercising right, and rest. The systems approach takes these elements and grafts them into your life in such a way that is tailor made to your strengths. You take those steps and turn them into habits by hooking them up to trigger moments in your day.
Quite simply, break down your goals to the actions that would take you there and then make it easy to regularly take those steps.
You could deploy strategies like doing meal prep on the weekends, boxing up each meal for the week separately. Now you don’t have to think about what to eat ever. You decided over the weekend. You simply pick the box you need, warm it up and eat when you need it. You could begin a lunch time or pre-bed ritual, spending 30mins stretching and doing body weight exercises before you go to bed. If you successfully executed these two relatively simple habits daily and weekly, you would be eating right and getting regular exercise. The habits get easier to maintain the more you do them and the effects compound over time. Once the habit is on autopilot you can tweak things to keep them interesting or more efficient. Like tweaking the exact foods you eat or doing more intense training.
If your goal is to read more books let’s say 40 books in the next 12 months. You could approach this goal haphazardly, reading whenever you remembered or had a book handy, or you could bake reading into your day-to-day life. You could simply commit to reading for 30mins every single day first thing in the morning, or you could decide to use your commute to work to listen to audio books. With a daily habit like that it becomes easier to hit that goal.
Systems require a considerable investment upfront to set up. It can be long and arduous work. But once they are running, systems save you time and energy. As they hum along, they make it easy, almost effortless to achieve your goals.
Using systems to improve your odds.
So far we have looked at simple goals, the kind that fall under the ‘checkpoint’ category. Could a systems approach be beneficial when tackling the BHAG, the Big Hairy Audacious Goal?
The Big Goals generally do not have a clear roadmap to achieving them. They are the sort of goals that take a long time of work and learning to eventually achieve. They also tend to require a large degree of luck. Being at the right place at the right time, knowing the right people can play a huge role in what manner of success and experience you have. How do we get luckier?
We deploy a system to optimize for the odds. Simply put, we work to make it more likely that we can achieve the goal. That is the general idea behind formal schooling. You go to school, work hard, and get good grades in an area of high demand to increase the odds that you will get a good job.
Take a look at the things you want to get done. If you want to do cool, experimental events and be known for it or even paid for it. Then you have to do research into the area and see who else is doing that sort of thing. Who pays for that kind of stuff? Brands? Maybe look at the few events companies that specialize in out-the-box events and offer to intern with them for free. Make prototype experiences and document them. Choose to do the things that would increase the odds that you would be able to do the work that you want to do.
If you want to create a successful start-up, then you have to work out a system to increase your odds of success. What do you need to succeed? A good product or service, a large and growing customer base, ability to deploy and scale. There are a thousand moving parts and factors that affect your success. But imagine what the long-term outcome would be if you had a system for learning more about business every day. Maybe every weekend, you brainstormed and built a landing page for an idea and put it out there. 52 weeks down the line, one of them catches off and gains incredible traction. The idea is that every day or every week you increased your odds by learning, making stuff, putting it out there at low risk, watching it fail and then improving it the next time.
See how taking a systems approach makes everything easier. Sure, it takes some time to get used to and build new habits, but it’s a worthwhile investment to make. Your key job becomes making the system even better and more effective over time.
Systems thinking is a powerful framework to use in approaching your goals. If you used this way of thinking to go after your checkpoint goals and used it to improve the odds of success on your Big Hairy Audacious Goal, you will be leveraging the power of process and the compound power of time to create something incredibly remarkable.
And eventually you will win.
Book: Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters
Author: Richard Rumelt
As a creative, brand strategist and entrepreneur, I’m interested in strategy, and in my travels across the web, this book, ‘Good strategy/Bad Strategy’ came up quite a few times as the one book to read if you wanted to learn more about strategy. I finally finished it last week, and it really delivered.
In the book, Richard Rumelt showcases the difference between good strategy and bad strategy. Bad strategy is nothing less than wishful thinking, and can be recognized by broad fluffy words, bad objectives and an unwillingness to face problems. Good strategy on the other hand digs in to the situation at hand, addresses the critical problems, prescribes a general guideline in tackling them and includes clear coherent set of actions to take to actually get there.
Good strategy/Bad strategy is a highly recommended reading if you are a leader, a consultant, an entrepreneur or just interested in strategy. The insights are profound and are widely applicable, from the board room to personal dealings.
Highlights from Good Strategy/Bad Strategy
Despite the roar of voices wanting to equate strategy with ambition, leadership, “vision”, planning, or the economic logic of competition, strategy is none of these. The core of strategy work is always the same: discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors.
A good strategy does more than urge us forward towards a goal or vision. A good strategy honestly acknowledges the challenges being faced and provides and approach to overcoming them.
A good strategy has an essential logical structure that I call the kernel. The kernel of a strategy contains three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent action.
The most basic idea of strategy is the application of strength against weakness. Or, if you prefer, strength applied to the most promising opportunity.
How can someone see what others have not, or what they have ignored, and thereby discover a pivotal objective and create an advantage, lies at the very edge of our understanding, something glimpsed only out the corner of our minds.
Identify your strengths and weaknesses, assess the opportunities and risks (your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses), and build on your strengths.
If you fail to identify and analyze the obstacles, you don’t have a strategy. Instead, you have either a stretch goal, a budget, or a list of things you wish would happen.
Strategic objectives should address a specific process or accomplishment, such as halving the time it takes to respond to a customer, or getting work from several Fortune 500 corporations.
Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes.
Good strategy is not just “what’ you are trying to do. It is also “why” and “how” you are doing it.
A good guiding policy tackles the obstacles identified in the diagnosis by creating or drawing upon sources of advantage.
Returns to concentration arise when focusing efforts on fewer, or more limited, objectives generates larger payoffs.
…he invested where his resources would make a large and more visible difference.
One of a leader’s most powerful tools is the creation of a good proximate objective – one that is close enough at hand to be feasible.
…imagine that they were allowed to have only one objective. And that objective had to be feasible. What one single feasible objective, when accomplished, would make the biggest difference?
A master strategist is a designer.
But the truth is that many companies, especially large complex companies, don’t really have strategies. At the core, strategy is about focus, and most complex organizations don’t focus their resources.
Extending a competitive advantage requires looking away from products, buyers and competitors and looking instead at the special skills and resources that underlie a competitive advantage. In other words, “Build on your strengths”.
The other way to grab the high ground – the way that is my focus here – is to exploit a wave of change.
You exploit a wave of change by understanding the likely evolution of the landscape and then channeling resources and innovation toward positions that will become high ground – become valuable and defensible – as the dynamics play out.
A good strategy is, in the end, a hypothesis about what will work. Not a wild theory, but an educated judgement.
To guide your own thinking in strategy work, you must cultivate three essential skills or habits. First you must have a variety of tools for fighting your own myopia. Second, you must develop the ability to question your own judgement. If your reasoning cannot withstand a vigorous attack, your strategy cannot be expected to stand in the face of real competition. Third, you must cultivate the habit of making and recording judgements so that you can improve.
I read this book for the first time back in early 2015, and I even blogged about the core idea here and a related idea ‘Deliberatism’ here. This is a crucial book, and it holds a hard-to-live-up-to idea that has the ability to transform your life, if implemented well. It pairs very well with ‘The One Thing’ which I will blog about sometime soon.
Too many times, we take on too much and we try to do everything. This is an excellent strategy when starting out. When you are new or young, try everything out, try different things, taste the berries, like Gary Vee would say. It’s this being open and saying yes to everything that will open doors and fuel your success. But once you get to a level of success, to move to the next level, you have to evolve and change your approach.
In every endeavor, there are the small proportion of factors that disproportionately affect the outcome. It is basically the 80/20 principle. There are the trivial many and the vital few. It is a profoundly important skill to be able to delineate between the few and focus your efforts on the things that really matter.
Imagine being able to accomplish more by doing less. This is the promise of Essentialism. How can you be more focused, more effective and less stressed?
Check out my selected excerpts below, and you can buy the book here.
My Highlights from Essentialism
In this example is the basic value proposition of Essentialism: only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.
… Less but better. A more fitting definition of Essentialism would be hard to come by.
Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.
It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at your highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.
The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default.
Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.
If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
The pursuit of success can be a catalyst for failure. Put another way, success can distract us from focusing on the essential things that produce success in the first place.
To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and ‘I can do anything but not everything.”
When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless. Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up a function of other people’s choices – or even a function of our own past choices.
Is there a point where doing less (but thinking more) will actually produce better outcomes?
To discern what is truly essential, we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make.
…and the noisier things get, the more we need to build quiet reflective spaces in which we can truly focus.
When there is a serious lack of clarity about what the team stands for, and what their goals and roles are, people experience confusion, stress and frustration. When there is a high level of clarity, on the other hand, people thrive.
We do a similar thing in our personal lives as well. When we are unclear about our real purpose in life – in other words, when we don’t have a clear sense of our goals, our aspirations, and our values – we make up our own social games. We waste time and energies on trying to look good in comparison to other people. We overvalue non-essentials like a nicer car or house, or even intangibles like the number of our followers on Twitter.
Creating an essential intent is hard. It takes courage, insight and foresight to see which activities and efforts will add up to your single highest point of contribution. It takes asking tough questions, making real trade-offs, and exercising serious discipline to cut out the competing priorities that distract us from our true intention. Yet it is worth the effort because only with real clarity of purpose can people, teams, and organizations fully mobilize and achieve something truly excellent.
Don’t ask, “How will I feel if I miss out on this opportunity?” but rather, “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?”
We all have some people in our lives who tend to be higher maintenance for us than others. These are the people who make their problem our problem. They distract us from our purpose. They care only about their own agendas, and if we let them, they prevent us from making our highest contribution by siphoning our time and energy to activities that are essential to them, rather than those that are essential to us.
Whoever it is that’s trying to siphon off your time and energies for their own purpose, the only solution is to put up fences.
The way of the Essentialist is different. The Essentialist looks ahead. She plans. She prepares for different contingencies. She expects the unexpected. She creates a buffer to prepare for the unforeseen, thus giving herself some wiggle room when things come up, as they inevitable do.
What is the obstacle that is keeping you back from achieving what really matters to you? By systematically identifying and removing this “constraint” you’ll be able to significantly reduce the friction keeping you from executing what is essential.
…highly creative individuals use strict routines to free up their minds. Most creative individuals find out early what their best rhythms are for sleeping, eating, and working, and abide by them even when it is tempting to do otherwise,” Mihaly says. “they wear clothes that are comfortable, they interact only with people they find congenial, they do only things they think are important…personalizing patterns of action helps to free the mind from the expectations that make demands on attention and allows intense concentration on matters that count.
Focus on the hardest thing first.
They know that execution is easy if you work hard at it and hard if you work easy at it.
Essentialist never attempts to do more than one thing at a time.
“I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many tribal affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day;…so simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real” – Henry David Thoreau
The way of the Essentialist isn’t just about success; it’s about living a life of meaning and purpose.
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.