When you think about successful creatives or artists, you would probably conjure the image of weird people prone to flights of fancy, brilliant sure, but often capricious, unstable, or unreliable. You would imagine that they value large swatches of unstructured time and need complete freedom to be creative and do their work. You would probably think they wake up every day at different times to do different things. You would be very wrong.
About 2 years ago, I came across the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. He compiled and highlighted the diverse rituals and routines of famous accomplished artists, scientists and philosophers. From Salvador Dali to Chris Ofili, they all had something in common apart from their great minds and accomplishments. They had their specific routines and rituals.
See, to be productive and successful, especially over a long period of time and consistently, you cannot just rely on inspiration or on the ‘feeling’. The creative muse is notoriously fickle. You have to embrace structure. It is that structure that ultimately frees you to be creative, to explore vast ideas and birth something new.
Like all things in the universe, it’s a delicate dance of opposites.
The creative muse is be balanced and even enhanced by routine. As individuals, doubly so as creatives, we are faced with chaos on a daily basis. There is the noise within – the voices in our head, our anxieties and hopes and fears. And there is the noise without – society, traffic, bosses, clients, the needs and requests from family. There is a lot that can derail your work and path. Routines and rituals become the guards that protect it.
Routines and rituals do two main things. They provide and defend the time needed to do the work, and they provide the right conditions to do good work. They direct the chaos of the day, the chaos of the mind and set them across well-defined paths every day. It is the only way to get any real work consistently done over time and move towards accomplishing your goals and maximizing your potential.
I have been telling people lately, that if you want to embark on a creative project, like doing podcasts, writing a book, or working on a business – you have to bake in the process into your daily life. You have to create a routine for it. Otherwise, it will never get done. What is not scheduled, does not happen.
For instance, I generally write my blog posts on Sunday. It is part of my ritual to prep for the week. It usually follows a set pattern. I sit down at my desk, I meditate for 15 mins, then I journal, mind dumping whatever is going on upstairs, and only then am I clear enough to write something. Afterwards, I plan my week and get into some work.
Of course, many times, for whatever reason, that does not happen. Some Sundays, I’m out with friends or doing something else. But I still have to execute the ritual when I can, on a Monday or Tuesday morning, whenever I do get the chance to get it done. The point is, the ritual facilitates production. It gives me a set time to work and provides the conditions necessary for good creative work.
The idea of ritual shows up everywhere, even in doing the work itself. To be effective at designing and solving problems, I have to use certain patterns. I follow processes, either documented or subconsciously. I dig into the issue at hand first, letting it fill my mind. Then I have to explore ideas and look at incredible work by others to prime my mind. Then I sketch and design and test till I get something. And I need to have the phone off for hours sometimes just to really get that focus and enter the right zone to produce good work. If I disrespect any of these conditions, the work suffers.
Routines and rituals go a long way.
It is how we trust the process.
It is how we get what we want, how we maximize our potential. It is where living intentionally really becomes tangible in your life. By designing your life in line with your goals. Putting in the conditions and systems to make it work. You focus on winning the day-to-day. Because if you win at executing the most important thing on a daily basis, over time the actions compound to deliver you great wins.
Your routine would look very different from mine. We all have what works for us. In Mason’s book, the routines of artists varied wildly. Some woke up nice and early starting work at 9am like Chris Ofili, others like Pablo Picasso could not be bothered before 2pm. The point is, they found a rhythm that worked for them and maximized their creative output.
However you do it, start right and end right.
We all have the same 24 hours, beginning our days at some point, and ending them at another. In the time between waking and sleeping, we have things to do, obligations to fulfil and projects to execute. If we want to crush it. We have to pay attention to how we start and how we end. A good morning routine sets the pace for the day. A good wind-down routine at the end of the day helps us get a good night sleep and start the next day on the right note. With those two things created and applied consistently, we supercharge our lives, our creativity and productivity. A good routine takes care of the important little things – a noisy mind, unclear focus, eating, etc and allows us to focus on actually doing the work.
A week and a half ago, I was in a deep funk, like I mentioned to my email list. For whatever reason, I entered a dark place, feeling unbalanced, feeling doubtful. Until I came across this video, and had two epiphanies – one, I am not my mind, which is a topic for another day, and two, I should get back to some kind of routine. So, the next day, I woke up, I exercised, I meditated, I visualized, I journaled, and went on to have a very productive day. Like magic, the darkness lifted.
Turns out, all I needed was to get back into rhythm. That’s the power of a good routine.
Another meditation on the process and experience of getting things done.
The last stretch of any serious project is usually the most grueling part of the whole ordeal. It is almost like birthing. The bulk of it has a lot of work sure – conceptualizing, designing and building, but that last bit, getting it across the finishing line, is super intense.
That’s when emotions are at an all-time high. You are tired from all the work so far. At this point, you doubt the validity of the entire project. On one hand, you wonder if you have wasted all your time and effort to get here. On the other, you just want to finish the damn thing and get it out your sight.
But if in the midst of all that strain and pressure, you are still here, still in the game, then you know you have yourself a winner. You love what you do, so much so that you are willing to embrace a high level of suffering and anguish just to get it done.
There is a key thing about getting things done that is important to note. This is especially true if you are working strategically. There is a lag time between effort and results. In a world, where we expect everything with microwave immediacy, this can be jarring. We expect everything fast; the lag violates that expectation.
If you are building something important, especially if you are still in the early-ish stages, there is a lag time that you have to be patient with. You need to be patient and disciplined.
If you are working with intention, you have identified a ginormous goal, something you are working towards. You have also looked at the short term and figured out what the next most important thing to do is.
So, you are working on it and pushing. Especially if it is product development – writing a book, creating a course, designing clothing, designing a business, creating a website, it’s a lot of work upfront. And while you are making the thing, you are getting no feedback from the market place beyond whatever testing you are doing. There is no validation, no emotional boost from likes on Instagram. It is just pure grunt work.
It takes discipline to keep pushing and working on it for weeks, months, even years without tangible results. It takes discipline to push and get the important things done, knowing that you might only see the impact in a year or in the next 5. But that is the core of true strategic intent and level-headed execution. Doing things now that will pay off much later.
The lag is also a call to be clear-headed and practice accurate attribution. Know where your results are coming from.
Where you are right now is as a result of the choices and actions you took years ago. From the habits to the results in your life, the place you live, the job you have, and the money you make. To move yourself to a new place, you have to invest in new actions and habits now. But for the change to be visible, it will take time and you have to be prepared for that.
It is in the lag that people lose heart and quit. In the lag all you have is the work, and your dream. You look around and people seem to be moving on without you. While you toil and labor away in obscurity to create your vision. Seth Godin also refers to it as the dip – the chasm between the start and finish of a project, the valley that separates those serious about achieving the goal, and those who are mildly interested.
The lag does not mean you are failing. The lag means your reality is still catching up with all the changes and actions you are making. You have to stay strong, you have to stay the course and keep pushing. But how do you know the difference between lag and actual failure? Maybe the fact that nothing is happening really means that your project, vehicle, business is not adequate to get you where you want to go.
You don’t. It is a tricky thing to figure out, but there are ways to mitigate the risk.
Because there is a lag time from effort to results, there is something I like to do in designing the projects I work on. When I take on a project, I set intentions for both the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario. I design it so that if it works out really well, the potential upside is very high. Which is why exercising leverage by working on important projects is key. A successful one can literally change your life. But I always like to bake in success into the failure scenario too. Even if this project fails, I have most likely used it also to gain new skills, new knowledge, new network, new insight.
I have been spending the past few months working on the next level of my business, and I have spent time designing the website, designing the way the company functions and learning so many new things about customer research, product development, communications, hiring, business plans, investments, and so on. It has been a long road so far, and an even longer road ahead. But here’s the thing about this exercise. Even if I launched everything the way I have been planning and it fails epically, I would have still gained a lot from the process. I would have learned more about business than I would have otherwise.
But if I succeed, I win big. All the planning and set up lays the foundation for explosive and exponential results. Because once the lag has passed and the results start coming in. They come in fast!
This is why we focus on the process. Because that is what this is. A process. Getting successful is a process, staying successful is a process. The process is all we have, not the results. So, we mind the lag. We recognize it, but we stay focused on the day-to-day, on creating the plan, executing the plan, recording the results, adjusting the plan, executing again, reviewing the results, ad infinitum, until we get what we want, maximize our potential, or run out of time.
We don’t know how long this will take. We don’t care. All we care about is handling today’s task. This is a lifestyle now, this is just how we do. And it is what we will do, till we are past the lag and the harvest comes.
In the pursuit of what we want, or the striving to reach our potential, we are essentially attempting to get from point A to point B, whatever those points are. It could be from broke, to having a bit of money. From unfit, to healthy. From depressed, to happy. We all have different starting points and different goals.
However, in our quest to move from one state to another, we often tend to overcomplicate things. Sure, some things are not easy to do, and involve a lot of meandering, a lot of forward steps, and backtracking, until we get it right. But many things are pretty straight forward.
Maybe we subconsciously feel like things should be hard, so we invent extra steps and turn simple tasks into monstrosities. Or perhaps we actually fear success, being more comfortable with the status quo, the way things are. For all the ambition we have, a part of us wants to stay the same. So, we make it harder for us to move forward, and deliberately sabotage or take the longer route to get what we want.
As much as possible, we should move directly towards our goals. With most things, the steps are clear. We know what we must do. You want a good relationship? Invest time and effort into it. You want to get fit? Exercise and eat right. You want to make more money? Start by making more sales or reworking your business model. You want to make more sales? You don’t need to sit for a whole weekend listening to sales programs and reading books. You simply need to enter an office park and go knocking door to door. The point is, with most things, there is a direct and clear path to getting it. It may not be easy, it hardly ever is, especially when starting out, but many times it is a simple thing. It is the essence of the One Thing, the ability to recognize the most direct step towards your goal, and then do it.
There is no need to overly complicate your journey by adding extra steps. Don’t say ‘I’ll take this action, when that thing happens’. Do you really need that thing to happen first? Or can you execute right where you are? Do you have to wait to buy those gym clothes or get membership, or can you drop down right now and give me 20 push-ups? You don’t have to wait, you don’t have to dilly dally. You can get started now. Start by doing it badly if you are worried about perfection. We get lost in books and learning at times, because we want to get it right from the start. So, we wait until we feel like we know enough, before we attempt anything. But you can learn a lot more from taking a bit action than you do from reading hundreds of books.
Sure, you should learn before you earn. I am a big fan of the principle. You need a foundation of knowledge and awareness to build your activities on, as well as a sense of what to do when you get what you want. So, always be learning, always be improving your mental models, your understanding of the lay of the land, your sense of what is possible. But do not use it as an excuse not to act. Do not use it to procrastinate.
As much as possible, shorten the distance between your two points – between your intention and your execution, between your thought and your action, between your goal and your work. You know what needs to be done. Stop dicking around. Go do it.
There is a famous line in the 1999 cult classic Fight Club
The things you own end up owning you.
And I’m reminded of it every time I look at my phone. Now, it is one of the greatest tools we have ever created. At any point in time, I am connected to a vast network of human knowledge. I have the potential to reach out to almost anyone in the world or even to reach a large number of people at once. It is an incredibly useful tool.
But instead, most of the time I am held hostage by it. I pick up my phone up to 150 times a day. That’s an incredible amount of time. I’m a bit better, over the years I have slowed down my use of Twitter, Facebook…Instagram I’ve mostly hated for a long time, so I generally use that once a week. My attention now is consumed mostly by WhatsApp, I spend a lot of time chatting to my friends.
My eyes are almost always glued to my screen, and I’m not the only one, I look around and everyone is pressing, tapping or swiping. This is nothing new, many have been wailing about this phenomenon, the way technology hijacks our attention and exploits our evolutionary weaknesses and needs. We are hit with so many things every minute, it is much harder for us to sustain our attention on anything. Distraction is only a swipe and a tap away and we are forever fiending for a fix.
We think we use our phones, but really, they use us. They follow us, they stalk us, they market to us. All these apps and social networks take our attention, condition our behavior, generate and map out our data, they eventually end up knowing more about us than we do about ourselves. As Yuval Noah Harari highlights in his book ’21 Lessons for the 21stCentury’, we are now the ones being hacked by big corporates and technologies.
Before, we hacked technologies and networks, now humans are the ones being hacked. These technologies and algorithms understand us better and better, from our location, to our searches, to our health tracking data, it is becoming easier and easier to nudge us in directions without our conscious knowledge. In a world evolving faster and faster, we are increasingly vulnerable.
I was listening to a Gary Vee interview a few weeks back, and someone asked him who the best people in the social media game were, who was doing the marketing right. And for about 30 seconds, he couldn’t come up with one name, and he said the reason he could not actually point to anyone was because he actually consumes no one. Think about that, one of the biggest names right now in the world of entrepreneurship, famous for the sheer volume of content he puts out (100 pieces per day), and his insistence on the underpriced nature of most social platforms, does not consume social media. Mind blown.
What does he consume? He consumes the comment section of his content, he engages with his people and learns what they are thinking and feeling, or he consumes the comment sections of the biggest things in the world trying to place a finger on the pulse of the current zeitgeist.
That is a massive and powerful mental shift. And something I heard echoed again in The Order of Man podcast with Tyler Harris yesterday. Producers are usually too busy producing to consume content mindlessly. And that is something you can do to shift the control back to yourself. These tools are massively powerful. You have access to a potential audience, you have access to knowledge, you can create and build almost anything by reading the books, watching the tutorials, listening to the podcasts, it is an incredible time to be alive, if you actually take advantage of it. Become a producer, be active, build something, give value, make content, do things, and you will have less toleration for random consumption.
I have seen it happen in my life. I mentioned earlier how much I reach for my phone, I know people who reach for their phones even more. I’ve noticed my time reduce drastically on social media over the years the more I follow my path, the more I make content, the more I learn and execute around my business. The more I learn and create, the more I want to learn and create, and the less time or inclination I have to be swallowed up in the machine.
The sentiments have been echoed by many writers and thinkers. Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’ advocates the ability to turn everything off and focus deeply on solving a meaningful problem. I wrote a post almost a year ago on why ‘Airplane Mode’ is one of the greatest productivity hacks.
In addition to this, you can practice more mindfulness. Don’t touch your phone for the first hour after you wake up. Do something else, read, meditate, exercise, eat, or just stare at the ceiling, you will be bored to tears, but you won’t die. Wean yourself off the addiction to your phone and reclaim your power and your attention. Then deploy it towards that which is truly important to you. It will transform your life.
This book was conceived, written and designed in 7 days.
I sat down last week to blog my thoughts on how you approach end of year reviews, and how to set and achieve goals in the new year. And as I started to put my thoughts together, I remembered a friend of mine – Mpumi had asked me a few times about how I went about strategically planning my year, specifically how you organize your life around the One Thing. She had read the book by the same name, and I had written about the book earlier in the year.
Fun fact, we have an almost hour-long interview we did together a while back talking about design, branding and personal development – here.
To be honest, the question threw me off. At first, I was just going to talk specifically on how I set goals and translate that to the day-to-day actions that would get me there. Now the scope was a little bigger. Taking into consideration the concept of the One Thing, I quickly realized I had to take a few steps back to accommodate the new ideas that spring from that one question. What is the One Thing, how do you find yours, and how do you orient yourself toward it? Why have a One Thing at all?
As I wrote, I found myself meandering, getting to page 4 without even scratching the surface. For context, I usually write about 2 – 3 pages per blog post. I had two options, continue the blog route and make a 4-5-part blog series, or just write all the pieces and make it into a book.
Hmmm. I released my first book in October. Could I really write two books in one year? Why not? It was a stretch but it was certainly doable. It could at the very least be a cool flex.
So, on this whim, I asked around, ‘what people would like to read, a series or a book?’ The book won by a margin of like 3:1. So here we are.
As I wrote and thought more about what I was trying to say in this book, it became apparent that I was really trying to write about the art of living intentionally. I believe the road to fulfillment – happiness, and success starts here. To be successful, you have to be able to set a north star and move towards it consistently. But how do you define your One Thing, and how do you connect the dots backwards to your day-to-day life?
This book is an attempt to answer these questions.
There is a part of the game that is hardly talked about. And that is the after game. We know all about striving and pushing towards the goal. That’s the basic fodder of self-help content. We are very concerned with what it takes to win, to become successful. We don’t talk too much about the aftermath.
What do you do after you get what you want?
In our minds, we only really see the long difficult journey, imagining that ‘bam!’suddenly, one day, we arrive at the destination, our own version of happily ever after. We imagine we will undertake this journey, do the work, push the hustle until we get what we want – the job, the business, the spouse, the family, and then we will be suspended in contented bliss, never to stress anymore.
But we know that’s not the case. That is not how life works. There is always the day after. The day after the fairytale wedding, after the graduation, after the raise, after the investment exit.
The day after, after the high of struggle and work, the roar of the crowd has died down, and the court is empty. The lights switch off and the darkness sets in. Now you are listless. You don’t know what to do with yourself. Your whole life was structured around the pursuit of this one thing for so long, you feel lost at sea now that you have gotten it.
Our lives are finite, with a beginning and an end. But between the hour of our birth and the hour of death, like our planet, our lives resemble a spiral. We continually move through the same seasons, with similar rhythms, but each cycle is unique. We have the ups and downs, the moments of activity, the moments of rest, the inspired days and the dim ones, as we move forward in time.
Same as success. In many ways, getting what you want is death, it is the end of an era. But it is also the beginning of a new journey. It is the end of a cycle, but it is also the start of a new one.
In the midst of the pursuit, we forget that.
We think that the end is THE END. And that space, just after the win, is a very vulnerable place.
Especially when the battle is hard won, and you are scarred and wounded. With no real plan or rest routine in place, we can forget that there is yet another peak on the horizon. We think we have arrived. In this moment of success, it is too easy to plant the seeds of failure.
You set a goal, you ran the race, and you made it. It was tough, but you won. What do you do now? You have to rest. The way we wind down is just as important as how we take off. We have to land properly so we can get a running start into the next phase of our journey.
Take a step back to celebrate your win. Relax, take a load off, soak it in. For a moment, for a weekend, for however long makes sense. Get off the treadmill. Rest is the crucial counter balance to productivity. Allow yourself to be replenished.
And then you must review and reflect.
The true value in getting what you want is not the ‘thing’ that you get. It is who you become in the process of going after what you want. Now that you have your prize in your hand, you must turn your eyes inward. Gaze upon the mirror and see the person you have become. Are you happy? Did you do your best? Who are you now? How have you changed? Do you even want this thing anymore? It is possible to seek a thing, gain it, and then not want it anymore. The process of seeking changes us, shifts our perspective, adjusts our priorities. Sometimes the change is dramatic.
Search your thoughts.
Do you still like yourself? Are you happy with this thing you have worked so long for? Would you like to move forward? Where would you go next?
If you subscribe to the idea of letting your moves stack on each other, the thing you have gotten is also a stepping stone on the road to a further ultimate goal. Your latest acquisition is also your seed.
You are back at the beginning, but you are stronger, wiser, more experienced, with some wins under your belt. It is time to look at what can be improved, what can be strengthened, where can you stretch and occupy more of your potential?
Then it is time to begin again. There is more to be done, you still have much in you to give. You must jump into the fray again.
Return to the starting blocks with humility and assume the beginners mind. Remember that mastery is built on a firm foundation of the basics. Now decide what you want and set the goal before you. This time, challenge yourself.