Features

In the Name of Focus, a Hiatus

It has been a tumultuous couple of months. In early July I drove from California to Southeast Michigan and then got on a plane to New York City. Shortly after arriving in NYC I started my dream job. A couple weeks into that job, while still living in a sublet in a city I barely knew, I travelled internationally for a week with some colleagues. The day we returned, along with the rest of the company, we were laid off. Every day for approximately the next month I split my time between cold emailing people at companies I wanted to work for, having coffee with more people than I can remember, doing countless interviews, and working full-time on an organizational design project as a freelance consultant with a Fortune 100 company. Like I said, crazy times.

Finally, finally, finally it looks like those crazy times are coming to an end.

Last week I started work as the first employee at a new organizational design consulting firm called The Ready. I love it. I love what we’re doing and I love that I can finally pull in the reigns of my time and attention to focus on one thing. I’m finally getting an opportunity to catch my breath, buy some furniture for my apartment, take stock of what's working and what's not and, most importantly, regain some focus. 

Somewhat understandably, I think, I had been letting some things slide while moving to a new city, starting a new job, losing that job, working as a freelancer, and then finding a new job dominated my attention. My PhD work has sputtered along with nary a substantive sentence or p-value calculated since the middle of the summer. My physical fitness and meditation practice — both aspects of my life I value and know play a huge role in keeping me grounded and feeling halfway decent about myself — have mostly laid dormant. My website, as you may have noticed, has mostly gone quiet as well. My monthly newsletter sits untouched and averaging a decidedly un-monthly release record. 

I think focusing on a limited number of activities and truly diving into them as deeply as possible is the only way to do something that matters. In the past, I’ve counteracted this belief with my own skills in being productive and organized. Because I’m good (usually) at self-managing I’ve always taken on a bit more than I can comfortably chew. This time around, though, I need to truly take some of my own medicine. I’ve met my match productivity-wise. I’m simply trying to do too much and worst of all…

I can feel my PhD momentum slipping away. 

I’ve always told myself that I wouldn’t be one of “those” people who gets ¾ of the way through a PhD, gets a job, and suddenly gets completely stuck on making any academic progress. I study self-management for God’s sake — how sad would it be if I couldn’t self-manage myself into a completed degree? The past couple months have shown me how this happens, though. Just keeping my life moving in the right direction and my head above water required me to set my PhD progress aside. Not a huge problem in itself, but I’ve realized that every day my PhD work stays on the shelf it becomes even harder to get back into it. The guilt builds to the point where it feels like not only do I need to get started on it again but I need to make sure the next time I sit down and work on it I knock a serious chunk of it out. But… that sounds time intensive. And tiring. And I don’t have time and I don’t have the energy. So, it continues to sit and get scarier and scarier.

I refuse to let this happen. I have spent too much time and too much money (sunk costs, I know, I know) to let this fall apart. More important than the time or money, though, is that I’m sticking my foot into an area of research that I think truly matters. Organizations are changing rapidly, the future of work is going to be crazy, and I’m doing research that will help people and organizations be better.

So, here’s the plan:

SamSpurlin.com, TheWorkologist.com, The Workologist Newsletter, and my personal coaching practice are all going on indefinite hiatus.

I’m officially releasing myself from the expectation of maintaining these sites or businesses. I mean, I haven’t been writing anyway but I’ve basically felt consistently bad about it since about June. That ends today. TheWorkologist.com archive will stay up and if I’m moved to write something at any point in the future I will do so but for now The Workologist and the newsletter are indefinitely paused.

I can already tell that there is a weight off my shoulders by making this decision. This is one small step that allows me to focus a little bit more. I won't have to feel badly when I'm working on my PhD work because I'm also neglecting this website. My capacity to feel bad and do good work can only be pushed so far. I’ll revisit this decision in a couple months once I see what kind of progress I’m making on my degree.

You can still find me on TwitterInstagram, and on my nearly weekly podcast I do with my buddy Eric, The File Drawer. Keep an eye on TheReady.com as well because it’s likely that will be evolving with my input. 

It has been a wild ride! Here's to a newfound focus and to finishing this damn degree!

Creating An Organizational Design Consulting Firm for the 21st Century

Photo by Chris Ford

I had been on the lookout for a company like Undercurrent for many years, was aware of Undercurrent for about a year, courted Undercurrent to hire me for about 8 months, and worked for Undercurrent for three weeks. Ever since its demise I've been thinking a lot about what the next truly influential organizational design consultancy of the 21st century should look like. Undercurrent wasn't perfect but I think they were doing a lot of great and new things along that path. Now, there's a huge gap in the market for a company to rethink what it means to do organizational design consulting. Given the state of the market, here is my opinionated take on what a company who wants to be the next big thing in the world of organizational design consulting should focus on.

The Goals

The organizational design consultancy of the 21st century is essentially tasked with helping organizations navigate a world that is rather hopelessly unpredictable, chaotic, and exceedingly quick to change. Organizations are increasingly relying on people who are highly-trained, expensive, and creative who likely have many job options and an increasingly greater expectation to be given opportunities to do meaningful work. These organizations need to become more like living, evolving, learning, and resilient organisms or networks and less like top-down, oligarchical, and brittle machines. They need to be able to make things happen quickly and entice their expensive talent to stick around while bringing their entire creative and motivated selves to the audacious challenges they face at work. Simple, right?

I believe we are seeing the limit of the gains pure organizational restructuring can accomplish. In a company where physical products need to be created and moved from place to place there’s much to be gained from restructuring organizations to amplify efficiency. In a world of knowledge work the key competitive advantage resides more in the ideas of employees and the ability to bring those ideas to fruition quickly. The growth of self-organizing principles we are seeing many companies adopt today is merely the initial forays into a tectonic shift looming in the near future.

How do you prepare for that?

How do you cut through bureaucracy so your most motivated employees feel like the organization is there to amplify their good ideas, not cover them in bureaucratic leeches until they are bled dry? How do you create an environment that facilitates the highest level of performance from employees not because you're standing over them with a stick or dangling a carrot in front of them but because you are giving them opportunities to exercise some of their most innate desires -- to do meaningful work in a supportive environment? How do you create a culture of knowledge workers who view themselves as craftsmen/women on a path of increased mastery over time where personal development and professional development go hand in hand? Oh yeah, and how do you keep making money so the company continues to exist?

The organizational design firm of the 21st century will necessarily have to be selective about the types of companies they work with. The consulting firm who gets this right will not only select the companies who obviously "get it" but will be able to teach and convince those companies who are tottering on the fence between a more traditional way of viewing business and the more responsive, humane, and ultimately more successful way of working.

This may sound fluffy and overly “soft” but I wrote all of the above with the goal of the company's economic health front and center in my mind. In a world where a company needs to grow and evolve like a living organism it is unreasonable to expect it to thrive when its individual parts are being damaged, restricted, or poisoned. A healthy organism has healthy internal components and a healthy sensory system that allows it to navigate it's world. Organizational design in the 21st century will be all about the care and feeding of that organization -- both internally and helping guide it through it's ever changing world.

The Approach

The organizational design firm of the 21st century is going to have to actively work toward resolving (and even embracing) a set of paradoxes internally (with its own existence) and externally (with its clients):

  1. Long-term perspective vs. short-term focus: As a company how can you break outside the market-driven forces that encourage a short-term focus on economic outcomes in order to make long-term decisions for the company's health? How often do companies that claim to be trying to tackle problems of truly epic proportions get sidetracked by the next quarterly earnings call? At the same time, can you have a truly long-term focus but also adopt a mindset of constant iteration and rapid short-term sprints toward a goal?
  2. The power of scale vs. the power of the individual: Software has unlocked the possibility of complex data analysis in a myriad of domains. At the same time, organizations are comprised of individuals. How do you embrace and understand scale while also embracing and respecting the individual (employee and customer)?
  3. Being responsive vs. being proactive: To what extent should an organization be able to respond to the rapidly changing external forces it faces versus to what extent should organizations focus on creating the environment in which it resides? Can an organization be reactive and proactive?
  4. Using data vs. embracing humanity: Is it possible to both be data-driven and also in touch with the "humanity" of an organization? To what extent can or should data be used when talking about meaning, motivation, and inspiration of human beings? How can an organization find useful avenues for data and an understanding of the "softer" aspects of an organization?

In addition to these paradoxes, I think there are a few foundational questions that this new type of consulting firm should obsess over asking:

  1. To what extent can we help organizations enhance the psychological & human resources they already have to meet the challenges they can't even predict?
  2. To what extent can we help organizations identify and tweak their components (team dynamics, environmental factors, culture etc.) in a systematic and holistic way to drive positive change in how they function?
  3. To what extent can we identify points of friction in the way an organization works and then offer truly foundational advice about removing that friction, not just treating the symptom of that friction?

The Services

What will the organizational design firm of the 21st century actually sell? What will be delivered? How will impact be measured? I think it goes without saying that every client engagement would be a highly unique and specialized affair starting with an intense discovery and sense-making effort. What's next?

A few ideas:

  1. Coaching around “new ways of working”: On a one-on-one basis across the entire scope of the organization, from executive, to managerial, to front-line workers there could be coaching on new ways of working. Coaches would emphasize the habits and behaviors that allow individuals and organizations to work more effectively (i.e. anti-procrastination techniques, self-leadership strategies, the development of psychological capital, etc.). A good coach should be able to help individuals develop the meta-cognitive skills and self-reflective behaviors that can drive long-term habit change even after the coaching engagement ends.
  2. Embedding teams/individuals within organizations: Consultants would shadow teams and individuals within the client organization. While this would provide opportunities for formal coaching sessions or workshops, it would also allow for a much more nuanced understanding of how things actually get done in an organization. With that more nuanced understanding the recommendations and interventions could be much, much, smaller, accurate, and simpler. I believe many of the friction points that exist within organizations are so embedded or subconscious that they never appear during interviews or surveys. Only by embedding into an organization will these friction points become visible, and therefore addressable.
  3. The setting and behavior change facilitation of strategy: Strategy consulting is not new. Helping leadership teams articulate and set strategy is a time-honored role of consultants. However, I view this 21st century organizational design firm taking it a step further and pushing, facilitating, and evaluating the action/behavior change that should emerge from a strategy session. What are the behaviors that should change based on our strategy and to what extent can we as consultants find avenues to help people (leadership and otherwise) practice these behaviors?
  4. Organizational development: This new firm will have to be adept at all the more traditional outlets for organizational development (and perhaps this is where some specialization may occur across the industry). Hiring, culture change, compensation, onboarding, physical space ... the list of possibilities is long. In each case, this firm should be able to both dive deep into the latest and best organizational psychology, sociology, industrial psychology, and other relevant academic fields, make sense of what is useful, and then carefully bring that knowledge to bear on the stated problems of the organization.
  5. Organizational re-design: There are new ways to organize companies and the organizational design firms of the 21st century need to be able to facilitate the adoption of those new ways of organizing if that is what the client wants or seems to be the best approach to improving the client organization. These can be self-organizing principles or wholesale adoption of systems like holacracy or Spotify's guilds. No system is a silver bullet and the organizational design consultants of the 21st century will both build our understanding of the contexts in which these systems work (which is an area of knowledge we are woefully lacking) and accurately facilitate the development of these systems at the appropriate time and in the appropriate situation.

Conclusion

No consulting firm is doing what I just laid out -- not even Undercurrent at its peak. From what I can tell there are some firms that are trying to do bits and pieces of it but nobody has really made a concerted effort at uniting it into a cohesive whole. The opportunity to embrace the uncertainty of this new type of consulting and possibly be the early dominant force is truly staggering. It's going to take people who aren't wedded to an old style of organizational consulting or design consulting or anything else that may poke around the edges of a true organizational design practice.

For what it's worth, I'm still looking for my next gig. If I just a.) inadvertently described your company or b.) described the direction you're trying to go with your company -- we should talk.

Otherwise, tell me what I'm missing. Where am I wrong? Where am I right? Let's push this way of thinking forward together.

I Was Just Laid Off From My Dream Job... After 3 Weeks

Photo by Glyn Lowe

UPDATE - I have since found a new job working for The Ready, a new organizational design consulting firm. 

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When I started graduate school in 2011 I was intending to build my own boutique coaching and consulting firm. I wanted to take positive psychology and figure out real ways to bring this stuff to people and organizations who could benefit from it. Looking around at existing consulting companies I didn’t see anybody doing anything remotely close to what seemed interesting and worthwhile to me. I wanted to get into the nitty gritty of how groups and individuals actually do their work. I'm fascinated by what I call the "moment-to-moment reality of work" and I knew there had to be ways I could use this fascination to bring about real change. I figured the only way I was going to get what I wanted to do was to create it myself.

That was until I was introduced to Undercurrent.

The first time I sat down and read their website I realized that this was a group of people doing the exact work I wanted to be doing on a scale I’d never be able to accomplish on my own. A huge part of Undercurrent’s business was literally called “Ways of Working.” Anybody who knows me in real life should realize why this company and what it does is so exciting to me. Literally the same day I read the website for the first time I emailed them inquiring about how I could possibly join the team. I had finally found my people. Now, I just needed to convince them they needed someone with my background and experience on the team.

That process took a long time and I’ll spare you the boring details, but in early July I moved across the country (Los Angeles to New York) and started working for Undercurrent.

Unfortunately, Undercurrent was acquired by a larger company, Quirky, in April. Quirky is not a consulting company and apparently didn’t have much of a plan for how acquiring Undercurrent would be beneficial to both sides. Instead, Quirky has slowly, and then very rapidly, been circling the drain as they failed to secure additional fundraising. I knew about Undercurrent’s situation when I decided to move across the country to join them. I knew Quirky’s fundraising situation was not good. I knew that morale was low at Undercurrent. I knew that Undercurrent had faced a ton of turnover recently. I decided to take the plunge anyway. And today that plunge ended with the end of Undercurrent.

Ultimately, it was surprisingly simple decision to pack up my life and make the trek across the country to join this company. My dream job was literally dangled in front of me. How could I have not taken it, even given the uncertainty of the situation? If there's even a 5% chance that Undercurrent would make it through this incredibly shitty acquisition I had to take it. I wanted to join this company and meet all these people, even if just for a very short time. It was easy for me to take the plunge, take the risk, and hope for the best. Sure, I think I was optimistic that there was no way this highly profitable, highly desired, extremely capably staffed organization could be destroyed by external forces. I was naive. I thought Undercurrent would somehow, miraculously, pull through this incredibly unfortunate situation and emerge victorious, if not battered, on the other side. 

It looks like I was wrong.

Four weeks after moving to New York, three weeks after starting my dream job, I'm now unemployed, living in New York with a brand new apartment lease, sitting on some debt from moving across the country, and dealing with a hell of a lot of uncertainty about what I’m going to do next.

I know some of my (now former) colleagues probably think I’m insane for voluntarily joining this shipwreck in its late stages. I came into this with clear eyes about what might happen and even though it’s incredibly frustrating to have a taste of my dream job before having it ripped away, I’m glad I got to experience it at all. 

Thank you to Undercurrent for the opportunity — I wish it could have been during better times.  I’m going to miss everyone at the company I only just met. I hope our paths cross again in some capacity and I’m excited to see what everyone goes onto next.

P.S. If you want to work with someone obsessed about making business, work, and life better shoot me an email.

On Being Less Persnickety

Photo by Szoki Adams

My strengths can sometimes manifest as crippling weakness. 

I have strong opinions about things. Many things. Things like the freshness of the coffee I'm drinking and the method in which it was brewed (roasted no more than two weeks ago and brewed via Aeropress or Chemex, please), what I listen to while working (an instrumental playlist I've been curating for years), what I want my work environment to be like vis-a-vis the type of work I'm trying to do, the location I'm working vis-a-vis my current mood, the software I use to complete my work (I've researched everything I use to death), the pens and notebooks I use (Black Pilot G2 .07 and a hardcover Moleskine), and so on. I think you get the point.

I like this about myself. I think being discerning about the areas of your life that affect important things, like how well you're able to work, is a good idea. I know all my tools inside and out. I know I like everything I use and this helps flatten the runway to getting good work done.

On the other hand... damn, I'm persnickety. 

When do "being optimally discerning" and "being debilitatingly persnickety" start to overlap?

There's another way of working and being that appeals to me and it's the complete opposite of everything I wrote above. It's the idea of being completely unflappable regardless of what's going on around me. Of being able to use anything to do great work because my ability to do great work has transcended the quality of the tools available at my disposal. That my ability to sit down and concentrate is equally likely in a secluded writing nook as it is in a bustling café. The idea that I need nothing except my brain and the crudest of tools to get my work done.

The situation I want to avoid is needing a pristine environment and tools to get meaningful work done. I don't want to let less than ideal situations become an excuse to doing great things. 

I need to take some steps in the opposite direction so here are some ideas I'm going to start baking into my work routine more often to make sure I'm not letting my persnickety-ness take over:

Deliberately practicing working in distracting situations. Going to the café to work without my headphones. Sitting in the noisier part of the library. Working in a different location than I'm used to. 

Taking breaks from coffee. Drinking tea instead. Or maybe nothing. Or maybe just water. Show myself that I don't need a specific beverage to be awesome.

Deliberately break my morning and evening routines. Getting up late! Going to bed late! Getting up absurdly early! Going to bed absurdly early! Not to bed at all! It's time to get (occasionally) crazy with how I conduct my daily routines. Working in my pajamas. Working in a tuxedo. Working naked (that'll have to be a work from home day, I think).

Using less than ideal tools. Only working from my iPad for a few days! Using a public computer! Writing an article in long hand on the back of scrap paper with crayons! Writing an article in Microsoft Word! Using first party apps only!

Setting some process goals. Committing myself to a specific goal like writing 1,000 words per day and sticking to it no matter what. My personal feelings of inspiration and motivation become irrelevant if my commitment is to create a certain number of words every single day.

Man, even writing some of these out is giving me the heebie jeebies (which is probably proof that I need to do it). 

The key balance I need to learn to strike is that it's not bad to have standards or preferences for how I do things but it is kind of bad to confuse preferences with requirements. Uncovering preferences is fun and often quite meaningful but confusing them with requirements is a quick way to stop making progress on the projects and goals that matter the most to you.

Where do you stand on this equilibrium? Could you benefit from figuring out some preferences that will support the way you like to work or are you like me and perhaps need to take a step back and re-calibrate your persnickety ways?

Rethinking The Growth and Care of Organizations: A Proposal

As The Workologist Newsletter subscribers know, I recently "gave myself permission" (it's complicated) to look for a full-time job in addition to continuing to run and develop everything I'm doing with The Workologist. In a nutshell, I've been entirely entrepreneurially focused since quitting my high school teaching job and coming to graduate school in 2011. There's nothing wrong with that kind of single-minded focus but I've realized that it has limited me from other potential opportunities that might be just as rewarding as trying to develop my own company.

All that is to say I've been perusing cyberspace over the past few weeks in an effort to see what kind of job opportunities are out there and even dipping my toes in the water when I've seen something I like. There are a handful of positions with companies I admire out there but unfortunately I have seen nothing that 100% matches what I'm visualizing someone with my skill set (or a similar one) could bring to an organization.

I'm writing to propose a new position that companies should be hiring for. I don't have a good name for it yet (I'd love to hear your ideas.) I'm also 95% sure this position doesn't already exist in most companies but if it does exist in yours then props to you. From what I can tell not many companies are thinking about what an organizational development/positive psychologist/coach/personal productivity expert/researcher could bring to the table.

Firstly, let's lay out what someone in this position would need in order to do this job well (in no particular order): insatiable curiosity around what it means to do great work on an individual, team, and organizational level; a deep knowledge of productivity best-practices and the contextual factors that limit or enhance each; coaching expertise; a working knowledge of foundational positive psychology, organizational psychology, cognitive psychology, and leadership theories and concepts; the interpersonal skills to facilitate small group discussions, workshops, and one-on-one conversations; a deep appreciation for the power of scientific experimentation and the willingness to use those principles in the quest for more efficient, meaningful and productive work; and a dedication to uncovering the best processes, systems, and approaches to helping an organization operate as efficiently and meaningfully as possible.

Easy as pie, right?

I think the benefits of having someone on the team who is constantly thinking about how to amplify everyone else's impact on an individual level ("making people better"), at the group level ("making teams better"), and at the organizational level ("making systems and processes better") would be huge. That's not to say this is the only person who would be thinking about these topics. However, hiring someone whose express job it is to think about and act on this stuff not only ensures that someone is thinking about it, but it frees up everyone else to use more of their cognitive ability for the substantive work that justifies the organization's existence. The pace of work in most companies is accelerating and being responsive, agile, and innovative may be buzzwords but they also ring true for many companies striving to make an impact in the world. Someone in this position not only frees people up to become more fully engaged in their primary work tasks, but also ensures that everything else that can be done to amplify the effectiveness of the organization is being done.

This isn't a general HR position or a short-term consulting gig or even a training and development specialist. I'm talking about someone who is much more baked into the everyday processes and interactions in an organization and whose only job is to make sure everyone else can be even better in their roles. One person could cover a ton of ground if their primary responsibility was to simply ensure that the organization was firing on all cylinders (and to maybe find cylinders that aren't even firing yet). Obviously, a small organization needs everyone to be operating at full capacity at all times in order to be successful. However, small organizations and startups often quickly grow to the point where questions need to be answered about organizational structure, norms, culture, etc. that often get (not) made by default (to everyone's detriment) instead of being consciously and deliberately decided. The person in this role would be expected to notice when this is happening and step in to facilitate the process of making these decisions consciously.

Hopefully I've been somewhat clear for what this position might entail. To make it even clearer, here's an extremely partial list of job responsibilities and actions this person would need to do:

  • Figure out what training/development/support individual employees need and either develop or find the appropriate resources.
  • Figure out what training/development/support teams need and either develop or find the appropriate resources for them.
  • Assess communication (how we email/text/Slack) and operating norms (how we schedule meetings, run meetings, do our daily routine work, make time for non-urgent but important work, how we keep track of who is doing what and by when, etc.) of the organization and suggest/facilitate tweaks where necessary.
  • Work with managers to develop their ability to successfully coach their employees.
  • Work with employees to develop the psychological resources (self-efficacy, hope, optimism, resilience, grit, self-leadership, etc.) to thrive at work (and beyond).
  • Work with members of the leadership team on developing leadership capabilities.
  • Assess and facilitate tweaks to physical workspaces given the best environmental psychology evidence.
  • Stay up to date on organizational psychology research that may be relevant to the organization and translate/synthesize findings into useful information for all members of the organization.
  • Be constantly thinking about how the organization goes about getting it's work done and note areas for improvement.
  • Support all members of the organization in the quest to make work a meaningful growth experience through the way each person approaches their work and makes sense of their role in the organization in an effort to support job satisfaction, engagement, and ultimately organizational performance.

Many of these responsibilities are currently offloaded to a hodgepodge of training and development specialists and consultants or thrust upon already overworked managers. The psychological health of an organization is too important to spread across disparate departments and individuals. It needs to be treated holistically and managed intelligently. I'm convinced bringing a positive organizational psychology trained, personal development and personal productivity obsessed, experienced coach and generally insatiably curious person into the fold of an organization would have huge ramifications.

The best way I can think of to describe this position is as a catalyst that is constantly circulating through an organization to make sure all the chemical reactions that need to be happening are happening. That areas that need a little boost are being boosted, that areas needing a little cooling get cooled, that by coordinating all the disparate reactions that are happening across the entire system the overall effect can be more explosive and productive than anyone ever expected.

Photo by Marcus Peaston

The Emotions of Meaningful Productivity #2: Fear

In the first article of this Emotions of Meaningful Productivity series we took a look at the idea of whether "being a productive person" was a personality trait outside the realm of our control or more like a skill that can be learned by everyone. Now, I'd like to move into the realm of fear.

Fear and its various incarnations could probably be a series of articles in itself. For our purposes I'm going to focus on three primary types of fear that we often have to wrestle with when deciding to get organized or try to become more productive. There are certainly many other types (and they may make an appearance in this series later).

Last time we talked about the desire to do meaningful work broadly whereas this time I'd like to focus on the feelings of fear that can emerge when implementing some kind of productivity system like Getting Things Done. The specific system doesn't matter. What I'm talking about is the desire and effort to get a complete handle on everything going on in your life -- responsibilities, commitments, goals, aspirations, and day-to-day minutiae. Systems like GTD are great for that but they require us to come face to face with some pretty intense fears.

Fear of Completion

A huge component of GTD is getting your mind to 100% empty and relying on your external system to hold reminders of everything that's going on in your life. For many people, this imperative to get to 100% complete is extremely daunting. Not only is the sheer amount of information often intense but the emotional component of seeing the entirety of your life on paper can be unexpected. For some, looking at a complete record of everything going on in their life evokes feelings of, "Oh my God, how am I ever going to do all of this in one lifetime?" It's utterly overwhelming. However, some people often have the exact opposite reaction. They see the representation of all their responsibilities, commitments, and goals in front of them and think, "That's it? My entire existence has been reduced to a few pieces of paper?"

If you've ever experienced resistance to getting to 100% complete with any kind of productivity system then you might be wrestling with this type of fear.

Fear of Routine

GTD has always caught flak from a certain type of creative professional who argues it's incompatible with their type of work because it's too structured. People fear systematizing the various components of their life because they think it'll cause them to lose the spontaneity and serendipity they think they rely on to be effective professionals.

If you've ever felt this fear when contemplating some kind of overhaul around how you think about and organize your work I encourage you to dig a little deeper. Are you using this fear as a crutch for why you're surrounded by discord? Is it possible that there are better ways to nurturing and developing your creative career than by letting administrative details and other "boring" parts of your work and life fall through the cracks?

In fact, is it possible that when you have a complete organizational system or approach to running your life you'll free up attention, energy, and space to do truly creative work? Does having a handle on everything going in your life truly lock you into a soulless routine or does it potentially allow the mental space for more spontaneity and creativity?

Fear of Being in the Moment

A byproduct of being truly organized and on top of your game means you can give your attention to one task or activity at a time. With less chaos floating around in the background of your mind and environment there are fewer and fewer excuses for not diving deep into what you're trying to do. It becomes easier to truly be in the moment with whatever you're doing. Whether that's writing a report, hanging out with your spouse, or paying the bills.

Being in the moment can be a vulnerable experience. It can be mentally taxing. It can rile up emotions that are normally tamped down by layers of mental and emotional detritus. A lack of organization can result in a reality where you're comfortably numb with everything you're doing. You don't necessarily feel great about it but you certainly don't feel too badly about it either. Being in the moment can be like moving from the bland middle bit of the emotional continuum and toward the poles. That's not to say you'll swing from mania to depression but that what you're feeling will be clearer and more intense. Like cleaning a dirty lens or removing a filter between you and the world. Scary, eh?

It's not my goal to psychoanalyze you via the written word or give exceedingly general advice that may or may not apply to anyone reading this piece. The process for working through each of these fears looks very different and chances are not all three apply to every single person. Therefore, all I can say at this point is to try to spend some time in quiet reflection if you've ever had trouble "getting organized" and see if any of these three fears resonates with what you've experienced. If so, how did it manifest? What did it feel like? What might be a first step to overcoming that fear?


I love connecting with readers via Twitter or through email. Feel free to reach out and ask questions or leave comments via either of those channels. You can also sign up for the Mailing List where I send out a newsletter each month with a new article just for subscribers, announcements about upcoming projects and products, and an ongoing discussion about what's going on at The Workologist. You also get a free copy of my 53 page workbook about using positive psychology to make your work life better.

Photo by Alyssa L. Miller

Thoughts on my Imminent Vacation

What are the emotions at play that make us want to stay connected to work and our normal everyday routine when we're supposed to be on vacation? Why do we seem to be unable to separate ourselves from this often stress-inducing expectation to operate as we always do while on vacation? Why do we feel the urge to check in with email, Slack, Twitter, and the other tools of our normal day-to-day life when we've explicitly traveled to another location ostensibly to remove ourselves from our day-to-day reality?

Part of it is that we like this stuff. At least, I know I do. A notification represents a positive (even a microscopically positive) change in my equilibrium. Somebody likes a thing I did, somebody posted an article I'm interested in reading, there's a nice photo, here's a new opportunity, there's a positive update on a project. We are all buried under an avalanche of nearly imperceptibly positive inanity.

That's not to say there aren't overtly negative aspects to our biggest online time wasters, too. In my own life, though, these are far outweighed by the positive (and if they weren't then I probably wouldn't have as hard a time as I do shutting them off). Does this onslaught of mildly positive affect dilute us or maybe distract us from something worth experiencing?

I think so.

An unrelenting haze of micro-positive interruptions and outlets may take the place of boredom, curiosity, and the uninterrupted time they used to come out and play together – with potentially powerful results. I wonder if my vaguely positive but usually entirely dull digital life prevents me from having insights, ideas, and emotions that never get to see the light of day? What areas of my life requires a recipe more refined than unrelenting mild positivity, interruption, and constant stimulus? What might be hiding under the warm and admittedly comfortable blanket of my mundane usage of modern technology?

Self-awareness? Creativity? Deeper relationships? Mental clarity? A willingness to dive deeper into a single subject or experience?

I don't have any answers but I do often wonder I might be giving up to support my addiction to the steady stream of retweets, text messages, listicles, faves, likes, gifs, and faux antique digital photos I allow into nearly every moment of my waking life. Why not use this vacation to peel back that familiar layer of my life and poke around beneath it?

When I wake up Monday morning to get on the train that will take me to the bus that will take me to the plane that will take me to a beach across the country I will be trying to live by a couple rules:

  • No email. I am not an important enough person doing important enough work for anything to break, blow up, or die if I don't respond to email for a week (most of us aren't -- we just like to think we are). 
  • No Slack. See above. The world will go on without me.
  • No Twitter. Twitter is both a pleasant distraction and a useful work tool. I need neither of these during my vacation. Tweetbot (along with Mailbox and Slack) will be removed from my first page of apps and all notifications will be turned off.
  • No Facebook. No Instagram. I will be in the midst of my own relaxing and rejuvenating experience. I don't need to see others' good times'. I will try to take some pictures but they will be for my own creative expression.
  • No RSS feeds. RSS is a normal part of my work day routine. I have no interest in propagating my normal work day routine to my vacation location. All the interesting articles will be waiting for me when I return.
  • No podcasts. While I have nothing against podcasts I view them almost as audio candy. They are nice to ingest during the busy times of a typical work week but I'm looking to make this vacation a rejuvenation experience. I have no room for candy in this rejuvenation attempt.
  • The same logic applies to what I have saved in Instapaper. This vacation is a time for me to dive into something longer and meatier – not blast through a series of articles about tech, psychology, and everything else I read and write about everyday.
  • Needless to say, no Mendeley or Evernote or Things or anything else that helps me run my hectic and productive life. Hectic and productive are not my buzzwords for this vacation.

That's a whole lot of things that I'm NOT going to do. Almost makes you wonder what I AM going to be doing, right?

  • Reading on my Kindle. I'm not sure what, yet, but I will be reading copiously. I'll probably read some kind of fiction because that's what I'd be most likely not to do during my everyday life.
  • Writing in Day One. Each day (or whenever the mood strikes me) I want to pull out my iPad and write in Day One. This won't be a log of what I'm doing but simply a place for me to do any stream of consciousness writing that seems appropriate.
  • Listening to an audiobook.
  • Nothing. About three days in to this weeklong vacation I will probably hit a point where the first twinges of boredom will arrive. My hope is that I'm successfully able to do nothing instead of looking for some mental stimulus in the form of one of my no-nos from above.
  • Walking/wandering.
  • Conversing with loved ones, strangers, sea gulls – who knows.
  • Taking pictures.
  • Writing in my analog notebook whenever writing in Day One doesn't seem appealing.
  • Thinking.
  • Simply being outside as much as possible.
  • Meditating.

Hopefully I come back rejuvenated and ready to conquer another couple months of doing meaningful and challenging work. At the very least, I know I'll at least have a tan and an overflowing inbox. 

I'm okay with both.

Photo by espos.de

The Emotions of Meaningful Productivity #1: "I'm Just Not That Type of Person"

I'm kicking off a new series I'm calling The Emotions of Meaningful Productivity. Much of the productivity writing I and others have done focuses on the implementation and tactical levels (easy to digest tools, tips, and "hacks") which means we often miss the mark of what's going on at a more foundational level. Anybody who has tried to "get organized" or "be more productive" is wrestling with more than a need for a hot new tool or a pithy line of advice (even if we think that's all we need). Usually we are wrestling with some pretty heavy emotional hangups and barriers that require more careful consideration. I want to explore these deeper emotional challenges that often get in the way of doing more meaningful work. This means we'll touch on aspects of productivity, personal organization, focus, and generally being effective and happy human beings in a world where work and human emotion come into contact on a regular basis.

Let's step to it, eh?

"I'm just not an organized/productive/diligent person."

On more than one occasion I've spoken to someone who notices I have a strange (to them) approach toward being productive. After briefly explaining the main points of my system more often than not I hear something like, "Oh, that must be great. I'm just not that type of person."

Hogwash! Poppycock! Hammermittens! (I think I made that last one up).

Antiquated exclamations aside, I do understand the feeling. I'm sure there must be some genetic variation in terms of whether or not you're attracted to the process of organizing things or thinking systematically about being more productive. God knows not every little kid thought organizing and re-organizing his hockey cards for hours on end or playing with calendars and planners was a fun time (hi Mom!). Looking around at people who seem to have their lives in order often uncovers other feelings that spread beyond a desire for a little more organization and productivity. It can make you think something is wrong with you. It feels crappy when someone else makes something you want and find difficult look so incredibly easy. Not only do you start to feel frustrated with your own lack of being on top of things, you may even start hating the raw material that's creating all this discord in your life -- i.e. the decisions, responsibilities, and components of your career and life. That's heavy stuff.

Putting our natural inclinations to be interested in organization and productivity aside, does that mean "meaningful productivity" is something for only a select few? You either get it or you don't? And if you don't, you're doomed to an existence of stress and chaos?

I don't think it's much of a surprise that I argue it's not.

"Getting organized" or "being productive" are a series of behaviors that when enacted result in a more controlled and orderly work (or personal) life. These are behaviors that are concrete, discrete, and extremely learnable. Like learning to ride a bike or drive a car or even tie your shoes -- they consist of steps that build upon one another and can be practiced discretely. Eventually you're able to start stringing together these steps together and before you know it you're riding a bike, driving a car, tying your shoes, or doing more meaningful work with less stress.

The problem arises when we see the distance between where we are right now (some combination of a disorganized, harried, busy, and overwhelmed mess) and where we want to be (a Zen-like master of everything) as a huge gulf instead of a series of steps. Would you rather try to scale a sheer cliff or walk up a staircase? I don't blame anybody for walking away from even trying to climb a cliff with no apparent handholds. But, there's a stairway just over here. I'm not saying it'll be quick but anybody can walk up some stairs, right?

Instead of trying to adopt some kind of wholesale, wide-ranging, and all-inclusive organizational system (like GTD), try a series of smaller changes first. These could be almost anything, but I would err on the side of simplicity and ease. By building some success with smaller steps that momentum can be banked and utilized for larger changes later.

  1. If you currently write ideas in more than one place try consolidating down to one notebook or location (or at least fewer than you're currently using). Behavior being learned: Ubiquitous capture and trust in your inbox(es).

  2. Spend 5 minutes at the beginning/end of each day thinking about what you intend to do today/tomorrow. Behavior being learned: Front-end decision making and planning.

  3. Go through your email inbox and unsubscribe from everything that isn't giving you value. Behavior being learned: Attention management.

  4. Install Rescue Time and let it run for a week or two. Figure out where you're currently using your time. Behavior being learned: Attention and time management.

  5. Go through your desk (or just one drawer if it's a true disaster zone) and get ride of unneeded stuff. Old pens, broken electronics, pieces of useless paper, etc. Behavior being learned: Respect for your workspace and creation of space for doing better work.

These steps may seem silly easy but when you're dealing with a deep seated belief that you're just not the type of person to get organized and be productive then you need to do things to prove yourself wrong. Instead of conceptualizing this ability to be organized and get work done as a personality trait that you sadly don't have you can begin building the very real skills and behaviors that every "productive person" uses on a daily basis. Like anything else that's tricky it will take time to practice the requisite steps but that isn't evidence that you're incapable of doing it -- it's simply evidence that you're learning a new way to interact with the world.

Next time we'll dive into another emotional roadblock to developing meaningful productivity -- fear.


Have a thought? Connect with me via Twitter, email, or join the Mailing List to receive a free copy of Work Better.

Photo by Peter Thoeny

People and Holacracy: Four Necessities for Success

Holacracy is the new rage when it comes to organizational structure. It's a relatively radical new approach that distributes power, tries to remove hierarchy in favor of self-organizing teams, and strives to make organizations leaner and more adaptable. Holacracy proponents argue the world moves too quickly for the stolid organizational structures and procedures of the past. Companies need to be nimble and make decisions that can be implemented and iterated on quickly. Holacracy tries to support this reality by removing the more rigid aspects of organizational structure that most of us recognize in an attempt to make working for the organization more efficient, productive, and even more meaningful.

Personal skepticism aside about the need for leadership, direction, and whether hierarchy can ever really be eliminated (I don't have personal experience working in a holacratic organization) I do acknowledge that holacracy is an exciting development for much of the knowledge work world and may be extremely beneficial when thoroughly adopted. For an organization to really thrive in a holacratic structure, though, I think there are some pretty crucial psychological characteristics employees need to develop. In fact these psychological characteristics apply in any organization that offers even a modicum of autonomy in terms of how you do your work. Autonomy in your job can be an incredibly motivating characteristic but only if you have the skills to take advantage of it.

I humbly submit the following four ideas for consideration as vital to succeeding in any organization where the employees have a high level of autonomy (holacratic or otherwise):

Self-leadership

People with high self-leadership are able to take action on the things they know they need to do even when they don't necessarily feel like doing it. In an organizational structure where there is no direct feedback coming from a superior it places the onus for figuring out what to do and then making sure it gets done on the individual employee. Employees with high self-leadership can guide their own behavior with a minimum of oversight. Self-leadership can take many different forms, from behavioral strategies like self-reward or self-punishment, to finding enjoyment in the work itself, to structuring your environment to support your work intentions, and a host of other techniques.

Personal productivity

The whole point of adopting a holacratic structure is to make the organization more capable of getting things done (which, ironically, is also why more rigid structures were originally created, too). Regardless of structure, an organization is only going to be as productive as the individuals who make it up. Ideally holacracy cuts through the red tape and bureaucracy that often blocks personal productivity. Employees with a relentless drive toward completion and a high level of self-leadership are going to become even more valuable members of the team.

Tolerance for ambiguity

Managers often remove ambiguity for employees by assigning work and giving feedback. Holacracy removes this which means you need to be much better at being okay with ambiguity. Entrepreneurs have generally accepted this as part of the experience of getting into that line of work whereas the world of steady full-time employment has usually minimized it (i.e. job descriptions, performance evaluations, etc.). That divide is being closed as being an employee becomes more like being an entrepreneur. Fluid situations that are constantly changing are by their very nature ambiguous. Removing that ambiguity may feel nice and secure in the moment but in practicality is nearly impossible. Instead, employees have to get better at reconciling the complexity they perceive on a daily basis with the desire to have discrete projects and make visible progress. It's still possible to do both of these things, but the path to completion is likely to be much more winding than it used to be.

Psychological capital

Organizations usually have a good handle on their economic and physical capital. It's relatively easy to see and wrap your arms around those concepts. Even social capital, the relationships among the members of an organization, can be observed and noted. However, quite possibly the most important type of capital to the success of any organization is psychological capital -- the extent to which its members have Resilience, Efficacy, Optimism, and Hope. Without this an organization has nothing. It seems to me that holacracy eliminates the productive layer that can act as a buffer between employees with low PsyCap and their impact on the organization. For better or worse, PsyCap will have a greater impact on the holacratic organization. Luckily, it appears that PsyCap can be taught, enhanced, and developed.


Coincidentally (or maybe not) these are the same characteristics I've been homing in on for my research on independent workers and entrepreneurs. We know that the ranks of the independent are growing and if we begin to include the employees of holacratic organizations then the number of people who need development in these characteristics is growing even quicker than I first thought.

Do you work in an organization that has adopted a holacratic structure? What has your experience been? More generally, where does autonomy feel like more of a curse than a blessing in your job (regardless of whether it's within a holacratic organization or not)?


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Photo by Mark Chadwick

How to Build More Flow Into Your Work Day

As I mentioned a few weeks ago with my How to Take Control of Your Indie Work Career article and video, I was asked to record some material for the now defunct en*theos Academy. The second lecture I recorded is called How To Build More Flow Into Your Work Day. You can see my 10 main ideas below and I expand upon those ideas in the video which you can watch here if it's not showing up for you.

[youtube=://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZT5lfaKUuJM&w=854&h=480]

Introduction

Think about the last time you were doing something that was incredibly engrossing, utterly immersive, and at the complete peak of your abilities. This state is something that psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” Flow is awesome. When you’re in flow you’re highly focused, highly productive, and completely engaged with the task at hand. Time seems to fly and you look back on the experience as positive and worth doing again.

Obviously, it can be pretty easy to find flow during leisure activities like mountain climbing or playing a video game. Luckily, flow is not reserved just for “fun” activities like that. Work is a great environment to find flow and with a little bit of effort you can find more flow in everything you do.

I’m going to share ten basic ideas that will help you find more flow in your work on a daily basis. The Top 10 Big Ideas

1. Set Clear Goals

A key component to finding flow in anything you’re doing is having a clear goal you’re working toward. If you can make the goal personally meaningful then you’re in an even better position. Without a goal the task will lack structure and direction.

Action tip: Set a daily goal before you start work in the morning and keep it in your field of vision throughout the day (I like putting mine on an index card that I keep clipped to a notebook).

2. Combat Boredom

Csikszentmihalyi argues that flow emerges when we do a task that is challenging and we have the required skills to successfully complete the task. If the challenge of the task is too low and your skills far outpace it then you’re likely to become bored. If you find yourself in that situation, one way you can be more likely to find flow is to figure out a way to make the task more challenging, thus requiring more of your skills to finish it.

Action tip: Try turning a boring part of your job into a game. Give yourself some kind of restriction or challenge that makes it more difficult. I like to check my email using only keyboard shortcuts and seeing how quickly I can get in and out of my inbox.

3. Eliminate Distractions

One nice component of being in flow is that some low level distractions will never even reach your consciousness. People in flow sometimes forget to eat or don’t realize they’re sitting in an uncomfortable position until they leave the flow state and realize their foot is asleep and they’re super hungry. Where you need to be aware of distractions is when you’re first trying to get into flow. A continuous stream of notifications will make it difficult to get deep enough into any task to find flow.

Action tip: Eliminate the vast majority of notifications on your phone and computer. Even better, when sitting down to work on something try turning your phone off or leaving it in another room.

4. Develop Your Ability to Concentrate

At its core, being in flow is a matter of regulating your attention. When you’re in flow you’re using your full attention on the task at hand without letting it spill into other concerns or activities (which is why a lack of distraction is so important). Since flow is so reliant on your ability to concentrate, doing anything to strengthen that ability is a great idea. In my own experience, my meditation practice has helped develop my mind to the point where I can more easily become engaged with the task at hand and find flow in what I’m doing.

Action tip: Try starting a meditation practice. Start with just a few minutes a day and work your way up. A great guide is Mindfulness in Plain English (plus, it’s free!).

5. Build in More Opportunities to Do What You’re Good At

Remember, finding flow requires a balance of challenge and skill. Take stock of what you’re already good at and see if you can get involved with projects that let you use those skills. While flow can be found doing nearly anything, it’s easier when you’re doing something you’re already good at and enjoy doing.

Action tip: Take stock of your strengths with the Gallup StrengthsFinder 2.0 or the VIA Institute on Character Survey. Once you know your strengths, brainstorm ways to use them in your work more often.

6. Seek Challenging Projects

Csikszentmihalyi makes the point that flow requires higher than average skill and ability. You might think that having low skill and low challenge in an activity would also result in flow since the ratio is 1:1. However, Csikszentmihalyi calls this zone “apathy” and it won’t be nearly as engaging as flow. Similarly, doing something in which you have high skill but are presented with low challenge results in “relaxation,” not flow. For flow you need high skill and high challenge.

Action tip: Volunteer for a project that seems just slightly outside your comfort zone. You’ll be forced to develop your skill to keep up and you’ll be much more likely to find flow.

7. Find a Supportive Group

Being in a group of other people can sometimes help you enter the flow state more easily. In my personal experience, this is why I love sharing workspaces with other people who are working intently on things they care about. When I’m around other people there seems to be a sense of “positive peer pressure” that pushes me toward working more diligently and deeply.

Action tip: If you normally work alone, try going to a local coworking space or finding likeminded people to share a workspace with.

8. Be on the Lookout for Anxiety

If you’re feeling anxious about something you’re working on it means the level of challenge is exceeding your level of skill in that domain. In order to move from anxiety into flow you’ll either have to lower the challenge or raise your skill (or a combination of both).

Action tip: Try lowering the challenge by getting additional help from a knowledgeable coworker or relieving external pressures when possible (by getting an extension on a looming deadline, for example). To increase your skill, utilize the vast world of great learning resources on the Internet like iTunesU, Lynda, or en*theos!

9. Have a Plan

A key component of finding flow in anything you do is having a sense of where you’re going and whether you’re headed in the right direction. That’s not to say you need to plot out every single point along the journey, but it does help to have an overall plan. A mountain climber doesn’t pre-plan every single movement while he’s on the mountain, but he also doesn’t just “wing it” with no preparation at all.

Action tip: Spend some time at the beginning of a project thinking about the end goal and figuring out what success might look like. I even like to do this on a daily basis by spending a few minutes planning my day in the morning and thinking about the criteria I’ll use to decide whether or not I’ve had a successful day.

10. Seek Feedback from the Work Itself

To know whether you’re making progress you need to get feedback on what you’re doing. Feedback can take the form of information you get from the task itself. For example, when practicing a musical instrument you can tell if you’re doing well by noticing if you’re hitting the right notes. A mountain climber receives feedback in the form of “not falling off the mountain.” At work it’s probably not quite as obvious as hitting a wrong note or falling off a mountain but you can still get feedback from the task at hand. Is the work flowing smoothly? Excellent! If it’s not, ask yourself what seems to be causing the blockage and figure out ways to work around or eliminate whatever is clogging things up.

Action tip: Check in with yourself every couple of hours and take note of what’s going well and what isn’t going well. Perhaps you keep thinking about something else you should be working on. Take steps to get that anxiety out of your head before going back to work on the original task to make flow more likely in the future.

Call to Action

I think learning about flow and striving to find it in our work is one of the best uses of our time as human beings. When we look back at the end of our lives what we’ll be looking at is the sum total of how we used our limited attention throughout the years. Seeking flow in your work (and beyond) is a commitment to use your attention as wisely as possible.

A Relentless Drive Toward Completion

I want to be someone who gets impressive things done quickly. I see classmates who finish their theses and dissertations early. People draft a new book over a month and a half of focused writing sessions. Someone sits down and creates a new product or website or article in less time than anyone expects. These people fascinate me and I want to be one of them. Obviously, these people have developed the ability to focus. But I think there's another force beyond the ability to focus that's at play here. I think people who get things done in a timely manner have cultivated what I've been calling a "relentless drive toward completion".

A relentless drive toward completion means that you sit down for a work session and ask yourself, "What can I finish?" and not, "What will I work on?" By breaking a project into finishable sections and then driving themselves toward the completion of those sections the highly productive person builds momentum in a way that just "working on" a project never can.

Focusing the mind on what can be finished in the short term ensures that progress is being made in a quantitative and qualitative way. Not only are words appearing on the page or pages accumulating or paintings starting to pile up or whatever your primary output is -- but there is a feeling of progress when you can check actual items off your list instead of looking at the never-changing and ambiguous "Finish thesis," or, "Finish book."

I'm still working to develop this relentless drive toward completion myself so here are some things I've tried and are currently trying in my own work:

Ignore how long things are "supposed" to take

Accepted wisdom is usually an average of how long things have taken people in the past and actually has very little to do with what you're setting out to do. Just because I have a year and a half to complete my thesis doesn't mean I have to take a year and a half.

Make sure each work session has a goal

Never sit down to just "work on" something. Create a finish line for yourself to cross. If you're writing a book perhaps the goal of the session is to finish outlining the chapter, or drafting a page, or simply revising the next paragraph. Give yourself something to accomplish and as you start to accumulate those wins you'll be developing a momentum that can push you to the ultimate finish line quicker than you'd ever expect.

Eliminate or defer as much as possible so you can dive deep on one thing

I'm learning that I can't have a relentless drive toward completion on every single thing I'm working on at all times. I have to pick and choose my spots. Pushing myself to finish something faster than anyone expects means I need to create the space in my life that allows me to focus deeply on it. I have to defer everything I can, do the minimum required in other places, or, ideally, completely remove something from my plate. Whatever route I end up taking the end result is the same -- I need to do less in order to do better.

I'm convinced developing this mindset, this craving for completion, is what sets apart people who seem to get more done than seems physically possible and everyone else. I've been in the "everyone else" category for long enough. It's time to get things done.

Photo by Amara U

How to Take Control of Your Indie Work Career

A while back I was asked to record some lectures for the en*theos Academy. A few weeks ago I found out they were closing that aspect of their business and that I would be allowed to use the material I created for them anywhere I like.

The format en*theos liked to use was 10 main ideas that we would write up in a short article and then expand upon in the video (which is why this article is in a little different format that I normally write).

I don't think I've ever shared a long-form video like this before so I'd be interested to hear what you think.

If you can't see the video below click here to watch it.


[youtube=://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6wgQdNU49k&w=640&h=480]

Introduction

Being an independent worker can be hard. It’s not all pajamas, slippers, and taking phone calls on the beach. You may not have a boss or work in a cubicle like the typical knowledge worker but you also don’t have access to a lot of what can make work enjoyable; clear feedback, enjoyable colleagues, helpful structure, organizational resources, and everything else you forfeit working for and by yourself.

Here are ten ideas from my own experience as an indie worker and psychology researcher that might make your work life more successful and enjoyable.

1. Create Flow in Your Work

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a founding father of positive psychology and one of my advisors, is known for his work on the idea of “flow,” otherwise known as the psychology of optimal experience. If you’ve ever felt “in the zone” or completely engrossed in an activity then you know what flow feels like and why it’s an awesome thing to strive for in our work.

There are three things that need to happen in order for you to find flow in whatever you’re doing. First, you need to find a balance between the challenge of the task at hand and your skill in that activity. Second, you need clear feedback as to whether you’re moving in the right direction. Last, you need clear goals. When these three requirements are met you’re much more likely to find yourself getting immersed in the task at hand.

2. Use Your Strengths

Your strengths refer to the natural ways you prefer to think and act. You have a unique mix of strengths that inform the types of work you prefer to do, how you approach that work, and what you find enjoyable in life. Identifying your strengths and then figuring out ways to build more opportunities to use those strengths in how you work has been empirically shown to increase job satisfaction and job performance.

The Gallup organization has an assessment tool called StrengthsFinder 2.0 that helps you identify you strengths. Additionally, positive psychology researchers Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman developed a list of 24 character strengths and a survey to help you figure out what your top strengths are. Try taking one, or both, of these assessments and then spend some time figuring out how to utilize your unique strengths more often in your work.

3. Adopt a Growth Mindset

Psychologists have identified two different “mindsets” that most people fall into. You can have what they call a “fixed mindset” in which you believe your abilities and intelligence are fixed quantities and there isn’t much you can do to increase what you currently have. The other type is called a “growth mindset” and these people tend to think of their abilities and intelligence as similar to muscles that can be developed through training. If you have a fixed mindset you tend to avoid difficult situations (because what if you don’t have enough ability to handle it?!) whereas those with a growth mindset tend to thrive in and seek out difficult situations.

Succeeding as an indie worker almost requires a growth mindset. Unless you’re happy with not raising your rates or working on more interesting projects, you must develop a growth mindset. Luckily, according to research the first step in developing a growth mindset is simply learning about the difference between the two!

4. Use Self-Leadership Strategies

Self-leadership simply refers to your ability to get yourself to do the things you need to do. You can think of these strategies as falling under three types: cognitive thought strategies, natural reward strategies, and behavioral-focused strategies.

Cognitive thought strategies refer to how you think about your work, especially in terms of self-talk and framing. How do you think about your work in relation to everything else going on in your life? Natural reward strategies refer to finding positive feedback in the actual task at hand. Maybe you turn on some tunes while you’re scanning paperwork or have a specific podcast you listen to only when doing a certain tedious task? Finally, behavioral strategies refer to raising self-awareness and using environmental cues to get stuff done.

5. Develop Your Psychological Capital

Business writers like to write about human capital, social capital, and economic capital. As an indie worker you don’t really have a ton of those, though. Instead, what really matters is your own individual abilities and psychological well-being – your psychological capital. In the psychology literature psychological capital (PsyCap) is comprised of four constructs: self-efficacy, resilience, hope, and optimism. When these four constructs come together they make up your overall propensity to accomplish what you set out to accomplish.

Which of these four is currently lacking in the way you think about yourself and your work?

6. Evolve Your Habits

Everything we do is built upon the foundation of our habits. Without habits you would be cognitively overwhelmed trying to remember what to do every day. Some habits come easy to us (I’m guessing you brush your teeth before bed every night without thinking about it too much) whereas others are much more difficult to cultivate (going for a run every day or writing 1,000 words or nearly anything else connected to running a successful business).

When thinking about your habits try to identify something you already do every day you can use as a trigger for a habit you want to develop. If you can identify a trigger and then connect the intended habit to that trigger you have a much better chance of successfully making it happen.

7. Become a Craftsman (or Craftswoman!)

When you think of somebody working on their craft chances are you’re thinking about someone working with their hands. Craftsmanship usually refers to the highest level of attention to detail, care, and skill placed in the creation of a product. While the typical craftsman may be working with wood or other physical material, there’s no reason the same mentality can’t apply to knowledge work.

One thing you’ll notice when watching a craftsman at work is how seamlessly he or she uses tools. The tools are like a natural extension of their body. How true is this for the tools you use in your work? Do you know every keyboard shortcut for all the software you use on a regular basis? The difference between being able to leave your hands on the keyboard to complete common tasks and having to constantly use your mouse can be surprisingly large. A true indie work craftsman is a wizard with his tools – are you?

8. Focus on Process Over Product

Think about the two types of goals you could set in any situation. One goal refers to the end result such as, “I want to write a book.” The other type of goal refers to a behavior in which you partake, “I will write 1,000 words every day.” I think the latter, or what I call a “process goal” is much more useful for indie workers.

The problem with the first kind of goal is that you can’t truly do it. You can’t just sit down and write a book and therefore it can be hard to know if you’re making progress. On the other hand, setting a process goal is much more attainable and actually helps you develop a habit in the process. If there’s a goal you’ve been struggling with for awhile try changing your perspective and setting a process goal instead.

9. Build Reflection into Your Routine

Sometimes I call reflection the “alpha habit.” Everything has to start with regular reflection first. Without regularly reflecting on what you’ve done in the past you’re doomed to repeat mistakes and miss opportunities for development.

In order to make sure I’m making the time to step back and reflect on my work I’ve scheduled a series of reminders into my task management software. For example, I have a Weekly Review which is very task-focused, a Monthly Review which takes a closer look at my ongoing projects, a 3-Month Review where I look at my areas of responsibility, and a Yearly Review where I look at my overall vision and long-term goals. These pop up automatically in my task management software and it forces me to take a step back from the nitty gritty to make sure I’m on the right path.

10. Self-Experiment

There are literally hundreds of ways you can change your daily routines, approaches to work, strategies for productivity, and techniques for improving your life. The only way to know if something is going to work for you is to try it. Not everything that works for me will work for you and many things that didn’t work for me may end up being exactly what you need. Try brainstorming a list of things you want to try and then systematically try them out over a period of time. I like to do weekly trial runs of small changes/experiments as well as monthly experiments for larger ideas.

If you can collect data on yourself using some kind of tool, that’s awesome. At the very least, take time to reflect during the trial period to see what effect the change is having on you. At the end of the experiment, decide if the change is worth keeping part of your life full-time and then try something new!

Conclusion

The beautiful thing about being an indie worker is that you have the freedom to work any way you want and the frustrating thing about being an indie worker is that you have the freedom to work any way you want. With the right strategies in your toolbox and the willingness to try some new things you can craft a way of working that lets you do your best work while also retaining your sanity. Which of the concepts I introduced above do you think may have the biggest impact on how you think about your work?


Enjoy these ideas? Connect with me on Twitter or Facebook if you want to chat about them or anything else.

Less, Better, Consistent

Today I want to share three words that I’m trying to use as guideposts in 2015. As you’re reading, think about what words you would use to encapsulate what it means to have a productive and meaningful year.

Less.

I always take on too much. I’m admittedly good at getting things done but it often results in me burying myself under opportunities that quickly become obligations. I want to do a better job identifying the aspects of my life that are suffering from too much “more” and apply a liberal dose of “less” instead. In the past few weeks I’ve closed one of my companies, did a planning process that resulted in me ending, or at least delaying until April, a bunch of projects, and did a major purging of my digital and physical possessions. ’Tis a good start.

Better.

Better follows Less because until Less happens there is no time or energy for Better. The projects I take on should be astounding in their creativity, effectiveness, and impact. I want articles to be better, interactions with my team members to be better, research projects to be executed better, and collaborators to be blown away by how much “better” I bring to everything I touch.

Consistent.

Motivation isn’t special. Anyone can get a burst of motivation and clean the garage over the weekend, or workout really hard for a few days, or come up with a title and a domain name for a new book. Bursts of motivation have done very little to change the world in meaningful ways. I want motivation to become a relic of the past for me. Sure, I’ll take it when I can get it but the things I decide are important to me shouldn’t be dictated by whether or not I feel motivated in the moment. Instead, they should be driven by small, consistent, and meaningful decisions that are made day after day even when progress feels slow or even non-existent to an outside observer.

When I do Less I can do Better. When I do Better and Less Consistently I know I feel better about my own life and in the way I interact with the larger world. What words can guide you to a meaningful, productive, and successful year?

Photo by Fe Ilya

Rethinking Normal in the New Year

I like the feeling of a fresh start. It’s why I never restore computers or phones from backups. It’s why I periodically go through nearly all my possessions and give away or throw away as much as possible. It’s why I love Mondays, daily checklists, and weekly reviews. As you can imagine, then, I’m a big fan of New Years as a holiday and as a concept. I used to set audacious resolutions along with everyone else (with just about the same success rate as everyone else, too).

I’m not going to rail against resolutions or give you 13 hot tips about how you can keep your resolutions this year. What I would like to do, however, is share what I’ve been using the New Year for the past couple of years — a time to systematically rethink normal.

Here’s what I mean.

Our lives are made up of a thousand different actions, habits, routines, and ways of doing/being that have become normal. We don’t think about them because it’s just what we do. They are the ambient backdrop of being a functional person. For example, I have certain ways of tracking my finances, certain tools I use to write and to do research. I have certain ways I tend to use my tablet, my phone, and my computer. I have certain job commitments that have become normal and certain workflows, processes, habits, and routines that make up who I am and are all part of this constellation of normality.

As December starts to draw to a close I like to identify a handful of these things that have become normal and evaluate them with a critical eye. Is this still the best app to use for this task? What if I tried something else? Where am I experiencing friction in how I work every day? Why am I duplicating the same type of work here and here and here? How can I streamline? Where do I need to un-streamline? You get the point.

For example, here are a couple of results from this year's systematic rethinking of normal:

  • My co-founder and I are closing our consulting company, Outlier Consulting Group. Neither of us has the available time needed to dedicate to starting and running a company like this. We’re grateful for the experience and projects we were able to complete but we’re both ready to focus on other areas. For me, that’s The Workologist (coaching, consulting, writing, and hopefully, speaking/presenting), my PhD work and…
  •  … the willingness to look for a “jobby job.” I’ve been 100% entrepreneurially focused since I quit my teaching job in 2010 and came to graduate school. I still operate a profitable business as an independent professional. However, I’ve cut myself off from even exploring the option of joining an existing team until this point. There are organizations like Undercurrent and NOBL and I’m sure countless others that are doing interesting things in the world of consulting, the future of work, and everything else I care about. My old normal was to ignore these and focus solely on my own businesses. My new normal is to accept that there may be  good opportunities to join an existing team (email me if you're aware of one, eh?)
  • Rethinking the software and services I use on a regular basis. I’m currently engaged in a personal experiment to use only first party software for awhile (Mail.app, official Twitter app, Pages, Keynote, Numbers, etc.). I’ve never used any of these to any extent where I know what their strengths and limitations are and I’m inherently drawn to the idea of being able to use stock software whenever possible. I’m completely willing to accept that my normal of using very nice third party apps is the best normal for me, but right now I’m experimenting with something else.

Anyway — you get the picture. 

If resolutions haven’t worked for you in the past than maybe using this sense of freshness, this sense of starting anew, is best utilized by rethinking your normal and making some big and/or small changes.

Closing companies and looking for a job are big steps away from normal whereas changing the software you use is a much tinier alteration. Regardless, both of these changes have come out of the systematic challenging of what has become comfortable and normal. It’s a nice feeling to know the way you spend the majority of your time has been consciously deliberated and chosen at some point instead of just being foisted upon you unwillingly or unwittingly. When I settle into my new normal I can feel good about it... at least until next year.

Photo by Tyler Wilson

On Building Positive Structure and Getting Better Every Day

I'm a huge proponent of helping independent workers build what I've started calling "positive structure" into their work life. In all the interviews and research I've done on independent work one conversation keeps happening:

Me: "What didn't you like about your 9-to-5 job? Why did you start this independent job?" Them: "I hated the structure! I hated having to always do things the way someone else told me!" Me: "What's tough about working on your own now? Is there anything difficult about being an independent worker?" Them: "I have no structure!" Me: "Hm."

The independent workers I've talked to who seem the most satisfied in their work are the ones who have thought about the type and extent of structure they want to exist in their working life. The ones who struggle have never sat down and asked themselves how they actually want to work.

What follows is a list of questions that might help you build some more positive structure into your day. I'm not saying you need to go through all of these and have an in-depth response for each. I'm saying that if you feel like your day-to-day is lacking some structure these are the questions I think you should start answering.

And really, the vast majority of these are relevant to everyone, not just independent workers.

  • When do you wake up? How do you wake up? Why?
  • What is the first thing you do when you wake up? Why?
  • How do you spend the first fifteen minutes of your work day? Why?
  • How often do you take breaks? Why?
  • When do you do the different types of work that make up your job? Do you tend to do certain types of work on certain days or during certain times? Why?
  • When do you feel like you're "at your best" during the day?
  • When do you take a lunch? What do you do during lunch? What do you tend to eat? Where do you go? Why?
  • Do you take naps? When?
  • What do you do when you come back from lunch? Why?
  • What do you do when you're feeling drained in the afternoon? Why?
  • When do you stop working for the day? How do you know when you're done for the day?
  • What is your end of day routine?
  • Do you allow yourself to do "work stuff" after the end of the day? Why or why not?
  • What do you do before bed?
  • What is your sleeping routine like?
  • What do you wear when you work? Why?
  • How do you plan out your weeks?
  • Do you work anywhere else other than your house? Where? Why?
  • How do you connect to other people in your field?
  • When do you step back from the day-to-day and make big, strategic plans?
  • Do you like the tools you use on a daily basis? Do you understand how to use your tools to their fullest extent?
  • Is your desk set up to be optimally ergonomic and comfortable?
  • Is your working environment enjoyable? Do you listen to music while you work? Do you have natural sunlight? Do those things matter to you?
  • When do you take vacations? What are they like? Do you work during them?
  • Do you do all your work at your desk? Are there certain things you do that could be done more optimally somewhere else? Even somewhere else in your house?
  • How do you make sure your skills are kept up to date? What do you do for professional development? When do you do it?
  • Do you have a routine for getting yourself "in the zone"?
  • What are the most frequent distractions or interruptions you face on a daily basis? Can you do anything to eliminate or reduce them?
  • Do the things you do for leisure actually rejuvenate you?
  • Do you try to hold yourself to a normal working schedule or are you more flexible about when you work? Or does it change on a daily basis? How do you decide this?
  • How do you schedule meetings? Does that process work well for you?
  • When do you like to have meetings? When do you like to do your "hard" work?
  • What do you hate to do? What can you do to make it a little less distasteful?
  • Do you ever reward yourself? How? When?

I don't think any of these questions have an obvious or even "right" answer. I think the unique way each of us answers these is what's beautiful about work. We each have the space and the ability to bring our own preferences and proclivities to the way we carry ourselves through our days.

The one bit of advice I would give, however, is that each of the answers to these questions should be played and experimented with. If you found yourself answering, "I don't know" to any of these then you should try something. It really doesn't matter what. Do whatever sounds good, do what a friend does, do what you think you "should" do, or do the opposite of what you think you "should" do. Like I said, it doesn't matter. What matters is that you start playing with decisions and the reality that end up comprising your life. Learn what works for you. Learn what doesn't work for you. Get in there, make a mess, learn something about yourself, and maybe bring a little more of your best work into the world.

We all benefit from each of us getting better.

Photo by Herr Olsen

The Recipe for the Perfect Weekly Plan

For whatever reason a week seems to be the perfect amount of time when thinking about planning your upcoming work. Planning once a week gives you enough time to actually get work done but going much longer than a week makes it hard to forecast what exactly you need to do and your plans are likely to devolve to the point of being useless. I've written about how to do Weekly Reviews before, but this time around I wanted to focus specifically on how to figure out what you're going to work on over the next seven days.

Making a Weekly Plan helps you achieve a sense of completion and progress in the work you're doing. Without it you don't really have much criteria as to whether or not you had a successful week. By having a plan you can measure what you actually accomplished against what you planned to finish and you can either pat yourself on the back for fulfilling the plan or figure out why it didn't work out quite the way you hoped. It also adds useful structure to your days so you can focus on actually finishing the work instead of figuring it out each and every day (or multiple times every day). Finally, it helps you break away from the tyranny of the "latest and loudest." Without a plan it's easy to get sucked into your email inbox or just generally working in a reactive instead of proactive state which is a recipe for not getting your most meaningful work done.

For all these reasons you need a Weekly Plan. The plan simply consists of:

  • A complete picture of where you need to be at specific times this week
  • A complete picture of what you intend to work on each day this week
  • A complete picture of what you're choosing NOT to do this week

By this point hopefully you're on board with the idea that systematically creating a Weekly Plan is a good idea. Let's get into the nitty gritty of how to make one and like any good recipe you can take it and make it your own once you understand the basics.

Required Materials

  • A full list of your Hard Landscape (appointments, meetings, places to be at specific times, etc.) for the week
  • A complete Project List (things to do that will take more than one Next Action to complete)
  • A complete Next Action List (the next step you need to take on all of your projects)
  • A clear list of upcoming deadlines
  • A clear sense of your medium & long term goals.

Instructions

Put all the Hard Landscape activities on your calendar and make sure the start and end times are accurate (if you have to guess, err on the side of blocking out too much time on your calendar for an activity). Remember, these are not aspirational in any way. These are phone calls that have to be made at a certain time, meetings that need to be attended, appointments, and other time and location specific activities.

Now that you know what has to happen this week you can spend some time figuring out how you're going to use the rest of the time available to you. This is where you look at your complete Project List and set some intentions about what you're going to work on each day.

Relevant Criteria For Deciding What Makes the Cut

Once you have your Hard Landscape figured out how do you decide what to include in the Weekly Plan? Try using some of the following criteria and limitations when thinking about what you want to try to get done.

Upcoming Deadlines

If there's an imminent deadline then obviously you need to work on a project to finish it on time. It helps to look a couple weeks in advance to make sure nothing sneaks up on you. I like to keep a list of upcoming due dates on my whiteboard up to a couple months out so I make sure that doesn't happen. Remember, sometimes Hard Landscape activities have actions that need to be taken before they happen (e.g. prep for a meeting, print out a ticket, review some information, etc.). Other examples from my own life include; weekly articles for my website, monthly newsletters, submission deadlines on papers, weekly consulting gig requirements and prepping for meetings I lead. All of these have deadlines attached to them so if one of them is coming up (or is a recurring deadline like writing a weekly article for my site) I need to make sure there's room in my Weekly Plan to get that done.

Importance to Goals

It's important not to let the "latest and loudest" guide your decisions about what you're going to accomplish in any given week. Once you've figured out the work you need to get finished to meet any upcoming deadlines you need to look at the most meaningful work relevant to your medium and long term goals. Some of your meaningful work has deadlines and is therefore considered in the previous step, but some of it likely has only self-imposed deadlines, if any at all. That type of work is easy to let slide if you don't deliberately set some time aside throughout the week to work on it. In my life, this work often includes working on a book proposal, doing business development activities, working on courses, and doing my PhD work.

Other Considerations

Deadlines and Importance to Goals are the primary criteria you should consider when deciding what to work on, but there are other things such as, how much time is your Hard Landscape going to take up this week?, how much energy are you likely to have this week?, what is weighing on your mind the most this week? All of these questions have an impact on what you'll schedule for yourself in terms of work.

If your Hard Landscape is going to take up a huge percentage of your week then being super ambitious with scheduling other work is probably a bad idea. If last week was insane then you should try to schedule yourself some easier tasks. If there's a particular project or Area of Responsibility that's weighing on you for some reason then I'll try to schedule some time during the week to make some meaningful progress on that.

For example, in some ways I feel like I've been letting my PhD advisor down over the past few weeks so I scheduled lots of time to work on my lab duties and other PhD work this week because I knew making progress there would do the most for alleviating my own anxiety.

Finally, even though I mentioned taking into consideration how much time your Hard Landscape is going to take up it's important to keep in mind not over scheduling yourself in general. You need to leave space for the unexpected and for taking care of administrative details. On a normal Hard Landscape day for me (1-3 appointments/meetings taking up about 2-3 hours) I will schedule 2-3 things to work on for the rest of the day. A handy rule of thumb is that if you can't fit the entirety of your daily plan on a single index card you've probably over scheduled yourself.

With these raw ingredients and the simple criteria I listed above you can make sit down and make a logical and realistic plan for your upcoming week.

Photo by Graham Ballantyne

Ego, Personal Development, and Being a Beginner

Once upon a time I was a relatively elite hockey player. Some of those guys who play in the NHL? They were teammates and opponents. I was also 13 years old when this was true.

Once upon a time I ran a half marathon. 13.1 miles through the streets of Detroit, into Canada, and back into Detroit on a frosty November morning. This happened over four years ago.

Once upon a time I lifted weights very consistently and put on 15 pounds of muscle while elevating all of my lifts to fairly respectable levels. That was nearly two years ago.

Since that time, I've adjusted my priorities to focus on school and my business while letting my physical fitness slide. For the past several years I've somehow convinced myself that I'm still a high level athlete although the only athletic thing I've done with any regularity is play a weekly recreational hockey game.

All of this is to say that I had a realization last week as I once again committed myself to taking my physical health seriously -- I'm not an advanced athlete who just needs a couple weeks to get back in shape. I'm not the elite youth hockey player. I'm not the guy who ran a half marathon any more. And I can't continue creating fitness plans that make that assumption. I'm not a guy who just needs to shake off the rust and unleash the high-level athlete he used to be. I'm a beginner.

And that's okay.

I've been not okay with being a beginner for a long time and it has doomed every effort I've made to build my level of physical fitness back up to a respectable level. I would create running plans or lifting plans that would only be reasonable for someone who was in much better shape than I was. I couldn't admit to myself that I really needed to start back with the basics if I was going to make any kind of actual lasting change.

"The basics? Are you kidding me? I played AAA hockey! I played club hockey in college! I ran a half marathon! I lifted weights! I don't need no basics! I'm in good shape -- I just need to get back in the habit!" These are the thoughts of a delusional man who consistently failed to rebuild a fitness routine time and time again over the past two years.

This got me thinking more generally about the role of the ego in attempted behavior change. How often are we shooting ourselves in the foot before we even get started because we're too proud to admit that we should start at an extreme beginner level? How many novels have burned out after a week of unsustainable writing? How many marathon training plans have been abandoned after an overuse injury in the first couple of days? How many efforts to eat better have been left by the wayside after a week of hyper clean eating?

Failed habit change is not driven by a lack of knowledge, a lack of information, or a lack of will. I'm becoming more and more convinced that failed habit change falls at the feet of our own unwillingness to recognize a.) how much of a beginner we actually are and b.) how patient we will have to be to create actual sustainable change. When either of these are forgotten or ignored and we let our ego influence our decisions I think the chances of success plummet.

For that reason I recently started the C25K (Couch to 5K) program. Sure, I was a decent athlete in the past but I can't let that version of myself influence what the current version of myself needs. This version has spent the last two years on the proverbial couch (more like the desk chair, actually) and needs to do much more than shake off the rust. He needs to shake off the rust and then build up the structural components that have withered away.

I'm becoming more and more okay with that every time I finish a run and feel myself getting a little bit stronger and a little bit faster. Habit change is a marathon, not a sprint -- even if, scratch that, especially, since I'm nowhere close to being able to run an actual marathon.

Photo by Giovanni

Preparing Yourself for the Organization of the Future

I recently wrote an article about some of the organizational structures of the future and I thought a good follow-up might focus on what you can do to prepare yourself for this upcoming reality. If the organizations of the future (and many of them now) are going to rely on self-organization, holacracy, and other (non)structures that result in high autonomy then what is the optimal employee of the future going to look like?

To thrive in this kind of environment it’s going to take deliberate effort.

Let’s get even more specific:

1. Get comfy with the idea that you aren’t always going to have a clear idea of what the future looks like.

The world moves quickly. Companies form and dissolve. Teams coalesce and break apart as needed. What you did last week is unlikely to be exactly what you'll be doing this week. In a bygone era stability was a key characteristic of a good job. Now, not so much. The only thing that's going to be stable is (hopefully) your ability to deal with instability. Let go of your carefully laid career plans and cultivate the ability to see opportunities for development and advancement because they are likely to emerge when you least expect it.

2. Which means you’ll have to get good at defining your work on a regular basis.

The key task of the knowledge worker is figuring out what the actual work is to be done. You can't just show up to work and expect a pile of widgets waiting to be cranked. For you and everyone else working in the knowledge economy the first task is to figure out what your "widgets" are today and what "cranking" even looks like. Merlin Mann once described email as a place you go to help you figure out who you're supposed to be today. Until you get good at clearly cutting through the vast tsunami of information hitting you at all times it'll be hard to figure out what you're even supposed to be doing to get your job done, let alone doing your job to an exemplary level.

3. Train yourself to shut out distractions even when your environment isn’t conducive to focusing.

Open offices are all the rage and I don't see them disappearing any time soon. That kind of arrangement can be great for team coordination but it also makes it much harder to shut out the world and truly focus on what needs to get done. I firmly believe the ability to focus is slowly being eradicated from our society -- meaning those who do develop their ability to focus are going to become a rarer and thus more valuable asset to any team they are part of. Start a mindfulness practice, start practicing single-tasking while working, do whatever you need to do to master your mind in all environments, but particularly distracting ones.

4. Relish the opportunity to do difficult things because it’s the only way to become indispensable.

The way to become indispensable is to do things a.) nobody else can do, and b.) nobody else wants to do. To do the things nobody else can do you have to be better at something (ideally something important) than most of the other people in your organization. For that to happen, you need to develop your skills and abilities. That happens by consistently seeking opportunities that push you slightly outside your comfort zone. A truly stress-free work life is also a growth-free work life. In a world where the employer/employee contract is more like a short term alignment of interests and not the 40+ years of dedication of yesteryear it behooves you to make sure your skills and abilities are on a constant upward trajectory.

5. Learn how to take care of yourself outside of work because the lines between work and vacation, the workday and the weekend, “on” and “off” will become blurrier.

This problem already exists and like the rise of open offices I don't see it changing any time soon. Obviously, expectations around making yourself available outside of normal business hours varies by organization. However, in even the most progressive companies many people fall to an internal desire to never truly relax and to always keep one foot in the office. This is a recipe for burnout. You have to be at the top of your game every day to not be left behind by the rapid changes your industry, company, and team are facing. True rejuvenation and recovery (mental and physical) are up to you to do well.


The organizational structures of the future value autonomy but with autonomy comes great responsibility. When external structure is removed by the organization the onus is on you to create your own internal structures that allow you to thrive. What's that going to look like?

Photo by Peyri Herrera

The Key to Self-Leadership: Don't Break Promises

You can probably think of a leader who inspired you in some way. For many it's a great boss, a teacher, or maybe a coach. In the world of work, working for a great leader can make a potentially boring or thankless job into something more meaningful (and a bad leader can take something that should be awesome and just absolutely ruin it).

As an independent worker, there are fewer ways for good (or bad) leadership to impact your work life. Obviously you don't have a boss, supervisor, or some kind of inspiring CEO to give meaning to your work. Instead, leadership of you falls into your own lap. You are simultaneously a leader and a follower and at that point, you have to ask yourself, "Do I find myself an inspiring leader? Am I a leader that I should/would follow?"

I've been thinking a lot about questions like this because I've recently been so focused on school and work I've let my physical and mental health (i.e. meditation) slide for several months. I'm certainly working hard and getting some great stuff finished but in the back of the mind I find myself being disappointed in myself. By not doing the things I know I need to do to feel like I'm living my life driven by my values I feel like I'm letting myself down. I'm definitely not inspiring myself to something greater, that's for sure. At the end of the day I want to be able to look at the sum total of my decisions in all realms of my life and be able to admire myself. When I'm consistently breaking commitments to myself to get into better shape or take my meditation practice more seriously it's hard to take myself seriously.

How do you be the type of person you would follow?

It probably varies from person to person just as every leader and follower are unique individuals. For me, I know the main thing I need to be doing on a regular basis in order to be the type of person I would happily follow is:

"Don't break promises."

Obviously, breaking promises and commitments to other people is a bad thing and nobody who regularly does that is going to be a credible leader. However, I'm more interested in the idea of not breaking promises to myself. This is the metric that is more important than whether or not I keep my word to other people because at a certain level there is a social expectation to not screw other people over which helps keep me (and really, everyone) somewhat in line. Crass but true. When it comes to keeping promises to myself, however, nobody but me knows whether or not I do it. It's between me and myself and that's it.

When I'm not keeping promises to myself it means I'm not making smart decisions about how I exercise, about how I eat, about meditation and keeping up my hobbies and other interests. I know the types of things I need to do to feel healthy and happy. When I don't do them even when I have every intention of doing so I'm sending the message to myself that I can't be trusted. I think that lack of trust chips away at the sense that I know what's best for me and that I should work hard to meet the goals I set for myself. 

Why should I follow a guy who can't even keep promises to himself?

For that reason I'm going to try a little weeklong experiment where I focus on doing all my *non-work* habits extremely consistently (for the purpose of this experiment that means daily exercise, daily meditation, and daily journaling). My hypothesis is that by putting more attention on these intentions I have for myself that help support my self-identity as a physically fit, mindful, and deliberately conscious person will spillover into my effectiveness when it comes to writing, coaching, and everything else that makes up my work life. Taking care of these commitments is a signal to myself that I can be relied upon to do the things that I know I need to do to be healthy and happy.

In a nutshell, the foundation of leadership is respect and the foundation of self-leadership is self-respect.

Photo by GrowWear

 

 

The Role of the Individual in the Organization of the Future

I was recently introduced to the work of Undercurrent, an organizational design consulting firm that is really pushing against the edges of how we think about optimally functioning organizations. I’m going to do my best to summarize some of their overarching thoughts, but if you’re really interested you should go straight to the sources.

Organizational Structure for a New Era

In a nutshell, Undercurrent is a proponent of the idea that the most responsive and nimble organizations also tend to be the most effective. Given the speed and power of technology and communication in the world today organizational structures that dominated in the 70’s and 80’s are not the same types of structures that will dominate today and in the future. Instead of creating tall hierarchical structures with clear chains of command and the titles and job responsibilities that accompany a hierarchy, many successful companies are choosing a much “flatter" and in many ways, complex, structure.

Holacracy, agile squads, and self-organizing teams are all the rage and many would argue it's for good reason. With these structures (or really, the lack thereof) companies can be quicker to respond to economic pressures and opportunities. It’s easy to see how this would work for Silicon Valley tech startups but Undercurrent would argue that even well-established companies in less high-tech industries could benefit from moving toward less hierarchy, less structure, and more self-organization.

All of this is fascinating.

Independent Work and Workers

I’ve taken organizational theory and organizational development classes in my PhD coursework and I’ve enjoyed all of them. This talk of structure and overall organizational decision making is incredibly interesting to me and I know quite a bit about it — but it’s also not my bread and butter.

My bread and butter actually has almost nothing to do with people who work in organizations and yet, I think my research interests align incredibly well with the organizational structure movement Undercurrent is promoting. There are questions pounding away at my head as I think about this changing nature of work and organizational life are: What implications does all this have at an individual level? How do you develop (or hire) people who thrive (not just survive) in highly autonomous, uncertain, and ambiguous work situations?

As many of you already know, my research is currently focused on independent workers — freelancers, micro-entrepreneurs, and contract workers. People who start their own thing and keep it deliberately small (for a myriad of reasons). At this moment, I’m particularly interested in the developable skills of self-leadership and self-management for this group of people. Being able to self-lead and self-manage when you work on your own are utterly vital skills to have. Given a lot of the economic indicators and statistics that I’ve seen, I think the growth of independent work is inevitable and already a movement that has been very much set in motion. However, I know that the future of work is never going to be everybody running their own freelance careers or starting independent businesses. Organizations aren’t going away — but I think the way that we’ve thought of organizations for a long time, is.

The Collision of Independent Work & New Organizational Structures

Working in one of these holocratic or highly responsive organizations is going to become more and more like being an independent worker. Autonomy is rampant. Ambiguity about job roles and tasks is a given. A general lack of structure about the how of work is substituted for a focus on the what. As life in organizations becomes more like independent work the skills I’ve begun to identify as being absolutely vital to independent workers, tolerance for ambiguity, self-leadership, self-management, self-awareness, growth mindset, “integrated personal development,” to name a few, are also the skills that anyone working in an organization of the future will need.

How do you develop the people you already have within your organization to be a better fit for this more dynamic, fluid, and uncertain environment? What can be done at the organization level to upgrade the skills of your people? To upgrade the frameworks they use to think about their role in the organization and what it means to do good work on a moment-to-moment basis? Looking outside the organization, how do you make sure you hire people who will be a good fit for this type of environment? How can you make sure you select the people with the highest probability to thrive in an environment that looks more and more like a buzzing and roiling ant hill than an orderly and logical military unit?

I have some ideas about answers to these questions and luckily they spur even more questions within me that seem ripe for empirical investigation. When I originally stepped down this path of indie work research I was a little bit worried that I was setting myself up for failure by focusing on too small a niche. Sure, there are a lot of independent workers in the world and the number seems to be growing, but more people work in organizations. What impact could I really hope to have when I was focusing on a minority of the working population? The work of Undercurrent (and I’m sure other organizations that I’m not aware of yet) has assuaged that fear for me. I now realize that to understand independent workers is to better understand highly autonomous workers regardless of whether they work for themselves, a start-up, or a Fortune 500 company just beginning to experiment with new ways of organizing.

Organizational structures are changing in such a way that requires you to get better. Is there anything more exciting?

Photo by John