Habits

The World Is Your Hard Drive

Today’s snippet is brought to you by the thoughts stimulated by episode 244 of the excellent podcast, Back to Work and the concept of stigmergy.

The world around us contains tons of information, some of which we placed into it and some of which we didn’t. I don’t mean newspapers or websites. I’m talking about a more basic type of information. The light is red so you stop, the sidewalk is crumbled so you step around it, and the sky looks cloudy so you grab an umbrella. Simple and obvious stuff, right?

These are all examples of things that happen to us and then prompt some kind of action. However, that’s not the only way the environment can prompt action. There’s no reason we can’t be the one who puts something into the world to prompt us to take a certain action later. We all do it already, actually. When you set an alarm to remind yourself the coffee is done brewing you’re taking action because of something you did to your environment in the past (setting a timer). You didn’t sit around and fret about when those three minutes were up. Once you set that alarm you were able to continue moving through your day without any extra psychological weight.

You can take this to an even higher level, though. This is when we start to get into the realm of Getting Things Done and #lifehacks. We can deliberately offload certain responsibilities and reminders into our environment in order to lift that burden from our already information overload ravaged and besieged brains. The classic trick of putting something you absolutely positively must not forget in the morning on top of your car keys falls firmly in this category. By doing this you’ve removed the constant tug of, “Don’t forget this, don’t forget this, don’t forget this…” and placed the only reminder you need into the physical world. You’ve offloaded your psychic worry into the physical world.

Looking back to the micro-transitions I discussed yesterday, does your environment support or hinder the action you want yourself to take? As Merlin says in Back to Work, do you “make the right thing the easy thing”? Here are some examples I’ve tried or am trying from my own life:

  • I’ve installed a “lightweight distraction blocker” into my world by moving distracting apps on my phone to a folder instead of keeping them front and center.
  • I’ve installed a “motivation booster” into my world by starting every work session with a specific playlist I always listen to while working.
  • I’ve installed a “morning routine aid” by making sure everything I need to make coffee the way I like it is clean and ready to go every night.
  • I’ve installed a “reminder app” by putting every idea I have regarding anything I’m working on into a trusted bucket (my Things inbox).
  • I’ve literally installed a shared task management product into my world (Trello) so I don’t have to try to keep track of what my coworkers are working on.

On a basic level what I’m trying to do, and where I think I’m only just scratching the surface, is to leave imprints on my environment from when I’m feeling intelligent and inspired that I can follow later when I’m feeling tired or overwhelmed. The more I can craft my environment to nudge me in the “right” direction the more willpower and attention I can save for things that matter (like solving difficult problems and thinking creatively).

Clean up your working drive (i.e. brain) by trusting more of it to the gigantic external hard drive that surrounds you every day (i.e. the rest of the world).

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.

The List #22

Welcome to the 22nd edition of The List, a roundup of the most interesting bits of the Internet to catch my attention over the past couple weeks. Kick back with a hot beverage, load up these links, and enjoy.

If you like these articles and topics I recommend following me on Twitter as I've been known to share the best stuff I find there, too.

The Shape of Things to Come - The New Yorker

This article is long, so get nice and comfy before you dig into it. If you're interested in behind the scenes coverage of how the most successful company in the world works -- and the man behind the design of the products that have propelled it to that rank -- then this is worth it. Ive is an interesting guy with an eye for detail that is equal parts impressive and exhausting.

How Medium is Building a New Type of Company with No Managers - First Round

I know this isn't a new article but I thought it was one of the best I've seen that really shows what working in a holacratic organization is like. It's one thing to read the manifesto or look at the diagrams it's based on and something totally different to hear from someone working in it every day.

The other thing I'm left with after reading this article is that all these headers about how holacratic organizations don't have managers seem more attention-grabby than truthful. Granted, I haven't worked in a holacratic organization but from what I can tell (and I want to develop this idea further) I think it would be more accurate to say everyone is a manager. Everyone seems to phase in and out of managerial roles as the situation dictates it which is not the same thing as having no managers. Perhaps a quibble on my part but something I'll be thinking and writing about more in the future.

Mike Babcock: The Perfectionist - Sportsnet

Looking at the pen in my hand, he tries to put his outlook into a perspective he believes I’ll understand. “I don’t think there’s a secret to success,” he says. “It’s lifelong learning. What you did last year and how you wrote last year, if you’re writing the same next year someone else is going to have your job. You have to evolve because everyone else evolves.”

I don't imagine there are too many hockey fans out there but this is a fascinating look into my favorite team's head coach. Babcock is widely acknowledged as the best NHL head coach and reading a little bit about his approach to work shows why that is the case. life and work.

Thoreau on Hard Work, the Myth of Productivity, and the True Measure of Meaningful Labor - Brain Pickings

The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen set all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.

Makes me think of this article I wrote a few months ago. I'm still working at developing this but it's a practice that seems worth the effort (which is about as paradoxical sentence you can write when talking about relaxation, right?)

Photo by sun_line

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.

The List #21

Time for the first the first The List of 2015. As usual, here are a handful of links from across the internet that caught my eye over the past week (or in this case, the past several weeks). If you ever come across something you think I'd like, feel free to send me an email or connect with me on Twitter (@samspurlin).

Re: New Wired Offices - The Awl

This memo shows what leaders putting aesthetic personal preference ahead of employee needs for doing great work looks like. My already low expectations for Wired are dropping lower.

Something Slightly Less Terrible - objc.io

Interviewer: Do you mostly focus on one project at a time, or are you a multitasker?

Loren Brichter: I’d describe my work schedule as cooperatively single-threaded with a heavy context switch cost, so I try to keep time slices on the order of about a week. So I have lots of projects going at once that usually relate to each other in some way, but I only consciously work on one at a time.

I can’t consciously multitask at all, but I think my brain works a bit like libdispatch. The subconscious can chew on a lot of stuff in parallel. So when my conscious mind switches back to some other work it put aside earlier, there are usually a couple good ideas waiting for it.

The Pleasure of Practicing: A Musician's Assuring Account of Creative Homecoming and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome - Brain Pickings

Together this pleasure in music and the discipline of practice engage in an endless tussle, a kind of romance. The sense of joy justifies the labor; the labor, I hope, leads to joy. This, at least, is the bargain I quietly make with myself each morning as I sit down. If I just do my work, then pleasure, mastery will follow. Even the greatest artists must make the same bargain.

Your Best Work - Rands in Repose

In the past five years, the teams I’ve seen work at impressive speed are the ones who self-organized themselves elsewhere. They found a dark corner of the building, they cleared out a large conference room, or they found an unused floor of a building and made it their own. While this might strike you as a case for shared common open space, it’s not. It’s an argument for common space that is not shared because these teams have work to do and don’t want a constant set of irrelevant interruptions. This is why I’m in favor of pod-like set-ups where teams working on similar technology and projects have their own enclosed space. I believe this is the type of set-up that encourages the most efficient forms of collaboration.

The Ultimate Construction of Conversation & How Do You Know When That Itch Has Been Scratched? - The File Drawer

Eric and I are starting to get much more comfortable with who we are and what we're creating with our podcast. These are two of our latest episodes and I'd love if you checked them out (and subscribed to the podcast if you enjoy what you hear)

Photo by Julie Rae Powers

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

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

Workologism #4: Write Emails Outside of Your Email Client

Email is a junction where information comes in and information goes out. It is not a café where you just hang out all day and see what happens.

I'll often keep a list of the emails I need to write in my task management system so I can open a text editor and just crank out my responses without having to look at what's already in my inbox or what might come in while I'm writing. When I'm done drafting all the emails in my text editor I'll open up my email client and copy/paste the messages over and send them on their way.

Photo by Ryan Blanding

The List #14

Happiest of Fridays!

I'm going to kick off this week's The List by being a presumptuous ass and linking to my own article. I had the privilege of having my third article published at 99U. It's about this idea I've been obsessing about for awhile and is really hard to write about coherently. Basically, what does it mean to work with dignity? I'm impressed they decided to run it because it's not necessarily the type of article that's likely to go viral but I think the ideas behind it are really important. It would mean a lot to me if you checked it out.

Which Habits Should I Focus On? - Charles Duhigg

This is a great article from the guy who wrote the book on habits. It answers one of the most common questions clients of mine often have in a really articulate and intelligent way. If you're interested in habit change and are wondering where to start you could do much worse than checking out this article.

Silicon Valley's Contract Worker Problem - New York Magazine

The more I read about the sharing economy and services like Uber, TaskRabbit, and other platforms for "independent work" the more I'm realizing this isn't what I mean by independent work. Independent work deliberately chosen for the benefits one gains from working in this fashion is not the same thing as working for these various platforms as an independent contractor so these companies can get away with not paying benefits and the other responsibilities of having employees. I need to develop my thinking on this further but its articles like this that are causing me to pause and think.


What are the best things you read this week?

Photo by Nicolo Paternoster

The Art of Deliberate Practice

This article originally appeared on SamSpurlin.com in August 2011. As I continue transitioning to my new home here at TheWorkologist.com, I'm resurfacing some older articles that you may have missed from before. Enjoy!

---

 After reading this article all of your problems will be solved.

I'm guessing you're reading this blog because there's something you'd like to be better at. You're looking for that inspiration that'll help you conquer whatever issues you might be having. I'm sure some of you are looking for information about how to break bad habits and form better ones. Others of you are looking for help with building and maintaining your motivation. And, even though I'm sure you don't want to admit it, there's a good chance that many of you are looking for that one "hack" that will unlock the holy grail of productivity and happiness. All you have to do is keep searching and keep digging, right?

Unfortunately, you're on a quixotic quest.

You're searching for the Northwest Passage, a Fountain of Youth or a land of milk and honey. None of these things exist (although I suppose you can make an argument for hacking and picking your way through the most northern of Canada's wasteland for a Northwest Passage).

The only path to gaining the skills you want is through deliberate practice.

What's Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice is not flashy or exciting to watch. Yet, anybody who has a world-class talent knows that it's the only way to get better. Deliberate practice can be broken down into several different steps:

  1. Pick a target.

  2. Reach for it.

  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach.

  4. Return to step one over and over and over and over and over.

Seems simple enough, right? The difference between deliberate practice and what most people do is step number three. Deliberately practicing requires that you constantly monitor the gap between what you're producing and your target. Most people just practice their techniques or skills without constantly evaluating and adjusting their performance accordingly. That's why watching someone who is practicing deliberately doesn't look particulalry awe inspiring.

Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code talks about watching a student practice her clarinet. She stumbles through a couple notes, stops, and plays them again. She slightly changes the way she plays one note and moves forward a couple more notes. It doesn't sound like music yet but this girl is deliberately learning the skills to play this song. She knows what it should sound like and each time she makes a mistake she stops, backs up, makes adjustments, and tries again. It may sound less impressive than someone who just sits down and plays the piece with mistakes but still manages to make it sound like a song, but it's far more effective.

Adopting Deliberate Practice in Your Own Life

What skills are you trying to develop in your life and are you practicing them deliberately? Obviously, each career or set of skills that you need to learn will be approached differently, but there are some general ideas you can keep in mind as you deliberately practice.

  1. Slow down: Deliberate practice is not something that can be rushed through. It’s something you have to approach slowly and mindfully. It’s not about the number of hours you put in to the practice but what you put into those hours. Deliberate practice requires that you not go through the motions of practice.

  2. Focus: Daniel Coyle compiled a list of words people used to describe the sensations of their most productive practice. Here is a partial list: attention, connect, alert, focus, mistake, tiring, and awake. All of these words point to the importance of being able to focus solely on your practicing for a period of time. Deep practice is distraction free, so turn off the cell phone, get away from the internet, and focus on practicing.

  3. Make mistakes: If somebody were to watch you while you were practicing, they would probably wonder why you are making so many mistakes. That's perfectly fine. Practice is supposed to be like that. You should be right on the edge of your abilities, which means you'll be making plenty of mistakes, because that's how you push the edge a little bit further. When I coached hockey, I always told my players that if they aren’t occasionally falling down during basic skating drills, they aren’t skating hard enough or pushing themselves hard enough during turns and transitions. Any hockey player at that level can mindlessly go through a skating drill and not fall down. But the whole point of practice is to be delicately balanced on the edge between comfort and the unknown. Practice beyond your ability and your ability will catch up.

  4. Break it down: Deliberate practice must be conducted on very small subsets of skills at a time. Instead of practicing an entire piece of music on the piano, you must practice on a very small piece of it. A master chefs doesn’t crank out a 5 course gourmet meal the first day of cooking school. Sidney Crosby did not rip a shot into the top corner the first time he ever took a slap shot. Anything you’re trying to improve can be broken down into the most basic of skills.

I've always been fascinated by the top performers in every field. What do they have in common and how did they get to that point? I suspect that the top surgeons, teachers, engineers, race car drivers, and CEOs all have a similar history and relationship to deliberate practice. If you're interested in this idea of deliberate practice, you'll probably enjoy The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

Lastly, what does deliberate practice look like in your field? I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Photo by Sean Dreilinger

Boring (But Effective) Advice for Better Work

This article originally appeared on SamSpurlin.com in October 2013. As I continue transitioning to my new home here at TheWorkologist.com, I'm resurfacing some older articles that you may have missed from before. Enjoy!

---

Self-development, career advancement, or just trying to make a positive difference in the world are hard things to do. Much of the difficulty comes from articulating what it even looks like to make progress in these areas. They're nebulous and ill-defined.

Advancing your career can seem like a hodgepodge of luck, connections, and hard work. I won't argue that all three of those variables can play a role in whether you find yourself moving toward your sense of an ideal work situation. I will argue, however, that there are two major mistakes most people make when it comes to advancing their career, developing themselves as individuals, or trying to make a positive impact on the world. They aren't fancy or flashy. In fact, this advice is pretty boring (which is why most people don't do it).

Patience

Looking around at the influential leaders and historical figures that populate our textbooks, magazines, and water cooler conversations can be a profoundly demotivating experience. They can all seem larger than life and have achievements that back up that description. However, even the household names we all know and admire for their ability to be creative, ship remarkable products, and make an impact on the world didn't just spring up over night.

For example, Charles Darwin was fifty years old when On the Origin of Species was published. He started making the detailed observations that became that book in 1838. The voyage on the HMS Beagle, the trip where he first started collecting the data and ideas that ended up in On the Origin of Species, in 1831. Whichever way you look at it, Darwin spent over twenty years working on the book that became the largest part of his legacy.

A more contemporary example is author Steven Pressfield who published his first novel in 1995 at the age of 52. He didn't just spring to existence with the publishing of Bagger Vance. He struggled and worked on publishing his first novel for a long time.

For both of these examples, we lose the sense of time that it required for them to create what we all know them for today. We remember their novels and scientific break throughs because that's what's fun to talk about. We don't remember or talk about the years and years of slogging it can take to create something like On the Origin of Species or Bagger Vance or The War of Art or the Mona Lisa.

In fact, psychologist Dean Keith Simonton has systematically researched contemporary and historical geniuses to better understand why and how they became famous. The main take away from much of his research is that these geniuses don't necessarily create remarkable ideas at a greater frequency than other people. Instead, they create more ideas in general. It's not the objective quality of the ideas that seem to predict whether or not someone becomes famous because of their creative output but the number of ideas they produce.

You need patience to keep creating new ideas even if previous ones fail. You need patience to keep slogging away on a meaningful project. And, unfortunately, patience isn't sexy. When it comes to your career development, patience with steady progress may not be flashy but it worked for Darwin, Pressfield, and nearly every other historical creative figure you can name.

Persistence

Patience without persistence looks a lot like a bump on a log. Without persistence you may be tranquil but you certainly aren't doing much to improve your situation.

Persistence isn't the steady habit of slamming your head against the metaphorical wall. Persistance comes from having a bias toward action while being tied to a willingness to step back and make adjustments. I'm a huge believer in having a mindset like a scientist in that using data from your environment, and past "experiments," can drive you in the right direction. However, doing the same thing over and over is likely to produce the same data over and over. Making adjustments to how you act and then relentlessly applying those adjustments in your daily life let's you hone in on the best way to improve.

Tweak your daily routine. Tweak the way you approach certain types of tasks or projects. Modify your diet, modify your sleep schedule, modify your hobbies or habits.Take careful note of how these modifications affect your productivity, mood, energy, or other outcomes of personal interest. There's nearly an infinite number of alterations and modifications you can make to your life and work that will eventually move you closer to your goals.

It can be easy to lose track of the fact that the people we look up to struggled just as much, if not more, than we do. However, they more than likely took the best approach to making any kind of long term impact on the world. They were patient with themselves and they were persistent. 

Not the flashiest two words in the world, but accessible to all of us if we care to listen.

Photo by Peter Gordebeke

How to Trudge Through a Productivity Valley

Apparently my productivity likes to operate in cycles. Almost like clockwork it seems like my productivity shifts between one or two weeks of being fully functional and operating at the peak of my abilities and is then followed by about a week of being mired in a valley of "bleh." During this 5-7 days of living in the "productivity valley" I find myself questioning why I'm doing everything I'm doing and if I'm even on the right path. It's like I go on two week benders of productivity before being slammed with a weeklong hangover.

Needless to say, it's unpleasant.

Last week I was in the middle of one of my productivity valleys so I thought I'd share a little bit about what it was like and how I eventually broke out of it.

What To Do When You're Stuck in a Productivity Valley

During my latest productivity valley I could barely look at the meaningful projects on my list. They filled me with dread or left me completely empty. Either way, the thought of actually working on any of them and making substantive process seemed crazy. Instead of completely throwing in the towel, though, I was able to fall back on a couple of habits that helped me continue to make forward progress and not just crawl back into bed every morning.

Maintenance Work

One of the "areas of responsibility" that encapsulates to-do items and projects is simply called Administrative. It ends up holding lots of odds and ends that aren't directly related to business or school projects but still have some bearing on my life. For instance, I currently have an active project related to finding a new place to live, a task to contact my teammate about getting a discount on a new hockey stick, and a task to update some of my passwords with 1Password. Since these tend to be pretty unimportant and non-urgent tasks they tend to accumulate over time. Last week I was able to knock out a ton of these. In a similar vein, sometimes I will tag tasks that are really easy to do so I can do a simple search for everything I have to do that I have designated as "easy" and I can spend my day feeling "productive" without having to do anything very taxing. Obviously, this only works if you don't abuse the system by only doing easy stuff every day. Try to save these maintenance tasks for when you're mired in a productivity valley.

Eliminate Cruft

I hate cruft. Cruft is what inevitably accumulates in any system that isn't cleaned out very often. In the realm of knowledge work, cruft accumulates everywhere information flows. Email inboxes, project files, to-do lists, Someday/Maybe lists, files and folders -- all of these places will get crufty if you let them. Last week I spent a lot of time going through my digital file cabinet (Evernote) and making sure the only notes in my active notebooks were actually connected to active projects. I also went through Things and eliminated projects that weren't going to get started any time soon or I knew would never get done. I also decided to get on the anti-Someday/Maybe bandwagon and either scheduled Someday/Maybe projects to appear in the future for reconsideration or removed them completely. I even went through my wardrobe and got rid of some clothes I don't wear very often, got rid of extra office supplies I didn't need, physical files I no longer needed direct access to, blogs I didn't want to follow in my RSS reader, newsletters that weren't bringing me value in my inbox, and unfollowed people on Twitter and Facebook who weren't enhancing my life in some way. By the end of it all I felt much lighter and ready to take on new ideas.

Just Relax

Perhaps part of the reason this productive/unproductive cycle exists is as a subconscious reminder of the need to just relax. When I'm being very productive I tend to work very hard and push myself pretty far. In a way, it's only natural that my body responds by forcing me to take it easy every couple of weeks. To a certain extent I need to just learn to go with it a little bit better and use the time to rejuvenate and refocus for what's to come.

How Do You Get Out of the Valley?

There are a couple of tricks that work occasionally, but the only surefire way I've found to snap out of it is to just let enough time pass. It almost never lasts longer than a week and I often wake up Monday morning after a week of being stuck in the valley to a ton of energy and excitement to get back to work. If you can't just let nature run it's course because you have an imminent due date or some other reason, I've had some success with the follow strategies:

1. Shock yourself out of it: If I'm stuck in the valley and I need to get out of it I can often shock myself out of it by breaking completely from my typical daily habits. In the past I've had success with pulling an all-nighter to work on something important. Sure, I'm tired as hell the next day but if I'm able to power through it I often come out feeling more motivated on the other side. Your mileage may vary and I actually haven't done this in years -- I have a feeling I might be getting too old to have this work. On the flip side, you could also try getting up much earlier than usual and working on something meaningful while the rest of the world is asleep and you can feel like you're getting a head start.

2. Lower the barrier to getting started: I think much of the problem of being stuck in the productivity valley is centered on the idea of getting started on something. When you're feeling unproductive the thought of starting on a major project is usually overwhelming. To combat that, try lowering the barrier to entry by setting a timer for five minutes and only forcing yourself to work for that long. More often than not five minutes of work is enough to get you past the dread of getting started and much closer to finding flow in the task at hand.

3. Break your projects: Similar to the idea above, sometimes getting started seems impossible because our projects are too intimidating. "Work on thesis... are you kidding me?" was the gist of what I thought to myself early last week. Luckily, I was able to make a little bit of progress by biting off one tiny piece of that project (I think it was, "draft one paragraph about indie work growth") and only focusing on that. Take one of your important projects and break off an almost ridiculously tiny piece of it. Just like working on something for five minutes seems borderline silly, get equally silly with what you commit to do on a big project. You may find that just getting started on something is enough to get you moving out of that productivity valley.


Because I'm stubborn I still think I can figure out a way where I never have to experience the productivity valley. I have some ideas about how I can change the way I approach my work and how I can notice I'm heading into the valley before I find myself in the bottom of it and I'll be sharing them as I experiment with them on myself. In the mean time, I hope these ideas help the next time you find yourself stuck.


Perhaps The Workologist Newsletter can help get you unstuck on a monthly basis? I send it out at the beginning of each month and I save my best article idea of the month for the article I write in each issue. You can sign up here and as a thank-you you'll receive a download with my e-book, Work Better.

Photo by Akuppa John Wigham

Be The Hare, Not the Tortoise

Should work be like a marathon or a sprint? Prior to reading The Power of Full Engagement and Be Excellent at Anything by Tony Schwartz I would've probably said we should treat work like a marathon. Don't burn yourself out too quickly and settle in for the long haul, right? We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare -- slow and steady wins the race. Now, thanks to these two books and the research that supports them, I'd put myself firmly in the camp of the hare and his sprinty friends.

Schwartz argues we should treat our work day like a series of sprints. He cites research that gives credence to the idea that not only do we have a circadian rhythm that effects our sleep, but that it extends to our waking hours and results in us feeling more alert at certain times than during others. He also argues that the longest we can really focus on one thing at a time is ninety minutes before we need a break. Therefore, he argues we should work for 90 minute blocks of truly high intensity focus and concentration followed by periods of deliberate rejuvenation.

I was reintroduced to this idea in relation to work shortly after doing a decent amount of research about high intensity interval training (HIIT) for fitness. The ideas are remarkably similar. Basically, by pushing ourselves to the very edges of our ability for short periods of time we can have a greater effect on our ability to get stronger/faster -- both physically and in our ability to do intellectual work. This is in direct competition with the idea that the better way to develop fitness and get a lot of work done is to work at a lower intensity for a much longer time.

Like everything else, I'm putting this to the test by experimenting with it in my own life. I've been playing around with using a ninety minute timer to organize my workday as much as possible. One reason I really like the idea of this type of working is that it gives me more time to find flow in the work I'm doing and then doesn't interrupt me right away like a Pomodoro-style of work does. It also challenges me to develop my abilities of concentration and focus -- two skills that I sorely need to develop to a greater extent.

The biggest potential win from adopting this style of work is simply the ability to get more work done in less time. My intention is not to cram more work in the time I save by working more intensely, but to use that newly liberated time to have more leisure time, more time to explore meaningful hobbies, and more time to develop my physical health. There's more to life to getting more work done in less time, obviously, but if you're mindful of how you're going to spend that time I don't see that approach as having much of a downside.

If you're interested in this idea of sprinting as a way to work, I highly recommend you check out The Power of Full Engagement and Be Excellent at Anything.


I share more ideas from books like these in my monthly Workologist newsletter. Sign up here to receive it direct to your inbox at the beginning of every month.

Photo by Andrew Pescod

How To Use a Whiteboard to Stay Organized

After posting a picture of my newly constructed standing desk on Instagram a few weeks ago somebody asked me about how I use the whiteboard mounted behind the desk. I typed out a response but it was long and I had to skip over a lot of the details as to why I use my whiteboard the way I do. Needless to say, it needed an article-length response -- not a comment. Thus, here is my incredibly in-depth system for using a whiteboard that is mounted directly behind my desk.

The Main Areas

My whiteboard is broken into 6 main areas:

1. 3-4 month goals: These are the things I'm trying to accomplish over the next 3-4 months. Every week I should be making progress on at least 1 or 2 of these goals. They are updated at the end of the 3-4 month cycle.

2. Weekly hard landscape: This is a list of the appointments and meetings I have for the upcoming week along with the times at which they are happening. The only things that go on this list are activities where I'm expected to be somewhere or doing something at a specific time.

3. Weekly flex landscape: This is how I intend to spend the rest of my work week that isn't taken up with hard landscape activities. I estimate how long each task will take and write it next to the activity. I try not to schedule more than 7 hours between hard and flex activities each day because a.) I'd prefer not to work crazy hours if possible and b.) I need to leave flexibility in my schedule to respond to urgent requests.

4. Percolating projects: This is where I put projects I think I might want to start soon but I'm not 100% sure. At the very least I don't want them to disappear from my awareness so I stick them in the corner of the whiteboard and review them weekly.

5. Weekly goals: This is the criteria for whether or not I had a productive week. If I met my weekly goals then the mission was accomplished.

6. Motivational reminder: I like to stick some sort of pithy motivational reminder at the top of the whiteboard so I see it everyday. My current one (work = time spent x intensity) is courtesy of Cal Newport and has been up there for at least 3 or 4 months. It's a good reminder to not get sucked into the "hours worked = productivity" mindset.

How It Evolves Throughout the Week

I reset my whiteboard during my Weekly Review every Sunday afternoon. However, it's not that I only touch the whiteboard on a weekly basis. Instead, it's constantly evolving and changing based on how my week goes. First, I cross out hard landscape and flex items as I accomplish them. This gives me a nice sense of progress as I proceed through the week. If I don't get to a flex item on the day I scheduled it I'll often draw a box around it and put a star next to it. This lets me know that it's a day behind and I should probably get it done ASAP.

I try to avoid scheduling meetings and appointments for the week I'm currently in but sometimes it's inevitable. When that happens I'll write them into the hard landscape or draw arrows if something is being rescheduled within the week.

On the right hand side that is currently wide open I'll add urgent items with imminent deadlines. Sometimes someone will ask me to do something that isn't possible to have seen coming and scheduled into my weekly flex time. For example, sometimes a colleague will email me something to look at on Wednesday and they'd like to have my feedback by Friday. On the right hand side I'll often add a reminder to get that taken care of and will then cross it off once I finish it.

On Friday afternoon I'll take an index card and jot down the chores and activities I want to complete over the weekend. You may think this sounds way too structured when it comes to taking time to relax but I've found that my weekends are much more rejuvenating when I take a few minutes to think ahead and write down what I'd like to do. For example, last Friday I wrote down the titles of a couple magazines I wanted to read, a reminder to check out the video game I bought on sale earlier in the week, and a couple of life chores that I needed to get done (laundry and grocery shopping). I like writing this stuff on an index card because it can be kind of a pain to write that much stuff into the area I allot for Saturday and Sunday on the whiteboard itself. I'll then stick that index card near the bottom of the whiteboard with a magnet where Saturday and Sunday's hard landscape is written.

The Weekly Review

A significant portion of my Weekly Review is taken up a.) reviewing the previous week's completed whiteboard (what didn't get finished? did any hard landscape items get rescheduled to the upcoming week? did I make progress on any summer goals? did I meet my weekly goals? do I want to activate any percolating projects?) and resetting it for the upcoming week. Resetting the whiteboard consists of writing the hard landscape for the upcoming week, seeing how much time I have leftover after accounting for my hard landscape responsibilities (40 hours - time committed to hard landscape) and making a list of the other work I'd like to accomplish this week (the flex landscape). Then I try to slot that work into my available days in a logical way taking into consideration due dates, and amount of available time (i.e. don't schedule a bunch of writing tasks in a day where I have a bunch of hard landscape commitments). I round out prepping my whiteboard for the upcoming week by writing my 3-4 weekly goals in the bottom right corner.


Is this excessive? For me, no. Through months of trial and error I've refined this system to be as useful as possible for the way I work. I like being able to see my week at a glance in terms of meetings/appointments and the work I intend to do. I also like having the higher perspective areas (weekly goals, 3-4 month goals, percolating projects) that allow me to not get buried in the weeds and ensure I'm moving in the right direction.

Do you think something like this will work for you? If you give it a try I'd love to hear how it goes and if you have any questions feel free to drop a comment and I'll go into greater detail about anything I do here (and/or why).

The Seven Sins of Independent Work

You may be familiar with the seven deadly sins laid out in the Christian tradition. They are lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Using this framework I thought it might be interesting to propose seven "sins" independent workers must avoid if they want to create sustainable and meaningful indie careers. Here's what I came up with:

1. Obsession

Many indie workers are driven to their work by an intrinsic interest in their specific field. Intrinsic motivation is a great thing but left completely unchecked it can easily bleed into overwork and burnout. As an indie worker you often don't have the clear signals that mark the beginning and end of a work day so the tendency is often to work longer hours than traditional employees. There's an almost constant sense of "there's more work to be done!" when you work for and/or by yourself. You must fight this urge to let work become an obsession. You must allow deliberate restoration to become part of what "working hard" means to you.

2. Envy

If you're the flavor of indie worker who makes his living on the internet then you've likely fallen victim to envy more than once. It's incredibly easy to look around and see other indie workers who have nicer websites, more interesting projects, bigger clients, or some other aspect of their work that can fill you with envy if left unchecked. Comparison is a dangerous game to play when the comparison group consists of the entire internet/rest of the world. To the extent that you can you must use internal metrics of comparison when gauging your level of success. Instead of comparing yourself to someone in your field who seems to be doing better than you try comparing yourself to your past-self. Use whatever metrics you'd like but only use them when comparing where you are now to where you used to be.

3. Formlessness

One of the most beautiful things about being an indie worker is the autonomy to work however you want. One of the most frustrating things about being an indie worker is the autonomy to work however you want. A complete and utter lack of structure almost never works for indie workers. There's obviously a great degree of individual preference at play with how much structure we prefer in how we work but I've never seen anybody who lacks any structure whatsoever being successful. How can you build a little bit more structure into your day without turning your indie work into a regular 9-to-5 job?

4. Busyness

It's easy to equate being busy with being productive. The always busy indie worker is rarely the truly successful indie worker. Being constantly busy means you're having trouble identifying and separating what is actually important to you and the work you do from the rest of the information you're flooded with on a daily basis. Try using the Eisenhower Matrix of Urgent/Not Urgent and Important/Not Important continuums to identify where most of your time is being spent and to ensure you're spending as much time as possible on that Important but Not Urgent work that so often represents the most meaningful and difficult work we can do.

5. Tunnel Vision

Personal and professional development are largely the same thing when you're an indie worker. Whereas a traditional employee may have opportunities to learn new skills via their employer an indie worker does not have anybody telling them what they need to learn next to move forward in their career. Indie workers must cast a wide net in order to read the trends in their specific market and identify which skills will allow them to do the work that's needed in the future. It can be easy to get locked into a tunnel vision situation where the only thing that appears to matter is completing the next project, responding to the next email, and cranking through the to-do list without ever stepping back and assessing the larger situation.

6. Distraction

While indie workers need to make sure they avoid tunnel vision, they also need to know how to block out distraction to truly focus on the task at hand. Distraction robs us of our ability to deliberately practice which is the best way to develop our skills. It prevents us from developing the concentration that allows us to do work that truly creative work that goes beyond the surface level. In a world where your next paycheck isn't guaranteed distraction is more than just an idle waste of time -- it's stealing money from yourself and your family.

7. Isolation

Despite the moniker of "indie worker" it's impossible to be 100% independent at all times. You still have colleagues even if you don't work in the same physical location or even in the same industry. Part of the reason for the popularity of coworking spaces is the fact that indie workers have been craving a way to connect with like-minded colleagues since there's only so much work you can do in your home office before the social isolation becomes too much to handle. Social isolation can stunt your professional and personal development and make what seemed like a great idea at the time (becoming an indie worker) seem depressingly masochistic in retrospect.


What else keeps you from doing your best work as an indie worker? What should we add to the list?

Photo by See-Ming Lee