Personal Development

Turning Off the Informational Deluge

Today’s snippet comes from realizing the connection between news, gossip, bite-sized nuggets of information, and doing my most meaningful work is tenuous. And this article by Jason Fried.

I recently embarked on an experiment where I opened the informational floodgates and let the world of news, think pieces, and “thought leadership” wash over me.

That experiment is now over.

I’m back to my cozy world of following basically nobody on Twitter (it’s not personal), Facebook (sorry high school friends), and Instagram (I can like you as a person even though you take terrible photographs). I’ve re-built my minimal RSS reading experience where I follow only a handful of extremely high quality sources. I’ve stopped trying to teach Apple News that I don’t want to read articles about celebrities or basketball. I’ve been exposed to some new ideas over the past few weeks, realized what I’m not actually missing out on much, and developed a new appreciation for silence, reflection, and wrestling with my own thoughts.

The nice thing about this little experiment is the fact that I’m really not feeling any anxiety about missing out on anything. I was super on top of everything for weeks and I don’t think I did any particularly great work or had any awesome ideas. I mean, I wasn’t a bump on a log or useless during that time but it’s not like I was crushing it. It just reinforces to me that feeling connected and plugged in to what’s going on in and around my areas of interest is not necessary to do great work. Without the time and attentional space provided by turning off the informational faucets it probably actually prevented a lot of great work from happening.

I’m not disappearing. I’m not turning into a hermit. I’m just committed to trying to do more awesome things.

Getting 1% Better

Sometimes work sucks.

Your colleagues can be morons, your bosses seem incompetent, your clients are clueless and... wait, no, not again, NOT AGAIN... someone finished off the coffee in the break room without starting a new pot.

Competence, let alone excellence, can often seem like a lost cause. In many cases, it can seem like the only way to get your organization from whatever it is today to something resembling excellence is to (figuratively) burn it to the ground and start fresh. While that path may be potentially cathartic I’d like to suggest a slightly different approach that starts with a simple idea that has the power to transform organizations of any size.

I often worry that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that organizations are comprised of people. Individual people who face a multitude of decisions everyday about how productive, engaged, and motivated they're going to be. Individuals who have their own intrinsic interests, motivations, quirks, pet peeves, conscious and sub-conscious desires, and proclivities for growth, challenge, security, and tolerance for ambiguity. What would happen if organizational improvement was re-framed in such a way that these individuals with all their strengths and weaknesses took center stage? Instead of being cogs that help run this system or follow that process individuals become the drivers and agents of positive organizational change.

In a nutshell, here's my basic idea -- if you have 1,000 people in your organization what would it look like if all 1,000 of them got 1% "better" (more productive, more inclined toward action, more reflective, more thoughtful, more engaged, more motivated, more empathetic, more whatever it is that you need more of in your organization)? And not only 1% better one time, but 1% better everyday. For years.

A traditional take on getting the organization to "work better" often includes one or more of the following: restructuring, arbitrary rules or guidelines from "the boss", requiring the use of a new piece of software or process for doing something, and threats. Each of these approaches ignores the fact that we're dealing with human beings. Human beings who have a remarkable ability to adapt, a desire to do meaningful work, and powerful intrinsic motivation toward feeling autonomous, competent, and related to each other (e.g. see Self-Determination Theory).  These approaches can be attractive because they have the appearance of making broad change very swiftly. A memo here, a decree there, some newly installed software here, some training, maybe a workshop or two and voilà, organizational change!

Not so much.

What would encouraging your people to get 1% better (whatever that looks like for your organization) look like? What barriers would need to be lifted? What changes would need to be made to the organizational environment or culture to encourage people to push themselves to get better? How do you facilitate the trust among a group of people that makes someone feel safe enough to take the step outside their comfort zone that growth requires? What kind of leadership does that require?

Answering those questions for your specific organization and context takes time, experimentation, and effort. What works for your company may not work for someone else's. A good starting point, though, are some examples of what 1% better in various areas might look like at your organization:

  • Everybody developing the habit to constantly ask "what's the next action?"

  • Encouraging people to keep a log of what they've worked on to help build momentum and a sense of progress (with iDoneThis, perhaps?)

  • Developing the expectation that you will leave a meeting crystal clear about the decisions that have been made and who is doing what

  • Starting and ending meetings on time as a matter of course

  • Being vigilant in finding and rooting out friction and small annoyances borne of inattention

  • Cultivating the ability to concentrate when working on a tough problem

  • Developing a healthy relationship with information overload and digital distractions

  • Not sending unimportant/non-urgent emails to colleagues on evenings and weekends

  • Giving a coworker the benefit of doubt when hit with unpleasantness from them

  • Leaving work each day with a plan for tomorrow

  • Not being afraid to ask a question versus toiling in uncertainty

I think you get where I'm going with this. None of these ideas have anything to do with mandates "from the top," new systems, new processes, or mass organizational upheaval or restructuring. In fact most of these may seem asininely simple. That's what's so beautiful and maddening about this entire topic -- all of our work lives would be so much better and our organizations more effective if everyone took the asinine, the simple, and the obvious more seriously. Each of these ideas are about individual people being a little bit courageous and a little bit driven to make their immediate experience at work a little bit better.

I've experienced this as a virtuous cycle, a positive upward spiral inspired by the people around me. I notice the people in my team getting a little bit better, being more on top of their game, and pushing themselves a little bit more and it causes me to do the same. Nobody likes the feeling of being left behind. I stop showing up to meetings late after the fifth meeting in a row a key decision was made without me in the room because I was late. I stop turning in projects late when the norm in the department becomes promptness. Social comparison can be a powerful force (and not just for keeping up with the Joneses). I get better, my team notices, and they get even better. And then I get better. And so on.Oversimplification? Perhaps.I'll admit, I make it seem simpler than it is. How do you handle social loafers, out of touch management, or a scarcity of resources that precludes any thought of getting better because it takes every bit of effort to simply survive? How do you go about hiring, retaining, and promoting the type of person who is energized by the idea of getting a little bit better every day? How do you cultivate the culture that supports this mindset? All of these are tough, honest, and relevant questions.

But, for now, let's just sit with the idea of what everyone in your organization getting 1% better in whatever metrics matter to your organization would look like. We’ll tackle those challenges in time but we can’t do anything if we’re not on board with the idea that we can each be a little bit better and that the idea of getting better isn’t insane. Not saying it won’t be difficult, just that it’s possible, right?

Making your organization better is going to have to start with you. Here’s a couple ideas to get you started:

  1. Assess your typical day/workflows and figure out what is less than optimal in whatever manner matters to you. Make a list.

  2. Take one item off that list and figure out a couple ways you could address it. Hate the weekly staff meeting? See if you can figure out a way to make it a tiny bit better. At the very least, you have control over your portion of the meeting and how prepared you are. Try to set a high bar for everyone else.

  3. Before you leave work today take a look at your calendar, your to-do list, and everything else you have going on and make a plan for the first 90 minutes of your day tomorrow. What can you do to ensure tomorrow will be a tiny bit better today?

Have other ideas? Share your thoughts about how you plan to get 1% better in the comments below!

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 (, 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

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 List #16

You're not here to read my excuses but I'm gonna lay some on you anyway. Crunch time on preparing a presentation and then delivering a presentation at the International Leadership Association last weekend, crunch time on getting my thesis proposal signed off, getting hired to do some teaching in the spring... yadda yadda. End result, sparse writing. Another end result, a new The List today because, let's face it, writing these are easy and makes me feel somewhat productive.


1. The Printing Press, Literacy, and the Creation of a Secret Society of Adults

A really interesting theory about how television is essentially erasing the differences between adults and children. Probably overstated, but an interesting article nonetheless.

2. Elon Musk's Secret Weapon: A Beginner's Guide to First Principles

The idea of reasoning from first principles instead of analogy or basically boiling down everything to its most fundamental components and then going from there. In many ways, I think this is why I found (and still find) minimalism an interesting philosophy to explore. I've got the beginnings of an article written about applying first principles to our lives that I'm hoping to push out sometime next week.

3. The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished

If you're a subscriber to The Workologist Newsletter then you likely saw the article I wrote this month about how being really, really good at GTD can make it easy to do "fake work" most of the time. I've adopted the methodology in this article as of a couple weeks ago and so far it is working really well.

4. How to Be Excellent

This was a relatively crazy/surprising find. Bobby Robins is a professional hockey player who plays for the Boston Bruins (boo!) and is also a really, really good writer. His story is pretty interesting considering he made his NHL debut this year at the age of 32.

With my thesis proposal signed off I now need to start collecting data in the very near future. To aid in that effort, I'm creating a list of people who are potentially interested in participating. In the near future that would mean taking a short survey or two, possibly doing an interview if you're interested, and/or participating in a training program (again, only if you're interested). If you want to be kept in the loop with opportunities to participate in my research you can sign up here.

Photo by Edsel Little

The List #15

Welcome to another edition of The List. The List is a curated list of my favorite things from the past week. Articles, videos, podcasts -- the media always changes but the unifying characteristic is that I loved whatever I end up sharing.

1. Advanced Tricycling by Merlin Mann

I look forward to new Merlin Mann talks like most kids look forward to Christmas morning. I'm an unapologetic fan of what Merlin does and how he thinks about what doing great work looks like. This is his latest talk about what it means to get better at something and how to even know what you're supposed to be getting better at.

2. Looking at Productivity as a State of Mind by Sendhil Mullainanthan (NYT)

Factories imposed discipline. They enforced strict work hours. There were rules for when you could go home and for when you had to show up at the beginning of your shift. If you arrived late you could be locked out for the day. For workers being paid piece rates, this certainly got them up and at work on time. You can even see something similar with the assembly line. Those operations dictate a certain pace of work. Like a running partner, an assembly line enforces a certain speed.

As Professor Clark provocatively puts it: “Workers effectively hired capitalists to make them work harder. They lacked the self-control to achieve higher earnings on their own.”

A provocative and fascinating idea about the Industrial Revolution -- and I think it has merit. There's something to be said for the external pressures that force us to work hard and have discipline. When I talk to independent workers one of the things I hear most commonly is how difficult it is to be productive and do great work when working from home and/or for yourself.

It seems to me that the future of work is a matter of finding the balance between the oppressive yet highly productive paradigm of the Industrial Revolution-era factory and the incredibly autonomous yet completely structure-less la-la land of independent knowledge work. Building external pressure into your work day while also allowing for autonomy is a delicate and important balance.

3. Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Their Laptops Away by Clay Shirky (Medium)

If I ever teach in a college setting, I'm going to make this article required reading on day one. It's the best argument I've heard for why laptops should be put away during most college classes. I've always felt that it was important for students to be treated like adults and if we wanted to use our computers in class then we should be able to. However, Shirky makes some points that makes me realize it's more complex than that:

"The fact that hardware and software is being professionally designed to distract was the first thing that made me willing to require rather than merely suggest that students not use devices in class. There are some counter-moves in the industry right now — software that takes over your screen to hide distractions, software that prevents you from logging into certain sites or using the internet at all, phones with Do Not Disturb options — but at the moment these are rear-guard actions. The industry has committed itself to an arms race for my students’ attention, and if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose."


"Anyone distracted in class doesn’t just lose out on the content of the discussion, they create a sense of permission that opting out is OK, and, worse, a haze of second-hand distraction for their peers. In an environment like this, students need support for the better angels of their nature (or at least the more intellectual angels), and they need defenses against the powerful short-term incentives to put off complex, frustrating tasks. That support and those defenses don’t just happen, and they are not limited to the individual’s choices. They are provided by social structure, and that structure is disproportionately provided by the professor, especially during the first weeks of class."

If you're a professor, I'd love to hear what your take is on this article and your own policy for computers in class. If you're a student, this article might make you think about your computer usage in a new light as well.

Photo by Katherine Lim

Weekend Reading #5

As usual, here's a dose of the good stuff for you to digest over the weekend.

Hacking Happiness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking it Can Change the World - John Havens

I read a lot of books about happiness/positive psychology so I'm a pretty critical (I want to say "consumer" but if you read this book you'll know why I hesitate at that word...) reader. John has done something with this book that is a much more refreshing and interesting look at what it means to strive for happiness in a world soaked in technology and data. Also worth checking out is the non-profit John has started, Happathon. I had the pleasure of having a phone call with John earlier this week and he is working on a lot of great stuff to make the world a better place. Check out this book and keep John on your radar -- he's making good things happen.

The Ancient Wisdom Project

I'm not sure who turned me onto this site/project, but I'm glad they did (I think it might've been Cal Newport?). Anyway, the basic idea is that the author does a series of 30 day experiments in which he commits to "practicing, studying, and reflecting on a single philosophy or religion with the hopes of personal growth." I love the concept behind the project. I've only read the first couple of his articles on Stoicism but I'm looking forward to getting further into it.

It Was Me All Along (available for preorder) - Andie Mitchell

I had the pleasure of meeting Andie a few months ago when we invited her to speak at the TEDx event I was co-organizing. One of our planning team members recommended we reach out to her because she knew Andie from college and was familiar with her story (thanks Susan!). Turns out, Andie is a phenomenal speaker. Her talk ended up being one of my favorites of the day. In addition to being a great speaker her upcoming book, It Was Me All Along, is now available for preorder. If it's as good as her talk then it'll definitely be worth your time.


What was the best thing you read this week? I'd love if you'd share it with me on Twitter (@samspurlin) or in the comments below.

If you like this stuff -- books about happiness, articles about personal development, and inspiring talks -- then you should consider signing up for The Workologist Newsletter. Once a month I send subscribers a recap of what happened on over the past thirty days and an article expanding on the best idea I had this month. As a thank you, I also give you a free copy of my e-book that shows you how you can work a little bit better by paying attention to some of the research that has come out over the past few years.

Photo by Katherine Lim