On Being Less Persnickety

Photo by Szoki Adams

My strengths can sometimes manifest as crippling weakness. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.



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.

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.



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!


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 #11

The past two editions of Weekend Reading has featured almost as many videos as articles so I'm not sure that moniker is particularly accurate any longer. Therefore, this Friday feature where I share some of my favorite things from across the internet will simply be known as "The List" from here on out. Criteria for inclusion on The List is simple -- I must think the item in question was interesting/revelatory/awesome/noteworthy or otherwise worth your time. Articles, videos, podcasts, and music are all fair game and I'll shoot for 3-5 items for inclusion each week.

1. On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs - Strike! Magazine

I tried to find a good quote from the article but each time I thought I found one I realized it over simplified a pretty thorny subject and didn't do justice to the entire argument of the article itself. All I can say is that it's worth a read, especially if you have a sneaking suspicion your job might be bullshit.

2. A Path to Discovery - Rands

Rands has elucidated something I've felt and sought for a long, long time:

The daily tools and services we’ve surrounded ourselves with are incentivized to satisfy our urgent need for instant gratification – to make the precious moments we send on them as useful as quickly as possible. I’m on the lookout for something different. I need more tools and services that encourage serendipity as their primary function because I know how to search for what I need, but what is to discover what I do not know.

I think this is partly why I made the switch from Spotify to Beats a few months ago. The curated playlists and recommendation engine in Beats was helping me find things I never thought I'd like -- it was facilitating the search for what I didn't already know. What other services are out there that support this act of discovery?

3. The Biggest Challenge of my Life: The 777 Project - Joel Runyon

Joel is basically an expert at doing impossible things. His new project seems insane and therefore right up his alley. I love when good people do crazily ambitious things. Good luck, Joel!

4. A New World: Intimate Music from Final Fantasy (free stream)

There is no bigger nostalgia bomb for me than music from the Final Fantasy video games (Final Fantasy VII in particular). Composer Nobuo Uematsu has created some of the most video game music -- hell, music, full stop -- I've ever heard. This is a free stream of an orchestral recording of a wide range of tunes from across the Final Fantasy library. Turn this on Saturday morning while you're lounging around the house or bookmark it for the next time you're sitting down to get some work done.

5. Tycho - Spectre (Bibio Remix)

I haven't become utterly obsessed with a song in a long time. This one has broken the dry spell, though. Tycho creates some of the best music I've heard for working and it features prominently in my work playlists. I recently started following Scott Hansen's (aka Tycho) blog, ISO50. I don't know what it is about it -- but I can't stop listening.

What did you enjoy this week? Share it in the comments below or shoot me a link on Twitter (@samspurlin).

Photo by Buble-Gum

Weekend Reading #10

If you're an astute reader of The Workologist you may have noticed that I missed publishing a Weekend Reading article last week. I was deep in the midst of moving so I ended up having to skip it in favor of spending the day hauling all my stuff over to a new house.

Now that I'm more or less moved in I want to make up for my negligence by making today's edition, the 10th, extra good.

Before we launch into the best stuff I've come across in the past week, I figured I'd mention the guest article I wrote for the VIA Institute on Character about how to use self-experimentation and self-data collection to apply your strengths in new ways. My colleague Jeff Fajans makes an appearance as well.

Alrighty -- without further ado let's get into this week's top picks.

Humans Need Not Apply (15:00) - YouTube via CGP Grey

CGP Grey makes the best informational videos and his latest is on a whole different level. He makes an excellent case that sometime in the relatively near future we are going to face a seismic shift in the labor market as automation/robots become better at a myriad of jobs than humans. It's scary and thought provoking and worth a watch. On a side note, CGP Grey is also a co-host of a podcast that has cracked my lineup and is now a show I look forward to every week (which is pretty hard to do). It's called Hello, Internet and it is also worth your time.

You Can Learn Anything (1:30) - YouTube via Khan Academy

This is a cutesy and super short video that encapsulates the nature of having a growth mindset pretty well. Sure, there are genetic differences in IQ and we all have different strengths/weaknesses but the research shows that believing you have the ability to improve and learn is the first step to actually making it happen.

Why Self Awareness is the Secret Weapon for Habit Change - 99U

The examples should sound familiar: We get necessary and helpful feedback from a boss or colleague, only to snarl under our breath, but failing to realize the foolishness on our end. We become aware of our declining efficiency, so instead of treating the disease we treat the symptoms and we chug coffee only to crash an hour later face-first into our keyboard (and then we go searching for productivity hacks because our workload is too high).

Great article from Paul Jun about why self-awareness is so important yet difficult to cultivate. It's similar to the idea I wrote about regarding the importance of self-reflection (I even called it the most important habit).

The Makers - Vimeo

This is a Vimeo channel with tons of relatively short videos about people who make things. It's one of my most reliable motivation/inspiration boosters that I like to turn to when I'm feeling kind of blah. From a guy who takes bread and butter to a whole new level to a guy who makes blowpipes in the Amazon rainforest, there is an awesome array of people doing awesome things on this channel.

Out of the Doldrums - JD Roth

JD Roth wrote one of the first blogs I ever started reading regularly, Get Rich Slowly (I was super into personal finance for awhile). On his personal website he's been covering a lot of interesting topics including the idea of flow and finding meaning. What JD calls the doldrums I recently called a ["productivity valley."]( ) It's nice to see that I'm not the only one who experiences cycles like this.

As always, thank you very much for continuing to read this site. Traffic numbers have been steadily increasing and for that I'm very grateful. Please don't hesitate to share this site with your friends/colleagues/acquaintances/pets -- it means a lot to me! Also, please follow me on Twitter or drop me an email to say hi.

Photo by NH53

More Ideas About Work That Can't be Taken for Granted


A while ago I wrote about four ideas about work that are usually taken for granted. As an indie worker, you have the opportunity to ask questions about generally accepted knowledge and to figure out whether it truly applies to you. In this follow up article I'd like to share three more ideas that can help you improve your work.

You can't choose your colleagues

Traditionally, you don't have much of a choice as to who your colleagues are. Luckily, if you're an indie worker you aren't doing much that is traditional. While it is definitely an awesome opportunity to decide who you want to associate with when it comes to work, it can also be tough because by default you probably don't have any colleagues at all. Without concerted effort you can spend your days working in complete isolation.

I've utilized a couple of different strategies to deliberately connect with top-notch people. A couple of my favorites include creating or joining a mastermind group, using Twitter and other social media mindfully, and joining a coworking space. There are undoubtedly countless other things you can do. The common denominator is that you must be deliberate about seeking these people out as they are not simply provided for you.

Career advancement simply requires time

In the past, getting promoted meant putting in enough time and showing enough loyalty to your organization. Obviously, as an indie worker this isn't even an option. You can keep doing the same thing year after year as an indie worker and you won't grow at all. You'll keep getting the same kind of projects, the same kinds of clients, and the same rates. While I'm not a proponent of growing your organization just for the hell of it or in making ever-increasing rates your ultimate goal, I am a proponent of continuing to craft our careers in ways that keep challenging us. Advancing "up the ladder" as an indie worker means having more control over the clients you work with, the type of work you take on, and the freedom to make decisions that use criteria other than money.

The only way you get to do that, though, is by deliberately working to develop yourself. That can take a myriad of different forms but there is certainly not a lack of resources on the internet and elsewhere that can help you move in that direction. Whether it's working with a coach, developing your skills using Lynda, en*theos, iTunes U, or other services like that, or even just setting aside an hour or two every week to practice a skill that will help you do better work in the future -- you have plenty of options. The key point, however, is that nobody else is going to be looking out for you to make sure you're gaining the skills and abilities you need to keep moving forward. It's completely up to you.

The only relevant outcome is money

This is my personal pet peeve. In lots of the organizational research I look at, particularly entrepreneurship research, some of the most common outcomes that scientists look at have to do with economic indicators like income, growth, profit, etc. In many cases they conflate these outcomes with something like "satisfaction." Work can be so much more than an opportunity to make some money. I will never downplay how important it is for us to make a living from the work we do whether as an employee or as an indie worker. Making enough money to support ourselves and our families is vital. However, let's not lose sight of the other outcomes that are equally worth considering. Ideas like job satisfaction, life satisfaction, work-life balance, meaning, passion, and engagement are all worth our attention just as much, if not more, than money.


Over the course of these two articles I've shared six ideas that I think are often taken for granted by most people:

  1. The five day work week
  2. The office
  3. Productivity as best measured by time
  4. Distractions are inevitable
  5. Not being able to choose your colleagues
  6. Career advancement simply requires time
  7. The only relevant outcome is money

As indie workers, we have the awesome opportunity to question accepted logic and figure out for ourselves the best way to conduct our professional lives. What other ideas have you questioned in the way you conduct your life and work? Leave your ideas in the comments below or write your own article and send me the link -- I'd love to see it.

You can stay up to date with The Workologist on Facebook. You can also interact with me on Twitter.

Photo by FLEE

Apps, Tools, and "Jobs to be Done"

If you're an employee you were likely hired to do a specific job. If you're a freelancer you're hired all the time to do various types of jobs. The concept of hiring a person or a company to provide some kind of service is about as simple as it gets when thinking about economics. However, have you ever thought about the "job" of everything else around you?

Horace Dediu, host of the excellent podcast, The Critical Path, and website, Asymco, often talks about "the job" something (not someone) is "hired to do" (and I think this idea originally came from his advisor, Clay Christensen).

I like this question and I think most of us could benefit from aiming it toward the tools and software we use on a daily basis. What are the "jobs to be done" in your business or life and are you "hiring" the right tools to do those jobs efficiently and enjoyably?

Asking this question can help in two different dimensions. First, it ensures that you're not trying to use a tool for more than what it's actually good for. Second, it helps you determine if the tools you're currently using are actually the ideal tools for the jobs that be done. Let's look at both scenarios.


In the first scenario you're trying to hire a tool to do more than it's really capable of. I most commonly see this when it comes to task management, tools for storing reference information, calendars, and email clients. Each of these tools have very distinct uses and when they start to collapse together the result is often frustration and inefficiency. For example, I'm a huge proponent of never putting anything on my calendar that isn't a "hard landscape" activity (anything that involves me being somewhere or doing something at a specific time). That means to-do items and reference information never lives on my calendar. If you find yourself trying to schedule time to work on specific tasks or projects and never actually keeping that commitment you're experiencing what it's like to have your task management system bleed into your calendar.

Another example of hiring a tool to do more than one task unsuccessfully is treating your email inbox like a to-do list. This almost never ends up in a happy place. An email inbox is great for holding onto discrete and varied pieces of information in one place until you get a chance to decide what to do with them, but it's pretty terrible at storing tasks.

Right Tool, Right Situation

Asking what job you've hired your tools to do also helps in a different situation -- determining whether or not you're even using the right tool at all. How do you know if you're using the right email client? How do you know if the calendar software you're using is actually the best tool out there for your purposes? It's easy to obsess over questions like these and end up spending more time trying out and fiddling with new tools than actually working. It's important to be very cautious about how you proceed with investigating and brinign new tools into your life. I think there are a couple of sane ways to proceed from here:

1. Conduct a "job" audit: Try brainstorming all the various "jobs" you have to hire tools for to keep your business and life running. Pretty much everyone will have to hire for jobs like "keeping track of appointments," "keeping a list of ongoing tasks," and "sending and receiving emails," at the very least. What other jobs do you have that are more unique to your work or life situation? For me, I have to hire a tool to help me collect money from coaching and consulting clients as well as a tool to keep all my notes from clients in one place and easily retrievable. I'm sure you're work situation has some unique "jobs" as well.

2. Conduct a "tool" audit: Make a list of your 10-15 most used tools/apps. Go through the list and write a "job description" for each one. What do you use each of these apps for? If you get to the end of the list and you've written two almost identical job descriptions then you might be able to combine those two tools into one. On the other hand, if you've written some epic job descriptions because you use some apps for far more than they're designed to do then you might want to consider spreading some of the responsibility around to some other single-purpose tools (this is arguably a matter of personal preference, though, so if you're happy with how you use an app that should be the most important criteria -- I just happen to prefer single-purpose tools over multi-purpose).

3. Identify areas for development: Between the job audit and the tool audit you've probably identified some areas for improvement. Now's the time to do some research. I would start with websites like The Wirecutter or The Sweet Setup to get a sense of what people who review this stuff for a living think about what's best before just diving into the never ending sea of potential tools. I also recommend setting some kind of limit to how much time you'll spend identifying and playing with new tools. I like to take a little bit of time every month to focus expressly on making sure the tools I'm using are still the best tools for my needs.

Once you've determined you've hired the best tool for each of the jobs you need to complete then you can focus on learning how to use those tools as well as possible. For apps, that means learning the ins and outs of their settings, keyboard shortcuts, and integrations with other apps. For example, I'm very comfortable that Things is the best task management software for me. Therefore, I've invested the time to learn all the keyboard shortcuts that make it even more useful for me as well as doing things like connecting it to Reminders on my iPhone so I can use Siri to add items to the inbox and connecting it to Dispatch (email app for my phone) so I can easily connect to-do items in Things to the emails they reference. Deciding that a certain tool is the best one for you allows you to use the energy you might've used to constantly be looking for something else on actually learning the tool at hand as completely as possible. It's a good feeling.

What jobs in your life still need you to do some hiring? Which old hires are sleeping on the job? Which tools have you given too much responsibility and which tools have you given too little?

I've created a Facebook page for The Workologist where I share little snippets of information and inspiration that never make it to the actual website. Check it out if you've hired Facebook as a useful tool for a job you need done!

Also, in case you missed it from last week, my en*theos class on How to Take Control of Your Indie Work Career is live!

Photo by Daniel Go

The Hard Work Before the Creative Work

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


I recently read an excellent book by one of my professors at CGU, and arguably the most famous faculty member, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Most people know him as the "flow guy." His work on flow, that state of optimal experience we feel when completely engaged in an activity, is some of the most important work that has been done in the field of positive psychology. While he's most well-known for Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he has written several other books as well that explore topics and issues beyond optimal experience. I'd like to take a few minutes to explore an idea in his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

Domain Mastery as a Prerequisite for Creativity?

The idea that I want to explore and emphasize is that creativity requires mastery of a domain first. Csikszentmihalyi argues that truly creative work requires the internalization and mastery of the "rules" of a domain. This is an interesting point because most of the time when we think about someone being creative, we think about breaking the restrictions of tradition and doing something completely new. Csikszentmihalyi argues that most notable creative figures, regardless of field, were first experts in that field. Einstein didn't bust out his theory of relativity out of nowhere. Mozart didn't pop out of his mother's womb with a conductor's baton in his hand. These men, as well as any other famous creative you can likely think of, first mastered the precepts of their field before irrevocably changing their field with their discoveries and innovations.

First, Follow the Rules

What does that mean for you and me? It means we need to bear down and get to work. Most of us want to leave a legacy that will persist beyond our deaths. To do that, we have to do something memorable, something creative. It can be incredibly tempting to think that it's possible to skip the stage where you become an expert in your field and move right into the earth shattering creativity. It's not that easy, unfortunately.

I agree that it's important to be "well-versed" in our fields of expertise before being truly creative, but I wonder if Csikszentmihalyi has overstated the importance of this aspect? I'm worried that mastering a domain, something that arguably takes years of work (10,000 hours if you believe Malcolm Gladwell) is too prohibitive. If you can't do anything truly creative until you're a master at your craft, and mastering a craft takes 10,000 hours, then why even try? It's a potentially debilitating mindset that could do more harm than good. On the other hand, in order to break the rules in a truly creative and groundbreaking way, you need to know those rules inside and out.

Limit the Scope of Your Focus

Personally, I find Csikszentmihalyi's point of view liberating. I don't have to concentrate on coming up with a truly creative idea right now. Instead, I can focus on becoming as much of an expert as possible in my chosen field. The more I practice and develop my skills, the more likely I'll be able to create a piece of truly lasting and creative work in the future. True creativity is combining seemingly unrelated ideas and domains into something brand new. Mastery of your field allows you to see those connections much more easily and readily than if you didn't have a firm grasp on the subject.

How are you going to treat this information? Do you think you can create truly creative work without mastering a field first? Or is mastery a necessary prerequisite to being creative? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo by Annarita Eva

The Future of...

Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a feature where they asked a bunch of different people in various professions and industries about their take on the future. A couple of them seem particularly relevant to what I'm trying to do here about making the future of work a little bit better for everyone.

The Future of Managers

"It should not matter what hours you work or where you're [working] from. What matters is how you communicate and what you get done. It's a waste of the natural resources of time and energy to commute; when we break the shackles of what looks like work versus what actually drives value, 90% of the cost and space of an office and management will disappear. We will manage by trust and measuring output, rather than the easier task of tallying input."

The Future of Entrepreneurship

"With the increase in the number of startups over the past five years, we've entered the age of democratized entrepreneurship. Just about anyone can afford to launch a business these days, as well as being able to get access to the information they need to see some success at it."

Office of the Future

"As offices improve their ability to follow us everywhere—out of the building envelope and into cafes, homes, bathrooms, via smartphones and computers—cities will reshape themselves to become more like offices, with entire districts centered around co-working and other forms of sharing workspace."

Future of Email

"In the good old days, the secretary did all the hard work and the boss did two things: dictating and editing. But email has made secretaries of us all; we spend up to 38% of our day managing email."

My Take on the Future

Predictions are usually a recipe for putting your foot in your mouth so I'm going to keep it pretty general. Independent work is a real thing. For many types of work across numerous industries it's no longer necessary to work for an established organization. On the entrepreneurship side of things, it's also not necessary to try to create as large an organization as quickly as possible (think Silicon Valley). Creating a small business or working as an independent professional creates space for you to care about something other than money when thinking about ideal outcomes. Work that aligns with our values, is meaningful, and intrinsically rewarding is becoming more and more possible for people who are willing to take some risks and make deliberate decisions across all aspects of their lives.

That's where I think we're headed as a society and I'm doing everything I can to line myself up in such a way as to be a part of that change. Are you?

Photo by Scott Smithson

Weekend Reading #7

It's Friday afternoon and you're shutting it down for the weekend, right? Good. Throw these links into your read later app of choice (or bookmark them if you like to roll old school) and enjoy them over the weekend.

1. The End of the Day Philosophy - Zen Habits

"What are you going to do next, after reading this? Will you be happy with that, at the end of this day?"

Simple metric for deciding whether to do something. It's simple but not easy to actually successfully implement.

2. Swami Vivekananda on the Secret of Work: Intelligent Consolation for the Pressures of Productivity from 1896 - Brain Pickings

"Good and bad are both bondages of the soul… If we do not attach ourselves to the work we do, it will not have any binding effect on our soul… This is the one central idea in the Gita: work incessantly, but be not attached to it."

This article is crazy good. I haven't been in the habit of reading Brain Pickings so I don't know if this is an aberration or if I've just been missing out on tons of good stuff.

3. The Absolute Fastest Way to Remind Yourself to Follow Up on Something You Find On Your Phone - Less Doing

I used to think IFTTT was stupid. Then I started seeing examples of how people actually use it and I realized it could be super helpful. This is the first recipe I've seen in a long time that I've needed to steal for myself (although I modified it to send the screenshot to Evernote instead of my email). My specific recipe is embedded below.

IFTTT Recipe: Send a new iOS screenshot to Evernote connects ios-photos to evernote//

I hope you had a good week and if you enjoy what you're reading here I recommend you sign up for The Workologist monthly newsletter. It goes out on the first of every month and it always has an article with my best idea of the previous thirty days. You can also get every article I write here (three of them each week!) sent directly to your inbox if you check the box when signing up. I may be biased, but I think that's a pretty good idea.

Photo by Steve Corey

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


Alarmist description of the relationship people have with their online world aside, this article has some interesting points about what it means to communicate primarily via email and social network. Google's latest Gmail tweak that makes it suddenly much easier for anybody to email you slides right into this discussion. 

" has become the circulatory system along which internal outsourcing flows. Sending an email is easy and cheap, and emails create obligation on the part of a recipient without any prior agreement." 

I remember this as one of the first things I took from Merlin Mann's writing back in the 43 Folders days. The idea that an email costs almost nothing to send. There is no scarcity like there used to be with a long distance phone call or writing a letter. Any wahoo can write you an email. Does this mean that anybody in the world, regardless of what you're working on, should be able to interrupt you? If you keep your email notifications on and audible then that's what you're saying. That nothing you're working on -- nothing that you're spending your most precious resources on, time and attention -- is worth as much as whatever somebody wants to email you. And that is insane.

"Increasingly, online life in general feels like this. The endless, constant flow of email, notifications, direct messages, favorites, invitations. After that daybreak email triage, so many other icons on your phone boast badges silently enumerating their demands. Facebook notifications. Twitter @-messages, direct messages. Tumblr followers, Instagram favorites, Vine comments. Elsewhere too: comments on your blog, on your YouTube channel. The Facebook page you manage for your neighborhood association or your animal rescue charity. New messages in the forums you frequent. Your Kickstarter campaign updates. Your Etsy shop. Your Ebay watch list. And then, of course, more email. Always more email." 

Thinking about this stuff matters because the difference between being buried beneath the deluge and making your way confidently through the information morass is a delicate one. With half an hour of work and some careful consideration of what information you actually need real-time notification of, you can cut down your distractions by at least 50%. Change the default notification settings on your social networks so you *don't* get email every time somebody interacts with you. Setup some filters in your email that diverts obvious mailing lists and other bulk email around your inbox. The simple change from you allowing your services to notify you and you deciding to consciously check a service for updates is small, yet huge, at the same time.

Nobody is going to protect your time for you. You're the one who has to take charge.

Your Life Is Not a Children's Movie

"These (literally) childish plot devices are eerily similar to the popular conversations surrounding career planning. The passion culture tells us that the key to an extraordinary life is to look deep, be true to your inner passion, and courageously ignore the naysayers as you pursue your dream." -- Cal Newport

Animated children's movies are becoming more formulaic and perpetrating the cult of self-esteem. Whether you're a rat that wants to cook or a panda that wants to be a kung-fu master the key seems to be simply believing in yourself. While this is perhaps harmless (although that's debatable) in a children's movie, Cal makes the point that much of today's career advice sounds a lot like Disney movies. From a popular career guide:

"You see, I believe you already have everything you need inside of you. You are good enough the way you are. You’ve simply learned ideas that keep you from living up to your full potential.”


Cal points out that this is not deep wisdom. Finding your passion and overcoming naysayers does not a successful career make. Real life is much messier, complicated, and frankly boring, than most career advice would have you believe. 

Find something that at least holds your interest for a little bit. Become completely engaged in it and develop your skills to the point where you actually have expertise. Continue exploring the process and refining the skills of your chosen profession and you're likely to see passion emerge. It's not something to be found and there aren't naysayers holding you back from the life you're "meant" to live. 

You are not a crop duster that wants to become a world class racer or a snail that wants to go fast. You are a person who has control over where you put your attention and energy. That's a super power most children's movies have yet to explore.

You're Probably Thinking About Your Work Too Much

If you're not doing some kind of weekly review you're probably thinking too hard about all the work you have to do. A bold statement, perhaps. Maybe even counterintuitive. How could setting aside an hour or two every Sunday to explicitly think about my work result in me thinking about my work less?

I think less about my work and spend more time actually doing it because of the time I set aside every Sunday. Instead of figuring out what my work is every day or every time I look at my to-do list, I think about it all ahead of time. Every Sunday I look at everything I have going on -- all the projects, areas of responsibility, and ongoing commitments I have -- and decide what "done" looks like. I make sure to think about the concrete steps it takes to get to that vision of done and I write them down in a place I trust. Monday through Friday I can focus on doing the work I gave myself on Sunday instead of constantly renegotiating with myself.

Everyone's weekly review looks different and there are lots of guides available online. I work through a checklist I'm constantly tweaking to reflect the way I work. You can see it here (but remember, it's highly specific to the way I work and the tools I use so it may not make the most sense to you).

It's a great feeling to know I've thought carefully about the work I've committed to doing and have already fleshed out what I need to do to reach a state of completion. On the flipside, it's also great to know that I'm 7 or less days away from stepping back from the grind of the work, reassessing what I have going on, and making smart decisions about moving forward. Separating these two tasks, the DECIDING and the DOING means I do both much, much better than I could otherwise.


A Letter To The Freshmen

My second youngest brother is starting his first year of college in a week. Consider this my letter to him and everyone else starting college (or grad school or any other new phase of life):

Hey Joe,

How's it going? As your big brother I feel obligated to impart all my endless wisdom to you. You lucky, lucky man. Here's the deal, I know you've picked a major already and that's awesome. I'm sure you're getting a taste of this already, but everybody's favorite question after they've figured out what you're studying is asking you what you're planning on "doing with it." Are you going to be a chemical engineer? Go to med school? Do cancer research? What does one actually do with a chemistry degree?

I'm sure more than one person is going to sit you down and say, "Just follow your passion." On the surface, that sounds like decent advice. Who doesn't want to do their passion for a career? But I'm here with my big-brotherly advice to tell you it's bullshit. That kind of thinking makes it sound like your passion is out there somewhere, maybe hidden in a tree or under a rock, and all it requires is climbing enough trees or turning over enough rocks to find it. One day, when you least expect it --there will be your Passion. It'll be shiny and exciting and the solution to all your professional problems for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen that way.

The only way you're going to "find" your passion is if you stick with something for long enough to actually build some skills and expertise. It's not about finding the perfect thing for you right now. By picking a major that you're interested in you're already on the right path. You're avoiding the multi-year search for the "perfect path." Good. You're on a track and that's the first step. But what do you do next?

At this stage in the game, your focus should be on building the skills needed to move forward in your area of study. All of those things that your classmates find annoying or really hard -- those are the things you should master. The stronger you are in the basic skills of your profession the better foundation you'll have for tackling bigger questions later on. When you get things wrong on a test, find out why they're wrong. The hard question at the end of the problem set that nobody seem to get right; figure it out.

Once you've developed the habits to truly become a master of the techniques and skills that allow you to do well you must turn your attention to a question. Instead of plotting out a career path based on a specific job, pick a question that fascinates you. Figure out what you should do, what classes you should take, what skills you need, and what connections will help you answer that question and let that guide your decisions. Chances are you aren't going to feel passionate about a "job". But a question -- a question that burns at the base of your skull -- that will sustain you into a truly interesting career.

When it comes to passion most of us have been using the wrong verb. "Finding" seems to be the verb of choice when it really should be "building" or "developing". When you get to my age (you know, the ripe old age of 25) you begin to see the difference between people who are looking for a passion (most haven't found it) and those who have developed a passion (they're some of the happiest and most interesting people you'll meet). You've got plenty of time to change your mind and make mistakes. Just always remember that you're constantly building your passion and that conceptualizing your future career as some kind of proverbial game of hide-and-seek will likely leave you looking under rocks and climbing trees. You're a chemistry major -- not a professional tree climber and rock explorer. Get in there and build the skills that will let you develop, not find, your passion in that domain.

Have fun in your first year of school and try to make as many mistakes as possible. Mistakes imply action, and like a good hockey player, it's easier to change directions when you're already moving.

Good luck dude,


edit: A few people have expressed disappointment that I appear to be criticizing my brother's major choice in this letter. I apologize for not being clearer in my writing-- that's not what I'm trying to say at all! I'm just saying that he shouldn't worry about finding a specific passion within chemistry right now. If he focuses on building general skills and abilities relevant to his major he will end up building himself a passion. I'm super proud of him and excited to have a chemist in the family!

What is your message to someone starting college this fall? What do you wish you had known when you started your freshman year of college? Interested in this conceptualization of passion? Read more from Cal Newport at Study Hacks -- the writer who first turned me on to this new way of thinking about passion.

We've Been Doing Passion Wrong

The least useful and yet most overused piece of advice I've both proffered and received is, "Follow your passion!" Hearing that as a high school student is about as helpful as a tissue paper rain jacket. Everybody loves to tell you to follow your passion but nobody seems to have any equally simple advice for how to a.) figure out what the hell your passion might be, b.) how to make money doing what you're passionate about, or most rarely, c.) what the word "passion" even means.

I've been guilty of using this frozen-dinner-like piece of advice myself. It's ever so easy to pull it out of the freezer, peel off the plastic cover, and sprinkle it with whatever your unique spice happens to be. In the end, it's still a frozen dinner and nothing like what you really want. "Follow your passion," is the limp chicken and mystery lump of vegetables of the helpful advice world.

I'm here to do my best to try to fix that mistake.


I still think building your life's work around a topic or a profession that you're passionate is a pretty damn good idea. If you're lucky enough to lose yourself into the flow state doing something that someone will be happy to pay you for, you've got yourself a pretty sweet situation. If you figure out that your passion is helping people while also cutting them open, please, please, please follow that passion into a medical career (or forensics). However, most high school students (and even college students) cannot clearly articulate what their passion might be. And that's perfectly fine as well.


Here's why that advice still works. Everyone assumes that when they are told to "Follow your passion!!" that "passion" equals some sort of job or vocation. Law, teaching, medicine, archaeology, hula-hooping -- these are passions. However, let's start thinking about passion in a completely different way. Instead of using "passion" to mean some sort of job, let's reframe it to mean "passion of process."

Being passionate about doing things well. Passionately developing an autotelic personality. That's what "Follow your passion!!!1!!" should mean. When you focus on developing your ability to do everything well, everything becomes your passion. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done extensive research into what he calls flow and he's concluded that learning how to enter that state can be learned. And, luckily, nearly anything can become an activity that induces flow.

Let's not worry too much about what we're doing. All you high school seniors can stop getting that queasy feeling in your stomach every time a well meaning adult asks you what you're going to do in college and then blasts you with a steaming pile of, "Well, follow your passion!!1!111!!" when you predictably answer that you aren't sure. Find something that seems semi-interesting and then work on developing your passion for the process of doing it well. Learn how to enjoy everything whether that's writing an English paper, conducting field research, working in the cafeteria, or doing surgery on rockets.


Because, here's the secret that not many people are telling you: the economy isn't going to go back to "normal." This is the new normal. And that means you need skills that can transfer across careers and across disciplines. Less and less of us are going to school to do one specific job. Instead, we're learning how to do things well. We're learning the more general skills of critical thinking, writing persuasively, communicating effectively, and thinking broadly. These are skills of process, not product.

Passion-of-process over passion-of-vocation has been the center of my writing and own life experiments for the last several years. It's an idea that I'm going to come back to over and over again. I firmly believe that a focus on developing an autotelic personality (basically, doing things because you receive intrinsic motivation in doing them) is the key to living a fulfilling life. This skill can be taught and developed -- and I hope to show you how.

If you enjoyed this article, you'll probably like what Cal has to say over at Study Hacks. He is another writer that thinks "follow your passion" is sub-par advice and has a lot of good things to say about learning to work effectively.



The Anatomy of a Major Life Change

I’ve written a little bit about why I’ve decided to go to graduate school already. However, I wanted to go more in depth as to the thought process that goes into a decision about giving up on a chosen career and finding a new path. I’m not the first person, nor will I be the last, to make a drastic career change midstream.

Since about my junior year of high school I knew I wanted to be a high school social studies teacher. Or so I thought. My number one love, however, has always been the content of social studies. Sometimes this put me at odds with some of my classmates in my education program who were becoming teachers because they loved working with kids. Don’t get me wrong, I like kids just fine, but I really loved the intellectual wrangling involved with being a teacher. I love history, sociology, psychology, economics, and government. Being the “practical” individual that I’ve always been, I figured the most marketable profession to enter that allowed me to work with these topics was teaching.

For the past three months I have worked as a full-time substitute teaching sophomores in high school economics and government. Before that, I had a year and a half of very steady substitute teaching jobs. I am now cutting my fledgling teaching career short to pursue graduate school. Over the past three months, I’ve learned some things about myself, what I need from a job, and the value I place on personal freedom.


  1. I need more control over my time: Teachers have zero control over their time. Zero. I can’t even pee when I want to — I have to wait for my planning period, lunch, or the end of the day. This is something that really began to bother me the longer I taught. I need to have the freedom to decide what I’m working on and when. In hindsight, it seems really stupid that I decided to get into teaching when this is such an important aspect to my working life. I suppose it’s something I didn’t really realize until I got an actual taste of what it’s like.
  2. Assembly line teaching sucks: I had six classes of students. Each class was made up of as little as 31 and as many as 35 students. I saw each class for 48 minutes. It is impossible to explore anything in the amount of depth with that many students and that little time. The clearest way I can think of putting this is that every teacher, regardless of how good they are, has to learn to care a little bit less. It is absolutely impossible to do this job if you follow up on every single missing assignment, every single low test grade, and every single kid that isn’t living up to his potential. If you devote the amount of time that is truly necessary to analyze, critique, and improve a piece of writing to every single student’s work it is absolutely impossible to do anything else. You cannot care at the absolute highest level about every aspect of this job, planning, teaching, following up with students, parents, and providing feedback on work and keep your sanity. The best teachers figure out what aspects to care about the most and let other things slide. The worst teachers just don’t care about anything. My nature found it incredibly difficult to reduce my caring and by the end of the three months I had run myself fairly ragged. I would be burned out at the end of 5 years if I continued like this.
  3. I have a desire to affect events on a larger scale: The American education system is falling apart. Plain and simple. The funding structure is disintegrating — just look at the recent protests in Wisconsin and Michigan. Every year since I began my studies to become a teacher, there has been almost zero good news about the educational system. Funding is constantly being cut. Unfunded mandates are constantly being placed upon schools. The result is a PERVASIVE environment of pessimism. I’m not talking about teachers’-lounge pessimism. I’m talking about up to down pessimism throughout the entire profession about the future of our educational system. Our system is on the verge of collapse and it’s going to get much worse before it gets better. I think positive psychology holds a lot of the answers to the questions kids are asking in school and not finding satisfactory answers. What should I do with my life? What actually matters? How can I be happy? I’m going to be tackling these questions in my graduate studies and the overreaching application of these answers excites me like nothing has in a long time.
  4. I have a desire to affect events on an individual scale: This may seem paradoxical considering point number three, but I don’t think it is. While I want to affect and improve the world on a larger scale, a scale that wasn’t feasible as a high school teacher, I also want to have more of an affect at the individual level. With nearly 150 students I couldn’t give nearly the individual attention that each student deserved. I felt like I was skimming along the surface of my class and learning bits and pieces about my students. Getting involved in life coaching and small group workshops/speaking will give me the opportunity to help people on an individual basis. That scale is impossible in a modern high school.
  5. My ideal day is impossible as a teacher: I’ve done plenty of personal development exercises that asked me to write out my ideal day in extreme detail. I’ve done this many times and it’s only now that I realize my ideal day is impossible as a teacher. Yet, it’s very possible if I run my own life coaching, consulting, and writing business. Why give up on being able to live my ideal day everyday if I can see a path to that end? It won’t be easy and it doesn’t mean that everyday will be the best day of my life, but I want to have a shot at being able to live my ideal day everyday.

I will be the first to admit that I obviously did not give teaching a lot of time to grow on me. I’m sure there are plenty of teachers reading this and scoffing, “Three months?! Of course you hated it after three months.” I know that the first year is generally considered very difficult. I get that. In fact, I was starting to get into a bit of a groove by the time my subbing assignment ran out. However, just because teaching may have gotten easier for me over time does not mean that my underlying issues with it were anywhere close to being resolved.


You don’t have to settle for less than ideal. I get that I’m a 24 year old single white dude with no responsibilities. I don’t really have much holding me back. I know, I know. But you can always take steps toward your more ideal future. I started this blog on a whim to keep me occupied while I searched for a job. I sat down nearly everyday and just wrote about what I found interesting and about my journey to improve myself. Over time this became an obsession that led me to research positive psychology more intently. Which led to investigating graduate school. Which led to filling out a couple applications. Which led to actually pulling the trigger on moving across the country. All while continuing to do the best job that I possibly could teaching my students and writing at my blog.

This process took nearly two years and now I’m on a path that I think is much closer to leading me toward my ideal life. But I never would have found this path if I sat back and settled for what I knew wasn’t fulfilling me in the way I expected. It was a matter of taking tiny steps toward the direction I wanted to go. It’s all you really can do anyway.

Lastly, I’d like to address the guilt that I’m feeling about this decision. I feel badly to be essentially turning my back on my future students. According to the students I’ve had for the past three months, my colleagues at the school, parents, and the administration, I was a damn good teacher. I will freely admit that I was good at being a teacher. I’m sure if I were to stick with it I would only become better. Casting aside a profession that I think I would have eventually excelled at in favor of an incredibly uncertain future is something I’ve sat awake with quite a bit over the past few months. What if I blow it? What if I can’t hack graduate school? What if I fail a class? What if I can’t start my own business or end up having to work at a job I dislike more than teaching? Everybody will face questions like this when making huge life decisions. What separates the average person from the exceptional is the way you respond to these uncertainties. I know the road will be hard. I know that people will be doubting my decisions. I know that some people will feel let down or betrayed by what I decide to do. I’m tired of letting other people’s expectations dictate what I do. Or, more succinctly, I’m done making excuses for my lack of happiness.

As I laid in bed a few nights ago one sentence kept flowing through my consciousness.

My excuses are going to seem really stupid when I’m dead.


The Autotelic Personality in Action

Do you love your job? Really, really love your job? Is it because you make a ton of money? Or, is it because you actually love doing your job? Most people will agree that the key to living a fulfilled life is finding something that you love doing just for the sake of it-- and do it a lot. If you can make a living doing this activity that you love so much you would do for free, then you are absolutely golden.

I've written about developing an autotelic personality in the past. However, it is one thing to read about it and something entirely different to see in action. As a teacher, I understand that people learn in a multitude of different ways. Many students cannot understand a concept through just visual means; they often need visual reinforcement. I was lucky enough to stumble across this short documentary a few weeks ago that is the best example of autotelism in action that I have ever seen.

All three characteristics that I've written about before, setting goals, becoming immersed in an activity, and learning to enjoy immediate experience are evident in abundance in this video. Working as a cashier at a fast food restaurant is probably not an activity that most of us would consider doing just for the sake of it. In other words, it doesn't really seem to lend itself to autotelism. However, if you can find a way to truly enjoy a job that may seem mundane, I can't help but think life becomes just a little bit more enjoyable. I mean, just watch the video. Does "the Wendy's Guy" seem like he is enjoying life?

I used to work as a "cart attendant" at a major retail store while I was in high school. Basically, my responsibility was to get the shopping carts out of the parking lot and back into the store. At first, I hated the job; it was boring. However, I started making it into a game where I would never let the number of carts in the store get below a certain level. I had something to work toward and it in turn made me a better employee. Instead of the "cart bitch" that I initially thought of myself as, I changed my mental title to "cart wrangler." I corralled the carts like a cowboy herded cattle. Every once in awhile I had to make the trek all the way across the parking lot to collect a stray and the cowboy metaphor was reinforced. The carts were sitting out in the parking lot like lost cows-- it was my job to collect them and bring them home. Sometimes I would see how many I could push at once, or sometimes I would see how quickly I could clean out one section of the parking lot. There were countless ways to make my seemingly boring job into something more interesting and even fun. Looking back, this seems incredibly lame but it really did help make the time go by faster and I think, in a small way, it shows the power of autotelism.

The "Wendy's Guy" takes this to a whole new extreme with the way he approaches his job. It almost seems like he plays his cash register like a musical instrument. It's really an amazing thing to see. I encourage you to take a few minutes to watch this documentary and see if there is anything you can learn. If a fast food cashier can enjoy his job so much, is there any reason you can't find some enjoyment in your employment?