I am quite often asked how it is that I get things done.
I thought I’d give you the most comprehensive, power packed post on the subject of accomplishing something while feeling more clear about the motives behind your actions.
Sit back, relax...actually, buckle up and get ready to work. Enjoy.
Where Does Your Time Go?
If you truly have no free time, then you can’t get done what you want to get done. Let’s make one thing clear: You do have free time, you’ve just misplaced it.
Do: Grab a notebook one day and have a reminder go off every 15 minutes on your phone/email. When it does, write down exactly what you were doing at that moment. Your results might surprise you at how not busy you are at given times during the day.
What three things you should be doing less of in your free time? What are your vortexes? It could be Facebook, twitter, blogs, TV, gossiping with friends, drinks with coworkers, etc. We all have them. We just need to be cognizant of what they are.
Do: Write down 3 things that you actively know you should be doing less of.
Do: For the next week, give yourself an allotted amount of time daily towards those vices. Break up your Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, research, blog reading, TV watching to set times in the day. 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there.
What on earth do you want to be doing?
I realize this question could be a three volume epic in itself but understand that you can do anything, you just can’t do everything.
Deal with it.
I know, you want to be a writer, a DJ, a traveler, a filmmaker, a racecar driver and so on. Actually wait, that’s me talking. You get the point though. We can sit in year-long procrastination bubbles where the reason we can’t get anything done is because we have too many things that we want to do so instead, we do nothing.
Your brain does not excel being bombarded by a flurry of choices.
How do you pick something? There are many ways.
Pick something you enjoy enough.
Pick something you’re good at.
Pick something that gives you a skill.
Pick something you have been putting off.
Pick something that talks to your identity as a person.
Still struggling? Ask yourself this:
What do you better than 90% of people? What is your superpower? How can you use that skill/interest to your benefit and the benefit of those around you?
Stop looking for your passion or your reason for living as if you’re going to find it under a rock.
Do: Pick something you think you’d be willing to put your head down and improve/get better at/accomplish in the next 4 weeks.
Why do you want to be doing this thing?
Without a concrete reason to do something, we tend to put it off. That makes sense, right? You can’t simply out-logic your desires. You have to understand the role emotions play along the way.
We all know how to write more, how to get better at the guitar, or how to start a business. It takes either practice and/or research. The path is laid out for you.
The question is: What is the purpose of you wanting to do whatever it is you want to do? Do you want to play the guitar to write your own music, to start a band, to play popular songs, to use it as a creative outlet or a relaxation technique? Which is it? What part of your identity to you want to blossom through playing the guitar?
This is why we need the 5 Whys Exercise.
The purpose of this exercise is to discover your silo of motivation. Here is a random example someone might come up with:
I want to make some money on the side.
Why? Because I don't want to feel so tied to my day job
Why? Because I'd like to eventually transition to owning my own business
Why? Because owning my own business would give me the opportunity to travel more and to be my own boss which is always something I’ve dreamed of
Why? Travel has shaped who I am and I don’t get to see my family enough as it is. I guess seeing the world and getting involved in its story is a reason I’m so defiant at work and why I don’t always deal well with my boss
Why? Because I tend to value experiences in life more so than the tangible goods in life. I’d love to continue to explore the world and understand and share the interconnectedness of it
See? You have no idea how deep the rabbit hole might go until you dive in. Sure, this is just an example but you can imagine this person asking the following questions after the 5 Whys Exercise:
Is the reason I want to make some extra cash more because I want a business of my own or because of the freedom I assume it would bring me?
Do I really want to start a side business or do I want to find a way to travel more?
Do: Write down your own version of the 5 Whys for the thing you want to work on. If you’re still not sure what to work on, try the 5 Whys for different ideas.
If you don’t know your motivation, you have no chance at powering through.
Situation vs. Disposition
Are you confident that you can actually do the things you say you want to do?
Too often we blame our dissatisfaction - or our inability to get the results we want - on our disposition. We say things like, I can’t do X because:
I’m not smart enough
I’m not fast enough
I’m not motivated like you
My boss is a jerk
I need my day job
I have to pay my loans back
You just don’t understand
I’m just so busy
This is the devil of the Self-Attribution Error. We blame bad things in our lives on the supposed immovable truths instead of looking at it as a situational problem. To better explain, let’s look at an example, assuming you of course know why you want to do the thing the world is not helping you out on.
Typical self-attribution statement: I don’t make enough money at my current job and I have too much debt to pay off to start a business on the side.
This is an easy one for you to imagine whether it’s something that directly pertains to you or not. What this disposition paralysis does is that it puts our reason for inaction solely on our current employer for not paying us more money or on the debt we’ve accrued in college.
You see how convenient this is, don’t you?
Off the top of my head, here are questions I would ask you to make your problem more situational.
Have you asked for a raise recently?
If you are severely underpaid and your boss is a medieval warlord:
Have you updated your resume?
Have you put your resume out there?
Have you gone to networking events?
Have you reached out to a recruiter?
Is there a market for your side business? How do you know?
How much money does this side business take to start? Have you researched it?
Could you create your side business for cheaper than you think?Why can’t you work a day job and just tinker with your passion on the side for now?
What are the things you would need to start this side business in a bootstrap manner?
How long would it take you to save that money?
What could you give up every month to save $100, $200, $300, or $500 more?
Could you provide whatever service you are selling for free to 3 people to garner some testimonials/feedback and to prove to yourself that it works?
I’m not saying that we can solve all of our problems in a matter of seconds, nor am I saying that there are never outside factors that shape our choices, but we can at least be in control of trying to find a workable solution or to continue to dive into the motivation behind our desires.
The self-attribution error magnifies when we are unsure of ourselves or if we don’t really believe in what we’re doing in the first place.
Do: Write down a statement about your life that you’ve been blaming on outside forces. Then rewrite it in a manner that allows you to suggest solutions to your problem that you can control.
If those solutions:
are simply too big to overcome
don’t interest you at all or
you are unwilling to put in the work to make this a reality
then you might need to go back to the drawing board and find out you’re willing to work for.
Read that previous sentence again.
But what if what you’re about to do fails?
I know. This is typically why we don’t ever start. We’re afraid of what others might think of us or what we might think of ourselves. We come up with these outrageous what-ifs in our heads that inevitably leads to the end of life for everyone on earth as we personally suffer a horrific death via public stoning.
Our brains are way too creative. The best way to combat this is to literally write down your apocalypse scenario. If what you were working on failed completely, what would that look like in reality? Write it down. Be specific. Keep all demons and meteors out of this.
Would you lose a couple thousand dollars? Ok, what does that mean? Would you be curled up in a gutter on the side of the street picking out food scraps before they enter the sewage system? Would you die? Some risks do have bigger consequences than others so it is healthy to understand the realities of those risks.
After you’ve painted out your worst case scenario (didn’t lose the weight you wanted to, couldn’t find any clients, didn’t become good enough at guitar to start a band, business fails) immediately write down what you would do to resurrect yourself. How would you bounce back from this setback? What would the steps be?
Good, now you know what you’re up against and now you have a contingency plan for that.
Do: Create your apocalypse scenario as well as your “road back” solution.
Ready to start? Great. If not, repeat the above until you have something you believe in. If you move forward on something that doesn’t speak about your identity in any manner whatsoever, these next tips won’t really do you any good.
The best manner of managing your efforts is via the following method:
Specifically Vague to Specific to Vaguely Specific.
Stay with me.
We paralyze ourselves with planning and preparing. While getting our environment right, boiling water for tea, sharpening our pencils and conducting the right amount of research is important, we all do these things (me included) to a dizzyingly degree that we spend so much time on the pomp of what we are about to do that we don’t ever do anything because we’re unsure what the first step should be.
This is where specifically vague comes in.
First: Specifically Vague
No one’s looking so you don’t have to feel embarrassed. Create whatever game you need to create to simply start. You cannot write your book or compose a piano concerto in one sitting. Focus on mini bursts (specifically), those 5 or 10 minutes of pure creation. Don’t put any rules on what you have to produce in that time (vague). Just start.
Do: Set an alarm for 5 or 10 minutes from now and simply, do whatever it is you do before it goes off. Do this a few times a day.
This could be starting work on your about page, your mission or your vision. This could be strumming chords on your guitar. This could be coming up with sales copy, or a pitch, or calling a potential client. This could be stretching, doing pushups or doing jumping jacks.
Ok, after a day or two of raw, short bursts of output that has produced progress, you need to create some sort of order/structure moving forward. We humans yearn for structure. We had it up to our last day of schooling. We have it in military training. We have it with gym memberships. We have it with laws. We need something to keep us in line.
This is where specific comes in.
Create a distinct week or a month-long goal. What would you like your newly productive energies to be focused towards? Maybe one client, maybe a prototype, maybe it’s an hour walk on the river everyday, maybe it’s finishing reading that book that you can’t seem to finish.
Goals are not really goals unless they are a S.M.A.R.T goals:
Specific - Don’t use words like “more” or “less” in your goal; use hard numbers
Measurable - By when? How much time? How many pounds? How many words?
Actionable - “Be healthier” does not work; make the goal something you have to do
Relative - Make sure the goal is in line with your motivations right now
Timely - Don’t make the goal 10 years in the future. Short term stuff is best
“I want to be healthier this year” is not a S.M.A.R.T goal. Why? Because “being healthier” could be eating one less piece of pizza. That surely can’t be the motivating force behind your goal.
It would have to be something like:
The goal has to be something you can fail at. If you can’t fail, it doesn’t count.
Why does 4-weeks matter? Because habits take about 20-30 days to really start to change behavior. If the habit has not been created in your brain, you have to put the same amount of mental work in every time you attempt it.
Do: Come up with three S.M.A.R.T goals for the next month for you or your business.
Remember, this S.M.A.R.T goal is already assuming the motivation (your whys). It’s great that you want to lose 10lbs in the next 30 days but be sure you understand why you do.
When you live intentionally, things change.
Now that you have your S.M.A.R.T goals set for the month and/or week, how are you going to break that up into even more manageable steps?
If your goal is to have your website done by the end of the month, what things need to happen? You need:
To finalize your copy
To get testimonials
To buy the url
To have the url hosted
Each one of these bullets has tens of to-do’s beneath them. For instance:
Need a designer
Need to set a budget
Need to create an account on www.elance.com
Need to come up with proposal to type on elance.com
Need to post the job on elance.com
Need to review proposals and answer any designer’s questions on elance.com
Need to research websites whose design I like so the designer knows what I’m looking for
Need to set a time frame
Need to have at least some copy done so I can see how site would look
This could go on and on. This multi-layered to-do list isn’t only for websites. Your to-do might be:
but in reality, it should be:
Find the phone number for my dentist
Look at my schedule to see what 2 or 3 days might work
Call dentist on Monday morning at 9AM to schedule appointment
The more specific you can make your to-do list, the easier it is to accomplish.
Your to-do lists can include giving times to your vices (Facebook, tv, gossiping, whatever) or you can also simply use these as rewards for doing the things you’ve set out to do.
Do: Come up with weekly and daily to-dos while keeping your month-long goal in mind.
At the end of each week, allow some tweaks to enter but continue pushing forward!
Maybe going to the gym 5 days a week wasn’t realistic. It doesn’t mean that you should throw in the towel.
You won’t know if the goals you created are going to lead to some remarkable breakthrough or not. But after 4 weeks you will look back and realize that if nothing else, you have progressed forward and you have learned something about yourself. You will have experienced the result of something you didn’t necessarily know the outcome of at the onset.
Different opportunities will come to light. Different realizations will be uncovered. Different motivations will be discovered.
Don’t compare how you feel from one day to the next. You won’t always feel like you’re improving. Accomplishing something isn’t a linear progression of understanding and mastery. Some days are worse than the others. If you derail yourself on day 9 because day 9 wasn’t as good as day 8, then you do yourself a disservice.
The point is to plod on for the 4 weeks because after 4 weeks, the new you is surely an improvement on the previous you.
This is where vaguely specific comes in.
Third: Vaguely Specific
After 4 weeks you have to run a diagnostic check on your efforts. Give yourself time for spontaneity to seep in. Revisit your “whys”. What did you learn? Allow your brain to wander, to organically make connections and to reflect on where your journey has taken you. You have to give yourself time for “human pivots”. These pivots don’t need to be shape-shifting. Chances are, they will only be small nudges to your compass but they are wholly necessary.
We need to continually do this lest we become too focused on a particular goal and forget why we were traveling in this direction in the first place.
Chasing goals is nothing more than a functioning human feedback loop. It’s new input and info that is being constantly processed by the same machine that tweaks the output slightly.
Do: Check in with yourself. Revisit your whys. How have you changed the past 4 weeks? What did you learn?
But for gods sake relax a bit along the way! Hang out with friends. Bounce ideas off colleagues. Don’t become a hermit. When you’re in your own head for too long, that’s when you enter Narnia. Everything becomes make believe and you end up getting hung up on imaginary hurdles or you end up chasing mythological outcomes.
Do: Find time to relax and socialize. It’s more important to idea creation than you think.
Should you or shouldn’t you be continuing something you’re working on?
(A big thanks to Jonathan Fields for laying the basic framework below in this book: Uncertainty)
We’ve all had projects that sit half completed or have changed so many times that we are unsure if it makes sense to continue. In order to decide, you must ask yourself the following questions.
If working on this project is part of your DNA and part of what defines you as a person and you couldn’t imagine your life without it, then maybe it’s something you stick with.
Do you really need to create a social network for travelers to better connect the wandering tribe or could you possibly feel successful being a tour operator, being a travel writer or working for a travel magazine?
You’ve put in some time to get to where you’ve gotten to. You didn’t know exactly where this project was going to take you or how you were going to get there but now that original goal you had set out for seems like it might be attainable. You actually might be able to open this restaurant after all. Is this still something you really want?
As time passes, so do motivations. Don’t just stick with something just because you wanted to do it once. Make sure that the goal is still in line with your motivations and drive.
Maybe you set out to open a restaurant but in the process you’ve realized that you’ve become really good at raising money over the past few years. You can now make a good living being a consultant for other people starting businesses in the restaurant world. Is that good enough to bring you joy or would you need your own restaurant?
Do: Rinse and repeat all the steps above.
In The End
We don’t set goals and try to reach them to “be happier”. Being happier is a byproduct of what happens when you live intentionally. When you progress forward. When you learn something you didn’t even set out to learn. When you put in damn hard work.
No fine work can be done without concentration, self-sacrifice, toil and doubt. - Max Beerbohm
If your goal is to “be happy” that is like trying to "never suffer". Chase fulfillment instead. Fulfillment is loaded with exploration, questions, doubts, answers, tears and happiness. You see, happiness is just a part of a life fulfilled. Living the life you were meant to live doesn’t mean that it is a bed of roses, it means that you challenged yourself and tried to be a better version of yourself everyday.
In the end, a set of tactics or tips are only as good as the motivation they ride upon. What I put in “Week 1” up there might take you a few weeks to figure out and always seems to change a little bit (at least for me it does). “Weeks 2-4” are rinsed and repeated constantly as you learn new information and discover new things about yourself.
Understand that it’s the long play. It’s always the long play. Looking for shortcuts isn’t useful if the lug nuts on your tires are half coming off. Focus on creating structure and incremental growth.
Though the process never ends, what I tried to give here was a 4-week snapshot of “moving forward”, but moving forward with a purpose and a reason.