I bought the original iPhone the summer it came out. That was 8 years ago, and this internet-connected pocket computer has been within arms reach ever since. It’s awesome because I can do so much from just about anywhere at any time. But it’s terrible for the very same reason.
Ask someone what their biggest challenge is related to focus, and they’ll probably tell you it has to do with distractions: taps on the shoulder, loud noises from the other side of the office, incessant pinging and buzzing of our phones, computers, tablets, and (now) watches.
There are all sorts of tips and tricks for how to do productivity. But few of them touches on what I believe to be the greater challenge of our lives: Doing our best creative work.
The biggest challenge we face related to focus is not distractions, but rather it is our lack of clarity.
As Elle Luna wrote about so beautifully in her book, many of us have been told what we should be doing, but few of us know deep in our hear what it is we must do.
Defining Meaningful Productivity
Productivity tends to be measured by how well we use our task management system, how organized our calendar app is, how fast we can blaze through a pile of emails, and how fluidly we flow from one meeting to the next. But in truth, these standards are not measuring our productivity, but rather how efficient we are at administrative tasks.
Is the stay-at-home dad who spends most of his day changing diapers and cleaning up messes any less “productive” than his wife who is the corporate CEO?
The metrics we most frequently use to measure productivity have turned against us. They skew towards rewarding effective busywork while giving little dignity to meaningful work.
What if we started defining productivity differently? Let’s put less focus on our party tricks of balancing many plates at once and clearing our inboxes, and more focus on consistently giving our time and attention to the things which are most important.
The challenge of meaningful productivity is two-fold:
1) For one, we need the honesty and clarity to know what is truly important to us. As Elle Luna would say, what is your “Must”?
Alas, honesty and clarity are not microwaveable. Defining meaningful productivity — having a plumb line for doing our best creative work — requires time. Time away from all the noise and time to think and to ask ourselves challenging questions about our roles in life, our values, our dreams, and more.
Our life’s vision and values are at the very foundation of meaningful productivity. Clarity of understanding about who we are and who we want to be in our character, values, vocation, and relationships is all paramount to meaningful productivity.
I have a 40-day online course that walks you through this. It’s called The Power of a Focused Life.
2) Secondly, we need a strong bias toward action that keeps us on track to doing our best creative work day in and day out. Resistance to doing work that matters will come from within and without.
I want to take the rest of this article to outline a few of the most important things I’ve found for developing our bias toward action.
Four years ago I quit my job to blog for a living.
One of the things I feared most was that I’d run out of things to write about. That was four years ago and I haven’t run out of words yet. But what I didn’t anticipate was just how easy it would be for a full-time writer to never actually write.
About six months ago, as the holiday season was winding down and the new year was upon us, I realized something about my morning work routine: I was spending the best part of my day checking inboxes and analytics.
Every day when I came downstairs to my office to work, I would sit down at my desk, coffee in hand, and my first instinct was to check all the inboxes. I told myself these things were important and that it was okay to check them right away if I wanted to. Yet the process of checking all these inboxes and statistics usually took an hour or more and often devolved into unproductive busywork or mindless surfing.
This was a waste of the best part of my day. Once I took a moment to think about it, I realized that this was not how I wanted to spend the first hours of my work day. The best hours of my work day.
Therefore, I changed my morning habits. I made a commitment to write for 30 minutes first thing in the morning no matter what.
For the first several days, my new routine was a serious mental workout. My mind rebelled — I literally went into inbox withdrawal. I wanted to check the inboxes and the stats. But I would keep my commitment to write for 30 minutes no matter what.
It took about a week before I began to get into the groove. When I’d walk into my office I knew that the first thing I was going to do was write. It didn’t matter if I wanted to or not. I was committed to write for at least half an hour.
Before I made this habit change, I was typically writing 500 words a day. But I didn’t have an exact time for when I’d do my writing, nor did I have a clear idea for what I’d be writing about. It was hit or miss, honestly. Some days I didn’t write at all. And I certainly wasn’t making daily, iterative progress on my long-term writing goals.
In the first month I made this change, I wrote over 40,000 words. And I’ve continued to write and make meaningful progress for the past 4 months: writing over 125,000 words in that time.
Needless to say, I’m glad I decided to change my morning habits. And because those 30 minutes almost always lead to me getting in the zone, I now write for 2 to 3 hours most mornings.
As someone who has been writing for a living for a few years now, the worst assumption I could make would be that I have it all together. To settle into complacency with the feeling that I have it all worked out and that I never have to change my lifestyle, habits, or work routines.
They say that after the age of 30 you begin to reject new technology. The things that existed or were invented before you turned 30 you accept and adapt into your life. But the things invented after you turn 30 you reject as being crazy or evil or who knows what.
If people do that with technology how much more so with lifestyle habits and practices and workflows?
But workflows, habits, and routines can degrade over time. Our lives change, our priorities change, etc. And so how we spend our time and energy also needs to be evaluated.
We never just “get it”. It’s something we always have to be working on, reassessing, and re-evaluating. But it’s worth the work. If we make a small change that brings even the slightest increase to our productivity and creativity, the returns we’ll get over the course of our lives are immeasurable.
Show Up Every Day
If meaningful productivity is about consistently doing the things that matter, how then do we set ourselves up for that consistency?
The answer is two-fold: (1) Make doing the most important work part of your routine; and (2) celebrate your daily progress.
Make Doing the Most Important Work Part of Your Routine
Having a set time and place, and even the same background music playing for when I write, has made a profound impact on my ability to show up every day and do the most important work. When you look at it from the outside, it sounds silly or boring. But in practice it’s a bit cathartic, and it’s the time of my day I most look forward to. When I know when and where I’ll be writing, and what I’ll be writing about, I can’t wait to get to work.
Having this routine in place does more than just create the space for me to do my most important work. It also reserves my willpower and creative energy for that which matters most: doing the actual work.
When I start writing in the morning, I already know what I’m going to write about (because I choose each day’s writing assignment the day before). I also already know how long I’m going to write for (at least 30 minutes), and that I’m not going to do anything else.
There is literally nothing for me to think about other than moving the big blue blinking cursor from left to right.
The hardest part of turning your most important work into part of your routine will be at the beginning. As you implement a new daily habit, the most energy required is at the outset. Jerry Seinfeld recommends a big calendar where you mark off each day when you’ve done your most important task: “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. But that’s the minimum. For most people it is more like 66 days — about two months. But, once you’ve done something for two months then the discipline required to keep doing it is greatly reduced.
So, for example, writing 1,000 words every day can be extremely challenging for the first week. Then a bit less challenging the week after. Until, after about 8 weeks, you’re practically on autopilot. If you can muster the discipline and diligence to stick with it for a couple of months, then pretty soon the routine of it takes over.
Choose to do something every day until eventually it chooses you back.
Celebrate Your Progress
At the end of every day, I open up my Day One journal and write down the highlights of what I accomplished that day. It usually includes the topic I wrote about, and how many words I put down, any meaningful connections or conversations I had, and any other miscellaneous thoughts.
This is something Ben Franklin would do. At the end of each day he would ask himself, “What good have I done today?”
By recognizing and rewarding our small wins each day, it builds up an intrinsic motivation that makes me want to keep doing the important work.
Celebrating progress strengthens our emotional and motivated state. Which means we are happier and more motivated at work and are therefore more likely to be productive and creative. It keeps the cycle going.
We may know what our most important work is. And we may know that we should be spending time on it every day. But oftentimes that head knowledge is not heart knowledge. We don’t feel the value in what we’re doing.
When we feel like cogs in a machine (even cogs who know they’re doing something they think is important) then we slowly lose our desire to be productive and efficient. We don’t care about coming up with creative solutions or fresh ideas. We just do what’s required of us in order to get our paycheck so we can go home to our television and unwind.
By cataloging and celebrating our small wins each day then we can be reminded that we are making meaningful progress. And, in truth, it’s the small wins which all add up to actually completing the big projects and big goals.
Inbox Addiction (“The Just Checks”)
Here’s how I define Inbox Addiction: an urge to continuously check one’s news feeds, social feeds, and message inboxes despite undesirable and even negative consequences or a desire to stop.
Inbox addiction poses a serious threat to doing our best creative work and staying on focus with our essential tasks. The addiction of checking and refreshing our inboxes, timelines, and stats robs us of our ability to focus as well as our ability to do substantial, meaningful work. It’s a drain on our time as well as a drain on our creative energy.
Inbox Addiction amplifies the challenges we are already facing regarding focus. It is, at best, like a rock in our shoe. Though it will not stop us from moving forward altogether, it will severely slow our pace and be constantly distracting us from the race we are running.
Just like with any other addiction, you quit by stopping. But it helps to have an alternative to turn to. For me, when I’m in line at the store or have a moment of down time, instead of habitually checking Twitter or email or Instagram, I try to scroll through my Day One timeline or send an encouraging text message to a friend.
In his book, First Things First, Stephen Covey defines Urgency Addiction as this:
- Urgency addiction is a self-destructive behavior that temporarily fills the void created by unmet needs. And instead of meeting these needs, the tools and approaches of time management often feed the addiction. They keep us focused on daily prioritization of the urgent. […]
- It’s important to realize that urgency itself is not the problem. The problem is that when urgency is the *dominant factor* in our lives, importance isn’t.
The reason urgency addiction robs us of doing our most important work is because essential work is often mundane.
One reason we love to give our energy and attention to doing what is urgent is because it feels exciting. There is a natural momentum and adrenaline that accompanies things which are urgent.
Contrast that against doing what is essential.
Back to the writing example: suppose you are writing a book. The essential work is that you must put words down. And yet, that is so often the very task we neglect and avoid. Because it’s difficult, boring, tedious, mundane. We instead let our days get filled with many other more pressing (“urgent”) matters, and never get to the foundational and important work of writing.
When something is essential, it is absolutely necessary. Essential is the very definition of what’s truly important.
Urgent is relative, but essential is absolute. While urgency is usually defined by external factors, essentialness is fundamentally important to a project or goal, regardless of external factors.
Urgency in and of itself is not a problem. The problem is when we find ourselves craving projects, work environments, and scenarios where there is a fire to put out. And thus we never have the time to do the important task which doesn’t have to be done today.
How often do you feel frustrated at the end of the day because your most important tasks are still not done? How often do you blame the rush and press of external things for your failure to do the work you know to be most important? How often do you find yourself giving up quality time with important people so that you can finish a project or respond to a crisis?
To let our lives be taken over by what is only urgent is to live like a child — caring only about what seems important right now with no regard for the future and without even knowing what is actually important today.
So long as our attention is focused on the urgent and the incoming, we won’t be able to do our best work. We won’t make any meaningful progress toward our goals because we will be dealing only with the tasks and situations which are urgent while we neglect the ones which are essential.
Overcoming Procrastination and Finding Joy in the Journey
The newness of a project brings an energy that motivates us to get started. And the urgency of a deadline brings an energy that motivates us to finish. But what about in-between?
The vast majority of our life is lived in that “in-between state” where a project is no longer new and yet the end is still far off. How do we keep on doing the work in-between starting something new and finishing it?
How do we maintain our intrinsic motivation, beat procrastination, and consistently give our attention to what’s important?
In a big part it’s what we talked about already: making it part of your routine to do your best creative work every day (and overcoming the distractions and challenges that get in the way).
The other part is this: finding joy in the journey.
The best musicians in the world practice every single day. For hours a day. And they don’t just practice their favorite songs and coolest licks — they practice the techniques and scales and fills that they’re bad at.
I studied martial arts for over a decade, and we did the same stretches and basic moves at the start of every class every time. Even after I received my black belt, we were still practicing basic front stance and middle punch.
Something the best musicians, the martial artists, and writers all have in common is more than just commitment and fortitude. More than just routine. They have a joy in the journey.
And while the musician, martial artist, and writer all have goals they’re working toward, the goal is not the primary motivation. When we delight in the journey, then the daily grind becomes what we get to do. Not something we have to do.
When we’re doing work that matters there is no finally moment. The tension and the difficulty never go away. The distractions and excuses will always be around. Hard work will always be hard work. The goal is not to eliminate the tension but to thrive in the midst of it.
The Fight to Stay Creative
For me, doing my best creative work is an amalgamation of both doing work that matters and also taking joy in the journey.
- Meaningful work — work that matters — is something that I have to do. It is my “Must.” I am compelled to do it. If it doesn’t work out, if nobody likes it, if I never make a dollar, that’s unfortunate. But I still had to do it.
Meaningful work is also something which I hope will make the lives of other people better. Either by entertaining them, educating them, or helping them in their journey.
- Having joy in the journey is just that. Having fun. Pursuing “mastery”. Being present in the moment. Getting in the zone. Creating without inhibition. Trusting your gut.
Put these two together, and boom. You’ve got a recipe for your best creative work; a recipe for meaningful productivity.
When you define meaningful productivity like this, it changes everything. Suddenly it’s less about the quality of art you produce and it’s more about being valuable, meaningful, and honest in everything you touch. Meaningful productivity can and should be integrated into every area of life: work, family, rest, personal life, etc.
And therefore, meaningful productivity becomes a choice. I try to make that choice when I’m at my keyboard, when I’m on a date with my wife, when I have half an hour of quiet alone time, or when I’m playing catch in the back yard with my two boys. In those moments, it’s not about the context, rather it’s about choosing to be honest, true, vulnerable, and personal.