Launching means giving up control
Launching a product is an amazing, stressful, and proud moment.
The problem is, the second you press the “launch” button (if those existed outside of rocketships) you relinquish most of your control.
This is a point of anxiety for most of us because we wish we could control how many eyeballs see our product, how many sales we make, and how many people share how awesome their purchase of our product was.
I release products a few times a year and it’s always a mix of delight and anxiety. There’s sweating (which requires a shower, which means I can’t check stats and email for 10–15 whole minutes). There’s a lot of hitting refresh, even though my inbox automagically shows new emails without refreshing. There are problems or bugs to squash, and customer service to deal with.
This week, I released a bundle of products, courses, and discounts for my podcast.
There was a massive bug with a service provider that we didn’t find before launch. So, for most of the day I had to sit and wait for orders to come in so I could manually generate the delivery of what that person just purchased, before they could email me to tell me that what they had just purchased didn’t come through. I felt like a pavlovian dog. Stimulus = email receipt, response = quickly go into MailChimp to generate a new email to the purchaser.
I did worry, though, that sales wouldn’t come in at all. No matter how much I believed in what I was selling with my co-host, Jason, and regardless of the “air tight” plan we had to promote the bundle to our lists, to our close circle of friends/Internet people, to our social media accounts — I still worried.
All we could do was make a plan based on the knowledge we had, hit launch, and see if our idea was incredibly awesome or insanely stupid (the two categories all my ideas fall into).
What I learned was the following (when I took a few minutes to breathe after we squashed the email delivery bug).
The ability to control things happens before you launch. You are in charge of how the product works, what it looks like, what features it has or doesn’t have, how you describe it in words or images or videos, and even how you’re going to get the word out about it when it is live.
You can’t know for sure what will work or net the most sales (or whatever metric you track for “success”) until later. Uncertainty sucks. Not just sucks a tiny bit, but basically, sucks a metric ton. You put a lot of work into your product — time, money, effort, skill, basically everything you had in you to give.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen someone else launch their product in a way that worked for them. Hell, it doesn’t matter if you personally launched a product that worked well for you. Releasing a product is releasing control. This is hard to do.
Planning the build of a product, the marketing push behind it, and its reception is only slightly better than rolling a dice. But, you don’t get to hold those dice in your hand and roll them unless you actually launch.
Each time you launch something you learn a lot. This is worth more than any success or failure you might have. Releasing something into the world is trial by fire and the knowledge that comes after it is worth a bit of burning.
The planning before you launch is all you can do to make or break how it goes. But once it’s out there, all you can do is hope the thousands of micro-bets you made with your decisions pay off. Because they’ll either pay off or they won’t. You can set something up for success as best you can, but at launch, you put your best foot forward and hope to all hell the next step isn’t off the side of the Grand Canyon.
Sitting and refreshing your email to see if you made a sale doesn’t magically sell more products. Neither does refreshing stats or stressing out. Every piece of promotion or marketing needs more effort before you implement it than it does stress after you do.
Breathe deeply and be stoked that something you worked so hard to build is now out in the world. Sometimes it won’t work until much later (ask Amanda Hocking or any other author that found success much later than writing their first book). But it will work out or it won’t. Neither defines you or stops you from launching something else later.
In my latest launch I learned that giving up control isn’t always a bad thing. And even if things go wrong, it can still work out well in the end. Worrying and stressing doesn’t solve anything — only moving on, iterating on mistakes, and learning does.
You can’t control when sales of your product happen, all you can do is make it as great as it possibly can be so sales will be more likely to happen (when they do happen).
Focus and Control
Success and failure are intertwined. We can pretty much succeed at anything. Conversely, we can fail at anything, too.
We don’t get to control whether what we do is a success or a failure, either. Most of us would probably pick not failing every time. Past successes, talent built, connections we’ve made … these help, but aren’t guarantees of anything.
Side-note: If success was something we could easily control, the first thing I’d do is create a donut that cures cancer (possibly the best example of a “win-win” ever.)
I’ve tried being a writer, a designer, a software developer, a course creator, a startup starter, and many more things. I’ve had a couple wins, many losses, and sometimes I feel like I’ve got more questions about how to be an adult making a living now, than I did when I was a teenager.
A lot of victories come from not letting screwups become setbacks, rather than having a large amount of expertise or talent. We win not because we don’t screw up, but because we screw up enough to learn that those screwups have lead us the only possible alternative solution: no longer screwing up. And then—harder still—is knowing when a screwup requires perseverance and when it requires throwing in the towel to run headlong in a new direction. Basically, it’s a war of attrition on screwups.
Money spent, time invested, skill acquired, effort exerted… these can help steer us towards succeeding, but they don’t guarantee we’ll get there. We get to control a lot less than we think we do. A lot less.
What we do get to control is where we spend our money, where we focus our time, what skills we acquire, and how we use our efforts. Those things we can control.
So, if we can essentially succeed or fail at anything—why not succeed or fail at something we actually give a shit about?
I may not have a magic 8-ball (or one that actually works with 100% certainty, I think mine’s broken), but I can align what I do with what’s important work to me and let whatever happens, happen. Important work isn’t an absolute either—it’s more of a compass, showing me what direction to travel in so I can do more of it.
It seems better to fail at something that truly matters, rather than succeed at something doesn’t.
Why I’m so negative about positivity
I want to explain why I’m so negative about positivity, but first, try not to think about a white bear for one minute.
Tough, right? Since I mentioned the white bear and then said not to think about it, it’s already in your mind, making it hard to remove. You have to constantly scan your thoughts to make sure you aren’t thinking about the bear, which in turn, makes you think about… the bear.
Ironic Process Theory
Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard, did this experiment (published in 1987) to prove that simply attempting to will ourselves to not think about something has the opposite effect. It’s called the ironic process theory. In the seconds before you started reading this, none of you were thinking about white bears.
When we try to put negative or stressful thoughts out of our minds, the opposite usually happens: we get consumed by them. Our white bears can be things like public speaking, wanting to be happy, tooth aches, landing a client, getting a good grade… whatever.
The ironic process theory is found throughout pop culture too, in some pretty fun ways. In Ghostbusters, at the end, the main “busters” are asked to not think of a form for the coming Gozer monster. But then Ray accidentally thinks of the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man, which is the form Gozer takes. There was an Internet meme called “The Game” where the object is to see who can not think about the game the longest. Even the movie Inception touches on the theory.
Ironic process theory relates to positivity as well and is the main reason I’ve never been able to get behind PMA (positive mental attitude). I always felt like I failed at it because I could never simply will myself to be happy. Those white bears of negativity always crept back in, making me feel worse than when I started. Trying to constantly be happy makes me feel bad about myself, which makes me even more unhappy.
Science and research continues to show that simply “thinking positively” just doesn’t work, but self-help continues to push it as the answer, backed only by parable and, “it works for me!” shouters, who then shout at you about buying their positivity product. There is, after all, a war going on for your mind (not with bears though, with wolves).
“The startling conclusion at which they [psychologists and philosophers] had all arrived, in different ways, was this: that the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable”
Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote
Positivity is a powerful thing in our culture. Gurus make millions from it by selling self-help tomes, which invariably don’t work for people, leading them back to the guru to buy more books, seminars, etc, on the subject. It’s a win-win for the PMA industrial complex though (ok, yes, I made that term up) — when things go wrong, it’s evidence that we need to work at being more positive.
When things go right, it’s evidence that all our positivity is working. This gets dangerous because it shifts the focus from what’s actually happening in our life or changing it, to a forced focus on simply being happy about it.
The more we fixate on positivity and happiness, the further we seem to get from it.
I’d rather focus on negativity and unhappiness. How can I sit with the things that stress me out, make me angry or make me sad? That’s where change happens, because it’s not until I get uncomfortable that change occurs. Sometimes frustration or madness just need to be let out, in productive but non-violent ways, so I can move on or past something.
The other thing about focusing on negativity is that in picturing the worst case scenarios, it establishes a baseline for awful. This sounds, well… awful, but it’s actually good.
Worst case scenarios & embarrassing deaths
What’s the worst that can happen? Getting laughed at while giving a public speech? That’s not worse than giving the same speech naked. And even that’s not worse than walking on stage and dropping dead, in a painful way, while soiling yourself. So if a bad and embarrassing death is the baseline for the worst-case scenario, anything even slightly better than that isn’t so bad, in the grand scheme of things.
Most of the time, even if we think something bad or embarrassing has happened, most other people are too pre-occupied with themselves to even notice.
Shame on the train
Albert Ellis, who is considered the second most influential psychotherapist in history (screw you Carl Rogers!), constructed a “shame attack” exercise, where participants were asked to loudly announce the next stop on a crowded subway car. Just thinking about it would give most of us cold sweats and anxiety. We’d be too embarrassed to even try.
As participants did this (shouting out the name of the next stop), they noticed that people mostly didn’t even notice. Those who did, didn’t seem to care.
If you were to step into a subway car right now, I bet most people would be listening to music, or they’re ignoring conversations and talking from anyone else around them.
Similarly, in the case of the study, the actual result (being ignored) versus the worst case scenario (complete shaming from other people, followed by embarrassing death) were drastically different.
In thinking about the negative and accepting it, we are accepting that we can control very little in our lives. The universe, situations, other people, are all outside of any control we think we might have. We can’t even control ourselves and our thoughts most of the time.
Accepting this supreme lack of control is something that Buddhists have been practicing for centuries, through non-attachment. We can’t attach ourselves to anything, because we can’t control anything. It’s best to accept our circumstances without judgement and move on. This doesn’t have to be passive either – we can make decisions, changes and even take drastic actions, but we can’t attach ourselves to the outcome of those things either. We can work hard and not be attached to the outcomes of our hard work.
It’s like being on a fast moving river, in a boat with oars and a rudder. The best you can do is steer and paddle a little. If the river capsizes you, it’s not trying to make you miserable, it’s just a river. Paddle when you can, steer away from jagged rocks if you can, but that’s about it. The river will take you down-stream whether you want to go there or not, but you can attempt to guide the route.
Don’t worry, be happy
Wegner’s study also found better tools for suppressing our white bears a little, thus steering on the river with some precision. Some examples are:
- Creating a different absorbing distractor instead. If you’ve got a dull ache in your leg, then accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer, your thumb will be taking up most of your thoughts (ouch). (This isn’t to be taken literally – put that hammer down!)
- Cutting back on multi-tasking is another way to avoid those white bears, because when we’re focused on one single thought, instead of a ton of thoughts, it’s easier to not think about our white bears.
- Allow yourself to think about your white bears for a specific amount of time on a specific date. Then, if you do think about it when it’s not scheduled, let yourself know you’ve got that scheduled time to focus on it coming up.
- Exposing ourselves to the thoughts we wish we were avoiding will limit how often they creep back into our minds. By truly spending time with them, thinking about them, figuring them out and accepting them as something we can’t control, we’ll be better able to come to terms with them and then think less about them.
Happiness may come from accepting how little we control in this life, not from focusing on it like a laser-beam. And it no doubt looks more like calm contentment than hyper jubilance all the time. We don’t need to beat ourselves up for having negative thoughts when we’re trying to be positive, we can just sit with them and understand them more, realizing that the worst case scenario rarely happens.
Call me a quitter, just ask Vince Lombardi
There’s the old adage, “a quitter never wins and a winner never quits ”, that tells us to slog on when something’s not working, and tough things out until they do.
(Nerdy fact: The quote comes from a self-help pundit named Napoleon Hill in his book Think and Grow Rich from 1937. For some reason, it’s typically and inaccurately attributed to Vince Lombardi, a football player and coach. Vince probably had a better marketing team.)
I’m basically a serial quitter.
I quit university. I quit my one and only real job. I quit several startups I founded. I quit yoga (then quit quitting yoga). I quit consuming meat, dairy, gluten. I sometimes quit paid web design projects. I’ve even quit living in several cities, packing up in a huff, and flipping the bird from the moving truck on the way out of town (that’s another story).
We don’t want to be known as quitters – as someone who just couldn’t hack it. So quitting is equated with failure.
But like most things in life, it’s not that black and white. For example, we wouldn’t consider ourselves failures if we quit being addicted to heroin. Or quit a job with a verbally abusive boss. Or quit running marathons because the muscles holding our legs together were deteriorating to the point that if we continued, we’d end up paralyzed.
These are extreme examples, but still, they help illustrate that quitting isn’t always the ultimate disgrace. But what if the situation isn’t as extreme?
Most entrepreneurial experts, motivational speakers and pro-sports coaches will tell you that you can’t give up. Giving up is the only sure way to failure. Hell, I’ve said versions of that in books I’ve written, too. Guess I’m quitting that opinion now…
I’ve realized that I love quitting.
There’s a feeling that washes over me the second I either act on quitting or tell myself that I’ve just quit something: it’s absolute relief. Sweet, sweet relief. As if a fog has cleared in my brain and my shoulders can now drop back to their normal position, instead of being stuck all the way up by my ears.
Sunk Cost Bias
But quitting is not easy. Quite the opposite. This is due to something fancy folks (psychologists) call sunk cost bias.
Basically, we all have a greater tendency to keep going with something once we’ve invested in it. When time, money and/or effort are involved, we feel like we need to justify depleting those resources with a favourable outcome by using more of those resources.
We don’t want to feel like we’ve wasted our resources, so we keep going. And by then we’ve invested even more, so we really can’t quit now. Even if it’s not working out or not fulfilling us or achieving the results we really want.
It’s like buying tickets to a fancy play that ends up being boring, but we’ve already spent money on tickets, driven an hour to the theatre and sat through half of it… so we might as well stick it out until the end, wasting even more of our time with it, knowing there’s a negative return on investment happening.
As a result of this bias, we tend to stay the course or even invest additional resources in bad decisions in a futile attempt to make the initial decision seem worthwhile. We can’t quit now, we’ve got skin in the game.
Operating on limited resources
Bringing it back to myself and the people around me (other self employed creatives), sunk costs really hit at a personal level because we’re doing things on our own. We’re the boss, we’re in charge, and it’s on us if things don’t go well.
For almost all of us though, we’ve overcome this bias before. We’ve all quit jobs that had steady pay and some level of certainty. We were dissatisfied or craved more, and decided to quit. We beat bias (let’s high five later)!
But then when we start to work for ourselves and something’s not working, or no longer fulfilling or not achieving the results we’d hoped for, we mostly try and just push through. I know I’m guilty of that.
We soldier on, thinking we’re making the right choice, but really, we aren’t making any choice.
By not quitting, we’re saying no to all other opportunities. We’re saying no to trying different routes or options, or doing something in a new way. We’re saying no to spending our time, money and effort elsewhere.
Uncertainty is scary
We do this because quitting involves uncertainty. At least if we don’t quit, we have a clearer idea of our direction. Saying no means we may not be sure what’s next, which can often seem scarier than simply continuing on with the thing that isn’t working.
But I’ve reached the conclusion that 9 times out of 10, choosing to quit is more important than toughing it out.
Quitting is a direct action that leads to a more thoughtful and efficient way of spending our limited resources. There’s value in choice, in quitting, and in accepting that neither is failure. Quitting is really just opening up to new, possibly unknown, opportunities. Yes, it could lead to everything going to shit, but if it’s already gone to shit, why not quit?
And if you think through your post-quitting steps beforehand, your world won’t necessarily come crashing down instantaneously.
When to throw in the towel
So how do we know when is the right time to quit, since this decision is laced with fear and uncertainty?
Honestly, there’s no way to tell when the right time is – unless you invent a time machine (and then there are certain time travel paradoxes to consider). But when whatever we’re doing isn’t improving even after substantial effort, then that’s a good sign quitting should be at least considered.
We can consider quitting for lots of other good reasons too, because: we’re allowed to change our minds, we’re allowed to say no, and that we aren’t perfect. And really, most of the time, no one but us cares if we quit or not. Our perceived massive failures, especially when it comes to our work, aren’t even blips on other people’s radars.
There are definitely crappy ways to quit something. Grace, especially when others are involved, is important. Burning bridges isn’t a great idea.
We need to re-think our opinion of quitting. Admitting and learning from mistakes can be far more valuable than persistence and perseverance.
Quitting what isn’t working opens up room to work on what might work better.
So if I’d said it, the quote would be more like: “a quitter sometimes wins and a winner sometimes quits.” Just attribute it to Vince Lombardi.
Why your work needs both cake & icing
Today, I decided to research (aka: spend hours on Google) the very sexy subject of… keywords to help with my online promotion ideas.
Specifically, I was trying to figure out which words had the best conversions for signup forms, and what fields ensured maximum engagement.
Things I learned from my hours of ‘research’:
“Free” is a much better performing than “Go”, according to some survey from a research firm I’ve never heard of, from a study done a few years ago. Obviously, I added it to my signup form and refreshed my newsletter subscriber stats.
Yesterday, I spent 4 hours rewriting the sales copy for my new book’s landing page. There wasn’t anything actually wrong with it, but I did it anyway.
Before that, I moved the testimonials around, then moved them again, then moved them again. I know social proof is important for making sales, so I wanted to be sure they were ordered properly, for maximum impact, you know. I published the changes and checked my website stats to see how well the new copy was converting.
And despite the whisper of sarcasm you might be hearing in my tone, none of those things are wrong or bad to do.
But sometimes, I catch myself spending too much time on these kinds of tasks. Tweaking copy, design elements or incentives to promote my mailing list or sell my products. Maybe the logo needs to be bigger or the buy button needs to “pop” more.
Then I realize none of those things actually make what I sell any better at their core.
How we promote, the language and visual cues we use and trends/studies that tell us what nets the best results are obviously useful for keeping us in business. But a lot of us focus more on that stuff than we do on the actual offerings we sell.
Both need to be present. You can’t make something awesome and just hope others find and buy it. Art existing without anyone knowing about it is like a tree falling in an uninhabited forest. Marketing and online promotion ideas definitely need to happen, and I’ve written about this extensively.
But in turn, marketing and online promotion ideas won’t do diddly-squat unless what you’re selling is valuable, useful and needed. No amount of tricks and tactics will help (at least not for an extended period of time). Even paying for promotion won’t sustain sales past small boosts in exposure.
Online articles on popular business websites seem to focus entirely on marketing. I searched and searched and couldn’t find any information, data or even opinion pieces about making your products/services better at their core. All I could find was how to promote them better. This is the state of the Internet right now. Marketing is king/queen and everything else isn’t even worth mentioning.
So why is this what we focus on?
Some of us just love marketing, and that’s cool. It may even be your job. Whether you love it or not, we all market our work because we want more sales.
But it seems like we think that whether our marketing is “good enough” is the lone factor that explains why our sales aren’t higher (regardless of how high or low they are).
For some reason, it seems easier to focus on marketing than it does to focus on what we’re selling. We’re sold a bill of goods that more sales = happiness, validation, fulfillment.
Creating products that are both meaningful to us and valuable to our audiences is scary. Sometimes those products will fail, not because our marketing sucked but because they just weren’t a good fit for their intended audience. Rarely does an amazing product fail when the right people see it, simply because the words on its sale page weren’t optimized properly.
There’s also a bit of perception bias happening here too. Those who market the loudest and then see success from it are the ones loudly talking about the success of their marketing campaigns (and writing all those articles). But those who are focused on making meaningful work and doing well for their rat people just quietly keep on succeeding at their work, and the rest of us are none the wiser.
Marketing is icing. If there’s not a cake underneath, it’d be pretty hard for it stand up in the shape of a cake by itself.
We can’t just focus on making icing. We need to also make the cake.
And if the cake isn’t delicious and moist, no amount of super sweet icing will fix that. And conversely, cake alone is ok, but cake with icing is better.
Obviously, there needs to be a middle ground for those of us who make things we want others to buy.
First, we make the best possible products that speak to the right people in the right ways. Then, we need to tell those people about what we’ve made. But when we get stuck in a loop of endlessly tweaking that second step, we can easily lose focus on how right or valuable the first step truly is.
I know for myself, I need to re-align my focus to products first, and marketing second.
And that starts with not getting sucked into reading 100s of articles on marketing techniques (or re-reading my own).
Now back to focusing on the cake for a little bit.
Attention is a gift you give to your work
I realize that I tend to write a lot about and pay attention to a lot of negative emotions and experiences, like criticism. Fear. Failure.
Horribly un-uplifting (down-lifting isn’t a word for a reason). My words are typically framed in the guise of overcoming and championing, which is my pessimistic way of getting to write what I want with only a glimmer of hope at the end.
So what happens in the absence of negative emotions? I’m not talking about finally overcoming all of those self-confidence trials and tribulations to become an egomaniac (that’s another article altogether). But what happens when you find your “groove?” When you’re sitting at your desk working and the muse actually shows up to whisper in your ear?
Inspiration. Genius. Revelation. Whatever you call it, the world (for all its faults), sometimes reveals works of beautiful art and moments of brilliance. Even thinking about the times when you’ve experienced that magic, in whatever large or small way, can give you goose bumps.
There’s a constant struggle inside all of us to create something inspired and awesome.
The negative moments can make it feel impossible to achieve the open space and attention required for brilliant creation. We tell ourselves we can’t or we’re not good enough and then let all those criticisms, fears and failures stream in. They can consume us. But then sometimes they don’t. Their defences are not without cracks, and sometimes we see a light shining through and run screaming toward it with all our might, like a streaker across a football field.
How do we find our own genius? Why does it happen sometimes and not in other moments? Can the secret be bottled and sold as a travelling sideshow tonic? If so, sign me up for ALL THE BOTTLES.
I may not know how to create amazing work with every try (no one does), but I sure as hell know what it feels like, if briefly. There are pieces of writing, music and design I’ve done that I don’t hate. Fleeting, proud moments. Those moments of inspiration make me feel like I’m myself (which shouldn’t seem as foreign as it does). It feels like I’ve grasped my true voice and held onto it with all my strength, if only for a second. It feels a little frantic, too, as if the muse is always trying to get away.
But in those inspiring moments, I feel utterly present – so present that if I took even a microsecond to think about the feeling, I’d lose it. It’s the sort of presence that holds no room for subconscious worries or multi-tasking thoughts.
In genius there is only space to do whatever the genius is channeling. A phone call, calendar notification or a stray thought about your Twitter feed grinds everything to a halt. Since the revelation is fleeting, like it has other places to be, the second you weaken your grip or lose the strength to hold on, it moves on – until someone else grabs hold tightly.
Here’s the most interesting part: the second before it hits, right as the muse draws in her breath to whisper in your ear, is when all those negative thoughts and ideas reach their pinnacle. It’s the absolute worst second of your life and you’re at your most fearful. You might feel okay about writing until you sit at a keyboard and stare at a blank screen. You might feel like you can write a great song until you pick up that guitar and think about the first chord. Then you panic. Breathe more rapidly. You probably grab your phone and refresh Facebook instead of leaning towards the fear.
This is the make or break moment – and the rub is, even if you start and become a conduit for inspiration in that second, nothing is guaranteed. You can start working and the genius might not arrive. But it’s a numbers game, and your odds of doing great work increase only when you do more work. Keep at it and you may do great, inspired work. But if, in that moment, you go the easy path, the path of least resistance, the path that leads back to the same, tired place, then you missed your chance. You’re back to staring at online cat or celebrity photos, and the possibility of doing great work returns to zero. It goes back to being a pipe dream, something for future attempts… for tomorrow.
Repeatedly summoning the courage or resolution to work can wear down your resistance. If you do something every day, routinely, your fears can diminish – not totally, not even majorly, but enough to notice. Those fears get tired of being ignored. They grow weary and maybe even bored. That’s why it’s typically easier to write the middle of the book than the first page, or to finish that last part of a painting than the initial brush stroke.
Attention is a gift you give to your work. The more attention you devote to something, the less space fear can occupy.
Attention isn’t just about avoiding your neuroses (always a good thing); it means you’re absolutely present and ready for your genius. It means you can get down to work and if the muse is feeling talkative, the work might turn out brilliantly.
Genius might be trying to reach you right now. Are you listening, or are you busy refreshing Twitter?
I’m no productivity expert or life hacks aficionado, but I get asked about it a lot. There are four things I do to get as much as possible done.
Focus on one thing at a time
I suck at multi-tasking. Not just doing more than one thing at a time, but being interrupted when doing one task by something else. This comes mostly in the form of notifications on your computer or phone. Someone liked your photo on Instagram? Someone @’ed you on Twitter? A file was uploaded to Dropbox? New email?!
Every time something bings, beeps or flashes, you’re no longer 100% focused on what you were doing. That’s why I’ve turned all notifications off on all my devices, except phone calls (thankfully, those rarely happen).
I’ve managed to not miss anything or forget anything in the 2 years since I’ve killed all notifications. Instead, I use the program I’m using at any given time, and when I’m done, I move onto something else. So I only see Twitter when I log into Twitter. I only see my inbox when I open up my email program.
Group similar tasks
This is similar to the singular focus idea above, but it’s been so significant for me that I think it deserves its own point.
The longer you can focus on a single type of task, the faster you can get it done. So grouping all the writing I have to do into a morning means I can write 5–6 articles in one fell swoop. Perfect. Or I’ll spend a whole day programming websites for clients, which gets my brain into “code mode”.
Similar tasks also require similar software. So my mind gets used to Photoshop if I spend a day working the design of a few client websites. Or my fingers remember all the hotkeys more in my writing program if I do all of my weekly writing tasks at the same time.
Focus on the present
Paying attention to the work at hand instead of daydreaming about what will come of that work is especially handy for entrepreneurs and creative professionals. Too often, we get sucked into imagining that what we’re working on will become the next big thing or go viral or make us millions. But in reality, we can’t know that for sure and can’t achieve those things without doing the work at hand first.
The more attention I pay to what I’m working on, the faster (and better) it gets done.
Come to terms with not being a robot
Too many productivity tips don’t take this into account: we need to sleep, eat, take breaks and move. As humans, our attention spans need variety and we can’t always control our thoughts or motivations.
It might seem counterproductive, but I’m much more likely to get my work done quickly (and well), if I take breaks away from my desk.
Nature walks, 5 minutes of stretching, sitting on the porch and drinking coffee (instead of slurping it while I read/write online) all contribute to being able to focus better when I go back to work.
This is also why I try to stay ahead of my schedule. Because sometimes my brain just isn’t working at full capacity and my time is better spent resting than working. So I set deadlines I can easily meet with some wiggle room instead of giving myself just enough time to get things done. That way, if I need a break, I can take it without breaking promises.
No special programs, secret life hacks or any fancy software for me. I just know I need to give my brain focus, space and rest.
When I started working for myself I was laser-focused on making one million dollars a year. If I could just hit that target, my business would be a “success”. Yet somehow I ended up from a very specific goal to having absolutely no goals.
For some, this would be a great goal, but for me, I quickly realized that I wasn’t interested in doing what it would take to reach it.
With that goal in mind I worked in a way that didn’t work for me. I took on every project, and some weren’t a good fit or the right type of clients. I worked every second of every day, and hated it because life is more than sitting at a computer. So before the first year was up, I decided it was a shitty goal for me to have.
Once I abandoned my million-dollar goal, I realized I didn’t have a replacement strategy to measure the success of my business up against. I never had a business plan either, in fact, I didn’t even know what an actual business plan entailed. I still don’t.
At first, I thought I could fix my sudden lack of direction by finding better goals. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of anything that made sense. Did I want 100 employees? Definitely not. I’ve never wanted to manage people. Did I want investors and growth? No, because that would make me feel like I was working for someone else. Did I want to make a name for myself in the design industry? Nope, I’d rather just do my work and share it with anyone who’s interested, designers or not.
So, I decided not to have any goals. Not a single one. Not then, not now. I still avoid them as much as possible, almost as much as I resist owning a suit and tie.
This might seem like a total slacker mentality, a lack of goals isn’t the same as lack of passion or drive.
Where I lack in goals, I hold true to my values and let them guide my business. My focus isn’t on reaching a specific target – it’s on sticking to my values.
For me, goals are binding and limiting.
They lead you in a single direction with a single focus. You have to pick path A instead of path B, because path A leads you to the goal in a shorter distance. Once you’re pointed at a goal, you don’t have much choice about the path you take. That’s why I took on every project that came my way when I wanted to make a million dollars a year.
Now, I let my values guide me, because they provide more freedom of choice. If I value putting meaningful work out into the world and helping others, there are literally millions of ways to make that happen. I can pick the path I want and stay true to those values. They’re vague enough not to impose limits, but clear enough to guide me in the right direction.
Letting values guide my work is freeing. It means that if given the opportunity, I can always choose freedom over money. Obviously this can’t always be the case, since we don’t live in a perfect world, with tiny little helper elves doing all the dirty work (and baking cookies). This is why work is called “work” and not “super happy fun time.”
Bills need paying, clients can be stressful and sometimes the small tasks seem meaningless if we lose track of the bigger picture. But as long as our values primarily take the lead, it’s okay.
Being guided by values also enables me to try and fail with impunity. If I try to reach a goal and don’t achieve it, I’ve failed to reach that goal. If I stay true to my values and fail, I’ve still upheld my beliefs. I just need to try something else, try it in a different way, or try again, at a later time. Either way, I haven’t compromised my values. I just need to change things up and pick a different path, otherwise I’ll get stuck in an endless loop, continually failing to reach a goal.
You may need goals as motivation, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I know that goal-setting is a powerful and useful tool for a lot of people.
Just ensure that the reasoning behind the goal lines up with what you value most. Otherwise, it’ll surely and quickly join the pile of abandoned new years resolutions within a few weeks.
Do you want to know the difference between the folks who are constantly creating new things, commit to work, selling their ideas as products and making money doing what they want to be doing… and everyone else?
It’s easy—they put in the work required to make those things happen. They show up and work. Even (or especially) if they don’t feel like it or want to.
Making something part of your daily routine is a huge step towards shipping what you create. Most writers I know commit to writing 500-1000 words a day. Every day. Even when they’re busy/tired/uninspired. They make a promise to themselves to put the work in.
What’s the point of doing that? You can train yourself to be better at “being creative on-demand”. And this is truly a wonderful thing. It makes it easier and faster to create more of what you enjoy creating.
It doesn’t mean every time you sit down to work at your craft you magically shoot rainbows and unicorns out your ass, but it does mean that the more hours you put in, the more likely you are to get two things. The first is the more work you put into something, the more likely you are to get better at it. The second is the more time you put into something, the closer you’ll get to completing it.
Obviously there are limitations to this. You can’t work 24/7 at something and expect the result to be great. Our bodies weren’t meant to run continuously—they require sleep, food, downtime and even fun. Creative batteries need recharging. But committing to working at something every single day is the best and simplest way to get from idea to launch.
Practice makes closer
Perfection is a myth, so practice can never make perfect. In fact, all that striving for perfection can actually lead you away from launching anything. The path to perfection makes it almost impossible to get your work out the door, because nothing will ever be perfect. Focus instead on great enough to launch and perfect enough for your audience to enjoy.
The book won’t get finished if you’re focused on making every sentence a timeless quotation for the masses. The painting won’t get done if every square inch needs to be Louvre-worthy. Your work can be great enough.
Great enough means you’ve sweated out every bit of inspiration possible. Great enough means you’ve left it all on the stage. Great enough means you can push your work to the finish line.
Great enough isn’t settling; it’s launching.
So practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes closer. Every time you work at what you do, you’re one step closer to the next step. A whole bunch of these steps add up to launching.
Sometimes practice leads to failure and you have to abandon the work. In that case, try new variables or even try new work. Only more practice can lead you closer to success.