Oh email, where do I even start? I’ve just spent the last 45 minutes clearing out and responding to my most recent emails and I’m still not even close to the coveted inbox zero I keep hearing about (is this a real thing?). Email is something that pretty much everyone with internet access is required to have and largely acts as the main one-to-one communication source online. But, constantly checking for new emails was one of the original digital Twitches—wanting to find something new for a fresh burst of excitement. [Read more…]
Over the last two and a half months, I’ve been heads down working on wrapping up the writing of my first book. The funny thing about writing a book about the Twitch, is that I got a lot of practice breaking it. Especially during the final few months, I’ve learned exactly what is necessary to finish a project of this size—and it was more than I expected.
As we all know, writing a book is super easy and most of the time, I looked exactly like the above picture while writing. Of course, all of that is a lie and now I’m going to actually talk about what I learned during this super intense process.
I’ve been writing about minimalism, habits, and creativity as an intentional living framework for a few years now. Up to this point, I had applied it on smaller, short-term projects like blog posts and videos, the removal of clutter from our home, and practice in taking daily action in health–but never to something that required daily creative output for months on end.
At this point, I’m confident in continuing forward with those three topics as the focus for Break the Twitch and my work, which is great. It totally works. Happy to report that.
In addition to doubling down on that framework, I’ve had some major takeaways throughout the book writing process, many of which ended up in the book itself. In the next month or so I’ll be recording the audiobook version and then putting the book up for pre-order. There will be a fun bonus for those that preorder the book, so feel free to sign up below to get notified when that goes live.With that in mind, I’ll be writing about all of these in detail in the coming months, but here are some of the broad strokes of what I learned throughout the writing process. As usual, if you’re more of a video person feel free to watch below, otherwise, onward!
Life, My Friends, Is Process
Seriously, 99% of our life is simply the process and ongoings of the things we do. The split moment that we finish is a fraction of the time we have on this earth. Through the highs and lows of writing this book, I learned that the process is just as important as the end result.
In fact, I believe that there is often more to be gained from the process of creating than what we actually create. We learn, we change, and become different people as the result of doing something and that creates more of a positive impact than having the final result by itself.
The Goal Is Creative Flow
My peak writing and creative output was attained when I entered a “flow state”, so my goal became to enter that state as frequently as possible.
I’ve been writing nearly everyday since the end of December 2016–in fact, I’ve written just over 95,000 words in 2017 as of the publishing of this article. I know this because my daily writing accountability partner, Mark Mazur, is about 18,000 words ahead of me right now (according to our spreadsheet).
Most of the words I’ve written haven’t landed in a public space, but exist in drafts and notebooks possibly never to see the light of day. Despite writing six days per week for the last eight months, I only really found a groove with it in the last three or so. The reason for that, is that I was able to consistently find a creative flow in my writing once I created the right environment for that.
Creative flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
I know this to be true: the days where I’d enter a creative flow state, I would write 2,000 or more words without much effort, nor being distracted by much at all. While my daily writing goal was just 500 words, flow days blew past that requirement with ease.
In addition to the higher output, the content was better, too. My editor Chantel mentioned that those chapters were consistently better than the others. So not only was the output much more prolific in this state, but the quality of writing was better, too.
Creative Flow Requires Focus
The funny thing about creative flow, is that once you’re in it, it’s pretty easy to stay in it. It’s that feeling of being in the zone and probably losing track of time. While this is an ideal working state, the challenge is that in order to attain a creative flow state, you need to focus long enough to get there.
There is a very real “ramping up” period where if I checked social media, thought of a funny tweet and went ahead and tweeted it out, or checked my email whenever I thought of it, I never really got into the flow.
Achieving a flow state required focusing heavily on the task at hand, in this case writing, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stared at a completely blank page and felt like I had nothing to say, or how many times I’ve opened the 20,000 word Google Doc that holds my book and thought, “I wonder if any new emails have come in yet?” (I’d just checked 4 minutes ago).
That discomfort is actually a really important part of the flow process–it’s the first step in attaining it.
To get there, we have to be able to focus on what’s in front of us, through the discomfort and through the twitches that aim to temporarily solve it. The discomfort is the weight of the creative boulder we’re pushing up a hill, and it’s way easier to pick a flower than it is to keep pushing that boulder up.
Boulder, Meet Hill
Imagine pushing a boulder up a hill. At the top of this hill, is your flow state–the point where the giant rock will go over the peak and then start rolling down the other side with little effort on your part. That moment you feel it take off down the hill is your tipping point, but it won’t happen until you get the boulder up there under your own effort first. Now imagine as well that along this upward hill path are fields of both beautiful wildflowers and invasive weeds.
As you begin pushing the boulder up the hill, you can’t help but notice a weed right next to the path. Because you’re just starting, you lean over to pull the weed out of the ground which lets the boulder roll a few feet backwards to where you started.
After some effort, you’re a little ways further up the hill and you see a group of lovely wildflowers and they’re just so lovely that you can’t help but pick a few of them because they’d look incredible on your dining room table. After collecting a few, you look back to see the boulder slowly rolling back to just in front of your starting position. Oops.
Focus Requires Minimal Distractions (duh?)
Once you get into a flow state, distractions become much less tempting–it’s much easier to stay there than get there. But, it is the intentional removal of distractions that allows us to get there in the first place. In the context of the above metaphor, it means a few different options: finding a path with boring grass instead of all those flowers and weeds, planning ahead and spending a few hours clearing the way before you set out to push your boulder up, or putting some blinders on so you can focus on what’s in front of you and nothing else.
Take A Different Path. While writing the book, this method looked a lot like going to coworking spaces, coffee shops, and getting the heck out of our house. Our dog Rocky is truly a blessing in our lives, but being at home with him while I’m trying to write is not a blessing to my productivity. Once I found a path that started working really well, going to Dogwood Coffee in my neighborhood, I kept doing that over and over again. If I wasn’t feeling it, I’d try somewhere else that day–don’t be afraid to change it up.
Clear The Way. In practice, this looked like having a notebook next to my laptop where I wrote down any urgent thought or impulse I had. It removed the idea from my brain while ensuring I wouldn’t forget it while allowing me to maintain most of my focus instead of changing applications or otherwise.
The metaphor breaks down a little bit with that example, but I’m running with it. More applicable is how I’d clear out my email inboxes, check all my social media, and make sure that Rocky was well walked and fed before digging into writing. Our brains all work differently, but for me it was helpful to clear the path in that way before getting started on the big work. For some, the opposite may be true.
Wear Blinders. This ended up being one of the most effective strategies I used to finish writing the book. In the final months, I deleted all social media and email apps from my phone and blocked all social media sites with a Chrome browser extension called BlockSite. I set it up so that during my typical writing hours, between 10am and 5pm, all the sites that could possibly distract me were completely blocked from my access.
It might seem like overdoing it, but knowing that I couldn’t check even if I wanted to made it that much easier to not even think about it at all. I found that even if I was consciously not using social media, I still thought about it and had to use more discipline than necessary to decidedly not go to it. Removing the option altogether completely eliminated issue, and I could absolutely feel the difference in my brain.
What this taught me is that the more difficult or intimidating the project is, the more we have to take actions to give ourselves the opportunity to do our best work on it.
Potential Distractions Are Just As Bad
In researching for my book, I came across a study which indicates that even having our smartphones visible reduces our cognitive capacity for other tasks. So, even if you’ve been very diligent to turn off notifications, having your phone out is a reminder of the possibility that there is something there waiting for you.
Every time you wonder if a new email came in, how many likes your last Instagram post got, or whatever else, you’re admiring a weed on the hill.
When you completely block the possibility of being able to check, those thoughts are quickly extinguished with little effort. If your phone is on airplane mode and put away in your bag, you’re less likely to suffer the consequences of the above study. It might feel silly or childish to put these very rigid structures around daily life, but the proof is in the pudding-it works. Obviously, we can’t do this with all possible “distractions” in our lives, but there are quite a few that we can control in this way.
Distractions Aren’t Just “Twitches”
In the case of writing my book, I had a lot of distractions that were getting in the way–but many of those distractions weren’t actually “bad” things. They were just other things. In the early spring, I launched a film production company and started working with video clients. All of a sudden, I had shooting dates and editing deadlines that came along with that. I was grateful to receive opportunities to speak, collaborate, and create some really cool stuff. By mid-year, I was stressed out, overwhelmed, and not working on the book.
You may or may not have noticed that I created very few blog posts and videos over the last two months as well. I realized that I needed to let go of those things while I doubled down to focus on the completion of the book.
I found myself getting into a, “Well, I really should write a blog post” –> “But, actually I should be working on the book” –> Going back and forth and then not being able to focus on either, causing guilt for both things. When I decided to just consciously let go of blog posts and videos for a while, I was able to put my full attention into the book without feeling like I was falling behind on something else.
When I hit that stressed out point mid-year, I had about seven different projects going on at the same time. It was just too much for me and despite the fact that I felt I should be able to handle it all, I couldn’t. So I had to push really hard to wrap up some projects I already had, and then say, “No” to opportunities where I would have otherwise said, “Yes”. Through this I learned that distractions aren’t always bad things–sometimes they’re great things that simply need to be a lower priority than what’s already on the table.
We Are Humans, Not Machines. Yet.
We simply cannot expect the same output under the same conditions all the time. Creativity is messy, inconsistent, and difficult—but that’s what makes it worth doing. We change and adapt to our environment and sometimes need to shake things up. Even after a long series of productive writing days, I’d get burned out and not feel like anything good was coming out of me. In the moment, I felt hopeless.
I found that it’s so incredibly important to be kind to ourselves in this circumstance. If one day things aren’t going your way, it doesn’t mean you’re suddenly a terrible writer, have no good ideas, and should probably give up. Running into these days every once in awhile is a blessing–we can embrace that it’s a down day and be better off for it. Otherwise, the guilt makes it that much harder to get started again the next day.
##Removing Excess Is Better Than Organizing It
One of the core principles of minimalism truly shone through during the editing process of this book. I found myself continually trying to restructure paragraphs and sentences to make them sound better, try to make them fit into the overall structure, and couldn’t ever get it quite right. Until I deleted it.
When we have excess, things we don’t need, extraneous information, it is best managed by simply removing it. There is no sense trying to organize something that shouldn’t be there in the first place. This applies to home, manuscript, relationships, and more.
So In The End, It Works
What I’m happy to report is that, in fact, consciously minimizing distractions and practicing a daily writing habit to create consistently really works. About 20,000 words later I’m a few days away from having written my first book–to be honest, something I never quite expected that I’d do–and it feels great.
The beauty of writing a book about the Twitch and the False First Step is that I learned so much more about it throughout the writing process and was able to implement those learnings into the book as I wrote. I can’t wait to share this book with you and to continue exploring what it truly means to live an intentionally connected life through minimalism, habits, and creativity.
I’m a huge Apple nerd. I’ve had an iPhone since the first one came out, and this 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 as awesome as my iPhone is, it can also be terrible.
Over on Kickstarter, all sorts of clever “distraction-free” phones have been popping up. These dumb, or dumber, phones are there to help folks disconnect either permanently or temporarily with all the apps, pings, notifications, and distractions of their fancy phone.
I’ll stick with my iPhone, thank you very much. Because the problem that these dumb phones are trying to solve is not a problem at all, but rather a symptom.
In fact, what most people consider to be problems related to focus are actually just symptoms.
Ask someone what their biggest challenge is related to focus, and they’ll probably tell you it has to do one of two things: too many distractions or not enough time.
Yet, in truth, the biggest challenge we face related to focus is usually not distractions and procrastination, but rather the biggest challenge we face is our lack of clarity.
Elle Luna has a beautiful book, The Crossroads of Should and Must. In her book, she writes about how 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.
There is a reason we are treating the symptoms and not the core problem.
It’s because productivity itself tends to be measured by surface-level metrics. Such as 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.
However, 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 a 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.
Thus, we need to start defining productivity differently.
It’s important to put more focus on consistently giving our time and attention to the things which are most important, rather than emphasizing the party tricks of balancing many plates at once and clearing our inboxes.
How do we do that? There are two big buckets.
First, you need clarity about what is truly important to you.
As Elle Luna would say, what is your “must”?
Alas, clarity is not microwaveable. It requires time. Time away from all the noise and time to think and to ask yourselv challenging questions about your roles in life, your values, your dreams, and more.
Your life’s vision and values are at the very foundation of meaningful productivity. Clarity of understanding about who you are and who you want to be in your character, values, vocation, and relationships is all paramount to meaningful productivity.
Secondly, you need a bias toward action.
Your bias toward action will keep you on track with being productive in the areas that matter (as defined from your aforementioned vision and values).
When you get clarity about what matters, resistance will show up. It will come from within and without. And so, here are a few tips for overcoming procrastination and staying motivated to do the stuff that matters.
1. Show Up Every Day: You’ve got to make doing the most important work part of Your Routine. Choose to do something every day until eventually it chooses you back. By having a routine in place for your work, it will create the space you need to do work that matters, while also reserving your willpower and creative energy for actually doing the work.
2. 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. 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.
3. Avoid Inbox Addiction (a.k.a. “The Just Checks”): I define Inbox Addiction as 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.
The addiction of checking and refreshing our inboxes, timelines, and other vanity statistics robs us of our ability to focus and do deep work. It’s a drain on our time as well as a drain on our creative energy that conditions us to never focus on any one thing for longer than a few minutes.
4. Avoid Urgency Addiction: Urgency addiction is a need to only ever spend our time working on things which are “urgent in the moment”. We gravitate toward this because urgency feels exciting. There is a natural momentum and adrenaline that accompanies things which are urgent.
But when our nature is to only ever focus on the urgent issues, we are robbed of doing our most important work. Because essential work is often mundane and not yet in an emergency status.
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.
To let your life 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.
Defining 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 frisbee in the back yard with my boys. In those moments, it’s not about the context for how I’m being productive, rather it’s about my choice to be honest, true, vulnerable, and personal.
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This past weekend I was in Boise, Idaho attending a conference put on by my friend Nathan Barry for his company ConvertKit. There were so many amazing speakers there and a final keynote from marketing oracle Seth Godin. After reading some of his books and hearing him on the Tim Ferriss Podcast–I found many of his thoughts and ideas to be quite profound. But it wasn’t his keynote speech that provided one of the best notes of the weekend. [Read more…]
I’ve always been a person with many passions, interests, and a general enthusiasm for the new. Thanks to my friend Joel who introduced me to the work of Emilie Wapnick, I now know myself to be what’s called a multipotentialite or multi-passionate person.
High School was an early example of this, where I sang in a few choirs and a cappella groups, rowed on the crew team, performed in theater, studied spanish, built pointless websites, and rode BMX bikes. [Read more…]