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BalanceProductivityTools and Systems

Consistency

March 15, 2016 — by Matt

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Get ready for a bombshell…

There is no one secret to success.

Shocker, I know.

And even though we all intuitively know this, it still feels good to believe that there’s only one small change between our current situation and a slingshot to blissful achievement.

I’ve come to learn that it doesn’t work like that. There are, however, a few not-so-secret tenants you’ll often hear. You know the usual suspects – perseverance, focus, networking, execution, luck, a really eye-catching business card, strategic eyebrow waggling – and each (most) of them can certainly help contribute to success.

One of the most important is consistency. And for me (and I suspect many others), it’s importance is often overlooked.

Why is consistency important?

Consistency is incredibly important for making progress. The likelihood of one meeting, one business proposal, one article submission, or one afternoon of working on your passion translating to some big success is very slim. The likelihood of repeated, concerted effort producing small, consistent progress that adds up, however, is very high.

Consistency is also like practice – by building a consistent habit, we’re likely to learn more and improve faster. James Clear, one of my favorite writers on the topic of building habits, penned this article which includes a few great examples of how consistent effort increases your chances of reaching your targets.

Finally, doing something consistently can define you. If you want to be a writer, sit down and write… a lot. If you fancy yourself a musician, you had better be making music consistently. And it doesn’t just apply to productive habits. You might not want to admit it, but if you smoke every day, guess what – you’re a smoker. Batman said it in a really gravely voice – “It’s what you do that defines you” – but he wasn’t the first to realize that consistent habit makes you who you are. The ancient Greeks had it figured out ages ago.

We-Repeatedly-Do-Excellence
Consistency in fonts, apparently, not as important.

Our problem with consistency

Yes, staying consistent in our habits is super important and beneficial. But that shit is also HARD. Like, really hard.

First, starting a new habit is always difficult. Doing one thing once is really easy – doing it repeatedly isn’t.

Consistency also requires an acceptance of both failure and of non-perfect work. Doing something over and over is likely to produce varying results – if you write a new blog post every week, for example, you’re likely to have some duds. That’s OK – and in fact will make you better at your craft through repetition, learning, and adjustment. But we’re so petrified of failure that we forgo consistent output in favor of “perfectionism” – a codeword that often means being too scared to finish something, share it, and move onto the next thing.

perfectionism meme

Finally, consistency take patience. We all want instant results. It’s the reason why people go so hard on their new year’s resolutions and then give them up in frustration a few weeks later. Meaningful change happens in small doses over time. Most people either simply don’t have the patience, or they set their expectations for instant results so high that the frustration of not meeting them makes them give up.

fuck this

There is no such thing as “overnight success”

The fact is that we love overnight success stories, but in almost every case it’s a myth. This article includes some great examples, but one of my favorite examples concerns the cast of the FX show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”.

charlie day

If you follow the show, you’ve probably heard the story that the main cast of the show decided to write their own pilot, filmed it for $200, and then successfully pitched it to FX. It sounds so easy, anyone could do it – and in a bubble, it seems like an overnight success off of a single idea.

But all the members of the cast had been grinding for YEARS – working on their writing and acting, going to audition after audition, facing rejection and failure. It was their consistency, coupled with opportunity and a belief in themselves, that set the stage for their eventual success.


This is a long video, but just watch the last 45 seconds for some real gold. Charlie Day speaks to Rob McElhenney’s near-constant failure – failure that, without perseverance and consistency, might have caused him to quit before getting his big opportunity.

And that’s the other salient point – consistency is often difficult because it feels like we’re putting in tons of work but going nowhere. Even months after starting this blog, I don’t feel like I’m making any progress. But staying consistent not only keeps us moving forward, it also keeps us in a position to take advantage of opportunities that arise. If we’re consistently working on our passions, when something great does present itself, we’re ready to tackle it.

Here’s my plan

Consistency isn’t easy – so it’s best tackled one task or habit at a time. I’m going to start by getting more consistent about posting here.

If you’ve followed this blog, you may have noticed I post on a wildly inconsistent schedule. I’ve posted on every day of the week for no rhyme or reason. Sometimes I post twice a week, sometimes I completely miss a week. Sometimes I’m scrambling to finish an article, sometimes I have a couple backlogged. It’s a crapshoot.

So my habit, publicly stated here, is to post a new article on this blog every Tuesday – without fail. Here’s why I’m choosing this habit:

  • It’s public and I’ll be held accountable. If it doesn’t happen, you all will notice – and I hope you’ll call me out.
  • It’s results-oriented. It requires I actually produce something, so it’s very easy to judge success or failure. Just saying “write every day” could mean writing one word, or writing garbage, while making the habit a posting schedule means the work has to be meaningful.
  • It’s a keystone habit. Following this habit will force me to follow other habits – like writing consistently and managing my time well enough to ensure the writing gets done.

So look for an article every Tuesday (with the option for a “bonus” article on Fridays as I see fit). And if you don’t see one you can send a swarm of highly trained assassin sparrows to peck my eyes out.

What are you working on?

What’s the one habit you’re going to work on to build consistency? Let us know in the comments!

Weekend Reads

Fear is real, but conquerable! (Weekend Reads)

February 19, 2016 — by Matt

I think a lot about fear. What if I wasn’t afraid to quit my job or of not having enough money to survive? Does fear affect my ability to finish projects, or take risks? How can I overcome the fear of x, y, or z?

I guess I’m not alone. I’ve stumbled upon a few articles recently that tackle the topic of fear. If you’re dreading the future or you feel like fear is holding you back from being great, use these as reminders that we all face fears, and they’re all surmountable.

I AM AFRAID ALL OF THE TIME

The beginning of this article is almost comforting. Entrepreneur and writer James Altucher lists out a few of his top fears that probably sound strangely familiar to your own. It might be a tactic to disarm the reader and inspire empathy, but dammit it works. I felt better about my own fears after reading it.

The rest of the article launches into techniques James uses to overcome fear. His “themes over goals” sounds a lot like my identity based personal pillars, so you know I’m in. And although a lot of the others seem fairly obvious, they’re still good reminders that we have strategies to squelch our fear and really achieve.

THE THIN LINE BETWEEN STAYING UNCOMFORTABLE AND CREATING FEAR

This 99u article by Stephanie Kaptein identifies the potential problem with the timeless advice of “stepping outside your comfort zone” to gain inspiration – that going too far out of the zone can backfire, making us too afraid to go on. Knowing where the line between motivating discomfort and paralyzing fear lies is important if we want to avoid self-sabotage.

I really like this article. It recognizes that fear is a real thing that can hamstring our resolve and our creative process, rather than ignoring it and believing ourselves to be impervious to its effects. Strategically evaluating where we are in relation to that line is an important self-check that will keep us moving forward.

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Have a great weekend, and keep conquering your fears!

ProductivityTools and Systems

How to minimize distractions when you just need to Focus

September 3, 2015 — by Matt

no_distractionsWe all get distracted. No matter what we’re working on, how exciting our current project is, or how in-tune it is with our passions, it’s very easy to get sidetracked or let the world around you pull your focus. Last week I wrote about my recent struggles with distractions and came to the empowering conclusion that our attention is our energy to spend, and we have the power to decide where it goes.

But just because our focus is under our control doesn’t mean that we have to battle distractions with willpower alone. A few effective techniques or systems can help make retaining our focus much, much easier.

Below are a few methods I use to help mute or muffle distractions when I’m in “work mode”.

Single-tasking – Do one thing at a time

For years, multitasking has been lauded as a critical skill in school, the workplace, and everyday life. I’ve even seen “effective multitasking” as a desired skill in job postings. In reality, however, multi-tasking makes you feel busy but does not lead efficient, effective output, and could even be damaging to your thought process.

We get the most focused, effective, and thoughtful work done when we concentrate on one task at a time. Single-tasking eliminates the time wasted when context switching and puts you in a better position to enter a state of “flow” (a topic I’ll be exploring in much more detail in future articles).

Set a single priority for the day

Whenever I compile an extensive to-do list, I either get overwhelmed by the number of tasks I need to get done, or I cherry-pick the easy tasks to the exclusion of the important ones. By identifying the single most important thing to do in a day, you’re less likely to do unimportant tasks first (they’re not on the list!) and more likely to get your important items done first (what else would you do?).

Setting your most important task(s) for the day is the backbone of many a daily journal or morning routines. I’ve also started using the Momentum extension for my new tab page in Chrome. The first time I open a new tab Momentum asks me what my focus for the day is, and every time I open a tab after that it reminds me where I should be prioritizing my focus. Plus, it has pretty pictures!

Momentum Screenshot

Single Tabbing

If my description of Momentum didn’t give me away, I’m a serial tab opener and often have a few windows each with multiple tabs for stuff I’ll “get to later”. I use “Controlled multi-tab browsing” to limit this bad habit but an even more extreme approach is that of single tabbing. By only allowing a single browser tab you force yourself to focus on one thing at a time until its done. I’ve never tried it (and honestly it terrifies me) but doing a week of single-tabbing may be my next focus experiment.

The rest of the suggestions in this article may help focusing on a single task easier.

Minimize Digital Distractions

In our ultra-connected lives, digital distractions are tough to avoid – especially when so many of us use the internet regularly for work and are constantly being pinged by our smartphones. I’ve tried a few methods to minimize the (seemingly constant) digital noise.

Reduce Notifications

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Almost every app you install on your phone comes with some type of notification, but keeping those notifications on is giving your phone the authority to dictate when you check it. I’ve turned off notifications for email and facebook and turned most other notifications to silent so that I decide when I need to check my updates, not my phone.

Airplane Mode/Silent/Do Not Disturb

Airplane mode and silent mode are two of my best friends when I’m deep in a creative project and can’t be disturbed. For bonus points, stick your phone in a drawer or in another room when you go heads-down on your work. And if you’re worried about the unlikely case of an emergency call, make use of your phone’s “do not disturb” mode.

Freedom

Consider this “airplane mode” for your computer. Freedom is a fantastic app that allows you to set a period of time during which the entire Internet is shut off, effectively eliminating the distractions it generates. I find that after my 3rd or 4th attempt to check my email my brain gives up trying to distract itself and I fall much more easily into a flow state with whatever I’m doing – to the point that after my Freedom timer expires and I’m free to browse the web I have no desire to do so and I stay on track, lost in my work.

Because Freedom shuts down all network access it’s not a great solution for tasks that require the ‘net like research or networking – but for writing and making music it’s been invaluable. Their website indicates they now have versions for tablets and smartphones – so I’ll definitely be installing Freedom on my phone this week.

StayFocusd

Even when I’m not locked into “deep focus” mode or I can’t shut down the whole internet, I try to minimize my time on easily distracting websites like Facebook and Twitter. The StayFocusd Chrome extension helps by allowing you to set a time limit each day you for a set of websites, which, once expired, blocks access to those sites. I currently limit Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter to 15 minutes every day and although I sometime open up Firefox to cheat, it generally keeps me pretty honest.

WriteRoom and ZenWriter

WriteRoom and ZenWriter (for Mac and Windows, respectively) are writing programs that remove the distractions of other windows and your toolbar and give you a simple, full-screen, minimalist writing space. ZenWriter even plays soothing sounds while you write. If you find yourself trying to write but being tempted by other windows, give one of these a try.

Get Lost in your Headphones

I can get easily distracted by sound. Even conversations happening a few feet away while I try to read or write will completely screw up my focus (probably a sign of some undiagnosed attention issues). Blocking out my most overactive sense with something else helps immensely, but what specifically plays through your headphones is important.

Music

Music can be a valuable tool to block out the sound of the outside world and enhance flow, but it has to be the right kind of music. Some studies suggest that music you enjoy is the best medicine, while others point to ambient or classical music. Me? I like music with no lyrics, as the words tend to distract me when reading or writing.

miles-davisMy go-to is jazz standards (I have a playlist that I use), and I’ve also had luck with the “Deep Focus” playlist on Spotify. But find something that works for you, and get lost in it.

White Noise and Ambient Noise

Another route is to forgo music altogether and just go with noise. I like to use white or ambient noise sometimes when I’m writing and its effectiveness is completely dependent on my mood. But if music is still too distracting or doesn’t work for you, this might.

SimplyNoise is a simple white noise generator, while Noisli (my personal favorite) has a number of different calming and focusing noise options including rain, wind, thunder, and other environmental sounds.

Binaural Beats

Binaural Beats and Isochronic Tones work on the concept that sounds played at a certain frequency stimulate brainwaves at a similar frequency that promote brain functions like focus, learning, memorization, or creativity. Binaural beats proponents claim that these sounds help enhance the effects of psychedelic drugs, help people quit smoking, or aid in memorization.

Although I’m somewhat skeptical of the science behind binaural beats, I’ve used them effectively to improve my focus and block out outside sounds, whether it’s a placebo effect or not. Here’s one I’ve used before.

Change Your Environment

One of the most effective techniques I’ve used to improve my focus is to change my environment. In other words, I get out of the house.

There’s a few ways to find a new environment in which to work, and a few benefits you can expect. You can choose an environment that specifically helps your goals (open spaces for creativity, small spaces for task-specific focus). Or you an just pick somewhere new with fewer possibilities for distraction – a place with no TVs or where everyone around you is working hard on their creative projects can be incredibly motivating. You can even continually go to the same place to do a certain type of work, which will help solidify that place in your brain as the place for writing, or making music, or drawing, or coding, or whatever.

District Hall

One of my favorite places to go in Boston is District Hall, a civic creative workspace in the seaport district. Not only have I built an association with creative work there by going often, the environment is primed for it – whiteboard paint on the walls, free wi-fi, a cafe, and tables full of entrepreneurs, coders, and motivated young professionals. Find a workspace like this, and you’ll find yourself lost in your current project in no time.


So there you have it – the techniques I’ve used to some success to block out annoying distractions and get into a state of deep focus. Different techniques work for different people and there’s a ton of effective methods out there. What have you done to try to focus, clear your mind, or get work done effectively? Which of these techniques have you tried, and how have they worked for you? Leave a comment below!

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