The Power Of Deadlines

Imagine you’re leaving for a long trip one month from now.

If you’re like most people, on the morning of departure you’ll still be scrambling to finish packing and get everything ready.

But if someone put a gun to your head and told you to pack everything you need in the next five minutes, could you do it?

Of course you could. And that is the power of deadlines.

Work is like a gas—it expands to fill its container. You can make it a lot smaller by simply putting it in a smaller container.

So if you have a particular task that needs to be done in a week, it’ll probably take you the entire week to get it done. But if you impose a strict deadline and limit yourself to two hours…

Well, you’ll get it done in two hours.

Back in school, whenever I had a paper or project due, I would put it off until I had just enough time to reasonably get it done, and then for those last two hours or so I would be insanely productive—because I knew I had to finish the paper on time. There was no alternative.

Sound familiar?

By imposing your own deadlines, you can force yourself into that same state of urgency where you’re productive because you have to be.

Of course, there is a limit to this. You can’t just set a deadline for a huge task and magically get it done in five minutes—you have to be somewhat realistic.

With that said, there is value in limiting the time you can spend on certain things because it forces you to act. You don’t have the option of goofing off or watching cat videos because you only have so much time to work.

Just Get Started

Here’s the situation:

You have some important tasks on your to-do list.

You know they need to get done, and you know that doing them is the key to achieving your goals.

…and yet there you sit, on the couch, watching TV, or doing whatever it is that you do to distract yourself, instead of doing the work.

Why?

We all sometimes fall into the classic trap where we sit and wait for inspiration to strike, rather than getting down to business. The solution is almost deceptively simple:

Just get started.

I know what you’re thinking. You want to know how to do the work, and my advice is to… just get started? What kind of help is that? I could’ve just told you to do the work by doing the work.

Except they’re not the same.

When I say “just get started,” I’m talking about the actual physical action of moving over to your desk (or wherever you need to be), and beginning the task at hand.

You don’t have to do the whole thing. Just do a tiny bit.

Once you’ve done that tiny bit, you’ll likely find that momentum takes over and carries you to the finish line.

People often think of action as a result of motivation. In reality, the opposite is true: motivation is a result of action.

The more you do, the more motivated you will be to do more. As you watch your progress play out in front of you, you’ll get psyched up to keep pushing forward.

But if you’re just sitting there like a lump, what do you think is going to motivate you? You may actually become less motivated because all you’ll see is a lack of progress.

Just get started.

Use every bit of willpower you have to take those first few steps. Don’t think about your work as a gigantic, unmanageable process. Just focus on the one or two steps that are directly in front of you, and use momentum to carry you beyond that.

“The Secret Of Happiness Is Something To Do”

This morning I came across this John Burroughs quote, and it really stuck with me: “The secret of happiness is something to do.”

I really believe this.

You don’t become happy by freeing yourself of responsibilities. Everyone needs a purpose in life, and doing nothing is the quickest way to lose sight of that.

I love progress. I love doing. I have a very low tolerance for stagnation.

When I keep myself busy with things that matter to me, happiness is my default state.

Thinking About Attention

CGP Grey posted an excellent video on Friday articulating something we’ve likely all noticed in ourselves and in those around us: a spiraling inability to focus our attention on things that matter.

The “attention economy” of today’s world rewards platforms that are engineered to hijack your attention. As Grey says in the video, “Who among us has not opened an app, looked around, seen everything new, closed it, then immediately reopened to check again?”

That’s troubling, and all too relatable.

If you find yourself struggling to focus, or even just to be alone with your own thoughts, it may be time for a break from Internet consumption.

Books Of Mentors

I’ve recently discovered a book genre that I love: collections of advice from a large number of mentors, experts, or people otherwise considered to be the best at what they do.

My first exposure to this format was Getting There: A Book of Mentors by Gillian Zoe Segal, which features essays from Warren Buffett, Anderson Cooper, Jillian Michaels, Michael Bloomberg, and dozens of other luminaries, each sharing their challenges, obstacles, and lessons learned along the way.

After that, I had to check out Tim Ferriss’s famed bestseller Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World, which, so far, does not disappoint. Ferriss takes a question-based approach to the concept, and it’s interesting to see so many varying perspectives on the same set of thoughtfully chosen questions.

Not all advice is good advice for all people—but the right advice at the right time for the right person can be life-altering.

Simplifying My Digital Life

One of the downsides of instant, frictionless communication is that everyone and everything is constantly in your face, which leads to reduced productivity and a sense of general sluggishness.

For example, if I’ve got a set of tasks I need to accomplish today, I’d like to focus on those. But it’s really easy for emails, messages, tweets, and other random notifications to get in the way.

Every time you pull out your phone to respond to a message or read a reply or DM on Twitter, you’re allowing other people to manipulate your schedule at will. You’re also robbing yourself of the coveted mental state of flow.

I’ve recently made some changes to deal with this, and as a result I’ve seen a significant increase in my productivity and a greater command of my time.

Social Media Notifications: Off

Social media is the biggest uninvited time-suck in the world. They lure you in with a push notification, hook you with the algorithmically sorted timeline, and before you know it you’ve spent an hour in this damn app you didn’t even plan to open.

The solution? Turn ’em off.

I’ve completely disabled push notifications for the three major social networks—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—and the result is pure serenity.

I used to get bombarded with notifications all day every day, mostly from these three apps. So-and-so liked your post! So-and-so mentioned you! And Twitter’s amazing new feature that everyone totally wanted: So-and-so and So-and-so are tweeting about #SomeStupidFuckingThing.

These notifications are not useful to me. They’re disruptive.

Now, when I want to know what’s happening on Facebook, I’ll open Facebook. When I want to know who’s been liking my tweets or sliding into my DMs, I’ll open Twitter.

Spark Email

Spark (for iOS and Mac) may be the best email app I’ve used this decade. It’s reminiscent of the now-defunct Mailbox in that it allows you to “snooze” messages and deal with them later. Great feature, but not the main attraction.

You see, Spark is smart. It automatically sorts your emails into different visual chunks in its Smart Inbox view. You’ve got newsletters, notifications, personal emails, etc.—and they show up in groups of three, which you can easily dismiss in bulk to plow through your inbox like a pro.

Even better, Spark knows what matters, and it only sends you notifications about important email. Never again will a stupid newsletter buzz my Apple Watch while I’m eating dinner.

Speaking of which…

Unsubscribe!!!

I used to be on hundreds of email lists, some of which I’d opted into, others I was added to by inconsiderate PR people. But I digress…

I decided that after years of struggling with my nightmare of an inbox, it was time to take control. So instead of deleting unwanted newsletters, I made it a habit to open each of them, as they came in, and click the unsubscribe link. Every. Single. One.

I spent about two weeks doing this, and while I still see occasional list emails, I’ve trimmed things down to the point where I can kind of breathe again.

Take Back Your Life

There are three things I know for sure:

  • Technology should be a tool to make my life happier and more productive.
  • Notifications should serve up useful, timely information that matters to me.
  • The time I spend with digital media should always be conscious and intentional.

When these expectations aren’t met, it’s time to simplify.

Pain Tolerance

Often the people who win in life are not necessarily those with superior talent or intelligence, but those with an exceptionally high tolerance for pain.

Pain comes in many forms: physical pain, the emotional pain of rejection and failure, the pain of tedium—all of these have the power to hinder success.

I started thinking about this in the gym one day as I was approaching failure on a set, and I realized that what most of us call “failure” in fitness is not failure of the body, but failure of the mind. Because I’ve trained my mind just as hard as my body, I was able to overcome the burn and push a little bit harder.

Great athletes can tolerate high levels of pain. They live for it.

The same goes for great entrepreneurs. There’s a lot of pain involved in building a company. Financial woes, uncertainty about the future, social opposition—these things can really tear you down if you don’t have the mental fortitude to keep pressing forward.

Those who are most successful in dating and relationships are those who have endured rejection and unrequited love and nonetheless chose to keep trying. As Oliver Goldsmith so famously wrote, “Success consists of getting up just one more time than you fall.”

If you can train your mind to tolerate intense pain—or better yet, embrace it—you’ll experience untold advantages in fitness, in business, and in life.

Looking Ahead To 2018

2017 has been quite a year. Vox compiled a great summary of some of the defining stories of the last twelve months:

Yes, 2017 has had more than its share of bad news. But despite the tragedy, injustice, and political dumpster fires, of which we’ve had plenty, life is actually getting better for humanity overall. It often doesn’t feel like it, but it is—and this gives me hope for the future.

As 2017 comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting and planning for the year ahead. I’m not a fan of vague “resolutions,” which are almost guaranteed to fail. Instead, I prefer to conduct a corporate-style “annual review,” where I set specific, measurable goals and then follow up and review my progress quarterly. (Chris Guillebeau’s annual review spreadsheet is a great starting point if you want to do something similar.)

My review for this year is complete, and I feel a real sense of clarity for where I’m headed in 2018. I’ve set a range of goals in business, productivity, fitness, finance, education, and even mental health—and I can’t wait to get back to the grind next week.

I hope you’re happy and safe on this New Year’s Eve. Let’s make 2018 a great year.