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.

Introducing Output Radio

I’m excited to announce the launch of Output Radio, a fun side project I’ve been working on lately.

Output Radio is a free, fully-licensed Internet radio station playing low-distraction electronic and alternative music to help you focus and get your work done.

I wanted to produce something that I would use myself, and I’ve found myself using it daily as part of my regular workflow.

If you think you might enjoy it as well, I’d love for you to tune in.

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.

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.

RIP News Feed

Today I installed a Chrome extension that makes my Facebook News Feed invisible.

Facebook’s algorithm is very good at making the feed addictive, like a slot machine. This extension short-circuits it so I don’t get sucked down the rabbit hole in the middle of my work day.

I still have access to messages, notifications, and business stuff like pages, but the News Feed is out of sight and out of mind.

How To Become A Morning Person

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a night owl—go to bed at 3 a.m., wake up at noon. My productive hours have always been late at night, when distractions are limited. But over the past few weeks, I’ve managed to change that.

Since childhood, dawn has been my favorite time of day—I love seeing the sunrise, and I love the smell of morning air when I go for an early jog. My problem is being awake to experience it—so I decided to train myself to become a morning person.

As I’m writing this, it’s 5:30 a.m., two hours before sunrise, and I’ve been more productive this morning than I ever was in my late-night work schedule.

So how did I do it?

Well, I’ll admit my headline is a tad misleading because it implies I know some kind of secret process, and that’s not the case. It wasn’t easy. I just forced myself to wake up early on a consistent basis, and the rest fell into place. I have a daily alarm set on my iPhone for 4:15 with the label: “Success doesn’t happen while you sleep.” That’s a gentle reminder to my groggy morning self of why I’m doing this.

The first day is terrible. The second day is alright. By the third day, you can start calling this your regular schedule. When you wake up tired and feel like shit all day, you’ll realize you need to go to sleep earlier, and you will. As soon as that adjustment has been made, you’re good to go.

The key, the way I see it, is to force yourself to get up at the same time every morning—tired or not. If you do anything on a consistent basis for a little while, it becomes a habit.