It's All About the Work

It’s almost midnight on a Saturday night and I’m sitting in front of my laptop, writing this article. I’ve always loved writing, whether it was cringe-worthy journal entries as a kid or my short-lived career as a journalist. 

I respect and admire the many journalists doing the often-thankless work of keeping us informed. But, after spending time in a few newsrooms, I realized it wasn’t the profession for me. Looking at Facebook, that applies to many of my fellow journalism school graduates. A few have stuck with it, but most are working in decidedly non-journalism jobs these days.

My favorite part of working in a newsroom was the opportunity to solicit feedback from fellow journalists, photographers, editors, and the paper’s readership. You get feedback on your writing, whether you want it or not. At best, you hear reasoned arguments and opinions. At worst, you get a valuable opportunity to develop a thicker skin.

But these days, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, anyone can publish their work and receive feedback. It wasn’t all that long ago you had to wait for someone to write a letter or call the newsroom. Now, feedback hits your inbox almost daily.

With sites like Reddit & Hacker News, it’s possible for thousands — or millions — of people to read what you write. If your post ranks highly enough, your traffic goes through the roof, newsletter signups skyrocket, and your inbox gets slammed.

I was on the receiving end of it, once, when I wrote Be Kind.

I posted it to Hacker News one Friday, on a whim. Much to my surprise, it quickly climbed to the #1 spot. For many of you, this was your introduction to the Monday Mailer.

For a few days, I felt great. I saw the number of people visiting the site, signing up for the newsletter, and emailing me and thought I’d finally “made it.” Whatever that means.

But, eventually, it all came to an end. My website traffic went back down to pre-Hacker News levels. The rate of newsletter signups dropped off. The majority of the emails stopped coming.

In the end, I had the same thing I’d started with: the work.

I’ve been lucky to meet and chat with a few people who are prominent online. Despite their Internet fame, they’re all regular folks like you and I. They’re busy working at a job, or running a business. They’re raising a family. They’re working hard to build an audience for their work. They’re putting their voices out into the world, despite their fears.

The one thing they all obsess over? How best to do their work.

They want to get better, work fucking hard, get to know their audiences, and find ways to help them. To build products that improve people’s lives or jobs. To have real conversations about doing good work.

The work never really goes away. It’s always there. You can accomplish audacious goals, becoming well-known in your community, and earn a lot of money. But, in the end, none of it matters. The work will still be there, waiting for you.

Temporary “fame” will change your brain if you let it. You create something new, it gains a following, and suddenly all you care about is numbers. And once those numbers start to decline — and they will — you’ll do anything to keep them growing. It's why scam artists find financial success selling “50 Ways to Turbocharge Your Newsletter” courses.

You stop caring about the people consuming your work and start caring about how many unique visitors your site had last month. Or how many Twitter followers you have. Or how your podcast's downloads are faring.

It’s the wrong path.

In the words of Charles Bukowski:

“Find something you love and let it kill you.”

You can read every blog post about marketing, shell out thousands of dollars for online courses, and tweak your social media presence until the cows come home. But, in the end, all that’s left is you, a laptop, and the work. So you’d damn well better love it.

Love the work. Love the process. Love the act of working. Protect that love and put it into everything you do. It’s all you have.

You aren’t guaranteed anything in this life, except the opportunity to work hard.

Embrace it.

Beating Procrastination

When I sent you the Monday Mailer survey, I asked what’s holding you back, what your challenges are, and what you want to learn in 2017. Out of the 133 people who responded, an overwhelming number of you expressed a desire to improve your time management skills, feel more motivated to finish your work, and improve your focus.

There’s one problem that crops up in each of those areas, time and time again: procrastination.

Beating procrastination is a tricky subject to discuss. Like most problems, it’s intensely personal. Your reasons for procrastinating are different from mine. But it’s an issue we all deal with, every once in a while.

When I’m procrastinating, it usually manifests as binge-watching old episodes of House, playing mindless video games, or simply staring off into space.

None of those activities are inherently wrong. We all need a break, sometimes. If you’re consciously choosing to relax and play video games, that’s great! Like I said last week; if you’re always working at 110% of your capacity, you’ll burn out pretty quickly.

Procrastination can be valuable; it allows your brain time to relax, calm down, and generate new ideas naturally. But sometimes you sit down, ready to crank through some work, and realize you feel stuck.

Here are some ways I’ve fought through those moments. Next time you’re struggling with procrastination, give one a try.

Find a Friend

It can be helpful to find someone you trust and walk them through your project. Explain what you’re trying to accomplish, how it’s been going so far, and where you're stuck. Other people can provide advice and points of view you might not have considered. That discussion and feedback can be just what your brain needs to kick into high gear.

If you don’t consider yourself a gifted conversationalist, try sketching on a whiteboard or piece of paper as you go. Visualizing your thoughts can help you smash a mental block — particularly if art is a tool you don’t usually use.

However you approach it, find a way to get your project in front of someone else.

Take a Tiny Step

I’ve written previously about Activation Energy. It refers to the amount of energy needed to kick off a chemical reaction — which is always higher than the amount required to sustain it.

If your car broke down, you might be inclined to push it to the side of the road. You and your passengers would strain and grunt at first — struggling to push it even an inch. But, with a bit of effort, the car would begin to move a little. Then, a bit more. Eventually, thanks to the magic of momentum, it would take less and less effort to keep the car rolling.

The same concept applies to your work.

When I’m struggling to write an article, I know typing something — anything — increases the chances I’ll keep writing. So, I tell myself I have only one goal: to write 250 words.

It isn’t much if you think about it. This article passed the 250-word mark about 260 words back. Once I hit 250 words or so, my brain feels sufficiently warmed up. I often end up writing 1,500 words or more.

Next time you’re stuck, try taking just one tiny, little step toward your goal.

If you need to write 500 words, commit to writing 50.
If you need to finish coding a new page for your website, commit to completing just one part of it.
If you need to run 5km, commit to running just 1km.

You get the idea.

Once you start moving, you’re far more likely to keep going and meet — or exceed — your original goal. By reducing your commitment to something trivial, it feels silly not at least to try starting. And getting started is often the hardest part.

Make a Plan

There’s one big reason I keep talking about outlines and breaking tasks into tiny steps. It’s easily the most effective strategy I’ve found for improving my productivity.

I often start to procrastinate when there's a task to complete, but I’m unclear on how to make it happen. It’s easy to focus on the big picture and start to feel overwhelmed.

Rather than saying, “I’m going to code the new About page for my website,” you might break the task down into:

  1. Creating a new document
  2. Coding the header
  3. Coding the sidebar
  4. Coding the main content section
  5. Refining the CSS for the various text styles
  6. Etc.

Don’t forget; planning is real work, too. If you’re honestly not feeling productive at the moment, just commit to finishing your outline. You’ll have made measurable progress and maybe, just maybe, it will allow you let yourself off the hook a bit.

5 Thoughts on Doing Effective Work

When I talk to fellow side project enthusiasts, I often hear them say, “I wish I could get more done.” It isn’t surprising. When you’re working on a side project — constrained by your day job, friends, family, and more — even the smallest productivity gain can make a huge difference in your overall output. If you only have an hour each morning to push your project forward, every minute counts.

One mistake developers make — myself included — is trying to get as much done as possible, rather than focusing on doing work that matters. We plug away at what’s easy, instead of what’s important; the tasks that truly move the needle on our projects.

Here are some thoughts on how you can consistently identify what’s important and make progress on your side projects.

Clear Your Mind

I used to hate using a calendar, to-do apps, or a planner; I didn't think I needed them. I was wrong. So very wrong.

When you have 100 different tasks, events, and ideas bouncing around in your head, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and start procrastinating. To gain the clarity needed to do useful work, you need to get that clutter out of your head and into an external system.

It’s like remembering phone numbers. When I was growing up, it was important to recognize a variety of phone numbers. Today, every number I could ever need is stored on my phone, or easily found online. Heck, most of the time I just need to tap on a person’s face, and I’m connected to them instantly. The phone number itself doesn’t matter. Thanks to technology, I’m able to free up the part of my brain that used to remember phone numbers.

You need to do the same thing for your to-do list. It’s almost impossible to get anything organized until it’s out of your head. Once you clear your mind, you can more quickly focus on the work that matters.

Learn from Eisenhower

You need to realize most tasks fall into one of two categories; important or urgent. They’re rarely the same thing. Dwight Eisenhower once said:

“I have two kinds of problems; the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

The “Eisenhower Method,” described in First Things First, categorizes tasks into one of four quadrants:

  • Important/Urgent: Do it now.
  • Important/Not Urgent: Plan when you’ll do it.
  • Unimportant/Urgent: Delegate it.
  • Unimportant/Not Urgent: Don’t do it at all.

For each task on your to-do list, take a page from Dwight Eisenhower and ask yourself if it’s important, urgent, or neither.

Break it Down

There’s one significant benefit to moving your to-do list from out of your head and into an external system; it becomes much easier to break tasks down into smaller pieces and start to schedule them.

When you’re working on a project, it’s easy to imagine the end product and get overwhelmed. If I pointed at a fancy SUV and asked you to build me one, there’s a good chance you’d get stuck and procrastinate. That’s because “build me an SUV” is a terrible request. Where would you even begin?

The project starts to look a lot more manageable when you break it down into smaller tasks. Instead of “make a car,” you might start with “learn how a car engine works.” Once you’re through that, you might move on to finding the parts you need, ordering them, then finally building the motor.

After that, maybe you’d move on to the wheels. Or the chassis. Eventually, one small piece after another, you’d have an entire car.

Now, that’s a silly example. Most of us aren’t learning to build an entire car from scratch. But the same approach can be applied to your work. One of the biggest secrets to my productivity is making tasks as small as humanly possible. If I only have time to get through one 30-minute task in a day, and I finish it, I consider it a successful day.

By breaking my tasks down into ever-smaller pieces, it’s harder for me to lose track of progress. And I’m always crossing things off my to-do list — which feels great.

Deadlines, Deadlines, Deadlines

I’m a huge fan of setting public deadlines for my projects. I often remind myself of Parkinson’s Law, which states:

“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

There’s never enough time in the day. Or week. Or month. By setting a deadline, you’re forced to cut your project’s scope down to a manageable size. It pushes you to be realistic about how much you’ll be able to get done.

Take a Break, Once in a While

We’re all familiar with the culture of HUSTLE pervading the programming & startup communities these days. I’m as guilty of buying into it as anyone; I constantly feel like I’m falling behind and should be doing more. But, as good as it can feel — temporarily — to forgo sleep and crank out code like there’s no tomorrow, you’ll eventually pay the price.

You shouldn’t try to push yourself to the limit during every waking moment. It’s unsustainable. Eventually, you’ll burn out. Hard.

Instead, your goal should be to do good work over the long haul. To do work you’re proud to show off. To do it at a pace you can sustain over time. Your career is a marathon, not a sprint.

It’s easy to push off exercise, relaxation, and eating well. I’ve done it before, many times. But as I’ve gotten a bit older, I’ve realized those are the very things your body most needs to do your best work. If I spend too many days at my desk without exercise, I start to feel awful pretty quickly. 

I’m willing to bet your best ideas don’t come to you when you’re at your desk, slaving away. No, I’d bet they come to you when you’re relaxing, in the shower, or riding your bike.

You have a finite amount of energy, each week. When you work at 110% capacity every day, it disappears pretty quickly. Your brain needs time to relax before it can produce good, creative ideas. Respect your limits, and your productivity will skyrocket.

What's Your Criteria?

I often hear from readers who have a list of side project ideas a mile long but struggle when it comes time to pick one. It’s easy for some — they just pick one and get on with it. But others, faced with seemingly endless choices, freeze up and start to procrastinate.

Previously, I’ve written about why it’s important for you to have a North Star; something to remind you why you started working on side projects in the first place. But, when it comes to deciding which project idea to work on, it’s equally important to know what your criteria are for a worthwhile, valuable side project. If you don’t know — on a personal level — what constitutes a good project, you’ll waste time jumping from one project to the next hoping to find something that sticks.

I work on side projects to keep my skills sharp, share knowledge with other people, and build an audience for my writing. I keep an extensive list of project ideas in Evernote. When I evaluate which project to take on next, I consider each idea on my list and ask three questions:

  1. Would this idea involve skills I want to maintain or improve? Lately, this means new projects have to involve a fair bit of writing.
  2. Is this idea something other people would find valuable or interesting? It’s fine to scratch your own itch, but I find it far more satisfying to provide value to someone else.
  3. Assuming it’s successful, is this idea something I can iterate on and improve? I love to update, reuse, and build on work I’ve done in the past. I repurposed old articles for my email course, for example.

Before I even begin to consider working on something new, it has to meet at least two of my criteria. Preferably all three — the more, the merrier.

Have you considered what your criteria for good side projects might be? If you often find yourself struggling to decide what to work on next, take some time today and figure it out. There’s a good chance you’ve thought about them before, if only subconsciously. Write them down and keep them handy.

Next time you’re staring at your list of project ideas, frozen, pull out your side project criteria. Use them to test the viability of each and every concept, cutting bad ideas as you go. If nothing else, you’ll reduce the cognitive load of making your decision.


Start Paddling

I’ve launched a lot of side projects over the course of my career, but I still get nervous each and every time — especially when I’m trying something for the first time, like selling an icon set or an Apple TV app. A laundry list of doubts creeps into my brain.

What if nobody likes it?
What if there’s a bug I haven’t found?
What if it turns out I’m not all that good at this programming thing?

My hand hovers over the keyboard. I could walk away without risking anything, I tell myself.

And then I launch it anyway.

It isn’t because I’m brave, or free of fear. It’s because, over the years, I’ve learned pushing through my fears is the only way to learn and grow. 

You can plan all you want. You can fiddle with a landing page design until your eyes bleed. You can hem and haw, and worry how your side project will be received. But, in the end, you only make progress when you look over the edge of the cliff and jump. You’re never going to feel ready.

It’s easy to sit around forever, waiting for the moment you feel prepared to dive into something new. But that moment is never going to come. You always could have worked more, tested more, practiced more. There’s always something more you could have done. But, at some point, you have to launch the damn thing.

I often think about the first time I went whitewater rafting. One of the first things they teach you is you don’t sit in the raft; you sit on the edge of it, right next to the rushing water. I won’t lie; it scared the crap out of me. I constantly felt off-balance, and I was sure I’d end up in the drink at any moment.

But here’s the secret: the only way to keep your balance is to paddle. It’s only by putting your oar in the water and getting to work that you’ll stay in the boat. If you wait until you feel stable, you’ll be waiting a long time. Because it never feels stable. 

Unless you have a crystal ball — and let’s talk, if you do — you’ll never be able to look into the future. Accept that you’ll make mistakes and be criticized, no matter what you do. Pick a direction and get moving.

Perfection is something you can strive for, but you’ll never reach it. Launching something imperfect can feel risky, to be certain. But I think it’s a far bigger risk never to launch it at all.