I’m going to piss you off a little bit, but it’ll be for your own good, ok?
Do you want to know why you’re not getting the outcomes you want in life? Want to know the real reason why you don’t earn as much as you think you deserve, find yourself in a position you don’t like, or just feel like life isn’t giving you a fair shake, in general?
It’s not because you don’t have talent. You do. It’s not because you don’t work hard. Most people work extremely hard to take care of themselves and their families. The reason why you’re not as successful as you’d like is simple.
Many other people are capable of doing what you’re doing. You’re replaceable. Simple economics. I’m not saying that to be cruel at all, just literal.
So, how do you become irreplaceable?
How do you increase the demand for what you do?
Well, you just have to figure out how to do something few people can do. And there’s one variable that usually separates the wheat from the chaff.
“Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy 1. The ability to quickly master hard things. 2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.” – Cal Newport
What do the following professions have in common?:
All of these professions require you to have a long attention span, the ability to focus, the ability to do deep work.
You’ve heard of deep work before because of the book with the same name by Cal Newport. Per Cal:
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy.
I listed deep work my list of the top 10 career skills for 2020. Take the emotion out of it. The days of supporting a family a single income from a factory, being the company man or woman for 40 years, or even making a decent living doing replicable work, are dead.
The fix is in already and the gap is just growing wider. Either you’re on the right side of it or not. Deep work will help you get there. But like so many other useful concepts, deep work has become a cute buzz word that people don’t use in their lives.
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” – Bruce Lee
The secret to self-improvement is simple — take all the useful concepts that have become cliches, take them seriously, and implement them. Your inability to execute is the only thing in your way.
Take writing for example. I’ve been writing for five years now. To this day, I’ve done nothing cute. I built the foundation to help me become a better writer and replace my full-time job by focusing on getting a little percent better at writing each day with focused time-blocks to accomplish the work.
Also, I focused enough to do all the little things, the grunt work, the stuff you hate doing to facilitate the stuff you love doing,
Say you want to be a writer or do any of the other career paths in this whole internet milieu. You have to learn tech. In 2020, it’s pretty much inexcusable to not know basic HTML, no code tech, and be able to know your way around a computer. And learning this stuff isn’t hard, but it’s tedious, frustrating, banal. You have to focus intently and do all the little micro-steps required.
I remember the first time I put together a WordPress theme. It took forever. I had to learn bit by bit, instructional video after instructional video, without breaking concentration. It’s hurdles like these that tend to break people — setting up the landing pages, getting the software to work, trying to fit the pieces together like a puzzle.
And these micro-skills are just the side-kick to the true skill — deep focused creative work. If you can just focus and concentrate for an hour a day for a sustained period of time, over, and over, and over, and over again, you can build a new life from scratch.
“Winning increases the dopamine receptors in the brain, which makes you smarter and bolder.” – Ian H. Robinson.
People ask me all the time: “How did you get so good at writing?”
First of all, I think I’m decent at writing. Keep a high bar for yourself and don’t fall for flattery. But the answer is simple. I practiced every day for five years and while I practiced I didn’t get distracted. And I grew more confident over time.
Psychologically, each time you do your time-block for the day, you tell your subconscious mind “you’re a winner!”
Life is a game of feedback loops. Nobody is born confident. Naturally confident people benefit from positive feedback loops early in life. Usually, because they’re good looking, intelligent, or skilled at something like athletics.
Doesn’t mean you can’t replicate this effect in your own life.
You’ve already had these streaks in your life. Something goes well for you. You’re more confident, you perk up a little more, people respond to that, which boosts you more. The opposite also happens.
Build positive feedback loops built on the foundation of deep work, create momentum, wait long enough, and you’ll get what you want. The good news? You don’t have to slave away for endless hours to accomplish this at all.
Now that I have a full day available to work, I realize that I don’t need to work crazy 14 hour days to be successful. Most “work” is just bullshit.
The cultural revolution we need is to get rid of the unnecessary and arbitrary idea of the 8-hour workday. It’s so wired into our brain. When you work for yourself, you can feel guilty if you don’t do ‘x’ amount of hours, but the ‘x’ doesn’t matter as long as you achieve the ‘y’ – the outcomes you want.
“Ship often. Ship lousy stuff, but ship. And Ship constantly.” – Seth Godin
I appear to be productive because I usually write a blog post every single day, which is no easy feat. You have to come up with the idea, write the draft, edit the draft multiple times, add links and citations, publish and format, all this stuff.
The reason why I appear productive is that I focus on producing. Window dressing doesn’t matter to me. I have a mile-long list of ‘cute’ stuff I need to catch up on – re-doing my website, social media promotions, re-writing my about page — and I almost never get any of that done.
But I always write, I always focus while I write, and I always produce.
If you want to be someone who does deep work, someone who produces something worthwhile every day, you have to stop thinking like an employee at a company. Companies reward you for looking like you’re busy and set up environments to keep you as unproductive as possible.
If you work in corporate right now, this is probably your life. So when you’re switching over to your project, focus on moving the needle.
I’ve noticed something about the websites of my favorite writers – I don’t care what their websites look like at all. Half the time when I watch YouTube videos I’m not even watching them, I’m listening to them to get the value from the content itself, not the appearance.
The act of creation moves the needle. Focus on moving the needle and treat everything as house money beyond that.
How do you build concentration after your attention span has been decimated for years, you have bad working habits and suffer from endless procrastination?
“Keep it simple, stupid.” – Kelly Johsnon
Advanced productivity systems are for advanced people.
If you’re a beginner at this sort of project, keep your life very simple. To date, my life is very simple.
Build a simple routine with the time constraints that work for your life.
Maybe you only have 15 minutes per day. I actually have a friend in this position. He’s a lawyer who works 70 hours per week. He loves to write, so he writes 15 minutes in the morning.
Doesn’t sound like a lot, but let’s say you get 250 words out in those 15 minutes. That’s 91,250 words. That’s a full novel. Or 2-4 non-fiction books. Or 60 1500 word blog posts. Multiply that by years and you see the power of deep work.
You’d be surprised at how much you get done in a short time-span. Then, if you have more wiggle room, you can stretch our your time-blocks.
Maybe at first, you can only handle 15 minutes. Next comes 30. Then an hour.
If you can reach the point where you can do a fully focused four-hour time block, you will have god-like creative powers. And you’ll also get something even better.
“People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Deep work, flow states, being in the zone, focus, all have one benefit that matters more than the outcomes they produce.
You get a sliver of time where you feel sane and the noise of the world fades into the background. I don’t know exactly what happiness is, but for me, being lost in the moment of creation is the closest I’ve come to it.
On top of having the flow state that saves you from the madness of the rat-race life, you build confidence in knowing that you have this little ‘evil plan’ you’re trying to get to work.
On the surface, you’re just working on some ‘little project.’ You don’t brag about it to your friends or share your dreams with too many people because you know they’ll rain on your parade, even if not on purpose.
Each day as your plan unfolds you show yourself what you’re capable of a little bit more. Have a long-enough streak of these days, and some days you’ll feel this burst of confident power.
A conqueror of your creative medium. The more you do this deep work, the more you feel like you exert your will over reality.
It’s that simple. A streak of focused work is how you transform yourself from an insecure novice to a pro, a machine at your craft.
This power is available to you if you start.
You know this already. And there’s no perfect sentence I can give you do force you to do the work on day one and keep the momentum going. But I’ll tell you this — the vision of your future built on deep work, the one you can see in your mind but haven’t accomplished yet?
It’s as good, if not better than you think it is.