You didn’t start a business to be mediocre. To be one of the many that can do what you do. You’re not hoping to be just another designer or another theme developer. You never planned to be a generic writer or a dime a dozen coach.
When you started, you wanted to be a master. Maybe you weren’t bold enough to say it like that, but you wanted to be like those you looked up to. Someone that did work which was worth being seen.
It wasn’t fame that you were searching for. A small slice of good work in your chosen field would do. People would understand you knew what you were talking about and trust you. You’d be sought after for the excellence you bring to your work.
For me, it’s people like Ryan Holiday that I aspire to be. I’ve read his books and read everything I can find that he writes.
I hope to one day be able to convey my ideas with the elegance I see in his writing. I hope to be able to be as direct as he is while providing solid actionable information my readers can work with. I want to master the art of conveying my ideas via writing.
I’m making two assumptions today.
1. You Want to Be a Master
My first assumption is that you want to achieve mastery. One of your hurdles is that you don’t know how to differentiate between things that are hard and a waste of time and things that are hard but are helping you make progress towards your goals.
We often get told that when something is not squarely in our wheelhouse we should be stopping it. At the same time books like The Dip and Mastery tell us that it’s those who push through the hard work that become masters in their fields.
The first part of this essay will help you determine when you should be stopping the hard work in front of you and when you should be digging deeper because you’re on your way towards mastery. Then it will give you the tools needed to be the type of person that sticks with hard work.
2. Focus and Diverse Stimuli Are a Problem
My second assumption is that you’re struggling with determining when it’s time to let diverse stimuli in to generate creative thoughts and when it’s time to shut out the world around you and become good at your craft.
Reading widely means that we get to encounter new ideas that challenge our thinking. But it’s not just diverse stimuli in reading that brings the best answers. Interacting with many collaborators that challenge our ideas is one of the best ways to bring us to new understanding. Dissenting opinions force us to vet our ideas in the face of challenge. This can only make them stronger if they are in fact true.
…In 2006 psychologist Samuel Sommers examined the decision making processes of juries, some all-white and some racially mixed. (These were mock trials based on real cases.) Deliberating the case of a black defendant, the mixed juries did a better job of working through the information presented to them. This wasn’t just because the black jurors brought a fresh perspective to the deliberation room. It was also because white jurors were less lazy in their thinking when black jurors were present, citing more facts about the case and making fewer mistakes. People think harder when they fear their views may be challenged by outsiders. – Messy
The second part of this essay will focus on how to balance the diverse stimuli you need to keep your thinking sharp against the need for deep thinking without distractions so you can get work done and ends by giving you the tools needed to build deep focused work into your life.
To be the people we strive to be, both of these skills are needed.
If you’d rather read this on Kidle, you can purchase (Becoming A Master)[https://curtismchale.ca/recommends/becoming-a-master/]
Avoidance Harms Our Quest Towards Mastery
How Do We Decide When to Quit?
How to Stick with the Hard Stuff
Why Messy Stimuli Can Be Good for Us
How to Challenge Your Ideas
How to Make Diverse Stimuli Work for You
To Create We Need Time Without Distraction
Will You Make It Happen?
Avoidance Harms Our Quest Towards Mastery
Hard work is hard, which shouldn’t surprise you. Being creative takes tremendous energy. Unfortunately by nature people are lazy. Our biology predisposes us to find the easiest way to achieve our goals.
That means we’re often looking for shortcuts. We don’t want to hear that it’s going to take 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. We don’t want to hear that it’s not the straightforward act of putting in 10,000 hours. We need to make sure that those hours are ones of deliberate practice. Showing up won’t win us the mastery we want. We need to have a plan and people to vet our work to tell us when it’s sub-par.
This bent in our lives leads us towards the almost silent siren song of avoidance. Instead of sitting down and doing the work that is needed to become the master we want to be, we check email. We dip into Twitter and Facebook as ‘business marketing’ tasks.
We avoid the hard work.
Most knowledge workers avoid the uncomfortable strain of deliberate practice like the plague, a reality emphasized by the typical cubicle dweller’s obsessive e-mail checking habit — for what is this behavior if not an escape from work that is more mentally demanding. – So Good They Can’t Ignore You
While Newport cites obsessive email checking as one way that you avoid hard work, it’s clearly not the only way. Slack, Twitter, Facebook…all contribute to easy avoidance techniques.
One of Newport’s later books, Deep Work, makes a strong case that often getting collaboration from colleagues is an avoidance technique. We avoid the hard to quantify work that will allow us to excel in our work in favour of the easy to see ‘collaboration’. If we’re collaborating then we are visibly being productive.
If you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems like Hall within seconds when someone poses a new question, or if you roam your open office bouncing ideas off all whom you encounter — all of these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner. – Deep Work
This common avoidance means that most of us stay in the middle phase of Robert Greene’s steps towards mastery. We start as Apprentices ready to conquer the world. As we move out of apprenticeship into Greene’s Creative-Active phase, we fall into the avoidance techniques that come so easily to us and we stall out.
We can see the third stage of Mastery on the horizon, but it stays on the horizon. That’s not what we want. We want to be so indispensable in our work that we can trade in that expertise for more pay, or more vacation, or more freedom with our schedule.
While we may tell ourselves that once we have advanced further in our career we’ll start striving for mastery again, we won’t. The tactic of avoidance is easier to execute as we rise in the ranks of business.
Oftentimes, the more power you have in an organization, the better equipped you are to structure your work life to avoid stressful tasks because you’re less accountable to, say, a manager or supervisor looking over your shoulder. – Reach
Instead of learning to network effectively, we designate a subordinate to attend events. They may be terrible salespeople, but it’s way better for us if we don’t have to go.
If you want to be a master, you need to do two things. First, you need to make sure you don’t avoid the hard work. You need to dig in when things get hard. Second, you need to become a master quitter.
How Do We Decide When to Quit?
Yes after talking about how you need to stop avoiding the hard tasks in your work, I said you need to be a master quitter. I’m not the only one either.
Quit the wrong stuff.
Stick with the right stuff.
Have the guts to do one or the other. – The Dip
That’s what The Dip is all about. Helping us decide when to quit and when to stick to it just a bit longer than all the quitters out there. Once we stick with it, we break through ‘the dip’ and come out the other side closer to the master we want to be.
While Godin spends most of the book talking about why you should quit and why you shouldn’t quit, he doesn’t leave readers hanging. At the end, he provides us with a 3 question framework to help us identify when we should quit and when we should stick it out.
1. Am I Panicking
There are times in every business that are hard. I’ve taken my wife on a ‘drive date’ and suddenly remembered that a client was near where we grabbed a coffee and I could pick up payment. I doubt she fell for this ploy, but it’s how I paid us an hour later. Prior to that, there was no money to pay the bills.
That wasn’t the last time business has been hard. It will happen again in the future. It may not always be money, but it will be something.
In the midst of wondering where the next pay cheque will come from it’s easy to panic and make stupid decisions. Decisions to shut down a business that can be successful if you keep pushing.
If you haven’t started your business then decide in advance what your triggers are for shutting it down. Maybe it’s when you have to put payroll on your credit card. Some people won’t be willing to go that far.
If you’ve got a spouse or partner you can’t make this decision alone. Together decide what circumstances will mean that the business is no longer something to work on.
With this quitting checklist in place, you can ride out the hard times with greater calm knowing that you’re not at the quitting point.
As life changes, make sure you go back and evaluate your checklist. Add kids into the mix and a spouse not working and maybe you won’t be able to ride it out with $0 income for a few months. You’re the sole income, you need to quit faster.
2. Who Am I Trying to Influence
Godin’s second question deal with the influence you’re trying to gain. You have a wide world out there of customers. When one client says no, it doesn’t mean that you should be quitting.
Most of the prospects in your field have never even heard of you. Instead of focusing on the few that have and are waffling on a decision, increase your sphere of influence on your path towards success.
Stop going for only the whale. If you’re starting you only have a toy fishing rod. Go for all the little fish and use them to build that whaling boat you wish you could have started with.
3. What Measurable Progress Am I Making
If you’re trying to succeed in a job or a relationship or at a task, you’re either moving forward, falling behind, or standing still. There are only three choices. – The Dip
Even when things are not going the way you planned, you might be moving forward. Are you getting more leads than ever? Are your projects increasing in revenue?
If you’re making forward progress, even very slowly, then it’s not the time to quit. It might be time to head back to rule 2 and reach out to a wider market.
While these three questions are a great starting point, I think they’re missing at least 2 key points we need to take into account when we are trying to decide if we are going to stick it out in our business.
1. Purpose Is Needed to Break Status Quo
As I’ve already said, we like to stick with the easy work that we know. Given a comfortable option and status quo or something new with a chance of great reward, we choose the status quo.
If we don’t have a compelling vision we’ll be looking status quo in the face for years to come.
Without a compelling reason to choose otherwise, most people well take comfortable actions over uncomfortable ones. The issue is that the important actions are often the uncomfortable ones. – 12 Week Year
This is your WHY or Purpose or Life’s Task or one of the myriads of other names that authors give it.
For me, it’s the joy I get when I coach someone and see their business start to succeed. When they move from barely making it on 12 hour days with poor clients to 6 hour days with lots of time to spend with their kids. Watching that success in others and knowing I had a hand in the change keeps me going when times are tough.
Remembering those I’ve helped, helps me push through when things are low. The dreams get me off my ass and out to networking events where I dress up a bit and smile and talk about how I help people.
It’s not a straight line to your purpose. In his book The Art of Work, Jeff Goins reminds us that we knew what our purpose was. We’ve simply forgotten what it was.
When “real life” began, you gave up, but called it growing up instead and abandoned the dream altogether. – The Art of Work
Often it was something you naturally drifted to as a child or teen. It’s the thing that had you energised beyond all reasonable measures.
When I read Goins book I couldn’t help but remember all the friends that came to me during high school to ask for advice. I couldn’t help but think about the times I trained a local rock climbing team and how excited I got when my students hit their goals.
What is that for you?
2. Clarity on Your Situation
The second thing we need if we want to push through the hard times in our work is clarity about the situation we’re currently in. That means we don’t take the easy way out. We are honest when we’re not doing the work that needs to get done.
Think of clarity as an antidote to the defenses that we put up to protect us from tasks outside our comfort zones. It’s honest, self-reflective psychological accounting: an attempt to be as true as possible with ourselves about the situations we’re currently working on, taking a careful inventory of our true feelings – even if we’re embarrassed by them – as well as an inventory of our avoidance strategies. – Reach
This is what you get when you start tracking the leading indicators of your work. How many leads came in this month? How many words were written? How many conversations did you have with possible clients? How many past clients did you reach out to? How many referrals did you ask for?
When you have clarity on how those metrics are performing in your work then you have something to work with. When you’re avoiding looking at them, you’re slowly circling the drain.
Once you have a purpose for your work and have decided that you’ll push for clarity, you can move on to what it’s going to take to push through when things are hard and become the master you want to be.
How to Stick with the Hard Stuff
In a competitive world, adversity is your ally. The harder it gets, the better chance you have of insulating yourself from the competition. If that adversity also causes you to, quit, though, it’s all for nothing. – The Dip
You didn’t set out to quit, but you didn’t realise how hard running a business was going to be. You watched the Instagram sanitised life of the business owners you looked up to and wanted that.
Writing on a warm tropical beach in January…you’re in.
Vacations a few times a year without work missing a beat…sounds good.
What we all miss with this look at people is the years of hard work with little traction that went before the success we see. Now you’re sitting in that trough of hard work wondering when it’s your turn to get ‘lucky’.
Maybe you’ve gone as far as I have and looked at your peers and been angry when they seem to be getting more recognition than you are. You tell yourself that it’s not fair, you’ve been doing your craft longer. You should be the one in the spotlight.
If you’ve already gone through the 3 questions Seth Godin provided in The Dip and have a Purpose and Clarity around where you’re at and you still want to go forward, it’s time to make a plan.
Most people start their plan with yearly goals. They dream of the 1 million dollar business. Since they’re currently making $100k a year they say that next year they’re going to make $200k.
Maybe they’re really smart and they break down the goal into quarters and then those quarterly goals down into months. They even take it further and then break down the monthly goals into weeks.
Maybe they even review their goal progress regularly. They know when they’ve missed a weekly task that they need to move it to next week if they still want to hit their monthly goal.
One problem with this strategy is that we often don’t do the review. We set the goal on January 1 and then we set up our quarters and months and weeks but we rarely look at them and gauge how we’re doing.
We tell ourselves the lie that if we find in October we’re not on track we’ll pull up our socks and get things done.
I’ve told myself this lie.
In their book The 12 Week Year, Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington, call this annualised thinking.
Another flawed premise with annualized thinking is the notion that, sometime later in the year, we will experience a significant improvement in results. It’s as if something magical will happen in late September or October that will result in a substantial increase. – The 12 Week Year
This is obviously folly when stated plainly and yet most people live in that folly all the time.
Make a Better Plan
If you take The 12 Week Year to heart as I have then you no longer think of a year in terms of 12 months. You instead think of a ‘year’ as 12 weeks.
This shorter timeline means that you are almost always under deadline. You can’t put off action till because ‘October Curtis will do it’. There is no October Curtis. There is only you today that needs to execute.
With 12 weeks to get to your goals, you have the deadline looming and thus must focus on the actions every single day that will get you to the outcomes you desire.
If you’re looking for more leads then one of your goals is to talk to someone new every day and tell them what you do. That helps push you into those harder activities of networking that you’ve avoided.
When you stick with annualised thinking it’s easy to tell yourself the lie that you will network more next month. But next month like tomorrow never comes.
Set Better Checkpoints
With this better plan comes better checkpoints in your work. For the goal of lead tracking, you may take a sheet of paper and write down the names of the 5 people you talked to in a week.
If your goal is to drink more water as part of a better overall health plan, you write down your goal water consumption per day and then fill in the amount of water you drink.
Not every task is daily though. As part of your overall business success plan, you may want to develop a new product and week one of twelve is all about defining the outline for the project. Week two is about identifying the holes in your current knowledge.
Under this system, your checkpoints are weekly. You either did the tasks you wanted to for the week or you did not. You’re either closer to your goal than you work last week, or you’re not.
There is no ‘future you’ that will pick up the slack.
Bring in Compatriots
As the great work of philosophy The Legend of Zelda says:
It’s dangerous to go alone! – Wikipedia
All joking aside, if you want to see success then one of the key components of this is the peers you have around you. Business is a hard road, made harder by falling into the pervasive trap of thought that you need to be a self-made person. You need to win your success by your hard work and the help of others be damned.
This thinking isn’t supported by research though.
In his great book The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor tells us that those who most successfully navigate the difficulties in life are ones with good social support.
…the heart of Principle 7 — that when we encounter an unexpected challenge or threat, the only way to save ourselves is to hold on tight to the people around us and not let go. – The Happiness Advantage
The 12 Week Year introduces a Weekly Accountability Meeting (WAM in their terms) where you report on if you accomplished the goals for the week or not.
In other circles, this is called a mastermind group but it really doesn’t matter what you call it. You need a group around you that will not only help lift you up when things are hard, they need to challenge you when you’re falling behind on your goals.
I run a WAM group you should join me.
By having a weekly check-in and reporting on the progress towards your stated goals you will be more likely to achieve what you wanted. No, you won’t get everything done every week, but if you’re executing on most of your tasks every week then you’re far ahead of those around you.
While it’s all well and good to reach out to a group of people to support you when things are tough, these groups don’t magically spring up around you simply because times are tough. You have to put some effort into building up these networks before you need them.
In Broadcasting Happiness, Michelle Gielan refers to this building phase as our social capital.
Social capital refers to the resources that are available to us based upon the trust and willingness of our social networks to support our actions. Social capital built during good times is invaluable during challenges. The reason is that when hard times strike, the people you have built social capital with do not have to first ask themselves if they trust you or if you’re a good person. To them, it is a given. Therefore their brains can focus on what is most important – processing the challenge, brainstorming solutions, and taking positive action to move forward. – Broadcasting Happiness
If you want a group around you when things are tough, start building it now. Find a mentoring group today and let them know what your goals are. Start reporting to them now and supporting them as things get tough.
That will build your social capital so that when you need the extra support in tough times, people are ready to jump in and help.
Now for the Really Tough Parts
Despite all this support and goal setting and checkpointering (totally a word) there are still going to be parts of your work that you find hard. There will be parts that you want to avoid and your amazing creative brain will come up with all manner of reasons to justify avoidance.
Although almost all of us procrastinate, few of us admit that we do. Instead, we create excuses for our behavior – stories we tell ourselves about why we’re doing something that is really procrastination in disguise. – Reach
You can’t expect to lay waste to every area you procrastinate on in one swoop. Start by identifying the single thing you’re avoiding that will bring the highest benefit to your life.
For most business owners it comes back to the second of Godin’s three questions, most people don’t know about you. If they don’t know about you, they can’t trust you and then purchase from you.
As you start to try and stop avoiding the tasks you need to do, you first need to figure out why you’re avoiding them. According to Andy Molinsky in Reach, we have five main challenges that may result in us avoiding that hard task.
The Authenticity Challenge: This is when we feel the behaviour we’re partaking in is not like us at all.
The Likeability Challenge: We worry that if we push boundaries people won’t like us anymore.
Competence Challenge: This is often called imposter syndrome. We feel that at any moment someone will discover that we are not actually qualified for our work.
Resentment Challenge: This is when we believe we’re so awesome that people should see the awesome in us without extra effort. We resent that we have to do extra work to build a network of people that can refer work to us.
The Morality Challenge: We feel like our actions are not something that “I should be doing.” The example in Reach deals with someone whose job is to call the families of crash victims and book them to speak on the news. In the midst of unspeakable tragedy, calling someone to join a news broadcast would feel to many like something that’s morally wrong.
Our avoidance doesn’t have to stem from a single challenge. For many of us, there are components of all five in why we aren’t doing what we know we need to do. To get through them and do our work we need to start by identifying how these challenges manifest themselves in our lives.
There are really only two ways that avoidance manifests itself in our work. First, we just don’t do the task. This is obvious to all because our results are zero.
We didn’t sign up for a networking event and then didn’t go to one. We didn’t block out time to write for our blog and then we had nothing to publish.
The second way the challenges manifest themselves is much more subtle. We do the job, but we do it poorly, thus it’s not effective. This is when we show up to a networking event and hide in the corner only talking to those we know, or no one at all. We then confidently tell ourselves that we tried networking events and they don’t build our business.
We give ourselves an out due to poor performance. You see this often in kids doing any type of chore. They are told to clean their room and it takes them hours to pick up four toys. They spend most of the time getting a parent to come back and check on the job which has been done poorly. They then try to convince us that they can’t do a good job and shouldn’t do it anymore.
Around our house, this manifests itself in finding your shoes as well. When it’s time to go suddenly all the shoes are hiding. Comically when we hide some treats at Easter our children are the best sleuths on the planet. Easter is a constant reminder that if they care, kids can find anything they want.
On that single day, kids have a deep sense of purpose. They want treats, and so they perform to their maximum.
If you want to have the will to push through the hard things then you too need to have a deep sense of purpose. You need to keep it in front of you so that as things are tough, you never forget why you do the hard work you.
With your purpose in hand, how can you help ensure that you will do your work well?
Making Sure That Work Is Done Well
Doing work well is hard on many fronts. As stated, sometimes we do it poorly to give ourselves an excuse to never do it again. As a teen, my wife did a terrible job of cutting the family grass so she never had to do it again. My father-in-law is very particular about his grass.
If you want to start executing there are three ways to develop that habit.
1. Do It Your Way
The first place to look is to do the task your way. If you hate networking events, don’t go. Instead, identify 10 people that you would like to become customers and focus on getting in front of those 10 people.
Go out for coffee with them. Go to lunch with them. If you both enjoy skiing, head out to the slopes.
You’re still networking and you’re doing it on your terms.
2. Take It in Baby Steps
Your progress towards your ideal doesn’t have to be done in one fell swoop. You can start with small steps towards your goals and build on them.
If you hate writing but recognise the importance of blogging to increase your authority don’t make your first goal to write daily. Make your first goal to show up for a daily hour-long writing block. Inside that block, suffer no distractions and don’t worry about completing an article.
Simply sit for the 20 minutes or hour you’ve blocked out and work on getting words down.
I have a personal YouTube channel where I post about running and training for an ultramarathon. One thing you’ll note is that many of my days are the same.
I get up at 5:15 am. I run for 1 – 2 hours. I eat breakfast and then I read for an hour. Next, is working on one of the main tasks of the day. I check email for 25 minutes before lunch then I work on the other big task of the day. I leave an hour in the afternoon to pick up any tasks that weren’t planned for in the day.
My life is a routine. This routine means that I can focus on the things I need to focus on.
This routine means that I know what I’m going to do almost every day of the week. Building a routine in to your life can help you accomplish the tasks you want because you know you wake up and write.
You go to that networking event every Tuesday. You always invite someone for lunch on Wednesday.
Without a routine, it’s much too easy to put off the hard task today until later in the week which becomes next week. Next week becomes next month, and you hit the end of the year with little forward progress toward your goals.
If you can put these three tactics into practice in your work, you will be much more likely to accomplish the goals you set out for your next 12 weeks.
Now that we’ve established that avoidance harms us and that we need a plan with measurable goals and an overarching purpose to fuel us through the hard times, we need to look at how we let mess double as avoidance and come up with a plan to do the deep work that is needed for us to accomplish our goals
Why Messy Stimuli Can Be Good for Us
I recently visited a friend’s office and got to see their work area. It was under at least 5 stacks of paper that were no less than 12″ tall. When I said something about the mess she even admitted that she had a keyboard tray installed under the desk because it no longer had room on top of the desk.
That is not the type of mess I’m talking about here. The mess on my friend’s desk is not good for creativity. It’s clearly avoidance. She doesn’t want to file things, so she puts it off.
The ‘mess’ that is good for creativity is one of diverse stimuli that have a purpose. Each new piece of information builds with the others into a web that creates some new work of creativity.
You can see it here in the wealth of book quotes I’ve pulled from to build this single long essay. I’ve pulled in diverse stimuli and used them to shape my thinking. I’ve been challenged in my thinking in some of my searching and in other parts I’ve been affirmed.
I’m also not talking about distraction as mess or diverse stimuli. While hoping into the social media platform of the hour or texting your friends is diverse stimuli, in 99.99% of cases, it’s not the stimuli that will help you push forward in your work. It’s avoidance.
The Danger in Mess
Before we dive into how mess can help you be more creative we need to explore the danger in mess. For most ‘mess’ is just that, mess. It’s not beneficial and in fact, it’s harmful.
Here mess means not just papers piled on your desk, but distractions from your work. They’re both considered mess because they both contribute to the load your brain must deal with.
That desk that I spoke of above is more than just a pile of papers, it’s a symbol of avoidance. My friend even said, “Oh I really just need to file this stuff, but I don’t have time”. Then in the two hours I borrowed some office space I listened as she spent about 30% of the time talking to her family members.
I have no way of knowing if this is a normal day, but I do know that the conversations were nothing more crucial than when the car was going to get washed, what was for dinner, and when hair cuts were scheduled.
There was plenty of time to file if they stopped talking and started filing. Your avoidance may not be that obviously not working but you’ve got something. If you work at home it may even be folding the laundry while you ‘think’. If you’re scrounging around for more to wash and making up chores so you have that thinking time, you’re avoiding, not thinking.
This same idea goes for looking at your social media poison of choice. It’s easy to say you’re getting new ideas when you’re really avoiding the hard thinking you should be doing. As I said earlier, email is in the same boat. Visibly “productive” and yet so often not what we should be doing.
Yet some laud distraction as a key thing we should applaud.
Distractable brains can also be seen as brains that have an innate tendency to make those useful random leaps. – Messy
But what they fail to acknowledge out in the open is that these leaps only happen in the midst of someone that has achieved mastery in their field.
Messy disruptions will be the most powerful when combined with creative skill. The disruption puts an artist, scientist, or engineer in unpromising territory – a deep valley rather than a familiar hilltop. But then expertise kicks in and finds ways to move upward again: the climb finishes at a new peak, perhaps lower than the old one, but perhaps unexpectedly higher. – Messy
In Messy that small section above is the closest that Tim Harford comes to admitting that you can’t just be messy, you need to be an expert first. He says that the mess needs to be combined with creative expertise. Expertise presumably which can only be developed by focusing long and hard in a single field.
If that’s not the mess which you need more of, then what is this good mess? A good mess can be defined as:
A good ‘mess’ is a set of ideas and assumptions that run contrary to usually held beliefs.
These ideas that run contrary to your regularly held beliefs protect us from Confirmation Bias. We’re all victims of confirmation bias, especially if we don’t think we are. There are no special flowers that can always dispassionately look at ideas and not view them through the lens of their current beliefs.
Remember in the introduction I cited a study that showed mixed-race juries did a better job judging trials. They had a ‘mess’ that caused them to check their confirmation bias. That’s the mess we want to challenge our ideas.
Since we agree that to be our best, most creative selves, we need to find diverse ideas that challenge us, how do we accomplish it?
How Do We Find Alternate Ideas
One would think that with our wealth of knowledge available it would be easy to find those that challenge our ideas, but it’s getting harder.
Google is the leading search engine and it tailors our search results to be more relevant to our interests. That means it knows when I search “Kai Davis” I mean my friend the guy that helps freelancers not the poet. This is good because I get the results I want, but it’s also terrible.
It means that as you search and click on articles that cast your chosen political candidate in a good light, you’ll see more of them. You won’t see the rational articles saying why the candidate is a bad choice.
The first thing to admit is that you too suffer from confirmation bias. If you’re not willing to admit this, then stop reading here and stick with what makes you feel comfortable like much of the world.
Second, you need to acknowledge that the other side is not dumb. You are not the sole fount of wisdom at which we should all drink. Those that share your opinions are not the Grand Vizer of all that’s good and right. Conversely, the ‘other side’ is not full of slavering idiots that communicate in grunts punctuated by butt scratching and a sniffed surprise that their finger smells funny.
How to Challenge Your Ideas
If you’re willing to admit those two things, you’re already on better footing than most, but it still leaves you with the task of finding the ideas and people that aren’t copies of you and thus will have a refining effect on your thoughts.
1. Seek Dissenters
You need to start by seeking those that disagree with you. If you’re a Christian, find an atheist to talk to.
This does two things. First, it puts a real face on those ‘others’ that disagree with you. When you know someone that is sane and a friend that has different beliefs, you’re not tempted to turn the group as a whole into some faceless force of evil.
Second, this gives you a perfect outlet to test your beliefs against. Through discussion, you’ll be disagreed with and then you’ll be forced to look harder at what you believe to be true with new information presented.
These dissenting ideas should be a catalyst for you to dig deeper into your beliefs. This digging will allow you to see if your beliefs still hold up in light of the contrary evidence.
2. Ask More Questions
One of the keys to seeking out rational disagreement is to ask more questions. Your conversations should not be about converting others to your cause, it should be about understanding their beliefs.
The long term goal is that you can state their beliefs and the reasoning behind them as well, or better than they can. Only when you’ve achieved this hard-fought state of understanding have you spent the needed time testing your thoughts against those that don’t share them.
If you can’t state their beliefs with support as well as they can, you don’t know the truth of your beliefs.
3. Search the Alternate
When I was interested in starting Crossfit I spent most of my time exploring why Crossfit was bad for you. I searched Google for it. I talked to my friend who is a Physiotherapist. I talked to another friend who is a Massage Therapist. I talked to my wife who is a Registered Personal Trainer.
Then armed with lots of opinions about why you should be careful not only in Crossfit but in any new workout program, I looked at the reasons Crossfitters thought it was a great exercise regimen.
The place to start when you embark on research is to write down as many questions that may poke holes in your initial beliefs and then research them. As I started thinking about this essay and my love of deep work, I wondered what the dissenting opinions were. That’s how I found the book Messy and got to look at its ideas that run contrary to Deep Work. I found that they are more aligned than I first thought, but Messy seems to discount the amount of Deep Work required to excel.
With our strongest-held ideas, those that are crucial to the core of who we are, we need to take the tack of a PhD student. We need to expect that we’ll meet a hostile board of people who’s job it is to tear our thoughts apart and show us why we’re wrong.
How to Make Diverse Stimuli Work for You
While I could tell you that you need to evaluate your strongly held belief’s and walk away smugly, you would not have the tools needed to accomplish the lofty goal I set out.
The three actions you can put into practice to help you evaluate your beliefs are:
1. Normalise the Language
I start this by assuming that you’re going to do the research needed to test your ideas. You’re reading books and scientific studies. You’re not scanning 10 blog posts and calling it good because you recognise that 90% of what’s written online is a poor summary of a summary. It was churned off as opinion and titled in such a way as to get clicks. Very few writers have done the hard work to dig into the ideas they propose with unabashed confidence.
Since you’re doing the research, the first step is to normalise the language of the sources you read. An example of this is knowing that Purpose, WHY, and Life’s Task are all ways of talking about that which you are meant to do in the world. Your overriding aim with everything you do.
Jeff Goins calls it Purpose in The Art of Work.
Simon Sinek calls it your WHY in Start with WHY.
Robert Greene calls it your Life’s Task in Mastery.
They’re all talking about the same core idea, they simply frame it with different words. As you dig into your research you need to keep your own common dictionary that translates the different sources into the words you’re choosing to use to define the problem.
2. Find the Purpose and Structure
The second step is to find the purpose and structure of the work you’re reading. Most author’s state this in the beginning of their writing. You can find my purpose writing here in the first few paragraphs.
Relate to the purpose of any content, is the motivation of its creator. Why did they write it? Were they too searching for answers or is it content that is purely meant to ‘sell’ their point of view? Did the weigh the contrary opinions and can you see that in their writing?
Once you’ve identified their motivation, you can give it the weight it deserves. In the case of a ‘sales’ piece, little to none. In the case of a well researched and examined piece, significantly more weight.
The structure is also often stated at the outset and recognising this structure we are equipped better to dig through the points that the author is going to make. Did they follow their structure? Did they accomplish the goals stated in the structure or sections of the book?
If you can dig into your research this way, you’re firmly on the path toward putting diverse stimuli to work for you.
If you’re looking to go deeper on the first two items then you should read How to Read a Book. It’s the best resource I know of to develop these skills.
3. Develop Empathy
Earlier I said that you should be looking for people in the “other” group to converse with. People that you can have a rational conversation with despite disagreements. People that you can share hobbies with and call friends.
This is the starting point to building empathy for opposing ideas. Empathy is defined as:
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Brené Brown has produced a great video describing empathy and how it’s not the same as sympathy.
Empathy is about perspective taking. It’s about understanding and joining your friend that has differing beliefs in those beliefs. You’re not converting them, you’re understanding them.
We can accomplish this using tools like:
- 6 Hats Thinking
- Active Listening
- Mindfullness – being aware of those around you instead of in your phone
While that’s certainly not an exhaustive list of tools, it’s a good start.
4. Run Tests
In her otherwise hippy dippy dismal book Pivot, Jenny Blake hits on and explains well the idea of running small tests.
For our purposes, the primary goal of the Pilot phase is ignition and validation: Generating ideas, testing those ideas, then taking small, smart risks to eventually inform bigger decisions about what’s next. – Pivot
When you encounter an alternate idea, test it. If you’re an omnivore and you know a vegetarian, don’t discount the way of eating until you’ve tried it. Give it 2 months and see how you feel. Some half-hearted attempt where you don’t follow the diet but can say it failed doesn’t count. You need to invest in the test as much as you invest in your idea.
At the end of 2 months, do you feel better? What’s your weight? Do you have more energy? Are you in better shape?
A decent test of an idea will bring you to a greater understanding of the foundation on which the idea stands. With that understanding, you are ready to check the new way of thinking against your current way. Without the foundational understanding, you almost always don’t have the information needed to evaluate the opposing ideas properly.
5. Be Willing to Be Contrary
There are two great books in creative and productivity circles, that I think are a waste of time. Oh sure, there are some good sound bites and quotes, but I wouldn’t recommend you read them. They’re Essentialism and The War of Art.
When I talk about them in a group I’m the sole voice that contends they say nothing new. I feel that your reading time is much better spent reading other books. That often pits me against everyone else in the room, and I’m okay with that.
If you’ve been a staunch Trump supporter and you interact with Trump supporters, but now feel different you have to be willing to sit under the ire of those you once agreed with.
You need to prize being honest about your ideas over friendships.
This isn’t easy, we’re hardwired to fight contrary opinions as The Oatmeal has so hilariously illustrated for us.
If you’ve come this far, I hope you’re on board with examining the diverse stimuli that we have around us. You’ve agreed and will put into practice the ideas I have above about how to examine the mess of ideas that are presented to us.
To Create We Need Time Without Distraction
Cal Newport’s premise in his great book Deep Work is as follows.
The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive. – Deep Work
This is a looong blog article. How many of you read it in a single sitting? How many of you read it without any distractions at all?
No text messages? No checking Twitter? No Slack interruptions?
I’m willing to lay down good money that it’s less than 1% of readers. I know when I talk to my coaching students almost none of them have this space in their day. That’s one of the first things we work on establishing, space to do the work they get paid good money for.
My current schedule gives me 24 hours a week of uninterrupted work on my projects. That’s three working days where I sit down and write words or code. I no longer even check email on those days.
Two days a week I take calls. One is reserved for new prospects and the second is reserved for my coaching clients. Those are the only two days I check email. With the days divided up into calls, I don’t have time to sink my teeth into deep creative work. Shallow work like email is the most productive thing I can do in the spaces between calls.
For most entrepreneurs, it’s easy to fall into shiny object syndrome. You have a new idea and start it, without finishing the ones you’ve previously started. You end up with a swath of brilliant started ideas and almost nothing of value to show for it.
Hardworking, motivated people find diversification a natural outlet for their energy and drive. Diversification feels like the right thing to do. Enter a new market, apply for a job in a new area, start a new sport. Who knows? This might just be the one. – The Dip
Following this tack means that you never get the famous 10,000 hours needed to be a master at your craft. You get 1,000 hours here 50 hours there and 2,000 in another spot.
That’s not what you want, so how do you make a life of deep work happen?
Making Deep Work a Part of Your Life
According to Cal Newport, there are 4 methods of deep work.
- The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: Shut yourself off and do your work. Ignore all distractions.
- The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: Shut yourself away for portions of the year like the monastic way. The rest of the year you deal with life as it comes at you.
- The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: This would be building a chain of say writing 1,000 words a day and then not breaking the chain. Look up Jerry Seinfeld’s method for writing jokes.
- The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: Paying attention in your day and seizing every opportunity to escape and work with focus. Like when a kid is taking a nap and putting in that hour of work with no interruptions
The way I practice deep work is closest to The Monastic Philosophy. Three days a week I shut myself away and do creative work. The only interactions that come into my day are ones specifically around the creative work I’m doing.
The first step for you to start bringing more focus into your day is to pick which one of the methods fits with your current work situation and start to put it into practice.
You put it into practice by defining your ideal week, focusing on execution, get comfortable with the word NO, and not allowing distractions in your space.
Let’s walk through how to put these pieces together.
Define Your Ideal Week
I’ve already talked about my ideal week. The only time I deal with email and interruptions are Tuesday and Friday. Monday I code for clients. Wednesday morning I code for clients, the afternoon is spent writing guest posts. Thursday is only focused on writing for myself, stuff like this.
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and most Friday’s the day starts with at least 1 hour of reading. That’s me working ‘on’ my business in the form of self-improvement.
Your week doesn’t have to match mine, but you need to go into each week with the ideal directly in front of you. By defining your ideal week first, before you start to fill it with all the things that others think should be your priorities, you use the Primacy Effect to your advantage.
The Primacy Effect states that we’re more likely to remember the items that are first brought to our attention. They maintain more importance because they are first.
By giving our ideal scheduled week this first place we give it the primary spot in our brain and treat it as more important than the distractions that will come up to break up our creative time.
If you can’t swear off email 3 days a week, schedule when you will deal with it, and don’t make it the first thing you do in the morning. Give yourself 2 windows, one at 11 am and one at 3 pm. Give yourself 25 minutes and schedule the emails to send about 15 minutes after you stop dealing with email.
By limiting the time you devote to email you’ll be forced to get more effective in dealing with email. You’ll adopt email templates and use the amazing unless I hear otherwise strategy.
When you define your ideal week, always start with the times you won’t be working. My daughters have figure skating 3 days a week which means I need to leave the office by 3 pm. My calendar starts by blocking out those times.
I also block out the 3 runs I take which take up part of my work day in the mornings. Then block out lunch. Put in the 2 – 3 hour blocks you’ll spend focused on your client projects or writing, your big creative blocks. Have at least one a day, but most people can fit in 2 if they stay focused.
Then slot in the two 25 minute email blocks you’ll have in the day.
When you get started, you’ll have to move the calendar around many times. You’ll get a single week in and find that it’s not working at all like you hoped. Take the time to adjust and take another stab at it next week.
Stick with it until you have lots of creative time you can use to focus on your best work.
Focus on Execution
To make that ideal week work you need to focus on execution. If you only have two 25 minute blocks a day to deal with email, you have no time to waffle.
If one of those blocks in a day is dedicated to reaching out to prospects for your business, that means no answering the random emails until you’ve done the planned follow-up.
If you’ve given yourself 2 hours to write, you need to write.
If you’re focusing on execution, that means no surfing your social media poison of choice. Yes, poison because by dipping into it you’re poisoning your focus. Spending 30 minutes trolling Twitter means you’re stealing 45 minutes from your family or your clients.
My current ones are:
- Generate more sales
- Improve my diet
- Start developing a new course
Inside those are individual action items every week. For my sales goal some of my weekly tasks are:
- Get in touch with 3 new prospects a week
- Reach out to 3 past clients a week
- Follow up with leads that are older than a month
- Ask for referrals from current projects
At the end of a week, I rank myself on the execution. Did I get in touch with 3 new prospects or not? If I didn’t I can’t expect that my business will make more sales. My actions today show what my business will be tomorrow.
Far too many business owners figure some cosmic god of business will come to their rescue, and then don’t focus on action. That god doesn’t exist and is not coming to your rescue. Only your execution will bring the change you want.
Get Comfortable with the Word NO
The biggest productivity tool you have on your belt is the word NO. NO comes back to the boundaries you’re going to set on your life.
I have a friend that says I’m a terrible person to have coffee with. Our family rule is that I won’t go out more than one night a week on my own. This makes me really hard to pin down for a coffee.
I won’t book a coffee in the middle of Monday, Wednesday or Thursday. Those days are all about focusing on my work.
That means when my friend asks me about coffee and I don’t have space on a Tuesday that works for him (he works shifts) I say no. I’d love to hang out with him, but I value my creative space.
He hears ‘no’ from me a lot and while it annoys him sometimes he also regularly tells me he admires my commitment to being with my kids and not letting that time get interrupted. He has 2 older daughters, both out of the house and one with a kid. He gets how important it is to be a father that’s present.
If saying ‘no’ is hard for you, then maybe it’s time to change the language a bit. I have a friend that decided he doesn’t do speaking engagements. Instead of saying ‘no’ he says “I don’t do speaking engagements”. It’s a subtle, but important difference.
Where no seems to indicate that you looked at the opportunity but it wasn’t important enough to you saying “I don’t…” shows that it’s not personal, it’s just a rule. That helps take some of the sting out as you decline the opportunity.
The same logic can be used with your project minimum. “I’m sorry I don’t take projects under $1500. I haven’t been able to figure out a way to make them profitable.”
Are some people going to get mad? Hell YES, they are. They’re going to be angry that the thing they value so highly isn’t something you value. But those people are few and far between.
For those few that do take offence and feel the need to tell you about it, you need to remember that their anger is their problem. It’s not your problem. If you’re struggling with that then you need to read Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend.
Inside Boundaries, you’ll find a wealth of change for your thinking as you realise that so much of the things you stress about, aren’t your problem and shouldn’t occupy any mental bandwidth.
Don’t Give Yourself Opportunity to Have Distractions
I’m a cookie monster and my kids know it. I’ll be sitting there enjoying a morning coffee as my 6-year-old is heading off to school and she’ll remind me not to eat all the cookies while she’s gone. When I remind her that there are about a dozen cookies left she shows her future teenage face and very sternly wags her finger at me saying: “Don’t eat all the cookies, cookie monster.”
Yes her face is cute when that happens and it’s a funny story, but my 37-year-old waistline can’t handle eating an entire box of cookies over a few days. Even with running 50 – 70km a week.
I’ve tried putting 4 cookies in a container and making that my ‘cookie allowance’ for the day, but I still end up eating more than 4. I’ve even got only eat 1 sweet a day on my execution sheet and I’m failing miserably at it.
What I’ve reaffirmed is that I need to not have any cookies in the house if I want to eat fewer cookies. Moderation in cookies (and chocolate) doesn’t work for me, only the absence of it as an option work.
Social media is like that for most people, it steals their attention despite their best efforts. Remember Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and any other attention based service is paying it’s engineers lots to get you to use their service longer and longer. Their goal is for you to spend more time on them, productivity be damned.
That means most of the time you need to remove the ability to have your attention stolen.
No, you don’t have to have a summer retreat that’s so far off the beaten path that no one can get in touch with you like Carl Jung did. But there are tools you can use to remove the distractions to your work.
Yes, it’s a nice thing to get your iMessages on your Mac, but it’s an even bigger distraction so turn it off. I’ve gone with Elementary OS and one of the benefits is that iMessage doesn’t exist on the platform.
You can take this a step further, take your phone out of your office. I regularly leave my phone in our charging drawer on the main level of our house. My wife is home with the kids so if there is an emergency she can call up or send my 6-year-old to come get me.
I take it even further by putting my phone in do not disturb mode during the work day. That means when my wife sends me a text message to vent about something silly the kids are doing, I don’t see it. The only way for her to get in touch with me is to call me which will ring through since she’s a VIP.
When I’m out and about working at coffee shops, I put my phone in the cell pocket on my bag. I can’t reach into my pocket in a moment of weakness and see if anything might maybe need my attention.
By being intentional about removing the option to be distracted you’ll train yourself to not need distractions. It’s hard at first because we’ve now spent years training ourselves that we always need to engage with some form of…something, but it gets easier.
Where once you felt naked without your phone, you’ll realise that you don’t miss it 99% of the time. You’ll start using it as a tool to enhance your life, instead of a device that’s chiefly good at stealing you away from the life happening in front of you.
As you begin to implement these four strategies, your focus will become more and more effective. You’ll be able to take all of the great information you’re taking in and put it to use in your work.
Will You Make It Happen?
Today we’ve explored what it’s going to take you to become a master in your field. To become the master you long to be you need to know when to push through the hard work, and when to change course because it’s just not working.
In the second section, we looked at how masters take diverse stimuli and turn it into amazing new things. At the same time, we need to have lots of deep focus time to be able to take all the things we learn and synthesise them into new creative works. Here I showed you how to decide what’s mess and distraction and what’s good for expanding your thoughts. We finished with an exploration of how to build times of focus into your life.
All that’s left is for you to go out and do it. If you loved this and then do nothing about it, nothing will change.
The fact is, you won’t reach a break-through if you are not willing to change how you currently allocate your time. To get different results, you will have to do things differently and do different things. – The 12 Week Year
Execution is up to you.
Will you plan your ideal week?
Will you intentionally look for ideas that are contrary to your own?
Will you remove distractions from your work area?
Will you be honest with yourself about the progress, or lack thereof, you’re making?
I know it’s hard to execute. If it wasn’t everyone would do it. Get a mentoring group or a coach to help you stick to the goals you’ve set for yourself. Be honest with them and be ready to get called out when you aren’t living up to the execution goals you set out.
If you can do this, get ready to start changing your life.
Main photo by: clement127