Though the title of this blog is ‘viral marketing’, regular readers will know that it’s far from being the only thing I talk about. Sometimes I’ll share a case study to inspire you. Sometimes I’ll offer insights to educate you, and sometimes I’ll give you step-by-step advice so you can take action.
This post is, purely and simply, for those who want more from their lives. If you’re happy with the position you’re in or at least like how you spend your days, then skip this post and come back next week (I have $7K/m case study on the way). Today I’m simply sharing what I wish someone else had written a few months ago when I was once again at the busiest point in my life and questioning the direction I found myself heading.
In the hectic position I was in, on the verge of the Guardian launch and the countless other travel and project commitments that I couldn’t turn down, I honestly felt as pressured as I had ever been. I decided that since there was no way I could drop any of what I was doing, I was going to use this time to find the best strategy available to deal with my workload.
I’ve spoken about productivity a lot on this site so I was hesitant to do so again. Especially since I still stand by all of what I’ve already said. Then again, if I play tennis daily, I should expect my backhand and serve to improve a lot over the space of a few months. If I’m learning to speak a foreign language then I should, in time, be able to string together a few basic sentences. If I put a lot of focus on getting things done – which I have – then my process and viewpoint should eventually evolve.
I’m now a few months on from when I started my research and I have to be honest, I didn’t find it. Through countless hours of reading, and planning and testing, no magical or mind-blowing solution revealed itself. Not one experiment in the last few months made me a productivity guru. I really wish something had — this blog post would be a lot more popular.
My lack of results wasn’t through lack of trying. My list of tactics and ideas was pretty exhaustive. Though most of what I tried helped in some way, I still never found what I was looking for: A productivity method that would make hard work easier to overcome and thus increase my output. I did however, after spending more time then I would like to admit reading books, watching videos and looking into the lives of successful people, come to a conclusion that I’m satisfied with.
If I had to sum that conclusion up in one sentence then I would say something like this…
There is not a productivity method in the world that can help people as much as they can help themselves.
That’s it. Nothing too flash or (admittedly) interesting. It probably doesn’t make you very excited for the rest of this article either, so let’s hype it up a little. I elaborated on how I came to this conclusion with a friend and he sent me this email a few days later:
And now, if you’re interested, I’ll elaborate on it for you.
Before I continue, I want to first say that though my writing style from here on out makes me seem very confident about what I have ‘discovered’, be careful not to interpret this as me wanting to convince you of something. I’m not trying to make you believe me. There is enough research in here to help you come to your own conclusions about whether or not what I’m saying will benefit your personal journey.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let me tell you about one of the first methods I decided to try. The six-step process found in Think and Grow Rich. If you haven’t read this book already then I highly recommend you do so. It’s free, since its copyright has expired. Written in 1937, the book is a published account of what its author, Napoleon Hill, discovered after 500 interviews over 25 years on the topic of what makes people successful (rich).
The entire book is written around Napoleon’s Six Step process to getting whatever you want out of life, which is basically as follows:
It’s a nice little formula, and he sells it very well. I followed the six-step process for over 30 days and found that while it felt good to have a much clearer focus of where I was heading, I still wasn’t having any fun or ‘easy productivity’ on the way. Work was still a challenge.
One key theme throughout the book that Napoleon stresses is how important it is to have a ‘Burning Desire’ for your goals. In his words:
“The ease with which lack of persistence may be conquered will depend entirely upon the intensity of one’s desire. The starting point of all achievement is desire. Keep this constantly in mind. Weak desires bring weak results, just as a small amount of fire makes a small amount of heat. If you find yourself lacking in persistence, this weakness may be remedied by building a stronger ﬁre under your desires.”
I especially liked his focus on the idea that, simply, if you want $10,000 then you don’t get it by wanting or needing, but instead by providing $10,000 worth of value. Though the book didn’t provide the ultimate solution I was looking for, I came away with a new perspective that I think helped me clarify some concepts later on.
One of my favourite productivity methods has been, for a long time now, the Pomodoro Method. I’ve talked about it once on this blog when I stated that the method basically consists of working on something for 25 minutes (a Pomodoro) at a time. Though there is a little more to it than that.
I used this on and off through the months, finding it useful on a lot of days when I wasn’t really into the task at hand and ‘just another 25 minutes’ didn’t sound too bad in my head.
I had heard through Napoleon Hill and countless others that visualisation was crucial, so I would also sit down and vividly imagine already having what I want. The idea behind this being that I’ll create a more emotional (and thus stronger) connection with my goals and be more likely to achieve them. It’s something I’ve tried in the past but had never really stuck with it. It’s easier to say what the results of this were not rather than what they were. They were not what I was looking for.
I tried a few more things like reading out loud my ‘Dream Day’, using EFT and the Sedona Method on my procrastination and a few other things. All of them, as I said, having their benefits, but none convincing me that I should stop looking for other solutions.
Through my research I came across Jim Rohn, a veteran speaker and author in the personal development world who is sadly no longer with us. I really connected with his no-BS approach to self improvement and quickly went through three of his books; one just dedicated to some of his best quotes. He put a lot of emphasis on the fact that we are our own value and totally responsible for our current situation in life.
“If we lost everything tomorrow, we could easily replace it all. Why? Because we acquired those things as a result of what we are. Assuming “what we are” has not changed; in time we will attract back into our lives everything we may have lost. The same applied knowledge, the same attitude, the same effort, and the same plan will always produce the same results. This fundamental should give us cause for both elation and alarm.”
Think of Steve Jobs being fired from Apple and starting up Pixar or Donald Trump losing his entire fortune and building it back up a few years later.
Like Napoleon, Jim opened me up to more ideas and concepts, but I was still just gaining a lot of knowledge. No matter how much I visualised what I wanted, learned new concepts or tried certain productivity tactics, I wasn’t getting an ‘Aha’ moment. Maybe there wasn’t one out there.
In the end I resigned to the fact that this productivity ‘secret’ solving is a really, really long road. I could be researching the subject for years and not come up with some perfect answer that I’m satisfied with. So, I stopped and looked at what I had managed to achieve in all this time whilst trying to find my answer.
That’s when something clicked.
Though getting things done had not been easy, I had managed to achieve two things that I’m quite proud of. One of them will be revealed next year, and the other was this very article. I realised that the journey to finding an answer had actually been the most productive thing I did. I didn’t need some productivity tactic or tip to start to get going, and there wasn’t even a guarantee that I would get an answer. I read dozens of books, watched countless videos and made pages upon pages of notes. Yet, doing all of that was really easy.
All I can say about the things I completed with much more ease (and to a higher standard) is that I really enjoyed doing them. I know that’s probably not the answer you were looking for. And trust me when I say it’s not the one I wanted to find. But the science does back me up.
After having read a few books on getting things done, my Kindle suggested that I might enjoy The Talent Code. One reviewer described it as being like taking Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (where he highlights that many professionals have taken 10,000 hours of practice to become immensely talented) and looking at the science behind his findings. Early on, author Daniel Coyle introduces something called Myelin, which I found really interesting.
Myelin, neurologists have recently discovered, is basically the key to all human talking, reading and learning skills. If you view every human movement or thought as an electrical impulse travelling through a circuit of neurons, then think of myelin like the insulation which wraps around these fibres and increases their signal strength. “The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our moments and thoughts become” recaps Coyle.
He then looks at research by Simon Clifford into why South America (specifically Brazil) is a hotbed for footballing talent. His findings showed that the popular way of playing football there, known as Futebol de Salão, had a big influence. The game is played on a small court and uses a ball that is half the size of a regular football yet weighs twice as much, so rarely bounces.
A study by the University of Liverpool found that Futebol de Salão players touch the ball six times more per minute than people training with a normal ball on a regular pitch. Futebol de Salão players were able to wrap their football talent circuits in more myelin over a shorter period of time. It also meant that when they played on a full-sized pitch, players felt like they had “acres of space”.
The book also highlights the story of the Brontë sisters, and their love for character creation and writing short stories as children just to keep themselves entertained. Juliet Barker, a six year curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum revealed that the sisters wrote “twenty-two little books averaging eighty pages each in one fifteen-month period”. That’s a lot of writing.
Coyle once again links this back to Myelin, noting his belief that the sisters’ talent was developed through little more than constant practice. To add even more legs to that theory, Barker says that “The first little books weren’t just amateurish – a given, since their authors were so young – they lacked any signs of incipient genius. Far from original creations, they were bald imitations of magazine articles and books of the day.”
Many of you will know that Charlotte Brontë went on to write literature classic Jane Eyre with her sister Emily producing another, Wuthering Heights.
Coyle comes to the conclusion that passion and persistence are the key ingredients of talent and success. Why? “Because wrapping myelin around a big circuit requires immense energy and time. If you don’t love it, you’ll never work hard enough to be great.”
Once again I found myself getting back to point of just ‘doing what you love’.
That’s what I asked myself when I went through research by Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. I had come across Drive a few years ago and remembered that the ideas found inside were fascinating, but if I had to read it again, then maybe it just hadn’t included what I needed to hear the first time around.
One of the main concepts presented in Drive, backed by numerous studies, is the idea that if a task is purely mechanical (i.e. you do this and get that), then offering someone an increased salary will lead to increased output. If the task however requires even the smallest form of rudimentary cognitive skill, that same increased salary will actually lead to a decrease in performance.
Pink pointed out that the three things which really motivated us were Autonomy (being self-directed), Mastery (getting better at something) and Purpose (why you’re doing something).
When Pink talked about autonomy and how important it is that we’re self directed, I couldn’t help but think of this quote by Robert Benchley: “Anyone can do any amount of work providing it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”
Not being totally susceptible to ideas just because they’re written in a book, I decided to test the concept based on what I know of my own reality. Was I motivated to do things that weren’t being driven by money? The first ‘Yes’ that came to mind was a house I had built for a friends cat last year when I was bored. Nobody had asked me to build it (autonomy), I had never built one before so I was going to learn how (mastery) and the cat would finally have a place to sit outside (purpose).
Not the greatest looking ‘house’, I know, but he seemed happy enough.
I then thought of something else I had done recently: Split-testing signs and sales tactics for homeless people here in Africa to try and help some of them sustain themselves. Nobody told me to go out and do it (autonomy), I was highly curious about which signs would result in physical sales (mastery) and I had a purpose to help the people I was working with to get off the streets. It once again fit the model.
If you’re interested in how that went, I’ll write a bit more about it on a future post. I do remember at one point a guy I was helping said: “Why are you doing this? You’re losing money” (we were selling R6.50 newspapers for R5 to help increase his confidence). I said “Don’t worry, I’m getting something out of it as well”. I meant it, but I wasn’t sure what I was getting out of it at the time. I feel like I have a better idea of this now thanks to refreshing myself on the AMP model.
I could even look at hugely successful and talented people in their fields and the model would fit their circumstances as well. Jonathan Ive, the head designer at Apple, gets an extra $10m in company stock every single year. Do you think he still needs to cash his pay-cheques? I’m pretty certain he has an abundance of autonomy, mastery and purpose in what he’s doing.
Or what about Doug Morris, the 72-year-old head of Sony Music who helped to create Vevo, the music video player which has a partnership with Youtube. He’s now set on the goal of making Sony the most ‘pre-eminent’ music agency of the next decade. People 10 years his junior are preparing for their retirement years so they can relax and do nothing that looks like work. He’s aiming to transform a huge company from an office each day.
Finally, the model could even account for times when I was doing what I love but then suddenly stopped enjoying that thing. In pretty much every case it was because my autonomy (my self-direction over the work at hand) had been taken away from me. An example being when I was working as a social media manager and loving what I was doing, but had clients that were so rigid and intimidated by the web that I couldn’t implement 90% of the ideas I was so passionate about.
With this science, theory and personal testing behind me, I can now assume an interesting idea: If Tiger Woods had started to play tennis at three years old instead of golf and really enjoyed it (thanks to AMP), he would be one of the best tennis players in the world today. He would have enough time to build up the necessary Myelin for that particular skill and enough motivation to help him keep building it.
Was the only answer I had gotten out of this entire research just: ‘Do what you love as much as you can’?
In a way, yes. I shot off an email to Guardian journalist Andrea and asked if, like me, she gets some weird satisfaction from writing a sentence that just fits? She confirmed almost instantly, complete with an example sentence to go with it. Based on the science we’ve just covered it should now be no surprise to you that she’s really good at what she does.
Since I tell people who ask what I do that my life is just like those guys from The Social Network (just kidding?) I can’t help but think about Mark Zuckerberg who – despite whether or not TSN was an accurate portrayal of reality – must have been having the time of his life creating Facebook.
I thought about someone else I had researched, Tony Hawk, and found that the basis for all of his success was nothing more than really loving being on a skateboard. When asked in an interview how long it will be until he stops skating he replied ‘When I’m physically unable’.
In a way, no. I have friends that seem to love activities just as much as I do, if not more. One is obsessed with home decor. She can find the quirkiest pieces in the most mundane shops, wont settle for anything other than a certain item once she’s seen it and she’ll even call friends in spontaneous moments to share her excitement about a particular discovery.
I have no doubt that an interior design company somewhere would be lucky to have her. They would get so much more value out of her than any staff who are clearly just ‘going through the motions’.
I have another friend from Liverpool who loves to cook. She is picky about every fine detail when it comes to food preparation. Every meal will be like some big event she has to share online. When someone is having a party she’ll nominate herself to be caterer and go all out. Yet, she currently spends her days as an assistant in an accountants office.
At the start of this post I ‘hyped it up’ by showing you an email from a friend who had been invited to go for a job interview. It all came about when he mentioned one day that he had found a way to speed up the process of something at work, but his manager wasn’t interested when he tried to explain it. I told him what I thought about that, so he documented what the change was (which he thought would be valuable to the company) and sent it to his managers manager.
Then he received an email, inviting him to interview for a higher position in the company. Did he get the job? Sadly not. He was asked to perform a lot of tasks (IT related) that he couldn’t perform. But that’s okay. He now knows what it takes to get the position that he wants so he’s learning the skills he doesn’t have.
The reason he didn’t do anything before talking to me is the same reason my food and decor obsessed friends will probably never spend much time in the food or interior design industries: They think that have too much time and too little permission. They’re not consciously aware that our time on this planet is slowly but surely slipping away, and they have full control over what they want to do about it. If they are, then it’s just not important enough to them.
Think back to Tiger Woods getting the necessary Myelin to be skilled in tennis (instead of golf). We’ve deduced that the only way (okay, easiest way) he can become skilled enough is to love it, because it takes so much effort. Is that enough to make him one of the best players in the world? I would argue against it. Unless you actually have a drive to achieve something with that skill – like winning competitions – and commit to keep going until you do so then you’ll just be another hobbyist.
Steve Jobs was going to turn his love for electronics and building things into a computer. Bill Gates was going to turn his love for programming into Microsoft. Arnold “gym is better than sex” Schwarznegger was going to turn his love for the working out into Mr Olympia titles. 9 year old Keiron Williamson, who’s being dubbed as ‘Mini Monet’, began painting when he was just 7 and took a major liking to it. He turned that into an exhibition and recently sold 33 paintings within 30 minutes. With the earnings from the show he purchased a £150,000 house for his parents.
Unless you decide to do something with your passion, how can you expect it to go anywhere? When things aren’t quite working out, which will sometimes be the case, that love for what you’re doing is there to help keep you going. This article, for example, was a huge mental challenge to put together, but that’s not to say I don’t enjoy the process as much as I love hitting Publish.
Whether or not you put any meaning on this life and whether you decide to ‘achieve’ something with it has to be 100% your decision. Why? Because this is 100% your responsibility. Maybe you can try and utilise the science for something you don’t love. Maybe you’ll end up liking it and get good at it, similar to how there’s probably a specific item of food you didn’t used to enjoy but now you do. Maybe. I don’t know; and I’m not sure why you’re willing to find out.
Sitting in front of a computer screen gathering statistics for a blog post is on one hand just the most boring, unglamorous looking thing on the planet. But to the person who wants to be doing it it’s also just the most awesome thing. Ever. If you can’t say that about the work you’re doing, in and of itself, then you’re probably doing the wrong thing.
It’s possible that Napoleon Hill came to the same discovery, and then just added some action steps to make his book far more interesting and valuable to the average person. Maybe he realised that if you’ve found the thing you truly loved and attached a goal to that, the ‘BURNING DESIRE’ and the avoidance of bad habits is just going to come as a byproduct of the first step.
Did Thomas Edison have to say I want X money by X date to himself morning and night? Or did he just have a real passion for figuring things out and those 10,000 attempts at creating the first commercial lightbulb weren’t down to anything more than loving what he was doing and setting a goal he would never give up on? The fact that he is the owner of 1,093 US patents make me think that’s pretty likely.
I noticed that on the journey to figuring this out, entirely new procrastination habits came into play. For instance if I was focusing on one thing then how I totally waste my time (be knowingly unproductive) was not the same when I was focused on another task. After learning more about Myelin I had to wonder whether procrastination is a just a myelin-dense habit I have which needs to be overwritten.
It’s not like you’ve never done it before…
“A genius looks at something that others are stuck on and gets the world unstuck. A genius brings human insight to a problem and solves it in a new way. A genius writes the manual instead of following it. We’ve all done that. We’ve all found a shortcut, led a discussion, made a connection. We’ve all solved interesting problems, at least once in our lives. No one is a genius all the time. The goal is to be a genius once. And then perhaps again. Small steps.” – Seth Godin
If you think the following action steps here are really important then you either just haven’t quite got this concept yet or I’m such a bad writer that I can’t make a point in 5,000 words. My apologies. They’re just here because I think they’re going to help save you some time once you have the first ‘step’ in place.
Every in-depth piece on productivity comes equipped with action-steps, but these are totally secondary to the person that is following them.
Know the Affect of Your Surroundings
Your surroundings (friends, education, feedback) are a huge factor in determining what you know and what you think is right or wrong. Walk around the streets of Vietnam, even on days where it’s 35C at 70% humidity and you’ll see people outside with umbrellas, wearing so much clothing that they don’t reveal an inch of skin. This is purely so they don’t get a sun tan (being whiter in many Asian country implies wealth). Walk around the streets of any big western city and you’ll easily find tanning salons so that people can get darker.
In the West your typical ‘WoW nerd’ (World of Warcraft game player) is often thought to be wasting their lives but in the East, millions of people are trying to become professional gamers. Corporations like World Cyber Games, a South Korean company, are sometimes paying out up to $2,500,000 in prize money at events.
It’s likely that you had zero input on which of these examples is ‘normal’ to you. And overall that’s a good thing, because being able to adapt to society has allowed humans to evolve and survive, but where is current society leading us?
The average person, out of all 400 million+ people who log into Facebook every single day, visits the site 40 times per month and spends roughly 23 minutes there each time. And that’s only tracking people who go to the website, not the many more who are using related apps throughout the day.
Youtube isn’t much different, with the average person visiting 14 times per month and spending 25 minutes there each time. That’s not counting the views of videos embedded into other sites, which I imagine is much, much higher. And this is just the internet.
I heard a statistic a few years ago that said the average American adult watches 4 hours of TV per day. I guessed that would have declined a lot since the rise of the internet, but Nielsen research from last year states the figure is currently at 4 and a half hours.
There’s nothing wrong with TV, Facebook or Youtube of course. They’re awesome. I’m sure if you woke up tomorrow and they no longer existed you would feel some loss. If not, you would at least hear someone moaning about their disappearance. All I’m trying to get you to see is that current society and what it’s normal to spend your time on is not very conducive to productivity.
If you do decide that you want more from life, not many people are going to make this change easy for you and there are plenty of distractions that will happily get in the way. It’s also very possible that you’ll drift away from a lot of the things and people you’ve always been around. If this happens, then just accept that it’s normal.
I like how Sam Keen’s father put this, as he outlines in his book Fire in the Belly: “The last thing he said before I left was probably the single most important bit of advice I ever got about being a man. “Sam,” he said, “there are two questions a man must ask himself: The first is ‘Where am I going?’ and the second is ‘Who will go with me?’ If you ever get these questions in the wrong order you are in trouble.”
Get on the Right Side of Myelin
“Myelin wraps – it doesn’t unwrap. Once a skill circuit is insulated, you can’t un-insulate it (except through age or diseases). That’s why habits are hard to break. The only way to change them is to build new habits by repeating new behaviours– by myelinating new circuits.” – Daniel Coyle
With this in mind, it’s clear to see that the sooner you start forcing yourself to implement the right habits the better. During this experiment I went from checking Facebook a few times per day to not at all (I deactivated my account) with total ease. The first few days took a little conscious effort, but after that I wouldn’t even think about it.
The other success I managed to achieve, which I said I would reveal next year, also required that I do certain things at specific times throughout the day. It was hard to get the motivation (and memory) going for the first few weeks but after that I was doing things pretty much on autopilot. I’m sure you’ve experienced many similar things yourself.
Make Your Call
Yeah, you. You reading this article right now, probably propping your head up with your left hand (hah). There aren’t many things I will claim to know with certainty on this topic, but there is at least one. The decision to get whatever it is that you want, if made, has to become your number one priority. You can’t just mix it into a group of things you’re trying to achieve. It can’t just be a thing it has to be the thing.
If you just kind of want it, don’t expect anything more then just kind of wanted it results.
Ultimately, this whole thing to me is about looking at the type of person you want to become. Looking at what you’ll accept from yourself in this cosy little existance we call life. At the beginning of this article I said that you shouldn’t keep reading if you like how you spend your days. Based on that, I should be right in stating that you’re not doing what you want to be doing. For me, that isn’t acceptable. What about you?
In Drive Daniel Pink also looked at companies which give employees one day per week or 20% of their time (Google) to work on whatever they want. In these periods people usually fix long outstanding issues and come up with some great ideas. It’s ironic that most people will let their employer give them freedom of direction yet they won’t give it to themselves.
In one of Jim Rohn’s videos he said one of the biggest realisations he had on the path to becoming a millionaire was provided by a mentor of his “Your income is directly related to your philosophy. Not the economy.” We’re at a point in time where the world economy is in a huge mess; starting a new journey in a totally new direction is the last on most peoples minds. Just don’t forget that there will be someone, somewhere, getting through whatever happens and coming out of it in a much better position.
How’s that for a perspective that is likely to take you somewhere?
You may have reached this point and – using your own ideas and whatever information I provided – came to a totally different conclusion to me or none at all. If that’s the case, then make sure you figure out what to believe about productivity, purpose and motivation for yourself. Go and get an answer that’s likely to change something in how you spend your time. If you somehow discover there’s not point to doing anything and you should just keep watching TV or browsing Reddit all day, then at least be able to say that you found out. Don’t let it be the case that you’ve read almost 6,000 words and learned nothing.
You can decide to look and you can decide to start, or you can keep putting things off until you don’t have a choice anymore. The clock is ticking, but I’ll pause it for a few minutes so you can leave a comment. After that I’m going to let go of the second hand…