Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp.” - The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
I used to wait for inspiration. But inspiration is always late. Sitting nervously, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Is it here yet? No, I don't think so. I'll just wait a little bit longer.
Inspiration is made up. It's a self-defeating act of resistance, holding us back from success. From being a creator. Write a blog post without inspiration? Hah. A painting? No, no. Once I'm inspired, I'll do it right away.
Inspiration is procrastination in a bad disguise. The dream of being great. It's a taste of success. And it leaves you wanting more. Craving the next short-lived visit. It keeps you believing, riding the procrastination train.
Make your own damn inspiration
I'm tired of being stood up. I've been waiting for weeks and inspiration isn't showing up. And to break free? I just need to stop believing the lie. It's in my head. Made up. Success handcuffs.
Wanna know how to make your inspiration? Start working on that thing. Even when you don't want to. Everyday. Even when you're scared of it. Seriously. Stop what you're doing right now. Do your life's work.
Inspiration doesn't exist; only true work, grinding away, is real.
Ever burn an entire day knowing exactly what you need to do but just not doing it? Because you can't seem to get traction- spinning your wheels, searching for focus?
Distraction and Focus are the ying and yang of my life. I don't mean low-level “my coworker coughs too loud” distraction. Not that. High level, head in the clouds, foggy… just… feel like I'm sleep walking kind of distraction.
And it comes in ebbs and flows. True focus is like a drug- weeks of kicking ass, feeling like I'm on top of the world, really making progress towards what's most important, followed by withdrawal and what feels like eternity stuck inside of a rut of inaction and paralysis.
What I do when I feel like a loser
Being distracted makes me feel like a loser. Like I'm wasting my life, not creating value.
I whip out a sheet of paper and plan out my day in 30 minute blocks.
Yes this is tedious.
Yes it works.
Easy wins. Think of it as the most gratifying todo-list in the world- never before would things like eat breakfast and take shower warrant their own checkbox.
Next, I work on creating something for me.
Write, make art, code, build something, whatever.
The feeling of creating is so powerful, so gratifying, that it's exactly the ammo I need to defeat distraction. It creates momentum in me to do something great.
Doing “work” for your job doesn't count. That's bullshit work, not creating, making dollars for someone else.
It just takes a small win
I've been stuck this entire month, trying to escape from inaction. I haven't done anything worth talking about- not an ounce of progress made. Afraid to do something. Mad at myself for doing nothing.
It starts with a small, single win. All you need is one- and it can be tiny. But they build on top of one another and eventually you create enough escape velocity to break out of the cycle and find focus.*
Tonight I worked on an oil painting. It's not a big deal- an inconsequential event in my day. But it was exactly the small win I needed, the first domino for the inspiration I needed to write this post. And this post will inspire what I create next.
Everything you've done inspires now, and now will inspire your future.
*If you're interested in tiny wins and tiny habits, I highly recommend the Tiny Habits course by BJ Fogg.
Monday morning, May 2009. I spent 2 weeks in Italy after turning 22 and was back in the office for the first time, catching up on boatloads of email.
“Hey Steve, can you come into my office for a second.”
“Actually.. close the door behind you.”
Close the door! Man! Must be time for that raise- I'd been waiting! All of those 70 hour weeks. Weekends and Holidays. It's all about to pay off now. I had my eye one of those crazy expensive electric toothbrushes.
“So, this is going to be tough, but…”
I stopped listening. My next memory is driving home from work at 11AM, screaming. Everyone else got let go, except one guy- our worst programmer*. No matter how good you are, how much effort you put in, everyone eventually gets cut from the team.
My entire LIFE was my job. I was so proud of it. My title! And I worked my ass off. How could they do this to me? It defined me. It was me.
The first thing I did when I got home was order that $170 electric toothbrush on Amazon. Even though I was broke. Jobless. It didn't matter, because I took the power back- I gave myself a raise.
My self-worth was my job
My self-esteem was wrecked. I didn't do much beside sleep for days. Let's be honest, people lose their jobs everyday! It's a pretty common thing. So, why did it suck so much?
Why should ANYONE besides ME have complete control over my self-esteem, my happiness? It's stupid. And it's a mistake of convenience. It's so much easier to give away your power, tie your worth to some external thing, instead of creating it within. Laziness. I was too lazy to take control of my own happiness, to make it myself.
Stop giving your power away. It's for you. Not for your job. Not for your girlfriend. Not for anyone, besides you.
I've seen friends make the same mistake. Lose their jobs. Laid off. And they struggle for months. Not because of money, it's deeper than that- because their self-esteem got hit by a train.
Looking back? I wish I got fired sooner.
The lesson was worth the pain. The good ones always are.
*We ran a LAMP stack. He wanted to rewrite Memcache in C# because it “wasn't fast enough”.
I have a new rule that I'm making for myself and holding others to.
If you haven't worked on something in the past two weeks, you're not allowed to talk about it.
I'm guilty. But not as much, anymore. My ideas would just sit for months. Stagnating. Ideas rot, and the only way to keep them from spoiling is to turn them into reality.
And I'm not the only one guilty of wasting ideas. I've heard about the same projects that y'all were going to start working on “this weekend” for the past 6 months. Stuck on repeat.
When all you do is talk, you forget the most critical step- making. I'm not saying skip researching your ideas, but less-is-more. You don't need to be an expert to solve a problem and it doesn't need to be perfect the first time. Cut before your measure.
How to bring an idea to life today
Block off a chunk of time. 6 is good, 12 is better.
This is seriously the hardest part, even though it seems like the easiest. It's hard to find 6-12 hours of continuous, distraction free time. I love Sunday for this.
No one sees me on Sundays because I cut myself off from the world and spend the entire day creating. I get extreme. No distractions. Not even cooking. I only eat light food, all of it's pre-cooked or raw. No friends, no phone, no twitter.
Outline. You have 2 minutes. Go.
I learned this technique while writing a book, but it works for everything. Get a pen and paper. Break your project into steps. Even if it sounds stupid, even if the step is “go to the store and buy a pencil”, write out as many actionable steps as you can in 2 minutes. After 2 minutes, stop. You now have your plan.
The time limit is key. It's a race to get as much on paper as you can, but it's fluid and doesn't need to be perfect.
This is a NO GOOGLING zone.
When you're creating, Google is off limits, unless you're looking up how to do something very specific that you're working on right now. Like, “syntax for creating Rails associations” is fine but “best practices for building a Rails application” is not. If you can't hold yourself to this, block Google.
I like to write down anything that distracts me- google searches, random thoughts, new ideas, whatever. The point is, if you write them down, they'll stop bubbling up when you're in the zone.
The easy part, creating
When you set yourself up for success, creating, doing something actionable, is the easiest part. I know that when I follow this process, I get into that mind-numbing state where I just flow. It's like all of my energy and focus just pour into whatever I'm working on (it's how I feel right now, writing this post).
Update that blog you've been ignoring for the past 6 months.
Start coding that side-project, you can build a MVP in 36 hours.
Outline that book you've wanted to write for years, it only takes 15m.
No one will notice if you don't, but someone might notice if you do.
I have a bad habit: waiting until the last minute to do things. Like, last month I had to fly to New York to run a 193 mile relay race. I knew about the trip for almost 6 months, but didn't buy plane tickets until 3 days before, at 4x the cost. True dedication to the art of procrastination. You can call me somewhat of an expert, and it's one of my biggest shortcomings.
It's not because I'm lazy- in fact, the exact opposite is true. I'm incredibly productive. I move fast, but I single task. I don't bounce around with a million things at once because of the incredible cost of context switching. Spending time planning trips, picking flights, and buying tickets just doesn't really seem important to me until it's 3 days away.
Paying $700 bucks for plane tickets, though, when they should have cost $200, isn't the best move- so I've spent the past month trying to get a handle on my procrastination.
Fixing procrastination without willpower
Self-discipline and Willpower. Two words that aren't the solution. You only have a fixed amount of self-discipline and after it's been used up, you need to wait for it to recharge. If you “fix” a personality defect by brute-forcing with self-discipline, you'll be back in the same boat a week later.
I broke the cycle of procrastination and willpower exhaustion by automating the things I was putting off. Yup, I threw money at the problem, and it was cheaper than you think.
Get a personal assistant
Hold off your judgement for a second. I'm still new to the assistant thing, but it easily falls into the 10 most effective life changes I've ever made. Within the first 24 hours of having an assistant, I delegated 2 tasks that had been marinating in my todo list for months. You know, the thing you say you're going to finally get done every time Monday rolls around? Well last Monday, it finally got done all I had to do was send an email. Mind blowing.
Total cost? $25 DOLLARS A MONTH. The service I use is FancyHands and it paid for itself on the first day.
(*That's an affiliate link- You get 50% off, I get $10 when you signup. I have no ties with FancyHands*).
Think it's ridiculous? So did I, but it ended up changing my entire workflow. Like, I just had them book an AirBnB place for a trip next month. Next month! This is coming from a guy that was buying plane tickets days before a trip.
If it doesn't end up being useful you can just have your assistant email me about how much I suck. Might as well get your monies worth.
Amazon Subscribe & Save and Emergency Deodorant
Maybe you've heard of it, maybe you haven't, but Amazon lets you setup reoccurring orders that get shipped automatically. It takes like 5 minutes to setup and has saved me so much frustration. I used to be the guy running to Target on the way out to buy a little thing I like to call “emergency deodorant”. I've found myself standing in the deodorant aisle nonchalantly applying some Old Spice before taking it up to the register more times than I can count.
It was surprisingly hard to come up with ideas for using Subscribe and Save, so if you need some inspiration, check out the list of things Amazon automatically sends me. Fair warning: It's hilarious to open your door to a UPS guy carrying a 40-pack of toilet paper, IN THE ORIGINAL PACKAGING.
Automate the things you hate
Even though I really enjoy writing, I despise proofreading and editing. Like to the point where I rather just not write at all so I don't have to deal with the proofreading part. Nothing kills my flow more than having to re-read what I just wrote 1000 times.
Even though the book I'm working on has been an overall success, one of my biggest failures with the project has been not proofreading it. I'd fall into the cycle of just not writing, so I wouldn't have to proofread.
Instead of fighting it with willpower, I automated it. How? I tested both Mechanical Turk and Fiverr as proofreading platforms. Fiverr cost a total of $50 to have 62 pages edited. Just to give you an idea, editing 62 pages is my idea of a personal hell. But for less than a dollar/page, all of my hesitation, doubt, and negativity vanished.
Try it out today
You can automate almost all of the boring parts of your life, today, for less than 25 bucks and half an hour on Amazon. And make sure to have your assistant email me telling me how much time I saved you.
Rewind 6 months. If you asked me for the 10 things that I hated doing the most, writing would surely make the list. It's not that I'm a bad writer, but I was out of practice and my only memories of writing were from when I was forced to do it. I imagined myself sitting infront of a blank screen, cursor flashing, trying to bullshit my way through 1000 words (double-spaced) due in the morning. Writing? No thanks! I never wanted to write again. And can you blame me? Our schools make writing a chore, something to avoid, and turn so many away for life.
Instead of ignoring the problem, I took on the challenge headfirst. Failure has never stopped me and even after failing to actively blog a dozen times before, I started this new one and kicked it off by giving up social media for 30 days. My first post, only 362 words, took almost a week to write. I mulled over it, wanted it to be perfect, and truthfully, I was scared of criticism. Scared to publish my words, scared that they wouldn't be worth reading.
Finally, almost out of frustration, I clicked publish on the damn thing and walked away. And guess what, my world didn't explode! I posted it on social media and disconnected for the next 30 days - unable to feel the sting of any criticism that would've been left.
The biggest thing I learned, and Dan mentions it in his post, is to just publish the damn thing. Stop being perfect. Proofread it a couple of times and get on with your life. A typo or mistake won't ruin your post and, truthfully, most people are skimming anyways.
How I keep myself writing everyday
After my first quasi-successful post, I was hooked. In love. With more free time on my hands during the social media hiatus, I kept writing. My goal has been to write 1000 words, everyday, and I've mostly stuck with it since my first post on May 15th.
I mostly write for my blog or my book, but sometimes my daily allotment of words is spent on hashing out and evaluating my life in the journal that I've kept for over 1000 days. Not of all of your writing needs to be shared, and I think it's important that you selfishly keep some words entirely for yourself.
Writing creates value
The biggest dividends paid from my writing has been the feeling of creating, becoming a producer of information, instead of continuing down the path as a chronic consumer. When I publish my thoughts, I create tangible value that can be shared with others.
And I never run out of things to write about. By keeping my idea muscle strong and writing down 10 brand new ideas everyday, I've amassed two entire notebooks filled with topics to write about.
Creating value through writing has been a huge eyeopener. The people I look up to the most, the Elon Musks and Steve Jobs of the world, they are chronic producers. They make things, execute outlandish ideas, and produce something valuable for the world. For me, writing was just the first step to becoming a producer - maybe it will be yours too?
Time. When broken down into minutes, hours, days, such small units over a lifetime, they don't really seem to exist. It's almost like a reality that we all subscribe to - existing only because we agreed it should. On the other hand, time is always marching forward. Infinite. Abrupt when divided into years, decades, centuries.
The smallest units, insignificant over a lifetime, are also the most stressful. The most frustrating. I was sick of it.
I unsubscribed from the clock
Dropped my watch right into the garbage. Shut off the glowing green-blue digital clocks that seem to piggyback on every appliance known to man - microwave, stove, VCR. The one in the corner of my computer screen? Gone. On my iPhone, I changed it to a random timezone so, technically, it still has a clock, but at quick glance? Almost useless.
The effects were immediate. The first few days were so confusing. I worked on my laptop all day, totally devoured and consumed by creating things. I had no idea whether it was 11am or 7pm, and didn't care - it was beautiful! I was able to really lose myself in a project without having a clock to constantly distract.
I learned how to read the sun - a skill that adapted on its own, so it was surprising when I caught myself turning to the window to figure out if I was done working for the day. I've tested myself and I'm pretty accurate, even with the season change.
3 Months Later
Though I've gotten used to the mental freedom, 3 months into it, the bigger changes are still sticking around. I'm less stressed. I don't worry about how long things take or even bother considering how long they should take- Over a lifetime, an extra couple of minutes here or there is a rounding error and a worthy price to pay for the benefits.
I'm no longer chained to the clock. I measure my life in heartbeats and years, the only significant units to me.
Full disclosure: I used the calendar on my phone to notify me before an appointment.
I used to frequent a small sandwich shop, O'Bagelo's. The owner and only employee, John Vito, was a miser and philosopher of sorts- he'd make interesting and thought provoking conversation while crafting your lunch.
“The most interesting people that I know are local. They read the city paper, get involved in their community, and constantly know what's happening around them.”
It was just conversation, but this quote stuck with me over the years.
Now that I've gotten more into the movement, I've realized the most important thing that you can do for your community is to support your local ecosystem- whatever that means to you. For me, it means supporting small businesses and buying as close-to-home as possible. By keeping your dollars in town, you're reinvesting money back into your neighborhood, instead of exporting it to some company in China.
Two months ago I made a pledge to spend $50/week supporting local food by buying most of my groceries from the Charleston Farmer's Market. It's not much, but imagine the change if everyone got onboard. Communities would be self-sustaining and local businesses vibrant.
But I think there's more to this. I support other ecosystems that I'm interested in, too. I believe in bootstrapped startups, so I spend money on things like GitHub and App.net. And since I have my own self-published e-book, I buy every independent book that I can get my hands on.
I vote with my dollar and keep my money local in hopes that others will do the same. By supporting each others work, we create a vibrant ecosystem where everyone has the opportunity to succeed.
When I turned 18, my parents expected me to go to college- it was the only option, the only way to be a successful adult. I'm a 2nd generation Italian. My mother and grandparents came over to America and bootstrapped themselves from nothing, so needless to say, I would be the first in the family to get a degree and it was kind of a big deal.
We were middle class, but not rich, so I had to borrow to afford a $44,000/year RIT tuition. It's what everyone else does, right? $44,000 might as well have been a million dollars, because in my mind they were equally unfathomable- with only $300 in my checking account, I had to make a decision whether or not to borrow $176,000. Makes sense.
No one could tell me why I was wasting my creative energy, focus, and life on something I didn't want to do. Classes didn't hold my attention- I could teach myself more in an afternoon than I would learn in a 10-week class. My classes appealed to the lowest-common denominator. The bottom of the barrel.
Eventually, I stopped going to class. I didn't care. I despise squandering my time and classes felt like the ultimate waste. The culmination of my second year was a 0.33 GPA.
Do you still put a GPA on your resume if it's 0.33?
Eventually I dropped out. Well, actually, I failed out. And they told me not to come back. I was living with a roommate and scraping by making 10 bucks an hour doing web design. I lied to everyone in my life, including myself.
“I'm just doing an internship for the summer!”
But truthfully, I was too embarassed to tell them I failed, that I had let them down. Because, you need a degree to be successful, right? And now I'd never be successful.
I got stuck for a little while, and I think this is where many people end up their entire lives. $400 a week is hardly enough to live comfortably, but I made it work. Like, I could pay for rent and food, but had to sleep on the floor for 3 months because I couldn't afford a bed. How could I possibly do better without a degree? I was lucky that I even had a job as a college dropout.
I hustled. I taught myself Rails and Linux. I freelanced on the side. I resold computers and camera lenses on Craigslist and eBay. Whatever it took.
I sold myself like a used car salesman
When it was time for a new job, I shot for the stars. I left college off of my resume, let my experience speak for itself, and sold my passion. And when college came up in the conversation, I had a story ready to go.
I'm still pursuing my degree in Software Engineering. All of my relevant experience is self-taught and I prefer to spend time teaching myself instead of sitting in a classroom.
Just a couple of interviews and the first job offer came in- $45k. When you've been living off of kidney beans and rice for a year, it's equivalent to winning the powerball.
A second job offer, for $60k, arrived the next day. My belief that you'd be restricted to minimum wage jobs without college was absolutely not true. And the worst part was that it was self-limiting, a figment of my imagination. Success had been sitting in front of me all along.
Take the job, don't be stupid!
Surely if the company was willing to pay me $60,000, they'd be willing to go higher. “Take the job”, everyone said. “Don't be stupid. Now's not the time to negotiate”. But I've never been one to let fear drive my decisions.
A 20-year old kid that was hardly scraping by on $10/hour turned down their $60,000 offer- reason?
“Unfortunately, I'm only able to consider offers over $100k at this time. If you're in a position to negotiate, I'd love to talk more.”
Eventually, we settled on somewhere in the middle. Talk about hustling.
Years later, I started working at Twitpic. College didn't even enter the conversation. Since then, I've been heavily recruited and created some of my own products. And the only thing that's mattered has been my passion, knowledge, and experience.
Success is sitting right in front of you. You don't need to have a bachelors degree to reach out and take it- to think anything else is a limiting belief that exists solely in your mind. Hustling = passion + ability to sell yourself. No degree required¹.
30 days ago, I made the decision to give up social media for a month. Well, here I am, reporting that I'm still alive and that the past month has been life changing- the most successful month of my existence.
Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Hacker News were all on my blacklist, well- sort of. My goal for giving up social media was to create more value in my life, quit hoarding information, and appreciate the time that I spent with friends. So, full disclosure- I briefly used Facebook and Twitter 5 times during my haitus to pimp blog posts, and I'm okay with that, because it was for the sole purpose of sharing value (and getting more pageviews, duh).
From the beginning
The first couple of days were full of withdrawl symptoms- I'd open a new tab in Chrome and start typing facebook.com without even thinking about it. I missed my constant entertainment from Twitter.
It got better. I forgot all about Twitter within days. I still missed Facebook, mostly because it came up in conversation all of the time.
Hey, did you see the picture Ryan tagged you in.. oh, nevermind.
The benefits were immediately apparent. With a mind free to wander and explore, I started to create things, to make moves, rather than suck down a never ending stream of information.
I've written more words in the past 30 days than I have in my entire life- well, maybe besides that year I took AP English. I have over 20 blog posts drafted that I'm working on tweaking to perfection. And I'm getting better at crafting words and articulating myself because of it. You have to flex the muscle to keep it strong.
I sat down and tried to figure out what creating value in my life really meant, and had a difficult time with it. James Altucher talks about writing down ideas everyday, so that's what I started doing. Forcing yourself to come up with 30 new ideas every morning leads to some good ones bubbling up to the surface once in awhile. Try it.
It lead to a book
I totally pulled a Tim Ferriss and advertised a book without having written a single word. My concept, scaling php applications, is for a unique book, which I'm qualified to write, but didn't know if it would be interesting to others. I created a landing page and rolled the dice. The feedback was incredible, thousands of people signed up and hundreds were so excited that they pre-purchased it to get access to daily updates. Right now I'm wrapping up Chapter 4 and the book will be released on July 1st.
My old morning routine: wake up, check facebook, check twitter. It sucked.
With two huge voids, it was time for a revamp. I'm lucky enough to be able to wake up when my body tells me to, usually around 9 or 10, so I'm always well rested. Once I'm up, I immediately make breakfast, drink Yerba Mate (with a bombilla), and meditate outside for 5 or 10 minutes before updating my journal.
Meditating was one of those things that sounded good in theory, but was always difficult for me to keep up with. Doing it for a short interval is perfect and even in spurts I find it incredibly beneficial, it clears my head and opens me up for the day.
I built stronger friendships
Not knowing what your friends are doing every second is liberating. It's amazing how much you have to talk about when you don't have a constant plug into their life. I built stronger friendships and forged a couple of new ones, including a relationship.
Would I have made the same friends and started a new relationship if I was still on social media? Part of me can't help but think that the mystery of not knowing all the gory details that Facebook provides made them more intriguing to me.
Running has been a passion of mine for years. I love it. In some ways, I live for it (April 2012, I ran 3 miles every single day for the entire month). This month, I competed in a couple of 5Ks and even won some trophies. Look, there's us fighting with swords that we won for our 1st and 2nd place finishes… in our age group.
What's my plan now? Well, I'm back on social media. It's nice to finally see “that picture that Ryan tagged me in”. But I don't want to go back to my old routine, the new one is so much better. I love creating things- code, art, writing, whatever. I want to keep doing that, because the act of producing, being a maker, has changed my life.
If I want to read or post on social media, I will do it consciously and thoughtfully- so I won't be using Twitter or Facebook from my phone. And no more Reddit. Like, it provided absolutely 0 value to me. I love the information diet that I'm on and all I need to do is not plug back in.