“I’m too busy.”
It’s my favorite excuse.
I am a very lucky guy because I truly enjoy my job. I work for fun, so it never really feels like work to me.
The dark side of this, however, is that I tend to prioritize work over everything that I don’t consider essential.
“I’m too busy to go to a movie.”
“I have too much work to do to head out to the coast.”
By default, I bury myself in work. I developed that habit in my early twenties to keep my nascent business afloat. And for all the good it did for me — I have a career, income, freedom — it also had some negative side effects: I neglected my emotional and physical health in favor of progress, and I cultivated a little bit of anxiety around not working.
If I give myself a choice between work and “something for me”, I will choose work every time.
I’m finally starting to realize I need to spend less time working, but that doesn’t make it easier to walk away from my half-finished todo list.
The Things I Should, I Won’t
Everything that I tell myself I should do, I rarely do.
I should practice the guitar. But I usually only pick up my guitar for a few minutes a week, if that.
I should start learning Italian. But I haven’t even looked into starting, let alone actually learning.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy playing guitar, or that learning Italian doesn’t interest me. It’s that I weigh activities in my head on a cost-benefit basis.
Learning guitar is fun, but it provides no practical benefits. The emotional satisfaction I get from playing a song is the same kind of payoff that I get when designing a website1, so my brain tells me to prioritize work on the site: I get the emotional payoff and it pays the bills.
Learning Italian is going to be necessary soon — I’m going to Italy at the end of this year — but my brain tells me other projects are more pressing.
The Things I Must, I Do
If it’s important, do it every day.
I’ve read this quote from Dan Gable2 dozens of times without ever actually hearing it. At least not until recently.
I Must Work Out
I used to struggle to get to the gym. I can always make an argument that some project or another is too important for me to take an hour and a half to work out.
However, I’ve realized spending that time at the gym helps me clear my head, improves my sleep, and boosts my confidence3 — that’s worth the interruption.
It’s actually so valuable that I’ve stopped looking at it as optional. I have a personal trainer now, who waits for me at 9am on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and who will be disappointed and inconvenienced if I don’t show up. It’s an obligation. A thing I must do.
I Must Write
I have a love/hate relationship with writing.
I tend to go in fits and starts; I’ll blog consistently for a month, then drop off the face of the planet for months — sometimes years – while “more important things” dominate all of my time.
But I love writing. It’s therapeutic for me, and something that I truly enjoy. I just feel guilty spending hours writing a post that’s more or less a public diary entry for me when I have client projects to work on.
My best friend Nate was feeling the same strain, so we made a friendly bet: we would write for 30 minutes a day and publish whatever came out. No matter what.
Knowing I only have to write for 30 minutes removes the guilt around writing, and allows me to make writing something I must do. It’s part of my morning ritual now: wake up, coffee, write for 30 minutes.
Take Away the Option
The important shift that’s taken place with each of the habits I’ve successfully adopted is that they’re not optional. Each “must do” item is just a thing that has to happen. Like eating, or paying bills.
In reality, nothing has changed. I still have the same number of hours in the day, and the same list of things I want to accomplish. But I’ve thought about why I’ve failed before, and used those lessons to adjust my approach. I changed my perception of the things I want to accomplish from “desirable” to “mandatory”.
With the gym, I’m going on a year and a half with consistent workouts: I haven’t missed a session unless I was out of town.
Writing is still too new to know for sure, but so far I’ve put in at least 30 minutes of writing a day, and only failed to publish once. Compared to the once-every-month-or-three pattern from before, I’m pretty happy with the results.
What’s on Your “Must Do” List?
Do you have anything you’ve been putting off because it’s optional?
Have you made something non-optional and seen success similar to mine? Or, better, have you seen longer-term success?
I’d love to hear about it; hit the discussion link and share!
- For me, it’s the creative rush. Stringing notes together on a guitar and stringing pixels together on the screen both feel great when they come together.↩
- He’s an Olympic gold medalist and a wrestling coach. I think this quote was made famous by Dan John’s article on the Gable Method.↩
- Because I don’t feel like a fat shit who lives in an office chair.↩
What to do next.
As adults, we’re supposed to build careers, build relationships, build futures, build happiness… It’s all pretty overwhelming. It’s easy to feel stuck — like we’re on autopilot, punching a clock, and buried in tasks we don’t really care about.
Wouldn’t it be nice to get some balance back? To have extra time every day to dedicate to the things that actually matter to you?
I want to help: I’ve compiled 5 Habits of the Unfuckwithably Productive, and I want to give it to you for free. These are time-tested habits that helped me break the cycle of overwork and exhaustion; this is how I spend less than 40 hours a week on the computer — while making a living and traveling the world.