This is a guest post by Johnny B Truant. Johnny is the co-founder of Sterling & Stone and the author of almost 100 books.
My problem is that I never wanted to settle for doing any one thing. Maybe you can relate.
I mean, in business, you’re told to pick a niche. I couldn’t pick a niche. People asked me what I did, and I couldn’t tell them. For a long time, I set up websites while writing blog posts on topics ranging from triathlon training to tattoos to epiphanies that stemmed from existential angst. Somehow I was also a consultant. Somehow I also talked about punk rock and unschooling.
So for a long time, I solved my identity crisis by ignoring it. I ran marathons and wrote manifestos and did technical coaching and created a lot of training courses… and somehow I made a living, and it worked.
The only problem was that doing all of that stuff took a whole lot of time.
Becoming a triathlete took a lot of time. Building and running a business took a lot of time. I wanted to spend a lot of time with my family. And there were still so many shiny pennies yet to chase: I wanted to start a podcast; I wanted to become a published novelist; I wanted to start a nonprofit. I even wanted to build a community of people who were as crazy as I was.
It’s hard enough to pursue any one of those things, and I wanted to pursue them all. And everyone knows it’s impossible for one person to do all of that stuff.
But I didn’t know that. So I did it anyway.
I’m here today to show you how to do the same — to pursue all of your passions, and to accomplish so much awesome stuff that people may hate you a little bit.
Who I am and what I do
The list that follows will look like I’m bragging. I promise that’s not my intention. I just want to set the stage, to show you what can be done if you just keep plugging away, and if you learn to be smart about how you chase what matters to you.
So with that said, here’s what I do:
- I run a popular blog and the six-figure business behind it. That includes writing posts, creating courses, doing all the marketing, making multimedia and written content, you name it.
- I host two weekly podcasts and am planning to start a third.
- I run a large and thriving online community. (It grew out of a really popular, viral manifesto I published this summer called How To Be Legendary, and man did that take forever to write.)
- I participate in endurance events. For instance, last summer, I did an Olympic triathlon (my first tri, which I did with Joel, by the way), a half Ironman triathlon, a bike century, and a marathon, all during a two-month period of time.
- My wife and I homeschool our two kids. This involves a lot of going to museums, science centers, field trips, etc. (I go on as many as I can, because sometimes they get to play with robots.) There’s also swim lessons, soccer, and Cub Scouts.
- In September, I took a brand-new idea and turned it into a published novel in 29 days. In October, I did the same with the sequel. I’ll finally finish a larger work during November and should have three more novellas published by the end of the year. (In 2013 I plan to release two a month, maybe more, some of which will be co-written with a partner.) I also wrote five guest posts this month in addition to the posts on my own blog.
- I created a site and an organization called The Badass Project that’s dedicated to so-called “disabled” people who are WAY more “able” than the rest of us. We even did a huge online conference for it at the beginning of this year.
- I go to the gym three times a week and am a fairly serious amateur weightlifter. I’ve done that for almost 20 years now, but I got serious enough this summer to hire a trainer and get the six-pack I’ve always wanted.
- But because I’m a family man, I also stop working every day at 6pm sharp and don’t work on weekends. My wife and I have date night on Tuesdays, and we try to get away for weekends alone every so often. During the summer we take five or six vacations, some short and some long.
- And because I’m secretly a big screw-off, I regularly take huge chunks of time in the middle of my work day to do things like take walks, play mini golf with the kids, play Dance Dance Revolution, get massages that are painful and not at all relaxing, go to the park with the kids, and sometimes bum around at Target so that my son can check out the toys. We also spend every Monday at Barnes & Noble, reading.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: there simply isn’t enough time in the week for all of that — especially considering I do most of it (and ALL of the “work stuff”) before 6pm on weekdays. Looking it over now, even I don’t totally understand how I fit it all in.
But let’s try to figure it out.
10 steps to accomplishing so many cool things that other people will kind of want to punch you in the face
By the numbers, here’s what I’ve learned about producing results across a wide spectrum of pursuits… and how you can do it too.
1. Take small steps and be patient.
Worst productivity tip ever, right? Well, it’s the most important. I sure as hell didn’t start out doing all of that stuff I listed above. At the beginning of my online business around four years ago, I pretty much did three things: worked on projects that mostly failed, slept, and panicked. Sometimes I could multitask and panic while doing one of the other two. Those were banner days.
When I started, there was just the blog. Then there was a better blog. Then I started offering one service to the few people who came by my site. Then I added another service. Then I improved the design of the blog and refined my services. Then I started creating products and courses. The podcasts came years later — first one, then the other, and the membership community is most recent of all.
At first we didn’t homeschool. We didn’t have the guts or the emotional grounding to do so.
When I started my business, I wasn’t writing fiction. Only when the business started to operate more smoothly did I get back into it. And when I started writing fiction again, I wrote slowly. I had to learn how to get as fast as I’ve gotten, and it took time. My belief had to build, too… and recording a weekly podcast with two very productive writers helped me to develop that belief — week by week, day by day.
Which brings me to a harsh truth. It’s harsh, but it’s true. And it’s this: If your ideal list or ideal life is at all ambitious, it will take you years (at the minimum) to get there.
We have an instant-results mentality these days. That mentality ruins dreams because people think that slow progress equals failure. Slow progress does not equal failure. Slow progress equals success. You need to learn to make small improvements each and every day, and to be patient.
2. Understand that it’s hard to start new things, but it’s easy to keep things rolling once they’re started.
It was really hard to create all of the nuts and bolts and all of the copy and all of the design on my website. But once it was up, it was up, and at that point all I had to do was to tweak it from time to time.
It was really time-intensive and confusing to start a podcast. But once that podcast was created, keeping it going became very easy and didn’t take much more than an hour a week. Creating my second podcast was much easier than the first because I didn’t have to learn it all again.
Homeschooling was tricky to figure out, but once we decided to unschool, it became easier because we realized we didn’t have to spend hours and hours each day composing and reviewing lessons. School takes less time when life is your school. We can’t exactly set it and forget it like a Ronco rotisserie, but it’s not as time-intensive as we used to think.
It took an absolute crap-ton of time to write my How To Be Legendary manifesto and to build and launch the accompanying Everyday Legendary membership community. But once everything was set up and I had my marketing system in place, I began adding around a thousand new subscribers to my mailing list each month. The community began growing with almost no additional ongoing effort.
When I started writing fiction again, it took a lot of experimenting to learn my own best process and the mechanics of how to publish books. But once I figured it out, publishing books became a simple (though not always easy) matter of scheduling an hour of time somewhere for every 500 words I wanted to publish.
Start something new, and then find the efficiencies. It’s a lot easier to keep a stone rolling than to get it started.
3. You don’t have to do it all at the same time.
I cheated a little in giving you my big list above. It’s all totally true, but you probably assumed I’m doing all of that stuff all of the time. I’m not. So for instance, this year I haven’t done any endurance events, and last year I didn’t write any new novels.
One of the big tricks to accomplishing a lot is to rotate your projects. It’s true that there are only so many hours a day, and some projects simply require you to put in the time — so you can only work on so many of those at once.
Endurance training is like that. I’m not a fast runner, so a 20-mile marathon training run takes me nearly four hours. Writing a book in a month is like that. I mostly write short books around 40,000 words each, and those take around 80 hours from idea to publication, so if I want to finish one in a short period of time, it’s going to be a crazy-busy few weeks. Starting anything new (see #2 above) is also like that.
Today, in my “work life,” I can comfortably do two podcasts, run a business and a blog, head a membership community, write books, and do a handful of other things because the only project on my current list that takes much time is the writing. Even if I write for five hours a day, I still find myself with hours and hours and hours free even in the middle of those work days.
Then, I can fill those remaining hours with whatever time-intensive thing I want: starting something new that will become easier once it’s begun, putting in hours training for a triathlon, or playing mini golf with my kids. But I don’t try to do all of those time-sucking pursuits at the same time. You have to rotate, and you have to mix and match leveraged projects with non-leverageable ones.
4. Get up early
I stop working at 6pm sharp, and I don’t work weekends. But while it may sound impressive that I get so much done during my “work day,” what I haven’t said is that I start working at 6am at the latest. That means that I get five 12-hour workdays each week, for a grand total of a 60-hour work-week.
Sometimes that’s not enough time. When I was doing all of my endurance training, I had to fit in maybe 15 additional hours each week of running, biking, and swimming. Because I refused to invade family time after 6pm, the only other choice was to go earlier, and I ended up doing most of my running in the middle of the night. It wasn’t rare to begin my longest runs at 3am, wearing a headlamp and a flasher. Those runs were great. It felt as much like exploration as exercise.
When I was writing two books in two months, I routinely got up at 4am. The feeling of getting a few thousand words on the page before the rest of the world even considers dragging ass out of bed is amazing.
I know that I’ll get a ton of disagreement on this point, but I think sleep is overrated. Sleep pisses me off. It bothers me that I have to spend so much time unconscious, so I squeeze it and shortchange it when I can. The best thing I ever did for my productivity was to start getting up at 6am instead of 8am. Pushing it even earlier for short periods of time whenever I can has magnified my results even more.
5. Do things that excite you
Hey, who wants to get up at 4am to work on the boss’s annual sales report? Yay!
Not exactly, right?
I hear you. I couldn’t force myself to do any of this if it didn’t excite me. Last winter and summer, the idea of running marathons and triathlons excited me. I subscribed to triathlon magazines. I read book after book about running. I spent hours scheduling my training on my calendar. I scrutinized my nutrition plan. I plotted routes on the GMaps pedometer and drove those routes in my car. I dreamed about my progress. When 3am came on the days of those long runs, I was genuinely thrilled to get out there and get at it. I never forced myself to run. It was always a joy.
Then, after I ran the Columbus marathon (the last of my four-event tour), that excitement went away. For a while, I tried to schedule more runs and more training. I forced myself to get up early so that I could continue to get it all in, but it was drudgery. So I let it go.
Today, writing books excites me. Building my business excites me.
Even if you have a 9 to 5 job, that’s only eight hours a day. I play with twelve. You can find the time, so I suggest you find it, and use those hours to pursue something that gives you chills… and then watch what happens.
NOTE: There’s a fine line here between being rotating projects and being totally ADD, flitting from activity to activity without actually accomplishing anything. I propose that shipping is where you should draw that line. If you never ship, you’re being resistant and flitty. If you ship (accomplish something) before moving to something new, you’re being a Renaissance Man or Woman. It’s not a perfect system, but what the hell; it’s the best I can come up with.
6. Use the 80/20 rule
Look at the first two things on my list: my blog-based business and my two podcasts. Most people understand how to train for an event and spend time with their kids, but most people are totally intimidated by business and technology. I’d guess a handful of people reading my list got hung up on the first two items, thinking that just those two items would consume all of their time.
And at first, as I said in #1 and #2, those things did take all of my time. But in my opinion, there are two things you should do as you grow any endeavor that you plan to keep doing for the long-term: 1) make it bigger or better, and 2) find ways to do it more efficiently. That means more production AND less time. So while those things used to consume all of my time, they no longer do. The core of my business today actually requires a very small hourly investment.
Why? Because I obey the 80/20 rule. I do the 20% of activities that produce 80% of the results.
For instance, I write on my blog between one to three times per month, with three posts a month being rare. A lot of bloggers write several times per week. But in my mind, that’s spending 80% more time in the hopes of snagging that last 20% of results. My readers respond better to a few awesome posts than a lot of mediocre ones anyway. As a reader, wouldn’t you?
I also check my email only twice a day, minimize time spent on social media, and avoid chasing the latest “amazing ninja trick.” I haven’t so much as looked into Pinterest or LinkedIn and don’t plan to. For my business, those items aren’t in the top 20%. I focus on my top 20%… and doing so takes a whole lot less of my time.
7. Use leverage
Hire an assistant as soon as you can. Seriously. Even if you don’t run a business, find help to do things that still need to get done even if they’re not in your top 20% (see above).
Here are some ways I use other people’s leverage to get stuff done without doing it myself:
- I produce two hour-long podcasts each week. Do you know how much time I spend on them? Two hours a week. I record them in one take, adding music and effects live, so that they don’t require editing. When we’re done, I dump the audio files into Dropbox. My assistant does the rest.
- I also have two partners on those podcasts, which makes them much easier to conduct, and we can spread around any remaining work. I’m also partnering on a series of books, meaning I’ll spend half as much time writing them as I otherwise would. I’ve partnered on several of my courses and products. Sometimes, two heads really are better than one.
- We have two young kids, two big hairy dogs, and three cats, so our house is very big on entropy. Because the house needs to get clean somehow and neither my wife nor I want to do it, we hired a cleaner. I’m not talking about a maid. I’m talking about someone we found on Care.com for ten bucks an hour. A clean house and peace of mind costs us all of thirty dollars a week. BEST. SPEND. EVER.
- I found my assistant Natalie on HireMyMom.com, and Natalie does all the little stuff required to make my business run. She is absolutely essential to me and my production, because that “little stuff” used to take up untold hours of my time. Assistants aren’t free, but they’re not as costly as you probably think they are, either. When I factor in my real results instead of just money, what I pay Natalie is the bargain of the century. There is no question that what I pay her comes back to me ten- or twenty-fold in profits, lack of stress, and simple quality of life.
- I also use technological assistance to communicate better with my assistant. How meta is that? Natalie set up a Simple Voice Box (free), and I put the number into a speed dial icon on the desktop of my phone. This allows me to dictate instructions to her at any time of day or night, without having to type it out or worrying about ringing her phone. I also sometimes use Voice On The Go to respond to emails by voice, forwarding them to Natalie first so that she can fix the hideous (and often hilarious) transcription errors.
P.S: If all of this sounds complicated — and if you can’t imagine how you’ll ever develop the systems I’ve described — then I urge you to scroll up and read #1 again.
8. Multitask. Also, don’t multitask.
There are things that it makes sense to multitask on. I just mentioned how I sometimes answer email using Voice On The Go. I often do that while driving, via a Bluetooth headset.
Another way: I spent a few months this year in fat-loss mode because I wanted six-pack abs (I know, call me conceited), and my trainer Roger explained that one of the key components of fat loss is low-intensity activity like walking. Now, I like to take quiet walks alone to generate ideas, but sometimes walks (or Dance Dance Revolution, which Roger also endorses) don’t fit easily into my schedule. So I put a treadmill desk in the basement, and sometimes I walk while I work. Oh, and this might be a good time to mention that I’m writing this post while strolling along at 2.5 MPH.
But in general, aside from obvious things like the above that involve non-competing parts of your brain or body, I think multitasking is a bad idea. Most people can’t truly do two things at once, so what looks like “multitasking” is actually alternating between different tasks. You don’t hold a Skype chat while working. What you do is interrupt your work to read and reply to a chat message, and then you try to work until a new message interrupts you again.
Most if not all of us should focus on one task at a time. Try things like the Pomodoro Technique, where you focus on one thing and one thing only, do it intensely, and don’t look up until it’s time to stop. I’m kind of hardcore about this. I advocate closing the door and refusing to open it, wearing headphones, and scheduling stuff on your calendar that you must obey under penalty of death. Or at least severe ridicule.
As a parting shot on this point, here’s a maxim I strongly suggest you get tattooed on your arms: Work time is work time, and play time is play time.
In other words, define your work hours however you want, but then stick to them and WORK at those times as if there was a gun to your head. Don’t screw around. Don’t take “fun” phone calls. Don’t check email. If you want to schedule breaks, go ahead… but schedule them. Don’t take breaks because you’re bored, or tired, or feeling resistant.
And on the flip side, don’t work outside of your defined work times. Don’t sit on the couch and work on that project if it’s outside your blocks. Professionals don’t blur the lines, because if you do, it’s too easy to fool yourself and to cheat.
9. Experiment with crazy stuff to see if it works for you
One of the smaller reasons I’m so productive is that I don’t eat until 3pm. I am in no way saying that you should do the same (it’s called intermittent fasting, by the way), but I will say that it without question works for me, right down to the insanely good set of lab results I just received. Preparing and eating food takes a lot of time, and I’d rather work or hang out with my kids or… or do anything else, unless it’s a fun family meal.
I won’t say you should do it, but if it intrigues you, I think you might as well give it a shot. I also think that if you’re interested in some kind of a weird chair or desk setup, you should try it. If you like my treadmill desk idea, you should try it. If you think you might work best in the middle of the night, you should give it a shot. I even experimented with biphasic sleep. (That one wasn’t for me, unfortunately.)
If you think something might work better for you than something more typical, give it a shot and see if it helps or hinders you. Screw what other people think is normal or acceptable. Who’s living your life? You, or your mother?
And lastly, to get the big picture…
10. Get clear about what you’re really after
What do you really want? If you say “money,” you’re wrong. Nobody wants money. Everyone who says they want money actually wants what they think money will provide.
The blind pursuit of money handicaps a ton of people and keeps them in bondage — and away from their true desires — when there is absolutely no reason for that to happen.
Take me for example. I want to write books, so I write books. Mission accomplished. Do you see how that goal doesn’t require anything other than for me to find a few hours to sit down and write? I happen to have my own business and can make my own schedule, sure… but do you really think that if I worked ten hours a day hauling garbage that I would be UNABLE TO WRITE? That’s insane.
A lot of people seem to have this plan: make a ton of money (possibly at their job and possibly not), then quit or retire to pursue their passions. But somewhere along the way, they get lost. They think it’s the money that matters, and forget that the real end goal is the pursuit of passions. Money isn’t at all necessary for many passions. There’s no reason not to do both right now.
Let’s say you want to paint. So paint. Get up an hour earlier and paint. You can do that right now; you don’t have to make any more money or quit your job.
This “focus on the ends, not the means” thinking is why I’m such a fan of minimalism, even though I only manage to implement it at a 101 level. If you don’t spend much, then you don’t need to make as much… and you’ll automatically have more freedom.
So for instance: I’m doing well, but I wouldn’t say I’m rich. The reason I can do what I want, when I want is due in part to the fact that my family is very low-maintenance. My wife and I almost never buy new clothes for ourselves because we simply don’t care. I used to want a nice watch, but then I realized how asinine that was. The many vacations we take are to a small cottage on Lake Erie, and they cost us almost nothing.
My friend Lee Stranahan once gave some sage advice. He was talking about how he used to want a nice car, or even just a fancy minivan for his family with the dual DVD system for the kids. And then he said, “What I realized is that eventually, your car just becomes your car.”
That applies to everything. How much “fancy” do you really need, when most of it just ends up becoming things you take for granted?
Look: Here’s the thing.
I guess I do a lot of things. I guess. But it doesn’t feel like a lot, because I’ve slowly added one thing and then another, and I’ve only added new projects when the load of I was already doing became comfortable.
That’s the trick. That’s the secret behind doing a million different things and doing them well: You add a tiny bit of newness at a time, and you improve the way you’re doing what’s currently on your plate a little bit every day. You leverage more; you accomplish more with less. You take your time and develop systems. It shouldn’t feel overwhelming, because you’re doing it slowly. It’s like building a muscle. You don’t go in able to lift twenty pounds today and expect to lift two hundred next week. You understand that it’s going to take some time.
If you build slowly — and if you stubbornly refuse to be put in the box that niche thinking says you should be in — you’ll soon find people wanting to punch you in the face for accomplishing so much cool stuff.
You might want to start wearing a hockey mask.
About the Author: Johnny B. Truant is the author of How To Be Legendary: A Realistic Guide to Being the Superhuman You’re Supposed to Be, which you can download for free.