Last week, I ran a post about how I took a book from idea to publication in less than a month. I got a lot of comments and emails about that post, all of them very flattering and many asking for more detail. The question underlying all of those emails and comments, however, was, “But… how did you actually do that?”
And again, that’s a very flattering question because it implies that not only did I do something amazing… but that I did something so amazing that it’s literally incomprehensible. Now, I know a rhetorical question when I see one, and most of the “How did you do that?”s I was getting were expressions of amazement, not actual inquiries.
If I let those questions hang in the breeze and simply accept the misguided implication that I’m in some way amazing, I’d be doing a pretty serious disservice to all of you. Remember, I’m the guy who wrote How To Be Legendary, which says, in part, that nobody doing anything that you think is amazing is any different or better than you are.
So no, a book in a month isn’t amazing — not when you break it down.
What follows are eleven ways to be stupidly effectively in anything you want to do. They work for me. Maybe they’ll work for you, too.
WAY #1: Accept that change is gradual
I’ll lead with this one because it’s the foundation of everything. If, right now, you think that writing and publishing a book in a month (or running a marathon, or raising ten kids, or making a million dollars, or anything else) sounds impossible, realize that it’s simply the culmination of many small steps over time.
You know how I’ve mentioned Everyday Legendary — the community I co-created with an awesome, amazing group of forward-thinking people? Its tagline is “A community dedicated to achieving the impossible by becoming more, every single day.” That means we believe in making tiny amounts of progress every day, over time, until what used to seem impossible is simply the logical next step. You want to earn that “impossible” million dollars in a new business? Earn one dollar first. Then earn another. Repeat.
WAY #2: Find peers whose accomplishments piss you off and make you feel totally inadequate
You know my “impressive” story about completing a book in less than a month? Well, Dave Wright and Sean Platt, my co-hosts on the Self Publishing Podcast, produce two books every week.
I was able to complete Fat Vampire so fast because every week, I was talking to these two writing machines/fuckers and they made me feel totally inadequate. They’d announce completion of season 3 of whatever and season 1 of something else one week, and they’d announce two deals with Amazon.com’s publishing arm (seriously) the next, and all the while, I had to keep saying, “Um… I still have The Bialy Pimps.” I felt like I had to keep up. My pitiful accomplishment of a single book wasn’t cutting it. They were making me feel totally lazy, and that pissed me off.
Obviously, use this strategy with caution. The idea is to inspire and motivate you, not to kick you in the stomach and leave you feeling terrible. Chuck D. said, “When I get mad, I put it down on a pad — give you something that you never had.” Meaning that when Chuck gets pissed, he doesn’t just stay pissed and get bummed out. Instead, he does something, which in Chuck’s case means that he writes lyrics. You should do the same.
WAY #3: Find or join a peer group or a community
Sean and Dave don’t just motivate me by chasing behind me with a shame stick. They also keep my head in the world of writing. I talk to these guys for an hour each week about the craft of writing and publishing, and I learn from them and they learn from me. The fact that Fat Vampire could simply be a novella of 38,000 words, for instance, came from them, as did the idea that writing fast is often a good way to blow through roadblocks — and that’s not even accounting for the fact that the three of us co-discovered the premise of “a fat vampire” in one of our discussions. And then after I started writing, they were cheering me on during our podcast sessions and whenever we emailed.
You deserve a group who does the same for you, who will hold you accountable to your goals and keep your head in the world that you want it to stay in. You can form a mastermind, find friends online, or join a community. (I’d like to be so bold at this point to suggest joining the Everyday Legendary community, which is filled with people who think this way and who form accountability groups in the forums.)
WAY #4: Set stupidly ambitious goals… and be okay with falling short of them
If you’ve played around with much personal development stuff, you may be familiar with the concept of a “stretch goal.” The idea is to set a goal that you think is beyond your capabilities. You “stretch” to reach that goal, and the idea is supposed to be that even if you fall short of that goal, you’ll be much further along than if you’d striven for a lesser goal and achieved it.
My current stretch goal is to publish Fat Vampire 2 by Halloween. It’s also to complete the first draft this week. Will I make it? Maybe, maybe not. But even if I miss the goal, I’ll be much further ahead of where I’d be if I’d said, “Oh, I’ll write the first draft by Halloween.” I’d definitely make that goal, but I’d rather miss my stretch goal, because that would probably mean I’ll have the draft in two weeks.
Just make sure you’re okay with missing these goals. Remember, “stretch and miss” is almost the expected and desired M.O here, so no getting down on yourself for any “failures.”
WAY #5: Use a calendar
Check out this screenshot of my Google calendar for two weeks ago:
I made this calendar before the week began, deciding how much I could jam in, at what time, and still feel comfortable.
I knew I wanted to edit Fat Vampire, but I also didn’t want to slack on the two other fiction projects I was working on. I knew I wanted to go to the gym three times and get in my off-day activity, which is either playing Dance Dance Revolution (I’m getting good, dammit) or walking on my treadmill. I knew I could multitask the latter because I have a treadmill desk in the basement (I’m writing this post while walking, by the way), but a lot of things required dedicated time, including an unfortunate doctor’s appointment and a time I’d booked for a massage therapist to cause me large amounts of pain.
By putting your work time on a calendar — not just appointments and phone calls, but also dedicated blocks of time for what you truly want to work on — you’ll find yourself keeping those appointments with yourself as reliably as you keep appointments with clients. Be respectful of those blocks of time, and don’t blow them off or move them any more than you’d blow off or move any other appointment.
Now, did I manage to follow that calendar exactly as written throughout the whole week? Of course not. That would have been ridiculous. What I actually did was to get up between 4 and 5am every morning and do what was on the schedule, but then also added the forum to the Everyday Legendary community and announce it to my internal and external lists, added in a few extra writing blocks, and talked to a partner for two hours about an upcoming project.
So yeah, this strategy works.
WAY #6: Get excited
Look… I didn’t get up so early and work so hard (35+ hours of fiction writing, which currently makes me no real money, on top of my usual workload) by forcing myself to do it. I did it because I was excited. It wasn’t a chore to get up early; I could barely sleep because I was so eager to get at it.
Find a project whose potential excites you, or whose doing entices you regardless of whatever may come out of it. Revisit Ways #2 and #3 above to further that excitement, and then get to scheduling that excitement on your calendar.
WAY #7: Schedule personal time
You may have noticed that not all of the blocks in the screenshot in Way #5 are exactly work-related. I mean, sure, the schedule looks jam-packed, but look at what it’s jam-packed with: Monday’s “B&N” is when I go to the gym and then spend the day at Barnes & Noble with my son Austin, reading about different stuff and drinking lattes from the cafe. Wednesday’s “Gym and Austin time” is similar, but it involves window shopping for toys at Target, Frisbee golf, and lunch at Chipotle. “DDR” is when I play Dance Dance Revolution. It rained on Friday, so I had to swap mini golf for more writing and a strategy call. We did mini-golf this week, on Monday.
The idea here is that you can only work so much, and you only should work so much, even doing stuff you love. Taking personal time ensures that you won’t burn out and will remain happy in your pursuits, and scheduling your fun stuff right there on your calendar along with your “important work” gives it the same importance as that work, as it should be. “Hey, can we discuss XYZ vital project today?” “No, boss… I’m playing mini golf with my kids today, sorry.” You get the idea.
WAY #8: Set specific work times and then jam the shit out of those times… but don’t work at other times
My schedule, no matter how packed, ends at 6pm every day and only covers Monday through Friday. That’s because I designate weekdays before six as my work times. So what do I do after six? I hang out with my family. What do I do on weekends? Nothing. Fucking nothing. Last weekend my family was away and I watched eight episodes of Breaking Bad and five movies, went for a long walk, and ate nachos and sushi (not together).
Now, my work times coincide roughly with the traditional workday because I don’t have a traditional job, but if you do, you might designate 6-8am or 8pm to midnight or Saturday all day for your extracurricular (I call them “Legendary”) pursuits. Pick specific times and then work the living hell out of those times, week after week. Don’t work other than during those times. If you find you absolutely must work outside of your designated blocks, adjust your schedule: create a new bona-fide block and work the hell out of that block too.
Work hard during your designated times — and only during those times — and you’ll find yourself realizing two things: 1) if you work hard during your scheduled times, you won’t feel like you have to work during your off times, and 2) if you aren’t allowed to work during your off times, you will work like a motherfucker during the times you’re supposed to be working… because otherwise you’ll accomplish nothing.
WAY #9: Go for walks
Notice how I said that I went for a walk last weekend? I do that whenever I can. Not only will it break up a stretch of hard work, but it’ll get you out and active as well as helping spawn ideas. I walk whenever I have a problem to solve. When I don’t have a problem to solve, sometimes ideas come anyway. The entire concept for the How To Be Legendary manifesto and the Everyday Legendary community came to me during a walk along Lake Erie this spring and was fleshed out during subsequent walks. I worked out the end of Fat Vampire on a walk and the entire concept of Fat Vampire 2 on a walk. (That’s what I was doing this past weekend, incidentally.)
My walks are long when I can afford the time — two hours isn’t uncommon if my schedule permits. I take my phone, which has a voice memo app on it, and record ideas as they come to me. I don’t talk on it, though; very few people ever call me, for which I’m grateful. As I walk, when I’m not recording intermittent good ideas, I talk out loud to myself. It’s a quirk I’ve used for forever when I want to work something out, and usually my routes are sparsely enough populated to allow me to do it. Apparently I just like to talk, even if nobody is listening.
WAY #10: Submerge yourself for long periods of time, and Ignore the world entirely until you come up for air
If you’ve scheduled a block of time to work on something that matters, don’t be a dumbass and have your phone right next to you. Turn the damn thing off. My work blocks rarely last longer than two and a half hours, and 90 minutes is more common and works well for a lot of people. And guess what? The world can wait for your ever-so-important input for 90 to 150 minutes. No empires will collapse if you don’t jump every time your phone rings. And for the love of God, turn off those stupid email notifications on your phone. Repeat after me: Email is an asynchronous medium. Feeling that you need to answer an email the instant it comes in is beyond stupid. Acting that way will kill your progress.
(SIDE RANT: I despise this idea we’ve all bought into over the past decade or two that goes something like this: I am so incredibly important that nobody can do without me for a few hours or make decisions on their own, so it’s vital that I be available at all times, including during off hours or on vacation, and that I respond instantly to any and all requests. Think about that for a second. What are you, a slave? When the world calls you, you’ve got to jump up and obey without hesitation, as if you’re afraid of the master’s whip? Listen: If nobody’s life is on the line and you still absolutely must answer emails and calls the instant they come in, then you should really stop reading this guide because there’s no hope for you anyway. You might as well get yourself one of those stupid servant hats and consider yourself the world’s bitch. Start answering your phone like this: “Yes, suh!”)
Answering the phone (or text, or IM, or Skype chat, or Google chat, or email) in an instant, stimulus-response manner teaches your brain that everyone else’s agenda is more important than your own. I don’t feel that way, and I suggest you don’t either. Be selfish about this. Here’s one of my credos: My life is my life, and what I choose to do with it is more important in the moment than whatever you need from me. I’ll help you if I can… when it’s time. With a few rare exceptions, I go first. You have to wait.
In addition to nixing the phone, I recommend totally and completely shutting out the world while you work. For me, this means that I close my office door when I’m writing, and my family knows not to come in or knock unless the house is on fire. Then, if you can do it, I highly — HIGHLY — recommend working while wearing a good pair of over-the-ear stereophonic headphones and listening to music. Now, not everyone can do this. I used to think I couldn’t write while listening to music, but I forced myself to learn how to do it, and it’s probably quadrupled the amount of stuff I can get done and has allowed me to work during times I’d previously thought were too distracting.
If you can’t work to music, that’s a bummer… but if you can, DO IT, and do it with headphones. Good ones, not earbuds. Here are the headphones I use. They’re not overly expensive, the sound quality is excellent, they’re extremely comfortable to wear, and they will shut out the world. I’ve always closed my door while working, but the thing was, I could still hear my family outside, my neighbor mowing his lawn, and the dogs barking. Now I don’t hear anything. My wife actually yells at me because sometimes I’ll forget to silence my phone and it’ll keep ringing over and over beside me, and I won’t even know.
I can and do listen to music with lyrics (Eminem is a favorite), but instrumental stuff like the Inception soundtrack works great too, and is far easier if lyrics distract you. But seriously… get the good headphones. I cheaped out for years and wore earbuds. It is not the same. You’re worth $90, so get a pair if you’re serious about what you do. They may just change the way you work. I know they did for me.
To sum up this incredibly long section, the way I recommend working is akin to scuba diving: You submerge for long periods of time, during which you are totally and completely inaccessible. In between those submersions, you come up, take off your headphones, open your door, and take a few minutes to reconnect with your surroundings. Then, if your schedule calls for it, you can suit back up and vanish again.
(By the way, I have rants on email in addition to the phone, and highly recommend you only check email a few times a day, during designated email-checking periods. I wrote two posts on this strategy here and here. I don’t follow my own advice perfectly all the time, but I hate myself a little whenever I fall off the checking-email-only-twice-a-day wagon.)
WAY #11: Go for “action” first and “perfect action” second
Saved the big-picture one for last. Most of the time, it’s more important that you do something than that you do something perfectly. I stole this concept from Tony Robbins, who simply calls it “massive action.” It’s what it sounds like: Do a lot of shit.
Stop worrying so much about writing that perfect sales letter or creating that perfect website and simply write the damn sales letter and create the damn website. In my case, I know I’m capable of writing fast and producing quality stuff, but I’d been using “artistry” as an excuse to fiddle with things for years, when really I should have just been writing.
Now, that said, don’t be a slob. You still need to produce good stuff. I wrote Fat Vampire in under a month, and that felt crazy-fast to me, but despite its rapid turnaround I think that it’s really, really good. (I’m biased, obviously, but I do think that.) I’m not suggesting that you focus solely on speed and action and going crazy and just churning out crap. But most people err on the side of perfection because it’s actually an excuse (if you insist on being perfect, which you can’t be, you’ll never have to ship your work and face criticism), so unless you know you tend toward being an actual, real, legit half-ass slob, don’t worry about it. Do first. You can always go back and correct any mistakes later.
So those are my eleven tips. You’ll see that there’s no magic here, just hard work. You want to do things that others will think are amazing? This is how you start.
Now go out and do shit (and check out Everyday Legendary if you want some community and accountability while you do).