5 guiding principles for doing your best work in 2017

Greatness is largely a matter of conscious choices and discipline.

Good is the enemy of great. Which is why you see few truly great things in this world. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.

When both your passions and work infuse, you start noticing that not only your work is becoming more meaningful and fulfilling, but so is your life.

It’s very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work. And in many cases, you might have the tranquility to discover a purposeful life through pursuing great work — despite not reaching the great status.

And while hard work is definitely part of the equation, it’s not all there is.

Dr. Richard Hamming, an award-winning scientist, and author draws a simple formula to achieve greatness in every project you encounter.

Therefore, working hard alone will not help you achieve greatness. Neither will smart work. It’s the combination of both that help elevate you to the next level.

Working hard will get you hired. Working smart will make you a great asset. But combining both will able you to lead, create, and run the whole show if you choose so.

Over the past three years of running Bserk and Ali Adams Studio, I’ve obsessed over optimizing performance and redefining work as we know it. I’ve tested many techniques to increase productivity, from not working set hours to embracing the systems and processes we’ve created within our offices to help everyone do their best work over and over again.

So, with the start of another year in our life, I’m sharing some of the lessons I’ve accumulated to help you perform your best and do your greatest work this year.

Getting Started

How we spend our days is ultimately how we spend our lives.

Each year, we imagine ourselves running marathons and wearing headbands. Then after few runs, we lose the momentum, and we forget why we started at the first place — A ubiquitous behavior we’ve all experienced.

It’s mostly because the human brain is wired to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards. Something known in economics as Dynamic Inconsistency.

It’s a lot easier to look up at the peak of a mountain than straining to imagine the view from the top.

On assembling the right habits

Want to write every day? Start exercising? Quit drinking?

Our behavior is nothing more than a vast network of routines and habits that we carry out with little to no thought. “Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time, it’s not.” David Eagleman says, a neuroscientist and a New York Times bestselling author.

To form new habits, we need to understand what habits are first. Your brain consumes a lot of energy to function; nearly 20% of your total calorie consumption goes into feeding your brain. And since your brain has evolved to prioritize survival and energy preservation, it compresses regular behavior patterns into what we call a ‘chunking,’ and it’s how habits form.

Furthermore, a habit is not a single action. For example, a regular gym-goer doesn’t just have one behavior that makes her workout every day, but rather, her gym habit can be broken down into a sequence of smaller, easier-to-process actions that form her routine. The person’s gym habit starts when that person puts her gym cloth on, put her gym equipment together or perhaps listen to a specific playlist.

The habit loop

With that sentiment in mind, if you want to form a new habit, you need to implement a cue, a routine, and a reward system that can constitute the basis for the habit. If you wanted to workout more for example; start by performing smaller cues like drinking a smoothie, listening to your favorite workout song, or doing meditation before changing and driving to the gym (the routine.) While the sweat, weight loss/muscle gain, and the accomplishment of going to the gym will be the reward.

If you need further help with forming habits, I’ll write an extensive guide on how to break and create new habits.

On replacing goals with systems

Each year, we create a list full of goals and resolutions to be executed by the following year. We’ve all managed to start working on some of these goals for a month or two, only to have them compromised when we’re under stress or simply lack the motivation.

Resolutions and goals are often an exercise in wishful thinking. People rarely keep them, mostly because they’re vague about their goals and lack the necessary plan for following through.

For me, when I created systems that I followed every day is when I started becoming more productive, started making conscious decisions that don’t comprise my goals, and started seeing the progress happening in real time in my life.

I had many goals, and I was fortunate to complete most of them. From getting that first big contract, making X amount each year, and not have a ‘job’ while I instead worked on chasing my dreams. It was all nice until those goals were achieved that I felt more empty and unfulfilled than ever before.

In his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams describes goals as reach-it-and-be-done situation, meaning, that you give yourself the gap to achieve it someday in the future. Systems, on the other hand, is something you do on a regular or daily basis with a reasonable expectation that doing so will get you to a better place in life.

Wanting better health or wanting to shred 10 Lbs are goals. Being active every day is a system.

People who chase goals often left feeling discouraged and tend to give up, whereas systems people feel great every time they apply their systems.

On failing your way to success

There are an aspiring risk-taker and an entrepreneur in all of us. However, we’re often too scared to take the leap when it comes to chasing after our goals.

Pursuing a goal is expensive. It can take a toll on your financial, mental, and physical health. And pursuing a goal is often accompanied by failure — an inevitable part of the process that can, in all honesty, sucks the fun out of life.

But not all failures are bad, even though we work hard to avoid it, I argue that there’s no success without failure.

If we never experience sadness or depression, we would never appreciate happiness. Similarly, If you don’t experience failure — which can teach you things that nothing else can — then you’d never appreciate (or even reach) success.

Failure is all the rage these days. Start-up companies are embracing failure within their culture. People are encouraged to take risks and experiment with their ideas at the workplace to drive innovation, and if you fail, you still get a pat on the back and the respect for ‘trying.’

Celebrating failure is a good re-framing practice to help you be emotionally disconnected from the situation, and to shift your focus onto the next goal. But this is where the line blurs for most people, it’s not the failure that should be celebrated, it’s the learning. Teague Hopkins, a business consulting group, points out that failure without learning is just failure.

For me, failure is the universe’s way of keeping checks and balances. We often get sucked into our ideas that we fail to realize whether we’re still on the same path we intended to take at the first place — or often we just don’t want to accept the fact our idea isn’t working, so we keep working on it until we reach rock bottom. Failure helps me to take the time out to dive deeply into myself and re-understand my motivation and purpose. It’s a process that I made peace with because if handled right, not only can it offer an opportunity to start over with a fresh perspective, but it can also strengthen you, makes you wiser, and gives you a sense of empathy.

So Instead of celebrating failure as an accomplishment well earned, it’s the exploitation of the potential it creates that should be celebrated. If we don’t build upon the knowledge of the reasons we failed, then all the effort it took to fail is wasted. And if you don’t pick yourself back up and be ready to take another shot, then we waste the beating we took at the first place.

On being efficient with time

Take a look at your schedule right now. What does it say? Is it filled with productive tasks? Reminders to finish a specific project? Or are there deep swaths of time dedicated to doing nothing?

Your schedule is an inside look into what you find most valuable.

When I started my freelance career, my biggest struggle was creating an efficient schedule that gave me the freedom to work whenever I wanted and the productivity needed to finish a project.

Using the Ivy Lee method, each night, I started writing down six tasks that I needed to accomplish tomorrow, prioritized by the weight of the task. It was a great way to schedule tasks and getting the most out of each day.

After doing that for three months, I started becoming obsessed with time management and productivity. I started replacing break times with more tasks; I neglected my social life, I was 110% goal-focused.

My life seemed dull. I was following the same routine every day: wake up at 4 am, workout, meditate, cook, read for an hour, work till 5, come home from work and start work on side projects, read for another hour or two, sleep, and repeat. I got away with doing that for about six months before it started taking its toll on me. While I was more productive than ever before, It was an unhealthy lifestyle to sustain. My life was revolved around growing myself and work. I became a slave to my to-do list, and I experience a real ‘burn out’ for the first time.

It was clear that I needed to take a break and reassess my routine.

Instead of constraining my life within a 4×4″ piece of paper with a bunch of bullet points and to-do’s, I went to construct a new system that works around being productive while maintaining the health of my body and mind. Most importantly, a system that I can sustain.

I combined different scheduling techniques, from Jim Collins ‘Stop doing’ list, to John Zeratsky’s “pressure-release valve breaks,” and a handful of other hacks that I’ve accumulated after understanding what works for me.

Here’s what I came up with:

4:30 — Wake up and eat a pre-workout snack
5:00 — Workout
6:30 — Shower and meditate
7:00 — Prepare breakfast (while listening to a podcast)
7:30 — Read for an hour/ or a chapter. Which ever is first

This is the end of my morning routine. I know If I do this every day then I’ll prepare myself for a productive day. No matter how unmotivated or unwilling I feel that day

9:00 — 3:00 — I grab a cup of coffee and head to work.

Work is broken down into hourly assessments. I work for 50 min without any distractions (flow state) and take a break from the last 10 min of each hour to check email, phone, and social media. I also use Hourly Chime to set hourly reminders, whenever the beep goes off, I take one minute for mindfulness and to reflect on whether I’m inventing things to do to avoid the important tasks I should be doing

3:00 — Go home and take an hour break. This is my TV break.
4:00 — Work on my personal brand or any client work I need to take care of.
7:30 — Done for the day

After that I’m free to do whatever I want. This is my ideal template to follow every day. Sometimes things move or more free time is allocated to socializing, meetings, or hanging out with friends and family.

You obviously don’t have to create as strict of a schedule as the one I’m currently using. Everyone is different, so find what works for you and commit to it.

For more ideas, check out how to manage your energy, not your time, Amber Rae’s method on blocking your time based on activity, and make sure to follow Tim Ferriss’s work (blog + podcast) to help you increase your productivity.

On creating the right environment

If you sow good seeds and allow them to fall on bad soil, the seed will never grow and bear fruit, no matter how much time you spend taking care of it. Similarly, if you plant good habits in a bad environment, you’ll never be able to produce good results, and you’ll most likely fail to commit to your goals and dreams.

When Bonnie Ware, a nurse who cared for elderly patients facing their final weeks, published The Regrets of the Dying, “not chasing dreams” was number one.

“When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made,” she wrote.

So when you’re feeling overwhelmed, or lack the commitment, take a look at your environment and get rid of the bad roots that are anchoring you down. Here are few tips to get you started:

Get rid of the clutter: our lives can contain unnecessary clutter that can leave us feeling overwhelmed. Focus on the tasks that will propel you closer to your goals, and get rid of the tasks that are irrelevant.

Create more, compare less: “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your path you make with every step you take.” — Joseph Campbell.
We live in a facade world full of success stories and few-to-none non-success ones. We spend more time comparing someone else’s 20th chapter to our first paragraph of chapter 1 of our own book. We’re stuck in the perfectionist trap; a toxic mindset that can leave you without any real accomplishments.
Stop worrying about comparing a task to someone else’s, or not starting a task because it’s not going to be perfect. Worry about finishing a task. It doesn’t matter what you create, right or wrong; you’ll learn from either situation.

Saying ‘goodbye’ to negative people: Almost all research agrees that negativity is incredibly harmful and contagious on the mind and the body. No matter how positive of a person you are, negative people are a heavy burden anchoring you down. Focus on connecting with like-minded people who are going to lift you higher and motivate you to achieve your goals.

Take more breaks: you’re not a machine. Humans were not designed to work all the time, yet, work consumes the majority of our lives. Taking regular breaks is one of the key factors to producing great work. Similar to working out, in order to achieve muscle hypertrophy, it’s important to take rests so the body can recover and rebuild the broken muscle tissues.

I hope this article helps you take action. And while it might seem like a lot to get through, it’s possible. Life is too short to wasted being unhappy with where you are.

This year is all about taking action, stop making promises and start doing. The longer you wait to do something you should do now, the greater the odds that you will never actually do it.

Happy 2017.

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