Confessions of a not-so-busy person

I used to be busy. I also disliked what I did and accomplished less than I could have. Then some things changed.

I made three adjustments that made me happier and much more productive. Nothing as radical as a 4-Hour Workweek or Escape from Cubicle Nation. After all, I still have a job and I’m still at the same firm. My adjustments are about choices and small steps that may help you too.

Photograph: Ewa Ahlin/Getty Images/Johner Images

Photograph: Ewa Ahlin/Getty Images/Johner Images

Cognitive surplus

When I was busy, I remember thinking that I didn’t have any time. Yet I managed to watch 10-20 hours of television each week, usually sports. Other hobbies, like golf or gardening, could take up another 5 hours a week. And my daily commute took up another 12 or so.

I’ve since made different choices. Living in the city has shortened my commute to a 20-minute walk. Cutting cable reduced television altogether and I now have other hobbies I’m passionate about.

I’m not suggesting those choices are inherently good, or even possible, for everyone. It’s just remarkable to me that I had a cognitive surplus and didn’t know it. Even without any changes to my job, I’ve found 20-30 hours a week to sleep better, eat better, exercise, and participate in things I enjoy more.

Saying yes and saying no

When I was busy, I would fill my calendar with meetings and obsessively look at my Blackberry. I would travel a lot. It felt like work and consumed all of my time at the office and often at home.

But was it necessary? Some professions (ER doctors, for example) have no choice but to react to things as they come in. But I was a manager in a large IT department. There was no blood, no life and death. What was I doing?

In retrospect, I was avoiding the real work: learning, improving, innovating, creating. It was easier to be busy than to confront all that I didn’t know. It was less scary to react to things, to go from appointment to appointment and “manage,” than to focus for a prolonged time on trying to make a difference and to care so much about the outcome.

Over time, I learned to craft my job, to shape it so it was more fulfilling and effective. That included saying no where I could, putting less emotional energy into meaningless but required tasks, and carving out blocks of time to attempt work that mattered.

Working out loud

The most important change I made was to change my job entirely. Working out loud made it possible to shape my reputation and build a network that led to new opportunities in the same firm.

Because of the other adjustments I made, I had time to learn and experiment. By making that work visible and framing it as a contribution that might help others (as opposed to promoting myself), I was able to find and connect with other people interested in what I was doing. Over time, that work became more valuable and I was in a role that never existed before.

That pattern continues and there’s largely no longer a boundary between what I do for work and what I do for fulfillment. By one measure, I don’t have a long workday at all. By another measure, I’m constantly working – researching, writing, engaging people, and building something that matters.

On Monday, I’ll speak to 350 people at my firm about something no one asked me to work on. They’ll each be holding a book no one asked me to write. On Friday, that book became available around the world. It’s work that’s good for me and good for the firm.

Working Out Loud on amazon.co.jp

Am I lucky? Absolutely. And by working out loud, I tilted the odds in my favor.

What about you?

I wrote this post because in the Q&A after one of my presentations, someone remarked on how busy I must be. She meant it as a compliment and yet I was worried it was a barrier for her. “I could never do what you do.”

I wanted to let her know I’m not busy. Though her own job, story, ambitions, and trade-offs will all be different from mine, I wanted to let her know that she has more choices and more control than she might have assumed. I wanted her to think about the possibilities. I wanted her to take a step toward making her own luck too.

The 6 feelings I experienced when my book was finally on Amazon

As of Thursday, June 11th, you could buy “Working Out Loud” on Amazon.

I thought I would simply feel happy. But it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that.

Working Out Loud on Amazon

 

Surprise

My first reaction was surprise. You might find that odd considering I had been working toward publishing the book for a few years. But on Wednesday, I was told it would take “3 to 5 business days.” Then on Thursday morning at 10:15, I saw this:

Pia Helm buys Working Out Loud

My pulse quickened. I didn’t know Pia Helm from Munich. She must be mistaken, I thought. So I went on Amazon, searched for “working out loud,” and there it was.

Pis Helm buys Working Out Loud - pt 2

Camaraderie

I sent out tweets and Facebook updates to let people know, and the next 2 days were filled with congratulations and good feeling from around the world.

A colleague I have never spoken with before wrote this beautiful Amazon review:

“I am using this book currently in a Working Out Loud Circle at work and I am so impressed with how simple it is to implement and how effective the techniques are. After just one WOL Circle meeting, I was already feeling more connected with my colleagues and more encouraged about my career. I believe at the end of 12 weeks, I will be well on my way to new habits to accomplish my goal. I believe I will return to this method to reach future goals, and hope to implement many of the insights in my day to day work habits as well.

Bravo! It is long overdue for someone to address the problem of work not being as fulfilling as it could be. The secret indeed lies with us, our interactions with our fellow human beings, and gratitude and kindness.”

Although I’ve been writing for a while, it’s still an extraordinary thing to feel connected with people around the world. Friends, family, colleagues, strangers – all connected by their interest in an idea. I felt like I was part of something bigger than me and it felt good.

Happiness

All the nice comments from my network made me happy. Seeing a bulk order from my firm for 350 copies (one for every intern in the US) made me feel even happier. Not just because I sold books but because it felt like a symbol of institutional validation.

The day the book was available, I was invited to give a keynote speech in Sydney. And I spoke to two other companies who are interested in spreading the practice of working out loud among their employees.

I was feeling happy about the present and also about the possibilities.

Anxiety

Anxious? Yes. It didn’t take long for the snakes in my head to appear: What if someone gives it a 1-star review? What if they don’t think it’s good enough? What if there’s a problem with my thinking, writing, or research?

As those thoughts popped into my head, I remembered the two quotes I cited in the book.

“You can be a delicious, ripe peach and there will still be people in the world who hate peaches.” – Dita Von Teese

“It’s arrogant to assume that you’ve made something so extraordinary that everyone everywhere should embrace it.” – Seth Godin

Slight letdown

Of course I looked at the online royalty report to see how many I sold. I won’t tell you how often I did that but it was more than once. It’s clear that whether I sell 1,000 or 10,000 or even 100,000, it’s still a small number compared to how many people I want to help.

In my letter from my future self that I wrote over five years ago (and is also in the book), I included that I’ll have known I reached my goal when “I will have authored a book or other notable content that more than 20,000 people read.”

Now I know that books alone are not enough.

Determination

I remind myself that the book is both a culmination and a beginning. It’s an important step, and now there are other steps to take.

One of the most important next steps is a movement to form at least 1,000 Working Out Loud circles this year. In the first few days after it was announced, already people from 7 countries have pledged over 300 peer support groups. (You can see the growing list and add your own name here.)

Other steps include making it easier for people to take their own steps and make working out loud a habit. Working with companies and HR associations to include working out loud as a practice. Helping students work out loud so they have access to opportunities. Work with people who normally don’t have such access to equip and empower them to get it.

Nine months ago, when I thought the book was almost finished, I wrote that the book launch party might take three years. That sounds about right.

How an undisciplined person was able to blog for 200 weeks in a row

I still remember this all-nighter in college, writing on my trusty Smith-Corona typewriter.

I still remember this all-nighter in college, writing on my trusty Smith-Corona typewriter.

That undisciplined person is me.

I’m someone whose list of things to do is scrawled on scraps of paper. I put off things I don’t enjoy doing, like taxes and even the smallest of administrative tasks. Occasionally <ahem> I’ll eat and drink too much.

Despite my lack of discipline in some areas, though, I’ve managed to write a blog post every week for 200 weeks. By sharing how I did it, maybe I can help others who want to write more too.

The beginning

It was about six years ago when I first started writing. Looking for some kind of creative outlet as I was changing roles at work, I began using a low-tech blogging platform that was available inside the company, and the early posts were therapeutic. I wrote about things I was interested in, and with each post I felt like I was developing a useful skill.

I wrote only half a dozen times that year, but one post about trying to use Gmail at work attracted over a thousand comments. I was amazed at how a simple essay on a social platform could make it possible to connect people and build a movement. Something clicked. I saw that by making my ideas and work visible, I could shape my reputation and get access to opportunities I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

I started to take writing more seriously. My friend Eric, an author and journalist, helped me by editing my work and offering support. I gradually started writing more, enjoying the feedback, and after 18 months or so I was posting something every week inside my firm.

The struggle

Writing did not come naturally. I would procrastinate. I would stare at a blank screen not knowing what to write. I would hate my early attempts at a post as I kept failing to make a concise point.

I was mindful too that I was often spoiling Saturday mornings with my brooding over a laptop, testing my wife’s patience. And for what?

I thought of stopping, but I remember reading Seth Godin’s daily blogs at the time, and they provided me with much-needed encouragement. Here’s one of them:

“Where, precisely, do you go in order to get permission to make a dent in the universe? …

If you think there’s a chance you can make a dent, GO. Now. Hurry. You have my permission. Not that you needed it.”

And another:

“Are you making a dent in the universe?

Hint: lots of random pokes in many different spots are unlikely to leave much of an impact. And hiding out is surely not going to work at all.”

I always thought I could make a dent, but I was increasingly aware that time was running out. I became more purposeful. At a low point in my career, I saw what it was like not to have many options, and I saw writing as a way to take some control over my learning and access to possibilities. I refused to give up.

In June 2011, after writing for a few years at work, I was going to give a talk at a conference and I wanted people there to be able to find my work online. So I bought a domain name, picked a WordPress theme, and anguished over my first public post.

I think only 16 people read it, and despite all that writing at work, I still hadn’t found my voice – what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. But that is now 200 weeks ago. The more I wrote, the more comfortable I became. Over time, a gradually growing audience would tell me how they came to expect my posts every Saturday morning. Not wanting to let them down motivated me to ship each week.

Making it a habit

As the weeks went on, I gradually got smarter. I kept a list of topics so I wouldn’t ever panic in front of a blank screen. I started drafting posts earlier in the week so my subconscious could work on the post for a few days. And I stuck to a schedule. Everything I had read about authors I admired said they treated writing like a job. You sit down and write, and you meet your deadline no matter what.

After perhaps 100 public posts the writing started to get easier or, more precisely, I didn’t worry about it as much. The regimen relieved me of much of the stress. The difficulty of writing a good first draft is now familiar and my anxiety quickly turns into recognition. “It’s okay,” I tell myself, “it’s just part of the process.” I also know that each post is another small step towards getting better.

While I still don’t recognize myself as a disciplined person, I have become a disciplined writer, posting twice a week now and having just finished a book. Writing is now something I enjoy doing, and I can see applying that process, that discipline, to other parts of my life.

I’m looking forward to it.

The two best moments in my career happened just this month

One moment was during an evening event at the office, and the other was while I was on holiday in Costa Rica. As different as those circumstances were, the moments were connected, and they represented both a culmination and a beginning.

I share them in the spirit of sharing good news with friends. And in the hope that the path I took to those two best moments might help you experience your own.

Overcoming the resistance

John Stepper_CoverWearing a bathing suit and sandals, I capped several years of work by shipping the final manuscript of Working Out Loud to be formatted, the final step before it’s available on Amazon in about a month.

It’s not so much finishing a book that made it a special moment. Millions of people write books each year. It’s overcoming what Steven Pressfield calls “the resistance” and what Seth Godin refers to as “the lizard brain.”

Every day till the moment I hit “submit,” the voices in my head were insistent:

It’s not ready.

It’s not good enough.

You’re not good enough.

I couldn’t turn the voices off. They are, I know, just trying to protect me from disappointment and rejection. I also know that the long-term consequences of not making the effort are much more harmful.

The things that helped me ship are framing the work as a contribution and the feedback from people who have read and applied the ideas in the book. Offering my work as a gift means I can be free of expectations – number of copies sold, good reviews – as my only goal is to help people. The feedback lets me know at least some people will appreciate my contribution. If others don’t like it, I’ll take solace in knowing “you can be a delicious ripe peach and there will still be people in the world that hate peaches.”

Bringing my whole self to work

Presenting "Working Out Loud"The other moment was earlier this month was when I spoke to a large group at my firm about Working Out Loud circles and half of them formed circles as a result.

Though I had written and spoken about my work before, this event wasn’t sponsored by me but rather by an official employee network in the firm. It was promoted via email and on screens in the elevators and in the lobby.

It was as if I finally connected all the time spent researching and writing and coaching with what I actually do for a living. After all, no one had ever asked me to write a book or give talks or try to form a movement that empowered people. I just did. Somehow, having that work recognized and promoted by the institution helped connect the different kinds of work I do and made me feel whole.

As a result, my presentation that evening was the best talk I ever gave. I think it was because I delivered my authentic self, and put all of me into the talk.

When will your best moments be?

When I ask people “When are the best years of your life?” some people are clear that their best moments happened long ago.

It makes me sad they’re so certain about their future and that it holds so little promise for them.

Whatever your age or job or experience, I want more people to know that the best moments of your life are just the best moments so far. By equipping people with some new skills and habits, and some simple switches in their mindset, I want to help them discover and gain access to more possibilities.

I want to help them experience more best moments.

The list Santa never made

The list Santa never made“After all this time,” my friend said, “I think I finally understand what you mean by ‘contribution.’”

Then she told me a story. She had thought of something that would be useful for an important person in her network. She worked hard on it, sent a nice note, and felt certain this would help deepen the relationship.

Then she got no response.

How would you feel? What would you do next?

An annual ritual in my house

My mother was a generous woman. We didn’t have much money, but she always managed to have something for people. It might be cookies or bread she baked. Or cologne or soap from the burgeoning inventory of Avon products she sold.

She also sent out Christmas cards each year with a personal note. She kept  list, and next to each person’s name, she checked off who sent her cards in return. If there wasn’t a check next to your name, you wouldn’t get a card next year.

A simple self-test

Perhaps you would agree with my mom’s score-keeping strategy. Or maybe you think it’s childish to withhold such a small gift for lack of a response. So consider this everyday situation:

What do you think when you open a door for someone and they don’t say “thank you”?

Would you open that door for the same person again?

When you smile at the universe

My friend was irritated. She told me how she fumed for a few days, thinking of various personality flaws that might explain the person’s lack of gratitude and, even worse, lack of acknowledgement.

But a gift with strings attached isn’t a gift. It’s bait, trying to lure the person to do something. It’s something many of us get wrong and so in our working out loud circles we practice what to do when we don’t get a response, whether you’re offering help or asking for it:

“We assume the best of people – they’re simply busy or have some other legitimate reason – and we focus on what else we can do to be helpful. That mindset ensures your requests don’t feel like burdens and makes it much more likely people will respond favorably in the future.”

With this approach, your contributions feel like an invitation, not an imposition.

After our talk, my friend simply let it go. She stopped making up stories, she mentally untied the strings from her gift, and she felt better about what she had done and about the person she had done it for.

The next day she got a response. A thoughtful, lovely, generous note.

Sometimes, when you smile at the universe, the universe smiles back.