September 15, 2016

Hard work is not enough

Hello, Developer Friend!

Today I have a message to share that I think may be the most important I've ever shared. It's not anything profound, but it's super important. Especially if you know someone who works very hard but often feels like they're treading water in life. It's a bit of a mess, but here we go...


There are many people in this world who appreciate the value of a hard day’s work, but few of them know what productivity really is.

Staying busy and completing many tasks feels productive. Those who have a strong work ethic take pride in “getting stuff done,” and of course, there is merit there. But it only part of the picture.

True productivity is not based solely on work ethic. Productivity has the word product in it, and a product must be produced.

Hard work only pays off if you deliver what you create to the people who can benefit from it, who will in turn provide you with what you need to keep going. This is the only way to kickstart the feedback loops that sustain the costly and painful efforts that any worthwhile work involves.

Many consider productivity to be working on thousands of tasks and just checking the boxes and clearing their plate, but that is a dead-end path. It is the mindset of a busy person, and nothing is more damaging to creativity than a busy mind. Creativity requires room to breath, and a task-oriented mindset suffocates it.

True productivity can be very messy. It can mean starting many things that you do not even intend to finish and then letting most of them fail. The purpose of doing so is to find the one thing that is worth focusing your full energy on until it is shipped. And then you rinse, and repeat.

True productivity comes from giving your full attention to one thing — at the exclusion of all else — to drag it out of your head and into the world. You do this not for its own sake, but because you believe and you know that is exactly what you need to be doing in that particular moment of your life.

And when you choose to focus with the light of a laser rather than a lantern, you do it because you know the value of doing so (even after considering what you might be giving up) is so much greater than the net-net outcome of spreading your attention all around in so many directions at once.

We live in an attention-scarce society, being able to put something at the front of your mind, even for a little while, is a true asset and a secret power.

But putting these ideas into action is tricky. In order to be productive, you must be able to make tough choices. This means saying “I will do THIS and not THAT,” and saying “I will do THIS now, and THAT later”.

Prioritization is uncomfortable and often poorly managed because it involves tough choices. We want to be everything that everyone needs us to be at all times, but that leaves us stretched so thin that we end up leaving nothing left inside ourselves.

The way to make these tough choices is not to make a big checklist and then order it from most to least important. Everything’s important if it’s even worth thinking, and it strains our integrity to try to pick and choose based on what matters more or less in relative terms.

Instead, pay attention to two things:

1. The things that you are drawn to which allow you to use your skills and life experiences in the most effective possible way.
2. The things that you know will have a clear and positive impact on real people who you care about.
These are the true indicators of genuinely productive work.

Productive work is not being busy.

Productive work is not putting in long hours.

Productive work is not other people noticing how hard you work.

Productive work is what you deliver into the hands of real people that you serve — which has been built with the greatest degree of care, energy, attention, skill, and compassion.

This is what it means to be productive. In order to figure out how to work in this way, it can take many years of dedicated effort.

If you don’t know put in a hard day’s work, then you can ignore this whole message. Find a way to develop that discipline, because it is necessary.

But then after that, go from being task-oriented to being process-oriented. This way, you will develop the idea that it’s not just about the tasks, but the way you do things and your ability to optimize how you get things done.

But once you build a strong process-oriented mindset, the next step is… to throw it all away. To stop optimizing the “getting stuff done” aspect of things and instead focus on why you are doing what you are doing.

In the end, the only socially responsible way to work is to become outcome-oriented. This means delivering. This means shipping!

And of course, this is also the scary part. The emotional part. The risky part.

It is also the only part that really matters.

I have had too many friends suffer in the darkness because of their fear of shipping their work. Too many friends who work with great intensity and brilliant minds but for whatever reason, get stuck on the part where you take that inner fire you kindled and spread it out into the world. It’s the biggest tragedy in the creative world, and it breaks my heart every time I see it. That’s why I wrote this essay.

If you think this may help someone you know, this essay is also on Medium, so you can recommend it there or forward the email along.

And if you want it in raw, unedited "bearded man bangs on shaky table" format, you can check out this video on YouTube.