How to do your best work (and figure out what that is)Posted: April 4, 2017
Not all work is meaningful. Not all work is even useful. We’ve all felt the frustration of getting caught up doing busywork that seems necessary but takes our time and attention away from more important activities.
At RescueTime, we’re working to ensure more meaningful work happens in the world. As part of that mission, we’re diving deeper into understanding what makes work meaningful, and how that differs from person to person.
If you’re not sure what kind of work is most important to you, or how you can spend more time doing those activities and avoiding busywork, this post is for you.
Why doing amazing work is important
Doing your best work isn’t easy. It takes effort, and it will probably stretch your abilities to their limits.
But it’s worth it, because doing amazing work can bring you opportunities you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
Doing amazing work can bring you opportunities you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
A great example of this is how doing your best work can help you build up your network. For Mikael Cho, founder and CEO of Crew, networking was almost impossible when he started his entrepreneurial journey.
Cho had plenty of people in mind that he wanted to network with, but he struggled to get any of them to agree to a meeting. Fair enough, says Cho, since he hadn’t proved he was interesting by doing any great work. He was trying to meet people before he’d proved he was worth meeting.
Giving up on that approach, Cho took to focusing on building Crew instead:
… instead of focusing my energy fighting for their attention, I focused on making something interesting. I started our company and I wrote about our experience along the way.
I went to almost no events, took hardly any meetings, and didn’t pay attention to LinkedIn.
A few years later, Crew is doing well, and those same people who turned down meetings with Cho are reaching out to him. “Once you’re interesting,” says Cho, “people want to talk to you. Your work is the ice-breaker.”
While networking events can put you in touch with lots of people, you can often reach a wider audience through your work. And when people get to know you through your work first, there’s no need to spend time pitching them during meetings or networking events—your work will speak for itself.
Cho realized networking first wouldn’t lead to a successful product or company. Networking needed to come after the work:
By focusing on your work, a good network of people naturally follows.
So whether you’re after a job offer, a network to tap for investment in your company, or simply getting to know more people in your industry, doing great work can get you noticed and give you an “in” to meeting people you admire.
How to do unique, creative work
It’s easy to say you should focus on doing interesting, creative work, but how do you actually go about that?
Writer James Clear says the answer is evident in the Helsinki Bus Station Theory, shared by Arno Rafael Minkkinen at a commencement speech for the New England School of Photography.
The theory is based on the Helsinki bus system, which has a station in the centre of the city that all buses leave from. For the first 1km or so, most of the buses share their route with several others, but after that first short period they split off into separate directions.
Minkkinen likened this bus system to the career of the photographers he was speaking to. Each bus route, he said, was like a direction they could choose in their careers. But after three years of working in one direction, they would still be in that first 1km where lots of other bus routes aligned with their own. They’d look around and see other photographers doing the same thing as them, and, frustrated at their struggle to find originality in their work, start over with a new bus route.
But the same thing would keep happening, since it would take more than three years to get past that first 1km to the point where the buses split off into separate directions.
You could repeat this process for your whole career, said Minkkinen, and never get to the point where your work takes on its own originality.
The answer? Stay on the bus.
In repeating this story, Clear points out that while showing up and spending time to hone your craft is important if you want to do great work, spending time on a huge variety of skills won’t ever get you to the point of mastery.
Focus is the way to mastery, says Clear, which is only achieved by staying on the bus. Eventually, you’ll see other people in your industry peel off into their own directions, and your work will start to shine in its originality.
What if you’re not sure what your best work is?
Staying on the bus sounds simple. But for many of us, committing to a single direction for our entire careers is daunting.
As writer Jeff Goins says, the more experience you have, the more confident you can be about committing to one direction. But when you’re starting out and lacking experience, it’s common to worry about making a commitment in case you want to change your mind later:
A little hesitation is natural. I’m wary of people who can name their dream immediately without having had any real experience with it.
But this hesitation can lead to switching buses often, as discussed in the Helsinki Bus Station Theory, or not getting on any buses at all, because you’re paralyzed by indecision.
Goins’s answer is to commit fully to one direction for just a season.
Don’t pressure yourself into a lifelong commitment before you’re ready. But don’t let that stop you from doing anything at all, either. You’ll never create great work or find the direction you want to commit to without trying something.
“Choose something that strikes your fancy,” says Goins, “based on the possibility that it could be your dream.”
Author and founder of ConvertKit, Nathan Barry, agrees that working in seasons is a productive way to try out different directions.
Committing to one direction indefinitely can be taxing, says Barry. Whereas choosing one direction for a seasonal period is more manageable, and can even help you produce better work, by giving you a set timeframe to plan your work around.
Committing seasonally gives you an opportunity to go deep, says Barry, while also having a chance to change directions and try new things until you settle on a direction you want to stick with long-term.
So commit to your goal with everything you have—for a season.
It can be frustrating to want to do amazing work while feeling paralyzed by indecision about what that work should be.
Whether your seasons are weeks, months, or years long, the approach of working in seasons means you can fully commit to something you want to try, without the pressure of saying no to everything else forever. After the season is over you can re-evaluate and try something new.
Ultimately, this seems like a winning compromise between committing enough to develop your skills and produce your best work, while not forcing yourself to choose a lifelong direction before you have the experience to know what you really want to do.
Start the journey towards doing your best work by choosing one direction. Choose your bus, and choose a season-length that feels best to you. Then there’s nothing more to do but stay on the bus for the entire season.