How to do your best work (and figure out what that is)

artist

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.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

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.

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.

bus

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.

autumn

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.

goal quote

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.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Weekly roundup: tips to help you write more

pen

Weekly roundup: tips to help you write more

Whether it’s writer’s block, a simple lack of motivation, or finding the time to write, these tips can help you get more words on the page.

1. Look for inspiration in others

Motivation can be contagious. Writer Jeff Goins explains with an analogy about finding the motivation to workout and eat well:

I wasn’t feeling motivated to eat right until I was at the gym and saw an overweight man giving it his all, staying late after the class was over, and then telling the instructor, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”

That motivated me to take my health a little more seriously — not because he was obese, but because he was motivated. As Donald Miller wrote, “Sometimes, you have to watch someone else love something before you can love it yourself.”

Look for writers who love what they do. Listen to them. Read their writing. Watch them give interviews. Soak up their motivation and use it to fuel your own writing.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

2. Set a writing schedule

calendar

Psychologists are still debating whether writer’s block exists, but either way, telling yourself you’re creatively blocked could harm your efforts to get going again.

Paul Silvia, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and author of How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, says you might be better off never telling yourself you have writer’s block:

Naming something gives it object power. People can overthink themselves into deep dark corners, and writer’s block is a good example of that.

But what if you are struggling to get any words on the page? Silvia says setting a regular writing schedule and sticking to it is the best way forward.

Research has found that writers who commit words to paper regularly, rather than spontaneously or at the last minute whenever a deadline looms, tend to produce more work overall. It’s also possible that writing regularly reduces the demand writing makes on your working memory, allowing you to write better.

If you need help getting started, try a tool like 750 Words, which rewards you with badges for sticking to a regular streak of writing 750 words (roughly three pages) every day. Or try Daily Page, which will email you every day with a writing prompt to get you thinking and keep stats on how often you get your daily writing done.

3. Take out your first and last paragraphs

Writer and entrepreneur James Altucher suggests getting past the hurdle of writing by writing anything you want—then taking out the first and last paragraphs. By giving yourself permission to write anything, even if it’s terrible, you take off the pressure that comes with a blank page.

And later, you get something much better out of what you first came up with simply by taking out the first and last paragraphs.

Even better, Altucher says this works even if you’re thinking about this rule as you write:

Here’s the funny thing about this rule. It’s sort of like knowing the future. You still can’t change it. In other words, even if you know this rule and write the article, the article will still be better if you take out the first paragraph and the last paragraph.

Whether you’re writing a personal story, a research-based article, or even a friendly letter, you’ll probably find you say a whole lot of nothing in your first and last paragraphs. Cut those paragraphs and get to your point faster to pull your readers in.

4. Keep emergency scenes handy

Writer Jamie Todd Rubin has a handy trick for getting over writer’s block. For those times when he sits down to write and the words just won’t come, Rubin always has an emergency scene at the ready:

You know how you take a couple of $20 bills, fold them up, and slip them into that secret compartment in your wallet so that you have some emergency cash if you need it? Well, I do that with story scenes. While I am not a plotter, I know how I think my stories will end when I start them. Usually, I also have one scene in mind—often the climax—which I am particularly eager to write.

While Rubin generally writes his stories linearly, he saves these scenes he’s especially looking forward to. In a writing emergency, he can pull out one of these scenes and get past his writer’s block:

This has saved me on several occasions when, whether out of weariness or writer’s block, I just don’t feel like writing. When nothing else will come, I whip out the emergency scene and write it, even if it means writing the scene out of order. This does three things for me:

  1. It ensures I get my writing done for the day.
  2. It gets me excited about the story again.
  3. It buys me a little time to work out why I was having a problem in the first place. Was I just tired, or was the story not working in some way?

This can work well even if you’re not a fiction writer. I write almost exclusively non-fiction, but I do tend to have a couple of blog post ideas in my to-do list at all times that I’m looking forward to writing. It’s helpful to always have an idea handy that I’m so interested in, I can rush out a draft in half an hour. That speed and vigor is helpful to get the creative juices flowing and makes it easier to return to any other writing work I’m stuck on.

5. Write what you want to read

book

Writer and artist Austin Kleon says the old adage “write what you know” is terrible advice.

Rather than writing what you know, he says writers should write what they want to read:

Not write what you know. Write what you like.

You may or may not be excited to write about things you’ve learned and experienced. But making the kind of work you wish existed in the world can be the motivation you need to keep going.

The manifesto is this: draw the art you want to see, make the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read.

I’ve often found myself stuck, staring at a blank page, struggling to get started on an article. But there are also times when I can dash off three articles in a couple of hours if I let myself go.

The difference? Writing what’s interesting to me.

When I write something I think I should or that I’ve been told to write, it’s always much harder than when I write something I’d like to read. I also feel more purpose in my work when I’m writing something I’d read myself, because I feel a duty to get those words out into the world for other people like me.

Remember this when you’re stuck on a topic: ask yourself if you’re writing what you think you should, or what you’d like to read.

6. Stop when you know what comes next

If there’s anyone who knew a thing or two about writing, it’s got to be Ernest Hemingway. One of his famous tricks was to stop in the middle of his writing, leaving himself an easy place to pick up from the next day.

You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

Leaving off mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence may feel strange, but it help enormously with the friction of getting started again the next day. As Hemingway mentions, it’s getting through until you pick up the writing again that’s most difficult:

Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

When asked if there are times when he lacks inspiration, Hemingway says this trick of stopping when you know what comes next is the key to overcoming those moments:

Naturally. But if you stopped when you knew what would happen next, you can go on. As long as you can start, you are all right.


What are your best tips for writing more? Let us know in the comments.

Related posts you might like:

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

A RescueTime feature you should know more about: Highlights

Even though I’ve used RescueTime for years, I’ve barely explored its power beyond what’s on the surface. Since joining the RescueTime team in January I’ve realised there are lots of powerful features I don’t know about that could help me focus and get more done.

As I learn about some of these new features I’ll share with you how they work. I’ve also asked my RescueTime teammates and some of our users to chip in with their own stories of how they use these features and why they’re so useful.

Today’s feature is daily highlights

highlights report

What are Highlights?

Highlights are short text snippets that record what you accomplished on a particular day. Highlights are a part of RescueTime Premium.

While RescueTime’s automatic tracking can tell you which apps you used and the websites you visited throughout the day, it can’t tell you why you used them or what project you were working on at the time. Highlights let you quickly and easily make notes of each task you complete or project you work on.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

How do you enter them?

You can enter Highlights manually on the website, or automatically with an API integration (see examples below). To make them easy to remember, you can set up alerts to automatically prompt you to enter highlights as you progress through your work day.

Why use highlights?

When our highlights feature was first released, here’s what now-CEO Robby Macdonell said about its inception:

RescueTime is great for understanding broad patterns in my time use but not so great for looking back at a specific day and remember[ing] the meaningful things I did. That’s a situation that comes up pretty frequently for me, and it was frustrating. Adding in a way to log notes about each day seemed like an obvious way to fix that.

How are RescueTime users using Highlights?

Since we introduced this feature, our users have found lots of different benefits in using daily highlights. Here are a few examples:

Tracking non-billable time

I use the Daily Highlights to keep track of how I spend my non-billable time, as I’m not very consistent with using my time tracking app for non-billable things. — Kim MacDonald

Reporting to clients

Though out my day I record highlights of what I have done. At the end of the week, I take these highlights to compile a report for my client. — Mike Therien

Reporting to supervisors and better planning

I record major or notable daily tasks completed so that when it comes to writing monthly activity reports for my supervisor, I can see easily at a glance what I accomplished. It also helps me track which elements of my role tend to take most time at which point in the month, which lets me plan workflow better. — A. Evans

Spending more time on important work

The highlights are a great tool to make quick reference notes about what I’ve been doing for the previous time blocks. Without it, I might go days at a time putting out fires and miss some significant billing opportunities. — Michael Runyon

Reporting to the boss

My boss likes to specifically know what I’ve accomplished in the past two weeks when we meet for our one-on-one meetings. Sometimes it’s hard to remember an item after it’s been crossed off my task list, because I’m already so preoccupied with the next task or project, and looking back at RescueTime reports doesn’t give me the specificity I need to report to my boss. I have intelligent prompts that remind me to enter Highlights in RescueTime, and I enter specific tasks that I’ve finished since the last prompt. It’s then really easy to see at a glance what I’ve accomplished in the past two weeks! — Marielle Bryck

Staying on-task

I created hourly prompts to log the things I’ve accomplished during the day. If the prompt pops up and I don’t have anything to write down I know I’m getting off track. It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of optimization when you’re working, constant productivity prompts keep me on track. — Ava Donatien

Journaling

I use it as a journal. I know and have read that it is good to journal, so when I have a thought that does not necessarily require an action, or something I need to write out to attribute to my day or that hour, I just have the highlights link ready, jot a quick note, and get it off my brain and down on ‘paper’. I think can sort back as needed. Overall a great tool! — Edward Silva

How highlights can help you understand how you spend your time, and report on what you’ve done

Let’s get a bit more specific about how you can use highlights to track how you spend your time.

RescueTime software developer David uses highlights combined with alerts to keep track of what he’s working on throughout the day:

I use them ALL the time and I love them. They remind me what I did and what my focus was during the day

I have an alert that fires off rather early in the day to set a highlight as a “reminder” of what my focus will be during the day. Then I fire one off about two or hours later to make sure i’ve not gotten off track. Then I have another one to summarize the day and what I got done. I try to keep the afternoon without alerts as that tends to be my most productive time.

The next morning, or after a weekend, I pull up my previous days highlights or previous weeks highlights to remind me what I was working on and what I got done.

Here’s what David’s alerts look like in RescueTime:

David's alerts

Basically, I use them to make sure I am on the right direction from the previous day and after an hour of work of a new day in the AM, a reminder of focus around midday and a summary of the day when it is done.

You might want to cover time you spend away from your computer in daily highlights, too. You can do this by connecting highlights to your calendar events, as RescueTime user Alessandro Veneri does:

I use [highlights] to keep track of all my daily meetings and university lectures by syncing RescueTime with my calendar, so that I could know at any time what I’ve been doing on each day.

Connecting to other services like your calendar to automate your highlights makes it easy to keep a log of how you spend your time. RescueTime user Alfonso Buron connects highlights to his task manager, Nozbe, using Zapier:

On the daily stand ups I want my colleagues to know what relevant tasks I worked on yesterday and which ones I plan to work on today. For that purpose I set up a Zap in Zapier that sends from Nozbe to RescueTime those tasks that I tick off each day in specific Nozbe projects.

RescueTime and Trello user Joshua Evans uses a similar approach:

I use Trello to keep my to-do list, and whenever I mark a task as “done” IFTTT automatically adds a highlight to Rescue Time! Automation for the win!

Using journaling app Day One, RescueTime user Aaron Dowd is able to keep track of his daily work and reflect on what he gets done each week:

I work remotely for seanwes, a company that helps people grow audience-driven businesses, live the life they want, and enjoy their work. I’ve been working from home since 2014, and while I love it, days fly by really quickly.

We have so many different projects going on, I used to feel like I wasn’t always making the most of my time. I’d edit some podcasts, write a blog post, help a community member with a question, do some admin tasks, and so on. I started using RescueTime to write down everything I did throughout my day, mostly just to have a log so I can see what I’ve done.

At the end of the week, I copy all my highlights and paste them into a Day One journal entry. That way, I can go back and see everything I did in the past week, which helps me feel a little more sane.

Lucas Repolês has a similar process, but uses IFTTT to automate it:

I have RescueTime alerts that open the highlight screen on every two productivity hours. Then I write the achievements of my day at work. Finally an IFTTT rule saves these notes on my journal in Day One. I really love this feature!


Some examples of highlights in action

You can make the process of logging highlights super easy by setting up the services you already use to create highlights for you automatically. For instance, you could create highlights from your git commit messages, your completed tasks on your to-do list, or each time you publish a blog post.

You can use IFTTT to set up automatic highlights with services like Todoist, Trello, Gmail, GitHub, Wunderlist, and WordPress.

Here are some examples of IFTTT applets for creating RescueTime highlights:

IFTTT Recipe: Track the completed items on your to-do list

IFTTT Recipe: Log a highlight event whenever you have a meeting

IFTTT Recipe: Log a highlight event when a new blog post is published

Zapier also works with RescueTime highlights and connects you to even more services, such as Asana, Google Docs, Slack, and Evernote.

Here are some examples of automatic daily highlights you can set up with Zapier:

Add your own custom integrations

You can even use the RescueTime highlights API to create your own automatic daily highlights. For example, here’s a setup for sending git commit messages to RescueTime as highlights.

Check out the docs for our highlights API to create your own custom integration.


There’s a lot you can do with daily highlights. Whether you need more insight into projects you’re spending your time on, or an easy way to report to your boss what you’ve been up to, highlights can help you keep a log of your work.

And when combined with alerts, reminder emails, and other apps via IFTTT and Zapier, you can create a powerful process for tracking your work.

If you’re a Premium RescueTime user, start using daily highlights here.

Or you can upgrade to RescueTime Premium here.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Weekly roundup: Tips to stop checking your phone so often

kids

This week we’re exploring how to stop picking up your phone so often. It’s a modern-day problem, but many of us can’t leave the room—let alone the house—without our phones in our pockets. We even have new gadgets to wear on our wrists to help us keep our phones in our pockets more—but without missing out on anything.

Having a computer in your pocket is amazing. There’s no denying that we’re incredibly lucky to be able to afford these powerful machines and to take advantage of how fast technology is advancing.

But I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to spend a little less time with my phone and a little more time with people, nature, food, and anything else not involving screens.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Keep your phone out of reach

If your phone is always nearby, it’s easy to pick it up more often than you’d like to. Making it harder to give in to that temptation will help you break the habit of picking up your phone anytime you can.

Adam Alter, professor of marketing at NYU and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked , says to think about designing your environment to help you avoid your phone:

So if there’s something that you keep doing obsessively, make sure that it’s not in your environment and you’re less likely to do it. That’s a much more effective way of preventing yourself from using it than say keeping it nearby but trying to just suppress the desire to use it.

Turn off notifications

We’ve all heard this one before, but turning off your notifications is a classic way to ease your reliance on that little box in your pocket that’s always vying for your attention.

Alter says turning off notifications is a way to take back control :

Turn off the “ding” sound when you get a text message so that instead of your phone saying, “Hey, check me now,” you decide when it’s time to check. You’re removing the control from the phone and you’re bringing it back to yourself. You can also take the apps that are most addictive for you, and bury them in a folder on the fourth page.

Replace your phone with something else

read

It sounds easy to keep your phone further away so it’s hard to get to, but in practice that’s quite difficult. The trick, according to Alter , is to replace your phone with something else:

What you want to do is you want to find a behavior that is a stand-in for the behavior that you don’t want to be doing. You replace the bad thing that you shouldn’t be doing with something good that you should be doing.

So you start leaving your phone in your home office or in your entrance hall. When you’re in bed or chilling on the couch, what do you do? Here are some ideas to get you thinking:

  • Leave a book on your bedside table
  • Leave another book or a stack of magazines next to your couch
  • Keep a bag of knitting or crochet, a coloring book, or a sketchbook and pencil next to the couch
  • Leave a deck of cards or a puzzle toy on the table by your couch
  • Get out that musical instrument you keep meaning to play and store it next to your couch
  • Keep a journal and pen by your bed
  • Keep a set of small weights by the couch
  • Keep a yo-yo or a set of juggling balls by the couch and learn a few party tricks
  • Put reading apps on the main screen of your phone or tablet and move all other apps into hard-to-reach places
  • Keep a letter-writing pad and a pen by your bed and catch up on some old-fashioned correspondence

What techniques have you tried to cut down how much time you spend looking at your phone? Let us know what worked and what didn’t in the comments.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Why you should be setting smaller goals

bridge

Big goals are exciting. At the start of each year I love setting a few big, audacious goals to aim for over the following 12 months.

But big goals have downsides, too. They can set us up for failure if we set goals that are too big to achieve, or if we don’t break them down and work towards them systematically.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and achieving your goals? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Sonia Thompson, founder of TRY Business School, says big goals and high standards are a recipe for failure:

Setting the bar too high can serve to de-motivate and discourage you from ever getting started.

Lots of us set exciting goals, says Thompson, but struggle to reach them because they’re too big to be achievable. She says the way people set goals is the problem:

They set their standards too high. And when they have trouble keeping up with the level of activity required to meet their standard, their confidence takes a hit.

 

So let’s look at an alternative: small goals.

Small goals, more often

Small goals tend to be easier to achieve than big goals. Saving for a new computer, for instance, is easier than saving for a house deposit. Giving talks at 3 conferences is easier than earning half your income from speaking engagements.

Because small goals are easier to achieve, we can also set them more often.

Author and professional speaker Dorie Clark says setting smaller goals for shorter time periods makes you more flexible and quicker to adapt to new information or changing circumstances. Setting a year-long goal, for instance, can leave you doing something that doesn’t make sense six months later, after your circumstances or priorities have changed. Or you might give up on your year-long goal when it stops making sense, but be left goal-less until the new year rolls around.

Clark, for example, set a goal to get fit by playing racquetball with a friend, but soon found the early-morning games left her sleep-deprived and unproductive. If that was a year-long goal, Clark might have been left without any fitness plan for the rest of her year when she gave up the morning racquetball games.

Clark’s current approach is to set goals every six months, rather than annually, and to limit herself to just two goals. “The point of goals,” she says, “isn’t to successfully complete tasks we blindly set ourselves to years ago.”

… what counts is our ability to master the right kind of big goals—the ones that can change your life… You can only accomplish those kinds of goals when you’re willing to question assumptions regularly and re-evaluate as necessary.

stairs

Small wins beget confidence

Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer have found that “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

The great thing about this research is that it shows regular small wins can boost our motivation and happiness at work. So we don’t necessarily need to set and achieve big goals to enjoy our work.

Consultant and author John Brubaker says this comes back to self-efficacy, or our confidence in our own abilities. Our confidence increases or decreases, says Brubaker, based on our ability to make progress.

So each small win gives us a feeling of progress, which makes us more confident in our own abilities, and thus more happy and motivated.

So how can you achieve lots of small wins? Small goals, of course!

Or, as Brubaker puts it, “baby steps”:

The one primary motivation that leads us to persevere is baby steps.

Lots of small goals that lead to overall progress will keep us motivated and happy along the way. They also play into something called “goal gradient,” which essentially means that the closer you get to achieving something, the harder you’re willing to work to make it happen.

With small goals, you get close to your aim more often, so you’re more likely to work hard to achieve those goals. Big goals take longer, and you won’t feel that goal gradient as often.

A great example of how the goal gradient works with baby steps was borne out in a study using coffee reward cards. Participants were given cards that entitled them to one free coffee after they bought 10. When participants got closer to earning the free coffee, researchers noticed they bought coffees more often to get to their goal faster.

Another group of participants was given a card that offered one free coffee after they bought 12. These participants were given cards that already had two coffee purchases counted, so they had 10 to buy before earning a free coffee—the same as participants with the “buy 10, get 1 free” cards. But the group with 12-coffee cards actually filled up their cards faster, because a card with two coffees already counted gave them a feeling of progress that brought the goal gradient into play. Even though they needed to buy the same number of coffees as the first group, this group felt they had already made progress and their goal was close, so they bought coffees faster in order to achieve their goal.

You probably don’t want to trick yourself into buying more coffee, but you can use the benefits of the goal gradient on yourself by setting smaller goals more often. Make your goals faster and easier to achieve and you’ll be able to chain a lot of small wins together to make more progress overall.

Start tiny. Really tiny

If you’re not sure how small your small goals should be, Sonia Thompson has a useful suggestion: try setting tiny goals. Embarrassingly tiny, in fact.

Thompson says tiny goals help us build the momentum we need to chase slightly bigger goals later. An embarrassingly small goal is so small it feels silly not to do it. But even a goal that small can still feel good when you achieve it. You’ll still feel like you’re making progress.

quote-tinygoals

Embarrassingly small goals give you a solid way to start making progress and achieving small wins immediately. They’re not six-month or even quarterly goals. They’re tiny, five-minute, one-hour, one-day goals. And they’ll give you the momentum and confidence to work up to quarterly or bi-annual goals, says Thompson.

It may sound counterintuitive, but the key to getting extraordinary results is to go small rather than big. Take the pressure off of yourself to accomplish heroic feats each day.


Whether you already like to set big, annual goals and struggle to reach them, or you don’t yet have a regular goal-setting approach, try starting small. Set one embarrassingly tiny goal and start working towards it. Take notice of how your motivation increases as you get closer to your goal.

Then, use that momentum to set a slightly bigger goal. Each goal you achieve will reinforce your self-efficacy, so your belief in your ability to reach your goals will increase as the size of your goals does. Just remember not to go too big—small goals more often and lots of small wins along the way are key.

Want to learn more about reaching your goals and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Weekly roundup: tips for reading more

reading

We’ve been publishing research-based articles every week about meaningful work, being productive, and finding work/life balance for the past few months.

Today we’re started an experiment. Every week, alongside our longer, research-based articles, we’ll also publish a short roundup of tips relating to one theme.

For our first roundup we’re looking at tips to help you read more.

1. Stop trying to speed-read

It turns out, speed reading doesn’t actually work. It might seem like you’re reading faster, but the only way to do so is to not absorb the information as well. So you can “read” more quickly, but you won’t remember much of what you’ve read, so there’s not much point in doing so.

The truth is, speed reading isn’t much better than skimming:

You can flash as many words as you like in front of your eyes, and though you may be able to understand each word on its own, they won’t mean much as a collective whole. Language processing just doesn’t work that way.

books

2. Improve your vocabulary

Though speed reading doesn’t work, some people can read faster than others. But researchers say the reason isn’t that they can take in more at once or silence the voice in their heads (which doesn’t actually slow you down, anyway).

No, faster readers simply have a bigger vocabulary:

As Treiman and her co-authors write in their Psychological Science paper, “the factor that most strongly determined reading speed was word-identification ability,” which means that an individual’s reading speed is more about their language skills than where or how quickly they move their eyes.

Knowing more words means you can more quickly understand what you’re reading. And of course, the way to increase your vocabulary is simply to read more.

3. Make it easy to read a lot

When reading is difficult or uncomfortable, you’re more likely to avoid it, as writer Patrick Allan recently found:

I realized I wasn’t buying into reading because I had made it difficult to access it. My reading light was in a bad position where I couldn’t comfortably reach the switch from my bed. I would have to get up out of bed to turn it on or off. Also, my bed was too tall and against a window sill so I couldn’t prop myself up when I didn’t feel like holding a book above my head. And worst of all, I had a giant TV in my room. Why read when I can fall asleep to Bob’s Burgers every night instead?

quote-reading
Allan’s solution was to adjust his bedroom to be a perfect reading environment. When reading was one of few things he could do in bed, and it was easy to get started and stay focused on his book, he started reading more:

I moved my reading light to a better spot and got a Kindle Paperwhite with a decent backlight. I fixed my bed so it was more comfortable for laying upright and holding a book without worrying about dropping it on my face. And I moved my TV out of my room. The TV removal alone was a huge game-changer for me. I also moved my handheld gaming systems and stopped keeping my phone near my bed so there weren’t any other temptations around when it was reading time. Now there are only a few things I can do in my room: I can read, listen to music, or sleep—that’s it. The perfect reading environment makes picking up a book your easiest choice.

bookshelf

4. Race two books against each other

Productivity expert Mark Forster recently shared a tip for getting through your existing stack of books. The trick is to read two (and only two) books at once.

Choose two books that are close to the same ease of reading and length, and make sure they’re either both digital or both paper books.

Then, you race them:

If you are reading with a Kindle or similar device, it will tell you what percentage of the book you have read. On each reading session, read the book which has the least amount read. So if one book is 35% read and the other 38% read, you read the one which is 35% read.

It doesn’t matter whether the book you are reading catches up with the other one or not. Just read for as long as you want and then apply the rule again the next time you read.

If you’re using paper books, each time you read, choose the book with fewest number of pages read, rather than working out a percentage. “This is why the books need to be reasonably compatible in length,” says Forster. “When the shorter book gets finished, you’ll still be in sight of the end with the longer book.”

If you find sticking with one book at a time too boring, or you’re constantly worrying about the huge pile of books on your nightstand waiting to be read, try racing two books at once to give yourself variety and get through that stack.


What’s your best tip for reading more? Let us know in the comments.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Kyrill Potapov on how to maintain work/life balance and stay productive

kyrill

Can you tell us what you do, and what your typical workday looks like?

I’m an English teacher and Human-Computer Interaction researcher, so half the time I’m planning and delivering lessons and marking work; the other half of the time I’m reading articles and writing up my PhD thesis.

Do you have a morning routine as part of waking up or starting your workday? What does your routine consist of?

I’m not sure if this is safe or even legal but I always listen to an audiobook as I cycle into work.

What’s the first thing you normally do when you start work/arrive at your office/desk?

I set a focus for the day on the Momentum Chrome extension. This is the one thing I will be unhappy if I go to bed without doing.

What’s your favorite thing about your daily workspace?

That I have several work spaces (my room, my classroom, my university desk) which I can assign different types of work.

kyrill's workspace

Editors note: moving between workspaces could boost your productivity by “location boxing” different activities.

What does a successful workday look like for you? How do you measure success on a day-to-day basis?

I’m very susceptible to the Zeigarnik effect: unfinished tasks wear away at my self-esteem, so I prefer to do long stints on one task at a time. This is in contrast to the days on which I get caught up in small tasks that don’t relate to my bigger aims or fall down a social media hole.

Do you have any go-to approaches for resetting a bad day and getting back on track?

Changing my physical state: going to the gym. I used to rely on stimulants but when I measured their impact, they didn’t actually add up to more productivity overall. Now I prefer to try to keep things flat through a low carb diet etc.

Stimulants and external punishments are fine for one-off tasks like end-of-unit essays, but for longer projects it isn’t sustainable. As my RescueTime dashboard would show, stimulants got me revved up to send a load of emails and sort through my materials but they also prevented me from settling into the kind of contemplation I need to write. It’s like the Hemingway thing: write drunk; edit sober. The monthly report on RescueTime helped me to reflect on what was worthwhile in the long-term.

kyrill's monthly RescueTime report

Kyrill’s monthly RescueTime report

What’s your biggest productivity struggle? How do you deal with that?

Procrastination. I have to juggle so many things that juggling many bits of information at the same time and reading random things feels important and it’s hard to recognise when I’m time wasting.

Can you tell us about how you’ve been using RescueTime in your classroom, and what you’ve discovered from this process?

It’s interesting to see the lengths students will go to to lie to themselves. I would never look at a students’ data but many students are reluctant to even look at their own data because of the unpleasant feelings associated with realising the extent of their intention-behaviour gap. RescueTime works like a meditation mantra for the wandering mind: notice that you’re wandering and refocus on the task at hand. You had 17% productive time today? OK, just start again tomorrow.

You mentioned you’re working on a MOOC about RescueTime—can you share more about that?

Quantified Self tools assume that data is significant and intuitive to the user – this is often not the case. My MOOC is about setting goals and reshaping them as a result of reflection on the reality. RescueTime provides the reality.

How do you maintain work/life balance? What do you do to recharge when you’re not working?

I use IFTTT with RescueTime to block Facebook and Twitter when I’m not at my desk at home. I have two separate Chrome accounts: one for work, one for leisure. I have a daily meditation practice using the Muse band. I used to fine myself for not meditating through Beeminder and RescueTime but this did not prove a useful strategy. I also read a lot of fiction, naturally.

What’s the best improvement you’ve made to how you work, or a change you’ve made that you wish you’d done earlier?

Having my week visually laid out on Trello so that I’m not constantly running through which lessons I haven’t planned.

Are there any workday habits you admire in others but haven’t been able to adopt yourself?

Digital Sabbaths. I’ve tried not using technology on a Saturday and it really does feel like a cleansing process but I always slip.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.