How to Become Better at Work (and Life)

I kept telling myself this word, process. Focus on my process, don't care about the result.

I don’t claim to understand the purpose of life. Far from it. I’m still figuring out myself and my surroundings on this earth.

But I believe I’m purposeful with the vast majority of my actions.

My #1 belief is that pursuing something relentlessly – and becoming above-average – gives us the greatest sense of accomplishment and therefore happiness.

Money can buy a lot, but it can’t produce knowledge or wisdom instantly. That must be earned through grinding each day.

When you become comfortable or think you’ve learned all there is to know in a topic, that’s when you will hit a plateau.

That’s when boredom sets in because you aren’t doing anything new.

That’s when you start wishing for results or expecting a different outcome based on your perceived skill-set, instead of taking daily achievable steps towards your end goal.

When I aim to improve in an area, I consider that (a) There is nothing I cannot learn given enough time and desire and (b) As much as I think I know, I really know nothing in the grand scheme of things.

There are several topics that I’ve dedicated a lot of time to understand, and have become a huge part of my life including:

  • Websites & Web Design
  • WordPress
  • Paid Advertising
  • Online Marketing
  • Golf
  • Cooking
  • DIY Projects
  • Organic Gardening
  • Homebrewing (on a hiatus that will end next Spring/Summer)
  • Guitar (OK I still suck, but it’s fun and stress-relieving)

yard-project

When I choose to explore any of these, it becomes a mission of finding out the “why” behind every decision, which builds your wisdom. It doesn’t happen on a whim or overnight, it’s because I’m genuinely interested in knowing everything about that topic.

I want to share how I approach learning, and getting better at any subject matter.

It works for me, and although your #1 factor for success is your own desire, hopefully you can take something and apply it to your process!

Rules, Restrictions & Creativity

Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money, all the colors in the palette... that just kills creativity

As a child, you are taught the rules of life. Break them and you receive the scorn of an angry parent or caretaker…

The younger you are, the more likely you are to follow. But as you get older you start to dislike all of these constraints around your life.

Why can’t I hang with my friends after 11PM? Why should I have to get up early for school? Why can’t I drink until I’m 21? Why am I learning Calculus when I’ll never use it after college?

You begin to rebel, and test the boundaries. You think there is no benefit to living such a standardized life.

Spontaneity and doing what you want, when you want are the top priorities as you transition to adulthood.

As I embark on a new decade of my life (just turned 30 in September), I’m slowly realizing that your productivity is increased exponentially by applying constraints and sticking to a process each day.

Most importantly, I’m understanding the “why”.

As an adult, you are given free reign to live your life as you please. This is both a blessing and a curse, because your creativity is unlimited but if your day-to-day activities are scattered in 1,000 directions, you won’t make real long-term progress in any of them.

One of my favorite musicians, Jack White, follows this philosophy with his music.

He creates restrictions all the time to get more done, such as forcing himself to record an album in 4 days, when most other artists would take weeks or months in the studio.

The White Stripes, perhaps my favorite all-time band, are centered around the number three and minimalism. It’s two people – Jack and Meg White. Their artwork is 3 colors – white, red, black. The songs have 3 main instruments – guitar, drums and vocals (although he plays piano). The music is based on storytelling, melody and rhythm.

If you don’t like fuzzy electric guitar, you probably won’t like most of their songs. But I’m not sure there is another artist from our generation that has a better collection of songs, both in terms of quality and quantity.

I highly recommend you check out one of his albums from these bands – The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, The Raconteurs, Jack White (solo album).

Not everyday of your life you’re going to wake up and the clouds are going to part, and the rays from heaven are going to come down, and you’re going to write a song from it. Sometimes you get in there and force yourself to work, and something good will come out.

– Jack White

The other aspect of creating rules and following a process is it becomes brainless. In a good way.

Once you do something over and over again, it is imprinted into your subconscious memory and your brain doesn’t spend energy thinking about how to do the process.

What this means is you can use this extra brain power to be more creative and make better decisions throughout the day.

A concept that I’ve read about a lot lately is “decision fatigue”.

This means your brain only has a certain amount of energy to make decisions, and it is finite, so you cannot replenish during the day (that’s what sleep is for). It’s also why you tend to make better decisions in the morning when your “decision energy reserve” is full.

I don’t know about you, but I have a bad habit of overeating at night and it’s directly related to this concept.

To take advantage of this, you want to create rules for mundane decisions that don’t move the needle – like what to wear in the morning or what to eat for breakfast.

If you plan this in advance and follow a routine, you can focus your decision making on the most important areas of your life. Like your creative work and family.

Iteration to Sharpen Your Skills

To get better at anything, you need repetition and positive reinforcement.

In a weird way, I learned this growing up through basketball.

I didn’t play for an organized team. But I had a hoop in my backyard and my house was two blocks from the high school outdoor courts, so shooting around and playing pick-up games was my main source of exercise as a teenager.

I was slightly overweight, short, and slow. Not the ideal combo guard.

But out of all my friends, I had the best jump shot.

This wasn’t from luck, or even superior skill, but because of reps.

When I was about 12 years old, I made it a point to warm up by shooting 20-30 free throws. Then to end the shootaround session, I wouldn’t leave until I made 3 straight free throws.

At about age 15, I added on 3-point shots to this process after the free throws, and wouldn’t end until I swished one.

I followed this routine every time I played basketball, at least hundreds of times. Every. Single. Time.

My sharp shooter skills were not by accident, they were developed over years of sticking to a set of rules and iterating.

But repetition isn’t the only part to consider. It’s also important to note the role of focus and thinking.

Repetition doesn’t do you any good if it doesn’t accomplish a specific goal or if you are repeating a bad process.

This goes along with the saying, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.”

I knew I wasn’t going to be tall, nor fast. However I could be an asset on the court by developing my shot. So my process was focused around this specific goal.

Yet sometimes you need to take a step back to think. Once you’ve followed your process many times, take a day or two off to ponder your focus.

Think if you are making real progress. Think if there could be a better way. Think if you can simplify without sacrificing results. Think if someone else can help you re-align your focus. Think if you can find an alternative approach. Think if you can search Google or YouTube for better instruction.

Iteration and working out the mistakes is key to becoming great at anything.

But you could define iteration as insanity if you aren’t seeing positive results over a long-period from your process, and expect something to change in the near future.

The Power of Negative Thoughts

I previously mentioned positive reinforcement and how that helps you improve, i.e. ending every shootaround by making free throws.

Without getting too deep, I believe that the #1 factor holding EVERYONE back from achievement is their own self doubts.

And you better believe I’ve experience them…

Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? What if I make a mistake? What if I don’t understand? What if I’m exposed? What if they don’t like me? What if my plan doesn’t work out? What if I go broke?

This is a human issue. Literally everyone feels these thoughts.

And yet everyone thinks they are the only one going through it.

I’ll tell ya, our brains are crazy.

It’s hard, but sometimes you need to use logic to move past these negative thoughts and emotions.

Realize that it’s OK to feel uneasy at the moment. But know that in reality your brain is tricking you into feeling like a fraud when you’re actually a pretty cool human.

Stay positive, it will pass.

Reach Beyond Surface Level

When you have a passion, go for it. Soak up the knowledge on one topic, and apply it to other areas of your life.

I think there is a fine thread that weaves between every subject, so the more varied your interests, the better perspective you have on everything.

If you truly enjoy a subject, this should be a given.

But I find a lot of people want to reach the end of the tunnel without taking a drive.

To become good at something, you have to hit it from every angle. You have to be willing to sift through piles of non-sense to find the nugget of information that will propel you forward. You have to be willing to fail and look stupid.

This means reading articles or books, watching videos, learning from people who are where you want to be, finding examples of what you want to implement, experimenting on your own, etc.

Too many people hit the first roadblock and think a subject is too hard, or lose interest before they create positive momentum.

Unless it’s rocket science, I say your interest wasn’t strong enough at any point and you didn’t want to improve bad enough.

That’s why a common theme I write about is the importance of passion over money.

If your #1 goal is to make money, there’s a good chance you’ll fail. You must have a deep interest in learning a topic that goes beyond making money.

Don’t get me wrong, we all need cash and you should value your time accordingly.

But don’t think that becoming rich will happen overnight or as the result of one breakthrough.

It’s a process that never ends because the more you learn, the more you understand how little you know in this infinite universe.

You haven’t dug deeply enough into a topic until you sense a little overwhelm or resistance like that.

That’s the point where you start to develop your systems.

Create Systems to Work Subconsciously

You should have a well defined process for most of your important daily tasks, while also being organized with your work and life.

I’ll give you an example of each.

As it pertains to web design and development, I keep a spreadsheet that is simply a list of steps that I perform while setting up a client website.

Over time and with each new project, I continue to refine this process and add notes.

However, when it’s time to build a new website, I follow this process step-by-step. This is not the time to experiment, it’s a time to get a ton of work done quickly.

It used to take me 4-5 hours (or longer) to setup a website. I used to start from scratch and do things differently with each new website.

Now I get that completed in 1-2 hours, after eliminating unnecessary steps and becoming more comfortable with the process each time.

The way I practiced basketball was an example of a system that I developed and followed religiously.

But I want to look at another example where creating a system alleviates mental stress and increases performance – golf.

There is no doubt in my mind that golf is tougher mentally than any sport.

Unlike reactive sports where you can get by athletically from the beginning, golf requires a proactive approach. You have as much time as you want to prepare for a shot (kinda like a free throw) and most of the time you will hit bad shots as you learn.

Swinging like Rory McIlroy ain’t easy, that’s for sure…

rory

So how do you combat this and get better?

Besides gaining knowledge regarding the physics of the golf swing, you must follow a pre-shot routine. Every tour professional does.

You can’t fake golf. You can only get better by utilizing your brain, way more than your muscles.

Once I realized the importance of a pre-shot routine, I developed mine, and stuck with it… for more than 10 years now.

To this day, this is my routine:

  • Get the shot distance (I use a $0.99 app on my iPhone that gives me distance with GPS!)
  • Stand behind the ball to visualize my shot
  • Take 1-2 practice swings, depending on situation
  • Pick the shot line
  • Spot an object 1-2 feet in front of my ball on this line (grass, leaf, broken tee, etc.)
  • Walk up to ball, and use this object to align my feet
  • Set my club-face perpendicular to my shot line
  • Check my grip (this is way more important than you think)
  • Waggle the club, then look at the target
  • Repeat waggle and look 3x
  • Swing

To some, it seems like overkill to go into this much detail.

To me, it’s completely essential to playing better golf, and if you don’t do it, you’re crazy!

Why?

Because most people stand over the ball, thinking to themselves, “Oh no, I’m going to hit this in the water”. They get into their own heads, and sure enough… SPLASH.

Sometimes they spend 5 seconds over the ball, sometimes they spend 20 seconds. Sometimes they waggle once, sometimes they waggle 5x. Sometimes they line up, other times they trust their eye.

The point is, their swing trigger starts as they are standing over the ball.

My swing trigger occurs the second I look for a distance. At that point, the process takes over.

When it’s time to swing, I’m generally not thinking much about the result, I’m simply performing a step that I’ve done literally 100,000 times or more.

Being detail oriented doesn’t mean remembering more. It means you take the time to define a detailed process, and repeat to the point that it becomes second nature.

When this  happens, your working memory is free again, and you’ve imprinted positive behaviors that make you a better player (or person) subconsciously.

In 20 years, if I’m blessed to still be on this green earth and in good health, I’ll be using the same pre-shot routine. And I can confidently say with a better result, due to my experience and wisdom.

For what it’s worth, I still have yet to break 80 on 18 holes. My average score is about 85.

But I’ve never been more certain that it’s going to happen. Because I’m dedicating more time than ever before to learn the craft. Because I truly love it.

Plain and simple.

So there it is…

Love what you do.

Follow it relentlessly every day.

Create systems within your work so positive outcomes happen subconsciously.

Never stop searching for knowledge that can make you a better person.

Be well, my friends.