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15 lessons on money and marriage from couples who have been married 10+ years

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We asked members of the IWT community who have been married at least 10 years (aka “forever” in Hollywood years) to share their #1 piece of financial advice for couples.

Here’s what they said:

1. Make sure you have chemistry when it comes to money

“Marry someone with the same values and everything else just works out. 27 years of marriage and we’re as strong as ever.”

2. Don’t try to change the other person

“Do not attempt to change your spouse’s spending/savings habits. People rarely, if ever, change.”

3. Talk openly with each other about where you’re starting from financially  

“I like the term financially naked. We were very upfront with each other from the beginning about what we had and how much we owed.”

4.  Understand one another’s money mindset

“Understand where you both are on the spender-saver/nerd-free spirit quadrant. Play to each of your strengths and learn from each other.”

5. Talk about money — A LOT

“Talk about money often. It should be a routine part of your relationship, and not a point of pride for one person or another.”

6. Have frequent money dates to stay on the same page

“We meet each Sunday to go over the upcoming schedule, meals, travel, budget, gifts, house, family, and friends. Talking about our money each week as part of our household planning makes it much less stressful and scary.”

7. Make big financial decisions TOGETHER

“Be equal partners in all major financial decisions. It’s not the lattes that impact your family’s financial health, it’s the big financial decisions.”

8. Find a financial division of labor that feels right to you

“Don’t assume the person with the most ‘knowledge’ is best in practice. Once I realized [my husband] was good at making money but horrible at spending it, things turned around for us financially.”

9. Make sure you both know the important stuff

“I handle the daily and keep my husband updated with the monthly snapshot and how long-term goals are shaping up. I have a sheet of financial info so he can step in should that be necessary. He has a finance degree, but he needs to know which accounts are where, ya know?”

10. Don’t micromanage one another’s spending habits

“Work toward agreed upon financial goals but do not let that block either partner from the dreams and hobbies they would have pursued on their own. Also known as: why my husband has more than one chainsaw, even though I think that is ridiculous.”

11. Maintain separate Passion Funds for your personal interests

“Create a ‘Passion Fund’ for each partner and be disciplined about filling it up. My passion is travel. Hers is home improvement. Having the money to enjoy those passions has kept resentment at bay and our marital satisfaction high.”

12. Set ground rules for what gets discussed, and what’s Guilt-Free Money

“Each person gets weekly cash you can do anything with, no questions no judgement. Beyond that, if it’s under $100 go ahead without discussion. If it’s over $100 the other can veto.”

13. DO NOT hide your spending from your spouse

“Don’t try to hide your spending (large or small). They’ll find out eventually. Then you lose trust and it takes time to earn it back.”

14. Lean on each other when times get rough  

“I found out my husband had $40K in credit card debt. I didn’t have a job, so I took a job at Starbucks and helped him. Two years later, we were debt-free.”

15. Make sure you have the money fundamentals mastered

A final piece of advice that our couples enjoying 10+ years of marriage recommended: make sure you have the financial basics down cold.

What are those basics?

And if money is something that you and your partner are just now starting to figure out, why not learn together?

In fact, why not start now?

15 lessons on money and marriage from couples who have been married 10+ years is a post from: I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

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1946 days ago
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Tim Cook: ‘It’s Time for Action on Data Privacy’

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Tim Cook, in an op-ed for Time:

Last year, before a global body of privacy regulators, I laid out four principles that I believe should guide legislation:

First, the right to have personal data minimized. Companies should challenge themselves to strip identifying information from customer data or avoid collecting it in the first place. Second, the right to knowledge — to know what data is being collected and why. Third, the right to access. Companies should make it easy for you to access, correct and delete your personal data. And fourth, the right to data security, without which trust is impossible.

Steve Jobs in 2010: “Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for — in plain English, and repeatedly.”

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2010 days ago
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Что я думаю о Навальном

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Раз: про раш-раш-раш, целевиков 😐 и моралистов 😛

На выборах мэра Москвы в тринадцатом году я был одним из наблюдателей на участке номер 101. Наблюдатели нарушений на участке не зафиксировали. Впоследствии, когда Навальному немного не хватило до второго тура, его юристы отправляли в суды жалобы на нарушения на участках. От людей из команды Навального я уже далеко после этих событий вскользь слышал о том, что этот сто первый участок был среди прочих в отменятельном списке, предлагалось результаты выборов там аннулировать, потому что наблюдатели зафиксировали нарушения. А я точно знаю, что нарушений мы там не фиксировали.

Вроде бы, у Макса maxkatz Каца я встречал упоминание о том, что действительно творилась какая-то некорректная ерунда и претензии рассылались пулеметной очередью, чтобы успеть в закрывающееся Окно Судьбы, но памяти своей я привык уже не особо доверять, а где в интернете найти список тех исковых участков, не знаю. Если поделитесь ссылочкой, буду рад: мне интересно посмотреть на точную формулировку. Если ошибался, напишу апдейт.

Своим собеседникам я тогда сказал, что понимаю, почему юристы так сделали: ситуация критическая, Зимний уходит из рук, начинается раш-раш-раш, цель оправдывает средства, засыпьте всех исками, а потом посмотрим.

Правда, эта мораль противоречит моему понимаю того, что можно делать, а что нельзя: по-моему, все-таки важно включать голову и думать, что творишь. Я не люблю цель-оправдывает-средства лишь потому, что обычно трупы таких, как я, моралистов, валяются сожженными по канавам вдоль дорог, по которым маршируют целевики.

В целом это вечный спор, в котором никто никого (если кому хочется копнуть совочком чуть глубже, то подскажу слова консеквенционализм и деонтология), плюс рассуждение основано на непроверенном слухе, и хоть в целом и похоже на логику действий Алексея, но доказательств у меня нет, я могу ошибаться и с этим все.

Два: про заезженный стиль мышления 👻

Больше мне не нравится то, что Навальный в целом делает неинтересные ходы. Кац у него делал интересные ходы: развернул машину агитации, дал людям движуху, делает он их и сейчас. Чуваки из кровавого ГБ делают интересные ходы: то брата посадят, то еще что, в целом ебут мозг каждый раз по-новому, с выдумкой и огоньком. А сам Навальный делает обычку: если начали искать коррупционеров, то теперь будем сто лет искать коррупционеров, и каждый раз делать вид, что это адски интересно и зрителю не надоело, а все возмущаются как в первый раз; если сходили на митинги, то давайте теперь будем ходить на митинги и игнорировать надоедание, это же так круто, ребята.

Не, некруто. Круто было бы после неудавшегося митинга предложить людям странный нетипичный ход, чтобы им было неожиданно, а еще чтобы они могли выходить на митинг, не выходя на митинг. Например, попросить каждого раздобыть и повесить на форточку флаг России: это форма протеста, которую невозможно запретить, которая работает и день и ночь, требует минимальных затрат, никого не будут бить палкой на площади, и когда люди едут на работу на автобусе, они вскользь видят, сколько в соседних домах таких же, как они.

Не сильно ошибусь, сказав, что проблема Навального в том, что как только находится какой-то относительно новый ход, он затаскивается до дыр, и не ставится задача не повторяться, чтобы создать поток принципиально новых свежих неожиданных ходов: если президентское обращение, то в ожидаемом пинжаке, а если канал на ютьюбе, то 35-й ролик будет ровно как первый, без требования к себе быть охуенно неожиданным. Видал, что Навальный отколол? Не, не видал. Ну на выборы президента пошел, обычный пафосный ход серьезного чувака.

Я такой же неумеющий быть неожиданным, и я хорошо слышу скрип этих рельсов в голове, и узнаю в чужом поведении предсказуемость. Мне кажется, что Путин - непредсказуемый чувак, и Кац - непредсказуемый, а вот Навальный - предсказуемый. Он мог бы собирать вокруг себя непредсказуемых, но че-то все больше срется с ними и умения генерить неожиданное, видимо, не ценит. И поэтому неинтересно.

Три: а сам-то 😙

Обычная мантра: я не питаю иллюзий, что я сам в условиях прессинга повел бы себя хоть на грамм так же стойко, как Навальный. Но, если честно, хотелось бы другого кина - уж слишком много в Москве ребят, у которых цель оправдывает средства и служебную мигалку, и неинтересных ребят, которым в момент поднятия кровяного давления кажется, что сейчас у нас будут годы пафосной серьезности и пламенной борьбы, а веселые неожиданные, но парадоксальным образом работающие бредовые идеи подождут.

В общем, я в итоге не возбужден (впрочем, Путиным я тоже не возбужден, есличо).

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2741 days ago
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What I Learned in My Third Year of Freelance Writing

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Photo by Ian Schneider, via Unsplash.

Welcome to my annual review post, where I’m taking a look back at 2016 to see how I make a living writing. Read about Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014).

It’s hard to believe I just finished up my third full year as a freelance writer. Every year has been a little different — and every year has gotten me that much closer to where I want to be in my business and life.

I like doing these end of year posts — in part because they help tie a nice, tidy ribbon around the year, and in part because they help me see how much I’ve grown.

I’ve spotted a theme in each of my last few years of freelancing:

  • My first year was about growth — saying yes to everything and growing as fast as I can.
  • My second year was about refining my niche and focusing my efforts.
  • My third year has been about finding balance between my freelance business and my life.

Balance? Yeah, balance.

I just reviewed my 2016 goals post in my freelance accountability group, and one year ago I was thinking a lot about work-life balance.

I was feeling pretty overwhelmed with client work and unhappy with the amount of fiction I’d produced. (It didn’t help that my husband had just started a new job and working long hours himself.)

One year ago I needed to find a better balance — not just for me, but for both of us.

I’m happy to say that while I’m not 100 percent to where I want us to be, we’ve made huge gains. After two full years of working almost every weekend, I now take weekends off. I never work on client work in the evenings anymore, and mostly don’t write fiction in the evenings, either.

Two main focuses helped me get here: better-paying clients and smarter time management.

Finding better paying clients

The first part of the equation was to clean up my client list, attract better-paying clients, and switch to projects where I can better manage my time and energy.

For example, in 2015, 25% of my income mostly came from blogging. At the peak, I had blog post deadlines at least once per day — and sometimes as many as two or three per day. No surprise I had a hard time arranging my schedule to accommodate more time for writing fiction.

Now, the majority of my income comes from larger projects like e-books, white papers, and website content. These pay better, and have deadlines that allow me to organize my work week more efficiently.

(I’m not trying to imply that blogging is entry-level and new freelancers should aspire to move past it. It’s just that for me, the constant deadlines interfered with my need to have more solid blocks of time for deep fiction work.)

Smarter time management

Over the last year, I’ve become much better at organizing my time and avoiding distractions.

  • I’ve increased my focus and willpower.
  • I’ve used tools like Stay Focused and Freedom to shut off distractions.
  • I’ve said no to more things.
  • I’ve started using dictation to dictate faster first drafts.

But the biggest thing? Taking back my mornings.

I’ve wasted a lot of time in the past by letting anger, frustration, and despair at the news hijack my energy first thing in the day. Or by letting random emails hijack my day’s priorities. So in 2016 I started a practice of avoiding social media, news, and email in the mornings.


  • I now try to start my day with meditation, exercise, and 30 minutes of fiction writing.
  • I stopped listening to NPR while I make breakfast, and started listening to podcasts instead.
  • I’ve found my willpower isn’t strong enough to keep me off email and Facebook, so I installed Freedom and set up a recurring block session from 6–9am every morning.
Pictorial evidence that I take time off to blow bubbles with my sisters kids sometimes.
I’ve spent so much time over the last year trying to tweak my creativity and productivity that I’m starting a new weekly newsletter to share my insights: the Monday Morning Blast-Off.
If your productivity needs a kick in the pants every Monday morning, sign up here.

Client analysis

I do a client analysis at the end of every year to help me figure out who and what I’m spending time on so I can tweak that in the year to come. I won’t be throwing out specific numbers or names, but I’ll be as transparent as possible about how I’m making money.

Again, my goal in writing these “Year-in-review” posts is to give newer freelancers who want to make a living writing a practical look at the way someone a couple steps ahead is earning an income.

If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email!

How I make a living writing

When I left my desk job three years ago, I crossed my fingers and hoped I’d be able to replace my copywriter’s salary.

This year, I got close to doubling it.

Here’s where my income came from in 2016:

  • Website copy (through an agency): 35%
  • Content marketing (ebooks, whitepapers): 24%
  • Ghost writing*: 20%
  • Blogging for businesses: 14%
  • Print book**: 2%
  • Guest blogging: 1%
  • Knitting pattern descriptions: 1%
  • One-off projects (website content): 0.5%
  • Fiction: 0.5%

* Primarily ghost blogging.

** This wasn’t one of my novels — I was contacted by a travel company to write copy for a picture book on Portland.

What this tells me:

  • Fiction is growing in revenue, though not in percentage. Last year, I also made 0.5% of my income from writing fiction — but this year I’m making more overall. I wasn’t as productive in this area as I wanted to be, but next year I hope to see a substantial change in the percentage.
  • Website content is still my biggest earner — but it’s not my favorite. What the numbers don’t show is that most of my website content work happened earlier in the year. Since about October, I’ve transitioned into doing more long form content marketing, like whitepapers and ebooks. I expect those sorts of projects to make up the bulk of my income next year as I transition away from projects I don’t enjoy as much.
  • Ghostwriting made up a significant portion of my income. I was surprised to see just how much I earned ghostwriting last year. It was mainly in the form of ghost blogging — partly for one regular client, and partly through a couple of different jobs that were primarily marketing. Next year I’d like to grow that percentage — hopefully by adding on ghostwriting business books as well as blog posts.
  • Blogging still pays the bills. Blogging made up 25% of my income in 2015, compared to 14% this year. Although I’m still doing it I’ve restructured my approach. Rather than having hectic weekly deadlines for multiple clients, I now sell a package of posts that I deliver in one go. That allows me to manage my projects better. (I also now say no to anything that I don’t personally find interesting — I find I burn out pretty quickly otherwise.)

How I found writing clients in 2016

I was going to break down my marketing efforts for this year — but then I realized I’ve literally done no intentional marketing. Every client I gained in 2016 was referred to me, found me on LinkedIn, or saw a bylined article I’d written.

That said, niching down has helped my inbound marketing efforts immensely: Nearly all of my clients are B2B SaaS companies.

I was surprised to find last year that B2B SaaS (software-as-a-service) clients made up a big chunk of my revenue. This year I doubled down on that niche, which I find both fascinating and enjoyable. (And profitable!)

I’m really happy with my current clients — they’re all in industries I find interesting, and doing work that is making some sort of difference in the world. That’s something I want to focus on in the future. Not to say I want to only work for non-profits — just that I’m no longer interested in taking on a client just for the paycheck. I want to know they’re doing good work.

Fiction income — Will it be worth the effort in 2017?

My income from fiction — book sales, short stories, and royalties — made up only a tiny fraction of my total income.

Yet, when I think about how I want to spend my days and how I want to earn a living, I would rather it comes from residual sales of book — passive income — rather than from services. A book is an evergreen source of revenue, whereas a client may disappear or decide to go a different direction.

In an ideal world, my revenue percentages from website content (35%) and fiction (0.5%) would be swapped. If I want to make a living writing fiction, how do I make that happen?

First of all, I need more assets. I can’t expect to replace a big client with a single novella. That means if I want to achieve this goal, I really need to up my game when it comes to how much fiction I’m writing.

I went through several dry spells in 2016, where I let my productivity be held captive to motivation, rather than focusing on building a strong writing habit.

In 2017, I plan to focus on daily and weekly habits, rather than setting myself lofty word count goals with no support structure.

Over the last couple months I’ve built a habit of writing 30 minutes every day, something which has hugely impacted the amount of fiction I’ve been able to write — even when I’m busy with client work. I’ll definitely keep that habit up in 2017.

How was your 2016?

I’d love to hear how things are going with you, in business, creatively, and in life. Leave me a comment or drop me a line!

Want to learn more about how a new freelancer can make a living writing? Read my reflections on Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014).

What I Learned in My Third Year of Freelance Writing was originally published in Writers on Writing on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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2741 days ago
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How to Set and Smash a Ridiculously Impossible Goal

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Last year I made it my goal to write 2 million words. I made this goal back at the beginning of the year, when I was struggling to find time at all to write, because of all the responsibilities that it takes to run a house of eight, manage healthy relationships and balance a fledgling business.

Honestly, I did not think it was possible to reach 2 million words, because of kids and time and so many responsibilities and the fact that I don’t have a clone. I just thought that this goal would set me firmly on my way to writing consistently and, I hoped, unceasingly.

Not only that, but I wanted this goal to frame my year, because I had decided beforehand that this was going to be a content year. I would create as much content as I possibly could so that it could be turned into books or blog posts or social media content or something that remained private, only for me and my family.

When I reached the month of November, which happens to be National Novel Writing Month (you might have participated), I only had about 30,000 words to go to achieve my goal. So I decided to smash it, and the way I would smash it was to make it my goal to write 150,000 words on a series project in the month of November, including a whole week of Sabbatical where I would not write at all — or, if I did, not toward this particular project.

I wrote 180,000 words on my project in November.

Okay, that’s great for me, but why am I telling you this? Because I believe you can do it, too.

Every year, as the old year is closing down and the new year is just beginning, I make a very comprehensive list of my goals for the next year. I do this with two-year goals and three-year-goals and five-year goals, although they’re not quite as intricate as the yearly goals are. But what these goals do for me is they frame an entire year and help me remember what it is I need to do to reach those goals.

I keep my goals on cork boards that sit on my desk. Every day, before I start work, I review them. I have them broken down into year goals, quarter goals, month goals, week goals, and everything I do is framed by these note cards.

My goals have changed a little over the course of this year, and that’s okay. What’s important is to start somewhere. Goals set us along the path to accomplishing what it is we really want to accomplish. They show us a starting place by providing a temporary ending place. They make the ridiculously impossible possible.

If you’re in this to be a career writer, the first place to start is a goal.

Goals make the ridiculously impossible possible. To accomplish anything, you must first have a goal.

So here are my best tips for making and accomplishing goals:

1. Think of what’s realistically possible and then add 20 percent.

This one’s really important. The first year I set goals, I set some really ridiculous ones, sort of like this word count goal. That’s not bad, but if you’re the kind of person who is very goal-motivated, it’s probably not the best thing to do. I tend to shift and shape my goals throughout the year, but if you’re the kind who dies hard to those goals you set six months ago, then you’ll want to asses what is first realistically possible.

How do you do this when you’re a writer? Well, you have to keep pretty extensive notes on how much you can write in a certain amount of time. I know that if I’m writing a rough draft, I can write between 5,000 and 6,000 words in an hour. Which means if I only have an hour every day five days a week, what is realistically possible is 25,000 words a week or 1.3 million words a year. Add 20 percent, and you have 1.6 million words for the year.

I know that if I’m writing a final draft, that number falls to about 2500 to 3,000 words in an hour.

So the first thing you’ll have to do in order to find what’s realistic is assess your own writing speed and what you’ll be writing. You can do this by keeping a log of your word count in a particular amount of time.

It’s also really important that you make your goals really concrete rather than abstract. “Write on novel 1 for one hour every day” is a much better goal than “Write sometime every day.” “Write 4,000 words on novel 1 for one hour every day” is even better than the first.

2. Make a plan.

Once you’ve written down all your goals for the year, focus in on either the largest goal that will take the most amount of time or the goal that’s farthest away.

If you start with the largest goal, break it down into manageable steps, and assign those steps to a month or a week or even a day if you want to get really detailed. Schedule it on your calendar, but don’t forget to break that really big goal into smaller steps. This is one of the most important things you can do.

If you decide start with the goal that’s farthest away, say, at the end of next year, work your way backward and set smaller goals for each month. My goal document has a “look ahead” section where I can see what’s coming in the next month and plan for that a month in advance. Planning is key to accomplishing goals.

Do something every day toward your goal, and those small steps will get you there.

3. Evaluate.

Each week, Husband and I have about an hour-long conversation about our goals for the quarter, our goals for the month, our goals for the next week. We ask each other questions about how we did in the last week working toward our goals and what we can do differently in the coming week that will make us more efficient or focused. It helps to bounce all of this off each other and also have a partner in accountability.

Which leads me to the last point:

4. Invite someone into the process.

It’s really helpful to have someone help you refine your goals. It could be a partner, a parent, a friend, whoever you want it to be. When you’ve jotted down some goals, set a meeting with someone else and offer to listen to their goals if they’ll listen to yours. Sometimes the most creative things come out of meetings like this.

Goals are one of the most important tools for a writer’s business, so I hope you’ll attempt to make your own ridiculous goal for the next year. And when you achieve it, be sure and let me know.

Rachel is the author of the kid-lit fantasy series, Fairendale; the poetry book, This is How You Know; and the Family on Purpose series. She writes about writing on her blog This Writer Life, contributes regularly to Huff Post and faithfully writes 5,000 words of fiction and nonfiction every day.

How to Set and Smash a Ridiculously Impossible Goal was originally published in Writers on Writing on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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One Thing


At this moment, at the beginning of the year, I have eight active big rock projects. The following attributes define these projects:

  • I am the primary owner and have committed to someone that they will be done at a specific time.
  • I am the correct owner of this project. There is no obvious better owner.
  • Completing the project will involve many hours or days of focused time where I need to stare at a screen, think, use tools, and produce one or more useful artifacts.
  • These projects need to be completed urgently.

I bounced from work a little early before the holidays to tackle one big rock project. It was the development of a headcount plan for 2017 along with a supported budget forecast. The work is familiar, I’ve done it many times. This big rock had been on my list for over a month regularly getting pushed each day I couldn’t find time to make progress. With the relative quiet of the holidays, I told myself, “Headcount and budget. Tuesday morning. I’ll make coffee and knock it out before Noon. Two hours. Three tops.”

I started on schedule in the comfort of the Cave, coffee in hand, fired up the necessary spreadsheets, and eleven hours later I was done. Eleven hours. Aside from a small amount of unexpected side research, and a couple of brief breaks, I was heads-down productively crunching numbers for 10+ hours with the benefit of having a crew of talented humans answering my endless questions throughout the day.

Eleven hours. I wasn’t even close with my original estimate, and this is work I’ve done multiple times before. When I shipped off my completed artifacts in the evening, I reminded myself my original plan was to do this big rock at work. I asked myself, “Given the interruptions, meetings, and other corporate curveballs in the office, how long would this big rock have taken?”

My honest answer was an alarming: I would not have finished.

The Illusion of Productivity

I change my productivity system every year or so. I’m in my second year of using Asana. What started out as a convenient and productive way to track my work became what every single productivity system has become to me: yet another inbox.

At some threshold which is entirely dependent on your working style, an inbox is no longer a useful tool. You can’t admit this to yourself because that inbox contains important things and that aggregate importance must be nurtured with daily attention. It must be curated with filter rules, tags, and sub-folders. The result of this constant maintenance is a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

You cross the threshold of inbox usefulness when you begin to mistake the act of managing the importance rather than acting on the importance. Speaking as a human who has crossed this uselessness threshold multiple times, I am prepared to declare that I am 100% done with productivity products. There is a better, simpler, and more productive way.

The Mindset of Busy

Let’s go back to my 11-hour headcount project and the assertion that I wouldn’t have finished the work at work. The truth is that I would’ve finished something resembling a headcount plan, but it would’ve looked nothing like what I produced with focused time. In the half-hour slices of time I would’ve found on my calendar to get the work done, I would’ve played the mental game of, “Ok, what can I get done in the next 30 minutes to make me feel as if I’ve made progress?”

This is the Busy Mindset. It is a mindset burdened with a packed scheduled and a long set of tasks, each with a deadline that sure felt reasonable when I committed to them two weeks ago. The Busy Mindset creates a sense of accomplishment by doing the bare minimum to complete a thing. Small or large, important or not, the thing being completed – crossed off the list – is the goal.

There are a great many managers who exist entirely within the Busy Mindset. They tell themselves this state of eternal busy is what a manager does. They’ve convinced themselves that they are leading by example and being seen as busy means the team will better appreciate and internalize the value of busy.

The perceived velocity achieved by being busy is a lie. Velocity is a vector. It is a combination of speed and a given direction provided by strategy. The rapid completion of small tasks might give you speed, but it is a well-defined direction that will give you efficiency, value, and impact. Who cares how quickly you are getting work done if it’s not the right work?

Productivity systems (and most inboxes) weaponize busy. They are designed with as many knobs and dials necessary to provide you with a sense of progression when often all you’ve done is wasted thirty minutes that you could have been spent building.

The Builder’s Mindset

I wrote about the The Builder’s High in early 2014. I talked of the cascading chemical awesomeness provided by your brain when you begin the act of building. Your brain wants to be in this state. It’s designed to be in this state.

When I went back and looked at the work I completed in those 11 hours, I was confused by where all the time went. I had only built two spreadsheets and written a short introductory piece about how to interpret those spreadsheets. The irony is that my original three-hour estimate to get this work done correctly accounted for building two spreadsheets. My estimate was right for just building the final product, but that estimate didn’t account for all the essential pre-work of wandering, researching, and other pre-work activities.

It’s a Silicon Valley joke that you triple all estimates from engineers, but it’s no joke. In fact, it works for any human who provides an estimate for a complex task where any or all of the following conditions are met:

  • They have not thought through the complexity of the work. This unseen complexity is often only discovered by starting the work.
  • They want to be seen as a team player and helpful, so they give their already under-informed gut feeling estimate a further haircut.
  • They want to do this work. It will advance their career. Another haircut.

My headcount and budget project involved a half-dozen warm-up spreadsheets to help me understand what happened in 2016 regarding hiring. There were the development and iteration of models to help me forecast what might happen in 2017. Those models needed to be debugged and tested.

The final simplicity of the two spreadsheets and the clarity of guidance on how to use those tools was the result of asking and answering thousands of small questions for myself, finding and cleaning the data, and ultimately designing a tool useful not only for me, but anyone who wanted to understand our headcount and budget plans. You know, another three hours and it would’ve been really good.

Building quality things of substance takes time.

There is never enough time; you are greatly outnumbered by chaotic, beautiful snowflakes, and there is too much to do and too much to know. This is the status quo of management, and without a clear counter-investment in building, you are going to get lost in the busy.

I have a proposal.

You Get One Thing

Here’s what we’re going to do:

  • We’re throwing away your current productivity system.
  • We’re going to build a minimalist no-fuss to-do list that can have only ten little rock items on it, and,
  • We’re carving off a chunk of dedicated time each week because you only get to work on one big rock a week. One.

This system is not for everyone. This system will be more useful to manager-types who have a deep sense of productivity doom. If you keep asking at the end of the day, “What did I do today?” this system might work. If you aggressively keep your to-do list tidy and regularly updated, but never feel like you’re ahead, I might be able to help.

Please note: This is going to hurt and you are going to get mad at some point. Sorry.

First, you are still going to need a list for your little rock projects, and I highly recommend starting with your favorite text editor. Go through your soon-to-be-obsolete productivity system and write down any small to-dos that you need to remember. These are small projects that you can’t do right now that you need to complete in the next week or two.

You only get ten little rocks on this list. Yeah, 10.

Most of you are like me and have way more than ten items on their list. Like 5x more? Some of those are very important, which means you’ve tagged them IMPORTANT and highlighted them in RED. You have ignored the fact that that this IMPORTANT RED thing has been deferred for two weeks. It is neither important nor red. It exists here because it costs you absolutely nothing to add a thing to your to-do list.

“I can do it! I just need more time!” is the rallying cry of a new manager trying to dig themselves out of a productivity hole. Yes, you can stay late or work weekends, but creating more hours is fixing the wrong part of the equation. You, the leader, signed up for too much and that’s either bad judgment or a lack of strategy. Your time is a finite resource, and unless you value that time correctly, you’re going to invest it poorly.

By constraining the list to 10 little rocks, I am asking you to make hard trade-off decisions regarding what you can and can’t do within a finite list of items. When the list is five times the size, this prioritization is an impossible task because you can’t keep relative priority of 49 other items in your head.

But Rands, that’s why I have this tagging system. I filter by tag first and then I…

Stop stop stop. You are one human being with finite time who can only complete one thing at a time. Your time is immensely precious, and these ten items likely represent at least a week’s work and do not account for the fact that who knows what is going to change in the next 24 hours. Ten items. That’s it.

If you’re having trouble getting to ten, I have suggestions:

  • Who can you delegate this to? Yes, there is a good chance the person you delegate this task will have a different take on it. They might only half-do the task, but both of these scenarios is better than no progress at all.
  • How long has this been on your list? More than two weeks? There is no way this is urgent. Drop it. Delete it. It’ll come back, I promise. (This is hard.)
  • If this is a task someone else is waiting for, what would happen if you told them tomorrow, “I can’t do this.” If you can’t predict their response, why not just say it to see what data you find?

I had my fair share of angst as I was culling my list, but in the weeks that I’ve been using this system I’ve realized how many systems surround me that remind me of tasks and commitments. Two inboxes (work and personal), weekly 1:1 meetings with my staff, agenda for all meetings, and every single document where I am listed as an owner of a task.

A natural and usually healthy byproduct of a group of humans working together is process and a defining characteristic of process is to make sure everything knows what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and who is doing what. It turns out there are inboxes everywhere.

Big Rock Projects

With the little rocks culled from your former productivity system, we are left with the big rock projects. These are not to-dos, but large and complex projects like “Fix marketing.” These items don’t belong here because of the size and complexity. They are buckets of tasks unto themselves. As we learned at the beginning of this piece, I currently have eight of these beasts on my plate.

For the big rock projects, you need to apply the same critical analysis that you performed on the small rocks: can I delegate? How long has it been around? Is it important? Once you’ve done that, here’s the power move: you only get to actively work on one of these a week. There are two major consequences with this approach:

First, for every big rock project that isn’t “the one,” you need to stack rank prioritize the order that you’re going to attack the remaining projects. Next, you need to realign any expectations with external parties regarding those remaining rocks For example, if each of those eight big rock projects on my plate takes a week, the last one on my prioritized list is getting very little attention for at least two months. Pro tip: The act of telling humans your new priorities might reveal new data that will trigger big rock reprioritization.

Second, each week you need to carve off at least five hours to work on this big rock project with sessions no smaller than one hour. This is on your calendar protected time that you can’t reschedule. It’s as important as your 1:1s and your staff meeting. You are going to love this.

An Antidote for Busy

The mindset that emerges from long quiet swaths of vacation is one removed from constant interruptions, endless meetings, cluttered noisy inboxes, and that human who just needs a minute of your time. It is a mindset capable of deeply considered thought, digesting complexity, and building strategy. There are humans who are capable of keeping this mindset while busy, but I am not one of those humans.

However, my job is full of interruptions. I work hard to attend the right meetings and make sure they are valuable for everyone. I am a leader, so I have minutes for everyone. I do not have time for busy, I see little value in being busy, and I most certainly don’t want my team to believe that a busy lifestyle is aspirational.

A common question I get is, should managers still code? A better question is, should managers still build? “Yes”. It doesn’t need to be code and it can happen entirely through the delegation to others, but every manager should have work on their plate that involves long periods of thinking as a daily antidote for busy. We need to be reminded of the healthy mindset that accompanies the act of building.

There’s a valid argument that I’ve just replaced one productivity system with another, but let’s do the math. If we assume that the act of scrubbing your simple little rock list takes an hour for the entire week and that you run with my five hours per week big rock project schedule, then we’re talking six hours per week. That’s 15% of your week devoted to big rock and to-do triage. You’ve still got 85% of your week to fill with little rocks and… whatever it is you do all day.

Think of it like this. Assume the average big rock task takes a week. That seems fair? Some will be longer, others will be shorter. If we carve off two weeks for holidays and assume you complete 80% of your tasks, that means 40 big rock projects came to completion in the next year. Is that more or less big rock projects than what you completed last year? Your answer, like mine, is, “I don’t know, but I was sure busy.”

One big rock project at a time and 10 little rock projects. That’s it. Of course, there is more you need to do, but don’t worry because there are people and inboxes everywhere that are going to remind you of this work. Meanwhile, this approach gives you the gift of focus and it is only when you focus that you truly build.

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