What’s it take to improve your level of work? On the Harvard Business Review blog, author Tony Schwartz pairs his personal research with that of Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson to come up with an answer. Their findings? To improve your work requires six key steps, the same steps utilized in a well-balanced and acutely planned workout. Schwartz:
We’ve found that it’s possible to build any given skill or capacity in the same systematic way we do a muscle: push past your comfort zone, and then rest…it’s not inherited talent which determines how good we become at something, but rather how hard we’re willing to work…
Here, then, are the six keys to achieving excellence…
1. Pursue what you love. Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance.
2. Do the hardest work first. We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers, Ericsson and others have found, delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice in the mornings, before they do anything else…
3. Practice intensely, without interruption for short periods no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity…
A common misconception about improving our quality of work is that constant practice is all it takes. But, as Schwartz explains, deliberate practice is only one key to improvement. To get the most benefit from our practice we have to be excited about the work we do, know how to challenge ourselves effectively, and understand the immense value of a well-timed break.
Get all six of Schwartz’s keys to moving towards better work over on HBR.
I don’t believe in briefs; I believe in relationships. The difference between a brief and a relationship is a brief can be anonymous. And I’ve tended over the last fifteen to twenty years to really work with people who give you a really deep sense of where it is they want to go, what it is that they are dreaming about. And that, in turn, has informed us on the projects more than any brief has ever done so.
Initial discussions should provide not only the vision for the project, but the aspirations of the company. Instead of anonymously sending out briefs, make it a collaborative thing: the brief will naturally evolve out of these client conversations. With continued dialogue, you build the trust you need to really question ideas and find innovation. Use the brief as a creative tool to open up dialogue with your clients, negotiate easier, and get to the heart of the problem.
Do notifications impact your workflow?
Co-founder and CEO of Buffer, Joel Gascoigne, undertook an experiment in which he disabled all notifications on his phone. Not only did he regain his focus, he was also able to convert his workflow from reactionary to proactive:
It is now completely up to me when I choose to check my email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I have no excuse that a notification came in. If I check it too frequently and find myself procrastinating, it is only my fault: I went out of my way to go and look.
Focus isn’t a magic ability. It’s simply a function of limiting the number of options you give yourself for procrastinating. 99U challenges you to turn off all notifications for a week, and let us know how it goes below.
It’s important to be aware of inspiration that simply influences us versus inspiration that turns us into a copycat. Knowing the difference can help turn us into the type of creative worker we strive to be. As Evernote designer Joshua Taylor explains in this interview over at the InVision blog:
Researching and seeing what others are doing is important. I try not to do that too much though because I think there’s a subconscious tendency to copy as soon as you start looking at everyone else’s stuff. My advice is that if you are going to look at others’ work, look at a ton of them so that there’s enough influences and you can’t distinguish between them. Constantly looking at other people’s work has a huge impact on who you are…We are all products of our environments, so surround yourself with great things.
The right inspiration, at the right time (and in the right amount), can be just what we need to improve our own ideas and creative work. It’s when we catch ourselves looking for inspiration as a way to solve the task at hand or complete the work we’re doing that we know we’ve stumbled into possible copycat territory.
Instead, we must strive to constantly surround ourselves with a lot of varied and high caliber work.
Your business idea (be it for a design studio, an app, or consulting practice) has yet to become a success and you can’t figure out why. In an interview over at Entrepreneur with Scott D. Anthony, author of The First Mile: A Launch Manual for Getting Great Ideas Into the Market, the strategy and innovation consultant discusses the most common reasons why your business idea is stagnant:
One extreme is something called “paralysis by analysis,” where the business exists only in someone’s head. They’re trying to make the business plan perfect and remove all risk before taking the first step. The other extreme is “doing without thinking,” where you put something out into the market to see what happens. You can waste a lot of time and money learning things the world has already discovered.
Do either of these two scenarios look familiar? If so, it may be time to take some focused action to get your business off the ground. The real answer lies in between the two extremes: the best action is usually securing your first customer and then building upon that success.
Do you get pissed off whenever someone asks you to setup a “quick call” to chat? Gary Vaynerchuk bets that you do:
We have gotten to a place where everything happens on our time. You watch the TV show when you want to watch it, not because it airs on Wednesday at 8 (7 central). You text because you can respond to that person on your time.
To avoid the awkwardness around small-talk, try to outline what the topic of the conversation is going to be. It makes you feel less guilty for transitioning into the purpose of the call.
Use email to get your high-level thoughts communicated first, and then use a phone call to add a personal touch or to have a higher bandwidth conversation.
If your work requires phone calls, that’s understandable. But remember that more often than not, synchronous communication puts you in a reactionary state. Don’t feel obligated to answer the phone every time it rings; what’s urgent isn’t always important.
Editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine Scott Dadich says it’s time to start getting it wrong. In the field of technology design, we have figured out how to do it right. We have beautiful, sleek devices that are an ease to use – and it’s getting boring:
…once a certain maturity has been reached, someone comes along who decides to take a different route. Instead of trying to create an ever more polished and perfect artifact, this rebel actively seeks out imperfection—sticking a pole in the middle of his painting, intentionally adding grungy feedback to a guitar solo, deliberately photographing unpleasant subjects. Eventually some of these creative breakthroughs end up becoming the foundation of a new set of aesthetic rules, and the cycle begins again.
Dadich emphasizes that it’s not about throwing out design rules and starting from scratch. You need to master the rules so you can effectively break them. In his work for Wired Magazine, Dadich would apply his ‘Wrong Theory’ in small ways by only breaking one or two rules to regain visual interest. He would make large images small, overlap graphic and type and put headlines at the end of stories. Our future lies in failure as Dadich states, “…only by courting failure can we find new ways forward.”