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.
We often hear the advice “just start,” but it comes without a clear explanation as to how. Visualizing the gap between mediocre and great work in this way makes it evident that the only way to get on that scale is to overcome the bigger gap between nothing and something.
Over at Buffer, Kevan Lee gives us an answer by taking creative author Shirky’s notes to create The Creativity Spectrum.:
What holds you back from creating something?
For many of us, it’s fear. Fear that something might not be good enough, unique enough or novel enough.
Overcoming this fear is a huge and important step… Author Clay Shirky noted the importance of the simple act of creating—creating anything, even a silly thing—in his book Cognitive Surplus: “The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act. On the spectrum of creative work, the difference between the mediocre and the good is vast. Mediocrity is, however, still on the spectrum; you can move from mediocre to good in increments. The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something.”
The message is clear: to create great work requires that we create any work to begin with. Because until we have something to work with, great work isn’t even on our scale of possibilities.
Lee provides plenty of other creative insights in addition to this one over on the Buffer blog.
Regardless of where you fall on the “is coffee good or bad for you” debate, there will come a workday when you can barely keep your head up at your desk, and coffee is not an option. Maybe you’ve already had two or three cups with no real effect, or maybe you’ve been trying to quit but still haven’t found a good alternative yet.
As part of Fast Company‘s “Coffee Week” coverage, Lisa Evans offers a number (6 in all) of other options. Here’s a few of our favorites:
Green Tea: This beverage has become known as the healthiest coffee alternative thanks to its high concentration of antioxidants and its link to lower risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Green tea does contain caffeine, but a smaller amount than your regular cup of coffee, so you don’t end up with the same jittery side effects. Not only can green tea boost mental alertness, studies show it can also make you smarter. One recent study published in the journal Psychopharmacology found green tea is effective at improving memory and cognition.
Eat Some Chocolate and Have a Laugh: That cute cat video your aunt emailed you may be just what you need when you feel a dip in energy. Researchers from the University of Warwick showed boosting employee happiness by offering chocolate and showing stand-up comedy videos improved productivity by 12%…
Raise the Heat in the Office: That chill you feel in the office may be causing your productivity to drop along with your temperature. Cornell University researchers found employees working in offices with low temperatures (of 68 degrees) committed 44% more errors and were less than half as productive than employees working in a warm office (of 77 degrees). When the body’s temperature drops, it uses up energy to stay warm. This leaves the brain with less energy to concentrate or to be creative. If you can’t raise the office temperature, be sure to pack a sweater or get a space heater.
And if what you’re really jonesing for are the sweet, soothing sounds of a coffee shop while you work, there’s always Coffitivity.
Extracurriculars, straight A’s, volunteer work. . . Getting into top-flight colleges demands a ridiculous amount of free time, dedication, and energy, which are exactly the kinds of things that stifle learning. So does that mean that the Ivy Leagues are now producing students who are better at following orders than experimenting?
The New Yorker takes on the issue using William Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life as a backdrop:
They’re meant to do it all, and they do. But they don’t know why, or how, to find fulfillment in the absence of new hoops to jump through.
Learning is supposed to be about falling down and getting up again until you do it right. But, in an academic culture that demands constant achievement, failures seem so perilous that the best and the brightest often spend their young years in terrariums of excellence. The result is what Deresiewicz calls “a violent aversion to risk.” Even after graduation, élite students show a taste for track-based, well-paid industries like finance and consulting (which in 2010 together claimed more than a third of the jobs taken by the graduating classes of Harvard, Cornell, and Princeton). And no wonder. A striver can “get into” Goldman Sachs the way that she got into Harvard. There is no résumé submission or recruiting booth if you want to make a career as a novelist.
If our brightest minds are mainly falling into fields like finance, what does that mean for the next generation of leaders?
Web developer Rachel Nabors followed her passion and was a full-time comic book artist. But an unexpected surgery and a lack of health insurance debunked her plans and gave her a new outlook on creative work. Now? She believes that “do what you love” is bad advice.
My first love, comics, gives me an edge in this industry. If I’d just gone straight into web development because it seemed like a money-maker, I wouldn’t be half as excited about what I can do or as interesting to others in my field. I and my community are better for the years I spent making comics, even if it wasn’t a successful career choice.
But, if I’d kept “doing what I love” in the industry that didn’t love me back, I would have never realized that there are other, more profitable, things I love.
Rather than telling you to do what you love, I’d like to say this:
Don’t do something you hate for a living.
There is no glory in suffering. Because you can grow to hate something you love if it puts you in a bad position, this advice gives you permission to move on to greener pastures if what you love is making you cry at night. Whatever you love should love you back. And if it’s not working out, it’s ok to find something else to love.
We all have more than one true passion in us — sometimes it just takes time to find it.
Adam Akhtar of Highfive has a great—albeit surprisingly simple—tip to add visual tags to your notebook or moleskin for organizing your notes. All it takes is your notebook and a pen:
The back of your notebook will act like a tag list or index. Every time you create a new entry at the front of the book you’re going to “tag” it [in the back]…
Now you’d go back to the first page where the [note] is and on the exact same line as the…label you just wrote you’d make a little mark on the right edge. You’d make this mark so that even when the notepad was closed the mark would be visible. After repeating this for various [notes] you’d now have various tags visible on the notebooks edge.
The process is very easy to use, and can be paired with other “hacks” for an added organizational boost (like using different colors for different topics). If you still use a physical notebook, this is one approach you’re definitely going to want to consider.
Figure out what you stand for and what you believe in, and use that as your point of difference. In a crowd of designers, how will you stand apart? If you’re guilty of leading with what you do, start with why you do it and articulate that on your materials, website and social channels. Find out where your talents and values meet, and use that to leverage the power of your purpose.
Your “why” is a powerful driving force for your life and career. It provides a common goal that directs your actions and provides the dedication to get there. In addition, passion is contagious. Your excitement will excite others who will want to get involved in what you do. As leadership expert Simon Sinek says, “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”