Some days, you just got nothing

From time to time, we all experience difficult days.

Maybe you slept poorly, your train was delayed, your boss made you sit through a useless morning meeting, and your friend canceled for lunch at the last minute.

All this despite your careful planning and your intention to have a great day.

When you have a day like that, what can you do?

I talk a lot about being productive. Many of us want to do work we care about and do it well. That often requires some planning and the right mindset.

But if you’re focused on being productive, and you have a bad day, you might experience some negative thoughts. Thoughts like “I should have tried harder”, “I should have planned better”, or “I should push through difficulty”.

Sometimes these thoughts are true, and sometimes they’re not. If you normally have productive work days, then having one bad day doesn’t suddenly turn you into a lazy person. If you usually work out five days a week, and you skip one day, you don’t instantly lack discipline.

In other words, when you have a difficult day and you are not as productive as you wanted to be, that does not make you a failure, a lazy person, or someone who doesn’t have “it”.

It only means that today, it’s your turn to have a shitty day. Better days are coming your way soon.

You know how when you can’t sleep, it helps to stop trying to fall asleep and instead to read a book for a while? Bad days are like that.

If you’re normally a productive person, but today you just can’t get anything done, then give yourself permission to stop trying for the day. If you like, think of it as “today I wasn’t meant to get stuff done”.

Instead, engage in some basic maintenance. Take care of yourself. Enjoy a hot bath, go for a run, watch a Bond movie, or cook something new.

Because some days, you just got nothing. When you run into a day like that, accept it as quickly as you can.

Yours,

— Peter

Eighty percent

Could it be that you’re not succeeding because you’re trying too hard?

Until recently, this sounded preposterous to me.

It was obvious: effort leads to results. More effort leads to more results. If something isn’t going the way I want it to, I need to try harder.

Problem is, this sets up a vicious circle. When you’re expecting the results that come with 100% effort and (for whatever reason) you don’t get those results, you might feel disappointed. Then you might channel that disappointment into trying harder.

But the harder you try, the more energy you use, and the more stress you generate. Then, when you work with less energy and more stress, you’ll probably make more mistakes, only disappointing yourself more—leading you to want to try harder again.

The result is that you’re constantly stressed and disappointed.

What if you decided, instead, to give 80% effort and expect 80% of results?

This could look like taking more breaks, allowing for some mistakes, or expecting success 80% of the time.

For example, if you’ve been trying really hard to establish a daily habit, you might feel guilty whenever you skip a day. The guilt can easily turn into negative self-talk like “I don’t have what it takes”, which can demotivate you and cause you to give up on the habit entirely.

In this case, try allowing yourself to miss one in five days (on average). When you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up about it. Remember “eighty percent” and make a specific plan to do better tomorrow.

If you like, you can also give 50% effort and expect 50% of results. The specific percentage doesn’t matter, as long as you stop trying so hard and relax a little.

In mindfulness terms, we could say that giving 80% effort is “letting things be” a bit. By not clinging so hard to great results, you might paradoxically be more likely to get those results.

So if you’ve tried giving maximum effort, if you’re not heading in the right direction, and if you’re stressed—why not reduce your effort and lower your expectations by 20% for a while, and see what happens?

Yours,

— Peter

The fear of being exposed

Do you sometimes worry that—any minute now—you’ll be exposed? That others will realize that you’re a pretender, that you don’t know what you’re doing?

This fear is known as impostor syndrome. The more you push yourself, the more likely you are to suffer from it. As far as I can tell, anyone who frequently pushes themselves out of their comfort zone experiences impostor syndrome sometimes.

And that’s okay—fear is part of life, and so is the fear of being exposed as an impostor.

But a problem arises when you compare yourself (a beginner) to experts.

For example, I write to you every day. So does Seth Godin, who has written 17 books and whose blog is among the most popular in the world.

If I compare myself with Seth Godin, I’ll find that his posts are more inspiring, funnier, cleverer, that they’ll make you think more, etc. And all this while Seth’s posts use fewer words than mine!

But I have written perhaps 80 blog posts in my life. It would be fairer to compare my posts to Seth’s first 100 blog posts. And even then there might be all sorts of confounding factors.

Now, you and I both know that it’s better to focus on ourselves than to compare ourselves with others. Compare Present You with Past You and see whether you’ve made progress.

But if you’re going to compare yourself with others—I definitely do sometimes—then compare yourself when the beginner version of those others.

If you’re a musician, compare yourself with the Beatles when they were playing in a bar every night. If you’re a neuroscience student, ask your famous professor what he worked on when he was doing his master’s degree.

There’s nothing wrong with being new to something. We all start there. And towards others, simply be honest and tell them what you can do and do have experience with. They’ll trust you and want to work with you for your honesty.

Yours,

— Peter

Anything, but not everything

Yesterday, a coaching client mentioned that she hates certain marketing channels.

To get new customers, she could blog, get on the phone with people, email them, or contact them on social media—but some of these do not align with her values.

Problem is, a friend told her that one of these channels (one that my client hates) is amazing for generating leads. Should she suck it up and do it anyway so that she can build her business?

My client can’t rule out all marketing channels. So it’s not as simple as “if there’s something you don’t want to do, don’t do it”.

Here’s a better way to think about it:

One of my favorite blogs is Paula Pant’s Afford Anything. It’s about achieving financial independence using passive income. Paula likes to say that in life, you can afford anything, but not everything.

Let’s adapt this motto: when it comes to things you don’t want to do, you can rule out anything, but not everything.

Yours,

— Peter

Feel overwhelmed? Review your projects

The feeling of having too much to do can be paralyzing. There’s so much to do; where should you start?

One way to get out of this situation is to start just anywhere. When you have a lot of tasks to do, completing one of them might be better than completing none of them. Plus, once you complete one task, it’s often easy to move on to the next, as you generate momentum.

The strategy of starting just anywhere works well when all your tasks are of similar importance and urgency. But when you are juggling many projects that are not equally important or urgent, there’s a better way to stop feeling overwhelmed:

Review your projects.

Reviewing your projects means examining them one by one to make sure your lists of what you want to do are up to date.

I suggest you review all your projects every week—and if you use software like OmniFocus, this is super easy to do—but you can also do an impromptu review as an antidote to overwhelm.

Here’s what I recommend for a simple review:

  1. Look through all items on your physical desk and create to-dos for any items that require you to take action.
  2. Ditto with any other inboxes you have (e.g. your email inbox or your computer’s desktop). Create to-dos as needed. Don’t do the things right away, but write them down for future doing.
  3. Assign each of the tasks you’ve just identified to a project.
  4. For each project, ask yourself: do I still want to do this? Can I delegate it to someone else? Can I defer it until later?
  5. For each task within each project, ask yourself the same questions.
  6. Check which tasks and projects are due in the coming days and weeks.
  7. Plan what you’ll do and when you’ll do it for the remainder of your work day.
  8. If you like, plan tomorrow as well.

If you’re like me, when you’re overwhelmed you might have the urge to work harder and harder, to try to reduce the size of your to-do list. But that strategy can backfire, as you might end up working on less important tasks. Working harder might also stress you out and be counterproductive.

Try to resist that urge to work harder and check off as many tasks as possible. Instead, do a review, so it’s clear what you should work on first.

You’ll end up making more progress towards your goals that way, and you’ll feel calmer while you’re at it.

Yours,

— Peter

Using pride to beat procrastination

Been putting off work recently?

I feel you. Sometimes you know that Future You would appreciate it if you worked right now, but you just can’t get yourself to do it.

A few weeks ago, I discovered a new way to beat procrastination—thank you, Jonathan Stark—and I wanted to share it with you because it has worked so well for me. Here’s how it works:

Choose something that makes you feel proud. Then do it every day.

This might sound like I’m telling you to “just do the work”, but this is more specific. This technique has you doing something that makes you feel proud and it has you doing it every day.

You’ve probably noticed that I have been writing and publishing daily for a bit now. At first, I thought it would be difficult to write every day, but it’s much easier than I expected. Why?

Writing and publishing makes me feel proud every day. Because it does, it’s much easier to sit down and write the next day. I know I’ll feel good afterwards, because I felt proud yesterday, the day before yesterday, the day before that, etc.

You can use this technique too. Pick something that makes you feel proud and do that thing every day. Not “do something that makes you feel proud every day”—remove the element of choice. Pick one thing and do that thing.

If you’re writing a thesis, it could be “write 500 words”. If you’re starting a side hustle, it could be “send a personalized email to two potential customers”. Or if you’re writing software, you could refactor one existing chunk of code every day.

Doing this thing every day is important because the feeling of pride won’t last very long. If you commit to doing it only once a week, by next week you might no longer feel last week’s pride. And then you can’t use that pride to motivate you next week.

Pride is a powerful feeling. Use it to your advantage.

What will you commit to doing every day?

Yours,

— Peter