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Reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work book is one of the best investments I’ve ever made. The focus and clarity I got from that book helped me produce two huge online courses this year while working full time as a podcast editor for seanwes, and it also helped me lose 20 pounds and get into the best shape of my life while training for an Ironman triathlon.
Put simply, Deep Work was a game changer for me.
This is the second part of my recent interview with Shawn Blanc where we talk about Deep Work and focus.
We also discussed pricing your online products (you can charge more than you think you can), how to create a morning routine that will supercharge your daily productivity, the power of choosing a single area of your life to improve on, and more.
Highlights, Takeaways & Quick Wins:
- For big projects, you need long stretches of uninterrupted time to think and work.
- Work on building your focus muscle.
- The first five minutes of focus time are the hardest.
- Pick a task, pick a time, and do the task at that time.
- Show up every day and do your best creative work.
- If you can’t overcome fear, push through it—fear is a sign that you’re doing something that matters.
- The way you feel about a product doesn’t change how much it’s worth, which is how much the market is willing to pay for it.
- Protect your morning productivity time and your mental energy by setting out your clothes the night before.
- Don’t undervalue your products.
- Pick one thing, do it for two months, and allow yourself to suck at all the other areas of your life—after that, pick a new thing.
- Pick one action you can do tomorrow morning that will get you closer to the most important goal.
- 01:36 Aaron: We both really loved Cal Newport’s Deep Work book. When did you get interested in the idea of intense focus and structuring your life in a way to make sure you get your best creative work done? When did you find that book or that idea and really start working on that?
- 01:59 Shawn: I think I found the idea years ago. When I was a creative marketing director, like I mentioned, I was doing 80 hours a week. Part of my schedule was that on Fridays, I would come home and work from home. I wouldn’t be on email or answer the phone. I had an assistant, and anyone who needed to get ahold of me needed to go through my assistant. She would screen anything and see if it was urgent or important for the day. If it was, she’d let me know.
- 02:32 I set up this distraction-free work time for myself on Fridays, because as the director for the marketing and all the creative stuff we were doing, it was on me to make sure that our marketing campaign for this big, end of the year, 25,000 person conference was going to happen. It was all on me. I had to drive that. You can’t do that in 10-minute time blocks scattered throughout your day.
For big projects, you need long stretches of uninterrupted time to think, process, come up with ideas, and work on stuff.
- 03:12 That was my first experience of going, “I have to have this. If I don’t, I won’t be able to do my job, and I will always be in reaction mode.” That was my first experience, and that was in 2008 when I came across that idea. It was born out of necessity for me. Obviously, that’s not new to the world, but it was new to me. When I quit my job and started blogging for a living, I came to that same spot of saying, “I need to set aside time every day to write without distractions, intentionally.”
- 03:46 That has evolved as we’ve had kids, schedules have changed, and seasons of life go up and down. I need uninterrupted stretches of time on a regular basis to do my most important work and to focus on the stuff that’s not urgent today but is very important. If I neglect it, those things will become urgent, or the needle is going to start going backwards and I’m going to start losing ground.
Why Deep Focus Matters
- 04:17 Shawn: Focused time has always been important. Then I came across Cal’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I read that in 2015. That’s a fantastic book. There was this chapter in there on intentional practice, and that resonated with me so much. It’s very similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow.
- 05:14 He has a lot of books on very similar topics on finding flow, getting in the flow, whatever. He has one book called Flow and another one called Finding Flow. It’s the idea that not only do you need those times of uninterrupted work, but when you’re in that moment, if you can get into the flow, it’s challenging, it’s hard, etc, but you feel more rewarded. You feel better. You have a higher motivation about the work you’re doing. You feel like you accomplished something.
- 05:50 I don’t know if anyone listening can relate to this. You spend your whole day in reaction mode, bouncing around between your email inbox, your Twitter feed, your Facebook feed, your Instagram feed, back to email, back to Twitter, back to Instagram, back to Facebook, back to email. You’re bouncing around all these inboxes, and then you’re like, “Wow, I just spent four hours. I haven’t done anything.”
- 06:16 Aaron: You read a bunch of short emails, maybe you replied, maybe you sent some tweets, maybe you saw some articles.
It’s so easy to spend all day doing short, quick tasks that don’t really change anything.
- 06:32 Shawn: Exactly. They don’t change anything, and you feel zero satisfaction afterwards. You don’t feel like you got anything done, as opposed to if you took those four hours and, instead, spent it focused on something intentional, something that was challenging. If you set aside time to do deep work, when you come out of that time (even if it’s just one hour or half an hour), if it was distraction free and you’re focused and being intentional, you come out feeling better.
After spending intentional time working on something without any distractions, you feel more motivated and you have more energy.
- 07:04 It’s this muscle. You have a focus muscle that you have to work on, as opposed to the distraction muscle.
Why is Creating Focused Time So Hard?
- 07:14 Shawn: The hardest thing for getting into that focused work time, getting into the flow, is called the Activation Energy, just getting started. The first five minutes of focus time are the hardest. Something I like to do is have a set time every day when I am going to have my focused writing time, and before I even get there, the day before, I write down what my single most important thing is that I’m going to be writing about. I have the time on my calendar, and I have the challenge, project, or task that I’m going to be working on.
- 08:00 As Cal Newport would say, what’s the artifact that I’m going to try and get from that focused time? Then I come, sit down, and do the work. I know that the first five minutes will be hard and I probably won’t be into it. I have to power through those first five minutes, and then you get into that flow. Time begins to get lost. Anyone who has been a painter, artist, musician, whatever, you can usually relate. You say, “I was just in the flow. I was in the zone.” That’s where your best work is going to be created.
- 08:38 That’s where you’re going to feel the most satisfaction with your job. That’s where you’re going to increase your skill level as a creative person. You’re going to level up your ability to do stuff. Sean has talked about this so much with his Learn Lettering course: he did 9,000 hours of intentional practice! That’s what he was doing every day. He had this focused time where he was practicing letters. You have to put in the time.
How to Stop Procrastinating and Do Your Best Work
- 09:14 Aaron: Everyone should read Cal Newport’s books, So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. Both of those books are phenomenal. It’s so important as podcasters to pick a day to outline and record an episode, and write the topic in advance. Say, “I’m going to spend 30 to 45 minutes at this time writing about this thing, and then I’m going to record an episode.”
- 09:51 Otherwise, what ends up happening, and this is true of so many areas of life, is that you will spend a lot of time thinking about how you should do a thing. I’ve been thinking about how I should record a screencast for three weeks now. “Hey, I have to record that ‘introduction to limiting’ screencast for my Logic course,” and I’ve been thinking a lot about it, but I haven’t done it yet. It’s so silly, but that’s how procrastination works. You spend more time thinking about how you should do a thing instead of just doing the thing.
Pick a task, pick a time, and do the task at that time.
- 10:25 That’s such a simple version of an idea presented in Deep Work that is so life changing. I talk about that book all the time because I love it, and I know there are still some people who haven’t read it yet. It is a book that anyone who wants to create stuff for a living professionally needs to go listen to. Shawn, you should do a whole series of videos or interviews where you talk about deep focus for creative people.
- 11:03 Shawn: I do. I did some stuff, like the TheFocusCourse.com/margin page. I interviewed Cal Newport, and we talked about this. I interviewed a few other folks and wrote some articles, and it was on this topic of having margin in your life, the breathing room, so that you can do your best creative work. That’s our mantra over there at The Focus Course.
Show up every day and do your best creative work.
- 11:32 I think margin is a huge part of that. The deep work, the focus, it’s a huge part of it. Otherwise, you’re just working on your email inbox all the time. That’s no fun.
Push Through Fear
- 11:51 Aaron: The first question I want to talk about is this one from Mariali. She asked, “How did you overcome the insecurity of giving birth to a new idea you weren’t sure people would respond well to?” I think this was about a book but it could be about anything, really.
- 12:22 Shawn: I didn’t overcome the fear. I put it out there and stuck to the plan. The way that worked with my Delight is in the Details book, was that I had done it as a podcast mini series for my members only. It was a little five part podcast, and I got a lot of positive response from people. I had teased it out, and I got a positive response, so I thought, “I should sell this for maybe like $5 as a sample for the Shawn Blanc membership thing.”
- 13:02 I thought, “I should rewrite it, so it’s a little bit more structured. I’ll rerecord it so it doesn’t have the welcome in it, so it’s a little bit more of its own product.” As I’m doing that, it goes from five episodes to like 12. There were all these extra chapters that I ended up writing. Then I thought, “Gosh, if I’m going to to this, I might as well interview some other people, and then I can charge more for the thing.” Instead of charging $10, I could charge like $20. That would double what I’d make from it.
- 13:30 So I made the book, and when I was getting ready to sell it, that was the hard part. That launch day, I just felt super insecure. I felt bad and sick to my stomach. I texted a few friends of mine. I was like, “This book is coming out in an hour. People are going to hate it.” Everyone was like, “Stick to your plan. Put it out there.” The people I trusted, who’s opinions I cared about, all said, “You’re fine, keep going.” I listened to them, and I did. I kept going and it. I pushed through that fear.
I never overcame the fear—I just pushed through it.
- 14:19 I kept going. You begin to learn that the fear becomes this mile marker for you, a sign post that you’re probably doing something that matters and creating something that matters. Now I’ve learned that when I feel that, “This might not work,” or, “Holy crap, what am I doing? I’m in over my head!” I should probably keep going, because I might be on to something that matters at this point.
- 14:47 Aaron: That’s fantastic advice.
The Market Decides What a Product Is Worth
- 14:49 Aaron: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I talked about this in the Fired Up Mondays podcast this morning, which is that the market decides what’s valuable. People will complain when they see a product that they don’t think is worth as much as the company is charging for it. Let’s say that you look at a Lamborghini, and you’re like, “I don’t know why anyone would ever pay $400,000 for that car. Why would you want that car? You could just buy a 1999 Toyota Camri that has 140,000 miles on it for $4,000.”
- 15:26 “This ’99 Camry works great. It gets me everywhere. Good gas mileage, pretty comfortable. Not the most amazing sound system, but it does have a Bose sound system in it, so it’s fine. Why would anyone spend $400,000 on a Lamborghini?”
The way you feel about a product doesn’t change how much it’s worth, which is how much the market is willing to pay for it.
- 15:48 There’s somebody out there willing to pay that much money. They have that much money, and it doesn’t matter what you think about that product. Somebody else went out and made that, and they’re going to make money from that while you’re at home complaining about how somebody else is spending $300 for a picture book from Apple. How you feel about the price of a product doesn’t matter.
- 16:14 Shawn: It’s how the people that are buying it feel that matters. To say, “I’m not going to start a Lamborghini company because used Toyota Corollas exist,” that’s silly, but that’s how we feel.
- 16:35 Aaron: Relating to my courses, which I’m getting close to wrapping up, pricing is interesting for me. If I hadn’t met Sean and the people in the seanwes Community, I think I would have charged a fraction of what I’m planning on charging. I probably would have charged closer to $20. I would have put all this time and energy into it and not priced it high enough, because I didn’t realize that there are people out there that sell courses for $1,500 and $10,000.
Don’t Undervalue Your Products
- 17:09 Shawn: I bought a course recently that cost me $2,000.
- 17:15 Aaron: So many people don’t know that. A lot of us still think that $2,000 is a ton of money. For a lot of people, it is. That doesn’t mean that you have to apply such a low price to the product that you’re making, just because you feel like $50 is a lot of money.
Don’t charge too little for your product because you feel like a higher price is a lot of money—that’s an easy trap to fall into.
- 17:36 Shawn: That’s very true. You have to step back. This course I bought, for me, it was a no brainer. I bought the book that was written by the guy, and I went through the book and implemented some of the stuff in there, and it helped me launch my time management class. That did $20,000 its first launch week. I spent something like $18 on this guy’s book, and it helped me make $20,000. So his $2000 course was a no brainer for me.
- 18:14 This master class version of that book, the online course version of it, that was a no brainer for me. There were a ton of videos, all this implementation stuff, coaching, and all this stuff that was involved in it. There were all these things you can do that can increase the value of your stuff. Don’t increase your price just because. Start with your basic price and then double it and double it again. Now you’re probably at a decent starting point.
- 18:46 You’re so prone to under-valuing your own work. You don’t just jack the price up because people say so. You need to look objectively and say, “Alright, am I providing the value?” If someone comes in and takes my Focus Course, for example, we charge $350 for it. It’s not a lot, but it isn’t a little, either. If someone spends $350 and goes through this course, are they going to be able to walk away with at least, ideally, $700 worth of value? I want them to get at least double the value they’re paying for it.
- 19:27 Can I get it to be even more? Can I get them to walk away with $3,500 worth of value, 10X the amount of value that I’m providing? You charge that, and if people take it seriously, they’ll walk away with something that wil literally change the way they spend their time with work, family, health, and finances. This is across the board for their life, and you can’t put a price on that.
Objectively ask yourself if you’re delivering on your promises and providing the value that you say you are.
- 20:00 With your stuff, Aaron, with podcasting, if you can help people get a podcast off the ground, they can turn that into a full time business. That’s worth $50,000 or $100,000. Someone could say, “Thanks to your stuff, I started a business that’s now thriving. I do this as my job.” That’s worth so much money! To charge $20 for it? Don’t undervalue your stuff.
- 20:25 Aaron: If I didn’t charge enough, there would also be people that skip over it because they assume that it’s not quality, because if it was quality, I would be charging more. So I risk losing money by not charging what the course is worth to someone who takes it seriously.
First Steps to Improve Your Focus
- 20:36 Aaron: I want to answer Kyle’s question here in the chat. I’m going to read his question and I’ll let you take a stab at it, Shawn. Kyle asked, “Is there a best first step to improved focus? I can think of so many directions I should go: exercise more, eat better, write down what I’m doing the next day, sleep better, etc. Trying to do all of it at once isn’t sustainable. What should I start with?”
- 21:42 Shawn: This is great, Kyle, excellent question. I feel like there are two best first steps (which obviously doesn’t make sense, you can only really have one first step, but play along). We talked about this in the Focus Course. On the very first day of the Focus Course, there’s this super dorky assignment. You have to set out your clothes for what you’re going to wear tomorrow. Tonight, when you go to bed, pick out tomorrow’s outfit. It’s super dorky. You can do it in two minutes.
In the morning, you have to wear the outfit you picked out the night before.
- 22:22 You have to actually follow through with your commitment. You set this thing out, and you say, “I’m going to wear these pants and this shirt,” etc. In the morning, you wake up, and you have to wear it. You’ve made a commitment to yourself the night before. In the morning, you wake up and you follow through on that commitment. It’s a small step towards strengthening your personal integrity, which is your ability to follow through with your commitments to yourself. That’s super powerful.
- 22:54 The other component to setting out your clothes the night before and then putting them on is that it’s your current self helping your future self. You’ve saved your future self five minutes in the morning. The quality of my time in the morning is super valuable. My mind is fresh, it’s the beginning of the day, there are no fires happening yet. That’s my best chance to get my best work done, early in the morning.
Protect your morning productivity time and your mental energy by setting out your clothes the night before.
- 23:34 It’s this idea of helping your future self. Once you get your toe in that water, you begin to see all the other areas of your life where you can begin to help your future self. We were talking during the podcast about this. Kyle says, “Yes, I’ve done this.” That’s awesome. As Aaron and I talked about earlier, when you have that deep work focused time, try to decide ahead of time what that focus is going to be. This is your current self helping your future self.
- 24:11 It’s so powerful. For me, I write down my topic that I’m going to be writing about tomorrow when it’s time for me to write. I have the topic ahead of time, so I know what to write about. Then, when I sit down, I don’t have to think about. I have the singular focus to write about this topic that I’ve already chosen. That can really help with improving focus.
Be ahead of your own curve and help your future self.
- 24:43 Those of you who are registered for the Creative Focus Online Summit will get to hear Josh Kaufman and I talk about this. He talks about the importance of going on a walk in the morning and having 30 minutes where you leave your phone at home. You go outside, you’re moving, you’re getting sunlight, but also, it’s 30 minutes of thinking time where you can be undistracted. You can just think. He calls it “noodling.”
- 25:09 You let your mind “noodle.” He talks about how when you have a productivity system and a focus system that gives you space to think and to be uninterrupted for a little bit, you’re going to be far more productive than if you have a system that doesn’t give you space to think. For him, he says that that is the number one, single most important component of being more productive and focused—actually having carved out time on a regular basis where you can just think.
- 25:43 Be distraction free. That’s why he says to take a walk. You can combine that with movement, being outside, getting sunlight, and things like that. It’s easier than sitting on your couch and staring at the wall for 30 minutes. I don’t say that to put that idea down, but it can be easier to be undistracted when you’re outside walking around and you leave your phone at home. As opposed to, you put your phone next to you on the couch and you hope that it doesn’t buzz.
- 26:11 You can put it in airplane mode, obviously, but it’s still right there. You want to grab it and take it off of airplane mode. So coming back to Kyle’s question: You have so many directions you want to go. Exercising, eating, writing down what you’re doing the next day, sleeping better. Right? People say, “I want to improve my relationship with my spouse. I also want to get better at budgeting my finances. I also want to get better at budgeting my time. I also want to read these books.”
- 26:37 You look at it, and there is so much stuff that you want to do. You can’t do all of it right now, so pick one thing. What’s the one that’s most exciting?
Build One Habit at a Time
- 27:20 Shawn: Kyle, you listed exercise as the first thing on your list, so I would start with that. Not to pitch my course, but I’m going to pitch my course. We go through all the core areas of your life: your job, your relationships, your finances, your “down time,” your physical health, and your inner or spiritual life. These are the six areas of your life. We go through each one of those and spend time on each one, where you list out what’s important to you in this area of your life.
- 27:27 What’s a goal that you want to have or a lifestyle practice that you want to implement, and how can you move the needle forward toward that goal? You come up with six goals and six action plans, one each for the main areas of your life. Spoiler here, at the end of the course, you pick one.
Focus on improving one area of your life for six months and ignore the other ones.
- 27:52 Don’t ignore them in terms of ignoring your wife for two months while you’re focusing on work, but you pick one area to build a habit, a routine, a lifestyle practice, that has you making meaningful progress in that area of life. A lot of people say that it takes 21 days to build a habit. Actually, if you’re a habit building master, you might be able to do it in 21 days, but it takes most people 60 days to build a habit. That’s the average. That’s two months!
- 28:22 I think a lot of people are probably familiar with the Jerry Seinfeld productivity tip with the calendar. You write a joke every day and you put a big X on your calendar, and you don’t want to break the chain. It’s the same with this new habit of yours. Say, “What’s one thing I can do on a daily basis that’s going to help me move toward my goal of exercising more, of being more physically active?” What’s the minimum dose, the smallest thing you can do?
- 28:48 You’re going to go walk for 20 minutes, or whatever it is. Do that every single day for two months. It’s a small start, but now you’ve done it. You’re two months in, and now, instead of it being this thing you are trying to get the motivation for to move forward, you’re doing it. It has become routine for you, which requires far less activation energy, far less mental energy. It has moved into your life. It’s there. It’s something that you’re doing on a daily basis.
- 29:18 Now, you pick the next thing. “Okay, I have the exercise thing.” Keep that and layer the next thing on top of it. You’re doing that for your physical health. What about for your inner life, your spiritual life? What’s something you would want to layer on top of that, something you could do? Now, during that walking time, maybe you’re going to think about something. If you read a Bible or something like that, you could say, “I’m going to have a Bible verse that I think about during my 30 minute walk.”
- 29:51 Maybe you’re trying to improve your relationship with your spouse. Bring them along on your walk. Now, you can incorporate this. Say, “I’m going to do this on a regular basis,” and you do that for two more months. Then you pick the next layer. Maybe it doesn’t build on that 30 minute walk itself. Maybe it’s an entirely different part of the day, but the core is the same.
Pick one thing, do it for two months, and allow yourself to suck at all the other areas of your life—after that, pick a new thing.
- 30:26 This is why New Year’s resolutions never work. We say, “I’m going to go to the gym for five hours a day every day starting on January 1st, and I’m going to start budgeting, and I’m going to stop eating chocolate, and I’m going to go on date nights every week, and I’m going to read a book a week.” January 1st, go! It’s so much. You’re going to run up and try to push a truck, but you don’t have the energy, the strength, to move and change that much that quickly.
- 30:55 With the truck analogy, if you’re driving a car and you want to try and tow another car, you don’t gun it with all this slack on the tow line. You’re going to rip both of the bumpers off. You start super, super slow. You slowly build up that speed. That’s how you do it without getting in a wreck. You actually make that momentum. Start with just one thing.
The hard part is giving ourselves permission to pick one thing and focus on that for two whole months.
- 31:27 That’s the hardest part, really. It’s not in the doing. It’s in the not despising those small beginnings. That’s the crash course of the Focus Course right there. This is the value. If you stick around for the after show at seanwes, this is what you get.
- 31:56 Aaron: I’ll agree with Shawn and say this: pick one action you can do tomorrow morning that will get you closer to the most important goal. I know how many goals you have right now. I know, because I have that many goals, too. Pick one thing and write it down. Get a little calendar. Make a big X. Do that every day. You’ll get other stuff done, too, but you need to think about doing one important thing first thing in the morning right after you wake up. Get that thing done, and then pat yourself on the back, feel good about it, and move on to the next thing.