How to instantly make your writing better

There’s one trick to great writing that you’re almost certainly not using. And it’s really, really simple.

You ready for it?

Read everything you write, out loud.

You’ll feel stupid and self-conscious at first. Do it anyway. Push through. Don’t just read it under your breath. You have to literally verbalise every single word, from start to finish.

If you do that, you will instantly notice:

  • awkwardly-worded phrases
  • unnecessary repetition
  • spelling and grammar mistakes
  • boring, run-on sentences that never seem to end, even when you think they should, but instead you just keep using comma, after comma, after comma, until you fall asleep

I know multiple best-selling authors that use this trick. It’s why, if you’re writing a book, you should always produce an audiobook as well — not because the audiobook will sell a ton of copies, but because being forced to sit down and read your book out loud will make it at least 10% better, and often 40-50% better.

In fact, one writer I know who has worked on multiple books, screenplays, magazine articles and more — he’s a complete rockstar — told me he never submits anything without reading it out loud first. Not a manuscript, not an article, not even a tweet or an email. He reads literally everything out loud. And it’s a big part of the reason why he’s now a professional.

Sure, it takes time. It’s much easier to skip this step. Which is why doing it is valuable.

The power of focus

When you fully and completely focus on what’s in front of you, great things happen.

The work you do without distractions rather than in a fragmented, piecemeal fashion isn’t just a slightly better — it’s usually orders of magnitude better.

The conversation you have without ever looking at your phone isn’t just slightly better — it’s often 5-10x better.

The experience you have when you fully immerse yourself in it, and forget everything else around you isn’t just slightly better — it can be incredible, unbelievable, and sometimes life-changing.

The funny thing is, there are two different ways to achieve this.

The first is to be engaged in something so enthralling — a personal passion project, an incredible first date, a once-in-a-lifetime trip — that you forget about things like Twitter and Facebook updates, and get lost in what you’re doing.

The second is to deliberately, consciously say no to distractions. To choose to immerse yourself in what you’re doing. To truly focus.

Once you realise that you can do that, it’s like a superpower. It’s just a choice you have to make.

Weekend reflection and reading

This is the first week in maybe 5 years when I’ve written as much as I have. I’ve posted every day for the last 5 days, and will continue to post daily for as long as possible just to keep the chain going. I’m enjoying the routine, and I’m enjoying the uptick in traffic too, so if you’re reading this, thank you 🙂

My big goal right now is building a repeatable, scalable system to generate leads for my copywriting business. Right now I’m doing a lot of haphazard, ad-hoc outbound sales and network marketing, which is OK, but isn’t systematic. I need a way to produce reliable, consistent leads and sales. I need to think about how best to do that, and how to build it.

On the plus side, I had some great conversations with potential clients and potential sources of leads and JV deals this week, which was really positive. They were the type of things that will probably lead to good income streams in a few weeks or months, but won’t put cash in the bank right this second. Which is fine, it just makes me wish I’d done them a few weeks ago, but there you go. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is now.

I didn’t work out at all this week — had a minor injury that I didn’t want to aggravate, so I skipped the gym, but I can already feel myself getting out of the habit. I need to correct that as soon as possible.

Also, in future I want to make this weekly goal review more structured and systematic too. I want to figure out a way to do that that isn’t too burdensome. I’ve seen some people use systems like this that look good on paper, but would be way too complex to start with, so I want something more basic. I’ll work this out this week.

Anyway, here’s a collection of things I’ve been reading this week, and recommend you peruse over your leisurely weekend. Enjoy.

Links

  • Real World Blueprint for a $5million week – Ramit Sethi goes into deep, intense detail about a product launch at his company, I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Ramit is one of the best in the business when it comes to online sales and marketing, so you can learn a ton from him. But more importantly: don’t try super-advanced tactics if you’re just starting out. Get the fundamentals right, and build from there.
  • Career advice no-one tells you – job requirements are negotiable, imposter syndrome is a good things, and other unconventional job hunting advice. What I love most in this article is the concept of doing the job you want before you’ve got it. Just start doing stuff, and send it to the person you want to hire you. If it’s good, they won’t ignore it.
  • Don’t say “maybe” if you want to say “no” – good piece from Ryan Holiday on not being afraid to turn down things that you just don’t want to do. It’s your time, your life, so protect it.
  • The Million Dollar Question – this is an older essay by Sebastian Marshall that PERFECTLY encapsulates the issues and insecurities of taking an unconventional path in your career and your life. It’s a big fear that I have as I move towards more freelance and entrepreneurial projects, and something that I’m wrestling with right now, so it was good to read this again.

Books

  • The Millionaire Fastlane – I love the central idea of this book — that the only way to really get wealthy before you’re old is entrepreneurship and building income-producing assets — but god, the title is awful. It sounds like a bad infomercial and makes me not want to recommend it. A good read though.
  • Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders – I’m a huge Warren Buffett/Charlie Munger fanboy, and there’s more wisdom in this book than an entire MBA course. But it’s a long read — it’s just a collection of every letter to BH shareholders from 1965-2014. For edited excerpts of these letters, check out The Essays of Warren Buffett, and for more on Charlie Munger, Tren Griffin’s recent book Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor is really good.
  • The End of Jobs – my buddy Taylor Pearson’s first (but probably not last) book is a fantastic argument that traditional jobs are in terminal decline, and that you should start to move towards a more entrepreneurial career path. Taylor’s a great writer — his essays are testament to that — and this is an important and timely book. Pair it with Choose Yourself, which covers similar ground but from a more inspirational point of view (Taylor’s book is more the nuts and bolts, practical advice).

 

Fixing habit loops

You’re totally irrational.

Sure, you might think that you have complete control over your actions. You set goals and then make reasoned decisions that will lead, inexorably to achieving those goals.

Except it never works that way. You’re much more prone to irrational actions and harmful habits than you think.

One of my goals for 2016 is to spend my time more productively. I wanted to spend less time playing video games, and more time working, reading, writing, exercising — basically, anything that would be considered “productive”.

But my sister got me a copy of FIFA ’16 for Christmas. I really enjoy it — it’s fun, competitive, and fast-paced.

So I played it. A lot.

I would sit on the couch, grab the controller and say to myself, “I’ll play one game of FIFA, then hit the gym.”

3 hours later, I’d look up, realising that not only had I wasted a lot of time, but I’d also made myself angry, frustrated and miserable because I’d played badly and lost a few games. And that anger and frustration was compounded by my anger at having wasted so much time.

Obviously, the answer would be to just stop playing after one game, right? Or to only let myself pick up the controller after completing a set amount of productive behaviour? That would be the rational way forward. Still have the option to play FIFA whenever I want, but limit myself to a set amount of time.

Great ideas. In theory, at least. Except I’m well aware that I lack a certain amount of self-control. And at this point, firing up the PS4 first thing in the morning had become a strongly-ingrained habit loop.

Source: http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/habitrpg/images/d/d6/Habitloop.png/revision/latest?cb=20141010040839
A standard habit loop has a cue, a routine, and a reward.

(For more on habit loops, read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.)

Cue: wake up, make tea, sit on couch.

Routine: pick up controller, start playing. Each game starts automatically after the next, so I don’t need to consciously decide to play again, it just happens.

Reward: variable bursts of emotion, happiness and dopamine when I win, score, equalise.

It’s hard to break habit loops like that.

So about a month, I just got rid of the game. Traded it in for a few quid — although I would have happily thrown it away.

And, almost unconsciously, my routine changed.

Cue: wake up, make tea, sit on couch.

Routine: pick up book, read 2-3 chapters slowly while enjoying tea

Reward: feel refreshed, awake, and happy at spending time productively.

I kept the same cue, and there was still a reward, but the routine changed.

And, would you believe it? Now I get a lot more done. I read more. My mood is better throughout the day. I even work out more, so I’m in better shape. I write more. I work harder. I’m happier.

An easy, simple action, that had a dramatic effect on my life. I wonder where else I can make such big gains? What other, more subtle, improvements am I missing?

This equation could make you a star

Tim Ferriss and Cal Newport should have babies.

If you’re reading this, it means you have an internet connection, which means you already know who Tim Ferriss is. The author of the best-seller The Four Hour Work Week, he’s famously keen on productivity, eliminating useless activities, and generally accomplishing more while doing less.

Cal Newport is a Georgetown Computer Science professor and the author of several books, including one of my favourites, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and his latest book Deep Work.

It’s in Deep Work that Cal reveals his formula for success — and it’s the same formula that Tim Ferriss arrived at, independently:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Let that sink in for a moment.

Even if you don’t have a maths background, you’ll probably notice that the right-hand side of this equation has two variables: (Time Spent) and (Intensity of Focus).

Producing high-quality work will bring you professional success — whether that means more sales, a promotion, winning awards. So by altering either the amount of time you spend or your intensity of focus, you can alter the amount of high-quality work you produce.

With me so far? Good.

In Deep Work, Newport argues that you should aim to eliminate distractions and therefore increase your intensity of focus, meaning that with the same amount of time, you can produce a higher level of output.

In The Four Hour Work Week, Ferriss argues that you should aim to eliminate distractions and therefore increase the intensity of your focus, meaning that in less time, you can still produce the same level of output.

Those are two different goals. Newport is concerned with achieving great career success. Ferriss is concerned (at least in The Four Hour Work Week) with maintaining your lifestyle but creating more free time.

But they’ve both hit upon the same formula, and realised that the key lies in increasing the intensity of focus.

Let’s admit it — it’s easy, even satisfying, to work long hours at a low level of intensity. You never quite challenge yourself, but you can still tell yourself the story that you’re “working so hard at the moment”, even if that means slowly reading and answering emails for 12 hours a day.

Working at peak intensity: that’s hard. It requires focus. Planning. Turning off your phone and locking yourself in a quiet room. And it’s tiring. Which is 95% of people don’t do it. Which is why there are such outsized rewards to be had if you can be in the 5% that do.

So now that you have this mental model to refer to, you can start to ask the right questions, and think about exactly what you should be doing.

  • What is my end goal?
  • What is the activity that will most effectively lead to this goal?
  • How much time do I want to dedicate to this activity?
  • What does high-intensity performance look like in this activity?
  • What do I need to do beforehand to make sure I can perform at that intensity, and how do I recover afterwards?
  • Is that level of intensity, for that amount of time, sustainable in the long-run?

Once you start to answer all of those questions, you start to see how exactly you should be spending your time in order to have the greatest impact.

Force multipliers

I’m about to give you the keys to the kingdom.

There are certain cornerstone actions, routines and habits that, once in place, ripple out and have a positive effect in all areas of your life. Combined, they each reinforce each other, combining to have a huge impact on the quality of your life, and what you can accomplish.

I call them Force Multipliers.

1. Exercise

Being healthy and strong is great. In fact, being strong is one of the key ways to slow the ageing process. For that alone, you should exercise regularly. But you’ll also think more clearly. You’ll be less likely to suffer from things like depression. You have more energy and can be more productive. And you’ll become “the type of person who exercises“, making you more likely to eat better, save money, waste less time, and have a positive self-image. Plus, you’ll look better, which means you’ll make more money and you’ll get more attention from the opposite sex.

2. Eating healthily

Just like exercise, eating well is great because of the health benefits. Fat loss, muscle gain, more energy, less feeling sluggish for an hour after lunch. And on top of that: you’ll save money because you cook at home more. You waste less time browsing at the grocery store, or choosing off a restaurant menu, because you’re narrowing down the range of choices you have. (Should I get chips or chocolate? NEITHER!)

3. Living well below your means

Spending less than you earn is good for the obvious reason: that it prevents you from getting into debt and hurting your credit, paying money in credit card interest and overdraft fees, and so on. No arguments there. But there’s other advantages of having cash on hand. You can usually get a great deal on bigger purchases if you can offer to pay in cash, right there and then. You can take advantage of business opportunities that need a bit of capital up-front, or do things that have a smaller short-term payoff, but a big long-term payoff. You can afford to take a different job that might pay less, but makes you happier. You spend less time worrying about bills and juggling payments, freeing up mental energy to spend elsewhere. With money in the bank you’re less stressed, and you sleep better, so you become healthier.

With those three things in place, you’re giving yourself a great base to work from. A solid foundation in your life. And the great thing is that each one makes the others easier: they multiply together healthy, energised, strong, productive, and able to take advantage of opportunities when you see them.

 

The false dichotomy

I know it’s tempting — indeed, fashionable these days — to view corporate jobs as “shackles”. Corporate workers are “drones”. There’s a perception that you’ll work 9-5 for 50 years, with two weeks vacation per year, and then retire, having never really lived. And that the only way to be happy is to quit and start your own company, or become a digital nomad, freelancing and travelling the world. It’s an idea popularised in The 4-Hour Work Week, and propagated by pretty much every online self-help writer ever since.

But it’s not true. It’s a false dichotomy.

If you are one of those in a corporate job, you’ll never see life as worth living if you frame it that way. Your life is the sum of all the small moments — so why are you carrying a cloud of negativity and anxiety around all day with you?

Look, if your job really sucks, and you hate it, and need to get out, then do it. Make the change.

BUT there is happiness and meaning to be found in work. Great colleagues can become life-long friends. You can take pride in doing the work that is in front of you, and doing it well. You can dive into your profession and seek to learn everything there is to know about it, develop your expertise, and then leverage that expertise into a better working situation (e.g. starting your own company, consulting, better jobs at other companies).

And don’t buy into the fallacy that corporate jobs suck, and remote, digital nomad jobs are amazing. That anyone working a normal job is a drone, and anyone doing their own thing is a groundbreaking entrepreneur.

I’ve met lots of entrepreneurs and remote workers — myself included — who are utterly miserable and lonely when they have to work alone.

I know scores of people who have worked in an office job their entire career, and take immense satisfaction and pride in their work, have meaningful relationships and a great family life. They’re happy people.

Yes, it’s more common to find happy entrepreneurs and miserable corporate types. But that’s not a predestinated fate. It’s what you choose to make of it.

Are you a creator or a consumer?

I’m an information addict.

I have a regular pattern I follow every few months. I want to learn a new skill or a new hobby, so I instantly head over to Amazon and buy 3-4 books on that topic. On my bookcase right now, I have books on the basics of HTML, card magic, golf, screenwriting, motor racing, meditation, weightlifting, and about 10 other topics.

I usually subscribe to a bunch of blogs and podcasts too. I read all the most popular posts, and listen to the best expert interviews. If I’m felling really productive I might even make some notes in Evernote, or bookmark some pages in Delicious.

And yet, there’s always one thing missing: actual output.

I’ve coded very few websites. I know maybe 3 card tricks. I’ve never written a screenplay or competed in a real car race. I don’t know the exact number of times I’ve ever meditated, but it’s definitely less than 50.

Finding and consuming information is easy. It’s interesting. And for someone as curious as me, it’s usually pretty exciting too.

But it doesn’t actually accomplish anything. It’s pseudo-work. Intellectual masturbation.

It’s much more effective to create. To get stuck in and start making things — websites, golf shots, screenplays, whatever — and then one of two things will happen. You either realise that you’re not that interested in it, or you love it, and go really deep on it. That’s worth doing. Mindlessly consuming surface-level information is not.

Which one are you doing?

Focus on the fundamentals

Focus on the fundamentals

Spring, 1995. San Francisco. It’s a wet Saturday morning, and any sane person would wake up, look out at the weather, and swiftly decide to get back into bed for a couple more hours.

Jerry Rice isn’t one of those people.

Right now, Rice is feeling pretty good about life. He’s the star wide receiver of the San Francisco 49ers, and he’s coming off the back of winning Superbowl XXIX a couple of months earlier. In that game, he scored three touchdowns and caught 10 passes for 149 yards, despite separating his shoulder.

The 1994 season was one in which Rice racked up just under 1,500 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He became the all-time leader in touchdown catches, in his tenth season in a league where the average career length is just 3.2 years. He’s already had a career that marks him out as one of the best.

But Rice isn’t resting on his laurels. On that wet Saturday morning, he’s up and out at 7am. He’s lifting weights. He’s doing drills. He’s sprinting up a notorious local running route known only as “The Hill”. All told, he works out for 4–5 hours. And he repeats this workout 6 days a week. All summer long. With a separated shoulder.

And when he comes back for the 1995 season, it’s his best ever. Rice makes 122 receptions for over 1,800 yards and 15 touchdowns. After that he plays another 9 full seasons, playing almost every game, before retiring at the age of 42, having set a number of records that look unlikely ever to be broken. ESPN names him as the #2 NFL player of all time, and in 2010 he’s inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

*****

This looks like the classic tale of hard work leading to huge success. But it’s not. It’s much more interesting than that.

Yes, Rice worked hard — but he worked on the right things. His success came from a laser focus on the fundamentals.

Specifically, Rice makes sure that a) he’s in great physical condition; and b) he can run his routes inch-perfectly. These two things combined mean that he can play as many downs as possible, in every game of the season, for 20 years. And on every play, he’s exactly where he needs to be, when he needs to be. A perfect wide receiver.

Rice isn’t the only athlete to recognise the power of focusing on the fundamentals. The San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich does the same. Spurs Assistant Coach Ettore Messina says:

“[O]ne of the biggest things in coach Popovich’s philosophy is the “we can’t skip any steps” principle… At the beginning of the training camp we went over the fundamentals of offense and defense. Passing, catching, pivoting, sliding, moving without the ball — it was as if we were a junior team. That’s one of the major messages coach Popovich sends out to his players: techniques are much more important than tactics. You have to master the fundamentals.”

The result? The Spurs have won five championships under Popovich, and he holds the record for the most consecutive winning seasons in NBA history.

All from a relentless focus on the fundamentals. And the great news is that this doesn’t just apply to sports: you can do the same in your own career, and achieve huge results.

In fact, it’s much easier in a non-sporting context. You don’t have to work nearly as hard as Jerry Rice to see huge benefits. Think about it: he’s competing against other professional athletes who are also running routes, lifting weights, doing whatever they can to get better.

But your own colleagues or competitors: what are they doing? What percentage put any meaningful effort into improving their own ability? How many really, truly, deeply, have mastered the fundamentals of what they do? If you look closely, you’ll probably find that it’s actually not that many people.

That’s fantastic. It means that there’s a huge opportunity for you to stand out — if, and only if, you focus on the fundamentals.

(One other aside: think again about Jerry Rice’s workout. Note that in all his off-season workouts, he didn’t actually play a single down of full-contact football. So the way to get better at football isn’t repeatedly playing football, but rather mastering specific skills. Yet how many of us, when asked how we were making sure that we improved at our jobs, would say that we get better by doing our job over and over again?)

*****

Here’s an example from outside of sports. In Talent Is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin describes how Benjamin Franklin would take great essays, and write down the key point of each sentence. Then he’d re-write those sentences in his own words, and compare them to the original. He’d cut out each sentence, and put them in a drawer, leaving them for weeks until he had forgotten the original content, and then try and put them back together again to practice structure. He’d re-write essays in verse, and then re-translate them back into prose, again comparing them to the original. Again and again, he practised specific essay-writing skills. Over time, this deliberate practice turned Benjamin Franklin into an incredible writer.

And one more “knowledge-worker” example: me. Personally I’m not an essayist (although I play one on the internet). I’m an accountant. So what would my training scheme look like if I were to focus on the fundamentals?

Well, like many other professions, all accountants have to pass a series of exams to become qualified. But having passed them all, most people stop learning, never again consulting their textbooks.

Here’s an obvious win — I can take a few exercises from each of my textbooks (literally titled “Fundamentals of Accounting”) and run through them periodically. If I do one chapter from each of my textbooks at the start of each workday, that would only take about 15 minutes, but it would mean I could run through all of those textbooks in about 3 months — and then I could just start again from the beginning, always repeating these exercises and staying sharp.

The result: I would be able to run quickly through a trial balance and a list of adjustments, and create a balance sheet and profit and loss account, just using a paper and pencil. I’d be able to calculate variances, overhead allocations and absorption rates in my head. I could test myself on any number of technical definitions, and get the answers write every time. I can already do all of these things to a good standard, but if I practised, I would truly master them. I would have testable fluency in the basics.

(In fact, I could go even more fundamental, and run through all the maths exercises on Khan Academy to make sure that my mental maths ability is as sharp as it can be.)

That sounds incredibly simple and easy, and it is. But it’s a big win, because no-one else bothers to do it. It takes humility to admit that you need to brush up their skills at such a basic level.

That takes care of the conditioning aspect — the accounting equivalent of Jerry Rice’s hill sprints. But as well as running and lifting, he was also doing drills, and practising the exact routes he needed to be effective in the 49ers offense.

The equivalent for me would be:

  • to understand every aspect of my company’s balance sheet and income statement deeply, and how they interact and affect each other
  • to do the same with all our industry competitors
  • to be technically fluent on our accounting system and know every function, report, shortcut and display
  • to be a real Excel pro: again, understanding the majority of functions and formulae (not just the five common things that every accountant uses), know all the keyboard shortcuts, and be able to automate common tasks using macros or VBA

Again, none of these are particularly difficult or time-consuming: 30–60 minutes per day would be more than enough to master every one of these in fairly short order. It wouldn’t be five hours of intense workouts like Jerry Rice, but it would easily be enough to accelerate my ability far beyond where it currently is.

If you’re like me, it’s exciting to realise how little work this would be, and the huge impacts it could have on your career. I can’t wait to get started.

Further reading:

How to handle a down-market (and 3 book recommendations)

If you’ve been following the business news the last few weeks, you’ve probably seen bad news story after bad news story: a slowdown in China, the US market is down, the price of oil is down and oil companies are losing money, etc. etc. etc.

We’ve heard it all before. The most important piece of advice is: don’t sell. Turn off the news, stop refreshing your portfolio, and go do something else. Take a walk outside, meditate, read, write, exercise, spend time with your family.

(As an aside, I read an interesting paper today that says most investors who invest in mutual funds actually get WORSE returns than the funds they invest in due to bad timing: they pull their money out when the market falls, and buy in after it has already recovered. As economist Matt Yglesias says, the stock market is the only market where things go on sale and all the customers run out of the store.)

Anyway, while I was ignoring the financial news this week, here’s what I was reading instead:

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow

This is an epic, 800 page biography of an incredible industrial titan. One of the wealthiest men in history, Rockefeller’s net worth was estimated to be around $200bn in today’s money. What struck me from this book is his intensity of focus, and his stoicism — he accepted the reality he had to deal with, and just got down to work, with incredible results. (And thanks to Ryan Holiday for his post on the joy of reading long books, which drove me to finally pick this book up, having had it on my wish list for some time now.)

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

This had also been on my wish list for a few months — Chernow’s book got me in the mood for more biographies, so I grabbed this and tore through it in a couple of days. I actually learnt a ton about SpaceX from this book — I’ve been a Tesla fanboy for a couple of years now, but the story and accomplishments of SpaceX are actually more impressive from an engineering and innovation point of view. Reading this, I’m struck by the same thought that I had when I readWalter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs: this guy is a real dick, and I would hate to work for him. I understand why people would want to, because if you can deal with a high-pressured working environment, you can create things that literally change the world — but I don’t think I would like it, and I don’t think I’d do well in that situation. I’m not sure what that says about me though. Something to think about a little more.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Cal’s previous books helped me hugely when I was at university (How to Become a Straight-A Student) and in the early stages of my career (by becoming So Good They Can’t Ignore You). Now, in his latest book, Cal outlines his philosophy of Deep Work, which he defines as complex, cognitively taxing work that is difficult, but creates real value — as opposed to shallow work like reading and responding to email, which tends to be straightforward, and feels productive, but doesn’t usually create much value. Cal argues that by maximising the amount of deep work we do (and consequently minimising shallow work) then we’ll not only be more productive, and do better in our careers, but we’ll be happier too. This book had a big impact on how I view work as a whole, and I’m genuinely excited to put the ideas in this book into practice. My friend Kevin did a great summary of this book too, if you want to check that out.