The following ideas are adapted from There Is No Right Way to Do This, a practical guide for people with full-time jobs independently pursuing creative skills or side projects in their spare time. They first appeared as an article for Fast Company.
In 2007, Marc Andreessen advocated having no schedule. At the time, he thought that working on whatever is most important or interesting whenever he wanted would make him happier, save him time, and enable greater flow states.
Fast-forward to 2020, where Andreessen talks about having a very strict schedule—with the day of the week determining what his days look like. He flipped the rule he used before, in order to adapt to his new situation of starting a venture capital company.
Like Andreessen (and probably you as well), I can relate when he describes productivity as one of his guilty pleasures. I first discovered productivity when I was burned out from summer school at college and in the middle of a new semester. I needed to get back into studying. Productivity advice was a nerdy, entertaining, form of procrastination. If I had only one or two hours’ worth of willpower a day to study, what would I do? How could I ease myself into doing more?
Since then, I’ve spent hundreds (probably thousands) of hours investigating how other people work. I’ve talked to recording artists such as Post Malone through my video series Prologue; I interviewed authors and read a ton of books. I even worked as a staff writer for Lifehacker, covering psychology and productivity. One of the most important things I’ve learned is this:
For every person who has applied a tactic to their success, there is another who has done the opposite to equal success. Andreessen is an example in which the same person has used opposite rules to succeed.
Productivity has gone from being a clear, quantitative measure of each worker’s efficiency in a factory setting during the Industrial Age to a mix of everything in an office setting—psychology, creativity, business operations, collaboration, communications, etc. But, true to its etymology, it’s still fundamentally about being capable of efficient work.
One of the greatest changes in our current times is that the best general productivity rules for each person—not groups of people—are already well known:
- Stay healthy (physically, emotionally, financially)
- Focus on one thing at a time
- Turn off your notifications
- Get as much sleep as you need
- Spend time picking the right things to work on
In my view, the most valuable one-size-fits-all tactics for each person bolster these fundamentals. Examples include mental models for choosing the right thing to do, techniques to relax and go to sleep, and such.
However, there is a category of tactics that are unique to each person. These are the ones that give each person a distinct competitive edge. There are some things I’ve changed—and will keep changing—about how I approach staying prepared to produce. Here they are, in case you find them useful:
Don’t stick to the rules. Be open to how people do their things, be more open to throwing out my current ways of doing things. Deviate for a day and flip the current ways to the opposite. Retry tactics that didn’t work before. For example, the weekly review didn’t work for me for years until I modified it enough to my own personality and situation. The same with taking notes, which I tried multiple times.
Aim for acceptable when trying something new. Don’t look for “the right way” yet, because there isn’t one at the beginning. Instead, allow moments of perfection to happen. I find that I eventually discover the right way when I discover my own way of doing it. But that only happens if I take action.
Keep gathering information and learning. But don’t wait to discover the one true path to do anything. I titled my book There Is No Right Way to Do This for that reason—there isn’t a right way to do many of the most important things. Only your way.
Learning from the best will always be incredibly valuable, and a source of really powerful ideas. But keep in mind that’s all it is—a starting point, not an ending one—and that you must adapt yourself to your changing circumstances and situations. Trying to fit into someone else’s simply won’t work as well as discovering your own.
Want 46 other starting points, from the best creators?
If you liked this piece, you’ll love my book, There Is No Right Way to Do This. It features 46 propositions from creators across all disciplines—visual artists, recording artists, music producers, designers, writers and authors, scientists, software developers, comedians, and entrepreneurs.
The propositions also span throughout history—with insights from Leonardo da Vinci, Allen Ginsberg, and Richard Feynman, to contemporary creators such as Grammy award winner Dacoury Natche (DJ Dahi), 100 Day Project facilitator Lindsay Jean Thomson, and visual artist Michael Saviello (Big Mike).