Are you smart and motivated and passionate, and have lots of cool things you’d like to get done, but somehow when it comes to doing them, you just . . . don’t?
Are you great at ideas but lousy at execution? Talk a good game but don’t get any results? Spend a lot of time thinking about where you want to go, but not much time actually moving your ass down the road that would take you there?
You, my friend, are a flake. Congratulations.
We are a worldwide force. If we could all get ourselves moving in the same direction, we would change the world. However, that will never happen.
Most of us are creative and smart. We’re often very funny and really pretty charming. We get things quicker than a lot of people do.
What we lack is focus. Everything looks good to us. We want dinner in Paris and a dive trip to Fiji. Most of us care more about experiences than about stuff.
But because we don’t take care of the “stuff” aspect of life, we don’t have the experiences we really want to have.
That, and we lack this “drive” thing. We have desire, but we don’t know how to engage drive. The wheels are turning, but the car ain’t going forward.
If you are a flake, you need to learn how to get things done. Getting things done (meeting goals, completing projects, all that irritating junk productive people do) will let you have better experiences.
We live in a world made of stuff, so it gets pretty painful when we blow stuff off. You actually can learn how to get things done. Here’s how.
What do you want out of it?
You’re not going to get a damned thing done until you actually know what you want to get out of it.
I know this is making your eyes roll into the back of your head. You know all about this visualizing your goals business. You may have even forced yourself to write down exactly where you want to be in 5 years, 10 years, and 20 years, with all the little details that will make it real to you.
That’s a good thing to do, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about something much simpler. (Much flakier, in fact.)
Just know what you want to get out of the thing you’re working on.
Do you want to do it to make some money? OK, why do you want money? What does that get you?
Sit down with a pen and paper (or a keyboard if you must) and answer the question:
You can describe a scenario, or visualize images, or focus on how you’ll feel or what the material facts will be. If you adopt too much of someone else’s formula, it won’t feel real to you. Just answer the question in a way that makes you say, “Oh, yeah. That’s it. That’s actually exactly it.”
Now it’s time for something that the self-helpers don’t usually talk about. Writer Robert Fritz calls it the “Pivotal Technique,” which I think is an apt label. If you need to turn yourself around in a major way, this is how you can do it.
Get nice and clear about what you want.
Get completely, impeccably, bullshit-free clear about where you are now, with respect to that.
That’s it, just those two. Simple but not easy.
Put another way:
Understand exactly what you want. Understand exactly where you are.
Notice the difference.
Please note that there is not a follow-up step called “beat yourself to a bloody stump about not being where you want to be.”
If you’re in New York and you want to go to San Francisco, how much good does it do to beat yourself up about what a lame-ass you are not to be in San Francisco? How far west does that actually move you?
Not one millimeter? Hmm, interesting.
Figuring out what’s next
All those annoying productivity people will tell you that the next step is to make a map that goes from here to there.
The map has all the steps you’ll need to take. Those steps are probably broken into sub-steps. Along the way, you’ll identify the resources you’ll need to develop and the avenues that are most likely to get you to your goal.
Get real. You are a flake. You are not going to do all that. In fact, just the thought makes you want to go grab an ice cream, doesn’t it?
And here’s another thing. You don’t know the whole map. You’ve probably never been to this place you want to go. So what makes you think you can map it out? You can’t.
The best you can do from where you are now is to get a sense of where “kinda-sorta the right direction” is.
Flakes are flaky because the map seems impossible. Productive people are productive because the map seems real.
The flakes are actually right, but fat lot of good that does us.
The productivity people follow their imaginary map, and because they’re doing something, they get somewhere.
But there’s a way out.
All you have to do is figure out what’s next. This comes from David Allen’s venerable book, Getting Things Done, which is a terrific system if you’re obsessed enough to do all of his rituals. But the rituals are mostly optional.
Just get an idea of what single action you should take next that will take you kinda sorta in the right direction.
If you’re going to San Francisco from New York, your next action might be “get on Google Maps to figure out what roads go west out of town.” Or it could be “call Greyhound and see what a ticket will cost me.” Or it might even be “wait until the sun goes down to see where west is.”
Those are all legit. They all set you up to start moving in the right direction.
Your brain might start blaring like a smoke alarm with 2,000 things you need to do next. You can’t do 2,000 things right now. Write down the things you think are at least somewhat important. Then pick just one to do next.
Allen is very smart about this. It has to be the single next thing to take action on. Not “get both of my COVID vaccines” or “find $900 for an airline ticket,” but “check Craigslist tomorrow morning for temp job” or “send mom a birthday card so I can hit her up for money next week.”
If you can’t do it in 20 minutes, it’s probably not the next action. Find the next action.
Do what you feel like
The flake’s superpower is that we are very good at doing what we feel like.
If you figure out your next action to take, and you don’t just get up and do it right away, do the Pivotal Technique again.
Understand what you want, and why you want it. Understand where you are now. Notice the difference.
Then do what you feel like.
Just keep cycling through that. As a flake, your unconscious is very good at protecting you from things you don’t want. If you don’t feel like moving kinda-sorta in the direction of your thing, there’s something about it you don’t want.
A great flake technique is to say something to yourself along the lines of:
OK, unconscious mind, gigantic pain in the ass that you are, thanks for keeping me from doing something I don’t want to do. Could you do me one more favor and let me know what about it I don’t like? Thanks.
Ask yourself that question out loud before you go to bed. Maybe write it down on a piece of paper as well. Then forget about it and see what pops into your head the next day.
Once you can see what you don’t like, you’ll figure out a way around it. Flakes are excellent at figuring out ways around things.
There are a few more techniques that work magnificently for flaky minds:
Don’t misplace your brilliant insights
By letting yourself noodle on the answers, I can promise you will get useful answers to your questions. Your “background processor” is often a lot smarter than your conscious mind is. So you’ve got that going for you.
But again, because you’re a flake, you’ll probably lose track of those answers.
In fact, you have already come up with terrific answers and lost them again many times. It’s just how we flakes work.
So set up a flake-friendly way to capture those clever insights. I call mine the Idea Garden. All the notes and ramblings and scribbles go in there, and eventually some of it composts into something I can use.
Flakes throughout history have used notebooks for this. A physical notebook is a fabulously flexible way to grab ideas and attach them to other ideas. Now that we live in the 21st century, a catchall app like Evernote or One Note is also handy for anything that you want to keep hold of in the long term.
I try to stick to no more than three or four main things to focus on. That means I have to give things up sometimes. When I started making textiles, I stopped being as diligent about my urban sketching practice.
You may need to think about what you’re willing to give up to make the space for your interesting project. (Two suggestions: TV and Facebook.)
Harness the game-changer
I saved the absurdly powerful one for last:
Work with other people.
I discovered this in a powerful way during lockdown, and it’s the single most flake-friendly productivity tip I know.
If you aren’t showing up for yourself, show up for someone else.
Coworking is really good. But if you can’t get to a physical coworking space, you might be amazed at how well digital coworking can work.
That means sitting down live on a digital platform with other humans. To make it work, make sure you set the right boundaries. Decide in advance how much time is for socializing and how much for sitting down to work productively. Get a moderator to ensure that you stick to those boundaries and keep everyone on mute while you’re working. And try to get folks you like and respect in there.
It’s important to make this a shame-free zone. Coaches who pride themselves on “kicking people’s asses” for not being productive are actually incredibly unhelpful. Real accountability comes from the energy of being in community, not from fear of being belittled or yelled at.
I’m biased in favor of this because I started a digital coworking community that has genuinely amazed me.
I spent my life assuming there was no “productivity switch” we could flick to become those irritatingly productive people. But it turns out I was wrong.
The plan in 7 reasonably painless Steps
- When you’ve got something to do, figure out what you really want to get out of it.
- Do the pivotal technique. Think about what you want, then get clear about where you are right this minute. Notice the difference.
- Figure out the next pretty small thing to do.
- Do what you feel like.
- Start an Idea Garden for ideas, notes, plans and insights.
- Stick to three or four primary areas of focus.
- Work alongside other people to harness the power of supportive accountability.
Fellow flakes, what kind of things are you trying to get done now? Making any progress? Let us know in the comments!