You’re Allowed to Disappear

“You’ve been at this for six years. Throw yourself into something else. Your writing is a reflection of your living. You’re allowed to disappear.”

A friend said this when we were talking about the realities of making a pro-longed living online.

I followed his advice.

In the end, despite having a six-digit audience across platforms, I stayed away from the online game for nine months.

A fifth of my youngest son’s life.

Long enough for my normally pale skin to get a consistent tan, and then back to my default pinkish-hue again.

Most of my income relied on my writing. And just before stepping away, I signed a book deal.

Saying I needed a delay before I even started wasn’t an easy conversation. This is especially true since all the other publishing houses I had hoped to work with said no.

But it wasn’t a question of me asking for permission.

Life changed and my priorities had to change with it. Writing a book when writing an article felt like work wasn’t the state of mind I wanted to be in. A made a commitment to myself I’d only do it if I could find a way to make it fun.

But book deal or not, money wasn’t what got me into writing in the first place. Back in the forgotten world of 2017, that wouldn’t have been very smart.

Putting words down on paper helps me process the world and my role in it.

I write because it helps me see.

Plus, any money I’ve made from writing came from the stories that were rooted in looking back at my past.

But over time, without realizing it, I forgot reflecting and having stories to share demand one thing — actually doing something with your life worth reflecting on.

So as I navigated personal issues that took up a great deal of time and headspace, I threw myself into other somethings like teaching seminars at universities and helping three people doing a lot of good in the world to get their books to fly.

Sure, I lost short-term traction for my own “personal brand.”

But long-term, it’s hard to see how pausing my own writing to help other people advance theirs while teaching storytelling to hundreds of people will hurt my future.

If anything, it’s the opposite.

My dad once told me the odds are high each of us will work for fifty years which means one year represents just two percent of our career.

I’ll never forget it.

It means to chill out and look at the big picture.

This whole creator economy thing is in its infancy.

The beauty of creating stuff for a living is there’s no such thing as retirement — we get to follow our nose until we don’t have a nose left to follow.

But this doesn’t mean we need to listen to all the people pushing the importance of consistency.

The key to long-term success isn’t consistently working — it’s consistently taking care of yourself.

If you need it, disappearing for a month is a blip on our lifeline.

The same goes for the time I took off.

It’s barely one percent of my career.

And I’d be shocked if choosing silence won’t allow me to say what I want to say for longer.

“If you don’t know the art of disappearance, learn it because you will need it every time you get bored of the society you are living in.”

Mehmet Murat ildan said that. I like it. The thing about creators is we’re all different. Some people live to write. They have zero problems knocking out 30 articles in 30 days month after month and year after year.

Other people though, those like me, live and then write. Sometimes we may push how much we publish to mix things up and test ideas and styles. But much of the time, quantity isn’t on our radar.

This isn’t a jab at the former and praise for the latter — it’s just a fact we all operate and thrive in different ways and troubles arise when we try to be like someone we’re not.

Stepping back allowed me to see the beauty in our everyday lives again.

It reminded me of who I am without my work.

Maybe you’re like that too.

Maybe the writing advice you need isn’t to cut more adverbs, delete the word “that” from your essays, and get obsessed with copywriting to drive clicks and sell online courses.

Maybe the writing advice you need is to step away from the noise and immerse yourself in the real world again to live stories worth later reflecting on.

Prior to taking the leap, my internal conversations were full of worry about all the bad things that would happen if I stepped away.

What pushed me over the edge though, was flipping the question on its head and asking myself — “What’s the worst that could happen if I didn’t?”

If you’re sick of the hamster wheel, opt out for a bit.

Arrows travel further the more you pull back.

You’re allowed to disappear.

Thank you for reading.
My best to you and yours.
— Michael

5 Unconventional Tips to Make Doing Hard Things Easier

All was good in the world. 

Until it wasn’t. 

I’d just started a new sales job, and after hundreds of rejections, I’d finally begun to catch some green lights and a few clients were getting close to closing.

Within an hour of arriving at the office though, I got hit by lightning bolts in rapid succession. Not only did I receive word a deal I’d been working on for three weeks was dead in the water, but I was also on the verge of losing the only other one I had going. 

“Michael!” my manager said when he heard me cursing around the office, “Go do something that doesn’t make you feel worse!” 

My manager was a quirky guy. But he seemed to be doing alright for himself so I asked him to explain his confusing advice — 

“The key to getting out of a funk isn’t always found by doing something that lights us up but rather doing one thing that makes us feel slightly less miserable. Go grab some air. I guarantee when you come back you won’t feel worse than you do right now!”

At first, I wanted to fight his advice and tell him to walk east until his Orioles hat began to float. But out of options, I did what I was told. 

I wasn’t exactly beaming with happiness when I came back to the office after taking a ten-minute walk. But I did realize my manager was onto something as the shift from feeling miserable to just slightly annoyed was a massive improvement. I could focus. I even began to laugh a little. A few hours later, my client signed off on the proposal.

Stressful days are part of the package. Bad things happen. Human beings are notoriously annoying. 

But my manager taught me that productivity isn’t about being positive all the time — sometimes it’s simply about figuring out how to be less negative. 

Two decades have passed since that moment. Today, I still carry a list of activities labeled “things that don’t make me feel worse” in my wallet. Things like going to the gym or even cleaning the house aren’t always fun when we’re in a jam. But they have a funny way of snapping us back into the present moment which is the very place where forward progress is made. 

The next time you’re in a rut, don’t try to fight stress, frustration, or anxiety to make it magically disappear. To begin to put one foot in front of the other again, think of an activity that has a propensity to make you feel less bad as you may find that’s the best step you can take on the road back to feeling somewhat good.

If my boss’s unconventional tip resonates with you, below are a handful of others that have the power to make doing hard things somewhat easier.

My friend Niklas Göke just started a new blog — Seth Godin style on his website with daily thoughts. I love everything Nik does including his recent installment entitled, “Refuse to do it until it’s easy.”

In short, there is absolutely nothing wrong with waiting until the hard thing you want to do becomes easier. 

For Nik, it was running an online course. He thought about it for a few years, but the idea overwhelmed him. That is, until one day it didn’t. And by giving himself the space he needed to allow the dots he was collecting to properly connect, he knocked out the course with ease.

We may feel like everything we want to do needs to be done today.

But they don’t.

Like Nik said — 

“Pay for convenience by abstaining. Refuse to start until it’s easy. Wait until downhill is obvious. Then, get on your sled and enjoy the ride.”

I love this idea from my friend Maria Urkedal York, and how she used it to publish her first-ever online article which got featured in Forge and syndicated in Elephant Journal. 

Maria quit her job six months ago after twenty years of teaching to pursue her dream of coaching and writing. At first, ideas filled her head. She was excited. But then more ideas filled her head. Then more. And then more. Over time, all this idea stacking paralyzed her from taking positive action.

One day though, her coach recommended always having an “easy button” available when approaching hard tasks to make the first step easier and a thought occurred to her — “What if my ‘easy button’ for my first article is writing about the importance of having an easy button?”

Don’t make things harder than they need to be. 

Find your easy button.

Like Maria wrote — 

“When stuck, the goal should be movement — not perfection.”

One interesting side-effect I’ve noticed from learning Spanish and struggling with Catalan is languages are impossible to learn if you aren’t present.

You have to listen to each and every word someone says to you if you want to have a somewhat fluid or intelligible conversation.

You also have to think before you speak in order to make sure you are using the right pronouns, verb tenses, and sentence structure. 

Neither of these things will happen if your head is in the clouds.

This may sound odd for gearing up to move heavy things, but the logic behind it is simple: if you throw yourself into something else that makes you present it frees up the headspace for the unconnected ideas in your head to better connect. 

We can all think of a time, a eureka moment came to us while we were in the shower or out for a walk. For me, studying Spanish — when I can’t seem to write in English — does the trick. 

Find your outlet. 

Do something that brings you back to the land of the living. 

Remind yourself once again that all progress is made in the present.

Ever since I got into this whole online creator world, I’ve wanted to do two things: write a book and record a storytelling course.

In addition to loving both books and stories, one of the biggest drivers for wanting to do them was because they scare the life out of me.

I’m a simple thinker. I try to get my point across as fast as possible. The idea of writing 50,000 words when I struggle to write 500 paralyzed me. As a guy with a stutter, the same goes for recording an online course as I hate seeing myself get stuck on a word. 

Over the last few months though, I’ve made serious headway in both areas. The reason: I’m not doing either of them alone.

Helping two clients with their own books and contracting a friend to help me with my own has made this once monstrous task manageable. 

The same goes for creating a course. Instead of talking into a screen alone, Niklas Göke and I have teamed up to share our best story-telling tips.

If you’re stuck somewhere — anywhere — instead of pushing through on your own, think “who” not “how” and explore ways to share the weight.

The best things in life are rarely a solitary pursuit.

And this includes our individual goals.

Thank you for reading.
My best to you and yours.
— Michael

Screw Marketing. Choose Art. It’s the Safer Long-term Play.

“Don’t spend a second of your time marketing your work. Focus solely on learning how to write so well that other people feel inclined to share it.”

When I began writing, I was given this piece of advice.

At the time, I was juggling my own coaching clients, a communication consultancy with a small team, and a two-year-old. My friends’ advice was the exact permission I needed. Spending my days on social media was not how I wanted to use the little free time I had each day.

And it worked.

Over time, more and more people began sharing my work.

After my wife and I had our second child, however, time became even more scarce. Two kids have a way of feeling a lot like ten. I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do. My hands were already full. I’m a big believer that our words are one of the few things each of us owns in this world and they shouldn’t be rushed to make a buck so I kept my head down and every second I wasn’t with my kids, I was writing.

At times, choosing this route stressed me out.

Trends come and go. Different writers come in and out of favor. My combined views over the last six months on this platform are less than what they were in one month a year ago. It’s not a good feeling to write on eggshells. Neither is it a good feeling to feel like you’re losing your touch.

“Should I publish more?” I asked myself time and time again this past year.

“Should I join in on the numbers game?”

“Should I spraypaint my words all over the internet?”

I get nauseous just thinking about that. It’s not a race I want to compete in. I’m not a fan of treating our writing like spaghetti and throwing pieces up on the wall to see what sticks.

My favorite writers and people don’t do that.

My favorite writers and people choose their messages with care.

In the second half of this year, after learning first-hand what it’s like to scrape the bottom of the barrel, this strategy finally paid off.

I was offered a position to teach leadership and communication skills to MBA students despite not having an advanced degree myself.

I got asked to help write a book with a seriously accomplished man who helps brick-and-mortar businesses thrive in the digital age by designing spaces that bring people together and encourage pro-social behavior.

I officially signed a contract to write my own book about how shy people can quietly make the right kind of noise.

The backgrounds and experiences of the people reaching out were all different but the one thing they all had in common was their message —

“We’ve been keeping an eye on you. We’d like to explore ways to work together.”

As if this wasn’t enough of a sign that the slow route is the right route, the last sixty days the offers have come flooding in.

Between being offered solid guarantees to write regularly for mainstream publications, receiving an offer to jump in on a project with the former managing director of my favorite design firm, and already signing a contract to help write a book for a leader in the social impact and innovation space, my calendar for 2022 and beyond is already full.

A touch over six months ago I was an online writer dreaming of working on projects that had real-world impact.

By focusing solely on writing, for the first time in my career, I’ll kick off the year with the exact people in the exact spaces I want to spend the rest of my career operating in.

A lot of people today are talking about personal branding with the hopes of being an influencer. If this route doesn’t interest you, yet you still want your work and words to matter, opt-out and make a commitment to write the exact messages you want to see in the world.

If it helps you sleep at night, pick one other platform in addition to your primary one to share your work. But other than that, close the blinds and be patient.

It’s the job of marketers to find what works and do it until it stops working. It’s the job of artists, however, to make stuff that makes marketing obsolete.

As we head deeper into 2022, choose art.

Focus on creating things marketers can’t kill.

Be yourself.

Who knows, it could be you’ve already created the work that kickstarts your career and all you need to do is soldier on until the world catches on.

Thank you for reading.
— Michael

How to Quietly Focus and Get Your Work Done in a Loud World

I read an article recently where the author claimed people without kids are exposed to just as many distractions as people who have kids.

I disagree.

I’m sure I’m not the only one.

I try not to speak in absolutes.

But I’d bet everything I own, plus $47,117 that I don’t own, parents working from home with kids at their feet have to deal with more distractions than those who are kid-free.

In addition to the two young kids I keep muzzled in the closet from 9 to 5 while my wife is working an hour away from home, I’ve also got what doctors call “off-the-charts ADHD” and self-labeled “shiny object syndrome” where I want to say yes to anything that sounds remotely cool.

I’m not a productivity expert.

I don’t pretend to play one on the internet.

But all things considered, I’m doing okay.

This year while also dealing with serious health issues from loved ones, I’ve written 70+ articles on this platform and Business Insider, kept my consulting practice alive, wrote a book proposal that looks to one day get picked up by a solid publisher, and helped a client write a book proposal to the level he just signed with an agent.

Of equal importance, I took off an entire month from work, snorkeled in the Meditteranean 73 times and lost 309 games of Uno.

Some people like to throw in a caveat after listing off a brag sheet.

There will be no caveats listed here.

I may not be mega-successful but I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish.

I’ve developed the discipline to quietly focus and get my work done in a loud world and below are a few tips that have worked for me that may work for you too.

This year I’m essentially doing what I’ve done for the last five years while also writing a book, help to write another, and also designing eight 4-hour courses for MBA students that I have to deliver online and in-person.

The book for a client is about how corner stores, restaurants, and retailers of all shapes and sizes can win in the digital age. My values align perfectly with this topic.

We need more people thinking about ways to bring us together and away from our phones and Amazon.

The same goes for my own book. Like me, my oldest son is also shy and has begun to stutter. There are a lot of quiet, contemplative people in the world. I want to arm my kid (when he’s of age to read it) with a book that helps make his words count while letting him know he’s already cool.

If you want to focus, write down your “why” and keep it front and center.

Let it serve as your North Star.

The more you remind yourself why your work matters, the more motivated you’ll be to treat it as a priority.

Would you rather do tasks you despise every day or would you be more effective if you lumped them all together to knock out in one day?

If you’re anything like me, the answer is obvious — keep your positive momentum rolling four days a week and designate one day a week to do the work that drains your soul.

When COVID hit, designating a weekly or even monthly “Hate Day” or “Kleinscheiss Tag” as they’re known in Germany for tasks such as taxes and social media was a lifesaver.

Simply filter the tasks as they come in and if you know it will steal your energy and rob your focus, throw it in your “hate day” pile to free up headspace and keep moving forward.

Many psychologists and therapists recommend designing time to worry on purpose.

Why not do the same for the tasks you hate?

My phone has been on Do Not Disturb for six years. I’m horrible with technology. But I did figure out a way to let the five most important people in my life ring through. No matter the hour, if my wife, parents, and three closest friends call, I answer.

Make a shortlist of people who are more important to you than your work, let them know your schedule, and block the rest.

This is especially vital for the energy vampires in your life as they become much easier to deal with when you’re the one calling the time-slots.

But perhaps the best focus tip very few people talk about is surrounding yourself with fellow life-eaters.

After all, if you’re surrounded by people who are also doing work that matters, your own work is bound to rise.

This took some getting used to, but I now write every article, long email, and even Slack message on a word document and then I cut and paste them all at once when I go back online.

Do you need to be logged on twenty-four hours a day?

Whenever Tim Urban, creator of Wait but Why, needs to get work done, he stands on a step stool, places his phone on a high shelf, and then puts the stool in another room. He does the same with his router if the task he’s working on doesn’t require the internet. His reasoning: The effort it takes to access these distractions is just as unappealing as working. As a result, he works.

The goal of technology should be to enhance our lives, not rule them.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with opting out of how most people work.

Your primary job is to figure out what works for you and silence the rest.

Many people recommend setting boundaries. This is for a good reason. If you’re available all the time, it becomes harder to zero in.

This, of course, is easier said than done.

Especially if you have kids.

During the beginning of quarantine I told my kids I was working from 9 to 12 and then from 3 to 6 and it didn’t work out very well.

But you know what did?

Telling them each morning when I was available to play.

I need two three-hour blocks each day to get the work that matters done.

For this to happen, I’ve found it much easier to let people know first when they can bug me as much as they want.

I’m a big believer that environment affects behavior.

But at the same time, sometimes the environment we find ourselves in can be pretty tough to navigate.

If this is the case with you also and have trouble focusing, cheat by stealing the ideas above and make them your own.

The future belongs to the focused.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want the future to be run by only people who don’t have kids.

Thank you for reading.
— Michael

Cap Your To-Do List at Three Things Every Day

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You wake up thinking about all the things you have to do. But after working like mad all day, you manage to complete only half the tasks on your list. You spend the rest of the evening feeling annoyed.

There’s a way to remedy this common feeling of overwhelm: Cap your to-do list at three things every day.

The advice comes from Dan Sullivan, founder of Strategic Coach. Unsurprisingly, he gets a lot of pushback whenever he suggests it — high-performing entrepreneurs tell him that three tasks a day just isn’t enough to be successful.

But after trying it myself, I suggest giving it a shot. If you’re like me, it may even help you to achieve your biggest goals.

Capping your daily to-do list at three items forces you to ask yourself: What actually matters most today? What truly moves your needle? Is posting multiple times a day on social media really taking your business to the next level? Or would spending time honing your craft be a better long-term investment? When you get clear on what matters, you naturally weed out what doesn’t.

It’s also simply good for your mental well-being. If each day you complete all the things you plan to get done — which is much more possible when there are three items rather than 23 — you can spend the rest of the evening celebrating your wins, rather than stewing over unfinished tasks. According to Sullivan, prioritizing time away from our work is one of the best things we can do for our work. After all, it’s impossible to see the opportunities around us if we only focus on what’s in front of us.

At first, I was skeptical that this approach would be helpful to me. But as a dad who works from home, I often struggle to transition between work and family mode, so I decided to give it a shot. This past summer, while my two boys were home from school, I capped my daily to-do list at three things and cut off work at 2 p.m. With that extra time to be present with my family, I ended up feeling more inspired than I ever had. I finally managed to turn my side hustles of writing and coaching into my full-time job.

It’s easy to try it for yourself. Every morning before you start working, sit down for 10 minutes and envision the three most important things you want to finish by the end of the day. Here’s a little trick I picked up from my wife: Instead of keeping this list on your phone or in your journal, try writing out each task on individual notecards. There, you can also note the steps you need to take to accomplish the task. Then, after you finish a task, place the card on top of the pile of the other actions you’ve already completed.

As the days, weeks, and months pass, this growing stack of completed cards will serve as a powerful reminder of all you’ve already accomplished. Looking at it will grant you the much-deserved permission you need to walk away from your work at the end of the day, guilt-free.

Thank you for reading.
— Michael