The secret to achieving excellence is disarmingly simple. You might not like it, though.
Asked about how to help creative types excel, Entertainment executive Barry Diller, the chairman of IAC, recently told Fast Company, “Put them to work … It’s process. It’s one [foot] in front of the other.”
In other words, you’re the lifehack you’ve been waiting for. Or you could be, if you accept the fact that the best, most effective route to success is also a bit boring. In our distracted and acquisitive culture, we’re encouraged to believe that if we read yet another article (ahem), we’ll discover there’s a perfect app or system, method or guru, the right morning routine that will keep us on track and make us more effective.
But there’s no magic bullet. There’s just beginning and putting in the work, as Diller advises.
In the beginning
To get things done, you have to do. That’s it. You need sitzfleisch (ZITS–flysh), or “chair glue,” which—as Quartz’s Anne Quito notes—is a German word for the ability to sit through a boring or complex task for a considerable amount of time, however long it takes.
So how do you cultivate the focus and discipline to finish a task? By continually doing the dull stuff. You do it until you’re used to it and getting through is a habit. For example, if you want to be a writer, you write, as Rebecca Solnit explains on LitHub:
Write. There is no substitute…But start small: write a good sentence, then a good paragraph, and don’t be dreaming about writing the great American novel or what you’ll wear at the awards ceremony because that’s not what writing’s about or how you get there from here. The road is made entirely out of words. Write a lot…it’s effort and practice. Write bad stuff because the road to good writing is made out of words and not all of them are well-arranged words.
Make your goal to simply write, and eventually you’ll get to the next boring step—edits. The work may always be a bit painful, as acclaimed writers reveal. “More often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three,” poet and writer Maya Angelou tells the Paris Review. “That’s the cruelest time you know.”
Still, the more familiar you are with the process and your inherent tendency to resist it, the better you get at just muscling through and doing the work anyway.
Cultivating focus doesn’t mean you have to do everything really slowly and painstakingly. Quite the contrary. By focusing you can increase your speed because you’re fully immersed in the task at hand.
Peter Seishin Wohl of the Treetop Zen Center in Oakland, Maine tells a story about watching Soto Zen monks in Japan—who dedicate their lives to cultivating philosophical focus through meditation—cleaning a monastery. They work speedily, practically running as they dust. This demonstrates that slowness isn’t the goal of focus. “Zen has nothing to do with the speed at which we do things and everything to do with the intimacy with which we do things. And by intimacy I mean, not forming a separation between ourselves, our minds, and the activities we’re involved in,” Wohl explains.
If you do each task single-mindedly, you’ll get better and faster with practice. Doing one thing at a time is “magic” for productivity, according to Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project and author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. He explains in the Harvard Business Review that multi-tasking leads to burnout and produces poor quality work. It drains energy, perpetually drawing us away from the activity at hand, which we have to get back to.
The solution is simplicity, Schwartz suggests. Start something and do it until you finish, which can mean different things depending on the activity. Obviously, you can’t write a novel in a day. But you can segment your days so that you get a single thing done in each portion. “The best way for an organization to fuel higher productivity and more innovative thinking is to strongly encourage finite periods of absorbed focus, as well as shorter periods of real renewal,” Schwartz writes.
Here’s the hardest part of all. If you want or need to do things, don’t wait to feel inspired, or for the perfect time, or for the right situation. Whatever you need to do, the time is now and the way is by doing. As Charlotte’s Web author EB White, told the Paris Review in 1969, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
The same goes for physical activities. It doesn’t always feel good to go to the gym or go running or drag yourself to a class. That doesn’t matter, though. What will get you to a happier place is having a deep understanding of the fleeting nature of feelings.
Emotions fluctuate constantly. So, feelings aren’t reliable indicators of whether we’re doing something well or something useful. As such, productive people don’t let their feelings dictate their actions. They flip the script and let action dictate emotion, doing dull stuff which feels fun when it’s done.
The goal is this
Whether your ultimate goal is to be a business leader, a literary star, a competitive athlete, a good parent, or to penetrate the nature of reality and attain illumination, the underlying process is always the same—sweating the small stuff and not letting that goal get in the way of what must be done. Be present, take the small steps, and focus on now, rather than the idea of what you might someday be if you succeed.
Diller, though he’s in business, sounds a lot like the writer Solnit when he talks about what it takes to excel. Though he argues for hard work, he tells Fast Company that he believes having too many specific goals is problematic.
The entertainment executive’s approach is startlingly similar to that of Zen master Kodo Takeuchi, who explains in a paper on enlightenment, awakening, and realization (pdf) that the illuminated individual grasps that “there is nothing to attain, nothing to realize.” Enlightenment, then, is simply an understanding that “practice and realization are the same.” Takeuchi writes, “Truth appears within just sitting single-mindedly.”