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Want to build marketing that works while you sleep? Find a niche.

I know you want clients. You want lots of clients of decent quality so that you can be picky and choose the ones that fit your ideal client profile. If you want this it all starts with a niche.

Do less to do more

Contrary to the thoughts of most consultants and business owners the best way to get lots of prospects is to say you do less. Narrow your focus down to a specific niche out of the millions of potential clients in the world. Focus on a few thousand that sit right where you want to be in the market.

Focusing down on a niche has one big advantage for you, by allowing you to focus your marketing material. You don’t have to try and figure out what everyone in the market will respond to and then produce reams of content that they might read. You only need to find the problems of your small niche of prospects and all your marketing can target those issues.

This focused marketing is going to pay off long before the scattershot approach of being everything to everyone.

Finding your niche

Before you can really dive in and find your niche you need to do one thing — know yourself and your goals better. The exercise I like most is to take a piece of paper and divide it in half, top to bottom. Now fold it in half side to side. You’ll be left with four rectangles on the page.

Inside these rectangles you are going to list the most important areas of your life, organized by the top four categories. My top four categories are Family, Travel, Business, Fitness. It may take some time to nail them down so don’t sweat it if at first you aren’t sure you’ve identified the perfect four categories at first.

Now what do you want each of those areas of your life to look like in five years? For me in my Family quadrant I know that in five years I want to be able to be around homeschooling my kids a few days a week. I know I want to be able to take them on multi-day backcountry trips without needing to check back in on the Internet.

Once you’ve identified your four quadrants start thinking about the projects you’ve already done. Which ones were the most fun? Which ones make you smile to look at them still? In all likelihood those projects that were the most fun are at least closely related to the niche you should operate in.

Another way to work out your niche is to list all the problems you’ve solved for clients over the last few years. Think hard about why each client came to you and what service you provided for them. It may be that while you did design a site, the client’s real problem was poor sales and what you really did was help them get more sales. The site design is simply the thing you can see that fixed their problem.

Once you have a few ideas that could be your niche it’s time to go back to your four quadrants and make sure that they line up with the life you want to live in five years. For me that’s meant I don’t develop plugins for sale because doing so would mean I need to be around for support daily. I want to cut my required Internet time down to two days so that I can be around for my family.

Finding the problems in your niche

Once you’ve centered on a niche it’s time to start to dig into the problems your niche has as a way to generate your marketing material. The first step is to identify the top problems that your niche has. You should already have a list of some of them from your work to identify the niche, but as you move forward write down every question your prospects ask you. Don’t just answer them once on the phone or via email, use the answers to generate ideas for your blog.

Another way to find the problems in your niche is to go find where the people already are in the niche. There are Facebook groups or forums for any niche around. Find the top five and join them. Now read through most of the content there and see what people are struggling with. Some things you’ll be able to answer right away in the forum or group, so do it. Take those answers and write them down so you can expand on them later in writing on your site (or other sites which we’ll talk about in a future post).

By picking a niche you’re going to be able to focus your marketing message to only those prospects that have the problems you can best solve. Doing this is going to get clients in that niche knocking on your door and leave you booked out for months. I’d love to hear about the niche you’ve picked in the comments.

photo credit: 49648042@N02 cc

Being okay with boredom increases productivity

It’s clearly a great use of your time to read a bit via your phone while you’re standing in line right? I mean otherwise you’re just standing there not being productive.

I’m sorry to say that you shouldn’t just be pulling that phone out every minute. You should be bored in line sometimes.


Tribes by Seth Godin: Which Tribe Do You Lead?

Seth Godin is the renowned author of books like Purple Cow and Linchpin and a myriad of other familiar books around marketing and being awesome at your work. Tribes is his book about what it takes to get leverage with your idea. That leverage comes from leading a Tribe and the leverage that leadership brings.

Tribes give you leverage. And each of us have more leverage than ever before. I want you to think about the ramifications of the new leverage. I’m hoping you’ll see that the most profitable path is also the most reliable, the easiest, and the most fun. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to give you a push on the path to become a heretic yourself.

To Godin the heretic is the person with new ideas that helps take a group of people where they wanted to go already. Maybe they didn’t know they wanted to go that direction but when presented with the ideas of the heretic they realize they fit suddenly.

And your Tribe is formed.

Tribes is a really a collection of essays. You’ll often find four or five that revolve around one theme, but I got around six essays in before I realized that these were not just titles inside a bigger chapter.

This is also not a book with a magic six-step process to build a Tribe. It explains the general dynamics of a Tribe and how they function. It explains how a leader leads a diverse group of people over which they have no power. If you’re looking for a book with that magic process (which I don’t believe exists anyway) then look elsewhere.

The closest Godin comes to describing a process to build a Tribe is his discussions around being comfortable with failure. All the greats had failures. Much like the Will in The Obstacle is the Way (my review) the greats just kept on going past the failure viewing it as another step on the path to success.

Here are some of the key highlights I had and why I found them interesting.

On Leading or Managing

Leaders have followers. Managers have employees.

One of the recurring themes in Tribes is the thought of the factory (which has employees) and the tribe (which has followers). One is great at cranking out widgets and following the status quo and one is built for change and tearing down the status quo.

The thing is, managers and factories have a vested interest in the status quo. Think of the music industry battling against the status quo of CD album sales vs. subscription services or a la carte song purchasing. They spent more time trying to protect the original way they made money while the needs of their customers passed them by, and other services went from little things not worth competing with to large competitors that now hold much of the power.

The same has happened in the cable industry. The only people I know with cable are sports fans, and even they say they look for a way to cut the cable and just go to Netflix or other digital offerings.

The big question to ask yourself in all the thoughts on managers and factories is, Are you a manager in a factory or are you a leader building a tribe?

You want that answer to come down on the side of being a leader.

Where power comes from

Managers manage by using the authority the factory gives them. You listen to your manager or you lose your job. A manager can’t make change because that’s not his job. His job is to complete tasks assigned to him by someone else in the factory.

Leaders, on the other hand, don’t care very much for organizational structure or the official blessing of whatever factory they work for. They use passion and ideas to lead people, as opposed to using threats and bureaucracy to manage them. Leaders must become aware of how the organization works, because this awareness allows them to change it.

Yes you can be a leader inside a traditional company though it may be a tough road. Far too often that leader with the unconventional idea gets their innovation beat out of them by the other factory workers who don’t want anyone to put their head up and be exceptional.

This reminded me of the famous experiment where researchers put bananas up a pole in a monkey enclosure. When one of the monkeys would go for the bananas researchers would spray the monkey with water to knock it off. Eventually the monkeys would try and stop anyone from going for the food. Then the researchers stopped spraying and started swapping out monkeys. Eventually there were no animals that had been sprayed or seen anyone sprayed and yet they still would pull anyone off the pole that tried to get the food.

While we could debate the humaneness of the experiment it does provide a powerful view of how many workplaces treat those who try to excel. They just keep pulling them back to normal. The sad part is that the workplace likely needs this innovation and it’s either trained out of everyone or the people who want to innovate just move on to another company that isn’t indoctrinated in mediocrity.

Leaders, on the other hand, don’t care very much for organizational structure or the official blessing of whatever factory they work for. They use passion and ideas to lead people, as opposed to using threats and bureaucracy to manage them. Leaders must become aware of how the organization works, because this awareness allows them to change it.

Your question is: What type of organization have you built? Does it continually train mediocrity into people? Does it punish those who try something new which doesn’t work? That’s training people to never try new ideas.

How many fans/followers do you need?

Fans, true fans, are hard to find and precious. Just a few can change everything. What they demand, though, is generosity and bravery.

Before you go further read this great timeless article called 1000 True Fans. I’ll wait.

Welcome back. Good read, isn’t it? Eye-opening for those of us trying to build some sort of Tribe around our ideas. To turn this Tribe into something you can call your job you really only need 1,000 people willing to spend money on everything you offer.

While 1,000 people in the sea of millions really isn’t a lot of people we need to remember that true fans are hard to find. It’s easy to find lots of casual fans who will share your content on social media sometimes. They’ll retweet your product launches and even make the odd purchase. Those aren’t the true fans though.

I’m sure you’ve heard at least a variation of this joke.

An atheist, a vegan and a CrossFitter walk into a bar. I only know this because they told everyone within two minutes.

Yes they (we actually, as I do CrossFit) share their (our) views freely. They do it because they feel they have something awesome going on that they want people to have as well. They don’t share it to be annoying, they share it because they think that your life can also be better with the knowledge they have.

A true fan is like any of those people.

Your question is: Are you carefully cultivating your true fans? Are you taking them for granted?

Don’t just dream, take action

There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of ideas. Ordinary folks can dream up remarkable stuff fairly easy. What’s missing is the will to make the ideas happen.

I get to talk to lots of people that want to run their own business. They are great technicians, they can design, write, code, or whatever. They want to keep talking about the awesome life they will live when they get out on their own.

I also talk to lots of people who want to give up their house, purchase a truck and trailer, and travel with their kids.

The key in both of those groups of people is that they want to talk about it. They don’t want to do the work to make it happen. They don’t want to sell their house and get rid of most of their stuff. They can’t take the trip now because the thought of homeschooling children seems like actual work. Much better to send them to school where you only have to think about it a bit.

The wannabe business owners don’t want to put in the hours needed to build six months’ savings when they start their business. They don’t want to learn about sales, marketing, invoicing.

They want to dream, not take action. They’d rather watch TV in the evening instead of reading that book about sales. Really it just feels good to talk about it and all they want is to be perceived as someone that would run their own business or take that big trip.

Remember in The Obstacle is the Way the second key to Stoic philosophy is to take action. Not just single-time action either, but repeated action over months/years/decades to get to your goal.

Unfortunately we are also complicit in people with ideas fooling themselves. We don’t call them on their bullshit idea they just want to talk about. We agree that with kids the trip can’t happen. That’s just too much work. We agree that whatever show they are watching is a good show and binge watching it is a great use of time.

Your challenge is: Start taking action! Stop letting people off the hook around you! Tell them to start taking action or stop talking about it.


If a critic tells you, “I don’t like it” or “This is disappointing,” he’s done no good at all. In fact, quite the opposite is true. He’s used his power to injure without giving you any information to help you do better next time. Worse, he hasn’t given those listening any data with which to make a thoughtful decision on their own.

This is the essence of the trolls on the Internet. They can drive by and leave a comment with no recourse. As Brian D. Earp recently wrote in The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit:

In the case of Lord Voldemort, the trick is to unleash so many fallacies, misrepresentations of evidence, and other misleading or erroneous statements — at such a pace, and with such little regard for the norms of careful scholarship and/or charitable academic discourse — that your opponents, who do, perhaps, feel bound by such norms, and who have better things to do with their time than to write rebuttals to each of your papers, face a dilemma. Either they can ignore you, or they can put their own research priorities on hold to try to combat the worst of your offenses.

We fear this onslaught of negative comment on our work. But stop for a second — are you ever going to see the trolls? Do you know them personally? Do you have to interact with them?

It’s time to stop fearing the critics. They’re always going to be there and the true sign of the heretic Godin speaks of is that people oppose their ideas. You’re often onto something great when you’ve got haters.

Giving not getting

Leaders who set out to give are more productive than leaders who seek to get. Even more surprising is the fact that the intent of the leader matters. The tribes can sniff out why someone is asking for their attention. Looking out for number one is an attitude and it’s one that doesn’t pay.

I know you want to launch a new product and make millions so you can go sip drinks somewhere tropical. That’s all about you, though. That’s about the money you’re going to make and the life you’ll live after.

What type of life will your customers have after? Will they have a better business or better life? Are you truly giving them something of value or are you simply bundling up some stuff people will give you money for?

Bundling up ‘stuff’ is what we think of when we think of sleazy marketers and spammy ads. It’s just stuff and unfortunately enough people get fooled into making a purchase so the marketers make money and lots of it.

While this may sound attractive to some, I’m not one of them and I hope you’re not either. I have no desire to look back on my life and realize that I provided little value.

So I give. I try to give away much of how I’ve run my business and make six figures without working more than 30 hours in a week (and probably 10 of those are dedicated to writing this site, not client work).

Your question is: Are you really giving away anything that the customer will find value in? Why not?

The short life and thank God it’s Friday

“Life’s too short” is repeated often enough to be a cliche, but this time it’s true. You don’t have enough time to be both unhappy and mediocre. It’s not just pointless, it’s painful. Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you ought to set up a life you don’t need escape from.

I’m pretty famous for getting annoyed when someone in my office building says “Thank God it’s Friday”. I always challenge them with the sentiment above. While I may not check email over the weekend I do read books around business and may even write if the mood strikes me.

I’m amazingly lucky to wake up each morning and get a chance to write and read. I’m energized on Fridays when I finish my call with the mentoring group I lead or when I finish with a one-on-one coaching call.

I’m excited to see the success others have and happy that I can get a small part in it through some advice I gave. Often I just ask some questions and people talk themselves around to where they need to go and what they need to do to get there.

If you’re not happy with what you do, then change it. Stop wallowing in the misery that is excited for the weekend or vacation so you can get away from your work. Find work that’s meaningful.

Your challenge: Put together a plan to find work you love.

It’s my fault

If you hear my idea but don’t believe it, that’s not your fault; it’s mine.

If you see my new product but don’t buy it, that’s my failure, not yours.

If you attend my presentation and you’re bored, that’s my fault too.

I’ve long said that a great consultant figures out how failure is their fault.

Have a pissy client that’s rude and wants 500 extra things for the same price? It’s your fault that you didn’t catch those issues when you were vetting the client.

Have too many projects on the go? You should have said NO to some of the projects. Needed the money and you couldn’t? Well that’s your fault for not finishing other things faster and not budgeting.

Your challenge: Don’t blame, figure out how the problem is your fault then set about to make sure it doesn’t happen again.


My biggest issue with the book Tribes was that it felt disorganized and lacking in a clear direction. I’ll let Godin speak to that:

I can tell you I’m going to get a lot of flak from most people about what you’ve just read. People might say it’s too disorganized or not practical enough or that I require you to do too much work to actually accomplish anything. That’s okay. In fact, criticism like that almost always accompanies change.

This made me smile as I was 90% done with the book and starting to think about writing down my thoughts. He addressed them. It did feel disorganized and there is a bunch of work. There is no clear plan to build a Tribe. But I’m not sure there can be.

Yes there are tactics that others have used that may work for you, but they may not. Banking on reading a single book to transform your idea into something that supports you via a Tribe of people that believe is a fool’s errand.

Overall Tribes is an easy read with lots of great thoughts. I pulled out about 20% of my highlights and notes. There is much more to dig into and I think that you should.

Get Tribes on Amazon

photo credit: peteashton cc

Emmet Reading - big book

The 10 Productivity and Business Books You Should Read

There is a plethora of productivity books out there to read. So many that you could make reading them a full-time job, and even getting through a few a week you’d be further behind at the end of the year than when you started.

Today I want to talk about the ones that I think are worth your time. I’m not going to stop with just ‘productivity’ books though. You read this site because you want to run a better business, so I’m going to include books that will help you do that, from your personal productivity to how your business runs.

With the exception of the first and second on this list (which could be interchanged) I have put some thought into ordering these books as I see their utility to help you have an awesome business and get things done in it.

1. Getting Things Done by David Allen

Getting Things Done, or GTD, methodology has been around for quite a while and is probably one of the most popular productivity systems around.

The basic premise is that you develop a trusted system where you write everything down. This means you don’t have a bunch of open loops floating around in your head and can focus on your work (which is what Deep Work is about).

The key that I think most people don’t follow through on is the weekly review. I wrote about a good review process earlier this month, but to recap, I lose 15 – 20% productivity in a week when I don’t do a review and plan my week in advance.

Get Getting Things Done on Amazon

2. Deep Work

I’ve recently written a long review of Deep Work. It has many overlaps with Getting Things Done but the focus of this book is more on convincing you that you need long periods without distraction and the book does provide guidance on how to make it happen.

In my opinion, GTD is better in that it prescribes a system to use to clear away the clutter so you can get to the Deep Work.

Read my full look at Deep Work

Get Deep Work on Amazon

3. Growing a Business

One of the biggest ideas to pull from Growing a Business is that money alone doesn’t solve problems. It mostly just allows unprofitable companies to continue to operate without profit.

In the tech bubble we have around us today that seems totally sane because everyone is doing it. Stop thinking of investment as some magical pill, it’s simply a tool some business owners use.

Get Growing a Business on Amazon

4. The Art of Work

It’s great to have a business — there’s all this freedom in being your own boss. You get to choose the clients you work with. Yet for many people it’s a trap where they start something they think will be fun and then can’t find a way out of it.

Reading The Art of Work will help you find your purpose (Jeff Goins calls it your story). With that information you can then build a business that suits your story. This is going to bring you long-term happiness since you will be doing something that is in line with your character, not just some random thing that makes money.

Read my full look at The Art of Work

Get The Art of Work on Amazon

5. The Obstacle is the Way

This is not a fluffy book that’s going to coddle you in your work. It’s going to call you to action despite all the crap that’s going on around you. In fact those that rise above the rest are the ones that keep going at the 210th setback.

The Obstacle is the Way presents Stoic Philosophy to us in language that’s easier to digest and since any business is going to have times when things don’t go as planned all business owners need to read this to get their mindset right to move forward.

Read my full look at The Obstacle is the Way

Get The Obstacle is the Way on Amazon

6. EntreLeadership

Hiring and firing is hard but you don’t have to make it harder. This, and many other topics, are covered in EntreLeadership by Dave Ramsey.

The fact that someone got on your team who should never have been allowed in the building is your fault.

Just like you should be taking time to vet your clients, you should be vetting your employees. In fact if you can, make sure that the person with the problem (which is being filled by the employee) isn’t the one doing the hiring. It’s much too easy for them to just find someone to stop the pain instead of waiting to find the right person.

This also means that when you figure out someone shouldn’t be there you need to serve them by letting them go. It’s not helpful to their career to be in a job that doesn’t really want them. Help them find something new that fits better.

Get Entreleadership on Amazon

7. What’s Best Next

If you go back to my short recap of this book you’ll find that I only actually liked about 25% of this book starting with Chapter 13. But you need to read starting at Chapter 13 for the talk about your roles and how they fit into your overall productivity system and your business.

I’ve talked about it recently when I reviewed Will it Fly and the 4 Quadrants of my life. Knowing what is important to me means I can turn down opportunities that appear great but are truly at odds with the life I want to lead.

Get What’s Best Next on Amazon

8. Minding the Store

The big takeaways here are how to run a family business and how to treat clients. Neiman Marcus wouldn’t distinguish between the sale of a $30 dress and a $25,000 coat. If there was a problem with either product a plane may be chartered to go fix the problem.

On the family business front, when you started working there you had no authority. You then worked your way through a number of departments proving yourself. Only once you had the skills needed were you a candidate for actually running the business. Just because you were family didn’t mean you started in management and had authority or that you ever got any real authority. Almost all family businesses need to adopt this view and get later generations to show that they bring value to the business.

Get Minding the Store on Amazon

9. To Sell is Human

If you want to run a good business then you need to sell. You need to move people to see the value you provide to their business. This book has lots of research about the selling landscape we have today and offers lots of practical advice on how to make a good sale.

Get To Sell is Human on Amazon

10. The Front Nine

Couched in a golf metaphor this book has lots of practical advice to plan your year and every project you have. One of the key takeaways is to just get started. Make a drive off the tee and then play the ball as it lies.

Way too many business owners talk about the new angles they’re going to take with their business and leave it at that…talk. Many people that want to work on their own really just want to talk about how awesome they’d be if they were their own boss.

Stop that and take a step.

Read my full look at The Front Nine

Get The Front Nine on Amazon

That’s it. If you’re looking for quality books to read on running an awesome business those are my current picks.

How I achieve paper 0

Despite our best efforts we still have to deal with paper. You still get receipts you can write off while your out. You still need to write things down sometimes. You need a way to track all those pieces of paper.

Today I’m talking about how I deal with the paper that comes in to my business.


Learn to Triumph Over Trials: The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

Our actions may be impeded…but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. – Marcus Aurelius from The Obstacle is the Way

Right in the preface of The Obstacle is the Way author Ryan Holiday sets the tone for the book. You can tell this is not going to be some fluffy book that gets you to regress to former pains and work through them. You’re going to be told to look at them head on and alter your perception of them.

In fact, this first quote in the preface made me think again of my favourite quotes from Jeff Goins and Chuck Swindoll.

Sometimes the route to our purpose is a chaotic experience, and how we respond matters more than what happens. – The Art of Work by Jeff Goins

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. – Chuck Swindoll

I admit I didn’t realize it before reading The Obstacle is the Way but both Goins and Swindoll are channeling the essence of Stoic Philosophy in these quotes.

For those unfamiliar with, but interested in, The Stoics, this book is for you because the whole point of The Obstacle is the Way is to share the teaching of the Stoics in a bit more up-to-date manner.

This book will share with you their collective wisdom in order to help you accomplish the very specific and increasingly urgent goal we all share: overcoming obstacles. Mental obstacles. Physical obstacles. Emotional obstacles. Perceived obstacles.

This is not a book for those who want to blame someone else for their problems. It’s not for someone who’s happy to accept handouts while not looking for work. It’s not for someone who’s content living a mediocre life with mediocre results. This is a book for those who want to face their problems head on because they know on the other side of that challenge or fear is the goal they want to achieve. This is for the pragmatic, down-to-earth among us who love to think but don’t stand around with their heads in the clouds.

So this will be a book of ruthless pragmatism and stories from history that illustrate the arts of relentless persistence and indefatigable ingenuity. It teaches you how to get unstuck, unfucked, and unleashed. How to turn the many negative situations we encounter in our lives into positive ones — or at least to snatch whatever benefit we can from them. To steal good fortune from misfortune.

Holiday divides the book into three broad sections which cover, he asserts, the three critical steps you need to overcome obstacles. He calls them Perception, Action and the Will.


WHAT IS PERCEPTION? It’s how we see and understand what occurs around us — and what we decide those events will mean.

I think the key point, and a recurring theme in much of my reading, comes at the end of that sentence. It’s an acknowledgement that we choose what events in our life mean.

You can see this evidenced when you talk to two business people in the same town offering similar services. Often you’ll hear from one that business is not going great and no one really needs their services anymore. Talk to the other and you’ll hear that they’ve never been busier and they wish they could serve everyone around them.

What’s the difference? Simply the perception of the situation. Your perception reflects your reality. If everything is going against you and it’s all bad all the time, then of course the day you get a flat tire you’ll view it as another cosmic punch from some being that is laughing at your hardship. If things are going good, that flat tire will simply be something that happened and needs to be dealt with. Maybe you’ll even make a business deal with the tire repair shop.

You will come across obstacles in life — fair and unfair. And you will discover, time and time again, that what matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them, and whether we keep our composure.

Control is another strong theme in the first section of the book (Perception) and a strong theme throughout Stoic Philosophy. When that tire situation happens to you do you fly off the handle and rage about the injustice of it all? Do you let out a sigh and then calmly pull out your phone to call someone to tow you? Which person do you think seems more in control of the situation? Which one do you think is going to make more effective decisions in their business?

The person with control.

Regardless of how much actual danger we’re in, stress puts us at the potential whim of our baser—fearful—instinctual reactions.

Don’t think for a second that grace and poise and serenity are soft attributes of some aristocrat. Ultimately, nerve is a matter of defiance and control.

This control must exist in a world where everything doesn’t go to plan. Where we have events outside our control. To the Stoics this would be the will of the gods which could be fickle and mean. While you may not believe in those beings of lore you have to admit that the world is a place of randomness.

Welcome to the source of most of our problems down here on Earth. Everything is planned down to the letter, then something goes wrong and the first thing we do is trade in our plan for a good ol’ emotional freak-out. Some of us almost crave sounding the alarm, because it’s easier than dealing with whatever is staring us in the face.

One of the best pieces of fiction I’ve ever read has the main character exuding this control in what would be extreme odds. Of course, I’m referring to The Martian where our protagonist, Mark, is left on Mars to fend for himself with not enough food to last until help arrives, and tools that weren’t made to last much past the 90-day mission. From having part of his structure blow off with him inside to short-circuiting his only line of communication to Earth, Mark continually lets that momentary freak-out happen then takes a deep breath and deals with the situation as it stands. Calm and in control and solving one little step at a time.

Also similar is the admonition in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: DON’T PANIC.

Perception is all about that control in all situations. Take that second but then move into calm control so that you can move on to the next section of the book…action.


But you, when you’re dealt a bad hand. What’s your response? Do you fold? Or do you play it for all you’ve got?

Action is the next step from Perception. It’s not enough to not freak out — you actually have to move forward towards goals with the same level of calm with which you perceived the situation.

The opposite of action is knowing what the solution is but then sitting there doing nothing because nothing is easier. If we take action we risk failure. In that failure we fear what others may say about us.

But in our lives, when our worst instincts are in control, we dally. We don’t act like Demosthenes, we act frail and are powerless to make ourselves better. We may be able to articulate a problem, even potential solutions, but then weeks, months, or sometimes years later, the problem is still there. Or it’s gotten worse. As though we expect someone else to handle it, as though we honestly believe that there is a chance of obstacles unobstacling themselves.

Reading that now we smile at the absurdity of anyone who would think an obstacle would ‘unobstacle’ itself and yet consultants put off that painful email to a client when they’re behind. They wait months to invoice someone because they’re afraid of what the client will say. At work, you simply complain about a situation because it’s easier than doing anything about it.

We so often sit quietly looking at that obstacle hoping it just goes away and when confronted by it without some place to hide we will deal with it, but not until then.

No one is saying you can’t take a minute to think, Dammit this sucks. By all means, vent. Exhale. Take stock. Just don’t take too long. Because you have to get back to work. Because each obstacle we overcome makes us stronger for the next one.


No. No excuses. No exceptions. No way around it: It’s on you.

The truly successful people you look up to go through the same challenges as you, or they went through them on the way to where they are now. When you sit down with anyone successful and really probe you’ll find fail products, bankruptcy, failed relationships. They took time to say the situation sucked but they didn’t stop. Like a large rock rolling downhill, they kept going towards their goal. They tried another path, took a road less traveled or bushwhacked their way through a path everyone said was impossible.

If you’re not willing to take that path, or forge your own, don’t expect to get the outsized results of the people you look up to.

So when you’re frustrated in pursuit of your own goals, don’t sit there and complain that you don’t have what you want or that the obstacle won’t budge. If you haven’t even tried yet, then of course you will still be in the exact same place. You haven’t actually pursued anything.

You need to risk that failure to get those rewards. If you don’t put all your proverbial chips on the table, then you can’t expect any return. Well maybe I should change how I said that. You shouldn’t expect any return. Many people today expect that simply going to school like everyone else should get them that huge paying job some guidance counsellor promised them in high school. So they took the safe path with everyone else. They took on debt and spent years trying to find themselves in the most expensive way possible.

Then when faced with their decisions in the form of loan bills they complain that the future they thought was coming is already full. All the others around them are vying for the same jobs with similar resumes in the same suit or dress and yet for some reason the mediocre effort with no risk should be rewarded with huge benefits.

Yet nothing was risked. This is their first experience of failure and many never get the chance to learn from it as family save them from dealing with any failure in the past.

But it’s no joke. Failure can be an asset if what you’re trying to do is improve, learn, or do something new. It’s the preceding feature of nearly all successes. There’s nothing shameful about being wrong, about changing course. Each time it happens we have new options. Problems become opportunities.

In your action, which problems will you turn into opportunities? Going through this process over and over is what will bring you success in your business and life. Thinking it’s going to be smooth sailing is a faulty assumption that’s simply going to put you years behind those who face adversity head on and deal with the world as it is, complete with the problems. They just keep taking action instead of complaining about how things are.

Complaining gets you nowhere — action does. But more than action is a force of will. To repeatedly try new ways to get to your goal despite setbacks. Which brings us to the third section of the book…Will


…the will is the critical third discipline. We can think, act, and finally adjust to a world that is inherently unpredictable. The will prepares us for this, protects us against it, and allows us to be happy and thrive in spit of it. It is also the most difficult of all the disciplines. It’s what allows us to stand undisturbed while others wilt and give in to disorder. Willing and able to continue, even during the unthinkable, even when our worst nightmares have become true.

It could always get worse. Whatever you’re dealing with, there is always another step lower down, or many steps lower down. Is the budget tight this month and you need new shoes? You do have a house over your head and you’re sitting here on an Internet connected device reading a website in your leisure time instead of heading to your third job of the day.

It’s hard to see that though, in the midst of the very real problems we’ve all got going on. Too many of us revert to that inner five-year-old that sees the loss of a special paper plate as a cause to leave the family because nothing in the world could be worse.

This view that we can simply walk away from what troubles us if the problem gets too big is the opposite of a strong Will. Will keeps going. Like water encountering a rock will find a way around over years of relentless pounding, so the Will keeps pushing against the troubles until a solution is found.

A premortem is different. In it, we look to envision what could go wrong, what will go wrong, in advance, before we start. Far too many ambitious undertakings fail for preventable reasons. Far too many people don’t have a backup plan because they refuse to consider that something might not go exactly as they wish.

I think that this idea of a premortem is one of the key takeaways in our third section of the book. Going through this process will help make our ideas much more likely to succeed as we work through each section of failure and do our best to mitigate the effect that a point of failure can have on our overall idea.

All too often we simply assume that if we build something and tell a few people about it our ideal will be the next big thing. We tie so much of our self-worth up in that successful launch as well and when it does fail we’re personally devastated.

Assigning our personal worth to an idea and letting its failure affect us for more than a moment is a failure of will. It’s a failure of stepping back and objectively looking at the way the world is, accepting it and having a plan to deal with it. The failure of an idea is nothing more than life telling us to not pursue that idea at this time, in this way, with these people.

If someone we know took traffic signals personal, we would judge them insane.

Yet this is exactly what life is doing to us. It tells us to come to a stop here. Or that some intersection is blocked or that a particular road has been rerouted through an inconvenient detour. We can argue or yell this problem away. We simply accept it.

This is not to say we allow it to prevent us from reaching our ultimate destination. But it does change the way we travel to get there and the duration of the trip.

These three ideas of Perception, Action and Will are so tightly tied together it’s hard to separate them. Indeed the message in this book often feels repetitive, just like above. This harkens back to the ideas in the section on Perception around how we decide to let a situation affect us. We could yell, or we could just shrug and take the new direction that’s left to us.

Strength of Will is tied up in Perception so tightly they are almost indistinguishable. Perception is how we deal with round one in our fight. Action is heading into round two and round three. Will is still being around in round 90.

If persistence is attempting to solve some difficult problem with dogged determination and hammering until the break occurs, then plenty of people can be said to be persistent. But perseverance is something larger. It’s the long game. It’s about what happens not just in round one but in round two and every round after — and then the fight after that and the fight after that, until the end.

Just because we have one success doesn’t mean we’ll roll into another one. And Will is what gets us back up and gets us to give it another try.

We idolize that strength of Will but do we actually train for it at all? Do our schools spend any time really developing Will in someone? Is there even a way? I’m not sure, but I’d hazard a guess that we can train into this by simply being held to our word from a young age and then needing to meet the expectations we set for ourselves with what we said we’d do. We need to stop giving people a pass. If you said you’d do A and then didn’t quite do A, you lied. You didn’t live up to your word. We can do more for the character development of those we love by calling them out in those times than by simply overlooking it and hoping that they learn from the experience.


Did the book accomplish its purpose of channeling the Stoics into things a bit more easily digested by those around today? I don’t know Stoic philosophy enough to say for sure, actually. Did I get a bunch out of this book to move forward and be a better person who’s growing in life?

Emphatically YES!

The collection of short essays found in The Obstacle is the Way should be required reading for anyone who wants to get an idea out in the world. If you want to be a leader or entrepreneur read this book and start girding yourself for the inevitable issues life is going to throw your way.

Get The Obstacle is the Way on Amazon.

photo credit: tico24 cc


Focus, Purpose and the Tools You Use

I find it both sad and interesting that the most viewed posts on my site are the ones where I compare different software tools or do a detailed review of a software tool. It’s great because it helps me reach more people with my content but sad because this is a symptom of a bigger problem.

So many people believe that if they just find the right tool, success will follow. In the War of Art, Steven Pressfield would call this resistance since the search for a tool is often done in favour of actually producing content.

The writer doesn’t write. They try out 42 writing tools spending inordinate amounts of time trying each one out, only to reject them one by one, and keep searching. The programmer switches between code editors based on the recommendations of colleagues. So many office workers change between productivity systems for what seem like great reasons in the moment but simply amount to a delay tactic.

In the online world it seems so much easier to do this and to be applauded for trying out new tools and writing about it. I could easily increase my traffic if I focused on reviewing new software tools, but it wouldn’t help you run an awesome business. It would simply fuel your procrastination.

When I built houses we never searched around for just the right saw or hammer or tool belt. You got a hammer that had a weight you could handle then got to the work of building the damn house. If you purchased a tool belt you used it until it fell apart and then purchased a new one that would last longer.

In construction, you couldn’t fool yourself into productivity. Either boards got nailed together or they didn’t. Searching for the better tool to do the job wasn’t work and didn’t get houses built.

Yes a hammer is a simple tool, but that doesn’t change the fact that most of us waffle around with our tools in the name of finding something that will make us more productive. As if the change of a tool will suddenly increase our success. We’ll get more words written if we use the same word processor as some famous writer.

I bet if you cut out all the time you spent reading about new software and put it into writing, design, painting, coding you’d be much farther along in your career.

To keep you productive, I propose the following workflow for evaluating your tools.

Prepare first

The first thing you need to do is have a problem. Don’t try out new tools just because there are new tools. Only try out new software if you have a problem with your current tools.

In the past I’ve changed billing and proposal systems because the workflow between the two was terrible. It involved extra steps by me to build an invoice for a client once they had accepted a proposal. The client had to wait for me to do that instead of just accepting the proposal and then moving on with paying me for the work. With 17Hats I found a great tool that has a killer workflow for proposals through to getting paid.

When it comes time to look at new tools write down your top five pain points with the current option you’re using. Then only entertain new options that fix most of those problems without introducing new issues. This year I really didn’t change much because I didn’t have any problems. Sure there is new ‘sexy’ software out there people are talking about, but trying new options when I have no problems to solve would be a waste of my time.

Set a time limit to test things

Secondly, set a time limit. Dan Miller at 48 Days has a great way to push decisions. He gives himself two weeks to make any decision. If a decision takes any longer than two weeks, Dan contends you’re just delaying a decision to ‘gather more information’ which really translates to wasting more time.

Work always expands to fill the time available so when you’re trying out new billing software give yourself one hour to try out a new possibility. Don’t check social media during that hour, spend it evaluating the tool. Check back against your list and make sure that it solves the problems you’ve written down.

If it doesn’t, just scrap it. Don’t put more time into find workarounds, move on.

Live with your decision for a year

Adopt my rule of thumb: Only investigate changing tools when the year changes. Once a year give yourself three weeks to look at the new tools that are out there and then decide on two that may be good options to replace your current preferred writing (or coding, or billing or…) tool.

Use the time limits above to test them out and make a decision. Then don’t think about it again for a year.

Remember your job is not to evaluate different tools. It’s to write or code or design or…get stuff done. Stop pretending you’re ‘productive’ as you evaluate the latest and greatest tools that come along.

Just get things done.

photo credit: clement127 cc


Looking death in the face and its effect on purpose

I’ve been thinking lots about purpose lately as something inside quests for my purpose. Above my desk are four Post-it notes with the following messages:

  1. My business will let me spend much of my time traveling and being in the wilderness
  2. I need a one-to-many business model and to cut my Internet days down to two days a week
  3. I help people run the business they want so they can live the life they want
  4. What if I died?

These four statements are all tied to trying to achieve my ‘why’ or my purpose, which are the same thing said different ways.

On traveling

The first two items are tied together. I want to have a business that allows me the freedom to spend more time with my kids. Held in tension with that is the sometimes overwhelming passion to help people run an awesome business and live the life that they want.

That has me reading books about purpose, productivity, working, leadership, or one of many other topics to keep learning how to help people more and how to be better myself. I read these books at the same time I should sometimes be playing with my kids and giving them my full attention.

I sit in my office daily and look at the mountains, and whether it’s raining, snowing or sunny, part of my soul longs to be in the mountains instead of in my office.

And yet, I send an email to someone asking for advice on their business and hear about a success and there’s nowhere I’d rather be than reading that email helping someone.

On whying

My third statement is a daily reminder of my why. Why do I stay focused for six hours straight sometimes and occasionally suffer pains in my legs from standing without moving for six hours? Because I’m reading/researching/writing about ways to help people make their business better.

These last two weeks as I’ve had a bit of a limp in one leg or the other, looking to my WHY has reminded me that while I need to make sure I move more, this momentary discomfort has a purpose.

I’m helping people live a good life.

On dying

My final statement is a reminder that I’m mortal. It’s not just that I ride my bike to work every day through the city, which means that in any bike-car incident — regardless of fault — the bike will lose. Even if I drove or walked or had a home office I’m not guaranteed any more time than this single second I exist in currently.

Despite my generally good health I could lose it all in an instant and be gone from this world.

This is another constant reminder that I need to stay focused. While I have dreams of affecting so many more, would I be okay with the small legacy I’d leave if I were to die today?

What is the single best thing I could do at work today to help affect people anew?

What is the single best thing I could do at home today to leave my family with the knowledge I am a good husband/father?

This final statement was only added recently as I read The Obstacle is the Way and think more about Stoic Philosophy. That note stays there as a daily reminder to be effective in my work. I have no time to surf Facebook or Twitter or visit any number of interesting links on the web.

I only have time to push the ball forward and help more people.

Do you have this clarity? Could you tell me your why or your purpose? Do you have a daily reminder of what these are, staring you in the face? Have you engineered your day around achieving these things and cut out all the shallow work so you can focus on the deep work that truly advances your cause?

If you don’t it’s time to set aside a day and get it. Continuing to wallow around in self-pity where you think the world is against you and you can’t catch a break is simply a recipe to still be there in 20 years. You’re still going to blame ‘life’ for the raw bone it threw you and there is nothing I can do to help you with that.

On wanting that clarity

If you want that clarity it’s time to put the work in. Figure out your purpose and stick to it.

Take a page from Will it Fly and figure out your 4 Quadrants.

Go through Deep Work and cut the fluff from your life.

Once you’ve started down that path you’re going to find work isn’t so bad. It was always you and how you perceived your situation, not what was happening. If that’s tough to swallow, then you’ve got more work to do. No more whining about what happens to you — turn it around and use that obstacle to reframe what you’re currently doing to be better than you would have been otherwise.

photo credit: nukamari cc


The ways you let communication ruin your life

The online world is amazing. Every week we get new awesome tools that can make our lives better. From dropping email and using instant communication methods like Slack, to automating parts of our lives with services like Zapier. There is so much to be thankful for and amazed by online.

There is also a subtle trap in all the amazing tools that show up in our lives. Not a trap by those who offer us these new tools, but a trap in our reasoning as we decide which tools we’ll use in our workflows.

It’s called the ‘any benefit’ trap according to Deep Work (my review of Deep Work). It goes something like this:

We choose to use a tool if there is ’any benefit at all’ regardless of the costs associated with that tool.

Most people know that their attention is a finite resource. The ability to really dig into client work, or writing, or study is something you need to cultivate and to do that you need large swaths of time where nothing interrupts you. This comic shows how it works for a programmer.

Yet knowing this we try to multitask which really means we shift quickly and frequently among tasks but rarely do any of them well. We let our focus get interrupted by an open Slack channel and our Twitter feed scrolling by on a second screen. Facebook can notify us of incoming chat requests.

We essentially enable ourselves to be less than effective (I don’t like the word productive) because there is some benefit somewhere to the tools we have in our arsenal.

If you want to truly get times of deep focus here’s how you should be setting up your tools.


Turn off your email. No it’s not good enough to just turn off notifications and badges, though that’s a great starting point. If you’re employed somewhere you may think my advice is going to be a problem since everyone expects an instant reply to emails but it’s probably not going to be the problem you think.

Years ago I worked at a non-profit and I was pretty low on the totem pole. Despite this lack of any authority, starting day one I only checked my email at 11 a.m. and at 3 p.m. I would not open my email any other time of the day. At first I’d have people come over to my work station 10 or 20 minutes after an email was sent wondering if I got their message, and I explained how I worked with email.

Even when the CEO came in and I explained that I needed big swaths of time with no distraction to really dig into a programming problem he bought into it and learned to just wait. There was no problem at all with my email policy once I explained the rationale behind it.

Now that I work for myself I use the Pomodoro method and I only devote one 25-minute block a day to my email. On Tuesday only I devote two blocks to email because I really spend one of those working with my CRM, Contactually. Despite getting close to 100 email messages some days about possible projects or other opportunities I still achieve Inbox 0 in that single 25-minute block.

Let’s define Inbox 0 though, because even when I work with my email I treat it very differently than most people.

First off, just because someone sent you an email doesn’t mean you need to respond. Email is simply a way for others to tell you what they think is important for you to focus on in the day. Just because someone sends you a request to work on a project doesn’t mean they ever need to hear from you about it. The responsibility is on the email sender to send you something that’s compelling enough to respond to. Just like you’re not required to pick up your phone because someone calls, you’re in no way required to respond to every email you get.

Second, even when you reply to emails you should have a bunch of email templates to make that reply take seconds instead of minutes. I’ve got a bunch. When the project doesn’t look crazy but is a bad fit for you send them a ‘no thanks’ email that recommends colleagues or other services they could use for the project.

Third, schedule almost all email to send later. This stops you from playing email tag all day. I know you’ve been there. By the time you get to the last email you’ve got five new ones in response. This just gives you a never-ending inbox which sucks. Also, scheduling means that the person that emailed you at 9 a.m. just as you’re checking your inbox doesn’t have unrealistic expectations set. They still get a response a few hours later.

Now we’ve mostly cut ourselves off from email so of course that brings us to instant messaging systems like Slack or Hipchat.


While there are many great things about instant messaging systems like Slack (or Skype or …), there is also a huge cost to productivity. These are, in theory, turned on all the time ready to notify you of something someone needs at a moment’s notice no matter what you’re currently working on.

Yes using these tools means less email in your inbox. Yes they look way prettier than email. Yes they allow others to find similar answers via a history search. Yes they let remote workers have a water cooler.

Despite all of these awesome things the worst thing you can do for your focus and effectiveness is to leave them on, generating a stream of notifications all day. Again, change your mindset with the tools — how do they best serve your business and productivity?

You should keep all messaging off most of the day. Even when you’re in my email block I don’t have messaging applications open. The focus of the email block is to complete my email not answer a bunch of chat messages.

This goes for text messages from friends as well. Turn off iMessage on your Mac. When friends keep texting you put your phone in airplane mode. When I do this I let my wife know so that if she has an emergency she can FaceTime me on my computer.

Choose a time or two per day to check in with the messaging apps you have. I choose just after lunch and just after I get back from my workout. Then turn off messaging for the rest of the day and get back to work.

You need to ruthlessly guard your focus and messaging apps shouldn’t make it into your day except when you let them.

Social networks

Twitter, Facebook, or any other social network is built to be addictive. I know, I regularly find myself having three seconds where I’m waiting for something to happen on my computer and I default to opening Twitter.

You may want/need to be on social networks for your business. I need it to interact with my readers, but I don’t need it 32 times a day. At most I need it once a day.

Check your social networks once or twice a day at a time you decide works for you. I’m terrible at this so I use Self Control. I check social media and then I turn it on for eight hours. You may also need to delete social networks from your phone — I know I need to. If you’ve blocked your computer but just pick up the phone to check and find you waste time getting sucked in (which is what the applications are trying to do anyway) then remove them.

Contrary to popular belief you will miss nothing important when you don’t check social media regularly. Those photos, messages, things will still be there later.


Now what about calls from clients or prospects? Could you guess that I don’t think you should answer your phone when you’re working? My wife has a special ring and her calls are the only ones I answer because she only calls when there is something important to talk about.

You should only take scheduled calls from clients. Yes that means if a client just happens to call you one day you shouldn’t answer the phone. I let it go to voicemail, and I rarely check voicemail. For me current clients should know that the best way to interact is via our project management system because I told them that in my project success document. I even assigned a task to them to read it and don’t start working till that task is resolved.

When any client asks to talk send them a meeting link with a service like Calendly. For me this allows only meetings on Tuesday and only one meeting on a Tuesday. If your schedule doesn’t work for a prospect in your initial call to talk about the project then you have a good reason that working together is a bad idea. Your schedules aren’t compatible and which means you can’t serve them well.

This all goes for home too

All of the above goes for you at home as well. When you get home take your phone out of your pocket and put it somewhere that’s not easy to get at. I put mine on top of the fridge and tell my kids to remind me not to touch my phone.

All too often we do okay at cutting distractions at work only to let a bunch in at home. Is a successful week at home marked by a bunch of chats with people that are nowhere near you or is it marked by quality time with your children, spouse, friends?

The latter is what constitutes a good week for me. Take a stand at home and cut out the distraction.

It’s all about your mindset

Everything here is about a mindset shift. Email is there to serve you and your business, not let other people tell you what’s important for you to do in the day. The same thought applies to every tool in your life.

Just because there is some benefit to the tool doesn’t mean you should be using it. Step back first and weigh the costs to your effectiveness. If it’s not a net benefit, just don’t get involved. If you must, schedule the times to check it. If you can’t do that then use some tool that blocks them for you so you can’t check even if you wanted to.

It’s all about constructing the ideal work environment for you so you can get your work done.

But my job is…

If you’ve got a job in sales or some other job where a major part of you doing a good job is using one of these tools regularly then of course you should do it. A sales person needs to take sales calls. Someone that’s selling on-call support should be answering their phone to offer the service their clients have paid for.

But almost everyone overestimates how much people need to get in touch with them and what the negative effects of cutting off lots of that communication will be. There is likely to be nothing bad that happens, in fact you’re likely to get way more work done of a higher quality so there is a net gain for your business.

Start cutting out the distractions around you today so you can focus on doing your work right. Only use the tools that help you do your work better and only use them on your terms. Forget being ‘normal’ and run a business that is awesome.

photo credit: 50006501@N03 cc

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Curtis McHale

Helping you find and vet your ideal clients