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2×4: An Interview With Aaron Mahnke

2×4: An Interview With Aaron Mahnke


    Many of us who create for the web wear a lot of hats; most of the time this causes us to spread ourselves too thin. Occasionally, someone comes along who manages to balance so many of these skills while maintaining a level of quality that is intimidating. It seems as if they can do everything and that everything they do is exceptional. If you need an example, look no farther than designer, author, podcaster, product creatorgeneral advocate of common sense,” Aaron Mahnke.

    You wonder if people like Aaron have a secret, something that lets him do what we can’t. It turns out he does and it seems he’s finally sharing it with us all with his latest project, Frictionless. His new, free manifesto along with Capture Cards, offers a path towards a life without friction. A path that lets you do more and helps you do better.

    Without any further ado, here’s some insight into how Aaron Mahnke manages to do so much while making it all look far too easy.

    Creativity

    Have you always considered yourself a creative person?

    Creative? Sure. Talented? Not so much. I’m a problem solver by nature, and that’s basically a creative quality. I really enjoy taking rough, broken processes and ideas and retooling them until they work better.

    At the same time, I suppose I fit the stereotypical notion of what a creative person is supposed to be like. I’m an artist and a writer. I’ve willingly taken pottery classes and sketched models. I’m at home with a palette of color and a blank canvas. And if I had the time (or a time machine), I would be learning an instrument of some sort. Probably drums.

    What mediums and inspirations do you gravitate toward to realize your creative goals?

    I’m far from being a pioneer, so I need to be around people and inspiration in order to pump up my creativity. You are what you eat, they say. So for me, time in conversation is a huge deal. My wife and I talk constantly, and it is in conversation that I verbally talk through problems, realize the absurdity of ideas and find encouragement in my latest pursuits.

    Seeing other people do amazing things also gives me a kick in the pants. I’m capable of anything you throw at me. I believe this at the deepest level of my soul. I just happen to get in the way of myself too often. When I see others overcome the friction in their own life, it makes me want to do the same. It gives me permission to try.

    If you had to point to one thing, what specific posts or creations are you most proud of and why?

    Oh man. Just one thing? I have two kids; do you want to know which one I love more than the other? Just kidding!

    I’m an idea guy, and there’s always something new brewing in my head. So sometimes what is most relevant at the moment feels like the most important. That’s not true, but it feels like it. A core idea in Scott Belsky’s book, Making Ideas Happen, is that the newness of ideas has a tendency to pull our attention away from the ideas that need seen through to the end. I’m proud of my books, and my design work, the Read & Trust Network, the Home Work podcast, and my brand new Frictionless project — all of it, really. But what I’m most proud of is the fact that I shipped them. Period.

    Any suggestions for those who feel they may not be creative enough to unlock their inner artist?

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    Join the narrative. Find people who are doing what you would love to do and read their stories. Mine deep and far for the inspiration, and use it as fuel on your journey. And figure out what things or people or systems are keeping you from reaching your goals (that’s the “friction” I keep talking about) and remove them from your path.

    Then, go create.

    Productivity

    Can you describe your current personal and professional responsibilities?

    First and foremost I’m a husband and the father of two amazing and gorgeous little girls. So I’m responsible for making sure they have a place to live, food to eat and clothes to wear. Real-world responsibilities.

    I manage all that by taking on a set of secondary responsibilities: I’m business owner, a logo designer, marketing designer, writer and business consultant. I spend my week helping people and businesses figure out how to communicate who they are and what they have to offer. I do this full-time, for pay, and with a glad heart. I love my job.

    How do you go about balancing the personal, professional and digital?

    I have the benefit of having a home office that is removed from the rest of the house about as far as it could be without being in the shed out back. So it has been really important to me over the years to treat the threshold of my office with honor and sanctity. When I step into my office, I’m at work. My family doesn’t disturb me, and I don’t wander out and do personal things.

    But when my day is over, I walk out of the room and shut the door and work is left behind. Your calls and emails? I’ll get to them tomorrow. I have an amazing wife and two eager kids waiting to see me downstairs, and they get 100% of me.

    Digital is tough. It’s like a stowaway rat in my pocket when I leave my office; a little bit of work is always right there with me. And I have a laptop that I bring down each night, just in case something massively important crops up. But yeah, the battle to keep the digital from encroaching into my family time is a constant one.

    The rule in our house is that during normal family hours (basically whenever the kids are up and in need of attention), our phones are for emergencies only. My wife is better at obeying that rule than I am, but I’m getting there.

    What tools and techniques do you find yourself counting on to get through your workload?

    Planning. I plan everything. Go read David Allen’s Getting Things Done book and put some of those habits into practice. I don’t follow it to the letter, but I employ enough of it that I have removed a ton of friction from my productivity system.

    One big thing is to always be ready to capture ideas or tasks. I use OmniFocus on my Macs and iOS devices, and that’s the central nervous system for my tasks. Everything I need to do gets tossed into there and organized by area of life (personal, work, side-projects), and given a context regarding how long it will take me to do it. I capture things on the computer, but also on index cards when I’m out and about. For that I keep a few Capture Cards cards in my back pocket, with a Fischer Space Pen (because you can sit on them all day and they’ll never leak).

    And every night (Sunday through Thursday, really), I sit down with OmniFocus and a notebook and map out the next day. I plan everything out hour-by-hour, giving tasks 30- or 60-minute blocks of time. This does a couple of things for me. It helps me to go into my day with realistic expectations (I can’t overload a day if I’ve added up how many hours everything will take), and it helps me stay on track when the day gets crazy.

    Plan to succeed, or you can plan on failing.

    What is the best starting point for the unproductive amongst us, who are looking to get more organized?

    Just stick a small notebook in your back pocket and start writing down things you need to do the moment you think of them. And then use that notebook to guide your choices. Most of us only accomplish 50% of what we’d really like simply because we never remember to do the rest. Don’t give yourself an excuse to forget. Write it down and keep it handy.

    Oh, and the more complicated the tool, the more friction it adds. Find the basic, simple tools that work for you, like scraps of paper, index cards or a notebook.

    Capture. Plan. Do.

    More by this author

    2×4: An Interview with David Sparks 2×4: An Interview with Myke Hurley 2×4: An Interview With CJ Chilvers 2X4 Interviews 2×4: An Interview With Gabe Weatherhead 2×4: An Interview With Brett Kelly

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    Last Updated on July 10, 2020

    The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

    The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

    Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

    Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

    The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

    Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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    Program Your Own Algorithms

    Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

    Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

    By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

    How to Form a Ritual

    I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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    Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

    1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
    2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
    3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
    4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

    Ways to Use a Ritual

    Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

    1. Waking Up

    Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

    2. Web Usage

    How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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    3. Reading

    How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

    4. Friendliness

    Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

    5. Working

    One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

    6. Going to the gym

    If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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    7. Exercise

    Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

    8. Sleeping

    Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

    8. Weekly Reviews

    The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

    Final Thoughts

    We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

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    Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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