Productivity by Elimination

productivity by eliminationPhoto by Bill & Mavis

True productivity is not about doing more in less time. It’s about doing less in less time. It’s about defining what is truly worth doing and sticking to that alone.

Bloggers often tell me that there’s not enough time available to do everything they truly want to do: to start that dream project, to write that value-packed post, to guest-post on a popular blog.

If I said to them: “You can have that, but you need to stop reading feeds and outsource comment moderation,” most people would respond: “It’s not that simple.”

But it is. If you can eliminate three hours of the inessential from your week, and doing your dream takes three hours a week, you can have it.

I’m not suggesting that you do all the below, but I’d like you to ask yourself each question and consider the pros and cons of your answer.

How much time would you save? What’s the trade-off?

A mental exercise rather than a prescriptive list, I want you to start thinking about where elimination fits in your blogging routine.

What if you stopped moderating comments?

Here’s an experiment to conduct for a week: note down the number of comments you moderate over a week, then write down the number of comments you had to mark as spam or delete.

If the number of offending comments is very small, you could consider turning off comment moderation. You’ll probably be reading the comments on posts anyway, and can delete any spam you see at that point.

What if you paid someone to moderate comments for you?

If you assume moderating comments once a day is about 40 minutes work each week (at most), you could probably hire a cheap virtual assistant willing to do this for 10 dollars or so — maybe a little less or a little more, depending on who you hire.

What if you stopped reading feeds?

The likely result: you would save hours each week but your posts would be light on links. You might also miss some good posts. But maybe that’s not the end of the world?

If you do an analysis, you’ll probably find that most of the posts you find truly helpful come from just a handful of blogs. If you’re not fond of complete withdrawal, you could prune all your feeds except five or so.

What if you mastered the art of short, polite and to the point email?

A little exercise you can do is to look back on your last 5 sent emails and think: “Could I tick all the same boxes in half the words?”

If you can say the same thing in half the time, you’ll cut down the time you spend responding to email by 50%.

What if you checked email less?

I used to check email as soon as I hopped online, but now I wait until I’ve completed the most important tasks for the day (to avoid wasting hours on email and then not having enough time left to do what’s really important).

I also find that, for what I do, I don’t receive any emails that can’t wait longer than 24 hours. I would check my emails once every three days if I could, but there are some people I correspond with who require a faster response.

What if you sorted email by importance?

If the fear of keeping people waiting prevents you from batching emails, you can set up a separate account to check daily and forward all mail from your most important correspondents to that address.

As soon as you get an email from a VIP it gets forwarded to your ‘important/daily’ account, so you won’t miss anything (but you should only get a couple of emails to deal with on a daily basis). You can then check your original account once every three days, or if you’re confident, once a week.

What if you only checked stats once a week?

Checking statistics is something most bloggers do often, but it’s not something we can directly affect. Sort of like reading the news, it’s interesting, but there’s not much we can do about it.

If we look over our stats once a week (on a certain day, maybe) we can detect patterns and conduct a more holistic analysis. If it takes 10 minutes in one sitting as opposed to five minutes every day, you’re saving time and reducing interruptions.

What if you posted less?

Unless you’re only posting two times a week, experiment with posting less for seven days. If you used to post every day, try posting three times.

If you posted three times, try posting twice. Try to make the posts more value-packed than usual. At the end of the week, analyze your subscribers and traffic.

If the stats were significantly worse than usual, go back to your old posting rhythm. If you find there’s not much change, or things have improved, you may just have discovered a way to save several hours each week. It’s an exercise worth doing.

What if you stopped using social media?

From being active on StumbleUpon to being not so active, I haven’t noticed a change in the amount of votes my content gets. I enjoy StumbleUpon, but I haven’t had the time to use it lately.

If you’re using social media for the perceived traffic benefit alone, then your efforts are better focused on saving the time and creating value-packed content.

What could you eliminate from your blogging routine?

Why No-one is a Social Media Expert

social media expertPhoto by mikebaird

The term ‘social media expert’ has been the subject of a lot of talk and a lot of controversial articles lately.

People have written about the different types of social media expert, whether it’s OK to call yourself a social media expert and outlined who they believe are (and are not) experts in social media.

The term has never been more commonly used. This is probably because an entire industry has bubbled up around people creating businesses and services springing from their claimed expertise in social media.

There are a lot of good people in this industry and there is a lot of good work being done.

What I’d like to do in this post, though, is get people thinking about whether it is actually possible to be a ‘social media expert’. As the title of this post suggest, I believe it isn’t. Here’s why.

Branding yourself as a social media expert is as nebulous as branding yourself an expert on ‘Animals’ or ‘History’ or ‘Asia’ or ‘Sport’.

These areas are simply too big and too complicated to be truly mastered in any one lifetime. You can certainly be a student of these things and know more than most about them, but you cannot gain an extremely deep knowledge (which I believe is required to be an ‘expert’) on something so broad.

Social media is an umbrella topic covering hundreds of different platforms, mediums and means for producing and sharing user-generated content.

Within that, individual communities can have thousands (or millions) of members, distinct cultures, unspoken rules and unofficial leaders.

Digg is extremely different to Twitter. Twitter is extremely different to StumbleUpon. StumbleUpon is extremely different to FriendFeed. Tumblr is different to your WordPress blog.

Expertise in using one type of social media does not automatically transfer into all other types.

I see many people branding themselves as social media experts who are active on Twitter mainly, perhaps Friendfeed, but have never actively used Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit, et al.

If expertise implies full and comprehensive knowledge then this scenario is actually incompatible with social media ‘expertise’. Does this mean these people are being deceptive?

Certainly not – I have no doubt they genuinely believe they are experts and may have different criteria than I do.

My point is not that you should sign-up to every social media service in existence, use them all for thousands of hours, and only then can you call yourself a social media expert.

I don’t think it’s possible to do this, or a wise use of time. Instead, my argument is that it is possible to have expertise within social media.

Spend thousands of hours studying, using and challenging yourself with Twitter and you will have well and truly earned the right to call yourself a Twitter expert. If you want to get really truthful, though, why not get more specific?

  • I’m an expert in using Twitter to grow and strengthen customer loyalty.
  • I’m an expert in teaching companies how to use Twitter to build relationships with customers.
  • I’m an expert in collecting large amounts of Twitter followers in a short period of time.

This type of branding is both more accurate and more powerful than claiming general expertise.

It’s more accurate because you may not truly be a Twitter expert if you have only ever used Twitter in one way (for example, to generate sales leads for your business).

In matters of using Twitter to build your own personal brand or network with people in your industry, you might know only a little. When it comes to generating sales leads for your business, though, your expertise can’t be denied.

This is the take-away point right here, and I think this will help your personal branding: getting specific about your expertise is actually a better branding strategy than a sweeping statement.

Most people are looking for an expert to solve a very specific problem. Some examples from within social media:

  • They want to learn how to create content that compels Digg users to vote, which will in turn bring them more pageviews and ad revenue.
  • They want to use Twitter to build a bigger profile in their field.
  • They want to create a blog that turns readers into customers.

Who are they going to hire, all things being equal?

  • The expert in creating and marketing Diggable content for pageviews, or the ‘social media expert’?
  • The expert in creating super-accounts on Twitter, or the ‘social media expert’?
  • The expert in business blogging for conversions, or the ‘social media expert’?

I know who I’d hire!

The broader your expert branding, the less clear it is what exactly you do and what problems you can solve.

You are also competing with hundreds, perhaps thousands of other people who have branded themselves in the same way.

By presenting yourself as a specialist you are cutting down the amount of people you have to compete with while also providing a specific answer to a specific problem.

Most importantly, you’re acknowledging that you are not an expert in your entire field and that the thing you are passionate about – whether it’s social media or technology or politics – is too complex and multi-layered to be mastered by any one person.

In my humble opinion, it’s an enlightened and authentic approach that will benefit your business.

How to Find Your Hidden Talents

finding your talentsPhoto by vramak

In the past hidden talents have commonly been defined as things you are great at but nobody knows about, or things that you would be immediately great at if you tried them, skipping beginner and progressing to intermediate in an instant.

The first definition is useful mainly in movies, the latter is not really useful at all (arguably more myth than reality).

Your hidden talents are the things you could do that would make you happy. But you don’t know it yet.

This is not just about work, but speaks to the whole content of your life. I’ve already written about the psychological evidence that shows that when people do work or activities that make them feel good and involve skills, either mental or physical, live happier lives.

This is just common sense, and it’s probably nothing you haven’t already heard before. But I don’t think many people actually take the next step and give themselves the opportunity to discover all of their hidden talents.

If you take a pen and paper and write down a list of all the things you’ve always thought you might enjoy or be good at, you’ll be surprised at the number of them that can be tested or teed up within 7 days.

With the help of the internet, it’s easy to find local classes, get how-to book recommendations, follow along with tutorials – and find other people who can answer your newbie questions!

There is no real excuse to miss out on finding your hidden talents.

If the barrier to entry on any of your possible hidden talents is too high – for example, you want to try performing mechanical repairs on light aircraft – there is always a way to make it accessible.

Try working on your car instead. If you enjoy that, you can take the next step towards your real goal.

You might also worry that your real hidden talent is not on your list. It’s so hidden that you’ve never even thought about it as something you might like to do.

If you usually hate exercise, you might never expect that you’d love hiking, for example. But your hidden talents are never that random.

You might hate exercise but love nature, so it makes sense that you’d enjoy relatively easy hikes. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a passionate hiker who hates exercise and is bored by natural beauty!

Your hidden talents will always fit your personality or interests in some way. Instead of being hidden and random – things to be discovered by accident – the things you love doing actually make a lot of sense.

You can find a good beginner’s lesson on anything for free, online. This is an incredible privilege of living in our current era. It provides us with endless opportunities.

50 or 100 years ago, a farmhand in a small rural town who loved sculpture may never have been able to learn more about it.

His small local library didn’t have the books, he didn’t know anyone who could teach him, he didn’t know where to travel to buy materials or join classes.

So he never had the opportunity to find the hidden talent that would make him happy. For us, the barriers to entry are so low that there’s no excuse not to give yourself that opportunity.

Get online, Google the phrases ‘sculpture classes’, ‘sculpture resources’ or ‘sculpture lessons’ and in 5 seconds you have more opportunity than that farmhand ever did to pursue something that could be your life’s calling.

The free and instant access to answers, advice and learning materials on any topic is, to my mind, the internet’s greatest gift to humanity.

By methodically searching out all your hidden talents, you can:

  • Find what puts you into flow and, if you want, build a business on it
  • Be happier
  • Build a personal brand around the activities you’re passionate about

As myself and other online business pundits have argued, positioning yourself as an authority is the best way to create a valuable personal brand.

You become an authority by giving good advice on things that you love and know a lot about. Widening the pool of things you’re passionate about means you will have more options and opportunities in online business. Better yet, it will make you happier.

To finish off, a little homework:

Write down anything you think could be your hidden talent on a sheet of paper: things you might like but haven’t tried, things you liked in the past before life interrupted (maybe you stopped going to art classes when you moved states, or stopped playing sport when you had a baby.)

If it’s in the AM when you read this, pursue one of your potential hidden talents this evening. If it’s in the PM, pursue on of your potential hidden talents tonight or tomorrow.

If it’s something you can do without help, read up on some beginner lessons. If you need help, look for a local class, group or team you can join.

My own story is that I discovered one of my hidden talents a couple of months ago. Believe it or not, it’s playing soccer!

I’ve enjoyed watching it for many years but never gave myself the opportunity to try playing it until recently. I’m so glad I did.

It’s become a passion of mine and I can’t imagine giving it up. My only regret is that I didn’t give myself the opportunity to try it earlier.

Not only has it made me happier, it’s also opened up a whole new sphere of blogs, websites or online businesses I could create in the future based on this new thing I love.

Now I have books on drawing, 3D modeling, fiction writing and game development in the mail – and I’m reading a great book on CSS… just in-case I have any other hidden talents up my sleeve :)


Getting Better at Bad: Why Practice Doesn’t (Always) Make Perfect

being perfectPhoto by fabbiovenni

“Practice makes perfect.” – Unknown

Or does it?

We’re told that with thousands of hours of ‘deliberate’ practice, meaning practicing the same thing repeatedly, we can become experts. Well, tell that to my old soccer team.

I was new to soccer and especially bad at it, but some of the players on the team had been practicing and playing soccer for 12 years. And yet, they weren’t very good.

In truth, they were terrible. Their kicks were weak and inaccurate, and they were awkward with the ball.

These were players who had spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours practicing soccer. They practiced the same skill repeatedly. And yet, they never seemed to improve. We lost every game we played!

They were passionate and dedicated and loved soccer, but it didn’t help. Somehow, in 12 years of practice and playing, no coach had ever taught them the correct way to strike a ball, or control it.

When we practiced, we were only getting better at doing things the wrong way. Every training session we burned bad habits and bad technique into our muscle memory.

We became experts at playing soccer badly.

Repetition isn’t enough

I’m a firm adherent to the belief that anyone can become expertly skillful at anything, if they practice intelligently.

But it’s not enough to practice with repetition – to take 500 free-throws, or write 500 short stories, or play 500 songs on the guitar.

If your technique isn’t right, you’ll be getting progressively better at doing things the wrong way, and helping to entrench habits that will hold you back from reaching your full potential with that skill.

Every time you practice with bad technique, you entrench it further. The most obvious example is in sport, and unknowingly teaching your muscle memory to throw incorrectly, or kick like your leg is a hockey stick.

But this applies just as equally to cooking, or making music, or writing, or any other skill you might want to learn. If you start to practice before you know what you are trying to learn (and what you are trying not to learn), your skills may end up stagnating.

“I can’t sing.”

If you’ve ever had the pleasure (or displeasure) of watching an episode of an Idol series, you’ve probably seen some of the terrible auditions that air.

You watch those people and assume they are talentless and delusional, that they simply don’t have the ability to sing. And yet, there’s no doubt they spend a lot of time singing, and singing the same things repeatedly and doing their best to improve.

They’re engaging in what is commonly called deliberate practice, so why are they still so bad at singing?

I suspect it’s because they spend a lot of time practicing how to sing badly. They’ve never been taught how to control their voice, or modulate their pitch.

Surrounded by encouraging friends and relatives, they’ve never been told that they’re going about this whole singing thing the wrong way.

And yet, with the right teaching, practicing the right things, even the worst singer can learn how to sing.

Repeat success patterns

When trying to learn any skill the best thing you can do is learn how the skill is practiced by people who are already experts.

How do your favorite writers write? How do the best soccer players kick a ball?

Find success patterns and replicate them.

Too often we focus only on results when we practice. It’s possible to achieve good results with bad technique, but too often that’s what separates the best from those who get lost among the middle ranks.

You hit a ceiling of how far you can go doing things the wrong way.

Learn the best practices in the field you are trying to learn, then practice what you learn. In sport, practice correct form. Focus on form over results.

In the short-term you might fall behind teammates who settle for easy yet incorrect methods, but long-term your investment in good technique will pay off.

When writing, don’t simply try to write as much as you can, regardless of quality. Try to produce as much good writing as you can, putting into practice the advice and best practices that you learn.

Don’t write things that you know contradict the expert advice you have read, for the sake of increasing your word count (often thinking I’ll fix it later). Every time you do that, you’re getting better at bad writing.

Intelligent practice

When striving for expertise, deliberate practice is not enough. To become an expert at a skill, you must:

1. Learn the best practices, success patterns, and correct technique and form for the skill you’re trying to master.

The time you spend reading and researching is not, as is commonly argued, wasted time that you should spend actually practicing. You are preparing yourself to practice right.

2. Practice good form first, and think about results later. Most bad form is entrenched when people take shortcuts to get results faster. If you’ve ever read a poorly written best-selling novel, that’s why.

3. Practice good form for a long time and you can’t fail to become extremely good at the skill you’re practicing.

Just know that hard work isn’t quite enough. You don’t need innate talent (many argue it doesn’t exist), but you do need to practice intelligently.

How to Create and Publish Your Own eBook With a $0 Budget

publishing your own eBookAntique Printing Press by DaddyNewt

eBooks are books or pamphlets in a digital format. They’re a unique form of web content because they’re inherently portable. An eBook can be shared and spread far beyond your web presence.

There are a number of ways bloggers, webmasters or any web user can leverage an eBook to achieve a variety of outcomes, from building a brand to attracting traffic, and everything in between.

In this post I want to present a guide to creating your own eBooks from the idea stage right up until distribution.

I’ll also describe various ways you can use the eBooks you create to build buzz and achieve individual outcomes. Best of all, the process can be completed without spending a cent.

What could I do with an eBook?

  • Encourage RSS subscriptions — you could use the Feedburner FeedFlare service (accessible via the ‘Optimize’ tab inside your Feedburner control panel) to add a link to your eBook at the bottom of each feed you publish. Let your readers know that each feed subscription comes with a bonus eBook. You can see this method in action at Here are instructions on how to do it.
  • Package archives — you could celebrate each year by offering your blog or website’s archives in eBook format. This is a great way to get new visitors up to speed on what you do. You can see this method in action at Boing Boing.
  • Publicize your brand — encourage those who download your eBook to share it however they like. As long as it clearly features what you want to promote (yourself, your site, or your products) you will be benefiting from the free advertising.
  • Go viral – Seth Godin’s eBooks have been instrumental to his success. If your ideas are interesting enough they could go viral — an incredibly powerful promotion of both yourself and your product. Seth’s most famous eBook, Unleashing the Ideavirus, was later published in both paperback and hardcover.
  • And more — take some time to think about how you could best leverage your eBook. What are you trying to do with it? What will be the best method to achieve your goal?

What form could my eBook take?

What you include in your eBook will depend on what you’re trying to achieve with it. I’ll list some broad approaches and describe how they could be useful.

  • Digital book — the most traditional form of eBook, the digital book, is usually upwards of a hundred pages and presents itself as the kind of book you might buy at a bookstore. Unleashing the Ideavirus, for example, is 197 pages. This type of eBook is your best bet at going viral or being widely circulated because it packs a lot of value. This type of eBook will typically be broken into chapters on particular topics and contain more than one idea. While it has the potential for the greatest gains, it is also obviously the most time consuming option.
  • Manifesto — this type of eBook is less time consuming to create but also retains the potential to go viral because it focuses on communicating one idea in 1 to 25 pages. A great example of a manifesto-style eBook is Tim Ferriss’ The Low Information Diet, at 16 pages. What is your best idea? Your number one tip? It may just be the perfect idea for a manifesto. Here’s another example, this time written for bloggers: Killer Flagship Content. That one is 17 pages.
  • Bonus or archived content — if you’re a blogger or webmaster you could create a bonus content eBook. This simply involves packaging a quantity of new content in an eBook rather than publishing it on your site. You could use this as an incentive to subscribe or encourage readers to distribute it freely.

How do I make an eBook?

The best format for an eBook is PDF. These files best re-create the effect of reading the pages of a book on screen.

You can create PDF files directly with Adobe Acrobat if you’re lucky enough to have access to the program.

This is a $0 budget guide, however, so I want to suggest some free resources we can use to achieve the same effect.

If you have Microsoft Word I’d recommend creating your eBook in .doc format. If you use a different Word processor you can create your eBooks in .rtf format.

These can be converted to PDFs with the help of some free online programs, but first, let’s discuss formatting.

Number and link

Ideally, the footer of each page in your eBook should be numbered and contain a link to your web presence, your logo or your name. Your choice will depend on what your eBook is designed to promote.

Make it visually interesting

One advantage to the eBook format is that printing costs aren’t an issue. You can use slick fonts, colored headings, photographs, and other items to add visual interest, but keep in mind that detailed elements like images will increase the download size of your eBook.

Read a little

Download good eBooks and look at paperback copies of books you think look good. Write down what you like best about the formatting and try to emulate that in your own work. Don’t be afraid to use chapters, sub-headings, introductions, and so on.

Craft it

Most of us like the idea of publishing a best-selling book, if only in the realm of fantasy. I’d recommend taking the presentation of your eBook as seriously as you would a potential best-seller. Readers will notice (and appreciate) the care you’ve put into what you create.

If you’re not a Word Processing genius…

If you’re not sure how to translate your vision into reality it’s worth gathering the skills required to do so.

Try to locate specific sources of information as you need them, rather than wasting time learning about features you may not need.

If you want to know how to add a footer to each page, for example, Google what you want to do and the Word Processor you’re using (ex: “add footer to each page in Open Office”).

In most cases this will be enough to answer your question. If not, try searching for a general guide/tutorial directory for your Word Processor of choice.

Here are some example tutorials for Microsoft Word.

Edit, edit, edit

Unlike a blog post or web-page you can’t re-edit an eBook to your heart’s content. Once people begin to download and share copies of your eBook you can’t exactly ask them to give it back in exchange for a fixed copy.

It’s essential that you get it right the first time.

  • Rigorously edit what you’ve written. Draft, re-draft, check spelling, check grammar. Let your eBook sit for a week and come back to it with fresh eyes. Print it out and carefully go over the paper copy. Sometimes things you missed on screen will be glaringly obvious on paper.
  • Enlist the help of others. Give it to family and friends to read through. They will likely notice some errors you missed. They can also tell you which bits were unclear to them. If your eBook isn’t targeted at the average person you could instead share it with some trusted friends or readers who are within the target demographic for your book.

Convert your document to .PDF

Once you’re confident that you’ve created a solid final draft you can start to think about converting that into the finished product.

There are a myriad of online converters and freeware programs you can use to quickly change document files into PDFs. It’s worth experimenting with a few to see which one works best for you.

Adobe, the creator of the .PDF format, allows you to convert 5 documents to PDF for free via this page.

Another free program I like is PrimoPDF, which allows you to create PDFs directly from your source document via the ‘Print’ option.

If you’re not satisfied with either of these options you’ll be able to locate many others by Googling “document to .pdf converters”.

A good strategy is to copy some of your eBook into a sample document of three or four pages and use that to test how different converters will present your eBook.

What you’re looking for

  • Clarity. You want the PDF file you create to display your text clearly and crisply. Some converters will blur your text — avoid them.
  • Retention of formatting. Your PDF should look as much like your source document as possible. Check that fonts, colors, images and columns are displaying correctly.
  • Small size. The smaller your PDF is the easier it will be for people to attach it to e-mails, host it on their own site, or spread it through other viral methods. An ideal size is below 1 megabyte, but anything below 5 megabytes is acceptable. I would hesitate before releasing a PDF larger than that size. Consider cutting out unnecessary images or decreasing their quality.

Distribution methods

Once your PDF eBook is looking and reading exactly how you want it you can start thinking about distribution. The first step in this process is to upload it to your webhost (if you have one). If not, there are a number of free file-hosting services you can use.

  • Scribd — free document hosting, kinda like YouTube for PDFs.
  • TinyLoad — host 300mb worth of files with no bandwidth limit.

Rewards based distribution

If you only want your PDF to be available to certain people (usually as a result of them completing a certain action, such as subscribing to your feed, reviewing your site, etc.) you should make the file available for download on a section of your site not connected to the main navigation network. This allows you to control who has access to your eBook.

For extra security you could make the download page password protected. Choosing a complicated password (something that is unlikely to produce any search results, such as a random combination of letters and numbers) should help you track down anyone providing the password to your download page.

A Google search for your password should be all you need. You might consider changing the password if this kind of theft occurs.

Viral distribution

This kind of distribution aims to get people actively sharing and propagating your eBook. Here are some tips to help your eBook go viral.

  • Ask them. Encourage readers to share your eBook inside the document.
  • Edit the file name. Add ‘ReadandShare’ to your document’s filename. Seth Godin uses ‘IdeavirusReadandShare.pdf’.
  • Change the context. Emphasize that your eBook is free to download and share in each location that you offer it (static pages, forum posts, e-mails, etc.)
  • E-mail list. Create an email list for eBook owners. Offer the link to the join page for this list inside your eBook. This creates a feeling of exclusivity and will allow you to leverage your existing audience if you release another eBook in future.
  • Leverage traffic. Publicize your eBook on your blog or website. Make it as easy as possible for readers to download it.
  • Provide ideas. Suggest ways your eBook could be shared. Encourage readers to host it on their own site, e-mail it to friends, and link to your download page.

The end result

It’s entirely possible to complete all these steps and end up with a high quality eBook that cost you absolutely nothing to make.

Feel free to direct any questions, ideas or concerns into the comments section below. If you do publish an eBook as a result of reading this post, or have published one in the past, feel free to link to it here, also.

It certainly can’t hurt your viral campaign!

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