Dan Blank talks about finding focus to create more

The following is a share from my inbox today from Dan Blank:

Happy Friday!

If you are a writer or creative professional who works on your craft at home, I want to share my best advice on how to do so. I want to help you find more focus amidst the many distractions you face every single day.

This is everything I have learned through:

  • Working from home full-time for the past 6 years, while running my company WeGrowMedia, and raising a family.
  • Working from home both full and part time when I had a corporate job in the 3 years prior to that.
  • Working with thousands of writers and creative professionals, who themselves work from home, or split their time between a traditional office setting and nontraditional settings of home, cafe, etc.
  • Studying how successful people manage to get stuff done while at home.

Okay, let’s dig in:

Calendar everything.

My life runs on time blocking. This means I open up my calendar application (I use Apple’s Calendar) and block out each hour of the day for tasks.

Sounds crazy, right?

It’s not. It allows me to have clarity about what I need to do throughout the day, reducing decision-fatigue. What’s that? It’s having to think a million times “Um, what is on fire right now?” and rely on my emotions to tell me.

Instead, I have clarity in my day, and I’m allowed to work on some immediate tasks, but also work on projects that won’t have a pay off for months or years down the road. When you run every moment of your schedule based on emotions, you are going to spend all day reacting. It’s hard to build something meaningful over time when you are too busy reacting all the time.

I use three different color codes in my calendar: green for meetings, purple for focused creative work, and blue for non-work stuff. Yes, I schedule that too. Today I have scheduled what I’m eating for lunch and when I take my nap. Oh, I take a nap every day too. (More on that here.)

For important tasks, I schedule twice as much time as I think I need. Why? Because I have found that I will try to “squeeze in” an important task, when it truly requires more space. I want to be honest with myself about how long craft takes. This applies to so much of what I do, including writing. This morning I spent an hour editing 2 pages of a book I am writing, and that was with notes to guide me. That hour felt like 100 decisions to find clarity, to craft prose, to move things around, and to ensure it fit within the larger context of that chapter.

Schedule everything that requires your focus, including when you will get to email. Too often, someone will schedule meetings on their calendar, and just assume that email will be managed in the cracks in between meetings. It won’t. Instead what happens is that person’s day is spent constantly “trying to catch up,” and can’t effectively communicate with others because of it.

Does time blocking sound too rigid for your tastes? I keep it flexible by constantly moving blocks of time around on my calendar. Why? Because life happens. My schedule needs to honor the important work that needs to get done, but also that we are human beings living in a complex ecosystem where things change all the time. We are all managing family, relationships, physical and mental health, and our responsibilities to work, home, and our communities.

But maybe time blocking won’t work for you. If that is the case, I encourage you to take the same strategy, but apply it to different tactics. Perhaps instead you wake up every day to a hand-written to-do list that you made out the night before. Or you wake up to an intention that you wrote out the night before — a single thing that you need to ensure gets done each day.

My point is this: have a system.

If you feel that you are drowning every day, and can never find the time for your creative work, I strongly encourage you to consider new ways to manage your daily calendar.

Have a door. That locks.

If you work from home, even if just for what you feel is a “hobby” of writing, find a space that can be truly private. And this is the important part: the door should have a lock on it.

Since I run a little company, I have an office at home that is 100% dedicated to work. When we bought the house, this was the first space I defined when divvying up the bedrooms because it needed to have a sense of privacy in terms of the layout of the house. I also installed a lock on the door — a signal to myself and to my family that there are times when work is more important than whatever the interruption is.

Perhaps you can only find a tiny desk in a spare bedroom for you to use for your work. Or a section of the basement. Whatever it is, take the time to go to Home Depot, buy one of those cheap locks with keys, and install it on the door.

That key is a symbol that your creative work matters.

Learn to create in sprints, not marathons

I know, there are some full-time writers or artists who can devote 12 hours a day to becoming lost in their work. I think that is truly awesome.

But for the rest of us, we can’t.

Our days are spent juggling 1,000 things: the litter box has to be changed, you have two kids about to come home from school, you work part time at the post office, and as a crossing guard for extra cash, and the dishes are piled up in the sink. Oh, and you want to write today.

I would encourage you to develop the skill to create even in small increments of time: 10 or 20 minutes.

You may tell me that it takes you longer than that to “get into” writing, and that once you are in the zone, you lose track of time. That’s fine, but if it the result is that you can never find that kind of time to write, then I encourage you to work on the skill of smaller sprints of creative work.

Buy a timer. One of those kitchen timers, or a cheap timer on Amazon. Set if for 20 minutes to give yourself little bouts of work in between moments of your otherwise busy day. For many of you, you will never have a spare 2 hours where you can write. BUT… you may have 20 minutes. Set the timer so that you can feel freedom to write for those 20 minutes.

Connect a task to a place

Sometimes “working from home” really means not working in the home. I spend the first 4 hours of the day working from my local Starbucks.

That means I never schedule meetings first thing in the day, because that time is dedicated to writing and to doing client work. When I come home, that is when I catch up on other tasks and take calls. Starbucks is a place dedicated to doing focused work.

You can create this for yourself in a variety of ways; perhaps you go to the library where you will only work on your novel; then you will go to a cafe where you will only do business planning; and then at home, you will only do admin, email, and take calls.

Each place has their own mood — experiment and find what works for a given task. I have found that I focus really well when working amidst the chaos of morning rush hour at Starbucks.

Develop tiny habits

Everything I have shared above comes down to creating small habits. The bottom line is that I understand that you are likely struggling to make ends meet financially; that you are taking care of a family; that you may be going through a health crisis; that the time to focus on your creative work never seems to be “right now,” because important things come up.

My final pieces of advice:

  • Forgive yourself. Let go of the guilt you feel in feeling that you can’t do it all.
  • Find joy in the process. I listen to music while I work, and that helps me stay focused and inspired.
  • Reward yourself for the tasks you do accomplish each week, even if you feel you dropped a few balls. The reward can be simple, such as food or a beverage.

What helps you get your creative work done?


Well, I definitely felt that this email was written directly to me today.  It’s been 22 days since my last blog post.  22!  There’s no excuse for that, even though I’ve thought of several during those 22 days.  I’m definitely feeling that my creative work needs to become a priority instead of the first thing shoved to the back burner when something else (anything else) comes up.  Dan’s words could not have come at a better time for me.


Another gem in my inbox

This one is from Dan Blank.  He is the founder of We Grow Media.  He helps writers build their platforms and works with publishers to grow their online communities.  This one is rather lengthy but too important not to share.

From Dan:

Most of the people I work with — writers and other creative professionals — work from home. They develop their craft amidst other responsibilities, and the worries that come with them: family, finance, health, home, relationships, and so much else.

Very often, I talk about creative habits that help you produce great work, and to connect it with people in a meaningful way. Today I want to talk about the other habits that surround and encourage creative work. Habits of physical health, mental health, family health, financial health, and productivity. The habits that create a support system which protects and encourages your ability to pursue your vision.

Are these “rules”? Nope. Do them or don’t. Tweak them your own way. Add your own. But I would encourage you to consider developing some weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly habits that touch upon some of the themes below.

Why? Because if you are following your creative vision to create meaningful work; if you are fitting this work into the cracks of an otherwise busy life; it is too easy to burn out. To neglect important aspects of daily living. To ignore important relationships.

This is all stuff I do, it’s not just a pie in the sky list. I’ve run my own company for more than six years now, working from home, while raising a family with my wife. Am I missing a lot of items here? Probably. But I find that developing these habits not only help me work better, but also feel more fulfilled.

Let’s dig in…

Back Up Everything. Twice.

What if I told you that tomorrow, your home would burn down. No one would be injured, but all of your stuff would be gone. What would you regret not saving?

Back it up.

Back up everything you care about, including:

  • Your writing or other creative work. This can be as simple as a Dropbox backup. If you write longhand, take photos of the pages.
  • Your online creative work. If you have a blog, download a plug-in to automatically email you backups once per week.
  • Your photos. I could write an entire post just about this. Download the photos from your phone, and back them up. Seriously. Because one day you will lose your phone, and with it, an entire year or two worth of family photos.
  • For physical objects in your life that you love, but can’t back up like you can a digital file, take a photo of it. Photos are free. Walk around your house, and take hundreds of photos of things you care about and want to have a record of. If they are important documents, take photos of those too.
  • Consider taking photos of your home and property to record the time and place, even if just for insurance reasons. Even the outside of your home, the trees, the property. I have found that it is a nice record of how things were.

Create redundant backups, meaning that if one backup fails, you have another. You can use external hard drives for this, and software like Backblaze or Carbon Copy Cloner.

Keep backups in multiple locations. This can be an online backup or an offsite backup, such as keeping a backup external hard drive at your office.

Have backups for essential equipment, the tools you use. Since I work from home, I have a generator. If the power goes out, my business doesn’t go down.

I work from two computers that are 100% mine, not shared with my wife. One is a laptop, one a desktop. If one is out of commission, the other is fully synced. I replace each of them every 3 years or so.

For you, this could mean having two phones, one for work, and one personal. Or it could mean you pay for a mobile hotspot as a backup internet access.

When you hire a photographer for a wedding, you will notice they come with at least two cameras, if not more. You may not even see the backup gear they have in their bags. They often have an assistant or two. Why? Because when they have one chance to get it right, the cost of justifying a second or third camera is negligible to their business.

If you take your creative work seriously, do the same thing.

This can even extend to communication channels. In the earlier days of YouTube, many super popular YouTubers had a single channel. What I noticed over time is that somethings their channels would be down for some reason, and they lost their entire way to connect with their audience. Now many YouTubers either have a “B” channel where they can share updates, or they strongly encourage their subscribers to also follow them on other channels: Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, newsletter, etc. It is a communication backup plan, and one that is critical to their creative career.

If you have an email list with 1,000 names on it in Mailchimp that you consider the lifeblood of your business, BACK THAT LIST UP! Plan for Mailchimp to be hacked and lose all of your data.

Don’t Ignore Physical Health

I’ll start simply here: clean your keyboard. It’s disgusting. Just consider all of the things we touch throughout our days, and how it all ends up in the little cracks of our keyboards. Go clean it. Every couple years, replace it.

While your at it, assess the entire area around where you work. Clean your chair and the area beneath it, your mouse, your monitor, your desk.

Do you work in a small space? Check for air circulation. Are your heating vents and AC vents clean? Or are you breathing in 20 year old dust all day?

Do you use a window AC unit? Look in the vents. If you see little black dots everywhere, throw it out. Seriously. It’s mold, and it is bad for you. It’s the kind of thing that creates problems for you 20 years down the road. Trust me, “old you” doesn’t want that problem.

Consider if you need more lighting in your work space. Your eyes will thank you for it.

Consider if your chair is creating horrible habits for your back or wrist. If so, buy a new chair. Or consider getting a standing desk. I recently just added a standing desk to my office (keeping my regular sitting desk too.) I built it from IKEA for less than $20. It have found that it is nice to be able to move around while I work, having some work sessions while I sit at my desktop computer, and some while I stand at my laptop.

I won’t go too much further into physical health because it is such a big topic, but I’ll encourage this:

  • If you work at a desk all day, take your lunch break seriously. Get out of the office or work area. I won’t lie: if you work in an office environment, that may create tension with your coworkers or boss. You may get questions like, “Where did you disappear to?” Regardless: take a lunch break. Every day. That’s your time.
  • Have some kind of workout routine. ANY KIND. At least once per week. Beyond that, find what works for you. Personally, I have found that having a personal trainer three days per week radically reshaped my health. Do what feels right to you.

Create More White Space

This is about attending to mental health. Which is JUST AS IMPORTANT — IF NOT MORE — than physical health. Are you ignoring mental health in some ploy to “suck it up” and be “strong”. Stop. The world wants you to be fulfilled, not wavering on the edge of sanity because you are so overwhelmed.

I call this creating more “white space” — unstructured time that allows you to feel space between things in the world. Instead of what most of us feel constantly: total overwhelm of dealing with work, family, health, relationships, home, money, and so much else.

This too is a topic I will only touch upon here, but here are some practical actions you can take to create more white space in your life:

Unsubscribe from email lists you no longer care about.

Declutter your office. For all of those piles of stuff that you consider to be critical, throw them in boxes and shove it into the attic. Put a “throw out by X date” on it. When that date arrives, and you still haven’t needed that “critical” stuff, put it in the trash.

Clear out your email inbox. If you have 1,000 unread items, put them into a new folder marked “OLD.” Enjoy that single moment of feeling like you are starting fresh.

Clear off your desk.

Clear your web browser cookies.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the power of saying “no” concluding:

Distraction takes us away from devoting our focus to the things that matter most. The problem is not just that we say yes to too many things, but we don’t identify the few key things that matter most, and commit fully.

In other words: we don’t say YES to what we want with emphasis. We say “yes” meekly. This is a huge problem.

Attend to Relationships

If you are lucky enough to have your mom and dad still with us, call them. Go ahead. If any of your grandparents are still with us, call them too. Tell them you love them.

Just touch base with old friends. A simple update. A simple note that says “I was thinking of you, I hope all is well.”

If you have a significant other, plan a date night.

Take photos of your family. All of you in the shot, use the timer on your camera that you never quite figured out.

I know, you don’t have time for any of this. But 20 years from now, you will be thankful you took each of these actions.

Take Security Seriously

Manage your passwords. Change them with some frequency. Don’t use the same password for everything. Don’t use obvious passwords.

Update your software. If you are clinging to some super old version of your browser, your operating system, or your word processor because it is “familiar,” you are asking for trouble down the road when one program stops playing nice with another. Go through your phone once a month and ensure all of the apps are up to date. With your computer, once a quarter, or once a year.

This applies to things like online software as well. If you use WordPress, go ahead and ensure it is up to date, including all of your plug-ins.

Old software is full of security vulnerabilities. Plug them up now.

I would say that money and finance fits into “security” as well. Huge topic, that I will (again) just briefly touch upon:

  • Have an emergency fund.
  • Set aside some amount of money each month to it. Even if it is only $10 or $20 per month. Make it a habit. Just like health, even establishing the tiniest habit around finance can lead you to adding other habits.

To me, each of these things helps create a support system around your creative work.

What did I miss? What other stuff could we better manage that encourages us to feel less overwhelmed so that our creative work seems possible?