👷♂️Opinion: How I get stuff done
🤔 There's no right way, but here's how I do it.
I frequently speak with people who tell me one of two things:
You’re doing too much.
You’re incredibly hard on yourself.
It happens frequently enough that I’m starting to think they might be onto something rather than the alternative: everyone else is crazy (likely, I know).
I’m trying to get better at these, being more intentional and practicing self-compassion, but I give myself credit on one thing: I get stuff done.
Now, how I get stuff done is likely to be a contentious topic, since people seem to get pretty heated about it. Take a look at any social media site and you’ll find a troop of self-help gurus and a larger camp poking fun at them.
So, this isn’t intended to be a humble brag or some kind of cultish life-hacky post, but rather a series of rational observations on what works for me and what might work for you.
Now you might be saying “Matt, why should I listen to you at all?” Well, in the last 7 weeks I:
Wrote a draft of my technical guide with O’Reilly & Databricks.
Hosted two webinars, two meetups, and emceed one chat.
Wrote two freelance blog posts.
Shared a newsletter every week, without interruption.
Maintained a consistently high output in my full-time role at a high-growth startup.
Kept up with my hobbies.
Trained olympic weightlifting 4-5 times per week for 2-3 hours, maintaining healthy(ish) nutrition, getting 8-10k steps per day.
Went on hikes about 1x per week (Pacifica, Big Sur, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Marin, to name a few spots)
Met new people and made friends in a new area (I moved across the country in July)
Kicked-off some other exciting projects that I’m not yet ready to share (but I will soon!)
Did a bunch of self-discovery on who I am, what motivates me, and where I want to be.
This is not to brag— I’m in an incredibly lucky position. I live in the tech epicenter of the world, I have very few responsibilities outside work, and I’m a pretty motivated person, but it is to say everyone can accomplish way more than they think.
It’s also a highlight reel— I didn’t mention some of the negatives like:
Inordinate amounts of stress.
Lost sleep due to racing thoughts and fears.
Struggles with anxiety and isolation.
Large swings in energy, mood, & motivation.
… and a bunch of other not-so-fun stuff that accompanies those. I’m actively working on shifting away from unsustainable habits, which might mean sacrificing short-term accomplishments for longevity.
That being said, here are my strategies and critiques for how to accomplish similar amounts of output while (hopefully) avoiding the side-effects I mentioned above.
👨🏭 Be consistent
The hallmark of any great project is consistency. If you’re doing things daily or weekly that you can’t recover from, things are going to get very hard, very fast. If you’re writing a large report, try to carve out a little time each day. If you’re working on being active, start with small consistent actions.
My goal is to accomplish the most I can each day/week while maintaining low to moderate levels of stress. For me, consistency helps with that. As soon as I start noticing interrupted sleep, degraded performance in the gym, or just that constant feeling of stress, I try to start dialing things back and focusing on consistency.
👨🔬 Be clever
You’d be surprised how easy it is to overlook being clever when you’re swamped with work, but it has been one of my saving graces. That old presentation from a few years ago? Hold on to it— you can repurpose or adapt the slides. The draft for that blog you never published? It might be a section in your new guide.
The same goes for scheduling & day-to-day activities. How can I minimize the amount of time I spend unproductively? Don’t forget that rest is productive!
My little “hack” is stacking up time savings— I get my groceries delivered and meal-prep in bulk. I take walks during calls. I try to align periods of deep focus work when my mind craves it and “snacking” work when I’m tired.
Then, I can use that “saved” time for stuff I enjoy— hikes, time at the gym, hangin with friends, reading before bed, or watching TV (I love Psych).
Two questions I repeatedly ask myself: “What’s the 1 thing that accomplishes 10 things?” and “What is the most important thing I can be doing, right now?”
😄 Be rationally optimistic
This is in contrast to being “blindly optimistic.” I hold that optimism is one of the most important characteristics and something I’m genuinely grateful for.
That being said, I’ve frequently fallen into the trap of saying “everything is amazing!” or “it will all get done!” with complete disregard for reality. Measured optimism is essential for making it through the tough times and knowing when to change course or quit.
If you’re one of those people that vehemently disagrees, I’d check out the science on optimism. I believe we’re in control of our outlook— it’s actually one of the only things we can TRULY control.
😎 Get happy & stay happy
Much, much easier said than done, but if there’s anything I’ve learned in the last five years, it’s that I do far-and-beyond better, more creative work when I’m happy, fulfilled, and not stressed out.
This is not entirely in your control and it’s a long-term game. First, work on understanding what makes you happy. Then, take small, incremental steps to get there. Managing stress is no simple matter either— it’s something I need to work on.
Work hard, rest hard, repeat. It’s all too easy to forget the “rest,” but without it we sacrifice happiness and, eventually, consistency. It’s pretty hard to be optimistic when you’re miserable— I say that from personal experience.
🤔 Set realistic expectations
Along with rational optimism, blindly biting off more than you can chew and setting herculean expectations are a sure-fire way to a) set yourself up for failure and/or b) work yourself ragged.
Start small and layer on additional responsibilities, then back off if things become too much. If you’re like me, you might say “Matt, I want to be exceptional and amazing… Why wouldn’t I set amazing expectations?”
My answer is logical: what allows you to get the most done in the long-term, i.e. your life? Working until you crash? Feeling bad about missing your deadlines? Being stressed all the time? Or working reasonably hard, consistently for decades.
If you think I might be onto something, try reassessing how you interact with yourself and the expectations you set.
🤹♀️ Forget work/life balance
If you love what you do, are you really working? Start by finding activities you genuinely enjoy, at least most of the time. From there, build your life and community around those things. That might mean you’re writing on a Sunday, but you like writing, right? It might mean you get up early to exercise, but hey, that’s who you are!
If you build your identity around your hobbies and passions, the idea of “working” 9-5 and “living” outside those hours quickly becomes antiquated.
Live the things you want to do. Everyday. All day. That does not mean sacrificing rest and recovery, it means finding joy and happiness in your work and passions with the understanding that things won’t be sunshine and rainbows all the time.
Everyone says “enjoy the journey.” Saying it and doing it are two very different things.
🛩️ Focus on direction
This one is simple: if I’m going New York and I jump on a plane headed to Japan, I’ll be in for a very long trip. You can save inordinate amounts of wasted time, effort, and energy by measuring twice, and cutting once. Prioritize direction over everything.
In the age of automated work and AI, intentional, directed, and creative work will be the differentiator, since a robot can do pretty much everything else. Get on the direct flight for JFK. It’ll be faster than going around the world.
Two characteristics that I didn’t mention are finding what works for you and learning to let go, but those seemed like better topics for a conclusion. Maybe these don’t work with your personality… Find what does!
The important thing is finding your solution and your version of happiness, whatever that looks like. One of my favorite quotes, courtesy of Eiji Yoshikawa:
The summit is believed to be the object of the climb. But its true object—the joy of living—is not in the peak itself, but in the adversities encountered on the way up. There are valleys, cliffs, streams, precipices, and slides, and as he walks these steep paths, the climber may think he cannot go any farther, or even that dying would be better than going on. But then he resumes fighting the difficulties directly in front of him, and when he is finally able to turn and look back at what he has overcome, he finds he has truly experienced the joy of living while on life's very road.
In life, nothing is guaranteed. Learning to love the journey means appreciating the process, not the outcome— since it may never arrive. A closely related concept is learning to let go. From another one of my favorite books, The Alchemist:
We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it's our life or our possessions and property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.
Almost every bit of pain I’ve experienced has been internal— holding on, striving, reaching, and grasping for objects just out of my reach. Personally, I see letting go as a way of creating space between an objective and “the journey,” letting go of goals and outcomes doesn’t imply indifference, it means being present and appreciating life for what it is.
So, anyway, that’s how I get stuff done. How will you?