How do we make sure we’re not just doing good work, but doing work that has the potential to be truly great?
While working hard is definitely part of the equation, it’s not all there is. In his paper, A Stroke of Genius: Striving for Greatness in All You Do, multi-award winning scientist, engineer, and writer Dr. Richard Hamming put together a simple formula for doing great work:
If you are to do important work then you must work on the right problem at the right time and in the right way. Without any of the three, you may do good work but you will almost certainly miss real greatness.
But what about working the right way?
Over the past four years of running Crew, we’ve obsessed over finding the best ways to work, not just for ourselves, but for all of the freelance designers and developers in our network.
So, we’ve put together our most impactful tips for doing great work.
Design for Laziness
Building good work habits is difficult, especially when we’re feeling uninspired or the end results feel too far off to be real. So, we need to start small.
Every habit you want to build can be broken down into a sequence of steps. For example, a workout can be broken down into the following steps: getting off your butt, changing your clothes, putting a gym bag together, traveling to the gym, doing your workout, showering, and going home.
But our brains love the path of least resistance, so all those steps before and after the actual process of working out put a barrier between us and our goals.
We need to simplify the process. One of my favorite techniques is what Stanford professor and psychologist BJ Fogg calls (in a very funny tweet) “designing for laziness.” Basically, set yourself up so that the easiest task is the most important one. For example, if you’re working from home:
- Turn off your phone and put it in a drawer
- Unplug your TV and put it in the closet
- Close all browser tabs except the one you need for the next morning
Have Rituals as Well as Routines
Some studies say it can take up to 25 minutes for us to regain our focus after a disruption. Which is why we need to respect the time to create and do great work. For Brainpicking’s founder Maria Popova, this means building rituals as well as routines:
While routine aims to make the chaos of everyday life more containable and controllable, ritual aims to imbue the mundane with an element of the magical.
A ritual is personal. It can be anything from the cup you use to drink your coffee from to the music you listen to. Hell, Beethoven had to count out precisely 60 beans for his morning coffee before starting to work.
What’s important is that it signals that this is time to focus on the important work. Once you know your ritual, you’ll be able to use it to push yourself into creation mode.
Automate Your Processes
Ironically, you can waste more time reading about time management than anything else. When it comes to doing your best work, there are only two important things to remember: automate and group tasks.
The goal is basically to turn open-ended questions (“What am I going to eat for breakfast?”) into if/then statements (“If it’s a weekday, I’m going to have oatmeal for breakfast.”). This way, you save your willpower and decision making for the tasks that really matter.
Take Breaks (Seriously)
When the excitement is bubbling and you feel you’re about to make that big breakthrough, the last thing on your mind is to stop working. But taking regular breaks is one of the best ways to avoid burnout, boost your energy, and discover new ways to tackle the issue at hand.
You can try going for a walk, reading a book, meditating, or even just letting your mind wander—regardless of the act, each one should be deliberately set during a time you’d be working (otherwise it’s not a “real” break), and away from technology to recharge and refocus.
Give Up the Idea of “Perfection”
Great work comes from being okay with failing. But, we’ll never get there if we’re obsessed with the idea of perfection.
There are too many success stories without enough focus on the times of non-success. In psychology, they call this “survivorship bias”—a logical error where we focus on those who’ve “survived” some process and inadvertently overlook those who didn’t (probably because they’re not being paraded around front and center).
If you can reframe your thinking from perfection to completion, you’re sure to accomplish much more. Don’t worry about finishing a task in the perfect way—worry about finishing it. Right or wrong doesn’t matter, what matters is that you’re constantly moving yourself and your work forward.
Finally, the biggest myth about productivity is that it’s a measure of how much you get done.
We’re not machines, and the greatness of our work depends not on how much we do, or even the quality of what we do, but that we do the right things. Burnout comes when you drown yourself in tasks you don’t care about. So, to avoid this you need to constantly ask yourself:
Am I working on the right thing?
Set reminders throughout the day to check in and see if you’ve strayed from the path.
Creating great work ultimately means doing the work. It means giving up on the bad habits, creating rituals, and putting yourself in the best place, both mentally and physically, to create something with meaning.
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