Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote Good Will Hunting when they were in their twenties.
I remember watching the movie back in 2000 and thinking about how crazy it was that these two guys turned an idea into an Oscar-winning movie. How the hell did they do that?
Watching Good Will Hunting made me want to make things. I quickly realized, however, that making things is hard work.
We all get to enjoy the fruits of other people’s labor: the movies, music, gadgets, and books that define our culture and make us think and feel.
But we rarely get a behind-the-scenes look into how those things were created. And without that inside look into the process, many of us are left feeling that making things is either easy or insanely difficult.
The truth is that it’s both.
That’s why I loved a recent podcast with former Grantland guru Bill Simmons and writer/actor Aziz Ansari. They were talking about Aziz’s new Netflix showMaster of None, which I consider a masterclass in humor, drama, creativity, and social commentary.
The part of the interview that hit home for me was when Bill and Aziz talked about the writing process.
Aziz Ansari: “If I’m writing I have to leave my phone at home and go to a cafe where I don’t know the WiFi password. Because what happens when I’m writing is I’ll hit a point where I don’t know where to go. In those moments I’ll think, “Maybe I’ll check my email or check the New York Times real quick and then I’ll go back to [the writing].”
But when I don’t have my phone or the internet, I hit that moment and I’m forced to stay in it. And when you stay in it, you can come out. You’ll end up with an idea. But that idea is gone when you take a break to see what texts you’ve got.”
When I hear stuff like this, I’m reminded of what it takes to do good work. Sure, it requires at least a modicum of talent and skill. But those are table stakes. There are millions of people out there with talent and skill who’ll never finish creating the thing they started. (And many, many more who will never even start.)
To do good work—whether you’re writing code, editing a screenplay, running a gym, or managing a team—requires that you treat the work with respect. It requires that you sit your ass down, remove all distractions, dive in, and push through the moments where you feel stuck or hopeless.
It’s taken me over a decade to figure out that the work will never create itself. That in order for it to exist I must first breathe life into it.
It’s worth it.
PS – Thanks to my little brother Austin for recommending the Simmons/Ansari interview to me. Also, if you want to dive deeper into how I plan my schedule and eliminate distraction, check out these two articles:
We love to set big goals and get shit done. But is our ambition making us feel unsatisfied?
As ambitious Type-A people, we feel that if we’re not finding new ways to grow, learn, or challenge ourselves then we must be moving backward. (And there’s nothing an ambitious person hates more than failing to make progress.)
Ambition has its perks, of course. It allows us to learn new skills and create new things. But I believe it can also be a burden. Left unchecked, our ambition can cause us to put too much focus on where we’re going and not enough focus on where we are now or where we’ve been.
And you don’t need to be a Buddhist monk or new-agey mindfulness expert to know that always looking toward a future, far-off goal—and failing to live in the present—is a recipe for unhappiness.
Focusing on the future is like chasing the horizon.
We step outside our doors and take a look faaaarrr in front of us, our eyes following the earth until it turns to sky. From our vantage point, the horizon seems like a fixed point, some place we can physically get to if only we start walking.
So we start walking.
But instead of getting closer, the horizon keeps moving farther and farther away. We walk and we walk, but we never seem to reach it. After a day of walking (or a month, or a lifetime) we realize we haven’t gotten any closer.
That’s because the horizon moves as we move.
This is when ambitious people start to feel demoralized. We didn’t capture the horizon. We didn’t reach our Big Goal. And from the looks of it, we may never reach it.
What a miserable failure, we think. Why do I suck so much at life?
But if we were to take a moment to look around and maybe enjoy where we’re at, we’d likely see that from where we’re standing, things actually look pretty good. And if we were to turn around and look back behind us, well, we’d see how far we’ve actually come.
“Holy shit, I started way back there. And now I’m here.”
By all means we should continue to chase our goals. We should thank our weird biological wiring and embrace our ambition and the positive consequences that come with it. But we should also realize that our Big Goal, whatever it is, is never a fixed point. Just like the horizon, it moves as we move. We’ll never truly get there.
That’s why it’s important to pause every now and then to look around, take in the sights, see what’s happening right here, right now.
And maybe even look behind us, to see the real progress we’ve made.
(Thanks to Phil Caravaggio for introducing me to the concept of “chasing the horizon.” And thanks to you for reading.)
I’m no Dear Abby, but I do like to try and help people when they ask. I told Joe I had some ideas for him, but that I preferred to share them publicly, just in case it could help someone else in a similar situation.
Joe was cool with it. I’m cool with it. I figure you’re cool with it too.
Here we go.
Joe! Thanks for the question, man.
After thinking about this, the following is what came to mind based on my own experience. Feel free to take it or leave it.
1. ACCEPT AND EMBRACE “THE FUNK”.
You write, “I was doing well and now I’m in a funk.” I think it’s important to understand that no matter what part of life we’re focusing on, we’re gonna randomly and consistently oscillate between “well” and “funk.”
It happens on both a micro and macro level.
MACRO: My life is amazing and everything is easy and rewarding…………..I hate my life and wish a comet would hit Earth and kill everyone.
MICRO: It’s gonna feel so good to meditate, I can’t wait to sit down and do nothing for a full 20 minutes…………..Screw meditation.
This fluctuation is normal and shouldn’t surprise us. That’s why the first thing I encourage you to do is simply to accept and prepare for the funk. Some days are gonna feel easy. Other’s are gonna be a motherfucker.
And on those days, I’ve found that making a short list of habits reminds me of the minimum I need to do to stay on track—and maybe even turn things around.
2. START WITH ONE SMALL ACTION—TODAY.
If you’re not currently working out at all, what’s one small thing you can do today to start? Don’t think too hard here. Instead, it’s important to pick something and do it, just so you can build momentum. (Also, if it’s been a while since you’ve exercised, you may have forgotten how good the serotonin boost can feel, even after just 5 minutes of moving.)
I wanted to stay in shape but I was tired of going into the gym and doing traditional strength training stuff the way I had been for the past decade. A new challenge was a good way to break the monotony and rekindle my passion for training.
A few challenge ideas:
Train for a one-time future event (like a Spartan race)
If you’ve been lifting weights for years, try adding gymnastic-based movements like working with rings and parallette bars or practicing handstands.
Pick up a dormant skill or game, like skateboarding, basketball, rock-climbing, ultimate frisbee, or any other active thing you used to do.
In my experience, the same principles apply whether you’re trying to start a new habit or get an old habit back: start small, get clear on why it’s important to you, find new ways to have fun and challenge yourself, and embrace the fact that some days will be better than others.
I’m not much for jewelry—usually all I wear is a watch—but I recently added a bracelet to my wrist.
It’s a piece of black cord with a small grey skull, held together with a fisherman’s knot. My skull bracelet isn’t particularly stylish, but it does serve a purpose:
It reminds me that I’m going to die.
Maybe after I finish writing this I’ll walk home and get hit by a car like my friend Kyle. Or maybe I’ll die of a heart attack at age 48. Or maybe I’ll just die in my sleep when I’m 102.
I’m not saying I know how it’ll happen. I’m saying I know that it will happen.
Knowing I’m going to die doesn’t make me sad; instead, it gives me energy, makes me feel lighter. Any burden the world has put on me (or I’ve put on myself) is immediately lifted when I remember my death.
Everything suddenly looks just a little bit better: colors look brighter; people look friendlier; risks look less risky.
That last one is important.
Not a week goes by where I don’t get an email from someone who’s nervous about taking a risk. Usually it’s starting a business, but sometimes it’s breaking up with someone, or switching careers, or quitting their job, or starting a blog, or writing a book.
I often write back and ask questions. I try to give them things to consider.
“Why do you want to do this? How can you test the idea first? What’s the best/worst case scenario?”
Sometimes they write back to let me know they pulled the trigger. Or they write back to let me know they thought about it, but ultimately decided against it.
Both types of notes feel good to read.
But when I don’t hear back, I assume the worst. I assume they never asked themselves the questions. I assume they talked themselves out of it. I assume that this huge, amazing thing they wanted to do—this thing they just wrote 1,000 words about and sent to a stranger—is never going to happen.
When I don’t hear back, I want to email them and remind them that they’re going to die, too.
Still, I get it. Taking risks is scary.
Early in my career, I’d get so nervous before interviews that I’d often cancel them minutes before they were supposed to happen.
People thought I was a giant asshole. Really, I was terrified.
I’ve gotten better with time. I still get nervous when I get up on stage to talk, I still get nervous for interviews, and I still get nervous when I sit down to write something I know thousands of people will read.
But if I’m lucky, at some point, I look at my wrist to check the time. I see the skull staring at me, I see the seconds ticking away, and I remember that I’m going to die.
Might as well give it a shot and see what happens.
Want to get in better shape, become insanely productive, and break your internet addiction? Then stop relying on self-discipline and use Nuclear Mode instead.
The other day I had dinner with a group of people at a nice Southern restaurant in Austin, Texas. The bourbon list was long and I’d been told the biscuits were legendary — so I was looking forward to a nice meal and conversation.
There were seven us around the table. I knew most of them, but since a few were friends of friends I’d never met before, I decided to sit next to someone new.
The guy to my left, Clay, seemed to be in his early thirties; he told me that he worked at a tech start-up, and that his wife and young son were currently visiting family out of town. He seemed like a nice enough guy.
“So, what do you do?” he eventually asked me.
I opened my mouth to talk, but before I could say anything, his phone buzzed. He picked it up, texted someone, and then put it face-up on the table between us.
“Sorry. So what do you do?” he asked again.
I explained that I was a writer, mostly fitness and self-development stuff. He nodded. Then his phone went off again.
“Hold up,” he said. “I gotta quickly reply to this email.”
He picked up his phone, so I picked up my whiskey, took a sip, and looked around the table. Of the six other people around me, four of them had their heads down and were lost in their phones. I instinctively checked my pocket, but found nothing there. I’d left my phone locked in the rental car outside.
So with nothing to distract me, and no conversation happening, I sat back and enjoyed my drink until a plate of warm biscuits hit the table. I picked one up, watched the little wisps of steam rise off the flaky crust, and slathered honey butter on it. I took a bite and concluded that they were, in fact, legendary.
To my left, Clay took out his phone and held it over the plate of biscuits.
He took a series of photos from different angles. He instructed the person across from me to eat a biscuit so he could take a photo of her. After a good five minutes — and after posting the photo to Instagram with the obligatory hashtags — Clay finally grabbed a biscuit, buttered it, took a bite, and sighed.
“These biscuits are cold.”
The rest of the evening pretty much continued in the same way: small chunks of conversation interrupted by texting, Googling, and checking who commented on Instagram.
At the end of dinner, after the plates had been taken away and the after-dinner drinks poured, Clay surprised me by calling himself out.
“Sorry about all that,” he said. “I’m trying to get better at not looking at my phone all the time.”
He looked embarrassed and resigned, sitting there twirling his glass of wine.
“My wife gets on me about it,” he continued. “I guess I just need more self discipline.”
I smiled and told him that I used to think the exact same thing.
Self-Discipline Is Overrated
I’ve noticed a certain storyline recently, especially among people who are Type-A achievers like me, people who are always trying to optimize their life and find news ways to learn, grow, and improve themselves.
It’s a story that starts like this:
“I have to build more self-discipline…”
If only we had more self discipline, we say, then we’d actually follow through with everything we want to do; we’d finally find time for everything that’s important to us.
If only we had more self-discipline, well, then we’d wake up earlier without hitting the snooze button. We’d get to the gym more often. We’d stop getting distracted by our phones and start being more present with our family. We’d start eating healthier food and maybe even find time to start that side business we’ve been thinking about.
I know Clay was thinking the same thing.
If only he had more self-discipline, he reasoned, then he would have easily resisted the urge to check his phone. He would have had the presence-of-mind to actually enjoy a warm biscuit and a cold bourbon drink without getting sucked into the vortex of his 4.7-inch screen.
But here’s the thing: I think this story about needing more self-discipline is false. Or at least, I don’t believe it’s the whole story.
I don’t think we really need more self-discipline. Instead, I think it’s better to eliminate the need to HAVE self-discipline in the first place.
Two Problems With Thinking We Just Need More Self-Discipline
Before writing this article, I looked up the definition of “self discipline”.
self discipline: the ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses; the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.
From what I can tell, most of us view self-discipline as a thing we need to constantly exercise every moment of every day. We think we need to police ourselves to resist temptation at every turn.
Resist the temptation to check our phones. Resist the temptation to eat the cookie. Resist the temptation to hit the snooze alarm. Resist the temptation to have a second beer after dinner. Resist the temptation to skip the gym and work out tomorrow instead.
But there are two problems with this line of thinking.
First, it’s incredibly draining to police ourselves every minute of the day. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but temptation is everywhere — from the siren-song of free porn to the outraged articles on the internet, to the mini-computers in our pockets buzzing for our attention. Most of us cannot use self-discipline alone to resist these things. There are simply too many opportunities to fail.
Second, thinking that we need MORE self-discipline is a convenient way of not taking action or doing anything to change our situation in the present. It’s like saying “Yeah, I really should save more money and call my Grandma” while having no intentions of actually saving more money or calling Grandma.
The truth is, we already have all the self-discipline we need. We simply need to use it in more effective ways.
Live Better With Less Self-Discipline: One Powerful Strategy
Over the years, I’ve adopted a few powerful strategies in order to dramatically reduce the amount of self-discipline I need to use in my everyday life.
These strategies vary from the routine to the radical and have helped me:
exercise more often
eat healthier food
become insanely productive
break my dependency on my phone
avoid getting sucked into the internet
spend more stress-free, reflective time alone
spend undistracted time with friends and family
My favorite strategy, and the focus of this article is Nuclear Mode — a radically uncomfortable yet incredibly valuable technique that will help you reduce the amount of self-discipline you need in order to live a more productive, less distracted life.
(And since Nuclear Mode is like ripping off a band-aid instead of slowly peeling it away, it also has the fun side-effect of making your friends think you’ve gone insane.)
You can use Nuclear Mode in every area of your life: to eat less junk food and drink less alcohol; to force yourself to become insanely productive and focused; and if you’re feeling bold, you can use Nuclear Mode to break your phone and internet addiction — while having more focus and free time for yourself and your family.
Here are three ways I use Nuclear Mode in my life, ranked from Beginner to Advanced.
Beginner: How To Use Nuclear Mode To Eat Less Junk Food
My friend and colleague Dr. John Berardi from Precision Nutrition has a saying: If a food is in your possession or located in your residence, you will eventually eat it.
I use Nuclear Mode to remove all of the unhealthy food from my house that I’d normally be tempted to eat — things like potato chips, gourmet ice cream, and fancy chocolate chip cookies.
Removing this type of food from my house has two main benefits: First, it makes it physically impossible for me to eat anything “bad” when I’m at home (where I spend most of my time). Second, it makes the instances when I do eat those things infinitely more enjoyable.
With Nuclear Mode, if I’m at home and want a doughnut, then I really only have two options:
Option 1: Walk or drive somewhere to go get a doughnut. Option 2: Suck it up, eat something healthy instead, and plan the next time I’ll eat a doughnut.
With Nuclear Mode, instead of having doughnuts in my kitchen and available to eat whenever a craving comes on, I put a bunch of barriers in my way. If in order to get a doughnut I must stop working, close my computer, grab my keys, walk to my car, drive to a store, stand in line, buy a doughnut, and drive back home, then it’s almost inconceivable I’d go through all that trouble.
In other words, I don’t have to use any self-discipline to not eat a doughnut because I don’t have any doughnuts to eat.
That means I’ll often go with Option 2: I’ll feel the craving, grab an apple or some beef jerky (or wait for lunch) and then get back to work.
And if after I finish work I still want a doughnut, then I’ll look up whoever makes the best goddamn doughnut in whatever city I’m in at the time, call up a friend, and ask if they want to meet me for doughnuts on Saturday.
And when Saturday comes, that doughnut will be a million times more delicious and satisfying than anything I would have mindlessly shoved in my mouth at home.
5 Steps For Using Nuclear Mode To Reduce The Amount of Junk Food You Eat
Step 1: Go through your fridge and cupboards and throw away (or give away) any tempting, unhealthy foods.
For most people this is junk food like chips, cookies, and ice cream. But for others, it can be beer, Chinese take-out, or even calorically-dense foods that are easy to overeat like peanut butter.
Step 2: Replace those foods with healthier options that will help you look and feel good.
For snacks I like fresh fruit, baby carrots, beef jerky, sardines, yogurt, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and mixed nuts.
Step 3: Don’t bring tempting foods into the house.
Once you’ve gotten rid of the unhealthy stuff, try not to bring it in again.
Step 4: If you do bring those foods into the house, get the best stuff you can possibly afford — then get rid of the leftovers.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you should never bring certain foods into your house. Personally, I love cooking big meals for people with plenty of bread, booze, and something sweet for dessert.
But I always give the leftovers to my friends as they’re on their way out the door. And if I have a half-pint of ice cream left that nobody wants, I don’t put it back in my freezer. Instead, I throw it away.
My friend Marisa—who loves to bake cookies—does something similar. Whenever she wants cookies, she buys the best ingredients, makes a few dozen cookies, eats one or two, and then puts the rest into Tupperware and delivers them to friends and coworkers.
Step 5: Plan when you’ll enjoy your favorite unhealthy foods.
Just because you don’t have this stuff in your house doesn’t mean you can’t ever enjoy it. (After all, I started this article with me slathering honey butter on biscuits and washing it down with bourbon.)
Instead, the goal is to use Nuclear Mode to make your home a safe-haven. That way you don’t have to use constant self-discipline to stop yourself from eating things you’ll regret later on.
Intermediate: How To Use Nuclear Mode To Become More Productive
Author Cal Newport has written extensively about “deep work”, which he defines as the ability to focus—without distraction—on a cognitively demanding task.
As he makes clear in his fantastic book Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World, the ability to focus for long periods of time is both a rare and valuable skill, simply because so few people can do it.
The ability to get into deep work is essentially a superpower that allows you stand apart from everyone else, create a better career for yourself, and do work you’re proud of.
The main way I get into deep work is by going Nuclear, and using a web-blocking software like Freedom. Once installed on your computer, you can set Freedom to automatically block news, porn, social media, and every other site you use to distract yourself from doing the things you’re supposed to be doing.
Personally, I have two sessions that run every single day. The first session is from 6AM to 4PM. The second session is from 5:00PM to Midnight.
That means I only have ONE HOUR per day to check email and social media, read articles, watch YouTube, and argue with people on the internet.
4 Steps For Using Nuclear Mode To Become More Productive and Focused
Step 1: Download Freedom or another web-blocking software on your computer.
Step 2: Select and disable any websites you use to distract yourself.
I have 46 websites blocked, not including the usual suspects (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc).
I leave Netflix and Spotify on, mainly because I listen to music when I work. And I still watch Netflix once or twice per week in the evening (but never during the day).
Step 3: Set a schedule and play with it.
Freedom lets you start a session whenever you like, but I prefer to put myself on a schedule. (Like I mentioned above, I set Freedom from 6AM to 4PM and again from 5:00PM to Midnight.)
Having a schedule that turns on as soon as I open my computer ensures that I can’t “check email real quick” or do whatever stupid thing I was going to do instead of working.
If you try this yourself, I suggest playing around with your schedule a bit. Since I work for myself and rarely have anyone waiting on me, I can afford to have a fairly Draconian schedule.
However, you may need to adjust your schedule so you can have Freedom running when you’re the most productive and don’t need to be immediately available.
Step 4: After a week of playing with your schedule, go into Locked Mode.
Freedom won’t do you any good if you can disable it at any moment in order to check your email or watch cat videos. That’s why after you get comfortable with your schedule, I recommend putting it on Locked mode.
Locked mode makes it impossible to disrupt an active session, which basically means you won’t be able to “unlock” the software and get access to your email or Facebook any time you want.
Instead, in locked mode, you’ll have to wait it out and see what life is like when you don’t have immediate, automatic access to the most distracting parts of the internet.
Of course, you can always update your settings and change your schedule as soon as your Freedom session is over.
Advanced: How To Use Nuclear Mode To Put Down Your Damn Phone and Start Being a Human Again
At this point, it’s not controversial to say that lots of us are addicted to our phones. In fact, one recent digital habits survey showed that more than 29% of Americans would GIVE UP SEX FOR THREE MONTHS rather than give up their smartphone for one week.
I will pause to let that sink in.
The drawbacks of always being connected to a device are obvious: We spend less time and attention on things that are really important to us while simultaneously experiencing a constant low-level stress and fear of missing out.
Just think about how most of us spend our days:
Wake up and check text messages, social media, and emails
Listen to Spotify while getting ready for the day
Listen to podcasts on our commute to work
Work behind a computer for most of the day
Get distracted dozens of times by Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, email, or reading articles online
Listen to more music or another podcast on our commute back home
Listen to music or podcasts while at the gym
Listen to music or podcasts while cooking food
Read articles or check email while eating
Read articles or check email while using the bathroom
Watch Netflix in the evening
Check texts, email, social media one more time before bed
If we assume that being slaves to our phones is a problem worth addressing, how should we go about weaning ourselves from the constant onslaught of information and entertainment?
Instead of constantly policing ourselves and using self-discipline in order to resist temptation, simply use Nuclear Mode to eliminate the temptation altogether.
7 Steps For Using Nuclear Mode To Break Your Internet and Phone Addiction
Step 1: Grab your phone and delete any app you use to distract yourself (that’s not mission-critical for your job).
For most people that includes:
Social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat
Games like Candy Crush, Fruit Ninja, or Clash of Clans
Messaging apps like Facebook messenger
Web browsers like Google Chrome
What’s “mission critical” depends on your job. Some teams use Slack, Basecamp, HipChat, and the like to communicate. If you absolutely need something like that in order to perform your job, then keep the app on your phone.
But if you have Slack on your computer and on your phone, ask yourself if it’s really necessary to keep it on both devices. Do you really need to talk to your team when you’re at the grocery store or watching a movie?
How many times in the past month have you received a message outside of work hours that was absolutely critical to your job or performance?
You may be mistaking convenient for critical. And if Slack (or whatever) is simply convenient, you can probably delete it off your phone and just keep it on your computer for when you’re actually working.
Step 2: Recruit your partner, roommate, or a friend you see often to help.
To help save yourself from screens, you’re gonna need a friend, ideally someone you live with or that you see every day (or nearly every day).
Also, the rest of these instructions are for the iPhone since that’s what I have. Though I’m sure it’s just as easy to do the same thing with an Android device.
Step 3: With your friend next to you, go into the “Settings” app for your phone, and tap on “General.”
Scroll down to the “Restrictions” tab and tap it.
Step 4: Turn your restrictions “On”.
The screen will ask you to enter a “Restrictions Passcode”. Give the phone to your friend and have them enter in a passcode without showing you. (Tell them to enter a code they’ll remember.)
Step 5: Go through the list of restricted apps and toggle off anything you normally get distracted by.
Personally, I turned off:
The “installing apps” selection is super-important to get rid of. Otherwise, you’ll just re-download Facebook and Instagram as soon as a craving hits. Remember, we want to eliminate the need to have self-discipline in the first place.
Step 6: Enjoy both the feelings of dread and liberation that come with not being able to check all the distracting shit on your phone.
Notice how after a few days you start not to miss it. I’ve recommended Nuclear Mode to a few people and most of them report feeling immediately more calm and less overwhelmed. And those good feelings carry over for weeks and months.
Step 7: Once per week or so, have your friend enter the “restrictions” code, and give you access to all the things you’re missing.
I usually only toggle two categories back on: Podcasts (so I can catch up on anything interesting) and Installing Apps (so I can update all my other apps).
My partner Richelle leaves these on for me for the weekend, before I have her re-enter the restriction code and turn everything back off on Sunday night.
Nuclear Mode Is Incredibly Powerful — But It’s Not For Everyone
Some of my friends think I’m crazy when they learn I don’t have email on my phone, or that I only give myself internet access for an hour per day.
“Don’t you have enough self-discipline?” they ask.
The answer, of course, is complicated.
Yes, I have enough self-discipline. But I don’t have enough to constantly police myself every minute of every day across every aspect of my life.
I don’t have enough self-discipline to resist every single temptation and distraction that tries to throw me off course, whether it’s my phone buzzing with another notification, or a pint of whiskey-pecan ice-cream calling my name from the freezer.
I have to pick and choose my battles.
In other words, I have enough self-discipline to handle whatever the day throws at me: big decisions, difficult problems, unexpected situations.
But for everything else — daily routines, my relationship with technology, what I eat, and how I work — I try to find ways to eliminate the need for me to have more self-discipline.
The goal, whether we get there with Nuclear Mode or any other strategy, isn’t to deprive ourselves or become militant Luddites who refuse to use technology. Instead, it’s to get clear on what’s important to us, what we’re trying to accomplish, what pitfalls we’ll need to avoid, and how to make everything easier.
What we’re doing with Nuclear Mode is eliminating the need to have more self-discipline.
You can’t check Twitter on your phone when you don’t have Twitter on you phone. You can’t eat ice cream when you don’t have ice cream in your freezer. You can’t “quickly check email” when you still have 3 hours and 12 minutes before your internet access kicks in.
And as restrictive as all that may sound, once you try it I think you’ll see just how liberating it can be.
It feels good to create things. It feels good to help people.
Bonus points if the thing you create helps people; when those two things meet, it’s like magic. (It’s also, occasionally, a business.)
But creating things — especially good things — is difficult. It takes time, focus, and courage. Maybe even a little masochism.
Helping people is easier, and there are a million ways to do it: You can hold the door open for the guy whose arms are full of groceries; you can help an old woman across the street (that’s still a thing, right?); you can share your life experience and hope that someone will read it and find it applicable to their own life.
That last one — sharing life experience — is my favorite.
I’ve had a blog for a little over 10 years now, and thousands of people have found their way to my little corner of the internet to read what I have to say.
I hear from lots of my readers.
Some write to tell me I’ve changed their life. Others write to tell me to go straight to hell. I like getting both kinds of messages. They remind me that not everyone will love what you do — but some will. (Those are the ones who matter.)
But as rewarding as creating things that help people can be, most of us don’t do it often enough. Maybe we don’t have an outlet (though, honestly, that argument doesn’t mean shit now that anyone can start a blog or a Youtube channel). Maybe we don’t have an idea.
Or maybe we’re just waiting for someone else to ask for our help before we give it.
A couple months ago I sent out an email to my readers and asked Them to help me write a book.
I told them I needed their help to create something new. I posted some questions on my blog — questions about relationships, work, self-confidence, and more — and I invited them to answer those questions.
Hundreds of people answered. Thousands more people, like Charlie here, decided to wait and read what other people had to say.
“Thank you for this valuable project. I left most of the questions blank because they are issues I struggle with. I look forward to reading other people’s responses.” – Charlie
At the beginning, I had this grand idea of creating a huge book full of stories, advice, strategies, and photos. As you’ll see, that quickly fell apart. (I’ve learned it’s always better to start with a grand vision and scale down from there.)
What we created instead is much more manageable. And because of its size, much more readable.
With a nod to Esquire’s “What I Learned” interview series — a format where the interviewer’s questions are removed and only the subject’s answers remains — this is a collection of quotes, artwork (from my good friend Jason Lengstorf), and general good advice from some random people who read my blog.
So, just who are these people?
I can tell you that most of them (90%) are male, and most (75%) are between the ages of 25-35 (My blog started as a fitness blog for guys; so this makes sense.)
There are, however, some outliers: A 53-year-old woman; a 61-year old guy; one dude named Ryan Andrews; another dude named Andrew Ryan. (Seriously.)
But really, these are just people.
People who have lives, families, responsibilities, hopes, dreams, and fears. People who helped me create this thing in order to help other people. Like you.
Last year, my friend Kyle was hit by a car while he was crossing the street on his way to work.
It was ass-crack early — six ayem — and the driver of the car had sped up to make it through a yellow light.
Kyle, like the optimistic idiot I’d known for 15 years, didn’t wait for the signal to flash before walking. He stepped off the sidewalk and into the road, apparently anticipating that the car would stop.
The car hit him and sent him flying into the middle of the crosswalk.
That was a Thursday. Kyle died on Sunday. On Monday I typed this into Google: “How to give a eulogy – Esquire.”
I knew Esquire would have something real to say. Something that would help me think through this shit. Something that would help me cope and proceed with new perspective. Like a man.
I knew Esquire would be there for me in the same way that my dad, my brothers, my best friend Jason are there for me: With understanding. With wisdom. Always.
On the flight to Colorado, I wrote down stories and memories of Kyle — that summer where we made fake IDs out of plastic cutting boards and a laser printer; the first time he took me to the gym and showed me how to lift weights; the way he’d sit in the driver’s seat of his shitty Toyota pickup and punch the roof of the car in time with the bass drum of the Deftones.
I got into Colorado late. The next morning, I gave the eulogy. It went about as well as a eulogy can go.
Later that night I split a pot brownie with my friend Mike and we walked the streets of Denver, talking, laughing, remembering.
We obeyed traffic signals and looked both ways before crossing the street.
I’ve read the magazine in bathtubs and in public parks, during thunderstorms and after sex. I’ve read it during lazy Sundays on the couch with a glass of bourbon and an hour to kill before dinner.
I’ve learned a lot from Esquire over the past eight years, since I first picked up an issue of the magazine. I’ve grown to trust and admire Editor David Granger and his stable of contributing editors and writers: Tom Chiarella, Mike Sager, Nick Sullivan, Stephen Marche, Richard Dorment, Chris Jones, Tom Junod, Scott Raab, AJ Jacobs, Cal Fussman, David Wondrich, John H. Richardson, Colby Buzzell.
Their stories taught me, inspired me, challenged me. They made me laugh and, yes, they made me weep.
I’ve read the magazine in bathtubs and in public parks, during thunderstorms and after sex. I’ve read it during lazy Sundays on the couch with a glass of bourbon and an hour to kill before dinner. The ink always smeared and got on my hands.
I just finished the May 2016 issue of Esquire, David Granger’s last as Editor in Chief after nearly 19 years. Some of his writers (but not all) are leaving with him.
It’s the end of an era.
In honor of him and all the writers that have entertained, educated, and challenged me over the past decade, I want to share a few things I’ve learned from Granger’s Esquire.
I hope you’ll indulge me.
Lesson 1: Be generous with your time.
Eight years ago or so I emailed writer Tom Chiarella and asked him how I could become a better writer. I didn’t know this at the time, but unsolicited emails asking broad questions rarely get answered.
Tom answered anyway. His advice: set deadlines, cancel appointments when the writing is going well, and get a good chair.
His response was great, but it was the fact that he responded at all that blew me away. Having an email from Tom Chiarella sitting in my inbox made me feel connected to something big, like I had a direct line to God. He was (is), in my opinion, one of the best in the world at what he does.
I’m so far from being the best at anything.
But I have an audience now and whenever I get an email from someone who needs some help or just wants to say how much my writing has impacted them, I respond. Because Tom would.
Lesson 2: Steal from the best.
Hunter S. Thompson knew how to steal.
When he was a young journalist, Thompson would sit down at his typewriter and copy great literature, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
When Esquire writer Chris Jones agreed to do an interview with me a couple years ago, I knew I was going to steal, too.
After two hours on the phone, four hours of transcribing our interview, and another four hours pulling out the best snippets of conversation, I had my very own “What I Learned” interview, a style I stole from Esquire’sCal Fussman, who removes his questions and leaves only his subject’s answers.
Thanks to Cal’s format and Chris’s answers, You Don’t Belong Here is one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever done.
Lesson 3: Buy simple, classic clothes that will last a long time.
In 2012, I moved from a small town in Montana to Portland, Oregon. Say what you will about hipsters — the flannel, the work boots, the beards — these people had style. Or at least more style than I did.
I remember coming home from the grocery store one day, after spending the better part of an hour watching beautiful people buy craft beer and artisan salami, and looking down at my two-sizes-too-big jeans and my too-long-and-billowy button down shirt.
I needed some new clothes.
I took some money out of my savings account, searched through the Esquire archives, and put together a list of essentials to build my wardrobe from scratch.
Call it what you want — a shopping spree, a waste of money. I call it an investment in myself.
The clothes made me feel confident. Capable. Like I could go anywhere in the world and be taken seriously.
I remember putting on the suit in the J. Crew changing room — my first ever suit, at age 27 — and thinking: Now that is one good-looking motherfucker.
Lesson 4: Choose a favorite drink. Learn how to make it.
The best birthday presents I’ve ever received in ascending order: an Orlando Magic Penny Hardaway jersey, skateboard lessons, and a one-on-one cocktail class at one of the best bars in the country.
That was four years ago.
I showed up to the bar at 3PM on a Saturday, an hour before it was set to open. I knocked on the door. The owner, Dan, let me in. “You’re young,” he said. “I thought you were going to be 50.”
The lights were off and sunlight poured through the windows. There was no music. I sat at the bar and Dan put a series of glasses in front of me: simple syrups, spirits (whiskey, rum, gin, but no vodka), lime juice, and lemon juice.
During the next hour, Dan showed me how to make three drinks: an old-fashioned, a whiskey sour, and a daiquiri.
He taught me their history and showed me how to stir, shake, and strain. He gave me a list of the tools I’d need to make them at home. He got me drunk and then sent me out the door, stumbling and smiling.
I don’t remember the cab ride home, but I do remember what Dan taught me. Since then, I’ve made an old-fashioned nearly every night. I’m getting pretty good at it.
I can thank my girlfriend for the gift and Dan for teaching me. But I must thank Esquire first: I found the bar in the magazine.
Lesson 5: Take risks, respect your readers, and try new things.
Blogs are like magazines on a rack: they all try to get your attention and stand out. But in the end, most regress toward the average. They start to look and sound the same.
Granger’s Esquire always stood out. Not just the covers of the magazine — with their notes, arrows, and quotes — but the words inside.
Granger’s Esquire wasn’t filled with predictable celebrity interviews, ephemeral news stories, or vapid commentary on the state of the fashion industry. It was something deeper, more creative, more thoughtful.
That kind of risk-taking is inspiring and it takes a kind of pact between the writer and the reader to work. The writer says: Trust me, I’m going to make this worth reading. And the reader, hopefully, goes along for the ride.
I’ll let you in on something: I never know what I’m gonna do next with this blog. All I know is that I want it to stand out and I want it to connect with the right people.
Partly thanks to Esquire‘s influence, I’m always trying new things, pushing my boundaries, thinking of what could be fun and scary to try.
Last month I started the process of co-creating a book with my audience. We’re gonna write it together and give it away for free, something I’ve never seen done before. (Will it be worth reading? I have no idea. But I’m gonna try.)
And now here I am, writing a love letter to Granger’s Esquire in attempt, I guess, to say this: I’m really gonna miss it.
The interviews. The writing. The people. All of it.
In his last column in Esquire, Scott Raab wrote this: “The magazine means more to me than any teacher I’ve had because this magazine has taught me more — about America, about manhood, and about believing that every man’s work might matter to the world.”
I may not love the magazine the way Raab loves the magazine. But I will say this: When my friend died and I had to figure how to deal with it, I sought the company and advice of the people I trust most: my girlfriend of 8 years; Jason, my best friend of 15 years; my parents; my brothers.
We did all the typical gang-related stuff you’d expect from two white, middle-class kids from a small ski-resort town in Montana:
We stole candy bars from the grocery store, made napalm out of gasoline and styrofoam in our driveways, and terrorized small dogs and old ladies with our skateboards.
Sadly, we disbanded after only a week, right after Jason stuck a rolled-up Limp Bizkit poster down his pants and got caught as he attempted to walk out of the store like a goddamn pirate with a peg-leg.
Even though our gang didn’t last long, our ambition to start things and be a part of something stuck around.
We were ambitious kids who took action on our ideas. And so we grew into ambitious adults who continued to take action on our ideas.
Even if some of those ideas were absolutely terrible.
A Very Short List of Very Terrible Business Ideas We Tried
1. Vagabrew: A beer blog where we’d travel to different breweries around the country and write about them. Our business plan followed the Underpants Gnomes formula:
Step 1: Drink beer, take road trips, and write about breweries.
Step 2: ???
Step 3: Profit!
2. A children’s book about robots. Each robot was made in a factory, but they were all missing a crucial piece that made them feel empty inside: They were missing….a heart! (We sat for 5 hours writing the entire outline beforerealizing how incredibly stupid it was. Personally, I blame the bottle of bourbon we drank while we wrote.)
3. Humblecock: A clothing company we started because, well, why the hell not? We put a giant rooster on t-shirts and ran it for two years before we finally admitted we had no clue what we were doing. (Five years after selling it, we realized we forgot to pay taxes on three months’ worth of income. The IRS sent us a bill for $20,000 in penalties. Oops!)
And that’s just the stuff off the top of my head; it doesn’t count all the dozens (maybe hundreds) of little ideas that sounded cool at the time, but that quickly transitioned to stressful wastes of energy that made me hate my life.
Why Most People Will Fail to Reach Their Full Potential
A couple weeks ago I talked about why most people will fail to reach their full potential: They have an idea of what they’d like to do, but they’re too afraid to start. OR they overanalyze every single option and end up staying stuck in the same position.(My suggestion for them: run a small test.)
Well, there’s a flipside to this: While some people are too afraid to start anything, lots of other people will fail to reach their potential because they’ll try to start everything.
They’ll try to take action on too many ideas.
They’ll be like young Jason and me, writing books about robots and owing the government 20 G’s in back-taxes.
It took me years of practice (and failure) to figure out the crucial difference between ideas that sound good…and ideas that are actually good.
Not a good idea:
Taking action on any idea that sounds cool or feels like something you should do—especially out of a sense of urgency, panic, or fear of missing out.
Quitting your job and cashing out your retirement to open a new business
Going back to school and spending tens of thousands of dollars on classes because you don’t know what else to do
Launching a product that looks and sounds exactly like everyone else’s product
Starting a clothing company with the word “cock” in it
A good idea:
Taking action on an idea that allows you to use or build a valuable skill, helps other people, and aligns with the kind of lifestyle you actually want to live.
Making the transition from valuable employee (with a 9-5 schedule) to valuable consultant (with more freedom over your schedule)
Finding ways to be more effective and productive in your work so you can finish faster and spend more time with your family
Starting a blog about something you’re deeply interested in, sharing your thoughts and experiences, and building trust with your readers as you figure out a way to help them solve a specific problem.
This is the difference between blind ambition (ambition without a clear purpose or direction) and focused ambition.
The Dark Side of Ambition
If I’ve learned anything about my readers over the past 9+ years it’s this: You’re ambitious as hell.
In fact, your ambition probably sets you apart from the rest of your friends and family. I mean, who else reads self-development blogs, listens to podcasts, and buys books with names like The4-Hour Work Week or The Hero Handbook?
Face it: You’re weird. And I’m right there with you.
Our ambition is an asset…until it’s a burden.
At its most trivial, our blind ambition can be a source of constant frustration as we make false-start after false-start and struggle to figure out what to do next. After a while, our lives can seem like a series of “almost made-its.”
But at its worst, blind ambition can destroy our self-confidence and our relationships with the people around us.
Blind ambition is how we end up working on weekends, neglecting our health or family, or overwhelming ourselves with too many ideas. It’s how we end up taking on too many commitments, shortchanging other areas of our lives, or going into debt.
When we’re blind, we struggle to set boundaries, fail to finish what we start, and become ridiculously stressed out in the process. We end up, as author Greg Mckewon says, making a millimeter of progress in a million different directions.
But focused ambition is a beautiful thing.
It’s life-changing and inspiring. It makes us better…and it makes the people around us better, too. Focused ambition moves us forward.
How To Focus Your Ambition: 11 Questions To Answer Before You Start Anything
A few years ago, Jason and I wised up: We started applying criteria to our decision-making.
We wanted to be confident that every idea we decided to pursue would take us in the right direction—even if it eventually didn’t work out. (Not all good ideas are successful in the long run. Actually, very few are.)
Since then we’ve developed a more detailed personal criteria based on 1) our most valuable skills 2) the lifestyle traits we want to protect and build.
(This is something I’ll talk in more detail about soon.)
But we both started with this: A series of questions we’d ask ourselves before we decided to change jobs, take on any new project, or chase down any new idea.
What exactly do I want to do?
What’s the point (what am I trying to accomplish)?
Why is that important?
Does this match any of my current skills? (Or will it allow me to build a new skill?)
How, specifically, does this help other people (my company, customers, family, etc.)?
How long will I try this before I move on to something else?
What does “done” or “success” look like, anyway?
Is this really how I want to spend my time?
Can I get the same result in a way that’s easier or less time-intensive?
What will I have to give up if I decide to take this on?
What simple test can I run to get started and see if I’m on the right track?
Answering these questions takes time (sometimes hours, days, or even weeks) and requires critical hurt-your-brain-type thinking.
Of course, not everyone is willing to spend the time or energy to think this stuff through…but they’re the same people who are going to fail time after time (unless they get lucky).
Better Criteria = Better Decisions
The simple act of taking the time to answer these questions and work through the implications of each allowed Jason and I the opportunity to gain perspective on what we were really trying to accomplish and why.
By applying a simple criteria, we learned how to evaluate sticking points and opportunities in both our careers and our lives. We learned when to stay and when to move.
Most importantly, we learned how to make better decisions and pursue the right ideas—the kind of ideas that bring us closer to becoming the people we want to be, helping the people we want to help, and living the way we want to live.
Do this next:
It’s super-basic but incredibly effective: The next time you feel like it’s time to change something about your life—or the next time you have an idea for a project or business—ask yourself The 11 Questions. See if they help you identify your next step.
A one-hour exercise to help you celebrate your biggest wins, identify your biggest opportunities, and dominate the new year.
I spend most of my time planning for the future. With the help of my meditation practice, I’m getting better at living more in the present. But something I still find incredibly difficult is reflecting on the past.
I rarely celebrate achievements for more than a few minutes, and I almost never “look back” on projects or situations to identify what I learned. (And I certainly don’t use that information to guide my future decisions.)
This, as you can imagine, is a problem.
“Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Sometimes being “doomed to repeat” stuff can be a good thing. I think I did a lot of things right this year, and I’d like to continue to do them.
But I also did a lot of stuff wrong.
If we don’t learn from our past, we we won’t be able to identify our biggest opportunities to make life better. Which means we’ll likely suffer through the same situations and thought-patterns again and again.
So this year, I’m continuing with a tradition I started two years ago: a personal retrospective.
A retrospective is when you look back on past events to identify what worked…and what didn’t work. A retrospective helps you celebrate your wins and identify your weaknesses. It helps you learn from the past and correct for the future.
How to do your own personal retrospective
To do a personal retrospective, you simply pick a particular project or time period and ask yourself the following questions:
What’s working? (“What did I do right? What am I proud of?”)
What’s not working? (“What could be improved? What are my biggest opportunities for growth?”)
How can I fix what’s not working for a better result? (“What specific things can I focus on next time?”)
Then you spend 15-30 minutes writing about each.
Nate’s 2017 Personal Retrospective
To give you an idea of how it’s done—and to encourage you to do the same—I want to share mine with you.
QUESTION 1: WHAT’S WORKING? (“WHAT DID I DO RIGHT? WHAT AM I PROUD OF?”)
If I had to give 2017 a title, I’d call it “The Year of Remembering What’s Really Important.”
I MADE FRIENDS WITH DEATH
Ever since my friend Kyle died a few years ago in a freak car accident, I’ve become more aware of the fact that I am going to die. This year, I leaned into that scary, awe-inducing feeling and decided to make friends with death.
That way whenever I start to take myself too seriously or get worked up about something stupid, I can put things into perspective and remember that things are, on balance, absolutely amazing.
It’s on the underside of my wrist, usually hidden under my watch strap.
It reminds me that every time I do something it may be the last time I ever get to do it. So I might as well enjoy it.
I SPENT TIME WITH PEOPLE I LOVE
I visited my family in Texas and walked around my boyhood home.
I spent a week on the edge of the Puget Sound with Richelle.
I ate my way through New Orleans with Jason.
I fell in love with our new dog, Rally.
I showed Mike my favorite bars and restaurants in Portland.
I got my ass kicked in basketball by my little brother Austin.
I spent hours training and hitting the sauna with my other brother, Jordan.
I shared beers and hikes through Glacier with my dad and grandpa.
I cooked meals and made cocktails with my mom.
I STARTED DOING MORE CONDITIONING TRAINING
My mom’s dad died of a heart attack. My grandpa on my dad’s side has had at least two heart attacks. My mom was born with a heart condition and had to have surgery as a baby.
So why the hell have I neglected conditioning (cardio) all my adult life? Beats me. Lifting weights is more fun, I guess.
But this year, with the help of Joel Jamieson and an inexpensive heart rate monitor, I’ve started doing 1-3 weekly conditioning sessions including Concept 2 rower and skierg sprints, trail running, Assault Bike cardiac output, and more.
Turns out I actually enjoy doing conditioning if I have some specific numbers (heart rate zones, etc) to shoot for.
I MADE TIME TO WORK ON MY OWN PROJECTS
Along with my consulting work I still found time to write 51 newsletters, coach a handful of entrepreneurs, and do a limited release of my new program, The 2-Day Workout Fix.
That feels good.
QUESTION #2: WHAT’S NOT WORKING? (“WHAT COULD BE IMPROVED? WHAT ARE MY BIGGEST OPPORTUNITIES FOR GROWTH?”)
SPEND MORE TIME MEDITATING
I started meditating consistently a few years ago and even went so far as to go on a 10-day silent retreat in 2015. The science is in: Meditation can change your brain for the better. (Read more here.)
But I didn’t need double-blind studies to tell me that. I know from personal experience that the more I practice meditation and mindfulness, the happier I am.
Mindfulness may be the ultimate meta skill. Which is why after a year of only practicing 10 minutes per day, I’m going to up the ante in 2018 to 30 minutes per day of sitting meditation (with a daily walking meditation, too).
This skill is so important to me that aside from some monthly discipline challenges (which I’ll write about soon), meditating more is going to be my ONLY focus for 2018.
Sure, I’ll continue to write and work and do all the other stuff that makes up a life. But my daily meditation is the only thing I’ll track.
It may be too early to say, but I fully expect the benefits of increased meditative practice to bleed into the rest of my life.
(If talk of meditation makes you roll your eyes, I encourage you to check out this book. And this one.)
QUESTION #3: HOW CAN I FIX WHAT’S NOT WORKING FOR A BETTER RESULT? (“WHAT SPECIFIC THINGS CAN I FOCUS ON NEXT TIME?”)
Action step #1: Extend my morning meditation practice from 10-20 minutes to a full 30 minutes.
Rationale: I’m already meditating in the morning, so I might as well use that to my advantage and simply extend the practice. On the mornings where I can’t fit that in, I’ll break up the practice into two 15-minute sessions.
Action step #2: Leave my phone at home when walking the dog.
Rationale: When I went on the silent retreat a couple years ago, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed walking meditation. But I rarely do it.
Then it hit me: I take my dog for a long walk (or two) every day. What if instead of bringing my phone and listening to a podcast or audio book, I tried doing a walking meditation instead?
So, that’s what I’m going to do. I’ll keep track of my practice in a notebook and try not to break the chain of “X’s”.
Write your own Personal Retrospective
So that’s mine. Now it’s your turn.
It’ll take you roughly an hour, but it could be the most important thing you do this year. After all, 2018 is already here.
What are you the most proud of? Where are your biggest growth opportunities?
And the biggest question: What are you going to do about them?