What Marshmallows Can Teach Us About Success

Imagine you're 4 years old and I put in front of you a big, white, juicy marshmallow.

I then tell you this:-

"Here, in front of you is a marshmallow.  

I'm going to go away but I'll be back in around 15 minutes.  If, when I come back, you haven't touched the marshmallow then I'll give you another marshmallow and you can eat them both.  

However, if you eat the marshmallow before I get back then I won't give you the second one."

What would you have done in this situation?  

Me?  I'm pretty sure I would have gobbled that marshmallow up the second the guy left the room.  Unfortunately, that wouldn't have bode well for my future.

Allow me to explain...

This scenario above is one of the most popular experiments that's ever been done. Researchers were testing to see which children could wait for a bigger reward and which would go for the immediate reward.

The actual term that's used to describe the ability to favor a long term reward over a short term one is delayed gratification.

Here's where it gets interesting.  Researchers followed these children over the following forty years to see how their lives unfolded.

And the results?

Those children that were able to resist the marshmallow (delay gratification) tended to do way better in their life.

Specifically, they had:-

  • lower body mass indexes
  • performed better in exams (had higher SAT scores)
  • were less likely to engage in substance abuse
  • better social skills.

In short:- you can predict the likelihood of success in children by their ability to wait for a reward rather than take the immediate payoff.

The Longer Term Reward vs the Short Term Payoff

What does this study tell you?

It means that when it comes to getting results, patience really is a virtue.  

If you can train yourself to resist immediate temptation in favor of a bigger reward in the future, then you'll likely be very successful.

Examples of how this might play out in real life:-

  • Fitness - When you get home from work and you're tired, you are able to make yourself hit the gym because you want to have that rock hard body in a few months, rather than slouch around on the couch in front of the television.
  • Entrepreneurship - When you're three months into starting a new business and you don't have any results to show for your hard work, you persist and grind it out until the results start coming in, rather than quitting.
  • Finances - When you receive your salary each month you tuck away 10% into a savings account because you know that the money will accumulate and allow you to invest further down the line, rather than buying things right now.
  • Health - When it comes time to eat lunch at work, you eat the healthy salad that you've prepared in advance at home, rather than eating the unhealthier options at the staff cantine. 

Of course making yourself do this stuff on a regular basis is difficult, but this is equally a blessing and a curse.

If you can get good at doing what is difficult to most people, then you'll stand out from the crowd.  

The key thing is that just trying hard won't work.  Instead, create habits and manage your willpower carefully.

Can Delayed Gratification Be Learned?

Going back to the marshmallow experiment...

Were the children that resisted the marshmallow able to do so because they had some kind of gene or natural ability?  Or, is this trait something that can be learned?

This particular question peaked the interest of the researchers and so they repeated the experiment with a new set of kids but with a subtle change.  

Before offering the marshmallow, they separated the kids into two groups.

They preconditioned the first group to wait for a reward by promising a bigger box of crayons in ten minutes.  After the ten minutes was up, the promised was fulfilled; they received the crayons.

They did the same with the second group with one key difference: they didn't fulfill their promise.  The kids didn't receive the crayons.  These children were preconditioned that waiting for a reward wasn't worth it.

And the results of this experiment?

The kids that were preconditioned to wait resisted the marshmallow, on average, for four times as long as the children in the other group.

So what's the significance of this?  

It means that one of the most critical life success factors of delayed gratification is something that can be learned.  

What Does this Mean for You?

Your chances of having a happy and successful life can be measured by your ability to favor a bigger reward in the distant future to the immediate payoff.  

Of course, the devil is in the detail.  How do you actually do this?

I'm still trying to figure all of this stuff out myself, but here's what I have so far:-

  1. Form positive habits (includes details on optimizing your environment, small immediate rewards, why habits are so powerful, tracking your successes, minimum commitments... all of which is pertinent to helping you take the path of delayed gratification)
  2. See things through
  3. Manage your willpower
  4. Take decisions out of the equation

Aside from these practical elements, I believe that there are a few stages you need to go through to really implement this type of thinking into your life.

  1. Sell yourself the benefits of delayed gratification - you really have to be sold on the idea that delaying gratification will have a huge payoff.  

    The marshmallow experiment is a great start, but if you really pay attention you can see a ton of evidence in the real world that the bigger results come from a commitment over a sustained period of time.  

    Read autobiographies of successful people, look at how successful companies were built, read about deliberate practice and the 10,000 hour rule ask people who are ahead of you in the field you're trying to pursue.   In all these instances you'll see firm examples of delayed gratification and how it was critical to success.
  2. Make this trait one of your values - once you've been sold on the idea and you're under no illusion that this trait is critical for your happiness and success, make a conscious decision to have it as one of your personal values.  Bring this new consciousness to your daily decision making.
  3. Start small - rather than jumping in all at once, getting overwhelmed and failing, choose one area of your life where you will display this virtue and build up over time.
  4. Set up a system to support you - don't fall for the trap of just trying harder. Design your life so it's as easy as possible to do the things that you need to do and as hard as possible to fail.  

So, in summary, marshmallows teach us that if we want to increase our chances of having a happier and fulfilled life, then we need to develop the skill of favoring a reward in the longer term future over an immediate pleasure.  

How is your ability to resist the marshmallows of life?  

​Read More

Summary of Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This book is all about how we can transform boring and meaningless lives into ones full of enjoyment through a concept called "Flow" and optimal experiences.

Here's a breakdown of the key points that I took from this book:-​

Why We're Unhappy

Most of us have no idea what things we should focus on in order to live a happy life.

1. We Strive after the Wrong Things

We tend to chase things that we think will make us happy, only to achieve these misguided goals and be left with the stark realization that we've been chasing the wrong thing all along.  

​For example:-

  • Acquiring new things - houses, cars, clothing, jewelry
  • Mindlessly chasing wealth
  • Endlessly climbing the corporate ladder

We achieve our goals, celebrate and feel good for a while.  But then that all too familiar empty feeling returns.

How do we respond to this?  We set new goals.  

"I thought I needed the car to be happy, but now I realize that it's the house that I really need.  Once I have the house and the car, what more could I want?  I'll definitely be happy then"​

We somehow manage to convince ourselves that, even though we've been chasing things to be happy and not managed it our entire lives, this time will be different.

So we forever strive for new levels of achievement in the hope that, once attained, we'll find the happiness we are desperately searching for.

This endless loop has been labeled the hedonic tredmill.  ​We're running and chasing as hard as we can, but we don't get anywhere, similar to a running tredmill in a gym.

On top of this, we are so intent on focusing on what we want to achieve that we are unable to derive pleasure from the present moment.​ 

2. We Have Inner Conflicts

The normal state of the mind is a state of chaos and disorder that is neither useful nor enjoyable.  Our attention jumps about all over the place, often on things that have little to no meaning, without any cohesion or strategy.

Often our attention comes across a new piece of information that we interpret in such a way that it is in conflict with an existing goal.  This puts us in a state of "psychic entropy" and is known as disorder in consciousness.

This can leave us stuck between a rock and a hard place, so to speak.  We have a goal of moving in one direction, but we have some kind of lower emotion such as pain, fear, rage, anxiety or jealousy that's pulling us in the opposite direction.​

Sometimes we can resolve these issues, in which case we emerge relatively unscathed. But in most instances the conflict persists for a prolonged duration, depleting our willpower, and leaving us unable to invest our attention on pursuing the original goal.

Here's a practical example of this phenomenon:

John decides to create a business because he's always wanted to be his own boss.  He has a grand vision of building an awesome company that will not only offer real value to the world but also help him provide a great life for his family.  He's excited by this prospect.

However, John hasn't had any experience running a business before and is anxious that this will be just another failure for him.  He's also unsure of his ability, because he's never really experienced any success in his life before.  These worries and anxieties are crippling him and urging him to quit and cut his losses.

​John's attention is now split between these two opposing and conflicting forces.  One force is encouraging him to push on and build the business, and the other is urging him to quit.

Because of this conflict, it's extremely hard for him to be productive because he's constantly procrastinating and finds it really difficult to focus on the stuff that he knows he should be doing to grow his business.  While John does get himself to do his work some of the time, and occasionally is very productive, he is really inconsistent. He'll often go through periods where he wants to quit, can't find a good reason to work and is battling negative thoughts.

Eventually, John gets tired. 

He is unable to invest his attention on his business anymore and quits.  He surrenders his grand vision of owning a business.  He simply couldn't get himself to take the prolific and relentless action needed to get the company going because of his inner conflict.

When he finally gives up, order in his consciousness is restored and he feels a sense of relief.  The conflict is resolved.

Many of us have many of these conflicts at the same time in our consciousness.  They drain us, leave us unhappy, jeopardize our goals and prevent us from ever reaching peak experiences, otherwise known as "Flow" (more about this later).

3. We Lack Meaning

​What are we doing what we're doing?  What's the point?  What's the bigger picture?

Most of us go to work because we need money to pay the bills​.  Despite spending a third of our waking lives at work, we feel no connection to what we do.  We do what is expected of us because we need the reward - our salary at the end of the month.  We don't care beyond the fact that we get paid.  Our work is simply a means to an end.

When we clock off, we can enjoy our free "leisure" time where we try to use our minds as little as possible.  For most of us, this means mindlessly watching television.  For others it might mean going out, getting drunk, doing chores or some other kinds of fun activity.

At some point, we inevitably wake up and ask ourselves - "where has my life gone?".  We look back realize that we have nothing worthwhile to show for it.  If we're lucky, this our mid-life crisis at 40.  Some of us, though, only realize when it's too late.

This realization leads us to "find ourselves".  We pack our lives into a suitcase and travel around the world, or do a road trip, or some kind of nondescript journey of discovery until we arrive at a beautiful discovery...

We need to contribute.  We need meaning.  We need purpose.​

So, to summarise - what are we unhappy?  Because we're stuck on the hedonic tredmill, we have inner conflicts and our lives lack meaning.

When We Feel the Most Happy

An experiment called the "Experience Sampling Method" was performed on hundreds of adults over a period of a week to answer the question - when are people happy?

  • ​Participants in the study wore a pager for an entire week
  • The pager beeped 8 times per day on a random schedule
  • Upon receipt of each random signal, participants respond to questions about their objective situation and their subjective state at that moment
  • The questions were designed to figure out their levels of contentment at that particular point in time.

The results of the study revealed the following:

We feel the most happy when we are able to direct our attention wholeheartedly on a goal. All our psychic energy is pointing in the same direction.  We don't have any conflicts, we don't have any distractions and we engage ourselves fully with the task in hand.

During this time, we are "in the zone".  We forget ourselves.  Our perception of time is lost and we often do these things at great cost just for the pleasure of the activity itself.  We are so engaged that nothing else matters.  

Lower level emotions such as fear, anxiety, worry, jealousy are all non existent.  ​We focus so heavily on the task in hand that we lose our perception of self.

In short: everything is in alignment and there are no conflicts.  This is the polar opposite to our default state of psychic entropy. ​ This is a peak experience state of consciousness that's called Flow.

People who frequently experience flow in their lives are happier.  The good news is that we can learn to get flow into our lives more often. 

How to Achieve Flow More Often in Our Lives

Flow is a state that can be encouraged through conscious effort both internally and externally.  

In other words, we can learn certain personality traits that are suited for flow (internal) and change the environment around us so that the conditions for flow are more readily met (external).

The Autotelic Personality - Our "Inner Game"

How we react to the things that happen to us is a crucial piece of the happiness jigsaw.

While we can't always control what happens to us, we can control our interpretations and response.  Interpretation is a skill that, if exercised and strengthened, can free ourselves from the everyday ups and downs of our environment.

"The ability to take misfortune and make something good come of it is a very rare gift. Those who 'possess' it are called survivors and are said to have resilience or courage."

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi

The key point is that two people can have the same thing happen to them yet react in completely opposite ways.  One person may derive engagement, happiness and liberation while the other may suffer intolerably.  The only difference between the two lies in how they interpret the event.

I'm sure you've met someone who has an amazing ability to take a positive event and somehow shine a negative light on it.  The type of person who receives a promotion at work but, rather than celebrating the success, complains about how long it took to happen.   This kind of person will often be wallowing self pity, anxiety and other negative emotions.  This person has developed the skill of interpreting events in such away that she is often unhappy.

Well, the opposite is also possible.  We can train ourselves to interpret even seemingly terrible events into positive flow experiences.  The type of people who are best at doing that have what's called an autotelic personality.  

Here are the main traits of someone with an autotelic personality:-

  1. Highly curious - autotelic people have many interests and often spend a lot of time thinking about and deconstructing them.  Things that most people take for granted puzzle them; and until they figure them out in an original yet perfectly appropriate way, they will not let them be.
  2. Low Self-Centeredness - autotelic people don't spend a lot of time focusing on themselves - They don't fix their attention on lower emotions such as anxiety, fear and jealousy, to name but a few.  Instead they are immersed in the world around them; other people, ideas, events, things.  
  3. Intrinsic motivation - people with an autotelic personality often do things for the sheer satisfaction of doing rather than for any kind of external reward.  They do these things because they derive enjoyment and external motivation like money and success isn't their key motivational drive.
  4. Autonomous and independent - autotelic people lead extremely grounded lives and are more resilient to the ups and downs of external forces.   They are self-driven and don't concern themselves with seeking validation from other people.
  5. Non materialistic - autotelic people tend not to care much about material possessions because they derive their satisfaction from their frequent periods of flow.  They are also less likely to chase superficial things like fame or fortune.
  6. Don't require much in the way of comfort - autotelic people have the ability of transforming regular, ordinary experiences into optimal experiences of flow without relying on comforts.  Even a situation that may seem uncomfortable to most of us can be transformed into a period of enjoyment for a highly skilled autotelic person.  

    Viktor Frankl is an extreme example of this: Despite being held captive he was able to transform an extremely uncomfortable situation into one of freedom and serenity.

    Here's a great quote to illustrate this:-

    "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

    Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

    When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."

Autotelic people consciously turn their external world into flow experiences by making everything a bit like a game.  They turn things that might seem unenjoyable to most of us into a challenge that they can attack.  

For example, a worker on the production line of a factory who is one small cog in a large machine has to do the same repetitive movement hundreds of times per day.  Most of us would consider this job boring, tedious and unenjoyable and would spend the majority of our day wishing the time away. 

Yet, an autotelic person might approach this job in the same way that an olympic athlete approaches the 100 meter sprint.  He knows that it usually takes 43 seconds to prepare each unit but is hell-bent on trying to find more efficient and faster ways of working to set a new record.  While on the assembly line he is constantly analyzing every movement he takes to find new ways of optimizing his performance - he is constantly trying to push the barrier.

Let's break down what's happening here.  A seemingly mundane and repetitive task has been interpreted in such a way that it becomes enjoyable:-

  1. He sets goals - his goal is to try and beat his existing 43 second record for a unit
  2. He is immersed in the activity - he's pushing himself to operate at the edge of his ability by trying to work a bit faster which requires all of his concentration and focus. 
  3. He is paying attention to what is happening - he's questioning every movement to try and find ways of optimizing them.

His interpretation of events, something that is completely under his control, is transforming almost certain boredom into full engagement and flow.  These autotelic personality traits can bring us far greater periods of enjoyment in our life.

Here are some more examples of the difference between "normal" thinking and autotelic thinking:-

  1. ​Working in a noisy environment with screaming kids - our normal reaction might be one of anger, annoyance and disdain towards the noisy group of people.  We could, however, see this situation as an opportunity to practice our concentration and ability to focus.
  2. We've been waiting in line for 30 minutes - we might get distressed, focus on how much time we've wasted and start to get angry towards the company/organisation for not having an efficient system.  We could, however, consciously notice this feeling of anger emerge, question it and work through in our minds the usefulness of it.  
  3. Our job is to cold call people every day - we may start to get tired and bored of people hanging up, being rude and feel a lack of engagement with what we're doing.  We could, however, consciously create some kind of test to systematically change our sales pitch and the time of day we call people to gather data.  We can use this data to, over time, incrementally improve our performance and increase our conversion rate.  It becomes more like a game for us.

Of course there are an infinite number of ways to approach any of these scenarios.  What intrigues me, may not intrigue you, it's subjective.  The main point is that we can consciously look for deeper meaning in all that we do and transform everyday events into periods of mental engagement that we enjoy.

Changing our External Environment to Create Conditions of Flow

Aside from cultivating an autotelic personality, we can also purposely manipulate our environment such that they are optimised for engagement.

To increase the chance of reaching a state of flow, certain conditions need to be met:-

  1. ​We confront tasks that are at the right level for our ability - brushing our teeth, by itself, is not going to be conducive to getting into a state of flow.  This type of habitual activity is so easy for us that we have hardly any kind of mental engagement with it, it's automatic for us.

    The opposite is also true, though.  If we try to confront a task that is so far beyond the limits of our current ability that we feel that we have no chance of completing it, then we also tend to disengage.  For example, as someone has never really rock climbed before, I can't go and climb an overhanging treacherous cliff and expect to enjoy it and get into a state of flow.  

    However, if we can find tasks that allow us to operate just beyond the edge of our existing ability such that it requires all our mental focus, then that's more likely to produce periods of flow.  Rather than taking on a treacherous cliff, then, I should first attack a beginner level wall that's challenging for me and take on ever increasingly difficult challenges as my ability grows.

    Of course, as I get better at rock climbing, I should commit to taking on increasingly difficult climbs in order to keep the difference between my ability and the degree of difficulty in balance.
  2. We receive feedback - we need to have as "immediate as possible" feedback for our performance.  We need to understand how well we are doing, whether we are making progress to our goals and be left with a clear understanding of how we can improve.  

    Doing something without having any idea of how we are performing can make us feel like our work is meaningless and leave us with no sense of direction, like we're just floating along.  Not only this, but we'll also not be able to grow, which is a necessary prerequisite for long term engagement, something that's called becoming increasingly complex.
  3. We have clear and actionable goals - we must know what we are working towards.  This can come in the form of a larger end goal with realistic sub goals along the way.  The main point is that we have a target, something that we genuinely believe that we can achieve if we apply ourselves to it.

    One caveat about goals: they must be appropriately set.  If we are set a goal and we don't really believe that we can achieve it, then we're less inclined to apply ourselves to try and achieve it out of worry that all our effort will be for nothing.

The simplest way to remember how to design your environment for flow is to design it like a game. 

Let's say you're responsible for managing a team of customer support workers.  

This type of role, where you're continually replying to customers all day long, has the potential to really bore the team.  Imagine a setup where each member of the support team does some basic training to get them up to a certain level but then they're static. They don't really have any direction for growth and they're not really sure what their success is measured against.  They don't have any way of seeing how well they're doing and therefore don't have any goals to work towards.  They're simply replying to customers all day until it's time to go home.  Every day is the same.

However imagine if you could turn customer support into a game:  

  • Every time a customer closes a ticket they are sent a survey to feed back what they felt of their customer service experience.  This score is then sent back to the support team member, but added to reports that the whole team can see (to entice competition).
  • Each support member is given a target satisfaction rating for each month.  Each month there is a review on how well the team member has done and a new target for the following month.
  • The team are also set customer satisfaction, time to reply and speed of resolution goals that the whole team can clearly see.  If the team meets these goals, then they'll receive some kind of reward at the end of each month.
  • All these metrics are recorded over time so that everyone can see the progress and growth that's being made.
  • The customer support role is broken down into various individual skills such as communication, speed, customer empathy, technical knowledge and so on. Each month, the customer support agent should make their case to demonstrate how they've improved in each of these verticals and is given a rating that corresponds to how well they're doing.
  • Every week, one member of the team must give a presentation to the rest of the team showing them something new that they've learned.

By taking time to design a customer support "game", each member of the team will have much more chance of engagement in their work.

In short: we can optimize both our internal and external environments to experience flow more often in our lives.

Why Flow is so Important to Cultivate

At the fundamental level, cultivating this sense of flow is important because people who manage to achieve such peak experiences regularly are happier and more fulfilled.  But what does this translate to in more specific terms?  

People who experience regular bouts of flow:

  • lead more vigorous lives
  • continually learn new things
  • are hardly ever bored - can make jobs and tasks richer in their mind
  • can take in stride things that come their way
  • are in control of their emotions rather than being solely dependent on external stimulus
  • enjoy whatever they do, even if tedious or difficult
  • have order in consciousness (don't suffer from the psychic entropy problem described above)

The key point is that people who have the ability to get themselves into a state of flow can interpret pretty much any situation, even those that most of us would be unable to derive any satisfaction from, and interpret it in such a way that it's an enjoyable and engaging experience for them.

The Challenges of Flow

Most people are able to teach themselves the skill of achieving flow in everyday situations.  It's a skill that pretty much anyone can learn.

However some people experience difficulties fully engaging with the world around them.  

One way this can commonly manifest itself is if someone has excessive self consciousness such that they are "stuck in their heads".  For example, someone might be:-

  • constantly worried about how other people perceive her
  • afraid of creating the wrong impression or of doing something inappropriate

These type of people are so worried and anxious about how they are perceived that they can't turn their focus outwards onto the external environment.

Other people may find it difficult to get into a state of flow because of attention disorders. Perhaps they have chemical imbalances in the brain such that they're constantly in a state of psychic entropy so their mind is never fully in alignment.

Key Takeaways from this Book

There are a few key points that this book really drives home:-

  1. We are responsible for our happiness.  We can develop the ability to transform pretty much any experience into a positive one if we take the time to learn the skills of an autotelic personality
  2. Treat things like a game.  If we ever find ourselves bored or disengaged with our work or any kind of activity that we're doing then we should look for ways to turn it into a game either internally in our own head, or externally by manipulating the environment around us.
  3. Work has a bad brand.  Studies show that people tend to be happier at work when they are busy and engaged than in their so-called leisure time perched mindlessly in front of the TV.  
​Read More

Demonstrating the Importance of Practice: Popular YouTube Channels

Look at the videos below of famous YouTube channels.  On the top, you'll see their first video ever uploaded (or in some cases, the earliest that I can find), and on the right you'll see their latest one.

Why have I done this?

I want you to pay close attention to how bad their first video was relative to their latest one.​  

Just look at how far all of these people have come over the past few years.

They've all taken something that they weren't very good at, focused on it, practiced and improved over a long period of time to become the successes that they are today.

This is important:-​

If you believe that you aren't talented enough to achieve something then you have a false limiting belief that is holding you back.

You can become good at anything through hard work and deliberate practice.  

​Let these guys below serve as your inspiration.  

Decide what you want to master, and practice it.  Not for a few weeks, not for a month, but for an extended period of time.

​As time goes by, you'll start to notice that you're improving.  Soon people will start making rash judgments about how talented you are without realizing the full story.  

Most important of all, though, you'll start to realize that becoming great at things is just a matter of deliberate practice and persistence.

Infinite Waters

Now, with over 1 million subscribers on YouTube, look how Ralph Smart started out.

Here is his first video published January, 2008:

And here he is today, in August 2017:

Real Social Dynamics

Check out the improvement that Owen from RSD has made in his video presentations.  Bear in mind that in the "before" video, this was nowhere near his first video created.

Here is his first video published March, 2010:

And here he is today, in August 2017:

Check out the comments on the first video from people that are shocked to see how much he's improved over the years:-

Shane Melaugh

Shane is my friend and business partner for the last 6 years or so.  Notice the crazy improvement that he's managed to make with his own video skills:

This is from January, 2010:-

And here he is today, in August 2017:

I've personally witnessed this growth over the years.  He's also created a great post about this called The Grind.

Ramit Sethi

Ramit is a best-selling author and I've actually purchased not only his book but a number of his courses (Success Triggers, and Finisher's Formula).  

This is from January, 2010:-

And here he is today, in June 2016:

Elliott Hulse

The strongman and self development coach, Elliott Hulse, who currently has 1.7 million subscribers in 2017.

This is from November, 2008:-

And here he is today, in August 2017:

Leo Gura

Look how far Leo Gura, from actualized.org, has come in the past four years.

This is from April, 2013:-

And here he is today, in August 2017:

Omar Isuf

Omar has one of the most popular fitness channels on YouTube today, but his first videos were a far cry from his most recent!

This is from 2010:-

And here he is today, in August 2017:

Final Thoughts

​So here are just a few examples of people that didn't have raw talent, and started off pretty unskilled at creating videos, but ultimately practiced and got really good at it.

If you take the time to look for it, you'll find millions of pieces of evidence, just like these, to back up this notion that you have a lot more control over our ability than you think.

There are countless stories of sports stars, famous authors, inventors and even US presidents, who didn't believe in their ability to achieve.

One of my missions is to try and equip as many people who doubt themselves as possible with the growth mindset.  The best way of doing this, as far as I can tell, is to stack pieces of evidence in a pile in front of you so that, as the pile grows, shades of doubt are cast on your limiting beliefs.

At some point this stack will reach a tipping point, and you'll be convinced that with deliberate practice, deep work and good old-fashioned dogged determination, you'll be able to do things that you never previously thought possible.

And then you'll look back and won't even begin to fathom how you came to those old limiting conclusions that were weighing you down like a ball and chain.

So, to the tipping point we go.

More evidence coming shortly.

​Read More

Summary of Deep Work – Focused Success in a Distracted World

This book is all about how you can leverage the concept of deep work to become a more prolific creator, create value and be more successful.

What is Deep Work?

Distraction free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to the limit.

It's based on the following formula:-​

High quality work produced = time spent x intensity of focus

To engage in deep work requires full concentration and immersive thought.  You're captivated and completely focused on the thing that you're working on without disruption.

An example of deep work is locking yourself in a distraction free environment on a regular basis to produce a creative work that you're fully engaged in.

The opposite to deep work is shallow work. Such activities involve:-

  • Operating reactively rather than proactively
  • Chatting, answering phone calls, instant messaging
  • Browsing the web
  • Doing menial day-to-day tasks
  • Answering emails
  • Formatting documents

Shallow work has no real value, is easy to replicate, noncognitively demanding, often distracted and makes us look busy.  It's also an incredibly common default state for most people in the modern day world.

The Arguments for Deep Work

​There are 3 main arguments for Deep Work:

1. Learn Faster - If you can engage in deep work when learning new skills then you'll learn faster.  Deliberate practice is arguably the best known method for getting good at anything and Deep Work is a mandatory component of deliberate practice.  

That's to say, if you're practicing something and you're not in a state of Deep Work, then you're not practicing deliberately and thus not to maximum efficiency.

2. Be Successful - deep work is a hard skill to attain and pretty rare.  Most people don't regularly engage in a state of deep work in their day to day lives yet those that do will thrive.

To thrive in the modern era, you need to be able to master hard things and produce at an elite level, in terms of quality and speed.  Both of the aforementioned qualities are a byproduct of doing regular periods of deep work.

3. Lead A Rich Life - ​the road to a meaningful and purposeful life is paved with regular periods of deep work.  

Deep work will amplify your ability to create something of value and contribute to the world.

Furthermore, deep work is one of the most enjoyable periods of engagement (otherwise known as "Flow") that humans can engage in. Studies show that people who regularly experience flow are happier and live more fulfilled lives.​

So, in summary, by engaging in deep work, you'll be able to pick up new skills faster, thrive in the modern day economy and live a life rich with productivity and meaning.

What it Requires

A conscious and deliberate decision to integrate deep work into your life.  

Regularly practicing deep work is difficult and should be ingrained as a habit so that you're consistently able to get into this state.

Method / Approaches to Deep Work

Decide on your depth philosophy - there are a number of different ways to integrate a deep work practice into your life, and you should decide which method works best for you.

  1. Monastic - basically involves cutting yourself off from the rest of the world indefinitely.  A few proponents of this approach are Neal Stephenson (the science fiction author) and Donald Knuth (the computer scientist)​ who are both pretty much uncontactable, even through the likes of email.  

    Their philosophy is that they have a choice: they can either spend their time being distracted by the various forms of communication, or spend their time focused on creating.   They commit themselves to the latter.
  2. Bimodal - an oscillation between periods of being isolated in monastery like conditions and periods of shallow work.  

    One example cited in the book include Carl Jung, the psychiatrist, who spent part of the year doing deep work in the woods and other parts of the year running his psychotherapy practice in the bustling city of Zurich.  

    Another example is ex Microsoft CEO, Bill Gates, who would schedule two "think weeks" for deep thinking and strategising during his busy tenure.

    The key point about the modal philosophy is that both periods of deep and shallow work are long and uninterrupted.
  3. Rhythmic - this involves scheduling part of your daily routine for periods of deep work and is probably more apt for most of the population. 

    One example given in the book is the author Anthony Trollope who created a daily ritual of getting up at 0530, had a coffee, read his previous day's work and then engaged in 2.5 hours of writing during which he aimed to complete 2,500 words.

    Another example is the prolific writer Stephen King who tried to write 2,000 words in the morning and spend his afternoons doing other things that needed to be done.

    This particular approach lends itself well to creating a daily habit of engaging in deep work.  The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you're going to go deep.
  4. Journalistic - this is all about just grabbing every moment that you can in order to engage in deep work.

    The example given is Walter Isaacson who would retreated up to the bedroom when the rest of his friends and family were relaxing on the patio.  "He'd pound away on his typewriter for twenty minutes or an hour and then come back down relaxed like the rest of us."

    This is the least reliable and most difficult of methods to jump straight into.  The ability to switch your mind from shallow to deep work mode doesn't come naturally and requires practice.  Therefore, this is probably not the best philosophy for someone who is need to working deep.

The Chain Method - Jerry Seinfeld made this technique, that's used to maintain discipline, famous.   It's since become popular among writers and fitness enthusiasts.

He keeps a calendar on his wall.  Every day that he writes jokes he crossed out the date on the calendar with a big red X.  

"After a few days you will have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt.  your only job is to not break the chain".  (This technique is also a part of my habit system)

Create your Ritual - "Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants" - David Brooks.

Build rituals to support your goal of going deep often.  Your ritual should address:-

  1. Where you'll work and for how long
  2. How you'll work once you start to work
  3. How you'll support your work (food, coffee, walking, organisation).  This needs to be systemized so that you don't waste mental energy figuring out what you need in the moment.

Finding a ritual that sticks might require experimentation, so be willing to work at it.

Make Grand Gestures - this technique leverages the psychology of serious committing to the task at hand and involves putting yourself in a new location, sometimes at great expense, for the sole purpose of deep work.  By doing this, you increase the perceived importance of the task, which will reduce your mind's instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.

Some examples include:-​

  1.  JK Rowling, the famous author, checked into the five star Balmoral hotel near Edinburgh Castle​ when she struggled to finish "The Deathly Hallows".
  2. Bill Gates - famous for taking "Think Weeks" during his time as Microsoft CEO during which he would retire to a cabin for the sole purpose of reading papers and books
  3. Alan Lightman, MIT physician and novelist, retreats to a tiny island in Maine to think deeply and recharge for 2 and a half months each summer.  The island doesn't even have an internet connection or phone line.
  4. Peter Shankman, entrepreneur and social media pioneer, noticed that he was extremely productive while flying so booked a round trip business class flight to Tokyo and wrote during the whole voyage.

Don't work alone - for many types of work, collaborative deep work can yield better results - it can push your results to a new level.

The 4DX Framework - planning and big goals is one thing, but execution is another.  A framework called the 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) can help us execute efficiently.  The four principles are as follows:-

  1. ​Focus on the Wildly important - the implication is that you should identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours
  2. Act on the Lead Measures - focus on the points of high leverage that will cascade down into other areas.  

    Lag measures are those that are influenced by lead measures.  

    For example, if you're trying to improve customer service, a lead measure might be "the time it takes for a customer to receive a response" and a lag measure might be "customer satisfaction scores".
  3. Keep a Compelling Scorecard - people play different when keeping score. Example- scorecard of how many deep hours people do on a daily basis.
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability - public meetings where team members must confront their scoreboard, commit to specific actions to help improve the score before the next meeting, and describe what happened with the commitments they made at the last meeting.

Embrace Boredom - Clifford Nass, Stanford communication professor, did some research that revealed that people who multitask all the time can't manage working memory, are chronically distracted and initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand...they're pretty much mental wrecks.

If every moment of potential boredom in your life is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the "mental wrecks", it's not ready for deep work.

In short: when you have those moments where you don't have anything specific to be getting on with, embrace them and stop yourself from switching your focus onto the nearest distraction.

Quit Social Media ​- identify your personal and professional goals and determine if social media is giving a substantive positive impact on you reaching them.

Consider quitting social media for 30 days and asking yourself the following questions afterwards:-

  1. ​Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
  2. Did people care that I wasn't using this service?

To master the art of deep work, you must take back control of your time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.

Drain the Shallows - ​treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.

  1. ​Try scheduling every minute of every day to show that your estimates will prove wrong and to show how often you'll be interrupted with new obligations.  Will help you appreciate that a deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect
  2. Ask your boss for a shallow work budget
  3. Finish your work by five thirty.  Adopt fixed schedule productivity.  
  4. Say yes less - "Yes" is the most dangerous word in one's productivity vocabulary.
  5. Become hard to reach - create a sender filter and set expectations of response low
  6. Do more work when replying to emails - limit the amount of back and forth required to get things done.
  7. Don't respond - don't feel bad about it.


The main challenges of deep work are:-

  1. Fighting desires and distractions - especially if your brain has already been primed to engage in shallow work for many years
  2. Willpower fatigue - our willpower is like a muscle so pushing it to hard can lead to burnout.

My Concluding Thoughts

This book helps shine a light into the mindsets and approach of people that are prolific creators.  

We all know we should focus is important, but it's become a bit of a cliche in productivity circles.  "You should focus" is overused and doesn't really mean anything, but Deep Work brings a whole new level of clarity to the term.

I like how Deep Work is complementary to other extremely important concepts for high performance: habit building and deliberate practice.  Those three, together, seem to be the ultimate cocktail for high performance.

The book also inspired me to create a script for putting my computer into "deep work" mode.

My full set of notes can be found here.

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Holding My Feet to the Fire – My Deliberate Practice Video Experiment

Watching this video above, 15 months after starting this whole experiment, is quite a cringeworthy experience.

  • Is that really me?  
  • Was I really that bad?  
  • Why am I wearing a pink top with pink flowers in the background?

So many questions...​

15 months and around 60 videos after starting my deliberate practice experiment, I can say just that deliberate practice is working well for me, so far.  

What is This Experiment?

For a while I had the idea of creating videos about self development so that I could get better at video presentation, improve my reading speed and retention and, of course, my writing.

And, like most people, I took this idea, figured it was a good one, and then did nothing but procrastinate for a couple of months.  ​

​It was only when my business partner called me out that I started.

"You keep talking about this.  What are you waiting for?"

Of course I could have easily come up with some seemingly rational and acceptable reasons as to why I didn't have time, it wasn't the right moment, I wanted to focus on other things...

Enough was enough.  Time to get busy and stop bullshitting myself.

I set out the following goals:-​

  1. Read, study and take notes on the top 140 self development books
  2. Produce videos about the concepts and learnings that I take away from those books
  3. Keep at this relentlessly until the end

And that's what I've been doing alongside my normal work ever since.

Here is a spreadsheet of my progress so far.​  At the time of writing, I've read 45 books, taken 400,000 words of notes and created 70+ videos on my YouTube channel.

Relentless Improvement

One concept that's been beaten into me by the deliberate practice crowd is the idea that just practice alone isn't enough.  It's got to be hard, and it's got to be focused on a specific area.

Each time I make a new video, I'm trying to work on something to improve it.  I've found this pretty hard to make myself do.  Here's some of the stuff that I've worked through so far:

  • Better positioning in the frame
  • Improved pacing
  • Stopped the continual swaying backwards and forwards
  • Deliberate ending of sentences rather than the dreaded never-ending sentence that plagued my earlier videos.
  • More pronounced facial expression and vocal intonation
  • The content is structured and more focused.  My earlier videos are a lot more "all over the place" such that the key points were lost.
  • A way of explaining more complex concepts in a simple and concise fashion so that the viewers aren't lost in a word salad of generalities and vague concepts that they can't relate to
  • Improved lighting and microphone setup
  • Hooks to captivate the viewer at the start of the video
  • A new awareness of how to create a viewer-centric video, rather than "the best video with the most information possible".  In other words: I have a better understanding of what people will and won't tolerate watching.  I'm better at cutting out additional information that adds no value.

One of the hardest things of this process has been figuring out what I should be improving.  At the start, I was so clueless about the skill of presentation and video production that I didn't even fully recognize how bad I was.

For example, I had no idea that people found my videos boring and waffly until I saw their eyes glaze over as they watched my earlier book reviews.  

I now find myself watching videos of people that are clearly better at this than me and trying to deconstruct what they're doing so well:-

  • Ramit Sethi produces beautifully polished and clearly articulated videos on a wide range of self development subjects.  Example
  • Leo Gura is a master of conveying really complex topics in a very clear and engaging fashion.  Not only are these videos incredibly detailed and insightful, but they're also shot in one take (very impressive).  Example
  • Owen from Real Social Dynamics is really great at being present in his videos - there's no filtering going on. He also has this ability to create a humorous yet insightful monologue on pretty much any subject. He's also really good at changing the pace of the video by jumping in and out of different personas.  Example
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How to Be Prolific: A Look into the Mindsets of Prolific Creators

The one thing that really impresses me about someone is if they are continually shipping stuff.  

A writer that is continually pushing out novels, an artist that relentlessly produces music, a blogger that's been publishing videos for years... and so on. 

In a word, these people are prolific, and they generally have one thing in common.  

Prolific people make results happen.​

I'd hire someone prolific over someone who is smart and currently has a great skill set any day.  


The ability to grind on your craft day in, day out for extended periods of time, is itself a skill

Rather it's a meta skill; If you know how to grind and be prolific, then you develop other skills faster, more deliberately and more effectively.  

Simply put: If you can focus on something relentlessly and consciously for long periods of time (read: years) then you can get really good at anything.  You'll also end up surpassing most of those who were previously more skilled than you.

That's Why I'm Working on Being More Prolific

​I'm not bad at what I do.  I work hard.  But I'm not prolific...

And that's something that I'm working on right now.  Literally, right now, as I write this sentence.​

In "Peak", Anders Ericsson mentions that an important component for deliberate practice (the currently best known method of getting good at stuff) is to either get lessons from a world-class teacher, or in absence of that, closely analyse what top performers are doing to be so good.

So, as I don't have access to a world-class teacher in the art of being prolific, you can find below a continually updated log of golden nuggets extracted from the minds of prolific creators.

The Prolific List

1. Anthony Trollope (author)

He published 47 novels on top of an array of other publications in 38 years.  His ability to publish works so prolifically left him the envy of many authors who didn't understand how he could achieve such a rate.  

He said that he was never late for a deadline and while one book was being published, he'd usually have two or three finished ready to go.

He's one of the most prolific writers of his generation.

So how did he do it?  I picked up this from the great book, Willpower:

  • He woke up early (at 0530), had a coffee, and spent the next half hour reading the previous day's work to get himself in the right voice.
  • He then wrote for 2 and a half hours, monitoring the time with a watch placed on the table.  By breakfast he could produce 2,500 words.
  • He kept a running log of his word count, planning for 10,000 words per week.

    Here's a quote:- "In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour so that the deficiency might be supplied."

Anthony Trollop's Habit System 

We can see clearly that the reason for he was so prolific was because of his habits.

  1. ​He had a core habit of waking up early
  2. The trigger for his reading and writing habit was caffeine
  3. The reward for his habit was the satisfaction of keeping a log of all the hours that he produced (possibly he followed his habit up with other things but they aren't specified in the book)
  4. He clearly focused on the action of writing than the result.  In other words, he didn't focus on producing 47 novels, but simply writing 10,000 words per week.  By focusing on that action alone, he knew the result would take care of itself.
  5. He kept a visual log of his habits.  

    "If at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face".  

    I've mentioned the idea of using visual reminders as a positive feedback mechanism before, but Anthony seemed to have a different approach.  He used the visual reminder of his failures to meet his word count to kick him into action again.  
  6. Clearly he liked to work with minimal distraction, engaging consistently in deep work.
2. Adam Grant (Professor at Wharton)

I learned about Adam Grant from a great book called "Deep Work" by Cal Newport.

Adam has been able to progress through the ranks in his profession and is now the youngest full professor at Wharton.  

And the reason for this incredibly fast progression is that he produces at a rate far superior to most of his colleagues.  

For example, in 2012, he published seven articles in major journals which, according to Cal Newport, is an absurdly high rate for his field.  He's since gone on to publish 60 peer-reviewed research papers and, at 34, became a New York Times bestselling author from his book, Give and Take.

It turns out that this is not accidental.  Apparently Adam has spent a lot of time thinking about productivity and how he can get the most out of his time.

Adam Grant's Habit System 

  1. He batches hard and important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches. During periods where he is writing, he closes his door to students and isolates himself to focus completely and without distraction on a single research task.   His environment is in alignment with his goal.
  2. During periods of intense writing, he'll put an out-of-office autoresponder on his email so correspondents will know not to expect a response. Again, streamlining his environment.
  3. Here is a quote from Adam:- "I can sit down for 15-30 minutes and plant the seeds of an idea. I actually write every single day for at least 15 minutes based on that."

    Clearly, the act of writing down the seeds of an idea is, at this point, habitual for him.  
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