I read “Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day” by Todd Henry on a plane. Sitting 40,000 feet above the ground with a Kindle and a notebook is a pretty good way to force yourself to cut out the distractions, the emails, and flurry of information that other people want you to pay attention to. Some breathing space to think about what you really want to get out of this day and your life in general.
The core message of the book is pretty simple. You have a limited amount of time. And a lot of unique value to offer. So fill that time with your unique contribution every single day.
Here are some of my favorite passages. Maybe they’ll help you push through the obstacles of frustration or procrastination. Maybe they’ll inspire you to look at your life or organization in a different way.
Your body of work = your personal portfolio
“Your body of work comprises the sum total of where you choose to place your limited focus, assets, time, and energy.”
In a previous post, we talked about signs that your organization might need portfolio management. “Die Empty” is all about maximizing your personal portfolio of work. But it can apply to business as well and Henry references multiple times that organizations also encounter blocks that prevent them from realizing their full potential.
Process over popularity
“Your contribution is not about you. You cannot function solely out of a desire to be recognized for what you do. You may be rewarded with accolades and riches for your work. You may also labor in obscurity doing brilliant work your entire life. More likely, you’ll fall somewhere in the middle… Cultivating a love of the process is the key to making a lasting contribution.”
It’s difficult to control how people will react to your work. There are things you can do to help your chances such as understanding your audience and improving your marketing or presentation skills. But focusing on the process of creating, experimenting and learning instead of the reactions will help you create the best work that you can, regardless of how people respond.
Be patiently impatient
“Brilliant work is forged by those who consistently approach their days with urgency and diligence. Urgency means leveraging your finite resources (focus, assets, time, energy) in a meaningful and productive way. Diligence means sharpening your skills and conducting your work in a manner that you won’t regret later.”
“Don’t forget that there is always a delay between planting and harvesting.”
Urgency, diligence, and patience. Are they contradictory? The urgency pushes you to get something done right now. The diligence helps to make sure that every metaphorical brick you lay is high quality. And patience is faith in the vision that eventually those bricks will build up into a house. If you don’t have all three then you’ll fade out long before reaching your goal.
Mix mapping, making, and meshing
Henry encourages us to balance three types of work: mapping, making, and meshing. Mapping is all of the planning and scheduling, setting a vision and goals based on your values. Making is all about putting your head down and doing the work. Meshing covers all of the activities that don’t directly contribute to value but help you grow and make connections that you can take advantage of in the future. Learning, skill development, relationship building, communication, rest, reflection, and curiosity all fit into meshing.To deliver your best work, you want to dedicate your resources to a mix of all three.
He describes the value of this mindset:
“you will be better positioned to identify the areas where you contribute the most value, the elements of work that are most personally gratifying, and new opportunities that you’d like to pursue. In other words, you will be better positioned to build a body of work that you will be proud of later.
The solution might be in the problem
Deal with boredom, uncertainty, and overwhelming options by redefining the problem. Henry advises viewing problems from new angles by,
- Defining the end result if the problem was solved (Aspirations)
- Exploring how this problem is similar to other projects (Affinities)
- Questioning your constraints (Assumptions)
- Focusing on specific attributes of the problem (Attributes)
“Using these four elements of possibility thinking- Aspirations, Affinities, Assumptions, Attributes – can help you find the ‘edges’ of your problem and help you avoid barriers to progress. You can utilize them at the beginning of a project to help you generate a series of questions and you can use them frequently throughout the project to keep you from getting stuck.”
Work on nested goals
Set step, sprint, and stretch goals. For anyone familiar with agile software development this concept is similar. Step goals are items that you can accomplish within a day. Sometimes all it takes is a sequence of small steps. Planning and not doing doesn’t get you anywhere.
Sprints extend over a week or two. They push you to accomplish something bigger, within a constrained period of time. Short cycles of hard work followed by rest and reflection can help you gain momentum without burning out.
For stretch goals, pick something that you can both control and measure so you can break it down into sprint and step goals. But it needs to be much more challenging than a single sprint.
“Accomplishing a stretch goal is less a linear march to the finish line than it is a series of combustive battles. If you don’t define the battles, you will be defined by them.”
Define your own vector
“…people sell their souls by running away from the battles they know they should be fighting. Instead, they become mercenaries. Guns for hire. They don’t care which battle they’re fighting as long as the checks clear.”
“Success in emptying yourself of your best work each day depends on your ability to define the right battles, and do the small but critical tasks that will help you progress toward your true objectives rather than just the ones that others expect you to strive for.”
“How would you act differently tomorrow if you knew that your actions and attitude on that one day were going to be a permanent testament to your life?”
For us nerds, Henry offers another way to think about our work. Every day is a chance to reset your vector. A vector in math has both a magnitude and a direction. Each day you can make a choice about both which direction you aim in and how much muscle you throw behind it. #nerdpride
If you’re feeling stuck, like something’s off but you’re not sure what to change, then I recommend picking up this book. He provides a lot of very actionable tips that you can implement every day.
What other insights did you pull from the book?