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Listen while you work: What music does to your productivity

Damn. I forgot my headphones.

Nothing has a more negative impact on my day than showing up to our office without them.

Like most people, music is a huge part of my life and my tastes are constantly changing based on how I feel or what I’m doing.

I listen to the most music while I work, sifting through playlists, from jazz, to indie pop, to electronica, on what seems to be a never-ending search for the perfect tunes to keep me in the zone.

When I looked back at all my favorite playlists, I wondered what effect music has had on my work and more specifically, which types of music have had the most impact.

I thought it’d be interesting to take a dive into the science behind the deep power of music to find out if it actually helps you work better.

Why you love music

Whether you’re listening to the driving beat of a Daft Punk song or the opening chords of a mellow Jack Johnson track, both have an effect on your brain that is not seen in any other animal.

When you listen to music, a part of your brain called the nucleus accumbens activates. This triggers the release of the “pleasure chemical” dopamine, that lives in a group of neurons in your brain called the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA):

This pathway in the brain is called the Reward System and Dopamine is strongly associated with it.

Dopamine is the same chemical that gets released when you eat your favorite food or when you get a new follower on Twitter, causing you to want more, more, more.

This is why Dopamine is also responsible for the saying:

“Two cheeseburgers equals one orgasm.” - PBS

The amount of dopamine that gets released and the feelings of pleasure we get from it are also largely dependent on the element of surprise.

For instance, when you stumble upon a new song that you love, more dopamine is released and you get even more excited than if you were to listen to one of your favorite songs that you’ve heard multiple times.

Music was meant to keep you alive

From the perspective of evolution, there’s something deeper about why you feel pleasure when you listen to music.

Neuroscientist and musician, Jamshed Bharucha noted that creative domains, like music, allow humans to connect in a synchronized way, helping us develop a group identity and makes us more likely to work together - which was an immensely important advantage for keeping the human species alive.

This development of group identity through music was seen in a recent study of preschool children.

The study paired children together in sets of two and showed them toy frogs. The researchers said these toy frogs needed to be woken up by either a song or exercise.

Psychologists then split the children up into two groups of 24 sets of children.

One group sang a song as they walked around a collection of toy frogs while the other group walked (or crawled) around a separate set of frogs without any music:

Afterwards, the children were presented with tubes filled with marbles. When the children were given their tubes, the bottoms would fall out, causing the marbles to fall on the floor.

The researchers noted if the two children paired together would help each other to pick up the marbles.

The results of the study showed that children who sang the song together, were more cooperative in helping to clean up the marbles.

The researchers concluded that music may have evolved as a way of fostering a sense of community and developing immediate empathetic concern.

Music’s power is deeply rooted in our brains and developed out of a need to empathize, create harmony, and more importantly, survive.

Does listening to music actually make you better at your job?

Music has a powerful relationship to our primal need of connecting with others, so how does this translate over to listening to music while you work?

Music helps you finish boring tasks faster

If you’re not looking forward to cleaning out your email after getting back from a vacation or filling out that nasty excel spreadsheet at the end of the month with your finances, music can help.

Because listening to music you like is pleasurable, it will not only make the task seem more fun but as research shows, it can actually help you complete the task faster.

In a study published in the journal of Neuroscience of Behavior and Physiology, it was found that a person’s ability to recognize images, letters, and numbers was faster when rock or classical music was playing in the background compared to when there was no music.

A similar effect was noted when workers on an assembly line listened to music. The workers who listened to music were more happy and efficient and made fewer errors.

So whatever type of music you like, as long as you’re listening to something, you’ll enjoy repetitive or boring tasks more and get them done faster.

Press pause when learning something new

When you’re presented with new information that’s complicated, it takes more focus and mental energy for you to grasp and apply that knowledge.

For instance, if you’re learning how to drive a stick shift car or writing your first lines of programming code, it’s best to shut the music off.

In 2010, researchers at the University of Wales Institute showed that when adults were asked to complete a relatively complex task of recalling a series of sounds presented in a specific order, their performance decreased while listening to music.

The study concluded that your ability to learn something new that is cognitively demanding decreases when you listen to music.

So when you’re tackling something new and complex, put your headphones down and learn without distraction.

If you’re good at what you do, music works

The magic of music comes into play the most when you’re an expert at what you do, even if it’s something as challenging as surgery.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that surgeons worked more accurately when music they liked was playing in the background (music that they didn’t like was second best, and no music was least helpful of all).

If you’re working on something that you have done many times before, even if it’s complicated, your performance can increase and errors become less likely when you listen to music you like.

The perfect mix tape: How to use music to create flow

While musical tastes vary greatly, listening to your favorite type of music, whatever it is, lowers feelings of tension.

Author Stephen King said that he preferred to work while listening to hard rock music (which for some of us, would be too noisy to concentrate on anything).

Whether it’s hard rock or acoustic jams, as long as the music makes you feel like doing things that’s what you should choose to listen to.

Choose music you’ve heard before

If you’re listening to new music (especially with lyrics) while working, your brain may release too much dopamine especially if you find a song you love.

You’ll start to focus more on the music rather than the work you’re actually trying to do.

When you learn something new, dopamine levels increase and can cause you to lose focus and interest in your work because it’s not as interesting (and therefore not as pleasurable) as the new song you just discovered.

Stick to your favorites list when you work but, if you must have something new, play songs that have little or no lyrics.

Instrumental music works best

There are a few types of music that have proven to be effective in establishing flow for most people.

Classical or instrumental music has been shown to enhance mental performance more than music with lyrics.

For strong focus, music that has little variety and little to no lyrics are best.

Tip: For creative tasks, the noise from a coffee shop can be enough to do the trick says a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Moderate background noise (about the volume of a vacuum cleaner) can create enough distraction to allow you to think more imaginatively:

Source: Coffitivity.com

While music helps you breeze through simple tasks and things you are well-trained to do, when it comes to taking on something new that’s challenging, it’s best to ditch the tunes until you know your stuff.

Everyone’s experience of music is different but now that you understand the why and how of its effects, hopefully your quest for creating the perfect playlist will be much easier.


Got an idea?

Work with the best designers and developers. Over 10 million people have used products made on CREW. And over 3 million people have read our blog. Subscribe here.

Next Story — A magic business model: Help someone sell leftovers
Currently Reading - A magic business model: Help someone sell leftovers

A magic business model: Help someone sell leftovers

As the old saying goes: One man’s junk is another man’s treasure…

This post first appeared on the Crew blog.

Like many businesses, Uber and Airbnb exist to make something easier. For Uber, it’s making getting a ride as easy as possible. For Airbnb, it’s all about easily finding a place to stay.

But if there are so many businesses that make something easier or better, why do Uber and Airbnb standout as being ‘revolutionary?’

Apart from being significantly better compared to alternatives, one of the reasons why Uber and Airbnb stand out is their business models are built on an ingredient that feels magical: they help people sell their leftovers.

Selling leftovers

I first heard about ‘selling leftovers’ from a post called ‘Sell Your By-products‘ by best-selling author and founder of Basecamp, Jason Fried.

Jason writes about one example in the lumber industry where lumber businesses have figured out how to create revenue sources from selling their leftover sawdust and other by-products after they cut wood.

Selling your by-products, or leftovers, means selling the leftover things lying around after you made your core thing.

Finding by-products in your process and packaging them up for sale not only saves you time but it turns something you might have thought was waste, into something of value.

Basecamp has made a living selling leftovers.

Their best-selling books were leftovers created from the experience they went through while building their company. The popular programming language, Ruby on Rails, was a leftover from creating their product. Even their blog is a leftover that has turned into significant value. Basecamp has never paid for any marketing. Instead, they’ve partially relied on selling their leftovers to build a multi-million dollar company.

The beautiful thing about the businesses models behind companies like Uber and Airbnb is they help lots of people sell their leftovers. They allow almost anyone with a car or home the opportunity to get something from nothing.

With Uber, you can make money from the leftover space in your car.

With Airbnb, you can make money from the leftover space in your house. Or your trailer. Or your treehouse.

That costly car or home, can become a cash machine overnight. And this feels like magic.

Why you feel like you get more from selling your leftovers

Selling a leftover feels special because of how you perceive the gain.

Here’s an easy example:

Let’s say you had a pretty table you wanted to sell. You thought it was worth $200, but you didn’t know who to sell it to and you didn’t want to take the time to sell it.

Then, a business came to you and said they’ll help you sell that table for $400. In exchange, they keep $100. You get $300.

If the table sold, you’d be happy. You didn’t have to take care of selling it and you got $300, $100 more than what you thought the table was worth. You’d feel like you came out on top.

Now let’s say you had a table you thought was so ugly that you were going to throw it away in the garbage tomorrow.

Then, a business came to you and said I’ll help you sell that ugly table for the same thing, $400. They keep $100. You get $300.

This might seem like the same deal but because you valued your ugly table at $0, you perceive this second deal as better. Three times better to be exact.

Pretty table deal:

$300 (What you made from the company who sold your table) — $200 (What you thought the table was worth) = $100 perceived gain

Ugly table deal:

$300 (What you made from the company who sold your table) — $0 (What you thought the table was worth) = $300 perceived gain

Though you make the same $300 whether you sell your pretty or ugly table, your perceived gain is three times more when you sell your ugly table.

How would this make you feel? Most likely, you’d have more positive emotions attached to the business that was able to help you make money by selling your ugly table and you’d be left thinking about that business, wondering how they were able to help you make something from nothing.

You’d probably come back to this business to see if they could help you sell more of your stuff you were going to throw away. You might even tell your friends to do the same thing, too.

Selling leftovers can have a bigger impact than selling more efficiency

These ‘Wow moments’ — the positive feelings people get from your product — are what makes you stand out in our hyper-competitive market today.

The more ‘wow moments’ you create, the more you stand out.

If you’re offering a better product but it’s still not good enough to produce ‘wows’, people likely won’t feel strong enough about you to switch from whatever they’re currently using to get the job done.

Mentally, our brain wants to do what gives us the biggest reward with the least amount of work. So if you’re not making things easier, why would anyone choose you?

This is a wall companies often run into.

They may have built a better product but they haven’t built it better enough to make up for the cost people perceive of switching from what they are currently doing and starting something new.

You have to build something so good that switching becomes obvious.

Multiple ‘wow moments’ in a product experience aren’t easy to produce. They can often take years to get right.

People were blown away by the original iPhone but it took 5 years to build right.

This is why figuring out how to help someone sell their leftovers can be an easier road to produce a ‘wow moment’ than selling someone more efficiency through better or more features.

When someone realizes you help them sell leftovers, that can stand out more than a feature.

Though not easy, thinking about how your product could help someone sell their leftovers will bake a ‘wow moment’ into your product. One that may leave an impression as strong as multiple ‘wow moments’ created by the features you build.

I’ve seen the impact firsthand.

Unsplash is a photography website we started that offers hi-resolution photos for free that you can do whatever you want with.

We primarily built Unsplash because we didn’t like any of the alternative stock photo options but it was also built on helping sell leftovers. Our leftovers.

We started Unsplash because we had leftover photos from a photoshoot that we weren’t going to do anything with. Rather than leave them in a folder and let them go to waste, we decided to give them away for free.

We thought if people found our photos useful, maybe we could get some exposure for our core business, Crew.

Because we weren’t using these photos anyway, in our mind, they were worth zero. So when tens of thousands of downloads of these photos happened, along with substantial exposure and sales for Crew, we were blown away.

Today, our aim with Unsplash is to do this same thing for lots of people: turn what may be leftover photos into value. Based on this model, we’ve seen Unsplash take off, growing to over 50,000 contributors, almost a billion photos viewed per month, and a lot of good vibes.

When you help someone sell their leftovers, it can be easier, yet more effective, than trying to sell someone another feature in a slightly better product.

In order to work, a business needs to be better than existing alternatives. But if you can somehow mix helping someone sell leftovers into your model, you’ve added a dimension to your business that will help you stand out even further.

If you help someone sell a leftover, more people will be struck with an ‘OMG, that’s amazing’ feeling toward you.

One of the best ways to figure out how you could help someone sell their leftovers is to look at your own leftovers.

What do you have sitting around creating no value?

What do your customers have sitting around creating no value?

For us, it was photos.

For the lumber industry it was sawdust.

For Basecamp it was books, a programming language, and a blog.

There are opportunities everywhere to build a product that helps someone package up a leftover and sell it.

Figuring out how to help someone sell their leftovers can have a bigger impact than selling someone more efficiency.

Want to build your own way to sell some leftovers?

Check out my company Crew, where you can work with the best designers and developers in the world. Over 10 million people have used products made on Crew. And over 3 million people have read our blog. Join them here.

Next Story — Why you don’t need design like Apple
Currently Reading - Why you don’t need design like Apple

Why you don’t need design like Apple

Authenticity vs. Beauty

Apple proved that beauty not only works. It sells.

By marrying design and technology, Apple evolved from a niche brand for hobbyists into one of most valuable companies ever.

After their success, many companies followed suit and leveled up on design.

If you can’t beat ‘em…

Many of the products we spend our time with — our phones, laptops, and the software that comes with them — were originally designed, or at least inspired by Apple. And with Apple creating and managing the App Store, a huge chunk of the software industry is now required to have ‘Apple-approved’ design to survive.

For design and beauty, our expectations as consumers are higher than they’ve ever been. And the future of where products will compete will hinge more and more on the emotions driven from thoughtful, pleasurable design.

As a designer, I appreciate this attention to design.

I look at my laptop screen and the icons look like candy.

I zip fluidly through my apps, getting hits of pleasure from well-designed transitions along the way. The visual beauty of technology is so much different from how it was even just 10 years ago.

A computer used to feel like you were navigating a maze in a cornfield. Uncertainty around every corner until you finally found the path to get something done.

Yet, for all the good this focus on design has done for us, this same focus on visual polish has a cost.

In our worship of the design and marketing of companies like Apple, we creators lose sight of an even more powerful way to present our ideas to the world.

Because we’ve seen the results of visual beauty in product design, we expect putting this level of focus on visual beauty in our brand’s message will have the same effect.

I’ve seen companies spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars perfecting a website, email, or ad’s visual design while spending the last few hours on writing the words that will make up that design.

Our intense focus on visual design can blind us from focusing on the most important part of the message: The story.

Choosing substance over style

We’ve had a taste of this ourselves.

A year ago, we sent out two versions of this email campaign.

One email closely followed the principles of how a well-designed email is supposed to look:

  • Not too many words
  • A big, attractive image
  • A clear call-to-action

The other version took a different direction. We wrote it as if we were telling a story to a friend. It broke every rule:

  • The email was long
  • There were 11 links before you got to the main call-to-action
  • The call-to-action was buried at the end

Here were the results:

Even though our ‘less-beautiful’ email broke many of the rules, the longer, story version had almost three times the click-through rate compared to the shorter version.

Though this example is limited in that it was constrained to people in our community who might prefer a more story-oriented approach (since this is our usual style), it supported our hunch that beauty isn’t always best.

And that being more authentic (i.e. telling our story just like we’d tell it to a friend) has a bigger impact than we might expect.

A lesson from Pixar: It’s not about animation, it’s about story

There are examples of this same preference for a well-told story in all creative fields.

In 1995, Pixar released Toy Story, the first computer animated feature film. And while Toy Story went on to smash box office records, Pixar had a rocky start.

Star Wars Director, George Lucas, sold his shares in Pixar before Toy Story was made, and Pixar almost went bankrupt (if, ironically, it weren’t for Apple founder Steve Jobs stepping in to invest).

The film industry thought a mainstream audience wouldn’t care enough to see an animated feature film.

What they neglected to see was the power of story.

Even though animation was at its core, the Pixar team knew their success would ultimately fall on one simple thing: Their ability to tell a good story.

Ed Catmull, one of the co-founders of Pixar, wrote in his bestselling book Creativity, Inc. about his company’s creative process:

“For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you aren’t getting the story right.”

Pixar has won the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture for 8 out of their 16 films. And every single Pixar film has landed on the respective year’s top ten list of most profitable films.

No other studio comes close to this hit rate.

Telling a good story, whether that’s through email, film, or any medium, creates a connection. And it’s this connection that leads to attention, which leads to trust, which leads to sales.

As Pixar realized early on, you can get away with lesser visual effects if your story is good. But the reverse is not always true.

Case in point, if we look at the ten most expensive movies ever made, the average production cost was $274 million per film.

And the average ranking across these films according to Rotten Tomatoes? 59%

(The highest rated film was Tangled at 90% which was produced by Disney/Pixar).

Meanwhile, the average Pixar film cost an average of $145 million and averages an 89% review from critics and audiences alike.

What’s even more telling is that if we take a sampling of the critic consensus from the poorly rated movies in the top ten, you’ll notice that critics rarely say the quality of the animation or special effects as the reason why they gave a bad rating.

They cite issues with the story:

“…this Pirates runs aground on a disjointed plot and a non-stop barrage of noisy action sequences.” — Review of Pirates of the Caribbean on Stranger Tides
“…mixes in too many characters with too many incomprehensible plot threads.” — Review of Pirates of the Caribbean 3
“While John Carter looks terrific and delivers its share of pulpy thrills, it also suffers from uneven pacing and occasionally incomprehensible plotting and characterization.” — Review of John Carter
“…a grim whirlwind of effects-driven action.” — Review of Batman vs. Superman

While the other producers may have had the budgets to make something as visually stunning as Pixar, where they didn’t level up was in their story.

We can make something look pretty. But if pretty doesn’t tell a good story it won’t matter.

Why beauty doesn’t always work (especially today)

Just like you can’t rely on beauty alone in the design of your product, you can’t only focus on beauty to tell your story.

A well-designed message is one that tells a good story first.

As we saw in our email campaign example, a story is powerful enough to overcome an email design that breaks all the rules.

You might not have Apple’s marketing budget ($1.2 billion this year) or design chops. But that’s okay. Sometimes Apple-level beauty isn’t the best way to present your story. And sometimes it might even make things worse.

In a recent article published by BBC, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte reviewed findings on if there was a drawback to being ‘too beautiful’.

The researchers uncovered several studies, including one in 1975 that found people tend to move away from a beautiful woman on a pathway. A similar behavior was found from a review of the profile photos from the dating website OKCupid. Men with ‘average’ looking profile photos got more messages than men with the ‘most attractive’ profile photos.

The researchers suggested this behavior could be because attractiveness conveys power. As a result, people feel they need to respect an attractive person more and keep their distance.

These examples illustrate that beauty can backfire. If something is too beautiful it can be seen as less approachable, further distancing you from the people you are trying to reach.

Similarly, clothing brands like American Eagle recently saw an increase in sales after they stopped photoshopping models.

Too much beauty can be seen as a sales tactic. Though we may be attracted to something that looks good, we also have a strong unconscious aversion to being sold to.

And this aversion is getting stronger.

First, because of the internet and the power of online networks like Facebook, we have more access to information, which means we see more instances of bad things.

For instance, of the top movie documentaries all-time listed on Rotten Tomatoes, 4 of the top 10 are stories of injustice or corruption and have been made since 2005.

Every phone has become a media device. Stories spread fast. And while there’s a lot of good happening in the world, stories of corruption and distrust tend to surface to the top because they grab our attention.

Trust is at an all-time low. As this 2013 USA Today poll suggests, two thirds of Americans polled said they were suspicious of others. This is double the rate of distrust since the survey was first done in 1972.

We’ve become hypersensitive to bullshit. We have an increasing lack of trust for everything, including beauty.

Beauty can be perceived as a layer of bullshit, making people feel like they are being sold to.

As one of the lead researchers from the study said: “If you are obsessing about attractiveness, it may alter your experience and interactions.”

This is exactly it.

If we focus too much on the visual attraction of our message, the experience people have with our stories will likely suffer.

Increase in information; Decrease in attention

Adding to our natural aversion to being sold to, we’ve become overloaded with things vying for our attention.

In the last decade, as the world moved mostly online, messages started to attack us everywhere. And these messages are smart. With billboards we could just look away. With TV/radio we could shut it off. But today’s messages are connected to all the tools we use to communicate. And brought to us by people we trust.

“If we focus too much on the visual attraction of our message, the experience people have with our stories will likely suffer.”

Facebook. Twitter. Email. Phones. Laptops. Tablets. Notifications come flying at us from all angles. Because today’s messages come in bits and pings, they are cheap, effective, and easy to spread.

With so much access to information, we only have two options:

Either we try to consume everything (which isn’t possible) or we filter (i.e. we stop paying attention to a lot of things).

Since we can’t consume everything, we’ve become experts at filtering. Filtering out crap. Filtering anything that looks remotely untrustworthy or has the tiniest hint of salesmanship.

To quote multi-platinum musician Rihanna:

“My fans can sniff the BS from very far away. I cannot trick them.”

Our brains have actually changed to adapt to the current information overload.

A recent study by Microsoft on Canadians found that our attention spans have dropped by a quarter, from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, since 2000; which is less than the attention span of a goldfish.

There’s a general fatigue that’s happening. We’ve been forced into becoming B.S. detection experts.

While ads and marketing may have gotten prettier and better with more data, we’ve gotten better at filtering. Resisting.

It’s an arms race. And it might seem like we’re doomed to lose as creators. That no will ever care what we have to say.

But we’re not. There’s an easy solution.

The solution is easy and you already know how to do it

When you see an email from a friend saying, “hey lets catchup for coffee monday. you in?” it cuts through everything.

Even though it breaks every standard of writing: no capitalization, missing punctuation. It grabs your attention. You answer it first. Why?

First, this message comes from a person you trust so that plays a huge factor. But, adding to the trust you have in the messenger, is a message you know came from a human. Not a machine.

There’s no fancy headlines, graphics, or words so you feel safe. You’re not being gamed. You can let your guard down for a second.

There’s plenty of results to back up that you don’t need visual beauty to connect with people.

Multi-platinum musician Beyonce’s most watched music video on her YouTube channel is her song, 7/11. Even though many of Beyonce’s music videos have a high production quality, 7/11 is shot with low-quality video. Yet, it outperformed every other Beyonce video.

Kelly Starrett is a physiotherapist and trainer who has some of the most consistently viewed fitness videos on YouTube. He recorded most videos with a phone in his garage with no professional gear.

Some of Kelly’s videos even show his daughter accidentally walking in and ‘mistakes’ in editing.

Kelly could have edited these things out but because they were kept in, I feel an even deeper connection with him. These ‘mistakes’ make me feel like Kelly is a human and he’s not trying to sell me. Like he’s one of my friends in his garage figuring something out and he’s sending over a video for me to check it out.

He’s a person who has kids, a dog, a somewhat messy garage. And he shoots low-resolution, unedited videos just like me. I can relate to that. His videos aren’t the highest quality or the nicest shot. But what they do have is some of the best fitness coaching I’ve ever seen. They have substance. So I trust Kelly. When I’m looking for fitness tips, I search Kelly first. When Kelly wrote a book, I bought it.

Maybe if Beyonce and Kelly used professional equipment for these videos, viewership would have increased, but the way they shot these videos in raw form is partly what makes them attractive. These videos make Beyonce and Kelly seem approachable and relatable.

Comedian Louis C.K. does a similar thing with the emails he writes.

Louis sends email newsletters that feel like he’s just writing to you. Some have spelling mistakes or improper punctuation but that’s part of them. I don’t care about those grammar mistakes. In fact, I like them. It makes me feel like Louis is simply talking to me like he would talk to a friend.

Here’s an example:

Time and again we see the substance of the story is more important than the look of it.

We don’t need beauty to connect with people. When we sense someone is being ‘real’ with us, our brain’s natural urge to resist influence is calmed.

What your message needs is authenticity. Your unique way of sharing your message with all its blemishes and imperfect sentences.


Authenticity doesn’t mean beauty.

Authenticity means substance. It means cutting the bullshit.

While visual beauty counts for something, it isn’t the only thing that connects people with your message.

If you want anyone to trust you. To pay attention to you. To maybe one day buy from you. Your best option is to remove all the barriers in your message. To sound more like how you sound when you talk to a friend. To sound like just another human. Because ‘just another human’ is much more relatable than a corporation.

Authenticity is powerful. It’s easy. And we all already know how to do it.

We just need a reminder sometimes that it’s ok to be authentic. Even when it comes to business. Actually, especially when it comes to business.

When you think of our company, picture it as a person. A brand should sound like a person, rather than a company. Whether it’s a website, an email, a tweet, or an ad, everything should feel like it’s coming from a person. Because it is.

You might think you need to use industry words because you think you need to sound like an ‘industry leader’, or you feel like you need to watch what you say so you don’t offend a partner, investor, or customer.

Or in certain cases, there might be legal or company policy reasons outside your control that require you to hold back from saying what you really want to say. But the closer you can get to what you really want to say, the better your message will connect.

That said, I know how hard it is to wipe the business off a message when we’ve been trained to think we need to sound a certain way when we operate professionally. One thing I do is start rough drafts for any of our company announcements as Facebook posts.

There’s something about the context of writing the message directly in Facebook that shifts my brain and makes me write like I’m writing to a friend.

Sometimes we can overdo a message because the tool we use to write these messages that makes us feel like the stakes are higher. Writing in professional tools subtly tells your brain, “Hey, this is going to be important cause you’re writing it in your WordPress backend so be careful.” This kills your personality.

Try lowering the stakes. Write your important business messages using a tool where you communicate with friends and family. I bet your personality will come spilling out.

The way you explain your company to a friend is how you should explain it to the world. If you’re being overly formal just because it worked for someone else, you will sound like everyone else, and you will be tuned out.

We’re all humans. Even under a suit.


Making something pretty is fine, just make sure this beauty is paired with substance because beauty alone won’t be enough.

And if you have to choose between making something prettier or making the message more authentic, choose the message.

Without a story you have nothing. Without a story, people will glaze over you even if you spent hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars making your story look pretty.

Showing your imperfection is better than faking perfection.

More so than ever before, direct communication is expected. Instagram, Twitter, and newer communication platforms like Snapchat are even more focused on raw, direct connection.

For all the bad the connected world shows us, this same connection is a unique opportunity to share your beliefs and connect with people on a massive scale. Never has it been easier to reach so many of the right people with your story.

You might think you need beauty to create impact but you don’t. Authenticity is more powerful. Authenticity is approachable. It creates connection.

Being authentic is the most beautiful thing you can do.

Just because you don’t need design like Apple, doesn’t mean you don’t want it, right?

Check out my company Crew, where you can work with the best designers and developers. Over 10 million people have used products made on Crew. And over 3 million people have read our blog. Join them here.

Next Story — An extreme method for breaking your bad habits
Currently Reading - An extreme method for breaking your bad habits

An extreme method for breaking your bad habits

What to do when incremental change just won’t cut it

Your bad habit vs. ‘manageable change’

I suck at a lot of things:

Trying to get too much done in a day.

Working out regularly.

Keeping my closet clean.

I try to get better but change is hard no matter how much you want to. Especially for the things you suck at.

There are many forces pushing you not to change. Your brain doesn’t want to change. Your body doesn’t want to change. The world doesn’t want to change.

When I suck at something, like trying to get too much work done in a day, I tell myself I need to get better and I immediately prescribe some actions that I think will get me to the level of improvement I want to be at.

For example, I recognized that I usually list 10+ things to do in a day (way too much to get done in a day). Rarely do I get through 3 of those things. So at the end of almost every day, I feel anxious because I feel like I didn’t get enough done.

My fix was to limit myself to only 5 things on my to-do list each day. This sounded good. 5 tasks per day sounded reasonable. I’d tell myself, “Nice. You spotted a problem and prescribed specific, manageable actions to improve. Well done.”

I feel better.

But I only felt better the first couple of days. Then my list slowly starts getting longer and longer each day. Within a week, I’m left with a list that’s 10+ to-do items again.

Every time I’d try to improve my to-do list behavior, I’d cycle through this behavior.

I was getting nowhere.

Today I learned my way of trying to change may actually be another thing I suck at.

Instead of a degree of change, why not go a full 180?

I recently read this article called ‘Over-compensate to compensate‘ by Derek Sivers, writer and founder of CD Baby, one of the largest sellers of independent music on the web. In the post, Derek says that most of us fail to change because we don’t do enough.

Derek uses a metaphor of bricks on a seesaw to illustrate his perspective.

When we want to change something, we start with all of our bricks on one side of the see saw.

If you make a small, manageable change—like shortening your to-do list by a few items—it’s like moving one brick. You might feel a bit better but it’s not enough to balance you out.

The problem with making this small improvement is it doesn’t account for a lifetime of you thinking and doing something the way you’ve always done it.

Habits are hard to kill because habits are the path of least resistance. And our brains always prefer the path of least resistance. Whatever is simplest is what we want to do and a habit is simple because we don’t have to think. We just follow the habit like a train follows a track.

Have you seen a train trying to change tracks? It takes forever. The train has to stop. Move back and forth a bunch of times. A railroad controller has to switch the track pathway manually. Eventually, the train reroutes. This is what habit change is like in our brains.

To really improve in the way we want to, Derek suggests we need to be extreme just to even out. We need to put all our bricks on the other side of the seesaw, not just one.

Once you do this, it will feel like you’re overcompensating. It will feel like you’ve swung completely in the other direction.

But really, you’re just evening out.

Even if you go extreme, you will still feel the pull of your old way of thinking. So you’ll end up with a seesaw that looks more like this:

My way of trying to improve was only putting one brick on the other side of the seesaw.

I was prescribing ‘manageable’ actions, meaning I was only doing enough actions that made me improve right at the amount I think I need to. I would get a little bit better but only a tiny bit. And not enough to change long-term.

Overcompensating to improve

After reading Derek’s post, I started thinking about a bunch of things I suck at and what putting a bunch of bricks on the other side of the see-saw could look like. I realized even if I felt it was too much change, I’d probably end up at just the right amount.

So I made a list of things I want to get better at and what going to the extreme would look like for me:

1. Keeping my house clean at the level my wife expects 🙂

My house often feels clean to me. But my wife often feels differently. My wife tells me all the time that she’d appreciate if I’d do things like not just make the bed but make the bed ‘nicely.’ Because it makes my wife feel good, I’d like to try and keep our house at the level of clean she expects.

Extreme prescription: Every day I look around the house and clean anything at the level would exceed my wife’s expectation for clean. My aim would be to keep the house ‘Ritz-Carlton-clean.’

2. Staying closer with friends/family

I moved to Canada but I grew up in the US. I live far from a lot of my family and friends but they are important to me. I often let barriers of too much work, harder communication, and the fact that I live further away get in the way of staying in touch.

Extreme prescription: Every day I’d call at least one friend or family member.

3. Saying ‘no’ to more projects

Sometimes I get excited and start too many projects at once. It hurts my ability to focus which makes me feel anxious. So I’d like to say ‘no, not now’ to more ideas.

Extreme prescription: I could say ‘no’ to every new project idea. I don’t like forgetting ideas that I find interesting, so I would store them in a list but I wouldn’t start anything new.

4. Writing regularly/Publishing weekly

I usually write daily but over the last few months, I haven’t been making as much time as I’d like. I want to keep improving as a writer and the best way to get there is to write. A lot.

Extreme prescription: I could write daily and I wouldn’t aim to just publish weekly because that’s where I want to end up. I would aim to publish daily.

5. Feeling less anxious about each day

I recently ran an experiment on myself where I found I was feeling only slightly better than average most days. This is no way to live. I realized the main source was pressure I was putting on myself to get too much done in a day. This started with my to-do list.

Extreme prescription: To fix this I could figure out a better way to manage what I feel I can get done in a day. The extreme solution could be not using a to-do list at all.


Now I want to get better at all these things. But it’s too difficult to practice the ‘Extreme Prescription’ on all 5 of these things at the same time. It would require too much willpower.

As many studies show, willpower fatigues easily, especially when there are many temptations. And there would be many temptations when you’re going after an extreme-level of change. My willpower would probably break down and I’d be right back where I started.

So instead, I’m starting by going extreme on 1 thing for a 1-month period.

Research shows it typically takes about 2 months for a habit to form, but I feel 2 months of going extreme seems too intense since I’m aiming to form a habit around a ‘balanced’ improvement not an ‘extreme’ one. So I’m choosing 1 month to go extreme and the second month taking a more balanced approach.

My first choice is the problem I have with feeling anxious about each day because I never feel like I got enough done. I want to improve this because it’s the leading cause of stress for me.

My ‘Extreme Prescription’ is to not use a to-do list. I’m not going to go gradual and cut my list from 10 to 8 or even 5 items per day. I will still write things down that need to be done but I won’t have a to-do list that I check and update regularly throughout the day. I’m going to go to the extreme and cut all the way down to focus on 1 single thing to get done each day. That’s it.

If I finish that most important thing, I’ll move on to other tasks that are important. But I won’t feel the pressure of having to get all these things done to feel like I accomplished enough that day.

You probably want to get better at something. And it’s great when we take actions to try and improve. If you’re trying to improve you’re trying to be better to yourself, the people around you, and maybe even the world.

But we put a lot of negative energy on ourselves when we don’t get better after we’ve tried.

This ‘Extreme Prescription’ approach might work as a way to improve. And I hope it does.

But if it doesn’t work, don’t be hard on yourself. You’re trying to improve and that’s a noble thing in itself.

If you’d like to join me, pick something you think you suck at and figure out a way you could do it completely opposite to how you’re doing it now for a month.

If you want any ideas on how you could go extreme, tweet me and we’ll figure out a plan together.

Want an extreme method to grow your business?

Check out my company Crew, where you can work with the best designers and developers in the world. Over 10 million people have used products made on Crew. And over 3 million people have read our blog. Join them here.

Next Story — Start with problems. Not solutions.
Currently Reading - Start with problems. Not solutions.

Start with problems. Not solutions.

No problem? No product.

This is Part 2 of a 6-part series where we share everything that went into building our product at Crew. Privacy be damned. Building Crew in Public is not just filled with glory. It’s filled with the struggles and doubt we faced creating a product.


A product in search of a problem.

A trap that many products fall into. People don’t actually need what you’re building.

If a product doesn’t solve a problem, no one cares.

This is why when we started Crew, the first thing we focused on was making sure we were solving a problem, even if our product was primitive and many things were done manually rather than with technology.

To help us gain insight into what’s working and what’s not, we look at 3 main signals:

1. Data — Numbers showing how people are using Crew
2. Customer input — Emails, phone calls, or suggestions from customers after using Crew
3. Intuition — How do we feel when we use Crew? What do we think needs to be improved?

One of the main focuses for us is looking at the repeat usage of Crew members posting projects.

We want our product to be so useful that our members don’t just use us once but every time they need creative work.

Experience = multiple “wow moments”

(not just one)

Think about the first time you used a great product.

It probably felt like it was designed for you. Every action you wanted to do felt right. Your senses (vision, touch, sound) were in tune with the product.

You might’ve said “wow” while using it.

That product touched you on an emotional level and you remember it. You shared it. And you want to use it again.

I know it might be a tired example, but I felt this type of positive emotion the first time I used Uber. Uber’s app connects you with drivers to get around your city.

At first, it may seem like using Uber would not be that much better than calling a cab. But, the trick to Uber’s stickiness is not just one, but multiple “wow moments” that make it substantially better than calling a cab.

The first time I used Uber, there were 4 distinct “wow moments”:

1. How do I know if a cab is available right now?

Uber shows you cabs around you on a map.

2. When will my driver show up?

Uber shows you a map of where your driver is with an estimated time of arrival

3. Will my driver take credit card or do I need cash?

Uber connects with your credit card.

4. What should I tip?

Uber automatically includes a tip you set.

The way Uber baked multiple “wow moments” into their product is one reason why their system is so strong.

With each additional “wow moment”, your chances of using Uber’s app increases compared to hailing a cab.

However, one of the challenges with creating multiple “wow moments” within your product is that they take time to construct. Uber took a year to build their first app and launched in one city.

You need to be patient and willing to go all-in on a problem to create an experience worthy of multiple “wow moments.” Creating the right experience is risky when you might not have all the signals to say what you’re building is the right thing. But that’s part of the road to building a differentiated product. You won’t have all the answers at the start.

To reduce risk, you can begin by focusing on the main one or two “wow moments”.

This may not be good enough to create the full experience you’re after but as you build more and seek to reach that same level of quality of that one “wow moment,” your product will get closer to what you’re after.

This is what we did.

The first “wow moment” we focused on was helping you find a vetted, qualified designer/developer within a day.

Finding the right designers and developers is hard even for the best technical companies like Facebook and Google. Because software is becoming a need for almost every business, the supply for software engineers and designers is throwing the demand curve for a loop.

In Crew, we’ve found that finding the right designer within a day creates a “wow moment” for about 25% of our customers. After matching a project with a designer/developer we help with things like managing the project and payment but not at the level of quality to create multiple “wow moments”. Yet.

To find the areas we need to improve we used our 3 signals (metrics, customer input, and our intuition) to make a long list of problems.

When defining what to build, it’s often best to start by picking out the right problems to focus on and not get too caught up in solutions yet.

How we solve each of these problems could be done thousands of different ways.

For now, getting problems down is the focus. We can define potential solutions later.

Before this meeting, we each took a week and made a long list of problems from different perspectives:

Angus — Engineering

Kirill — Design

Steph — Customer happiness

Mikael — High level

Angus broke down the problems from clearly defined and easy to do to undefined and needs to be discussed (Hard To Solve means needs to be discussed):

Our plan is Angus and our product team will start development on the bottom (the clearly defined tasks) while Kirill, Steph, and I tackle the higher order issues on top that need more refinement before development can start.

We’ll work toward the middle. As we define the hard to solve issues, and as what needs to be built becomes clearer, those items will drop down to obvious fixes and we can build them.

Hard problems aren’t bad. Hard problems can be the best opportunities for you to “wow” your customers if you build them right.

The bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity.

Building Crew in Public

Privacy be damned. Building Crew in Public is a series of 6 short essays on product design philosophy and the struggles we faced designing our own product. You can read the original, On The Road-inspired version on the Crew Backstage blog.

1. We’re all selling experiences

2. You Are Here

3. Constraints, not barriers

4. Ask lots of questions

5. Anatomy of a homepage

6. The journey is more important than the destination: Designing the optimal onboarding flow

P.S. The new Crew

We recently went through this process again for a brand new version of our product at Crew. You can read all about it here.

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