Photo credit: Mikesh Kaos — https://unsplash.com/mikeshkaos

This Is What I Do Before 8 AM.

Don’t try and life-hack your way to post human status.

I’m an entrepreneur. And a writer. And a creative. I do a lot of different things, a lot of different kinds of work. I know what the cliche says — I should be a hugely focused and productive person, who lives like a superhuman and breathes pure and untainted inspiration.

But here’s the truth. I’m a total fucking mess. A hot mess. I run my life and my business and my writing career and my speaking engagements with a sense of organised chaos. Do you know why?

Because I’m a human. And humans are disorganized, chaotic, emotionally up and down, totally inconsistent and gloriously weird. We are. Even when we try to impose a sense of order, and we look like hyper-scheduled automatons, we’re still flying by the seat of our pants.

When all of life is completely unpredictable, it’d be fucking impossible to do anything else.

With that in mind, I want to talk about my rituals, and my way of greeting the day. It might not be inspiring, and you’re not about to learn any life-hacks, but I think it’s going to resonate with one or two of you.


I wake up at 6:00 AM and hate myself and my life.

There is no way around this. Almost every morning, almost every day of the week, the first thing that drifts into my mind when my alarm goes off is how much I hate everything. How much I hate being awake, and hate work, and hate getting up, and hate showering, and hate writing, and hate building things.

This is largely unavoidable. I know, because I’ve tried everything. Setting myself motivational messages, getting more sleep, modifying my diet, doing yoga etc. Doesn’t help.

The version of me that wakes up is just a real, grumpy asshole. There’s not a lot I can do about that except hold it in and wait for the fog to clear and the feeling to drift away.

To pass the time, I like to think through a list of things I’m grateful for. It’s not a total antidote, but it does help. My partner, my comfortable bed, my breakfast, my family, Fugazi’s debut album, whatever book I’m reading.

It’s not an easy list to make when hateful me has the Comm, but it’s a positive move, nonetheless.

I battle with my early morning phone addiction.

After I finally drag myself out of bed, I struggle with the crazed urge to check my phone. I know there’s going to be tweets, emails, app updates, tech news, funny shit to read and probably one or two hilarious gifs, and I want to see them all so incredibly badly.

I’ll occasionally freeze with indecision, itching to grab my phone and dive in but knowing I need to get my ass in gear. Recently, I’ve taken to charging my phone in the living room, to escape its clutches in the early hours of the morning.

I know if I don’t, I’ll sit on the bathroom floor, delaying my shower for a good 20 minutes while I scroll, swipe and tap away. It’s wasted time, I’m rarely conscious enough to comprehend what I’m reading and it makes me run late.

If I’m lucky, I can make myself jog.

I hate jogging. It’s not something I want to do. I know I’ll love the version of me that returns from a run, glowing and sweating and feeling accomplished, but I’m not fond of the version of me that actually runs. At all.

Most mornings, it doesn’t happen. But I try and hit a target of getting out the door 3 times a week. Or 2 times. Hey, it’s a moving target.

It’s incredibly fucking hard to meet that target, because I’m never motivated about working out, and I’d rather watch early morning X-men cartoon re-runs, but it’s a matter of making a conscious decision to exercise at least a few times.

When I get back from my jog, I’m exhausted. Wiped the fuck out. Not in the mood to make a kale smoothie and post on Insty. Instead, I try to meditate for 10 minutes.

A couple years ago, the therapist I was seeing for my depression suggested I calm down by spending 10 minutes visualizing myself placing every thought came into my head on a leaf and watching it float down a stream. I know it sounds like bullshit, but it has never failed to work for me.

Any more than 10 minutes and I get way too bored. Sorry, that’s the way I am.

I eat breakfast with my partner. And drink a normal, delicious coffee.

We make a point of sitting down together 3 or 4 mornings a week, no phones or tablets or laptops, and chatting while we share a bagel, muesli or eggs. And a cup of delicious coffee. Not green tea, or a super food smoothie. Beautiful dark, incredible coffee. It’s my favorite part of every day, where we keep ourselves offline and just enjoy the moments.

She’s senior management at a pretty high growth legal startup, so the both of us are pretty switched on most of the time, and when we get a chance to just be, it’s incredibly refreshing.

It’s hard for us to do this. Schedules are crazy, and our careers take a lot of effort and time and commitment. There are some mornings when it would be so much easier to just run out of the apartment and blow through McDonalds on the way to the office. But we don’t. Most days…

I can’t stress enough how important this part of my day is. I love it, and I love her.


Photo Credit: Ryan Wilson — https://unsplash.com/photos/BQuuDUjekF0

That’s most mornings for me. They’re not inspiring, and my morning ritual isn’t designed to turn me into a productivity machine. It’s pretty normal, and it’s often a huge mess. But it works for me, and it doesn’t stop me from hitting the ground running and knocking out my to-do list — most days.

You don’t have to try and hack your life with all the bullshit advice out there. You don’t have to get up at 5 AM, drink a warm glass of water and read Chicken Soup For The Online Blogger Slash Startup Founder Slash Future Motivational Speaker. I know we’re told that literally every successful person in the world does that, but tough shit.

When I was younger, I read all the blogs, and decided I was going to turn myself into a Jack Dorsey-like machine. I tried being at my computer by sunrise, writing blog posts. It did not work. I was angry, unmotivated and a real pain in the ass to be around.

My point is, you have to wake up and face your day in whatever way works best for you. For me, it’s trying to make positive choices about what I do every day, and fighting a battle against my worst nature. And losing that battle a couple days every week. It’s probably going to be something similar for you.

Don’t try and life-hack your way to post human status. Don’t get too caught up in the self help stuff out there. If it inspires you, that’s great. But you need to live your own fucking life on your own terms.


If you enjoyed this article, please click that little green heart below. That would be incredible.

I’m Jon Westenberg. I’m passionate about writing, marketing, business and creativity. I founded the creative agency Creatomic. You can ask me to work with you, invite me to speak at your event, or set up a conversation on your podcast. I’m excited to hear from you!

www.jonwestenberg.com

www.twitter.com/jonwestenberg

[email protected]

Next Story — When You’re Stuck Mentally, Move Physically
Currently Reading - When You’re Stuck Mentally, Move Physically

When You’re Stuck Mentally, Move Physically

Photo Credit: <a href=”https:[email protected]/16287316579/">spera.de</a> via <a href=”http://compfight.com">Compfight</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">cc</a>

Every few weeks I hit a point when I’m in a total funk. I think the world is ending, everything pisses me off, and my creative output is basically coming out the wrong end. And it almost always correlates with how many days it’s been since I’ve surfed. The minute I get in the water, it all goes away and I manage to get back to being prolific.

A few weeks ago Tim Ferriss asked Tony Robbins if he ever has bad days, and if so how does he change them. The answer was surprisingly simple: physical movement.

In other words, when you’re stuck mentally, move physically.

Anytime I write after a surf session, the words just flow (no pun intended). I’m not only able to write faster, but I’m able to write more, and it feels completely effortless. As Steven Kotler wrote about in his book The Rise of Superman, action sports athletes experience flow on a regular basis because these sports meet nearly all the conditions that are a precursor to flow.

But you don’t have to be an action sports athlete to take advantage of this. In fact, you can get away with something as basic as going for a walk.

To reap the benefits of physical movement, it’s important that you shut down the inflow:

  • Don’t check your email
  • Don’t browse the web from your phone
  • Don’t tweet, Facebook, or whatever your social media vice is

Audiobooks are fair game I suppose. But music might actually be better. The goal really is to shut the logical mind off. And if you manage to do that you’ll better off.

When you’re stuck mentally, move physically, and you’ll find that you get unstuck.

I’m the author of Unmistakable: Why Only is Better Than Best (Available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble). Each Sunday we share the most unmistakable parts of the internet that we have discovered in The Sunday Quiver. ​*Receive our next issue and learn more about book pre-order bonuses by signing up here.​

Next Story — The Four Burners Theory: The Downside of Work-Life Balance
Currently Reading - The Four Burners Theory: The Downside of Work-Life Balance

The Four Burners Theory: The Downside of Work-Life Balance

One way to think about work-life balance issues is with a concept known as The Four Burners Theory. Here’s how it was first explained to me:

Imagine that your life is represented by a stove with four burners on it. Each burner symbolizes one major quadrant of your life.

  1. The first burner represents your family.
  2. The second burner is your friends.
  3. The third burner is your health.
  4. The fourth burner is your work.

The Four Burners Theory says that “in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.” [1]

Three Views of the Four Burners

My initial reaction to The Four Burners Theory was to search for a way to bypass it. “Can I succeed and keep all four burners running?” I wondered.

Perhaps I could combine two burners. “What if I lumped family and friends into one category?”

Maybe I could combine health and work. “I hear sitting all day is unhealthy. What if I got a standing desk?” Now, I know what you are thinking. Believing that you will be healthy because you bought a standing desk is like believing you are a rebel because you ignored the fasten seatbelt sign on an airplane, but whatever. [2]

Soon I realized I was inventing these workarounds because I didn’t want to face the real issue: life is filled with tradeoffs. If you want to excel in your work and in your marriage, then your friends and your health may have to suffer. If you want to be healthy and succeed as a parent, then you might be forced to dial back your career ambitions. Of course, you are free to divide your time equally among all four burners, but you have to accept that you will never reach your full potential in any given area.

Essentially, we are forced to choose. Would you rather live a life that is unbalanced, but high-performing in a certain area? Or would you rather live a life that is balanced, but never maximizes your potential in a given quadrant?

What is the best way to handle these work-life balance problems? I don’t claim to have it figured out, but here are three ways of thinking about The Four Burners Theory.

Option 1: Outsource Burners

We outsource small aspects of our lives all the time. We buy fast food so we don’t have to cook. We go to the dry cleaners to save time on laundry. We visit the car repair shop so we don’t have to fix our own automobile.

Outsourcing small portions of your life allows you to save time and spend it elsewhere. Can you apply the same idea to one quadrant of your life and free up time to focus on the other three burners?

Work is the best example. For many people, work is the hottest burner on the stove. It is where they spend the most time and it is the last burner to get turned off. In theory, entrepreneurs and business owners can outsource the work burner. They do it by hiring employees. [3]

In my article on The 3 Stages of Failure, I covered Sam Carpenter’s story about building business systems that allowed him to work just 2 hours per week. He outsourced himself from the daily work of the business while still reaping the financial benefits.

Parenting is another example. Working parents are often forced to “outsource” the family burner by dropping their children off at daycare or hiring a babysitter. Calling this outsourcing might seem unfair, but — like the work example above — parents are paying someone else to keep the burner running while they use their time elsewhere.

The advantage of outsourcing is that you can keep the burner running without spending your time on it. Unfortunately, removing yourself from the equation is also a disadvantage. Most entrepreneurs, artists, and creators I know would feel bored and without a sense of purpose if they had nothing to work on each day. Every parent I know would rather spend time with their children than drop them off at daycare.

Outsourcing keeps the burner running, but is it running in a meaningful way?

Option 2: Embrace Constraints

One of the most frustrating parts of The Four Burners Theory is that it shines a light on your untapped potential. It can be easy to think, “If only I had more time, I could make more money or get in shape or spend more time at home.”

One way to manage this problem is to shift your focus from wishing you had more time to maximizing the time you have. In other words, you embrace your limitations. The question to ask yourself is, “Assuming a particular set of constraints, how can I be as effective as possible?”

For example:

  • Assuming I can only work from 9 AM to 5 PM, how can I make the most money possible?
  • Assuming I can only write for 15 minutes each day, how can I finish my book as fast as possible?
  • Assuming I can only exercise for 3 hours each week, how can I get in the best shape possible?

This line of questioning pulls your focus toward something positive (getting the most out of what you have available) rather than something negative (worrying about never having enough time). Furthermore, well-designed limitations can actually improve your performance.

Of course, there are disadvantages as well. Embracing constraints means accepting that you are operating at less than your full potential. Yes, there are plenty of ways to “work smarter, not harder” but it is difficult to avoid the fact that where you spend your time matters. If you invested more time into your health or your relationships or your career, you would likely see improved results in that area.

Option 3: The Seasons of Life

A third way to manage your four burners is by breaking your life into seasons. What if, instead of searching for perfect work-life balance at all times, you divided your life into seasons that focused on a particular area?

The importance of your burners may change throughout life. When you are in your 20s or 30s and you don’t have children, it can be easier to get to the gym and chase career ambitions. The health and work burners are on full blast. A few years later, you might start a family and suddenly the health burner dips down to a slow simmer while your family burner gets more gas. Another decade passes and you might revive relationships with old friends or pursue that business idea you had been putting off.

You don’t have to give up on your dreams forever, but life rarely allows you to keep all four burners going at once. Maybe you need to let go of something for this season. You can do it all in a lifetime, but not at the same damn time. In the words of Nathan Barry, “Commit to your goal with everything you have — for a season.”

For the last five years, I have been in my entrepreneurship season. I built a successful business, but it came with costs. I turned my friends burner way down and my family burner is only running halfway.

What season are you in right now?

Work-Life Balance: Which Burners Have You Cut Off?

The Four Burners Theory reveals an inconsistency everyone must deal with: nobody likes being told they can’t have it all, but everyone has constraints on their time and energy. Every choice has a cost.

Which burners have you cut off?

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he shares science-based ideas for living a better life and building habits that stick. To get strategies for boosting your mental and physical performance by 10x, join his free newsletter.

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.


FOOTNOTES

  1. I first heard about The Four Burners Theory from Chris Guillebeau, who heard about it from Jocelyn Glei, who read about it in this New Yorker article by David Sedaris, who was told about it by an Australian woman named Pat, who heard about it at a management seminar she attended. If you’re keeping score at home and trying to figure out where The Four Burners Theory originated from, well, good luck. The above quote comes from the New Yorker article by Sedaris.
  2. I’m pretty sure I heard someone else use that fasten seatbelt phrase previously. If you know who it might have been, let me know and I’ll give them credit.
  3. In practice, the opposite usually occurs. In most cases, entrepreneurs spend at least their first five years in business working longer hours and making less money than they would as an employee.
Next Story — This Morning Routine will Save You 20+ Hours Per Week
Currently Reading - This Morning Routine will Save You 20+ Hours Per Week

This Morning Routine will Save You 20+ Hours Per Week

The traditional 9–5 workday is poorly structured for high productivity. Perhaps when most work was physical labor, but not in the knowledge working world we now live in.

Although this may be obvious based on people’s mediocre performance, addiction to stimulants, lack of engagement, and the fact that most people hate their jobs — now there’s loads of scientific evidence you can’t ignore.

The Myth of the 8 Hour Workday

The most productive countries in the world do not work 8 hours per day. Actually, the most productive countries have the shortest workdays.

People in countries like Luxembourg are working approximately 30 hours per week (approximately 6 hours per day, 5 days per week) and making more money on average than people working longer workweeks.

This is the average person in those countries. But what about the super-productive?

Although Gary Vaynerchuck claims to work 20 hours per day, many “highly successful” people I know work between 3–6 hours per day.

It also depends on what you’re really trying to accomplish in your life. Gary Vaynerchuck wants to own the New York Jets. He’s also fine, apparently, not spending much time with his family.

And that’s completely fine. He’s clear on his priorities.

However, you must also be clear on yours. If you’re like most people, you probably want to make a great income, doing work you love, that also provides lots of flexibility in your schedule.

If that’s your goal, this post is for you.

On average, I myself probably work between 3 and 5 hours per day. On days I have class, my workday is closer to 5 hours. On days I don’t have class, my workday is between 3–4 hours.

Quality Vs. Quantity

“Wherever you are, make sure you’re there.” — Dan Sullivan

If you’re like most people, your workday is a blend of low-velocity work mixed with continual distraction (e.g., social media and email).

Most people’s “working time” is not done at peak performance levels. When most people are working, they do so in a relaxed fashion. Makes sense, they have plenty of time to get it done.

However, when you are results-oriented, rather than “being busy,” you’re 100 percent on when you’re working and 100 percent off when you’re not. Why do anything half-way? If you’re going to work, you’re going to work.

To get the best results in your fitness, research has found that shorter but more intensive exercise is more effective than longer drawn-out exercise.

The concept is simple: Intensive activity followed by high quality rest and recovery.

Most of the growth actually comes during the recovery process. However, the only way to truly recover is by actually pushing yourself to exhaustion during the workout.

The same concept applies to work. The best work happens in short intensive spurts. By short, I’m talking 1–3 hours. But this must be “Deep Work,” with no distractions, just like an intensive workout is non-stop. Interestingly, your best work — which for most people is thinking — will actually happen while you’re away from your work, “recovering.”

In one study, only 16 percent of respondents reported getting creative insight while at work. Ideas generally came while the person was at home, in transportation, or during recreational activity. “The most creative ideas aren’t going to come while sitting in front of your monitor,” says Scott Birnbaum, a vice president of Samsung Semiconductor.

The reason for this is simple. When you’re working directly on a task, your mind is tightly focused on the problem at hand (i.e., direct reflection). Conversely, when you’re not working, your mind loosely wanders (i.e., indirect reflection).

While driving or doing some other form of recreation, the external stimuli in your environment (like the buildings or other landscapes around you) subconsciously prompt memories and other thoughts. Because your mind is wandering both contextually (on different subjects) and temporally between past, present, and future, your brain will make distant and distinct connections related to the problem you’re trying to solve (eureka!)

Creativity, after all, is making connections between different parts of the brain.

Case in point: when you’re working, be at work. When you’re not working, stop working. By taking your mind off work and actually recovering, you’ll get creative breakthroughs related to your work.

Your First Three Hours Will Make or Break You

According to psychologist Ron Friedman, the first three hours of your day are your most precious for maximized productivity.

“Typically, we have a window of about three hours where we’re really, really focused. We’re able to have some strong contributions in terms of planning, in terms of thinking, in terms of speaking well,” Friedman told Harvard Business Review.

This makes sense on several levels. Let’s start with sleep. Research confirms the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, is most active and readily creative immediately following sleep. Your subconscious mind has been loosely mind-wandering while you slept, making contextual and temporal connections.

So, immediately following sleep, your mind is most readily active to do thoughtful work.

On a different level, the science of willpower and self-control confirm that your willpower — or energy levels — are strongest immediately following sleep. The longer you go throughout your day, the less willpower you have. In other words, you experience decision fatigue throughout your day.

So, your brain is most attuned first thing in the morning, and so are your energy levels. Consequently, the best time to do your best work is during the first three hours of your day.

I used to exercise first thing in the morning. Not anymore. I’ve found that exercising first thing in the morning actually sucks my energy, leaving me with less than I started.

Lately, I’ve been waking up at 5AM, driving to my school and walking to the library I work in. While walking from my car to the library, I drink a 250 calorie plant-based protein shake (approximately 30 grams of protein).

Donald Layman, professor emeritus of nutrition at the University of Illinois, recommends consuming at least 30 grams of protein for breakfast. Similarly, Tim Ferriss, in his book, The 4-Hour Body, also recommends 30 grams of protein 30 minutes after awaking.

Protein-rich foods keep you full longer than other foods because they take longer to leave the stomach. Also, protein keeps blood-sugar levels steady, which prevent spikes in hunger.

I get to the library and all set-up by around 5:30AM. I spend a few minutes in prayer and meditation, followed by a 5–10 minute session in my journal.

The purpose of this journal session is get clarity and focus for my day. I write down my big picture goals and my objectives for that particular day. I then write down anything that comes to my mind. Often, it relates to people I need to contact, or ideas related to a project I’m working on. I purposefully keep this journal session short and focused.

By 5:45, I’m set to work on whatever project I’m working on, whether that’s writing a book or an article, working on a research paper for my doctoral research, creating an online course, etc.

Starting work this early may seem crazy to you, but I’ve been shocked by how easy it is to work for 2–5 hours straight without distractions. My mind is laser at this time of day. And I don’t rely on any stimulants at all.

Between 9–11AM, my mind is ready for a break, so that’s when I do my workout. Research confirms that you workout better with food in your system. Consequently, my workouts are now a lot more productive and powerful than they were when I was exercising immediately following sleep.

After the workout, which is a great mental break, you should be fine to work a few more hours, if needed.

If your 3–5 hours before your workout were focused, you could probably be done for the day.

Protect Your Mornings

I understand that this schedule will not work for everyone. There are single-parents with kids who simply can’t do something like this.

We all need to work within the constraints of our unique contexts. However, if you work best in the morning, you gotta find a way to make it happen. This may require waking up a few extra hours earlier than you’re used to and taking a nap during the afternoon.

Or, it may require you to simply focus hardcore the moment you get to work. A common strategy for this is known as the “90–90–1” rule, where you spend the first 90 minutes of your workday on your #1 priority. I’m certain this isn’t checking your email or social media.

Whatever your situation, protect your mornings!

I’m blown away by how many people schedule things like meetings in the mornings. Nothing could be worse for peak performance and creativity.

Schedule all of your meetings for the afternoon, after lunch.

Don’t check your social media or email until after your 3 hours of deep work. Your morning time should be spent on output, not input.

If you don’t protect your mornings, a million different things will take up your time. Other people will only respect you as much as you respect yourself.

Protecting your mornings means you are literally unreachable during certain hours. Only in case of serious emergency can you be summoned from your focus-cave.

Mind-Body Connection

What you do outside work is just as significant for your work-productivity as what you do while you’re working.

Loads of research has found that people who regularly exercise are more productive at work. Your brain is, after all, part of your body. If your body is healthier, it makes sense that your brain would operate better.

If you want to operate at your highest level, you need to take a holistic approach to life. You are a system. When you change a part, you simultaneously change the whole. Improve one area of your life, all other areas improve in a virtuous cycle.

Consequently, the types of foods you eat, and when you eat them, determine your ability to focus at work. Your ability to sleep well (by the way, it’s easy to sleep well when you get up early and work hard) is also essential to peak-performance.

Not only that, but lots of science has found play to be extremely important for productivity and creativity.

Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, has studied the “Play Histories” of over six thousand people and concludes playing can radically improve everything — from personal well-being to relationships to learning to an organization’s potential to innovate. As Greg McKeown explains, “Very successful people see play as essential for creativity.”

In his TED talk, Brown said, “Play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity… Nothing fires up the brain like play.” There is a burgeoning body of literature highlighting the extensive cognitive and social benefits of play, including:

Cognitive

  • Enhanced memory and focus
  • Improved language learning skills
  • Creative problem solving
  • Improved mathematics skills
  • Increased ability to self-regulate, an essential component of motivation and goal achievement

Social

  • Cooperation
  • Team work
  • Conflict resolution
  • Leadership skill development
  • Control of impulses and aggressive behavior

Having a balanced-life is key to peak performance. In the Tao Te Ching, it explains that being too much yin or too much yang leads to extremes and being wasteful with your resources (like time). The goal is to be in the center, balanced.

Listen to Brain Music or Songs on Repeat

In her book, On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, psychologist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis explains why listening to music on repeat improves focus. When you’re listening to a song on repeat, you tend to dissolve into the song, which blocks out mind wandering (let your mind wander while you’re away from work!).

Wordpress founder, Matt Mullenweg, listens to one single song on repeat to get into flow. So do authors Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferriss, and many others.

Give it a try.

You can use this website to listen to YouTube video’s on repeat.

I generally listen to classical music or electronic music (like video game type music). Here’s a few that have worked for me:

When in doubt, listen to Rocky Balboa theme!

Call To Action

If you liked this article, check out my free eBook, Slipstream Time Hacking.This book teaches you how to decide what you WANT and get it 10x FASTER than the average person.

Get the book at this link right now.

Have an amazing day!

Next Story — How Innovative Ideas Arise
Currently Reading - How Innovative Ideas Arise

How Innovative Ideas Arise

Thomas Thwaites set out to build a toaster from scratch. The Toaster Project, as it came to be known, ended up looking more like a melted cake. (Photo Credit: Daniel Alexander.)

In 2010, Thomas Thwaites decided he wanted to build a toaster from scratch. He walked into a shop, purchased the cheapest toaster he could find, and promptly went home and broke it down piece by piece.

Thwaites had assumed the toaster would be a relatively simple machine. By the time he was finished deconstructing it, however, there were more than 400 components laid out on his floor. The toaster contained over 100 different materials with three of the primary ones being plastic, nickel, and steel.

He decided to create the steel components first. After discovering that iron ore was required to make steel, Thwaites called up an iron mine in his region and asked if they would let him use some for the project.

Surprisingly, they agreed.

The Toaster Project

The victory was short-lived.

When it came time to create the plastic case for his toaster, Thwaites realized he would need crude oil to make the plastic. This time, he called up BP and asked if they would fly him out to an oil rig and lend him some oil for the project. They immediately refused. It seems oil companies aren’t nearly as generous as iron mines.

Thwaites had to settle for collecting plastic scraps and melting them into the shape of his toaster case. This is not as easy as it sounds. The homemade toaster ended up looking more like a melted cake than a kitchen appliance.

This pattern continued for the entire span of The Toaster Project. It was nearly impossible to move forward without the help of some previous process. To create the nickel components, for example, he had to resort to melting old coins. He would later say, “I realized that if you started absolutely from scratch you could easily spend your life making a toaster.” [1]

Don’t Start From Scratch

Starting from scratch is usually a bad idea.

Too often, we assume innovative ideas and meaningful changes require a blank slate. When business projects fail, we say things like, “Let’s go back to the drawing board.” When we consider the habits we would like to change, we think, “I just need a fresh start.” However, creative progress is rarely the result of throwing out all previous ideas and completely re-imagining of the world.

Consider an example from nature:

Some experts believe the feathers of birds evolved from reptilian scales. Through the forces of evolution, scales gradually became small feathers, which were used for warmth and insulation at first. Eventually, these small fluffs developed into larger feathers capable of flight.

There wasn’t a magical moment when the animal kingdom said, “Let’s start from scratch and create an animal that can fly.” The development of flying birds was a gradual process of iterating and expanding upon ideas that already worked. [2]

The process of human flight followed a similar path. We typically credit Orville and Wilbur Wright as the inventors of modern flight. However, we seldom discuss the aviation pioneers who preceded them like Otto Lilienthal, Samuel Langley, and Octave Chanute. The Wright brothers learned from and built upon the work of these people during their quest to create the world’s first flying machine.

The most creative innovations are often new combinations of old ideas. Innovative thinkers don’t create, they connect. Furthermore, the most effective way to make progress is usually by making 1 percent improvements to what already works rather than breaking down the whole system and starting over.

Iterate, Don’t Originate

The Toaster Project is an example of how we often fail to notice the complexity of our modern world. When you buy a toaster, you don’t think about everything that has to happen before it appears in the store. You aren’t aware of the iron being carved out of the mountain or the oil being drawn up from the earth. [3]

We are mostly blind to the remarkable interconnectedness of things. This is important to understand because in a complex world it is hard to see which forces are working for you as well as which forces are working against you. Similar to buying a toaster, we tend to focus on the final product and fail to recognize the many processes leading up to it.

When you are dealing with a complex problem, it is usually better to build upon what already works. Any idea that is currently working has passed a lot of tests. Old ideas are a secret weapon because they have already managed to survive in a complex world.

Iterate, don’t originate.

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research. You can read his best articles or join his free newsletter to learn how to build habits that stick.

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.


FOOTNOTES

  1. Information for this story was collected from Thomas Thwaites’ personal website, The Toaster Project, and from his TED Talk titled, “How I built a toaster from scratch.”
  2. If you’re curious, I believe the closest living reptile ancestor to birds is the crocodile. You sort of imagine how reptile scales interlink and lay over one another in a similar fashion as bird feathers.
  3. I first read about The Toaster Project in Adapt by Tim Harford. He also discusses the interconnectedness of our modern world. It’s a good read if you’re interested in the idea of applying the concept of evolution to business and life. I recommend it.

Sign up to continue reading what matters most to you

Great stories deserve a great audience

Continue reading