Whatever is rightly done, however humble, is noble. (Quidvisrecte factum quamvis humile praeclarum.) — Sir Henry Royce

Whatever you’re doing right now, chances are you’d probably rather not be doing it. Even if you’ve got your dream job, it’s very likely that right now you could still be on a conference call you’d rather skip, scheduling some meeting you’re doing as a favor to someone else or dealing with some administrative detail you wish someone else would handle.

Or maybe you’re home from work and you’re picking up around the house. Maybe you’ve got some writing to do and the resistance is setting in. Or you’ve got homework, an application to fill out or someone to fire or need to have difficult conversation with your significant other.

It’s easy to blow these things off. It’s tempting to phone them in. But you can’t.

Because how you do anything, is how you do everything.

Long past his humble beginnings, President Andrew Johnson would speak proudly of his career as a tailor before he entered politics. “My garments never ripped or gave way,” he would say.

On the campaign trail, a heckler once tried to embarrass him by shouting about his working-class credentialsJohnson replied without breaking stride:That does not disconcert me in the least; for when I used to be a tailor I had the reputation of being a good one, and making close fits, always punctual with my customers, and always did good work.

Another president, James Garfield, paid his way through college in 1851 by persuading his school, the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, to let him be thejanitor in exchange for tuitionHe did the job every day smiling and without a hint of shame. Each morning, he’d ring the university’s bell tower to start the classes — his day already having long begun — and stomp to class with cheer and eagerness.

Within just one year of starting at the school he was a professor — teaching a full course load in addition to his studies. By his twenty-sixth birthday he was the dean.

This is what happens when you do your job — whatever it is — and do it well.

These men went from humble poverty to power by always doing what they were asked to do — and doing it right and with real pride. And doing it better than anyone else. In fact, doing it well because no one else wanted to do it.

Sometimes, on the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that we’d rather not do. Often when we are just starting out, our first jobs “introduce us to the broom,” as Andrew Carnegie famously put it. There’s nothing shameful about sweeping. It’s just another opportunity toexcel — and to learn.

But we are always so busy thinking about the future, we don’t take enough pride in the tasks we are given right now. Too often we phone it in, cash our check, and dream of some higher station in life. Or we think, This is just a job, it isn’t who I am, it doesn’t matter.

This is foolishness.

Everything we do matterswhether it’s making smoothies to save up money or studying for the bar — even after we’ve already achieved the success wesought. Everything is a chance to do and be our best. Only self-absorbed assholes think they are too good for whatever their current station requires.

Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing and wherever we are going, we owe it to ourselves, to our art, to the world to do it well. That’s our primary duty. And our obligation. When action is our priority, vanity falls away.

An artist is given many different canvases and commissions in their lifetime, and what matters is that they treat each one as a priority. Whether it’s the most glamorous or highest paying is irrelevantEach project matters, and theonly degrading part is giving less than one is capable of giving.

Same goes for usWe will be and do many things in our lives. Some areprestigious, some are onerous, none are beneath us. To whatever we face, our job is to respond with:

  • hard work
  • honesty
  • helping others as best we can

We should never have to ask ourselves, But what am I supposed to do now?Because we know the answer: our job.

Whether anyone notices, whether we’re paid for it, whether the project turns out successfully — it doesn’t matter. We can and always should act with those three traits — no matter the obstacle.

There will never be any obstacles that can ever truly prevent us from carrying out our obligation — harder or easier challenges, sure, but never impossible.Each and every task requires our best. Whether we’re facing down bankruptcy and angry customers, or raking in money and deciding how to grow from here, if we do our best we can be proud of our choices and confident they’re the right ones. Because we did our job — whatever it is.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. “Obligations” sound stuffy and oppressive. You want to be able to do whatever you want.

But duty is beautiful, and inspiring and empowering.

Steve Jobs cared even about the inside of his products, making sure they were beautifully designed even though the users would never see them. Taught by his father — who finished even the back of his cabinets though they would be hidden against the wall —to think like a craftsman. In every design predicament, Jobs knew his marching orders: Respect the craft and make something beautiful.

Every situation is different, obviously. We’re probably not inventing the next iPad or iPhone, but we are making something for someone — even if it’s just our own resume. Every part — especially the work that nobody sees, the tough things we wanted to avoid or could have skated away from — we can treat same way Jobs did: with pride and dedication.

The great psychologist Viktor Frankl, survivor of three concentration camps,found presumptuousness in the age-old question: What is the meaning of life?” As though it is someone else’s responsibility to tell us. Instead, he said,the world is asking you that question. And it’s our job to answer with our actions.

In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answerOur job is simply to answer well.

Right action — unselfish, dedicated, masterful, creative— that is the answer to that question. That’s one way to find the meaning of life. And how to turn every obstacle into an opportunity.

If you see any of this as a burden, you’re looking at it the wrong way.

Because all we need to do is those three little duties — to try hard, to be honest, and to help others and ourselves. That’s all that’s been asked of us. No more and no less.

Sure, the goal is important. But never forget that each individual instance matters, too — each is a snapshot of the whole. The whole isn’t certain, only the instances

How you do anything is how you can do everything. We can always act right.

***

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This originally appeared on Thought Catalog.

To the person who emailed me this morning with a perfectly nice request,

I’m sorry to say the answer is no.

You didn’t do anything wrong. You were perfectly respectful and within your rights to ask about arranging a time for a meeting (or was it for a phone call or about setting a date for that project we discussed, I don’t recall).

The problem isn’t you. There is something wrong with me.

I have a form of anorexia.

Don’t be alarmed. It’s not serious, though I take it quite seriously. Because it’s probably the only form that’s healthy. In fact, I think it’s the secret to my success.

I have calendar anorexia.

I want as absolutely little in my calendar as possible. I’m meticulous about it. Whatever the least amount possible I can have in my calendar without killing my career—that’s what I want.

To be clear, this isn’t some nonsense about not putting things in the calendar, like someone who says they’re on a diet but eats a lot. This is about committing to and scheduling next to nothing on a daily and weekly basis.

Want to set up a quick call to chat? Should we have coffee next week? Let’s get together to discuss?

Nope, nope, nope.

I could, but I just can’t.

Even if they are serious opportunities, even if it will only take 15 minutes, even if it’s something that everyone else does, I’d like to avoid it.

Of course, I’m not perfect at this. I succumb, like everyone else in the modern world (so if you think I’m being a hypocrite, I am…and that’s why I really have to say no this time). There’s stuff I have to do and that stuff has to be scheduled. There are requirements for work and for basic civility. But even then…

When I pull up my phone, click the day’s date and see too many little boxes of time blocked off, I get very nervous. What is all this? Where did all my time go? What about my day? Why did I agree to any of this again? (The answer is usually because it was really far away and I thought it would magically work itself out.)

And then the most fearful question: How will I be able to write?

I want two or three things in there at most. The rest is for me. The rest is not allowed to be scheduled. And if it is scheduled, it better be because I’m getting paid or I really, really wanted to do it. Everything else is for suckers.

Paul Graham has a famous essay about managers vs makers. There are two ways to run your life, he says. Managers know that their day is divided up in pieces for meetings, calls, and administrative tasks. Makers, on the other hand, need to have large blocks of uninterrupted, unscheduled time to do what they do. To create and think.

When people ask how I manage to get so much writing done, my anorexia is the answer. Same goes for how I’ve managed to keep a healthy relationship and how I manage to exercise and read. I keep a maker’s schedule because I believe that anything else is anathema to deep work or creativity.

Early in one’s creative career, this is relatively easy. Mostly because no one really wants much of your time. But as you achieve any measure of success in your field, this changes. It’s not a malicious thing. It’s actually an enormous compliment and a validation of your hard work.

But the result is that you have more opportunities and responsibilities that can reasonably be accommodated. And how you choose to respond to this determines the course of your career (and in my opinion, your personal sanity and happiness).

In Ego is the Enemy, I tell a story about George Marshall. While he was cabinet member in the Truman administration, he was asked to sit for an official portrait. Though I’m sure he did what he could to get out of it, for whatever reason, Marshall was unable to. So he went, on several days, to sit for the artist, spending who knows how many hours still as…well…a portrait. On the final day, the artist informed Marshall that the portrait was complete. Marshall quickly got up, thanked him and began to walk out the door. The artist was surprised. He’d just spent all this time sitting, didn’t he want to at least see the painting?

The answer was no. Marshall didn’t want to spend one second more than he had to. He definitely didn’t care what he looked like in some picture.

I always thought it was strange to hear actors complain about the two weeks of media they had to do to promote their movies. Who doesn’t like publicity? Isn’t that the whole perk of being famous? But then, over the last few years, I started to understand. These interviews were a major time and energy suck. It’s disrupting their life—a life where the rest of the time, they make their own schedule. Worse, it’s to do something repetitive and unfulfilling, answering the same questions over and over again, asked by people who usually haven’t even seen their work.

When I ranted about podcasts last year, it was in part, my own realization of the same idea. The podcast is fun for the person making it. For the person agreeing to be on it, that’s an hour of their time they’re giving up. Both sides seem to fundamentally miss the magnitude of that imposition. But one is selfish if they point it out, or refuse to play along, except on their own terms. And so most don’t.

Seneca writes that if all the geniuses in history were to get together, none would be able explain our baffling relationship with time. He says,

No person would give up even an inch of their estate, and the slightest dispute with a neighbor can mean hell to pay; yet we easily let others encroach on our lives—worse, we often pave the way for those who will take it over. No person hands out their money to passers-by, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.

You can only hand so many hours of your day over to other people before there is none left. Even if there are some left, you may have lost the clarity, the energy and the capacity to do anything with them.

The goal in my impossible, perfectionist calendar-anorexic mind is that one day I’ll have enough control and discipline that there will be no distinction in my schedule between a weekday and a weekend. Every day will be Saturday. Will feel like a Saturday. No interruptions. No feeling like this or that must be because someone else wants it to be. All white space in the calendar. Free. Productive.

It’s in that mindset and that lifestyle that I do my best work. So I do my best to recreate it however possible, that is, in modern life where one has a job, obligations, and responsibilities. However many times I have to say no, or things I have to miss out on to make that happen.

But even anorexia fails as a metaphor. Because food, once consumed, can be burned off. Even Seneca’s property metaphor fails too. Property can be regained, money can be re-earned.

Time? Time is our most irreplaceable asset—we cannot buy more of it. We cannot get a second of it back. We can only hope to waste as little as possible. Yet somehow we treat it as most renewable of all resources.

So if you’re asking if we can chat or get together. The answer is no.

I’m sorry. But I have this condition.

I hope you can understand.

This post was originally published on Thought Catalog.

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The list of successful and wise and brilliant people who made time to journal is almost unbelievable: Oscar Wilde, Susan Sontag, Marcus Aurelius, John Quincy Adams, Anne Frank, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, Joan Didion. And those are just the people we know about, who talked about it, who didn’t ask that their journals be burned upon their death. Why were they so dedicated to this daily exercise? It was because, to paraphrase Susan Sontag, in a journal they were able not simply to express themselves openly, but in those pages, they were able to create themselves. I like Kafka’s observation about his own practice:

“In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.”

But of course, there is often a big difference between doing something and doing something well. If you’ve struggled to journal, or had trouble seeing much in the way of results, don’t despair. It’s a habit that many have trouble getting to stick. The following tips and best practices should help. They certainly have for me.

***

[*] Set a Time — The Stoics believed that the two best times for reflection were in the morning and evening: Prepare for the day ahead; Review the day that just passed. Marcus Aurelius likely wrote his famous Meditations in the morning, while Seneca seems to have preferred the evening. As he put it, “When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent…I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.” The lesson there is not that one or the other is better but that you need to set a time and make a practice of it. If you just do it whenever you feel like it, too often you will find that you don’t feel like it and it will not become a habit.

[*] Make Time — Tony Robbins once said, describing his morning routine, that there was no excuse for him not to find ten minutes each morning to meditate and prepare himself for the day ahead. “If you don’t have 10 minutes, you don’t have a life,” was how he put it. The issue is not whether you have time or not to journal, it’s whether you are willing to make time for journaling. Is there anything more important than taking time each day to clearly define what you want to accomplish, how you want to act, clear your mind and prepare yourself for the day ahead? Maybe you don’t have 10 minutes today. But surely you have five. Or one minute. Can you start with journaling for one minute tomorrow morning?

[*] No Pressure. Just Write. — The great General George C. Marshall refused to keep a diary during World War II despite the requests of historians and friends. He worried that it would turn his quiet, reflective time into a sort of performance and self-deception. That he might second-guess difficult decisions out of concern for his reputation and future readers and warp his thinking based on how they would look. This was admirable, but most of us are not George Marshall. Don’t put the burden of history on yourself — safely assume that nobody will ever read what you are writing. Not even you. It’s about getting your thoughts on pages. As Tim Ferriss has described it, journaling is really about trapping your worries and fears on a page so you can get on with your day. To see things clearly and so that your worries don’t “bounce around all day like a bullet ricocheting inside your skull.”

[*] Have Easy Things You Put In Each Entry — Another way to make journaling more fun is to jot down little things each day which are easy to do. I would write down each morning how far I walked, how far I swam or ran, one thing I am grateful for as well as how many hours of deep work I have done the previous day. There are like little throat clearers. It helps get me started. I never look at the blank page and think, “What should I say?” because I have a bunch of go-tos that I start almost without thinking. For instance, writer James Clear records his pushups and reading habits, Nobel Prize winner Danny Kahneman suggests keeping track of the decisions you’ve made in your journal, and the Quantified Self community uses all sorts of gizmos and gadgets to keep track of different metrics in their everyday life.

[*] Keep a Logbook — Bestselling author and artist Austin Kleon has talked about keeping a logbook — writing down each day a simple list of things that have occured. Who did he meet, what did he do, etc. Why? For the same reason many of us struggle with keeping a journal: “For one thing, I’m lazy. It’s easier to just list the events of the day than to craft them into a prose narrative. Any time I’ve tried to keep a journal, I ran out of steam pretty quick.” But this still has the effect of recording what he has done and paint a portrait of each day that he can flip back years later and see what his days were like. It’s easy enough to combine this strategy with the one above. If you’re having trouble starting a journal, don’t. Start with a logbook.

[*] Start Your Private Idea Book — Thomas Edison would keep a notebooktitled “Private Idea Book” in which he kept different ideas that popped into his head, such as ‘artificial silk’ or ‘ink for the blind.’ This is similar to what bestselling author James Altucher does to exercise his “idea muscle.” He carries with him a waiter’s pad and forces himself to come up with at least ten ideas per day. Personally, I keep a separate journal I call a “commonplace book” that is a collection of quotes, ideas, stories and facts that I want to keep for later. I’m not the only one who does this. You can even look at the commonplace books of people like Lewis CarrollWalt Whitman, and Thomas Jefferson.

[*] Don’t Break The Chain — “I’ve tried journaling before but after a couple days I just stopped doing it.” The comedian Jerry Seinfeld once gave a young comic named Brad Isaac some advice about how to write and create material. Keep a calendar, he told him, and each day that you write jokes, put an X. Soon enough, you get a chain going — and then your job is to simply not break the chain. Success becomes a matter of momentum. Once you get a little, it’s easier to keep it going. Start journaling every day, build a chain and then work not to break it. Don’t ruin your streak.

[*] Be Grateful — For The Good and The Bad — One common journaling practice is to write down the things you are grateful for. And the candidates are usually pretty obvious: We should be grateful for our families, for our health, that we live in a time of peace. But what I’ve come to do is that now in the mornings, when I journal, I try to find ways to express gratitude not for the things that are easy to be grateful for, but for what is hard. The Stoics saw gratitude as a kind of medicine, that saying “Thank you” for every experience was the key to mental health. “Convince yourself that everything is the gift of the gods,” Marcus Aurelius said, “that things are good and always will be.” No matter how poorly a situation went, or how a person treated you, find the good within them and what you can be grateful for.

[*] Develop a Shorthand — One trick that I’ve come to adopt is using little acronyms that only I know what they mean and that makes the practice more fun and efficient. For example, I’d write TAF (tired as fuck) when I am running myself ragged. This is something I saw bestselling author Robert Greene do — whenever he would encounter in a book an example that illustrates the Stoic concept of amor fati, he would write AF in the margins. I’ve come to use this both in my notecard system and now in my journaling practice. It helps speed the process up. Depending on how elaborate your shorthand becomes, you might accidentally end up like author Charles Wesley whose diary took nine years to be cracked by scholars because of its elaborate shorthand script.

[*] Unleash Your Creativity With Morning Pages — Back to the timing thing: Author Julia Cameron has become known in creative circles for her practice of Morning Pages. That is, writing three longhand stream-of-consciousness A4 pages early in the morning. Writer and producer Brian Koppelman (BillionsRoundershas been one of the most vocal proponents of this practice and swears by it, saying he does it each morning, to get himself going creatively, “priming the pump, …getting the creative juices flowing in a very free way.” Other proponents include bestselling authors Oliver Burkemanand Tim Ferriss.

[*] Give Your Thoughts Room to Marinate — But evening pages work just as good. For instance, the founder of Linkedin, Reid Hoffman, jots down in his notebook things that he likes his mind to work on overnight. Similarly, chess prodigy and martial arts phenom Josh Waitzkin, has a similar process: “My journaling system is based around studying complexity. Reducing the complexity down to what is the most important question. Sleeping on it, and then waking up in the morning first thing and pre-input brainstorming on it. So I’m feeding my unconscious material to work on, releasing it completely, and then opening my mind and riffing on it.” By journaling questions and problems during the day, you can let your unconscious do the work and then you revisit first thing in the morning.

[*] Practice The Art of The Unsent Angry Letter — Whenever Abraham Lincoln felt a pang of anger towards someone, he would write them a letter…which he would then never send. He would “put it aside until his emotions cooled down,” as one historian explained. Your journal can similarly become an outlet for your emotions and feelings towards someone so you can then approach them in person in a calm and rational manner. Say the things, process the things that you would love to be able to say out loud but can’t or won’t. You’ll feel better — and you’ll always have something to say.

[*] Ask Yourself the Tough Questions — Journaling isn’t just about patting yourself on the back and listing all your accomplishments. I also think it’s important to wrestle with big questions and to hold yourself to account. When we created The Daily Stoic Journalwe added for each day a helpful prompt to provide guidance for the day’s reflection. These can sometimes be the tough but necessary questions you need to reflect and meditate upon. Some helpful examples: Where am I standing in my own way? What’s the smallest step I can take toward a big thing today? What blessings can I count right now? Why do I care so much about impressing people? What is the harder choice I’m avoiding? Do I rule my fears, or do they rule me? How will today’s difficulties show my character?

***

The last tip is the most obvious one:

[*] Just Do It. — People tend to intimidate themselves about it: What’s the best way to do it? What’s the best journal? What time? How much? Forget all that. There’s no right way to do it. Just do it. You can use The Daily Stoic Journal or The 5 Minute Journal or The Bullet Journal or Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist Journal. Or the One Line A Day Journal. Or a blank notebook or an Evernote file or an email on your iPhone. Or use a combination of these things. It doesn’t matter. Just start. Refine and improve as you go. You’ll get into a rhythm and find what works best for you. You can only optimize if you actually start.

I remember visiting the filmmaker Casey Neistat’s studio and seeing shelves and shelves of notebooks on one wall. They dated back to the very beginning of his career. I felt an instant pang of regret — why hadn’t I been doing this? — and then reminded myself that although the best time to start journaling would have been years ago, the second best time would be right then. So I did. If you want to get a chain going, start to day.

Good luck and happy journaling!

This was originally posted on Thought Catalog.

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