Letter XVII: Are you doing your best work?

My letters are typically published via email to your inbox, and I select a few every now and again to feature on the blog. Letter XVII was originally published by email on 23rd February 2020, and was re-published on the blog on 16th March 2020. Subscribe at chrismarr.co.uk

Six months ago I wound down my business and accepted a full-time role at IMPACT – a leading marketing company in the US. 

The burden of owning, running and managing my own company has been lifted, leaving me to focus solely on doing my best work in one area. Every day I get to do only what I’m good at and because I’m only doing that, I’m quickly getting very good at it. 

It’s like a dream come true for me, but I struggled with the transition. It’s only now, 4 months in, that I’m starting to settle into a different approach to my work. 

For the past ten years or so, I’ve consistently set goals and planned my year, but rolling into 2020 was different. I just couldn’t figure out what my year was going to look like. Thanks to Chris Brogan’s ‘three-word’ exercise, I was able to set a theme for the year and let go of any in-depth goal setting. I’m still only using these three words as my guide:

  1. Move
  2. Write
  3. Excel

It took me weeks to find a word that defined doing my best work, and I eventually settled on Excel

On the face of it, doing your best work is easy to understand and you may believe that you already do your best work.

However, for me, there is a lot of work to do in setting the physical and mental conditions for doing my best work. I’m still working on it. Naturally, I turned to my journal and I wrote a note to myself to remind me what I need to think about, and what needs to happen to do my best work. It’s not as simple as you may think. 

I thought it would be helpful for you to read through this. It’s certainly not complete, but it may get you thinking about things you need to change in your situation to allow you to do better work. 

Setting the physical and mental conditions for your best work

Best vs Perfectionism

To be better I need to produce, and producing work will lead me to do better work. Perfectionism is how I protect myself from failure, and from being judged. Perfectionism produces nothing. For me to ‘produce’ anything at all, I need to let go of perfectionism.

Best vs Better

If I ever think that I’m the best I can be, then what room is there for improvement? It’s possible to get to the end of each day and feel like I’ve done my best. I can be a little better each day. Best is not achievable, better is. Better creates possibilities. Better encourages movement. 

Best vs Failure

I can’t do my best work if I’m afraid to fail. To do my best work, I must be able and willing to take risks and try new things.

Best & Control

I only have so much energy each day, and to do my best work, I have to be the one that has total control and decision making about what my energy goes in to. This cannot be left up to others. This means saying no, a lot. It means saying I can’t do that now, but I can do it later. It means saying this work would be better for someone else to do. It means staying within my integrity and doing the right thing for me, which everyone around benefits from. 

Best & Boundaries

It’s going to be hard to say no with clarity and confidence if I don’t have clear boundaries; knowing what I am simply not willing to give up. If my work takes away my family time, what’s the point in my work? What is important to me? What allows me to do my best work? What allows me to be happy at home? Everyone benefits from me having hard boundaries. Some people might not like it, but it’s for the best.

Best & Collaboration

It’s better to be great at a few things rather than average at everything. Asking for help is not a weakness, it’s a strength. Everyone benefits when I ask for help. People want to help, and they grow when I ask for help. Just don’t wait until it’s too late. Ask for help early and often. 

Best & Planning

I will not blindly agree to other people’s timeframes and deadlines without serious consideration about how this impacts my work. This is about doing my best work, not doing all the work. Taking total control of my schedule is perhaps the most important factor in allowing me to do my best work. 

Best vs Distractions

The hourglass on my desk reminds me to stay focused on the single task I’m working on. I want to do my best work in the shortest time possible, and I can’t do that if I’m checking Twitter, Slack, emails and Basecamp. As a remote worker, I am not ‘seen’ at the office. The only thing that shows my true value at work is the work I produce. I cannot take tomorrow for granted. Why wait until tomorrow to do something that can be done today? I want to finish work each day feeling happy with my work. I do not want my work to bleed into the time I have with my family. This means that I set and control the physical conditions to do my best work in the time I have, by removing distractions.

Best vs Results

I measure my best work based on inputs rather than outputs/results. I cannot wait for someone else to tell me I’m doing good work. This means I can have a more positive relationship with my work and I’m in control of what a good day looks like. Am I happy? Did I enjoy my work? Did I learn something about myself? Did I manage to my best work without sacrificing other important aspects of my life – family, health, relationships? Did I produce something valuable today? Did I produce something that’s not perfect?

Constraints create better work

“The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality”

 – Steven Pressfield

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that constraints help me to do better work. Like many, having a family means that I have a natural constraint to be at home for 5 pm, and to be present at the weekends. Sure, I could still do 80 hours a week, but I’d much rather get my best work done in 40 hours or less, and be present and happy at home. Thinking back to when I was younger, when I didn’t have any constraints, I’d work all the time, and if I’m honest with myself, I don’t believe I was doing my best work.

I’ve learned to not wait until I have a natural constraint, but to proactively create the conditions for better work. 

Do I have bad days? Yes, of course, I do. I’m not a machine. That’s why I wrote this, so I can refer to it when I feel myself slipping. I can pick it up, read it, and remind myself that while I’m at work I have the ability and capability to do my best work. That the work I do is valuable, but there are certain physical and mental conditions that I have to set to allow me to be the best I can be. 

In a lot of ways, doing your best work means being selfish. Knowing clearly and confidently protecting your mental and physical conditions so you can be better – being clear on what’s important and what’s not. Doing less, but doing it better. For me, it’s knowing that my family is more important than my work, but also knowing that doing good work helps me to feel fulfilled and happy, too. Everyone at work and home benefits from me being happy, and it’s up to me to set the conditions for that to happen. 

Over to you:

  1. What conditions need to change to allow you to be happier? 
  2. What needs to change to allow you to do your best work?
  3. What do you need to have more control over?