Hello everyone and welcome back to Productivity for Perfectionists. I’m your host, Deborah Hurwitz and today, I’m talking to my favorite person in whole planet! I’m so excited to welcome Derek Sivers to the session.
Thanks, Deborah. We’ve been emailing for 20 years literally. No exaggeration.
Derek is a musician, producer, circus performer, entrepreneur, TED speaker, and book publisher among other things.
I know him as the founder of CD Baby and Host Baby, a company that he grew from nothing to a behemoth in the industry. It was THE way for artists to get their music out there at a time when the playing field was still super new, wild west level, and Derek made it easy for artists to get their music online.
He identifies himself as a monomaniac, introvert, slow thinker, and loves finding a different point of view. A California native now living in Oxford, England. Derek replies personally to every email. I’m going to ask how he manages to do that and do anything else at all.
Right away, I want to jump right into the promises of this summit. I really want to let people know how you stop procrastinating, quiet the inner critic, and finally get it done.
I found this fun, little quote on your website that says, “About 10 times a day, as I’m writing, I think of an idea that would make a good stand-alone article. But instead of stopping to blog, I keep working on the book. Gotta finish. Gotta finish.”
Artists, creatives, and big idea people are like, “Idea! Fresh objects! Squirrel!”
And boom! We’re not doing the tough thing, which is to sit-your-ass-in-the-chair-and-keep-going thing. How do you do that? [Laughter]
I saw an interesting bit of advice yesterday that said you should act on ideas when you first have them because that’s when they’re most exciting to you.
If you put an idea aside, it’s like putting a piece of chewing gum aside.
You’re never going to want to come back to that. It’s never as good as it is in the moment that you have the idea. That’s when it tastes best.
You have to decide what phase you’re in. There’s another metaphor I want to make from the movie called Basquiat, about the painter Jean Michel Basquiat. I love the scene where he’s in his studio painting.
He sets up eight canvases that he’s working on and says, “Okay, here’s something I want to do for that one.” Then he runs to another and says, “Oh! Oh! Now this one! Now that one!”
Sometimes, we’re in a phase where there are lots of things you need to do. Maybe you’re recording a whole album, and you have a bunch of songs that are not finished. You don’t necessarily need to shut yourself off and completely focus on one thing because you’ll never get it all done.
You could be in the phase where the fuel tank that’s going to propel you the fastest or the furthest right now is the one that has the most fuel.
If an idea comes to you and you don’t grab it, it’s going to go to somebody else.
I want to come back to the “I gotta finish, I gotta finish” line. Artists tend to say, “This feels like something I want to work on right now. I don’t want to work on that.” So we continually go to that easier thing – the low-hanging fruit that becomes a distraction.
I joke about how people would rather clean toilets than write. It’s like, “It’s not that I want to clean the damn toilet. It’s just that I really don’t want to sit down and do that thing, so I’ll do fucking anything else!”
When you’re in the “I gotta finish, I gotta finish,” phase, what has you say, “Nope, I gotta sit and finish,” as opposed to jumping around like Basquiat?
A devil’s advocate would say that you might be in a phase where you can jump into the ideas. You don’t need to say no to absolutely everything.
If you have one thing that you’re really pushing to finish and those little ideas keep coming up, quickly jot them down in 10 seconds. I keep a folder for these little ideas, and I write down a few words that remind me of the idea later. When I finish one piece, I think, “Hmm? What should I write next?” And I open up my folder of ideas.
But yes, there are times in life like I am in right now that I say no to absolutely everything else. because I’m working on one thing. Yes, the other things are appealing, but I remind myself of the difference between what I want now versus what I want most.
This comes up every day. I’ll be working on something and I’ll go, “Oh, that’s interesting. It would be really nice. . .Stop! Stop! No. That’s what I want now. What do I want most? I want to finish my fucking book.”
What do I want most? That idea always comes back to me. Everything else can wait.
Yes, I do want everything else. If I had a list of everything what I want, it would be hundreds long.
You have to know your number one thing. That one thing that would be a big, damn relief if you finished it. Remind yourself of that every five minutes if that’s what it takes.
Can we talk about the phrases, “I NEED to do this. I HAVE to do this. This has been waiting for years for me to do this?”
Of course, those phrases sound like a really nice driver to get clarity and urgency, but I’ve found over and over again that it’s the surest death for anything getting done.
As soon as I hear “need to,” I fucking won’t. Whatever it is — resistance, distractions, squirrels, or whatever.
At any point in your lengthy career have you said, “Ugh, it’s too scary. I can’t. It feels like it’s too much.”
There’s a fork in the road here. There’s one question that can go two different ways.
The first, most direct answer is that no, the “I need to” and “I must,” doesn’t work well for me. I have this work ethic that says, “I’ll do what needs to be done even if I don’t want to.”
With creative work, we think, “No, man. The muse – if the muse isn’t there. . .” But no, inspiration, like any good romantic partner, will never come all the way to you. You have to go meet her halfway.
Whenever I’m feeling completely unmotivated, I remind myself of this almost visual metaphor, and think, “Gorgeous inspiration is over that hill. I’ll walk halfway and she’ll come to meet me.”
It’s a lovely thought actually because it gives you hope without accommodating laziness or fear.
The big idea is that I don’t want to do this but I’m going to do it anyway. I need you to know that the way I get things done is that I literally scream and curse. I’m like, “Fuck this book! I don’t want to do this! I really don’t want to do this.” But I say that as I’m opening up the file and getting ready to type.
Here’s how I go to the gym three times a week. I say, “I really don’t want to go to the gym today. Fuck the gym. I don’t want to go to the gym. I don’t need to go the gym.” But I say this while I’m grabbing my shoes and walking out the door. I curse it the entire way there.
And then I get there and I’m like, “Okay, fuck you, gym. Here I am.” [Laughter] I don’t enjoy it, but I know I need to do it. So, NEED works for me. Remember the two-part answer? Here’s another valid answer that’s completely different.
Actions reveal your real values. Not your words, but your actions. If you’ve been that you want to do something for a long time but you’re not doing it, I’d say you don’t actually WANT to do it. No matter what you say, your actions reveal your real values.
When I sold CD Baby in 2008, I announced my next business, which was called Muckwork.
I spent a few months working towards Muckwork and then I paused to do other things. That was 2008. For 12 years, I talked about Muckwork up until about a year ago.
I was telling a good friend of mine, “I really want to do Muckwork. I really want to finish Muckwork.” He said, “No, you don’t.”
I said, “The hell I don’t! I’m telling you I do. You can’t tell me I don’t.”
He goes, “Yes I can.”
I say, “But no. I’m telling you I want to do it. What do you mean no I don’t? I’m telling you. I’m not asking you.”
He said, “No. Derek, I know you well. If you wanted to do Muckwork, you would have done it by now. It’s been 11 years dude. Stop saying you want to do it. You clearly don’t.”
I said, “Hold on a second. What about people that want to quit smoking, but haven’t yet?”
And he said, “They don’t want to bad enough. If they really wanted to quit smoking, they would quit. Saying you want to quit doesn’t mean a damn thing.”
I want to dig into the topic of values.
We are perfectionists of all stripes here – whether we’re dealing with bodies, relationships, careers, homes, and everything.
When we as perfectionists are procrastinating, it’s not that we don’t want to do the thing or have the thing, it’s that something in our system sees a threatening situation if we do it.
Have you felt this conflict of interest in yourself? What are we doing when there is a real desire to do something, but we don’t?
What is it that stops us?
I think it’s because we want something else more. In my list of wants, there are things that hold positions two, three, four, five. I really do want those things, but I want something else more.
Somebody could say, “I want to be famous,” but maybe they like tranquility and anonymity more.
I’ll tell a recent example. I moved to Europe a year ago and thought I was going to be adventuring to new places often and meeting lots of people. I really do want that, but I want to finish this book more.
Right now, I’m denying myself many wonderful entertaining distractions. I sit right here in this little cabin in front of the fire. I haven’t even left the house today. I woke up at 6 a.m. and I started writing. I kept writing until my alarm went off eight minutes before our interview. This is all I do.
I have friends in Dublin and Munich and they ask, “Hey man, when are you going to come and visit? You’ve been here a year.”
I say, “When I finish my book.”
They say, “But I thought you wanted to explore?”
I say, “Yes, I really do want to explore. On my list of needs and wants, that is right there at number two. But number one is finishing my book.”
To finish the story ago about Muckwork, my friend said, “I know you want to do Muckwork, but I think you like your current quiet life more. Once you start Muckwork, you’ll have paying customers who you’re going to be responsible for. Yes, you want to do Muckwork, but you don’t want to do it more.”
I can feel in your energy the clarity of “yup, that’s how it is and I’m good with that.” That will be so helpful for our audience.
As perfectionists, we hold ourselves at bay so much of the time. If I can’t do everything, I won’t do anything. If I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t do it at all.
But we don’t even get to the first stage of that breathless threshold if we don’t even get honest and say, “I want something else more.“
I hope that everyone listening will take whatever it is that you’re wanting to do but not doing, and ask the question, “Is there something that I want more?”
Don’t forget that you CAN change the way you feel. People often say, “Well, you can’t help the way you feel.” But you can.
You can make the vision of what you want to pursue clearer and stronger and take the one that you want to avoid and make it smaller and dimmer.
Write about it more. Think about what the ultimate outcome will be if you keep avoiding.
Where does that take me in 30 years? What is my life going to look like in 40 years if I never do this?
As perfectionists, we think about the downside, the regret, the how-bad--is-this-going to-feel-in-30-years. All that does is pile on the shit show. It does not move us into action.
But a positive state change – now, I suddenly feel good. That will move me into action.
What are the things that you do to create a state change for yourself as quickly as possible?
I don’t know. I don’t focus on quick. I want it to be deep, not quick.
I journal a lot. I write one to three hours a day. Sometimes, I write more if I’m going through something. I ask myself all kinds of questions. I answer the questions and then I question my answers.
Is that true? What if that were false? I’m saying that’s true because that’s my first reaction. Is that truly what I want?
I love to ask myself questions and question my answers. I like that a lot.
It’s a fun process. If a life situation has come up, and I can’t change it, instead of changing the world, I need to change my reaction to it. I’ll sit there in my journal for hours and ask things like, “What’s great about this terrible situation? What could be great about this?” The first reaction is “Nothing!”
“It’s just terrible!” [Laughter]
Well, I keep asking what could be great about it. And eventually, I’ll come up with something.
A few months ago, a big, giant life situation came up that I was really upset about. It probably took six or seven hours of writing in my journal. I was miserable in the morning and by the time I closed that text file for the day, I was actually kind of psyched. I talked my way through it.
You just said something really important which is, “Instead of changing the world, I need to change my reaction to it.”
Much of time we’re looking at what we can control or what needs to happen out there. As perfectionists, we can get really panicky when we can’t make anything change out there. But you’re bringing a beautiful sense of peace, excitement, and hope to it.
That thing that you thought was unequivocally shitty and irretrievably awful is not.
Take this perspective:
“I can’t change it out there. So instead I’m going to change my reaction to it and then work with it.
What is my current shitty, horrible reaction? How else might I look at it? What’s good about this? Where else could I go with this?”
I didn’t know you write that many hours a day. That’s nice.
When I need to [laughter].
And I can see how you access some really important, valuable things from that.
I know some of us are listening to this going, “Oh my god, my journal might explode if I tried to write that. My inner critic is really bitchy and mean.”
How do you tell the voice of intuition from the voice of the inner critic?
When you say, “hell yeah or no”, you’re talking about definitive decision-making with real and clear answers. For a lot of us, those answers do not come easily at all. They’re not clear.
Tell us a little bit about “hell yeah or no” and how you access that “yes” or “no” answer in yourself.
“Hell yeah or no” is a rule of thumb when you’re feeling overwhelmed with options. Most of us say a mild yes to too many things. Because of that, we don’t have any space left in our life to tap into when we come across the occasional, rare “hell yeah.”
Shortly after selling my company, I was drowning in opportunities, so I came up with this rule. If I felt anything less than “Oh, hell yeah! That would be amazing!” I’m said no. Even if that meant I saw there doing nothing because I said no to everyone.
I gave me space. When that occasional “hell yeah” thing came up, I actually had the time to throw myself into it completely. I’m fascinated with this idea of letting go of goals. I think it’s conventional wisdom that once you set a goal, you have to see it through to the end. But most of us have too many goals. We would actually do better to get rid of almost all of them.
There’s little bit of a mourning, but it’s also freeing. You feel like, “Would’ve been nice to be fluent in Mandarin, but no. I’m letting go of that goal.”
The “I need to, I have to,” without actually putting the legs under it to go there just drains and depletes the energy. It clutters the space and takes up energy.
Drop the, “I have 30 important things on my to-do list,” and say, “I’m not fucking doing any of them,” so that you can clearly see the “hell yeah.”
For those of us who have to earn our right to exist by doing and being busy 100 hours a day, I could literally feel the breath going “Ahhh” as you said, “it’s better that I sit and do nothing by saying ‘no’ to anything that is not a hell yeah”.
We often fear that space of nothing, but you’re putting value in that space. It’s like a womb for ideas. An incubator for the things that want to come. Like a super delicate orchid instead of the dandelions that you don’t care about.
Exactly. You need space. Every now and then people say, “I’m sure you’re really busy.”
I’m like, “No, I’m not. I’m not busy.”
They’re always taken aback by that. I say, “Busy implies lack of control. I say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
Busy implies out of control.
It takes us out of the driver’s seat in a way that’s comfortable because we don’t have to take responsibility for how life is happening to us.
I’ve never thought about that! People like saying they’re busy because they act like it’s something that’s happening to them.
“I’m just drowning in stuff.” To me, that means you’re not in control. You’re powerless. I say, “No. I’m in control. I’ve said ‘no’ to everything.”
That’s fucking awesome.
There could be an opportunity that comes to you next week. If you’re telling yourself “I’m still going to learn to play trumpet and I’m going to run a marathon and do this and that,” then you might refuse that new opportunity that you should accept because in your head, you’re saying “No, no, no, my future is cluttered. My future is full.”
When in doubt, let go of every single goal you can and there will be one or maybe two that won’t let you let go of them. One or two will come back.
For example, I not only want to, but I need to learn Portuguese. In two years, I’m applying for Portugal citizenship. Right beside me is a Portuguese phrase book, but I’m not going to spend even five minutes on that today because that’s five minutes I need to put towards finishing this book. When I’m done with this book, then I’ll begin Portuguese.
If I tell someone, “You can start. You don’t have to upend your whole life to make your way there. But you do need to start writing every day.” Is that fair? What would you add to that or change about that?
That’s true. Seth Godin’s podcast had a great bit about this. A listener asked him, “How do you post an article to your blog every day and record this amazing podcast every week?”
He said, “To me, this is the unbreakable promise. Everything else goes around this promise. We all have a thing whether it’s ‘I shower everyday no matter what’ or ‘I sleep everyday no matter what’.”
He said, “You find time to do that because it’s your top priority. Other things will have to fit themselves around the fact that you need to shower.” You don’t even question it. He said, “That’s the way I am with my writing. Everything else has to fit around this one thing.”
This relates to your question about how you finally get something done. I am not good with distractions. Despite everything else I said here, I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t keep any sugar in the house because if it was here, I would eat it.
When I need to finish something, I go over to the broadband modem and I literally unplug it from the wall. I cut off the internet. I turn off my phone. I actually miss having the removable batteries because I used to remove the battery to keep myself from impulsively turning it on.
I cut off every option. Every now and then I find myself compulsively grabbing for the phone, but it’s off.
That’s work ethic. That’s savvy environment creation. That’s really great that you’re able to line up your environment, both internal and external, to match your priorities. You’re not putting those bright, shiny objects and squirrels and sugar in front of you. Makes a huge difference.
I call it being ruthless with your attention.
As much as it sucks to admit, the truth is that we can only control the quality of our attention and where we place that attention.
That’s it. That’s all we can do. You’re talking about some really high-level attention management and that explains how you’ve gotten all of these things done.
Not done yet. [Laughter]
Derek, I love talking to you. I could do this all day long. Thank you so much for doing this.
Any final words for our audience? Please tell the people who want more of you, what to do next?
The reason I do these interviews isn’t to pitch or sell anything. I really just like meeting people. If you go to sive.rs, my email address is in big font there. Introduce yourself. You don’t even have to make up a question to ask me. But if you have a question, ask it. I reply to every single email.
You do. I have emailed you so many times over the years about different things with different questions, and you’ve always responded. You’ve always been incredibly eloquent and generous and genuine and real.
You know why? Because I’m not busy. ☺
God bless you. Thank you so much, Derek. What a treat! What a pleasure!