Sean Johnson

Build an Intentional Life.

My buddy David Kadavy called me out and asked me for my eight life hacks – the eight things that make me feel like I’m “cheating the system.” I usually ignore this kind of stuff, but this one was actually an interesting thought exercise.

  1. Read constantly.

    Pek beat me to it. But whenever colleagues, interns at the office or anyone else ask me what I do to get ahead, the first thing I say is to read. I was taught early on that people succeed or fail during their non-work times. While most people stop reading after school (or while still in school), people who get ahead are constantly seeking out new information.

    They say that creativity is nothing more than taking old ideas and combining them in new ways. In order to do that, you need a large supply of “old ideas” at your disposal.

    If you have an aversion to lugging around books, grab the Kindle (the device itself, or the iPhone app). I was able to tear through 14 books in 90 days after putting the Kindle app on my phone – the reading experience is fantastic, and it saves a ton of space. The only downside is you can’t share your books once you’ve read them.

    Reading also makes you more interesting at dinner parties.

  2. Show up an hour early.

    I mentioned this in my previous post on recession-proofing yourself, but it bears repeating. Early in the morning (or late at night) is a great time to tackle work without all distractions – the world is quiet, your mind is more calm and focused. You end up feeling energized for the rest of the day knowing you have a head start on everyone else.

  3. Get one important thing done each day.

    This came from Zen Habits, but has been super successful for me since I started doing it. I try to set one goal to accomplish each day that, no matter how effective or ineffective the rest of my days goes, would lead me to consider that day a successful one. It focuses your intention like a laser on the most important things, and helps you avoid being efficient but ineffective.

  4. Reframe everything.

    Every project you are given, no matter how small and inconsequential, is an opportunity to do something amazing. Starting in college, I got in the habit of spending time thinking about how to make a project better. A lot of the things I’m most proud of were simple projects that were transformed by asking this simple question at the outset, including:

    • Laying out every class report in InDesign or Illustrator, and often getting them printed at Kinkos.
    • Creating a stand-up comedy contest and a non-profit ad agency for my marketing student group.
    • Creating a custom website as my cover letter and resume to get my job in New York.
    • Making a series of wedding invitation “booklets”.
    • Buying jerseys and renting the high school field for a flag football game the morning of the wedding.

    It’s a self-reinforcing habit as well – by practicing on smaller things you’re more effectively able to reframe larger projects, and your tendency becomes to ask this instinctively at the beginning of something new.

  5. Unnetwork:

    A large percentage of my closest friendships these days started at networking functions, and I attribute that to the concept of unnetworking. I never go into an event expecting to grab a bunch of cards and shake a bunch of hands. Instead, I set the goal to meet one super interesting person, try to genuinely connect with them, and then become their friend. I almost never ask for things from them, I try to help them out whenever I can. The goal isn’t to get business from them, but to have a relationship with them, which has way more upside (although it’s often intangible).

    Of course, business opportunities often come up eventually, but they’re for the right reasons – because you have a mutual relationship based on trust and friendship, not elevator pitches and systematic follow-up.

  6. Have an inner circle.

    While I have a fair number of friends, I have a much smaller number of folks (as in 4) that I consider my inner circle. The most important criteria has been that they know and largely be in alignment with my values, and are willing to give me honest feedback and keep me accountable.

    Most people think I have a tendency to be too hard on myself. They think that my focus on character development and insistence on trying to become the “right” kind of person is misguided, or a waste of time. Aspiring to a certain standard and being willing to admit that you aren’t living up to it makes most people uncomfortable – they tell you to just be happy and live your life, and that everything is a process, and what’s important is to live in the moment and just… be.

    Which is fine if that’s your perspective, but it isn’t mine. Mine is that I have one life on this earth, that I have certain talents and abilities, and certain weaknesses and vices. And that all of this is for a reason and my job is to use all of that in the best way possible, according to a set of standards that are not ultimately defined by me.

    And in order for me to be successful on my path, I need people who are on the same page, and who are willing to push and be pushed, not who want to convince me that I’m wrong.

    Regardless of your beliefs about who you are, why you’re here and where you’re going, I’d argue an inner circle is vitally important. They help you maintain your sanity when things aren’t going well, they celebrate with you when things are going well, and they keep you focused on the right things. You only need a couple – it would actually be difficult to maintain that level of intimacy with more than a few people. But finding your inner circle is an exercise that’s very much worth the time.

  7. Keep a budget, and make your financial goals automatic.

    Three years ago, I returned from my honeymoon with nothing in savings and 8 credit cards that were maxed out. Today my wife and I have no credit card debt and save or invest 40% of what we make. And the secret to that transition was a Google Spreadsheet.

    We started keeping a monthly budget, accounting for every dollar that came and went from our accounts. Having a visual document that you both look at keeps you accountable and honest. And we quickly found that there was a direct correlation between how often we look at it and how diligent we are in implementing it. To this day, if we go a few days without looking at it we resort to our old habits. Which is fun, but ultimately destructive.

    It was important that we set gradual goals each month – cut back $50 here, $100 here. Doing it in increments instead of all at once allowed us to break our old habits and develop new ones.

    In order to knock out debt and accelerate savings, we set aggressive goals for both and made the transfers automatic. Once we took it out of our control, the system ran itself. Of course, every month following a big readjustment we’d screw up and overspend. We gave ourselves an “idiot fund” to accommodate this, and we allowed ourselves a lot of grace. We didn’t let the short term missteps get in the way of the longer term strategy, and that made a huge difference.

  8. Whenever you think something bad about someone else, never say it. Whenever you think something great about someone else, always say it.

    The seeds of discord are almost always sown with something trivial. You think something critical, sarcastic or downright mean about someone else, and you decide to say it. Because it feels good – there’s a bizarre joy in it.

    But once it’s out there, it’s in the world. It’s permanent. It causes a small cut in the fabric of a relationship. Enough cuts, and the fabric begins to fray, starts to come apart.

    I get in trouble sometimes for this one, but I believe it wholeheartedly. It staggers me how many people struggle to keep friendships, romances, or family ties together. Close friends of mine talk often of relationship troubles, wishing they could do something about it, but when I offer up this bit of advice, they often reply with “You and Michelle are different. It doesn’t work that way in normal couples.”

    But it can. My wife and I, if we’re honest, get that same temporary high from the sarcastic comment as anyone else. We make a conscious choice not to. Instead, our language with each other is constantly and unceasingly positive.

    Does this make us naive? I don’t think so – we both know that the other isn’t always happy with us. We both know that sometimes we do something stupid, or look silly. We both know that the other knows that guy or girl who just walked by is extremely attractive. But that doesn’t mean you have to say it.

    What everyone wonders, perpetually, is whether they’re good enough. Whether the other person thinks they’re valuable, lovable, beautiful, worthy of their time. Our entire lives are lived with this subtext – am I really worthy of someone’s love? Saying the nice thing every time you think it doesn’t remove this, but it definitely provides assurance. And there’s no downside.