Productivity & Focus Workshop Replay

We just hosted our first, live workshop for Sweet Setup readers. There were several hundred who joined us for live the workshop, and it was a blast!

The goal of this workshop was for everyone to walk away with two things:

  1. Knowing the importance of a creative habit.
  2. Be ready and able to improve your own routine.

In a nut, my writing routine is little more than a commitment to show up every day and do the work. And then I do all I can to remove the obstacles and distractions.

Below you’ll find some of the highlights and key takeaways from the workshop. We’ve also made the slide deck available for you to download…

Download the PDF Slides »

Also, real quick, for more on creativity and focus, I thought you might find value in these articles:

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Highlights and key takeaways from the workshop video

Common Areas of Resistance

  • Fear of the blank page
  • Fear of what others think
  • Lack of skills relative to your “taste” as a creator
  • No time
  • Habitual Procrastination
  • Too tired
  • Don’t know what to write about
  • Interruptions
  • Inability to focus for long
  • Don’t have the right tools / don’t know how to use the tools I have.
  • What are some common obstacles or distractions you face?

Some of these areas of resistance you can tangibly do something about. If you don’t know what to write about, simply ask your readers. Or if your skills are not yet as good as you’d like them to be, then keep honing your craft. If you’re afraid of the blank page, then start out with a not-blank-page (get your topic idea and main bullet points ahead of time, then fill them in).

But if you are afraid of what others think, you will simply have to push past that fear and hit publish anyway.

If you are too tired, if you lack the time, if you’re unable to focus, if you are an habitual procrastinator… then you’ll have to make changes to your lifestyle.

My Writing Tools

I didn’t want to spend too much time here because, honestly, the tools are not all that important. I cut my teeth as a designer using a 12-inch PowerBook G4. Usually graphic designers prefer a large screen… I was using the smallest screen possible.

Even though tools are not vitally important, they are fun to nerd out about. So here’s a quick rundown of what I use…


  • Ulysses: I spend hours a day writing. And I do all of my writing in Ulysses. I’ve used just about every other writing app there is, and what makes Ulysses great is not just it’s minimalist writing environment but its robust organizational features. I won’t go into all the details of how I use Ulysses, because I already have another video of that posted on the Learn Ulysses site.

  • Quitter: This is a clever little utility app written by Marco Arment. It runs silently in the background and will watch any apps you want (I have it watching my email and twitter apps). Then, if 10 minutes pass without you interacting with those apps, it will quit them for you. The purpose being to help keep you from absentmindedly leaving open a distracting app.

  • Keyboard Maestro: This is an app for creating just about any type of workflow or shortcut on your Mac. It’s a way to build custom automations and make apps work in a way that better suits your needs.

  • Bartender: This cuts down on the visual clutter of a menu bar with multiple menu bar apps. They can all get cleaned up into a menu bar “folder” so to speak.

  • LaunchBar: I would say this is the very first app I install on a new Mac, but do people ever start fresh any more? I’ve been restoring from backups since 2012. But, that’s not the point. This application launcher (the original, btw(#)) is how I easily launch apps and bookmarks and just generally navigating my computer with the keyboard, etc.

    (Side note: LaunchBar also has a clipboard manager which is something that, once you’ve used, you’ll never go back.)

  • Hazel: Another one of those apps that runs in the background, and keeps things working well without you having to pay it mind. This is how I manage my paperless office,

  • Simplenote: For those times when I just need to jot down some text quickly, or make a note about something, then I toss it into Simplenote. It syncs with my iPhone and iPad, and I can quickly find any and every single note I’ve ever dropped in there.

  • Things: My current task manager of choice

  • BreakTime: This app runs in your Mac’s Menu Bar and simply counts down a repeating timer. When the timer goes off, the app reminds you to take a break. This is what I use to shift my desk from the sitting to standing position (or vice versa) and take a 5-minute break every hour.

  • iTunes: For music, of course.


  • Filco Ninja with Cherry MX Blue switches. Though, if I were buying a new keyboard today, I’d get the CODE tenkeyless. At the time when I bought my Ninja, it was the only tenkeyless blue switch keyboard. But now the CODE makes them and they also have backlit keys, which is pretty rad.
  • Yeti coffee mug filled with delicious coffee
  • Baron Fig Confidant
  • Signo DX 0.38mm pen
  • Retina iMac
  • iPad Pro (10.5) with Keyboard Cover
  • Apple AirPods
  • Jarvis Sit-Stand desk
  • Embody chair

My Writing Routine, Mindset, and Tips and Tricks

I used to waste the best part of my day.

Every morning I’d come into my office and right away I’d check email, twitter, website traffic, affiliate earning reports, etc. Pretty much every possible inbox or stat.

And it would take me an hour or more. I was being busy and looking at interesting information, but I wasn’t actually doing anything. On a daily level like that, the website traffic stats are not all that relevant. And there was never an urgent issue on email or twitter that couldn’t have waited a few more hours.

So I began writing as the very first thing I did in the morning. This was almost 3 years ago.

  • I made a commitment that every morning I would write for 30 minutes no matter what. This writing time would be the first thing I did each morning when I started my work day.

  • Additionally, I committed that I would not check any statistics or inboxes until at least 9am. I start my work day at 7:30am, so I knew I had a good 90 minutes of time where my only goal was to write, think, or plan.

  • Lastly, I started playing the same music every morning during my 30 minutes of writing time. I have a soundtrack playlist on Rdio. I’d put on my headphones and hit play on that playlist.

For the first several days, it was a mental workout. My mind rebelled. I literally went into inbox withdrawal. I wanted to check the inboxes and the stats. But I would keep my commitment to write for 30 minutes no matter what. If I every finished writing at 8:59am, I would wait one more minute — until it was 9:00am — before I moved on and began checking the stats and the inboxes.

It took about a week before began to get into the groove. When I’d walk into my office I knew that the first thing I was going to do was write. It didn’t matter if I wanted to or not. I was committed to write for at least half an hour.

Having that writing routine in place does more than just create the space for me to do my most important work. It also reserves my willpower and creative energy for that which matters most: doing the actual work.

When I start writing in the morning, I already know what I’m going to write about (because I choose each day’s writing assignment the day before). I also already know how long I’m going to write for (at least 30 minutes), and that I’m not going to do anything else during that time.

These days I don’t focus so much on the minimum any longer because I usually write for about 3 hours every morning. Because during that time there is literally nothing for me to think about other than moving the that big blue blinking cursor from left to right.

Doing Deep, Focused Work

Here are a few things I’ve picked up over the years as I’ve slowly transitioned from a mindset that values urgency and the inbox to one that values deep focused work…

Doing the work is always difficult. And so what matters most is a commitment to show up.

  • The first five minutes are the hardest. So just press through. And the Pomodoro technique can help — it sets a minimum that you need to write / focus for. Just 20 minutes or so. There is a LOT you can get done in 20 minutes.

  • You only have 3-4 hours max per day. So don’t push yourself beyond your limits. Get as much focused, deep work as you can and then be done for the day. Don’t get it all done today, but rather keep chipping away day after day.

  • The anticipation of interruptions is lethal. Go somewhere that you can work without distraction and without interruption. If you are expecting that at any minute you’ll get distracted or interrupted, then you avoid diving in to focus on some deep work.

  • Don’t check stuff: email, social media, etc. I don’t check these things in my office before I start my writing.

  • Avoiding Novel Stimuli throughout the day — “The Just Checks” teach us that boredom is bad. As a result, when we sit down to do focused, deep work, our brain won’t let us. We’re addicted to the incoming and the urgent. Thus it makes it difficult to do anything of substance that is not pending right now and which is not passive.

  • Don’t use busyness as a proxy for productivity — this is part of why I don’t check email, news, twitter at the start of my day nor during my writing time day. It feels like something productive, but it’s not. And as a result, I feel as if I’ve accomplished work when I haven’t actually done anything. So not only does it distract me, but it also “lets me off the hook” so to speak.

The Focus Course

I also wanted to briefly share with you guys something. I also have a sister site, The Focus Course, and we do a lot of training on this stuff.

In seasons of my life where I feel a complete lack of time, or I’m feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, or when I feel unable to keep all the areas of my life on balance, it’s easy to try and treat that. But at that point, you’re only treating the symptom and not the problem.

In the Focus Course, we have an amazing system that shows you where to direct your attention based on what the symptoms are, so you can treat the actual problem. It’s pretty amazing.

For example, if you’re feeling that your schedule is not in your control, the first step is not to fix how you’re spending your time. Rather… the first step is to re-evaluate your priorities.

That said, later this month we’re going to be doing some free training on this stuff, and I hope you’ll join us for that as well.

Get Back Hours Per Week

Discover how to improve your workflows and get more focus with this free, in-depth guide to productivity.

Download Now »