How to stop wasting time and focus on building a profitable skill


Over the last few months, I’ve been unhappy with my skill development. I have lots of interests and passions. And while I work around 50 hours a week and have a satisfying career, I always have that nagging feeling of things I’m not accomplishing.

For example, there is a course I really want to take. This course is advanced and I know will help my career. But it requires me to invest a few nights per week, so I put it off. Yet, every month I delay I still think about that course, wonder what I would have learned, and feel like I need to sign-up.

Here is what I believe essential to happiness at work and the things I think I can do to feel more satisfied and fulfilled.

Complete mastery of a single craft

Humans desire to be productive.

But being productive isn’t the same as being busy, reading websites, or developing six different talents.

Accomplishment is a reflective activity. You get a sense of pleasure from looking down the mountain, seeing how far all those tiny steps in the past have brought you to this high point.

This is why focus and mastery are more satisfying than being busy.

I can hack together websites.

I can write alright non-fiction.

I’m a decent guitar player.

I’m a decent copywriter.

I’m pretty knowledgeable about digital marketing.

If I go forward like this, in five years, I will be slightly better at all of those things. I don’t believe being OK at 10 different things will make me happy, rich, or always employed.

This evening, I spent my free time tinkering with a website, creating a Facebook ad campaign for a friend, reading a few blog posts, and writing this post.

After I was finished, I felt no satisfaction from any of those activities.

This is due I think to a lack of focus. The activities I did tonight are not related to my core goals in life. Whenever I’m not working on my core goals, I’m not satisfied in work.

Mastery is your passion

I believe every individual is very flexible.

I don’t believe that your innate passion is to only study French Philosophy. Rather, you have an analytical mind and searching for those big principles and realizing that you can swim with the big thinkers is what gives you pleasure from French Philosophy.

To that point, I also believe, then, you could equally get the same satisfaction from a different activity. For example, analyzing stock markets.

The deeper you know a subject, the more you love it. This means that your passion is really the sense of accomplishment you get from completely mastering a skill, whether that be understanding Python or training German Shepherds.

So to be happy you need to regularly exercise your passion, which I believe, is related to mastery of both practical skill and abstract education.

This means that you need a career that requires you to master an extremely complex field of knowledge.

I can’t prove this. But I believe careers with large knowledge bases and complex skill development give you a greater sense of job satisfaction. Example, architects versus tech support. Surgeons versus line cooks.

Mastery does end

At some point, you might change directions. You might give up your desire to be the world’s best literary theorist and decide to become the world’s best chef.

Switching directions is fine, I think. So long as you aim for mastery in a new skill.

This is where goals help to put an end to your journey.

One day, I met my old professor in a drug store. He was buying a card for someone’s birthday. This man was one of Canada’s top scholars and had published over 30 scholarly works. I asked him about his new book coming out. The nice part about getting old is that you become more honest.

He said, “I’m in the last quarter of my life and the thrill of seeing my name in print has gotten old to me. It just feels like work. This will be my last book.”

He reached his goal.

Will he leave the earth with existential satisfaction? I don’t know. But I think he can look back and know that he didn’t waste time. He lived a focused life and was able to achieve what he wanted.

How to divide your time

This is a rule for myself. Like I said, I like to work after work. My day job pays the bills, but I also have other goals. So, I sit down with coffee, open my computer, and it goes wrong. I read a few industry blog posts, maybe write a blog post.

At the end, time has passed. What have I really done?

This is the rule.

First, remember your primary skill

Choose one core skill. This is your focus. Go narrow. For example, “I’m going to be the best PR consultant for local businesses in the world.”

If you don’t pick a single focus, you won’t know when you are wasting time. For example, “well I also want to be a concert pianist one day, so reading music blogs is a good way to spend the night.”

In a follow up post, I’m going to look at core skills versus hobbies (which are important also), but I think you get more satisfaction from being fucking awesome at something than mediocre at 10 things.

Now, devote 20% of your time to learn the WHY

Spend 20% of your time (the time you want to invest in yourself) on philosophical mastery.

Principles matter. Principles frame tactics. You need to read books, read blog posts, and develop outside knowledge you can apply in practice.

The other 20% of your time — learn the HOW

Spend this on technical knowledge. Read the shit that bores you. If you are a musician, learn your modalities and stop saying “oh I learn by ear.” If you are a digital marketer like me, learn the technical aspects of how tracking works, how XML feeds work, the basics of coding.

There is nothing sadder than someone without the discipline to learn the technical aspects of their craft. There is also no excuse and in my own life, I can say that my disregard is simply laziness.

Your mastery is never respected unless you also know the technical aspects of your discipline.

Finally spend the rest of your time . . .

The rest is simply doing your craft. When in doubt, put time here. If you come home from work and feel like you want to invest in yourself, actually do your craft instead of reading about it.

Doing your craft is actually where you will feel the happiest and most fulfilled because you are actually doing what you always talk about. You aren’t reading. Or planning for the future. You are doing it.

As mentioned, this is a personal exercise I’m sharing. Next, I’ll share my skill development and 1-year goal roadmap. I’m not sure when I’ll publish this, though.


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