Productivity/Creative “Contultants” v “Practitioners” 

So, about 4 years ago I discovered this whole genre of life and learning called, “Productivity.” Among many others, the field includes books like Getting Things Done, along with authors and podcasters like Merlin Mann, Todd Henry, and Scott Belsky. You can learn about it on websites like and Essentially the field is about efficiency and creativity: getting your best work out to people with consistency, excellence, and a degree of interest.

However, more recently I’ve noticed an interesting trend: basically I think the field is dividing into two types of thought leaders: those who write about creativity and productivity, and (2) those who have actually done something creative. 

I don’t want to name names, but I was listening to a productivity/creativity podcast months ago when it occurred to me that the person was basically a productivity expert because, well, he was a productivity expert. 

In other words, he hadn’t really created anything, except more information about being productive.

There were no stories about being “in the trenches” of productivity: He hadn’t written a screenplay, completed a record, led a company or team that was constructing (and delivering) a tangible product.

He was a creative/productivity “consultant”.

… And frankly, I wasn’t that interested.

For this current season of my life, I find myself drawn to people who are practicing creativity and productivity, not merely writing about it. To my mind, they have more to say about the blood and guts part of “getting things done”, like:

* inspiring people over the long-term

* creating a signature style in the midst of a corporate culture

* navigating the scarcity of resources (human and otherwise)

* the pressure of constantly having to come up with “the next big idea”

The list of productivity voices gets a lot shorter when you look for people who are actually getting work done, rather than merely posting about creative theory and interesting life hacks.

In fact, I’m going to recommend starting with a list of three people. These folks have done the work over the long haul, therefore (in my opinion) they have an authority and wisdom that comes from a slightly deeper place.

  1. James Victore is a NYC-based artist/designer who has been creating posters and visual art since the 90s. His work is provocative and engaging. His YouTube series, “Burning Questions“, answers some of the basic levels of creativity, and does it from the perspective of a guy who has actually done it (he does a year-end reading list, which I love). I’d encourage you to subscribe. (He’s also quite funny.)
  2. I’ve written about Twyla Tharp before: she is an award-winning, acclaimed choreographer and dancer (who also lives in New York City). Her book The Creative Habit is simply one of the most interesting and thorough works on how to be creative “in the real world”. It is full of lists and suggests (yay!), as well as stories of how this stuff has born itself out in Tharp’s life. She’s done it for a long time, and she speaks with the voice who has seen it all. If you do any type of vital work in the world—leading people, creating, or simply envisioning change and a future that may or may not exist yet—and haven’t read The Creative Habit, you really owe it to yourself to pick it up and read it. Quickly.
  3. The last name is this list is also a heavy weight. Steven Pressfield is an author and screenwriter, most notable (perhaps) for The Legend of Bagger Vance, starring Matt Damon, Will Smith and Charlize Theron. He’s also published more than half-a-dozen works of historical fiction. However, in 2002 he published a little (relatively) book called The War of Art that has proven to be a game-changing work for many of us artists, creatives, and folks that just need to get stuff done. Pressfield writes with a directness, vulnerability, and authority that is seldom seen. It’s both practical and conceptual, and is worth reading repeatedly (once a year maybe?)

In my opinion, these three people are great places to start if you want to be challenged about productivity and creativity from people who are actually doing it. They are not consultants; they have seen the battles, and slogged through the frustrations and disappointments of trying to bring something to the world that is new, refreshing and effective.

The “DTR” Conversation

So, as I’ve been doing my annual “re-evaluate and re-assess time”, it occurred to me that I need to seriously take a look at my iPhone: how I use it and (more specifically) how I allow it to interrupt and intervene in my daily life.

I thought the best way to do it would be to write a DTR note to it.

Hey …

So look: I have to talk to you…

I know I’ve been really busy lately; not as busy as some people, but busy in my own right: Christmas, gigs, meetings, reading, recording, writing, etc.

I really want to thank you for tagging along for all of that, and for doing it without complaining (though I know you get really run down during all of the running around: like 80% run down).

But I’ve been thinking a lot about, well, you and me.

I think we need to talk.

You need to know this is about me, not you. Even though you’re only a 4s, you’ve been more than reliable, holding all of my music (well, iTunes Match does, anyway) and all the apps I could ever need or use. You tell me when I need to be somewhere, plus help me get there (well, mostly; can we talk about Apple Maps?). You help me maintain some level of effectiveness and organization (OmniFocus, Evernote). For all of this I am really and truly grateful…

But I’m changing.

I’ll just be blunt: I need you to be little more quiet during the day.

I hope it doesn’t hurt you too much to hear that.

It’s not that I don’t like or appreciate your great colors; your functionality; your cute alerts and badges and notifications. They’re really great.

It’s just that, well, I realize that a lot of what you have to say can wait. 

Recently I’ve become aware that you don’t have much of a filter: whether I’m in a meeting or doing research, meditating or having dinner, you have this way of demanding my attention: “Look at me! There’s something important happening on Twitter!

… and in your email!

… and on Facebook!

… and in the NFL!

… and English Premier League and German Bundesliga!”

… and on and on and on.

Understand that I’m not saying our relationship is over. I’m in this for the long haul (or until my next upgrade, but shhhhhhhhhhh baby it’s okay…).

But things have to change: For one, I’m silencing a lot of your notifications. I just really don’t need to know all these things RIGHT THIS MINUTE. I’ll keep the info apps on the phone, and just launch them when I have a few minutes and want to know what’s going on.

But also, you’ll have to become content with not being present at all my meetings. Sometimes, you’ll be left in the car or at home. Not because I’m ashamed of you in some way, but simply because a lot of what you have to say can wait. It’s actually not really urgent or an emergency, in the grand scheme of things, and frankly there are things happening in my life that I simply want and need to pay attention to in the moment. I want to be be  able to give more of me to the events, people, and activities that deserve them.

And sometimes you just simply distract me.

I don’t blame you; you don’t really know any better.

But it’s time that I take a little bit of control back in this relationship.

Five (and a half) Resources to Boost Your Creativity (especially you, pastor)

Creativity Resources

Creativity Resources

If you know me at all, you’d know that I think more creativity in any field is a good thing, especially ministry. Creativity unlocks new approaches and new ideas, as well as improves existing ones. It’s almost an issue of stewardship, since it involves (I believe) reaching the full potential of our resources.

Seth Godin writes in Linchpin that we should approach our daily work like it’s a treasure: “It’s our one and only chance to do something productive today… A days’ work is your chance to do art, to create a gift, to do something that matters.”

Now, Seth Godin didn’t write any of the Gospels in my Bible, but there is some wisdom in this. Any vocation can benefit from additional vision and creativity, including ministry, whether in discipleship conversations, preaching, or even arranging our schedule.

Here are a few resources that can jump-start your creative journey.

  1. Sometimes we get bogged down with solving the same problems with the same solutions (which isn’t really solving them at all, is it?). Thinkertoys, by Michael Michalko, is a collection of creative brain exercises to help you examine problems and opportunities from radically different perspectives. The exercises will seem odd and counter-intuitive, but they bear much fruit over the long run.
  2. Are you bringing your best energy to the most important part of your day? Manage Your Day-to-Day is a collection of short essays and articles from business and thought leaders (including Seth). It’s a very hands-on, “tactical” book that can help you reevaluate how you are spending your time. The chapters are short enough to read in 10 minutes, and they include summer pages and key takeaways. This book is really, really critical to putting all of the theory into action.
  3. I think everyone should have a collection of poetry nearby. This may be a little out there, but poetry engages a different part of our brain than prose, and in order to bring all of our resources to bear on our challenges, we should be willing to stretch our creative muscles (i.e., our brains) a little. I picked up an anthology of works by Rumi, who is a widely respected Persian poet and mystic from the 13th century. I read 3 or 4 poems a week, always out loud (the way poetry is meant to be read), just treasuring the way the words are strung together. (Note: you don’t have to understand poetry it to benefit from it.)
  4. These two works are combined into one resource: PresentationZen and The Naked Presenter, both by Garr Reynolds, are invaluable works on public speaking or “presenting” (read: “Preaching”). The quality of our message—whatever that message is—is repeatedly compromised by our inabilities to clearly and effectively communicate it. What’s more, our tendency is to add more— more slides, more images, more bells and whistles (animations? ugh)—when a better approach would be to take away. Clear the deck, so to speak. Provide space. Clarity. Reynolds ruthlessly shows how to arrange thoughts and information in ways that shout by whispering.
  1. Lastly, I present the lowly Moleskine sketch book. Early on when I began preaching, I instinctively began using sketches (as opposed to
    Moleskine // Jonah Sketch

    Moleskine // Jonah Sketch

    outlines) to develop my thoughts. As Mind Mapping has shown, our brain doesn’t work linearly, it works through “webs”, and to the degree that we try to visualize our problems with an outline or some other “linear” display, we are actually working against our minds. My sketchbook allows me to work with the brain’s natural tendencies, rather than against them. The next time you are trying to map a project or construct a talk, try sketching the ideas first, rather than outlining them. (Obviously, a nice white board works well too.)

These are just a few tools and tricks that help me approach my work from a more creative space. If you have any others, feel free to share them here.




Weapons of Mass Production :: The “135 Principle”

You should see my “To Do” list…

Currently, it runs 11 pages.

This is not a source of pride for me; it’s simply a picture of what my priorities are.

I don’t know how long your list is, but let me as you this…

How many things do you try to accomplish on a given day? 

One of the things I’ve realized lately is that there’s a serious disconnect between what I think I can accomplish on a given day (given an 11 page long “To Do” list) and what I actually can accomplish. I used to wake up and be determined to make some serious dents in that list, but over and over again, I’d end up at the end of the day frustrated and discouraged, because the list just seemed to actually get longer not shorter. It was pretty demotivating.

vsco_0What if the problem is not with my work ethic, but with my expectations? Would it not feel more motivational if I actually was clear (and reasonable) with what I wanted to get done?-

I’ve been trying to re-frame my thinking about my daily productivity, based on something that I’m simply calling the “135 Principle.”

It’s based on the premise that in a given day, you can really only accomplish one really big goal, three medium-sized goals, and five small goals. 

  • The “1” could be that very significant, highly creative project you’re working on that needs the best of you over multiple hours. It’s the centerpiece of your day, the “mission” of that day.
  • The “3” could stand for the thirty-minute standing conversation you need to have with a co-worker regarding an upcoming meeting or event. It could be the set of instructions you need to write up, or the recap conversation or email you need to craft.
  • The “5” could represent phone calls or informational emails; things that are still proactive, but not necessarily time- or resource-intensive.

Sophisticated language, I know, but this was significant because I realized that I’d actually been operating in something like a 5-8-15 paradigm, and there simply is not enough time to do those things. 

And when we “fail”, over and over again, to accomplish things, most of us stop referring to our lists, because we become subtly aware that they don’t mean anything. When you constantly feel like you are unable to accomplish your list, a trigger starts to go off in your brain to avoid it. It’s a drain; it’s a sign of failure.

What something like the “135 Principle” can do is to help you manage your expectations and complete your tasks on a given day, which can give you a minor sense of accomplishment and some motivation to get up and accomplish the next day’s tasks.


It’s about momentum.


NEXT WEEK: I’m starting a new series on Jesus (surprise!) Stay tuned!





Actually, Cover Bands DO Change the World…

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

One of the great slogans in the Seth Godin/Linchpin world (which I actually enjoy poking around in) is, “Cover bands don’t change the world.”

It’s a call to be unique to seek to strike out to do something bold and new in the world, to be disruptive, to reach for something that’s never been done.

It’s also obviously a bit of a slap in the face to anyone who may be a feeling slightly more conservative or iterative. Folks who are not as “disruptive.”

(It’s also an insult to cover bands, but who’s counting?)

As usual, the truth behind the slogan is a bit more cloudy, because in a sense cover bands have changed the world, and actually continue to do so, primarily because many of the most iconic and world-changing bands in rock history started out as cover bands.

Beatles? Cover band.

Stones? Covered blues.

The Who? They called their versions of Motown songs they covered, “Maximum R&B”.

The Band? Started out playing rockabilly covers in honkey tonks all over the midwest.

James Brown? yup.

(Now, I get that these artists are all “old guy” bands, but I’m taking the approach that the verdict is still out on how much Arcade Fire, The National, Coldplay, etc. are going to change rock and roll. That being said, I know the Black Keys at least know blues really deeply, and I’ve heard at least a couple covers from them.)

Now,I get what Seth is saying: you really do need to find your own unique voice. But here’s the deal: all these artists who later changed the world were cover artists for a significant and formative time in their career.

So what’s the point? Well, I’m not just being contrarian. Being in a cover band has its advantages, and in fact provides critical experience for working your craft.

Because when you’re in a cover band, you get to learn

You get to learn what makes a great song…

You get to learn how to work in a group with others…

You get to learn how to work a crowd…

What gear works in a bar, versus in your bedroom…

What outfit looks ridiculous on you…

Don’t get me wrong: aspiring to something great is absolutely critical and something to be encouraged.

But before you change the world you might want to be good at your craft. Lots of bands start out wanting to change the world, but their ambition greatly (and almost tragically) outstrips their ability.

So maybe you’re in a “cover band” right now…

… Maybe the organization you’re in isn’t as wildly creative as you’d like;

… Maybe the position you’re in isn’t the perfect fit;

… Maybe your platform isn’t in front of the “right people” yet.

If this is the case, than here’s what you do:

  • You get better. 
  • You dig in and learn. 
  • You figure out how to with others (particularly a drummer who doesn’t keep time well and a singer who doesn’t always sing on pitch).
  • You learn what “excellence” looks and feels (tastes and sounds?) like. 

Your “cover band moments” are not wasted. They can be the crucible, the workshop that helps you develop and hone your craft for the moment when the world comes calling, and needs you to give something to it.

… Now go practice.


The Second Shot ALWAYS Comes

I was listening to the Fresh Air interview with Ben Affleck (it’s really good, IMO), and he was talking about some advice he received as a first-time/inexperienced movie director. Early in his career, he was told, “Know what your second shot will be.”

Affleck explains that a first-time director always knows what his first shot on a movie set will be; in order to avoid looking like a fool, you map it out, you agonize over the details, you go over everything in your head so you can gain the amount of respect and collateral that you will need to complete the film.

However, as Affleck explains, the first shot gets over pretty quick, and it’s at that point that everyone turns to you and says, “Well, what now?”


I believe that this is where a lot of us get hung up. When we are starting something new—a recording project, a teaching series, mentoring someone. We focus tremendous amounts of creative time and energy into the first meeting, the first writing session, the first song, etc., but then something remarkable and troubling happens.

The second meeting/song/Sunday comes rolling around.

And we are shocked, and then sent scrambling to try and write and prepare and execute.

Whenever we start a new project, put some muscle behind what is going to come second as well.

(Incidentally, this is also helpful to remember whenever someone asks you to get involved in a project or movement… There’s always a second shot/meeting/song/gig. Oftentimes, we have the resources—time, energy, ideas, etc.—for the first meeting, but before you become involved you should ask yourself, “WHEN this project continues, will I have the capacity to remain committed? Do I have the resources to help with the ‘second shot’?” 


Do All The Work in Your Head

I was watching the finale of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, where they were in Brooklyn, NY.

Anthony ended up at Brooklyn Fare, which looked like one of the most unique restaurant experiences I’ve seen in a long time.

Mostly, because there are only 18 seats.

At one point, Anthony Bourdain looks at his friend Eric Ripert and says, “All the hard work for this took place in the chef’s head.”

Amazing food; 18 seats.

They know how many portions to produce, and when to serve them. Some of the biggest variables in the restaurant business, handled immediately.

In the chef’s head.

Way ahead of time.

Sometimes, when you want to do something amazing, the best way to start is in your head. 

  • What variables can you control?
  • What waste can you eliminate?

If you know ahead of time precisely how you will shape the experience, you can get about the substance of what you want to create: in Brooklyn Fare’s case it’s the food, but it can be anything…

  • the book
  • the worship gathering
  • the melody
  • the life

Control what you can control, so you’re free to delight people.