Bestselling Author John Zeratsky On Living Distraction-Free, The Workspace Most People Undervalue, And Playing Offense With Your Work

Who: John Zeratsky

Claim To Fame: John Zeratsky is a veteran technology designer, keynote speaker, and the bestselling author of Sprint and Make Time. He has worked with more than 200 of the world’s most important and innovative organizations, including Google, Harvard University, Slack, IDEO, and Netflix.

Where To Find John: His WebsiteAmazon, Twitter

Praise For John: “Every business leader I know worries about the same thing: Are we moving fast enough? The genius of Sprint is its step-by-step breakdown of what it takes to solve big problems and do work that matters with speed and urgency. A sprint is a cure for what ails companies in an ever faster world.” —Beth Comstock, vice chair of GE

When do you like to write? Are you regimented about your writing routine?

I write in the mornings. That’s when I have my best creative energy, but it’s also when I have my best shot at avoiding distraction and staying focused for several hours. Every day—but especially when I’m writing—I try to wake up with a clear purpose, avoid the “morning check-in,” keep my phone stowed, and immediately get to work. I’m playing defense against the interruptions of the outside world, but I’m also playing offense by focusing on my writing goal for the day. It doesn’t always work, but this routine always sets me up for success.

Where do you like to write? What does your ideal work environment look like?

I have deliberately established defaults, habits, and mindsets that allow me to be productive anywhere. I think most people overvalue their physical workspace and undervalue the workspace inside their heads. When I’m at home (pretty much all the time due to the COVID-19 pandemic) I switch between the dining room table and a standing desk with external monitor. When I’m traveling,  I’ll grab space wherever I can find it. As long as I’m motivated by a clear sense of mission and purpose, and not distracted by Infinity Pools, I find that I can write well anywhere.

Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits before you sit down to write?

Sometimes I feel like most of my writing takes place before I sit down at the computer. By the time I get to that stage, I’m mostly just typing things up! I’m joking, of course. Well, half-joking anyway. I take tons of notes on my phone throughout the days and nights. I take notes when I’m walking, exercising, cleaning the dishes, waiting in line, or trying to fall asleep. I start with little notes and build up to outlines and sentences and paragraphs before I ever sit down at the computer. I am a big believer in the power of passive thought, especially when you live distraction-free with plenty of space in your days, but this approach also makes it much easier to get started: You’re not WRITING, you’re just taking some notes.

What do you do when the writing isn’t coming easy? Do you struggle at all with that dreaded enemy of writing: writer’s block?

The strategy of starting small (which I described above) helps me avoid writer’s block, because I’ve already done a bunch of the thinking work. But when I do feel stuck, I take a break. And I’m not talking about a break to check Twitter. I’m talking about a real break that provides rest for both mind and body: standing up, walking around, looking out the window, doing some menial chores, stuff like that. If I’m still stuck after several breaks, I’ll sometimes give up on writing for that day and shift my attention to another project.

In all your research and writing on making time, prioritization, and productivity, what have been the greatest insights you’ve applied to your writing routine?

[*] Choose a daily Highlight. The single activity or task that deserves your best energy and attention. When I’m in writing mode, I always choose a Highlight that’s related to whatever I’m working on. It helps me structure my time and energy around the work that matters most that day.

[*] Go distraction-free by uninstalling apps and logging out of websites. Removing the temptation—and ability—to check email, social media, the news, etc is amazingly powerful. I got this idea from my friend Jake Knapp back in 2012, and I was skeptical that it’d make a difference. But it really does, and now it’s been one of my essential tactics since then.

[*] Schedule everything. When you make a plan for your day and put it on the calendar, you’re more likely to do the things you say and less likely to get distracted. You’re also forced to confront the tradeoffs in how you spend your time. Too many people set a goal, fail to schedule the work required, and then beat themselves up for not making it happen! Honest, detailed, daily scheduling is the secret.

[*] Take care of your body. There are SO many things we do—from sitting all day, to constant snacking, to sleeping with smartphones—that take away from our ability to do our best writing. I’ve done them all, and I’ve seen the benefits from changing these habits. Taking care of your whole body is a daily investment that pays huge dividends in the quality and quantity of your work.

Along with books, you contribute places like The Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review. Does your writing routine change at all when you’re writing a book versus when you’re writing an article? Is there any change in routine depending on what publication you’re writing an article for?

The biggest change to routine is that, when I’m working on something longer, I know I need to schedule sequential blocks of focused time. In our book Make Time, we call this a “personal sprint”—choosing a string of daily Highlights that are all related to the same goal—and it works really well for building momentum on those bigger projects

All of your work is meticulously researched. What is your method for researching and organizing material you might want to use for your future writing?

I read a lot—about 30 books a year and who knows how many articles—and I’m always saving snippets that seem useful or interesting. I don’t have a great system. I use the highlighting features in Kindle and Pocket, and I use an actual highlighter in physical books. If I know where a given reference is going to be useful, I’ll put it in a note on my phone for that project

What books or writers have most influenced the way you think and the way you write?

I know it’s a cliche, but Ernest Hemingway is probably the single biggest influence on my writing style. There are many others:

[*] Business: Charles Duhigg, Chip & Dan Heath, Jason Fried

[*] Money and life: Vicki Robin, Pete Adeney, Tanja Hester

[*] Creativity and work: Steve Pressfield, Ryan Holiday, Annie Dillard, Cal Newport

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

There has never been a better time to be a writer, because we have so many ways of exploring, developing, testing, and publishing our work today. But there’s also never been a harder time to be a writer, because many traditional channels have been disrupted. Plus, we’re all super distracted all the time, so it’s hard to do great work.

My advice: Play offense with your work and defense against distractions. Start small. Test your work. Ask for feedback. Don’t take it personally. But most of all, be clear in what you want to say and why—if you get that part right, the rest of it doesn’t matter.


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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

The post A Plague of Giants appeared first on Elitist Book Reviews.

The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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