Move Beyond the Grind with Pre-Work

Have you ever felt like you’re jumping from one treadmill to the next in life? For almost the last year and a half this is how I felt everyday.

Going from the never ending grind at work to working on growing my brand on twitter. Everyday it was: work 8 hours, then reply to others, write tweets for tomorrow, consume content, work on my newsletter, workout, go to sleep, repeat.

Running in so many different directions causes cramps.

So I stopped running.

After amassing an audience of 5,500+ followers on Twitter from writing everyday for a year and a half, I just quit.

The Value Of Inaction

Let’s face it. We live in a world where productivity is expected and every second MUST be deep, focused work.

We created organizations that measure and report on invisible metrics like labor productivity, total factor productivity, capital productivity, and material productivity. Hacks and frameworks are littered across the internet that promise better time management. But, doesn’t all this just increase the speed of the treadmill?

We’ve convinced ourselves that we need to be in motion. Action is the only way to triumph or as Charlie Munger would call it Do Something Syndrome.

Most people miss the whole point. The real value in action is what you do not do.

Real productivity comes before you even begin working. It’s in the pre-work.

Pre-work is taking the time to make a conscious decision about what you work deeply on. Pre-work provides the clarity and focus you need to be productive moving forward.

Paul Graham said “I think most people have one top idea in their mind at a given time. That’s the idea their thoughts will drift towards when they’re allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved. Which means it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.”

Jumping from tasks to tasks means switching your top of mind ideas constantly. This comes from a lack of clarity on what you’re working towards. It’s your job to understand what the big picture or vision is and build towards it. When there’s too many ideas that require a certain amount of your attention you end up building in silos and bolting things together to make your work feel complete.

If you’re seeking excellence, pre-work is the only way to make your work better than average.

There’s a lot of misconception about what pre-work is. Pre-work is not mental masturbation. It’s more important than the work itself.

It’s easy to whip something up, check all the boxes, and call it done. What’s rare is giving the work the time and attention to seek out excellence.

Have you ever stopped to think Can I make this better? What would make this superior?

Taking time to slow down and think about these questions may not make the work any higher quality, but it will give you a better understanding of what your really trying to achieve.

Inaction is valuable. It provides you with the mental bandwidth to overcome obstacles, iterate on your work, and come up with ideas out of left field.

So, what exactly is pre-work?

Pre-work doesn’t just happen prior to actually doing the thing. It happens at various stages through the process. It's the work you do before you hop on the track to start running.

Pre-work is the conceptualization of the idea. Pre-work is the development of our motivation. Pre-work is the understanding of where our work fits in the world. Pre-work is the plan for execution.

When you ignore these factors you take on “debt” in one form or another.

If I ignore the pre-work and discovery during the beginning of the products development cycle our company and my team take on technical debt. The debt can have many different forms like:

Pre-work is the one part of the creative process people rush. Unknowingly they make the rest of the process harder for themselves.

The Drawdown Period

All pre-work happens during what John Boyd would call the “drawdown period”. A period of stillness and real silence. John would spend weeks with an idea after having a breakthrough. Toying with it. Testing it. Exploring it from all angles.

I quit writing on Twitter to enter a drawdown period.

Over the course of writing for a year and a half, I realized what it was I did and didn’t like to write about. Something felt off with the brand prism I had built. Things just felt bolted together to display a message.

So I took a step back and devised a new brand. I sat down to do the pre-work I neglected for too long. I had learned a lot since I first started writing. I felt it was time to work through implementing everything into something that felt more holistic.

John Boyd would begin work as soon as all possible problems were identified and the idea felt right from the pre-work he did. Once the positioning, packaging, and pitch were sorted out I knew I could return to writing on Twitter again.

3 Tips For Optimal Pre-work

Tip #1: Strategize and outline the 3Ps

It’s difficult to successfully work on something without knowing the vision for what your working on. How do you expect others to share your work when you haven’t given them the context they should share it in?

Part of the pre-work should always be outlining the 3Ps:

  1. Positioning
  2. Packaging
  3. Pitch

This will give you an understanding of where your work sit in the market, how your work looks to others, and how you market or sell the completed work. This is an iterative process that happens along your creative journey, but having a foundation matters.

Without a well thought out plan for all three of these you’re like a boat lost at sea.

Tip #2: Develop quality assurance

Always seek excellence in what you do. You should have an understanding of when your work meets the standards you’ve set. To reach above average success needs to be defined.

Max Martin subjects every song he finishes to “The Car Test”. He blares the song as he drives down the Pacific Coast Highway to see how it sounds. He wants to know how it feels. If the song enhances the experience it passes.

For me, the thought experiment I use to test my writing is what I can the “Famous Friend Test”.

In my mind, I imagine that one of my friends has become an A-list celebrity with everyone not competing for their attention. They’ve achieved everything they set out to do and spend time hanging out with their role models now. However, they’re still one of my close friends.

Then I think, “with everyone and everything competing for their attention, would they still find this interesting or valuable? Would it help them grow to the next level (even if the answer isn’t obvious)?”

If the answer is yes, I know my work is successful by my standard. It helps me to have someone in mind that I know to write to. I understand their interest and desires well.

Tip #3: Research and connect with the audience

Identify who your target audience is. Most people never really think through who they’re creating anything for. Pre-work is the perfect time to say “my offer is geared towards X” or “I’m trying to help Y”.

You can’t build something then expect people to come.

Study the competition to see who they’re serving with their work. Understand the underlying problem they’re solving for the audience. Find the gaps in the solution they’re offering.

When you start the work and don’t know who the audience is you have big problems.

Pre-work exists to make the work you do effortless. It’s there to provide guardrails so you avoid jumping from one treadmill to the next.


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