I’m thrilled that Tynan is coming to you with two things — first, he’s offering a breakthrough session through GiveGetWin. It’s geared around doing more of the kind of excellent work you want to do, becoming more internally focused with your emotions, having a more enjoyable life, building great habits, and producing a lot of value in the process. There’s five spots, so check it out now.
Second, we have this wonderful tour-de-force interview: it starts by covering how Tynan made the shift from unfocused to focused, how to derive internal enjoyment from things, useful actionable exercises you can do right now, Tynan’s method and mindset for producing creative work consistently, how to set up great habits and an excellent mental and physical work environment, and how to make blogging work and similar endeavors work for you.
Total Focus; Total Enjoyment by Tynan, as told to Sebastian Marshall
When I turned 30 and I had a minor freak out… I thought, “I’ll be 40 in not long, and then 50… there’s things I want to do in my life, and they’re not happening at this pace.”
Before that, I had a general idea of things I wanted to do and have in my life, but I went about in an unstructured way. It was good in a lot of ways. It made be a broad process, but not much depth.
But now I needed to focus and find some good rules for myself.
Every other age I’d hit meant nothing to me. When I was 16, I could drive. That was cool. But I didn’t smoke, so 18 didn’t matter, and didn’t drink, so 21 didn’t matter.
But 30 hit me. When I turned 30, I realized that I’d done a lot I wanted to do on a selfish personal level, but I wanted to make more of an impact. I’d done exploring and learning. Now, I wanted to put my head down and focus on my goals.
I started by limiting what I’d do, and finding a way to enjoy it just as much. I was always interested in doing productive things, learning, and writing. But distractions and screwing around pulled on me. I’d go to any party I got invited to, any trip I was invited to, and I’d just go mess around a lot.
I made a list of ten things I wanted to do, and I’d do only those.
This opened up my day, so there were eight hour stretches where I would only do what was on the list.
It shifted what I enjoyed. When the most enjoyable thing you do is your work, you recalibrate the need for stimulation and sense of enjoyment. What makes the day enjoyable to you changes.
Before I might count how enjoyable my day by things like, “Did I ride my motorcycle?” and “Did I hang out with my friends?” But after recalibrating, I started enjoying my work more.
It’s like when you eat sugar and crap food, broccoli doesn’t taste good. When you cut the crap, broccoli starts to taste good.
My life is equally enjoyable now as it was before, but in a different way. The pure hit of excitement for going to meet a girl or riding a motorcycle is one kind of enjoyment. Another kind of enjoyment is realizing you pushed your project really far ahead. When I push a great feature on SETT, I know it affects me, my readers, and the bloggers on SETT and all their readers.
That’s not the same huge hit of excitement, but it gives a really deep sense of enjoyment.
I still go on trips and do fun things, and I enjoy and appreciate those more now too.
It’s like this: if you watch a movie, that’s fun. But what does it leave you with afterwards? You’re back when you started. Same with eating ice cream. ‘Oooh, we’re eating ice cream, this is fun’ — but afterwards you’re back down to normal.
When you push on work, the peak of excitement doesn’t go as high as eating ice cream or watching movies, but you get a really deep sense of satisfaction during and afterwards. You become a better person in the process.
I don’t do things because they’re fun, I do things because I think they’re what I should do. But I make it fun, I make games out of it. Can I get this task done faster than last time? Can I implement this feature in lower lines of code?
Draw as much enjoyment out of dry things as possible. It’s a skill you build up. Working out is like that — it’s maybe unenjoyable to start, but after you get into it, you can see your lifts go up, your form improve, and you keep getting better.
You generate more deep enjoyment, as a byproduct of cutting out things that are pure excitement — going to nightclubs, taking drugs, eating sugar… I think they makes you lose the ability to enjoy more nuanced things.
Combine that with an attitude of, “If I can learn to generate my own enjoyment for my whole life, that’s going to help me” whereas if you always need to be a stimulating environment, life is much harder.
It’s better to generate happiness internally if you can, because it’s always under your control and the outside world isn’t. It’s similar to relationships in that way — people who always look for their self-esteem and happiness from their relationships have more ups and downs, and more neurosis, than someone who is happy internally and doesn’t rely on their partner for their emotions.
You can make a habit of this, internally generating happiness.
Keep in mind, ‘I’m going to try to enjoy this, and try to make it fun. If you’re washing dishes, look to reflect on what will make you happy from it. ‘Ah, this warm water is nice.’ Or, ‘how fast can I clean this dish?’ You can shift your mindset, and consciously try to enjoy things and make games out of things.
If you start doing this, you can enjoy things that most people find boring.
Ask, ‘Why am I doing things?’ regularly. Sometimes you’ll have an answer like, ‘because it’s my good friend, and I enjoy our time together.’ But other times, you’ll realize ‘it’s because I’m bored and just craving easy stimulation.’
Higher awareness helps a lot, then you cut out doing things for reasons you don’t want to do them.
If you want to get good at skills, get intensely curious about how things work. When you’re driven by curiosity instead of just wanting the results, getting results becomes easier.
Take the violin. I’m a terrible violinist and I don’t particularly want to be a good violinist, but I’m fascinated with it. There’s no frets on a violin, it’s all hand movement that make the sounds… it’s really interesting. So I get obsessed with it, without wanting any result, and it’s easy to play around.
Or take SETT. The process of building communities online, making tweaks, and seeing how it all relates… getting obsessed with the skill beyond wanting the outcome.
If you’ve got that obsession and internal curiosity, then you know, ‘I could figure this out if I read a lot about it and try it out a lot’… even if it’s beyond your current skill.
I think people have a natural inclination towards doing it this way when they’re born. Kids do this a lot more than adults do. As adults, we have this filter — an adult thinks, ‘I might be interested in painting…’ but then the kicks in, and we think say, ‘Ahhh, I’ll never be a real artist, I couldn’t get good at it’ and so we don’t start.
But if you just buy paint and start painting, you can explore it a little bit, see if you enjoy it, and just get started. You might then get good.
If you look at what society expects from you, it’s narrow. Get good grades, get a good job, have some kids, and enjoy passive entertainment. If you’re not really conscious of it, you never set your own expectations outside of that narrow path.
Society doesn’t expect you to be creative, you have to give yourself permission to do it.
You stop over-thinking and do it. If you give yourself enough time before you start, you can talk yourself out of absolutely anything. But if you say, ‘I’m just going to see what happens, and who cares what the results are?” you can get going and start getting momentum.
I saw a violin for $50 online, and I thought maybe I’d teach myself a song. And if I didn’t like it, I’d resell the violin for $25, and lose nothing.
I do projects in my RV, like making a metal ceiling for an RV, and so I buy tiles and see if I can do it. It gives you the confidence to tackle the next thing.
If you’re thinking of painting, go buy some cheap paints and just get started before you over-think it.
As for “getting things done,” there’s both a mental side and a physical side to it. Mentally, I spend a lot of time compared to the average person developing habits that translate into other things. Discipline by itself isn’t very useful, but if I focus on discipline it makes me better at everything for my life.
I like to learn about learning. Learning random languages that I’ll rarely speak, or how to memorize a deck of cards. I’ll learn things even if it’s not useful, because being a better learner is valuable.
Focusing your time on very universal skills, you get a framework of how to do things.
On the physical side, a lot of it comes down to minimalism for me. I used to have a huge house with lots of crap. But I found, when I took distractions out of my environment, it helped me get things done.
My RV has basically two areas — that are 2 foot by 2 foot wide. I don’t have anything here besides working things, resting things, and reading things.
I don’t play games on my phone, ever, so I don’t get tempted to do so. Forceful removal of any sort of distraction. I blocked Reddit and other websites I like that are addictive.
Big house, cars, that sort of stuff… you need to maintain them, clean them, and it takes time. When you live in a smaller space and can move quickly, it really makes life very simple and very easy to focus on one thing at a time.
I don’t get bored. Boredom is tied a lot to not being able to generate your own emotions — happiness, satisfaction, and so on. If you’re curious, you can always do interesting things.
When I’m making SETT, I look at many aspects of it — designing interfaces, if I get bored of that, I can write copy. If I get bored of that, I can talk to people on the platform. And I have other hobbies… so seeing it as multiple projects, and self-generating the emotion means there’s always something.
If you want to self-generate emotion more, there’s an excellent 30-day challenge that’s done amazing things for everyone I know that’s done it. For 30 days, find one positive thing from everything that happens to you.
Before you can control your thought patterns, you have to be aware of them. Most people aren’t, they’re quite reactive to what’s happening around them. So for 30 days, reflect on anything that happens and come up with one positive aspect of it.
When you can internally find something positive in everything that happens, it makes you happier. And happiness is the big emotion we want to generate. There’s others you might want — ambition, drive, etc — but if you can solve happiness, you’re 80% of the way there.
A similar exercise: at the end of the day, every day, write 2 or 3 things you’re grateful for. It creates a loop in yourself, where you can appreciate all the amazing things in your life. The amount of experiences you can have on even an average day are amazing.
If you can cultivate that positive awareness, it gives you a big well to draw on.
Say I’m on the train and there’s nothing to do. I’ll look around the train, and think, “How amazing is it that people figure out how to make this handle? People pull on it, it doesn’t break, it’s functional… amazing engineering…” You only have to capture a very small amount of what’s interesting in the world to have a very interesting life. You only have to capture a very small amount of the happiness in the world to be a very happy person.
Traveling helps, too. Different places and core places. I can’t even articulate how that made me a happier person, but doing a train trip through Cambodia made me realize that everyone is happy. Some of them have hard lives, but they’re happy. So I thought, “If these people can be happy, there’s no excuse for me not to be happy all that time.”
The mindset shift from traveling was subtle, I didn’t even notice it happened. After a long nine-month trip, I was able to appreciate life much more.
It’s possible to be very happy. I’m in a range of being happy close to 100% of the time. There’s days when I’m a little less motivated and I’m slogging through a little, but I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t happy. And I think these days, pretty much 100% of my emotions come internally. For 20 hours a day, I’m behind a computer working on coding and writing. If things were external, I’d be going crazy.
I think this is attainable for most people. It’s like anything. These big shifts that are valuable for the rest of your life. It’s maybe not something you can get in a day or a week or a single month, but I’ve seen friends and readers of my site gradually get to the point where you’re always happy. Start with the happiness challenge. I think anyone can do it. It’s easier for some than others, but everyone can do it.
I approach writing similarly: my rules are consistency, and ‘keep posting.’
My general rule is write every day. I don’t set a word limit. I don’t set a quality limit. I just write one blog “unit” per day. Today, my writing came out pretty bad. 400 words that weren’t very good. Somedays it’s great, and it gets 800 words of great quality. Takes about 35 minutes to do a piece of writing.
This is new for me. Before, I posted only once a week, usually on Mondays. If it was Sunday and I knew I had to post the next morning, I had less room to experiment if I needed to get something workable.
Now, I write every day and post the best two pieces per week. I experiment more. I wrote one, ‘A Letter to My Unborn Kid’, and some pieces that I’m experimenting with that’ll never get to the blog, it helps me develop as a writer.
It feels good. I’ve now got at least 100 blog posts I could post. ‘I’m blog post rich!’ The pressure is gone, so I flow a little more.
Having that buffer of pre-written work takes the pressure off, and I write about whatever I want to write. I know I don’t have to post something, but now I never have to censor myself. I can take risks. I have a lot of blog posts stored up, so I know I can take risks and write something different, and sometimes it comes out great. Ever since I built up a buffer, the comments on the quality of my work has gone up. And I don’t think it’s because I’m a better writer, it’s because I’m drawing from my full range.
If you new to it, you should know that consistency is the #1 most important thing in blogging. Once you’re established, it doesn’t matter as much. But when you’re new, people look at how much you write. If you posted once last year, once last month, and once last week, I’m less likely to subscribe. If someone is posting regularly, I’m more likely to subscribe.
When you begin blogging it’s hard, you’re not getting the feedback that makes it more fun (externally) and makes it a dynamic experience. It can be a slog, but if you do the slog it’s great.
A good way to jump in is guest posting on other people’s sites is great. That’s one thing I really wanted to make easy on SETT: for any SETT blogger, you can post in the Community Section of their site, and constantly be working on your writing and showing it to others.
Consistency will get you good. Pick how many days you’re going to write per week, pick how many days you’re going to post, and consider making the writing days higher than you posting days to build that buffer.
If you write every day and post 2 per week, and do that consistently, you’re not leaving it to chance. You’re going to be successful and build up the blog.
Building up the buffer is important, but it’s a side importance of that habit of regular writing, regular posting.
Regular writing, regular posting… most people when they start blogging, they emulate someone else. They want to blog like Sebastian or Tynan or Derek. But they’re not going to out-Sebastian Sebastian. But if you write about your real thoughts an authentic way, you’re going to click with it. You have a monopoly on being yourself. Most people who start try to hard to be someone else.
To get out of that, I think you have to write about what you’re actually doing and actually thinking. It’s a process of examining yourself, finding the thoughts that are going through your head, rather than ‘people really like to hear about X, so let me write about that’ — that’ll be more inauthentic. Higher awareness and authenticity helps you be what you’re about.
My friend started a blog, MiSol.com. He started a business, and it blew up in his face. He wrote about what went wrong, how his business didn’t work and he wound up in debt, and isn’t sure why it didn’t work. But it’s incredibly compelling, because you know it’s honest and really what he’s thinking.
What people value most is authenticity, especially in this society where this isn’t much authenticity going around. I often fall into that trap. When I’m writing, sometimes I find myself writing to make myself look smarter than I am, or more of an expert than I am… and getting away from that.
Look at Tucker Max. I don’t like the subject matter at all, getting drunk and partying and being a jerk to people sometimes, but its authentic so it can be incredibly compelling.
One thing that helps: do private writing that you know no one will ever read besides you. More of a journal entry than a blog post. It’s easier to be authentic there. Even if you never post that, it gives you a reference. “This is me being totally honest and raw, how close can I get to that with my public writing?” You can then easily see the difference.
Writing every day solves a lot of problems, too. When you write every single day, it’s hard to be phony. Moments of authenticity will strike out, and you’ll see what it could be.
I’m a big believer in two-way communication. One of the reasons I made SETT was because my blog had grown over the years, and I had something like 12,000 subscribers with a ton of common interests, but there was no great way for us to communicate with each other.
Before SETT, my blog was basically a one-way channel. Comments on blogging doesn’t work well — I’d even say it’s broken — so I’d get not many comments and especially not many engaged interesting comments.
I experimented with forums, having a forum linked on the sidebar of my site. It didn’t really work, most people never visited the forum.
Around when I hit 30, I knew I wanted to do a project that could have a huge impact on people. I thought I could build a better blogging platform. An actual way for people to have communities that are something more than a one way dialog.
People can interact with each other, and they can benefit from each other’s interests and knowledge without me having to inject myself into every aspect of every conversation.
I always felt having a blog was great for my life, but I felt there was a lot more on the table that couldn’t be accessed in terms of two-way mutual dialog.
I have a really good friend named Todd, we’ve done a lot of projects together, and he wanted to be on a big project at the same time.
So we spent maybe one day getting the rough idea down. Initial idea was make it a Blog + Forum integrated perfectly. Then we started making it.
The first version was terrible, it looked terrible, it didn’t even work.
But then we could see it, see the weaknesses and strengths. Gradually we took weak parts out, and added better parts in. We found out how it was by getting started, making the user interface, experimenting, diving in.
If you have a mix of interests like me, I think it’s important to realize that “diving in” and “sustained effort” are not the same thing.
When I first started on SETT, it was an hour here and there. Seeing the rough outline of what it could be. But I had to be honest with myself: ‘at this rate, this will never be a product people can use, this will never be a serious thing.’
You don’t always have to focus after you dabble in things. I got to the point where I could play one crappy song not he violin, and I was done.
But with SETT, I saw it was promising and I enjoyed it, and that’s when I decided to go 100% and cut everything else.
Going 100% is hard, because it requires cutting other things out that you’d like to do. For the longest time, I didn’t want to cut out other things to focus.
You absolutely have to cut if you want to give 100% to something.
My day’s full of stuff, your day is full of stuff, everybody’s day is full of stuff. You have to cut something out if you want to do more on a project you love– whether that’s sleep, social time, entertainment, other projects… you can choose what it is, but you have to cut something.
I was fed up with myself. I’d done a bunch of projects that I was 85% done, 90% done, but I never got over the top. Now, I just read books, write, have a few friends I hang out with, and work on SETT. And it’s great.
To put more in, you have to take some things out of your day. And that’s scary.
If you have a halfway decent life, it’s scary to mess up the equilibrium. You think, ‘What if I do this, and my life is worse?’ But if you never mess up the equilibrium, how will it ever get better?
Some people just want a pretty decent life. I met a guy in Shanghai, and he said: ‘I just want a girlfriend and want to watch some movies.’ That’s fine. But if you want to change the world and really get amazing at some things, you have to say, ‘I’m going to mess up that equilibrium, and take a shot, and it might be awesome.’
When I first nailed down to doing only 10 things — SETT, violin, reading, gym, writing, etc — it felt like a punishment. But I found it actually gave me a lot more freedom. It let me put a lot more force behind everything I did.
It’s like the difference between a fountain lightly spraying water in all directions, a firehouse spraying water intensely in one direction.
You optimize as you go, and your daily routine serves you better and better. It’s been liberating.
I eat the same food every day now. We have very little focused, high-quality decision making. I don’t want to waste any of that on lunch right now. If I give myself the opportunity to think of what I want for lunch, I can think of ten good options. And then I waste time thinking about it. But I don’t want to think about it, I want to think about SETT almost exclusively, to make it amazing.
Then there’s no temptation to eat a burger or chocolate cake. I buy the five ingredients I eat, and I eat tunafish.
I found personally, I do really poorly with grey areas. If I say ‘I’m going to eat very healthy’ maybe I do well, or maybe I don’t. But if I say, ‘I’m going to eat the same thing every day’ or ‘I’m going to stop eating white flour’, it’s very easy to know if I’m following it or not.
People think I have a lot of discipline, but it’s really just because I only make decisions once and then stick with it. If I had to make these decisions every single day, I probably wouldn’t be that great at it.
If you want to start on that path, I think the key to something like that is to start off really really easy. Do something that’s not even hard or unenjoyable. ‘I’m going to drink tea every day when I wake up’, or ‘Every night before I sleep, I’ll put my clothes in the laundry.’ Something so simple, a monkey could do it.
Or something like, ‘I’m going to brush my teeth immediately after closing my computer each night.’
You do that enough, and your brain starts respecting that once you make a decision, it’s going to happen. For my next trip to Japan, I wanted to learn 1000 new characters before I went. So I figured out how many flashcards I’d need to do each day before the trip to learn them, and just got into it. And something that’s hard for a lot of people, wasn’t hard for me. When you have the general structure, it’s easy to add new things on.
Most people can say ‘I’m going to do something every day’ and they stick with it a while. But once they mess it up, they give up forever. ‘I ate one French fry, now it’s done.’ This is probably the most important thing in life: as soon as you screw up once, don’t screw up again the next day.
It’s terrible if you give up after one thing going poorly. Your brain learns, ‘Ah, if he breaks the habit once, if I sabotage him once, then I don’t have to do this any more.’
Don’t let that happen. I even add in extra punishment to teach my brain ‘Don’t sabotage me.’
I see my thinking self and my brain as somewhat separate. A lot of the brain’s priorities are subconscious survival things: eat food, reproduce, take the easy route and conserve energy. Some of those are good, but I want to take the more modern conscious part of the brain and focus it towards the big goals.
Sometimes you have to fight the older parts of your brain. So you take on a punishment, to build that feedback loop. But I should add, I don’t beat myself up or feel bad. I mean, I feel okay and double down on the goal, so my brain learns that more of the thing I chickened out on, or work I didn’t do, I have to do.
In the beginning, I applied that same system to doing the programming and other parts of building SETT. But I don’t need to any more. Now SETT is what my day is. By default, 100% of my hours go to SETT. Anything else I do is cut out of that time. That’s a different shift — I don’t even need to punish myself any more. Right now, I have to write help documents, do customer support, do features, fix bugs.
SETT I’m doing because I love it. You start pushing yourself, and over time it pulls you.
It’s especially true if you care about something passionately.If you just say ‘I want to make money’ and do something you don’t like, and are never really going to like, and you’re not adding much value to the world, you’re going to need to constantly discipline yourself.
If you still have to punish and discipline yourself a few months in to something, maybe you should be doing something else.
Finding something you’re passionate about is an iterative process. Nobody is good at watercolor painting the first time. When I think about what a passion is, I ask, ‘What are the common traits the make it easy to get into flow state?’
For me, it’s doing new things that most people haven’t done, and then try to bring it in a way that helps a lot of people. I’m trying to build something brand new, and the process of looking at the past and seeing what’s most effective and gets you most engaged… Then I ask, ‘How can I make money with these skills I like?’ instead of asking, ‘Here’s a way to make money, how can I do that?’
The way it feels — when I was in school, which I hated, when there was homework I wouldn’t do well with it. I’d skip it, or do half of it and do something else.
But with SETT, I force myself to go to bed at midnight every night, and I find myself racing to get it done before midnight when I go to bed, and I can’t wait the next morning to get back into it again, and it makes me happy and I’m building something people love and find useful.
Do things for both the experience and the result, not just the result.
Tynan’s GiveGetWin deal is an intimate “breakthrough session” geared around helping you have immediately actionable major breakthroughs — learn how to do more of what you love, produce more effectively, set great habits, break bad habits that aren’t serving you, and enjoy the process.