2×4: One series that examines two topics, creativity and productivity, by asking those who make things on the web the same four questions on both subjects.
When you are just getting interested in a subject, you start with the big names. You seek out the luminaries whose names people would recognize even if they couldn’t care less about a particular niche. When it comes to the productivity space, I’m talking about guys like David Allen’s, Steven Covey’s and Merlin Mann (or maybe that’s just me who is obsessed with him. Well, me and Yuvi anyhow).
Then you dig deeper and discover that next, slightly more specialized tier of thought-leaders who are killing it in their space. They are well known and well respected by those who are passionate about the subject, but perhaps haven’t been at it as long or for one reason or another haven’t been discovered by humanity at large. Yet they offer up solid gold with every post. There are few who exemplify this in the productivity space (especially the Mac side of it) more than Eddie Smith of Practically Efficient.
Eddie has a simple, yet excellent goal. He wants to “reduce complexity to simplicity through a balance of creativity and practicality.” Like yours truly, he believes that the Mac is the venue through which this is most likely to happen and he creates a ton of actionable content to help you get there. Beyond the tips and tricks, Eddie spends a lot of time examining what it takes to be productive and has an exceptionally measured approach to what us mere mortals can and cannot do. He understands that perfection isn’t a likely reality. He also surrounds himself in excellent company and has turned me on to amazing folks like fellow 2×4 participant Yuvi Zalkow and mad genius Brett Terpstra.
Without any further ado, here is a look inside the creative and productive mind of Eddie Smith:
Have you always considered yourself to be a creative person?
I think that everyone is creative in their own way, so in that sense, yes. I enjoy the challenge of new problems and being the “buck stops here” guy. Solving difficult problems—whether in insurance and finance or from a personal productivity standpoint—is what really gets me going.
I especially like trying to find connections in places that others have overlooked. That’s what makes problem-solving work fun to me. Anyone who works in any field of knowledge should understand that we’re in a creative economy now. Most of the goods and services we make as knowledge workers are imaginary, so let your imagination run wild.
What mediums and inspirations do you gravitate toward to realize your creative goals?
I love finding things that help me get lost in work so that I’m not thinking in terms of work; I’m just doing. Listening to music, regularly changing scenery / work location, and using well-designed tools are all sure bets. It also helps to find interesting things to work on.
If you had to point to one thing, what specific posts or creations are you most proud of and why?
I wish I could give you a simple answer. I think of all the creative milestones I’ve passed, I would say that simply creating and regularly writing for my site, Practically Efficient, has been the most rewarding.
I view the whole thing as a single body of work. It’s made up of posts that in hindsight look embarrassingly awful to me, personal favorites with virtually no page views, and unexpected hits that resonated with thousands of people.
While it’s fun to get paid real money for my work as an actuary, the feeling of creating something that helps or affects thousands of people is gratifying on a much deeper level.
I also believe that investing time in things that don’t yield immediate, tangible compensation is healthy. It’s a useful contrarian mindset in a world that’s been trained to believe that everything should yield immediate gratification.
The friendships I’ve made through Practically Efficient and the possibilities it has unlocked for me in other areas of my life constitute a pretty healthy ROI for the time I’ve put in it.
Any suggestions for those who feel they may not be creative take to unlock their inner artist?
Do what you love, and don’t worry about how viral it becomes. Learn to find success in niches and overlooked places. Admire, but don’t be distracted by people who’ve had mainstream success.
Ignore anyone that gives you a template for success like “write every day” or “post a minimum of five times a week”. The less you attempt to mechanize and regiment your passions, the farther they’ll take you.
Productivity can only be driven by rules and money for short periods of time. It takes true passion to keep doing something.
Can you describe your current personal and professional responsibilities?
I’m a father of the most awesome five-month-old boy in the world, and I’m married to the best woman a guy could ever hope for. I’m an actuary that works in and out of the corporate headquarters of a life insurance company, where I build and run ginormous models of asset and liability portfolios.
I instruct actuarial exam seminars with a company called The Infinite Actuary. I’m the chair of the Society of Actuaries Technology Section, and I do other volunteer work within my profession.
How do you go about balancing the personal, professional and digital?
OmniFocus—more generally, GTD—helps a lot. I have hundreds and hundreds of actions spread over my various projects. Being a parent has made me even more aware of the need to balance my personal and professional life.
I review everything in OmniFocus on a regular basis and make decisions about what’s most important right now. I’m not perfect at it, but family loves me, my employers and clients like me, and I like what I’m doing—so something is working.
What tools and techniques do you find yourself counting on to get through your workload?
It would be crazy to list every software tool that I touch over the course of a week, but honestly, I think the most important piece of hardware is my iPhone. I see it as the common bridge across all of my pursuits. Maybe that sounds melodramatic or fanboyish, but I think it’s impossible to overstate the value of a tool that works so well and keeps me connected to nearly every person and facet of my life that I care about.
What is the best starting point for the unproductive amongst us, who are looking to get more organized?
I’ve found that the only piece of general advice that makes sense is this: figure out a way to have fun being organized. Find a system that’s fun to use. I think people downplay the importance of having fun with anything related to work or being adult. That’s what this is really about anyway: being a grownup, being the boss in your life, and being responsible for yourself and your actions.
It doesn’t have to be a chore. When you evaluate a new system, try to figure out whether you’ll enjoy using it a year from now. Life is ridiculously short, so have fun in every aspect possible.