Stop Trying

Aaron Mahnke. Aaron scares the crap out of me. Not only is he a designer, a writer, an author, a podcaster and a consultant, he’s amazing at all of his pursuits. His latest project, Frictionless along with a free manifesto and his beautiful Capture Cards (GO BUY THEM NOW) offer a vision of how we can remove the resistance that holds us back. Curious? Here’s Aaron’s secret for removing friction…Note: While I’m away this week toiling away in the desert (read: I’m working and playing in Las Vegas) I’ve asked a few friends to step in and take over for me. Today’s guest is

I want to tell you a secret. It’s a secret that most people don’t want you to know. But if you can accept it, and embrace it, you will transform your productivity. Are you ready?

Stop trying.

That’s it. That’s the big secret. What, you want me to explain it better? Fine, but first I’ll have to tell you a cute story about my kids. Because that’s how these things work, right?

If you have kids, then chances are good you have helped them get dressed once or twice. My oldest is 3, but she’s wildly independent, and so for a very long time, getting clothes on her has been quite the challenge. You see, she had this tendency to fight against me. If I can get the shirt over her head, she will inevitably try to force her head into a sleeve. Or jam her first into the armpit of her shirt and grunt with all her might.

I always do my best to guide her motions and efforts, but honestly, all that fighting just gets in the way of what I’m trying to do. She takes something that should be a one-minute task and turns it into a five-minute struggle for the fate of humanity. And do you know what I tell her? “Honey, if you would just hold still, we could get this shirt on you faster and easier.”

So now I’ll bring it back around to you. You are a busy person. Maybe you’re a parent, or a business owner, or a freelance writer trying to build a portfolio while working for The Man. And you finish each day more and more frustrated about the things that you wanted to get done, but didn’t. I’ve been there. I think we all have.

What you do the next day is also pretty typical. You work harder. You decide that today, of all the days in the history of days, you are going to swing hard and true and knock everything out of the park. You multi-task, you caffeinate, and you shut out the rest of the work to focus on all those things that you want to accomplish.

And then you fail.

All that “try harder” stuff is pretty much the same as my three year-old trying as hard as she can to pull her left shirt sleeve down over her head. All the busyness and rushing and flailing about is actually working against you. But see, now you know what to do, right?

Stop trying.

Stop. Seriously. More energy and more time and more effort will not conquer your problems. What you need is to stop, slow down, focus and remember the basics. Because there are basics to productivity, just like any science or profession has basics. And everything else is just friction.

What do you mean by “friction”, you say? Do me a favor: push your palms together as hard as you can and then move one upward and one downward. Hear that sound? Feel that resistance? That’s friction. It’s the force that stops objects from moving smoothly in the direction they want to travel.

And like those objects, you have destinations that you would like to reach. Paying the bills at the end of the month. Getting all of the items on your to-do list checked off. Painting the front porch (again). Launching a new business. Getting the grocery shopping planned and completed. Whatever your goals are, you want to reach them, right? The rub, however, is that friction stands between you and that destination (see what I did there?).

When you try too hard and multi-task and lose focus because you are rushing, those are moments when you allow friction into your process. And that friction is actually going to keep you from achieving your goals. Ask my daughter about how successful she is are getting her shirts on when she’s fighting my help and guidance. She adds friction, and that makes the goal more difficult to attain.

Stop trying.

The basics need your attention. Stick with the basics of productivity and you will eliminate the friction from your system. And get more done. So, I’ll assume you are asking another questions at this point. “What are the basics? For the love of all that is holy and decent in this world, won’t you please just tell me?!”

Sure. If you must know, there are three things that you, the Frustrated Doer of Deeds, must absolutely master before you can get rid of that friction.


I find that one of the biggest obstacles to getting things done is a failure to capture the task when I think of it. You might lay down in bed at night with a world of frustration on your chest because of all the things you did not accomplish, but the chances are good that many of those things would have been easy enough to complete had you remembered to do them in the first place.

To that end, I never leave home without a small pinch of index cards in my back pocket. I’m biased; I use the Frictionless Capture Cards because they have just enough structure to their design to help me organize my thoughts, but not enough to get in the way. Use something that will help you quickly and easily write down the tasks or ideas as they occur to you.

I use my index cards in meetings and social settings where I either need to write something down for myself, or even make a list to hand to the other person for them to take care of when they have the chance. But the key to all of this is to capture things. Capture, capture, capture.


When you have a list of thing that needs to be done scribbled out on an index card, you need to put all of those items into your main storage container. For me, it’s an app called OmniFocus, but for you it might be a notebook or one big text file. I could care less, honestly, as long as you put it all in the same place. One location, one place to reference, and no chances of missing something.

With everyone living in the same central location, you need to use that collection as a resource when you plan your day. Wait, you don’t plan your days? Shame on you. Seriously. Do you take road trips across the country without looking at a map? Do you bake cakes without using a recipe? I didn’t think so. So why would you attempt to make it through a day without planning it out?

Rant over.

Plan your day hour-by-hour. Leave room for meals and family time, but plan that day out. If one of your tasks will realistically take you 30 minutes to complete, block off 30 minutes to complete it. And then repeat that for every hour of your work day.

Doing this will show you two things. First, not everything in your master list of tasks will fit into a single day. Get over it. Do you know what’s better than failing to get 100 tasks done in a mad rush? Getting twelve done at a steady, focused pace. Planning ahead helps set our expectations, and that helps get rid of that end-of-the-day frustration.


Let’s chat about discipline. I’m not talking about spanking, in the traditional sense. I’m talking about beating your wandering mind into humble submission. Because if you don’t show it who’s the boss, it’s going to show you.

You can capture every task that ever comes across your mental desk, and you can plan each day out with military precision. But all with be for nothing if you don’t stick to the plan as the day unfolds. Disciplined focus. Disciplined effort. Disciplined priority.

Is email important for your job? Then schedule 30 of 60 minutes of it into your day when you plan out your tasks. Quit Facebook and Twitter. Shut the door or put on some headphones.

Stop Trying

You only need to do three things to beef up your productivity: capture, plan and focus. That’s it. Everything else is just friction.

And let me give you a hint: each one is more difficult than the last. It’s easy to write down ideas and action steps for projects. It’s a little bit harder to plan out a day where it all fits in and flows well. But focusing long enough to accomplish the day’s list is the hardest of all.

So work your way up. Buy some index cards and put them to daily use. Collect those tasks in a central location, and then use that master list to plan each day. No more all-nighters or third pots of coffee. Capture, plan and focus.

It’s a mantra that is core to true productivity. And it’s the path to a frictionless life.

Check out Aaron’s latest project, Frictionless and follow him on Twitter.

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