The only way to reach your targets in life is to get to work. But it’s easier said than done. Only a fraction of people in life are actively working towards their goals. They know how to create and use the right tools and processes to generate progress for themselves. A lot of these people have a ton of interesting things to say. So I thought I’d interview them.
Most of my weekly guests created their own business, and they got where they are today by successfully implementing self-discipline in their life. To each one of them, I ask questions about their life, their learnings, their tools, and sometimes about which celebrity they would like to have coffee with.
There are no rules for success, only consistency in the work you do. None of the people I interviewed are super-humans. They’re just dedicated, and they have a lot of awesome things to teach us.
Let’s get to it.
This week, my guest is Nicolas Cole. Nicolas is the founder of Digital Press, a content marketing agency that turns founders, executives, and entrepreneurs into world-renowned thought leaders. As an author, Cole is a 4x Top Writer on Quora and Top 30 Columnist for Inc Magazine with over 50 million views on his work. His writing has appeared in TIME, Forbes, Fortune, Business Insider, CNBC, The Chicago Tribune, and more. You can find out more about him and his work at www.nicolascole.com.
What is the number one habit/routine you attribute the most success to in your life (online and/or offline)?
The most tangible answer would be the habit of writing. Starting back in 2014, writing every single day on Quora fundamentally changed my entire life. Quora led to my work being republished by dozens of publications, led to me getting my own Inc column, led to me ghostwriting for a handful of executives, led to me being able to leave my job as a copywriter and go all-in on freelance writing, led to me starting my own company, Digital Press, etc. etc. etc.
All of those big milestones were the result of practicing my craft and just writing, day in and day out.
What is the number one productivity item you can’t live without?
To be honest, I’m not big into apps, widgets, tools and tricks to “get more done in less time.” I have a laptop, an iPhone and I religiously practice putting technology away to focus. I tell this story all the time: when I graduated from college and first set out to become a professional writer, I really wanted to finish my first book, called Confessions of a Teenage Gamer.
I was so afraid that technology would distract me from my goal that I deprived myself of internet for 4 years in order to force myself to write. I knew after working 10 hours a day at an advertising agency, I would want to come home and waste the rest of the night away watching YouTube videos, so I removed the option entirely. I literally did not own internet in my studio apartment from the ages of 22 to 26.
Once I published my book (which was the same day I quit my job and was able to go all-in on writing), I called up Comcast and installed internet. That was my reward for not only finishing my first book, but writing hundreds of articles online and getting to a point where I could do what I loved for the rest of my life.
The One Book you recommend for self-improvement and/or productivity?
The first book I read that changed how I thought about personal development was Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. I highly recommend it.
You’re your own boss on different projects. How do you manage your time between your “personal” medium posts, your company Digital Press, and your private life?
It’s very hard. Entrepreneurship blurs the lines between work life and personal life. Over the past 3 years, I’ve had to come up with my own techniques in order to help me separate. A few are:
- I don’t respond to any client-related emails (unless absolute emergencies) after 6pm.
- I wake up early and work a full day, but once early evening sets in, I don’t allow myself to work on anything that would be considered “work.” Evenings are my time to go to the gym, cook dinner with my girlfriend, write and work my own personal projects, etc.
- I don’t respond to client-related emails on the weekends. Most Saturdays and Sundays, I try very hard not to open my email at all.
- No cell phones at the dinner table (my girlfriend and I really try to live by this rule, and whenever we are eating together, our phones are away).
For a while, it was hard to have a set schedule while building a startup. There were some nights where I would be up working until midnight, and then right back up at 6:30am for a 7am call. There were other days I’d be in bed by 9pm because I had to be up for a 5am or 6am call with a client in a different time zone. It was all over the place.
Lately though, I’ve been able to settle into more of a consistent routine. I’m up at 5am every morning, spend the first few hours preparing for the day, reading, journaling, getting a jump start on some work. Then, I aim to be done with work by 5pm or 6pm so I can spend the rest of the night doing things to take care of myself.
Can you tell us about your use of journaling and goal tracking?
I journal all the time. I have a journal on my laptop, which I use as a long-form rambling to get the noise out of my head. I also have a physical journal I carry around with me where I jot down ideas, little poems and observations about life, titles and book concepts, To-Do lists…
Every few months, I sit down and examine what goals I had set for myself previously and where those are at. This is never planned, it happens naturally. I also check if I want to swap to any new goals, or if I need to remind myself of what I said I was going to work toward and finish.
Then, at the end of each year, right after Christmas, I read back through my 2 journals for the entire year, end to end, and set a new intention for the year to follow. I like re-reading my journals because it shows me, all at once, the growth I’ve experienced and all the little moments that added up to a much bigger step forward.
Then I decide what I want to work on the following year, and write it down as the first page of my new journal. I’ve been doing this every single year for the past 10 years.
You work with top execs, CEOs and thought leaders, people who know how to get things done. Is there one big lesson you’ve learned from them?
So many things. I’ve worked with CEOs of publicly traded companies. I’ve worked with grammy-winning musicians (some of which were idols of mine growing up). I’ve worked with some extremely well known Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. I’ve worked with New York Times best-selling authors and international public speakers. I feel extremely fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to learn from so many smart, creative, and passionate people.
The one takeaway I can say has been universal is this constant sense of believing in yourself. Every single person I’ve worked with has admitted to me they didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into. They just decided to trust themselves and follow the path. They kept putting one foot in front of the other, and trying their best to learn as they went along.
Still being in my late 20s, witnessing this same trait over and over and over again has been reassuring in a sense. It has pulled back the curtain and showed me that nobody is born on earth with all the answers. The people who go on to do great things are curious, open to the journey, willing to go on the adventure — and are relentless about not giving up.
You sometimes talk about the “golden intersection” between the answer to a reader’s question and your personal story. Can you elaborate on that?
Here’s a perfect example of the intersection. You asked me:
What is the number one productivity item you can’t live without?
And I answered:
To be honest, I’m not big into apps, widgets, tools and tricks to “get more done in less time.” I have a laptop, an iPhone and I religiously practice putting technology away to focus. I tell this story all the time: when I graduated from college and first set out to become a professional writer, I really wanted to finish my first book, called Confessions of a Teenage Gamer. I was so afraid that technology would distract me from my goal that I deprived myself of internet for 4 years in order to force myself to write. I knew after working 10 hours a day at an advertising agency, I would want to come home and waste the rest of the night away watching YouTube videos, so I removed the option entirely. I literally did not own internet in my studio apartment from the ages of 22 to 26. Once I published my book (which was the same day I quit my job and was able to go all-in on writing), I called up Comcast and installed internet. That was my reward for not only finishing my first book, but writing hundreds of articles online and getting to a point where I could do what I loved for the rest of my life.
Now, I could have just said, “My number one productivity item is the habit of putting technology away as often as I can.” And that would be an acceptable answer — since, by definition, I answered your question. Whether or not you or anyone else remembers the answer, though, is a different thing altogether.
So instead of just answering the question directly, I told you a story. I gave you the answer, and then I told you how that answer played out in my own life. I told you a story about how, for 4 years I didn’t allow myself to have internet. My assumption is (and this is a “creative writing trick”) you’ll remember that story more than you will remember the actual answer I gave you, which was my habit for putting technology away to focus.
Human beings don’t really care about “the answer.” We say we do, but if you notice, a lot of people ask questions in their life and then as soon as someone starts “giving them the answer,” they say, “Yea, yea, no I know.” But if you start telling someone a story, they listen. They’re entertained. They’re on the edge of their seat. They want to “discover” the answer for themselves.
The golden intersection, then, is giving people the answer they are looking for while attaching it to a story. This way, they’ll hear it, remember it, and even want to share it with someone else.
On top of writing, you’re present on Instagram. How do you tie the 2 platforms together, and without letting social media distract you too much?
A lot of people make social media more complicated than it needs to be. And to be honest, the only reason I use social media is to share my writing. Personally, I rarely use it.
My biggest piece of advice when you’re first starting out is to start with one single platform. In the very beginning, I started with Quora. That was it. I didn’t try to build a Facebook audience and an Instagram audience and a Twitter audience and a Snapchat audience all at once. I said, “I’m going to write every single day on Quora, and I’m going to be the best writer on this platform.” And a year later, I did. In 2015, I was the #1 most-read writer on all of Quora (a platform with hundreds of millions of users).
Then, once I had built an audience on Quora and understood what people wanted to hear about from me, I started building my Instagram. This many years later, I still only use Twitter occasionally, don’t really use Facebook, don’t use Snapchat or any other social media platforms, and use Medium as a republishing tool for my Quora material.
To be successful on social media, you don’t have to “be everywhere.” Pick one platform and execute it the best you can.
You had a hard time relaxing in your most extreme “hustle years”. Nowadays, how important is time off for you, and what do you do when you take time off?
These days, I tend to balance in extremes.
I work really, really hard. I treat writing like I’m a professional athlete because that’s the level I want to play at. Most days, I am working and writing upwards of 12 hours per day, including Saturdays and Sundays.
When I take time off, though, I fully step away. I go away for a weekend and do nothing work related. Or, I take the afternoon to go for a hike, spend time with friends, etc., and rarely pull my phone out. But all in all, I take 1 or 2 vacations per year, if that. And every few months, my girlfriend reminds me that I need to find balance in my life and we’ll go somewhere for a weekend. Other than that, I try to just do little things each and every day to keep me from burning out (like not checking emails at 11pm, etc.).
Even when I take time off, though, I don’t lose sight of my goals. Once I set a goal in my mind, it’s there. It might take me a long time to achieve it, but it stays. For example, I’ve been working on a book project of mine for like 3 years now. Some months, I don’t even touch it. But it’s still there. And I keep coming back to it, even if it’s a slow process.
You get $100 to burn, all your friends are busy and you have the whole day to yourself. What do you do?
I’d pay $15 to fire up my World of Warcraft account and spend the rest of it on Postmates to deliver a massive amount of Indian food.
There you have it. I want to personally thank my guest for taking the time to provide me and my readers with really insightful answers. I am deeply grateful to Nicolas Cole. Thanks so much for being part of this project, all the best with your projects, and keep up the great work!
And thanks to you for reading my content! Stay tuned for our next guest, coming up next week!