The Power of Framing (How to Do The Work)

In a perfect world, you would simply do the work. You have intentions, then actions, then results. There’s nothing stopping an intention from becoming an action, and time is the only thing that gets in the way.

In reality, there’s a ton of stuff that stops us from crossing the bridge from intention to action, or slows us down, which can be summed up by a word we’re all familiar with: procrastination.

Sometimes, the reasons for procrastination are reasonable. Some work is hard, painful, and emotionally challenging. To pretend otherwise is to deny reality.

But many times, the procrastination that arises is a result of how we frame our work and our situation. As Maxwell Maltz said, “It is not the job, but the we way insist on thinking of the job that causes the trouble.”

For example, let’s say you need to let go of an employee. You’ve tried helping them perform better, but they simply aren’t a good fit and you know that you need to rip the band-aid off and get it done.

It will be harder for you to do so if you frame the action in a negative light. If you tell yourself the story that firing this person will screw them up, make them depressed, and that they’ll hate you—then doing the action will be much harder than it would be were you to use a more simple, positive framing, “This person isn’t a good fit, and it’s not fair on them or the rest of the company to keep them onboard. There’s no easy way to do this, but the right thing to do is to not delay it.”

Framing matters when you want to make a big commitment.

Say, for instance, you want to write a book. It’s been something sitting at the back of your mind for sometime, but you want to get serious.

As soon as you start thinking seriously about it, doubts and fears enter your head. The frame begins to form.

You think to yourself, “Well, what if I spend two years writing it and it completely flops?”

“What if people hate it?”

“This will be attached to my name forever. That’s scary.”

If this is the extent of your frame, then it will be difficult to make that commitment. There is little positive in that frame.

A powerful reframe would be to eliminate the downside—a tactic we’ll explore later in this video.

You acknowledge the reality: “Yes, I could spend two years writing this and it could completely flop. Nothing is guaranteed.”

And then acknowledge potential hidden benefits: “But if I spend two years on a project like this, the work ethic and discipline I’ll gain, as well as the character transformation I go through will be worth more than any external success.”

You take the fact that “This will be attached to my name forever. That’s scary.” and reframe it to, “I must not cut corners and do mediocre work. The fact that this is attached to my name is good motivation to push the boundaries and raise my standards. I’m grateful for that pressure.”

Do you need to frame?

No.

Most work you do doesn’t require framing. You should develop the ability to just sit down and do the work in a mechanical way. The person who sits down and writes for 90 mins every morning whether they feel like it or not will outperform the person who thinks they need to frame and reframe their writing habit every morning.

When framing comes in handy is when you feel stuck. When you’re overthinking. Or when there’s a decision or commitment that needs to be made and you’re not making it.

It also comes in handy when you’ve already committed to a big project, but need to remind yourself of the benefits of committing to that project to stop the doubts from creeping in and causing you to quit.

Personally, I use framing for the big stuff. I don’t frame my writing habit every morning, but the decision to write every morning exists in the frame of “This habit is one of the highest leverage things I can do. Even if I don’t feel like doing it, I should do it because it increases my luck surface area. Even my writing doesn’t produce any immediate external results, it improves and clarifies my thinking, which is why it’s one of the highest leverage things I can do. Therefore I will do it.”

And if I don’t feel like writing on a particular morning, or the resistance is high, I can pull myself back into that frame.

Usually the signal that you need to reframe a situation is when it’s challenging, painful, produces resistance and you’re facing immense temptation to continue procrastinating.

Sometimes, you don’t need to frame, you need to do different work.

One of the problems I have with the “discipline equals freedom” crowd is that it misses what I think is a key component of doing great work and having a great career—and that’s doing something you’re intensely curious about and driven by.

Not everyone has the luxury of pursuing that. But you should think about how you can work towards it.

If you find yourself constantly having to frame and reframe, it may be because you’re in the wrong line of work. People spend years in the wrong career running off nothing more than self-discipline, but they don’t particularly enjoy it nor do they experience much flow.

So you need to be wary of that. Are you framing work that you know is good? That you are suited for? That you want to do but it’s just hard in the moment?

Or are you trying to reframe the work you shouldn’t be doing?

The problem with the latter is that you can do it. You can reframe the wrong work, the wrong career, and you can get the job done. Sometimes it’s necessary. But it’s often a mistake. You’ll go much further when you combine discipline with aptitude and curiosity.

The better your state, the better your framing

At the end of last year, I committed to a big project. When I say committed, I mean I committed by myself. There is no partners, no external pressure. So the cost of quitting isn’t immediately painful or high.

Anyway. I committed to this project in a good state. I was motivated, energized, and clear in my thinking. It was the right commitment to make, and I know that.

The first week of this year, soon after I made the commitment, I woke up one day and started doubting my commitment. All kinds of rationalizations started entering my head. Doubts. Fears. Everything.

I soon realized that I’d had 5-6 consecutive nights of below average sleep. I was tired. Physically and mentally. I decided that I wouldn’t trust my own thoughts until I was well rested again.

Sure enough, a few days later my state had changed. I was well rested. Far more optimistic. The doubts were gone.

Now, you should develop the resilience and force of will to operate even when tired. To quell self-doubt even when exhausted. You can’t use bad state as a cope, or good state as a crutch. But as much as you can, you want to improve your state, because you will frame things much better when you’re in a good state.

When you find yourself stuck in negative framing, ask yourself whether you’re in a good state. Are these doubts real? Or are they just a consequence of being exhausted?

Useful framing strategies

Downside elimination/Asymmetry

One of the most powerful frames you can operate from is asymmetry.

A firm belief that any work you do is only upside. The downside is negligible.

I’m not saying downsides or risks don’t exist. You would be stupid to enter into a commitment, start a business, launch a product without analyzing the potential for it go go wrong…

What I’m saying is that after you’ve done that. After you’ve made the decision that it’s the right thing to focus on and you’ve recognized the potential downsides, you should only focus on the upside.

One of the ways you can do that is by reframing in an asymmetrical way.

First, you operate out of the frame that the work itself is all you’re entitled to, not the results. This frame alone provides the foundation for asymmetry, because any result, whether internal or external, is a bonus.

Second, you build into your frame the intrinsic benefits that come from doing the work. Upgrading your skillset, developing your character. Even if the project fails, you still win because you’ve experienced personal growth. In this way you can be asymmetric.

“Doing the work guarantees you nothing except the opportunity to develop your character and skillset in ways you otherwise cannot. There is no promise that your training will pay off in the ways you think it should—but I can assure you it will pay off in ways you could never have imagined.” — Win In The Dark

You ask: What are the non-obvious, non-immediate benefits that make this work worth doing anyway?

Think back to the book example from earlier in this piece. You work on a book for two years and it flops. That sucks. But you know what doesn’t? The fact that you’ve done something many people dream of doing but never do because they don’t commit. The fact that you’ve developed a writing habit and level of stickability that will carry you through future projects. The fact that you can actually call yourself an author. The fact that you’ve changed as a person through doing the work.

The Video Game Reframe

Credit to George Mack for this one.

Ever meet someone who seems lazy? You go to their house and its messy. They haven’t done the dishes in several days. Maybe they’re unemployed but shouldn’t be. But they have no issue playing a complex video game for 16 hours in a day.

Why is it that they can sit down and do that? Well, it’s because of the way the video game is designed. It’s designed to be engaging, to give the dopamine hits at the right time, to provide the perfect ratio of challenge/success.

We shouldn’t expect our work to always be as engaging as a video game. Reality is much different. However, we should think about the game we’re playing in life and how we can design it to be more engaging.

One way to do that is to think of your task list as a “levels” list instead.

Think of yourself as playing a video game in which there are multiple levels. There’s not much point in thinking about level 100 if you’re currently at level 1. All you should be thinking about, really, is how to get to level 2, and then 3, and so on.

This reframe is helpful, because a lot of our anxiety and hesitation around work exists because we project ourselves so far forward out into the future. In deciding to start a project, we have a tendency to think about how that project could fail, or succeed, instead of simply thinking about the next action in front of us.

There’s value in planning. There’s value in thinking about what level 10 might look like when you’re at level 1. You want to be travelling down a path that makes sense. But once you have the path roughly in mind. Once you have a plan (not a perfect plan, just a plan), then the best thing you can do is laser focus on the level you’re on.

This is something I’ve adopted after listening to George Mack talk about it in the Infinite Loops podcast. I have an apple note where I just list out the levels required in the goal/project, and sublevels.

And then I have “skills grinding” or things that are simply required for me to always be progressing in the game.

Let me show you an example.

Associating Uncomfortable Emotions With Growth & Success

It’s difficult to grow unless you’re uncomfortable. We know this rationally, but we don’t behave as if it’s true.

The nerves that arise when we’re thinking of committing to a project often encourage us to work on something else, something easier instead. We foolishly mistake the discomfort as a sign to deviate and choose a different path.

But often it’s those exact emotions: nervousness, discomfort, fear—that are signs we should be going down that path.

A reframe here is to acknowledge those emotions as they arise, and then be grateful for them knowing that you’re on the right path. You’ve booked a bunch of sales calls for your new business and feel the nerves kicking in 30 mins before your first call? Great – that’s a sign you’re about to experience growth.

Committing to writing your first book and feel uncomfortable sitting down to write? Good. You’re growing.

Sometimes these negative emotions are signs we’re doing the wrong thing, but it’s usually easy to tell when that’s the case—intuitively. Other times, they are a prerequisite to personal growth.


Thanks for reading!

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