Justin Jacoby Smith is an organizer, web geek, Buddhist, and poet.

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work that radically matters

I like to say that this is a blog about finding the time to do work that radically matters.

What the hell does that mean?

In my free time I'm involved in activism, organizing, and media work that aims for systemic changes in the way we live in this country, and on this planet. I feel a profound sense of urgency to fight injustice, but having been an activist for a decade, I know too well the burnout that follows Doing It All At Once.

I spent years pulling my hair out as I tried to balance classes, study time, a healthy personal life, and my political work. I would come to fall behind in classes, or miss crucial organizing meetings & events, or hear from people I cared about that they couldn't remember the last time they'd seen me. I had no idea how to manage all my commitments, and the blown deadlines combined with my belief in the importance of the work to create a profound sense of guilt–a heavy weight of failure that would only add to my anxiety. Eventually I collapsed: I moved to another city, transferred to a community college, and dropped out of politics entirely.

What I didn't know at the time was just how good I had it. When I re-entered political work with renewed frenzy half a decade later, I had a full time computer monkey job that put more demands on the use of my mind than any class in college ever did.

After not a little struggle and some very familiar headaches, I've found a way that works for me.

My paid-work is the most fulfilling its ever been, because I've learned how to get what I want out of my work week. The radio network where I host & produce is growing, because I've learned how to manage my commitments. The activist work I do often gets done with a freshly startling efficiency, because I've learned how to facilitate, and sometimes lead, groups of people with divergent ideas.

And so much more of it gets done with a smile on my face, because with the time and energy to do the work I believe in–work that matters–I'm as satisfied as I've ever been with my life. That's what work that matters radically is: striking at the root of the problems in our world, but doing it in a way that lets you live a full and healthy life--down to the root of yourself.

I'd like to use this space to show you how I got here, but much more importantly, I'd like to use this space to learn from you. I'm here to share the approaches that are working for me, and the steps I'm taking to improve. I'd love to hear from you: why my approach doesn't work, what doesn't work for you, what works for you instead, how you'd suggest I change the things I'm doing. Please get in touch.

I also have to acknowledge that Merlin Mann's work at 43 Folders and Back To Work have been huge influences on me, and a lot of the frameworks I use are politicized modifications of ideas I picked up through him.   If what I write here doesn't work for you, or seems too political or specific to organizers, I suggest you check out his incredible work. On my best days, I hope the things I write here are ideas he might find interesting.

I hope you enjoy the site, and I hope it helps you–maybe even pushes you–to do work that radically matters.

emails that makes you feel dirty

i get a lot of e-mail. few have made me feel as gross as this one.

---------- Forwarded message ---------- From: Bilaal Ahmed (Linktank) <ba@linktank.com> Date: Thu, Apr 4, 2013 at 11:05 AM Subject: Get Access To: Justin

Hi Justin -

My name is Bilaal and I founded Linktank a little over three years ago.

It started off as a simple challenge – an effort for me and my friends to make real connections in DC and develop our interests. We felt that gaining specialized knowledge and affecting change shouldn’t be limited to an established cohort of insiders.

We believed that anyone in this town with passion and a thirst for learning should have the opportunity to make connections and build expertise.

In other words: we deserve Access.

Today is a big step in realizing that vision. In May, we’re set to launch a brand new Linktank with a premium membership service we’re calling – what else? – Access.

The new Linktank solves the information overload dilemma. Access membership is a more direct connection with Washington's informed and influential through a revamped events service along with the ability to find relevant institutions, experts, and customized courses.

Preview the new Linktank with Access

We've spent months understanding your needs and challenges, building a new platform that will one day revolutionize how knowledge is shared and relationships are established in DC. We guarantee that you’ll love it immediately or we’ll give you a full refund.

As a way of saying thanks for believing in us, we’re offering a presale that gives you 12 months of Access membership at more than 50% off our standard price.

This is your opportunity to participate in some disruptive change. Let’s fix the status quo by building an ecosystem based on merit, passion, and ideas.


Bilaal Ahmed Founder, Linktank ba@linktank.com

PS. The presale is limited to the first 5,000 who sign up (less than 4% of our user base), and we expect it to sell out quickly.

my god, it's full of buzzwords.

braindump, wrapped with bow

Focus on building habits that encourage the skills and modes of thinking you're working to develop in yourself and your work. If you want to become a better problem-solver, and you know that an important step in problem-solving is breaking a problem down into comprehensible slices, approach your problem that way from the get-go: work to form the habit of breaking big projects into small tasks. Make it a part of your ritual when you start a new project, and eventually the breakdown process that's so key to problem solving will be habit embedded in your brain.

Identify the components, or constituent parts, of the well-oiled machine you'd like to build--then work with those parts every single day, til using them in combination is second nature.

more rewarding things to be scared of

"I pitched Inbox Zero to them as the opposite of The 4 Hour Work Week. The book deal that I got was based on the fact that I said 'he gets the first third of all of that right,' which is 'learn how to manage your attention and not apologize for it.' I think he gets the last two thirds wrong, because he says 'phone it in and put up a hammock with your free time'.

This about how to make the time to do something harder than what you're doing. Rather than managing your attention to be able to do less, it's about making the time to be scared of something that's more interesting. Thinking this way is complicated, and hard, but I hope it does encourage someone to make a change to do something more worthwhile than fiddling with their e-mail. Or writing a book about fiddling with e-mail.

I hope this is something along those lines. If it's not, maybe I'll do it better next time. But it's not gonna stop me from trying."

-- Merlin Mann, on why he abandoned his book, in B2W #13, "The Kids' Great"

sometimes it's time to quit

Someone started a thread on /r/productivity today asking if she should quit her new job working graveyard shift at the coffee shop--after just 90 days it's making her miserable, she's losing time with her family and friends, and it's having an adverse impact on her health. She has two other job offers, she says, but she's concerned that it will look bad on her job history to leave a job so quickly. She asks for suggestions on how to handle her dillema. This was my advice. ---

Quit!* Listen--if you're at a gig that's disrupting the things that matter most to you, like quality time with your loved ones, and you have two other opportunities with (I presume) better hours, I would absolutely go with one of the other offers. As you say: you're young and a student, and you're not depending on any of these part-time options for your livelihood, so I see no reason you should stay.

No one looking at your resume when it comes time for Real Jobby Job interviews will notice or care that you were only at a coffee shop for a month if you have a job history that continues from there. Better yet, protip: don't put this gig on your resume, and start it with whatever job you pick up from here. Even if you're working on building up job history for future prospective employers, the trade-off of losing 90 days of that history in exchange for a job that allows you to maintain a healthy lifestyle and stable relationships with the people you care about is absolutely worth it, at least in my book.

That said, if you decide to stay (maybe you get paid more, or like the camraderie), here are some tips on staying healthy and productive while working graveyard, as I have:

  • Try to get your 6-8 hours of sleep in a room that's as dark as possible, maybe with a drone sound to drown out noise.
  • If you miss out on crucial sleep time, learn how to use naps effectively to regain energy during the day. A strategically timed coffee nap got me through lots of graveyard nights at hotel front desks.
  • Exercise for 20-30 minutes (even if it's just a brisk walk) soon after getting up. Start your day with a glass of milk, a few eggs, or one of those fancy-pants juices with 30g of protein--as long as you get a boost to jumpstart your body (and that doesn't have to be caffeine!), your whole day (ahem--night) will feel different.
  • Eat your pre-work meal 3-4 hours before your shift starts. That way your food will be fully digested and you'll be less likely to be fighting drowsiness at work.
  • If you can manage it time-wise, for the sake of relationship health it's great to be able to spend the morning with your significant other before they head out for the day. Maybe you can share a meal--steak and eggs works pretty well for breakfast or dinner, ya know. Everybody's happy.
  • Since it sounds important to you to be in touch with your family, try to make time to call them for chats between the time you wake up and when you head in to your shift. I try to call my parents each once a week, and I have a rotating schedule of friends I call once every few weeks as per Merlin Mann's advice to make sure I stay connected to people that are important to me.

Hope this helps in some way. Hope you let us know what you decide to do! ---

*(You can tell I've been listening to a lot of, uh, Quit!)

your gut has shit for brains

“I've been thinking with my guts since I was fourteen years old, and frankly speaking, between you and me, I have come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.”

― Nick HornbyHigh Fidelity

The suggestion is something like this: if you put in your 10,000 hours of skills practice, you'll achieve a kind of expertise that allows you to rely almost entirely on your intuition to make decisions about what you do, and what you should do next.

It's not hard to understand our cultural glorification of the gut--the brilliant instinctive decision made under pressure plays into our collective myths about the talented loner who leads the way to the future.

Still, I've got problems, just on the face: trusting your gut tends to bias you toward your first option--you're less likely to look fairly at the costs and benefits of your alternatives.

More importantly, though: the thing we call intuition is a quiet form of pattern recognition, the mind tracing pictures onto situations to form a map of the way forward. Back when people's idea of a fun Saturday night was a round of Pictionary on the wall of the cave, if you saw the shadow of a sabretoothed tiger a little pattern recognition engine would kick on in your brain: you'd compare that to your past experiences of seeing a shadow of a tiger, remember that the last time around it didn't end too well, and you'd high-tail it out. That was really effective for us when we were powering cars with our feet, but today we live in a world that's faster, more interrelated, and more complex.


Given the explosion in the amount of information we all have to handle, expecting our brains to pull useful decision-making signal from the noise (on top of remembering to buy milk) can be an unneccessary tax on our attention and a source of anxiety. If you're working in a group you'll quickly find that attempting to force your fuzzily-understood vision onto the group because you believe in the power of your instinct, you'll be cutting off new ideas, killing morale on the team, and undermining group cohesion.

Still, obviously--intuition is valuable. The key is evaluation--measuring your instinct against the world, and against other people's information, to see whether the map your brain has drawn onto the world bears any relation to reality. Trust your gut to churn. Trust your gut to be generative, and point you in new directions. But never stop there. Keep measuring. Compare your instinct with the information other people bring to the table. Keep the discussion open.

That way, when you step off into the wild blue yonder of your final decision, you'll know you're acting on more than a shadow on the wall.

Understanding your Context, Purpose and Skills (Drucker, Part 2)

This is the second post in a series on applying Peter Drucker's four factors of a theory of business to the way we work and think as organizers and individuals. The first factor Drucker suggests we ought to wrap our minds around is the need to understand our context, purpose, and skills as individuals. What does that mean?


Coming to grips with your context is a challenge. It involves stepping back from where you are right now (in your organization, in your career, in your life) and taking an honest look at your environment and your role in it. It requires asking yourself questions like these:

  • Who, really, are the people you share your daily life with, and what drives them?
  • What kind of environment do those people create?
  • What kind of environment does your behavior create?
  • What constraints do your day to day commitments put on the opportunities you can pursue?

Your answers to these questions--if they're honest, and not-self-serving--can help you form a realistic picture of the slice of the world that surrounds you. If you want to understand how to move forward from where you're standing, you have to know where you're standing. Getting to know your context is key for that.


Do you know why you do what you do? Maybe this one is easy. Maybe you get up in the morning and run to work because you do work you believe in. But can't that get hard to remember sometimes? When you're knee-deep in a tedious slog, maybe working with people you don't like, maybe unclear on how this project fits into the vision you're pursuing? This is a question where it's useful to be a little selfish: why do you do this work? What does it mean for you, what do you get out of it, how does it transform you? What's the end you're pursuing with this work?


What are you capable of? Do you stretch your capabilities to test the limits of your skills? Do you need to learn more to continue to grow? How would you go about doing that? What needs to shift in your life to make time for the new learning you should be doing?

If we want to continue to develop as members and leaders of our communities it's crucial to understand our place, our reasons for action, and the projects we're capable of taking on. Just as important as understanding these three categories, though, is that they all reinforce one another. I'll say more about this in the next post in this series.

the druck is here for you: 4 factors to figure yourself out

Why do you do what you do?


Peter Drucker, you'll often hear, was the man who invented 'management.' Strictly speaking, that's not at all true--if 'management' is the theory and practice of getting workers to be as productive as possible, then modern management can be, and has been, traced back to the era of American slavery. That theory and practice was further developed by a well-worn list of names in the earliest days of the robber barrons: Frederick Taylor and his "Scientific Management,", led into the softie human relations approach of the 1930s (which might be how they still run things at your office), and eventually came our friend the Druck.

There are a lot of reasons--especially, I think, for open-minded radicals--to like the Druck. There's his skepticism of centralized authority, his insistence that an organization should be driven by something more meaningful than profit, and his distaste for "the boss" as either an order-giving autocrat or a smiley-faced fascist therapy leader. Ultimately what I like about his thinking best, though, is his insistence that we should find fulfillment in the stuff we do; that if we don't find fulfillment in the way we spend our time--whether it's at a desk or organizing a rally--then we're ultimately missing the point.

In his well-regarded essay "The Theory of Business" Druck lays out the notion that most attempts at doing something cool and new eventually fail because they don't change their thinking as the environment around them changes. They may start out well thanks to a clever or novel approach to a problem, but the world keeps turning, and often an organization will find itself gasping for air as it becomes increasingly apparent that it's running based on an outdated picture of the world. If a project is to stay successful, he argues, it has to be running on a solidly founded but testable theory of business.

But who the hell cares? Why am I talking about this?

With all the competing demands for our attention in our working and organizing lives, it strikes me as profoundly valuable to evaluate our approach to our work and our time using the kind of thinking Drucker lays out. The stuff in this classic is also applicable to the choices you make every day moving through the world--as a worker, as an activist, as a leader, as a family member. If you want to make sure that your approach stays nimble, and that you don't wind up gasping for air, a modified version of Drucker's "4 specifications of a valid theory of business" might be worth working through. Here's my mildly bastardized human-scale take on the Druck's four specifications--in order to be consistently successful, you need:

1) Your understanding of your context, purpose, and skills to be honest and realistic.
2) Your context, purpose, and skills to be mutually reinforcing.
3) Your knowledge of your context, purpose, and skills to be crystal clear.
4) Constant willingness to re-evaluate your thinking on all of the above.

What do these things mean? I'll tackle them one by one, and tie them all together, in posts over the next few days. First up, tomorrow: understanding your context, purpose & skills.

get down off your unicycle

captain Stop making choices based on the desire to keep everyone around you happy.

If you're busy trying to keep everybody on your shitbarge cruise ship happy and your boat all even-keeled and unrocking, you're absolutely not gonna see it coming when your boat falls off the edge of the map. Or worse yet, you'll be too drained from propping up everybody's smiles to notice when the boat springs a leak and you just start sinking in slow motion. There's no worse way to go than that, with you ridin your unicycle and juggling and making everybody clap for you while the whole operation is taking on water and sliding into the deep.

Get down off your unicycle, accept that some people are gonna abandon ship and that you might even be better off without them, and *steer* your *fucking* ship.