Mike Sturm write things on the internet—mostly about productivity, self-improvement, and life in this digital age.
He is the editor-in-chief of Woolgathering, a weekly e-mail newsletter which aims to help its readers think differently and think better. He is the co-founder and erstwhile editor of a wonderful publication called The Junction—where the real editorial work is done by the talented Matt Tomic.
Mike was the first person in his family to go to college, and when he did, he had no idea what to do with the experience or credentials he would receive. He started in the fine arts and quickly changed to an arguably less-valued major- philosophy. Once he did that, his goal was to eventually become a professor. He would spend his life teaching and write about the more fundamental questions of reality and life. Unfortunately, that journey took much longer than he had anticipated. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in the subject, and then went to grad school, where he quickly succumbed to burnout. He took on too much, didn’t rest and recharge like he should have, and it took its toll on his performance and well-being.
He took a break for a few years- working a job in retail sales at a health and wellness chain store, and lived very simply during that time. It allowed him to remove himself from the stress and pressure associated with a singular and narrow goal. He spent time working on himself, reflecting, building resilience. He made new friends and discovered spirituality- not in the esoteric and fluffy idealistic sense of that term- but rather a practical spirituality. It’s the kind of view of things that acknowledge that how you feel is at once unique, important, and powerful. That development enabled him to meet the woman who would
become his wife and the mother of his children, who remains his trusted confidant, most ardent supporter, and best friend.
After that break, he went on to finish his grad school work and get his Master’s degree. He got a salaried job, taught college courses in philosophy on the side, bought a house, had kids,
and took on all of the classically “adult” responsibilities. It was at that point that he became interested in productivity and self-improvement. He found all sorts of people writing all sorts
of opinions on the topics. Some were helpful, some were vacuous. Being a person comfortable with forming opinions and debates, he decided to jump into that particular water
back in 2014. He hasn’t looked back since then.
He talked to ScaleUp magazine editorial team and discussed his life journey and lessons learned.
Tell us about the struggles and achievements in your life and what did you learn from them?
My high point in life had to be meeting my wife. I say that because my worst mistakes were the ones I made because I thought that I could go at it alone- whatever it was. I didn’t value the presence or feedback of others, and I certainly didn’t share with them my intimate and personal thoughts. If my wife had not basically knocked me over the head with that realization, I’m not sure I would’ve come to it without irreversibly altering my life path for the worse. Her friendship and partnership are what helped me to decide to do what I’m doing now- something that fulfills me in ways that my previous endeavors never did. She also helped me build the amazing family that I have today. I have two young children who surprise, delight, and test me every day. And those are all things that I absolutely need in my life.
My low point in life, well, there’s a tie for that particular honor. That period in grad school where I got burned out and stepped away for a few years. There were a few months where everything was coming to a head for me in the spring semester of my second year in grad school before I left. I have never felt more out of control, stretched thin, hopeless, devoid of purpose and direction, and so on. I think of that complex and terrible feeling from time to time, as a reminder of how things could be if I fail to stay engaged with the things in my life. The other low point in my life happened right before I began writing about
productivity and personal development online. I had been teaching philosophy at the college level for a few years, and I convinced myself that the best thing for me to do would
be to try to obtain my Ph.D. in the subject and try to become a professor at whatever institution of higher learning would take me. I applied to 17 Ph.D. programs across the country, and received 14 rejections. When I looked at what the journey would be at any of the 3 schools that accepted me, it became clear that the journey was less about making a good life for myself, and more about being too proud to admit that I was too narrow in my approach to what I wanted to do with my life. Those 14 rejections stung me quite a bit, but they helped me realize that I needed to reevaluate. I can’t be thankful enough for that.
From my low in life—specifically all of that stress and pressure that surrounded my dream of getting a Ph.D. and being a professor—I learned not to be so narrow in my goals, and
not to be so attached to them. What I mean by that is that my goal should never have been so narrow as a job. It should not have been “to be a professor in a university, teaching this subject”. My goal should have been about what issue(s) I wanted to tackle and what I wanted to contribute to the world—however small that contribution might be. Had I thought about my goals in that way, I would have seen how many options I had to make the kind of contribution I want to make. That’s where I am now—having learned that lesson—and I am so grateful that I was able to see that when I was still young.
Turning point in your life?
A co-worker of mine, back when I was working a retail job, once told me that it never pays to compare yourself to others, because all you’re doing is comparing their frontstage
to your backstage. All that means is that people who seem to have it all together or seem happy and successful, you’re just seeing what they’re presenting to the public—not what
is going on behind the scenes. In turn, when you compare that one-sided perception to all the stuff you’ve got going on behind the scenes in your life—it’s not an apples-to-apples
comparison. And more than likely, the people who appear to have it all together have some level of chaos going on in the minds behind the scenes. They just don’t show it. That helped me quite a bit because I used to compare myself to others constantly. Once I stopped, it was like a whole new world of personal growth opened up for me.
Tell us about your routine
I still struggle with work-life balance. My day job is pretty demanding, and I have the side hustle of writing, creating courses, and doing some client work with my wife for the
business she owns. So for me, it’s work-life integration. The spare time I do have is mostly for recharging. The same goes for my wife. We run everything as partners, and we have our eyes fixed upon a future where we have put in the hard work with each other and remained strong partners in the process, but can now just relax and enjoy the fruits of that work.
I wake up around 4 or 5 am every day- depending on when I go to sleep the night before. I spend 10-15 minutes journaling while my coffee is brewing. Then I do a quick review of a little worksheet I made for myself called “core values”. It has the 3 principles I’m working on this year (I adopt 3 new ones each year), along with my other constant principles. I reflect on how I”m doing in relation to those, and just reaffirm that they will guide me through the day. After that, I spend about 15 minutes planning my day. I simply look at my open action items, my calendar, and then think about what projects are most important to get to that day. After all that, it’s email (both work and personal), and either writing or day job work until about 6:30 or 7. After that, I do about 10 minutes of meditation- rotating daily between Zazen, Vipassana, and Metta meditation.
At some point, I’ll get to longer sessions, but for now, 10 minutes does the trick. After all that, I exercise. If the weather is decent, I run for about 5 miles on the path by my house (or around the hotel if I’m traveling, which is often). Barring that, I do a routine of push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and squats. On the weekends, all bets are off. I sleep in until my daughter or son wakes up, and then we chill out in our pajamas for a while, until my wife gets up and we decide what to do for the day.
What makes you productive?
That’s a great question. What keeps me productive is writing. I am really bad at doing things I’m not interested in, and the only way that I can get re-interested in something I have to do if I’ve lost interest is to begin writing about it. I’ve found it to be an excellent trick for getting back on track with lagging projects. I will literally sit down and start writing about how I don’t want to work on this project, then I’ll begin to talk about why. One that happens, I will see that there is work I have to do to further define the project that I hadn’t done- which is why I wasn’t being productive on it. It’s crazy, but it works. Writing down
the status of projects and keeping track of them is also the best way to stay productive.
Just recording thoughts and actions in general keeps me focused on how well I am doing, or what more I need to do. The times when I don’t do that- when I rely on gut instincts to
drive what I’m engaged in, that’s when I’m much less productive.
What tools do you use?
When I first got into the business world, I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and it shaped my entire view of work and life. That is the productivity system I use. I tend to view
the world through the lens of projects and next actions. So any software I tend to use folds into that system. I switch from time to time, but the staples are:
■ WorkFlowy for notes and reference lists.
■ Instapaper to save and annotate reading for research and my newsletter.
■ Google Sheets to run my GTD task management. I built a template especially for it, and created a course to show others how to use it.
Your source of inspiration and motivation
For me, the answer to most questions about motivation and inspiration is writing. I rarely feel more motivated or inspired than when I am a few paragraphs into an exploration of
some thought or feeling that I’m putting down on paper. I can’t suggest it highly enough. The writing can be deleted immediately, and never see the light of day. Putting it out there
isn’t the point. The point is to get yourself moving, creating, and thinking all at once. Writing is the simplest and easiest way to do that. It’s motivation and inspiration literally at
each of our fingertips.
There is no shortage of people in my life who have influenced me and made a difference in my life. My wife has made a huge difference in my life- continuing to get me to see things differently and to constantly improve myself. Prior to that, there were a few professors I had in college that made a huge impact on my way of thinking and learning. One was a philosophy professor I had through undergraduate and graduate classes, who I was sad to learn recently passed away. He taught me a great deal about how to be curious, how to be intellectually humble, how to write, and how to think differently. The
other was a professor of Southeast Asian studies, who was my boss for a while. I was flirting with Buddhism and Taoism as a young man, and he had studied Thai Buddhism extensively. He was a great resource for me as I adopted a spiritual path, and remains a friend of mine to this day.
As far as people that I don’t know directly who had a profound impact on me. I cannot speak highly enough of Merlin Mann- who coined the phrase “inbox zero” and wrote so
much great stuff online about productivity and self-improvement. My entire approach to writing about those things was inspired by his work back in the early 2000s. It was a fresh,
sincere, and helpful approach devoid of the usual slogans and vacuous advice. The entire reason I got into writing about productivity and self-improvement has a lot to do with him
and his work.
Your sources of learnings?
■ The Dhammapada (various translations exist, but I prefer the one by Eknath Easwaran.
I first picked up the Dhammapada as a sophomore in college, when I was really starting to explore who I was going to try to be on my own. It’s such a digestible introduction into a way to see experience and
■ Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes
This book taught me not just that I should question every piece of knowledge I think I have, but also how to do that.
■ Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
I first read this book at a time when I felt so overwhelmed by my work that I wasn’t sure if I should even keep doing it. It is one of the few books that I re-read every year. It’s that valuable.
■ Getting Things Done by David Allen
I hold a special place in my heart for this book. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s not even the system that David created that I love so much, but the underlying philosophy of it. It’s so simple, but yet so rich.
■ The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
This is a cliche, for sure, but it is a great book. Covey’s advice is great for growing your business or getting better at whatever work you do. But it’s also about how to be a better person—better for your friends, family, and community.
■ Farnam Street
■ Ribbon Farm
■ Brain Pickings
■ The Productivity Podcast
■ Love Work
■ After On
■ The Art of Manliness
■ Back to Work (the first 75 – 100 episodes specifically)
■ The GTD podcast
What advice you would give to people looking for success?
My advice to anyone looking to transform their lives would be one of the 7 habits from
Stephen Covey: seek first to understand. Doing this takes a lot of work, but it also yields
benefits in so many other realms. Not only can it make you a better person, and enrich
your personal life, but it can also be the gateway to immense progress in your
professional life. The more I step back and ask questions, withhold judgment, and really
try to understand people and their reasons, the more I learn. Obviously, the more I learn,
the better I become, and the hungrier I am for more knowledge, which keeps on yielding
benefits for me.