The Rise of Personal Infrastructure (Redux)

Image: Shawn Ang/Unsplash

“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” Jay-Z famously raps on the Diamonds remix. There’s a lot of chatter at Twitter about individual people (“creators”) scaling up million dollar businesses. I thought Elaine Pofeldt did it first, but apparently micro ISVs have been around. Either way, this is a growing possibility for more people because of a combination of technology and skills that these people use:

Most of us spend our time in our work; we’re laboring and toiling away to get our tasks done, either for ourselves, for our clients, or for our employers. But every hour we spend in our personal infrastructure will enable us to do things more efficiently or effectively; if we write, then our infrastructure enables us to put ideas together faster. If we need support, we can reach out to people. If we need to print an iPhone dongle, we can use a 3D printer.

With each hour we spend working on our work — working on our personal infrastructure, we’re potentially saving dozens, hundreds, or thousands of hours on future labor.

For years, I just kept it moving without much organization — I was in the work, but had absolutely no personal infrastructure. There’s a fair chance I was the most disorganized writer at Lifehacker. (The Shop Talk column is one of my inspirations for this blog.)

I feared that choosing to get organized would make me like one of those meta-productivity people, who never write about anything besides productivity. Frankly, I never wanted to write a post like this one or the one before. It’s all very “nifty” — very Carlton Banks. And as hellishly boring and geeky as it sounded, it was just like personal finance… i.e., one of the best things I did for myself in the past couple of years.

My first foray into personal infrastructure involved taking notes, which enabled me to write a book — something I’d failed to do for years prior. Since then, I’ve started using a CRM. I’ve been blogging twice a week. I manage my articles in Airtable. If I know a pitch is waiting on a contract, I can easily keep track and follow up.

This is stuff that’s so simple, but I wish I did it years ago. The time I spend building this personal infrastructure has already paid off. I’ve worked without it, I now work with it, and I can say on the other side that this one is more fun and more effective.

A week ago, I responded to Tom Osman’s tweet about how learning automation skills was one of the highest leverage things you can do:

I linked to the blog post, and that led to he and I chatting about personal infrastructure. In my original post, I wrote about some examples of personal infrastructure:

– A note-taking system to support your thinking, capture your experiences, and enable you to mine mental gold.

– Relationships. This might include mastermind communities (e.g., Slack groups, email threads, webinars) where people learn from each other. Or just expanding your network, with requests for introductions. Managing these relationships with personal CRMs like Superphone and Clay. (This is what entrepreneur and recording artist Ryan Leslie means when he talks about making 30 phone calls per day.)

– Equipment including hardware like 3D printers, or software like Norbert. This requires learning new tools and a basic understanding of UX/UI, as well as keeping up with the tools that come out and free alternatives.

– Your own automations and apps, which can be built with code, or with no code (like Zapier, IFTTT). I call these small machines. The greater your understanding of building products, the stronger and more useful these small machines can be.

The smaller the team, down to a team of one person, the more important personal infrastructure is. But it can apply to larger organizations too. For example, Team Garyvee is a part of Gary Vaynerchuk’s infrastructure — but in the vein of personal infrastructure, they’ve since rolled out a service where creators can basically exchange content for exposure. Free content with crowdsourced labor.

Another simple example, which falls into the small machines category: I started using Mailparser to comb through StrictlyVC’s emails and to put the information into a spreadsheet, which was easier for me to work from.

Anyway, during our conversation, Tom asked me, “What is the best personal infrastructure for you as an individual, rather than just kind of tripping into something and using it just because it’s a tool?”

If I could go back and answer it again, my answer would be that personal infrastructure should make boring, dreary, tasks:

  • More fun (like a Dyson does for vacuums)
  • Easier to do (requiring less personal/emotional motivation)
  • Completely automated (so you don’t even need to consider it!)

I came across a good example of the last one when I worked with Tommy Walker as his deputy editor at Shopify Plus. Tommy had this great set up in Trello — for example, clicking a button in a card would send a collaborator an email from me to let them know their work was ready for review. It wouldn’t have taken me long to write it — maybe five minutes, tops — but it really made my life better. I didn’t have a manual task to do after each post, and 12 of those saves me an hour. Tommy’s since worked on way more powerful automations than that now, but that was my first experience which I appreciated.

As a teaser for a future post, I want to leave with two types of personal infrastructure that creates opportunities:

  • Magnets: Stories that float around on the Internet and compel people to reach out to you. My interviews, and this blog, is an example. An engaged audience at Twitter is another example.
  • Pulleys: Tools and techniques that let you do the same tasks with less effort. Standard operating processes, templates, and criteria, are examples.

I haven’t developed these as much yet, but there’s also something to be said for a personal moat (i.e., personal brand, reputation, body of work, credibility), as well as style and language (e.g., a personal design language).
If you want to watch the full interview with Tom, you can check it out here. If you like these types of posts, you might like my book recommendations too. Thanks for reading!

I write about personal and collective growth. Author ‘There Is No Right Way to Do This’ herbertlui.net/reps/

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