Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day - by Todd Henry

Instill consistent practices into your life that keep you on a true and steady course. An ounce of preventative discipline today is worth a pound of corrective action later.

The way that we engage in our work ultimately affects the way that we engage in our life as a whole. As you grow in your capacity to engage in your work, and as you discipline yourself to make continuous growth a part of your daily approach, you will find that latent capacities arise in every area of your life. Don't waste the opportunity.

Avoid comfort--it is dangerous. Greatness emerges when you consistently choose to do what's right, even when it's uncomfortable.

Your Contribution

Principle: Your body of work should reflect what's important to you.

Brilliant work is forged by those who consistently approach their days with urgency and diligence. Urgency means leveraging your finite resources (focus, assets, time, energy) in a meaningful and productive way. Diligence means sharpening your skills and conducting your work in a manner that you won't regret later. I've found that the only way to effectively gauge my work is to answer the question "Can I lay my head down tonight satisfied with the work I did today?" This exact question is posted prominently on my computer monitor, where I see it daily.

Even small amounts of success can be the harbinger of complacency--or worse, paralysis--because every milestone you reach ushers in new uncertainty. Where to now? What are the next logical steps? Does this work still matter, or is it time to change course? Because we are biologically hardwired to form habits around rewarding activity, when we accomplish a goal or taste the sweet fruit of success, it's tempting to keep pushing the same levers over and over again. However, this approach is often a fast track to mediocrity. The key to long-term success is a willingness to disrupt your own comfort for the sake of continued growth. To that end, how you choose to stare down uncertainty is often the determinant of success or failure. You can either operate by design, meaning that you put specific measures in place to keep you energized, self-aware, and operating at full capacity, or you operate by default, doing what seems comfortable or easy in the moment until your next steps become more clear. (Hint: they won't.)

  • Mapping is fairly straightforward. It's planning, plotting your objectives, and setting priorities. It's the "work before the work" that helps you ensure you're spending your focus, time, and energy in the right places.

  • Making is actually doing the work.

  • Meshing involves all of the "work between the work" that actually makes you effective. It's composed of activities that stretch and grow you, such as acquiring and developing new skills, reinforcing or enhancing your knowledge, cultivating your curiosity, or generating a better understanding of the context for your work. It's also composed of critical disciplines such as paying attention to the adjacent spaces in your industry and engaging in activities that may not have an immediate payoff, but position you to be more effective in the coming days.

The Siren Song of Mediocrity

Principle: Mediocrity doesn't just happen suddenly; it develops slowly over time.

No one charts a course for mediocrity, yet it's still a destination of choice. It's chosen in small ways over time, and those tiny, seemingly inconsequential decisions accumulate until they result in a state of crisis. By that point, making a change often feels overwhelming. The key to avoiding this slippery slope isn't just to work harder or longer; it's to ensure that you are intentionally disrupting your own work rather than circling the wagons and protecting the ground you've already taken.

Seven Deadly Sins of Mediocrity

  • Aimlessness. Aimlessness is a destructive force because it removes both the joy of success and the gratification that comes from hard, focused work. In order to be effective and contribute meaningfully, you need to apply points of traction in your life to prevent aimlessness from becoming the norm. You have to define the battles that are important to you, and align your resources to fight them. The key to conquering aimlessness is to concretely define the battles that you need to fight each day in order to make meaningful progress, then focus your efforts on those above all else.

  • Boredom. The cure for boredom is intentional and applied curiosity.

  • Comfort. When comfort becomes the goal of life, we cannibalize future progress for the sake of temporary stability. The key to overcoming the ill effects of a love of comfort is a commitment to continual growth and skill development. You must identify relevant skills that will help you continue to contribute, build practices into your life to help you develop them, and have frequent checkpoints through which you gauge your progress and redirect as necessary.

  • Delusion. You need to cultivate self-awareness. You must have an accurate sense of your skills, your weaknesses, and your core drivers. Then, you need to orient your daily activity around that self-knowledge so that you are building on a solid foundation rather than on wishful thinking.

  • Ego. To countermand ego, you must adopt a posture of adaptability. This means being in a state of continual learning and openness to correction.

  • Fear. The key to countermanding fear is to instill a practice of strategic, intentional, and purposeful risk-taking in your life and work.

  • Guardedness. The solution to guardedness is to build a system of checks into your life to help you scan for relational outages, and to remedy them before they become destructive. You must be on the lookout for the Seven Deadly Sins of Mediocrity and eliminate them whenever you can. The best defense is almost always an at-the-ready offense.

Define Your Battles

Principle: To counter aimlessness, you must define your battles wisely, and build your life around winning them.


What will I stand for today? Look at your calendar and your task list. Think through potential challenges you may face, and how you will deal with them if they arise. What will you refuse to compromise on? What battles will you be required to fight? What one action will I take today on a forgotten battlefront? Look at your list of things you need to be acting on, and choose one activity to engage in today that will move the project forward. It doesn't have to be huge, but make sure it's something you value. What open loop can I close? Examine your list of open loops, and choose one to close today. It could be a conversation you've been avoiding or a project that you need to decline. Open loops will weigh you down and steal energy from your more pressing, mission-critical work. Dedicate fifteen to thirty minutes today to act on an open loop and make progress in a meaningful way to close it.

Be Fiercely Curious

Principle: To prevent boredom from dulling your senses, you must approach your work with a curious mind-set.


Commit to asking better questions and paying attention to where your mind naturally wants to go. It's a challenge, because from the time we're very young we're told to "stay on task" and to "stop daydreaming." However, those little mental diversions can be the source of incredible value over the long term. Start a log of questions, and review them daily. Keep it in your notebook, on an index card, or on your phone or computer. Make sure you add to it often. Write down anything that strikes you as curious. "How do squirrels know where they've buried nuts?" or "How does a touch screen work?" are on the same footing here. If it's something you have a question about, it belongs on your list. Set aside time to pursue your questions. Start with an hour a week, and over time you may want to increase that to as much as an hour a day. Use this time to investigate your questions, take notes, and think about how what you've learned may apply to your work. You may be surprised at how seemingly unrelated things can be strangely similar, or at how often your pursuit of a curiosity will lead to a solution to a vexing problem you've been facing. Start and end each day with reflection on what you've learned. We'll discuss this further in a later chapter, but make sure that your learning is not lost due to a lack of reflection. Begin each day with the question "What do I want to learn today?" and end it with "What did I learn today?" Don't just stare at your problems. Ask a lot of questions, and surround your problems in order to see them from all angles. Use the four A's to find the edges of your problem, and play with them until you break through your blocks. While luck and serendipity do occur, most brilliant breakthroughs will result from deep immersion in a problem, and from asking the right set of probing questions. Share this principle: Connect with a colleague or friend on a regular basis to share your questions and what's inspiring you, and to challenge each other with new ideas. The best way to stay inspired and curious is to have a discipline of engaging in stimulating conversation with others about ideas that matter to you.

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

Principle: To make a valuable contribution, you have to get uncomfortable and embrace lifelong growth and skill development.

You must willfully adopt a default position of "yes." To make something valuable is to first say yes, then sort out the details on the other side. I've learned to treat the very act of saying yes as a victory; simply saying yes to the next step, the next task, the next conversation. If I do this enough times in a row, I will keep stretching myself out of my comfort zone, and I will eventually make something worthwhile.

No matter what's happened in your past, today you established a new vector. You set a course for the rest of your life. Where is that vector leading?


When you look back on your life, the moments you will be most proud of will likely be the ones where you stepped out of your comfort zone in the pursuit of something you believed in. Don't allow the lull of comfort to keep you trapped in a place of complacency and subpar engagement. Think about the following: Is there a key area of your life where fear of harm, identity protection, love of stability, or ego are keeping you from saying yes to an opportunity? Take a few moments to consider the important decisions you're currently facing, and whether one (or more) of these might be playing a factor. NOTE: "No" is not always the wrong answer, if it's a strategic choice. The important principle is to not allow your default posture to be no. Is there any area of your life where you are staying safely in your comfort zone rather than stretching yourself to grow? If so, what are you going to do about it? Set a stretch goal in the four key areas (business/work, mental, relational, personal/spiritual), then determine the sprint and step goals that will help you accomplish your long-term plans. Share this principle: Ask a friend or colleague to hold you accountable for achieving a stretch goal, and to check in with you routinely to see if you are hitting your step and sprint goals. Do the same for them so that you are working toward something together. Make sure to celebrate when you achieve your goals.

Know Yourself

Principle: Knowing yourself will help you counter self-delusion and pursue the unique contribution you alone are capable of making.

The key is to find a balance between introspection and flow. Choose a few key moments throughout your day when you can pause to examine your methods, then get out of your own way and dive into your work.

Establish Your Code of Ethics

Values alone, while important, are inadequate to drive daily action. They are passive, not active imperatives. Instead of falling back on a set of passive values, you must transform them into a code of ethics--a set of operating instructions for your daily activity. This "code of ethics" is a series of words that concretely defines how you will engage in your work. It defines ahead of time how you will make decisions, interact with others, and make choices when things get difficult. To establish your code of ethics, dedicate a few hours to reflecting on your life and work and how you might want to engage differently. Consider the conclusions you came to when examining the people you admire, and while excavating the narratives/assumptions you carry. Were there any themes that you discovered? What characteristics of your heroes do you wish to emulate? What patterns/narratives/assumptions do you want to break? How would you want others to describe you? Begin writing words that describe how you'd like to engage in your work. Don't self-edit, and write as many as you can come up with. Once you have a good pool of candidates, narrow it down to three or four. (No more, as you can't focus on too many at once.) Write them on an index card, or on a sticky note, and put them someplace you'll see them frequently.


Living in a state of self-delusion will ultimately lead to wasted focus, time, and energy. You can't be afraid of the truth, and you can't allow false narratives to distract you. Instead, determine how you will engage your day according to what matters most to you, then carefully integrate that code of ethics into your work. Examine your calendar today, and consider how you will implement your code of ethics as you engage in tasks, meetings, and relationships. Will any of these be especially challenging? Why? Consider how you will handle any potential pitfalls or challenges ahead of time so that you aren't acting reflexively in the moment. Create (or check) your "watch list" of beliefs or narratives that affect your ability to dedicate yourself fully to your work or negatively affect your work. Keeping them in mind will help you stay alert to their appearance throughout your day.

Be Confidently Adaptable

Principle: Confidence and adaptability prevent an inflated ego from stalling progress on your most important work.

To perform a personal SWOT analysis, dedicate about thirty minutes to the exercise, and ask yourself the following:

  • Strengths: What unique value am I able to add consistently? What have I recently discovered I'm good at?

  • Weaknesses: What activities am I consistently poor at, despite my best effort? Is there a way to improve my skills in the more crucial areas where I'm failing?

  • Opportunities: Where do I have the most potential to add value over the coming weeks or months? How can I position myself to do so?

  • Threats: Where am I most vulnerable, and where do I have the most likely chance of failing over the coming term? How can I mitigate the chance of failure?

Once you've taken the time to analyze each of these elements, develop a plan of action to help you act based upon what you observe. How can you structure your days so that you can better leverage your strengths and minimize your dependence on areas where you are weakest? How can you cultivate your focus, time, and energy to leverage your upcoming opportunities? How can you decrease the chances you'll fall prey to threat areas?


Ego is an especially sinister foe because it often comes disguised as justice. It's easy to convince yourself that you're entitled to things you're not getting, and that your actions are warranted because you've not been appropriately recognized for past performance. However, it's also easy to allow this sense of entitlement or the need for control to become a stumbling block in your engagement. Is there a place in your life where ego might be getting in the way of your work? Are you playing the victim, withholding effort, or feeling entitled in an unhealthy way? What can you do to rectify it? In what way could you encourage someone today (writing a note, making a call, etc.)? Dedicate some time this evening to do a SWOT analysis. Does anything surprise you?

Find Your Voice

Principle: Find your voice and conquer the fear of failure by taking small, calculated risks each day.

Set aside some time every week to play with ideas and toy with possibilities. It's important not to set expectations for this block of time.

What skills have you previously deemed irrelevant that might be helpful in your current work? How can you apply them in order to unlock a unique perspective or open new paths of exploration?

Great work results when you stop doing only what you know you can do and instead begin pursuing what you believe you might be able to do with a little focused effort.

Stay Connected

Principle: Establishing genuine connections with others will prevent guardedness from infecting your life.

Just as a mirror allows you to see your true appearance, other people in our life can serve to help you see beyond your assumptions and blind spots. Identify a few specifics you'd like them to watch for.

Do not treat your relationships haphazardly. Be intentional, and treat them as an opportunity to both serve and be served. Be generous, aggressively honest, and do your best each day to close any open loops.


Set aside ten to fifteen minutes each day to perform a daily checkpoint. The daily checkpoint is designed to help you determine how you will engage your day, and to predetermine how you handle any obstacles that arise on your path to getting your best work out of you.

E: Focus on your Ethics

With your code of ethics on hand, do the following.

  • Look at today's appointments, commitments, and tasks. Review everything that will require your focus, time, and energy today.

  • Consider how you will apply your ethic to each of them.

  • Consider potential pitfalls. Determine in advance how you are going to deal with challenges when they arise.

M: Focus on your Mission

As you survey your daily commitments, ask yourself the following.

  • Is there a step goal on the agenda for today? Determine how you will know if your day was a success, and commit to working until you've achieved it. Be realistic, and realize that big, long-term success is actually the result of a long string of daily successes.

  • What isn't already represented? What have you been meaning to do, but haven't made the effort to work it into your daily routine? Do you need to add a task, a call, or some other kind of action to your day? What do you need to start that you've been putting off?

  • What needs to go away? You must prune your life so that your most important priorities can have the focus, time, and energy they need from you.

P: Focus on People

Take a minute to consider the relationships in your life, and specifically those you'll engage in today.

  • Who will you interact with today? For a brief minute, consider them, what you value about them, and any outstanding issues that may need to be resolved.

  • Are there any open relationship loops to close? Is there anyone you need to reconnect with or write a note to?

  • How can you serve others today? It's easy to allow relationships to slip into autopilot, or to take them for granted. How could you surprise someone today with generosity or encouragement?

T: Focus on Tasks

The nitty-gritty part of your day.

  • Consider your daily priorities. What absolutely must get done today, and when will you do it?

  • Define your projects. Take a few minutes to make certain that the problems you were solving yesterday are still the problems you're working to solve today. Don't get carried along by your work--define it, daily.

Y: Focus on You

  • What will you do today to develop yourself? Are you learning a new skill, tackling a passion project, or pursuing a specific curiosity? Will you take a risk to try something new? Commit today to doing something that will stretch you beyond your present bound and force you to grow.

  • What do you need to start moving on? Is there anything you're feeling a sense of urgency to start? Get started. Today's the day.

  • Be grateful. Take a few minutes to be grateful for your life.

  • Dream a little. Spend some time dreaming a bit about what you'd like to see happen. In an ideal world, how would you spend your days, what kinds of opportunities would you have, and who would you interact with? Are there latent dreams or ambitions that you've allowed to fall to the side that you need to pick up, dust off, and begin acting on?

Valuing the Process

Make sure that you're nurturing your process. It's the only thing you can truly control, and it's the thing you'll always have regardless of where you end up. The best way to nurture and fall in love with process is by implementing these daily checkpoints to keep you doing the things that truly matter.

Don't Give In to the "Lag"

The lag is the gap between cause and effect. It's the season between planting a seed and reaping a harvest. It's the time when all the work you've done seems to have returned little to no visible reward, and there is little on the horizon to indicate that things are going to get better. When you are in the lag, the only thing that keeps you moving forward are (a) confidence in your vision and ability to bring it to fruition, (b) a willingness to say no to other things that tempt you to divert from your course, and (c) daily, diligent, urgent process. Urgency and diligence are the foundation of "hustle," and hustle is the best antidote to lifelong regret. If you hustle, you never have to wonder "what if?" It's difficult to hustle when you're in the lag, because you experience all the pain with little return, but without the effort you won't get to experience the rewards.