Meet Steph Smith, a world traveler, self-taught developer, independent creator, and eloquent writer. I'm impressed by her work ethic and productivity and learned a lot reading her blog.

In this interview, Steph Smith shares habits and routines allowing her to travel the world (52 countries and counting), run a remote team and create digital products.

Steph Smith

Steph Smith is the Head of Publications at Toptal, a serial maker, and a supporter of women in technology.

Outside of leading a remote team of a few dozen, she is a self-taught developer that builds projects related to women in technology, remote work, and self-improvement.

She’s launched products that have hit #1 on Product Hunt, articles that have trended the top of Hacker News, and was nominated for Maker of the Year in 2018.

What Are the Most Influential Habits in Your Life?

In order to even start considering positive habits, I’ve found it immensely impactful to first limit or remove negative habits. These may hold different a form across each person’s life, but for me, this has meant not watching any TV, limiting time on social media, and removing negative relationships from my life. Once these elements are reduced or removed, I naturally have a lot more energy and time to invest in things that I care about.

From there, I think it’s essential to train yourself to make a habit of doing difficult, yet impactful things. To be clear, there is a significant difference between negative habits like watching TV which are typically easy to engage with, and difficult things which may not be easy, but lead you in the right direction. Some examples of difficult things are: waking up early, consistently working out, and putting in the work even when you don’t quite “feel like it.”

It’s easy to live a life without pushing yourself, but as Alex Honnold once said, “No one achieves anything great by being happy and cosy.”

The idea here is not to be perfect, but to consistently make a habit of pushing towards your goals - whatever those might be - especially when it is tough. On top of that premise, it’s important to, as much as possible, put yourself in an environment that enables your success. People often underestimate the impact of their surroundings on their behaviour and think that success is an outcome of others having more willpower or discipline. While there is some truth to this, the environment that you put yourself in can have an even greater influence.

As a simple and personal example, I eat much healthier in Bali than I do back home or essentially anywhere else in the world. Not because Bali helps me develop a keener sense of willpower, but because my surroundings make it easy for me to live that way.

To put it bluntly, I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment. – James Clear, Atomic Habits

Finally, to augment the concepts above, I’ve found it immensely influential to visualize life as an evolution of compound growth. In doing so, I’ve learned to focus more on micro habits versus macro changes (which will rarely happen). This has enabled me to set goals that are more digestible.

How Do You Manage Time?

I set yearly and quarterly goals which help orient me in the right direction. From there, I track my daily progress in a spreadsheet so that I have evidence of my performance and accountability.

I think this is the most important step that anyone can take. We are quick to set KPIs in our business or work lives, yet rarely set them and measure them in our personal lives. Without this tracking, many people have little idea how they’re doing, and more specifically how their daily habits impact their progress.

For example, say that someone wants to learn to code. Instead of tracking their daily progress towards the goal, they often just set a high level goal (perhaps at New Years) that they have the intention to learn. They may spend a few days invested over the course of a few weeks before eventually quitting. If you were to ask them about how much time they invested in the process and more importantly, what was working or not working, they typically have little idea.

I use a Google spreadsheet not only as tracking, but to further understand how I operate. I track anything that is important in my life, including learning to code, exercise, contacting my family, writing, and more. My spreadsheet feeds directly into my Open page, which I share publicly for additional accountability.

In terms of more daily behaviours, I like to have a short-term, medium-term, and long-term to-do list. This breaks up my to-dos into something more digestible, instead of a huge to-do list that has varying levels of implementability. On top of that, I’ve been experimenting with time-boxing for daily tasks, to make sure that I stay focused and maximize my time.

Finally, I like to think of my time across meta and absolute tasks. Below is a snippet from my most popular article, which gives insight into the way I think about my time.

My definition of meta work is the following: “If you did that activity continuously for a year, would your life be any different?”

If I answered emails every day for the next year, would my life have changed in any significant way? In other words, would I have moved from A to B? The answer is no.

The same thing is true for things like laundry or buying groceries or doing your nails. Oh yes, Netflix fits neatly in there too.

There’s a second type of task which I label as absolute tasks. If done consistently, you would likely see your skillset or life change in a material way. For example: if you read every day for a year, your knowledge set, creativity, and reading speed would all likely improve. If you exercised every day, your health would undoubtedly improve. Similarly, if you dedicated 1 hour every day to learn to code, you would have an entirely new skillset by the end of the year.

While meta tasks are unavoidable in life, make sure that your goals in life are not meta — they need to be absolute. When you create your to-do list for the day, make sure at least one thing is absolute (remember: 1.01³⁶⁵ = 37.8). And of course, when you can: automate as many of the meta tasks as you can. Meta tasks in many ways can be synonymous with distractions unless they bring some sort of independent joy to your life.

With the understanding of meta and absolute tasks, I like to reflect on my progress each day to understand whether I have achieved at least one absolute task. This, by nature, ensures that I am moving in the right direction.

Can You Describe Your Work Process and Thinking Behind It?

I don’t have a super discrete process that I follow as I believe some degree if flexibility is essential in my ability to accomplish more. However, I try to operate by a few principles:

  1. The most important thing to do is actively prioritizing. Prioritizing is not just a process of saying yes, but is just as much a function of saying no. This is something I’ve improved on over time through truly internalizing that everything in life is a trade-off.
  2. Particularly with writing or tasks that I sometimes struggle with, I try to write when I’m “on” and capitalize on that interval. For example, I can write a solid draft in a matter of hours if I’m in the right headpsace, but if I’m distracted or unmotivated, I could easily write for an entire day and end up with nothing tangible. No one is ever in their optimal space of productivity, so I think it’s really important to capitalize on the periods that you are.
  3. Focusing on making progress across projects consistently. I recently learned of a concept of “zero acceleration, constant non-zero velocity.” It’s the concept that you don’t constantly need to be looking for ways to outpace yourself, but instead making consistent progress over time. As long as your velocity is not zero or moving in the wrong direction, you are making progress. I try to ensure this is true across the various initiatives I work on by tracking my daily efforts across each.

How Do You Train Your Body and Mind?

The most influential development in my life over the past few years has been investing in reading. Prior to 2017, I never really thought of myself as a “reader” and thus, never engaged in it.

Since incorporating reading into my life, I’ve learned an immense amount about the world and myself, both of which have fueled my ability to achieve more.

Through this, I have also developed a yearn to continuously learn. I think it’s very naive for anyone to think that at any given time they’re at their maximum potential or level of achievement. One of the best ways to move yourself forward is to learn from those who have lived before you and packaged their best learnings into something digestible (ie: a book). I personally have an affinity for non-fiction; particularly books related to psychology, personal development, and business. If you are interested in similar topics, I have put together a list of my favourite books here.

In addition to reading, I am constantly learning new skills. For the past year or so, learning to code has been my core focal point. Due to prioritizing it and investing hundreds of hours there, I have now launched multiple applications which have even led to a few awards along the way. It’s important to have goals that span outside of your work life, to continuously stay challenged and also to stay relevant. In this context, I think it’s helpful to think of your brain as a muscle that can be trained.

I also engage in yoga multiple times a week, along with other forms of physical activity. I’ve never been a “gym person,” so as mentioned earlier, I try to design my environment and locate myself in places where other athletic activity is readily available. It’s very difficult to have a healthy and active mind without a healthy and active body, so I try to make time for both.

How Do You Meet and Connect with People?

Being active in specific communities; ie: finding people with common interests.

I’m fortunate enough to work remotely, so I’ve developed relationships around the world as I have traveled, typically through coworking spaces and events. I also work for a company, Toptal, that’s fully distributed and focuses on community heavily.

I realize that not everyone has the ability to live as such, so I encourage people to seek those who are working towards similar goals. It’s likely that those communities exist, whether in person or online. In the rare cases that you can’t find “your people,” I would encourage you to start your own community. I’ve personally found that one of the best places online to find like-minded people, particularly in technology, is Twitter.

For example, I was recently looking for others that were learning to code recently and didn’t find the right community that was focused solely that. I decided to post on Twitter and had a really strong response. Within days, I started a small community of 60 people and built a simple tool for our group to track and work towards their goals.

What Are Your Sleeping Rituals?

It’s no secret that a lot of “successful” people wake up early, have a morning routine, and develop a consistent sleep schedule.

I have personally never been able to achieve this and have found that staying flexible works more effectively for me. Of course, my ability to work remotely enables this flexibility and I utilize it to get my best work done when I’m “on.”

Sometimes this means first thing in the morning, but often it’s late at night. Instead of developing a concrete sleeping ritual, I focus on optimizing for when I’m at my best and then I fill in the gaps.

What Are Your Investing Habits?

Finding financial stability is such an impactful achievement in anyone’s life that can have an immense psychological impact. Having financial security removes a psychological burden from your daily decision making and enables you to make better decisions.

I was able to achieve financial stability a few years ago by incorporating the following practices:

  1. If you have debt, focus on paying it off as soon as possible. This is an obvious statement, but when you have debt, your money doesn’t work for you, but instead against you. I lived at home my first year of work so that essentially my entire paycheck could go towards reducing my debt.
  2. Build a yearly financial model. It doesn’t need to be super robust, but it should give you a basic idea of what you expect to make, to spend, and to invest over time.
  3. Depending on your financial situation, try to set a monthly spend number that will allow you to be happy with your investing goals. So long as you stay within that spending threshold, I would encourage you to not overanalyze each purchase. That type of relationship with money can become tiring and detrimental.
  4. At the end of each month, revisit your monthly spending to understand where your money is going. Don’t overanalyze, but be aware of your high-level allocation. For example, do you know whether a majority of your money is going towards rent? Food? Things?
  5. This is a personal choice, but I would recommend spending on experiences and not things. The accumulation of things over time can also be a mental burden.
  6. The one thing that I would absolutely recommend investing in is good technology. Good technology saves you time and headache. If you value your time (which you should) and do the math, you will quickly understand the value of investing in high-quality technology.
  7. With the amount of money that you have allocated to investing, trust in compound interest and don’t try to get rich quickly.

What's One Question That Helped You Understand the World Better?

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again. – Steve Jobs

I have learned over time that no one truly “knows” what they’re doing. I think many people have an impression that others have life figured out and utilize this impression to justify why they can’t or shouldn’t do X.

It’s extremely eye-opening and enabling to realize that the rest of the world is operating just as you are: they’re figuring things out along the way.

What Books, People, Experiences Shaped Your Thinking?

As mentioned in a previous section, books have greatly shaped my thinking. My favourite book to date is Man’s Search for Meaning. Other notable books that have significantly impacted the way I think and therefore, the way I live, include Algorithms to Live By, The Power of Habit, and Give and Take. You can find a full list of my favourite books here.

There are far too many people that have inspired me throughout my years. In fact, I can attribute a lot of my personal growth to learning from others. My parents in particular have always provided me the confidence that anything is within my grasp if I work hard enough.