Execution, naturally, is the foundation of becoming a full-time author (or a full-time anything, really). The difference with working for oneself, however, is that external constructs like bosses and steady paychecks no longer exist. And without these factors pressing us into action each morning, we can find our time drift into ethereal nothingness.
The 3 x 3 system is a very simple solution to this problem. Like any system, it is not the only solution. And we will cover the building blocks of productivity at the end, so that you can manipulate the variables to your personal strengths. However, this system has a few advantages: it is simple, lightweight, and most importantly, flexible. Thus, you can adjust the difficulty and demands based on your current available time.
More important than time, however, is skill. And productivity, really, is a latticework of sub-skills that must be developed through practice. It takes years to know oneself. Let’s begin that journey now.
Most of productivity is dictated by your energy and habits. Your habits control most of your energy, so when you’re forming habits (which we’ll talk about in a little bit) it’s critical to focus on these areas:
- Sleep. The best potent productivity hack ever. You can ignore everything else here and just get enough sleep, and you will see your output and work quality soar. It is that important.
- Exercise. The research suggests that resistance (strength) training offers both the best aesthetic and practical health benefits (longevity/cognitive effects/mood/mobility).
- Work at times of peak focus. There are pockets of the day where you’re extremely sharp, and others where you’re not. These high-impact hours might be worth 10 or 50x more than when you’re half-asleep. Use them wisely – don’t spend your peak hours on Facebook or playing Call of Duty.
The 3 x 3 System
The 3 x 3 system is so-named because there are three groups of three items each that comprise what you must do each day.
The three core elements of becoming a full-time author are:
Many (not all) full-time artists spend about 2 – 5 hours a day performing focused work or practice. We’ll split the difference and use three hours as our benchmark. Three hours a day, split between these three tasks, over three years, gives you a good shot at making a decent part-time income or going full-time. How can that be? Three hours of focused work a day is probably more than many authors are doing.
And assuming 1,000 words/hr and 60 pages read/hr, over three years that would come out to:
- 12 – 15 full-length novels published
- 150 books in the sub-genre (or about writing/marketing) read
- Your entire marketing funnel set up, ready to go, with a good understanding of things like Facebook, BookBub, and Amazon Ads (my preferred methods for generating traffic)
If you can’t invest three hours a day, don’t worry. You can scale the system down to meet yourself where you are. It’s also important to note that you shouldn’t blindly adhere to the three hours ideal. This is just a heuristic with the following principle underpinning it: intense work, focused on the right things can produce significant results in a very short period of time. While you don’t have direct control over your earnings or when something will happen (remember our discussion of the 80/20 rule, wherein 20% of your series will pull most of the weight), you do have control over the number of quality swings you take.
There are days, of course, where you’ll need to hit the accelerator and work eight hours. Twelve. That’s just part of life. But I think, from my own endeavors over the past year where I’ve worked more and more, that too much of this is counterproductive. Because the biggest sacrifice you make when you’re always busy is the time to think and reflect. Both of which are crucial as an author, where most of your work is simply some manifestation of your thoughts placed into digital or print form.
Putting in three hours a day equals somewhere between 2,200 and 3,000 hours invested in your business over three years. If you put that toward the right things and have a clear core objective acting as your North Star (recall our discussion on the importance of strategy), then you can cut through the clutter and focus intensely on what matters.
You do not have to spend time each day performing each task. You can make each one a habit – for example, 1/1/1 (one hour each). Or you could do three hours of writing a day for three weeks, then switch into marketing mode for the launch. This is something closer to what I do, although I condense the writing further over 7 – 10 days.
I do not recommend by starting with all three habits, tempting as that may be. Instead, I recommend starting with the most important one.
And I recommend with starting at an hour max. That may be a struggle at first, so it’s best to have an accurate assessment of your focus immediately. And more importantly, you might find that you don’t need a whole lot more time than that if you’re efficient.
To reiterate, here’s the 3 x 3 system:
- Focus on these three things: writing, marketing, and reading.
- Invest three hours in them daily for 5 – 6 days a week.
- Do this for three years.
That’s it. Dead simple. But trickier to execute than you might expect at first glance for two reasons: one, three hours of intense work is difficult, so most people will likely have to work up to this. And two, we need a system for forming effective habits. Which we’re going to implement and test over five days.
Most Important Task + Writing Habit
This is the 3 x 3 system at its most refined. Instead of doing three things each day, we only do two. And it takes about an hour.
I believe that, if you use your time wisely, you can accomplish similar results as many authors working five or ten hours a day.
This is simple: you write out your most important task on a note card the night before. It should take no longer than an hour; anything else is too large and onerous to get started on. You can work for more than an hour, but ultimately that should be a choice based on energy and focus.
Use your best hour of the day for this. If that’s not possible, try the first hour of the day (before work/other BS sneaks in).
Anything left over from that hour goes to writing new words. You can also make it so that the writing habit has its own set amount of time or word count, which will run you a bit more than an hour.
Using this system, you’re spending your best hour of the day doing your most important tasks. Note that you can implement a different habit than writing (exercise, meditation, reading – whatever you’d like). And not all writers really gel with a daily writing habit (I don’t). But if you can write daily, it’s a valuable skill that produces consistent releases. Thus, it’s worth experimenting a little to see if you can establish a daily writing habit.
Since habits are the foundation of this, let’s talk about how to form them.
The Habit System
- Start with one core objective or your #1 problem. You can address more things later, but at the beginning, focus on one. [ex. be a full-time writer]
- Take one project that will move you closer to your core objective. [ex. write a 60,000 word novel]
- Eliminate or delegate all tasks that do not help you achieve this core objective.
- Reverse-engineer this into one daily habit or one task that potentially brings you closer to that core objective or solves that problem. Factor slack into the plan for off-days, rest, and disruptions. [ex. write 1,000 words a day]
- Employ hard deadlines, accountability, and competition particularly if you’re more motivated by external pressure. [ex. set up a pre-order 75 days from now, agree to pay your friend $100 for every day you don’t write]
- Manipulate friction by introducing obstacles to negative behaviors and reducing barriers to positive behaviors. [ex. keep your work-in-progress open on your computer, unplug router while working, keep junk food or booze out of the house]
- Work right at the edge of your ability to maximize production (flow); calibrate difficulty based on current skill to maximize progress (practice). [ex. have a specific song or album that triggers your first writing session, work at 5 – 25% beyond your current ability]
- Organize your system and tasks into a few central locations so that you can track key metrics, then iterate, optimize, calibrate (according to your skill/time/objective), and scale based on data and feedback. [ex. check off each day you write, log your word count and hours for the day, increase your word count habit after fourteen days of consecutive writing]
- It may be necessary to start again with a new habit or approach if your initial approach isn’t working (or you can’t adhere to it). This may look like failure, but it’s actually progress.
That’s it. Again, recall from before that we’re trying to become a double T-shaped individual: a broad level of knowledge (flat part of the T) with at least two pro-level skills (the vertical parts of the double T). Thus, we repeat this process for as long as it takes to reach your target level of skill or objective. Then apply the process to new skills to form a unique skill set that reduces your competition.
This is the simplest part in theory, but often the hardest in practice. We have mental hang-ups about leaving things undone. The irony, of course, is that the more stuff we say “I’ll do it someday” to, the less we can possibly get done. And all the little inconsequential projects and tasks that we do finish don’t move us toward our core objective.
Thus, our first order of business is simple: set a timer for 25 minutes. Take out our task list.
And then press start, and eliminate everything that has no impact on your core objective. Be ruthless. If it is of marginal utility, it must be removed. If it is of negative utility, but you feel compelled by “musts” and “shoulds,” you must train this by striking it from the list.
Your goal is to remove 100 tasks from your to-do list. If your task list is not that long,
This serves two purposes: one, it instantly relieves your workload and de-stresses you. While your task list might seem insurmountable, thus resulting in inaction, in truth, you may have two things you need to do.
The rest of the process above is likely familiar. However, since habits form naturally, their construction process can seem opaque and impossible to crack. Luckily there’s an easy three-part formula to creating or changing new habits:
- Trigger (also called the “cue” or the “antecedent”)
- Behavior (i.e. the habit in question)
- Reward (also called the “consequence” in psychological literature)
You’ll notice that, if you use the official psychological nomenclature, this sequence forms an easy-to-remember acronym: A-B-C (antecedent-behavior-consequence). I prefer using the terms “trigger” and “reward,” however, since they better capture the spirit of those two components.
Most of us attempt to alter our behavior by addressing the behavior itself. Unfortunately, removing a behavior is a poor way of inciting change. This is because of Hebb’s Law, which states that neurons that fire together, wire together.
With repetition, these neural circuits become stronger and more efficient. Eventually they form a habit, which means the trigger-behavior-reward actions are bundled together in a neural link within your brain. Since they’ve formed as a unit, they must be treated as such. Subsequently, we must start at the beginning of the chain—the trigger—and also examine the benefits of a habit—the reward—to fully deconstruct and alter our behavior.
There are literally dozens of daily habits you can install. Unfortunately, behavioral change is difficult, and implementing too many changes at once is disastrous.
In fact, implementing more than one major change at a time—without some sort of external mandate (e.g. a job/school)—is a recipe for failure.
Note that certain positive habits don’t need to be tracked or developed. As an example, I read and market regularly, without any sort of set schedule, tracking system, or specific design. I do these things because I enjoy them. You typically have to use the system outlined above, and consciously design your habits when desirable behaviors aren’t sticking or you’re finding that undesirable behaviors have taken root. I did nothing to develop my reading habit other than buying books that I enjoyed and leaving them around my house (e.g. having lots of potential triggers). For marketing, I enjoy running ads, and the variable reward of creating a winning ad keeps me coming back.
My first strategy, in fact, when testing a new behavior isn’t anything fancy or complicated. I don’t start tracking or designing habits or anything else.
I just try it and see if I like it.
That’s because the easiest habit formation strategy is doing things you enjoy. This goes for habits you need to actively design, too; even if you don’t like eating healthy, there will be foods you like or can tolerate (carrots/peppers for me) and ones you will not eat under any circumstances (GTFO, salmon). There are multiple ways to achieve the same objective. Nietzsche said it best: “Many people are obstinate about the path once it is taken, few people about the destination.”
If an objective matters, be extremely unreasonable about the outcome, but extremely flexible on the habits and system that gets you there.
By the way, since you might be thinking that’s great about liking stuff, but can you reach a professional level letting the chips fall where they may?
Yes. I read a ton of books about marketing (and other topics). I earn a full-time income between my marketing clients and courses.
That being said, certain things need to get done…and maybe that’s just not happening. Which is where understanding habit design is critical. And the most important components? Triggers and rewards.
Triggers and Rewards
Counterintuitively, the best way change a behavior is not by adjusting the behavior itself, but the triggers immediately preceding it (which ignite the chain) and the rewards coming immediately thereafter (which reinforce the behavior). Most of us focus on eliminating the behavior itself (known as extinguishing). This is possible, but it’s generally much easier to either remove triggers entirely or repurpose them for other habits.
Things like waking up or lunch are great triggers to build habits and routines around, since they occur without input from you. Other common actions—coffee drinking, sitting down—also make for great triggers.
The key here is consistency. The best triggers occur reliably on a daily basis, with minimal (preferably no) input on your part. Automatic reminders (reminders on your phone or calendar) are also great triggers. When you have to remember a specific trigger, that adds another potential point of failure to your fledgling habits. Triggers include:
- Locations or environments
- Sensory stimuli (sounds/sights/smells)
- Common repetitive actions (going down the stairs, entering a room)
- Reminders (e.g. notes or automated messages/emails from software/apps)
- Conscious actions (e.g. sitting down at your computer, having a cup of coffee, putting on a specific song)
- Automatic actions (e.g. waking up)
Understanding triggers was eye-opening for me and totally reshaped how I approached behavior change.
But the reward at the end of the habit formation process is also important.
Rewards are just positive consequences of the behavior. These can either be intrinsic (e.g. the satisfaction of having written) or extrinsic (watching a TV show). There’s generally a focus on intrinsic rewards, but nothing suggests that these are better for forming habits. So just choose what works best for you. And please, whatever you choose for a reward—be it a snack, TV show, YouTube video, or some reading time—make sure it’s something you actually enjoy. A plain chicken breast is not a reward for a workout, and instead associates negative feelings with the preceding behavior.
Note that a reward does not have to be a grand gesture. It can be as simple as checking off your habit in your tracker or giving yourself simple praise like “good work.” This type of brief self-talk is helpful for course correcting in the moment and reshaping your mindset (over time).
One other interesting wrinkle on rewards is the concept of variable rewards. This is the driving force behind why we get stuck checking email or social media, playing games like World of Warcraft (which have randomized loot drops), or playing slot machines. The random rewards actually build more powerful habits than a guaranteed reward.
Experimenting with different rewards and triggers is critical. If a habit doesn’t stick, then try troubleshooting the reward or trigger first as the first part of your calibration process.
Let’s say you get an hour break for lunch at work, and would like to use that time more efficiently. You probably already have an existing set of lunchtime habits, so this is an instance where we need to identify existing triggers and rewards.
- Lunch (trigger)
- Go out to a restaurant with friends (behavior)
- Social interaction/fun (reward)
Depending on the habit in question, it will probably take a little while to identify the rewards (or triggers). In this case, the trigger is obvious, but the reward will require some experimentation and analysis. For instance, we might believe that the reward at lunch is the taste of the food. We can test this hypothesis by eating at a different restaurant, not eating at all or eating something bland.
Eventually, once we’ve uncovered the true triggers and rewards, we can then repurpose our old trigger for a new behavior:
- Lunch (trigger)
- Write for 15 minutes (behavior)
- Eat my sandwich (reward) or go socialize with friends (reward)
Note that we can either introduce a new reward, or simply repurpose old behaviors as rewards by changing the order.
This is extraordinarily simple, but it’s powerful. Remember that it also requires experimentation: nailing the correct cocktail of triggers and rewards is a personal art. Keeping records—e.g. whether you kept with a habit, what it did, how you felt about a reward—is extremely helpful.
As for creating a new habit, let’s take the trigger of taking a shower, which many people don’t have a set routine after:
- Take a shower (trigger)
- Read craft books for 20 minutes (behavior)
- Watch a 5 minute YouTube video (reward)
Note that, as stated above, we’re using common triggers. This is because, after you’ve started a new habit (or begun changing an old one), its formation is merely a matter of repetition. Daily or multiple-times-a-day habits are best, because they burn a behavior into your neural architecture much quicker.
Consider bad habits, like mindless snacking or cigarette smoking: they have numerous common triggers, built-in rewards, and are repeated 10+ times a day. It’s no wonder that people can add such habits to their lives in a matter of days or weeks.
Luckily, the same is true for good habits: repeat them often, and they’ll quickly become automatic.
Routines are simply chains of habits strung together. Using the last habit we outlined above, we can repurpose the final element in the chain (the reward) as a trigger for a new behavior, like so:
5 minute YouTube video (trigger) > 15 minutes of marketing (behavior) > breakfast (reward)
Then, we can build on that further:
Breakfast (trigger) > 15 minutes of exercise (behavior) > 30m video game (reward)
As such, we now have a morning routine that looks like this:
- Take a shower (trigger)
- 15m craft reading (behavior)
- 5m YouTube video (reward/trigger)
- 15m of marketing (behavior)
- Breakfast (reward/trigger)
- 15m of exercise (behavior)
- 30m video game (reward)
You can keep chaining behaviors endlessly, but I recommend keeping your routines simple. Why? Because each additional element you add introduces another point of failure. When you skip a link or two in the chain, it is common for the routine to fall apart.
It’s critical to build routines around consistent, robust triggers, and construct them from relatively easy-to-adhere-to individual components.
Many of us start with something stupid, like 1 hour of meditation, followed by 1 hour of exercise, then 2 hours of writing—with no rewards or breaks in between. Not only is this terrible habit formation protocol, but it’s also incredibly fragile. Even those among us with flexible schedules have 2 – 3 days a week where a four hour block will be interrupted. Combined with the onerous task load, this makes such a routine almost impossible to automatize.
Since willpower is unreliable, our behavior change is going to be short lived.
A good routine that you can follow is far better than an ultra-efficient ironman gauntlet that you can only sustain for two weeks.
Remember, the goal is long-term change.
And good news: if you pick the right habits for your routine, then perform them daily (or, for the advanced, multiple times a day), you can make a ridiculous amount of progress. 15 minutes of daily writing, assuming a leisurely pace of 1,000 words an hour, produces one 62,500 word novel per year. Increase that to 30 minutes—one sitcom re-run—and you have two novels. I wouldn’t recommend trying to go beyond an hour. We’re humans, not robots, after all.
Note: you will do the habit you reverse-engineer on Day 1 on all five days. This is known as a “trial week,” which is a troubleshooting period where you determine if the habit is properly calibrated to your current ability and, more importantly, whether it’s worth continuing.
For each of the first three days, set a timer for 25 minutes (it can be less, but not more), then complete the task. If you’d like to continue after (i.e., you want to remove yourself from more email lists), then you can do so.
- (Day 1) Set a core objective, then select one project that will help you achieve this. That project will usually (but not always) be your next book. Reverse engineer this project into daily habits that are 5 – 25% beyond your current ability to trigger skill growth while also being adherable. Focus on automating a single habit at a time and make sure you meet yourself at your current level of skill.
- (Day 2) Take out your task list. Eliminate everything not related or low impact in terms of achieving your core objective. Aim to eliminate 50 tasks.
- (Day 3) Go to your email. Type in the word “unsubscribe.” This will bring up most marketing/sales emails. Unsubscribe to anything that isn’t absolutely bringing value to you.
- (Day 4) Try the full 3/3 system for one day, splitting the three hours as you see fit between writing/reading/marketing.
- (Day 5) Try the most important task + writing habit system for one day, using your peak hour for your vital tasks.