Getting stuff done. Consistently.
Perhaps the most elusive of white whales for self-employed creative professionals.
But productivity is neither innate nor mythical. It’s just a latticework of learnable sub-skills that can be developed through practice. This guide distills the core tenets of productivity into a flexible, simple system for sustainable, long-term behavioral change and skills. It focuses on breaking down large, long-term objectives (e.g. being a full-time writer) into actionable daily habits (e.g. writing 1,000 words). Many of the examples revolve around writing, but the system applies to basically any area of life.
For those worried that this is about doing “more stuff,” fear not: this is a lightweight process that doesn’t add hundreds of different journals, apps, or tasks to your existing workflow. It is about eliminating the unnecessary to focus on the essential.
Enough preamble. Let’s get started.
Productivity: A Definition
For our purposes, productivity is doing what matters when it needs to get done.
Massive action is often conflated with productivity. Most things don’t matter.
But not all things that matter need to be done immediately. Sometimes a task will have 5x or 10x the impact if you complete it before another one. Capitalizing on opportunities while they’re hot without getting distracted is critical.
The Trifecta of Author Success
As an author there are three core skills you must hone to a professional level to make a part-time or full-time living: productivity, craft, and marketing. These form what I call the Trifecta of Author Success, which can be organized as such:
The pyramid layout is not accidental; while no skill is more important than another, productivity is the foundation. Without the ability to show up and execute consistently, you cannot improve your craft or implement marketing plans. Thus, if consistent production is proving problematic, it pays to take a step back and focus specifically on honing your productivity skills.
Ultimately, the goal of this guide is getting to three quality hours of work per day. Preferably, we want to show up at least 80% of the time (e.g., if you’re aiming to work out 3 times a week, that’d be approximately 12 times a month; you’d want to show up at least 10). This is what I call the threshold of consistency: 80% seems to the point where compound interest starts working in your favor and progress hits an inflection point.
Note that consistency is task relative. For certain tasks, consistency is measured by showing up daily; with others weekly, monthly, or yearly. The prime example on most people’s minds is writing every day. This is possible, but not necessary.
If you exercise seven hours one day, then skip your workouts for two weeks, you’ll get zero results.
If you write a novel in seven days, then don’t write at all for the next two months, you still have that novel forever. And if you repeat that four times a year, you’re consistent on a yearly basis.
We can harness the power of compound interest and build our career via an approach that I’ve dubbed the 3 x 3 system.
The 3 x 3 System
The 3 x 3 system is so-named because there are three core daily focal points critical to being a full-time author. Like any system, it is not the only approach to productivity. And we will cover the building blocks of productivity shortly, so that you can adjust the variables to your personal strengths. However, this system has a few advantages: it is simple, lightweight, and most importantly, flexible.
Here’s the 3 x 3 system:
- Focus on these three areas: writing, marketing, and reading.
- Invest three total hours in them daily for 5 – 6 days a week. These can be split equally (1 hour each), unevenly, or you can focus on two, or even just a single area at a time. If you can’t invest three hours a day, don’t worry. Scale the system down to meet yourself where you currently are.
- Doing this for three years gives you a good shot at going part-time or full-time.
This sounds laughably easy, but you’ll likely be shocked by A) the difficulty and B) the results. How can such a “low” number of hours possibly generate that type of outcome, though?
Most productivity books and resources claiming to embrace an 80 hour workweek grind are BS. Many (not all) full-time artists spend about 2 – 5 hours a day performing actual focused work or practice. We’re splitting the difference and using three hours as our benchmark. Over three years, this represents about 3,000 hours of work invested in your business.
Assuming 1,000 words written/hr and 60 pages read/hr, over three years that would result in:
- Publishing 12 – 15 full-length novels
- Reading 150 books in the sub-genre (or about writing/marketing)
- Installing your entire marketing funnel, with a solid understanding of ad platforms like Facebook, BookBub, and Amazon Ads (or whatever sources of visibility you prefer to use)
It’s important to note that you shouldn’t blindly adhere to the three hours ideal. There are days, of course, where you’ll need to hit the accelerator and work eight hours. Twelve. There are others where you won’t show up at all. That’s just part of life. This is merely a heuristic underpinned by a simple principle: intense quality work, when focused on the right things, produces significant results in a short amount of time.
We’ve already touched a little on mindset, and will continue to do so throughout the guide. But let’s talk about the seven key aspects of a productive mindset next.
Much can, and has, been written about mindset. I’m boiling this down to seven core things that specifically pertain to productivity:
- Mindset follows skill. Your skills and actions change how you think; the expert sees opportunities and paths that are invisible to the novice or intermediate. And as you build competence, you gain confidence, thus changing your beliefs and identity. Self-help tends to get causality mixed up, telling people that they can will or think their way to a different frame of mind. While it’d be reductive to claim that taking action is the only factor in changing your mindset, I believe it has the biggest impact by far. And it’s the factor you have the most control over.
- Adherence. Since skills shift your mindset, you need to show up. The best productivity system is the one you can execute. Most people ignore this in favor of epic (but fictional) internet bullshit that the content creator doesn’t actually follow. Compound interest takes time to pay off, so you need to have patience as you practice. But waiting out the clock taking no action will do nothing. You need to be making actual deposits in your skill bank to generate progress.
- No multitasking. This reliably produces a combination of extremely undesirable effects: lower quality work that takes longer to finish. Focus on a single task, whether that’s for five minutes or five hours. Don’t lie to yourself about what multitasking means; listening to music while working is not multitasking (for most people). Listening to a podcast, however, is. As an example, I watched a bunch of UFC fights while doing Amazon Ads one night. What normally took 2 hours took 5 instead. Avoid this nonsense like the plague.
- 7 second decision making. For non-critical decisions (re: almost everything), make a decision in 7 seconds and live with it. You do not want to spend time, or more importantly, precious energy, deciding what to watch on Netflix.
- Narrow your focus. There is an infinite array of content, tasks, and things you can pursue in life. You cannot explore them all. Once you have an idea of what works and what you like, you need to ruthlessly safeguard your attention from distraction. However, be careful not to become too myopic in your focus, as this can close you off to new technological developments or career opportunities.
- Ship. Press the publish button. There is no such thing as perfect. Done is far superior to a mythical standard of perfection that never produces anything. The best way to make money and improve is to get feedback from the marketplace. While you don’t have direct control over your earnings or when a result will occur, you do have control over the number of quality swings you take. The more you ship, the more opportunities you have to generate progress.
- Have a short memory. Good or bad, there’s always tomorrow. Analyze your mistakes, then move on. Celebrate your successes, then do the same. Winning is never permanent. Failure is never fatal.
80/20 and Productivity
The classic approach to increasing your productivity is volume—most of us live in cultures that extol the value of hard work and long hours. It’s a badge of honor to go from working 6 hours a day to 12 hours. This, however, is the least effective form of productivity. It should be stated that putting in some level of time is mandatory; there are no six minute abs shortcuts. However, since time is limited to 24 hours (and really only 14 – 15 usable hours after sleep and other necessities are factored in), you need to think beyond volume and consider effectiveness (getting better results for the same time + energy input).
And the core of effectiveness (and thus, productivity) is the 80/20 rule.
The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, states that 20% of your actions produce 80% of the results. In the real world, this is often 99/1 or more, where 1% of what you do produces the majority of the spoils. The numbers aren’t important, although the rule is mathematically robust. However, the core principle (that a few things matter a lot and most things don’t matter at all) is crucial to functioning well in a highly complex, information-rich world. Investing your time and money in the wrong areas is a recipe for disaster. The essence of harnessing the 80/20 rule to your advantage can be distilled into a two step process that I call shotgun, then narrow:
- Discover what moves the needle / what you can adhere to (e.g. the core 20%) through iterative trial and error. The word iterative is key here: you track what did and didn’t work. You don’t simply “persevere” and do the same thing 800 times in a row. This is the most powerful productivity tool on the planet. To paraphrase Nassim Nicholas Taleb (with apologies for any errors, since I can’t find the original quote): to beat the results of trial and error, you’d need a 1000 IQ. Or, in other words, someone of extremely average or even limited intelligence will crush someone who is “smart” if that average person diligently applies iterative trial and error.
- Relentlessly double down on improving in these core areas (the core 20%).
There are two major errors people make when applying this process.
First, they try to skip the trial and error portion. I get it; failure is painful and immediate success (“get rich quick” syndrome) is alluring. We all want abs yesterday. It seems like the quicker route to success is to skip the testing and experimentation phase. It is not. Sometimes the first habit you try is a hit; other times, you must go through thirty-two before finding the winning ticket. The good news with productivity is, once you do find something that works, it can be effective for many years (or perhaps even your entire life).
There’s another way people try to skip the trial and error component that, on the surface, seems like a good strategy: committing up front. Commitment is more dangerous than “get rich quick” syndrome, in my opinion, because the latter is so obviously fake as to be fairly quickly ignored as a viable path to success. But long-term dedication is necessary to generate results in competitive fields. Thus it’s not dismissable.
However, commitment is often misapplied to disastrous effect.
There’s a misguided obsession with “committing” because it seems smarter or “morally righteous” to commit and be a “person of your word,” rather than to quickly eliminate approaches that prove ineffective. Grit is lauded, while quitting is laughed at. But it’s completely insane to commit to an approach without testing it first. No one would buy 36 pounds of salmon before ever trying it—so why is everyone trying to grit their teeth through 12 week workout programs that may or may not be relevant to their fitness level, objective, or what they actually enjoy?
Committing at the correct point in the process (Step #2: when doubling down on the 20% that works) is vital. If you do it during Step #1, which is the trial and error (e.g., discovery) phase, then you risk burning mountains of precious time on clearly ineffective pursuits. Perseverance is only useful if you’re learning from mistakes and iterating. Otherwise it’s the definition of insanity.
Once people identify something that works, this is ironically the point where commitment flies out the window. Suddenly they want to add a bunch of frivolous shit, make it more complex, or immediately abandon it for a new method. It’s hard to find the 20% that moves the needle. It can take months or even years. Throwing it in the garbage for something new and shiny is a good way to consistently make zero progress (or go backward). The grass is always greener in another sub-genre, with another workout program, or another productivity method.
True progress is made through improvements in efficiency (time) and effectiveness (actual results). This is what happens when you double down on the core 20% instead of switching everything up.
When you know your workout routine cold, and have all the exercises mastered, you can execute the actual workout in 30 minutes instead of 1 hour, thus doubling your efficiency. Efficiency is helpful, but it tends to be overrated: we’re obsessed with the amount of time something takes, but not the actual results. Which is, of course, the whole point of productivity: producing higher quality work. An obsession with efficiency leads to focusing on activity (doing stuff) rather than progress.
Therefore, the biggest increase in productivity comes with effectiveness: that is, improving your skills. By mastering the exercises and applying correct form, you recruit your muscles more effectively and get better results than someone doing the same exercises poorly. A pushup is a pushup—unless it’s not.
To use another example: If you’ve played piano for thirty years, you can learn new pieces of music in seconds (efficiency) that would take a beginner four months to falteringly play (effectiveness). If that piano-dedicated individual instead dabbled in the piano, guitar, French horn, and thirteen other instruments, switching between them at random, then both their efficiency (how long it took to learn a new piece) and effectiveness (how good it sounded) would suffer greatly.
Objectives, Projects, and Habits: The System
One note before we launch into the system. The ultimate productivity hack is interest. Do things you like. This isn’t always possible. But the more you structure your daily life around things that interest you, the more progress you’ll make because it’s far easier to show up and put in the hours.
With that said, here’s the complete system. Examples are offered as starting points to help you come up with your own ideas:
- Analyze where your time is going by performing a time analysis. This is simply logging every single thing you do on a note card (from internet browsing to bathroom breaks), along with the start and end time, for a day. This can be done for a week or even a month to smooth out variance, but this is time intensive. I generally log with round numbers (e.g., write: 5:45 – 5:55 instead of 5:43 – 5:54) as it makes this exercise easier.
- Organize your system and tasks into a few central locations so that you can track key metrics and easily know what needs to get done. [ex. check off each day you write, log your word count and hours for the day in Excel]
- 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]
- Reverse-engineer this core objective into one project that will move you closer to your core objective. [ex. write a 60,000 word novel]
- Reverse-engineer this project into one habit 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]
- Eliminate all unnecessary and low-impact tasks that do not help you achieve this core objective.
- Delegate or automate necessary tasks that do not demand your direct input.
- 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 the router while working, install social media blockers or remove them from your phone, keep junk food or booze out of the house]
- Work right at the edge of your ability to maximize production output (flow) [ex. have a specific song or album that triggers your first writing session]
- OR work at 5 – 25% beyond your current ability to improve skills (practice)
- Rules help establish simple guidelines for tasks and projects that you can default to following [ex. 7 second decision making: make non-critical decisions in 7 seconds or less to eliminate analysis paralysis]
- Stack proven productivity techniques together: as an example, accountability + deadlines + habits will usually yield better adherence than just one alone. Of course, you must find the right “recipe,” as certain levers will be ineffective for you or not applicable to specific tasks, thus necessitating an alternative strategy.
- Trial week: commit to a new habit for a week (can be longer, but should generally not be longer than a month when testing something new). At the end of this week, determine whether you want to kill, calibrate, or continue the habit. It may be necessary to start again with a new habit if your initial approach isn’t working (or you can’t adhere to it). This gives you 52 chances a year to find effective habits. You probably won’t need that many shots. But remember the 80/20 rule: one habit can change your life. Most habits will not, however, and should be discarded immediately. Time and energy are not infinite; do not squander them. This methodology can be applied to things like projects as well.
- Iterate, optimize, and scale effective habits based on data and feedback. [ex. increase your daily word count after fourteen days of consecutive writing]
That’s it. We repeat and refine this process to generate progress toward our initial core objective, then apply the process to new skills to form a multi-faceted skill set. Our aim is 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—e.g., combining a deep knowledge of Amazon Ads with writing quality police procedurals). This combines specialist expertise with the generalist knowledge critical to linking disciplines together. By forming a unique skillset, you generate insights that others cannot, and also narrow the competition pool dramatically, which makes marketing and earning a living much easier. 1 + 1 does not necessarily = 2; it can equal 10 or 100, depending on the skills you combine.
You may be familiar with many of these concepts. However, familiarity is not the same thing as actually having the skill. Internalizing and being able to use these productivity tools effectively demands practice and application—just like playing the piano or learning to write a novel would.
There are a few aspects of the system that demand more detail, since they provide its foundation. We’ll start with objectives, since these are commonly misapplied.
Objectives. Goals. Whatever you might call them, these come in four main flavors:
- Long-term destinations. A vision for what you want out of life. How you want to spend your days. (e.g., waking up and having breakfast with your kids or being able to walk your dog on the beach whenever you feel like it). While I refer to these as “destinations,” these are more just guides that point you toward who you want to actually be and how you want to spend your days. There is no true finish line.
- Goals. Specific with a clear end date. E.g., I will lose 20 pounds in 3 months. The most common form of goal and most ineffective for three reasons: (1) people learn and progress at different rates, ergo setting a time limit is largely arbitrary (2) there’s often a failure to reverse-engineer the larger end goal into actionable daily / weekly tasks and (3) even if completed, usually fails to produce long-term change as there’s a “finish line.” The post-completion aftermath is usually cursory celebration followed by a rapid reversion to old habits.
- Projects. These are output based goals that have a clear deliverable. If they have a deadline, this is based on past historical productivity. E.g., publishing a novel every two months when you’re publishing 5 – 6 books a year. Or it can be something without a deadline, e.g., “learn the guitar solo to “Hotel California.” Projects are useful, provided you base any timelines on your current level of output and not wishful thinking.
- Micro goals. These are session or day specific goals. E.g., while you’re working out, you correct your pushup form or go for an extra rep. Or you try to play a note on piano better / more in time. Or you try to write an extra 50 words during your session. These are the most helpful type of goals and least used, as progress is made on a session-by-session basis.
If you have a long-term vision for what you want your life to look like / who you want to be, you can reverse engineer that into the daily actions you need to take now to build the necessary skills and habits. You can choose projects to pursue that will help you achieve that outcome. And then you can start using trial and error to sort through what works and does not work for you.
This process of iteration lacks Instagrammability. Few will be wowed by its ambitious scope (or lack thereof). But it forces one to reflect on why they’re pursuing something. When setting traditional goals, people often fail to consider whether they actually want to be that person—and perform all the consistent tasks necessary to remain said individual. Thus the goal either quickly falls by the wayside or, if accomplished, the long-term effects tend to be nil as the person backslides into their old habits after the item is checked off the list.
That’s all a colossal waste of time.
Note that none of the effective objectives listed are particularly flashy. Destinations are about a long-term vision. Projects are about understanding your current production output capacity and working within that (or to expand it gradually). And micro goals are about pushing yourself slightly beyond the edge of your abilities in the moment.
But this is how progress is made: through doing the work and allowing it to compound over months a years. Not a one-off challenge.
Much of productivity is dictated by your energy. Being half asleep and fighting to do work is counterproductive. Your habits control most of your energy, so when forming habits it’s recommended to assess these areas first:
- Sleep. The most potent productivity hack ever. You can ignore everything else here and just get enough quality sleep, and you will see your output and work quality soar. It is that important.
- Diet. Understanding how certain foods interact with your personal physiology is key to maximizing your focus and output. Certain foods (or large meals) can trigger lethargy or discomfort, whereas others may increase your overall energy. This is fairly obvious, but oftentimes ignored or dismissed. Consider the over consumption of alcohol: it vastly impairs motor and cognitive function. It stands to reason that other foods can also have a substantial negative impact on your energy and mental state.
- Exercise. Research suggests that resistance (strength) training offers both the best aesthetic and practical health benefits (longevity/cognitive effects/mood/mobility). Walking is another great form of exercise that doubles as problem solving and idea-generation time.
- 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 those where you’re half-asleep. Use these times of peak focus wisely, and don’t spend them on Facebook or playing Call of Duty.
The Three Most Important Task System
Not everything is habitual or frequent enough to create a habit. For recurring weekly or monthly tasks, a calendar reminder is usually the most effective solution.
For non-habitual and non-recurring tasks, my approach is simple: write out your three most important tasks on a note card the night before. If you have fewer than three, don’t pad the list. If you have more than three, revisit the list and narrow it down. There are days where you have more energy and are motivated to go beyond the three, but this should not be your expectation.
Each task should take an hour at most. If it will take longer than an hour, it counts as two tasks (or three, if it’s going to take longer than two hours).
At the end of the day, move anything uncompleted to the next day and tear up the note card. If something remains on the list indefinitely, assess whether it needs to be broken down into smaller steps or is actually necessary.
Now let’s talk about habits.
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”). The best triggers are automatic actions (e.g. waking up), environmental (e.g. writing in a certain place), reminders (automated from apps, or simple notes / organization systems that prompt you to do a habit), and common repetitive actions (e.g., going down the stairs, entering a room). Effective triggers occur daily, and the best ones occur multiple times a day (thus allowing you to perform multiple “reps” of your habit).
- Behavior (i.e. the habit in question)
- Reward (also called the “consequence” in psychological literature): the positive result of the behavior. This can either be intrinsic (e.g. the satisfaction of having written) or extrinsic (watching a TV show after your writing session).
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.
Once you have the components assembled, actually establishing the habit is a two phase process:
- Start small to establish the habit itself (build the skill of showing up)
- Then scale the habit to get results (build the skill itself)
Most people try to do these simultaneously, setting their initial habit where they want to ultimately wind up (e.g. if they want to write 2,000 words a day, they start with 2,000). This is an ineffective approach, although it seems like a shortcut. That’s because these two phases are separate skills that both demand significant cognitive resources. Showing up is energy intensive. Learning is energy intensive. We’ve survived as a species, however, by conserving energy. Thus, performing both of these phases at once—establishing the habit and improving oneself—is often too intense to be sustainable for the long-term. This results in a constant cycle of motivation, followed by a few days on, then many weeks or months off.
Going “slow” is the best way to actually go fast and reach your objective. You want to ramp things up over time.
This applies to the number of habits you implement at once, too. While multiple smaller habits can potentially be developed in tandem, keystone habits—those habits that can make a big impact on your life—tend to demand significant effort. There are literally dozens of such daily habits you can implement. Unfortunately, behavioral change is difficult, and implementing too many big changes at once is disastrous.
In fact, implementing more than one major change at a time—without external accountability and / or hard deadlines (e.g. a job/school)—is usually a recipe for failure.
The good news, of course, is that you don’t need to change that many things. Three or four effective habits is enough to radically alter the trajectory of your entire life. In fact, one good habit can change your life.
Note that certain positive habits don’t need to be tracked or developed. You typically have to use the system outlined above to consciously design your habits when desirable behaviors aren’t sticking on their own or you’re finding that undesirable behaviors have taken root.
But to reiterate a point from above: the easiest habit formation strategy is doing things you enjoy. This goes for habits you 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 regarding the habits and system that gets you there.
Sample Habits and Routines
Most people focus on eliminating the habit itself (known as extinguishing). This is possible, but it’s generally much easier to either remove triggers entirely or repurpose them for other habits. 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.
Experimenting with different rewards and triggers is critical when it comes to designing habits. If a habit doesn’t stick, then try troubleshooting the reward or trigger as the first part of your calibration process.
So let’s design a couple habits.
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, however, 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 might take a little digging to identify the rewards (or triggers). In this case, the trigger is obvious, but the reward will probably 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 30 minutes (behavior)
- Eat my sandwich (reward) or go socialize with friends (reward)
Note that we can either use the same reward, introduce a new one, or even repurpose an old behavior (eating lunch) as a reward by changing the order of actions.
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 stuck with a habit, the results it produced, 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 15 minutes (behavior)
- Watch a 5 minute YouTube video (reward)
Note that we’re using common triggers. This is because forming habits is a matter of repetition. Daily or multiple-times-a-day habits 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 often 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 more often, and they’ll quickly become more 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 to form a morning routine that looks like this:
- Take a shower (trigger)
- 15m craft reading (behavior)
- 5m YouTube video (reward/trigger)
- 15m of marketing (behavior)
- Coffee (reward/trigger)
- 15m of exercise (behavior)
- 30m video game (reward)
In theory, you can keep chaining behaviors endlessly, but I recommend keeping your routines to around an hour. Why? Because each additional element you add introduces another point of failure. When you skip a link or two in the chain, it’s common for the routine to fall apart.
A good routine that you can follow is far better than an ultra-efficient ironman gauntlet that you can only sustain for two weeks.
The degree to which you routinize your day is largely based on personality. I prefer to be flexible, so I don’t have many set routines. Routines become more important if you must be ultra-efficient with your time, so they’re worth exploring and experimenting with more heavily if you have other obligations (school, work, children) even if they’re not a natural fit for your personality.
Doubling Your Productivity
I believe doubling your productivity is conservative in many instances if you actually apply the principles illustrated within this guide. In fact, many of these techniques in isolation can achieve that outcome. Take multitasking, which I illustrated with an example from my own experience: it took 5 hours to do the Amazon Ads while multitasking, but just 2 hours when focusing solely on the ads. That’s a 2.5x increase in efficiency without applying other techniques. Naturally, I have worked on many of the other sub-skills over time, so those processes are running in the subconscious background.
But the point remains: apply one of these. Apply a couple of them. See what happens. Too often, we read things on the internet, go oh, that’s nice, and then go on to the next productivity hack or “the ONE weird trick we need to do to get [xyz outcome].” Truth is, progress only happens if you take action.
The four highest leverage items here are: no multitasking. Habits. Eliminating unnecessary or low impact tasks. And hard deadlines. But explore the system, adjust the variables, and make it your own.
And then get started.
Extreme 80/20: The Summary
After around 5,000 words, the core of this guide boils down to this:
- Adherence is key. Progress comes from action.
- Don’t multitask.
- Make non-critical decisions in 7 seconds or less.
- 80/20: 20% of your actions produce 80% of the results. To apply this, shotgun then narrow: (1) iterative trial and error to identify the core 20% followed by (2) doubling down on what works to refine and maximize the results from the core 20%.
- The 3 x 3 system: 3 total hours a day across 3 key areas (marketing / reading / writing) consistently over 3 years gives you a good shot at being a part or full-time author.
- Perform a time analysis for a day to see how you’re spending your hours. If you want to smooth out variance for a more accurate snapshot, do it for a week.
- Start with one core objective. You can have more, but at the beginning, focus on one. Use destinations, projects, and micro goals that help you progress toward who you want to be and how you want to spend your days. This is not about achieving a state of permanent accomplishment or a finish line.
- Reverse-engineer this core objective into a shorter term project.
- Reverse-engineer this project into one daily habit that brings you closer to that core objective. Make sure you can adhere to this. First build the skill of showing up, then scale the habit to generate progress + results. The more reps you put in of a habit, the faster it will build.
- Eliminate tasks irrelevant to your core objective. Delegate or automate those that are relevant but don’t demand your direct input.
- Employ hard deadlines, accountability, and competition, particularly if you’re more motivated by external pressure.
- Manipulate friction by introducing obstacles to negative behaviors or reducing them for positive behaviors.
- Work right at the edge of your ability to maximize production (flow).
- OR work at 5 – 25% beyond your current ability to maximize skill progression (practice).
- Track your habits and other key metrics so you can iterate, optimize, and improve.
- Managing your energy (sleep, diet, exercise, and times of peak focus) is key to focusing well and maximizing your productivity.
- Take rest days to recharge and reflect.
- For non-habitual tasks, write down your three most important tasks the night before.
- Trial week: assess habits after a week and determine whether to continue, calibrate, or kill them. This gives you 52 opportunities to find an effective habit; it only takes three or four (or even just one) to massively change the trajectory of your life + career.
- Repeat and refine to make progress toward your core objective, then apply to new skills to form a unique Double T-shaped skillset.
- Set your core objective, then reverse engineer it into a project and habit.
- Commit to this habit for a trial week.
- At the end of the trial week, assess whether to kill, calibrate, or continue the habit.