Getting stuff done. Consistently.
Perhaps the most elusive of white whales for self-employed creative professionals. Sure, if you go to work, you’ve got the boss cracking the whip.
But suddenly, when it comes to your own projects, all that energy and momentum vanishes, leaving you staring at an unfinished manuscript and a heap of missed deadlines.
And when you go full-time, with its veritable treasure trove of free hours waiting to be filled with glorious words, you find, oddly enough, that your output drops even further as you feel an urgent compulsion to spend sixteen minutes inspecting the counters for dust. Even though you cleaned them just yesterday.
If any of this sounds familiar, then this mini guide is here to help. I won’t claim to have cracked the code; there are no secrets. Instead, what I offer is a simple, flexible system for long-term productivity.
And since the heart of productivity is all about taking action, I’ll cut the introduction here and get right into it.
As an indie author there are three core skills you must hone to a professional level to go full-time: productivity, craft, and marketing. These form what I call the Trifecta of Success, which can be organized as such:
The pyramid layout is not an accident; 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 a problem, it often pays to take a step back and focus specifically on your productivity skills.
Ultimately, the goal of this guide is getting three quality hours of work. Preferably, we want to show up at least 80% of the time. This is what I call the threshold of consistency: 80% seems to be around the point where compound interest really starts working in your favor and progress hits an inflection point. More days or hours is fine and may be necessary, but I’d focus on getting here before scaling up. This sounds laughably easy, but you’ll likely be shocked by A) the difficulty and B) the results. The number of hours has also been carefully chosen based on research of creative professionals throughout history. Two to three hours of daily focused work, while hardly a rule, is fairly typical for many successful artists.
This feeds directly into my 3/3 heuristic: invest three quality hours into your writing business per day for three years gives you a good shot at going full time. That’s about 3,000 hours of work on your business, split across the following areas:
- Writing (craft)
These aren’t the skills you necessarily need to focus on, merely what I consider the essential 20% that will give you the most bang for your buck.
80/20 and 2X-ing YOUR PRODUCTIVITY
2X-ing your productivity sounds like internet clickbait, so let’s define that before going forward.
The classic approach to increasing your productivity is volume—most of us live in cultures that extol the value of hard work. It’s a badge of honor to go from working 6 hours a day to 12 hours.
This is the least effective form of productivity. The biggest gains are never found in working more hours unless you’re not currently working. It should be stated that putting in the 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 focus on efficiency.
And the core of efficiency (and thus, productivity) is the 80/20 rule.
The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, states that 20% of the 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. 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 the 80/20 rule can be distilled down to discover what matters and then relentlessly focus on improving in these core areas.
Perfectionists wrongly claim that you must do everything; that is incorrect. Most tasks are not just low value; they actively destroy value by draining your energy, wasting money, causing stress, and stealing time from keystone tasks.
Adopting 80/20 is not laziness; instead, it’s about taking all the time wasted on the useless 80%, and double, tripling, or quadrupling your output by reinvesting your efforts into the 20%.
This is how you 2x your productivity: by doing way more of the things that matter, and zero of the things that are either failing to move the needle or, more likely, shooting you in the foot. By leveraging organization, automation, delegation, and elimination you can accomplish what used to take 6 hours in 3 hours (or 3 minutes). Or you can use that same 6 hours to achieve 2x or 5x the results.
The biggest increases in efficiency, however, come from improving your skills. If you’ve played piano for thirty years, you can learn new pieces of music in seconds that would take a beginner four months to falteringly play. This principle also applies to honing your general productivity skills (e.g. improving your organization/identifying opportunities to automate tasks/engineering effective habits better etc.). Building skills requires two key things: consistently showing up and increasing the difficulty of a habit or task just beyond your current level of skill. This rise in intensity thus produces a stimulus beyond what your current neural circuits have been built for. This forces your brain to adapt, and subsequently your skills grow. This progressive overload is key to not only building muscle in the gym, but also building skills. Change is dangerous from a survival standpoint because it’s incredibly energy-intensive. In an energy-sparse environment (like the ones we evolved in), burning precious energy for no reason would have made us extinct long ago. Your body prefers to maintain a state of homeostasis, which is why adult behavioral change is hard: few existential threats exist in the modern world any more.
Consistency is critical for the same reason: the brain isn’t going to spend vital resources making neural circuits more efficient for one-off tasks. It needs a repetitive stimulus to understand that this is a necessary skill for survival.
This means we have to carefully engineer a stimulus that is intense enough to produce change without being so intense as to cause burnout or non-compliance. This is not accomplished through overwhelming challenges, but by creating small, but meaningful habits that are just at or beyond our current level of ability. Working within our abilities is about maximizing our efficiency, volume, and quality; at a lower intensity, we can produce greater amounts of work at a consistent level of quality. Working just beyond our abilities is about maximizing our progress; this higher intensity forces our brain to adapt and learn new skills. However, when we practice new things, more errors tend to crop up, and efficiency goes down, since the neural grooves haven’t been burned in yet.
The former state is often referred to as flow or being in the zone. The latter is referred to as deliberate practice.
When combined with the ability to show up each day, these two concepts can turbocharge your productivity.
But before we dive into this, we need to take a look at some oft-overlooked fundamentals.
THE KEYS TO FOCUS AND MOTIVATION
Focus and motivation (not the yeah I can do this! type you get from a motivational video, but the actual energy/desire to, you know, do stuff) ebb and flow throughout the day. That’s inevitable, but you can maximize both of these valuable resources by:
- SLEEP. The most important thing in this entire guide. Sleep is vital to cognitive function, muscle growth, consolidating skills, and a host of other vital things that we don’t yet understand. If you’re not making progress with your skills, exercise program, or just in general, make sure you’re sleeping enough. And anyone who tells you that sleep is for the weak/lazy or is pointless is a complete idiot who you should ignore.
- DIET. I’m not going to prescribe a bunch of foods to eat. There is no best diet; dieting is an inefficient strategy that usually results in massive weight-gain. Instead, avoid weird fads and find healthy, nutrient-rich foods that work for you (e.g. that you like and make you feel good). Don’t pretend that you’re never going to have a piece of cake again; it’s better to find ways to incorporate foods in moderation in a healthy way, provided they’re not causing problems, rather than white-knuckling your way through life. Learning to cook or outsourcing your cooking really helps; there are a lot of things that are healthy that don’t taste nasty, but most require some level of skill to prepare. This is an ongoing process that takes time and a lot of trial and error.
- EXERCISE. Ask your doctor. Most research suggests that resistance training (lifting weight or doing calisthenics) is the most effective from a health perspective (from a “looking good” perspective, too, which – let’s be real – is what most people are after) rather than cardio. Walking is also a great form of low-impact exercise.
- WORKING AT TIMES OF PEAK FOCUS. You may be a morning person; you may work best at 2 AM. Whatever the case may be, try to organize your schedule so that you can do your most valuable and important work during these peak times to maximize both efficiency and quality.
All of this is fairly basic, but if you don’t have good sleep, diet, and exercise habits, forming those should be your primary focus. It’s hard to muster up the motivation to write when you’re in a sugar coma on your bed and can barely keep your eyes open to watch Netflix.
As for how to form said habits, it’s time to drill down into the system.
The core of the system is cultivating small daily habits that, over time, into something much greater. But to create the right habits, and increase our adherence (because consistently showing up is essential to making progress), we usually need a few additional elements in place beyond the usual “start doing stuff” advice. Adherence in the key to behavioral change and building skill; consistency burns in the neural grooves necessary to make our habits become automatic. And these repeated actions build skills that take us from beginner to pro (or wherever we want to go).
Think of these neural circuits like a path through a forest. At first, there’s nothing but leaves, logs and trees standing in the way. But as people trek down to the creek, these elements are trampled into a smooth, dirt path.
If enough people keep heading down to the creek, eventually that dirt path might become a road—or even a highway.
But if people stop using the path, it will eventually be reclaimed by the wilderness.
So to build those habits and keep those neural pathways firing cleanly, here’s the complete system, step-by-step:
- ANALYZE: log your time for a full day (three to seven if you want to smooth out the variance from random stuff) to assess where your time is currently going
- ORGANIZE: have a place to check off your habits, a list of projects/shorter term tasks that aren’t due immediately, a “to do someday” list,” and then make a daily list of three key tasks the night before
- ELIMINATE: unnecessary tasks and projects
- AUTOMATE: necessary tasks that you can get a service or computer to do (e.g. set up auto pay or have an automatic reminder from your phone to remind you to do a daily habit)
- DELEGATE: necessary tasks that you either can’t do well or don’t like doing (e.g. cooking, cleaning, cover design)
- ESTABLISH CLEAR OBJECTIVES IN A FEW KEY AREAS: decide what you want to accomplish. These can either be short term projects (e.g. learn a specific song, finish a book, build a website) or, my personal favorite, general destinations (e.g. make $2m/yr). I like the latter because randomness makes it very difficult to plan an exact long-term path for complex objectives. An overly rigid approach also makes you blind to serendipitous opportunities that will help you reach your destination faster (or a different destination entirely that you may end up vastly preferring). Harnessing serendipity, however, doesn’t mean you sit around and wait. The system remains the same: you need good habits to show up every day. Why? Opportunities are attracted to people with skills who can solve their problems. The only way to build these skills is through consistent work over time.
- PLAN: reverse engineer your objective into a plan that breaks down what needs to happen on a monthly and weekly. Build in slack for contingencies and rest days and base the plan on your current skill level instead of wishful thinking. Planning is not about being perfect, but preventing foreseeable unforced errors. E.g. for a novel of 50,000 words, let’s say you want to finish it in 1 month. But your current rate of production is 1,000 finished words a day. That exceeds your current ability. Instead, you plan for two months, which gives you ten days off for slippage or rest.
- FREEWRITE: come up with a list of behaviors that can potentially help you reach this objective. These are habits, accountability, deadline, and friction ideas that can help increase adherence. Most of these will not end up working for you; the key is to have a lot of stuff to test.
- HABITS: implement daily habits that are 5 – 10% beyond your current ability. IMPORTANT NOTE: 5 – 10% may be too small if you’re an absolute beginner; if you’re a professional, then that will be way too much. This is a general guideline and starting point, not an absolute. Calibrate based on your skill level. Build belief/confidence (self-efficacy) and skill through consistent small wins. The key to long-term behavior change and building skills: make things easy, so you can show up every day. This allows you to harness the benefits of compound interest. 5% better per month sounds like nothing, but that rate of progress compounds into a 79% gain over the course of the year.
- REST: the higher the difficulty and the higher the intensity, the more rest you need to build into your schedule. For those worried about being lazy, fear not; proper rest allows you to produce more high quality work. Examples include walking, reading, watching TV/movies, socializing with friends and so forth. It’s best to do something that you enjoy and doesn’t make you feel worse. This is about replenishing your energy stores. Drinking to excess on your off day isn’t rest, because you wake up with less energy than when you started.
- COMPETITION, ACCOUNTABILITY & DEADLINES: use competition, accountability (e.g. having penalties with friends if you don’t do a habit, or announce a book to your newsletter) and hard deadlines (put a book up for pre-order, set a firm date for an open-mic performance)
- FRICTION: make positive habits and behaviors easy (get pre-cut vegetables, put your guitar out in a prominent place) and make bad habits hard (don’t keep junk food in the house, download plugins that block certain sites)
- IMPROVE: Engage in deliberate practice (practicing things beyond your current level of ability and adjusting in real-time based on feedback; use of a coach or teacher can amplify results significantly) and flow (uninterrupted focus on an activity right at the edge of your ability) to maximize your habit time and build skills faster.
- TRACK: Maintain records so you know if you’re showing up and how fast you’re progressing.
- ITERATE, OPTIMIZE, and CALIBRATE/SCALE: based on your records, drop or tweak behaviors that are not getting you closer to your objective. Experiment with the variables, including friction, accountability, and deadlines to find if you can increase adherence and consistency. Scale effective habits to your preferred level to increase your rate of progress and level of skill.
There’s no magic bullet here. Instead, it’s vital that you stack multiple strategies on top of each other to dramatically increase your adherence. The other key is realizing which of these principles compel you the most. For me, hard deadlines spur the most action. But not all tasks can be completed with deadlines (e.g. staying in shape has no deadline; it is simply for life). Thus, it’s necessary to have alternative principles waiting in backup should your main strategies fail.
You’re likely familiar with most of this stuff (just note that matters like implementing friction are skills, and as such, take time to develop—just like playing the piano or learning to write a novel would!). The exception is probably habit formation, which is the foundation of the entire system and, as such, we’ll discuss in greater detail below.
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.
This system seems very paint by numbers, but it will require some adaptation on your part, particularly when you’re using it for long-term objectives that are somewhat nebulous. Thus, I have two real examples below to show you how I’ve applied things. The point here is not to copy exactly what I’ve done; that won’t work, since we’re different people with different preferences. Instead, I hope that these give you ideas for troubleshooting problems and using the flexibility of the system to your benefit.
MACRO PRODUCTIVITY STUFF
- ANALYZE: I logged my time for a week and found that I was spending an inordinate amount of time on email (10+ hours a week).
- ORGANIZE: I use a journal to check off my daily habits and Excel to track key metrics. Click the links for photos, since they’re gigantic. There is no magic here; the journal is completely inefficient, but I get great satisfaction from checking things off with a pen. An alternative habit tracking method using Excel can be found here. I keep my list of longer term projects/tasks in Excel.
- ELIMINATE: I decided to send fewer emails and unsubscribe from 50%+ of newsletters. I also have all push notifications (save for texts/calls) turned off on my phone and PC.
- AUTOMATE: this is an area where I can dramatically improve. Right now, I just have automatic payments set up and some Amazon subscriptions.
- DELEGATE: another area where I can improve. I outsource nothing except for things like covers/proofreading.
PROJECT: DROP DEAD
- OBJECTIVE: release 50k novel on January 31st
- PLAN: This comes out to about 12.5k finished words per week, which is 2k a day (factoring in a few days off). I write about 1200 finished words an hour. This means I need to put in a little over 90 minutes a day to complete the novel. However, I haven’t published anything in over a year and a half, and haven’t consistently written fiction since then. This means the neural grooves for this skill/habit, while etched in, are dormant. Thus, my plan is to start slow (500 words a day) and then scale that over the last couple weeks, instead of jumping right in.
- HABIT: 500 words a day for first couple weeks, scaling up to around 3k by the end of the project. Right now, 500 words is at the edge of my ability and a real challenge. I’m hoping to scale this rapidly since I’ve written 3k+ a day in the past and old habits are quick to rekindle if you scale into them. This is a more advanced, and not recommended for habits you haven’t done in the past. If those neural grooves aren’t present, then you’re going to hit a brick wall with this approach. It’s still easy to do that when you’re trying to rebuild an old habit. My mistake over the past year has been trying to start at 3k from the get go. This went poorly. Start small and scale.
- TRIGGERS: seeing habit in my journal, Post-It notes
- REWARDS: good job, checking habit off, watching TV
- ACCOUNTABILITY/DEADLINES: you’ll note that my habit trigger-reward design lacks creativity. I’m most productive under a deadline. This has always been the case, without exception. Thus, I’ll have the book up for pre-order. This, however, hasn’t proven effective enough in the past. Thus, I’m incorporating further accountability by releasing a case study for my marketing course and also putting this publicly on my site/newsletter.
- FRICTION: installed YouTube home page blocker. May unplug router if things get dire, although I don’t think my problem here is distraction; instead, it’s the discomfort of restarting a skill that came relatively easy a few years ago and enduring the stiffness of the writing/inefficiency of the first few days, where it takes an hour to write 500 terrible words.
- IMPROVE: I’m focusing on scene-sequel and plot structure. I’m going to read Save the Cat and also review my notes in these areas.
- TRACK: I have an Excel sheet where I enter the daily words. For gauging how my writing is improving, I have a simple rubric that I’m testing where I grade myself on structure, character likability, and a few other key elements. I’ll also look at things like reviews and sellthrough from Book 1 to Book 2, although potential madness/confusion lies in the former, since what people say they don’t like rarely aligns with what they actually didn’t like (since they’re not writers and can’t identify the structural reason something is broken).
- OBJECTIVE: be in excellent shape and pain/fatigue-free
- PLAN: there are a ton of unknowns between this objective and where I’m at. But my general plan is to focus on four primary movements: push-ups, pull-ups, handstands and squats. I’m going to focus on form and see if some of the pain/flexibility issues subside.
- SUB-OBJECTIVES/MILESTONES: one-arm pushup/pull-up, freestanding handstand pushup (with the exception of the handstand, where the end game is just doing a freestanding one).
- I need to figure out why my shoulder hurts during pushing movements, improve my sleep quality, gradually improve my diet, and work on flexibility/stabilizer muscles.
- HABITS: workout four times a week, plus a fifth session. Exercise is already a habit; I drilled this in by exercising every day and by having all the equipment in my apartment (e.g. pull-up bar). Doing strength training every day is not beneficial from a progressive overload standpoint, as it doesn’t allow rest and recovery, but from a habit-building standpoint, the consistency turned it into something I hated to something that I actively look to do during rest days (and am disappointed about not doing). The main issue has been diet. Here, we have a bad habit in eating candy bars (a lot of them…like a lot) that’s causing problems. And also a lack of eating nutritious foods. So we need to remove a bad habit and install a couple better ones (eating more vegetables/having a protein shake).
- TRIGGERS (candy): there really aren’t any, aside from being in my apartment and thinking “I want this.” Environmental triggers are hard to deal with, since I can’t exactly burn things down and move. It’s important when you do make a major life change not to fall into bad habits early on; I don’t crave candy in other environments (seriously), so it’s entirely to do with the environment.
- REWARDS (candy): obvious in that it tastes good.
- WHAT THIS MEANS: I haven’t been successful in weakening this habit by adjusting the trigger or reward. Instead, I have to work from a different angle: accountability/friction etc.
- TRIGGERS (salad): journal, having fresh vegetables
- REWARD (salad): telling myself good job/checking habit off, feeling better after a couple weeks
- ACCOUNTABILITY/DEADLINES: deadlines are really bad for weight loss; dieting has repeatedly shown to result in more weight gain. I haven’t used accountability here, but something like a bet with a friend might be necessary to weaken the habit.
- FRICTION: don’t keep candy in the apartment (already do this). Always have vegetables.
- IMPROVE: focus on form and review my reps prior to a session
- TRACK: I track this in Excel and use MyFitnessPal to track calories.
This is a good example in that it’s something more free-form/less measurable and has tons of moving parts (e.g. diet/exercise, plus all the sub-parts that go into this). I’ve been working on both diet and exercise for awhile, but my primary focus has been exercise. With difficult habits, you usually have to triage and accept that you’ll only be able to solidify one at a time. It turns out I enjoy exercise significantly more than eating better, hence the focus.
However, I’ve found that the remaining habit preventing progress is proving intractable. The candy bars may seem minor, but they’re adding 250 – 500 calories a day to my diet. Over six or seven years, that’s resulted in gaining around 30 pounds. Needless to say, this is problematic from both a health and progress standpoint, since when you’re using your body for resistance, the heavier you are, the more difficult pullups/pushups and so forth become. The former is more concerning, since the sugar destroys my ability to focus and makes me want to take naps.
Interestingly, despite having this information, this habit has been resistance to change.
I’ve tried scaling down (multiple candy bars to one), but that hasn’t worked. I’ve implemented friction – I have to walk 10+ minutes to get candy, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem.
The key takeaway here is that, while frustrating, there are certain habits/changes that require a lot of trial and error. I’ll figure this out, but it’s not a linear process. It took me years to dial in the exercise habit.
The difficulty of changing will vary with each habit. I can waste hours on YouTube, but the instant I install the homepage blocker (not even blocking the site), my daily watch time goes from like four hours to six minutes.
Don’t give up.
One takeaway, though: it’s better to prevent bad habits from taking root than it is to eradicate them. This doesn’t help you for annoying behaviors that you’d like to get rid of, but when you find yourself doing something regularly that isn’t a positive habit, nip it in the bud and stop doing it while you’re still consciously making the choice. Once it’s automated, it’s usually much more difficult to eliminate.
- Do a time analysis for a day and figure out where your time is being spent.
- Turn off all app notifications on your PC & phone.
- Eliminate 50% of the apps from your phone.
- Eliminate 50% of the inessential tasks from your to do list.
- List your objectives and choose the three most important.
- Reverse engineer these objectives down to daily habits (or design a routine, if you already have some good habits) that are 5 – 10% beyond your current level of ability. Meet yourself where you are. Make them small enough to be easily accomplished each day, but substantive enough to produce results.
- OBJECTIVE: get in good shape, but haven’t been to gym in 5 years.
- BAD HABIT: go to gym 7 times a week and work out for 2 hours a day.
- GOOD HABIT: do one pushup a day or just drive to the gym each day or go for a 2m walk. (note: you can always do more; the purpose of this is to burn in those neural grooves through consistency. That is vastly more important than the volume. Volume can be scaled easily once the habit is in place.)
- OBJECTIVE: increase daily word count; have written 3k words a day for 6+ months.
- BAD HABIT: write 10,000 words
- GOOD HABIT: write 3200 – 3500 words a day.
- There is a huge amount of merit to consistency, but you probably shouldn’t see the bar way lower once you’re more advanced, either. So while I wouldn’t call writing 500 words a day in this case a “bad habit,” it’s not going to produce the results you’re looking for (assuming you want to increase your daily word count).
- OBJECTIVE: get in good shape, but haven’t been to gym in 5 years.
- Hammer those keystone habits home by checking them off each day. If you’re not showing up, troubleshoot the triggers and rewards first, then look into friction, accountability, and deadlines.
- Improve: you shouldn’t infinitely scale habits. Remember, our end goal isn’t volume; a certain level of volume is required, but past that, we want to focus on improvement and efficiency. Using our previous example, 3,000 words a day = 1m+ words a year, which is (12) 80k novels. At some point, you hit diminishing returns with pure volume. Once you’re doing enough work each day, you can focus on being more efficient (writing 3k in 2 hours instead of 3h) or skill improvement (focusing on dialogue or character arcs) to start seeing massive gains in your productivity.