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. I wrote this guide to distill the core tenets of productivity into a flexible, simple system for sustainable, long-term behavioral change and skills. In an information-rich age, the key to progress is generally not new information or secrets, but systematizing what you already know to provide repeatable, reliable results rather than random flurries of activity. A system is a blueprint that organizes all that information into usable form, and also allows you to isolate which areas are working and which ones must be improved.
This is a lightweight process that doesn’t add hundreds of different journals, apps, or things to your life. It is about eliminating the unnecessary to find the essential.
Enough preamble. Let’s get started.
The Trifecta of Success
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 to 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. This does not necessarily have to be a daily affair; you could invest eight one day, then zero the next. How you arrange these is a matter of personal preference and schedule. However you reach the total is of little concern; 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.
A Critical Note
Habits are powerful, but their applicability varies based on the task and the person. Certain tasks are not habitual and are one-off affairs. And certain things, while entirely possible to make into habits, will be resistant to becoming daily things.
Perhaps the prime example on most people’s minds is the habit of writing every day. And indeed, by understanding habit formation, you can write every day.
While this is worth trying, as it’s very powerful, the daily writing approach is not going to work for all authors.
I don’t write every day (or even most).
I am heavily driven by external factors, namely hard deadlines. Certain tasks I’ve developed solid habits around (exercise), but writing hasn’t been one of them.
I emphasize consistency quite a bit, but this is task relative. If you exercise all in one day then skip workouts for two weeks, you’ll get zero results.
If you write a novel in seven days, then don’t write 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.
For certain tasks, consistency is measured in days; with others weeks, months, or years.
To build those habits and keep those neural pathways firing cleanly, here’s the complete system, step-by-step:
Log everything you do 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. This is not only an excellent exercise for assessing where your time is going, but it also gives you a clear idea of how much free time you have available for your writing.
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.
Relentlessly eliminate unnecessary tasks and projects that do not bring you closer to your core objectives.
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). You can also hire people to program Excel sheets that can automate certain bookkeeping functions.
There are necessary tasks that you either can’t do well or don’t like doing (e.g. cooking, cleaning, cover design). If you make $100 an hour and you can outsource it for $20, then you are essentially losing $80 an hour by performing these tasks yourself (often at an inferior level of quality, no less).
Search for areas where you can pay once (in time) and scale with minimal additional effort, or get paid for the same work multiple times.
(7) Manage Your Energy
Sleep, diet, exercise, and rest are essential to maintaining your peak productivity. Because if you’re sick or dead, it’s hard to put words down on paper.
Make time for recovery. Rest days are not downtime or pointless; they’re critical for consolidating skills, generating ideas, coming up with improved strategies, and replenishing your creative storehouses. The higher the difficulty and the higher the intensity of a task, the more rest you’ll need to fully recover.
Yes, putting in the time to improve and progress is important. But sometimes you need rest more than reps.
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.
The final piece of this equation is working at times of peak focus. We all have spans in the day where our focus levels are high; and we have others where we struggle to put two words together. Identifying these times of peak focus, then directing them to your most important tasks is crucial not only for efficiency but also quality.
You may literally be five or ten times more effective during these periods than a lull. Wasting your times of peak focus on the wrong tasks can massively affect your results, even if you’re putting in the same number of hours.
Establish clear objectives in a few key areas, focusing on what you want to accomplish.
Objectives fall into three areas: tasks (e.g., very short-term items usually taking less than a day), projects (e.g. learn a specific song, write a book, build a website) or, my personal favorite, general destinations (e.g. make $2m/yr).
To be clear, projects with specific outcomes are important, and help get you to your overall destination.
But, when possible, I prefer destinations 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 reach 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 to show up and do the work. Why? Opportunities gravitate toward people with skills who can solve their problems. The only way to build these skills is by sharpening them over time.
(9) Plan & Ideate
Reverse engineer your objective into a plan that breaks down what needs to happen on a monthly and weekly basis—i.e., 5 novels a year = 300,000 words, which equals 25,000 words/mo > 834 words/day. Planning is not about being perfect, but preventing foreseeable unforced errors.
An integral of part of planning involves ideation. This can occur during your initial planning phase, but it’s mainly something that occurs as roadblocks present themselves.
All this process involves doing is setting a time for 5 – 15 minutes and listing things that can potentially help you reach this objective. These include 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 come up with various approaches, then narrow to the best candidates based on your personality, available time, objectives, and other factors.
(10) Habits & Routines
Reverse engineer your objective further into daily habits 5 – 25% beyond your current ability. 5 – 25% may be too small if you’re an absolute beginner; if you’re a professional, then even 5% will may be way too much. This is a general guideline and starting point, not an absolute. Calibrate based on your skill level.
Meeting yourself at your current level of skill builds 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. Only when you can show up can you actually do the work, put in the practice, and improve. Habits are powerful because they help us harness the benefits of compound interest. 5% better per month sounds like nothing, but compounds into a 79% gain over the course of a year and a 1868% increase over five years.
If we want, and if it suits our personality, we can arrange key habits into routines by linking them together. These chains are powerful and can knock out multiple keystone habits in rapid succession. The main failure point is length: massive two or three hour routines are extremely fragile to external events. Lightweight, low-maintenance routines of up to an hour tend to be less susceptible to shock and have a better chance of sticking.
(11) Deadlines, Accountability, and Competition
These are insanely powerful, particularly if you respond well to external motivation. You can 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) to massively increase productivity.
However, note that these strategies can lead to burnout or stress in individuals who are not externally motivated; likewise, even if you thrive under these conditions, remember that a sprint to beat a deadline is extremely intense. The more intense the work, the longer the recovery period. This will vary from individual to individual; one author may be able to do ten books back-to-back with onerous deadlines before grinding to a halt, whereas another may stall out at two.
To avoid this scenario, incorporate rest after completing projects or hitting deadlines so that you can recover and regroup before your next big push.
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).
Extremely basic rules and general guidelines can be helpful for establishing clear standards (e.g. only eat one candy bar a day or eat at least one healthy meal a day, otherwise no TV time).
Thus far, we’ve been focused on adherence (showing up).
But that’s the first step.
Next, we want to actively cultivate improvement.
To sharpen our skills, we need to engage in deliberate practice (practicing beyond your current level of ability and adjusting in real-time based on feedback; using an editor or coach can speed up and 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. Keep in mind that splitting your time between seventeen different skills will achieve slower results than narrowing your focus to a few essential skills.
It’s vital that you stack multiple strategies on top of each other to dramatically increase your adherence. That does not mean all. Depending on the task, your personality, and your strengths, you’ll rely more on certain elements than others.
The key is identifying which principles compel you the most. For me, hard deadlines spur the most action. But not all tasks can be completed with deadlines (i.e., staying in shape has no deadline; it is simply for life). Thus, it’s necessary to understand all the principles so that you have fallback strategies available should your main strategies fail.
Maintain records so you know if you’re showing up and how fast you’re progressing. The simplest system: check off a box if you completed a habit. Put a red mark if you didn’t.
You can also track data, from word counts to book sales to weight to sleep. In the beginning, you’ll probably find yourself tracking more things that necessary. Then you’ll be able to narrow it down to a few.
(17) Iterate, Optimize, Calibrate, and Scale
At its core, productivity is basically a big game of trial and error. We come up with ideas that sound good, or that people tell us might work, test them, adjust them based on feedback, then try again.
Based on these results, we drop or tweak behaviors that are not getting us closer to our objectives. Experiment with the variables, including friction, accountability, and deadlines to find if you can increase adherence and results. Scale effective habits to your preferred level to increase your rate of progress and level of skill. Note that most habits and behaviors have a ceiling beyond which you may not want or feel comfortable scaling them. This is different for every person, although we all have the limitations of 24 hours to contend with.
However, one person may find that they top out at 500 words a day, and prefer to edit it meticulously, getting each word correct before moving on.
Another may produce 5,000.
The purpose of all this is not to concern yourself with what others are doing, but to calibrate everything based on your signature strengths and your objectives.
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.
After 5,000 words, the core of this guide essentially boils down to this:
- Start with one core objective. You can have more, but at the beginning, focus on one.
- Reverse-engineer one daily habit that brings you closer to that core objective.
- Employ deadlines and accountability, 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); work 5 – 25% beyond your current ability (depending on current skill) to maximize progress (deliberate practice).
- Do this for as long as it takes to reach your target level of skill. Repeat with new skills to form a unique skillset that reduces your competition.
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.
- 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 – 25% 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.
- Commit to a trial week to test whether you want to pursue this project/objective and also if the habits are properly calibrated to your skill level.
- If you’re not showing up, first assess whether the difficulty level is correctly matched to your skill level, then ideate by coming up with new triggers and rewards first, then look into friction, accountability, and deadlines.
- If you find that the habit or project/objective are pointless after a week, scrap it.
- If it’s worth continuing, then extend the period. Note that the trial week is useful for identifying things that clearly won’t work. However, it’s not good for confirming that things do work. You may want to only commit to an additional week or month.
- 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.