Part 1 (Productivity): Key Principles

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Welcome to the Ultimate Guide to Productivity.

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.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Two important notes before we begin:

First, these types of guides have an annoying tendency to be filled with shit that the author never does or pretends to do all the time. I do not apply each framework or idea to every situation. Sometimes I just do things. Sometimes I do nothing and fall behind or fall down altogether. This is about progress, not perfection or becoming a billionaire.

Second,, there’s a tendency to conflate productivity with happiness or satisfaction. Productivity is just a tool. It is a skeleton key, in that it can be applied to all other skills to improve anything you choose. But the doors it opens can be either good or bad. It has no link to your overall well-being or satisfaction unless you channel it toward things that are meaningful toward you. If you spend all your time writing and become really good at it, and you wanted to actually be a scuba diver, that’s a dumb move. If you don’t like whatever path you’re on, change it. Because that old saying about real estate is perhaps even more applicable to time: they’re not making any more of it. Spend your days accordingly.

WHO THIS GUIDE IS FOR

This guide is for writers looking to take their career to a professional level, meaning you want to be a part-time or full-time author. If this is not your goal, the approach is simple enough that you can scale it back to your aims. And while the examples revolve around writing, the concepts can (and should, if you find them helpful) be applied to anything you want to improve.

PRODUCTIVITY, DEFINED

Productivity is the art of on demand execution. It’s the ability to produce meaningful, quality work toward our core objectives.

Productivity is often miscategorized as an inherent character trait which a person calls upon at will. But as the Greek philosopher Archilochus said more than 2500 years ago, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” That’s because, like anything else, productivity is a skill; if you struggle with execution, it is simply because you have not burned the necessary circuits into your brain (known as neuroplasticity).

And yes, productivity, as with any other skill, has repeatable principles that we can practice to improve. Best of all, there aren’t dozens of these principles; humans have known what works for thousands of years. While ancient humans may have lacked conveniences such as the internet, they produced tremendous works of art, impressive feats of engineering (consider that calculus wasn’t invented until Newton, but people managed to build massive structures that are still standing today), and more. In short, they were tremendous craftspeople; if anything, their diligence and learning acumen has been lost in the maelstrom of misinformation available. As a result, we are information rich, but wisdom and skill poor.

The main flaw in the modern social sciences, namely psychology, is the tendency to over-generalize from the specific or unrelated. As a marketer, I’ve found that the smallest variations in tests can produce wildly different results. This is with very simple ads. Analyzing human behavior is remarkably complex, but it is also critical; perhaps the most important thing, as learning how to change our behavior is the skeleton key that unlocks all other skills. Unfortunately, most psychology studies extrapolate wildly general conclusions from hyper-specific tests. Or, because testing could not be done on humans for ethical reasons (e.g. getting rats hooked on cocaine is not problematic; doing that to people is), we get a host of “principles” that may apply to our mammalian brethren but of little utility to humans, other than as interesting pieces of trivia.

We are not rats, pigeons, dogs, cats, or monkeys; while these creatures are sentient, they do not possess a human’s intelligence. The additional capabilities enabled by this increase in intelligence makes it fallacious to view our behavior through a lens of dog + additional brainpower and opposable thumbs. Our own consciousnesses is an example of emergent behavior: our increased intelligence means that we can reflect on our own consciousness, but it also means that we possess an acute awareness of abstract concepts such as the future, our own mortality and time.

These naturally produce massive changes in how humans are motivated and change their behaviors versus other creatures. A dog does not have the ability to comprehend the future, its legacy, or a million other concepts that humans grapple with regularly. It also does not have abstract objectives like “eat fewer bones so that I do not die of heart disease in three years.”

This is not to say that this line of research can’t be useful, only that the results of such tests should be used as the starting point for hypotheses to explore in human testing (where ethical), rather than directly transferable, as they are often implied to be. Behavioral change deserves better scientific treatment than it is currently receiving, particularly in the pop-science space. The main takeaway here is be extremely wary of “new” breakthroughs regarding behavioral change. If something wasn’t documented a thousand years ago, it’s likely fool’s gold; or merely an old concept repackaged within a shiny buzzword. Knowing this would have saved me years of wheel-spinning and hundreds of hours burned on useless reading material.

How does this guide address these pitfalls? By taking the knowledge stores I’ve encountered and filtering them through both time-tested principles and personal experience. That does not mean I know everything, or anywhere close to it; suggesting any sort “mastery” here would be patently ridiculous. Perhaps the only thing I’ve uncovered is how to be slightly less of an idiot. But that has been immensely valuable, for it is the unforced errors and dumb strategies that cause the bulk of our productivity woes, rather than the lack of special information.

Therefore, what I’ve endeavored to do is not only filter out all the BS, but also place the remaining critical principles within a usable framework. The other main problem with current self-help is simple: because of the demands of the marketplace, good information is siloed. A book about habits views all change through this lens; this is the “big idea” approach to non-fiction, which is effective for minting bestsellers, but less so for getting a fuller picture of a nuanced and complex world. There is no secret or magic bullet. There are dozens of little pieces (and a few major ones) that, when properly assembled, create a simple approach.

This end result is not a one-size fits all system, but set of principles that you can calibrate to your unique situation. The key word from the introduction, repeated here for emphasis, is flexible. You apply these principles based on your own situation, rather than following the One True Way.

But behind these productivity principles are more fundamental principles. And to understand how the system works, you first need to understand the foundation it’s been built upon.

We’ll get started with the 80/20 principle.

PRINCIPLE 1: 80/20

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. Perfectionists wrongly claim that you must do the other 99%; that is wrong. The 99% producing minimal returns is not only unnecessary, but it’s actively stealing from your life. Stealing time, stealing money, and stealing progress. Adopting 80/20 is not laziness; instead, it’s about taking all the wasted time spent in the useless 80%, and double, tripling, quadrupling down on the core 20%. That’s how you 2x or even 10x your productivity: by doing way more of the things that matter, and zero of the things that are either moving the needle or, more likely, shooting you in the foot.

PRINCIPLE 2: COMPOUND INTEREST

Compound interest is a stalwart of personal finance and self-help books, but rarely do they explain the full ramifications. Small wins produce massive results when repeated with consistency. 5% improvement per month equals 79% improvement over the course of a year and an 18.7x improvement over 5 years. This progress, however, is not linear. Not only do most of the gains appear at the end, but in between the start and those sweet, sweet rewards often lies a period of apparent losses or stagnation as you struggle to find the right approach:

Note that compounding does not simply come from putting in the time. You need to have a good process.

But assuming this is the case, if you stick through this valley of despair, compound interest leads to exponential growth, otherwise known as the “hockey stick.” This is where your progress hits an inflection point and suddenly curves upward, thus resembling its namesake:

The two things required to reach this point are consistency (e.g. you must continually make “deposits” by practicing each day) and minimizing losses (not shooting yourself in the foot). Losses are inevitable when you take risks or adopt a trial and error approach; the goal is not to avoid failure. You will allows experience drawdowns, whether financially or professionally. The strategy is not to avoid them entirely by taking zero risks. This itself is a far greater risk than experiencing minor setbacks; financially, inflation destroys the value of your money over time, like mice nibbling at the corner of your dollars. And professionally, staying sedentary ensures that your peers will quickly pass you by, making you redundant and obsolete.

Instead, we want to employ strategies that maximize upside and minimize the risk of catastrophic or existential failure. E.g. a 1% loss requires a 1.01% return to recoup, whereas a 50% loss requires that you make a 100% return just to get back to even. The latter is an example of a catastrophic loss. Personally, we might call this rock bottom. Professionally, we might not write a book for two years, thus allowing our royalties and fanbase to wither. You can recover from this scenario, but optimally, you would prefer not to. However, since humans generally learn through experience rather than the wisdom of history, it’s common to need one or two of these life experiences to really learn how to properly manage risks.

An existential failure is an extinction event. In finance, this is known as “blowing up” (the reason the banks were bailed out during the 2008 – 2009 was largely because the US Government thought that the interconnected risks made these banks too big to fail). Professionally or personally, death is obviously the ultimate extinction event (don’t snort an eightball of coke in your sports car). But the concept of “blowing up” applies to your writing business. Going all-in, while romantic and the stuff of film and legend, is usually a dumb strategy because of the risk of ruin. Technically, you can recover from a blowup, but the fallout is generally so massive that it’s like the asteroid and the dinosaurs: good night and good luck.

By keeping your losses small, consistently progressing, and taking calculated, high upside risks when they present themselves, you can maximize the impact of compound interest. Because to profit, first you have to survive.

PRINCIPLE 3: PRODUCTIVITY IS BASED ON SIMPLE ARITHMETIC

You have 24 hours. You can write a certain number of words in an hour. Those two factors define your capacity.

If you write for two hours and do 1,100 finished words per hour, you’ll have around 2,200 words on average.

Two hours spent writing is two hours you cannot spend walking your dog, doing the dishes, or something else. This is fairly obvious, but we act as if we have a limitless reservoir of time or that certain things don’t count (e.g. just a quick video or checking email). It is the latter habit that is most destructive. This is not because of the dubious “task-switching” residue proposed by psychologists (wherein they posit that it takes you a bunch of minutes to get back up to speed with your original when you task switch; nowhere in my own practice has this been remotely evident).

Instead, task switching is destructive because of simple addition: these five minutes, performed sixty times between various “small” tasks we do almost unconsciously, add up to five wasted hours a day. This is merely wasted time, and makes no mention of the common productivity advice, which implores you to add an endless parade of nonsense habits to your life. You’re not going to meditate for an hour, exercise for an hour, cook all your own meals, work for ten hours, go to all your kids’ events, practice a hobby for an hour, meet with your friends, and all the other bullshit proffered by alternative advice. It simply doesn’t add up. You can do some of these things, but you have to choose what’s most important OR find a way to outsource them.

I tend to view most things in terms of time. A movie? Two hours. A book? Eight hours. A new project? 80 hours (or, viewed another way, two or three weeks of work). Time is an extremely scarce resource, and although it’s still easy to spend it frivolously, this mindset shift has greatly helped me reduce waste.

PRINCIPLE 4: EVOLUTION

The smartest, fastest, or strongest organism rarely wins the day; instead, it’s the organism best adapted to its environment that survives. Let’s say we have a land filled with grapes.

Grapes for days.

And there are lots of big, bad animals. But all their other food sources are gone.

Meanwhile you, the tiniest of creatures, can eat the grapes.

Although it seems you have no advantages, you will emerge as the survivor.

You can apply this principle to life in twp ways: a dog does not evolve into a cat. There’s some annoyingly prevalent bullshit in self-help books that suggests you can do anything; this may be true, but there are certain areas where you’ll find (through trial and error) that you possess natural aptitude. All talent boils down to is a higher skill ceiling and the ability to learn faster than others in a specific domain. It’s silly to either ignore this truth or avoid your natural talents to pursue things you suck at.

Because there is nothing wrong with being a dog, cat, or anything else. One is not better than the other, merely different. Play in an environment suited to your skill set. A shark is vicious in the water, but dead on land; a lion vice versa. Each is weak in the wrong context. Place yourself in a position to succeed, rather than shoehorning yourself into someone else’s bullshit ideals, then become master of that domain. Certain elements of your personality, preferences, and talents are simply different than other people’s. Your perceived weaknesses can become strengths and part of your unique artistic signature, in that they will dictate what creative paths you travel down. It is from limitations that art emerges. Embrace this, and leverage your signature strengths to your advantage.

But don’t fall prey to this as an excuse not to make an effort. While everyone has varying talents, telling yourself you’re not a math person or not an art person is probably untrue. If you’ve spent five hours doing something, you probably suck at it. If you’ve spent no time making a concerted effort to improve, you’ll probably suck.

The second way we can apply evolution is as a strategy: trial and error is more critical than perfect design. Rather than plucking the key strategies and skills out of thin air, you’ll need to discover them through consistent testing. It is only through this experimentation process that you can uncover what specifically suits your unique strengths and weaknesses. Progress is not linear in the real-world; we must rapidly test various approaches to find what works for us.

PRINCIPLE 5: EVOLUTIONARY HIJACKING

We have but one evolutionary imperative: to survive.

We do this through two primary methods: prolonging our own life and reproducing. This makes the strongest drivers of our behavior food/water/shelter/safety, social status, and sex.

Every smart company in the 21st century understands that the most money is made when they hammer our evolutionary hot buttons. I call this phenomenon evolutionary hijacking.

The advent of big data has produced an incredible array of technologies at rates previously unseen during the course of human history. Buckminster Fuller posited that, from 1 AD to around 1500, the total store of human knowledge doubled (he quantified this with “units”; thus, we went from 1 unit to 2. Sometime within the next two decades, this human knowledge will begin doubling every day. If we look at this through the lens of compounding, it’s immediately evident that a period of unparalleled exponential growth is about to occur.

This type of progress is unfathomable without illustration. For those unfamiliar of the parable of the farmer and the king, a quick story: a farmer, who solved some intractable problem for the king, is told by his royal highness that he can have anything he wishes.

He requests a grain of rice, doubled for every square present on the chessboard (there are 64 squares). That means there’s one grain on the first square. Two on the second. Four on the third.

The king is amused by this modest request.

Until he realizes that this actually far outstrips the total amount of grain in the entire kingdom.

Things are doubling every few years right now.

When that increases to every month, then every week and every data…just think about how much data, information, and knowledge is about to drop on our heads.

However, it will not necessarily be beneficial to us as individuals if we are not prepared for its ramifications. The ability to track everything people do, combined with the incentive structures of capitalism, has produced some less than optimal behaviors. In essence, having incredible analytical insight into our evolutionary hot buttons has allowed big corporations to “hack” these for their own profitable endeavors.

And that ability will only improve.

A prime example of this is health. Despite having an advanced health care system, the obesity rate in the United States has hit an all-time high. The culprit our evolutionary hard-wiring. Famine used to be common; as such, our ability to store fat ensured our survival. Which means we love calorically dense foods. Despite my already stated annoyance at psychology researchers’ tendencies to extrapolate from the animal kingdom, they do have one basic principle correct: humans, mice, dogs…they all love pizza. The difference is that, due to our self-awareness, we have the option to override our evolutionary impulses.

Information alone isn’t enough to defeat this. Implementation is the only thing that will ultimately separate us from our four-legged friends. But awareness does help get the ball rolling in the right direction, and provides checks-and-balances for whether behaviors are beneficial or detrimental.

Food manufacturers spend millions of dollars testing the right combinations of salt, sugar, and fats to encourage us to continue eating long past the point of satiety.

Social media companies encourage endless feedback loops of activity through their like buttons and social validation.

And the news tracks the clicks on each headline, with if it bleeds, it leads being turned up to 11.

All of this can be summed up succinctly: companies are exploiting what used to be extremely valuable resources (high calorie foods, negative news, social validation) to maximize profits. Hoping for them to act better is unrealistic, and while government intervention may come, much as it did for taxes on cigarettes (which did lower the rate of smoking significantly), you may be dead or hosed by the time that happens.

Thus, it is critical to understand that most of the “must have” things offered to you in the modern world are not for your benefit, but to fund a CEO’s expensive yacht collection. Offers that smash our evolutionary hot buttons will not become less enticing; they will become massively more enthralling in the coming decades. It is only by cultivating our own skills that we can ignore their siren calls and stay focused on our own objectives.

PRINCIPLE 6: PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD

This is a concept from resistance training (also known as strength training or lifting weights). To induce muscle growth, you need to make your body do something it hasn’t done before. Why? Because the body exists in a state of homeostasis. Energy expenditure to accomplish difficult things – whether that be building muscle or otherwise – is risky from a survival standpoint. Thus, it takes a stimulus from the environment that is beyond your current capabilities for the body to allocate precious resources toward improvement. This is because the body views something beyond its current ability as an existential threat. If you’re hanging off a cliff and can’t lift yourself up, you die. Only when staying the same threatens your survival does your body grow. And the only way to do that is to progressively increase that stimulus. You can progressively overload in two primary ways: intensity (do harder shit) and volume (do more shit). This principle, while originating in weightlifting, is applicable to neuroplasticity as well, since building new neural pathways is metabolically expensive, and only done if the environment demands it.

This is the most important sub-principle of the whole guide.

Failing to progressively overload is why people who work out for six years continue to look like they don’t work out at all, and it is also why people “on the grind” rarely produce much of value. Generally speaking, the problem is not one of volume (although if you’re not putting in enough time, then expecting progress is foolish), but of intensity: doing tasks with the quality of focus and at the level of difficulty required to refine those neural pathways. And note the importance of the word progression. What was difficult last year, or last month, will no longer produce growth unless you continually ramp up the difficulty to meet your new level of adaptation.

FROM ABSTRACT TO ACTIONABLE

To translate these concepts into actionable ones, we’re going to use trial and error to find the core 20% of effective strategies (the stuff that not only produces results but also plays to our signature strengths). Then we’re going to iterate and optimize on this core 20%, until we’ve honed our processes and skills to a fine point. This is an approach I call shotgun then narrow.

We don’t want to prematurely optimize. This is a key error. Expect the beginning to be slow if you’ve struggled with productivity for a while. You need to meet yourself where you are, otherwise you run two main risks:

  1. Assembling a random collection of tactics that don’t produce progress. This is the main problem with traditional goals and challenges: even if we achieve them, they’re not directed toward any sort of end game. So, at best, we get a lot of activity and no tangible progression.
  2. Getting hyper-efficient at tasks that simply don’t matter. We need to spend time confirming we’ve identified a skill’s core 20% correctly before we invest all our resources there. This is one reason people embrace a pure volume approach and claim that 80-20 doesn’t work: they don’t know what matters and what’s irrelevant, so they simply do everything to compensate. Such an approach can get you to a certain level, but it’s not scalable, and it’s a recipe for frustration, burnout, and constantly being on a treadmill.

I want to be very clear: trial and error does not mean randomly testing terrible ideas. That would be foolish; other people have spent thousands of hours making progress in whatever domain you’re trying to attain competence in (including productivity). The process goes like this:

  1. Pull ideas and strategies from trusted resources that seem promising and in line with your core objectives.
  2. Adapt them to your circumstances (e.g. strengths/weaknesses/current situation) without losing their essence. Eliminate those that do play to your strengths or have been proven ineffective by past history. When possible, always try to build on things that have worked, rather than starting from scratch.
  3. Test them.
  4. Keep what works, honing/iterating. Discard what doesn’t work.
  5. Keep trying new things while doubling down and iterating on your winners.

Eventually, when you gain a certain level of proficiency and knowledge in an area, Step 1 becomes come up with your own ideas. This requires a certain knowledge of the fundamentals; without this framework in a subject, it’s hard to know whether your tests are producing useful information or pointless.

If this sounds familiar, it’s essentially a riff on the scientific method. And remember the 80/20 rule: you should only expect a maximum of 1 in 5 things working on some level. Most of your tests will produce nothing, or slightly negative benefits (loss of time/money). That’s just part of the game. Remember our discussion about mitigating risk: we’re looking for things that have a large payoff relative to their downside.

Now let’s go from the general to the specific, and how we can apply this approach within our productivity system.

THE EASIEST HACK

Since productivity hacks are all the rage, I’ll give you the easiest way to massively increase your productivity: do things you like. Stop doing things you don’t, or that bore you.

We all spend way too much time each day trying to force ourselves to do tasks we don’t enjoy. Part of this is cultural, in that everyone around us is complaining of the grind, so it feels like when we’re interested in our work, we’re doing something wrong. This extends to our hobbies, where we waste time reading books others tell us we “have” to read, or learning things that are “necessary.”

Most of it isn’t. If you’re not spending 80%+ of your time doing things that interest you and you’re self-employed, you have made a serious error.

MINDSET

Entire libraries have been written about the human mind. We’re not going to crack the code in a couple hundred words. But what I can do is explore what I believe is the main issue preventing maximum productivity.

Action.

More specifically, people face one of two problems:

  1. Too much action. This leads to chaos and mistaking the inconsequential for the vital. We need time for reflection. Tons of action often means we’re ignoring what matters, either by mistake or through a whirlwind of active procastination. But some people go too far the other way and succumb to…
  2. Analysis paralysis and perfectionism. Wherein reflection becomes rumination, and no action is undertaken.

We all tend toward one side of this spectrum, and we’ve all been guilty of both extremes. The key is in recognizing which state you’re in, then applying the proper solution: careful thought, or forging ahead. For writers, generally the answer will be taking actions, as this profession tends toward the more introspective and reflective.

THE SYSTEM: AN OVERVIEW

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. ELIMINATE: unnecessary tasks and projects
  4. 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)
  5. DELEGATE: necessary tasks that you either can’t do well or don’t like doing (e.g. cooking, cleaning, cover design)
  6. 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.
  7. PLAN: reverse engineer your objective into a plan that breaks down what needs to happen on a monthly and weekly. e.g. 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.
    • FREEWRITE: list 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.
    • REST: Build in slack for contingencies and rest days and base the plan on your current skill level instead of wishful thinking. 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) to increase motivation.
    • RULES: Create simple rules to establish clear standards (e.g. only eat one candy bar a day).
    • 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)
  8. HABITS: implement daily habits that are 5 – 25% beyond your current ability. IMPORTANT NOTE: 5 – 25% may be too small if you’re an absolute beginner; if you’re a professional, then even 5% will likely 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.
  9. ROUTINE: arrange a couple key habits into low-maintenance routines by linking them to actions you already do every day.
  10. 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. Keep in mind that splitting your time between seventeen different skills will achieve much slower results than straight line focus, where you narrow in on a couple key areas.
  11. TRACK: Maintain records so you know if you’re showing up and how fast you’re progressing. Check off a box if you completed that habit that day. Put a red mark if you didn’t. Complete a habit 80% of the time to reach the threshold of consistency.
  12. 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.

THE SKILL HIERARCHY

The ultimate goal of productivity is not massive action; again, it’s key to remember that activity does not equate to progress. Instead we want to put all our hours of hard work toward building useful skills that help us achieve our core objectives.

But “getting good,” much like “do a lot of stuff” is neither specific nor helpful. And, when starting to learn a skill, it’s a bit premature to be thinking how good you want to be; it can either be limiting (I only want to be an amateur) or intimidating (I’m new, but I want to become world class…and there’s so much stuff to learn between now and then). But as we start to invest some hours, we quickly get an idea of how high we need to ascend up the skill hierarchy in a given area to reach our objective. This allows us to not only estimate how much time we need to invest, but also prevents emotional conflicts wherein we may feel guilty for not practicing more or being better in certain areas where we actually have no interest in progressing further.

Most of the time, it’s okay to be just okay (or even outright bad, if the skill is irrelevant to your life). You can’t be really good at that many things. Make those skills count.

Thus, our basic skill hierarchy looks something like this:

  1. Beginner/Amateur: self-explanatory; just learning.
  2. Intermediate: knows the ground rules and fundamentals, but still improving, with many gaps in knowledge. Occasional bursts of impressiveness.
  3. The Threshold of Impressiveness: a term coined by Sam Priestley and Ben Larcombe at Expert in a Year. Essentially, this can be defined as having the appearance of being at expert (or even master) level to the layman or your friends, while actually being several steps below. This is a key concept we’re going to return to throughout the guide. In many domains, this threshold will also get you to an expert/pro level. Talent is rarely a limiting factor here. (e.g. even if you’re “not an art person” you can get good enough at Photoshop to make people think you are).
  4. Expert/Pro. Good enough to get paid. The number of hours here will differ greatly depending on the level of competition and available learning resources. To become expert level at a classical instrument (e.g. even good enough to teach kids) will take thousands of hours because the occupation has both high competition and highly systematized resources (schools, learning techniques) honed over centuries. Natural talent becomes a limiting factor here.
  5. Master/World Class. These are all the stories we read about in self-help books. Similar to expert/pro level, the number of hours required to reach this level depends on level of competition and available learning resources. While bandied about as the gold standard, it’s generally a huge pain in the ass to get here and totally unrealistic for someone who isn’t hyper-obsessed with their occupation. Without natural talent this is almost impossible…unless you combine multiple skills to reduce the competition pool.

While this flies in the face of “reach for the stars and you’ll hit the moon” or whatever bullshit positivity mantra people like throwing out there, I believe looking at things realistically allows us to achieve better results. Because rather than focusing on a single thing and grinding until you die, you can instead cultivate a collection of threshold/expert skills (better known as a skillset) that, when combined, add up to more than the sum of their parts. Recall our discussion of emergent behavior earlier: 1 + 1 does not equal 2 in this case, but perhaps an entirely new field of study where you are one of the world’s sole practitioners. If you combine a knowledge of statistics, marketing, and writing, for example, you’ll be able to run marketing campaigns that other people without a math background won’t…and it’ll also influence the principles, strategy, and mindsets that you use (and how you write, too).

This is a much better situation to be in than competing against a broad pool of people, which is what we’re faced with as writers: millions of books and authors all vying for limited digital shelf space. How do we differentiate? Assemble a skillset that other people with which other people cannot compete. Because while “write good mysteries” may be replicable, if you have a background in law enforcement, plus a minor in biology and an interest in futurism with 500+ books read on the subject, suddenly you can write a bio-terrorism mystery or hard sci-fi police procedural or any number of potential books with a level of realism/quality that others cannot.

If you’re thinking, that sounds hard, then yes, there is no easy button. You still have to do a lot of hard work. And you must adapt your skillset to the market; you cannot simply invent sub-genres out of thin air and expect results. But there are not paths in life worth going down that do not demand work; the only difference here is that by cultivating multiple skills, you greatly increase your chances of succeeding versus the strategy of “being the best.”

EXTREME 80/20

After 5,000 words, the core of this section (and the rest of the guide to come) essentially boils down to this:

  1. Have a few key objectives.
  2. Establish a few daily habits that move you closer to those objectives.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.

And remember that both money and skill love speed. Don’t spend endless time ruminating on your next best option. Take action, get feedback, and make the next move.

WHAT’S NEXT?

If you already understand how to do the various steps outlined above, then good: you don’t need to read further. Go design your habits. But if you want the step-by-step how rather than just the what, we’ll dive into deeper detail with Part 2, we’ll cover Organization & Analysis.

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