I always thought that elite performers in the top 1 percent of their fields were able to accomplish so much more than the rest of us because they had some sort of X-factor that allowed them to work harder, longer and better than the rest of us. Then it occurred to me — maybe it is not willpower at work here.
Maybe these people are not “forcing” themselves to get stronger, faster, smarter or more successful.
Maybe it goes much deeper.
Maybe the reason that the world’s most productive people are so productive is because they have their entire life designed to get better at their work.
The Seinfeld solution.
In 1998, Jerry Seinfeld made $267 million from the ninth and final season of his hit show “Seinfeld.”
Yes, that is a quarter-billion dollars. No, that is not a typo. NBC begged him to do a 10th season to the tune of $5 million per episode for 22 episodes. He declined.
Needless to say, it was a great decade for him. But the 2000s have been quite good to him as well — deals from syndication of his now classic show bring in a steady paycheck of about $32 million per year. Not bad, Seinfeld. Not bad at all.
But let’s take it back. Back, before he was a borderline billionaire comedian. Back before he was even a household name.
How does one amass the talent, skill and productivity to write joke after joke, show after show, year after year at such a high level?
Comedian Brad Isaac shares the story of a chance encounter he had with Seinfeld backstage. He asked Seinfeld if he had any “tips for a young comic.”
Here is how Brad describes the conversation:
“He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, put a big red X over that day.
After a few days you will have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You will like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
Take note here.
You will notice Seinfeld did not mention anything about having good jokes. He did not even mention how long the activity had to last. The task is very simple: write something every day, put an X on the calendar and do not break the chain.
It is almost simple enough to be counterintuitive — but let’s think about what is happening here. There are a few very sophisticated processes going on. Think about how you could use this model with the skill or process you are trying to become more productive with:
- Doing something every day makes it a default behavior.
Most of us do not have to force ourselves to brush our teeth in the morning. There is no mental strain or cognitive dissonance with brushing your teeth. You just do it … because that is who you are. Seinfeld managed to integrate writing jokes into his routine day after day. Over time, he associated his identity with the writing and from there, it is much easier to follow through.
- Default behaviors repeated daily become habits.
Habitual pursuits almost always improve because of sheer frequency. In Seinfeld’s case, writing every day ensures that he is bound to stumble on some funny material. After 365 days of straight writing, you are guaranteed some nuggets of wisdom just by the sheer volume of material created over time.
In effect, you are using your own human tendency for habit creation to work against your natural tendency to procrastinate, stall and be otherwise unproductive. Rather than setting nebulous goals and hoping that you have the power to push through, you are actively installing new software — aka habit — in your brain’s computer to ensure that the program, or goal, runs.
With consistency over time, the new software will get installed. You literally will not have a choice but to complete the habit every day. From there, success is on cruise control.
The only thing you have to do is not break the chain.
How it has worked for me.
I have had great success with hardwiring new habits into my daily rituals. The best part about creating a new habit is that after a while, you forget that it’s a “new” habit. It becomes so natural that you no longer even need to keep track. It is just what you do. I have done this with a few different things that used to be a struggle for me to do consistently. Now I manage to do them every day without even a second thought:
Making my bed (was at a 67-day streak before I stopped tracking. My mom would be shocked).
Meditating (was at a 70+ day streak before I did not need to track anymore).
Reading (40+ days and counting).
and 4 or 5 other habits.
But here is the catch …
Some days I was only able to throw the bed together.
Sometimes my meditation was not good.
Often I only read a few pages.
But none of that matters because above all, I did it every single day. Consistently. And I have not stopped.
These may not seem like huge challenges, but imagine what it is like to string together weeks and weeks of things you previously struggled with. How else do you think I made over 100 posts in a few years? Like compound interest, effort over time adds up to create something much bigger than the sum of its parts.
This is the secret sauce. This is how the top-1 percent of all performers are productive at a level that seems impossible to us earthlings.
Before Michael Phelps won the most gold medals in history, he was on a 10+ year hot streak of not missing a single planned day of training. Do not be fooled, some of the days his training was not good, but he still showed up. It is that simple.
Do not break the chain.
Let’s say you want to learn programming for your startup, but are overwhelmed by what you need to know. That is perfectly normal, just start with small bites. If you study programming, rain or shine, hell or high water, for 365 days in a row without breaking the chain, you will make progress. Even if you consider yourself way below average at the beginning. At just 1 hour every day, that equates to almost 400 hours of consistent programming after a year. How good could you get at something with 400 hours?
It does not matter what the field, pursuit or project is. Consistency over time is mastery.
Image credit: CC by Steffen_Voß