In a fascinating chapter on meta-learning (that is, learning about learning) in The Four-Hour Chef, Tim Ferriss talks about the deconstruction of skills that we’d love to master. This is “where we flip things upside down and look at what the outliers are doing differently (and what they’re not doing at all).”
It’s through this kind of deconstruction that we can see what separates the successful from the rest of us. No, it’s not where we discover their innate greatness. It’s where we uncover the daily habits, rituals, routines, and processes that successful people adopt to bolster their overall productivity and success.
By borrowing just a small number of these processes and routines for ourselves (especially those for avoiding the pitfalls of pervasive technology), we might also be able to benefit from their outcomes.
1. Prioritize Like Warren Buffett
When Buffet’s personal pilot was talking to the billionaire investor about career goals, Buffett took him through a simple exercise:
- Write down your top 25 goals
- Circle your top five goals
You’ve now got two lists: one circled, the other uncircled. Don’t misunderstand the exercise, though. These are not high-priority vs. low-priority lists.
Instead, according to Buffett:
“Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top five.”
This strict method for prioritizing goals (and eliminating them) has played its part in helping Buffett to achieve so much in his lifetime. It could equally help the rest of us to spend our time more wisely, not just on long-term goals but also day-to-day.
2. Track Your Output Like Ernest Hemingway
Once you understand what your priorities are, tracking your progress is vitally important.
For Hemingway, his priority was to write. So each day, he would track his output (how many words he’d put to the page). This meant there were no illusions about his productivity: he knew exactly what he’d achieved that day. And once he’d met his daily goals, he could log off completely until tomorrow.
Similarly, mathematics professor and author Cal Newport keeps a tally of how many hours he spends on deep, tough work. Tim Ferriss also famously tracks much about his day so he can decipher which inputs are leading to the most valuable outputs (i.e. the 80/20 rule). What gets measured gets managed, after all!
Want to do this yourself? Tracking on a simple spreadsheet works fine, but for some extra features, there are some great habit and goal tracking apps available.
3. Email Like Arianna Huffington
If you think you receive a lot of email, take a moment to imagine the inbox of Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post and Thrive Global, author, and businesswoman.
Facing a burgeoning inbox like Huffington’s would get the best of most of us, but thanks to three simple rules, she manages to keep up while still having a life.
- For better sleep: No emails for 30 minutes before bed.
- For a more focused morning: No rushing to emails as soon as she wakes.
- For deeper relationships: No emails when she is with her children.
Abiding by strict email rules is something Huffington takes seriously. So much so, in fact, that she developed a tool for when her employees are on vacation. “The way it works is simple: while you’re away on vacation, people who email you get a message, letting them know when you’ll be back. And then — the most important part — the tool deletes the email.”
4. Set Artificial Deadlines Like Peter Thiel
As a billionaire investor and co-founder of Paypal and Palantir, Peter Thiel knows a thing or two about achieving big things in short spaces of time.
One question he routinely asks is, “How can you achieve your 10-year plan in the next six months?” This may sound ridiculous, but it’s an important insight into how someone like Thiel thinks about his own goals. This is how he manages to break through convention and achieve more in a year than most of us could in a decade.
The question not to say that all goals can be achieved in 6 months. Rather, it’s a thought experiment that forces us to think, “If I had a much tighter deadline, how could I get this done?”
5. Exercise Like Richard Branson
According to Tom Corley, author of Change Your Habits, Change Your Life, 76 percent of wealthy people exercise for at least 30 minutes each day. That includes Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Oprah Winfrey, and of course, Richard Branson.
In one blog post, Branson explains:
“I seriously doubt that I would have been as successful in my career (and happy in my personal life), if I hadn’t always placed importance on my health and fitness.”
The billionaire entrepreneur starts every day with some form of exercise. This helps him to get into the right frame of mind for work, and also helps his body to sleep better when it comes to the evening. He goes on to say, “There’s nothing more satisfying than knowing I have applied myself both physically and mentally every day.”
Can’t afford a pricey gym membership and personal trainer? No problem. There are plenty of apps to guide you through bodyweight workouts to help you keep fit. You have no excuse!
6. Use your Calendar Like Elon Musk
Not too long ago, it came out that Elon Musk breaks up his day into five-minute slots. Bill Gates is also known to do the same thing. Each day is then intricately and rigidly scheduled according to this structure to maximize the use of every passing minute.
For many super-productive people, even downtime and family time is scheduled on their calendar. As the adage goes, “If it isn’t on the calendar, it doesn’t exist!”
Granted, five-minute slots are too ambitious for most of us, but dividing your calendar into 15-, 20-, or 30-minute increments helps to hold ourselves to account, set priorities, and guard our schedules far more rigorously. It helps us to see each day in minutes, not hours.
7. Read Like Mark Cuban
Mark Cuban is a businessman, investor, author, and philanthropist. Like everyone else mentioned so far, he manages to get more done in a day than most of us can in a week. Yet he somehow manages to read for around three hours each day!
Reading so much leads to what Cuban calls a “knowledge advantage”:
“If I put in enough time consuming all the information available, particularly with the net making it so readily available, I can get an advantage in any technology business.”
And Cuban isn’t an anomaly. Again, in Change Your Habits, Change Your Life, 88 percent of millionaires surveyed said they read for at least 30 minutes each day for education or self improvement. That means that successful people aren’t reading solely for entertainment. They’re reading to learn.
If you want to become a more prolific reader, check out our guide on how to read 50+ books this year. And if you feel like you seriously don’t have the time, you could always read short, abridged versions of thousands of non-fiction books over on Blinkist.
8. Digital Detox Like Ed Sheeran
If you feel like too much of your life has been spent tied up with technology, you might want to try out a digital detox. This is where you distance yourself from the distractions of modern technology, at least for a short time.
By doing so, you’d be following a growing number of high profile people who are craving a bit more distance from their devices.
BBC Radio1 DJ Scott Mills avoids his phone after 8 pm. Ed Sheeran realized he was “seeing the world through my screen and not my eyes,” so took an extended break away from his phone, email, and social media. Steven Spielberg is famously avoidant of technology as he believes it hampers creativity. Kanye West told his followers, “I got rid of my phone so I can have air to create.”
9. Meditate Like… Everyone!
When taken together, over 80 percent of world-class performers interviewed on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast claim to use some form of mindfulness or meditation practice to lower stress and improve results.
As a few examples, we’re looking at world-famous record producer Rick Rubin, writer Maria Popova, world-class photographer Chase Jarvis, neuroscientist Sam Harris, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, entrepreneur Kevin Rose, and many more.
This is not to say that each of these people is converting to some form of spirituality or mysticism. Rather, they are finding real, practical value in learning basic mindfulness and meditation techniques. These are practices that can take you out of your immediate stress, calm your mind, and help you to achieve focus for the rest of the day. I’m sure we can all get on board with that.
Which Habits Will You Adopt?
It goes without saying that there is no magic bullet to success or increased productivity. Successful people themselves almost always attribute a large portion of their achievements to figuring out how to focus on the right things, having perseverance, and constant learning.
This can be seen clearly in the habits, rituals, and routines that have been highlighted in this article.
So why not adopt a few of these routines as a micro-habit and see if it helps you too?
- Setting yourself some strict email rules like Arianna Huffington could help you to stress less about your inbox.
- Meditating like Sam Harris could help you to regularly take a step back.
- Using your calendar more like Elon Musk could help you achieve more this year than in any previous year.
Which of these routines do you think could have the biggest effect on your own success this year?
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