The Secrets of Highly Productive People
As I collapse into my chair, exhausted, to eat a Wendy’s chili at almost 11 p.m. (for those of you who read the article, What is a Franchise?, I feel compelled to point out the $2.69 purchase price would have resulted in a $0.1076 service fee royalty to Wendy’s as the franchisor, as well as a $0.09415 contribution to the national marketing budget and a $0.001345 contribution to the local advertising budget) I find myself thinking about productivity. It is astonishing how much you can accomplish if all you attempt to do is finish one major thing each day. The victories pile up and you look back and wonder how you came so far in such a short time.
Most of the time, for most people and most career trajectories, that’s all success in life is – a string of victories that far outweigh defeats. It’s similar to what I meant when I said a person can’t actually bake a pie. Instead, all you can do is combined butter with flour; then add shortening; then add apples; then add sugar; etc. The pie is the result, the outcome of the individual action steps. This is a universal truth in life. You can’t plant a forest, you can only put seeds in the ground. Then water them. Then fertilize them. Then trim them. The result is a by-product of the process. Get the process right and the results just happen, as if by magic. When you understand this, you don’t get overwhelmed because all you need to do is focus on the action on your desk at that moment. Everything else is a distraction.
It’s so simple. And, I would think, obvious. I don’t understand why people don’t see it. I witness so many men and women who walk around with anxiety about what they aren’t accomplishing, the direction of their career, their lack of personal fulfillment. It’s all unnecessary. You can’t bake a pie. Never forget that. Reverse engineer where you want to end up and then start taking specific steps, individual actions, so that they carry you to your destination. Don’t let people tell you how it “should” be. Figure out what you want, figure out the trade-offs and whether they are worth it to you, then do it or don’t do it. That’s it. Everyone’s trying to hit grand slams, and those are great when they happen, but it is the compounding effect, the cumulative improvements and advantages, that move most mountains. Every day, get a little wiser. Every day, get a little richer. Every day, improve your situation a bit. Every day, do something you enjoy. Every day, try to help someone else. Compounding is not limited to finance. It’s everywhere. You do this stuff day after day, waking up and saying, “What could I accomplish so that when I fall asleep tonight, my life is closer to my vision than it is right now?” and the world tends to move to accommodate you.
To do that requires two things: 1.) Knowing what you want, and 2.) Knowing what you don’t want. You can tackle either or both.
Let me give you an example from my own day. After finishing some work this morning, we decided to continue our Addition Through Subtraction project, knocking off things on our list by removing anything that, when we see it, we think, “That should be better”. We replaced the black mulch surrounding the roses we planted years ago, repainted the front door and trim a custom-dyed black, replaced the fixtures with brass, and bought a brass kick plate that we might install sometime later this week (we’re deciding on the aesthetic of it) when we change out the hinges to a matching brass (it’s going to look sweet, especially since we recently upgraded the porch light to a 25 degree, museum-style spotlight rather than a floodlight so it illuminates the area around the door more effectively). We are ordering a new weather mat for the exterior and began our search for replacement light fixtures for either side of the garage to compliment the look. I also managed to fit in some reading time, making my way through part of Getting There: A Book of Mentors. On top of this, Aaron finished several things on his work agenda.
Though these things might seem relatively non-important by themselves, taken together, they result in a marked improvement in our surroundings. Despite loving most things about our home, we had never bothered to repaint the front door from when we bought the house. It looked like this (you can click the photographs to enlarge them):
The whole project took only a few hundred dollars and an afternoon to complete but we’re both so much happier with it. Next up is installing a Korean-style doorbell system that integrates with our other systems adding a redundant layer of convenience and surveillance so that anytime someone approaches, even at night, there is a video recording. If they ring the doorbell, even if we are somewhere else, we can answer, communicate, and, if we want, video chat with them directly from our phones or tablets. We bought one for my parents for Christmas and they are in love with it. Seeing how great it works, we want one for ourselves. We also need to get the white trim repainted so it looks refreshed.
It got me thinking, though. What is it that makes some people productive? Why do some individuals and families thrive, constantly improving themselves, while others seem to go into a holding pattern, marking time until the 27,375 days in their mortal bank account have been spent and they die, having done little more than take up space? How can some people go from achievement to achievement, while others let a decade pass, unable to note anything of consequence they’ve done during that time? I don’t meant the type of people who simply have a busy calendar – were it not for the upcoming launch of the global asset management business (Update 1, Update 2), I have more free time than almost anyone I know as I’ve arranged my life that way – but people who actually get things done. Meaningful things that move the needle. I see people working non-stop but never going anywhere, constantly on a treadmill that keeps them in place.
The Character Traits and Nature of Highly Productive People
The more I go over it in my mind, the more I am convinced of several things:
- Highly productive people have a clearly defined objective – a purpose, end-goal, or destination they are attempting to reach. They are constantly figuring out how to take steps, no mater how small, so that they are closer to their goal by the time they go to bed than they were when they woke up that morning. They don’t work for the sake of work, every action is designed to get them closer to their objective.
- Highly productive people have arranged their lives in a way that distractions are minimized. They focus on one thing at a time and do it extremely well. Multi-tasking is a myth. Yes, you can have several projects going on concurrently but when you’re working on one, it should be the only thing you care about in that moment.
- Highly productive people know how to listen to their own voice and stay true to their vision. They don’t take a poll to determine what they should get done, they just get it done. It doesn’t matter what their friends think about it. It doesn’t matter what their family thinks about it. You don’t need anyone’s permission to be successful. Not your friends. Not your family. Your wins are your own. Don’t let their fear of falling behind hold you back out of some misguided sense of loyalty.
- Highly productive people don’t measure work by hours or effort but, rather, by results. In my mind, it’s better to get a task done in two hours than in ten. Thinking this way can take a bit of adaptation if you’re used to selling your time for money as your primary cash generator.
- Highly productive people are constantly acquiring new skills. I look back at my friends and acquaintances through life who have enjoyed outsized success and it’s because they were constantly pushing themselves. They’d jump in a car and move across the country for a job opportunity. They’d live overseas for the experience, to broaden their understanding of the world. They made it work even when they had little money. It’s not an accident that they are now successful. They know how to navigate. They disregard most of the other excuses people have for not doing something that could give them the life they want.
- Highly productive people understand the art of preventative maintenance. Whereas some people buy a home and slowly watch it fall into disrepair, never so much as changing a light fixture, the things under their stewardship are constantly improving the same way Disneyland gets better and better with time. Windows are resealed. Doors are painted. Carpets are replaced. Closest are custom built. Cars are maintained. Wardrobes are changed. They tend to exercise and be healthier; to not smoke; to avoid getting drunk. It takes much less energy and cost to maintain than it does to restore so they’re always improving, letting inertia do the heavy lifting.
- Highly productive people are extremely resilient. Temporary setbacks, obstacles, rejection… none of it matters. I’m always amazed when people are so terrified of asking for something they want for fear of hearing “no”. They care more about someone else’s appraisal of them than they do their own desires then wonder why they don’t get what they want in life. If you aren’t hearing no at least occasionally, you’re not being ambitious enough.
- Highly productive people don’t need others to force them into action. They don’t sit around waiting for someone to hand them the life they want because they know that nobody is coming to help them; there is no cavalry that will storm over the hill to save them. I’ve said it before but it remains true: The universe is perfectly content to let you sit in misery, waste your life, and die without ever living up to your potential. It doesn’t care how much talent you have. It doesn’t care how smart you are. Results are all that matter. Someone who is less talented than you, dumber than you… that person can blow right by you in terms of life accomplishment if they are more productive.
- Highly productive people get the basics out of the way to the point of mastery so the really great work – the art – can be their focus. If they are authors, they aren’t struggling to type. If they are musicians, they aren’t struggling to play chords.
- Highly productive people tend to congregate in closed social networks including practicing assortative mating. Social proof plays a role in this because the people with whom you spend your times are likely to end up being your destiny. When those who surround you are challenging you, constantly creating their own interesting projects, it can spur you to do better things. The worst thing in life you can do if you want to be productive and successful is put yourself among people who spend their forty hours of leisure hours each week in front of a television. You’re going to have a hard time getting ahead in life if your first response to getting a break is to pick up a remote. It isn’t an accident that income and education are inversely related to media consumption.
Being productive goes beyond even these things. It’s about learning how to be persuasive. It’s about thinking strategically. Above all, it’s about getting off the couch and doing something because the highly productive know that “La molesse est douce, et sa suite est cruelle“. All of the books, all of the theories… it’s all useless unless you do something. Fruits of success are only manifest when concepts are practically applied. You can know more about a topic than anyone else – baseball, coffee roasting, a programming language, furniture design – but unless you’re actually selling something related to that thing, it’s nothing but a hobby; a diversion. It’s like having a pantry full of ingredients. The pie isn’t going to come together on its own.
What is that thing that separates the motivated from those who sit talking about something? I cannot tell you how many times over the past decade I’ve had people ask me, “But how did you know to [start an ecommerce business / learn to analyze a balance sheet / get a book deal / develop a website / ad infinitum]?”. It’s such a strange question to me because the answer: I didn’t. I figured it out. That’s how this whole thing works. That’s what a good education is supposed to teach you (the whole reason Aaron and I pursued a liberal arts degree was so we could learn to think better as we figured making money was the easy part – it’s figuring out how to deliver something for more money than it takes you to produce or source it relative to the capital invested). You decide what you want then you figure out how to get it. If it’s beyond your skill set, you find a specialist to hire who can make it happen.
I mean, you’ve quite literally watched us go through it when Aaron and I became obsessed with cooking a few years ago. We read everything we could, practiced as much as we could, and little by little, the skill developed. The things I’ve shared on the blog – the cooking tests, the dinners – are a tiny fraction of what we actually did during this period. There is no substitute for doing.
I’m not sure I have the answer. I’ve always been this way. Many – but not all – people who are like me have been, too, though I have witnessed, first hand, people who change and become highly productive despite not previously being anything of the sort, indicating it is a switch that can be turned on in a lot of people if they really want it. The rewards are so enormous, I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t. You basically go through life as if you were your own Sims character and it pretty much becomes clear what you should be doing as it allows you to stand outside yourself and determine courses of action.
A lot of you know exactly what I’m talking about as the members of this community have notable levels of success in all types of different fields. Educationally, you’re at the top of the bell curve. Economically, you’re way above average. You’ve started some amazing companies and achieved some remarkable things. What causes the spark? There’s enough diversity in background that family socioeconomic status doesn’t explain it, though it certainly plays a role. I’d like to get to the heart of it. What makes some people get up before dawn and train for long distance running? What causes some people to lock themselves away until they’ve mastered an instrument? Where does this … obsession?, though that’s not quite the right word … originate? It’s something innate. If every other person disappeared off the face of the Earth, I know I’d still be improving what I could around me; hypothesizing, testing, applying, building.
In any event, both of us are exhausted and I’ve been sitting here too long. It’s clear we won’t be able to move much tomorrow but it was worth it. I need to get ready for bed. We have to be up tomorrow to get some work done before we have a meeting. (Our family’s long-time accountant – he first began as my grandmother’s accountant back in the 1980s and has taken care of three generations of Kennons over multiple firms, including selling out his practice to one of the biggest accounting firms in the country and making partner – is retiring from the partnership this year so we are meeting the new partner who is taking over for him and going to talk about some of the basics of the investment firm we’re establishing so we can have everything done right prior to opening our doors following regulatory approvals later this summer. It gives me a lot of peace of mind knowing that no matter what kind of question I have, no matter how esoteric, they are a phone call away with the answer; that no matter how large we grow, they have the expertise to handle anything we could possibly throw at them.)