How to make any program more effective and improve any area of your life
A version of this article was previously published on Askmen.com
Some people are what we call high performers.
They are exceptionally focused, insanely organized and (therefore) incredibly productive. They are detail-oriented, remember things well, are good with deadlines, and usually get out of bed before their alarm clock.
Others are… well, not.
I happen to fall into the “not” category.
Some of us (including me) are big performers. I say “big” because they think Big. They have Big dreams, Big goals and usually Big personalities. More than anything else, they are exceptionally skilled at seeing the Big Picture.
They are fantastic at coming up with great ideas and understanding how those concepts will play out. Unfortunately, they’re not detail-oriented, forget stuff and often finish projects just before the deadline — or just after it. And, of course, they hit snooze a few times before getting out of bed.
But people with big ideas want to bring those ideas to life — they just need help being more productive. And so, hoping for that, I undertook a quest to achieve better productivity.
Along the way, I compiled a list of five rules to increase productivity. The best part is, these rules can be applied to any job, any field of study and, in fact, any area of your life. This are especially important if you don’t have the accountability that comes from a typical working environment, and instead are working from home.
This should have been one of the easier habits to adopt, but I wasn’t able to make it “stick” until about Day 9. Writing things down is something I recommend in a lot of instances, and since I’m an intense planner when it comes to diet and training, it makes a lot of sense to me.
You see, putting something down in black and white gives it something it lacked previously: tangibility.
Writing takes things from ideas to plans.
In my case, I have working to-do lists: I simply make a list each night of all of the stuff I want to do the next day, listed in either order of importance or the chronological order that I want to finish them (you’ll have to play around to see what works best for you). By doing this, I am immediately able to get started on my day in a productive way.
This is surprisingly effective. Even writing down “walk the dog for at least 25 minutes” seems to have an impact on the weight of that task, and I’m a lot less likely to skip out halfway through.
Going further than to-do lists, I now write down nearly everything. I carry a small pocket notebook with me and jot down any idea that comes to mind that I’d like to blog about, as well as random thoughts that drift into my head, which I find allows me to organize things more efficiently.
The pocket notebook has long been a tool for some of the most productive people in history — Thomas Jefferson carried one made of ivory leaves that he used to record everything from quotes to the migrations of birds.
Other famous bad-asses are known for pocket notebooks, including Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, and Ludwig Van Beethoven.
If it’s good enough for presidents and scientists, it’s good enough for ol’ Roman.
To put things back in the fitness context and give you something actionable, I suggest you start recording both your meals and your training sessions. Ideally, you will plan them out beforehand and then record them during, to see how closely you can match your plan.
In the case of my coaching clients, both training and diet are planned for them, and the client has to follow the plan. If you’re using a program like Final Phase Fat Loss, you have the Training Log Sheets, and you have spaces to record your weight and reps. Life is a lot easier and more productive when these things are handled in advance (or simply done for you).
Even if you’re not going to start planning your diet and training in advance, at the very least I recommend you start recording them during the event. You are a lot more likely to get a better workout and eat the right things.
Another cool diet tip is to use your cell phone camera to take a picture of every meal. Tim Ferriss calls this “the flash diet.” Taking a picture serves as a pattern interrupt and forces you to think about what you’re eating. While you don’t have to post the pictures on Facebook or Twitter, try to look at your meals through that lens. If you’re trying to lose fat, each meal should take you closer to that goal. If you wouldn’t want your friends to know what you’re eating, you probably aren’t making the right choices.
So write it down!
Yeah, I know. Pretty basic. I’ll go further and say it’s not just important to wake up early (or earlier), but that it’s important to wake up at the same time every day.
One aspect of working from home that is simultaneously a blessing and a curse is that my days aren’t always the same. There are days when I train clients and days when the only thing I have on my agenda is writing and programming.
Which means that at least 50% of the time I don’t have a set schedule. This is certainly the dream for a lot of people: the freedom to do what you want, when you want and at your leisure.
Yeah, well, it sounds nice, but I seem to be the type of person who thrives with structure.
To that end, I have started getting up at the same time every single day, whether or not I have to be awake. This keeps me on schedule and forces me to start following my to-do list earlier in the day.
Currently, I am getting up at 7 a.m. I know, I know. That’s not exactly “early” by any real stretch of the imagination. (Hey, I’m an internet entrepreneur — at least I’m up before noon.) And while I’ve tried getting up at 6 a.m. or even 5 a.m. every day, it doesn’t work for me.
The thing about it is, I’ve come to know myself.
Given that this post is all about productivity, I have come to realize that I do my best creative writing between 8 p.m. and 12 a.m. That means that if I get to bed immediately after (and I don’t have difficulty falling asleep), I can still get 6-7 hours, which is good for me. This is something that’s important to me. If I’m not working on a project that involves a high level of creativity, I can go to bed earlier.
Bringing it back to fitness, something as simple as getting up earlier and making sure you do your stretching, foam rolling or even a full workout is an easy way to ensure that you actually get it done.
By mastering your time and understanding your “rhythms,” you can become exponentially more productive. I would estimate that in the 60 minutes I spend active that I previously spent sleeping, I get about three to four times as much work done as any other point of the day.
To touch on some great thinkers, Thomas Jefferson was a dedicated early riser, and Benjamin Franklin was quoted as to say, “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” I don’t doubt that.
This is one of my favorite tips, because it is applicable to nearly any aspect of life. So many times we simply let our brains get in the way — we over-think things. Well, if you can avoid that, chances are you’ll make more progress.
In the fitness context, this happens to a lot of guys. You sit and look at all the incredible options you have for training programs, and you finally decide on one. Then you’re not getting the results you want after three whole days (omg!), and you decide that the one you read about this morning sounds better, so you try that. We call this “program hopping.” And if you couldn’t guess, it’s terrible.
Then, blunder of blunders, you start trying to mix and match and combine aspects of each, and in the end you wind up doing an amalgamation of training protocols that isn’t just useless but often counterproductive.
You’re now no longer a program hopper; you’re a hacker. And most of the time, the failure of this method is monumentally epic. So stop thinking. Put your head down. Trust in the sources you believe in. Just do the program for 8 weeks. Sure, listen to your body, but give it some time to respond.
This is one reason that hiring coaches is so effective. They do the thinking for you. You just have to put in the work. Of course, I give my clients latitude to make some adjustments, and I like when they ask questions to learn, but if one of my clients says, “Well, Ballantyne says crunches are stupid and you have me doing one set during week three, and I really think we should…” then they get a massive bitch slap in the form of email. Stop thinking. DO.
Along the same lines, I like for people to have several “no think” programs to fall back on. For example, whenever I’m traveling, I have three separate bodyweight workouts that I bring with me. Why? Because if I don’t have a gym, I have a program. If I find a gym but don’t rent a car to get there, I have a program. If I decide I want to play poker in Vegas and wind up staying at the table so late the gym is closed, I have a program. I recommend the workout from this blog post, The Dead Hooker Workout, to get you started.
In terms of nutrition, find 1-3 meals you can make in 5-10 minutes that are tasty and in line with your goals, and make sure you eat one of them each day. It takes thinking completely out of the equation, and makes time management a breeze. I can cook a steak in seven minutes (I like it rare) while listening to music. I can make an omelet while still in my post-workout, near-vomit euphoria. My body is on autopilot. No thinking. Just doing.
A great resource for this is Metabolic Cooking, which has tons of options for fast meals with few ingredients and almost no thought. In terms of time-management, I have a no-think system, as well. I spend exactly one hour each day answering no-think emails. These are usually customer service emails about Final Phase Fat Loss, which, to be honest, are the same five issues over and over. I don’t think. I just take care of it. It’s easy and monotonous, and I just do it.
I do this the same hour of every day, and that’s it. The more pieces you have in place that are done for you, the more successful you’ll be.
This. Is. HUGE. Probably the single biggest factor in people staying on track is accountability.
Accountability, simply, is having someone to answer to, on some level.
You’re a lot less likely to screw up if you know there will be a negative consequence. If you fall off your diet and no one knows about it, it’s easy to get in the habit of falling off your diet.
But if you tell the entire world you’re going on a diet, and then post pictures on your Facebook page — either of your meals or of yourself — you’ll be more likely to stick with that diet.
Workout partners keep you accountable. Coaches keep you accountable. Friends keep you accountable. People in your boot camp keep you accountable.
In terms of fitness, do you know who keeps me accountable? You do. My readers, that is. I know that the people reading my articles look to me as a credible source of information, and therefore they have expectations: They expect me to look the part. It’s not enough to talk the talk for my readers. I have to walk the walk, run the run and bench the damn bench.
And so, even on days when I don’t feel like training or am tempted to skip my kettlebell workout, I do it anyway, because that’s what my readers expect of me and what they know I would expect of them.
When I started on my productivity kick, I decided that I wanted to get up earlier every day. To help, I reached out to a friend of mine (who is up at 5 a.m. to work) and asked him if he could just shoot me a text each morning for the first two weeks to provide accountability and make sure my ass was out of bed.
Like a good friend, Craig sent a text every day at 7:05 for two weeks that said “U up?” I’d respond to let him know I was. Two weeks later, I took things into my own hands: I’d send him a text at 6:55 a.m. and tell him that I was awake. That was enough to build the habit and make sure I stuck with it.
In terms of writing and blogging, I sent another friend a schedule of my ideas for articles and the like, and he’d follow up with a text letting me know that if I didn’t post my blog tomorrow, I owed him 100 bucks. This is financial accountability, and you’d better believe I got my blogs up on time.
These are both examples of private accountability. I find that as effective as that can be, public accountability is by far more effective. Which is why when Vince Del Monte decided he was going to get into the best shape of his life and compete again, he told EVERYONE. It was on his Facebook page. It was on his blog. It was in his newsletter. Everyone knew about it.
How’d it work for him? Well, here’s a pic, you tell me:
In a similar way, social networks like Twitter and Facebook can become your de facto support network. Just tell your friends and followers your goal, and, in short order, they’ll be following up with you each and every day to make sure you’re doing the right things.
Recently, an even better way has emerged: Social networks dedicated entirely to fitness have started to pop up. The best of these is Fitocracy, an interactive community where users post about their workouts and diets, getting “experience points” and being able to level up. Communities like these encourage users to update, and this keeps them committed and inspires others to do the same.
Remember: Community + motivation + accountability = unstoppable results. Know about it.
Finally, we come to an idea that I think will have the greatest long-term value for you. It’s the idea of a perfect day. And, no, it’s nothing like waking up next to Megan Fox and Olivia Wilde in a world where the economy is booming, ice cream gives you abs and Lindsay Lohan isn’t a train wreck.
Instead, the idea is to create a perfect day for your goal, whatever it is. Lay out your day, from the time you get up till the time you go to sleep, hour by hour. A day when you do everything right, make no mistakes and know with 100% certainty that you are closer to your goal.
Can you have a day like that often?
Probably not as often as you’d like. But if you have never stopped to think about what that day will look like, how will you know if you accidentally stumble upon it?
I suggest sketching out your perfect day, for any goal. I’ve done this for both productivity and writing, and it’s unbelievable how effective it can be. Sure, I haven’t managed to make every day perfect, but I know that each day, as long as I’m trying my best to get close and structuring my day to try to emulate my plan, I’ll make more progress than if I hadn’t done it.
There you have it. If you follow these five rules, you’ll be more productive in your job, at the gym and at life in general. Again, these tips can be applied to almost anything, so give it a shot in other areas.
I have ALSO created a perfect day for fat loss that I want to share with you right here.