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Take Massive Action: How to Stop Being “Productive”

Focus to take massive action

Let’s be honest.

Being productive feels good. It feels SO good in fact, that I spent an entire year “being productive.”

Here’s what my 2015 looked like in a nutshell:

  • Started a new job
  • Taught entrepreneurship to students at a local university (ongoing commitment)
  • Served as advisor to two local startups
  • Sold a restaurant for a commission
  • Consulted for a couple business owners in town
  • Had lunch with entrepreneurs and ambitious professionals 1-2 times/week
  • Implemented a new system for organizing my Chrome bookmarks
  • Implemented a new system for organizing my Dropbox folders
  • Tried using Mint to manage my finances, found it semi-useful
  • Tried taking an online class in web development, decided it wasn’t worth the time commitment
  • Started a course on creating a business, got stuck after the first few lessons
  • Read 50+ articles on creating a business, none of which got me closer to my goal
  • Read 25+ articles on making money online, none of which got me closer to it
  • Talked with a bunch of successful people about their path to success, some of which was helpful
  • Talked way too much about creating a business, but did nothing concrete to achieve this goal

2015 was a good year in a lot of ways: I saved up a little money, I got a little more experience, I developed some relationships… but while it was a productive year, and it was a busy year, it was not a year that brought me significantly closer towards my ultimate goal of creating a business.

I didn’t take massive action.

There’s an old saying that goes something like:

“Those who can’t do, teach.”

While this is not entirely true (I know many teachers and educators who are amazing at “doing” but they maximize their impact by teaching others how to “do”), I certainly have contributed to making this quote more valid.

I’ve taught students and entrepreneurs how to validate demand for an idea by creating a landing page and sending cold traffic to the site to see if they can find potential customers, I’ve helped startups get funding by showing them how to build a pitch deck and how to find the perfect investor, I’ve even helped people get started with their goals by showing them strategies for doing more “good work” instead of more “busy work.”

Ironic, I know.

Consider the overweight doctor who tells you to lose weight. Or the friend who tells you to just go talk to that girl, while he himself is content to sit at the bar sipping beer, while secretly wishing he wasn’t single.

Why is it so easy for us to dole out advice left and right but not to take it ourselves?

Turns out that it’s mostly a matter of perspective.

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist and author of the book Predictably Irrational breaks it down:

“When we are in a particular situation, we take lots of irrelevant factors into account. But when we’re external to it, we sometimes look at things more objectively.”

Over the past year, every time I thought about creating a business, I thought: “Well, if I just get a little more knowledge I’ll be able to figure this thing out.”

Yet every time someone asked me how they should get started, I was quick to recommend: “Take action! Try something – anything really – and build up momentum. You’ll figure it out as you go and you can ask people for help along the way.”

Two very different perspectives.

For myself –> learn more now, do later.

For others –> do more now, learn later.

I’d rather not just do busy work for the rest of my life, I’d rather do meaningful, awesome, life-affirming, humanity-building, MASSIVE ACTION work that takes my life and our species to the next level.

Sounds good right?

Well I’m guessing you want that too.

So here are some things we can do to make that a reality.

How to Take Massive Action

There are three big components that I’ve identified for setting yourself up to take huge, ridiculously big steps toward your goal. I’ll outline them here and go into more detail below.

  1. Public Accountability: Make a commitment to someone and ask them to hold you accountable for your actions.
  2. Prioritize: Create an ordered list of the actions most deserving of your time, then keep this visible and close to you.
  3. Establish Habits: Create a regular routine so you don’t have to think as much about doing, you’ll just auto-pilot your way to success.

Public Accountability

When you make a commitment to someone that you’re going to do something (e.g., creating a business, validating that idea, your goal for the day/week/month/year), you engage the part of your brain’s wiring that makes you want to be seen as consistent.

Human beings want their actions to line up with their words. When you don’t do what you say you’re going to do, people won’t trust you. And since trust is a basic building block of societies, the desire to be seen as consistent has become hard-wired into the human brain over thousands of years.

According to Dr. Robert B. Cialdini, the psychologist and author responsible for the social psychologist’s “bible” titled Influence, “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.”

So make your choice. Take your stand. And do it publicly so that you’ll feel pressure to follow through.

Steps you can take to create public accountability:

  • Post your goal or commitment on Facebook and set a due date
  • Email or call your friends with an explanation of your situation, your goal, and ask them to check in with you after a pre-determined amount of time (e.g., “…if you’d do me this favor, please call me in 3 months to see if I’ve accomplished this goal”). You might even create a calendar reminder for them to follow up with you.
  • Find an accountability coach either online or in-person. There are life coaches you can find online, or you could ask a friend or peer to do this for you (and you might do the same for them in return).
  • Join or start a “mastermind group” where people set goals, share them with the group, and touch base on a regular basis to see whether or not people are following through. If you take this route, look for a small group (hopefully less than 10 people), and make sure that it’s not a huge time commitment.

Prioritize

If you’re reading this, then you likely live in the 21st century, where the average American is exposed to roughly 360 advertisements per day, is doing work they don’t love, and is juggling relationships that have become increasingly metric-itized with tweets, posts, shares, and likes.

Between email and texting alone, you’re likely losing hours every day that could have been spent doing real, meaningful work on something you care about.

Prioritizing sounds easy, but in reality is much harder than you’d think.

If you don’t prioritize important work (i.e., the massive action type of work), you’ll find yourself facing the exact same important to-do’s tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day…

Steps you can take to prioritize your work and time:

  • Set aside some time to think about your goals. What do you want to achieve this week? This month? This year? Within 5 years? Write these things down to make your brain appreciate how serious you are about achieving them.
  • Create a Kanban board to organize your work. Sticky notes on a whiteboard or big piece of paper are great for this. Or use Trello if you want to go digital.
  • Install Momentum in your browser. Every day you open your browser it will ask you, “What is your main focus for today?” You then fill in an answer and boom! – you’re now reminded every time you open a new tab.
  • Good old fashioned pen and paper lists. No, I’m not telling you to use Evernote, and no I’m not telling you to use some digital to-do list… I recommend a physical pen and a piece of paper. Writing things down is different than typing things on a screen, it’s more “real.” And when you have finished a task and you get to cross it off the list, damn does that feel good.
  • Finally, don’t buy into “Inbox Zero” or any other methodology that makes you a slave to unimportant tasks. Simply ask yourself, “Why should I do this?” and “What will happen if I don’t?”
My desk

See the signs to the left and right of my laptop?

Establish Habits

Remember the first time you tied your shoe laces?

It probably took a lot of concentration and focus when you were a kid and were learning it for the first time.

Do you remember tying your shoes today? Probably not, but I bet you still did it. (Boat shoe and slip-on readers: you still get the point.)

When you establish habits as a regular part of your day or week, you don’t have to think about it as much. And since we have a limited amount of willpower to dispense every day, it’s important to setup good habits that take most of the work load off of your cognitive plate.

Picture a battery being drained a little bit that rare time you decide to take the stairs instead of the elevator, or that once in a blue moon that you opt for green tea instead of Starbucks coffee. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do those things, I’m just pointing out that it costs you a little willpower when you do them rarely as opposed to as part of a habit.

Once you get basic habits nailed down, you’ll find yourself taking massive action on a regular basis.

Steps you can take to establish habits:

  • Start small but think big. BJ Fogg, Ph.D at Stanford talks about how taking tiny steps can lead to huge change, and it’s true. When I first started tackling my social anxiety in college I started by asking people for the time. Since then I’ve regularly danced in public, sang terribly to strangers, and done other random social experiments outside of my comfort zone. Starting small can help you build momentum, which in turn helps you take progressively bigger steps over time. This is essentially exposure therapy and it works wonders for people who take advantage of it.
  • Commit to one month. When I first decided to give up booze, it was part of Tim Ferriss’s 30-day challenge to stop drinking (and stop masturbating) for just that one month. And guess what? The habit stuck. I’ve been a non-drinker since that challenge back in August of 2014.
  • Do it daily if possible, but at least be consistent. If your goal is to wake up at 7am, you can’t wake up at 7am some days and 10am on others. The brain doesn’t work that way. Whatever you aim to do, do it at the same time each day so that you can harness the power of your habit-forming brain and allow it to take the work load out of your conscious brain, and into your subconscious.
  • Schedule in rewards. If you’re establishing a habit that isn’t super fun (like eating salad for breakfast), then make sure to reward yourself along the way. Knowing there’s a light at the end of the tunnel (e.g., steak and eggs for breakfast on Sunday) will make the greens go down easier. Note: These rewards need to be baked into your routine from the get-go. If you allow yourself to indulge in a “reward” anytime you feel like it, you’ll find yourself enjoying quite a few rewards every time you burn through your limited willpower for the day.

Whew!

That was a lot. But hopefully you found that helpful. Obviously, there are lots of other things you could do to take massive action, these are just 3 key components that I consider important and useful in my life.

What do you do to take massive action? (Share your tactics in the comments below)

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