How to Accomplish Anything (When You Have No Time): Principle #1

Maybe you want to write an app or a book. Maybe you want to start a business or learn to play the piano. Maybe you just want to kick butt in your day job. If there’s anything at all that you’ve wanted to do, but struggle to find the time and energy to do it, the tips below will help.


In the last five years, I’ve managed to find the time to write, publish and promote multiple books, including two award-winning bestsellers, develop a web application, an ipad app, maintain a blog, and present at conferences. I did all that while excelling at my day job and raising three young children.


I’m not here to brag, but I do want to emphasize that if I can do all that while raising twins (twins, gosh darn it!), then you too can find the time and drive to accomplish something big, whether that’s starting a business, developing a mobile app, or writing a book.


I’m going to share a bit of my own personal path as well as nine key techniques to making time, creating personal drive, and prioritizing activities that you enable you to accomplish anything.

Enter the Craziness

In 2002, I met Libba and Gifford Pinchot, cofounders of Bainbridge Graduate Institute, at a retreat. The two tried to convince me to enroll in their new MBA program focused on sustainable business. I protested, saying that I was too busy. Libba said something similar to, “You can be busy for the next two years, or you can be busy for the next two years and get an MBA.” I chose to be busy and get the MBA.

Life may seem busy, but it always seems busy. That alone isn’t a reason to avoid taking on a new project. (I ultimately finished that MBA program while working full-time and with a newborn child, whom I brought to class with me.)


Once I was enrolled in the program, I grew to become friends with Libba and Gifford, frequently staying at their home. I noticed that Gifford worked all the time. Other than short breaks to play disc golf or to participate in drumming circles, I never noticed Gifford partaking in what I then considered relaxation activities: watching television or just sitting around doing nothing. I asked him about this. 

He told me that when he was doing what he loved to do, then it was enjoyable. The joy of accomplishing something worthwhile exceeded the joy he received from more mundane activities like passively consuming entertainment.


I should also mention that Gifford did take summers partially off: he would work only a third or half of the day, and spent the remaining time outdoors, chopping wood, kayaking, going on hikes, or doing woodworking projects.

The Nine Principles

Accomplishing something is a combination of having a goal (e.g. finishing a novel), making effort toward that goal (e.g. sitting down to write for an hour each morning), and making the most effective use of the effort (a combination of efficiency and priorities).


There are many techniques I use, but I want to share the ones I've found most helpful.

Today, it's principles #1:

The Only Person I Have to Cheat is Myself

Purpose: Fostering motivation and focus


When I was writing my first novel, Avogadro Corp, I would spend my most productive time writing in coffee shops. 

I developed a rule for myself: I imagined that if anyone in the coffee shop saw me surfing Facebook or the web, they’d laugh at me: “He doesn’t have anything better to do than surf Facebook.”


The sad truth is that on a moment by moment basis, it was vaguely satisfying to check in on Facebook and see what my friends were doing. But the time I had in the coffee shop was precious: carefully carved out of my daily schedule, limited to an hour or two at most. I could spend that time on Facebook, but at the cost of not writing. Or I could write, which might be painful on a minute by minute basis, but was immensely satisfying as I saw my novel take form.


In effect, I was using willpower (as facilitated by imagined peer ridicule) to exercise self-control to work on what was most important to me.


The notion that willpower is an exhaustible resource, also known as ego depletion, has been much discussed regularly. However, a 2010 study found that “reduced self-control after a depleting task or during demanding periods may reflect people's beliefs about the availability of willpower rather than true resource depletion”. (My emphasis added.)


In my own experience with weight loss, I found that the trick to avoid exhausting my willpower was to decrease the amount of time spent thinking about it. When trying to lose thirty pounds in 2011, I found myself thinking at length about the cookies, cake, and ice cream I was passing up, trying to rationalize whether I could have a small piece, what the effect might be, and whether I even wanted to lose weight. After many days of agonizing over my desire for sweets, I realized that no one else cared whether I ate those sweets or if I was fat or thin or somewhere in between. No parent, teacher, friend or spouse was going to tell me what to do, and quite frankly, I was exhausted debating it with myself.


I developed a simple mantra: “The only person I have to cheat is myself.” Instead of spending a great deal of mental energy over every sweet craving, I shortcut the process.


The phrase embodies three ideas: That your goals are important to you, you’ll disappoint yourself if you don’t focus on achieving them, and you can’t escape responsibility by expecting someone else to step in.


This simple mantra works for any goal you’ve decided is important to you.
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