My work as a financial advisor is dedicated to helping others best allocate their scarce resources in a way that is optimally aligned with their goals and grounded in their values. And while most of that work involves financial resources, I’ve also become somewhat obsessed with the stewardship of what is perhaps our scarcest resource—time.
One of the simplest and best productivity “hacks” I’ve found in pursuit of this obsession comes, almost hilariously, from one of the funniest people on the planet—Jerry Seinfeld.
First introduced to Seinfeld’s prolific productivity by Cal Newport in the priceless book Deep Work, and subsequently illuminated in the must-watch Netflix movie Jerry Before Seinfeld, I learned much about the single tool Seinfeld used to become the world’s top comedian: daily intentionality.
Long before he was a household name, Seinfeld committed himself to the daily intentionality of writing new jokes to hone his craft. He reportedly tracked this habit by drawing an “X” through that day’s box on the calendar.
He identified the most important thing he needed to do every day and then oriented his calendar around the completion of that task. And you don’t have to be a comedic genius to make this work.
What is the most important thing—or things—that you need to do, and how might you adapt your calendar management to improve the probability that it happens? Here’s how I’ve adapted this technique personally, in four simple slashes on my wall calendar:
1) The most important most important thing I need to do daily is to center myself spiritually and mentally. Therefore, the second habit I complete daily—after brewing a very strong pot of coffee, of course—is to sit down in my home office, where I spend about 30 minutes reading, reflecting, praying and then meditating.
The mindfulness exercise at the end becomes the bridge from the spiritual into the practical as I plan out my day—purposefully removed from the distraction of my computer—in my most prized possession: my Bullet Journal.
The completion of this routine earns a vertical line down the middle of the day’s box on my wall-sized, yearly calendar: |
2) The second most important thing that I need to do—not only for my own health, but for the sanity of those with whom I live and work—is physical exercise. I aim for three days of HIIT workouts and two days of yoga weekly. I’ve improved the probability of this happening by going to a gym that offers both types of classes. But more importantly, the gym requires you to schedule workouts in advance—and charges you if you cancel, creating a helpful disincentive for this financial planner to make it! So at the beginning of each week, I schedule five classes that turn into meetings on my calendar. These, in turn, help me be more productive in every other activity that day.
After completing my daily workout, I get the satisfaction of adding a horizontal line on that day of the calendar: —
3) Next, I aim to complete my M.I.T., the Most Important Task of the day. As part of my daily planning, I determine what I need to do that day to have the most impact on the projects I’m engaged in. Inspired by author Daniel Pink, I have a whiteboard in my office where I then write down that task.
Newport provides convincing evidence that, regardless of how many hours we work in a given day, we only have four hours of optimum productivity, biologically speaking. With his encouragement, I’ve determined what those four hours are for me (generally 10:00am to 2:00pm). I block them on the calendar as my Focus Time, in which I complete my M.I.T. (Other important, but less mentally strenuous, tasks, like email, calls, meetings and errands, are then “batched” throughout the day.)The key here, of course, is to actually DO it. Pink suggests simply making it the first task of the day, but I’ve also applied some systematic calendar management to further increase the chances of checking off my most glaring to-do, as informed, again, by Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work.
Successful completion of the M.I.T. earns me a big backslash through that day on the calendar:
4) Lastly, I try to do something helpful for someone else. Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take, and who has dedicated his career to helping us get more out of our professions, is almost notorious for his high level of achievement and productivity. But he has a very simple method that guides his weekly and daily planning, as highlighted in GQ:
I try to start every week with three things that I want to accomplish that I care about. And then three ways that I want to help other people. And that’s the compass for the week. I’ll plan my whole schedule around those things.”
For me, this notion of helping other people may be something as involved as reaching out to contribute effort to someone else’s project, but it can also be as simple as picking up the phone to see how a colleague or friend is doing, or sending a word of affirmation or commendation by email or, better yet, a hand-written note.
What has been especially interesting to me is that the completion of this task—while it tends to be seen as the “lowest” priority—often offers the greatest satisfaction.
I compound that satisfaction by finishing off my successful calendar day with a forward slash: /
How could it work for you? Using a strategy like this makes for a messy calendar, but each mark offers the momentary endorphin rush we were meant to enjoy from the act of work completed. It also creates a visual record of our productivity—and lack thereof—throughout the day, week, month and year.
This commentary originally appeared January 6 on Forbes.com
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