24 hours; the great equalizer. We are all governed by them, constrained by their boundaries. It’s the only commodity that can’t be purchased. The wealthy and successful are graced with the same 24 hours in their day as the proverbial pauper, and what separates the two is often how these 24 hours are spent.

The concept of the Non-Zero Day is the principal that every day should contain a step that gets us closer to our greater goals. In an age with unprecedented distractions, it’s disappointingly common (and alarmingly easy) to fall asleep at night without ever making advancements towards greater goals.

Here is a simple exercise: catalog everything you did in the past 60 minutes. Were you reading blogs? Surfing Reddit? Aimlessly traversing your various social networks? Eating at Chipotle?

Chances are, even if you were deeply focused at something productive, the ratio of time spent on progress over time spent otherwise would be disappointingly low. Often, time’s passage barely registers to us. That’s part of being human, I suppose.

Life’s productivity is cumulative. Steps taken today prepare us for tomorrow. And progress that is lost must be reclaimed before moving forward. Even if we manage to have three insanely productive days a week, the remaining four pose quite the hazard on the road towards our goals.

So, I want to propose to you a toolset to make every day a Non-Zero Day. Nothing crazy. Nothing preachy. No Joel Osteen book promos or energy drink advertisements. Instead, here are three steps that I use to create Non-Zero Days that enable me to aggressively chase my goals.

 

Step 1) Envision your concept of your ‘ideal self’ and work backwards.

It’s always important to begin with a strong and solid concept of where you want to go, or more importantly, who you want to be. I have a tendency to be rather pedantic in my planning, but I always start with a top-down overview of all of my priorities in life, and I find mind-mapping to be very useful here.

Define all of your independent priorities in a Mind Map; the core areas of life that matter to you. Spend some time thinking about every nook and cranny of your life that you are invested in. This will enable you to visualize the ideal state of all of your various ventures independently, and eventually will help you solidify your goals.

I find it useful to roll everything up in major life ‘threads’: Self, Wealth, Purpose, Health, and Relationships.  By the way, I use Coggle for mind-mapping, highly recommended for it’s powerful features and simple interface.

Every stakeholder in your life should be represented. Your passions, your dreams, your career, your groups of friends, your hobbies, your romantic partner. A complete Mind Map should encompass your individuality entirely.

The purpose is to find your purpose.

Here is a greatly simplified version of my Mind Map:

Mind Map

Describe in a few sentences what the ideal state of each branch would look like for you.

Pop open a spreadsheet or notebook. It’s helpful to use plain English here. Forget about the passage of time for a moment, just think about the future in a general sense; think to yourself “what is the ideal future state of this thread?”

This is your chance to envision the perfect version of yourself. It’s important to be realistic but aggressive. Use your Mind Map to do this exercise comprehensively, and avoid overly-quantitative goals. (For example, instead of saying “Earn $100k by the time I’m 35”, try framing your mission such as “Be financially independent while young enough to fully enjoy it.”)

Following my example from above, here is a simplified version of my ideal state:

Purpose: Higher purpose; find a life project that benefits the world and enriches the lives of others.

  • Own a business/project that broadcasts my passions to the world. Have a life of variety in the process.
  • Volunteer time to truly improve and enrich the lives of others.

Health: Be healthy, have style. Be mentally and physically fit.

  • See body to fullest potential. Be strong, fit, and attractive.
  • Be mentally healthy – low stress, highly organized, and strongly confident.
  • Have unique and flexible style.

Wealth: Be wealthy enough to have options.

  • Be well-educated and a knowledge-center.
  • Have a unique, lucrative, and most importantly, enjoyable career.

Self: Have plenty of self-love, and aim to be the world’s most interesting man.

  • Maintain proficiency in a diverse set of interests and crafts (photography, music, writing, outdoors).
  • Be smart, intriguing, well-spoken

Relationships: Have rich relationships. Be a tenacious friend and partner.

  • Be close with family, and always carve out time for loved-ones.
  • Be a gregarious friend and partner, and keep a close set of congruent friends.

 

Step 2) Work backwards from these high-level goals to create short, medium and long-term goals.

Now that you have painted a picture of who you aim to be, it’s time to start figuring out how to get there. This is the part of the process that takes the most time and planning. I recommend boiling down each of your ‘threads’ down to 3-5 year goals, yearly goals, 3-6 month goals, and monthly goals (though obviously, work under a system that performs best for you).

Again, leverage your Mind Map. Split the branches when multiple, separate efforts are needed to support the same parent goal. In my example below, you can see that one of my 3-5 year goals is to reach peak fitness. But to support that, three separate efforts are required: reducing weight, weight training, and improving cardiovascular health. So each of those individual branches becomes an annual goal with short term goals of their own. I only keep the close goals, <1 year, numerical. No reason to add unnecessary pressure to long term goals.

Here is the full example of my ‘Health’ thread:

Healthy Horizons

Of course, here is a screenshot of my actual document. Admittedly, it’s a lot to maintain, but it works for me:

Horizons

Every month, I block out the first few hours of the first Monday to update this document. It’s critical to keep your goals updated as they will undoubtedly skew in different directions as time unfolds.

Now that you have a good set of goals laid out for you, it’s time to develop a system to aggressively attack them.

 

Step 3) Develop a system that works for you, and trust it implicitly.

I err on the side of being a little too meticulous about the whole thing, which works for some people, but not for others. So, I challenge you to develop a system that works for you. You will prosper more using an imperfect system religiously than by using a perfect system sporadically.

The essence of all of this is to trust your system, and the only way to develop that trust is to use resources that aren’t annoying to maintain, nor prohibitively complex. Many productivity-powerhouses rely only on paper and pen to maintain their task lists. So the big disclaimer here: experiment and iterate until you find yourself a system that maximizes your personal productivity.

For me, the basic steps distill down to this:

A) Ritualize your system, and plan tasks that support your monthly goals.

The only way to commit and succeed in a productivity system is to ritualize it until it becomes habit. For example, every Monday morning, without fail, I follow a checklist to clean-up and maintain my system. For me, it’s as important as brushing my teeth. It’s the ‘due diligence’ to keep my system and my life on track. Here’s that Monday ritual:

  • Review my goal spreadsheet and extract the short-term tasks needed to meet the goals
  • Scrub my pocket notebook for outstanding to-do’s (everyone should carry a pocket Moleskin)
  • Input and track all of these tasks in a task manager (I’m a huge fan of gQueues)
  • Plan one social engagement – this prevents me from ever getting too swallowed in my work
  • Clean out my email inbox and my space, priming myself for productivity

Because I follow this ritual, it’s nearly impossible for things to fall through the cracks. By making task management a habit, with a real dedicated space on my calendar, I stay in the driver seat of my life.

When planning tasks, take a hard look at your monthly goals. Goals and tasks are not the same thing. So the essence of avoiding Non-Zero Days is to focus on tasks that directly, measurably, and deliberately result in progress towards your goals. So for example:

Goal Tasks
Upgrade personal style a little bit this month.  1) Spend 20 minutes on r/malefashionadvice to see if any new trends or items are appealing.
2) Spend some time going through closet for unnecessary clothes to offload.
3) Drop off old clothes at Goodwill.
4) Go to mall/outlets and buy 5 items.

It is important to see the differences between goals and task. Goals are a result; tasks get you there. So if I were going to condense this whole thesis in to a sentence, it would be: Every day, plan and accomplish tasks that move you towards strategic goals.

B) If ‘microscopic’ tasks show up on your door, do them right away.

David Allen in Getting Things Done inspired this philosophy, and I am an evangelist of this strategy. If anything during the day pops up that requires less than 3 minutes to complete, I just execute it immediately.

Disclaimer: this isn’t to suggest that it’s a good idea to accept all tasks that find their way to you. I’m only talking about tasks that further your goals. Read Essentialism for more on this.

Many productivity systems fail because they get cluttered with little tasks. It is far more efficient to pay your credit card bill when it pops on to your radar, rather than to add a reminder to a list somewhere and defer it.

I save my task list for big items; these are the key activities needed to meet my monthly goals. Small stuff just needs to be eliminated so we can focus on our purpose.

C) Have a plan. Aim to complete three tasks a day.

I have a chronic focusing problem. The way I counteract this lifelong deficit of attention is by starting each day with a clear-cut list of what I will accomplish that day. Each of these tasks is something with a clear deliverable and ending. This isn’t “work on my best-selling novel”, it’s “edit chapter 12”, so to speak. You should be able to envision a clear way to start and finish the task.

A widely studied phenomenon first proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979, the Planning Fallacy suggests that we tend to be overly-optimistic about how long it will take to complete future tasks, even with contradictory historical information. Usually when I try to stuff 5+ items on my daily kill list, I end up missing deadlines or delivering poor quality. I bet you do too.

On particularly busy, meeting-heavy days, I’ll often create blocks of time dedicated to knocking out each of my individual daily tasks. This prevents other people from slicing in to my own individual productivity, and provides me with a rigid plan to execute the day.

D) Evaluate yourself often, forgive the mistakes, but use them anyways.

Evaluating ourselves is difficult, and it’s easy to become too focused on a small subset of personal responsibilities while our greater selves suffer.

At regular intervals, I dedicate some time to evaluate my progress across all of my goals and to determine areas that I should pay closer attention to.

At the beginning of each month, you should take your goal list and jot some scores down. If you kicked ass at work and completed all of your tasks, then you’ve earned yourself a ‘5/5’ for Wealth. But during that pursuit, if you let your sleep habits, diet, and exercise suffer, maybe you only should give yourself a ‘2/5’ for the Health area.

By doing this quantitatively, it can signal imbalances in our lives. After all, isn’t that the goal of all of this? To be productive and successful is to be well-rounded and to juggle priorities well. I probably go a little too deep in the numerical realm with this, but I score all of my monthly goals and it helps me see data like this:

Trends

This empowers me to ask some tough questions. What was I doing in January to perform so highly? Why did Wealth and Purpose fall off in February?

Taking the quantitative approach to evaluating ourselves creates opportunities by giving us a clear picture of our strengths and weaknesses. Following through with this knowledge is a hallmark of a successful individual; fixing our weaknesses and capitalizing on our strengths.

 

Keep searching for the best solution for you.

I hope this has been useful for you, sincerely. The tools to be powerful, productive, and successful are accessible; it just requires a little conviction and planning to make them useful. If all of this just seems a little too impractical or cumbersome for you, you might be right. This is only what works for me, but I know many successful and creative people that manage their lives in wildly different ways. I encourage you to think critically about how you are planning your days and years. Every good project needs a plan, and a fruitful and enriched life doesn’t happen by accident. So I hope you play and experiment with some of these philosophies and find something that enriches your life. Please comment or get in touch with me if you have suggestions or ideas to share!