How The Top 1% Actually Makes Progress (aka the Seinfeld Solution)

by / ⠀Entrepreneurship / August 13, 2013

Productivity sucks.

For one, it’s hard. I mean, let’s face it – every single time I sit down to “get something done”, it almost never happens. At first, I thought it was just me. I thought that maybe there was some malfunction in my brain that made it physically impossible for me to focus on important tasks when the sweet, sweet Facebook newsfeed is only a click away. It’s sad, actually. The F key on my Macbook is starting to fade out. What’s even sadder is that oftentimes I don’t even WANT to be on Facebook (or insert your poison of choice). I just feel drawn to the distraction like a moth drawn to light. Don’t even get me started on Netflix. I’ve literally watched over 5 years of Weeds this week alone.

What am I doing with my life?

That’s why I always laugh when I see more of these “productivity” apps come out every month. Who needs another app? Who needs another digital piece of change jangling around in my already crowded brain? How is another set of clicks, swipes and scrolls actually going to help me get anything else done? I already have enough to do.

Sometimes I think I’m going nuts with all the things I have to think about at the same time.

So, in a moment of desperation a few months ago, I started asking other people Under 30 if they were having trouble getting things done in too. Mostly, I just wanted to make sure completely I wasn’t batshit crazy. Here’s what some of you had to say:

“Sometimes, I have so many things swirling around in my head that I just get confused and as a reflex, I do nothing.”

“I spend so much time thinking about how to get things done that I don’t actually get anything done. It’s like spending hours drawing up a map, then never using it.”

“I’m always trying to make progress in work/life, but I constantly find myself stopping and starting…so I never really get any traction.”

Do any of these sound familiar to you?

You have no idea how gratifying it was to get hear this stuff. I mean, honestly.

Now I know it’s not just me. You’re batshit crazy too! I can relate to all three of these, especially the last one.

I often find myself starting a new project, idea or pursuit then somehow, someway….letting it fade into the mist. Until eventually, it’s no longer part of my life. I treat it like a dead child and mourn for it…but rarely speak of it. Countless times I have tried to get something done and for whatever reason…just couldn’t. I couldn’t really put my finger on it…but it seemed like more than pure lack of willpower was at play here.

Not being able to follow through on the things we want to do sucks.

It sucks if you want to launch a successful startup. In fact, it sucks if you just want to improve your life in any way at all.

So, I took a hard look at my habits and my interactions with the people and things that I deemed important to me.

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I discovered something very interesting. Something that has been a HUGE factor in me starting 3 profitable businesses in the last 12 months and ejecting myself out of 9-to-5 misery.

Here’s what I’ve been doing. Let me know what you think.

Maybe it’s not about willpower?

You can’t “will” yourself to be more productive with your time.

You’re not a lemon. You can’t just squeeze more juice out. It doesn’t work like that, young padawan.

To be honest, I don’t even think I have what most people would call “willpower”. If you’re talking about mental fortitude, well I probably use 60% of my energy just getting out of bed in the morning. Maybe 70% on days where I have something un-fun to do. Yes, I made that word up.

If I had to use willpower to be productive, I’d never get anything done.

I legitimately don’t have the wherewithal to combat the temptations of all the fun things I’d rather do (instead of bootstrapping these businesses) on a daily basis. I like having fun, training and “chilling” too much.

But therein lies the problem. On the one hand, I don’t want to do anything but things that excite and inspire me. On the other hand, in order to EVENTUALLY have the ability to only do what I want, I have to make some serious moves now. Moves that require me to be extremely productive.

So I had to find a way.

I’d always thought that the reason elite performers in the top 1% of their disciplines were able to do so much more than me was because they had some sort of x-factor that allowed them to work harder, longer and better than me. Or, I made up all these limiting self-beliefs that they had unfair advantages that I’d never have (“of course he’s more productive than me…he has a personal chef to cook for him while he’s working”). All that is BS, naturally.

Then it occurred to me – maybe it’s not willpower at work here. Maybe these people aren’t “forcing” themselves to get stronger, faster, smarter or more successful.

Maybe it goes much deeper.

Maybe the reason that the world’s most productive people ARE so productive is because they have their entire life designed to get better at their work.

The Seinfeld Solution

In 1998, Jerry Seinfeld made $267 million dollars from the 9th and final season of his hit show Seinfeld. Yes, thats a quarter billiondollars. No, that’s not a typo. NBC begged him to do a 10th season to the tune of $5M per episode for 22 episodes (WTF?!). He declined. Needless to say, it was a great decade for him. But the 2000’s have been quite good to him as well – deals from syndication of his now classic show bring in a steady paycheck of about $85 million per year. Not bad, Jerry. Not bad at all.

But let’s take it back. Back, before he was a borderline billionaire comedian. Back before he was even a household name.

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How does one amass the talent, skill and productivity to write joke after joke, show after show, year after year at such a high level?

In an interview with Lifehacker, comedian Brad Isaac shares the story of a chance encounter he had with Seinfeld backstage. He asked Jerry if he had any “tips for a young comic”.

Here’s how Brad describes the conversation:

He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.

“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”

Take note here. You’ll notice Jerry didn’t mention anything about having good jokes. He didn’t even mention how long the activity had to last. The task is very simple: write something every day, put an X on the calendar and don’t break the chain.

Using your brain’s programming against itself

It’s almost simple enough to be counterintuitive – but let’s think about what’s happening here. There are a few very sophisticated processes going on. Think about how you could use this model with the skill or process you’re trying to become more productive with:

  • The act of doing something every day programs you to make it a default behavior. Most of us don’t have to force ourselves to brush our teeth in the morning. There’s no mental strain or cognitive dissonance with brushing your teeth. You just do it…because that’s who you are. You are a person who likes clean teeth and fresh breath. Seinfeld managed to integrate writing jokes into his daily routine day after day. Over time, he associated his identity with the writing and from there, it’s much easier to follow through.
  • Default behaviors, repeated day in and day out become habits. Habitual pursuits almost ALWAYS improve because of sheer frequency. In Jerry’s case, writing every day ensures that he’s bound to stumble on some funny material. 365 days of straight writing guarantees some nuggets of wisdom just by the sheer volume of material he’ll have created over time.

In effect, you’re using your own human tendency for habit creation to work AGAINST your natural tendency to procrastinate, stall and be otherwise unproductive. Rather than setting nebulous goals and hoping that you have the power to push through, you are actively installing new software (aka habit) in your brain’s computer to ensure that the program (aka goal) gets run. With enough consistency over time, the new software WILL get installed. You literally will not have a choice but to complete the habit every day. From there, success is on cruise control.

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The only thing you have to do is NOT break the chain.

How to use this (and how it’s worked for me)

I’ve had great success with hardwiring new habits into my daily rituals. The best part about creating a new habit is that after a while, you forget that it’s a “new” habit. It becomes so natural that you no longer even need to keep track. It’s just what you do. I’ve done this with a few different things that used to be a struggle for me to do consistently, and now I manage to do them every day without even a second thought:

  • Making my bed (was at a 67 day streak before I stopped tracking. My mom would be SHOCKED)
  • Meditating (was at a 70+ day streak before I didn’t need to track anymore)
  • Reading (40+ days and counting)
  • and 4 or 5 other habits

But here’s the catch…

Some days I was only able to throw the bed together.

Sometimes my meditation wasn’t good.

Often I only read a few pages.

But none of that matters because above all, I did it every single day. Consistently. And I haven’t stopped.

These may not seem like huge challenges, but imagine what it’s like to string together weeks and weeks of things you previously struggled with. Like compound interest, effort over time adds up to create something much bigger than the sum of its parts.

This is the secret sauce. This is how the top 1% of all performers are productive at a level that seems impossible to us earthlings.

Before Michael Phelps won the most gold medals in history, he was on a 10+ year hot streak of not missing a single planned day of training. Some of the days, his training wasn’t good. But he still showed up. It’s that simple.

Don’t break the chain.

Let’s say you want to learn programming for your startup, but are completely overwhelmed by what you need to know. That’s fine, and it’s perfectly normal. Start with small bites. If you learn programming, rain or shine, hell or high water, for 365 days in a row without breaking the chain, you will make progress. Even if you consider yourself way below average at the beginning. At just an hour per day, that’s almost 400 hours of consistent programming after a year. How good could you get at something with 400 hours?

It doesn’t matter what the field, pursuit or project is. Consistency over time is mastery. To track my progress with new habits I’m working on, I often use the habit-building app Coach as my digital calendar to track my “chain”. It’s one of the few worthwhile productivity/lifestyle apps out there.

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