Big Project Syndrome: Thoughts on Struggling to Finish My First Book

As regular readers know, I’m working on my first book right now. The book is about the power of small improvements in a world obsessed with overnight success.

For the most part, the book will include the best ideas from my weekly articles plus dozens of additional research studies and topics that I haven’t mentioned yet. I will also mix in my usual dose of practical ideas, interesting stories, and real world experiences. I have about 40,000 words written right now. My hope is that it will be the best work I’ve created thus far.

So what’s the problem?

I am really struggling to tame this beast and make progress. I haven’t written consistently on the book for weeks and lately it feels like the project is always in the same place today as it was 10 days ago.

Although I write about habits and consistency every week, I have said many times that I am no expert. Like everyone else, I’m just learning as I go. In this article, I’m going to share a few of the issues I’m struggling with and discuss just how hard it is to take a big project from idea to execution.
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Masters of Habit: The Deliberate Practice and Training of Jerry Rice

Masters of Habit is a series of mini-biographies on the daily rituals and routines of great athletes, artists, and leaders.

Jerry Rice is widely considered to be the greatest wide receiver in the history of the National Football League. In addition to winning three Super Bowls, Rice holds nearly every single season and career receiving record available. He is also the NFL’s all-time leader in yards, receptions, and touchdowns. Many experts say he may be the best football player ever, regardless of position.

Basically, Rice was a one-in-a-lifetime talent. Literally, the best of the best.

But in Geoff Colvin’s popular book, Talent is Overrated, he shares an interesting story about Rice’s work ethic and his approach to deliberate practice. As you’ll see, it wasn’t just talent that made Rice successful and we can all learn from his approach and use similar strategies to improve our health, our work, and our lives.

The Training Schedule of Jerry Rice

This short excerpt from Talent is Overrated explains Rice’s typical training schedule.

In team workouts he was famous for his hustle; while many receivers would trot back to the quarterback after catching a pass, Rice would sprint to the end zone after each reception. He would typically continue practicing long after the rest of the team had gone home. Most remarkable were his six-days-a-week off-season workouts, which he conducted entirely on his own. Mornings were devoted to cardiovascular work, running a hilly five-mile trail; he would reportedly run ten forty-meter wind sprints up the steepest part. In the afternoons he did equally strenuous weight training. These workouts became legendary as the most demanding in the league, and other players would sometimes join Rice just to see what it was like. Some of them got sick before the day was over.

It is obvious that Jerry Rice put in an incredible volume of work. This is no surprise. Unwavering consistency is a requirement for achieving excellence. To put it simply, you can’t expect to become great at something without practicing it over and over.

But it wasn’t just the amount of time he spent practicing that made the difference, Rice used other strategies to master his craft.

Excellence Requires More Than Just Practice

Excellence requires more than just a lot of practice. It requires the right kind of practice. The natural tendency for humans, professional athletes included, is to fall into a routine once we achieve an adequate level of performance.

For example, you might practice a golf swing the same way over and over. Or a professional wide receiver might practice running their routes the same way over and over. In the beginning, this repetition is required to develop skills. As I’ve mentioned here, here, and here, it’s only by going through a volume of work that beginner’s can hope to reach a level of excellence.

At some point, however, you reach a certain skill level and simply repeating the same pattern again and again doesn’t foster much additional growth. (In fact, this is true at any level of skill: practice in the same way you always have and you’ll get the same results you always have.)

Anders Ericsson, the psychologist behind the 10,000 Hour Rule, explained this important caveat by saying, “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal. You have to tweak the system by pushing, allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.”

This is where Jerry Rice separated himself from the rest of the pack. He finished college as an All-American wide receiver, but he didn’t let his skills plateau. Even at a high level, Rice found ways to practice deliberately rather than mindlessly and push the edge of his abilities rather than repeat old patterns without improvement. In other words, Rice always found ways to become one percent better.

Let’s talk about how Rice decided which areas to focus on improving.

Focus on Your Areas of Greatest Leverage

The classic test for speed in the NFL is the 40-yard dash. Before being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, Rice was reported as running the 40 in 4.7 seconds. For reference, in 2014 there were multiple quarterbacks and even a defensive lineman that posted faster times than that. And yet, it is unlikely that any of these players will have a career half as prolific as that of Jerry Rice.

Compared to other wide receivers, Rice’s mediocre speed could be seen as a weakness. How did he overcome it? By leveraging his greatest strengths.

He designed his practice to work on his specific needs. Rice didn’t need to do everything well, just certain things. He had to run precise patterns; he had to evade the defenders, sometimes two or three, who were assigned to cover him; he had to outjump them to catch the ball and outmuscle them when they tried to strip it away; then he had to outrun tacklers. So he focused his practice work on exactly these requirements. Not being the fastest receiver in the league turned out not to matter. He became famous for the precision of his patterns. His weight training gave him tremendous strength. His trail running gave him control so he could change directions suddenly without signaling his move. The uphill wind sprints gave him explosive acceleration. Most of all, his endurance training — not something that a speed-focused athlete would normally concentrate on — gave him a giant advantage in the fourth quarter, when his opponents were tired and weak, and he seemed as fresh as he was in the first minute. Time and again, that’s when he put the game away. Rice and his coaches understood exactly what he needed in order to be dominant. They focused on these things and not on other goals that might have seemed generally desirable, like speed.

Consider how easy it would have been for Rice to practice in a different way.

Nobody would have questioned him if Rice spent all of his time training to improve his relative weakness (speed) and simply maintaining his other skills. Instead, he focused on mastering his assets — precision, endurance, and strength — to a degree beyond anyone else.

It doesn’t matter what skill you are trying to perfect, finding the areas where your particular skill set provides the greatest leverage and focusing on those areas will reap enormous benefits.

Applying This to Your Life

Jerry Rice was blessed with incredible talent, but it was his work ethic and his commitment to continual improvement that allowed him to transform that talent into one of the greatest careers that the NFL has ever seen.

For you and me the skills and circumstances may be very different from that of Jerry Rice, but the principles are the same. If we want to execute in real life and master the skills that are important to us, then we need to:

  1. Put in a volume of work.
  2. Focus on the areas of greatest leverage for your skill.
  3. Find ways to continually improve and move the needle forward rather than falling into routines and patterns once we develop adequate skill levels.

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How to be More Productive and Eliminate Time Wasting Activities by Using the “Eisenhower Box”

Dwight Eisenhower lived one of the most productive lives you can imagine.

Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, serving two terms from 1953 to 1961. During his time in office, he launched programs that directly led to the development of the Interstate Highway System in the United States, the launch of the internet (DARPA), the exploration of space (NASA), and the peaceful use of alternative energy sources (Atomic Energy Act).

Before becoming president, Eisenhower was a five-star general in the United States Army, served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and was responsible for planning and executing invasions of North Africa, France, and Germany.

At other points along the way, he served as President of Columbia University, became the first Supreme Commander of NATO, and somehow found time to pursue hobbies like golfing and oil painting.

Eisenhower had an incredible ability to sustain his productivity not just for weeks or months, but for decades. And for that reason, it is no surprise that his methods for time management, task management, and productivity have been studied by many people.

His most famous productivity strategy is known as the Eisenhower Box and it’s a simple decision-making tool that you can use right now. Here’s how it works.
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How to Change Your Beliefs and Stick to Your Goals for Good

In one of my very first articles, I discussed a concept called identity-based habits.

The basic idea is that the beliefs you have about yourself can drive your long-term behavior. Maybe you can trick yourself into going to the gym or eating healthy once or twice, but if you don’t shift your underlying identity, then it’s hard to stick with long-term changes.

Graphic by James Clear.

Graphic by James Clear.

Most people start by focusing on performance and appearance-based goals like “I want to lose 20 pounds” or “I want to write a best-selling book.”

But these are surface level changes.

The root of behavior change and building better habits is your identity. Each action you perform is driven by the fundamental belief that it is possible. So if you change your identity (the type of person that you believe that you are), then it’s easier to change your actions.

This brings us to an interesting question. How do you build an identity that is in line with your goals? How can you actually change your beliefs and make it easier to stick with good habits for the long run?
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Stop Wasting Time on the Details and Commit to the Fundamentals

I was in the gym one day, training like usual, when my coach made an important observation. It didn’t take me long to see how this discovery applied to other areas of my life as well.

Here’s what happened.

We looked across the gym and saw someone performing lateral raises with dumbbells while standing on a Bosu ball. (This is an exercise that focuses on smaller muscles in the shoulder and doesn’t do much for the rest of the body.)

My coach watched for a moment and then said, “Imagine how good you have to be for that exercise to be the thing that gets you to the next level.”

His point was that this person was focusing on an exercise that improved a few, tiny muscles in their body while ignoring the more important foundational movements. Even an Olympic athlete who had mastered the basic movements (squats, bench press, etc.) could not honestly look in the mirror and say, “You know what’s holding me back? I’m not doing enough lateral raises.”

In other words, the problem is that too many people waste time on the details before mastering the fundamentals. And I’d say the same in true outside of the gym as well.
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I’m Using These 3 Simple Steps to Actually Stick with Good Habits

I have been trying a new strategy for building habits and it is working incredibly well. This strategy is remarkably easy and it is governed by three simple rules.

First I’ll tell you the three rules. Then, I’ll explain how I’m using this strategy and offer some other examples of how you can put these rules into practice.

Here’s how it works…
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2014 Integrity Report

Today I am publishing my first Integrity Report, which will explain the steps I’m taking to set a higher standard, lead with honesty, and build a business that serves first.

My hope is that my Integrity Report will become a yearly ritual that forces me to think about how I am living out my values in real life and pushes me to serve you in a better way.

There are 3 questions that I’m going to answer in my Integrity Report (feel free to use these for your own integrity report if you want).

  1. What are the core values that drive my life?
  2. How am I living and working with integrity right now?
  3. How can I set a higher standard and lead with more integrity in the future?

Here we go…
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What I’m Reading: Hooked Edition

Welcome to another edition of my reading list!

Each week, I try to write useful articles on topics like psychology and habit formation, medicine and health, and science and entrepreneurship. Where do I get many of these ideas? By reading books written by people who are smarter than me.

Because of that, I love to share some of the better books I’ve been reading — and get suggestions from you, of course!

And with that said, here’s what I’ve been reading recently.
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