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Aim, fire, scan: the 80/20 of executing on big projects

The Contract

On March 13, 2023, I did something crazy:

I opened, a site for making commitment contracts, and placed a bet that I would write a novel in 9 months and submit it to my literary agent by the end of the year. I told all of my friends about this contract and discussed it publicly many times, including to 100,000+ podcast listeners.

The stakes of the bet? If I failed, I would send $9,999, the maximum amount allowed by StickK, to a so-called “anti-charity” whose cause I didn’t support.

Spoiler: I succeeded with about an hour left in the year and zero gas left in the tank. I’d even found a free day to whip together an AI-based book trailer after finishing the first draft.

But here’s what you need to know: even though I was confident I would pull through on the contract, there was simply no clear path to victory at the time that I signed it:

  • I hadn’t written a word of fiction in almost 10 years.
  • I’m a good writer, but I’ve historically been a slow writer.
  • I run a business which requires a lot of my time, energy, and attention.

How, then, was I so confident I would succeed?

Plan, Do, Learn

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” —Bruce Lee

I was confident because I’ve spent years mastering a simple iteration process — the plan, do, learn loop — which helps me innovate and course-correct toward just about any goal, provided I’m given a reasonable time frame.

I encourage you to go read that old post if you haven’t, but tl;dr:

I make a plan, then do the plan, then learn from my efforts by reviewing my progress. I do this every day of the year, going on half a decade now.

These plan, do, learn loops (“PDL loops” for short) exist at six nested levels:

  • Quarters
  • Months
  • Weeks
  • Days
  • Sessions: multiple per day, lasting ~3 hours each and broken up by 60-minute breaks
  • Actions: multiple per session, lasting anywhere from 5–60 minutes each

If it sounds simple, it is. And it isn’t. Throw a kick 10,000 times and you’ll find lots of nuance.

My original post hinted at my iteration speed but said little about my iteration strategy. That is, I didn’t explain how I plan, how I do, or how I learn.

Better late than never. In this post, I’ll talk about 20% of the factors that lead to 80% of my outcomes. They’re captured in the following acronyms:

  • AIM: Plan
  • FIRE: Do
  • SCAN: Learn

Each of the concepts deserves its own standalone post, so I’m going to try to keep things short and sweet from here.

AIM: The 80/20 of Good Planning

AIM stands for ABZs, Interrogate, and Mandatory.

1. ABZs:

This gem is from Shaan Puri:

Too many people get caught up in the HOW. “How do I go from A to B to C to D to E etc.”

All you need is the ABZ:

A = where are you now

B = next small step

Z = end vision

2. Interrogate:

Suppose you’ve already made an iteration through the loop and now you’re reviewing your original plan. Rather than thoughtlessly continuing down that original path, interrogate the plan and confirm that it still makes sense.

At one point while writing my novel, I reflexively started working on a new chapter because I’d included it in the original outlining process. But interrogation helped me realize that it was no longer needed, which literally saved me weeks of wasted effort.

Heed Peter Drucker:

After completing the original top-priority task, the executive resets priorities rather than moving on to number two from the original list. He asks, “What must be done now?” This generally results in new and different priorities.

3. Mandatory:

Identify a mandatory, must-ship objective for the work iteration, and commit to shipping it regardless of the obstacles you encounter. If you can’t think of a concrete objective, make it a time commitment like “contribute 5 on-task hours to my novel this week.”

I’ve personally found it really effective to give myself a “day must-ship objective” and a “week must-ship objective.” A few months into my StickK contract I even started taking out $50 “mini-contracts” to hold myself accountable to my week must-ship objectives.

FIRE: The 80/20 of Good Doing

FIRE stands for Frontload, Improvise, Resourcefulness, and Exhaust.

1. Frontload:

Mark Twain said it best:

If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.

To repeat what I’ve written elsewhere, long-term optimism for difficult projects is made out of short-term pessimism.

Wake up assuming everything will go wrong today. This week. This month. And execute accordingly.

If things do go wrong, you’ll still be on track. If they don’t, you’ll be way ahead.

2. Improvise:

Speaking of things going wrong: they will. And when they do, you’ll be happy you followed the ABZ framework and didn’t overplan.

I use all sorts of techniques for improvising and getting unstuck. Here are just a few of them:

Note: there’s a huge difference between improvising on the iteration path and improvising on the iteration itself. Using the ABZ framework, a legitimate improvisation might be rethinking how to achieve B, but it will almost never be rethinking B itself. As a rule with few exceptions, you want to move forward through iteration loops, not backward. (Too often, moving backward is a sign of problems with doing, not problems with planning.)

3. Resourcefulness:

Human brains suck at most things. Instead of relying only on mental resources like willpower and memory, use extra-mental resources for added leverage.

This is a book-length topic and perhaps the main secret of my success, so forgive me the vagueness of simply bucketing extra-mental resources into two categories and leaving it at that for now: 1) The Three Me’s and 2) The Two We’s:

The Three Me’s:

  1. Techniques, e.g. the BUS method
  2. Tools, e.g. standard operating procedures, ChatGPT
  3. Territories, i.e. environmental constraints on your behavior, e.g. putting your phone on DND mode

The Two We’s:

  1. Teachers, e.g. books, mentors, content creators
  2. Teams, e.g. personal assistants

4. Exhaust:

Don’t take the “exhaust” term too literally here. Burnout is real, and I’m not suggesting you should do that. Instead I mean that if you decide to do an hour of work, try to work a 60-minute hour rather than, say, a 30-minute hour filled with continuous partial attention.

Easy to do when you’re passionate or things are going well. Less easy when you’re stuck or bored, and discipline is required.

Enforced time constraints work wonders here. My own convention is to do intensive work sessions for set blocks of time then self-impose 30- to 60-minute cooldown periods where I relax and recharge. I use a website blocker called Freedom for this. I did a deep-dive on this process here.

Performance Design is where I share ~1 essay a month on building a flywheel of personal growth. Drop your email to subscribe:

Or go here for my other series, where I publish more frequently.

SCAN: The 80/20 of Good Learning

SCAN stands for Score, Critique, Adjust, and Notes.

1. Score:

Scoring helps you measure your performance objectively. If you don’t do it, you end up lying to yourself without knowing you’re lying to yourself.

Again, heed Drucker:

One company chairman was absolutely certain that he divided his time roughly into three parts. One third he thought he was spending with his senior men. One third he thought he spent with his important customers. And one third he thought was devoted to community activities.

The actual record of his activities over six weeks brought out clearly that he spent almost no time in any of these areas. These were the tasks on which he knew he should spend time — and therefore memory, obliging as usual, told him that these were the tasks on which he actually had spent his time.

I like to score (or at least track) two things: inputs and outputs.

By inputs, I really just mean time: “How many hours did I put in versus the amount of hours I was supposed to put in?” Outputs is more self-explanatory: “Did I ship my must-ship objective?”

Both can be scored with a simple 0 or 1. (My personal scoring systems have become a lot more sophisticated after years of iteration, but I started with something like this.)

2. Critique:

If you take the time to look, you will always, always, always identify at least one flaw in your performance that can improve upon. But if you don’t look, that flaw will often go unnoticed for many iterations, or even forever.

What I do is identify at least one of these flaws at the end of each iteration cycle.

3. Adjust:

It’s not enough to notice a flaw. You also want to take action. And in my experience, simply saying, “Okay, next time I won’t do [flaw]” is bullshit 90% of the time.

One of my bad habits early on in the process of working on the novel was putting other work in front of it: answering work emails, chatting with my team, doing morning routine tasks, etc. By the time I got around to writing — which requires an enormous amount of mental energy — I was often drained.

So I made an adjustment: within 30 minutes of waking up, I needed to get started on the manuscript and knock out at least 2 hours of work before opening the pandora’s box of digital distractions.

4. Notes:

Write down how things went during this iteration, and why. Benjamin Franklin began each day by asking himself in his journal: “What good shall I do this day?” Then, at the end of the day, he’d ask “What good have I done today?”

If it’s good enough for Big Ben, it’s good enough for you. The first reason why documenting your progress is good is because it leaves a record for you to investigate later. You’ll be less likely to make the same mistakes over again without being able to lie to yourself about it.

The second reason why this is good is because writing is thinking. Often, the act of writing your learnings from the iteration will lead to far greater clarity about your performance than you could gain otherwise. It’s similar to the process of rubberducking.

By the way, I’m thinking of sharing updates on the book publishing process. If that kind of thing interests you, follow along here.

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