A former student's advice on avoiding procrastination

A former student visited my class last month to offer advice to my fifth graders as they prepare to embark on their journey to middle school.

His advice was fascinating:

In order to avoid procrastination, fill your life with after-school activities. Do as much as possible. Sports, drama, student government... anything and everything. Pack your day with excitement and adventure.

In this way, he explained, your time to complete homework and study will be limited. You'll have very specific and defined times each day when you can get your work done, and as a result, you will be forced to do your homework and studying during those times.

My former student's message is this:

When we have large amounts of free time available to us, we procrastinate. If we eliminate or restrict the amount of free time we have each day, we'll have no choice but to use that free time wisely. 

Kind of brilliant. Right?


Shorter is almost always better

I am and will always be an admirer for anyone who understands that the shorter sermon, the shorter meeting, the shorter training session, and the shorter story are almost always the best versions of those things. 

Time is our most precious commodity. In truth, it's our only precious commodity. Honor it as such. When standing before a group of people, I have an obligation - a duty - to be relevant, engaging, entertaining, and concise.

Every single time. 

If my meeting is scheduled to last an hour, and it lasts exactly one hour, I have failed. The goal should not to fill the hour but to accomplish my goals in less than the allotted time.

This is what is known as being efficient. The definition of this word is one of the most beautiful collection of words in the English language:

Efficient: achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.

Strive to be efficient in all things, including meetings. These ministers get it.

Sleeping less is not the secret to my productivity. Television is.

As a person who teaches elementary school, publishes novels, writes for magazines, owns and operates a wedding DJ company, runs a storytelling organization, and performs onstage regularly, I am often asked how I manage to get so much done.

This question is almost always followed with this assumption: "You don't sleep much. Do you?"

Yes, it's true. I don't sleep as much as the average person. Five or six hours at the most each night, but it's a mistake to think that this is how I accomplish so much. My productivity is the result of a multitude of systems and strategies that allow me to get a lot done in a given day, including this often forgotten, preferably ignored, but enormous one:

I don't watch much television. While the average American watches more than five hours of television a day, I watch an average about five hours of television a week, and that's in a good week.

Last month I went eleven days straight without watching television.   

So yes, by sleeping less, I gain two or three or maybe four hours a day of productivity that most people spend in bed.

But I also gain four or five hours a day of productivity that most people spend watching TV.

To think that my productivity is primarily the result of my ability to sleep less would be a mistake.  

As Teal Burrell recently wrote in the Washington Post

"Americans are obsessed with television, spending an average of five hours a day pointing ourselves at it even as we complain we’re busier than ever."

And here's the thing: I like television. I enjoy sitting beside my wife and watching TV. I believe that we are in a golden age of television. Never before has television produced such high quality programming. I like Game of Thrones and Homeland and Veep and Last Week Tonight.  

But here's the other thing: I like life more. I like playing with my children and writing books and meeting new people and reading and talking with my wife over dinner and performing onstage and striving for the the next thing. I like filling my life with real stuff rather than the fictional lives of TV people.

Watching television is not only a terrible way to achieve my goals, but too much television is destructive in so many ways. From Burrell's Washington Times piece:

People who watch more television are generally unhappierheavier and worse sleepers, and have a higher risk of death over a defined length of time.

Avoiding television is not hard. Simply don't turn the damn thing on. Don't allow it to become the background noise of your life. Don't make it the default means of spending time because you have no other way to fill the hours.

Find something else to fill the hours. The list of possibilities are endless.

Read a book. Play a board game. Learn to play guitar. Knit. Write letters to friends. Learn to bake. Take a walk. Garden. Paint. Sculpt. Reupholster your couch. Call your grandmother. Start a side hustle. Exercise. Volunteer on a suicide prevention hotline. Meditate. Breed rabbits. Have more sex. Memorize poetry. Dance naked in your living room.  

Become the person who somehow manages to knit lambswool cardigans, teach a weekly cooking classes, and restore antique rocking chairs in your spare time.      

Live life.

When you're old and decrepit and staring death in the face, I promise you that the evenings spent dancing naked in your living room and hours you spent on the phone counseling suicidal teenagers will be more important to you than finishing The Wire or finding out if Bad Guy #625 will be sent to jail at the end of Law & Order.

Live a life more rich and real than the people you watch on television. 

I've spoken about this very subject before, if you're interested:

I run through grocery stores often enough that strangers have begun to notice. This does not make me crazy, even though some might believe otherwise.

I was in the bread aisle of the local Stop & Shop last week when a woman stopped me and asked, "Why are you always running through this grocery store?"

"Excuse me?" I said.

"I always see you running through this store like you're on fire."

It's true. When I shop, I move fast, I wouldn't say that I run, but I am definitely moving faster than anyone around me.

The fact that this stranger was aware of my tendency was disconcerting. I am always telling people to stop worrying so much about their physical appearance because no one is ever looking at you as much as you think.

This woman's awareness of me and my shopping tendencies violated this belief.

"Well," I said. "I have a wife and two kids and blue sky and sun to get back to. The last place I want to be is inside this store. I'm in this store all the time. I've already seen this place. There are so many places I'd rather be. I'm just trying to get back to one of those places as quickly as possible."

The woman stared at me for a moment, as if considering my answer. Then she nodded and said, "Makes sense."

"So you're going to start running through the grocery store, too?" I was thrilled that I had found my first convert. 

"No," she said. "You're a nut."

She said this affectionately, but I could tell that she also meant it. She was willing to acknowledge that I had good reason to be moving quickly enough, consistently enough through the Stop & Shop to be noticed by a stranger, but she also thought that I was at least a little crazy.

I don't think so.

The question I am most frequently asked is, "How do you find the time to get so much done?" I am asked this question at least five times as often as any other question that I am asked, and I have a multitude of answers.

But one of them would be this:

When forced to do something that takes me away from the things I love most, I try to do that thing as quickly as possible.

So I run through grocery stores.

I run through grocery stores because I have a wife and two kids and sunshine and blue sky waiting for me. Also books to write. Stories to tell. Students to teach. Weddings to DJ. Books to read. Treadmills and golf courses to traverse.

I have a multitude of things to do that are better than buying bread, so I buy that bread as quickly as possible.

This seems like the most sane decision anyone could make.  

This is exactly what you need to accomplish your goals. Nothing more.

Want some advice on how to create? On how to get things done? How to accomplish your goals? 

There's nothing better than this from writer and storyteller Dan Kennedy:

You have to encourage yourself. I woke up with this weird urgent need to tell everyone that. We have to travel with our own fuel onboard.
— Dan Kennedy

This is not the first time that I've quoted Dan on this blog. He says a lot of smart things. 

In case you missed my previous posts, they include:

"When people tell me they don't have enough time to write, I tell them to throw a trashcan through the window of a bank or airport."

"There are people who write every now and then. And there are writers who are people every now and then."

"Most movies about life depend on giant change, chapters ending, chapters beginning. Real life depends on sticking with things."

"When it comes to work, you're gonna end up doing what you want to do. Period. Spend 10 minutes or 30 years fighting it if you insist."

"Buy books for yourself and for other people."

7 more ways that saboteurs attempt to destroy workplace productivity

Last week I wrote about the myriad of ways that productivity is destroyed at the workplace - both intentionally via an OSS manual from World War II as well as my own observations.

Reader Anne McGrath - who used to consult with non profit groups and now does organizational assessments, offered these additions to the list that I thought were well worth sharing. 

  • Assume no one has ever attempted to do what you’re trying to do, and start from scratch.
  • Hide mistakes along the way and don’t bother collecting or sharing ideas for your best-practices or lessons-learned folder.  
  • Spend no time identifying & recruiting effective partners or participants for your project, just invite anyone and everyone, regardless of what they’d bring to the table.
  • Have murky or never discussed vision, goals, purpose and values. Assume everyone has the same identical end goal in mind.
  • Don’t evaluate leadership capacity. Just use the leader you’ve always used for every project.
  • Don’t engage the people you are trying to help.  For example, If in a school, leave students out of the equation re: all decisions that will directly impact their lives.  
  • End meetings with no clear action plan for things to accomplish and bring back for next meeting. This helps create meetings that go on forever with nothing changing.

Nine rules for making you more efficient with email and less of a jerk face

1. Email is often a means of informal communication. As such, you can dramatically decrease the amount of time spent with email with short, efficient replies like, ‘Thanks” and “Understood” and “Agreed.” Dispense with formalities whenever possible and increase efficiency. image

2. Blind Carbon Copy (BCC) is often the tool of the passive aggressive coward. Before including an email address in this field, always ask yourself why you are using it. If you’re trying to hurt or embarrass someone or conceal something, knock it off, jerk face.

3. Never send an email written to express your anger or disappointment with someone. Those emotions are better conveyed over the phone or in person, where unnecessary aggression and excessive vitriol cannot be shielded by the passive aggressive nature of email. In other words, don’t be a coward. If you’re upset, pick up the phone.

4. “I sent that angry email because I express myself better in the written form and was too anger to speak” is never an excuse for violating rule #3.

5. If you receive an angry email, pick up the phone and respond immediately. The faster, the better. The best way to handle a passive-aggressive person is in an aggressively direct manner. Angry email senders tend to be people who do not handle conflict well and therefore hide behind technology. Pulling back the technological curtain will be uncomfortable for them and will often knock them off their position.

6. Inbox zero should be your goal, if only for productivity and efficiency purposes. Leaving email in your inbox forces you to look at that email every time you access your mail application, which takes time and energy. It’s akin to sifting through the same growing pile of mail every day to find a specific letter or bill. Inbox zero will eliminate the time required to take action on incoming emails by not adding them to an already enormous pile.


7. Use a mail application that allows you to schedule a time when you want an email to hit your inbox. Turn email into something that you receive when you want to receive it. For me, this is Mailbox, though many other applications offer similar functionality. I often reschedule incoming email for a designated time during the day when I plan to read and respond, thereby keeping my inbox empty and enjoying the benefits of rule #6.

If I receive an email pertaining to taxes, I reschedule it to hit my inbox on April 1.

If my team receives an email requesting action on our part, I reschedule it to hit my inbox in 24 hours in the hopes that one of my colleagues will handle the request before I need to.

I also use the “Someday” time frame in Mailbox to randomly reschedule emails that make me smile or feel good about myself, allowing me to experience the joy of receiving that email all over again.


8. Respond to emails that require action as quickly as possible, and always within 24 hours. Failing to respond to an email – even if your response is “I’ll get back to you tomorrow” – projects the image of a person who is overwhelmed, disorganized, and inefficient.

9. Choose subjects for your emails that will allow your readers to identify the general purpose of the email without actually opening it and help you search for that email in the future.

Productivity tip #14: Start your day ahead of everyone else.

It’s fairly simple. If it takes me less time than you to shower, dress, and otherwise prepare for the day, I will have more free time than you. With that free time, I will have the opportunity to accomplish more, and over the long term, if this disparity persists, I will probably crush you.


It’s that simple. The more minutes you have available in the day, the more productive you will be. And I guarantee that it takes me less time to shower, dress, and otherwise prepare for the day than you.

Some statistics:

  • The majority of Americans (56%) take between 20 and 30 minutes getting ready.
  • Only 2% take less than 5 minutes and 9% spend over an hour
  • More women than men take longer to get ready, with 21% men taking over 30 minutes and 48% women doing the same.

These statistics do not include the time it takes a person to shower or bathe.

I am in the 2% of people who take less than 5 minutes to get ready, and this often includes my shower. This is the result of a few things:

  1. A regimented, streamlined routine that I adhere to daily without exception. A decade working for McDonald’s taught me the value of establishing efficient routines and sticking to them.
  2. The recognition that on my death bed, I won’t be wishing that that I had spent time in the shower, debating pants and shirt combinations, or luxuriating in front of a mirror. I won’t bemoan the time that could’ve been spent combing my hair or applying moisturizer. The 99 year-old version of me wants me to spend less time in the bathroom, and so that is what I do.
  3. An understanding that no one pays as much attention to physical appearance as we all think.
  4. The belief that the gains made by spending more time getting ready in the morning are incremental at best.

When I make this argument to people looking to improve their productivity and get more done, I’ve been told by some that the 30 or 60 minutes spent getting ready in the mornings are a welcomed respite from the rigors of the day. A time to relax.

“A time for myself".”

I would suggest that there are much better ways to relax. More productive, meaningful, and healthy ways to find respite. Activities that actually fit the definition of relaxation and respite and will ultimately prove much more beneficial to you.

If you want to relax or have time for yourself, spend the time exercising. Meditating. Reading. Walking. Petting a dog. Knitting. Spending time in nature. Listening to music. Writing. Having sex. Dancing. Drawing. Talking to loved ones.


All of these activities can provide enormous health benefits to a person, much more so than the application of makeup, the coordinating of outfits, or the fussing with hair.

I promise that if you spend ten fewer minutes on your hair every morning, the only person who will notice it is you. Streamline your routine. Eliminate wasted steps and needless products. Strive to be the person in your circle of friends and colleagues who wears the least makeup, the smallest amount of hair product, and the least cologne or perfume.

Actually, eliminate these latter items entirely. You don’t need them. Ever.

Secretly, I love the fact that so many Americans spend so much time getting ready every day. It allows me to start the daily race ahead of so many people. Most people, in fact. While they are showering and primping and blow drying, I am already moving. Doing. Making.

And I don’t waste a moment of this advantage. I’m not watching television or scrolling through Facebook.

I’m doing stuff.

You could be, too. I guarantee that it what the 99 year-old version of yourself wishes you were doing.

Productivity tip #13: Own one belt.

A 99 year-old great grandfather offers 25 pieces of advice. My favorite is this one:

Everyone has too many clothes. Wear what you have and quit buying more.

I know many people who, if given the chance, would spend every weekend buying clothing. Many people.

I also know too many people who actually spend every weekend buying clothing.

A friend once told me that she couldn’t ever spend a day in New York City with me because if she was ever in possession of that much time away from her children, she would want to spend it at the outlets.

I thought she was kidding. She wasn’t.

While speaking in Chicago recently, I was asked for some tips on productivity from an audience member. My response:

“Try owning one belt.”


I explained that when I opened up my suitcase in my hotel room, I thought that I’d forgotten to pack my belt, which would’ve forced me to purchase a new belt and thus doubling my current supply of belts.

I own one belt, I explained. It’s black on one side and brown on the other. It’s all that I have ever needed.

I know a person who owns 14 belts. I know another who owns 11. According to at least one fashion industry poll, the average American owns “more than five” belts.

Knowing nothing except the number of belts that a person owns, who would you expect to have more time in the day to be productive? The person owns one belt or the person who owns double digit belts?

Want a tip for productivity?

Simplicity. A reduction in unimportant decision making. A belief that everyone has too many clothes and everyone spends far too much time shopping for them. A conviction that clothing does not make the man. A realization that no one spends as much time looking at you as you think. A stand against the idea that shopping is a productive or relaxing or even a legitimate hobby. An understanding that our death beds, no of us will ever wish that we had more cashmere in our closets or spent more time at the  outlets.

I watch people spend hours every week on their physical appearance but never exercise even once. Clothing and makeup and hair and nails and jewelry but never an elevated heart rate. This is insane.

Another example:

I essentially own two pairs of shoes: A pair of black cross training sneakers that I wear almost every day and a pair of black shoes that I wear on more formal occasions and when I am on stage.

In truth, I also own a pair of basketball sneakers for when I am on the court, two pairs of outdoor boots for hiking and cold weather, a fair of flip-flops for the summer, a pair of tuxedo shoes for when I’m working as a DJ, and an old pair of sneakers for mowing the lawn. I also still own the shoes that I wore on my wedding day, which I haven’t worn since, and the shoes that I was originally going to wear on my wedding day, which I have never worn.

But on 29 out of 30 days at least, I am wearing either my black sneakers or my black shoes.

And you know what? No one cares. People care about what I say and do. They care about what I write. They care about how I treat them and others. But no one cares about the shoes on my feet.

Simplicity. That is one of the ways that I get things done. I try like hell to remember what is important and live my life the way the 99 year-old version of myself would want me to live.

That future self will not lament my lack of variety in belts and shoes. He will not wish that I had spent more time shopping for clothing.

Instead, he will lament wasting time on things that didn’t matter. Not filling my life with family and friends and meaningful, memorable experiences that do not include retail or discount shopping.

I keep that 99 year-old version of my at the forefront of my mind at all times. He guides my life. Helps me maintain the big picture. Reminds me about what is really important. How best to spend my time.

He tells me that one belt is enough.

Productivity tip #12: Embrace the imperfect.

Start something new. Forget about the perfect launch or the right equipment or the ideal partner.

Just start.

If you find yourself a slave to perfection, remember these three things:

  1. It’s more than likely that your need or perfection is simply a symptom of your fear of failure or your tendency to procrastinate.
  2. Almost no one is doing anything perfect. Join the crowd.
  3. Most important: Just starting something, as imperfect as it may be, already makes you better than the vast majority of people who never start anything.

Be better than everyone else. Start something terribly imperfect today. Or be like everyone else and go nowhere.

Harsh, I know. But it’s what I say to myself almost everyday, and it works.


My previous productivity tips can be found here.

Productivity tip #11: What "I didn't have enough time" really means.

Remember: When you say you didn’t have enough time, you are actually saying that there are other things more important to you. On your list of priorities, other things were higher on the list than the thing you didn’t have time to complete.

“I didn’t have enough time” actually means it wasn't important enough to you.

“I didn’t have enough time” means it wasn't fun, distracting, profitable, or urgent enough to place it at the top of you to-do list.

My friend, Bill, recently quoted something that I apparently say often enough to be quoted:

“You can sleep seven hours a night and not write a book, or you can sleep six hours a night and become an author.”

I like this one better. It’s one of my favorites:


But it’s true. If you wake up one hour earlier than you currently do and spend that time writing, you’ll have yourself a book in a year or two. But if you are looking for more time to accomplish your goals, there are things in your life that you can probably eliminate before sleep.

The average American watches five hours of television a day. So much of this is spent watching shows and (even worse) the reruns of shows that will be entirely forgotten six months later.

The average American spends three hours per day on social media. Where did that time come from? What did we do before social media was born? Weren't we just as busy ten years ago when Facebook and Twitter and Instagram didn’t exist for most of us?

It’s perfectly acceptable to say that you didn’t have enough time to do something, but remember that time is (for most of us) simply a matter of choice and allocation. Most of us are blessed with a certain amount of free time each day. This time should be viewed as the most precious commodity we possess. More important than the money in our bank accounts or the things we own.

Choose how you spend that leisure time for carefully than anything else in your life. It is the most important choice that you make every day. Don’t allow things like television and social media mindlessly fill the time for you as it does for so many.

“I didn’t have enough time” often means that you didn’t make thoughtful choices about how to spend your time and allowed your non-decisions to determine the course of your life.

Productivity tip #10: Get out of bed.

I’m not saying to sleep less, though I think that a lot of people could stand to get out of bed a little earlier.

No, this is much simpler.

Once you are awake, get out of bed.

My alarm goes off, and within seconds, I am out of my bed and starting my day.


Would I prefer to remain in the confines of my soft, warm cocoon? Of course. But the purpose of my bed is to sleep, and when the sleeping is done, it’s time to move on.


Not only does remaining in bed hurt your ability to fall asleep quickly in the future, but the amount of time that people waste lying in bed after they have awoken is staggering.


If you want to stay in bed longer, set your alarm for a later time. Actually spend that time sleeping.

If you’re too tired to get up, sleep more.

Otherwise move. Now. 

Productivity tip #9: If your friends think your boyfriend is a jerk, he’s a jerk.

I know this isn’t the most traditional of productivity tips, but if this applies to you, the following advice may save you more time than any other productivity tip I could ever offer.

If you are dating someone who the great majority of your friends does not like, stop dating this person immediately.

In the history of human civilization, there has never been a boyfriend or girlfriend who someone’s closest friends hated or did not trust who they eventually came to love.

When it comes to romantic relationships, group consensus is always correct.