The four most intimidating words I’ve ever written

I have a secret rule for writing. It’s only four words.

I’m pretty sure it’s the most powerful thing I’ve ever learnt. It could be applied to fitness, to accounting, to chess, to sewing, to any skill imaginable.

But first, a story.

Dan John is a strength coach. He wrote Never Let Go. In that book is a line that changed my life. It comes from wrestling phenom, Dan Gable:

“If it’s important, do it every day. If it’s not important, don’t do it at all.”

That dictum was part of the inspiration behind my daily standard. Every day, I meditate, read for two hours, write, train and play. Those are the things that have the most impact on the quality of my life. So I do them every day.

When we think in weeks or months or years, it’s easy to delay something important till tomorrow, or the weekend, or next year.

“I don’t have time to write, but I’m free at the weekend. I’ll do it then.”

“I’ve always wanted to learn how to x. But I’ve got a week off next month…”

“I really need to speak to y. I’m too busy right now though. It can wait.”

NO. What is important cannot wait till tomorrow. If something is important, by definition, it takes priority over everything that is unimportant.

My rule for writing is built off of this idea. Writing is important to me. So I do it everyday.

The four words that propel me onward every time I amble downstairs and lower myself into my chair are these:

Every day. For decades.

Those are four of the most intimidating words I’ve ever written. They resemble a many decade commitment to one activity. That sort of commitment is terrifying. But only when you focus on the last word. Decades.

Ask someone to do something for a decade and you won’t get a response. They’ll look at you like you’re insane. And if you’re asking someone to do something for that long you are.

Now focus on the second word. Days.

Anyone can do something for a day. A day isn’t scary. It’s only twenty four hours. It’s manageable. I can write for one today. I can find the energy to meditate for one day. I can train for one day.

Starting with decades is intimidating. Starting with days is easy.

Every morning, when I arrive downstairs to make coffee, I look at an index card. On it is my to-do list. Above it is my daily standard:

Med / 2R / Wr / Tr / Pl

I don’t think about whether I successfully completed it yesterday. I don’t remind myself that I’ll have to do this tomorrow and next week and next year. I’d run away if I thought about that. Instead, I ask myself, “can I do this, just for one day?”

The answer is always yes. Because these activities are the building blocks of the life I want to live. No matter what schedule, what appointments, what commitments, what situations arise, a day that includes these five things will be a good one.

Here’s another useful rule:

“Design your perfect day, repeat it till you die.”

Sometimes, in my notebook, I design what a great day would look like. It’s something I first saw in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. But I think the actual structure is less important that the activities contained within it.

I know what I need to do. Whether it’s a Wednesday, a Sunday, or Christmas Day, I do it.

These rules have a common theme.

Every day. For decades.

“If it’s important, do it every day. If it’s not important, don’t do it at all.”

“Design your perfect day, repeat it till you die.”

Can you see the theme?

Days. Not decades.

Dan John tells a story about when he went on the Velocity Diet. It was four weeks consisting of no meals. Just protein shakes and supplements. Four weeks and no solid food. I imagine it’s as hellish as it sounds. He describes a night when he was close to quitting:

“…one night I was craving roasted chicken as I tried to sleep, the same way a normal man thinks about womankind. I just took my brother, Gary’s, advice and thought, “Tomorrow, I’ll break the diet and quit. Just not tonight.” I woke up, walked, drank my shake, and I was fine.
That’s a big one. You have to make deals with yourself all the time. That’s fine. Every athlete does this: just one more hill, one more day, one more whatever”

That “one more day” adds up. It compounds. It grows into something monstrous. But the only way to build that big achievement, to accomplish that ambition, is to work at it on the daily level.

What you did or didn’t do yesterday is now irrelevant. What you have to do tomorrow or next year is a concern for your future self. Today is the largest portion of your time you can readily handle.

Ask yourself as you debate whether or not to do what matters to you, “can I do this, just for one day?” Then watch as those days become years, and that dream becomes reality.