Finish: How to Defeat Perfectionism and Conquer Your Goals

Last updated April 4, 2019. Posted October 24, 2017 in Books. This post contains affiliate links.

Track goals, tasks, progress & time

Do you have a problem with never being able to finish what you started?

It’s not uncommon.

In fact, 92% of New Year’s Resolutions fail.1

(I’d be surprised if you hadn’t answered ‘yes’… are you telling me the truth?)

Jon Acuff thinks he has solved the finishing problem once and for all.

As he explains in his new book Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done (Amazon), Acuff thought he was on the right track when he encouraged people to begin in his earlier book, Start (Amazon).

Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, and Do Work That Matters is about getting started on living. Instead of waiting for inspiration or passion, start and see where it takes you. If you don’t know what you love, try lots of new things until you find it. Learn from the experience and drop what doesn’t work out.

When a researcher approached him to study the outcomes for students in his 30 Days of Hustle Challenge, however, Acuff soon learned that finishing might be the greater barrier to success.

Can Acuff show you how to finish what you start? Let’s review his book by asking some fundamental questions about the problem with finishing and his suggested solutions.

Who is Jon Acuff?

Jon Acuff

Jon Acuff (

Jon Acuff is the New York Times Bestselling author of five books including titles such as Do Over: Make Today the First Day of Your New Career (Amazon), Start, Quitter: Closing the Gap Between Your Day Job & Your Dream Job (Amazon) and his first book, Stuff Christians Like.2((

Acuff also blogs about speaking, writing and entrepreneurship. He has five separate newsletters covering those topics as well as fitness and parenting. He is a popular speaker having spoken to hundreds of thousands of people at conferences, colleges, companies and churches.((

Acuff has used proceeds from fundraising at his blog to build a kindergarten in Vietnam.3

What is Perfectionism?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary has two definitions for perfectionism.4 It is the second that is relevant in our context:

a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable

In other words, being a perfectionist means striving to complete every task perfectly. This will often have negative consequences for task completion and meeting deadlines.

Perfectionism is also something of which many high achievers might be accused. My partner tells me I am a perfectionist all the time…

Acuff singles out perfectionism as one of the major reasons people fail to complete goals in Finish.

Perfectionism is never finished. That’s the lie. There’s no such thing as perfect, you can always improve. So perfectionism draws an ever moving, ever expanding finish line that you never reach. You get to be finished and imperfect or almost done and perfect.

Want to hear Jon Acuff discussing Finish? Download a list of podcast episodes and start listening.
You can also have a pdf version of this post for free.
Want to hear Jon Acuff discussing Finish? Go to the full version of this page to download a list of podcast episodes and start listening.
You can also have a pdf version of this post for free.

How does Finish solve the problem with finishing?

Failure to Finish warning 1: The Day After Perfect

Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done

In Chapter 1, The Day After Perfect, Acuff explores the reason why so many quit once they’ve started pursuing a new goal.

What is the reason so many people quit chasing their dream?

Jon Acuff believes it is Perfectionism. Specifically, that something deviates from how people imagined their progress and so, instead of accepting a variation or modification of the result, they quit altogether.

Have you ever heard someone say something like this?

I fell behind and couldn’t get back on track.

Life got in the way and my plans got derailed.

The project jumped the tracks and got too messy to fix.

Acuff suggests these are all forms of:

When it stopped being perfect, I stopped, too.

His solution?

Developing tolerance for imperfection is the key factor in turning chronic starters into consistent finishers.


Do you know what will serve you far longer than perfectionism ever could? Moving forward imperfectly.

He reasons that goal-setting is essentially making a promise to yourself. When you don’t finish you break your promise.

Do that enough times, and it’s who you become. Someone who will always quit on a new goal.

To change that, Acuff suggests embracing imperfection. After all, nothing ever goes exactly as you had planned. If you can tolerate the imperfect you’ll persevere, thus increasing your chance of completion.

He concludes this chapter by stating that:

Day 1 isn’t the most important day of a goal. The day after perfect is, and now we’re ready for it.

Do you suffer from ‘never finish anything’ syndrome? Could perfectionism be limiting your success?

Finish what You Start strategy 1: Cut Your Goal in Half

Perfectionism, Acuff argues, will try to cut you down at every step of the way.

In fact, its first trick is to argue that unless you can do it perfectly, you shouldn’t even start. (And you know you won’t do it perfectly.) That’s why the day after perfect is so important.

The next lie perfectionism tells? Your goal should be bigger.

If you are going to do something, shouldn’t it be amazing? Shouldn’t it be larger than life?


Acuff’s solution?

Today I’m going to dare you to do the opposite. In fact, I want you to cut your goal in half.

His thesis is that we are often too optimistic when setting our goals. We over-estimate what we can achieve or we under-estimate the time it will take. Or both.

He quotes Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and their theory of the planning fallacy.

A phenomenon in which predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism bias and underestimate the time needed.5

The Planning Fallacy

Why does it matter if we fail to accurately estimate how much we can achieve or how long it will take?

Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman

Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman
(Source: Vanity Fair)

Perfectionism will tell us we are off track. It will tell us we missed the target. And, no matter how close we got, we failed. Again!

This mindset is toxic to achieving goals.

Acuff’s proposal of cutting your goal in half means that if you’re beyond the halfway mark of your original goal but haven’t reached the end, you’re not a failure. You cut your goal in half, and therefore you achieved it.

This will lead to greater motivation to continue for the original goal over a longer period, rather than giving up after failing to succeed.

He gives an example of attempting to lose ten pounds. If you decide to aim for ten pounds and lose eight, you failed. But, you lost eight pounds, which should be cause for celebration, not regret. If you had set your goal at five pounds, however, then achieving an eight-pound loss would be awesome. And, you’d be much more likely to keep going on your diet and exercise regimen and hit the ten pounds you originally wanted.

If you can’t cut your goal in half, what then?

Some goals are difficult to cut in half. For those, don’t cut them in half; give yourself more time.

Giving yourself more time than you had thought it would take addresses the planning fallacy. It also means you’re more likely to forgive yourself for going slower than planned and continue rather than simply quit.

After all:

Would the world fall apart if you did less or it took longer?

Finish what You Start strategy 2: Choose What to Bomb

I enjoy Acuff’s casual tone throughout this book. So much so that I’m planning to go back through some of his older works.

‘Choose What to Bomb’ strikes just the right tone for me. It’s playful, and yet the message is important.

This chapter explains that accomplishing a goal will take time. And, as we all know but often fail to acknowledge, our time is a finite resource. Adding a new goal necessarily means you’re adding more tasks/chores/projects/whatever to your commitments. I don’t have a lot of extra time just waiting to be filled by new goals. In fact, I’m pretty full-up with commitments already.

This leads to Perfectionism’s third lie:

You can do it all.

Acuff suggests you only have two options available to you:

  1. Attempt more than is humanly possible and fail.
  2. Choose what to bomb and succeed at a goal that matters.

He argues that we can choose between feeling ashamed at not being able to do it all or using a strategy to succeed.

Decide in advance what things you’re going to bomb

This isn’t a failure; it’s just prioritisation. You can’t do everything, so you accept in advance that during the period you’re working on a project or goal you won’t be working on some other things.

By deciding what to drop before you start, you won’t feel ashamed that that chore or task isn’t getting done. You planned for that to occur.

One example of what Acuff de-prioritises is email. I’ve already written a long piece on managing email, and it’s a strong theme in Cal Newport’s Deep Work as well. If processing and responding to email is preventing you from working on what is important, you will need to decide how important email is to you.

Another example Acuff gives is also one of Newport’s targets: Social Media.

Could you deactivate your account during a big project?

It’s not forever, and in the long run the work you get done matters more.

This is a long post. Download a pdf version to read later.
You can also have the podcast episode list to hear Jon Acuff discussing Finish.
This is a long post. Go to the full version of this page to download a pdf version to read later.
You can also have the podcast episode list to hear Jon Acuff discussing Finish.


Finish what You Start strategy 3: Make It Fun if You Want It Done

Do you have fun trying to achieve your goals? I know that I often set goals that are necessary but I wouldn’t describe them as fun.

Acuff believes this is a big problem if we want to achieve our goals.

Perfectionism believes that the harder something is, the more miserable something is, the better it is.

This leads him to Perfectionism’s fourth lie:

Fun doesn’t count.

He suggests that two important factors in goal achievement are satisfaction (how you feel about the process) and performance success (what you get done).

His research showed that goals you believe are enjoyable are associated with higher rates of satisfaction. It also increased performance success by 46%.

So what do you do if you have to complete a goal that isn’t exactly fun?

Jon Acuff Finish Quote

To find ways to make a goal more fun, he suggests leaning on either Reward motivation or Fear motivation.

Reward motivation

People who are motivated by a reward have what psychologists call an approach motivation. They are wired to approach the reward that accomplishing a certain goal will generate.

They are motivated by the prize associated with achieving the goal.

Rewards can come in many forms. Acuff suggests postponing certain experiences until after you’ve completed the project, to act as a carrot encouraging you toward the finish line. This could be a purchase, a trip, a night out. Whatever it takes to motivate you to finish.

He also provides an example of a reward that you use during the work to make the work more fun along the way. He buys a certain type of scented candle he lights only when writing a book. Thus, he gets to enjoy the scent of his favourite candle only when he is working hard toward his goal, providing motivation to do the work.

Fear motivation

Fear of negative consequences can also be a powerful motivational tool. People motivated by fear are trying to prevent an undesirable outcome rather than achieve a desired one.

The fear of the future forces them to change the present. This is called avoidance motivation.

He describes his fear of public speaking as one example:

I’m not motivated by approaching cheering, I’m motivated by avoiding jeering.

Therefore, when preparing for a speaking engagement, he uses his fear of failing his audience as powerful motivation to be as ready as he can be.


Acuff concludes that it is important to know what drives you. Are you motivated more by a reward or fear of a negative outcome?

Pick which form of motivation you need the most and then add it to as many parts of the project as possible.

For many people, both forms will be relevant at different times. Knowing yourself will allow you to choose between reward and fear motivation in any given situation.

Finish what You Start strategy 4: Leave Your Hiding Places and Ignore Noble Obstacles

In this chapter, Acuff theorises about other ways Perfectionism can halt our progress. He suggests Perfectionism will offer two distinct distractions:

  • Hiding places

A hiding place is an activity you focus on instead of your goal.

  • Noble obstacles

A noble obstacle is a virtuous-sounding reason for not working toward a finish.

Hiding Places

Why does he call them ‘Hiding places’? He suggests this is a task you can do to get a fix of Perfectionism without having to confront your fear of messing up.

In other words, your hiding place is something you do well but won’t contribute to the success of your main goal. Instead of making progress on something that’s important, you do a great job on something that isn’t.

You will never accidentally end up doing a difficult project. The work you’re trying to avoid is not something you’ll stumble upon one day unexpectedly.

Difficult work requires discipline. The hiding places perfectionism offers don’t.

If you can’t explain why what you’re doing is directly related to achieving your goal, it probably isn’t. He suggests asking a friend or loved one whether they think what you’re doing makes sense or is just avoidance.

How can you identify your hiding places? Ask yourself three questions:

  1. Do you find yourself going there accidentally?
  2. Do you have to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon to justify why you’re giving it time?
  3. What do your friends think?

Once you’ve identified your hiding places, you’re able to see when you’re distracting yourself from your main goal.

Acuff then suggests using Judo to help turn hiding places into motivation.

You don’t push back against a charging foe, you lean backward and allow the rush to topple your opponent unexpectedly. That’s what you should do when a distraction gets too loud.

If you’re getting distracted by a new goal or hobby, use it as motivation to finish your current one:

When new ideas or new goals get shiny, put them at the finish line.

Line your finish line with the dream goals you’re currently using as hiding places and then watch how fast you’ll run toward it.

Noble Obstacles

Acuff suggests there are two forms of Noble Obstacle that Perfectionism will throw up as reasons you can’t pursue your goal:

  1. you cannot move toward your goal until you do something else
  2. reaching your goal could actually produce bad results or make you a bad person

He proffers examples of noble obstacles while singling out the word ‘until’ for special criticism:

Until I know why I have an issue with food, I can’t walk around the block at a brisk pace for more minutes today than I did yesterday.

Until I know what my entire book is about I can’t write the first hundred words.

Until I know where all the stuff in every room of my house is going to go I can’t clean this one room.

Until I pick the perfect goal I can’t work on anything.

Until I get rid of distractions I can’t get anything done.

He also suggests phrases including If … then and It’s too hard are sure signs of noble obstacles.

After realising you’re using noble obstacles, how do you get back on track? Acuff dares you to ask two questions:

  1. Could things be easier?
  2. Could things be simpler?

His conclusion?

Jon Acuff Finish Quote

Finish what You Start strategy 5: Get Rid of Your Secret Rules

Perfectionism is a desperate attempt to live up to impossible standards. We wouldn’t play if we knew the whole game was impossible, so perfectionism promises us that we just need to follow some secret rules.

What kinds of secret rules have you internalised over the years of your life? What self-talk do you use that guides your decision making, and you aren’t even consciously aware of doing it?

These questions are the basis for Acuff’s suggestion to identify and eliminate secret rules.

He provides examples:

If I’m not miserable, I’m not doing something productive.

If it doesn’t come easily, it’s not worth doing.

Success is bad.

I recognised myself in his examples, as I’m sure many readers would. I am certain that I have been living my life by secret rules for many years, and am now determined to flush them out and expose them to the bright daylight they’re so afraid of.

One of the features of these secret rules is that often won’t stand up to scrutiny. They might not be true, or they might no longer be true.

Acuff suggests a three-step process to dealing with secret rules:

  1. Identify them
  2. Destroy them
  3. Replace them

Smoke Out Your Secret Rules

To identify your secret rules, ask yourself four questions:

  1. Do I even like ____________?
  2. What’s my real goal?
  3. Does the method I’m using match who I am?
  4. Is it time to quit?

He suggests these four questions will allow you to get to the truth of the matter. Honest reflection on why we choose our goals and how we go about them will illuminate strategies to help with completing these and subsequent goals.

Destroy and Replace

Identifying your secret rules is one thing. Destroying and replacing them is the solution.

The first thing you should do is simply ask the question, “What does that mean?” For each secret rule you encounter.

The second question to ask is “Who says?”

The final step is to write a new rule that is flexible, healthy and reasonable. Replace your nasty, toxic, secret rules with a new one.

Finish what You Start strategy 6: Use Data to Celebrate Your Imperfect Progress

This chapter made my heart sing. I love measurement. Data tells the truth. I wrote a guest post at Asian Efficiency all about the importance of measurement, and I’ve written about it here as well. Ongoing measurement is a critical component of the 12 Week Year process which I also have also described and reviewed.

Acuff believes that data can disprove the lies of Perfectionism. Specifically, that Perfectionism will tell you that you aren’t making progress and things aren’t going well. When you have data representing where you were before, you can prove your progress (and quieten Perfectionism).

Perfectionism hates data. Why? Because emotions lie, data doesn’t.

What are some examples of where data can help you fight back when Perfectionism tries to hijack your attention?

How many inches have we lost during our diet?

What percent of body fat?

How many hours did we work out this week versus last week?

How much has our salary grown over the last three years?

How many total words did we write this summer versus last?

How many dollars do we have saved up for our next vacation?

Is our progress on this goal any different from the last goal?

One of the reasons we fail to appraise our progress accurately is denial. Denial is an especially difficult foe, as it is far easier to recognise in others than ourselves. Which leads to the most quotable phrase in Finish:

[clickToTweet tweet=”Data kills denial, which prevents disaster. Finish by @JonAcuff ‏” quote=”Data kills denial, which prevents disaster.”]


Data kills denial, which prevents disaster

Acuff argues that data allows you to take out the emotion and just deal with the facts. What is the truth? Perhaps the truth is that you’re tanking this goal, in which case you might want to review your plan or even reconsider why you’re doing it.

Another way that data helps is by showing us how far we’ve come. When you’re running a marathon, it could be easy to focus on how far away the finish line remains. Another way to look at it is to consider how far you’ve already come. You can’t know how far you’ve come unless you record the data that tells you.

Your goal is to get to 100 percent and you’re only at 40, you’ve failed.

The reality is that 40 percent is monstrous progress when compared to zero, but miniscule when compared to 100.

Sometimes, to make it through the middle, we have to be very deliberate about our perception.

Finally, it is important to consider the past. Ask yourself: when have tried to reach a goal like this one before? What happened? What can you learn from that experience? How might this help you have greater success with this goal?

Once you’ve collected the data, you need to review your progress. If you’re falling behind, you have three options:

  1. adjust the goal
  2. adjust the timeline
  3. adjust your actions
I have collated a list of podcasts featuring Jon Acuff discussing Finish. Download it now and start listening.
You can also have a pdf version of this post to read again any time that suits you.
I have collated a list of podcasts featuring Jon Acuff discussing Finish. Go to the full version of this page to download it now and start listening.
You can also have a pdf version of this post to read again any time that suits you.


Failure to Finish warning 2: The Day Before Done

Remember the day after perfect? What if Perfectionism has one more chance, one last chance to create havoc?

You fought through the day after perfect. You cut your goal in half. You made sure your goal is fun. You are inches away from finished and perfectionism knows it.

Acuff suggests there are three more fears that Perfectionism can create:

  1. The fear of what happens next
  2. The fear that it won’t be perfect
  3. The fear of “what now?”

His conclusion:

Jon Acuff Finish Quote

His research led him to conclude that the best way to finally finish is to enlist the help of a friend. A friend can cut through all the fears and the misinformation that Perfectionism throws our way. A friend can tell us the truth, and help us to finish.


Fear no finish line. You’ve worked too hard to give up now.

Will the outcome be different from your vision? Yes. I can’t lie to you this late in the book. But you’ll never know the unbelievable joy of keeping a promise to yourself unless you finish.

Starting is fun, but the future belongs to finishers. Ready to be one?


I had a great time reading Finish. And I’ve enjoyed skimming and re-reading highlights while preparing this summary.

Acuff’s writing is jovial and light-hearted, but it conveys the interest of someone who feels like they care about your success. He is humorous and tells a good anecdote. Some of the stories he shares from people he has worked with are moving, and others just frustrating. But they’re always interesting and will often make you laugh.

Finish is an easy book to read: I completed it in a few days of intermittent reading while on holiday and found it wasn’t taxing at all. This is deceptive, however, as I have found myself reflecting on the lessons from the book in the weeks since, realising that I have been holding onto my own secret rules and noble obstacles.

I can’t tell how many of my goals have been subverted by Perfectionism, but I know that there was something in every chapter of Finish that rang true. This is one easy read that could have a profound effect if applied in full.

I am planning to ensure my next goal-setting period incorporates several of the tricks and tips from Finish. I haven’t included the action steps Acuff lists at the end of each chapter, but I will be checking those off in my planning. I look forward to reporting back on my successes and failures.


Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Doneis applicable for anyone who has ever failed at achieving a goal. Everyone, in other words.

One of the benefits of Acuff’s writing is that it is so accessible. There aren’t a lot of complicated ideas or data to review, just ideas from research translated into actionable recommendations that anyone can apply.

One of the best examples I could find in my life is my inaction during most of this year on having an academic paper published. I submitted my article and it was promptly rejected, although the reviewers provided a list of ways to improve the submission.

This is common, and should not stop someone from re-writing and re-submitting elsewhere. However, for a variety of reasons I haven’t gone on to do so.

These include not being sure of exactly which journal I should submit it to, and how much to re-write and modify the piece. After reading Finish, I suspect that these were hiding places and noble obstacles rather than valid reasons. I believe I have a secret rule that suggests that if one journal didn’t want it, no-one will want it.

Acuff has inspired me to open my article, review the editor’s comments and find somewhere to re-submit.

Mea Culpa

Another goal I have been failing to work on is my goal of writing articles for this site. I want this website to be a powerful resource for physicians who want to become more productive. How have I been pursuing that goal? I’ve spent a lot of time tweaking fonts and scripts, trying to work on page loading speed and caching plugins.

All of those things are good things to do, but not if they are distracting or diverting me from getting the important work done. The important work is writing new articles. Fiddling with plugins and scripts, albeit useful, are noble obstacles I’ve been using as excuses.

I hope that my behaviour moving forward is more mindful of the value I hope to create and that I can keep Acuff’s Finish principles in mind!


One the real joys of reading Finish is that Acuff has provided action steps at the end of each chapter. These steps are simple and easy, but I suspect they will show results faster than you imagine.

Although his writing is easy to read throughout the book, the action steps Acuff provides will walk you through identifying ways to prevent you from falling victim to the Planning Fallacy, how to decide on things you can bomb, how to add fun back to goal-setting, how to identify and neutralise the impact of hiding places and noble obstacles, how to identify, destroy and replace your secret rules, how to enlist data to kill denial, and how to just finish.

The action steps will guide you. Just buy a copy of the book (Amazon), read it, study it and follow his steps. Don’t forget to register your purchase as Acuff has provided a bunch of worksheets and guides to help readers even more.

Finally, Acuff has three separate mailing lists for his readers aimed at Writers, Speakers and Entrepreneurs. You can sign up for one or more at his site.


Do you have trouble actually finishing what you start? After reading a lot of the best books on goal-setting and personal productivity in the last few years, I can say that Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done is one of the easiest but most powerful.

If you have ever wondered how to increase your chance of success, Acuff’s book might be just the answer.



Have you read Jon Acuff’s Finish? Do you fail to finish your goals? Did any of Acuff’s advice ring true? Let us know in the comments!

  1. Jonathan Acuff, Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done (New York: Portfolio / Penguin, 2017), 2. []
  2. []
  3. []
  4. []
  5. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 260. []

How to Procrastinate on Purpose & Define YOUR Priorities

Last updated March 15, 2019. Posted April 20, 2017 in Books. This post contains affiliate links.

Track goals, tasks, progress & time

There are fundamental principles that apply to all productivity strategies, tools or rules.

It is critical that anyone wanting to increase their personal productivity pays attention to those principles.

But, what are they?

  • We all have 1440 minutes each day.
  • We all have our own range of personal and interpersonal commitments and obligations to juggle, and these can often overwhelm our ability to choose how we focus our energies.
  • If we don’t choose how we spend our time, we are at risk of wasting it.

In his book Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time, Rory Vaden has created a primer on personal productivity that relies on common sense.

Procrastinate on Purpose could become required reading for those wishing to create success.

Who is Rory Vaden?

Rory Vaden is the co-founder of Southwestern Consulting, a global consulting company that helps clients improve their customer experience.

He is the New York Times bestselling author of the book Take the Stairs (also a Wall St Journal bestseller), in addition to Procrastinate on Purpose.

Finally, he hosts a podcast The Action Catalyst with Rory Vaden as well as being the author of a successful blog.

What is Procrastinate on Purpose?

Procrastinate on Purpose is Vaden’s distillation of his personal approach to productivity.

I have to admit that I put off reading this book for some time, due to the title. I still find Procrastinate on Purpose to be an obscure name for a book about personal productivity, but am glad that I eventually got around to reading it! Vaden’s idea is not so much about overcoming procrastination as being mindful and intentional about what we prioritise and on what we procrastinate.

Vaden outlines a common sense approach to understanding the value of time, and then his five-step funnel for considering how best to utilise that time. Read on for my Procrastinate on Purpose summary and application guide.

This is a really long post… it’s almost 5000 words. Download a copy to read later.
I’ll also provide a list of 25 podcast episodes featuring Rory Vaden discussing Procrastinate on Purpose.
This is a really long post… it’s almost 5000 words. Go to the full version of this page to download a copy to read later.
I’ll also provide a list of 25 podcast episodes featuring Rory Vaden discussing Procrastinate on Purpose.

The Truth About Time

In Part One of Procrastinate on Purpose, Vaden outlines his thoughts on why so many ‘time management’ or ‘efficiency’ strategies don’t produce the desired results.

He introduces the concept of ‘Multipliers’, who are people who seem capable of multiplying their time.

The truly successful people around him seem to think differently about their workload. He quoted one as saying((All quotes from Vaden, Rory. Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)):

You reach a point where you realize how futile it is to expend energy sharing or even thinking about how ‘busy’ you are. Once you get to that place, you shift to focusing that energy productively into getting the things done rather than worrying about the fact that you have to do them.


He suggests that Multipliers take responsibility for their situations and life:

You are not a victim. You are in charge. You are capable. You are powerful enough to decide what you will and won’t do with your time.

To Multipliers, Vaden argues, the outcome is what is most important:

To a Multiplier, it is ultimately only about producing their desired results.

After making it clear that it is the mindset of his Multipliers that defines their success, Vaden goes on to discuss productivity strategy more broadly.

He suggests that the majority of time management advice is about improving efficiency. The problem is that an increased level of efficiency will still leave more that can be done.

Those who still believe that more hours or more efficiency is the ultimate answer to their workload challenges have sentenced themselves to perpetual stress because they haven’t yet acknowledged that it is a never-ending wheel…

This leads Vaden to conclude that time management should not be the goal, but ‘self-management’ which will lead to much better results:

  • You can choose what you do today with the time you’ve been given.
  • You can decide which things are worth investing yourself in and which are not.
  • You can choose to either be focused on things that matter or allow yourself to be swept away in a sea of distraction.

The Covey Matrix

To illustrate to his argument, he refers to Stephen Covey’s ‘Time-Management Matrix’. This separates tasks along two axes defined by Importance and Urgency.

Stephen Covey’s ‘Time-Management Matrix’


This leads to the four quadrants that so many students of productivity will recognise:

  • Important and Urgent
  • Important but Not Urgent
  • Not Important but Urgent
  • Not Important and Not Urgent

All of the time management and efficiency techniques in the world still can’t make more time, however, and Vaden argues that it is time multiplication that is what sets apart the successful from the rest.

He illustrates this point with a juggler. A juggler can juggle more balls (efficiency) or juggle the ones he has faster (time management). This leads to our options being:

Go as fast as you can for as long as you can until you burn out, or
Let everything crash!


Vaden argues that the addition of a third axis to Covey’s Matrix allows for a different calculation, that of Significance.

If Urgency is “how soon does this matter?”
And Importance is “how much does this matter?”
Then Significance is “how long is this going to matter?”

It is consideration of the significance of the tasks that separates the decisions made by Multipliers. This is what Vaden describes as the core message of his book:

You multiply your time by spending time on things today that will give you more time tomorrow.

He goes on to note:

As I start to make considerations of Significance, I start paying more attention to how spending my time today will affect tomorrow.

There are things I can do today that will make tomorrow better. There are choices that I can make now that will create more space later.

In the first part of his book, Vaden makes a cogent argument that consideration of the longer term significance of tasks must become part of the weighing of priority.

In the second, he explores each step in his ‘Focus Funnel’ that leads to time multiplication.

Focus Funnel Procrastinate on Purpose


The 5 Permissions

As I stated in the introduction to this piece, consideration of the fundamental principles of productivity is critical to understanding how to improve.

The 5 Permissions outlined by Vaden could be known by other names or be prioritised in different ways, but they are fundamental productivity concepts for a reason.

Let’s see what each principle (Permission) is…

Eliminate: The Permission to Ignore

Vaden argues that the first step of becoming a Multiplier is asking the question:

What are all of the things that I can just eliminate?

What can I stop doing? What doesn’t need to be done?

The power of stopping doing the things that don’t need to be done isn’t only in freeing up time that day. You free up time every day moving forward.

Vaden asks us to consider the power of Elimination across a broad spectrum of tasks and activities, to multiply our time available for tasks of Significance.

These include:

  • Re-Decision (Reviewing a decision where we know what the right decision is and we should have already made the decision before.)
  • Watching TV
  • Unnecessary meetings
  • Long e-mails (A long e-mail is almost a flashing sign that you need to have an in-person conversation.)
  • Unnecessary change
  • Intermittent change
  • Confrontation e-mails (Never send anything negative or even constructive about someone over e-mail.)
  • Doing other people’s work
  • Gossip
  • Sharing your opinion
  • Unreasonable people
  • Thinking about where you’re going next
  • Explanations versus experiences (If you are a leader of any type, then here are two words that will magically multiply your time: Show me.)
  • Unnecessary double-checking
  • Custom versus leveraged (Create things in a way that they can be used over and over again.)
  • Over-volunteering

I know that this list resonated with me at several points and that there is lots of time I could gain by eliminating these time-wasters!

Saying No

Another strategy for Elimination that Vaden suggests is learning to say ‘No’.

You are always saying no to something. Any time you say yes to one thing, you are simultaneously saying no to something else.

He notes that it is better when working with others to be clear about when and how you can help them. A ‘Maybe’ leaves things unclear, which could lead to letting the other person down.

A ‘No’, on the other hand, is clear and actually allows that person to get on with the task or seek alternate assistance. This is a far kinder way of dealing with others than letting them think you’ll help by saying ‘Maybe’ when you mean ‘No’.

People can take no. But they want to be treated with dignity. They want to be treated honestly.

This leads to his first permission…

The Permission to Ignore

As in:

I give myself permission to Ignore, and I will learn to say no to the things that don’t matter so that I can say yes to the things that do.

Want to hear more about Procrastinate on Purpose? Download a list of 25 podcast episodes featuring Rory Vaden discussing the book.
You can also have a copy of this post as a pdf to read later.
Want to hear more about Procrastinate on Purpose? Go to the full version of this page to download a list of 25 podcast episodes featuring Rory Vaden discussing the book.
You can also have a copy of this post as a pdf to read later.

Automate: The Permission to Invest

Vaden spends a lot of time in this chapter discussing various business costs that might not be immediately obvious. These include opportunity costs, hidden costs and so on.

The most useful element of this chapter is the comparison of time with money. The use of time can be viewed as an expenditure. After all, we only have so much time available.

Thus, anything that we can automate to reduce our need to spend that time in the future is saving us time. And this time saved increases over time exactly as compound interest does.

Multipliers, who live in a world of evaluating everything based on Significance — how long this decision is going to matter — are constantly thinking longer term. It’s almost as if they are making a perpetual account for compounding interest.

All of this made me think of this wonderful comic from xkcd:

xkcd: Is It Worth the Time?


This leads to the second permission…

The Permission to Invest

If you are investing money, you are making. If you are spending money, you are losing money.

The investment of time now to improve a system, workflow or automation reaps the reward of increased time later. Time spent doing something that can be automated is time you spend again and again.

In fact:

Every moment that passes that you don’t Automate something that could be, you are exponentially losing future time.

Vaden’s examples of things that you could automate include:

  • Frequently asked questions (FAQs): A simple idea that any small business or big business can do is to invest some time into an easy-to-use, easy-to-find, well-thought-out list of answers to FAQs.
  • Disorganized re-creation: It baffles me how much time is spent in many organizations re-creating things that already exist.
  • Online bill pay: Spend a couple hours setting up all of your regular monthly bills to be paid automatically.
  • Data backup sync: A person calculating only with Urgency says, “I don’t have time to stop and do anything,” but someone considering Significance says, “The one thing I always have time for is to back up my data.”
  • Social media management: If you’re not already, you should be using a tool like Hootsuite or SocialOomph that allows you to schedule tweets, blog posts, Facebook updates and so on.
  • Past client follow-up: A common consulting project for us as of late has been helping companies craft an ongoing customer appreciation strategy.
  • Online learning: With the emergence of online learning platforms you can create training videos once today on everything someone on your team needs to know to be successful.
  • Drop shipping: This is another one of the beauties of the modern day world.

His conclusion is that:

Anything you create a process for today saves you time tomorrow.

Delegate: The Permission of Imperfect

Vaden’s argument in this chapter is that if you aren’t the only person who can do a task, it is better for someone else to do it.

To be a Multiplier is to be a master delegator.

This will have the effect of freeing up that time for you to do the things no-one else can do.

Again, Vaden explores several accounting terms in this chapter. The more relevant in personal productivity terms is ‘return on time invested’ (ROTI). ROTI explains why throwing up your hands while trying to teach someone to do something and saying that it would be faster if you did it yourself is a false economy.

He quotes an executive who suggests that allowing 30x the task duration to teach it to someone else is about right. In other words, if a task takes five minutes for you to do then you should allow 150 minutes to train someone to do it.

The false economy, therefore, is in saying that ‘I should just do it myself as it isn’t worth the 145 minutes extra to teach someone else’. If you do this task every day, you will spend 250 working days per year doing this five-minute task, which is 1250 minutes each year. If you teach someone else to do it you save 1100 minutes the first year, and then 1250 every year after that.

This leads to the third permission…

The Permission of Imperfect

You have to learn to be okay with things just being okay. You have to embrace the idea that someone else might not be able to do it as well as you—at first.

Vaden reports on noticing the behaviour of Multipliers was in enabling those around them to contribute.

The leaders around them started to multiply into other leaders. Things somehow found a way to get done. All the people around chipped in and found a way.

He also shows how this affects not just our workplace performance but our personal lives as well. He notes many examples of how Multipliers employ others to do things for them that they don’t like doing or aren’t expert in. Some of the roles he suggests you consider employing others to do for you include:

  • Office assistant
  • Business coach
  • Accountant
  • Bookkeeper
  • Financial planner
  • Lawyer
  • Insurance agent
  • Real estate agent
  • Graphic designer
  • Travel coordinator
  • House cleaner
  • Nanny
  • Gardener
  • Grocery (or personal) shopper
  • Mechanic
  • Personal assistant
  • Handyman
  • Driver
  • Chef

He concludes that:

Whether it’s in your professional life or your personal life, the size of your success is usually determined by the strength of your team. So fill in your gaps and supplement your weaknesses by bringing on other people. Invest the time (and money) to train them properly. Give yourself and them the permission of Imperfect and start making progress by doing more together as a team.

Procrastinate: The Permission of Incomplete

Finally, we get to ‘Procrastinate’ which is the word that so put me off reading this book! It turns out that Vaden doesn’t really encourage procrastination as I had expected, more that he wants readers to learn to complete their tasks at the most appropriate time.

A Multiplier knows that it’s not just about what to do, or how much to do. It’s also about when.

If we can’t Eliminate, Automate or Delegate a task, it belongs to us. The only decision is when to do it. This leads to his critical question: “Can this wait until later?”

He notes that this isn’t intended to lead to poor performance of the task.

If waiting until later would actually cause you to sacrifice the integrity of whatever the task is at hand, then the answer to “Can this wait until later?” wouldn’t be yes, it would be no.

Vaden describes the folly of acting too soon and then finding that the situation has changed and your completed work now needs revision. He calls this ‘unexpected change cost’.

You definitely don’t want to be late. But you also don’t want to be too early. A Multiplier works to be precisely on time.

This leads to the fourth permission…

The Permission of Incomplete

He suggests that sometimes the act of waiting to do something at the right time prevents you having to waste time re-doing work that you’ve already completed.

This permission also applies to helping or leading others. Many times, colleagues or direct reports will ask for advice for resolving an urgent problem. Vaden suggests that often those problems with either resolve themselves or be resolved without your input if you give people time to figure it out for themselves.

The last way in which Vaden suggests procrastinating is with batching of tasks.


Doing similar tasks in a batch will reduce the ‘intermittent change cost’ of doing a series of small, unrelated tasks one after the other. This can lead to you completing things far more efficiently than when switching among differing tasks.

Examples of opportunities for batching include:

  • E-mail: You might be nervous about the idea of waiting a few hours to check e-mail because you have the fear that “my customers expect to hear from me right away!” No, they don’t. That is your fear talking.
  • Meeting talk-topics: A very large number of the e-mails that we get are questions or discussions that can wait and would be better handled in a meeting.
  • Paperwork: If you’re in sales and you’re doing proposals or paperwork during peak times of the day and you believe that is the “right time” to be doing them—you are kidding yourself. What you really have is “creative avoidance” and “call reluctance”
  • Any type of shopping: If you don’t yet have a personal assistant or grocery shopper, then keep a running list of what you need and delay as long as possible your trip to go shopping or to spend time surfing online.
  • Phone calls: If you have a bunch of phone calls to make, try to group them together one after the other in your day.
  • Paying bills: If you don’t yet have it Automated (or you don’t have the ability) and you don’t have a bookkeeper, then pay all your bills at once
  • Thank-you notes: Unless there is some overarching Urgent consideration, let them pile up for a couple weeks and then write them all out.

He concludes that:

There is no limit to the magnitude and significance of understanding the value of patience and that timing really does matter.

Concentrate: The Permission to Protect

After working through the ‘focus funnel’ from Eliminate, Automate, Delegate and Procrastinate, you finally get to Concentrate. This is where you do the work.

Concentrate is a verb that instructs us “to bring all efforts, faculties, activities, etc., to bear on one thing or activity.”

Concentrate, as a noun, is “an intense form of something,” such as juice concentrate.

Vaden suggests that Multipliers are quickly able to assess the long-term significance of a task. They are then able to concentrate on the most concentrated use of their time.

In the Eliminate stage, it was, “Is this task something I can live without?”
In the Automate stage, it was, “Can this task be systematized?”
In the Delegate stage, it was, “Can this task be performed by someone else?”
In the Procrastinate stage, it was, “Can this wait until later?”
If the answer to each of the previous four questions is no, then—and only then—you finally have something that is a priority.

You now know the timing is right. At this point it is time to act. It is time to pull the trigger.


Vaden spends time discussing the meaning of priority. He notes that if you are spending time doing something that is by definition what you have decided is your priority at that moment.

He suggests that if you aren’t doing what you consider to be your priority at that moment, you need to put your current activity into the funnel and Eliminate/Automate/Delegate/Procrastinate/Complete it. Then you can get back to doing what you think you should be doing to move things forward.

The question he asks us to ask ourselves is:

Is what I’m doing right now the next most Significant use of my time? Is it the thing that is making the most out of the available time that you have? Is it the thing that is enabling you at that moment to be your highest self?

Which brings around the fifth permission…

The Permission to Protect

Vaden suggests that it is critical to give yourself the permission to be your highest self, to protect your time to do what only you can do best.

Once you’ve worked down the focus funnel, the next most important task needs to be completed and you need to Protect the time you need to do so.

If something is the next most Significant thing related to your dream, you have to Protect it, you have to do it, and you have to do it now!

The Next Step

Part 3 of Procrastinate on Purpose discusses how to take the lessons learned from Part 2 and embed them within the culture of your workplace.

Vaden asks what our offices would look like if everyone applied these principles, got the right things done and enabled those around them to get their right things done.

He concludes that Multipliers need to teach these principles to others around them so that they can become Multipliers.

Finally, he lists several activities that will have massive yields outside of the office. These include:

  • Date night: You have to make your marriage the priority regularly.
  • Debt free: The number one thing that will make you money in your life is your personal income.
  • Stay healthy: If multiplying your time is spending time on things today that create more time tomorrow, then what could be a more directly obvious application of the principle than staying healthy!
  • Training and personal development: Your mind is the most powerful tool you have, but it’s only as capable as what you invest in it.
  • Treating people right: To the extent possible, have amazing customer service.
  • Integrity: There is no limit or measure to the incredible multiplying effect that your integrity has on everything you do.
  • Faith: Faith is choosing to trust that what is happening now is for a greater glory later on.
  • Good early decisions: It seems that there is the same compounding effect on choices that there is on money.

Additional Resources:

Still reading? Nice work! Download a copy of this post to read later.
You can also have a list of 25 podcast episodes featuring Rory Vaden discussing Procrastinate on Purpose.
Still reading? Nice work! Go to the full version of this page to download a copy of this post to read later.
You can also have a list of 25 podcast episodes featuring Rory Vaden discussing Procrastinate on Purpose.

What could you gain by Eliminating tasks from your to-do list? What about Automating or Delegating to others? How might your work and, more importantly, your life look if you Concentrated on the activities that really move things forward rather than just on maintenance?


Since reading Procrastinate on Purpose I have been struck by how many things I do each day that don’t help me move my life forward. Whether it is in my work or personal life, there are myriad activities that I could Eliminate, Automate or Delegate.


The obvious example here is email. Everyone has email. And most people complain about email.

Vaden reports on internal data from a study Southwestern Consulting conducted that found that the average executive receives 116 emails each day. When I wake each morning I usually have somewhere between 40 – 50 emails in my inbox. That doesn’t account for my two work email inboxes.

However, Eliminating email altogether is impossible in many workplaces. The ‘productivity guru’ fad of suggesting using messaging apps like ‘Slack’ is all well and good, but what if you don’t control the workplace, your workplace’s IT infrastructure or culture?

I know that I cannot transition my hospital to using Slack. I am stuck with email.

What I can do is try to reduce the amount of email I receive.

There are many tools that can help you reduce your email but there are principles that you need to consider here as well. Firstly, what are the critical emails that you must read and/or respond to each day? Secondly, what are the emails that you would like to read and/or respond to at some stage? Finally, what don’t you need and can, therefore, be deleted or eliminated altogether?

A lot of tools focus on unsubscribing you from mailing lists and newsletters. The best place to start is with your own email habits.

Step 1: Assign time to process email

Don’t leave your email client open on your computer desktop and expect to get any real work done. You will get sucked in by the constant updates of new messages and unread notifications that are built into the software.

Set a time on your calendar twice daily to process email and close your email software in between times.

Step 2: When processing email, apply the two-minute rule

Can you answer the email in two minutes or less? Do it. If not, consider making it a task to complete later, and then continue processing your email to zero.

Keep in mind the switching cost that Vaden describes and batch your email. Don’t get sucked into it and surface two hours later to find half your day is gone.

Step 3: Unsubscribe from what you can

This is where tools can help. This recent article at PCWorld lists three.

There’s even a book… Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done by Jocelyn Glei.

Of course, email isn’t the only thing that you could Eliminate. I am currently working through Vaden’s list of suggestions and trying to eliminate some activities that bring no value to my life. I am sure you can think of many things that you could drop altogether that would have no negative impact on your life and might bring positive impacts in time saved/gained.

Note: Since publishing this post I’ve written an Ultimate Guide to Managing Email that contains far more information and many, many tips for reaching Inbox Zero.


Again, there is all manner of things I could Automate in order to reduce my time spent on busy work and free up time for work of Significance.

As a doctor, I spend quite a lot of time researching the medical literature and keeping up with my fields of interest. I need to Invest some time in this area to reduce time spent looking for new publications. I should follow my own advice and make the medical literature come to me.

In my personal life, I can find bills that can be paid by direct debit from my bank account so that I don’t have to spend the time to pay them. Budgeting is a weakness of mine, and I need to look into the applications that are available that pull in all my banking so this is in one place when I need it. This article series by my friend Marina Darlow is a good starting point.

Spending time on social media? There are apps for that.

Tracking your diet and exercise. Apps for that too.

Get data from one app into another. Apps for that as well!

In fact, the modern world makes it easier than ever to Automate some activities that would have been either laborious or impossible in the past.

What could you Automate today that you won’t need to do tomorrow?


This is a harder one for me, as I don’t have access to an assistant in my workplace. I have started using some Virtual Assistant (VA) services to help me with this website, however, and have had good experiences so far.

Many productivity experts suggest using VAs in place of executive or personal assistants, but for reasons of concern about patient confidentiality I have been reluctant to use a VA for my work.

I am working on becoming better at asking collaborators and colleagues to perform tasks and then trusting that they will happen. For many perfectionists, this is a hard skill to learn, but I can already see the benefits in terms of multiplying my capacity by involving others. Collaboration can be a powerful way to work more effectively.

There must be ways in which I could get some of my ‘life administration’ tasks performed by someone else. Perhaps I’ll look into some help with gardening, or maybe with house cleaning.

Finally, I have been exploring home automation in my free time and look forward to the day when I can ask my house to do things and they’ll be done, or, even better, when my house does them for me without even needing my involvement. A combination of Automation and Delegation that makes my life easier would be very welcome indeed!


I hope you can see the power in the fundamental principles of personal productivity that Rory Vaden has outlined in his excellent book Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time.

If you are a productivity expert these suggestions might seem obvious. For many of us, the book will reinforce our understanding of some of the core pillars of productivity while providing new insights into others.

I recommend reading the book for yourself, and then considering what you might Eliminate, Automate, Delegate and Procrastinate. Then, and only then, can you Concentrate on what is important and significant.

Rating: Five Stars


Have you read Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time? Will you? Can you think of anything you could Eliminate, Automate or Delegate? Let us know in the comments below.

Do you Want an Extraordinary Life? Choose Deep Work…

Last updated March 15, 2019. Posted November 22, 2016 in Books. This post contains affiliate links.

Track goals, tasks, progress & time

There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get some deep work done but being distracted by the necessities of daily life in the modern world.

Have you ever had that experience? Where you need to complete a report, brush up on a patient’s problem by going to the literature, or write an academic paper submission, but you just can’t get uninterrupted time to think?

My bet is that every doctor will know this feeling. It could be interminable documentation or administration requirements such as practice meetings. These distractions can keep us from our core business. Don’t even start on the ever-present disturbances coming from ubiquitous mobile devices, internet access and the worldwide web!

What is the solution, then? What can a physician do to ensure they spend their time on their highest possible contribution? One answer might be to try Deep Work.

So, what is Deep Work? And who is Cal Newport?

Cal Newport

Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and has a PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).((]

Cal Newport

In addition to his work on the theory of distributed algorithms, he is the bestselling author of several books.

His early books focused on being the best student possible, both at the high school and university level. He has also published another fantastic book on workplace performance: So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Grand Central, 2012).

In his latest book Deep Work (Grand Central, 2016), Newport sets out to demonstrate that Deep Work is both rare and valuable. Honing the ability to perform Deep Work, therefore, will lead to career success.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Newport starts by relating the story of Carl Gustav Jung.

As Newport tells the story, Jung built a tower in Bollingen, far from his home and office in Zurich. He would participate fully in the professional and social obligations of being a prominent psychiatrist when in Zurich. He also would frequently retreat to his Bollingen Tower to ensure time for meditation, reading and writing. Newport suggests that Jung needed to make space (physical, mental and social) to ensure he could make his best contribution to the field of academic psychiatry.

Newport defines several types of work before stating his hypothesis:

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Listen to Cal Newport discuss Deep Work – I’m giving away a list of 20+ podcast episodes.
You can also have a pdf of this post for later reading.
Download for free.
Listen to Cal Newport discuss Deep Work – I’m giving away a list of 20+ podcast episodes.
You can also have a pdf of this post for later reading. Go to the full version of this page to download for free.

The book is divided into two sections. The first, ‘The Idea’, contains three chapters devoted to explaining the basis for his hypothesis. The second, ‘The Rules’ contains four chapters that state Newport’s recommendations for how to achieve this Deep Work and to practice the skill of executing it.

A helpful mind map that I created can be explored below. Be sure to click on each section to see how Newport structures his argument and the examples he uses to build on each point.

[This content cannot be displayed on an AMP page. Visit Deep Work on MindMeister.]


Deep Work: The Idea

Deep Work Is Valuable

In his first chapter, Deep Work Is Valuable, Newport describes the employment landscape as he sees it. With more work becoming automatable, people with those skills will lose out in the job market. Those with the skills to work with intelligent machines will have a disproportionate opportunity to thrive.

There are two other groups for whom the new workplace will lead to opportunities: the superstars and the owners.

The superstars are the best of the best in their fields. They can work remotely from anywhere in the world as guns for hire to replace local workers with lesser skills.

Finally, the owners are those who can invest in or purchase new technology. This applies to venture capitalists and billionaires, so probably not you or I!

What if Newport is correct that the future belongs to the technologically capable, the superstars and the owners? How can an average Joe find a place to exist or even thrive?

He identifies two core skills that can allow us to thrive:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

This leads Newport to his hypothesis. Those capable of performing Deep Work will be most likely to both master hard things and produce at the elite level required.

Deep Work Is Rare

The second plank of Newport’s argument is that Deep Work is rare in the modern workplace. Thus, the capacity to perform Deep Work can differentiate you from your peers.

He notes that studies on the effects of email on business have demonstrated a significant impact on worker efficiency.

To summarize, big trends in business today actively decrease people’s ability to perform deep work, even though the benefits promised by these trends (e.g., increased serendipity, faster responses to requests, and more exposure) are arguably dwarfed by the benefits that flow from a commitment to deep work (e.g., the ability to learn hard things fast and produce at an elite level).

The Principle of Least Resistance

In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

This explains why so many of us will spend so much of our time in email rather than doing work of meaning and substance. And by doing so, contributing to the inefficiency of others by keeping them in their inbox as well.

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity

In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

Sending lots of emails at all hours of the day, for example, might look like you are working but what is the measurable outcome of that ‘work’? And it’s cost?

Finally, Newport discusses the ‘Cult of the Internet’. His thesis is that people, businesses and our broader society assume that if something is ‘connected’ or ‘internet-enabled’ it will make things better or more efficient. He suggests that this might be the case despite an absence of evidence to support that idea.

This leads to his conclusion that what is bad for business might be good for you:

Among them are the realities that deep work is hard and shallow work is easier, that in the absence of clear goals for your job, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving, and that our culture has developed a belief that if a behavior relates to “the Internet,” then it’s good—regardless of its impact on our ability to produce valuable things.

The myopia of your peers and employers uncovers a great personal advantage. Assuming the trends outlined here continue, depth will become increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable.

Deep Work Is Meaningful

Again, Newport has a three-pronged argument to support his thesis in this chapter

A Neurological Argument for Depth

Newport describes the work of author Winifred Gallagher. Gallagher related her diagnosis of cancer, and the revelations she experienced about the power of attention. As Gallagher summarises:

Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on

In Newport’s words:

Your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to, so consider for a moment the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors

And finally:

To increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different neurological reasons maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life

A Psychological Argument for Depth

Newport relies on the work of the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi popularised the description of the mental state ‘flow’. In his research, he demonstrated that the more flow experiences in a given week, the higher the subject’s life satisfaction was.

In Csikszentmihalyi’s words:

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile

Newport posits:

Jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it

Finally, he concludes that deep work is an activity suited to generating a flow state, and that flow generates happiness. Thus:

To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction

A Philosophical Argument for Depth

In this section, Newport refers to the work of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly who published the book ‘All Things Shining’. They believe that sacredness and meaning are further away now than in historical times, and that:

Craftsmanship… provides a key to reopening a sense of sacredness

Newport notes that Dreyfus and Kelly conclude that the task of a craftsman:

Is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there

He claims that any pursuit that supports high levels of skill can generate a sense of sacredness.

A wooden wheel is not noble, but its shaping can be. The same applies to knowledge work. You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work

Keep a copy of this review as a pdf.
Listen to Cal Newport discuss Deep Work – I have a list of 20+ podcast episodes.
Download for free.
Keep a copy of this review as a pdf.
Listen to Cal Newport discuss Deep Work – I have a list of 20+ podcast episodes. Go to the full version of this page to download for free.

Deep Work: The Rules

In the second half of his book, Newport moves on to the tactics he suggests we employ if we want to achieve deep work. Further, he explains the professional and personal benefits that go along with deep work. He offers four rules to optimise our chance of achieving professional breakthroughs and develop our most satisfying lives.

Rule #1 Work Deeply

Newport references the work of Wilhelm Hofmann and Roy Baumeister, as well as the book ‘Willpower’ by Baumeister. Hofmann and Baumeister studied workers throughout an average day and found that they reported fighting their personal desires for much of their time.

Their desires included the usual eating, sleeping and sex, but also:

Taking a break from [hard] work … checking e-mail and social networking sites, surfing the web, listening to music, or watching television

Hofmann and Baumeister measured how successful these workers were at resisting their temptations. They were only able to resist the internet and television “around half the time”.

Baumeister’s conclusion?

You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it

Newport thus concludes:

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration

Scheduling Deep Work

Newport suggests four potential approaches to scheduling Deep Work:

  1. The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
  2. The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
  3. The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
  4. The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

The monastic approach is to eliminate or radically minimise shallow obligations. It requires clarity of purpose and clearly defined professional goals. It is very difficult to maintain this approach and applies to only a limited pool of workers.

The bimodal approach is exemplified by Jung and his Bollingen Tower. Jung worked in Zurich and had a heady mix of professional, social and personal obligations. Intermittently, he would shut himself away to complete thinking and writing he found difficult to perform while in Zurich. Newport suggests that at least a full day is required to succeed with this strategy.

The rhythmic approach requires scheduling deep work sessions habitually. Create a rhythm for this work that removes the need to decide when you’ll do it.

Finally, the journalistic approach requires you to be able to switch from shallow to deep work quickly. You can then take advantage of any opportunity to go deep when it presents. This is a difficult skill to develop.


Newport recommends that we create rituals around our deep work sessions. It doesn’t matter which philosophy we adopt for their implementation.

These rituals might include:

  • Where you’ll work and for how long
  • How you’ll work once you start to work
  • How you’ll support your work

Execute Like a Business

The penultimate part of Rule 1 is to employ clear strategies to enhance your execution. Here, Newport relies on the wonderful work of Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling in their extraordinary business execution manual ‘The 4 Disciplines of Execution’ (4DX).

The 4 Disciplines:

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important
  2. Act on the Lead Measures
  3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability

I do not intend to expand on 4DX. I would recommend it to anyone looking to improve their personal productivity.

Be Lazy

Finally, Newport suggests three reasons that downtime is required to allow great work to occur.

  1. Downtime Aids Insights
  2. Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply
  3. The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important

Rule #2 Embrace Boredom

Newport’s recommendation in this chapter is that the ability to concentrate is a skill that requires training. Boredom, he suggests, is rare nowadays. Without the ability to resist distraction we are unlikely to be able to maintain focus.

Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction

Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times

He also recommends ‘productive meditation’ which for him involved working through a really hard problem or scientific proof while walking. It doesn’t need to be walking, but any physical occupation that doesn’t require a lot of mental effort could be repurposed for deep consideration of a problem.

He suggests two strategies that might help you to optimise these sessions:

  • Suggestion #1: Be Wary of Distractions and Looping
  • Suggestion #2: Structure Your Deep Thinking

Rule #3 Quit Social Media

Newport seems to have a thing about social media. When he marshals his arguments, however, it is hard to dispute his hypothesis.

I include a video here of Newport addressing a TEDx conference on this rule:


He goes on to define different approaches to how we decide upon and utilise tools (including social media tools):

The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.

The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

Apply the Law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits

The first step of this strategy is to identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and your personal life.

The next step in this strategy is to consider the network tools you currently use. For each such tool, go through the key activities you identified and ask whether the use of the tool has a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact on your regular and successful participation in the activity.

Now comes the important decision: Keep using this tool only if you concluded that it has substantial positive impacts and that these outweigh the negative impacts.

Rule #4 Drain the Shallows

The final rule describes Newport’s suggested strategies to reduce the burden of shallow work to allow deep work to thrive. He suggests these steps:

  • Schedule Every Minute of Your Day
  • Quantify the Depth of Every Activity
  • Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget
  • Finish Your Work by Five Thirty (fixed-schedule productivity)
  • Become Hard to Reach
    1. Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work
    2. Do More Work When You Send or Reply to Emails
    3. Don’t Respond

The goal of scheduling your day is to use intention to choose what you do, rather than doing things only by habit or choosing the path of least resistance.

Quantifying the depth and measuring it allows you to realise how much time you have each day and how you might make better choices around how you spend it.

The shallow work ‘budget’ suggestion is a way of convincing your boss to release you from some professional obligations in recognition that if you’re already spending some of your shallow work time on one task then you shouldn’t add another.

By setting a fixed schedule, Newport suggests you will make better decisions about the time you have. It will mean you are much more ruthless about what shallow obligations you accept from others.

Finally, by becoming hard to reach you will inevitably reduce the requests for your time from others.

Bestselling author and professor Cal Newport has an enviable publication record in his field. I am a busy physician with little research or publication history, a young family and lots of different responsibilities. So how can I apply Newport’s recommendations??

Last chance! Keep a copy of this review as a pdf & get the list of 20+ podcast episodes with Cal Newport discussing Deep Work.
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Last chance! Keep a copy of this review as a pdf & get the list of 20+ podcast episodes with Cal Newport discussing Deep Work. Go to the full version of this page to download for free.


Unlike a lot of the personal development literature which isn’t easily applicable to a doctor, Deep Work translates to our context quite effectively. This isn’t a book about entrepreneurs or working in Fortune 500 companies. Newport is a scientist and academic, and his struggles to achieve personal efficiency and effectiveness are highly relatable to the medical field. All of us in the health professions should value being able to quickly master complicated information and produce a new insight that helps in our research or with our patients.

There are elements of Newport’s story that are directly correlatable to those of us in any kind of academic medical position. Although this won’t apply to someone working hard on the front lines who doesn’t engage in research and publication, for those that do his principles will be helpful indeed.

If you are someone who is conducting research activity you will likely recognise a lot of yourself in Newport. His research and publication track record should encourage you to think about how to apply his recommendations.

For those who aren’t publishing in the academic/medical literature, there is still a lot to gain from applying the rules from Deep Work. Even if it is only with the goal of being more efficient and getting home on time more often to see your family, I suspect Newport’s Rules will help you a lot.

For anyone in a professional role, whether in medicine, academia, business or other, Rule #4 Drain the Shallows can only help.


Newport provides a lot of actionable advice in his four rules, but I have to admit that I find some of it hard to see working in my context. Negotiating a ‘Shallow Work budget’ with my boss is likely to be quite difficult. I suspect success here might relate more to the relationship one has with their boss and the management style they prefer.

If your boss spends a lot of time in ‘Busyness’ it might be hard to disengage from that without appearing to devalue the practice. Similarly, if your manager is ‘hands-on’ then asking for a period in which you switch on your email autoresponder and mute your phone to engage in a ‘Bimodal’ Deep Work period will probably lead to significant questions being asked.

If you are a sole practitioner, you might have the capacity to control your working time and environment to the extent Newport recommends.

For myself, I have chosen to start with small steps. My end goal is to demarcate certain time during each week for deep work, but I recognise the limitations placed on me by my working circumstances. I hope that with the passage of time, small changes will become big ones: almost a kaizen approach to the implementation of Newport’s strategies.

I look forward to measuring my progress while working without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.


Practising deep work requires changing your mind and habits to support this skill. As with any change you make to your life, the critical step that most people forget is to measure the effects. If you are planning to implement some of these strategies, be careful to consider how you might best measure the outcomes.

What metric can you use? Can you create a scoreboard? Is the outcome something that depends only on the changes you’ve made, or are you trying to lead a cultural adaptation? In the final analysis, is the change worth the cost?

Newport does provide some practical advice that will help you to define these measurement questions in advance. He discusses 4DX extensively, and I repeat my recommendation of this marvellous book, concept and strategy. You could also use the 12 Week Year model, which shares similar concepts about tracking and measuring execution with 4DX.

A thought experiment

He also suggests the ‘Law of the Vital Few’ thought experiment for evaluating the use of social media networking tools. You might adapt that activity to your implementation of the Deep Work rules.

  • Identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and your personal life
  • List for each the two or three most important activities that help you satisfy the goal
  • Consider the application of each of Newport’s rules and strategies
  • Go through the key activities you identified and ask whether the use of the rule/strategy has a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact
  • Keep using this rule only if you concluded that it has substantial positive impacts and that these outweigh the negative impacts

I’m not sure that Newport would agree with my re-purposing his Law of the Vital Few in this way. I have found it helpful, however, when considering the value of various strategies and their cost. I suspect that you would get far closer to the ideal of Deep Work by implementing all of the strategies from Newport’s rules.


Cal Newport’s book Deep Work has had a profound impact on how I consider the value of my contributions in my workplaces. I have adapted some of my thinking to look through the Deep Work lens, and I have been aggressively cutting back on shallow obligations as a result. This brings me closer to living in alignment with my mission.

Although I am by no means an expert, I see the potential in decluttering. I already feel less encumbered and I look forward to the time when the results of my labours become clear. I do recognise an improvement in my ability to focus. In the meantime, I can heartily recommend reading Deep Work at least once.

Even if you think the strategies and rules Newport suggests don’t apply to your situation, the depth of his arguments in the first half of the book should provide insight into your professional situation.

Rating: Five Stars


Have you read Deep Work? Will you? Have you found any success in implementing Deep Work practices in your life and work? Let us know in the comments!

Featured Image by Loostee © Panoramio

Image of Cal Newport and cover for Deep Work via

Achieve your Big Hairy Audacious Goals in a 12 Week Year

Last updated April 1, 2019. Posted September 16, 2016 in Books, Case Studies, Featured. This post contains affiliate links.

Track goals, tasks, progress & time

I have never been good at setting and achieving my goals. I would dream of something ambitious, but work and life often get in the way. It was easy for me to let deadlines slide, re-prioritise or just drop the goal altogether. As part of my ongoing self-improvement readings, I discovered the book and now have just completed my first 12 Week Year.

I set four fairly ambitious goals and commenced the process on 27th June 2016. I intend for this blog post to document my process and achievements, failures and lessons learned for the benefit of others.

Read on for:

  • a description of the 12 Week Year process as outlined in the book,
  • examples of how I implemented the strategy,
  • the goals that I set, and
  • how they were achieved.

Spoiler Alert: My first 12 Week Year was a wonderful success…

What is the 12 Week Year?

The 12 Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks than Others Do in 12 Months is a book written by Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington, and published in May 2013.

In it, Moran and Lennington outline their perception of why many people don’t complete or achieve their goals: they set their horizons too far in the distance. Annual targets are too hard to conceptualise, they believe, leading to procrastination and then failure. The 12 Week Year avoids that by making the timeframes much shorter.

By defining each year as 12 weeks long, Moran and Lennington suggest we might have more chance of success in achieving our goals. Implementation of a tracking and internal feedback system is necessary to ensure the best chance of completion.

At the end of every twelve weeks, there is a thirteenth week which you can use for completing the last few things to achieve your 12 Week goal(s). This week can also allow review and analysis to decide how to do things better the next time. Finally, you might also wish to celebrate, recharge and refresh before commencing another 12 Week Year.

There are four cycles of thirteen weeks in each calendar year.

Would you like a spreadsheet to use as a sample plan and weekly scorecard to help you with your next 12 Week Year?
Download the 12 Week Year scorecard template for free!
(I’ll also include a pdf version of this post to read whenever you like.)
Would you like a spreadsheet to use as a sample plan and weekly scorecard to help you with your next 12 Week Year? Go to the full version of this page to download the 12 Week Year scorecard for free!
(I’ll also include a pdf version of this post to read whenever you like.)

Why would I use the 12 Week Year?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve tried various goal-setting strategies with mixed success. Sometimes you manage to achieve the goal and other times you don’t. Sometimes you’re hard on yourself about that, and other times you move on quickly.

The 12 Week Year outlines a set of principles for setting and achieving goals. What it offers might well be a crystallisation of the works of many other authors, as some Amazon critics might contend. If you’re new to the goals and achievement realm it could provide a helpful structure that takes care of some of the common pitfalls that can plague us all.

I had no shortage of goals but didn’t really have a handle on how to track and measure their completion. The 12 Week Year creates a structure that enabled me to see how I was tracking to achieving my goals at any point throughout the 12 Week Year cycle.

What are the elements of the 12 Week Year programme?

The book goes into significant detail describing why those using annual targets often fail to meet them. The authors contend that annualised thinking often lies at the root of those failures. In their words:

Most of them believed, either consciously or unconsciously, that their success and failure was determined by what they had achieved over the course of a year. They set annual goals, created annual plans, and in many cases broke the goals down into quarterly, monthly, and sometimes even weekly plans. But in the end, they evaluated their success annually.

At the heart of annualized thinking is an unspoken belief that there is plenty of time in the year to make things happen. In January, December looks a long way off… We mistakenly believe that there is a lot of time left in the year, and we act accordingly.

The annual execution cycle blinds people to the reality that life is lived in the moment and that ultimately success is created in the moment. It lulls people into believing that they can put things off— critical activity— and still accomplish what they desire, still achieve their goals.1

Shorter Timeframes

Moran and Lennington explain their belief that by redefining a year as a twelve week period, success can be achieved. Twelve weeks is long enough to set and achieve goals worth achieving, and short enough that every day and every week must count. The mad rush of productivity that occurs in the countdown to the end of a calendar year will occur four times during the year instead.

The great thing about having a 12 Week Year is that the deadline is always near enough that you never lose sight of it. It provides a time horizon that is long enough to get things done, yet short enough to create a sense of urgency and a bias for action.

They contend that the short timeframe means that one can’t simply write off periods of time when one is unproductive. There isn’t enough time in a 12 Week Year to have more than one or two bad weeks if you hope to hit your targets.

[clickToTweet tweet=”There isn’t enough time in a #12WeekYear to have more than 1-2 bad weeks if you hope to hit your targets.” quote=”There isn’t enough time in a #12WeekYear to have more than 1-2 bad weeks if you hope to hit your targets.”]

Finally, with a new ‘year’ commencing every twelve weeks, someone who does have a bad 12 Week Year can regroup and get started again with a fresh slate.

This video might help to give you an idea of what the 12 Week Year programme is all about:

The 12 Week Year execution system

The first part of the book outlines defining a vision, planning for a 12 Week Year, weekly planning, keeping score and accountability. The second groups these ideas into three principles and five disciplines:

The three principles

Accountability = ownership

It is a character trait, a life stance, a willingness to own actions and results, regardless of the circumstances.

The ultimate aim of accountability is to continually ask one’s self, “What more can I do to get the result?”


Commitment is a personal promise that you make to yourself. Keeping your promises to others builds strong relationships, and keeping promises to yourself builds character, esteem, and success.

Greatness in the Moment

Greatness is not achieved when a great result is reached, but long before that, when an individual makes the choice to do what is necessary to become great. The results are not the attainment of greatness, but simply confirmation of it.


The five disciplines


A compelling vision creates a clear picture of the future. It is critical that your business vision aligns with and enables your personal vision. This alignment ensures a powerful emotional connection that promotes a sustained commitment, and continual action.


An effective plan clarifies and focuses on the top-priority initiatives and actions needed to achieve the vision.

Process Control

A set of tools and events that align your daily actions with the critical actions in your plan.


Measurement drives the process. It is the anchor of reality. Effective measurement combines both lead and lag indicators that provide comprehensive feedback necessary for informed decision making.

Time Use

If you are not in control of your time you are not in control of your results. Using time with clear intention is a must.


Criteria for setting effective goals and tactics

The authors outline five criteria for setting better 12-week plans:

Specific and measurable

Quantify and qualify what success looks like

State them positively

Rather than focusing on a 2 percent error rate, you would target a 98 percent accuracy rate

Ensure they are a realistic stretch

If you can accomplish the goal without doing anything differently, then you probably need to stretch more. If it is absolutely impossible, then factor it back a little

Assign accountability

This applies to people who are executing as part of a team (if you’re on your own, the accountability is all yours). Individual accountability for each goal and tactic is critical!

Be time-bound

Make sure to include a date by which the goal is to be reached, or the tactic is to be executed.

Finally, each tactic should start with a verb, be a complete sentence, and be executable as is.


After setting your 12 Week Goals, Moran and Lennington recommend installing process control. These are ‘tools and events to create support structures that can augment willpower’. Their suggested steps include:

  • Weekly plan
    • The weekly plan is a derivative of the 12 Week Plan. It supports progress toward the larger goal and acts as a game plan for the week.
  • Weekly Accountability Meeting
    • Form a group of 2-4 motivated people who meet weekly to foster individual accountability.
    • Best held on a Monday morning, lasting 15-30 minutes only.
  • Keeping score
    • Score points for completing tactics and then divide by the total number due that week to get a percentage completion score.
    • Review the weekly score as part of the Weekly Accountability Meeting.

Finally, they also discuss time blocking in order to ensure there is enough time in your calendar to get the things done that matter. (The tasks that move you closer to your 12 Week goals.) I won’t go into this any further for now.

The 12 Week Year as a self-correcting system

Moran and Lennington describe this as a ‘closed system’, in that it contains everything that is needed to achieve success.

When applied in this way, the 12 Week Year becomes a self-correcting system that creates a breadcrumb trail that allows you to pinpoint any breakdowns and take corrective action on a timely basis. It is a deliberate practice system that is designed for continuous improvement.


This post is really long…
Download a pdf version to read whenever you like, for free.
You can also have a 12 Week Year excel template to help you plan and score your next 12 Week Year.
This post is really long… Go to the full version of this page to download a pdf version to read whenever you like, for free.
You can also have a spreadsheet to help you plan and score your next 12 Week Year.

After all of this discussion of the contents of the 12 Week Year book, and how the authors make their case that periodisation of goals makes them more likely to be achieved, surely it’s time for some case examples? Glad you asked…

My first 12 Week Year

When I was planning my first 12 Week Year I had trouble choosing good goals: some things I considered were way too ambitious and others too easy to achieve. Additionally, I knew that I had only eleven weeks for my first twelve week year, as we had a family holiday planned during which I would have no ability to achieve professional goals and limited ability to track and monitor any others.

I eventually decided on a weight loss goal, a personal relationships goal and two professional goals. The first professional goal was to confirm that I was closing my private practice after six years, and then do everything necessary to have it finished with no loose ends before our family holiday. In the past, my private practice has intruded on family holidays and it was important that I try to prevent that on this occasion if possible.

My second professional goal was to increase my clinical research activities as this has been an area of dissatisfaction when I review my professional performance. As the goal title is somewhat nebulous (“increase research activity” doesn’t really have a clear outcome attached) I decided to focus on setting tactics that would demonstrate progress in and of themselves.

So, in 11 weeks, I had four goals to achieve. A weight loss goal that I felt was achievable (5.2 kg in 11 weeks), a personal relationships goal, and two professional goals.

Tracking in Airtable

The 12 Week Year process suggests tracking completion of tactics (lead indicators) that will lead to goal completion (lag indicators). I just needed a dashboard to bring it all together.

Inspired by reading a case study at Asian Efficiency I decided to use a spreadsheet as my execution dashboard. Of course, the rise of internet-enabled devices means I could simply have used a Google Sheets spreadsheet on my phone and the web for tracking, but I wanted something more like a form or checklist.

Not wanting to spend more money than necessary, I eventually settled on Airtable for tracking. Airtable allows free users to set up tables and provides a form interface for inputting data. I could use the app on my phone or the web interface to check off that I had completed a tactic for that day, and Airtable would then sum my completions and provide me with an ongoing metric for performance.

I set up a 12 Week Year tracking system in Airtable that had a table for each of my four goals, and then automatically collated completion and turned that into a percentage for each week. Moran and Lennington contend that a completion rate of greater than 85% each week will usually lead to someone meeting their goal at the end of twelve weeks.

12 Week Year tracking in Airtable

My summary table which collated data from each goal’s table.


Prompting in Todoist

I have been using Todoist daily for almost one year and have found myself to be far more effective as a result. If I accurately capture my commitments in Todoist, I am pretty confident that I will get them done.

At the start of the 12 Week Year, I set a new project with four sub-projects. I assigned it a new colour so that it would stand out amongst my usual projects and tasks. Finally, I moved the project to the top of my project lists.

12 Week Year in Todoist

I ensured that each tactic I needed to complete had recurring schedules or specific dates. In this way, I was confident I would be reminded of my 12WY goals every time I opened Todoist.

This did introduce some duplication to my tracking – I ticked off tasks both in Todoist and Airtable. Given that I use Todoist so frequently during the day, this arrangement made sense in terms of my daily workflow. I checked things off in Airtable at the end of the day, which supplemented a daily review of my progress.

1.1: Weight loss goal

Anyone who knows me also knows there have been times in my life where I haven’t been exactly svelte. In recent years this hasn’t been as much of an issue, but I did feel I could afford to trim down a little.

My first goal in this first 12 Week Year was to lose at least 5.2kg.

I identified the following tactics:

  • Weekly weigh in (Monday)
  • Calorie intake diary (Daily)
  • Water intake diary (Daily)
  • Exercise on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday

I didn’t feel the water diary was core but was trying to solidify a new habit I had started to develop earlier this year, so decided to piggyback it into this goal. I was already using Google Fit on my phone and smartwatch to track activity and had some soft targets that I didn’t track but checked in with from time-to-time. Those were of greater than 2000 calories expended daily and greater than one hour of activity daily.

I used an app on my phone and the web to track my caloric intake and another app to track water intake. Google Fit automagically takes care of tracking steps, distance, activity etc.


My progress toward this goal varied from week-to-week. It didn’t seem particularly clear that weight loss or stability necessarily followed my weekly completion rate. I had multiple instances in which I was socially obligated to break my diet – workplace functions, social gatherings etc – but always tried to manage that by eating less on other days. I dutifully collected everything I ate in my calorie tracking app, successfully recording my full intake on 61 out of 77 days.

Compliance with weekly weigh-ins was easy  – I wanted to know how I was going so it was harder to not jump on the scales in the morning than to do so! Finally, I logged water intake of greater than 1.8 litres on 72/77 days.


12 Week Year Goal 1.1

12 Week Year Goal 1.1


I barely completed any exercise during this eleven week period. I had intended to do some formal exercise like going for a brisk walk or bike ride on at least three days per week. For a variety of reasons (excuses, I suppose) I hardly did any formal exercise at all. I did check in with Google Fit and noted that most days I failed to reach my one hour and 2000 calories targets.


I made my goal to lose weight. On day 78 I had lost 5.3kg.

1.2: Personal goal

In some respects, setting this goal was a bit of a mistake. I won’t be going into exact detail for personal reasons, but this goal was largely around relationships with people important to me.

One of the lessons I have learned from my first 12 Week Year is that goals really need to be measurable in order for this system to work. As a scientist and physician, I am interested in data, and tracking lead measures in the way Moran and Lennington recommend holds natural appeal. In other words, I am more likely to achieve my goals if I can set and track specific metrics as I am naturally inclined to look for the data anyway.

Although I did identify lead measures, they were a bit ‘fluffy’ and therefore tracking them felt different to tracking the metrics for the other goals I had set.

Finally, there were a series of personal life events that occurred during this 12WY cycle that made it very hard to meet the lead measures I had identified, and therefore to achieve the end goal.


Although I don’t consider this goal to be a failure, I have learned valuable lessons for the future in terms of setting achievable goals and measuring my progress toward them. I am confident these lessons will hold me in good stead as I prepare for my next 12 Week Year.

1.3: Professional goal – Close private practice

This was a big one. My practice had become less rewarding over time, especially in light of my newly rediscovered passion for teaching. I am studying a clinical education higher degree, and working full time as well. I didn’t feel I had the time or motivation to continue in this role. Given all of those factors, I wasn’t spending enough energy on promoting the practice or getting the most out of my work there. In sum, I was in a situation I wasn’t enjoying and felt I wasn’t doing myself or my practice justice.

After many long discussions at home, I finally decided to close the rooms. The first tactics I needed to complete were to speak with the team who run the practice and let them know my decision. This was delayed by a week or so due to (their) overseas travel. After telling people that I would be closing, I then sat down and went through to find patients I needed to see before I closed, those with prescriptions that were important and needed to be followed up, and patients having imaging follow-up etc.

Finally, there was a long list of reports to write before leaving.


Once I set the closure date, it became a little easier to focus on achieving this goal as it was so clear what had to be done and by when. This reminded me of what Moran and Lennington seem to be trying to ensure by suggesting 12 Week Years instead of the annual year we are used to. By having a clear, medium-term, stop date, I had to do what I had to do to be done. There was just no wiggle room to allow for procrastination.


12 Week Year Goal 1.3

12 Week Year Goal 1.3


Despite that, I certainly wiggled where I could. Some weeks were better than others, but in some weeks I found it hard to motivate myself to complete work for a job that I had decided I didn’t want to maintain. This confirmed for me that I had made the right decision, but did limit my progress to my goal to a degree. In the final assessment, however, I closed my practice in week 10 of 11 and the patients have appropriate ongoing management arranged.


I made my goal. I closed my practice on day 64 (Week 10).

1.4: Professional goal – Increase research activity

As stated above, the title of this goal is nebulous and doesn’t really give much insight into what the target is. I had a list of things that might be good to achieve that fall under this domain, and that I knew would contribute to a greater sense of achievement. A grab-bag of activities might not excite the goal-achieving senses, but I hoped there was enough to keep me interested.


After identifying that I had a few ideas for small projects, I set a schedule of meetings, sent emails and made calls. I had also agreed to supervise a student research project in early 2017, and this would require completion of a literature review before applying for Ethics Committee approval of the project.


12 Week Year Goal 1.4

12 Week Year Goal 1.4


Finally, I also felt I wanted to experience more of the peer review process for journal publication, so I contacted several editors and offered my services. To my great surprise and delight, one of those journals saw a larger role for me than I had imagined. I have completed my first task in this role and am excited by the potential in the future – I think I will learn a lot.


I achieved my goal. I submitted two projects for Ethical Approval with my collaborators and joined a journal’s editorial team. Now I am in a good place to increase my research output in coming months and to learn much more about peer review, which were the original overriding goals.


Last chance…
Download a pdf version of this post and a spreadsheet to use as a 12 Week Year planner template and scorecard.
They’re both free!
Last chance…
Go to the full version of this page to download a pdf version of this post and a spreadsheet to use for planning and as a weekly scorecard.
They’re both free!


Barriers to execution

My schedule is quite variable when compared with that of a full-time employee within a company. I have one workplace on Monday, another on Tuesday and Wednesday and yet another for Thursday and Friday. This meant I made little use of the scheduling and time-blocking advice given by the authors as much of it was of little relevance to me.

I also needed to adjust my expectations during a period in which I was on ‘ward service’. When I do inpatient work with our junior medical staff I am scheduled to be on for four weeks, with overnight calls and ward rounds during the day. I need to adjust my usual schedule during these periods and needed to factor this into my expectations for how much I could move forward on my 12 Week goals in that time.

One of the major barriers was other people. My work – as for most physicians – has a lot of time that I spend on other people’s priorities. I can’t necessarily schedule things and know that they’ll happen as intended. I need to plan, but also allow for flexibility, and learn to adapt as life evolves.

Weekly Accountability Meeting

One of the major issues I faced was the lack of an accountability partner or team. I like the idea of a Weekly Accountability Meeting (WAM) but had to make my own version with only me participating. I suspect I missed out on many of the benefits of the WAM, including encouragement and advice from others who had experienced similar roadblocks.

Also, I found that my adherence to the WAM was quite poor. Monday mornings have been part of my most busy day until I closed my private practice, so making the time was a challenge. I did find the process rewarding, in that it helped me to re-focus on the goals I had set and remind me of the plan for the week ahead.

Finally, the WAM could be included as part of a regular weekly review, a productivity best-practice that you should probably be doing anyway!

Advantages over traditional timelines

I found the short period of 12 weeks helped me to focus at times when my motivation was lower. Knowing that time was moving on and I needed to keep moving forward was empowering. It provided a big ‘stick’ acting in complement to the ‘carrot’ of the goals I had set. I also found that knowing there would be a reward (family holiday) at the end was helpful in maintaining focus when I was getting up at 5am to write essays for my course or staying back late to complete reports.

Of course, I still had the usual obligations and commitments to manage, so I needed to work very hard during this period to meet my goals. I came to the end of my 12 Week Year feeling exhausted but satisfied. The completion of three of my four goals feels great, and I have enough momentum to start thinking about my next 12 Week Year.

Relevance to a Physician’s practice

There are many elements of what the authors describe that are directly relevant to my situation. There are others that I needed to modify or discard altogether. I am sure that many professionals would have to make similar choices. Rules that apply to people who work for a company and have a manager they report to are different to those that would help the self-employed.

Another factor is that a lot of our time can’t be blocked out or scheduled as we might like. I have fixed clinics during the week that take 3-4 hours at a time, and therefore I needed to allow for those when planning my task completion, as well as for the ‘administrivia’ that comes with being a physician.

What I’ll do better next 12 Week Year

I have learnt from my experience of setting Goal 1.2 and aim to make all of my goals focused and measurable. I can’t understate the satisfaction that came with checking things off. Knowing that I was moving forward on my goals provided a powerful sense of encouragement.

I plan to reduce to three goals for my next 12 Week Year. Four goals made things slightly harder to focus appropriately. I will have one personal goal, one professional and one other, the nature of which I am still considering.

It would be much better if I was able to consistently check things off rather than having bursts in some weeks and not others. Sometimes the gaps – especially in Goals 1.3 and 1.4 – related to factors outside of my control. There were weeks, however, when I just dropped the ball. For my next 12 Week Year, I aim to be much more consistent.

As seen in my tables, I might not have set goals with clear-cut lead indicators that can be followed to ensure execution. I look forward to planning my next 12 Week Year to see whether I can come up with more readily measured lead indicators.

Finally, I want to find an accountability partner. I have been playing with the idea of joining a mastermind group for some time, but don’t really know how to find one. I would like to think that if I can find someone with similar goals we could help each other move forward.


So, that is my enormous combined 12 Week Year book outline, case study and implementation guide.

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Rating: Five Stars


Do you have goals that you are struggling to meet? Does the 12 Week Year system appeal? We’d love to have your comments below…

  1. All quotes in this article from:
    Moran, Brian P.; Lennington, Michael. The 12 Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks than Others Do in 12 Months. Wiley. Kindle Edition. []
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