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How to write a million words – on a slacker’s schedule.

An inside look at my daily schedule. Plus, powerful tools and strategies to help you become more focused and productive. 

Writing
Writing in the Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam airport.

Here’s something most people (including some my friends and family) don’t know: Over the past 5 years, I’ve written over one million words.

ONE MILLION.

That’s everything from books, articles, sales pages, coaching curriculum, marketing plans, and more. (I spent the last 5 years as a marketing strategist for Precision Nutrition.)

In a minute, I’ll deconstruct my schedule and share how I did this—including a simple tool I  use every day to stay focused.

But first, an explanation:

The reason most of my readers haven’t seen most of these million words is simple: 90% of them exist behind the scenes in various products and educational courses.

Or they were ghost-written for other people, which means I wrote the first draft but often gave someone else the byline; something I was happy to do to help PN grow its revenue and influence.

People tend to have the same reaction when they learn how much I’ve written. They say something like, “One million words? You must have been so busy and overwhelmed.”

My answer: Rarely.

First, writing one million words seems like a lot…but when you look at the math, it’s totally reasonable.

365 days per year – 105 days (weekends) – 30 days (vacation) = 230 workdays per year.

230 workdays x 5 years = 1150 days of total work.

1,000,000 words / 1150 workdays = an average of 870 words per workday.

I averaged 870 words per workday.

It’s simply an example of consistency and practice.

Second, I’ve always thought of myself as a “productive slacker”.

Although there are some exceptions, I tend to work for about 5 hours per day, starting around 9AM and stopping around 3:00PM (with an hour or so for lunch). The rest of the time, I hang out, read, go out for drinks, meet people for dinner, listen to music, explore, or simply sit and stare into space.

In other words, I tend to strike a good balance between my work and the rest of my life. The only caveat: the 5 hours I work are focused. Like ridiculously focused.

Focus and productivity are things lots of my readers struggle with. I know because I hear from them daily:

John coaching email
A recent email (shared with his permission, of course).

But here’s something almost no one ever talks about: Being productive isn’t a matter of having the right tools or technology.

Instead, the ability to focus and produce at a high-level are both skills you must build.

I had to learn this fast.

At 22, along with running my personal training studio, I was also writing for major magazines under tight deadlines and negotiating a book deal.

If I didn’t get my shit together, I didn’t make money and I didn’t eat food.

Even then, I’d occasionally drop the ball or get in over my head, and my mom would have to bring me care packages of food and toilet paper.

Nat Green, Men's Fitness
Oh, young Nate. You are so naive. And what’s up with that hair?

But over time, I learned how to work.

I learned how to be incredibly productive on a day-to-day level. And I learned how to decide which projects and opportunities were worth my time, and which ones I should avoid or abandon. (That’s something I’ll write more about soon, if you’re interested.)

The world’s simplest (and most powerful) productivity tool

One habit I’ve followed for the past 8 years or so is planning my day on a simple notecard. It looks like this:

Notecard
Notecard, circa 2014

This habit is so ingrained in me that I often forget it’s weird until someone else points it out. Now, the notecard may not look like much…but it’s incredibly powerful and multi-layered.

That’s why I want to to spend the rest of this article deconstructing what’s on it.

I want to show you 1) how I think through my day and 2) how you can increase your focus and find more balance in your own life.

(And then I want to give you a free mini-book my friend Jason wrote recently.)

One quick note before we dig in: It took me years of work to have a schedule like this. Plus I don’t have any kids or dependents to take care of. So don’t feel discouraged if you’re schedule looks wildly different than mine.

You can still become more focused and productive by implementing just ONE idea from this and practicing it consistently.

Deconstructing my daily notecard

Notecard

“Thursday”

I have a notecard like this for every single day (even the days where I’m not working or creating). I like to know where my time goes and how I’d ideally like to spend it.

On the surface, it can seem too restrictive, but I’ve found planning in this way allows me to affect the quality of my day. (To steal a line from Thoreau.) In other words, I know what’s expected of me every day and what I’d like to do.

I don’t always stick to it 100%, but I’ve gotten closer with practice.

“Morning – Meditate, coffee + grateful

I front load my morning with stuff that’s good for me. These are things I’d likely forget to do (or choose not to do) later in the day.

I meditate for 20 minutes every morning, sometimes using Headspace, sometimes using Sam Harris’s guided meditation, and other times just sitting there in silence. And I wrote about my coffee and grateful exercise (and how it improved my relationship) here.

protein shake + tea”

I’m usually very excited to start working, so I try to eat a fast breakfast so I don’t have to cook. (I prefer cooking at night.)

Before I started traveling and living out of a bag, I had this protein shake every morning:

  • 1 frozen banana
  • 1 scoop vanilla protein
  • 2 handfuls of spinach (you can’t taste it)
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of peanut butter
  • 1 cup unsweetened hemp or almond milk

Now I usually eat a couple of hard-boiled eggs (cooked the night before) or fast until lunch.

Focus – Outline 1st draft of men’s sales p(age).

I try to only work on one thing per day, and I try to make it The Most Important Thing.

How do you decide what that most important thing is? Well, that’s a whole skill in and of itself, but I will say you can usually get close by asking yourself a version of the following:

What ONE thing can I do today that will make the biggest impact for me and my business?

On this particular notecard, my Most Important Thing was outlining the men’s coaching sales page for Precision Nutrition. (No sales page, no clients.)

Of course, the Most Important Thing will change depending on what project you’re working on. (For instance, my Most Important Thing today was writing this for you.)

WB 1 – 90m

“WB” stands for “work block.” “90m” stand for 90 minutes.

I do one completely focused block of work for 90 minutes with absolutely no distraction. That means no email, no phone, no social media, no interruptions, no nothing. The only thing I do is set a timer, sit my ass in a chair, and work (and maybe stand to stretch a couple of times).

The first 15 minutes are usually hell (sometimes the first 30). But by minute 35, I’ve usually hit my stride. After my 90 minutes are up, I grab a peppermint tea and do some light stretching. And then I’m right back to it.

WB2 – 90m

My second work block is usually a little easier since I’ve already built momentum.

Lunch

I tend to eat lunch out so I can completely disconnect from my computer and whatever I’m working on. Takes me about an hour.

WB3 – 90m

This is often my final work block for the day (unless I’m really cranking or under a very tight deadline). The third work block is kind of a crapshoot; sometimes it’s good and easy, and sometimes it’s absolute slog and I hate my life.

30m email

This is when I allow myself to go on the internet for the first time.

I start with my email and try to get back to as many people as I can. Then I check social media (which I hardly update since it’s rarely a priority.) And then I’ll send any articles I want to read directly to my Kindle so I can read them later when I’m off my computer.

After my 30 minutes are up, I write down my next day’s notecard and completely shut down my computer. That means I’m done with work for the day. (99% of the time, I don’t open my laptop again after this.)

EFL @4

EFL stands for Elemental Fitness Lab which is where I trained while I was living in Portland. I find it helpful to have a “hard stop” for when I finish my work, and heading to EFL to meet up with Chris and Blaine always gave me a reason to get out of work-mode.

EFL

Pok-Pok @7

After I exercise, I head home to shower and either stay in and cook dinner with Richelle, or go out to meet friends. Pok Pok is one of my favorite restaurants in Portland.

(Notice how I try to “bookend” important personal things at the beginning and end of my day.)

How to find more focus – a few suggestions on where to start.

So that’s my notecard and how I generally structure my day. But like I said earlier, becoming focused and productive are skills that take practice and consistency to build.

To help you get started, I have a few suggestions depending on your situation.

What to do if…

…you have “too many ideas” and don’t know where to start. Get into the habit of asking: “What ONE thing can I do today that will make the biggest impact for me and my business?” Do that thing (and only that thing) and see how you feel.

…you have trouble finding balance. Front-load one or two important personal things into your day (exercise, meditation, spending time to eat breakfast with your family) before you officially start working. Also, give yourself a “hard stop” for when you’ll transition out of work mode. I recommend setting an appointment with someone to have drinks, work out, or another activity. Once that activity is over do not go back to work again.

…you struggle with procrastination and self-control. Remove distractions and the need to have self control by turning off your internet connection, leaving your phone in a different room, and/or setting up a website blocking tool like Freedom (which is what I personally use). Also, set a timer and race the clock. (I use Pocket Cup Noodle Timer.)

…you want to learn more about becoming focused and productive. My friend Jason wrote a an 18-page mini-book with 5 proven strategies to help you get focused, do work you’re proud of, and make more time for the things that really matter. You can download it for free here.

The ability to focus is a rare and valuable skill.

As Cal Newport often writes, it’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. It’s effectively a superpower. 

And I believe it’s a superpower you must build if you want to find more balance in your life and do work that’s both meaningful and rewarding.

To build this skill will take time, hard work, and the ability to consistently push through discomfort.

But it will pay you back a million times and more. 

– Nate

PS – If you’re interested, here are roughly 75,000 (about 8% of my output over 5 years) of some of my favorite words that you can find for free online.