When I tell people how I manage my entire business on my own – from website management, to reading, writing, sending mailers, to organizing workshops and also booking a lot of travel tickets – a lot of them are in disbelief.
They disbelieve me even more when I tell them that I work for just 5-6 hours a day and take a lot of family holidays.
Well, I do not have any Masters degree in time management, but one thing that has really helped me manage my time well is a simple secret I’ve learned from people like Ben Franklin and Warren Buffett.
That simple secret is that of…
There are but 24 hours in a day! And when you have a seemingly overwhelming amount of work, it can be a quite a challenge to even know where to start.
But remember that history’s most legendary figures – from Ben Franklin to Warren Buffett – had just as little (or just as much) time as you have.
One of the biggest reasons I believe these men made it to the history books is because they never took giant steps to make it to the history books.
Instead, all they focused on was to do their daily rituals with complete integrity…and that seemingly made the difference.
Like, take a look at this ideal daily routine of Benjamin Franklin that he shared in his autobiography…
Every morning Franklin asked himself, “What good shall I do today?” Then, every night, he asked, “What good did I do today?”
Of course, Franklin’s schedule misses some things from modern life – like exercise, cooking, family and friends, trips to the grocery store, etc. But how else can you define simply how you would like to spend each of your days?
In a commencement address he gave at Stanford back in 2005, Steve Jobs revealed the motivational tactic he used to set the tone for the rest of his day…
For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”
And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
That’s powerful stuff to define what you would like to do daily.
Now consider what Buffett does daily. When asked how to get smarter, Buffett once held up stacks of paper and said, “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge builds up, like compound interest.”
Although we humans are capable of creating amazing new innovations, most of our daily lives are shaped instead by daily routines or rituals. We get up, brush our teeth, dress, have that first cup of tea or coffee, make the commute to work – and on, day after day.
Many such activities simply allow us to do certain things on autopilot so that our brains are not overtaxed by concentrating on each brushstroke and countless tiny adjustments of the steering wheel.
Some daily routines — taking a daily walk, for instance — are healthy. Others — having dessert after every meal — are not. Worse, the more routine a behaviour becomes, the less we are aware of it. This results in a sinister undercutting of our intentions such as happens when, say, those frequent desserts become extra pounds.
In some ways, habits can even resemble addictions, which are then to tough to part away with. Like Buffett often says…
Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.
Habits play a very important role in the building of successful lives. Like the habit of reading daily proved in case of Buffett.
We are all creatures of habit. As the French gastronome (a lover of good food) Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell what you are.” But habits build over time. And the benefits of good habits compound over a period of time.
But for this compounding to take place, the idea of working on the habit daily is what is required.
In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Now, while ten thousand hours look like a lot of time, if you can work on a habit – like reading books or learning value investing – diligently for just 2 hours daily, you’ll reach mastery in less than 14 years.
We Are What We Repeatedly Do
Apart from putting out his daily schedule, Franklin also laid down clearly 13 virtues as essential to good personhood…
He then set out to improve himself by devising a chart-based log for tracking his progress against these virtues. Each week, he would pick a virtue to cultivate, then put a black pencil mark in his calendar chart on any day he failed to uphold the virtue.
This visual feedback on his progress encouraged him, and allowed him to move to a different virtue the following week, hoping that each week would help him ingrain the habit of that specific virtue.
Neuroscience hadn’t developed much when Franklin was writing out his daily schedule and tracking his daily progress against the virtues. But as neuroscientists later found out, habits are a matter of daily, repeat performance. When we repeat a behaviour – good or bad – daily and over a period of time, our brain stores it as a “chunk” of action and then imprints it as a semi-permanent activity, or a habit.
Source: Scientific American
Such activities that our brain imprints in itself – that we also call as ‘habits’ – form around 45% of the actions we perform every day, with the rest 55% being actual decisions (as per research published by Duke University).
Napoleon Hill wrote this in his landmark book titled Think and Grow Rich…
Any idea, plan, or purpose may be placed in the mind through repetition of thought.
On the inverse, here is what the French writer Ernest Dimnet said…
The happiness of most people is not ruined by great catastrophes or fatal errors, but by the repetition of slowly destructive little things.
So, repetition works both in the creative and destructive process. Mahatma Gandhi was a product of creative daily habits, Hitler of destructive.
Even when it comes to learning the art of investing, there’s not one book or course that can teach you to become a sensible investor, and in a few weeks or months.
Reading books and making notes is just a part of the habit building process, and I’m sure Gladwell’s ten thousand hours framework also applies here. On the contrary, people who regularly spend a lot of time watching business television, reading newspapers, discussing on stock forums, and looking at online stock portfolios, are just building the wrong habits…again through daily repetition.
So, if you want to diligently learn how to become sensible in your investment decision making – especially learning how to pick stocks on your own – you better start learning how to manage your behaviour and analyze businesses effectively.
And to do that, reading a few pages of annual reports daily and few pages of the best books on investing and human behaviour daily can go a long way.
Repetition – practicing daily rituals, daily – is the price you would have to pay to be great at something…and investing follows the same process.
This is one of the several big lessons I’ve learned from Ben Franklin.
How (I Think) Buffett Does It
Now, while even Buffett is granted a 24-hour day, based on my reading of his life and experience, I think here’s how he takes out time to practice his daily rituals of reading 500 pages and other important things that matter to him…
- Says ‘no’ a lot of things – As per his letters and other communication, Buffett avoids businesses he doesn’t understand and as per him, these are much more in number than ones he understand.
- Remains anti-social – Buffett reportedly doesn’t use Facebook, Twitter, and probably even emails. He’s largely disconnected from the online world, and thus must give him ample amount of time to use productively.
- Loves inactivity – Buffett doesn’t go out there every day to find the next biggest 10 or 100-baggers. He doesn’t have to. Sometimes he can find but often times he don’t. There are usually 3-4 purchases in a year. It’s a laid back approach to investing. Remember the Blaise Pascal principle of sitting quietly in a room.
- Spends time only with people he likes – As per his biographers, Buffett’s inner circle is quite small. He generally avoids people he doesn’t like, which makes his life easier and his working relationships better. If you are a on a job, this is almost impossible to do. But still try to do this and I’m sure you’ll create a lot of time to do things that really matter.
- Does what he loves – You often find time for things you love doing. This is also true of learning how to invest. Reading books and annual reports may look boring to people who look at these as outsiders, but there’s an unbelievable amount of romance in these black and white pages if you love to go through them daily.
I’m not sure if Buffett has read any of those productivity books out there. But it seems that his practice of simplicity, avoidance of things that take a toll on his time and energy, and focusing on practicing the most important things daily has been the root causes behind his immense success.
If all this worked for him, why can’t it work for us? Don’t you think?
Seize the Day!
Remember this – What you do daily, day after day, has great powers in altering the course of your life ahead – both positively and negatively. I can personally vouch for this.
So, choose what you do daily very carefully…and then do it daily.
And finally remember what Steve Jobs said in his famous speech at Stanford…
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
Your – and my – time is really very limited. How we decide to spend our days will ultimately decide how we would end up spending the rest of our lives.
P.S. How I Spend My Days
Though you may not be interested, but let me still share what I do on a normal day that has helped me immensely over the past few years (ever since I quit my job and took control over my time).
Taking inspiration from Ben Franklin, I recently formalized my daily routine thus…
Now, while this schedule looks ideal in theory, I knew while setting it up that day-to-day responsibilities and unpredictability would make it impossible for me to follow it strictly.
So, instead of any unrealistic expectation, I use this schedule as a guideline. And I would say that I have been able to meet this schedule 70% of the times since I set it up. But one aspect where I have tried to be extremely disciplined is to ask myself, “What good will I do today?” when I woke up, and end each evening by contemplating the good I’d done.
Another instance where I have taken help from neuroscience to set up a good habit is that of exercising every day (well, almost). One book that has helped me tremendously in this pursuit is Robert Maurer’s One Small Step Can Change Your Life – The Kaizen Way.
It’s basic premise of building a habit was to start small and then move ahead in small steps. So, I started with walking/running 1 km per day sometime in 2013, then increased it to 2 km/day, then 3 km, and so on.
Just last week, I completed a 21-day challenge to myself to ride bicycle 21 km per day (more on that in a later post).
Anyways, sticking to my daily rituals – written or not – has helped me channelize my energy well into my life and my business of writing and investing over these past few years. I’m sure it will benefit you too.
After all, no matter what’s happening in your life, coping and succeeding are both a matter of routine.
Further Reading – If you wish to learn how the world’s most creative minds from history used to spend their days, you must read this brilliant book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, written by Mason Currey. It contains accounts of Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Jane Austen, Beethoven, Karl Marx, Picasso, and many more.
Note: This post was originally published in January 2015, but I have updated it on request by adding a few more references and my personal experience.