Jim Collins is a modern-day polymath.
He has authored and co-authored seven books, which include Good to Great and Built to Last, books that sold over 10 million copies worldwide. He founded a management laboratory where he conducts research and teaches executives from the corporate and social sectors.
Apart from working at McKinsey and HP and teaching at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, he also managed his wife’s ascending triathlon career for some time.
Collins himself is an avid rock climber, having completed single-day ascents of El Capitan and Half Dome in the Yosemite Valley.
That’s a phenomenal list of achievements. But they didn’t fall in Collins’s lap by chance.
What It Takes to Build a Meaningful Life
According to Collins, a key reason for his success is that he invests a thousand hours each year on creative tasks. That’s right, 1000 creative hours each year, or almost three hours each day.
During these hours, he works on tasks that enable him to create replicable, durable, and meaningful work—research, writing, thinking.
Collins enters the number of his daily creative hours in a spreadsheet. He also makes an account of his day: what he did, whether he had interesting conversations, how the day felt. This might sound boring to most of us. But for Collins, this activity has shaped his life.
Here’s Collins’ explanation on how it helps him:
All of us have dark times, difficult times. All of us have good times. But if you’re kind of going through a funk, it colors your whole life. And you tend to think your whole life is a funk because you’re looking through that lens.
I feel like my life is really pretty good. But when you’re in that other place, it doesn’t feel like that, right? So I started creating a code which is +2, +1, 0, -1, -2.
The key on all this is that you have to do it everyday in real time. You can’t, like five days later, look back and say, “how did I feel that day?”
This is totally subjective [feeling of] how quality was the day. A +2 was a super positive day, a great day. It might not have been a really difficult day. It might’ve been a day of really hard rock climbing, of really hard writing. But it felt really good, right? It might’ve been a day of an intense but meaningful conversation with a friend. All that adds up as a +2.
+1 is another positive day. 0 is meh. -1 is kind of a net-tone negative, and -2 are bad days.
It has proved incredibly useful for me, because now you can sort the spreadsheet. And you can say, “Over the last 5 years what’s going on in all the +2 days and what’s going on in the -2 days?” You begin to identify patterns that make days +2 or -2.
And now as I navigate life, I want more of the things that create the +2’s and less of the things that create the -2’s. But the difference that’s helped me is I know what they are.
Collins’ detailed account of each day helps him find patterns in the +2 days and in the -2 days. You can listen to the whole interview here.
How to get out of a funk
We all want to work on activities that feel fulfilling. But we struggle to identify them. And in the rare cases when we do figure out what they are, we struggle to maintain consistency.
Instead, we jump from one task to another in search of the elusive feeling of fulfillment only to land in a funk. Then we take all sorts of steps to get out of it. We busy ourselves with work, go for a walk, talk to friends, watch motivational videos. But none of it works. Eventually, we settle down to binge-watch Netflix.
The funk extends endlessly. We function in zombie mode, hoping that life will throw a few good days in the mix.
Until all this catches up. We feel burned out, stressed, and exhausted. Our mental health gets shredded to bits. Life becomes something we’d rather avoid than experience.
It’s easier to avoid such a mess when you understand that happiness doesn’t come from doing more; it comes from doing more of what feels right to you and less of what doesn’t, and when you know the things that fall under each category.
For the past three months, I’ve been making an account of each day in my journal and marking it as +2, +1, 0, -1, -2. On weekends, I flip through the pages to recollect what I did on the +2 and the –2 days.
Here’s what I’ve figured out. On most +2 days, I do one or more of the following:
I dive deeper into an interesting topic, researching it for hours, and connecting it with divergent concepts to build coherent, well-thought-out perspectives.
I complete deep-work tasks like finishing an article draft or making meaningful progress on a project and have a plan for what comes next.
I enjoy a stimulating conversation with someone I admire or with a good friend, which leads to a burst of ideas in my head.
On such days, I can work ten hours and still have enough energy to go for a run.
My -2 days include a lot of social media and TV. Or they’re days when I just work on easy tasks, none of which stretch me cognitively.
Identifying these patterns meant I didn’t have to stay at the mercy of external situations and circumstances. I could tweak my tasks to have better days. So that’s what I did.
Now, I focus on task management more than time management. This means I slot my day into 3-hour chunks of deep, focused work rather than 30-minute chunks of shallow work. To avoid distractions, I block social media or turn off the internet, and keep my phone in another room.
You don’t need a physical notebook for this. If you’re a spreadsheet- or digital-diary kind of person, you can make daily notes and tag them +2, +1, and so on.
It’s easier to be consistent when you know what to do and why you want to do it. When you crave the delicious feeling that follows doing something you love, you can return to it over and over again.
A good life is just a sum of good days; days that have fewer moving parts, where you do more of what you love and less of what you don’t, and where you discover more about yourself. If you adopt a scientific approach, building such a life becomes easier.