On his life spreadsheet
And so I went to some faculty members who I greatly respect and I said, “How do the people in the academy that you most respect in yourself spend their time?” And I got a consistent answer: 50, 30, 20. 50 percent of your time in new, intellectual, creative work. 30 percent of your time in teaching. And 20 percent of your time in other stuff that just has to get done — serving on committees, whatever it happens to be that you have to do. And so I thought, “That sounds good. I’m just going to start doing that.” So I started — as I was heading out on the Thelma and Louise leap — counting my hours every day. And I would count how many hours in the day were creative, new, intellectual. And the goal was that had to be above 50 percent.
Then how many hours would be in teaching, and how many hours would be in other stuff like, somebody’s got to balance the QuickBooks, right? And so I started counting and that’s where the triple stopwatch came in. I found this wonderful triple stopwatch where I could constantly go back and forth and at the end of the day I would have the total. Later I came to the realization that what really mattered was the first bucket, the creative work. And so I eventually simplified it. There’s a concept in Great by Choice called the 20 mile march. And so I kind of had a 20 mile march, I just didn’t know that concept yet. And the idea of it being something that you just do really consistently over time that imposes a very high level of discipline that accumulates to results.
And so I simplified it and I just simply said, “Can I just simply count the number of creative hours I get every day and then hold myself to an account?” So at the end of every single day, I open a spreadsheet and that spreadsheet has three cells on a line; that’s for the day. The first thing is just a simple accounting of what happened that day. Where did my time go? What did I do? etc. ...
They are: “Got up early, two hours of really great creative work, breakfast with Joanne, five hours creative work, work out, nap, three hours of creative work, enjoyed dinner with Joanne, bed.” That’s like a great day. But other days are full of lots of other choppy things. And so what I tend to do is try to capture a bit of what happened this week, what happened with the main tasks of the day. If there were some really interesting conversations that happened or something that hit in those. I’ll notes those. They’re markers so that I can always go back and I’ll just share with you how I use those in a minute because I actually do these correlations with all of that.
And then the second cell is the number of creative hours I got that day. Now there’s no rule about how many you get in a day. Sometimes there’s zero and sometimes they can be nine or 10, which would be a huge number. But then it calculates back over the last 365 days. And the march, which I don’t think I’ve missed for well over 30 years, and I hope to hit for a lot longer now is every single 365 days cycle, every single one, every single day, if you calculate back the last 365 days, the total number of creative hours must exceed 1,000. No matter what.
It doesn’t matter if you’re sick. It doesn’t matter if there’s other stuff you’d like — 1,000 creative hours a year as a minimum baseline. Now you can be above that, that’s fine. But never once, there can’t be a single day in any 365-day cycle, January two to January two, July 22 to July 22, September nine to September nine, it doesn’t matter. Always has to be above 1,000 creative hours. And you watch it — and I put on the whiteboard here at the lab — the three-month pace. So you take the last three months multiply it times four, the six month pace. And then the current 365. And that is a way to kind of monitor. If I start seeing those numbers start to go down, I’ll change my behavior. And sometimes I have a big buffer and sometimes I don’t.
And the idea is, if you stay with that, eventually you’re going to have work. Now there’s a third cell that I put in there that most people don’t know as much about because people know about the hours thing somewhat. But all of us have dark times, difficult times. All of us have good times, right? But here’s an interesting thing I noticed, which is that 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.
And so I thought, “But actually I feel like my life is really pretty good.” But when you’re in that other place, it doesn’t feel that way, right? And so what I started to do is I started creating a code, which is plus two, plus one, zero minus one, minus two. And the other thing I put in — and the key on all this by the way is you have to do it every day in real time. You can’t five days later look back and say, “How did I feel that day?” And what this is, is a totally subjective “How quality was the day?” A plus two is a super positive day.
Tim Ferriss: This is emotionally speaking?
Jim Collins: Exactly. Just like: “Was it a great day?” A plus two is just a great day. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t — there might not have been a really difficult day. It might’ve been a day of a really hard rock climb. It might’ve been a day of really hard writing. But it felt really good, right? It might’ve been a day of an intense conversation, but really meaningful with a friend or something. But what it adds up to is a plus two. Plus one is another positive day. Zero is meh. Minus one is kind of a net tone negative. And minus two is, those are bad days, right? And you put it in before you go to bed because if you try to remember, if I were to ask you Tim, right now, 17 days ago, or even five days ago to give the score, you’re going to be distorted by how you’re feeling today.
Tim Ferriss: Oh for sure. Yeah, memory, if you ask people what they ate two days ago, they’re going to be off by 40 percent, 50 percent calories for sure. Yeah.
Jim Collins: Exactly. So I write it down, and now I start to have — I’ve got the creative hours marked, which is, it’s kind of discipline in service of creativity. And it’s relentless, right? It just stays with me constantly. You never get a break from it. You can take breaks, but you can never get a break from the thousandth floor. But that other has proved to be incredibly useful for me because now what you can do is sort the spreadsheet. And you can say, over the last five years, what’s going on in all the plus two days? Oh, and over the last five years …
Tim Ferriss: Ah, that’s where the descriptions come in.
Jim Collins: Yeah, exactly. And over the last five years, what’s going on in the minus two days? And now as I navigate, it’s kind of like the Simplex Method in operations research where you find optimal by never really knowing that optimal is ahead of time. You do it by a series of iterative steps of the next best step.
Tim Ferriss: Hold on, could you explain that? I’m from Long Island, so sometimes it takes me a minute. Could you explain what that was one more time?
Jim Collins: Yeah, sure. So my undergraduate was a thing called mathematical sciences with a heavy dose of philosophy. And math science was pure mathematics, computer science, statistics, and operations research.
And in operations research there’s a method developed by a guy named George Dantzig called the Simplex Method. And essentially the idea is that if you’re really trying to find the optimal answer to a multi-variant problem where there’s lots and lots of variables, even the biggest computers couldn’t basically do a giant spreadsheet and sort. There are just too many permutations. And what he showed was under certain conditions, all you have to do is find the local optimum — what’s the best next step?
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Jim Collins: And then you reset and then what’s the next best step? And that he showed that under certain conditions that is mathematically guaranteed to navigate you to the optimal end point. And that was the Simplex Method as I understand it. It was 30, 40 years ago when I was in the class. So I’ve always had that idea in mind. So you kind of navigate step by step. And so I think about it as in navigating life, I want more of the things that create the plus twos, and less of the things that create the minus twos. But the difference that’s helped me is I know what they are.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Jim Collins: And I can start — it’s not that life is never perfect, but you can do a simple more of this, less of that. And more of this, less of that. If that makes any sense.
Tim Ferriss: It makes perfect sense. What are some of the patterns that you found for either the do more column or the do less column for yourself?
Jim Collins: Yeah. So when I look at those patterns, I would say on the plus twos there are almost two contradictory components. And not contradictory, but they’re just really different flavors. One is the solitude of really hard work. And sometimes one of my favorite days will be I get up, I never leave the house. And I basically get to just lose myself in the research or in the writing or in the making sense of things. It’s a very incredible simplicity of the day. I’m 61 now and I think about what comes next. And I tend to keep creating. I want to stay in some version of that march for a really long time. My role models have all done that.
But I think about life as having three things at least that I think are really important, and one of them is increasing simplicity. Just sheer simplicity. Two is time in flow state. And flow state’s not easy. And the third is time with people I love. And so when I look at those plus twos, a lot of the days would be days of high simplicity, not much happened. There were very few moving parts. But a lot of deep hard work in flow state. I might’ve been writing or doing a concept or creating something. Just you’re lost in the work.
Tim Ferriss: Or rock climbing probably.
Jim Collins: Or rock climbing, exactly. Exactly. It’s arduous but you’re lost in it. Those are great. The other though, for me, is the time with people I love. And the other dimension, while I wouldn’t describe myself as a highly social type person — I love the solitude of the hard work — the other side is the people in my life and there are many; I have great friends. Really great friends that many decade friends. Friends back to third grade, seventh grade, all my college roommates, my personal band of brothers. I have friends. And my wife, we’ve been married 38 years. Got engaged four days after our first date.
Tim Ferriss: What? Four days after your first date?
Jim Collins: Yes, that’s true.
Tim Ferriss: Wow, okay. We might come back to that.
Jim Collins: We might, but the thing is, when you have those days where you’re really present and engaged with people you really love, those are plus two days. You may not have accomplished anything, or in the case of climbing it might that I went out climbing with one of my best friends, and I don’t even necessarily remember the climb. It was with a friend. And so my plus two days are either very solitude or very connected. But connected to people that have these long, enduring really, really wonderful relationships in life. And those make plus twos.
Tim Ferriss: I love it. You at some point in life need to meet my friend, Josh Waitzkin, who you and he have very similar heuristics. He was the basis for the book and the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. So his first life was in chess. But I won’t take us too far off track but at some point, I think you guys would really, really get along. Okay, let me dive into a couple of clarifying questions if I may.
Jim Collins: Yes. Sure.
Tim Ferriss: Because this is so juicy, I can’t — I don’t want to just move on to the next thing.
Jim Collins: We can have all these people now creating spreadsheets.
Tim Ferriss: I was going to say, if this writing thing doesn’t work out for you, you should create — you have a spreadsheet company, you have a journaling company available to you.
Jim Collins: Right.
Tim Ferriss: Creative: this is a word that means different things to different people. What are the main activities or what are some of the activities that are squarely in the creative bucket for you? And the reason I’m asking is I’m thinking about how I spend my own time. And you have a team — I suspect a much smaller team — but for instance if you are working on a book that requires interviews, would spending time scheduling those interviews count as creative or is there a cutoff? Even if it’s in service of a larger creative project where you have admin and then you have creative. So for you, what counts towards the hours marked creative?
Jim Collins: So you’ve hit upon exactly where the gray zone is on this. And in general, in order to — again, I have to go back to what’s the overall objective? The overall objective is that over time there’s quality work. And so I can’t start calling things “creative” that in the end wouldn’t lead to some kind of creative output. And by the way, sometimes that creative output ends up in a drawer because it just doesn’t make it to the world. But you have to just keep working. And I think of it like being an artist in a studio. And so, is getting the paintbrushes ready to paint part of the creative? I would say yes. I would say that organizing the tools and maybe even ordering paint, because it’s in direct service to the creation of what ultimately might be on a canvas.
Whether the world sees it or not, I define creative as any activity that has a reasonably direct link to the creation of something that is new and potentially replicable or durable.