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You probably know Scott Adams. He’s the creator of the Dilbert comic, which is one of the most successful (and hilarious) comics in history. It’s been translated into more than 65 languages, has been seen by millions of people, and has established Adams as a brilliant observer of office culture.

So how has Adams been so successful? Where did he learn the habits that have allowed him to create one of the most lucrative comic empires of the past century?

From his mom.

Adams’ mom grew up on a dairy farm, and the work needed to sustain the farm was incredibly labor intensive. Milking, feeding, planting herding – was exhausting. On the farm, they developed systems to minimize effort and maximize output so that they could preserve energy and achieve more.

This is wise.

When your job requires a constant output of energy, you do everything possible to save energy. To be more efficient. To reduce wasted time and effort.

Adams paid attention to his mom and how she worked.

He learned that efficiency and systems are the difference between success and failure. As Adams told my friend Chris Winfield (regarding farming):

You get up at 4 and you’re going to bed at 8 to get everything done. An extra hour to fix your wagon that ran into a post, that isn’t going to happen.

This is one of his top productivity secrets. Everything is about creating systems that minimize effort, increase productivity, and allow him to do more in less time. By constantly working to create these types of systems, Adams now only spends 25% of his time working on Dilbert.


So how exactly does he achieve such massive levels of productivity? What does it look like when he implements systems in his life?

#1: Put Your Goals Inside Your Systems

Reaching an aim

When goals are created outside of systems, you often don’t achieve them. Why? One primary reason is lack of willpower.

On his blog, Adams uses the example of losing weight. You may want to lose 10 pounds, and as part of that goal, you resolve to not eat any unhealthy food.

But when confronted with a slice of pizza versus a bowl of salad, you’ll often choose the pizza. Your willpower simply can’t hold out against the delicious pizza.

As this happens again and again, your goal becomes associated with discomfort and failure, and your willpower runs out. Suddenly you’re back to where you started, gorging on terrible food.

However, if you put your weight loss goal inside a system that includes understanding  good eating practices, weight management strategies, and the knowledge of what it feels like to eat well, you don’t have to rely exclusively on willpower.

Rather, you have an entire system that supports your overall goal and allows you to keep going even when you slip up. You have a series of daily practices that lead to your goal (and much further beyond).

Eventually, you’ll develop and even enjoy the habit of eating well, and it will be much harder for you to eat poorly because it’s so ingrained in you. Your system will transform into a way of living.

Now take the same idea and transport it into the world of productivity.

Let’s say you have a goal of massively increasing your productivity in the mornings. It sounds great, but when you find yourself confronted by social media, email, and Slack, it’s easy to let your goal go by the wayside.

What you need is a system to support your initial goal and eventually transform that goal into a habit.

What could that system look like?

  • Completely shut off your smart phone for the first hour of every day
  • Use software that will block you from social media, email, and chat applications
  • Don’t open your email client until after that first hour
  • Shut your office door or work outside the office
  • Put on background music to drown out distracting noise
  • Use the Pomodoro Technique to create work sprints

All these facets of your system minimize the amount of effort required to reach maximum morning productivity. Instead of having to battle the resistance of distractions, you reduce the friction and place yourself in a position to achieve maximum results.

Eventually, this system will be so ingrained in you that you can’t imagine not following these practices. It will be a habit that’s harder to break than to keep and your entire life will be changed.

What goals are chasing right now? Can you take those goals and place them inside a bigger system that will set you up for long term success?

  • Instead of having the goal of writing a book, can you create a system of daily writing?
  • Instead of trying to finish a project, can you create a system that encompasses the way you approach all projects?
  • Instead of having the goal of getting up at 5:30 am, can you create a system that will support that goal (e.g., making coffee the night before, visualizing the success that early rising will bring, etc.)?
  • Instead of aiming to run a marathon, can create an exercise system that will lead you both toward and beyond that particular goal?

Scott Adams has achieved stratospheric success primarily because he understands the power of systems.

As Adams notes in his book How To Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big:

A goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal. If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction.

#2: Eat Your Frogs As Part Of Your System

Eat your frog

Here at Asian Efficiency, we’re big believers in tackling your most difficult tasks first thing in the morning (also known as “eating your frogs”). By eating your frogs, you make progress on your most important tasks first thing every morning.

The rest of your day may be filled with email, meetings, and distractions, but at a minimum, you took action on the one thing that mattered most. This provides a tremendous momentum boost and allows you to go home each day feeling like you actually accomplished something.

And, when you work on your most important task in the morning, you are able to devote the most amount of energy and concentration to it.

As Adams notes in his book:

One of the most important tricks for maximizing your productivity involves matching your mental state to the task.

This is why Adams does his creative work in the mornings. “I can do in half an hour what would take me three hours if I had afternoon brain.” In other words, because his energy levels and creativity are highest in the morning, he devotes that time to his most important task: his cartooning.

Eating his frog is part of his productivity system. Rather than saying, “I’m going to do this many cartoons in this much time,” he simply does cartoon work (which is most important) at the same time every day. It’s this process that has allowed him to churn out thousands of quality comics over the years.

As you create your own productivity system, consider how you can eat your frog every morning. Can you…

  • Implement a morning writing habit?
  • Prioritize your tasks so that you work on the most demanding part of your most important project every morning?
  • Send out three cold call emails or make three phone calls to potential sales leads as soon as you get to work?

Success is the result of repeated actions. By making eating your frog part of your daily productivity system, you’ll have a much greater chance of achieving maximum results.

#3: Control Your Emotional State and Energy

Total relaxation

This requires a bit of explanation because this is more complex than simply being a positive person or always looking on the sunny side. Adams believes that the key to success and happiness is keeping yourself in an optimal state.

In other words, by focusing on controlling his mood, emotions, body chemistry, and energy, he can achieve much more and enjoy himself while doing so.

This is similar to what Tony Robbins espouses about “priming”. Robbins puts himself in a position for maximum productivity by priming his biological and emotional state every morning. He does a series of exercises and meditations that prepare him to attack the day with full clarity and engagement.

Adams has built a series of relatively simple habits into his life that keep him in a “primed” state as much as possible. As he notes in his book:

I’ve explained to a number of people my observations about how exercise, diet, and sleep influence mood. The usual reaction is a blank expression followed by a change of topic. No one wants to believe that the formula for happiness is as simple as daydreaming, controlling your schedule, napping, eating right, and being active every day.

This may seem like simple advice, but it’s ignored by an astonishing number of people. The way to success is not by cramming as much into every day as possible. Rather, it’s by managing your energy and emotions. Those who effectively manage their energy are far more productive than those who try to burn the candle at both ends.

As Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz note in their book The Power of Full Engagement:

Without the right quantity, quality, focus and force of energy, we are compromised in any activity we undertake…The more we take responsibility for the energy we bring to the world, the more empowered and productive we become.

The fact is, you simply can’t be truly productive without controlling your energy and emotions. When you fail to manage your energy, you aren’t able to bring the focus you need to a particular task, which in turns leads to mediocre performance.

This begs the question: does your productivity system include energy management? Do you make time in your schedule for:

  • Appropriate periods of recharging?
  • Nightly sleep?
  • Times of complete disengagement?
  • Eating healthy, energy renewing foods?
  • Implementing supplements to boost your productivity?

How has Adams been so astoundingly consistent in his output? How has he maintained such an steady pace for so many years?

By focusing on his energy first and foremost. He knows that if he isn’t in a peak state, his output will suffer, his creativity will falter, and he’ll produce mediocre material. He puts himself first, and as a result is able to give much more to others.

It’s Not Complicated

When you look at Scott Adams, one thing stands out: consistency. For 25 years, he has done the work. He isn’t a one-hit wonder who quickly flames out. He is a creativity, productivity powerhouse.

When you take the engine off, it’s not difficult to see why. He relies on systems, his systems always place the most important things first, and his systems ensure he pays close attention to managing his energy levels. When you combine these three things, the results are incredible

You may not be an artist, but you can achieve the same consistent, outstanding results by following these techniques.

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. Ah, but all these have the classic paradox of productivity improvements. All require discipline but the core problem is also discipline. How do you get the discipline to display discipline?

    That brings up my solution to the rich entertainment celebrity who has a drug problem. In his case, why doesn’t he simply hire some muscular guys and create an iron-clad contract with these provisions.

    1. Every time they catch him doing drugs, they get $100,000.

    2. If he fires them from that job, they get $100 million.

    Most of us cannot hire that level of outside motivation, but for those who can, the question is why they don’t do it.

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