The exponential power of making our bad days less bad

Why avoiding 'zero' days is the key to growth

Hello to the 437 Intentional Wisdom’ers receiving today's newsletter! Summer is (unofficially) here in the Northern Hemisphere, and that means swimming, sunscreen, and... routines getting totally out of whack. Which week are we going on vacation? Why is this air conditioner not working? Did we leave a kid at the pool? I have no idea. But I do know this. It's incredibly easy to let our habits slide this time of year, making it much tougher to stay on track—with work, with our fitness, or any big goals we're trying to achieve. This week, I'm aiming to give you a few strategies to keep it on the rails.

One big idea for you this week:

There's a concept in financial markets known as "days in the market." Basically, the idea is that in order to maximize your returns over the long term, you need to stay invested. Why? Well, because no one really knows when the market is going to have really great days or really terrible days, and historically, the best way to make sure you capitalize on those great days is by staying invested in the market.

Every financial advisor has some version of the chart below, which basically shows the astounding difference in returns over long periods of time if investors miss even a small number of the market's best days.

Of course, compounding plays a major role here. If you were invested on those best days, then your base is that much higher for the next big day. And that's where linear growth can become exponential growth—which is when the real magic happens.

Staying in the game

This basic tenet of 'staying in the game' applies not only in the world of finance but in virtually every other part of our lives as well—in our careers, in our relationships, and in our physical and mental health.

I talk a lot in this newsletter about optimizing habits—from health and fitness to creative work—but the reality is that sometimes just showing up—for our workout, for our side project, for our spouse—is too much to even handle.

We start out with the best intentions, but then life gets in the way. Works gets crazy. Our kids get sick. We have a bad night's sleep. And seemingly more often than not, all of these things happen at the same time.

We know it's going to be a bad day. We're going to be operating at less than 100%. Just trying to survive.

We might think these days are a wash when it comes to our goals.

Forget about losing the 20 lbs today.
Forget about writing the book.
Forget about getting that side business off the ground.

In other words, we decide that we're going to be 'out of the game' today.

Of course, just like in financial markets, that presents a problem. Being out of the game means that we: a) give away our option on what could have been a seriously productive day, and b) slow the process of compounding, potentially dramatically.

No zero days

So what can we do about this to at least limit the damage on those days when we're struggling to get by?

Here are three strategies that have helped me personally.

  1. Set deadlines — You know the saying: Deadlines inspire creativity. It's true. I love deadlines. I produce content for a living. If there were no deadlines, there would be no content. I could procrastinate it all away. You're receiving this newsletter today because I set a deadline—otherwise, you'd get it "some day," which is code for “no day.” By the way, guess who has the authority to make up deadlines that are completely arbitrary and exist only for the sole purpose of getting stuff done? You do. And you should. Deadlines are extremely effective.

  2. Force yourself to be accountable — The other reason you're receiving this newsletter today is because I've forced myself to be accountable to you. This is similar to a fake deadline in that it's somewhat arbitrary and you didn't demand an ‘every Thursday morning’ deliverable, but that's what I'm promising. So that's what I'm going to deliver. Do you want to get something done? Publicize it. Tell other people what they can expect and when they can expect it. Make them rely on you. Navy SEAL turned author Jocko Willink famously posts pictures of his wristwatch at 4:30 am every day to social media to hold himself accountable to his followers that he’s practicing what he preaches by waking up at the crack of dawn.

  3. Learn to love rules and routines — There's a perception that routines are prisons—damning us to a life of boring doldrums. Nothing can be further from the truth. Routines set us free. Most of us worry about how we can possibly do all that we need to do. Routines are the solution. The more we can pre-program our days, the more freedom we have. The fewer logistical decisions we need to make, the more available brainpower we have for meaningful ideas and work. The older I get, the more I love structure. It's why I've been raving about Peloton's Programs. I don't have to think about my daily workouts or make choices. I just show up and my workout is planned, and the whole month is set up in a methodical way that gets me to the desired goal (getting stronger). Perfect. The more specific you can be, the better. Chris Cornell, who posts regularly on Twitter about his low-carb lifestyle shared the below set of nutrition rules. Pretty specific, right? Perfect. That much easier to follow. Ambiguity and vague promises to ourselves cause stress. Rather than limiting us, strict rules are freeing. Try them.

These tactics all serve one overarching purpose: to help us stay on the rails. To make sure the bad days end up actually being okay days.

Most of us don't focus on or even think about the bad days when we're dreaming of six-pack abs, running our own business, or getting that promotion. We think of the moments of glory.

But the bad days are the ones that actually matter the most when it comes to our growth. They are the days when we decide to "stay in the game," and to let compounding work its magic. They are the days when we set the standard for what is minimally acceptable to us.

Not to overdo here it with the pep talk, but I think this Michael Phelps Under Armour ad illustrates the concept well. God, I’m a sucker for great marketing.

Author, James Clear says that we should focus on having one good day at a time. Just one good day.

Deadlines, accountability, rules, and routines are the tactics that can actually get us there.

That’s it for this week.

See you next Thursday. In the meantime, don’t have any bad days.

— Greg


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By the way, this concept of no ‘zero days' doesn't mean no rest. Rest is critical for growth and needs to be a part of the plan. I wrote more about that here.

One podcast recommendation for this week and then I’ll let you go…

Podcast: James Clear & Ryan Holiday — James Clear markets his newsletter as the "The most wisdom per word of any newsletter on the web.” I think that is very true, not only of his newsletter but of his books and podcast appearances, too. A few ideas in this conversation inspired this week's newsletter. Some that I particularly enjoyed were:

  • Being laser-focused on process over results (a theme we keep coming back to)

  • Focusing on having one good day (and then repeating it)

  • Much of what we worry about is not in our control. Control what you can control (by focusing on process over outcomes)

  • The bad days are more important than the good days. Proving you can still show up in less than ideal conditions. Casting a vote for the person you want to be.

Have a great week.

— Greg