The Power of Non-Zero Days: The Best Productivity Method I’ve Ever Used
Published (updated: ) in misc.
We’re nearly halfway through first month of the new year and New Year’s Resolutions posts are slowly starting to fade away on social media. Eventually many of the grand plans and goals people have set for themselves will slowly start to wither away and another year will be wasted. It doesn’t have to be this way; often many people who’ve failed to reach their goals in years past simply need a better system.
I myself was in the same boat a few years ago, having large goals but never really accomplishing anything. Or, I’d have random bursts of productivity but ultimately nothing consistent enough to really accomplish the lofty goals I had set for myself.
All of this changed three years ago reading a comment on a Reddit post and my entire life has changed. I’m far more productive and I’ve made far more progress towards my goals than I’d ever previously thought possible.
Rule #1: No More Zero Days!
The system I learned reading that Reddit post three years ago is called the “Non-Zero Day” system. What the heck is a “Non-Zero Day”? I’M SO GLAD YOU ASKED! A zero day is when you don’t do anything that day towards accomplishing the goals you have for yourself. A Non-Zero Day is where you do something, anything towards your goal. Want to learn guitar? Then practice every single day. Even ten minutes of practice is better than zero. Want to learn a foreign language? Do at least one lesson on Duolingo or Memrise every day, even if you’re just reviewing stuff you’ve already learned. Why? Because that repetition will add it to your memory. That one lesson worked on each day is better than zero and much better than infrequent, sporadic bursts of practice.
By working towards your goal every single day you’ll build the habit and you’ll start to progress towards your goal. It is said that it takes 21 days to build a habit, so string 21 consecutive days of working towards your goals and eventually the habit will be formed and you won’t want to break it. Okay, so the 21-day-habit theory might not be based 100% in science, but the point still remains the same: Consistent actions breeds habit, regardless whether it takes 21 days or not.
Some days you may only have time for ten minutes of guitar practice, and others you may spend a few hours: The key is to be consistent and practice every single day! Maintaining the habit is far more important than doing it ‘properly’ or focusing on how long you practice the habit for. You’ll make far more progress towards your goals by making small, incremental progress every day as opposed to random, infrequent bursts of productivity.
Pro Tip: The Seinfeld Calendar Method
Jerry Seinfeld wrote that when he was an aspiring comedian he would force himself to write one joke every single day. He would mark on a calendar every day he did something towards his goal. Eventually, he had so many days marked off as completed it would serve as motivation because he didn’t want to break the chain. That daily action builds the habit of practice and improvement.
I made myself a simple Google Sheet with a list of everything I want to accomplish every day: Hit the gym, practice Spanish, and learn some code. Stringing together enough non-zeros and I want to keep the chain from breaking! You could also buy a calendar or print one off online and stick it on the wall if you think you’d forget to check the Google Sheet. It’s really cool having the progress chart to look back at all of the work you’ve put in along your journey towards success!
Rule #2 – The Three Yous
There are three yous: Past Self, Present Self, and Future Self. First, you have to be grateful for your Past Self and everything you’ve done up until this point. Spent every day last month working on your jumpshot and today you hit the game-winning basket? Thank you Past Self for working hard every day at practice! Studied a little bit every single day all semester long and then you were able to ace the final exam? Thank you Past Self for planning ahead so I could good night’s sleep the night before finals instead of pulling an all-nighter like everyone else!
Then, you have to train your Present Self that all actions you do today affect your Future Self. Tired after work and want to sit on your butt and watch Netflix and not do those Spanish grammar lessons? Screw you present self! I’m going to bust out some lessons today in my Spanish textbook so next time I’m visiting Mexico I can speak to the locals in their native language. That alarm clock is going off way too early, but my Present Self is going to have to drag myself to the gym instead of hitting snooze because Future Me wants to be in awesome shape when I get older! Future Me will greatly appreciate the work I’m doing today to prepare set myself up for an awesome future.
Rule #3 – Forgive Yourself When You Slip Up
By now you’ve working hard at stringing together a string of consecutive Non-Zero Days and you’re using the Seinfeld Calendar method to keep track of your progress. But oops, you slipped up and forgot to run 6 miles today to train for that 10K you want to run. Forgive yourself and move on!
It’s so easy to get sucked into the trap of thinking, “Man, I’ve wasted all of this time not doing xyz. If only I had gotten started ten years earlier I’d be so far along today!” You’re probably right, but you have to forgive yourself and convince your Present Self to get started today! Future you will greatly appreciate that you forgave your Past Self and focused on accomplishing your goals instead of negatively dwelling on the past.
Rule #4 – Books!
Ryans01 says (more on him in a sec):
As for books, almost every fucking thing we’ve all ever thought of, or felt, or gone through, or wanted, or wanted to know how to do, or whatever, has been figured out by someone else. Get some books Max. Post to reddit about not caring about yourself? Good first step! (nonzero day, thanks younger me for typing it out) You know what else you could do? Read “7 habits of highly successful people”. Read “emotional intelligence”. Read “From good to great”. Read “thinking fast and slow”. Read books that will help you understand. Read the bodyweight fitness reddit and incorporate it into your workouts. (how’s them pullups coming?) Reading is the fucking warp whistle from Super Mario 3. It gets you to the next level that much faster.
I like that analogy a lot. Humans have been on this planet thousands of years and we’ve been writing printed books since the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. Mankind has been good about documenting dang near everything these past 577 years, so why not learn from people who’ve gone through the same situations that you’re going through? Books are the bee’s knees. Can’t afford to buy lots of books? Public libraries are excellent resources: I love using the Houston Public Library system and, as an alumnus, I frequently check out books from the Anderson Library at the University of Houston.
I’ve always been an occasional reader but in 2013 I started really getting into reading. To stay motivated I created a simple Google Sheet to keep track of every book I’ve already read and every book I want to read. Some people use GoodReads for this purpose as well. In 2016 I read 35 books and wish I had time to read so many more because I now have several hundred books on my Google Sheet that I want to read. Quality is certainly more important than quantity, but I like to keep track of my progress to make sure I’m consistent in my reading. r/books is a great place where fellow bookworms to congregate and discuss the love of reading.
35 books may sound like a lot, but break it down into smaller increments: An average book is 300 pages which would take you 300 days to read at the pace of 1 page per day. If you can read 10 pages per day, you’re on track to read 1 book every thirty days or about 12 books per year. You can handle that!
Motivation is fickle, something that comes and goes. The Non-Zero Day technique is about cultivating discipline regardless of whether you’re motivated or not. Motivation is all about how you feel; discipline is about ignoring how you feel and doing it anyway. Forgive your Past Self for any mistakes while being grateful to your Past Self for everything you’ve accomplished. Then, tell your Present Self you’re going to front-load a little pain in order to become the best version of your Future Self that you can possibly be. If you need help tracking your progress, check out the Seinfeld Calendar Method and don’t be afraid to read as many books as you can.
I’d love to take credit for the Non-Zero Day method, but I got the idea from a comment made by a Redditor under the username Ryans01 three years ago in the r/GetDisciplined subReddit. If you liked my blog post above, please read his original comment here.
In this next section I’m to share how I apply the Non-Zero technique to different areas of my life to learn different things.
Learning a Foreign Language
Want to speak a foreign language? Duolingo is a great, free resource to start! My goal is to be completely fluent in the Spanish language so I started doing Duolingo a few years ago. I completed the Spanish course in 2015 so I started doing the reverse course: I switched the app’s language to Spanish and started learning English through Spanish. Fun stuff! It challenged me to read through the Spanish language then translate to English. After finishing that course I decided it would be fun to pick up some other languages on the side so I then added the Italian, German, and French courses to my Duolingo profile, all while keeping the app in Spanish. Learning another foreign language through Spanish forces me to test myself to see how strong my Spanish is and the best part is I can’t use English as a crutch to fall back on. I’m actually learning some new words through this method and increasing my vocabulary. It’s also fun seeing the similarities between languages.
Duolingo is fun because it keeps a streak of how many consecutive days I’ve been using the app. That streak keeps me motivated to do my language lessons every day and not to give up. It also motivates me in other areas of my life, keeping me focused and motivated, much like the Seinfeld calendar method. In addition to Duolingo, I also use the Practice Makes Perfect book series to improve my vocab and other fun stuff like verb conjugations, etc. I also use Memrise from time to time and I really like it a lot as well.
Be sure to check out the r/LanguageLearning subreddit as well as r/Duolingo and other, language-specific subreddits like r/LearnSpanish and r/Spanish.
One of my biggest goals is to teach myself front end web development and computer programming. Luckily some awesome people developed the internet and there’s tons of free resources online.
Then head on over to subreddits like r/LearnProgramming and r/WebDev and check out the posts from those awesome communities. Bring your questions, they love to help! Also, Stack Overflow is a great resource to look up and/or ask questions.
I created a blog on my favorite football team two years ago, and using the Non-Zero Day technique I managed to write over 700 blog posts during that time period. I didn’t write every single day, but some days I managed to write multiple times per day. Pro-Tip: Once you feel like you’re making some solid progress with the Non-Zero Day technique, you can take some time off here and there because you’re so focused on the end results it won’t stop you from accomplishing your goals.
By both increasing the amount of books I’ve been reading and then writing a lot about a passion of mine I became a better writer. No, I’m not going to go toe-to-toe with Tolstoy any time soon, nor is my grammar and punctuation 100% perfect, but I can much more clearly express my thoughts through writing then before I got started. Ironically, before hitting publish on this blog post, I realized I had written about this same topic three years ago. You can see how much my writing has improved since then!
Get Your Swole On!
Want to get in shape for 2017? Great! A good trick I use to keep myself motivated is I made myself a Google Sheet to keep track of my progress at the gym, but a simple old school notebook will do the trick if you prefer pen to paper. After taking some months off, I got back into a consistent workout schedule in 2016. Due to a huge amount of people who like to go to the gym after work, I prefer to go to the gym in the mornings before work or on my lunch break. I’m not always the happiest person at 5am waking up to go lift and do my cardio, and some days I’m not at a 100% performance level, but I’ve never had a day where I leave the gym and regret going. Motivation is futile; discipline is everything.
One of the big things for me last year in 2016 was getting my nutrition game on point, and even though I don’t have plans to compete, I decided to follow the same diets as bodybuilders. Bodybuilders work hard to have a the most amount of muscle with the least amount of body fat, so I try to imitate them as much as possible. So I don’t get lazy, I cook a bunch of food in advance. I’ll bake some chicken, cook up some rice and veggies, all so I have food ready and don’t have to think about it when I’m hungry. r/MealPrepSunday and r/FitMeals are great resources!
r/Fitness is a great resource for general fitness info, and be sure to check out r/bodybuilding and r/weightroom for more advanced knowledge. Want to lose weight? r/nutrition has tons of great info and the communities at r/LoseIt and r/ProgressPics are super motivating and supportive as well.
And no, I’m not suggesting you have true Non-Zero Days with the gym. You need to schedule some rest days because your body needs to recover so your muscles have time to grow! Also, you may be working on a specific program like Starting Strength that has you doing strength training three days per week. The key is to not have any Non-Zero Days on your training schedule: If your training plan has you training three times per week then you better not have any zeros on those three days!
You’re tired when you get home from work. I completely understand, I am too. But if you have any sort of goals for yourself in life that doesn’t involve hitting old age, wondering where the hell your life went and wishing you could have your youth back so you could accomplish something, I encourage you to take a look at the Non-Zero Day method and and see if it helps you. Of course, there’s several excellent subreddits for Getting Motivated, Getting Disciplined, and of course Non-Zero Days! If you find any better methods, please leave a comment!
I don’t write this post to brag and impress anyone. Frankly, I’m too busy trying to maximize every single moment of my life than to worry about what others think. I don’t compare myself to others because everyday I face the toughest competition possible: My Past Self.