The Secret to Success

I have a secret that I want to share, a secret to success. You often hear that there are no shortcuts to getting what you want, but this isn’t true. There are serious shortcuts. Incredible shortcuts. I’m about to let you in on the most important one. I might even say it’s the only one.

You simply won’t believe how simple this secret is. You also won’t believe how nearly impossible it is to abide by the tip I’m about to give you. Most of you will shake your head and walk away. Many of you will agree with the principle but never act on it. There’s a good chance that not a single person will incorporate this into their daily routine and witness how utterly powerful this shortcut can be. But I’m going to spill it anyway.

This secret helped me ace my college classes with a fraction of the stress my peers felt. It has made me a valued employee at every job I’ve held. I like to think it makes me a good domestic partner. It certainly makes me a great homeowner. And I believe it’s the main reason that I’ve been so successful as a self-published author. My secret is this:

When I see something that needs doing, I do it.

There you go. Simple as that. How is this a shortcut? Because it forms a direct line between knowing a thing requires doing and having it done. The beauty of this principle is this: You’re going to spend the exact same amount of time actually doing things.

The first time I formalized this process was in college. I remember sitting in Dr. Goldsberry’s class as a writing assignment was handed out. There was a chorus of groans. As I looked over the assignment, I knew without a doubt that I would put this off until the night before it was due. And something hit me (maybe it was my contrarian nature, which is so pronounced that I often disagree with myself). I wondered — if I’m going to blast the work out in a single night — why not make it that night?

I went to the library after class and checked out source material. That night, back at the marina, I cranked out the entire story. It wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t going to be fun weeks later. Two days later, back at class, my peers were groaning about the assignment, forming study groups, talking about everything else getting heaped on them, and I felt light as a bird. This is when something else hit me: Not only would I do the same amount of work either way, the best thing about this process is that I would spend one day stressing rather than weeks.

The process became addicting. I believe this is an extension of my hatred of being in debt. Undone tasks weigh on me like a loan. I’m borrowing free time from my former self. I decided to do things as soon as they needed doing, giving myself the same amount of free time, but without all the weight on my shoulders. Dishes in the sink? They’ve gotta get done. They have to. What doesn’t have to happen is all the annoyance of tolerating them being there or stressing about who else might do them. It takes less time to just do it. The shortcut is a direct line between need and action. That’s the secret.

It isn’t easy, and it requires practice. This is a habit like an unused muscle.  You have to limber it up and exercise it.

I’ve had numerous people tell me that my turnaround time took them aback. A publisher will email with a requests for a video. Instead of responding and flagging that email, I grab my camera and tripod, shoot the video, copy it to my computer, and send them the attachment. Interview questions come in? I answer them immediately. A scene I need to write? I write it. Dog wants to go for a walk? Let’s go.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have down time. It just means that when you do, you’ll have far fewer things weighing on you. If you’re in school, you should really try this once. Keep in mind that you’re going to put in the same amount of effort and time either way. The difference is how many days you’ll spend stressed. It certainly takes willpower. It takes practice and effort. But there’s no greater tool in your arsenal for being successful, whatever it is that you want to accomplish.

Try it. Start right now. Take a shortcut today. And then enjoy a rest while the world catches up.

33 responses to “The Secret to Success”

  1. Hugh, I seriously love you. That’s exactly what I do. Although reading GETTING THINGS DONE led me to it, not sitting in class. Also, I do get stopped by anxiety and fear. I’m afraid whatever I will do won’t be perfect, and that’s still stopping me. The other night I got so mad at this fear, that I wrote just for fun. Guess what, cranked out 5K words. ONWARD!!! xoxo

  2. I found this principle during college as well, the only difference was that I used a reward for motivation to get it done right away. I quickly changed from procrastinating homework while playing World of Warcraft to: Making finished homework a requirement before I could log on to WoW. I’ve used this system countless times with varying rewards. Whatever I want to do most, is going to be the best motivator to do the things that need to be done, and you are completely right. It’s freeing to not be stressed. My wife and I take the same approach with our taxes. Instead of putting it off until the deadline, we file them the second we have all of the documents needed. We usually are enjoying months of financial abundance (assuming we get a return) while everyone else is dreading doing their taxes.

    I have also found great success with taking the “easiest first” approach too. If I have 15 things to do, I pick whatever feels like it will be the easiest. I complete that item and then move to the next easiest item on the list. None of it ever really feels hard and by time you get to the end, the thing you dreaded doing the most, now becomes the easiest thing left to do. Combine this process with the Just do it now process and you are set! Easy while you do it, even easier when you finish! =)

  3. I discovered this very principle in graduate school. For the majority of my academic career I put things off to the very last minute and while I always did well, the weight of the responsibility was on my shoulders for the duration of each smester.
    In my final semester, I was in a hurry to complete my master’s and I bit off more than I could chew comfortably. I took 18 credit hours and it became apparrent that i would be crushed under the stresses that 6 classes of graduate work puts on you for an entire semester. I systematically did all work for each class in two week blocks and then enjoyed the last two months of my college career with no responsibility. I participated in class and enjoyed the subject matter more than i would have if i had six 20 page term papers hanging over my head.
    To take things further, I’ve lived by the mantra “If you don’t feel like doing something, you probably should.” It’s helped me in every area of my life.
    Thanks Hugh, for all your great books. Wool was a genuine suprise and Sand met all my expectations. Here’s to hoping that the new Molly book will be out soon.

  4. Andrzej Tucholski Avatar
    Andrzej Tucholski

    Trying this approach today :)

  5. I do the same thing. Makes life a lot less stressful.

  6. I make lists. Do you?

    I love lists. They work. Of course, you always have to write down a couple of cake items you can cross off immediately. Still, I can’t imagine accomplishing anything without my lists.

  7. Can you give me an example of how we would apply that in writing or building a bigger fan base or selling more novels, Hugh?

    1. You forgot the smiley face emoticon that demonstrates you understand the point of the blog and that you’re joking about also wanting advice on how to gain thousands of adoring fans and lots of money. This is a Hugh Howey “I’m the Shit (and I also bake my own bread)” blog. ;)

    2. I can answer that.. In writing, one of the things I noticed about HH in his early days was his relentless writing. He would wake early before his “real” job and write. I am an early riser and would see him on fb, corresponding with us readers, interacting with things like book covers, readings, ideas….building a fan base? Or building a loyal group of friends that call ourselves “woolites”. He spent hours writing before work, during lunch break, and at night. We fans asked for Wool 2, after reading Wool. He cranked it out and published….bam! Selling more novels? HH quickly saw the opportunity to offer Wool free, knowing that once you read Wool, the hook is baited.

  8. kathy czarnecki Avatar

    And when you have enough of these wonderful tips, put it in a book and call it “The Tao of Hugh”

  9. I was sure this was the start of a new conspiracy documentary.

  10. My grandfather calls this “Do it now.” I’m probably 50/50 whether I do, but he’s probably more like 90%.

  11. I’m calling B.S. on this whole post. Your secret is that you have clones.

    Don’t deny it; the cover-up is always worse than the lie.

    1. Bastard!

      *shakes ten pairs of fists*

  12. I do agree with the principle, but I would also argue that it isn’t quite that simple for everyone.

    I’m a mom of 5 kids, some of whom have special needs, and it’s amazing how many times just as I’m about to do something one of them will come to me with a need. So my choice is, put off my kid and do what I was about to do before attending to them or put off what I was about to do to attend to my kid. Well, that’s an easy choice for me. But these things tend to snowball, especially when you have several kids.

    Not that I don’t still have lots of room to implement this principle. And, in fact, you have inspired me to try my best to do it whenever possible. I could always do with less stress.

  13. I love this post Hugh!

    I am certainly trying to get better at this myself. I am taking a few classes right now and instead of stressing over this and that I try to make clear plans. ex. Monday I’ll read all the assignments that need to be done, Wednesday I’ll do the lab and do a posting, Friday I’ll do another posting and the quiz. Breaking down what I know needs to get done makes things a lot easier but it is certainly a skill I want to master!

  14. TRUE! 100% TRUE!

    It’s a tough way to live, being Johnny on the spot. But it’s really the only way to live in and for the moment. I have a trainer I work with who tells me, “You’re not lifting the weight for this moment. You’re doing it for the moment that comes at the end of the hour, when you’ve done the heavy lifting.”

    Bring in those trash cans. Do the dishes. Write that scene you just thought of.

    Great entry, Hugh.

  15. […] read this inspirational blog post by Hugh Howey (aren’t they always inspirational?)…called “The Secret to […]

  16. While I broadly agree with your sentiment and implement it most of the time (and people often comment on how much I manage to get done with the same number of hours as everyone else) – there are definitely disadvantages to starting work before everyone else does… often by being ‘different’ you miss out on the extra support (you mention study groups) that everyone else gets and going it alone can often be a bad way to go – the advantages of getting it done (and feeling great about it – definitely!) are offset by the disadvantages of not working as part of a team. I imagine it depends on what you’re trying to do.

    I also feel that sometimes, you need to be in the right frame of mind to do some work and thus firing off a ‘to-do’ for yourself to tackle when you know you can finish it well is better.

    I’m loving the principles behind David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” especially when paired with the power of Evernote.

    1. So form a study group that night and get your peers involved in the process! :)

      It isn’t meant to be done alone. It would be great if, after dinner, everyone wanted to knock the dishes out and enjoy a coffee in a clean house.

  17. Wow – that was a long run-on sentence! That’s what you get for JFDI at 5am in the morning! :D

  18. I’m not trying to argue or make excuses (well maybe a little), but I think this would be disastrous for my free time. For people like Hugh, the highly motivated type, the task may take equal time either way, but that has definitely not been my experience in life. I’m a time eater. If I have the time to spend on something I will spend it all. I’m a detail picker, an over thinker, a turtle pacer. Some people would say “perfectionist” but I think that word is kind of silly. And the terrible part is, the thing I do last minute comes out ten times faster with neglible quality differences.

    Right now I’ve learned to deal with this by not sweating things until the last minute. I don’t spend weeks stressing, because I know it will be done at 0 hour. So, while I completely agree in theory with Hugh and will impliment it in my life in small ways (the damn lightbulb that’s needed changing for weeks, the dishes, laundry) I think I need to work on my time management skills more before I move this technique to the bigger tasks at hand. Then maybe I can finish as many stories a year as Hugh.

    I do think Hugh is right though, this is the key of highly effective people.

  19. You’re absolutely right. I’m horrible at this. Whenever I need to respond to someone on social media or via email, I obsess over it because I feel so socially awkward. When I finally get up the nerve to do it, I’m no less socially awkward, I’m just awkward and stressed.

    When it comes to writing, I tend to obsess on all the other things that I need to do. So I need to either do them and get them out of the way of my writing time, or I need to realize that they are not important and just my way of procrastinating.

    I’m a perfectionist, and that causes a lot of my procrastination, but procrastinating doesn’t help my perfectionism. Like you said, I’m going to get it all done in the last hour anyway, so I might as well make it the first hour.

    Thanks for a great post!

  20. Loved this post so much I made it required reading for my 13 y.o. before he left for school this morning. He’s grounded off all electronics for poor grades caused by not doing his homework and/or screwing around and losing it after it’s finished. I even grounded him from taking his book to school. (Yes, I took books away from my kid. He’s quite appalled and so are his teachers.)
    After reading your post he mumbled, “That makes sense.” and then asked if he could read Wool. :)
    I said yes–once he gets his grades up to Cs.

  21. This secret helped me ace my college classes with a fraction of the stress my peers felt. It has made me a valued employee at every job I’ve held. I like to think it makes me a good domestic partner. It certainly makes me a great homeowner. And I believe it’s the main reason that I’ve been so successful as a self-published author. My secret is this:

    When I see something that needs doing, I do it.

    My wife just screamed at me to read this post! Her comment was “no wonder you like Hugh”, he is a wacko just like you!

    Yeah, I’ve been like that for as long as I can remember. Must take after my mother who would be vacuuming the house at 3 AM, because it needed to be done. :)

  22. I love the concept, and I think it sometimes works just as you say; certainly having something done and off your plate reduces the stress of worrying about it. But I still think I have to question it a bit.

    What do you do when there are 2 or 3 or 10 things that need to be done? What do you do when that magazine sends you the list of questions for the interview, your agent wants you to make a video to post on the website, you have pre-orders for 200 signed books waiting to be mailed, Amber wants you to accompany her to a family event and Bella needs to pee? You can’t do them all at once, you just can’t.

    Unless, as Ferris surmises, you’re hiding clones in that little love shack of yours.

    It’s an ideal to which we should aspire, and I’m sure you achieve it more than most. But sometimes, the world throws a lot of demands at us, and it’s hard-to-impossible to get it all done with that degree of timeliness. This is doubly true for people with kids.

    1. I have days when lots of things come in all at once, and these are the days when “just doing it” saves my hide. I can’t see all the requests simultaneously. I go down my emails, see the interview questions, and I do those right then. I don’t answer the phone or look at the next email. That adds to my worry without taking anything off my plate. Once those questions are fired off, I look at my next email. Oh, I have to shoot a video. I do that. I look at the next thing.

      There’s no time for surfing the web or checking Facebook on these days. It’s why I write in the morning before I check my email. It’s also why I have changed how I handle my email this past week, with an auto-responder going out with answers to common questions. When a system is no longer sustainable, you design a new system.

      Most people spend a lot of time doing senseless things while worrying over what they should be doing. Far better to simply do those things and then enjoy stress-free down time. Assuming there’s any left.

      1. Spot on. Just make sure that you learn to recognize the onset of OCD. You don’t want to go down that road.

  23. This is so incredibly true! In my business with my mom we apply the principle DIN (DO IT NOW). A customer walks in and makes an order…we do it straight away. No stress, no tears, no pain!! I’m trying to apply the same principle to my writing as I know it works. This is great advice!

  24. […] it now. Don’t put it off. Bestselling science fiction author Hugh Howey’s secret to success is “When I see something that needs doing, I do it.” Simple as […]

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