Interestingly, this post came about from me reflecting on how my tooling had changed in 2020 during the pandemic (blog post pending). Ultimately though, what it’s led me to believe is that while tooling is helpful (and incremental), process and systems trump all. No magic tool will save you if you have broken process (and good processes can be executed with simple tools.). So, choose what you optimize for. Certain tools will help you focus on certain things, but process improvements are what ultimately pay large dividends. I made a number of core refinements in 2020 during some semi-sabbatical time which needed a post to share and what worked (and is working) for me.
These are some core changes I made to the way I do things. Take what is useful. YMMV.
- Keystone Habits
- Do Less Better
- Morning Pages
- Calendar Control (and Scheduling)
- Trainer or Gym Buddy
Weirdly, working on foundational habits (keystones) has worked wonders.
Getting back to basics like working out, eating better, reading, writing, weekly reviews, coursework, and finances, before trying to add in major goals was the one thing that freed up time for me to then do the other things. Daily anchors I could schedule and hang the rest of my days on.
Before attempting almost anything else, nail a few keystone habits around things that I’d loosely describe as health: eating, sleeping, exercising, finances, organization. Get these sorted for about a quarter before adding anything additional or complex to your list.
Added benefit: no matter how bad your day goes or unproductive it might seem in other ways, you always feel pretty good you at least managed to keep your base stable. Getting started, track this to keep yourself honest and make sure your brain is not tricking you about consistency. While there’s a bunch of options on iOS and Android, for the geeks out there, I built the free and open source CLI harsh which I’ve been using for well over a year now and keeps me centred.
Do Less Better
A recurrent theme from the previous two years is that I just need to do less. Looking back, I spread myself way too thin and was not moving forward personally important things strongly enough. Productivity hacks and tool leaps were a symptom of trying to game this. Especially with longer term tasks, I’d keep pushing big stuff forward in time even though I’d be crushing my short term todo list. Great task management, less great at moving the big rocks I needed to be muscling forward.
I needed to focus and do less.
I’m not quite sure when it hit me there was no way in hell I could do everything. I fixed it by figuring out what I wanted 3-5 years out to look like in terms of goals, then working backwards to what needed to be done broadly in years, then figuring out what quarters probably needed to be more specifically (and then making sure every week in my planning I have a task moving those big rocks forward towards those quarter goals.)
But around November last year after a good look, I slashed commitments heavily and picked just 5 things (outside of work) to focus on and decided those were my highest priorities. And those needed to be reflected weekly. To avoid tunnel vision and fatigue I have an Experiments habit to introduce new things and be open to opportunities.
Benefits? I feel way less busy all the time, way more focused, more in control, and well, calmer… and less frenetic. I’m not sure I’ve cast off the cult of busyness, but it feels like important things are pushing forward rather than just an endless treadmill of tasks or administrivia. And that makes you feel like you’re winning.
Weekly reviews are something I avoided as a habit for too long, despite the emphasis in classics like Getting Things Done. I was looking at them in the wrong light.
Weekly Reviews are course correction. Sit down, look at what you meant to do, evaluate, and tweak your plan and priorities for the next week. Do not re-examine every single goal you have. Of the 3-5 you should only be focusing on, you should change those very rarely. Annually, if at all (and you did your job right in the first place.).
I spend about 30 minutes(ish) on my weekly review - using a Pluses, Minuses, Next (week) model on the week gone by, giving myself a completion score, and more importantly, a short write up on how I felt the week went and what could have gone better and what I need to emphasize for next week (which then gets fed into the week’s planning.).
Surprisingly, I find I usually did quite a bit better than my impression pre-review which is an interesting phenomenon. I then spend perhaps another 15 minutes setting up a quadrant and SKIL+R list for the next week (make sure you have these as templates for efficiency sake). I schedule known big quantities of work in my calendar that need to get done for the week.
I also have been doing Monthly reviews for a while, but they were more an afterthought just to see if anything big had been missing. I often came up wanting in those whereas now they are bopping along on track. Quarterly reviews though are a new thing to basically see where I am on my Big Rocks, and making sure to help anchor those larger goals within the context of a year better.
There’s great power in saying you’ll do x,y, and z each week and then looking at a heap of green checkboxes (emoji make this more fun - use ✅ ❌ 💪🏼 for done, not done, WIP). It also is surprisingly helpful to keep it front and centre during your day to look at your big board rather than the next trivial todo or email you seem to have. Re-orients and grounds you deciding on what to work on next. Makes a difference by end of week.
had harshly judged the concept of Morning Pages, as, well… “hippy, new age crap”. The idea you get up and immediately journal whatever stream of consciousness flows out of your head - with prompts or no, until you hit a goal like 3 pages filled or your brain quiets down. I’d slotted it into the same sort of pseudo-nonsense as horoscopes, MBTI, anti-vaxxers, and homeopathy.
I was wrong. Yeah, it might be hippy, new age crap… but it’s hippy, new age crap that works. While I’ve been journaling about once a week (inconsistently) for a very long time, writing consistently on a daily basis has always eluded me. Strangely, and solidly for the last three months now, getting up, grabbing coffee, and clearing out the brain cobwebs, setting up my log file, and writing my Morning Pages has been making mincemeant of a daily writing goal.
Suddenly, I’m not just journaling every day, but it also seems to allow me to focus, deal with all the stuff rattling round my big empty head, get centred for my day, and kick off right. It’s been an incredibly easy habit to both begin and stick to. Much like the gratitude habit below, it just seems to let my brain close a whole bunch of open loops, shut down zombie processes, reset, and focus on what I need to get done for the day, week, and beyond.
More than this, I’m writing more beyond the Morning Pages. I’ve been blogging more consistently and have to admit to managing to find a little time to plan the Great Canadian Novel as well (though I am focusing on that for November and NaNoWriMo).
If you’re extremely skeptical of this practice (as I was), I urge you to give it an honest shot for a couple of weeks as an experiment and then see how you still feel about it.
Yes, seems like more new age crap. But the science surrounding well being and happiness strongly supports this one. And it’s easy to add in (though unusually hard at first, I found.).
Quite simply, if you’re keep a daily log like I do to make notes on your day (and have in-context todos), put an additional section in it to write down 3-5 things you are grateful for or are savouring at the end of the day (or next morning)
Yeah, I know how it sounds. And lemme tell you, I found it actually hard to do this at the start. It is surprising how much our brains have been tricked and trained to focus on the negative and on what’s going wrong. Getting your brain into the cycle of feeling good about stuff in your life feels like a weird muscle to start to have to flex, but once you get into it, it feels surprisingly good.
Not only that, but doing this actually makes you more mentally resilient. Shit to upset your day or week happens all the time. Taking some time to actively think about it and recognize what is really great about your life puts even the carppiest days into context and allows you to adapt better to bad stuff that goes down.
And I have to admit, it’s nice once you get into the habit, to actively pause and recognize small graces in your day. Strangely, I’ve found it amazingly helpful, and have to admit I think it’s made me a much more balanced, and possibly even less frustrated, person. I value things more rather than taking them for granted. I strongly urge you to try it.
Practically, I literally have a small section of my daily log template which reads “Gratitude/Savoured” and has 3 numbered points below it. That’s it. I just make sure I am filling it every day before I kick out for the end of the day (though sometimes I skip back during my morning setup and fill it in for the day before).
One side effect I noticed which I could not separate from this habit: Once I got this flywheel turning I found (and hope you find too) that you’re not just recognizing things, but actively planning and doing more things you will savour or be grateful for in your days.
An overly disciplined focus on 3-5 things can lead to tunnel vision. To avoid blindness and be open to opportunities I have an Experiments goal to make sure I’m trying out the things I want to try out. The idea is simple: focus on my core but then multi-arm bandit my approach to new things which may make my life awesomer (and this includes a range of things from improv, to pottery, to quantum computing, to a new programming language.).
Sure, it sounds mad scientist (and you’ll get weird looks from dear friends when you explain it) so I explain it as “I do something new every quarter.”.
It’s also a way to subtly hack your tolerance to risk taking and new things if you’re a particularly risk averse individual. Nothing makes you feel quite so insecure as being a noob beginner at a new new thing so doing that often makes you realize that you only learn where you are uncomfortable. I’ve been doing this since early-2020 (pre-covid) as a habit (rather than just a loose idea) and have to admit it’s been great.
Even failed experiments give valuable information. Don’t be afraid to reject what is obviously not working.
I have honed the approach a little, but it goes like this:
- A Proposed list of experiments to myself explicitly listed for the next year (add/drop as needed though snapshot chnages for future review at end of year)
- A Work-In-Process (WIP) limit of how many experiments I will run at one time (1 major, 3 minor for the record)
- Tracking page where I describe the experiment, hypothesis, start, end, outcome/results, and next steps (whether it needs to be dropped, re-run with tweaks, or incorporated into my life.) when it’s time to review them.
As an example, hiring a personal trainer was a 3 month experiment (also, I took a lot of teasing about it from friends) to see if it ended up confirming my hypotheses and achieving particular goals I had (the hypotheses hat consistency was much more important than other factors for fitness outcomes, and that a system was more important than willpower in terms of making it to workouts.). As mentioned in the section below, successful experiment.
Tracking experiments is important. It’s shockingly easy to convince yourself of the non-true without it (brains are sneaky that way). Also, unless it’s utterly obvious the experiment failed before end or needs abandoning, commit to it, and let it run its course. For example, while not one of the hypotheses tested, my weight actually went up at first when I got a trainer. If I’d been focusing on weight loss, I could have got discouraged and bailed. I didn’t see proper drops happen until nearly the start of the third month.
Experimenting has also been a weirdly useful brain hack for trying new things I would not normally try, and also forgiving myself and moving on from things that simply don’t work out. It separates fact from fiction whether a certain thing makes a difference (as a trivial example from early 2020, getting down to just one cup of coffee a day in the morning made no substantive difference compared to my usual 2 or 3 in anything other than weekly cost — energy and alertness levelled out but I missed the enjoyment of more than one cup of coffee daily — though more than 3 definitely sends me into unproductive, jitter kitten areas.).
Calendar Control (and Scheduling)
If you know what you are trying to get done in your life and struggle to find the time, this might work for you.
Stop, reflect on the Big Rock foundational habits you want to be making sure you get done every week (for me these are writing and reading time, working out, a proper lunch break during my hectic workday, finances, a weekly review etc) and schedule those into your calendar right now as recurring meetings.
Invite your work address as well (mark them as private if you are in an unsupportive workplace to life goals other than them). I also include Do Not Schedule blocks at the beginning and end of day (before my team wakes up in another time zone) so I’ve got time to get actual work done rather than getting dragged into meetings all day, and to draw clear lines around an acceptable meeting schedule (tbh, my current workplace is quite good about this but also, but some people just don’t realize I’m not in their timezone.).
During your weekly review, plan ahead, figure out what you want to get done with your next week. Be realistic. I never pick more than 2-3 things I can get done in a week moving me towards larger goals (4-5 ends up being too much if you have work full time). Figure out what big chunks of time you need to get things done in the week and work those into the cal. If you can plan two weeks out even better, since a lot of places book meetings a week out these days due to everyone’s calendar being so full.
Exercising calendar control makes sure that your priorities get priority. Much like the savings idea of Paying Yourself First, your priorities are getting into your week rather than someone else’s. Focus on yours. Pre-book.
Trainer or Gym Buddy
I’ve always been leery of personal trainers. They always seem like this rich affectation for actors, millionaires, and posers. Sure you can look like Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine if you’re training 4 hours a day, but other than for professional looks people, I often wonder about their results. Experiences where I got paired with them when I got new gym memberships were always sub-optimal and even, in some cases, downright counterproductive to my fitness goals (yeah, looking at you bankrupt California Fitness.). COVID forced me to re-evaluate that. Lockdown obliterated my gym discipline, and combined with a shoulder injury, basically had me gain a quick 5 kg which I was not happy with considering my gym edge before the pandemic.
When gyms opened up, it was impossible to simply go to gyms as their spots needed to be signed up for, and it seemed the vast majority of spaces were reserved for group classes rather than using functional equipment as an individual. So, a friend suggested their trainer (trainers got autopasses into gyms to train). I have to admit, she’s been pretty great.
As a personal KPI, I have not missed a single gym session since I hired her (save one where I had food poisoning the night before and had to cancel.). I’ve dropped 5+ kg, feel leaner, stronger, and faster, and in general just feel I need to be squeezing more running in to be back to being a badass.
Yes, it’s pricey, but I think what it has helped me realize is: having a gym buddy helps. Consistency rules (yes, a gym habit if you will). If you can’t afford a trainer (they need to be working for you, not a gym outlet), no worries — just convince a dependable friend into committing to a gym death pact so you’re both working out.
If you do search for a trainer, focus on consistency rather than how they look. Ask how long clients have been with them. The gym we train at has a lot of personal trainers and you notice the genetic lottery winner trainers seem to have fresh clients all the time but they don’t last long. The clients blow out quickly once they realize it’s not a “get rich quick” scheme. So, make sure your trainer is focused on starting you slowly, can protect you from injury, and knows what the hell they’re doing - at least in my case where I overtrain and get injured consistently as a pattern - find someone who can protect you from your own stupidity. So far, this has been a big win since last quarter of 2020. A definite convert despite the cost.
Process and systems are more valuable than tools. These are larger process change ups that helped me get a lot more done and been big quality of life (and sanity - very important during lockdown) improvements.
If you are going to try any of these, I suggest adding just one a quarter and if at all possible start with getting the Keystone Habits first. A lot of things get unlocked from those.
Let me know what you think about the post on twitter @awws or via email firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear feedback about what similar or other processes or approaches may have worked for you or tweaks to the above. What have been your best process hacks learned from the epiphany of the pandemic? Even better, (reasoned) opinions on why I might be wrong and what might be even better or stronger changes that may have worked for you.