routines

Rethinking Normal in the New Year

I like the feeling of a fresh start. It’s why I never restore computers or phones from backups. It’s why I periodically go through nearly all my possessions and give away or throw away as much as possible. It’s why I love Mondays, daily checklists, and weekly reviews. As you can imagine, then, I’m a big fan of New Years as a holiday and as a concept. I used to set audacious resolutions along with everyone else (with just about the same success rate as everyone else, too).

I’m not going to rail against resolutions or give you 13 hot tips about how you can keep your resolutions this year. What I would like to do, however, is share what I’ve been using the New Year for the past couple of years — a time to systematically rethink normal.

Here’s what I mean.

Our lives are made up of a thousand different actions, habits, routines, and ways of doing/being that have become normal. We don’t think about them because it’s just what we do. They are the ambient backdrop of being a functional person. For example, I have certain ways of tracking my finances, certain tools I use to write and to do research. I have certain ways I tend to use my tablet, my phone, and my computer. I have certain job commitments that have become normal and certain workflows, processes, habits, and routines that make up who I am and are all part of this constellation of normality.

As December starts to draw to a close I like to identify a handful of these things that have become normal and evaluate them with a critical eye. Is this still the best app to use for this task? What if I tried something else? Where am I experiencing friction in how I work every day? Why am I duplicating the same type of work here and here and here? How can I streamline? Where do I need to un-streamline? You get the point.

For example, here are a couple of results from this year's systematic rethinking of normal:

  • My co-founder and I are closing our consulting company, Outlier Consulting Group. Neither of us has the available time needed to dedicate to starting and running a company like this. We’re grateful for the experience and projects we were able to complete but we’re both ready to focus on other areas. For me, that’s The Workologist (coaching, consulting, writing, and hopefully, speaking/presenting), my PhD work and…
  •  … the willingness to look for a “jobby job.” I’ve been 100% entrepreneurially focused since I quit my teaching job in 2010 and came to graduate school. I still operate a profitable business as an independent professional. However, I’ve cut myself off from even exploring the option of joining an existing team until this point. There are organizations like Undercurrent and NOBL and I’m sure countless others that are doing interesting things in the world of consulting, the future of work, and everything else I care about. My old normal was to ignore these and focus solely on my own businesses. My new normal is to accept that there may be  good opportunities to join an existing team (email me if you're aware of one, eh?)
  • Rethinking the software and services I use on a regular basis. I’m currently engaged in a personal experiment to use only first party software for awhile (Mail.app, official Twitter app, Pages, Keynote, Numbers, etc.). I’ve never used any of these to any extent where I know what their strengths and limitations are and I’m inherently drawn to the idea of being able to use stock software whenever possible. I’m completely willing to accept that my normal of using very nice third party apps is the best normal for me, but right now I’m experimenting with something else.

Anyway — you get the picture. 

If resolutions haven’t worked for you in the past than maybe using this sense of freshness, this sense of starting anew, is best utilized by rethinking your normal and making some big and/or small changes.

Closing companies and looking for a job are big steps away from normal whereas changing the software you use is a much tinier alteration. Regardless, both of these changes have come out of the systematic challenging of what has become comfortable and normal. It’s a nice feeling to know the way you spend the majority of your time has been consciously deliberated and chosen at some point instead of just being foisted upon you unwillingly or unwittingly. When I settle into my new normal I can feel good about it... at least until next year.

Photo by Tyler Wilson

Workologism #3: Use an End of Day Shutdown Routine

Fewer and fewer jobs have clear signals about when work is done for the day. For most of us, the work never really ends. For that reason I think it's really important to create some kind of routine that signals to yourself that the end of your day has happened and you can transition into non-work mode. Some ideas for inclusion in this routine include:

  • Spend a few minutes planning for tomorrow.
  • Clear off your desk and put all work materials away.
  • Spend a few minutes writing in your journal about the day.
  • Turn off your computer.
  • Do something to help you transition from work mentality to home mentality (read something unrelated to work, play a short video game, listen to some music, etc.)

The details don't matter as long as it helps you feel like you're making a transition from one part of your day (productive/work) to another part (not work/relaxing/home).

Photo by Nir.

Workologism #2: Use a Morning Start Up Routine

The way you start your day can have a huge impact on how the rest of it goes. Don't leave it up to chance. Instead, create a checklist of 2-3 activities you know you should complete every morning to get your day started on the right foot. Some ideas include:

  • Spend 15-20 minutes working on an important task.
  • Make a plan for the day.
  • Write in a journal for a few minutes.
  • Exercise.
  • Meditate.

Things you probably don't want on that list:

  • Check email
  • Check social networks

Let's be honest, those are going to happen throughout the day no matter what. Focus on doing the things that make you feel productive, get meaningful work done, or help you develop as a person.

Photo by Ann Fisher

Be The Hare, Not the Tortoise

Should work be like a marathon or a sprint? Prior to reading The Power of Full Engagement and Be Excellent at Anything by Tony Schwartz I would've probably said we should treat work like a marathon. Don't burn yourself out too quickly and settle in for the long haul, right? We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare -- slow and steady wins the race. Now, thanks to these two books and the research that supports them, I'd put myself firmly in the camp of the hare and his sprinty friends.

Schwartz argues we should treat our work day like a series of sprints. He cites research that gives credence to the idea that not only do we have a circadian rhythm that effects our sleep, but that it extends to our waking hours and results in us feeling more alert at certain times than during others. He also argues that the longest we can really focus on one thing at a time is ninety minutes before we need a break. Therefore, he argues we should work for 90 minute blocks of truly high intensity focus and concentration followed by periods of deliberate rejuvenation.

I was reintroduced to this idea in relation to work shortly after doing a decent amount of research about high intensity interval training (HIIT) for fitness. The ideas are remarkably similar. Basically, by pushing ourselves to the very edges of our ability for short periods of time we can have a greater effect on our ability to get stronger/faster -- both physically and in our ability to do intellectual work. This is in direct competition with the idea that the better way to develop fitness and get a lot of work done is to work at a lower intensity for a much longer time.

Like everything else, I'm putting this to the test by experimenting with it in my own life. I've been playing around with using a ninety minute timer to organize my workday as much as possible. One reason I really like the idea of this type of working is that it gives me more time to find flow in the work I'm doing and then doesn't interrupt me right away like a Pomodoro-style of work does. It also challenges me to develop my abilities of concentration and focus -- two skills that I sorely need to develop to a greater extent.

The biggest potential win from adopting this style of work is simply the ability to get more work done in less time. My intention is not to cram more work in the time I save by working more intensely, but to use that newly liberated time to have more leisure time, more time to explore meaningful hobbies, and more time to develop my physical health. There's more to life to getting more work done in less time, obviously, but if you're mindful of how you're going to spend that time I don't see that approach as having much of a downside.

If you're interested in this idea of sprinting as a way to work, I highly recommend you check out The Power of Full Engagement and Be Excellent at Anything.


I share more ideas from books like these in my monthly Workologist newsletter. Sign up here to receive it direct to your inbox at the beginning of every month.

Photo by Andrew Pescod

How Your Work Is Like a Chemical Reaction

There was a period of about three months in high school where I thought I was going to go to college to get some kind of chemistry degree. All that really means is that I can cobble together enough chemistry related facts to make this basic metaphor about chemical reactions, activation energy, catalysts, and doing great work. Join me on this ride down memory lane and into basic high school chemistry!

First, I want you to think about what it feels like when you're super engaged in your work and everything is flowing extremely well. You probably feel like you're being swept along with relatively minimal effort and you're just guiding the overall trajectory of the work. It's a great feeling and it's basically what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. What if you could get this feeling every single time you sat down to work? How awesome would that be? The problem, though, is figuring out what to do to make that happen more regularly.

Activation Energy

Think about finding flow in your work as being similar to a chemical reaction. In a chemical reaction you may take two seemingly inert chemicals, combine them, and suddenly you have an explosion. Picture vinegar and baking soda. On their own, they aren't anything special. Combine them, though, and you get a volcano. Your work can be like that, too. You may sit down at your computer to work on your latest project and not be feeling particularly motivated or inspired but every once in awhile you're able to find the groove and can explode into your own version of a violent/productive chemical reaction.

In order for a chemical reaction to occur, however, a certain amount of energy has to be applied to get it started. The amount of energy varies depending on the materials involved, but the overall concept is called "activation energy." Activation energy is the minimal amount of energy needed to start a chemical reaction. I think the same idea can be applied to finding flow in our work where the work explodes out of us like a chemical reaction. Sometimes we need a lot of energy to get the reaction started and sometimes we need less.

Activation energy can take many different forms for the typical knowledge or independent worker. Merlin Mann of Back to Work says he has to move his fingers on the keyboard for 11 minutes before any real writing happens. For me, I almost never find flow in my writing unless I spend 10-15 minutes with a clean piece of paper, a pen, and the creation of a mindmap/outline of what I intend to write. Merlin's activation energy is created by moving his fingers for 11 minutes and not worrying about the words that are being produced. My activation energy comes from getting my ideas out of my head and onto a piece of paper.

When you adopt this metaphor of needing activation energy before your work really starts to get going you can lower the expectations to getting started. I think a lot of our hesitancy and procrastination can come from dreading how it feels to be working when that reaction hasn't gotten started -- when we haven't hit the proper amount of activation energy. Instead of being willing to sit there and build up that energy we don't allow ourselves enough time to hit that threshold and get the reaction started.

Catalysts

A catalyst is a chemical that increases the rate of a chemical reaction. Keeping the chemistry metaphor going strong, there are "catalysts" we should be identifying and cultivating when it comes to how we work. One of my favorite catalysts is something called "front end decision making." This is a very simple idea which says figuring out the what of our work is distinct from actually working on our work. When I've clearly thought about what it means to work on a project (essentially giving myself a very discrete and clear next-action) then it's much easier for me to get engaged with the work itself (the chemical reaction starts much easier). Another example of a catalyst in my own work experience is working in an environment that promotes deep concentration and focus. I've been crafting my home office for optimal engagement with what I'm doing and I've found it's much easier for me to find flow when I work there than in a busy café.

A few other catalysts from my own experience include:

  • Knowing my tools (hardware and software) so well that they seem to become an extension of who I am.
  • The practiced ability to concentrate and focus.
  • A deep sense of purpose and meaning behind a task or project.
  • Being well-rested and physically healthy.

When these catalysts are present getting my work done is much, much easier.

The next time you sit down to work try not to be frustrated if you don't immediately find yourself immersed in the task at hand. In order to find that flow you need to invest the proper amount of energy to get the reaction started. Start moving your fingers, start outlining your thoughts, or use any other strategy of your own creation, to start pouring energy into the project. Bring in a couple of the catalysts I mentioned (be well-rested, have a sense of why you're doing what you're doing and/or know your tools inside and out), or develop some of your own, and the next thing you know you'll find yourself and your work set on fire (hopefully metaphorically).


Another catalyst may be reading my guide to better work, Work Better. Signing up for my monthly newsletter gets you a copy of the guide in your digital reading format of choice.

Photo by Kelly Teague

How To Use a Whiteboard to Stay Organized

After posting a picture of my newly constructed standing desk on Instagram a few weeks ago somebody asked me about how I use the whiteboard mounted behind the desk. I typed out a response but it was long and I had to skip over a lot of the details as to why I use my whiteboard the way I do. Needless to say, it needed an article-length response -- not a comment. Thus, here is my incredibly in-depth system for using a whiteboard that is mounted directly behind my desk.

The Main Areas

My whiteboard is broken into 6 main areas:

1. 3-4 month goals: These are the things I'm trying to accomplish over the next 3-4 months. Every week I should be making progress on at least 1 or 2 of these goals. They are updated at the end of the 3-4 month cycle.

2. Weekly hard landscape: This is a list of the appointments and meetings I have for the upcoming week along with the times at which they are happening. The only things that go on this list are activities where I'm expected to be somewhere or doing something at a specific time.

3. Weekly flex landscape: This is how I intend to spend the rest of my work week that isn't taken up with hard landscape activities. I estimate how long each task will take and write it next to the activity. I try not to schedule more than 7 hours between hard and flex activities each day because a.) I'd prefer not to work crazy hours if possible and b.) I need to leave flexibility in my schedule to respond to urgent requests.

4. Percolating projects: This is where I put projects I think I might want to start soon but I'm not 100% sure. At the very least I don't want them to disappear from my awareness so I stick them in the corner of the whiteboard and review them weekly.

5. Weekly goals: This is the criteria for whether or not I had a productive week. If I met my weekly goals then the mission was accomplished.

6. Motivational reminder: I like to stick some sort of pithy motivational reminder at the top of the whiteboard so I see it everyday. My current one (work = time spent x intensity) is courtesy of Cal Newport and has been up there for at least 3 or 4 months. It's a good reminder to not get sucked into the "hours worked = productivity" mindset.

How It Evolves Throughout the Week

I reset my whiteboard during my Weekly Review every Sunday afternoon. However, it's not that I only touch the whiteboard on a weekly basis. Instead, it's constantly evolving and changing based on how my week goes. First, I cross out hard landscape and flex items as I accomplish them. This gives me a nice sense of progress as I proceed through the week. If I don't get to a flex item on the day I scheduled it I'll often draw a box around it and put a star next to it. This lets me know that it's a day behind and I should probably get it done ASAP.

I try to avoid scheduling meetings and appointments for the week I'm currently in but sometimes it's inevitable. When that happens I'll write them into the hard landscape or draw arrows if something is being rescheduled within the week.

On the right hand side that is currently wide open I'll add urgent items with imminent deadlines. Sometimes someone will ask me to do something that isn't possible to have seen coming and scheduled into my weekly flex time. For example, sometimes a colleague will email me something to look at on Wednesday and they'd like to have my feedback by Friday. On the right hand side I'll often add a reminder to get that taken care of and will then cross it off once I finish it.

On Friday afternoon I'll take an index card and jot down the chores and activities I want to complete over the weekend. You may think this sounds way too structured when it comes to taking time to relax but I've found that my weekends are much more rejuvenating when I take a few minutes to think ahead and write down what I'd like to do. For example, last Friday I wrote down the titles of a couple magazines I wanted to read, a reminder to check out the video game I bought on sale earlier in the week, and a couple of life chores that I needed to get done (laundry and grocery shopping). I like writing this stuff on an index card because it can be kind of a pain to write that much stuff into the area I allot for Saturday and Sunday on the whiteboard itself. I'll then stick that index card near the bottom of the whiteboard with a magnet where Saturday and Sunday's hard landscape is written.

The Weekly Review

A significant portion of my Weekly Review is taken up a.) reviewing the previous week's completed whiteboard (what didn't get finished? did any hard landscape items get rescheduled to the upcoming week? did I make progress on any summer goals? did I meet my weekly goals? do I want to activate any percolating projects?) and resetting it for the upcoming week. Resetting the whiteboard consists of writing the hard landscape for the upcoming week, seeing how much time I have leftover after accounting for my hard landscape responsibilities (40 hours - time committed to hard landscape) and making a list of the other work I'd like to accomplish this week (the flex landscape). Then I try to slot that work into my available days in a logical way taking into consideration due dates, and amount of available time (i.e. don't schedule a bunch of writing tasks in a day where I have a bunch of hard landscape commitments). I round out prepping my whiteboard for the upcoming week by writing my 3-4 weekly goals in the bottom right corner.


Is this excessive? For me, no. Through months of trial and error I've refined this system to be as useful as possible for the way I work. I like being able to see my week at a glance in terms of meetings/appointments and the work I intend to do. I also like having the higher perspective areas (weekly goals, 3-4 month goals, percolating projects) that allow me to not get buried in the weeds and ensure I'm moving in the right direction.

Do you think something like this will work for you? If you give it a try I'd love to hear how it goes and if you have any questions feel free to drop a comment and I'll go into greater detail about anything I do here (and/or why).

How to Make Reflection an Automatic Part of Your Life

I've written about why I think building the habit of reflection is arguably the most important habit you can develop. In the aforementioned article I briefly referred to the idea of scheduling reflection into your routine but never went into much detail about what that looks like or shared the specific templates I use in my own reflection. I'd like to rectify that today.

One of the tricky things about making the time to regularly reflect is that you often don't think about doing it until you're kind of beyond the point where it would be most helpful. For example, before I made this a regular part of my routine I would find myself needing to "get away" and spend some time in reflection when shit had essentially been hitting the fan for awhile and I knew something drastic needed to be done. If I had taken the time to reflect before that point then I probably wouldn't have ever gotten to the point where the proverbial fecal matter was getting thrown around.

Reflection can happen across a broad continuum. Reflecting on a single project and the progress you're making on it would be a very micro-level type of reflection. On the other extreme end of the reflection continuum pondering the "big" questions about life, the universe, and everything is a completely different flavor of reflection. Given the vast differences in the reflection you can be doing it can be helpful to think about what type of reflection would be most valuable to you and your current situation. For that reason I schedule the more micro level reflection to happen more frequently than the huge macro-level type of reflection. David Allen's book Making It All Work uses an altitude metaphor which I think is a great way to think about the various levels of reflection and what kind of detail you should go into for each one.

From Making It All Work, the four levels of reflection are:

  • 20,000 Feet Reflection (every 2 months)
  • 30,000 Feet Reflection (every 4 months)
  • 40,000 Feet Reflection (every 9 months)
  • 50,000 Feet Reflection (every year)
  • [Grab the templates I use here]

For each of these I have an item in my task management software that says, "Conduct 'X' Review," that pops up at the proper interval. That way I don't have to remember to do it -- it just shows up automatically. In terms of actually conducting the review, I just open the required template and spend some time jotting down my answers to the prompts. After responding to the prompts (and saving the document in Evernote) I'll go back and read the previous reflection (i.e. if I just responded to the 30,000 foot review I'll go back and read the 30,000 foot review I did 4 months prior). I like to wait until after I respond to the latest template before going back and reading what I had written before because I don't want to bias my current response. Plus, it's cool to see the similarities and differences afterward.

Setting up a system like this ensures that you're being reminded at the appropriate intervals to think about the larger questions -- the questions and ideas that will ensure you're moving in the right direction and allocating your time and attention as well as you possibly can. There's no reason to rely on your brain to remind you to take time to reflect when something like a calendar can do the job much better. Waiting until you feel an urgent need to spend time in reflection is usually a sign you've waited too long.

Photo by Hege

How to Do a Weekly Reset

I've written about the importance of the Weekly Review in the past and any Getting Things Done fan knows it's a key (I would argue the key) to any well-functioning GTD system. One part of my Weekly Review has become so important to me and the way I work, though, that I've given it it's own name; the Weekly Reset.

The Weekly Reset is the part of my review where I focus on clearing out as much as possible from my informational backlog so I can go into the next week looking forward to new information and opportunities instead of dreading the idea of adding even more stuff on top of an already precarious pile. My full Weekly Review is the larger process of actually updating my task management software, assessing the previous week, and setting some intentions about the upcoming week in terms of what I want to accomplish (here's the template I've created). If you aren't doing a full Weekly Review yet I think instituting a bit of a Weekly Reset is a good first step in that direction. Here's a handful of things I like to do during mine:

Friday Afternoon

I'm experimenting with shifting my Weekly Review from Sunday afternoon to Friday afternoon. So far I really like the sense of closure to the week it gives me. As part of my Weekly Review each Friday afternoon I try to complete as many little tasks as possible. Throughout the week I'm constantly booting administrative to-do items to appear on Friday in my task management software which allows me to focus on more important things during the prime parts of my work week and gives me a handy list of easy tasks to crank through when my motivation is generally low and I'm looking forward to the weekend on Friday afternoon.

The other aspect of the Weekly Reset that happens on Friday is making sure that everything I might want to read is waiting for me in Instapaper. This means that all tweets I saw throughout the week sharing articles and everything in my RSS reader that I actually want to read is sitting and ready to go in Instapaper. The nice trick for this is to use IFTTT to automatically send the links of starred tweets and favorited items within RSS to Instapaper.

By the end of the day Friday I've done my Weekly Review, knocked out a ton of small tasks, and have an Instapaper queue busting at the seams with a bunch of things I'm excited to read.

Saturday or Sunday Afternoon

On Saturday and Sunday I try not to think about work at all and I rarely check email. Instead, I complete my favorite part of the Weekly Reset -- reading! I try to work my way completely through my Instapaper backlog over the course of an afternoon. I also receive an absurd amount of magazines thanks to some frequent flyer miles I cashed in so I try to work my way through that backlog every weekend as well. Finally, I also try to make sure I listen to all the podcasts that I didn't get to during the week (usually a handful of episodes). Most weekends I'm able to find a couple hours to kick back with a cup of coffee (if I'm getting to this first thing in the morning) or a beer (if I'm getting to this first thing in the morn... just kidding) and just read. If I finish all my queues and I still have some motivation I'll kick back with a book and read that as much as possible. I actually read books almost every day during the week and read almost no internet "things" until the weekend so I'm okay if my Saturday and Sunday are dedicated to clearing out internet-based reading instead of whatever book I'm working on.

In order to make this work I had to get better at identifying which things could get by with a power skim and which things I could read more slowly and completely. I have almost no qualms about power skimming most things I read on the internet (except for the occasional long form article that requires deeper focus). The same goes with podcasts. I had to get very real with myself in terms of how many podcasts I could feasibly listen to in a given week. I reduced it down to about four weekly podcasts and two shorter dailies. I don't like feeling "behind" in anything so I'm willing to listen to less programs if it means I won't have them sitting unlistened in my queue for a long time. It's just the reality of how my brain works and what I need to do to feel good about what's going on around me.

The end result of all of this? I get to go into Monday morning with a ton of ideas for articles thanks to the copious amount of reading accomplished over the weekend, an empty Instapaper queue, an empty magazine rack, an empty RSS reader, and most importantly, excitement for what new things might be waiting for me instead of dreading the addition of new responsibilities or opportunities. That ability to raise my gaze away from the nitty gritty and scan the horizon for new opportunities is profoundly liberating and all it takes is some conscious effort and a couple hours of work to get myself prepared to embrace the world instead of shying away from it. That's a pretty worthy time investment in my book.

Photo by Patrick Lauke

The Quest to Make Afternoons Not Suck

I'm one of those annoying morning people. I generally wake up at 6:30 without hitting the snooze and by 9:00 I've usually knocked out some high level creative work. I can generally work at a pretty productive clip until lunch time -- and then everything changes. 

In the afternoon I feel like a waste of space. 

It's hard to say how much I'm objectively sucking in the afternoon as opposed to comparing it to my somewhat abnormal normal hours. Either way, I want to try to even out my work day so I'm not constantly experiencing the two extremes -- either I'm tearing it up in the morning or I'm a zombie in the afternoon. To that end, I've instituted a few changes to my daily routine and have a few more waiting in reserve. I'm going to try these out over the next couple of months and then I'll report back with what is, and isn't, working.

  1. Increased afternoon structure: One idea I have to make my afternoons better is to give myself more structure than I usually have in the morning. If I HAVE to be somewhere at a certain time then I obviously can't just sit around and feel unproductive. All of my classes this semester start no earlier than 1 PM. I also try to schedule client calls and meetings for the afternoon. When other people are relying on me I'm not going to just blow something off because I don't "feel like it."
  2. Pushing lunch a little bit later: This is a simple way to make the morning, my prime time, a little bit longer. If I'm in the groove with whatever I'm working on in the morning I can try to keep it going a little bit longer by pushing lunch to a little bit later in the day. Unfortunately, on days I have class I can't do that too well because I have class at 1 and I can't go a three-hour grad-level class without having lunch. 
  3. Matching tasks with energy levels: This is a huge part of one of my favorite productivity books, The Power of Full Engagement. Some of the work I have to do requires me to be thinking clearly, creatively, and with a high level of energy. Writing of all kind and intensive research with lots of note taking falls into this category. A little bit less intense is preparing for coaching calls, doing general personal development research, and most brainstorming. Finally, some of the tasks I have to do can be done with just a minimum of focus and mental energy. Filing, updating my task management software, triaging email, and most simple correspondence are all able to be done in this state. Knowing the demands of my various tasks means I can then match them up with my optimal energy. Doing my "zombie tasks" when I'm feeling fresh and awesome is a complete waste of my psychological abilities. Likewise, trying to write a detailed article late in the afternoon when I'm exhausted is also a complete waste of time.
  4. Each day has its own personality: The morning contains my highest value hours. The afternoon the lowest. You could say each part of the day has its own personality. Likewise, I think each day of the work week also has its own personality. For example, my Mondays are usually highly productive because I'm trying to start the week off on the right foot. I also do most of my emailing on Monday and that often means I'm brainstorming and moving forward many different projects. Wednesdays are usually my lowest productive day because I've pushed myself very hard on Monday and Tuesday. Fridays are usually pretty productive, but I'm also usually quite tired. Therefore, I try to save as many small/easy tasks, administrative duties, and errands for Fridays so I can free up more time earlier in the week for the more challenging things I have to do. It's the same concept as the #3 expanded to a daily, instead of hourly, perspective. Early in the week is best for my difficult and creative work and the end of the week is better for clearing my mental deck of various jetsam.
  5. Afternoon workouts: I usually workout in the morning but I'm considering moving my daily workout to the afternoon. My afternoon fatigue is usually more of a mental situation, not physical. Therefore, I think working out shouldn't be too much of a problem. A possible added bonus is that I usually feel more energized after a workout so I may be able to kill two birds with one stone (getting in a workout and making my afternoon mental state better). This is going to be tough because I love my morning workouts where I'm the only person in the weight room. I'm willing to at least try it for a couple weeks to see how it goes, though.

By systematically trying these different solutions I'm hoping I can make my everyday experience a little bit more pleasant. Where could you use this same approach to some problem in your life? 

Photo by Horace 

Morning Wins

I'm starting this morning not with my normal routine of: CTRL + SPACEBAR, "Chrome," "Gmail," ALT + T, "Facebook," ALT + T, "Reddit," CTRL + SPACEBAR, "Tweetdeck." That has become my automatic morning response and I can do it quickly and utterly unconsciously. Today is going to be different, though. The coffee is almost done, it's still dark outside, and I'm going to start the day with a win.

Starting with a win is one of those things I'm increasingly realizing makes a big change in how I experience the rest of my day. As the day progresses, the opportunities for "wins" tend to decline. Or, perhaps they are just overshadowed by the annoyances and myriad "losses" throughout the day. Email is the most common vehicle for losses. "Can you do this for me?" "Have you done this yet?" "Why did you do this?" "What's the next thing we have to do?" None of these are inherently "bad" questions, but they represent drains on my attention because I am not their locus of origin.


Nor am I saying that I wish my days were filled with exclusively self-created work. I enjoy helping people and the majority of my projects, personal or otherwise, incorporate and need other people. However, I've learned over the years, and particularly over the last couple of months, that it's hard to start my day taking care of other people's problems first. When I do, I can feel the resentment grow inside me. If I don't take care of myself and my needs, even in the most cursory manner possible, I do a poorer job helping other people throughout the day.

I started writing this only ten or so minutes ago and have only taken a sip or two of the aforementioned coffee. But, now that these words have traveled from my head to my fingers and to my screen, I know the rest of my day will go better. I will be asked to do annoying things, I will have to work on tasks that aren't the most important to me right now and it will all be okay. I selfishly woke up early to indulge in my own thoughts and creative impulse and because of that I'll be able to work more unselfishly the rest of the day.


Sanity, Grad School, And Doing Cool Stuff

For better or for worse, I've developed a reputation of somebody who takes on a lot of work and (generally) does it well. To some, I appear hyper-productive whereas most of the time I feel anything but. Granted, I'm only three days into the second year of graduate school, but I feel a little bit different about this year than I have in the past. I'm working on more interesting thingshave greater responsibilities, my classes are harder, and yet, I'm actually working less than I used to.

I've committed myself to clearly delineating when my day ends and when my relaxation and rejuvenation begins. Sometime between 5 and 7 every day I review what I've completed for the day, make a rough plan for tomorrow, and then turn off my computer. From then on I don't check my email, do any kind of school work (including reading for class), or any kind of extracurricular work. 7 until 11 is reserved for me to make dinner, unwind, and read somethign for fun.

When I wrote my Back to School Manifesto a week ago, I was a little bit worried that I was being too ambitious. I knew I had a huge plate of work ahead of me this year and saying that I wasn't going to stay up late to do work or read felt a little bit risky. I thought that this commitment to a more sane work style would result in less output and I'd just have to live with it. I was prepared to do just that but my experience over the past week has actually been the complete opposite.

By committing myself to a fixed work schedule I've actually accomplished more work in less time than I ever have before.

THE END OF THE WORK DAY ISN'T WHEN I FALL ASLEEP

Giving an end to my day other than no longer being able to keep my eyes open gives me something to shoot for. You don't sprint a marathon -- that's just stupid. You can't see the finish when you're standing on the starting line so you have to pace yourself. Likewise, when I'm starting my day without clearly defining when I've finished the race I'm setting myself up for a long slog of average output. I'd much, much rather focus my energy into a shorter but more powerful burst. Sitting down to my work in the morning and looking ahead I know that for better or worse I'm calling it quits at 7 PM. If I don't want to put myself into a massive hole then I need to keep myself in line for those 9-10 hours and get as much done as I possibly can. Setting a finish line I can actually see added some urgency back into my day.

I NEED ALL MY BRAINS

Second, clearly dividing the time I'm working from the time I'm not-working lets me use the entirety of my mental faculty on both. I am not a genius. When it comes to my cohort here at grad school, I'd place myself as decidedly average in most facets of being a student. Therefore, I need to make sure I'm bringing 100% of my focus and ability on each school or work activity I'm doing. If I can't do that then I can't keep up. In order to bring  my A-game every time I sit down to work, I have to make sure I've rested and rejuvenated well. For many students it's a perverse badge of honor to treat yourself like garbage. Late nights at the library, sleep deprivation -- sometimes it seems like a competition to see who can be the most miserable. I opted out of that mindset as quickly as possible. I'm asleep by 11 o'clock most nights, I read books for fun, and my weekends are work-free except for a 2-3 hour block where I do my Weekly Review. All of this allows me to bring the entirety of my mental faculty during the week.

NO COMPLAINING UNTIL I'M PERFECT

One of the most common complaints I hear is that there "aren't enough hours in the day." I used to say it all the time. And then I took a look at how I was actually spending the hours I was given. It's kind of sickening how bad I am/was at using my time well. I vowed to never use that complaint again unless I was using my productive hours to 100% capacity and still felt the same way. By the same token, I told myself that stayig up late or working long hours on the weekends are signs that I've failed during the week. There's no reason for my work to spill over into those time blocks if I'm using my time well. If I get to the position where I'm using my work hours to 100% peak capacity and still have too much to do, then maybe I'll rethink my position on this (but really, that's just a sign that I've taken on way too much).

Maybe we all have enough time but are just really, really bad at using it well? I challenge you to not say you don't have enough time to do what you want until you take a super close look at how you're using the time you already have.

The Life Reboot

Habit change has been written about to death and back. Anything you could ever want to know about how to change a habit can be quickly found by heading over to Zen Habits or spending about .3 seconds on Google. I'm not here to rehash that old topic again. However, I do want to talk about a specific type of habit that I've been working on recently.

A default is the setting something reverts to. It's the original configuration that you're stuck with originally. When it comes to computers, defaults are generally what feels like "normal." Lots of people like to tweak the defaults that a new computer comes with to better suit their needs. However, computers aren't the only thing with default settings. People have defaults, too. We all have the automatic actions we take without thinking about in our lives. Our defaults are what we do when we aren't thinking about what we're doing. Are you still operating with factory-set defaults? Do you think it's time for a little customization?

HOW MANY OF YOUR DEFAULTS ARE AFFECTING YOUR LIFE IN A POSITIVE WAY?

 A couple months ago I sat down and took a serious look at what my defaults were. I didn't like what I saw.

  • My default behavior when I was bored was to check Twitter, Reddit, or my email.
  • My default emotion when I received criticism was defensiveness.
  • My default activity when I got out of bed in the morning was to plop down in front of my computer.
  • My default decision when I was procrastinating seemed to be pretty similar to my boredom default.

For every stimulus in your life you have a default reaction. What do you seem to automatically reach for when you get hungry in the middle of the day? Do you crack open a soda every time you get thirsty? It's 2:30 in the afternoon and you're tired, what do you always seem to automatically do?

Defaults can be very destructive if they aren't set to help you. There's no reason they have to be negative, though. In fact, harnessing and changing your defaults for the better is one of the most powerful things you can do to make a lasting positive change in your life. If you can mindlessly do something positive every time your default action is triggered, you are going to be in a much better position -- and you won't even realize you're doing something incredibly positive. Default actions are mindless so why not make them as positive as possible?

After I took stock of the negative defaults I wanted to change, I started systematically improving them one at a time. This is where the traditional advice about changing habits comes into play.

Now, my new list of default actions looks something like this:

  • When I'm bored I automatically pick up a book or my latest writing project.
  • When I'm criticized, I take a step back and decide if it's valuable feedback.
  • When I get out of bed in the morning, I pour a cup of coffee and read for half an hour.
  • When I get hungry in the middle of the day, I drink a big glass of water.

 By changing my default behavior I've been able to add a huge dose of positive change into my life without having to think about it every time. It's just automatic. Once you've put forward the energy and the effort to change your default you are essentially reaping the rewards for free from that point forward.

HOW TO RESET YOUR DEFAULT SETTINGS

If you want to start profiting from your defaults instead of being hurt by them you need to do two things. First, figure out what your defaults are. Think about all the various triggers you face throughout the day that automatically make you do something. What do you do when you get up in the morning? What do you do when you get to work? What do you do when you turn on your computer?

Once you've made a list of your defaults you need to decide which ones to change. Don't bite off more than you can chew by trying to change too many of them at once. In fact, just do one at a time. It's not easy to break a default and if you spread your focus across many of them then you won't be able to break them. Start practicing your new default every time you hit that specific trigger. You'll have to think about it for awhile. In fact, I made sure I had constant visual reminders about what my new default was supposed to be. For example, when I was trying to break the default of always opening my email and Twitter when I opened my browser, I changed the settings so that it would automatically open my Google Docs first. That way I'd be reminded that if I'm just trying to distract myself from being bored, I should probably do some writing instead. Leave yourself notes wherever you're likely to see them until your new default becomes automatic.

I'd love to hear about the defaults you've broken in the past and your new, more positive, alternatives in the comments!

 

Resetting the Defaults Across Your Life

Habit change has been written about to death and back. Anything you could ever want to know about how to change a habit can be quickly found by heading over to Zen Habits or spending about .3 seconds on Google. I'm not here to rehash that old topic again. However, I do want to talk about a specific type of habit that I've been working on recently.

A default is the setting something reverts to. It's the original configuration that you're stuck with originally. When it comes to computers, defaults are generally what feels like "normal." Lots of people like to tweak the defaults that a new computer comes with to better suit their needs. However, computers aren't the only thing with default settings. People have defaults, too. We all have the automatic actions we take without thinking about in our lives. Our defaults are what we do when we aren't thinking about what we're doing. Are you still operating with factory-set defaults? Do you think it's time for a little customization?

How many of your defaults are affecting your life in a positive way?

A couple months ago I sat down and took a serious look at what my defaults were. I didn't like what I saw.

  1. 1My default behavior when I was bored was to check Twitter, Reddit, or my email.
  2. My default emotion when I received criticism was defensiveness.
  3. My default activity when I got out of bed in the morning was to plop down in front of my computer.
  4. My default decision when I was procrastinating seemed to be pretty similar to my boredom default.

For every stimulus in your life you have a default reaction. What do you seem to automatically reach for when you get hungry in the middle of the day? Do you crack open a soda every time you get thirsty? It's 2:30 in the afternoon and you're tired, what do you always seem to automatically do?

Defaults can be very destructive if they aren't set to help you. There's no reason they have to be negative, though. In fact, harnessing and changing your defaults for the better is one of the most powerful things you can do to make a lasting positive change in your life. If you can mindlessly do something positive every time your default action is triggered, you are going to be in a much better position -- and you won't even realize you're doing something incredibly positive. Default actions are mindless so why not make them as positive as possible?

After I took stock of the negative defaults I wanted to change, I started systematically improving them one at a time. This is where the traditional advice about changing habits comes into play.

Now, my new list of default actions looks something like this:

  1. When I'm bored I automatically pick up a book or my latest writing project.
  2. When I'm criticized, I take a step back and decide if it's valuable feedback.
  3. When I get out of bed in the morning, I pour a cup of coffee and read for half an hour.
  4. When I get hungry in the middle of the day, I drink a big glass of water.

By changing my default behavior I've been able to add a huge dose of positive change into my life without having to think about it every time. It's just automatic. Once you've put forward the energy and the effort to change your default you are essentially reaping the rewards for free from that point forward.

HOW TO RESET YOUR DEFAULT SETTINGS

If you want to start profiting from your defaults instead of being hurt by them you need to do two things. First, figure out what your defaults are. Think about all the various triggers you face throughout the day that automatically make you do something. What do you do when you get up in the morning? What do you do when you get to work? What do you do when you turn on your computer?

Once you've made a list of your defaults you need to decide which ones to change. Don't bite off more than you can chew by trying to change too many of them at once. In fact, just do one at a time. It's not easy to break a default and if you spread your focus across many of them then you won't be able to break them. Start practicing your new default every time you hit that specific trigger. You'll have to think about it for awhile. In fact, I made sure I had constant visual reminders about what my new default was supposed to be. For example, when I was trying to break the default of always opening my email and Twitter when I opened my browser, I changed the settings so that it would automatically open my Google Docs first. That way I'd be reminded that if I'm just trying to distract myself from being bored, I should probably do some writing instead. Leave yourself notes wherever you're likely to see them until your new default becomes automatic.

I'd love to hear about the defaults you've broken in the past and your new, more positive, alternatives in the comments!