Probably I’d be more productive if I ever quit experimenting with productivity techniques and just settled on a system. It’s fun for me, though, and often I learn something useful that seemed counterintuitive at first. An idea I’ve been playing with is the concept of Calendar Zero.
‘Calendar Zero’ means you schedule every hour of your day in advance, including fun and relaxation.
This was revolutionary for me. I tend to procrastinate more on relaxing than on anything else. It goes along with my tendency to buy some kind of trinket for myself, never open it, and then either give it to a friend or donate it to charity without ever using it. I also often keep desserts until they get stale or freezer-burned. Maybe I should put ‘enjoyment’ on my to-do list.
Here’s how I began my experiment. I made a list of ‘Ten for Ten’ projects, with hour-long time slots running across a long workday. I like things like read-a-thons, and games like this feel exciting. I figured I would probably wind up veering off my schedule at some point, due to an interruption or miscalculation of how long it would take to do something. Also, I was still recovering from a cold, which gave me a free pass on running out of energy.
On my list:
Take out trash and recycling
Work on blog
Talk to hubby (out of town on business trip)
Balance bank statement
Much to my surprise, I did everything on my list except for making the soup. (Hubby called at a different time slot than I expected and I wound up eating something else). I also found myself spending extra time on my financial chores, which are very boring in my world, and did a few other random electronic administrative tasks.
Something else relevant about this Calendar Zero experiment is that I found myself indulging in something I almost never do. I sat on the couch and binged three episodes of a true crime show that I had been wanting to watch for about six months. This is why I did more admin stuff than I’d planned, even at the end of a busy, low-energy day. I got into a groove, and it gave me an excuse to pair the work with something I consider frivolous.
My list started with my absolute most-hated chores, but also included a few hour-long fun breaks, some stuff I don’t mind doing, and some things I’d been procrastinating. It worked so well, at least from the variety, that I immediately made a different list for the next day.
What I normally do is to schedule my days by time blocks. Laundry on Monday and Thursday, like that. It works for exercise and regular chores, but I didn’t have a formal routine for the sort of odd, anytime projects that might linger unfinished for weeks or months. I didn’t even have a formal routine for kicking back and relaxing, which of course is much worse.
What’s different about this method of leaving no time unaccounted-for is that it forces you to make room for the fun. You have to write in when you’re going to bathe, eat meals, talk to your friends, and walk your dog. It gives a sense of having plenty of time. For instance, knowing you have a full hour to shower, get dressed, style your hair, and get your bag ready completely eliminates the feeling of being rushed. It even gives the sense that maybe you have a little extra time to do something extra, like spending ten minutes on a crossword puzzle, playing with a hula hoop, finishing a full episode of a podcast, or learning a new way to wrap a scarf.
The other thing about scheduling every single hour of the day is that often, the scut work takes less time than you had allowed. You’ve folded and put away all your laundry, and you still have time left to mess around! If you’ve already done everything you needed to do, then you know you’re free to fully make use of the remaining time doing a headstand or whatever you want.
In the week that I’ve been playing with Calendar Zero, I’ve done all my ordinary work and chores, sure. I’ve gone to my usual meetings. I’ve also fit in an extra conference call, done two weeks of newsletters, blasted through my email and news queue, gone shopping, and rearranged my closet.
Probably the main feature of Calendar Zero, the thing that works, is that it crowds out the junk hours. You know, the time you spend unintentionally scrolling (scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, keep those junk hours rolling) whether it’s through social media, online shopping, or entertainment options. For instance, I can easily spend half an hour or more trying to choose my next audiobook, when I could have read an entire chapter or a magazine article on paper by then. There’s certainly plenty of time in the day to be idle like this, with the difference being that we ANTICIPATE IT pleasurably and CHOOSE to indulge in it purposely.
Now, when I know I want to scroll around idly downloading podcast episodes, or ordering something off a website, I can choose to do it while I eat lunch and take my own sweet time on it.
The novelty hasn’t worn off my Calendar Zero game. That’s great, because I still have a few odd tasks on my list to knock off. I’m going to keep using this system and see how much more playtime it builds into my day.
I’m putting Mark McGuinness’s book Productivity for Creative People on the exalted but brief list I call One and Done. If you are an artist and you struggle to get done everything that you want to do, you can read this book and find out everything you need to know. I’m telling you, it’s all right here. I should know because I read all of these things; some of them are outright wrong, some are clearly written by methodical yet non-artistic people, and the rest take twice as long while getting across fewer truly helpful ideas. Productivity for Creative People is both insightful and realistic. If your art has been languishing these days, try this book.
If you’re feeling desperate, just go straight to chapter 3, Reduce Overload.
McGuinness clearly has experience with all the variations of workday that a creative person may face: Work on demand in someone else’s company; managing other creatives; working at home for oneself or others. He shares the example of having to meet a heavy deadline while planning his wedding. The basic strategy is to 1. Examine your assumptions about your workflow; 2. Spend the maximum possible amount of your time actually doing creative work; and 3. Find a way to deal with Resistance, distractions, and mundane tasks. In my experience, where we usually fall down is on that first step, plunging in without a strategy and then constantly stumbling on everything from the third step.
This is partly why I’m so enamored of the Reduce Overload chapter. It asks fundamental questions that seem obvious, yet that I haven’t seen in just this way in other organizing or time management books. “Is this a temporary state, or is it likely to continue (or get worse)?” McGuinness divides workload into four categories:
Another very helpful concept was to distinguish between open lists and closed lists, recognizing that open lists (such as laundry or email) will never be done, while closed lists can have a firm deadline. Combine this with the concept of distinguishing between background tasking and task switching, which both supposedly fall under the fallacious premise of multitasking, and suddenly a rational schedule starts to arrange itself.
There are some tips here that could be revolutionary if only they caught on in the traditional workplace. Managing interruptions, meetings, and email all come to mind. For the brave, it might be good to go over Chapter 7 and see if you can enlist an ally or two in your office to adopt some (or all!) of these practices. I’d lead my pitch with “Let’s try this for a month, and if it doesn’t improve efficiency, then we can always go back to the usual chaos.”
As a former chronic procrastinator, I found the advice to Panic Early quite brilliant. In fact, it’s the only way to start to learn the skill of estimating timelines on projects. A lot of us think procrastination is a charming feature of creativity, when really it means we get much less done than others. Productivity for Creative People is another way of saying “make art and don’t let it die unexpressed.”
McGuinness also suggests that we “Use templates for different types of day.” I do this, after trying several other methods of managing my time, and it works. There are no two days of my week that match, due to a few externally imposed time blocks. Oddly enough, I get more done under this schedule than I did when 100% of my time was my own. Structure always helps.
Read Productivity for Creative People. Do what I did, and bookmark the holy heck out of it. Then keep it near to hand and flip it open for reminders from time to time. I’m going to have to insist upon this, because if you’re an artist, then we need your art, and that means you need a way to bring it into the world.
Do you see organization as soulless and uncreative or as a necessary, helpful part of your creative process?
What do you like about chaos?
“Can I afford to wait another minute before getting started?”
September! I’m always going to associate the month of September with going back to school and hitting the books. It occurred to me the other day that reading is one of my favorite things, and that maybe with a little planning I can find more time for it. There’s something about that feeling of a fresh start, of a brand-new month, that always seems to have a little extra momentum. Starting on the first, I’m going to treat myself to more reading time.
For the last decade or so, I’ve been recording everything I read. Looking through Goodreads, it appears that I only read five novels in August, two in July, two in June, and two in May. This is the least amount of fiction I’ve read, like, ever. I can’t even explain how it happened. I literally read more fiction than this in grade school, when we still called them chapter books. My favorite thing to do to relax is to kick back with a book, so why am I not doing it?
A few years ago, I started dedicating the month of October to my favorite genre, horror. I always used to watch a horror movie on Halloween, and I had a list of highly rated classics that I would save for my first viewing. I would also read a classic horror novel. Gradually my list got too long, too fast, and I started extending Halloween a few extra days, then a week. When it occurred to me to just make it THE ENTIRE MONTH, I felt absolute delight. Even better than a bag of free candy! I did it, too, and October 2017 was a blast.
Out of nowhere, I suddenly had the idea that I could set aside September and November for special reading projects as well. Immediately I started to think about what these projects would be, and whether it might eventually make sense to do something like that for each month or season of the year. For instance, I usually save dark and dramatic books for January, because why mess up beautiful sunny weather with sad topics?
One of my thoughts is to set aside one month of the year for finishing off any books I had stalled out on. That’s most likely going to be December this year, and probably every year of my life until I learn to quit over...BOOKING myself. No I will not apologize for that pun so don’t ask. I love starting out on New Year’s Day with a fresh slate, and I usually rush around in December trying to close all my open loops, read through my news queue, purge my closet(s) and cabinets, clear out my desk, and not have any unfinished business. Perpetually, my “to be read” pile is the most behind-hand of these areas.
The worst of my “why am I not reading this” categories are fiction and fitness. I tend to buy exercise books that are about three years beyond my current ability, and then just... gaze at them from time to time. I recall a book I bought in college about yoga poses you could do in your pajamas without getting out of bed. Like that. I tend to let my fiction picks stack up, because as it turns out, I hate reading paperback books, but it also drives me crazy to want to read something that hasn’t been released as an ebook yet. It’s a FoMO thing.
Isn’t that the deal with reading plans? With buying books in advance? With having a news queue or a playlist or a bunch of open tabs or a movie queue? We like making all sorts of media choices for Future Self, thinking we know better today what we’re going to want to do for fun someday in the future. Then Today Me is looking at all these stacks and lists and feeling totally overwhelmed. What we do for entertainment shouldn’t feel like homework!
Back to my idea of having a seasonal reading plan. At least right now, this feels refreshing. It feels like something fun, rather than having to industriously read through my TBR list in order. My October “all horror, all day, every day” plan is one of my favorite times of the year, even though it spooks my husband. There’s that sense of getting away with something, of having a secret thrill.
You know what I think I’m going to do? I think I’m going to make September about classic novels that I always wanted to get around to one day. I keep looking at these “100 best books of all time” lists with a wistful feeling. Every time I do, I think, “Oh, I’ll just read one of those every week” or “every month” or “I guess never.”
Right at this moment, I’m also thinking that November could be about memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies. I LOVE that stuff. I often find myself reading a memoir when I’m procrastinating on something else. I particularly like the idea of listening to audiobooks when they are narrated by the author. Maybe there are also some documentaries to add in, since I sometimes watch stuff while I’m on the elliptical.
This is how I do my reading:
Audiobooks for errands, chores, cooking, walking my dog, and otherwise doing boring stuff
The occasional hard copy of a book, if I must, either on my porch or on the elliptical with two giant rubber bands holding it in place
Ebooks for long bus rides, the elliptical, or reading in bed in dark mode
What am I planning to read?
SEPTEMBER - CLASSIC FICTION
Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
The Adventures of Augie March - Saul Bellow
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers
Wise Blood - Flannery O’Connor
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton
NOVEMBER - MEMOIR, BIOGRAPHY, AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Life in Motion - Misty Copeland
Bicycle Diaries - David Byrne
Leap of Faith - Queen Noor
West With the Night - Beryl Markham
Oh the Glory of It All - Sean Wilsey
Choose Your Own Autobiography - Neil Patrick Harris
Pick Three is the answer for anyone who feels constantly busy, burned out, and utterly confounded by the concept of “work-life balance.” When I first saw the cover of this book, with its cheery sticky note implying that Sleep is something optional, I scoffed at it. Ha, if other people think they can have a happy life by just sacrificing sleep, then good for them, but not me! I gave Randi Zuckerberg a chance to make her case anyway. Now I agree with the book’s subtitle: You Can Have It All (Just Not Every Day).
There is great good sense behind the suggestion to Pick Three. The “three” are: Work, Sleep, Family, Fitness, Friends. (Or, you can choose your own, such as: Netflix, School, Tacos, Dating, Yoga). Trying to make equal time for all five every single day will lead to doing poorly at all of them. Zuckerberg offers ways that different people have structured their lives and made decisions about their big three. We’ll recognize ourselves here, as different people are profiled who have had to work around disability, addiction, major illness, losing their parents, relocating, having a disabled child, and other serious challenges. This is real life we’re talking about here.
For instance, I’m a Sleep person because I have to be. I feel lucky that this is my biggest health issue, but it still is one! I have a parasomnia disorder, and when my sleep starts getting messed up, I quit functioning. Not only that, but anyone who sleeps under the same roof as me is impacted, because with pavor nocturnus I flail in bed, sleepwalk, scream in my sleep, and even run through the house opening doors. I feel irresponsible and unfair when these symptoms resurface. I see others with garden-variety sleep procrastination who are irritable and snappy due to their VOLUNTARY sleep deprivation, and I shake my head. This is manageable. Leave sleep out of your Big Three only for brief periods when you know you usually get plenty of rest. If you usually don’t, then why?
There are ways to combine some of these elements. In my personal life, I’ve chosen Sleep, Work, and Fitness because I keep having to relocate, and my oldest friends all live hundreds of miles away. When my Family needs me, I drop everything to travel to them, and my main three get put aside until the crisis has passed. This is part of why I work three weeks in advance and mostly outside the time dimension. My projects can keep going even if I lose a week to something urgent. Most of my social life happens at my gym, because that’s where I’ve made most of my local friends.
Pick Three is a book about self-forgiveness and self-compassion. It’s also a book about being good to the people around you. When you feel a sense of purpose and that you’re making strong choices, it helps you to be fully present with your loved ones and give your utmost to your most important contribution. Feeling overextended and under-appreciated leads directly to resentment, hostility, and low quality of life. A book like Pick Three can help to reevaluate and check in with yourself to see if you really are living your values.
If I had it all to do over again, I’m not sure I would. That would mean having to live through my teens and twenties again. If I woke up in the body I had at age 29, I’d burst into tears. Give me middle age any time. I can beat Young Me in every respect. I have more skills, more discipline, more patience, better credit, and definitely more physical stamina. Today Me could basically lift Past Me off the ground and toss us across the room. When I think back on all of the bad, short-sighted, selfish decisions that Past Me made for our life, I want to kick her lazy butt. It all starts with Past Self’s schedule.
I wake up at 7 AM without an alarm. Past Me stays up as late as 3 AM, sleeps until noon on the weekend, and sometimes oversleeps the alarm.
I’m fit, strong, and active. Past Me is almost 100% sedentary.
I stay in one clothing size year in, year out. Past Me has no fewer than six sizes of clothing in her closet. At her most tired and ill, she’s seven sizes bigger than Today Me.
I drink water. Past Me doesn’t; she drinks cola.
I eat 2-4 cups of cruciferous vegetables every day. Past Me eats more volume than that in breakfast cereal, snacks, treats, chips, cookies, chocolate bars, and other baked goods and dessert foods.
I follow the two-minute rule of GTD (Getting Things Done). Past Me is a chronic procrastinator.
I eat four meals a day. Past Me eats whenever food is present and especially right before bed.
I’m in the gym four hours a week. Past Me spends four hours a day lounging on her bed.
I have a bedtime. Past Me has a parasomnia disorder.
I’m a minimalist. Past Me is sentimental and she saves everything.
I’m basically post-money. Past Me often cries herself to sleep about bills, debt, and cash flow.
I’m a world traveler. Past Me spends our vacation money on restaurant food, soda, junk food, movies, books, clothes, trivial physical objects, and fines, fees, and finance charges.
I’m an investor. Past Me can’t be bothered to learn how to set up an IRA, even though it only takes about 20 minutes, for which I will never forgive her.
I’m a good cook. Past Me seems to think that cooking is something like an astrological sign, or the shape of one’s earlobes; in other words, an inherited genetic trait.
I take the initiative. Past Me has not yet figured out that it’s up to us to chase down our own results.
It’s not that Past Me set out to be irresponsible or sloppy. Past Me had the same desire I do, to do a good job and be a good person. It would have crushed her to be perceived as unreliable. She would not have agreed with my retrospective analysis. I judge her for being a spendthrift and for lacking self-discipline. She reminds me that she was young and operating on the best information she had at the time. A young person can never compete with a mature person on the basis of self-discipline or life skills. All of that is true.
It’s true that I have Past Me to thank for being able to pass a background check, for getting us a passport and a drivers license and a bachelor’s degree and a FICO score over 800. Past Me took care of our teeth and made sure we had no substance abuse problems. Good job, honey, good job.
It’s also true that Past Me wasted a lot of time and missed a lot of opportunities. If we had learned to cook years earlier, we could have enjoyed hundreds more nice meals. If we had started investing a few years earlier, we’d have tens of thousands of dollars more in our portfolio. If we had started on foreign language study years earlier, we’d be fluent today. If we had believed it was possible, we could have gone back to school years earlier, saving thousands of dollars in tuition, and we could have lived overseas, too. Past Me just accepted that certain things were “impossible” for us, that certain things were out of our league or not for our kind of person. That’s the biggest difference between us: a lack of vision.
Past Me has the same twenty-four hours a day that I do. We just use them differently. Most of the things that I do today don’t seem to fit into a schedule as such; it’s a difference of policy, philosophy, and perspective. Past Me spends more time shopping, eating, and being entertained. She isn’t deciding not to go to the gym; she just isn’t deciding TO go, and thus she doesn’t realize how much gym time she is burning. She finds it an unacceptable tradeoff for reading time, not knowing that Today Me reads about triple as many books as she does. Everything that Today Me does just sounds like a lot of work. Too much effort.
Future Me, y u so mean??
Future Me wants even more out of me. She wants me to earn and save more money. She wants me to hit it harder at the gym. She wants me to make more friends, to make sure that we still have people to hang out with when we’re old. It wouldn’t do for us to grow up to be a bitter, grumpy, querulous, annoying old codger. Above all, she wants to make sure that I go out and get us some adventure, some material to dream on, some stories to tell to our fun young friends.
Overpacking isn’t just something to do with a suitcase. It’s also something metaphorical that we do with our schedules. Every time I get ready to go on a trip, I tell myself all sorts of fantasies, from “You’ll definitely finish reading that, you should really pack at least two extra books just in case” to “What email backlog? You’ll just breeze through it at the airport on the way home.” HAhahahaha! One of the many myths I hypnotize myself into believing is that I’m totally going to work out on vacation. Yeah! In fact, maybe I’ll upgrade! Yeah! I’ll try out all these Olympian core workouts and go home with side abs!
In reality, what happens is that I forget to apply sunblock to key areas, I don’t get enough sleep, I barely read a page a day, I eat dessert once or twice a day, I bring five pounds of extra stuff I never use, and, of course, I don’t work out at all.
Well, that last part isn’t completely true. We walk a lot.
It never ceases to amaze me, the beautiful and sweet optimism of people who think they can erase ten years of recreational eating habits by walking half an hour a few days a week. Wouldn’t that be nice? What I know is that we typically walk 8-10 miles a day on vacation, and I can gain anywhere from two to eight pounds anyway.
Being able to walk long distances is great. Travel is a good enough reason to stay fit all by itself. Walking ten miles, including about twenty flights of stairs, while carrying a backpack all day is no joke. There are also those special moments of horking your suitcase up into the overhead rack.
Sadly, though, even ten miles a day is no match for vacation food. Someone of my size only burns about 70 calories per mile. If a slice of cake is about 500, sure, maybe I’ve managed to burn off an extra dessert every day. The cake, but not the sweet drinks, the appetizers, the snacks, or any of the restaurant portions. My husband and I can easily gain enough extra weight from our vacation eating habits that it takes the rest of the year to burn it off again. If we do.
Of course, it isn’t just the food. It’s the break from routine. Daily reality is suspended. When we get home, it’s like we’ve gone through a wormhole, and everything looks similar, yet weirdly different. The apartment smells like paint. The dog has forgotten some of our hand signals and a couple of his new tricks. There’s an empty place in the schedule where “go to the gym” used to be.
This summer, we left town for a week, and got back just in time for my gym to close for five days for Independence Day. It just so happened that I had been down for a week with a stomach bug, trained for a week, left town, and then missed classes during the closure. Suddenly I was back at it, having only trained three days over the previous month. I had only two opportunities to prepare for belt promotion, and here I was still in vacation mode.
It’s not completely true to say that I didn’t train. I kinda did. It just wasn’t anywhere remotely approaching what I do on an ordinary weekday. Instead of an hour of high-intensity interval training, kicking, punching, and grappling, plus five miles of bicycling and 3-6 miles of walking, I did... I did less. I worked on my headstand for about five minutes a day, I walked, and a few days I did ten burpees.
I packed my jump rope. I had the best of intentions and it was small and lightweight. Did I use it? Not once. Course not. Anyone who does a serious workout on vacation has more discipline and strategic mindset than I do, and that’s actually saying quite a lot.
My first day in class, I actually crushed it. I did two back-to-back classes. I surprised myself by being able to get down and crank out thirty standard pushups, no problem. Thank the burpees for that. I had walked six miles earlier in the day and I rode my bike to class, too. If it weren’t for the belt promotion and my need to go to enough classes to earn my third stripe on my white belt, I never would have done it. I walked in sleepy and nervous, and walked out with my head held high, feeling much better about my prospects for the upcoming three-hour workout.
Exercise without a schedule, without deadlines, without specific performance goals has an annoying tendency to fade away into nothing. The best-made intentions are vapor. There’s no such thing as willpower or motivation anyway, and weight is definitely not lost at the gym, so it’s best to let those fantasies go. The work is still worth it, though, and it pays off. Being fit and strong makes daily life easier. Every hour of suffering and sweat is a force multiplier, leading to better posture, more energy, sounder sleep, clearer skin, better balance, more muscle and bone density, mood repair, confidence, mental focus, pride, and, if you do it right, friendships. Keep going, definitely keep going.
Vacation ate my workout. Two weeks away led to feeling slow, floppy, tired, unfocused, and out of form. Paradoxically, this reminded me of how far I had come, and that I used to feel that way (or worse) all the time. Why would I let my gains drift away into nothing? Class is back in session, so let’s get back to work.
As a tourist in the land of mornings, I appreciated this book. It’s much more about starting your day on a positive note than it is “rah rah, get up at 4:30 AM.” After reading My Morning Routine, it seems that there is a strong correlation between people choosing to own their morning and people who actually get enough sleep.
Much like Mason Currey’s book Daily Routines, this book includes a very broad range of behavior. Sixty-four people are interviewed from all walks of life. Not only is it a fascinating peek into the intimate lives of others, it’s also a solid demonstration that not everybody has to do the same thing in order to succeed.
Having battled sleep issues since the age of seven, I will probably never consider myself a “morning person.” I fell in love with an extreme lark, though, and I’ve gradually learned to shape a morning routine. My husband and our dog both wake up bright-eyed and bushy tailed at 5:30 AM, without an alarm, seven days a week. He has his routine down to 27 minutes, and he prefers that I’m not up and around at that time because it makes him want to hang out and talk to me. I sleep until 7:30 or 8, and I need at least 45 minutes to get ready. If I haven’t had a shower and eaten a big hot breakfast, I’m useless. Walking into walls, virtually drooling on myself, that kind of useless. This is why I make my bed every day, to give my vestibular system a chance to get me vertical. I support my chronotype by organizing my stuff, my schedule, and my to-do list in the evening. I know not to plan any creative or mentally challenging work early in the day, just as I know not to expect my mate to make decisions or have important conversations late at night.
The diversity of habits in My Morning Routine, and the reasons for them, are sometimes astonishing. One person sets an alarm to wake up early, even if she hasn’t had much sleep, and then spends the early morning hours reading. ?!? Another person cuts articles out of a newspaper with scissors, (rather than bookmarking the digital version?), because it feels crafty. Another person plays jazz piano, and another rides a bicycle 45 miles to work a couple times a week. Someone else plays ping-pong with a ping-pong robot. That just cheered me right up!
A great feature of My Morning Routine is that it includes sections called Reversals. They show that for every habit that works for many or most people, the exact opposite seems to work for others. An example of this is hitting the snooze button. Snoozing makes most people more groggy and tired, but for a few others, it can create a pleasantly creative subliminal state.
I started developing a morning routine as a way of pushing away from stress and chaos. I would wake up feeling so physically terrible that I needed to do anything I could to make my life easier. I used to be late everywhere, always, and it left me feeling miserable, anxious, and incompetent. Adding more formal structure to my day has, paradoxically, been freeing and relaxing. Even on travel days, I can wake up knowing that I have a handle on things and that I’m not going to be launched immediately into crisis mode. Out of everything I do, being able to start the day with enough time for a fancy breakfast has become one of the highlights. If you’re like me, SO Not a Morning Person, maybe considering some of the ideas from My Morning Routine can bring some fresh perspective and a little hope.
I remember being little and going to sleep so excited to begin again.
I also try not to pointlessly stay up late.
If the day were to end after my routine, would it have been a successful and fulfilling day?
Sundays are my “delicious” days.
Remember: Done is better than perfect.
I think the most apt metaphor for my mornings is that of being shot out of a cannon.
The hardest thing to do is to make decisions. Action is easy. Take action toward something that you know is important and valuable to your life, and you’ll find it satisfying and absorbing. Most likely, you’ll also find that it’s a fairly automatic process. Almost everything we need to do in life is routine once the decisions have been made. I always say that we’ll do anything if we want to and we know how. When we’re stuck, it’s either because we don’t really know what to do next, or we’re not really committed because we haven’t really decided whether we want it. Once we have all that figured out, all that’s left is turning the crank.
Turning the crank is doing a rote task over and over again.
Turning the crank is doing something relatively mindless that needs doing.
Turning the crank is executing on something with a consistent level of quality and output.
Turning the crank is production, rather than design or strategy.
The great thing about turning the crank is that it leaves the mind free to focus on other things. Something is getting done almost without your realizing it. Sometimes it feels like the work does itself.
Everyone knows the feeling of turning the crank. We just don’t always realize that that’s what we’re doing. Driving a familiar route is turning the crank. Playing an addictive game is turning the crank. Binge-watching TV is turning the crank. Eating favored snack foods is turning the crank. Ordering the same drink over and over is turning the crank. We’re absolutely fantastic at turning cranks! We just don’t always turn the cranks that can move life forward. We prefer the cranks that keep us running in place on a treadmill, exhausted, burned out, but doing something predictable that doesn’t use extra decision power.
I turn the crank on my laundry system because I accept that I will want to wear clean clothes most days for the rest of my life.
I turn the crank on my personal hygiene system because the alternative is repugnant to me.
I turn the crank on my meal system because I’ve got it going on. I know what to do to cook stuff I like to eat, that my husband likes to eat, that we can eat every day without weight gain or health problems. (Example: he has a sensitivity to limes, of all things).
I turn the crank on our mail system because it keeps the desk clear, and because it prevents predictable crises. (Example: some of my airline reward points will expire soon if I don’t use them).
About 80% of life is maintenance. This can be unutterably boring and stultifying. It can feel too unfair for words. You mean I have to fold laundry EVERY DAY??? UGHHHHHH! The stuff that makes the maintenance list is the stuff that gets worse when it’s ignored. We do the maintenance because when we abdicate and avoid it, it winds up taking longer. It’s usually also stickier, greasier, smellier, dustier, more depressing and annoying in every way if it gets put off. Future Me, you’d better appreciate this.
The point of turning the crank is to free up mental bandwidth. Automate every possible thing. Anything that can be put on a System 1 basis, where it can be done without conscious thought, frees up focus and awareness for more interesting things. The most important of these is strategy, and after that are creative output and entertainment. It’s also possible to turn the crank in an emotional or spiritual state such as gratitude, satisfaction, awe, compassion meditation, harmony with nature, ecstatic musical appreciation, or all sorts of other mindsets. Just because there’s a toilet brush in my hand / doesn’t mean that this isn’t my jam.
We tend to miss these rarefied states because we’re usually boiling with resentment, steaming with annoyance and frustration, trudging in dejection, or maybe even fuming with rage that we have to waste our precious time doing these horrible tasks. SO UNFAIR! It’s only when we accept that spending 80% of our time on boring, unfulfilling chores is the lot of humanity that we’re able to tune in to other frequencies.
I turned the crank today. I woke up and wrote, formatted, and posted an article for this blog before I had even had breakfast. That’s one of the main cranks that I turn, and I haven’t missed a business day in over three years. Then I read and reviewed a book, which I also formatted and scheduled. Turn the crank. I went to the gym, coached my clients, and caught up on email. Turn the crank. Listened to eight podcast episodes, or another way to put that would be that I changed the sheets, washed three loads of clothes, cleaned the bathroom, ran the dishwasher, vacuumed the bedroom, sorted the mail, cleaned the birdcage, and walked the dog. Turn the crank. Did two tasks for my volunteer position. Turn the crank. Wrote out my strategic plan for the next 13 weeks. That’s the crank that turns all the other cranks.
Turning the crank feels like competence. It’s a game, if you want it to be. When I was a kid, I hated washing dishes because I “had” to do it. Now I just shrug and do it, because it’s my kitchen, my home, and my rules. I hated cleaning my room, quite frankly because I didn’t know how to do it and I had stuff I had no authority to discard. Now I just shrug and do it, or more accurately, there isn’t really anything to clean.
I turn the crank because it’s a major part of how I do what I want, almost all the time. I choose. I choose to have a certain emotional state and a certain energy level. I choose to have a certain amount of mental bandwidth, which I then apply to various interesting projects, also of my choosing. It’s not acceptable to me to live in chaos and entropy, and neither is it acceptable to me to put my attention and precious mental focus on rote tasks. I let my hands do the tasks while my mind is free. It’s because I turn the crank every day that my mind is released from duty.
The more I study productivity and positive psychology, the more I think that pop culture has everything backwards. How many trillions of articles are there going to be about these topics before everyone starts to realize? Common tactics don’t work. What we need is more strategy. Then we can finally speed up, bounce right over these little speed bumps, and move on to the next thing.
The thing about “getting organized” is that it’s far too vague to mean anything. How do you know what it looks like? I know my clients don’t. They punish themselves with guilt and shame, meanwhile living out the same frantic calamities day after day. The real problem is that they just don’t know what to do. When they start to realize that their problems have simple root causes, they’re always so surprised and relieved! We start with a pain point, like “always being late” or “not being able to find stuff” or “mixed up about money.” Changing just one keystone behavior can completely eliminate all the problems it causes, thereby ending the need to “get organized.”
Those keystone habits?
Almost all household tasks take about five minutes, except for putting away laundry, which is more like 10-15 minutes per load, and cooking, which can be under thirty minutes for dinner and 5-10 for breakfast and lunch. Not a very big time investment for living in a relaxing environment and eating nice meals!
That’s a major part of “weight loss.” I put that in quotes because it’s something that athletes only think about if they’re competing in a sport with weight classes, like boxing or wrestling. Right now, in fact, I’m thinking in terms of weight GAIN because I’m actively trying to put on ten or fifteen pounds of nice solid muscle. Weight loss is a problem for average people because the Standard American Lifestyle is ineffective. It’s ineffective for financial independence, physical fitness, health, ability to stay off pharmaceutical drugs, and also minimalist housekeeping. Whenever you look around and find that 70% of people are in the same situation you’re in, it’s a cultural issue, not an issue of “motivation” or “willpower” or whatever else. Stop “losing weight” and start trying to figure out how to beat the system, the system that is failing us all.
This is how I lost weight.
2, 4, and 5 were permanent. 6 is seasonal but ramps up every year.
I haven’t had to think about “weight loss” for four years. I just put on my clothes. The fit of my favorite jeans tells me more than a scale will. I maintain a capsule wardrobe all in a single size, out of the eight sizes I’ve worn in adulthood. Regaining a lot of body fat would mean replacing my entire wardrobe, and I’m too stingy to pay for that.
When you’re “organized” and you don’t have to “lose weight,” there aren’t that many things to put on a to-do list. I used to love writing lists to clear my head when I felt overwhelmed by life. Usually they would include basic household chores. I teach my clients an exercise I call the “101 List,” in which I ask them to walk around their homes looking for tasks that need doing and trying to write down 101 separate items. It’s a great help for a chronically disorganized person who hasn’t yet set up any systems.
That’s the secret, though. Well, one of two. First secret: Build systems and put everything on autopilot so you don’t have to think about it anymore. Basic tasks should not be eating up your mental bandwidth or taking up any more time than they deserve.
Second secret: Don’t write lists; schedule reminders. Put these things on your calendar. Then ACTUALLY DO THEM at the time slot that you decided would work the best for you.
The problem with writing out to-do lists is that it’s like a pressure valve. It makes you feel accomplished, and then you can relax. (This is obviously true in the case of people who add tasks to their list just to cross them off). This is great if you do the things, and if writing out the list helps you to fall asleep more quickly that night. It’s bad if writing the list is the thing you do INSTEAD OF doing the things. The existence of multiple lists in various stages of completion will indicate if this is an issue.
What I finally learned was that most of my energy did not go toward what was important to me. I beat myself up for being disorganized, feeling guilty and ashamed, when my real problem was not understanding what to do about it. I thought I was procrastinating, when my real problems were managing my energy level and mental focus, and of course battling my chronic disorganization. The better I got at managing my schedule and my stuff, the easier it became. That’s when I started to be able to help other people, which is important, because all of us have better things to do than to spend our lives trying to Get Organized and Lose Weight.
Postponed decisions are the root cause of procrastination. Many of us who would never procrastinate on anything else will procrastinate about social engagements. One of the easiest ways to solve a problem of indecision is to waffle about it until the date has passed. Until this happens, there’s an open loop, a loose end that takes up at least part of our mental bandwidth. That feeling of nagging incompletion is really unpleasant. If it weren’t, the decision would be fast and easy to make, like the decision not to eat your least favorite vegetable. We get stuck in the doorway, unable to decide a Yes or a No. That’s where policy comes in.
Policy means two things. It means you never have to make a decision about that type of matter again. It also means you don’t have to put any thought into your response. It’s simply something you do, or something you don’t do.
It’s easy when you know how. For instance, you don’t donate money to causes that you don’t support, such as the rival political party. You also wouldn’t go to a random event rather than something important. If a tractor sale conflicts with my brother’s wedding, well, I guess I’m not buying a tractor that weekend.
There are clues here about how policy choices are made. It has to do with your personal values.
Your values are yours to decide. Not your relatives, not your friends, not your neighbors, not even your spouse. Other people may be shocked or disappointed, but they don’t have to wake up and be you every day. You do. You’re the only one who has to meet your own eyes in the mirror.
The reason this is important is that we have to decide how to spend our time. If we fritter away our time on anything that anyone ever asks us to do, then there won’t be any left to support our values. It’s not so much that most things are going to conflict with our values, as that it’s all the neutral penny-ante stuff that eats up our schedules. Weeks, months, years can go by, and we may never have found a minute for what we thought was so important.
Every minute I spend talking to a troll on the internet, every minute I spend reading anonymous comment threads, is a minute I’m not talking to my grandma. The time I spend with casual acquaintances is time that’s not available for my closest loved ones. I’m basically letting random people steal from the most important people in my life.
This is how policies are made. We decide which types of situations are always going to be a Yes, and which types are always going to be a No.
Graduations? Whose kids?
Birthday parties? Whose?
Festivals? Street fairs? Carnivals?
Karaoke night? Trivia night? Movie night?
Town hall meetings? School board meetings?
Helping someone move?
Visiting someone in the hospital?
Multi-level marketing “parties”?
Always means always. When it’s always Yes, this means this is a top-ranking event, and anything else that conflicts is going to be a No. I once got two wedding invitations for the same day, one for a close friend and the other for my younger brother. That was not a decision. It was policy. If it had been the close friend and a more casual friend, then that also would not have been a decision. There are only 52 weekends a year, and not everything gets to be a Yes.
Saying No to the casual or random stuff is the only way to say a full and complete Yes to the important stuff. We cherish our loved ones by being there for them, and that means the other seven billion people in the world will have to wait.
There are other ways to say Yes besides going somewhere in person. We can send a gift. We can call. We can send a card or a letter. We can send flowers. We can send a charitable donation in someone’s name. We can do a favor. We can offer another get-together on another day. If this truly is someone who values the friendship, it will work out.
Sometimes, we find that the relationship is more casual on that person’s end than we had realized. When this happens, it’s good. It’s a good sign when someone is willing to be honest and set clear boundaries. It helps us to relax and refocus our attention on our inner circle.
One quick and easy way to make a decision about social engagements is to consider how you found out about it. If the first you heard about it was through the mail, it’s probably a No. The people who are closest to you probably would have told you that they were getting married or having a baby shower before the invitations went out. Communication has changed so much over the past couple of decades that the old ways are more or less vestigial remnants at this point.
Here are some rough guidelines on how to start setting social policies:
“Everybody’s invited” social media invites: probably No
If it’s on a work night: probably No
If it involves out-of-state travel: probably No
If it’s in another city: depends on what, where, and when
If it’s a “buy stuff” party: definitely No
If it’s child-free: Yes, because I don’t have kids at home
Wine tasting: definitely No
Sportsball: definitely No
Restaurant: depends entirely on the menu
If it runs past midnight: No
Backpacking trip: probably Yes
Basically, if it’s not awesome it’s a No. On a scale of one to five, with five being awesome, the two- and three-star events are going to be a No. Pass. I’m not doing anybody any favors by reluctantly showing up and being a wallflower at an event that doesn’t enthuse me. I’ll make you soup when you’re sick, I’ll help you move, I’ll come to visit you in the hospital, but I’m not going to come over and order out of your catalog.
There are about eight people on my Always list, and another half-dozen on my Yes, If Possible list. They know who they are. In order to be totally available for my Always people, I have to cut other events. That means calendar time, and it also means money. My savings buffer includes enough for a round-trip plane ticket.
Until the day when we can make clones on demand and appear to be in two places at once, we have to make choices. Choosing Yes to too many things means that suddenly, there’s no money and no time for the big stuff. Say No more often to say Yes when you really mean it.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.