Productivity articles tend to sound alike, partly because there are a million ways to be unproductive and only a few ways to get things done. Or so they claim. The truth is that whenever you look at the specific habits of famously productive people, they’re always weird, offbeat, and often superstitious. Connect that with the obvious fact that sorting your office supplies probably is not a direct path to fame and cultural relevance. This is why there’s a lot of mainstream productivity advice that drives me up a tree.
(Which is a great place to be productive)
Here are a few of the most common bits of productivity advice that I find counterproductive.
Practice your negotiating skills by asking for a 10% discount on your coffee!
Ugh, really? There are two problems with this common advice. One, dozens or hundreds of people are going to try it, giving these benighted baristas a strong, deadpan NO reflex. Two, it’s a quick way to burn your social capital for pennies. I get free refills and extras at my cafe all the time, not because I ask but because I literally never would. I get freebies because THEY LIKE ME. I’m low-maintenance and cheerful. Once I put together a travel itinerary as a favor for one of my favorites, and now the entire staff knows my name.
Sure, you can get discounts when you ask for them. I’ve gotten a 10% discount on things in several ways many times. Pay in cash, pay in advance, order by the case, put together a group order... I don’t see the point of flexing for a couple of coins once per location, though. Build actual relationships with people you see all the time, give first, be generous, and not only do you get a sincere smile from people, you can get years of A-list service and the occasional free thing.
Pick up the phone instead of using email!
Nooooooo! Do not do that!
On my top-ten list of reasons I finally quit my day job and started working for myself was the tendency of people to call or come to my desk and say, “Did you get my email?” What, the one you sent forty-five seconds ago? This was even more obnoxious when I HAD already read it and was actively responding to it. One of the most annoying ways that one person’s behavior can impact the productivity of others is to constantly interrupt them, and another is to send the same signal through multiple channels. It takes extra time, it’s distracting, and it makes you look dumb.
True, most people are perpetually behind on their email. Therefore, never do anything that wastes other people’s time. If they’re not reading or responding to your email, it might be because they’re inefficient. It might also be because you’re asking for something that you shouldn’t be; that you have the wrong person; that your messages don’t make sense; that you’ve once again abused Reply All; that the recipient doesn’t realize you meant them specifically; that your headers are unclear; that they still have plenty of time and they’re planning on dealing with you tomorrow; or that seeing your name makes them cringe and they’re deliberately avoiding you.
As with most things, if you treat other people like friends and allies, they are more likely to do what you want. That’s because you’ve figured out how to consistently help them get what they want. Everything should be mutually beneficial. If you’re doing it right, people will actively look forward to hearing from you. Sometimes they’ll surprise you by taking the initiative to ask others to help out. Every now and then, they’ll really surprise you by asking if others can join your project, as a favor, because what you’re doing is cool and interesting.
In short, if nobody is responding to you with the alacrity that you desire, question your approach. Question your relationships and your communication style. Question whether your emails are longer than one or two sentences. Maybe even go to your reluctant correspondents and ask them for help in calibrating yourself.
Get up at 5:00 AM!
Please don’t do that. Please don’t do that, upstairs neighbor who works at world-famous tech company and keeps waking me at up 4:30 AM.
I have grievances with this early-rising advice. The first is that it definitely won’t work for everyone. So many people who are successful in the corporate world wake up at that time because it’s the only way they can get two hours to themselves. They’re able to do it because they have hired help, because they can afford to set up their lives exactly the way they like, and because anyone who would complain is probably beholden to them financially.
They never talk about what these early-rising habits do to the productivity habits of the people around them.
My neighbor is up and around between 4:30 and 7:00 every day of the week. Ask me how I know. His stay-at-home wife does laundry every morning at 8:00 (ask me how I know) and that’s only because we complained when she was doing it at 6:00. Have you ever slept under a washing machine on spin cycle? Or a running vacuum cleaner, on Christmas morning?
The early-rising neighbor has next-door neighbors on two sides, and his plumbing runs down the walls between three downstairs units. His early habits are definitely affecting his wife’s productivity - rumor has it that he wants her to get a job and go back to work. His kid is in middle school; I dunno about her grades but I was chronically tired at that age. He’s also affecting the other five households that share his walls. That’s before he even gets out of the shower each morning! This is the power that one individual has to negatively impact [counting...] a minimum of ten family members and neighbors each and every single day, including weekends and holidays.
What time a person wakes up and what time someone accomplishes sixty minutes of work is completely and entirely neutral. If they’re effective, efficient, and keeping up on their production schedule, how could it possibly matter whether they’re doing something at 6 AM or at 3 PM? Why is it so impressive just to wake up very early? Bragging rights, that’s all. Nobody brags that “I personally exhaust and devastate the productivity of ten people a day.”
Thirty-five people report to me. I make it a point to let them do it on their own time. As a result, they’re responsive. They come to me when they have issues. I don’t feel the need to micromanage them or insist that they work at specific times of day; frankly, I don’t have the time for that and I don’t see how other people do. I also tend to sleep until 8 AM.
Here’s my productivity advice:
Build relationships and treat people with respect and dignity, like allies and colleagues.
Give what you wish to receive.
Make sure you’re working on the right things. If your vision is clear and appealing, others will want to get in on it. You yourself will only need the occasional refresh on your vision, and that will be enough to keep you going.
Make Anything Happen. Isn’t that the best name for a book? Carrie Lindsey has made the perfect introduction to vision boards. It’s so approachable and attractive that it’s inspiring even to people like me who are not visual artists.
Vision boards are more than just a fun craft. First comes the vision, and that includes goal-setting. One of the strengths of Make Anything Happen is the clarity it brings to choosing goals, planning, and scheduling. My own annual goal-setting process takes a month and results in something like a six-page document. Carrie Lindsey’s approach is so simple, yet exuberant in comparison!
This is as much of a lifestyle book as it is an art book. It’s very personal and approachable, and gives the sense of how Lindsey fits her home-based business into her buzzing family life. She has advice for everything from how to deal with distraction and feeling stuck, to how to work around kids and their chaos. Note: don’t fold your kids’ socks for them when you could be making art!
Make Anything Happen includes some well-designed planner pages, like Goal Trackers and Vision Board templates. It teaches how to make art journals with multiple vision boards. There are plenty of examples for inspiration. I’ve already made my first vision board. Let’s imagine lots more!
“Whenever I don’t know where to start, I start with cleaning my desk.”
“...there’s nothing magic about hard work.”
This is not a drill. I finally figured out how to speed-read OverDrive e-books! February 16, 2019 will remain one of the greatest days of my life, the day I got my heart’s desire. I’ve been trying to learn to read faster since I was seven years old, and now I can, and I’ll never ask for anything else as long as I live. Well, except for more pants with pockets.
Oh, and one other thing: an e-reader that continuously auto-scrolls like the old app I had on my Palm 3 PDA.
This is my position. I support DRM to the extent that people shouldn’t rip off copyrighted material. Artists deserve to get paid. I’ll never understand why people are willing to take material from their favorite musicians or authors, refusing them just compensation. On the other hand, if I’m reading a book for my own personal use, I should be able to read it in whatever format I like.
Purple type on a fuchsia background, or vice versa
Whatever I like! If I want to buy a paperback and read it upside-down, nobody will stop me. Why would they? If I want to design an app that allows me to read upside-down, and I have to strip the DRM to do it because none of the apps on the market have this feature, then I’m a criminal?
Anyway. I’ve figured out this secret and I’m going to use it until someone stops me.
I’ve loved Outread for years now, and I got a second gift when I figured out how to speed-read books. I suddenly realized that the top speed in Outread has increased to 1500 words per minute! It was 1000 when I first downloaded it. I was able to build my speed from about 700 to the full 1000, and all this time I thought I had maxed it out. Will I ever be able to read faster with full comprehension? No idea, but it’s nice to know the option is available.
Next question: Is there a way to do this on anything other than an iPhone or iPad?
Answer: I don’t know, but you’re welcome to research this on whatever device you have.
Next question: Does this technique work with e-books in other apps?
Answer: It could, with considerably more effort. I tried with both iBooks and Kindle, and while I was able to highlight and drag to copy text, I wasn’t able to Select All for a whole chapter. If I were hellbent on doing this sort of thing with a Kindle book, I would play an audiobook while mindlessly highlighting and copying a bunch of chapters into Outread. I suspect it would take at least an hour per book.
Next, next question: Would this work with scanned pages, like from Google Books?
Answer: Not sure. I haven’t yet found an app that will do OCR and then turn it into text that I can copy and paste. Curiosity is compelling me to poke around, though, and I’ll certainly try.
People are justifiably skeptical about speed-reading. It’s basically a party trick, like memorizing long strings of numbers or playing cards in a series. Neat, but why would you want to?
I speed-read for personal use, because I want to and it’s a free country. Possibly I’m a mutant. I also listen to audiobooks on 2x, sometimes higher if I feel like the narrator is slow enough to make it worth digging out my old laptop. People do weirder things in private, at least I suspect they do. I also talk to myself and laugh at my own jokes, so heckle away.
There are limits to speed-reading, though. I speed-read news if it’s entirely text, but it doesn’t work if the story is based around charts, graphs, or strings of numbers. I have to pause if there is a lot of specialized terminology, like engineering jargon or Latinate scientific names. I might skim an article on something that’s only of tangential interest to me (coffee or parenting or dating, for instance), but I’ll speed-read something if I really want to read the whole thing. I do read at normal speed if I’m there for the authorial voice.
This is how I will probably break it down:
Normal speed for horror, high speed for suspense
Normal speed for literary fiction, high speed for pop fiction
Normal speed for self-help, high speed for business books
Normal speed for memoir, high speed for how-to manuals
Readers tend to be traditionalists. Book sniffers, the lot of you! Oh, I’ll never let go of my... I’ll never use an e-book... Audiobooks don’t count... *shrug* whatevs. You do it your way, I’ll do it mine. I do sometimes savor a book the slow way. I don’t feel that every book performs at that level, though, and probably 90% don’t. That doesn’t mean I’m going to read fewer books!
Sometimes I feel that the audio recording is richer and more nuanced than the text, especially if the author is narrating, and that the print readers are missing a layer of intent. Likewise, sometimes the e-book is better designed, making it easier to refer to footnotes or references in other chapters. About speed-reading, it’s possible that some authors would be delighted by this, especially for thrillers and suspense. Ultimately I think they all prefer that their books are read and enjoyed.
Is speed-reading somehow worse than buying stacks of books off the remainder table and stuffing them into a bookcase, displayed but unread? I think not.
All right, now I’ve shared my secret. I’m off to speed-read my next book.
Laura Vanderkam is here to save us from ourselves. Why is our default response to “how are you” always: “busy”? What is it about our culture that so many of us feel like we don’t have time to live our lives the way we want to? Vanderkam has written other terrific books on this topic, yet I think Off the Clock is my favorite so far. It emphasizes making time for relaxation and creating memories. Oh, sure, might work for you, we think, until we realize that this book is based on intensive research, and that it’s also written by a best-selling author, frequent business traveler, and mother of four children under age ten.
When I feel busy, I always remind myself that I’m not the busiest person in the world. I’m not, for instance, a senator or an organ transplant surgeon or a flight attendant. Vanderkam includes examples of very busy people, such as a school principal, various corporate executives, and a mother of triplets. The latter said that the picture she had before her triplets came was not accurate, and that she wished she had realized sooner that it wasn’t as stressful as she’d been led to believe.
How many things would we be willing to try if we realized we had plenty of time?
How many things would we try if we realized we could get away with it?
Something incredibly intriguing about Off the Clock is the case it makes for making your own executive decisions about your time. An example is a woman who had asked to work at home more often, and was denied. When she came in with a competing job offer, suddenly those work-from-home days became possible after all. Other examples come from people who got promoted or put on more interesting projects because they seemed like they had the time. Maybe that’s part of the secret of why some people get ahead and others don’t, because those of us who are turbo stress cases don’t seem like we can handle more?
Perhaps the best part of Off the Clock is that it has so many examples of ways that other people and families make their days more memorable. How do other people get rid of “schedule clutter” and make time for adventure? I was captivated by the idea of laying out a picnic blanket and having breakfast outside. Who does that?? But wait, I actually have a picnic blanket and... it doesn’t even cost any money... Hmm... More practical for many people might be the example of the parents who both ride along for school drop-off, making a chore into an opportunity to spend time together as a family.
This is the sort of book that can change lives, change families, change marriages. It also feels like the type of book you can pass to a partner, like The Five Love Languages, and have it received with enthusiasm. Yes, let’s do this! Read Off the Clock now, so you can put the material into good use and plan a lovely spring and summer.
“...time freedom stems from time discipline.”
“Bliss is possible in the past and in the future but seldom in the present.”
“I am tired now, but I will always be tired, and we draw energy from meaningful things.”
“...thinking about the past and the future can enhance the experience of the present in profound ways.”
“Few people would show up at work at 8:00 A.M. with no idea about what they’d do until 1:00 P.M., and yet people will come home at 6:00 P.M. having given no thought to what they’ll do until they go to bed at 11:00 P.M.”
I use a lot of apps to stay organized, and by ‘organized’ I mean “to keep my brain from floating off into space like a weather balloon.” It took me a long time to find these apps, and there are probably eight I tested for every one that I use. That’s why I’m sharing here.
There are also perfectly fine analog versions, or other ways to track the same habits and information I do without using a smartphone.
I use an iPhone because I tried Android and didn’t like it. Like everything else, it’s personal preference, so if my recommendations aren’t available on Android then maybe you can find something similar. Several of these are paid. I’m willing to pay for apps that work because it’s still less than the price of a magazine, and comparable to a lot of drinks and snacks I have nothing to show for after I buy them.
Lockscreen if I need to catch my own attention on an early morning, when I’m essentially half-moss for the first couple of hours and unable to manage my usual system. You can do this by taping a note to your bathroom mirror, something large-format if you need corrective lenses. I have been known to try to stick notes directly to the front of my phone.
CallProtect to block spam and fraud phone calls. How DO people deal with that if they don’t have a smartphone? How do they avoid getting woken up if they can’t set quiet hours on their phone? (I actually know the answer to this because I grew up with a rotary phone, but I like to forget those days).
WaterMinder to track my hydration, because if I don’t drink enough water early enough, it interferes with my sleep. You can track your water intake simply by always using the same size of container (cup, glass, mug, bottle, pitcher) and counting how many times you empty it.
MorningRoutine to help integrate new habits and keep me from wandering around while I brush my teeth. You can do the same thing with a checklist and a stopwatch.
Mint to track all my bank accounts and my portfolio. You can do this with a ledger or a spreadsheet, although it’s a lot more work.
MyFitnessPal for weigh-ins and a food log. You can do this with paper and a website or a paperback book of nutritional information, but it takes a while.
Thyme to set timers on multiple washers and dryers. Most people would either do this with a clock, not have to use a laundromat in the first place, or maybe just leave their wet clothes in the machine?
TripIt for trip planning. My husband loves this so much that it practically brings tears to his eyes. I put together an itinerary with all the addresses and reservation times and share it with him. Then all he has to do is whip out his phone and order a cab. You can do this with paper and a folder.
Transit for knowing when the bus is coming. Even though we ride one of the most irregular buses in the known galaxy, Transit has pretty good intel on when the darn thing is actually coming up the road.
Clear for my list of book recommendations. I usually see them slightly before they’re released, so I can’t request them from the library for a few weeks. This is a beautiful app and very useful for basic lists. I could use Notes, but it’s just so pretty. A paper list of books to read? Mine used to fill an entire spiral notebook, but knock yourself out if that’s how you want to do it. Or just buy them and stack them up until they fill your entire house.
Reminders to remind me to do things during normal business hours, such as making a business call, texting someone who I’m sure doesn’t want to hear from me at 11PM, or doing something in our apartment’s business center when it’s open. Most people do this with sticky notes, but in my experience mine always come unstuck and drift to the floor.
Notes for every darn thing. I do with the Notes app what I used to do with index cards, looseleaf paper, spiral notebooks, sticky notes, and the backs of envelopes. The main difference is that I always have all my notes with me. I don’t lose them and they don’t get thrown out or shuffled into books when I need a bookmark. I can do a keyword search, too, and find the note I want in about one second. The result of this is that in the past four years, rather than just have a scattered billow of little tiny notes, instead I have a blog, a podcast, a self-published book, and a book proposal in progress.
MinimaList for when I have a list of stuff that makes me want to procrastinate. Make the list, tap an item, and a pomodoro timer starts for 25 minutes. It has a range of snarky messages and it will tell you off if you pick up your phone while it’s in focus mode. Racing against a timer is a gamification method that works for me.
Switching to a smartphone changed my life. It ended a fifteen-year streak of never reading or replying to my email. It helped me to start being on time or early to things, because I could check the weather, estimate transit time, and know I wouldn’t be bored in a waiting room anymore. It gave me a way to take photographs and make illustrations that I never would have before. My analog life was messy without the art, while my digital life is more creative without quite as much mess. I look forward to how much future innovation will inform my process, while somewhat shuddering at how it used to be before I turned 35 and got this electronic brain annex.
Hey habit nerds, here ya go! This is my own highly personalized system. How do I find the time in the day to do all the things I do? What is it that I do, anyway?
Over the course of a year, I put up five blog posts a week, review about 50 books (and read a couple hundred), put out a specialized tech newsletter for aerospace engineers five days a week, and record a podcast up to six days a week. I’m training in Krav Maga, Muay Thai, and situational combatives (a.k.a. weapons class). I do consulting work with chronic disorganization and hoarding. I’m an area director overseeing five regional clubs while I finish the requirements to become a Distinguished Toastmaster, and I’m also a club coach. I’m at my goal weight, I keep a clean house, and I journal every night. Believe it or not, these are just my side projects!
There are some tricks involved with all of this, which I’ll share before I get all “inside baseball” on my actual routines and habits.
I started out as a classic ADHD-leaning, chronically disorganized person with some chronic health issues. It took several years to discover the hidden gifts of my situation. The first among these is to stop tolerating boring or unsatisfying uses of my time. The reason I do all the projects I do is that they interest me more than binge-watching anything, recreational shopping, or unstructured errands. I used to spend a lot of time poking around with different productivity systems, and at this point I’m pretty sure I’ve tried and rated them all.
I do everything in time blocks.
I publish about 1000 pages a year on my blog. Almost all of that is done on weekend mornings while I hang out at the cafe with my husband. He often has to bring his work laptop and do expense reports or that kind of thing, so it’s a way for us to be together on the same wavelength. My standard is to work three weeks ahead and auto-schedule so I don’t have to write or post on vacation.
My husband travels quite a lot for business, so when he’s out of town, I work into the evening. When he’s home, we lounge around talking for hours. That’s my motivation for getting as much done as possible while he’s away.
The tech newsletter is a natural outgrowth of my reading habit. It started because I was sharing so many articles with my husband that he wanted to pass along to his colleagues, that I finally just offered to format them and send them in daily batches. All I do is save the good stuff to a system of categorized folders, and then copy and paste them into a template. It takes about ten minutes a day and makes (us) look like a genius. Usually I do it while I eat breakfast.
The podcast is a new part of my overall workflow. I’ve been challenged with it because I live next to a marina, in a tiny studio apartment, beneath a busy young family with a dog. There are perpetual construction projects, boat horns, weed whackers, car alarms, film shoots, and even a fashion model shooting a portfolio six feet outside my door. In other words, IT IS LOUD and I have to fit in recording sessions when it seems like it will be quiet enough for an hour.
Martial arts training happens in a single hour-long time slot three to six days a week. It’s the main time-bound part of my routine. The warmups are HIIT (high intensity interval training), so they will continue to get more intense as my fitness level increases. The belt system provides a lot of structure and challenge. I train with my husband now, so it doubles as date night!
Since we don’t drive, every time we go anywhere it’s a way to get something else done. Our commute back and forth to the gym is a bicycle ride along the beach, a fun and romantic part of our evening. Most of my time on the bus is my “helmet time” for outlining speeches, reading the news, and writing book reviews. If we had a car, how much of that would get done? Zero.
It’s much, much easier and more efficient to maintain anything than to try to reach a goal. All I have to do to maintain my goal weight and keep my apartment organized is to avoid the basic pitfalls. Do roughly the same thing every day. Laundry on Monday and Thursday, keep the dishwasher loaded, clean the bathroom for 12 minutes every week, start the robot vacuum when I leave. Eat the same size of breakfast, lunch, and dinner most days. Boom, done.
I currently use a Cossac day planner and... we’re getting married. Kidding, kinda. What I like about it the best is that it builds in a daily and weekly review, and that encourages strategic thinking. What did I attempt, did it work, and why or why not? With the amount of content I generate between the blog, the podcast, and my (ahem) ...other... projects, I need something very structured to track what I’m developing and posting and editing and formatting and illustrating and when. I check in when I first get up and also before I go to bed, with a longer weekly session on Sunday nights. That’s when I do my journaling, just a couple of minutes most days but sometimes several pages of rapid-fire ranting.
I use my phone to capture random thoughts, blog topics, and podcast ideas. I’m also constantly bookmarking articles, downloading podcast episodes, or reserving library ebooks and audio books as I learn about them. When it’s time to kick back with some entertainment, I don’t have to spend the “junk hours” scrolling that most people do, because that has happened a few seconds at a time throughout the week. The most important thing I do with my phone is to set my notifications and quiet hours to distract me as little as possible, while unsubscribing from email and blocking spam callers every single day, like smacking mosquitos.
I don’t have a “morning routine” because every day of the seven, I have a slightly different schedule. I certainly do not wake up early! I don’t meditate, I don’t put yak butter in my coffee or whatever, I don’t do “cleanses” (except my house), and I don’t do social media detoxes. If anything, I’d say what works the best for me is that I don’t spend five hours a day watching television, I don’t spend two hours a day on social media, I rarely eat snacks or restaurant food, and I sleep as much as I possibly, possibly can. I work outside of the time dimension as much as I can get away with, trying to make clocks and calendars more or less irrelevant to how I work.
So you insisted on joining that gym. You know what everyone says about New Year’s Resolutions and habits, and you believe that none of it applies to you. You signed up for a bargain membership at a commodity gym.
Congratulations! It just might work!
If you really and truly love gaming, TV and movies, music, shopping, fried foods, or any of the other cute and charming habits that people try to shed at resolution time, you can use that! You get to keep all that stuff. Well, actually you get to keep it either way. You can keep it with a fitness level that steadily deteriorates from year to year, or you can keep it while using it as fuel for your body upgrades.
Simply choose a form of exercise that allows you to indulge in your favorite activities at the same time.
Anchor the time in your schedule, the location, and the habits. Make gym time your indulgent time, time to get away with all the naughty things that are so fun to do.
Personally I like spying on people and eavesdropping on their conversations. I like checking out other people’s butts and wondering what workout they do. I like looking at their shoes and their workout clothes and mentally shopping. Would that combo work on me?
I also use my elliptical time to watch video clips, read articles, play Words With Friends, look at recipes, and dink around doing all the stuff online that I normally don’t have time to do. Sometimes I’ll read a potboiler that I only allow myself to read while I do cardio. It makes me move faster at the scary parts. I’ve tried watching movies or hour-long TV episodes, but it makes one minute feel like ten. That’s why I like the fragmented articles and short videos.
Sometimes the elliptical machines are taken. No surprise, since there are only two at our apartment gym and they’re often full of married couples. My husband will shrug and lift weights while listening to all the music I don’t let him play aloud in the house. I’ll usually hop on a treadmill and use it as a walking desk with my tablet keyboard. Sometimes I buy dog food online or make appointments. Sometimes I just write out a bunch of lists. If I bring a cable then my device will be fully charged, too. It’s not really all that naughty, but when I’ve caught up on email with a full battery, I feel like I just summoned an extra hour out of the ether.
That’s one of the main secrets behind getting your money’s worth out of a commodity gym. You have to be equally as willing to do one workout as another, because often your favorite equipment will already be in use. When I was in college, there was a strict 20-minute time limit on all the cardio equipment, and each machine had a sign-up sheet. A bouncer would come over and make you climb down if you tried to stay on longer. I’d take three slots and move between different machines and read my homework. Not having a hundred pages of assigned reading makes anything else feel like playtime.
There are all sorts of treats and indulgences and cute habits that fit people associate with their workouts, even their most boring workouts.
Cardio and entertainment! The elliptical and TV. The recumbent bike and cooking shows or video games. The treadmill and a podcast. Any fitness class that plays your type of music (although beware: I had to quit one gym that kept playing the same Top 40 pop hit every time I was there. That was before AirPods).
Mega calories and endurance sports! Do it indoors long enough when the weather is bad, and suddenly you’ll find yourself doing the same routine outdoors when it’s gorgeous out. You’ll find yourself doing it with a bagel in your hand. Everyone I know who bikes or runs does it for the beer. Every race day I have willing buddies who will hang around for me, even when I’m half their speed, because I hate beer and I’ll give them the voucher off my race bib. A friend of mine used to measure his weight loss against a little poster he had made of all his favorite See’s Candies, and now he’s a century rider.
Shopping and physical transformation! It wasn’t until I finally reached my goal weight that I realized how much less uncomfortable high heels are at 120 than at 160. It has to do with the laws of physics and pounds per square inch, which is why stilettos hurt more to wear than a stacked heel or a platform shoe. I also discovered that almost all clothes in my size will fit and look attractive on me, which definitely was not true when I wore a size fourteen. One night I tried on thirty-eight pairs of pants and not a single one fit right. That just doesn’t happen anymore. If fashion or revenge are strong interests of yours, why not? Make your shopping life easier.
It is absolutely fair game to base your transformation goals around your boyfriend’s ex or an online photo of the queen bee who tormented you in sixth grade. One of my clients made her goal with days to spare because she knew her ex would be at the same party with his new girlfriend on New Year’s Eve. Chances are, there’s an innocent bystander at your commodity gym who resembles this rival, at least a little. When you see her, you can use her silhouette to rev you up. It’s also fun to outdo the young bro at the next station. Especially if you lift.
A commodity gym can be a fantastic source of material for an artist. Caricatures, cartoons, comedy, sculpture, music, whatever it is that you do, if you go to the gym you’ll expand your net for capturing new ideas and fresh inspiration. Same with entrepreneurs and trend analysis. It’s a part of the world that is worthy of exploration.
A new gym can be a weird and uncomfortable place for someone who feels self-conscious and insecure. It can be a smelly and boring and loud place, too. Isn’t that also true of anywhere, but especially any shopping mall, hair salon, grocery store, workplace, restaurant, gas station, or anywhere else in public? Just think of your new commodity gym as a place to get your money’s worth, a place to catch up on your to-do list and your must-watch list and the games in your queue. Soon it will be just as familiar as your car, only it will take you farther.
If you have dreams that feel impossible because you’re just too busy, then this is the book for you. The authors of Make Time, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, found time to write this book in the midst of working demanding professional jobs and parenting small children. They focus on research-based and personally tested ways to gain energy and focus. A fun feature of the book is that the two writing partners sometimes have totally different approaches to a similar problem. It’s illustrated, so their cartoon heads debate back and forth.
Highlights are the most valuable and important things we should be doing, and according to Make Time, if we plan each day around a highlight, then everything starts to come together. Highlights should be prioritized by urgency, satisfaction, and joy.
Noticing highlights is a really excellent way to elevate simple things and make them into a bigger part of daily life. For instance, when my husband joined my kickboxing gym, we coincidentally started riding our bikes home together along the beach at sunset. Nothing in either of our schedules said “ROMANTIC SUNSET BIKE RIDE.” It just happened. That part of our route only lasts about ten minutes. Technically it’s a commute. Still a highlight, though, a part of our day that seems somehow much more significant than much of the rest of the day. Someone who was driving home at sunset might not think “saw beautiful sunset every day this week,” though, because driving sucks.
A technique from Make Time that I really liked was to write out a plan for the day, add a column for the “actual” or how it really turned out, and another column for the revised plan. This is a huge help in accounting for the reality of daily interruptions. As an example, I record a podcast five days a week, and I learned through experience when the building landscaper comes by with the weed whacker.
Make Time is such an excellent book. It could easily be shared with a partner or coworker, or maybe even a whole office. It’s full of the kinds of notions that appeal to everyone, yet still feel so productive and business-oriented that there aren’t really any arguments against them. Read it and ask yourself, what are the highlights that you wish you had the time to do, if only you weren’t so tired?
I used to have a PDA, or ‘personal digital assistant.’ I loved that thing and I took it everywhere for several years. I still wish I could use the symbols I had to learn for the stylus that went with it. One day, I had it open at my desk at work. A colleague laughed at me. I happened to have a sticky note inside the cover. “Do you even know what a PDA is FOR?” he scoffed. Of course I did! It was to keep me organized, expand into an extra brain annex, and remind me to do things. It just so happened that the apps and technology available at the time weren’t a perfect fit for my productivity needs, not to mention the aesthetic. It might not have suited me perfectly, but that old PDA served as an object of power in my life. The right planner can do the same for anyone.
An object of power is to be distinguished from a tool. For instance, I can use any spoon, pencil, or cup as a tool in daily life, and none will be more valuable to me than any other. On the other hand, my dog has a tiny shred of an old stuffed toy that is a major object of power for him. It’s so small that it’s useless, it’s filthy, and it smells bad, but it matters to one little woofy heart.
A calendar can be either or both, an object of power and/or a routine tool. It can also be a piece of useless clutter.
One common feature of my people’s homes, along with a vast collection of refrigerator magnets and a bunch of coins scattered everywhere, is a wall calendar that features the wrong month or year. (I always ask before I change it, figuring it may be part of a magical ritual or something). The standard-issue wall calendar is a total fail for most people’s needs. We take them because they’re free and they often have nice pictures. Then we hang them in inaccessible places. They’re visible to all guests, so most people avoid writing anything personal or private on them. They’re extremely limited in format; for the space they take up, there’s very little room for the individual day or week. To use them, we either have to write against the wall, which leads to strained and crabbed penmanship, or take the whole contraption off the wall, where the little finishing nail inevitably pops out and gets lost. Maybe keep your wall calendar, if you really need it for the four dentist appointments and two vet appointments that get written on it, but don’t blame yourself if it fails you as a true planner.
The sorts of things we write on the common wall calendar are the sorts that don’t really need to BE on a calendar. I don’t know about you, but my dentist, veterinarian, and all other appointment-based business relationships always send multiple reminders in the form of calls, texts, emails, postcards, and business cards with peel-off stickers. This is the kind of thing most of us are least likely to forget.
I may be wrong. I generally don’t use a grocery list, a to-do list, or a schedule. I still manage to get a lot done. But then, maybe I’ve got it backward and I would do even more if I used more traditional tools? Why do I even bother myself thinking about planners?
I use a planner as an object of power as much as anything else. I’ve found that I really like a monthly calendar as a visual when I do strategic planning. Yet, although I carry an iPad almost everywhere I go, I haven’t found an app or digital calendar view that does the job. Most of the sort of activities that I want to “plan” are not specifically schedule-based, like in the time dimension and everything. I plan at the yearly, quarterly, monthly, and weekly level, and digital minute- and date-based reminders don’t work well for my needs.
What do I plan?
I plan my work in time blocks. Those time blocks are built around the few time-bound elements in my schedule. Classes at my gym, club meetings, and my husband’s work and travel schedule are the non-negotiables. I put those first because that’s how I prioritize my marriage, my fitness, and my educational and career growth goals. Why? My husband travels three or more days a week, so he has to come first if I want to see him at all. Classes and club meetings take up about six hours a week. Almost every minute of the remaining time is mine to squander.
Most of the things I do can be done at any time. That means if I’m not careful, they’ll never get done at all. That’s doubly true of creative projects that I can’t delegate, that won’t come into being if I don’t pull them into the time dimension somehow.
Artists, this might be useful. I think of my projects in three phases: gestation, work, and editing. Others might think of the first phase as ideation, daydreaming, woolgathering, or aimlessly staring out the window. The second phase might be anything from painting, sculpting, typing, or pattern drafting to chopping vegetables, soldering, or welding. The third phase might be called polish, styling, performing, plating, peer review, or whatever else works for you. For my purposes, the first phase requires the ability to drop what I’m doing and take notes, sketch something, snap a picture, or research something. The second phase is almost entirely typing and doesn’t even require internet access. The third phase includes formatting and scheduling, and occasionally a human intermediary.
It just occurred to me that there’s actually a FOURTH PHASE, which explains most of my problems in life. That fourth phase might variously be known as publishing, shipping, launching, or... finishing.
Everyone is most comfortable in one of these stages, and we can tend to languish, not realizing that it takes at least a minimal amount of planning to carry an idea through all four phases. I do my best work at phase one, ideation, while I always go to my husband for phase three. (Phase three and no sooner!)
See that it’s entirely possible to have multiple projects in progress in various phases along a timeline. Any or all of them might eventually become hung up on the input of another person, access to materials or facilities, delivery schedules, and so forth. A delivery driver or a waiter or an artisan in a framing shop might work almost entirely in phase four of other people’s projects, in what would be phase two of their own workday. My people, just like me, tend to work mostly in phases one and two. That’s where craft stores make all their money.
As a working artist, I don’t really use a planner for its calendar function. I use it as an adjunct brain. The monthly grid is how I try to avoid bunching up several posts in a row on the same topic, and how I anticipate writing around seasonal topics. The weekly view is where I write out errands I need to run, because it doesn’t matter what day I do them, and projects I want to get done, because I’m not always sure how long they’ll take. I’d rather look at them in my preferred format than spend a lot of extra time tinkering, shuffling, writing, erasing, and rewriting. That attention should be on my real work. The point of the planner is so I can use as much mental bandwidth as possible for making things, not for massaging and canoodling with the planner itself.
A planner as an object of power should be compelling to its possessor. It should attract the eye. It should be of a shape and size and weight that makes it irresistible, and it should suit the context. Consider whether you will use it mostly on a cafe table, at work, in your bed, at your desk, in the driver’s seat of your car, or whether it will spend most of its working life in your bag. Love the color and style, because if any aspect of it disappoints or annoys you, you won’t use it.
The more you use an object of power, the better it works. The more you use it, the more useful it becomes. The more you use it, the better you get at figuring out what you want out of it and what you’ll change the next time you choose one. There’s nothing wrong with writing on the wall or using a paper napkin, if it inspires you and brings you focus.
Skip January, you know that, right? Nothing you do in January counts toward your New Year’s Resolution. Also skip December because come on, let’s be real. It makes much more sense to keep your goals only ten months out of the year.
This is how I think of a calendar year. One month, January, is the research month. January is for taking notes.
Ten months equals ten percent each. Give or take. It’s okay to do five percent one of the months, if you’re busy or sick or distracted, because you can still get an A+ over the remainder of the year.
Then December, the final month, is for writing up your report. Journal and strategize and think about what worked and what didn’t work.
Ten months on, two months off. It works, it’s easy to calculate, and there is no moral hazard in it. You can still be a total perfectionist this way.
Choose your major personal goal based on the level of challenge, because it works much better if you use your curiosity and imagination. What is this like? How do I do it? How will doing this make me a better person? Will it make my life easier or more fun or more interesting? Will doing this help me make more friends?
Choose your major personal goal based on whether it will make you more confident. Personally, I like to aim for something that does not come naturally to me, something about which I know nothing, less than nothing. When I feel uncertain and awkward and useless, it’s the best use of my time, because I have no bad habits to train away. I can start with an empty cup.
It also means I’ll get the maximum value out of my work. The gap between where I started the year and where I ended the year will be wide and noticeable.
The year I decided to learn to cook, I started out by screwing up the instructions on frozen food. I ended by throwing dinner parties for twenty people. This is one of the best year-long projects because the results are delicious!
The year I chose running, I started unable to run around the block. I couldn’t run a quarter mile. I couldn’t even run for three full minutes. My goal was 2.25 miles by the end of the year. I did it in six weeks.
The year I chose public speaking, I was so scared I had to force myself to stand up and say my name. By the end of the year I was winning ribbons for Best Speaker.
It feels great to do something that used to scare you and not be scared anymore. It feels even better when you realize that you’re good at it. After that, you start to enjoy it. It seems weird to know how scary it used to be.
People of the fixed mindset persuasion always say things about Still Being the Same Person. They feel like doing anything different will be bad, that it will make them into someone unrecognizable. Someone, what? Arrogant or full of themselves or vain or shallow or boring or dumb? An attitude along those lines comes from contempt for other people, people who are different. Where I am now, in my comfort zone, it’s safe here and it also proves that I’m the smartest and the best. I’m on top of my hill of pride and I’m happy to be stuck up here, thinking I’ll never change.
Fixed mindset people hate being beginners. Fixed mindset people don't learn as much because they’d rather pride themselves on what they already do know. How can I feel like an A student if I try to study something new? Especially if I study something physical, no way am I going to expose myself to embarrassment by moving my body. Ugh, eww, yucky.
This is who I am. It’s just how I roll. That’s not me. I’m not doing that.
In my public speaking club, we often get newcomers. They’ve been told by someone, often their boss during their annual performance review, that they need to develop their presentation skills. In other words, their intense fear of public speaking is holding them back professionally, damaging their reputation, and costing them money. That’s what I call motivation, am I right? I know better, though, because I’ve sweated through my own fears and that is an intense one. At the end of the meeting, when they refuse to stand up, I recognize them as just like me. I pull them aside as everyone is leaving.
“Now that everyone is gone, you can practice if you want. We’ll turn our backs and you can stand in front of the lectern, just to see what it’s like.”
They won’t do it. They literally never will. People who haven’t met each other react the same way, like they’re reading a page from a book. They won’t stand in an empty room and pretend they’re giving a speech. That is the NO energy that can stop anyone from accomplishing any goal. It comes from a negative imagination, it comes from stasis, it comes from fear, it comes from a fixed mindset, and it comes from perfectionism.
The perfectionist mindset does not like the idea of blowing off two months out of the year. Oh, no no no, if I’m going to bother to do it at all then I must maintain a perfect streak, never missing a day for the rest of my life. If I miss a day in January, because January is the worst month for goal-setting, then it’s proof that I should just quit and start again a different year.
I say that this is a sloppy and imperfect attitude, a mustard-on-your-shirt attitude.
A REAL perfectionist knows how to use a calendar year to achieve a goal.
A REAL perfectionist is smart enough to plan. That includes multiple backup plans and recognition of predictable obstacles.
One predictable obstacle is that January is the worst month to keep a goal. Another is that December is busy.
Choosing year-long projects keeps life interesting. It’s a good structure for arranging projects and goals and challenges. Just think of it in an academic sense and pick a ten-month year. Ten months on, two months off, and that’s your perfect streak.
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.
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