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.
Time is the only thing we all have in common. I didn’t make this up. Of course I didn’t! Anything to do with the time dimension always has me running up last, late, to the end of the line. It’s given me a lot of pause lately. Think it out.
We all have different personalities, different families, different incomes and tastes and habits. Even people who work at the same job, keep the same shift, live in the same building, or come from the same family tree are not alike in every way. We do, though, have the same 24 hours a day in common.
That’ll be a bit different after we establish a colony on Mars, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Here we are at the change of another calendar year. It’s arbitrary. Why so many of us are following the Julian calendar instead of some other system is an accident of fate. That doesn’t matter, though, because it’s a scaffold around all our days. We might as well accept that time is a standard that applies to everyone equally, since nothing else does.
Time passes by the hour and minute, and I don’t feel it. It’s like being color-blind. Direction is another sense I seem to lack, and I struggle with maps in the same way that I struggle with clocks. That’s part of why I take my yearly and seasonal planning so seriously. I like having some kind of metric to measure my progress. What am I doing with my time on Earth?
A year is also a useful benchmark for comparing one physical state to another. Haircuts are the easiest to spot in a timeline of photos. Fashion trends, puppies, kittens, small children. I’m more interested in my personal condition: my health, home, finances, and relationships.
Am I still in touch with the people who matter to me? When’s the last time I talked to them or saw them in person?
How do I feel when I’m at home? Can I relax there? Can I have people over? Does my home feel warm, comfortable, and welcoming? Am I proud? Does it look intentional?
How are my finances? Am I busy spending money I don’t have living a lifestyle I can’t afford? Am I being fair to Future Me? Are Big Banks sucking my marrow?
How is my health? Am I sleeping well? Am I drinking enough water? Can I get down on the ground and get back up again without holding on to anything? Can I run up a flight of stairs? Is my energy level more like “kick down a fence” or “fell down a hole”?
Compared to last year, compared to two years ago, compared to three years ago, how am I doing?
It would be nice if we could see some pictures of the future from time to time. How am I doing today compared to Future Me? If I knew more, would I change my behaviors? Would I save more money? Would I strut my stuff, realizing I’ll never look quite so fly ever again? We can’t know the future.
We can, though. We can know the future by creating it. Things we do today can affect our setup for tomorrow. We can send ourselves stuff in the future, like journals and money and muscle and real estate and specific effort.
If I want Future Me to get a PhD, I have to apply to school and do all the homework in the now-today.
If I want Future Me to be married, then Today Me can’t go around verbally abusing Today-Husband.
If I want a lunch to eat on Tuesday, then I have to go grocery shopping today.
It seems so dumb and insignificant on the day or week scale, but on the year or decade scale it makes all the difference. Can I play a musical instrument, can I touch my toes, can I speak another language, am I up for promotion? Am I giving as much love and kindness as I wish to receive?
Other people do such impressive things with their 24 hours. Other people out there are playing the cello or going to the culinary institute. I’m sitting here trying to figure out why I have bookmarks in thirteen different books.
Most of what we do doesn’t matter. Most of what I do doesn’t, anyway! A hundred years from now nobody is going to care if I left dishes in the sink or made a scene at a party or won the lottery. A hundred years from now, even my own descendants won’t know my name or give a lick about me. They probably won’t have seen my photo or heard a recording of my voice.
In some ways, that’s liberating, ever so freeing. It gives a certain license to behavior of all sorts. We’re judged only in the moment and only by how we made other people feel. The metric is whether we take responsibility for the effects of our words and facial expressions.
In other ways, it’s a tall order, trying to think of something that matters enough to be significant on a longer time scale. Am I capable of more? Am I capable of leaving a legacy of some kind? Have I been working on it? How can I tell if I’m making progress?
In time, in time, certain names stand out for their work and the impact they made. They participated in the great conversation and played a bigger role on the world stage, for good or ill. Could we be among them, you and I? Are we making as much use of the same 365-day year as they did?
Time is the only thing we all have in common, the queens and the killers, the poets and the pop singers. Let’s just pause at least once a year to check in and see if we’re using our time as well as we’d like.
It’s that time again! Goals and resolutions time! This year we’re doing our annual review and planning session on the Las Vegas Strip, because we’re party animals and because planning leads to awesomeness.
This is the mistake so many people make, to choose a “resolution” that is grim and dire, the kind of thing that any sensible person would of course immediately want to sabotage. Get out of here with your “drink more water” and “Get Organized” and “lose weight,” just crumple all that into a ball and toss it over your shoulder, and let’s do this with a little more anticipation and delight, okay?
I’ve been interviewing various Las Vegan personages and asking them to tell me their “New Year’s wish.” Everyone had one. EVERYONE! A TSA agent: “To get paid.” A dreadlocked young fellow: “Growth and prosperity.” A balding guy, blushing: “A new baby.” A bearded kid: “To go back to school.” Wanting something better for the New Year is the driving force behind all human progress.
Personally, I don’t stop at one, because there is no upper limit on wishes. It’s also a technicality, because if you make a longer list, then your chances of succeeding at least once are increased. I’ve been doing this process in one form or another since I was nine years old, and each year’s failures and near misses have simply made me better at formulating my plans. First I’ll share how I did last year, and then I’ll go into my plans for 2019, because publishing my quarterly results keeps me accountable.
These were my goals and resolutions for 2018:
Personal: Explore a martial art - SUCCESS+
Career: Launch a podcast - SUCCESS
Physical: Run Shamrock Run 2018, build a daily stretching routine - SUCCESS
Home: Lower our rent - SUCCESS
Couples: Go on an international vacation together - POSTPONED
Stop goal: Stop losing focus on incomplete projects - SUCCESS
Lifestyle upgrades: Upgrade laptop - SUCCESS?
Do the Obvious: Speak more slowly, with more pauses - SUCCESS
Quest: Travel in Asia / a fifth continent - POSTPONED
Wish: To find an amazing pet sitter - SUCCESS
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE - SUCCESS?
I’m making some changes to my template this year. First, I tried doing a mantra for two years, and both times it wound up feeling like I somehow managed to troll myself. Dropping that. If I do one, it will be to come up with a word or phrase at the end of the year instead of the beginning. Instead, I’m publishing the metrics I plan to track. What gets tracked gets managed. I’m also being more careful about not trying for a twofer, because then if it doesn’t happen for some reason, it screws up two categories instead of one. Another thing is that I realized I keep screwing up my “couples goal” because it IS a goal, rather than a resolution, and goals are much less likely to lead to long-term success.
Goal: a specific outcome. Resolution: an implementation intention. Project: a planned piece of work with a specific purpose. Plan: the part most people leave out of their resolutions!
Personal: My personal project is typically something on what I call the Challenge Path, the specific purpose of which is to push my limits drastically and force me to run full speed in the direction of my greatest fears. Contemplating these projects in advance always makes me queasy. At some point within the first three weeks (aka The Gauntlet), I tell my husband I’m going to quit because it’s too hard and I’m wasting everyone’s time and I don’t belong there. Then I stay with it and within three years I’m as good as anyone. This time it’s to submit a book proposal to a publisher. I keep telling myself that I’m going to do many of these and that they will eventually become a regular, predictable part of my life, but bawkbawk-baGAWK! [chicken sounds]
Career: See above. Also, I’m in the final stages of completing the work for my Distinguished Toastmaster. If I can hold the line on all the projects I’ve been doing over the last six months, I can finish this by June 30. If I slip on anything, it will take an entire extra year. The further I go in Toastmasters, the more I see how directly relevant these skills are to what I want to do with my life. That being said, the DTM represents a massive amount of work. It will take the majority of my focus for the first half of the year.
Physical: My fitness resolution is to work on hip openers. If this works the way I want it to, it will help me with my roundhouse kick, my goal of doing the splits, and maybe even my heartfelt desire to turn a cartwheel. Currently I have the ludicrously tight hips of any distance runner and I’m ready to leave that behind. There are a LOT of people in Las Vegas who can do the splits, and most of them can do them while doing a handstand on one hand. This is possible.
Home: My home project is to set up an outdoor writing area. I spend a lot of time on our tiny patio, so my parrot can get some nice daylight, but it makes us visible to a steady stream of foot traffic. We get interrupted a lot by looky-loos. I’m going to set up a folding screen so the wandering public don’t have line of sight with my chair.
Couples: Our couples resolution is to do bulk meal prep. We’ve been taking an evening kickboxing class together, and because it runs from 7-8 it has been making weeknight dinnertime and cleanup complicated.
Stop goal: Every year, I think of a way I’ve been annoying myself (and usually others) and decide to stop doing it. It’s always something I have no idea how to handle, or I would have already done it. Spending an entire year examining my worst character flaws and most obnoxious habits helps me to figure out how to work on them, at least a little. This time, I’m trying to figure out how to clear up the wreckage of my poor health from 2018, a year of chronic colds and the worst sleep I’ve had in fifteen years. Waking up crouched on my living room floor, crying from a night terror that lobster-sized scorpions were crawling on the bed, was the last straw. In 2019 I resolve to stop being sick and tired.
Lifestyle upgrades: My lifestyle upgrade resolution is to buy a new desktop computer. I should have freaking done it last year, after I decided I didn’t want another laptop, but I’m such a tightwad that few forces on Earth can convince me to spend money on myself.
Do the Obvious: “Do the Obvious” is my thing, because as a divergent thinker one of my best skills is overcomplicating things without even realizing it. It means looking at something so commonplace, such a routine keystone habit, that even a stranger on the street could point it out within five minutes of meeting someone. This year it’s to schedule a time block for everything, every last single thing I want to be a part of my life. I’ll write more about this as I work it into practice. Basically it means I need to have an extra “power hour” every week for random tasks that don’t seem to fit into any other category. I also need to be more protective of my writing time.
Metrics: I track a lot of stuff. It’s what helped me figure out how to eliminate my migraines, for one thing. I track my hydration, I wear a fitness tracker, I record all the books I read, and I follow a budget. This year I’m going to try out gear to track my sleep metrics. I’m going to track specific HIIT exercises, because it will be funny to know how many burpees I do in a year. I’m going to track how many martial arts classes I attend, and I’m going to track how many speeches I give. A big one is that I’m going to track how many news articles I read, because that trend line should be going down. I’m also going to track my daily word count. A whole page of metrics! If I make a project of it I’m more likely to catch everything.
Quest: My quest this year is to pursue a Sleep Project and figure out how to get more and better-quality sleep. I’m enlisting the assistance of my husband, who is willing to apply astrophysics-level mathematical analysis to my metrics, just as he did to help me finally reach my goal weight.
Wish: My wish is to be signed by a literary agent. Did I just say that out loud?
Personal: Book proposal
Career: Distinguished Toastmaster
Physical: Hip openers
Home: Outdoor writing area
Couples: Meal prep
Stop Goal: Stop being sick and tired
Lifestyle Upgrades: New desktop computer
Do the Obvious: Schedule time blocks
Metrics: Sleep, fitness, reading, writing, speaking
Quest: Sleep Project
Wish: To be signed by a literary agent.
Read this book even if you have no particular curiosity around the practice of bullet journaling. Read The Bullet Journal Method, because it happens to be one of the greatest productivity books ever written. Ryder Carroll makes a truly compelling case for why Getting Organized can be so transformative for so many people, whether their struggles are with attention deficit, PTSD, or, memorably, talking to emergency medical responders while a child is having a seizure. This book has so much to offer that the artistic aspects are really just a side bonus.
I use a paper day planner with bullet journal techniques even though I also use a tablet and a smartphone. Writing longhand really does work to help focus, think clearly, and remember details. Another benefit that Carroll describes is differentiating between our memories of what happened and what actually happened; we may have positive memories of something negative and vice versa. Writing down accurate details can help us see the truth that a job or relationship isn’t going quite the way we thought it was. This is why a written journal is so instrumental in spotting patterns and deciphering mysterious health problems.
Part of the practice of bullet journaling is the daily reflection. Carroll points out that it’s better to spend even one minute a day on this, as long as it’s done every day, because that is more valuable than longer but more sporadic sessions. He says he usually spends 5-15 minutes per daily session, and I can back this up. With a clear system in place, it takes very little time to maintain. More, it becomes a pleasure, even a stolen thrill, rather than a chore. This is where the beautiful artwork and hand-lettering of so many BuJo aficionados begins, because it’s a treat we give ourselves.
Productivity is all about gamification, or how we choose the metrics that will measure our success. Carroll includes some very interesting ways to gamify goals, including the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise, which I haven’t seen anywhere else. (Set some goals for five years, four months, three weeks, two days, and one hour). He also teaches Agile methods, Sprints, and the Five Whys, which transfer readily between the home and the workplace: my husband relies on this system as an aerospace engineer, and we use it in our marriage as well.
The examples of problem-solving that come up in The Bullet Journal Method say everything about how universally useful it is. Everything from how to plan a vacation to I CAN’T PAY RENT is in here somewhere. Carroll writes lucidly about self-compassion, gratitude, mindfulness, and all those catchphrases that seem so abstract, until we see how directly they apply to daily life. This is a remarkable book that far exceeds its remit, turning “productivity” into pure poetry about how to live life well, even amid the massive jumble of it all.
Few things are more distracting than the cruel stories we tell ourselves.
Often all it takes to live intentionally is to pause before you proceed.
If everything is a priority, nothing is.
Yes means work, it means sacrifice, it means investing time into one thing that you can no longer invest into another.
Productivity is about getting more done by working on fewer things.
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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