This post is about a light-weight piece of software I wrote to help track a few things about me I’m interested in monitoring. It’s freely available (to use and modify) here.
This is a story. One time, I wanted to get a lot better at pull-ups. I wanted to be a good rock climber and to have a lot of upper-body strength, and pull-ups were one of the best exercises I could do. So I thought about how I could do a lot of pull-ups– there was, after all, no bar in my house or office from which I could do the exercise. An idea came to me: go across the street to the park, and each night, practice doing pull-ups there.
This was not a good idea. That should be apparent if you’ve ever tried any self-motivated exercise regimen. All I was relying on was my willpower to achieve a long-term goal. I didn’t do anything differently except expect that I would make it to the park. Every night, even when it was dark and rainy and sometimes cold, and I would magically muster up some willpower and go and do the pull-ups.
I think I went once. Complete failure.
Now this story has a happy ending. It’s not about me finding it within myself to walk across the street every night. No, it’s when I realized that the only thing that could convince me to do pull-ups was to make it dead simple. I would buy a pull-up bar, but only if it could fit in the door of my kitchen, bedroom, or office. There was no other place I would see it frequently enough to just stop and do pull-ups. It had to be visible. It had to be right in my face. It had to be zero extra work.
The result: I’ve more than doubled the number of pull-ups I can do to 15, and still improving.
The lesson: if you’re going to change something in your life, Read More
Cal Newport wrote a book about succeeding in high school when he was in college, a few books about succeeding in college when he was in grad school, and, now that he’s graduating, he’s– naturally– turned his attention to success in the working world. The book is called So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
If it’s not clear from the fact that he’s had four publishing deals before the age of 30, Cal Newport is good at life. From the very first time I read his blog, it was clear that he was a nerd in the best sense– someone who, given an interesting problem and enough time, could simply think unthought thoughts– and then produce value from them.
Cal does something interesting with these thoughts. Something incredibly simple and powerful. He names them.
I’ll take the bait. I’ve read a lot of Cal’s strategies and postulations in the last two years, and some of them have stuck with me since the day I first read them. Here are a few of my favorite idea’s of Cal’s, including a bit on the book at the end.
* * *
Failed Simulation Effect
This is perhaps my favorite advice from Cal’s older writing. It’s about how to be “impressive”. And his idea goes like this:
The things that sound the most impressive are not the things that require the most work– they’re the things that are the hardest for someone else to imagine doing.
Let’s dissect that. Let’s imagine, as Cal often does Read More
Patrick Rhone, author of Enough and Mac Minimal, talked about the Finishing School in his most recent podcast. It was interesting hearing his thought process in deciding to start a Minneapolis/St. Paul Finishing School. The sentiment that stuck with him the most was this: something worth doing at all is worth starting tonight.
Boris Taratutin, an engineering student in Massachusetts, saw my guest post about living life like an experiment at The Art of Manliness and is getting together with a group of his friends to talk about self-reflection behavior changing. Their first tenet is based around this question: what’s the smallest step I can take now?
Running a marathon. Learning to rock climb. Reading for self-education. Learning Krav Maga. The experiences that led me to start this blog happened only because of this question: how do I start tonight?
I used to write a lot of music. I wasn’t majoring in music– heck, I wasn’t even in college when I learned, so I had to find other resources to teach myself– websites, books, scores, any mentor who would listen to a green 16-year old’s stabs at polyphony. I ended up learning a lot from a centuries-old book called The Study of Counterpoint. It turns out it was the same text the young Beethoven studied. I still have highlighted a piece of advice from Read More
My original intent for this month was to review the most famous productivity system in the world– David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”. I bought the e-book, set aside a few hours to plan out how I would use Getting Things Done (GTD) in the next month, and started reading.
Four hours later, I closed the book frustrated, disappointed, and very aware of the irony that I’d just wasted my entire evening. I simply could not wrap my head around the system as a whole, and there was no one place where it was explained clearly at a high level.
So I decided to check out a little productivity method I had heard a friend rave about a few years ago– not Getting Things Done, but Zen to Done (ZTD).
Zen to Done Explained
If you’re like me, when someone says you should try a funny-sounding program called zen-something-something, you’d be all too happy to let it slide. And if you feel that way now, I mean to convince you otherwise. ZTD is a wonderfully useful productivity system. Despite the name, it has nothing to do with satori and everything to do with worldly effectiveness.
It was initially conceived by blogger Leo Babauta as a reaction to some of the main problems people had with Getting Things Done– which means I stumbled upon to it at a very fortunate time. ZTD is composed not of a flowchart of actions for handling any incoming tasks, but a series of 10 straightforward “habits”, which are to be adopted one at a time (which is easier than adopting all 10 habits at once, the thinking goes).
Here are the 10 Habits of ZTD as far as I understand them.
- Collect. Ubiquitous capture. Carry a notebook, index cards, smartphone, or something on which you can write any idea, task, or tidbit for future action. Don’t rely on your memory for this.
- Process. Do not let things fester in your inboxes. Make quick decisions on things in your inbox and figure out the next action they require (if any) upon looking at for the first time. Read More
Before Occupy Wherever picked up the moniker, the top search results for “99%” was a the99percent.com, a well-designed website that advertised itself as “Insights on making ideas happen”. The title banner still betrays the etymology of the name– it’s from Edison’s famous quip “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.
The 99% is a website that is not about ideas; it’s about making ideas happen. The perspiration part, not the inspiration. “Too many ideas”, the site boldly proclaims. “Not enough action”. So they made the Action Method.
The Action Method is a productivity system that I tried out for a month. First I will explain how you use it, then I will tell you whether or not I liked it. Let’s get started.
The Action Method Explained
There are three things you keep track of for each project (a project can be any large-scale task at work or at home):
- Action Steps. These are specific concrete tasks. They are the bread and butter of gettin’ stuff done. Action Steps start with a verb, and they don’t require more planning before you can start one.
- References. This is project-related material you may want to refer to later– links, videos, articles, books, e-mails, etc.
- Backburner Items. These are not actionable now, but they could be future projects or sub-projects. They’re the brilliant ideas you have now but want to remember later.
Let’s talk about how this works for a very specific example: writing a blog.
First, potential Action Steps.
- Brainstorm post topics
- Write a post or two
- Pitch a guest post to another blogger
- Leave some comments on other related bogs
I want you to notice two things.
- Each Action Step starts with a verb
- Each Action Step requires no further planning before being able to start it
So no “Make sure blog readership continues to grow”. That’s bad. Read More
On the back of your list of life goals, write what you No.
One side has the great stuff you’re going to do with your life, and the other has what you will stop doing.
See, this is all about focus, and focus is about saying no. Think about that for a second. It’s true, isn’t it?
And if you look on your life and the things you want to do and you ask yourself “Self, why haven’t I done any of these yet?”, the answer will come back, at least in part, “I don’t have time”. BullllllshI don’t believe in “I don’t have time”. IDHT means IDC, I don’t care. You have plenty of time, and unless it’s all being taken up by far more pressing matters than you or I ever deal with on a daily basis, the time is there and it’s your job to take it. You don’t find it; you manhandle it.
So where do you get all this time from? That’s where the list of No comes in. Choose things you will stop doing. Cut out the fat from your life. If you don’t, your dreams will fade like the muscle tone of a middle-aged cubicle tenant.
When Seth Godin– who runs the number one business blog in the world, has written more bestsellers than I have fingers, and responds to every e-mail he gets– is asked how he does it all, he says he doesn’t watch TV and he doesn’t go to meetings, so that’s already four to five hours more than most people have.
That’s some serious No right there! It gives me the warm fuzzies to see someone so boldly cast from his life the trappings of the non-producer lifestyle.
I think you need to say No, and say it hard. Don’t be– to borrow a term from Noah Kagan— a wantrepreneur. You know– one of those two-beer bards waxing poetic about lost opportunities. He is the sad, sad result of a lifetime of Yes. Yes to every distraction, yes to every addiction, yes to every fashion.
Therefore, No. Write down your rules. We’ll start with Seth’s rules.
No TV. No meetings.
You’re about to bust out complaining about how you have to go to meetings aren’t you? If so, you’re missing the point. Let’s go on. Read More
Years ago, Jim Collins, a business professor and consultant, sat down and drew up a schedule for how he’d like to spend his workdays in the future.
Half his time would go to endeavors like research, writing books, and authoring papers; a third to teaching-related activities; and the final chunk to all the other things he needs to do.
In order to make sure he was meeting his goals, he made the incredibly obvious and incredibly bold move of timing everything. For the rest of his life.
He literally took three stopwatches, labeled them, and put them in his pocket.
He still uses them.
Jim Collins is a serial bestselling author, and I’d place money that he will continue to lay golden egg after aurous, shining egg. Part of the reason for this is because he has made it his main goal in his business life to create an influential and lasting body of creative work, then scheduled his time– all of his time— accordingly.
In 2009, the New York Times profiled Collins, and they asked him about his time management experiment. He only had to point to the upper-right corner of his whiteboard on the far side of his conference room. Scribbled in marker was the lifetime tally:
A perhaps apocryphal New Yorker cartoon depicts a man looking confused standing before two doors. One is labeled “Heaven” and the other is labelled “Books about Heaven”.
When I heard about this comic for the first time, it scared me just a bit– because my first reaction was “Ooh! Books about heaven!”
There’s something wrong with that reaction. If heaven is the place of ultimate happiness– the best possible experience you can have— what does it mean that some part of me deep down is more intrigued by words on a page describing this place?
* * *
The Internet is a dangerous place. It’s especially dangerous for those who want to do things with their life. You can now pick almost any endeavor or accomplishment and read about it until you die. Info porn.
You may notice that I’ve encouraged you to stop reading if you’re going to go do something awesome instead. I stand by that. The perfect situation: no one reads any of this because they’re too busy accomplishing their pacts with life.
In a way, reading about awesome things is a substitute for experiencing and doing awesome things. And for me at least, I don’t want it to be that way. That’s called white-collar failure and it needs to be fought. Read More
The writer Steven Pressfield in his books The War of Art and Do the Work talks about a concept he calls Resistance. Resistance is a cold, impersonal force that acts against every creative endeavor you feel passionate about. He writes about it mostly in the context of art– Resistance is the nagging voice inside of you telling you that you can never be a real writer, that you’ll never finish your symphony, and that your paintings suck. It’s all the distractions to keep you from ever sitting down at your typewriter. Resistance can even take the form of all the legitimate reasons not to pick up your violin today– you do need to pick up the kids from school, and someone has to take out the trash.
Resistance is opposed to any endeavor we take that makes us a better person or the world a better place or brings us closer to our calling. Opening a restaurant? Starting a family? Voting your (unpopular) conscience? The universe is not apathetic to these actions; it is actively hostile. Resistance is that hostility.
Resistance knows you’d grow by doing these things, and it’s there to keep you from growing. If you give into it, you will die regretful and wondering. Resistance wants you to die like that. It hates you.
Here’s the good news though: Resistance means you’re doing something right. It will come knocking down your door with distractions, excuses, and self-doubt literally 100% of the time you’re moving towards what Pressfield calls a “higher spiritual plane”. On the other hand, if you are a giving up your life as a volunteer with Calcutta orphans to go work at Goldman Sachs, Read More