Change, Control, Habits, and Productivity
It’s a new year, and you might be looking to change something, or many things.
In this article I will share a few of the concepts / tricks / understandings that help me move things forward.
Prelude: Environments Drive Habits
Many people will see a messy desk and attribute it to a personal failure, rather than an environmental deficit.
A large portion of changes that people usually associate with “personal habits” are environmental deficits e.g. it is far easier to maintain a clean desk if it is free of clutter, clutter is what we call objects that don’t have designated space, designated spaces are a function of the environment. The change that needs to be made is fixing that deficit.
Personal story: despite having a laundry hamper, for years various floors in our home would always accumulate clothes during the course of the week. The solution was to put a small box in each room where clothes clutter would happen, these boxes were designated for clothes, and then on laundry day we would go round to each and collect any clothes there.
The problem disappeared almost overnight, and rarely now are there clothes out of place.
It would have been easy to attribute the clothes clutter to a personal failing, one that might even stress a relationship. But the solution that worked was almost entirely environmental.
Always ask yourself if the problem you seek to solve is environmental in nature before deciding you need to radically alter your existing behaviour.
This is also the reason why many a lot of self-help books about habits/productivity can ring so hollow to some. Such books often implicitly assume an existing environment - and so often encourage people to make “clean your desk” a habit that can be tracked, instead of a project to identify why your desk becomes cluttered in the first place.
For many years now I have set yearly Themes as an intention of how I want to change during the upcoming year. For example, this year is my Year of Focus. In the past I have had Year of Exploration, Year of Enlightenment, and Year of Enhancement.
“Focus” is a deliberate shift from previous themes, both conceptually and literally. Marking a shift in how I see myself and the changes I want to make in the world.
Themes act as guides throughout the year, pointing out paths your might not have taken otherwise.
See Your Theme by CGPGrey for a nice overview of themes.
I have used several different hybrids of task management over the years and the one commonality is lists. Lists are awesome - if they have the right things on them.
There are two main types of lists:
- Project Lists - these are changes you want to make. Projects can be
as small as “have a clean desk” or as big as “end world hunger”.
Projects often have sub-projects. There are two kinds of project lists:
- Active Projects - changes you are actively working towards. Should be reviewed weekly for next actions.
- Someday-Maybe Projects - changes you may want to make in the future. Should be reviewed every-so-often to see if priorities have changed.
- Action Lists - these are tasks that need to be done to move a
project forward. There are three kinds of action lists:
- Actions that you can do right now
- Actions that can only be done in a certain Context (see below)
- Planning Lists - actions that may need to be done in the future, often far less detailed that the other two.
Each project is associated with a set of “next actions”, these are tasks that need to be done to move the project forward.
Every time your complete a current action associated with a project you should identify the next action, and move it onto one of your action list.
Ideally you will add a project to a list once it is identified, but if you are just starting out, or you want to refresh your lists then you will need to collect.
Collection is the process of brainstorming all of the changes you want to make and reassessing them in terms of projects, actions and contexts.
Grab a stack of paper, write down a change, put it in a pile. Repeat. Scour existing project lists for ideas etc.
When you have finally exhausted your brain of changes it wants to make. Flip the pile around, pick up the top item and decide if it is a new (sub) project or part of an existing project, and then decide if any actions are needed and in what context they can be done in.
I find this exercise a good thing to go through every year or so. What is important to you changes as time marches on, some projects that made sense a year ago will no longer, some projects you will want to give a higher priority to.
A context encapsulates a set of environments where an action
can be done e.g. a set of emails to reply to
may live in the context
While environments are usually physical places, they can also be
states of mind. I maintain a
low-energy list for tasks that
are non-trivial but require little mental/physical effort e.g. “review
documentation for missing images”
Contexts can overlap, you may be able to send email from a phone,
tablet, a laptop, or in an office desktop. Whether you have a single
@computer context or multiple contexts tied to each device
is less important that identifying where and how an action can take
Some generally useful contexts:
- @Errands, a set of tasks that need to be done outside of your primary home/work environment e.g. “items to buy”
- @Waiting, for actions that need to be completed by other people (this list should be reviewed every week to see if there is anything that needs to be followed up on.
- @Short, for non-critical tasks that will only take a small amount of time and can be done in the smaller time windows that occur throughout the days and weeks e.g. after you finish a large task but don’t have enough time at the end of day to start on the next one.
Certain tasks are not worth tracking and just need to get done. Pick a time threshold e.g. 2-minutes, and commit to doing any task that crosses your path that will take less than the threshold if you have the time to do it.
That last bit is important as some people are prone to avalanches e.g. “I should do the dishes, oh the recycling needs to be taken out, oh and I should make a grocery list for tomorrow”. Suddenly half and hour has gone by.
As soon as you identify more than one thing that needs doing put it on a list and then assess if the 2-minute rule applies.
Some projects require long-term tracking, and thus a regular assessment of the metrics associated with the change.
One particular idea to internalize with such projects is that it is often the case that big changes take time to complete, and progress will rarely be monotonic - there will be set-backs.
Outside of mistaking environment deficits for personal ones, the other reason that people often fail to realize longer term projects is they get up on single set-backs, and don’t contextualize them in larger trends.
In that vein have recently started asking myself a set of questions every evening in the style advocated by Marshall Goldsmith e.g. “Did you try your best to kind to your future self?”.
These questions are qualitative and non-judgmental - some days will be better than others, and some days will be downright terrible. What is important is asking the question, identifying trends in answers, and deciding if any changes are needed to change that trend.