This is what I'm currently aspiring to do on a daily basis. I'm not a billionaire; I'm not an award-winning anything; there's no compelling reason for you to know who I am. All I'll say in favor of what lies below is that I credit it with keeping my attitude in the 7- to 8-out-of-10 range when my default score hovers around a 3. It's not perfect, and neither am I, and neither are you. That's why it's in an ever-mutable text form and not etched in stone. It works pretty good as is, though.
A critical caveat: I do not work a traditional 9-to-5, nor am I in school. My work schedule is blessedly flexible most of the time, allowing me to push things around to accommodate full day routines like this. Parts of this can probably be adapted to a 40-hour workweek or a college semester, but you’ll have to experiment with that on your own time (and you should! Always develop what you learn from other people to match your needs).
What’s in a Bag?
Bag and Chips is my analogy for goals. When we think about big tasks, we tend to visualize them as single point outcomes: we learn a language, launch a product, publish a book, etc. This abstraction is appealing to the lazy logic centers in our heads, but it's dangerous because it makes longer-term goals daunting to attack. Instead, we need to address the action items that come together to form that outcome.
When you eat a bag of chips, you don’t have to eat the actual bag. All the bag does is hold the chips inside for convenience. Likewise, when you give yourself a serious task, your attention shouldn’t rest on a description of that task (the bag) but rather on what constitutes it (the chips). "Learning a language" is shorthand for learning words, syntax, and semantics, each of which are small (one could say bite-sized) tasks that add up to a whole. The key is to find chips small enough to break the threshold for action and start chewing your way through.
The making of a Bag
Bags exist in three spaces: the Shelf, the Table, and the Book.
When an idea with some promise crosses my mind, it goes to the Shelf.
When that idea is ready to be worked on, it goes to the Table.
When the idea has been fulfilled or exhausted, it goes into the Book.
Before an idea moves from the hypothetical Shelf to the actualizing Table, it needs to become a measurable, completeable objective with the following details worked out:
- 1 to 3 underlying motivations--interpersonal, systemic, experiential, incremental. Not only does talking motives out let you gauge their quality, it can also give insight into alternate goals that might satisfy your intent even better.
- A map leading backward from the goal to a first step. This map need not be sworn to as law, but without a logical starting point for action you will not start. If you can’t find one, you need a lower-level goal to work on first (referring to the motivations from item 1 helps a lot here).
- A resource allocation in time, money, and energy. Not as critical as the first two, but this helps me check my planning skills so that sometime down the road I can maybe stop needing the rule-of-thumb assumption to just double all estimates to get a more realistic figure.
Once a Bag lands on the Table, it must get a slot (explained later) at least once every 3 days to stay there. If it falls out of rotation, I have to justify the failure as a problem with either the feasibility of the goal or the motivations underlying the goal (see Realignment), then move the Bag to the Book. Bags removed from the Table this way cannot be revisited unless the justifications for removal are demonstrably overcome.
As of this writing, I have 11 Bags on the Table and I’m cataloguing them in Evernote (I don't know that I can recommend Evernote across the board, but it has sufficed for now). They are:
- Have an opinion of the October Surprise.
- Earn a stripe in BJJ.
- Host a good Transcendentalism panel. (for FWA in April)
- Weigh 180 pounds.
- Hit a golf ball where you want it to go 80% of the time.
- Make a lectern for the backyard.
- Review Serenity.
- Read Southern Reach.
Note that several of those items aren’t terribly work-like. That’s ideal: your day shouldn’t be a solid block of grinding down your will to live in the interest of longterm benefits. Do what you need to do and spend the balance doing what you want to do. Be productive while you pursue your more leisurely goals but don’t compromise the intrinsic pleasure in them.
This is a surrogate Bag where you put things you want to think about or deal with, obligatory or otherwise, as they surface during the day: bills, research topics, conversations, general housekeeping. Stuffing all the little things into one timeframe allows you to manage them wholesale and knock them out in rapid succession. I also try to defer purchases and car trips to the checkboxes to reduce the bureaucracy associated with these activities. When you’ve got enough items on your to-do list, schedule a slot for the checkboxes and hack them all down. Economy is key here: these tasks are destinations, not journeys. Make a game out of minimizing the time and effort it takes to complete them.
I find myself crossing off a third to a half of these items taking no action at all. These are stray thoughts that would have derailed me from more important things if I'd wasted energy considering them at the time. The checkboxes defer these thoughts until I can weigh their relevance properly. Seeing a dozen items of varying importance bundled together makes it much easier to peg their true value.
Refer to this section when you have a Bag that you can’t seem to push forward.
Look at the motivations you wrote down when you created this Bag and say them out loud to yourself. If a motive is good, vocalizing it will actually feel good; modify or remove any that don’t. Once you exorcise the bad motives from the Bag, resume your work with better-aligned priorities. If you can’t do this without compromising the relevance of the Bag itself, write a postmortem for the Bag and move it to the Book. It is no longer worth pursuing. If there are good motives being held hostage by the Bag, find a purer method to achieve them—even make that method a new Bag if you like—but corrupted goals are the source of nearly all ills and must be overturned as they are discovered. Your resources are finite; your options for using them are infinite. Do not spend a dollar, second, or word without a damn good reason.
The day breaks down into 8 segments: 6 daytime slots, an evening shift, and a span for eminent carelessness (the Pasture). Each segment is 2 hours long.
2 hour segments are longer than I can attend to one task without losing focus now and again, but that length has several perks:
- It withstands disruption. Any length less than 2 hours gets compromised too easily by distractions. Sometimes your mind will wander and emergencies strike. 2 hours is the shortest period in which I’ve started a task, been interrupted, and returned to that task with sufficient time to justify re-engaging.
- It’s easy to keep track of the time. Wake up at the top of an hour and just use the clock.
- It’s long enough to take a good dive into a subject without getting lost in the weeds all day. The magic time range for me is somewhere between an hour and 4 hours depending on the activity. At 1 hour, gearing up eats too much of the total. At 4 hours, very few activities are so engaging that I don’t lose the plot and waste the backend. 2 hours is the middle ground I've chosen. If I really want to, I can also combine adjacent slots for a larger chunk of time.
This adds up to a 16 hour day, leaving 8 hours for wind down and sleep. I've tried to operate on less than 8 hours of sleep a day for many years and I’m literally tired of fighting my biology on this. If you haven’t had a full night’s rest in a while, give it a shot for a week. A lot of people believe they can get away with 6 or even 4 and function properly. Research suggests nearly everyone who does this compromises their productivity and well-being both in the moment and in aggregate over the day. Enjoy 16 rested, focused hours instead of pushing your way through 18 or 20 lethargic ones. Do yourself a favor and go to bed earlier. And nap if you need to (10 to 15 minutes is outstanding for focus)! Sleep is pretty awesome.
The 6 daytime slots
This is the meat of the day. Put a Bag from the Table into each slot from the time you wake up on through the first 12 hours. If you wake up at 6, that’s 6-8, 8-10, 10-12, 12-2, 2-4, 4-6. Distractions mount throughout the day, so put tasks that require more concentration earlier.
At the start of each slot, designate and prep a workspace—physical, digital, or both. Clear everything unrelated to the task at hand as far from the space as you can get it. Then spend as long as you need to getting your body prepared to meet the requirements for steady work on the next activity (the section "Waking Up, Calming Down" below has a few suggestions).
Once your focus and energy are synced up, set a 15-minute timer. Before it goes off:
- Close your eyes and remain still until your thoughts drift off whatever is presently preoccupying you, even if it’s the task you’re about to perform. This is a mini-meditation session, which works better and faster if you practice meditating for longer periods regularly.
- Find the smallest step you can take toward that goal (the chip). The chip shouldn't be a keystone to the whole apparatus: the chip's job is to trick you into getting started. If you're trying to get a meeting together, the chip can be a list of the people you want in the room. If you're building an end table for your mom for Christmas, it can be putting the right drill bit in your drill. As easy a task as you can think of.
Once you've completed this first little task, odds are good another one will present itself (contacting the invitees, or gouging an unsightly hole through the top of the table). Follow that trail until the trail goes cold or you stop making progress for more than 30 seconds at a stretch, then set the 15-minute timer again.
If a 15-minute timer goes off without a chip being munched, step back. In my experience, this happens for one of four reasons:
- Your energy level is too high or too low. Refer to the "Waking up, Calming down" section for something to bring you back to equilibrium.
- You are distracted. Distractions tend either to be extraneous stimuli (noises, lights, words, objects, people) or a more pressing objective that is cluttering your subconscious. Allocate the remainder of this slot to resolving or reducing the distraction. Don’t resume the previous task until you feel a genuine sense of calm. If that’s not enough time to fix it, you might have a new worthwhile Bag on your hands.
- You didn't pick a simple enough task. A simple reset should be fine here, just break the task down even farther on your next pass.
- You aren't motivated enough by this project to pursue it. Refer to Realignment.
Once you’ve handled the cause of the lapse, just start the 15-minute timer over and get back in it.
The only multitasking you're allowed during a daytime slot is for other people or machines to do things for you. There is neurologically no such thing as doing two things at the same time: switching your attention back and forth will not make whole the residual loss in willpower, focus, and creativity. Even stepping back to evaluate where you're going doesn't tend to be a great idea because you'll use the window to distract yourself. Let the back of your mind evaluate the grander objectives and correct course naturally between sessions. When you're only working 2 hours at a time, you can afford to run off the road occasionally (to say nothing of the lessons you might learn while doing so).
Any time you have a good idea or thought unrelated to the task at hand, immediately write it down for investigation during your next checkbox slot and resume work.
At T+01:55, if you’ve got good momentum, don’t suspect it will wear off soon and didn’t schedule a critical event for the next slot, just keep going. The whole point of this scheme is to maximize your time in a flow state; it would be silly to shut that down when there’s no need to. Otherwise, wrap it up. You can update the map at this point to keep track of your progress and give yourself a reminder of what you were working on for next time, but if you consistently work on your goals the back of your mind will keep decent track of what’s going on between sessions anyway.
Waking up, calming down, and everything in-between
Use the following as necessary during the day to keep yourself at an ideal balance of focus, mood, and energy.
- Wim Hof!
- There's a psychotic Dutchman by the name of Wim Hof who climbs mountains in his underwear. I'm not sure that's the sport for me, but his breathing technique kills grogginess dead in short order. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RW1C_3OXhEs .
- Get your body out of stasis
- You can sweat, but don't hurt yourself. The key is to get the fluids inside you moving, not to burn through your resting energy supply. Activities involving bouncing (jogging, rolling, literally jumping up and down) tend to work well.
- Pump the cortisol out
- Weights are great for anxiety. When you’re wired and antsy, they’ll bring you back down.
- Contrast shower
- Alternate between warm and cold water in the shower (spend at least 15 seconds in both states). Cold water contrast wakes you up, improves your mood, suppresses hunger, et cetera. Trust me: this one does a tremendous amount of good for how little it requires of you besides the nerve to turn the temperature down.
- Passing thoughts
- Jot down anything on your mind. Anything. This isn't getting published anywhere. Silly privations are ideal. Put any good ideas in the checkboxes for further exploration. Don't spend more than 15 minutes on it.
- Walk outside.
- You should do this at least once an hour regardless of your mood.
- Naps are awesome. 10 minutes of napping will reset your thoughts and spike your energy for at least half an hour afterward.
There is an obsession with morning rituals in a lot of these schemes that I worry is counterproductive. Moving into the day as quickly as possible reduces the risk of accidentally derailing yourself after the longest meditation period of your day (bedtime). Any or all of these could be part of one’s morning routine (they all have been for me in the past), but burning an hour during most people’s greatest productive timeframe doesn’t strike me as a worthwhile tradeoff. Do these things when your body needs them, not just after the alarm rings.
The evening shift
This is the transition from the machine to the human/dog. Take stock, then loosen up and get comfortable. The evening shift is only listed as 2 hours long for consistency’s sake: transition naturally into the Pasture as soon as it makes sense. Here’s what I tend to use this release valve time for (from 6 until 8-ish in the 6am rising case):
- Blow-by-blow journal
- List what you did today, how it went, and how it could have gone better, all as succinctly as you can. Use this time to assess the bags. If you don't feel an affinity with a bag, apply the process detailed under Realignment. Alternately, if you think you've got the mental and temporal space for it, throw a new Bag into the mix.
- Let someone know how the day went
- I send text messages to Matt during the evening shift reporting on the previous day. It's a two-symbol message using the following key:
1+ Conditions met, feel great.
0+ Conditions not met, but still feel great.
1= Conditions met, feel good.
0= Conditions not met, but still feel good.
1- Conditions met, but still feel off.
0- Conditions not met, feel off.
- “Conditions” are the rules outlined above. This gives the scheme some dead-simple outward accountability, and I can provide him a reciprocal service which is a gratifying hand to lend.
- I send text messages to Matt during the evening shift reporting on the previous day. It's a two-symbol message using the following key:
- Assemble your calendar for tomorrow (and tonight possibly)
- Hash out plans for the slots tomorrow, incorporating any obligatory tasks now so they don’t creep up on you. Put the bags most vulnerable to distractions in the first slots. If you don’t have an idea for what you want to do tonight or tomorrow night, arrange something so you don’t waste that time half-assedly meandering between activities.
- Meditation is any activity that breaks the stream of thoughts ordinarily cluttering your head for a sustained period. Resources abound for how to do this but the general idea is to give the present moment your full attention. Beverage sipping is acceptable, but if you're going to drink make sure the action and sensation have your full attention when you do it. I personally find 10 minutes to be sufficient most days though 20 is better if you can swing it.
- Any amorphous activity you prefer (drawing, walking, lying facedown in a pile of laundry). Right on the heels of a load of serious work, unwinding in an unstructured way is therapeutic and also a good way to conjure new ideas while a critical mass of thoughts is swirling around (write them down). Do what you can to keep explicit sexual content out of the thought bubble: it tends to crowd out the other meeker thoughts this exercise is designed to expose (might just be me?).
- Doesn't have to be a book but, if it's going to be internet content, pick longform content. Read a chapter's worth of a comic rather than bouncing between a bunch of different comics. Scan down rather than across, and you'll more than make up the difference in recency with depth. If you find this makes your social life more taxing because you're behind by a week, please re-assess your entire life before it's too late.
- Talk to somebody
- Pick someone and engage them in conversation. Doesn't have to be in person; doesn't have to be a deep discussion. Just keep in touch.
- In case you were wondering when this was supposed to happen. The human body isn't built to have undigested food inside it 24 hours a day. If you limit stuffing your face to the evening hours, your body can spend the daylight hours in relative peace and quiet performing maintenance routines and you can essentially gorge yourself from now until you go to bed without running a (serious) risk of getting fat because there's simply not enough time for you to get a problematic number of calories and carcinogens in your body.
Mix and match these activities as convenient. For example, “Eat” and “Talk to somebody” tend to go well together.
Do as you please. By any sane definition, you've lived a full day. Nonetheless, even though you're free to pick anything, pick *something*! If you head into the realm of debauch and prurience with some idea of what you want to achieve along the way, you stand a much better chance of ending the night having enjoyed yourself instead of dabbling in a dozen momentary temptations.
Time to wrap things up. No more electronics, food, or Jack Daniels. Until you fall asleep, you have two objectives:
- Tidy up
- Get your living space ready for lights out. Mail, dishes, clothes, locks, trash, dust, hair, nails, teeth...the little stuff that's quick to keep in order. Limit to 20 minutes. You aren't hosting an open house: you're just taking care of all the things that'll bug you tomorrow morning when you should be concentrating on the day ahead.
- Find a book; write a journal entry; stroll around outside for a bit; seduce a boyfriend/girlfriend/flexible acquaintance into snuggling (or just have sex with them, I'm not your mom). The goal is to more-or-less accidentally end up in the next stage and whenever that happens it happens.
You are now asleep. Try not to wake up for at least the next 7 hours. If you eat like you're supposed to, don't sit all day, and don't live in a city, this should be relatively straightforward. If you wake up early, get up to pee like you probably need to and get back in bed. You need all the REM cycles you can get for tomorrow morning.