On Routines and Ground Level Productivity

The little notebook is the EXT Notebook, the Journal underneath, and my Time Block Planner in the foreground.

A quote that floored me recently was from Marcus Aurelius on procrastination: 

“In your actions, don’t procrastinate. In your conversations, don’t confuse. In your soul, don’t be passive or aggressive. In your life, don’t be all about business.” 

And this is why I’ve mostly let go of attempting a full Getting Things Done install because honestly–it’s more work than I need. My final, rooted, ground-level productivity comes from a combination of people: Austin Kleon, Ryder Carroll, Elizabeth Eames, Cal Newport, David Allen, and the screenwriter John Rogers

From Kleon, I use two notebooks: I have an EXT notebook that I carry around with me and log notes and tasks and time block out workdays. EXT is screenwriting for EXTERIOR shot. The second notebook is my journal. I log in how much sleep I got the night before, what I did for exercise, and what I’m doing with each of my Deep Life buckets. Then I start rapid logging what I did that day. I’ll do a Reflection that night or the next morning to get clear of yesterday’s business and move onto the present moment. 

For my personal and family work, I have an Inbox, which I got from Elizabeth Eames’ book Life Admin, and from Allen’s GTD method, but less so since he’s mostly concerned with business and not family life. All the family stuff goes in there, like bills, agendas for family meetings, and things Meggan needs me to handle. 

From Allen, I set a 2-5 minute rule. If a task takes a maximum of five minutes to complete, I’ll do it right then and there. I also use his Horizons of Focus to provide a framework for each step in the Deep Life. 

If I can’t do it right then and there in five minutes, and it’s a project, I’ll control it by breaking it into 25-minute blocks (or Pomodoros). If it requires more than one step, I’ll put it in my EXT notebook to do it later. If the task or one-off project is uncompleted at the end of the day, I will file it into my Todoist. I’ll give it a scheduled date that I can dedicate to doing it, or I’ll tag it “someday” if there is no date. Usually, though, I’ll file it as a reference in my Bear notes app if there’s no action to do with it. For example, the stack of Book Notes I have to do that I haven’t made time to do yet, or figure out how I’m going to manage to do it in a reasonable amount of time. 

Finally, I’ll control it all by time-blocking out my workday, add a due date, or file it in Bear, and batch related tasks together like errands. I’ll review it all weekly, monthly, and seasonally. 

Now this doesn’t sound significantly idle. Well, no. Hodgkinson says that it’s critical for the Idler to be effective at doing the things they must do (like cleaning the house, dishes, manage day-to-day activities) to spend more time idling. Allen even calls himself a pretty lazy guy, and that’s why he developed the GTD system. 

That said, I’m going to take a nap and read. 

Below is what my crazy workflow looks like:

My crazy workflow. Sorry.

My Deep Life Project: Community

A walk with Squibbish on a day he had off from school.

When one thinks about community you think about the world outside of your home, and that’s extremely hard to do right now. It seems like everyone is in an either / or situation when it comes to going out in the community. People are either all in, or they’re not at all.

A few people are doing a bit of both. I’m doing a bit of both and that’s why I don’t necessarily think that I have to be doing more for the community. I’m keeping it tight. I have people I see for my job (6 people four days a week), my immediately family, and I have fifteen or so friends that I regularly text message. That’s it.

When I think about community the first thing is to be there for my family, and to be there for my family to help my kids become members of a community. One of the best ways I can do that is sending them to daycare where they learn there is more than family—there are friends and they come in all kids of ages, shapes, sizes, and identities.

But really the most important thing I’m engaged with these days is supporting my family and their communities.

For example, my wife’s first book came out this summer and I couldn’t be more proud of her. This book was instrumental in helping me gain traction and move up in my organization since moving to Indiana three years ago. Her book, and Cal Newport’s career advice books have been the gateway to helping me climb the ladder here and it’s been quite rewarding, so if you’re a librarian looking to get a job after the pandemic is over, I couldn’t recommend this book more.

My Deep Life Project: Contemplation

When I think about Contemplation that’s learning and reflection, but Newport cites spirituality, philosophy, which can lean towards contemplation. I’m vaguely spiritual, but not religious. This summer, I contemplated my Executive Functioning strengths and weaknesses.

I’m weak in task initiation, working memory, and stress tolerance, but I’m strong in planning / prioritizing, flexibility, and goal-centered persistence (damn right: I’m finishing writing my third and fourth book this year). I learned this from a book Meggan got me: The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success by Peg Dawson, and Richard Guare two teachers and psychotherapists. They provided a framework for considering these two areas.

The weaknesses make a lot of sense due to my diagnosis: ADD affects Working Memory and procrastination (Task Initiation) and Aspergers leads to not being comfortable with regular schedule changes, which leads to anxiety and therefore low stress tolerance. The former leads to depression and what my diagnosis said in my personality profile is that I “expect to fail” in all of my goals, because I procrastinate and don’t fully capture all of my Yes’s. I do think I do a fairly good job of combating Working Memory, due to my journaling habit that I’ve cultivated since I was a teenager. I think I write down about 85 to 90 percent of the tasks and projects I need to do and those next steps but I’m not so much good at getting started, which is why I gravitate toward GTD and specifically the Two Minute Rule.

I ask: will this next step take 2-5 minutes for me to do? If the answer is yes then I’ll get started, but it’s the next steps that really hold me up. If it takes a while to get started, I will put it off. For example, in my contemplation it matters to me that I read more and I process my notes from my reading into a reference system that’s sustainable. I’ve tried doing Ryan Holiday’s index-card system but it creates too much clutter and I have a lot of pocket notebooks already and journals, so I didn’t stick with it. I think I’ve hit upon a good system but it is still really time-consuming. Here’s what it looks like right now in reference to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and Zadie Smith’s recent book of essays, Intimations:

What the process looks like in my Bear notes

Obviously, I need to simplify the whole thing but I haven’t taken the step to figure that out.

Probably I will figure that out once I hit post on this essay.

Now for stress tolerance, I do a lot better when I counter it with time blocking—though that also feeds into my Aspergers diagnosis that when anything deviates from the time block, especially if it cuts off writing deep work, it usually really affects my tolerance and stress levels. But the middle ground is to counter it with mediation which I use the Waking Up app and Stoic philosophy, both of which I engage in daily.

Stoic Philosophy—while it is about more than dealing with stress—that is specifically what it combats for me is tolerating and handling stress and feeds into my flexibility strength that could always be improved, because I get stressed out easily.

Meditation and philosophy really does help with seasonal Resistance Syndrome. It’s probably why this September transition went more or less smoothly but the overarching goal for contemplation and constitution and dealing with all of my executive functioning and mental and physical health is to get more sleep. That is probably the biggest goal of all this fall season—work on getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep a day and that greatly affects my ability to function at my best.

My Deep Life Project: Craft

Craft, defined by Cal Newport, focuses on work and quality leisure.

My daily work is to write for at least a hour and a half five days a week on my top priority. Usually it’s quite a bit more if you include my day job which is heavy on progress notes for clients and their mental health diagnosis. All told, five days a week, I’m writing and stretching my ability to write at least two hours. I’m never connected to the internet, when I am writing as my browser is shutdown by Freedom during my main Writing Deep Work block. There’s just my laptop and a notebook. The other part of craft is to read for just as long. I usually try for at least one chapter of whatever nonfiction book I’m into, and one chapter of fiction. I usually do quite a bit better over the course of the day, but there are some days that I don’t read hardly at all. This is usually terrible.

The mantra I repeat again and again in my morning routine is that reading keeps resistance away. Reading is my quality leisure. I usually try to read at least one chapter of nonfiction, and one chapter of fiction every day, or a single issue of a comic book. If I read and contemplate something complicated like a Stoic thought first thing in the morning then I’m more likely to have a good craft day. So I make it my priority to read something first thing in the morning every morning. On the weekends, I don’t start the day with reading—usually I sleep in—but I make sure I read at every available moment I have—at the breakfast table during nap time and in the evening with Squibbish. I’m usually away from the computer screen during the weekend. I reduce my TV time to a half hour or one episode of a show and replace it with reading or reflecting into my journal. Over the summer I read six books–that’s two a month which is twice as much as I usually do these days. For me, it’s no longer about quantity–it’s about how deeply I read that brings a lot of joy.

If I don’t do this, I usually feel lethargic and slow. As I do today, because I didn’t get up before the kids. What are you guys currently reading?

My to-read pile.

My Deep Life Project: Constitution

For Cal Newport’s Deep Life Challenge, Constitution is exemplified through physical and mental health.

For my fortieth birthday I got a new bike—a Raleigh. Which was actually the first bicycle I ever owned when I was 10. Back in New York, I was avid cyclist. I would ride my bike everywhere. But since getting here, we’ve had frequent issues with our bikes, there’s always a hole in the tire or something else that’s wrong and I don’t remind my bike as much as I used to.

That’s still the case, so one of the errands I have to do this week is take my bike and Meggan’s to the bike shop and get tires replaced. This is probably the second or third time we’ve had to do it since moving here. Something about these roads, I guess, or it’s just us.

Actually, it’s probably just me.

So what I amplified this summer was riding my bike once a week, without my phone, and just a book. The result was finding new trails on the Clear Creek and some nice spots to sit down—away from people—to read.

What I’m reducing is my chip intake and sugar and sweet intake to once a week.

I also make sure that I walk at least 3-5 miles every day and five days a week I do a morning wake-up workout which consists of 20-25 push-ups, twenty sit-ups, and twenty squats with an 18 pound Kettlebell. It’s to get me to wake up. I also have a pull-up bar so I’m going to layer that into my daily walks and start doing more pull-ups. I also use Sam Harris’s Waking Up meditation app and do the daily 10 minute meditation as part of my morning routine.

Now for Summer 2020

The major thing I wanted to highlight about this past spring is I worked on the Deep Life challenge from Cal Newport. In this you spend one month on four areas of your life to delve deeper into a life that isn’t shallow.

In April, I amplified my contemplation or mental health. I generated a To-Don’t List, something I learned from Margaret Atwood. I think I did fairly well there. I reduced the SPIN/SLIDE victim reactions by countering them with creator language, like rather than Shame counter with Love, rather than Pessimism counter with Optimism, rather than Isolation try to connect with someone else. Rather than No creative or productive outlet, do something productive like put stuff in the dishwasher or take a walk, or meditate. I’m going to focus on this in September.

In May, I amplified my craft by doing a partial GTD installation at home, that I need to complete because the kids are going back to daycare in August, Meggan received a promotion at her job, and she has her first book coming out! I’m also transitioning to a higher paying job with more autonomy and less reactivity to always being available over email and such. So for the craft side of things I reduced tv time to know I managed that mostly but id like to reduce it further. I’m going to focus on this in August again. I would give myself a C on this challenge. Lots to still do and work on.

In June, I worked on my community. I spoke to a lot of my friends and former colleagues back in New York in what was a hectic time for our family. That went hand in hand with the reducing activity—I only used my phone for communication—no social media, no email, nothing like that except talking on the phone and texting. I would give myself a B- on this one this month.

This month, I’m working on my constitution or physical health. I’m walking daily and reading for a bit before returning home. I’ve reduced alcohol consumption to just two days a week. I’m doing okay with this right now but the bar is very low.

I’m going to repeat this cycle over the summer to close loops and improve. Then afterwards I’ll focus on each one over the course of a week and level it up.

That said, this summer sees a lot of things happening:

  1. The kids are going back to school meaning things are going to be getting crazy with potential spikes and all of us coming back to this house for a time period probably this fall when the students return to IU. That means, staying loose and flexible because we can still get sick at any time.
  2. I’m transitioning to a deeper job this month, so I’m going to focus on Craft in August to make sure that I’m starting off on a good foot.
  3. I’m five chapters into the manuscript of the memoir, and halfway through editing the novel, so I’m going to start preparing the query letters, proposals, and other materials for submission to Pitch Wars and to agents.
  4. I’m also starting Cognitive Behavioral Therapy soon—as soon as I can find a provider that has openings—because there is still a huge gap between intention and impact and learning how best to communicate my needs, and to work by getting started. I don’t have a problem with time management, organization, or task management but I do have a hard time just getting started on something if I’m unsure about the start of the process. This is why this season’s journal has these notes from John Rogers and Cal Newport:

That said, it seems like I suffer from something I call Seasonal Resistance Disease. Every change of season: January, May/June, September and that means , I slow down from the progress I made all season and regress due to transition points. I think this is a strong sign of my Aspergers as that’s been the case since I started teaching. Every season change there seems to be a regression of behavior and progress. Obviously this has got to change, and it’s why I’m trying CBT, because knowing this issue hasn’t changed the fact that it happens every year.

That’s all for the review of spring. I’ll talk to you all again in the fall where hopefully we’ll be healthy and things will have reached some form of normal, and I’m making progress in CBT. As always my letters will go out weekly, and I’m thinking about doing a weekly thing on Instagram with my marginalia. We’ll see though.

Stay healthy, safe, and wise.