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.

Getting Things Done.

Making a December plan.

I’ve re-read David Allen’s Getting Things Done because adjusting to life with an challenging pre-schooler, adding another family member, and how seismic and difficult it’s been to transition from work to home with frequent extended breaks for family reasons, I felt I needed to install a system that would allow me to pick up where I left off at work and know where things are at, and that’s been embracing GTD. It’s a good system for jobs that require a lot of task-related work that are seemingly never closed and doesn’t allow for a lot of deep work and a lot of paper-pushing.

In the past, I’ve relied on the Bullet Journal Method, but from changing my work from academic to business, I have to keep track of a lot more in my life that can’t be paired down into three simple things: reading, writing, and teaching. With my current job I had to adopt and develop a new system to make sure I’m staying current on all the impromptu stuff that comes up. It’s to say the least a lot different from the education work. It’s Human Resources, and while it is still knowledge work, it’s a ton of open loops in my job. Most of the work is task-related, in other words, it’s a lot of 2-5 minute steps that end up putting taking a half hour to put together one worker’s comp claim. It never closes up because then I have to wait for that staff-member to either go to their follow up appointment and send out new restrictions. Some weeks I get one worker’s comp claim and some days are so nuts I get six and I have to keep track of all of them. That’s a lot different then going to a class, teaching the class, collecting papers, reading those papers, and grading them to be turned back in a week. Which was way more manageable. So I had to develop a bigger external brain then the one I previously worked with in the form of the Bullet Journal.

It’s started with, really, Cal Newport’s system. He uses Workflowy as his main external brain paired with his calendar, he pairs it down into a Week Schedule, and then he makes a plan for every day of the week in his notebook. That’s basically what I’ve done with this job. I then use my work notebook to list out the remaining open loops, make a plan for them for the next day, and update my calendar to make sure I stay constant.

Analogue Days

Installed new kitchen lights on an Analogue Day

I run around the circle of my suburban Southern Indiana subdivision, chased by the same exterior lamposts that are required to be uniform by the housing authority, The Whisperer in Darkness plays in my ears matching the slight pushing of the wind and I hear talk of the Elder Beings and John Dee and the Babylon Working. The Department of Works and all of that.

It is just after 5am.

I’ve been really enjoying Julian Simpson’s adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and its sequel, The Whisperer in Darkness. More so, I’ve been all over Simpson’s excellent newsletter and blog, INFODUMP. In this article he talks about analogue day:

Analogue Day. This is a new thing we’re doing at home and I want to take credit for inventing it but I probably didn’t. Or maybe I did! Quote me in your correspondence and we’ll make it The Simpson Method. Anyway, it’s exactly what it sounds like; turn off the computer and the iPad and put the phone in another room as far as that is possible. One day a week where you write longhand, read actual physical books and magazines, talk to people and all that touchy feely stuff. When you make things up for a living, you are constantly drawing on a well of ideas and inspiration and that well is finite. You need to refill it regularly. And you don’t do that online. Or if you do, you can do it the other six days of the week. Analogue Day is about changing pace and changing input, grabbing a book off the shelf rather than scrolling Facebook, listening to stuff, watching stuff (I don’t ban myself from movies and TV on analogue day, but there’s no dicking around online whilst half-watching something). One day a week and it REALLY pays dividends creatively. Personally, I have a bunch of magazine subscriptions that build into a pile on the table throughout the week so I take this day to go through them. Then I might scan the bookshelves for something I’d forgotten I had and start reading it. It’s all about new things and unexpected creative prompts and I’ve found it to be enormously helpful and also, which seems to be anathema to the productivity nerds, fun.

It is basically a moratorium on screens. I tried this to a certain extent, but I’m still mostly failing at it. Saturdays are the days for that and basically the idea is to use whatever technology I am using for a singular purpose. Smart phones as Steve Jobs originally intended it: for communication, and audio. Reading physical books (which I do basically every day), working on something household-related which can be as simple as taking down the Christmas tree or like last couple of weeks, installing new light fixtures in the house.

I haven’t been perfect about this. I still take a lot of photos on my phone and spend entirely too much time on Instagram. What it boils down to is I just need to delete the social media apps on my phone and use it specifically for communication and audio, because my son likes audio books before bed time and I’m not about to shake up because that’s the critical piece that’s taken three months to whittle bed time from an hour and a half to a half hour. But I have gotten quite good about there being no screens or multi-tasking devices from 5pm to 8pm all week, but in 2020 I’m going to limit my phone time to business hours and after bedtime. The phone time will be for at most an hour, and only to talk to people. On the weekends, no screen time other than communication and audio.

That said, if you’re interested in something like this, you should check out Cal Newport’s Analog January Challenge.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.

A leisurely time writing at Needmore Coffee

The introduction to this book struck me, but like a lot of Newport’s work the first half is like beating a dead horse from an argument standpoint—because that’s his training as an academic. But the second half is filled with helpful suggestions. The introduction, however, is argumentative gold. He uses early modern and modern sources and ancient. There were a lot of notes:

If you can’t read my notes, here’s what it says. “I call it digital minimalism, and it applies the belief that less can be more to our relationship with digital tools.” Obviously, the less can be more aspect of things is exactly what I’m talking about.

He goes onto quote Henry David Thoreau (“simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”) and Marcus Aurelius. “You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?” 

Newport argues that the key to living well in our connected world is to spend less time using technology. When I read that line, I left the Political Science advising office at IU Bloomington and as I walked the mile to my car I counted how many IU students were walking and staring at their screens, or listening to earbuds rather than talking with each other. In the book I left a count in the margin after the above line—28 students versus 8 that were either talking with peers and two just being in the world. Looking around. Most of the latter were probably freshmen. Still in wonder at the place they found themselves. 

Newport ends his introduction with a quote from Henry David Thoreau from Walden: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…They honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. (Newport XVIII)” This applies not just to my digital life, but my personal one as well—my horrible, debilitating pattern.

Most of the first half is pretty standard academic arguments, but the biggest part that struck me was in the Digital Declutter chapter. It asks: 

“How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximize its value and minimize its harms?” 

He follows with the Minimalist Technology Screen. 

So I asked myself in the margins of these pages how will I use these digital tools like Twitter, Instagram, this website, and my newsletter. What won’t I use and who will I follow? It came down to this: 

1. Twitter is to share my blog posts and links and stories that I find interesting, basically just fodder for the newsletter. It’ll mostly be a collection of links. I’ll only use it four times a year and if something occurs to me to share it on there I’ll use Twitter for that. Like getting a short story published. I’ll follow writers and creators that I’ve actually read and enjoy. That’s about 75 people. That’s it. I’ll only look at it in the evenings, about 8pm. 

2. I’ll use Instagram as a kind of visual diary for the same amount of time as Twitter. Both apps will be on my phone for one week and totally blocked from use from 4am to 8pm during the blogging opening of each season. Both apps will be removed after the week is over. 

3. My website will be about all that I learned the previous season and the newsletter, a kind of seasonal review of what I learned. Like a Sunday New York Times—the season in review. And after the season’s blogging opening, I’ll use the newsletter for basically what I used to use Twitter and Tumblr for but instead, more like a letter from me to you and less time spent online and more time spent writing things that matter to me. 

Finally, I came up with a philosophy:

Marginalia translated: my phone is for taking photos, talking to friends, hearing interesting stories (podcasts) and making notes about my own writing in Bear. So why do I need an ipad?

Later in the book, Newport talks about Zadie Smith who uses the app Freedom so I thought, while reading this book, that I would try it. “Zadie Smith, who thanked Freedom by name in the acknowledgements of her critically acclaimed 2012 bestseller, NW, crediting the software for “creating the time” needed for her to finish the manuscript. Smith is not alone. Freedom’s internal research reveals that its users gain, on average, 2.5 hours of productive time per day.” (226)

I started using it, and I block the websites that distract me. Especially Newport, Austin Kleon, and Warren Ellis’s websites. I could wander around in those websites all day and not get anything done. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc of course. Including Google News and other websites. I don’t know how much time it saves me from being distracted, but it does help me be more deliberate with my time and if I can’t distract myself with websites, well, it keeps me writing because otherwise—symptomatically—I’ll get distracted easily. It’s called Attention Deficit Disorder for a good reason.  

And here’s the biggest thing that I continue to take from Newport: boredom is okay. As someone who suffers from ADD, being bored is hard for me. I often say I’m never bored and it’s true, but that’s also symptomatic. So, the biggest takeaway is to cultivate solitude. I take long walks more, or runs. I don’t bring my phone and sometimes I don’t bring a notebook. And I ask a question before my walk and by the end of the walk I write out whatever thoughts came to mind, but I don’t stop the walk for those reasons to note what I see, because, I realize—the notebook is a crutch. Not every thought I have is worth something. They are just thoughts. They grow faster than weeds and most are just as useful. Depending on the day, I get that more than anything else. 

There’s a lot more I learned from this book and rather than list them, I’ll just give you a photo of my notes at the end of the book. 

The pigs were requested by Squibbish. “Draw pig!”

What Would Cal Ripken Do?

Cal Ripken’s Many Batting Stances

You’re probably like what? What does this have anything to do with writing and being  a parent? 

Cal Ripken and Don Mattingly were my favorite baseball players growing up. What I liked about them is they were dependable, reliable, and highly competent in their jobs. That means they were adaptable and that’s something I aspire to be. They kept their heads down and did their work and showed up every day to do their work. So I often ask when I’m faced with a problem, I ask: “What would Cal Ripken do?”

The thing about Ripken and Mattingly is they were constantly changing their batting stances to try something new at the plate. They were creators. At the crux of every creator is trying something new.

Don Mattingly

My answer comes in the form of the Victim/Creator Roadmap. Usually this issue manifests as a hike.

I start out at Deficiency Trailhead which is where my Victim thinking starts, it all stems from poor self-esteem. But the trail I’m on is the Creator’s Trail. Where I’m crossing over rocks, fallen trees, and lots of other wildlife. In the forest around me is my victim thinking. Trying to drag me into the woods and get me lost. In there I have to face my fear, my hatred of myself, and, finally, my deficiencies as a human in a cave where I’m facing off against a campfire that is actually a Balrog.

So what do I do to stay on the Creator’s Trail? I try something new by taking action, and seeing what that action stimulates. Usually a couple of solutions present themselves and I have to make a choice in the moment. Whether that’s the right solution or not is part of the risk of being a creator, but most of all I don’t blame others and take responsibility for my choices.

This last part is what will lead me to the Ideal Life Summit, where I’ll look out over the countryside and say that hike was super-hard but look at this view. Man, that was worth it. That’s why anyone hikes.

The key here is to understand what a victim does: they almost never achieve goals because they repeat the same behavior over and over. They make excuses, blame others, and complain over and over again. That’s why they never achieve anything because they don’t take accountability for their lives.

The key to shifting the focus is understanding that you have to be adaptable and that ultimately you’re not in control of your mind, your body, or other people, but you are in charge of how you react to those three things. You can always change how you react to things and that you must adapt to be a creator.

And finally, perhaps most of all, I heed Michael Crichton’s advice to graduates at Stanford: “Don’t be attached to results.” I’m a very results oriented so this is perhaps the hardest part, but it’s getting better. 

That’s it for this season. Talk to you all again this summer. See you down the trail.

Do Not Multifocus.

This comes from Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

I’m paraphrasing: That when you’re multi focusing you’re trying to focus on two things at the same time and humans are terrible at that. We’re not even good at multitasking. I’m probably worse than most.

Multi-tasking shallow activities is something we can do. Like we can drive a car and listen to the radio at the same time, but–I don’t know about you–but I can’t read a book and watch tv. That’s why I shut down the internet when I’m writing or working on something. I can listen to music in the background while I write, but I can’t listen to music when I’m editing.

You can do this in a variety of ways. There are Chrome extensions WasteNoTime, Self Control, and Freedom. I’ve tried them all and I have to say Freedom works great because it works across your phone, your laptop, and tablet. Where the others don’t. Sure, Freedom costs, but I think taking hold of your attention and ability to focus on what matters is worth the 15 bucks a year to spend on Freedom. That’s kind of a key Essentialist trait.

How I make the best use of my time.

Gerard Way in his home office, thinking thoughts about comics and music.

The critical part of all of this is, really, to make use of the time you do have. It’s always changing, so you have to be adaptable. For me, I know making the best use of my time to write is to get up early. For you it might be in the afternoon, during lunch, or at night when everyone has gone to bed.

My brain is basically useless after 8pm. It wants nothing more than escapist television or fiction.

So really these productivity rules are just guidelines that I use to make the best use of my time, which is fleeting between a day job, a growing family, and a writing life. So how do I make the best use of my time, knowing all of these things?

I stop working at 5pm, Monday to Friday. 

I got this idea from Cal Newport who calls it a work shutdown. What I do is I go through my scrapbook (the pocket notebook I take with me everywhere) and log into my Journal all the interesting thoughts and ideas and articles I read over the course of the day. In this shut down I do these things: 

  • Review incomplete tasks
  • Form a plan to complete the high priority ones
  • Capture and schedule in the appropriate place (usually Google Calendar and the Journal).
  • Then I write down what I learned and are grateful for that day. 
  • Say “Good night, work.” 
  • I do a similar thing with the PM Reflection, which is more abstract and closes the loop generated by Morning Pages and the 5 Minute Journal. 
  • Then I’ll meditate and read, go to bed by 9pm.

Writing.

Noah Hawley’s old home office desk from his instagram.

This is kind of complicating and it involves how I approach the deep work block and layering in the work I need to do. So the first thing I do is use my Scrapbook for loose ideas, my Journal for outlines and important notes and Word for drafts. In the past I tried using Scrivener, but it just became a procrastination tool to keep me from actually writing so I went back to good old reliable Word.

I layer each level. I break story and chapter in the Scrapbook by asking some free-write prompt using the 5Ws and an H. What do I want this story, book, chapter, comic to be about?”

Then I create a detailed outline of scenes or points in my Journal. I use the outline of each scene as a free-write prompt to generate the first draft of the story, chapter, or comic script in the document. That usually happens in Word. Every time I go back to the story over the course of the first draft, I’ll read from the beginning of the chapter or story and edit as I go cutting anything that doesn’t build character or story. The important thing for me here is being away from a screen. Screens are shiny and really distracting for me. The less time on a computer the better. When the piece is done, I’ll print out and edit on my clipboard.

Usually, loose story ideas—things that just pop up in my head and go into my Scrapbook (usually a pocket notebook that I take with me everywhere) will go up on my Storyboard. I’ve created a Storyboard Index that I print out and that gets inserted into my journal’s pocket to just kind of percolate. At some point, I’ll pull the thing out and look over the list of random story ideas I have and just have at it in my scrapbook. If it’s good I’ll repeat the cycle from the top.

How I recognize and eliminate distractions.

What my desk typically looks like when I’m in a deep work block.

This means that in my Deep Work block these are the only things I can do: 

After my morning routine, in which I capture, decide, and organize my day I start a Deep Work Block on whatever I’ve identified as the most critical thing that day. The important thing to remember here is that I’ve already accomplished a handful of small tasks—making the bed, tidying up, cleaning up the coffee, exercise a bit to wake up my mind and to get the lingering anxieties of the morning down on paper so I can see them and deal with them properly. Then I think about what I’m going to work on and I recognize and eliminate distractions. So I can only do these things:

  • Get up for coffee
  • Stare out the window or wall 
  • Sit and do nothing for the entire block
  • Write
  • Most importantly: I cannot surf the web. So I turn it off and not have my phone within arm’s reach. I usually leave it on do not disturb or silent. The former I leave on priority only so that my family can reach me if there’s an emergency, but usually, I do the deep work in the early morning so my phone is off anyway. 

From what I understand, these rules are pretty much the norm for writers: Neil Gaiman talks about it in this discussion with Tim Ferriss. 

This last point, I’ve started using Freedom to lock down the internet. It’s at the point that when I do a deep work block I can’t even open Chrome, Safari, or Firefox. The only thing I can do on my computer is write. It’s basically just a fancy typewriter.

Decide and Organize

Standing desk specs in a notebook from last year.

After the morning routine, I decide and organize my day. This one is based on a Charles Soule newsletter on how he schedules activities. In the past, I’ve used his methods to create a framework for My Productivity. It’s like this:

1. Schedule the task: Plan how you’re going to spend your time. Assign projects to days and hit those targets. Typically I do this by setting up the task list in my journal, just as instructed by the Month Log in Bullet Journal. Usually, say, I want to write two chapters in a week, I schedule those chapters in the Month Leg to specific dates. 

2. Reschedule: Shit happens, man. Forgive yourself for over-extending yourself. The idea is to always know where you are in your work: what’s done, what needs doing, and the pace you’re setting and keeping. That last bit is important because usually, I’ll put the writing goal or task into Deep Work blocks. Then when I finish that task, I’ll total how long it took me (in hours) to complete that chapter. I don’t count words or pages, I count time spent on the goal because then that way I can accurately predict how long it will take me to complete a specific writing goal. 

3. Allow for subconscious work, or as Cal Newport says “productive meditation”: ask yourself a question when you’re not working. I usually do this while going for a run, exercising, or doing some chores around the house. Then let your mind work on it subconsciously. Then if I strike gold with it eventually, I’ll break it down in my scrapbook and add it to my work shutdown at the end of the day so I know where it is when I need it. 

4. Live: you need time away from the keyboard or notebook. You have to get some rest. Otherwise everything suffers. I stop thinking about work—if I can help it—after 5pm. That includes writing and job stuff. I’m just no good at making progress on work related things after 8pm. 

5. Work: sit down and do the work in the time you allotted. Usually, it’ll be an either / or proposition for me. Like “You have an hour—get two scenes of this chapter done or you take an hour.” If I don’t finish my goal of two scenes done in the hour then I know what I need to do the next day. And can usually pick it up easily the next morning. 

6. Organize: I capture my day in my journal, and break it down into a daily plan bar. Where I plot out the day, hour-by-hour, and identify what I want to accomplish in the deep work block, the day job tasks, and mental load tasks (like errands.) 

A week schedule, and a Day Log