Phew… the last weeks have been a complete mess… My habits are getting loose, some of them really, really loose… I’ll try to see it as a small break from self-organization. I hope that this boosts my motivation from now on. Let’s crush it!

I announced in my last post that I wanted to try a new approach to my job schedule.

My job allows me to have a flexible schedule. Often the problem for me is the absence of dead lines, so commonly days ended up passing by, many times feeling that I didn’t advance much. That’s why I devised an alternative approach to time organization of my working hours, that I called project-based schedule.

What is a project-based schedule?

In opposition to a time-based schedule, which would consist on working a fixed amount of hours every day, a project-based schedule sits in the notion of completing projects (or mini-projects) before moving on to the next activity, whether it is pure leisure, personal projects or more work (yeah, high-five all you workaholics!). Let’s say that I am writing an article (scientific articles need a loooong time…). According to a project-based schedule, I may decide to work as intensively on that as I can, until I finish it. Only after it is finish, I’d take some time (maybe several days) to relax or to do whatever I want.

What happened?

In brief, I tried the project-based schedule for about one week. It was a total failure. My plan was working as much as possible in the draft of my article until I can handle it down for review. It failed in that I just had to stop working at some point. After a certain amount of hours working, my brain would just reject working any more on the manuscript. It was fed up. I couldn’t follow the schedule, so for instance I ended up working less and producing less than what I would in a time-based schedule. For instance, while trying to work on Sunday, I ended up spending several hours playing videogames, and procrastination was in every corner of my day.

Why didn’t it work?

I can think of a few reasons.

  • The work that I had to do was unspeakably boring. I just hate writing scientific manuscripts, so at some point I just need a break. Maybe it would be possible with a more exciting activity. Sure it should work with having fun 🙂
  • I may have overestimated the time that I can devote to this activity in a row, i.e. I engaged in a project which may have been too long to make it without a good break in between.

There may be more reasons, but these two are the main ones that I can see so far.

Can it work?

Would there be a way to make this schedule work? Well, for sure. But the rules should change, and I see that in this change, the schedule would become something similar to the MIT based schedule proposed by the ZTD method. I assume that the main cause of failure, at least in my case, has been ignoring: (1) a need to rest my mind after a few hours of dull work, and (2) the overestimation of my will to endure long working sessions. So, what changes could be made to make the project-based schedule work?

  • Work on really short projects, mini-projects, that can be completed in a very short time. This would be equivalent to MITs.
  • Take regular breaks to rest, hang out, evade, as soon as the need to procrastinate is appearing too often.

And for heaven’s sake, enjoy your life and don’t work too much. Particularly if your work is not a matter of life or death for anyone.

Once I go back to my tracks with the current habits, I’ll come over here again to talk about the next habit.

So stay tuned 🙂

This is sort of an interlude post.

I’ll briefly address 3 points today:

  1. The 5th habit: SIMPLE TRUSTED SYSTEM
  2. What I’m doing to apply it.
  3. An experiment on how to improve DOING

First is first. The 5th habit of the ZTD system is all about setting up a good and effective system that allows you to use ZTD comfortably. What are the tools of the trade? How to use them best and in the most simple way? About the tools, several are suggested in the book, but as I don’t pretend to write a review, I’ll directly mention the ones that I’m using: For all the lists I use Evernote, which I utterly love and is the best thing in the world (I use it also as a database of all my stuff). For date-specific events I use Google Calendar, and to take notes on the fly, I always carry in my pocket a small post-it stack and a pen. Plain and simple. This is what I’ve been doing all along so in this sense there isn’t much of an update.

The new stuff for me here is the context lists. They are also an element in the GTD system, and they pretty much play the same role here. Instead of having all your to-do things in one single lists, you put some of them in separate lists by context. The point is, some actions can only be done at a particular place or time. I have lists for @work, @errands, @calls, @waiting for, @someday/maybe, and I have one context list for my next private project. The ones that I find most useful for the moment are the @work and @errands list, it’s so easy to check the errands list right before going shopping! And in the office I just take a look at the work list and I’m no more wondering what the heck I was supposed to do…

Still, the fight against cluttering my lists is neverending…

I don’t think I’m going to set a challenge for the 5th habit, since I don’t quite see the point. It’s not so complicated anyway, took me about 10 minutes to set up. In addition, every morning I check my lists and shift tasks between lists or erase them depending on what they are. That’s all that there is about this habit, in a nutshell… So eventually I’ll move to the next one.

The last thing that I want to talk about is about DOING. That was the 4th habit, and yes, still, definitely and by far the most important. And sometimes I completely mess up with it, mainly due to procrastination. So I want to talk about an experiment to try to decrease the procrastination time and improve in doing things. In particular, I address the problem of procrastination at work and what it generates: massive loss of free time (because you’ll have to finish the work eventually, anyway, and if you need more time you’ll have to extract it from your free time).

I start with the assumption that a 8h/day is not necessarily the best schedule (laughs) and does not need to be followed. I also assume that there is an amount of enforced working hours (indentured time) of  at least 40h/week. With this we pretty much have the following simple possibilities:

  • Work 5 days/week, 8h/day
  • Work 4 days/week, 10h/day
  • Work 3 days/week, 13.3h/day

Of course, it is possible to envision many other more complex distributions of 40 h in one week, but let’s not get too fuzzy. The approaches up there are time-based. You set a certain time and once it’s finished you forget about your job till the next time. I thought of another approach, project-based, which might be more sensible. This is: you work in a certain project, until you finish it. It doesn’t matter if it’s work or private. Just keep track of the hours you’re devoting to work, only to be fair and make sure that you’re at least working the amount of hours that your contract demands from you. Still I didn’t figure out exactly how manage the times, but I’m tying this and I’ll see what is to be done. I just count the time I work (I use a simple and useful timer that you can find here)

I believe that the project-based schedule has the potential to promote effectiveness and reduce procrastination, because you’re no longer dependent on waiting for a certain hour to arrive to stop working. To get your free time, you depend on finishing the work, which looks much more powerful motivator to my eyes. It doesn’t matter if it’s 5 or 8 pm. You gotta finish the project and then you get a lot of well earned free time, to full focus in a private activity and again don’t stop until you finish it.

Of course, this may not be possible in every job (in mine it is, fortunately).

Possible advantages of a project-based schedule:

  • Strong motivation to finish your work.
  • Less procrastination (since procrastination, whose main “purpose” is to let time pass, is rendered useless).
  • More adaptable to your own lifestyle.
  • You free yourself of a dull and ineffective routine of working 8 hours/day.
  • Probably increased productivity and focus.
  • Less disruptive job, devote more time in a row to private projects without distractions.

Possible disadvantages of a project-based schedule:

  • May be impossible to apply in some jobs.
  • May result in a chaotic schedule which could get out of control.
  • You may end up working more than 40 hours a week.
  • Many hours working in a row could result really boring and tiresome

I’m not a project-based schedule guru or something, I’m just a guy trying some ideas, so if you can add something or give some suggestion, I’ll be really glad.

In one sentence, my idea was to adopt some schedule that focuses on finishing projects rather than risking prolongating them forever.

We have adopted an established working routine of 8 hours a day and 5 days a week. Why? Do you know? I don’t. Does it make sense? I don’t know, but like anything assumed as something natural, it is good to experiment with it. I bet that the 8-hours-day schedule is not the best possible schedule. I didn’t manage to adopt a 4-hour-week schedule yet, but give me time.

In any case, drop your thoughts below! 🙂

EDIT: I wrote the whole post thinking that the habit here discussed was the 6th habit, that’s why the web address has 6th habit on it. I apologize for that!

Boooh!

The result to my DO challenge is: 169 points! (check the original post here).

Far below the win goal. I don’t call it extreme failure, because… well, because I was trying. Anyway, it’s about half the way, which is not so bad.

But I still have to nail down a bit the DO habit. Particulary to what timed bursts refers. DOing is an art in itself, and is not mastered so easily.

This is what I’ve learned:

One must learn to do the minimum necessary to be effective. Yes, when things could be better, believe it or not it’s not about working harder, it’s about optimizing and reducing to the essentials (work smart). Carefully analyze what you’re doing. Is it necessary? In other words, will something very bad happen if you don’t do it? If not, don’t do it. Do exactly the minimum possible for things to come out right.

This is contrary to all what is commonly said. Work more, work hard, do more, multitask! I say that all that is moronic.

But doing the opposite is not easy. We’re so much inclined to waste time in futile work, and that is because we have 8 hours work days no matter what. Just to quote something that appears in the 4 Hour Work Week: How is it possible that every professional in the world needs exactly 8 hours every day to complete his/her daily work?

I say, be like a surgery knife. Cut exactly where you have to, do it fast, and get the fuck out.

That said, although I’ll keep on improving on DOing, I’ll be already checking the next habit, #5: SIMPLE TRUSTED SYSTEM (STS).

Where half the way! I’m excited!

See you over here.

DO

It’s not like it doesn’t make perfect sense.
With the first habit, you collect every whimsical little thing that you want to do. The second habit allows you to filter, process, the ideas you collected. The third habit is about bringing a schedule to your day and week. But all would be irrelevant if in the end of all the planning, you do nothing.

So this habit –DOING, is about crushing it and just actually friggin’ do the damn things.

What does ZTD say about that?

In a nutshell, just do the friggin’ thing, stay FOCUSED, and do NOT MULTITASK. Welcome to the monotask world.

To be a little bit more explicit, the text gives some further guidance to find focus:

  1. Choose a Big Rock and work on it for x minutes or until it’s done. I say, 1:50 hours for instance. Or about 2 hours.
  2. Zoning: remove from your working space everything that could distract you.
  3. Time yourself, set the chronometer on, and do the thing like an oyster on crack.
  4. Interruptions? Put them into inbox for later (i.e. collect them)
  5. Do not switch tasks, just do the damn thing. Feeling the urge? Stop, breath deep, and control yourself.
  6. Sometimes we have to interrupt what we’re doing by something inevitable. In this case, take notes of where you are in the task to go back to it again easily.
  7. Relax, take a walk outside, go to the gym. Remain sane. Take a time everyday to not do things.
  8. In between task and task, relax and mess up for 10 minutes (10 minutes, no more!!)

I’m going to face that as a challenge as usual, and I thought the best way is to set the rules of a game, and if I win it, reward myself. It’s going to be fun.

Based on the guidelines above, I have selected a set of good and bad things.

Good things:

  • Accomplish Big Rock within timed burst
  • Get zoned
  • Collect interruptions
  • Make notes if the inevitable assaults
  • Relax
  • Reward after the task

Bad things:

  • Multitasking
  • Procrastinating

Now that’s how it works: for every good thing that I do, I earn a point. For every BAD thing that I DON’T do, I also earn a point. SO for two Big Rocks within one day, I’d count each thing twice (once for each BR).

I’ll keep daily track of these, write them down in a table, and let one month pass. This sounds easy, right? It’s not. It not so obvious when I’m doing something that I shouldn’t. Procrastination is not always easily identified. Let’s put an example: I am reading a textbook about science and my goal is to get a rough overview of the topic. Now I find a particularly interesting or difficult to understand equation, and I begin trying to develop it by myself. Is this procrastinating? YES! Absolutely! I’m wasting time doing something which slows me down in my purpose.

Identifying multitasking is not so difficult, but one must take care of it. Think for instance that you’re working, and at the same time eating a sandwich. This is ok! Or not? Well, bad news, this is still freakin multitasking. Yes! What I wouldn’t consider multitasking? Drinking something while working. Any action that does not disturb focus and does not hinder physical action for more than one or two seconds.

Going to the bathroom is not included in any of the above and can be done at any time (but take notes if needed!).

Ok. Rules defined.

Now I gotta set quantitative goals.

Let’s imagine that I do 2 BR every day, on average. In one month, this is 2 x 30 = 60 BR. If they’re completed, it’s 60 points. Now, for each BR there’s a certain number of things that can bring me points: zoning, rewarding myself, not multitasking, and not procrastinating. This adds to 4 additional points per BR (if I do everything right). 2 x 4 x 30 = 240 points. Finally, there are things which are independent of BR; dealing with interruptions, and relaxing (e.g. take a walk). Let’s assume that I get interrupted on the 25% of my BR, and that I relax once daily, this amounts to a number of points equal to 60 x 0.25 + 30 = 45 points.

So, as an orientative number, assuming everything goes perfectly, I can accumulate 60 + 240 + 45 = 345 points/month. I am going to take the 80% of this value, 276, as a realistic goal. If I accomplish it, I’ll give myself a moderate reward.

Now the fun part comes, if I achieve >90% (310 points), I’ll increase the reward.

80% reward: Spend some hours in a nice spa.
90% reward: Spend some hours in a nice spa and do couchsurfing in a place of my choice.

Now that’s something interesting. I am excited!

See you in a few days! And if you have any suggestions, please share them in the comments 🙂

So here they are, the results for the last two weeks of using the third habit –PLAN.

Week 1,

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7
MITs scheduled   2    3    3    3    2    3    2
MITs remaining   0    1    0    0    1    0    1

Week 2,

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7
MITs scheduled    2    3    4    2    2    3    3
MITs remaining    0    0    2    2    1    1    3
First, note that I totally forgot to keep track of the big rocks. Yes, I mess things up.
But the main result is there. The first week has an average result of 15 out of 18 MITs done. That’s an awesome result.
The second week is a bit more messy. 10 out of 19. Almost half of the MITs were not completed (which means, they were transferred to the next day). The reason for this is:
  • I messed up a bit. Look at the last day. I was playing videogames for about 4 hours that day. Shit happens, but sometimes we have to lower the expectations. We can’t be perfect 100% of the time. 80%, yes, and that’s my overall goal. Do not punish yourself for messing up from time to time. Look, in fact, that’s not bad. After you mess up, you obtain a psychological response, like telling to yourself “it won’t happen again!”. It helps you to remember your weaknesses, to be aware of them.
  • The goals I set couldn’t be done. I was a bit too optimistic. That can be a double-edged sword. On one side, it’s ok to challenge yourself with a task which looks daunting. On the other hand, however, a potential problem exists. Ask yourself for tasks which you cannot complete within one day, and you may end up not taking seriously the tasks for the day. That’s the problem of going below the 80% capabilities of yourself. If you get too much used to mess up, you may being to do that naturally all the time. The problem here comes from two particular work-related tasks. One of them was not really a priority and I delayed it. That’s ok. I probably didn’t need to account for it when counting my MITs, but I want to keep track of what I’m doing. The other task constituted a major problem and I had to delay it to the next day several times. The thing with this task is, I couldn’t know how much time it would take. I could think that I could complete it within the day, but in the end it proved to be not so simple, and I happened to need more time, or more analysis, or just waiting (the nature of my PhD is that the experiments that I perform usually require a waiting time, that may be from 10 minutes up to several days).
So to put it up straightforwardly, some of the MITs that I set weren’t “actions” or tasks, but rather very small projects compounded of several tasks. The time required for these is difficult to measure, and this may disrupt the schedule.  What to do with these guys? I say, try to identify when I have a project in front and when a simple action. Does it mean that I have to make my life more complicated, and for every single project I have to plan and divide into actions previsously? I say NO. Instead, do the freaking stuff. And if you don’t have time and have to shift it, then do shift it to the next day. The goal is finishing your MITs for the day, but if you don’t manage to do it every single day, no one dies (although it may be a good idea to simply imagine that someone will die if you don’t finish them).
So, as I didn’t mess things up terribly (I consider I did quite well, looking at the results above), I’ll go into the next habit! 🙂
See you tomorrow!

New month (almost) and new challenge. It is painful to fail a challenge (a challenge would be anything that you want to do and entails a minimum difficulty), because of the feeling that you end up with. It can feel like you wasted your time, but handled the right way it can make you improve and fuel you for the next challenge that you face.

Here, and always following the ZTD habits, I want to face a new challenge, after I reviewed my old failure, and go on with the implementation of ZTD.

The 3rd habit is the habit of PLAN. The question is how to implement it into my routine. The PLAN habit is about creating structure in your workflow. It is based on prioritizing your Big Rocks, which are the most important actions/projects that you want to focus in for the time being while taking your long term goals in account. I take the next quote fragment from the book ZTD:

(…) put the Big Rocks in your schedule first, let the smaller rocks and gravel fill in the schedule around the Big Rocks – otherwise, if you put the small rocks and gravel first, they will fill up the schedule, leaving no room for the Big Rocks.

The thing here is to choose a number of 4-6 weekly Big Rocks, based, at least 1 or 2 of them, on your yearly goals (which I call Mountains). These Big Rocks are to be completed within the week.

Next, there is also a daily part. Everyday, in the morning, or the evening of the previous day, you have to decide 1 to 3 Most Important Tasks (MITs). If you read the previous posts, maybe you noticed that I was already trying to implement this for the first two habits (which was wrong and led me to be over-saturated of habits to learn). from the MITs for the day, try to pick at least 1 or 2 which are also weekly Big Rocks.

My previous experience (and failure) tells me that choosing MITs which take longer than 1 or 2 hours is not a good idea. Do not be afraid of making it easy, since after you’re finished you can always go and accomplish more tasks (they all are written in the list of things to do that you obtain if you apply the COLLECT and PROCESS steps).

Next, you focus on completing the MITs first, before anything else you do during the day. The book says even before checking your e-mail in the morning, you should try to finish the first MIT. I don’t do that because I use mi gmail account connected to my google calendar to remind me of my schedule, this involves some morning gymnastics and reading my yearly goals to power me up right from the beginning, but immediately afterwards I should move onto the first MIT.

The book reminds you once and again, that after completing one MIT, you should always reward yourself and have a break to relax. I have to say I’m not too good in that 🙂

So now onto the challenge:

I have to keep track of the Big Rocks and of the MITs, so I thought that the best and most obvious way would be to count the Big Rocks at the beginning and at the end of the week, and do the same for the MITs, but in a daily basis.

For instance, I’d have to fill the following lines during the next two weeks (I already began filling it):

Week 1,
Big Rocks scheduled 5

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7
MITs scheduled  2
MITs completed
Big Rocks completed

Week 2,
Big Rocks scheduled

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7
MITs scheduled
MITs completed
Big Rocks completed
So, for the moment I’ll simply keep track of these numbers and if I see an improvement, I’ll move onto the 4th habit: DO! And you see, I don’t die or have to begin all over if I don’t do it perfect. Only in the case that I completely mess up I’d think about some radical measures. Otherwise, it’s ok. My goal here is to see an improvement or if I stay steady, at least to be at a reasonably good level.
Of course I’ll keep on doing the first two habits, which are really not a problem anymore since I am super-used to them.

Up to now I can tell you that my productivity scaled just by applying the first 2 habits, so I don’t know what you are waiting for! 🙂

Have a good time, and I’d be happy to answer any questions or hear any suggestions that you have, just drop me a line in the comments below.

This is what the book ZTD says. And I tested it.

I let my list of batch actions to pile up, and I’m sure I’m doing something wrong on that. Yesterday, I emptied my list as much as possible until reaching 17 actions. Right now I have 25 things there waiting, although I completed a small number of them.

Apparently, things are not going exactly right, and I realized that this is because I am trying to overdo things.

In the beginning of this blog, I set a challenge, which would consist on following the habits of COLLECT and PROCESS during at least 12 days.

These habits involve:

  1. Collecting your ideas and things to do in your inboxes (and having the smallest possible number of inboxes) whenever they “happen”.
  2. Processing the inboxes using a concise process in this order of preference:
  • Delete if possible
  • Delegate to someone else if possible
  • Do it right now, if it takes less than 2 minutes
  • Defer it for later
  • File it if it’s information that may be useful in the future
  • Empty inbox up to down, and to zero, empty, nada

These are the only things to do, involving the two first habits. Nothing more. Nothing about MITs, nothing about doing all my batch actions in one day. Nothing about actually doing the stuff. Only collect and process, collect and process, collect and process.

That’s what the challenge should have been about. Facepalm.

And really, I have been doing the collect and process thing all the time.

In the next post (probably tomorrow) I’ll set a new challenge involving the next habit: PLAN

Thank you for the time you gave me while reading this. I wish you a wonderful time.

NOTE: As I somehow need to do my actions anyway, I expect that I have already been applying some sort of PLAN and DO habits. We’ll see how difficult is applying these. I can already advance that the PLAN habit will force me to resolve the failure in completing the daily actions that I have been experiencing.