Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Doing Things Every Day

I have a list of things that I like to do every day. The list makes me more productive. It also makes me more busy, because doing these things takes time away from other things. In this essay I'll discuss my thoughts on this after doing it for years.

What To Do Every Day

There are a few reasons why you might want to do something every day. The first is that it has a combination of being important and not incredibly fun. You might like to play video games every day, but you probably would not want to commit to it because it's not particularly important, and it's also fun enough so that you don't need extra motivation.

Another reason you might want to do something every day is if the thing benefits from daily repetition.  For example, cleaning up the kitchen every day helps keep the house clean. It's not as though you can do a ton of kitchen cleaning once every three months. It just doesn't work that way. Another example is exercise, the benefits of which you get if you do it often. Another is study and memorization or some other kind of practice such as sports, meditation, or flash cards.

What I Do Every Day

There are pills I take every day, and I try to floss every day, but these little things become routine and are not the kinds of things I'm interested in in this essay. I'm talking about bigger things.  My list changes frequently as I rearrange my priorities.

1. Anki flash cards.
Every day I review flash cards on Anki. I've discussed my reasons for using spaced-repetition learning systems in previous blog entries so I won't repeat them here.

2. Write Three Pages.
I use a website called 750words.com. It's kind of like a blog that nobody else can see. It counts the number of words you've typed and tells you when you've hit 750, which is about the number of words on three pages. Writing three pages every day is an idea called the "morning pages" from the famous book "The Artist's Journey," and I can vouch for its effectiveness. Here's what typically happens: you start by writing like it's a diary. You describe all of your problems and what's bothering you. The first day, you have more problems than can fit on three pages. The next day, you finish, and you have a bit left over. By the third or fourth day, you're sick of writing about your problems. This is when the magic happens. You either start writing about potential solutions to your problems, or you write about other things entirely. Either way, this process actually helps you deal with your problems. I use 750words.com to compose long emails I've been meaning to write, or blog entries I'm drafting. This one was written on this site too. Of course, if you're any kind of writer you can use it to work on your novel or whatever. Journaling has many benefits-- one study even found that it can improve your grades.

3. Work On My Book
I am writing a book, and writing is one of those things that needs to happen just about every day if you are going to maximize your productivity. Many studies have proven this empirically. Anyway, I used to have "working on my book" be a substitute for my "write three pages" but I changed because there are a lot of non-writing activities associated with working on a book, such as editing, updating references, not to mention looking for publishers and agents and sending out proposals. So I keep the morning pages and working on the book separate.

4. "The Daily"
Every day I do "the daily," which is different for each day of the week. I found that there were things that I needed to do periodically, but not every day. So I reserve a slot every day, and what day of the week it is determines what that thing is. This one's hard to keep up with, but right now the plan is:
Monday: Write blog entry
Tuesday: Look at recent journal RSS feeds
Wednesday: Update Spill that and Lanyard Review Blogs
Thursday: Read "Barking Up The Wrong Tree" Blog
Friday: Do a weekly review (updating todo lists, etc.)
Sunday: Journal keepup

5. TCOB (Taking Care of Business)
This is a catch-all that involves lots of little things. If I have something I need to do that takes less than a half hour, such as reserving a rental car, it goes into a special todo list called TCOB. When I get to do my TCOB, I just spend half an hour going through that list doing those little things. Very satisfying.

I used to do some things every day, but stopped: meditation, studying Chinese, exercise, reading.

When To Do These Things

Morning is better for routine, I find. Why?

1. You have more will power in the morning.
Will is like a muscle. It gets tired when you use it, and extensive use over time makes it stronger. Your will is stronger in the morning, and more depleted in the evening. So if you're trying to get yourself to do stuff that's difficult, morning is the best time. So later, when you lose your energy and can't do the hard stuff, the most important stuff is already done.

2. I have more time in the morning.
I tend to get up early, about an hour or more earlier than my beloved. So I have a great deal of quiet, alone time before breakfast. I walk the dog, and try to get through these things.

3. Evenings tend to fill with social activities and other chaos.
My nights are often very different. In contrast, my mornings are much the same, day to day. Routine is key to getting these things done.

How Long To Do These Things

I invented a system that keeps me very productive that I call the "half hours method."
Every morning I pull out a spreadsheet and fill in what I'm going to be working on for each half hour of the day. I only allow myself to work on anything for a half hour at a time (with few exceptions). I find that if it's less than a half hour, I can't get anything done, and if it's more than a half hour, I'm likely to slack off and check email or something. No matter how much you don't want to do something, if you know that you'll only have to do it for a half hour, it's much easier to get started.

Because I try to do each daily thing for a half an hour, with five things to do every day, it takes me two and a half hours to get through them. It sounds like a lot, but these things are important to me, and I'm happy that I work on them every day.

When To Give Yourself A Break

I just got back from travelling. I went to Switzerland and then to Atlanta, Georgia, for two conferences. It's very difficult to keep up with these things when I'm away, and, possibly, not a good idea anyhow.

For one thing, I now bring an iPad instead of a full laptop computer. I do this because iPads don't run out of batteries as fast, then hold my iTunes stuff in a way I like a lot, and it serves as a TV, book, and notebook, and game player. The downside is that I don't like how Anki works on it (I can't get it to do LaTeX entries correctly) and typing is too much of a pain for much serious work. If I had a Macbook air, I might bring that instead, but I don't, and I might just prefer the iPad anyway.

But even if I had a computer with me, I'm not sure I'd try so hard to stick to my daily activities when I travel. For one thing, I think it's good to have a break. If I'm in a new city, how about seeing the city, or meeting other people at the conference, or, indeed, just taking a break instead of spending two and a half hours "sucking face with a monitor" as my friend Chris Stapleton puts it?  Travel is an opportunity to shake your life up a bit, to see the world from a different perspective.

In the same vein, I'm wondering how strict I should be with myself regarding my upcoming sabbatical. I want to take the time to think about new things, recharge my batteries, get a different perspective and shake things up in my head. Do I really want to spend two and a half hours every day doing these things during that time?

I haven't decided.

Pictured: Three alleged saddhus (Hindu holy men) sitting on the Vishnu Temple of Kathmandu's Durbar Square, Nepal, performing the vitarka mudrā. Notice that they may not be saddhus in the strict sense of the word. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
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