Almost a decade ago, I co-started a semi-formal group with some friends. It was intended as a bit of a mutual-beneficial group – we were all just starting out in our careers and felt that getting together monthly to practice public speaking would help us in our jobs. The nature of the group has evolved somewhat now that we are having kids and have grown comfortable in our jobs. Instead, we treat the monthly meetup as both social time and a chance for us to share experiences with each other.
This month, we’ve been challenged to try out the Tech Shabbat as discussed in Tiffany Shlain’s book 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week (note: I haven’t read the book). In essence, we pick one day a week to abstain from screens – no smartphones, no computers, no television. It’s not a complete removal from all technology (for instance, I use my smart speaker to stream podcast episodes and listen to live radio), but instead we seek to disconnect from an increasingly interconnected existence.
I have completed three of the Shabbats, with the final one this weekend. Overall, this has been a very positive experience for me. There are some challenges and moments where I have to play fast and loose with the rules (like this weekend when I got lost on a hike…).
It’s also not clear if I should abstain from using our smart speaker at home; I’ve been using it to listen to podcast episodes and radio over the internet. I’ll even admit that there are moments of boredom or tedium where I feel a strong pull to give up the challenge and open a social media app. But despite any of these missteps or moments of weakness, I can say without any qualification that I’ve enjoyed the experience. I may look forward to the close of the 24-hours, but I do so with a sense of mental calm. The break gives me a bit of a reset, a chance to journal and bring order to my life. Instead of mindlessly consuming content, I’ve chosen activities that create memories and allow me to be more present in the now.
I’m not sure if I’ll keep the Tech Shabbat once the group activity is over, but it has given me a lot to reflect on. Cal Newport has discussed taking a more hardline stance on cutting unnecessary tech out of our lives. I’m sympathetic to the idea, though in practice I have to balance my quirky experiments with my wife’s needs, and I doubt she would entertain any drastic measures like what Newport suggests. Regardless, just taking the opportunity to pause and reflect is a worthwhile activity, which the Tech Shabbat has afforded me over the month.
Previously, at the start of the notebook I would collect a running series of to-do items. Most of the items at the top of the list would be things that had been carried-over for multiple months, with a few small items at the bottom that likely were first jotted-down in the previous month. I found that I was continuously copying out the same items month-over-month and the list was growing. On the one hand, if the thing isn’t important enough for me to complete in a reasonable amount of time, it could be the case that it’s not important enough for me to carry-forward and that I should just drop the task all together.
Yet, I felt that some of the tasks were things I’d want to complete “one day” in the undefined future, but that I had lots of other pressing things that needed my attention first. Or, some tasks would require a fair amount of planning or coordination, and so I would tackle it after an adequate amount of lead time.
Some time ago, I created an account on Trello, but it was sitting unused as I didn’t know what kind of boards I would find useful. This seemed like the perfect experiment to help me remain flexible.
I set up several columns (buckets) of items. In the far left, I labelled the list “Pool” and dump in all to do items. Within each of the cards I can make notes or sub-lists to help keep me on track of things. At the start of each month, if there is something I don’t want to carry forward into the new book, I put the item into the bucket.
Next, is the “Planning Phase” bucket. The beauty of Trello is I can drag cards from one column to the next, so when I’m ready to move stuff from the Pool to another phase of activity, I can easy drag-and-drop. Items in the Planning Phase might require me to do research or make purchases in preparation to work on the project.
If no further planning is required, I move it into the “Active” column. When a task is active, it’s something that I’m placing priority on and is meant to remind me to carve out space in my schedule to address.
Sometimes, a project needs to be put on hold. I created a bucket to put tasks that are underway but I’m not making active progress on. Items in this bucket might require someone to get back to me on some action of detail, or maybe I need to wait until a future date to complete the tasks. Whatever it is, if I don’t want to move a task back into the pool column, I place it here and make a note of why the tasks is in limbo.
“Completed” is my win column – it gives me a chance to see what I’ve crossed of my list and as the column grows, I can take satisfaction in my accomplishments.
I created an “Abandoned” column because sometimes I will choose not to complete a task but I don’t want to delete it outright. Maybe it’s something that’s still important, or maybe I missed a window but I want to be reminded of it.
Finally, for tasks that occur regularly but infrequently, I have a column so that I can see when the last time was that I finished a task, and remind myself that it will need to go back into the active column (e.g. changing my tires, changing the furnace filter, etc.).
I’ve been using this revised system for a few months and it seems to be satisfying my immediate needs. It both cuts down on the number of items I need to manually copy from book to book while allowing me to indefinitely store things in a user-friendly format – effectively marrying my love of analogue with the convenience of digital.
I’ve marveleda fewtimes already that my Zombies, Run! training app review is my most popular post to date. The screenshot below was taken June 12th, 2019. Within six month of starting the new year, the post had more traffic than all of last year.
I’m curious if it will doubled again and I’ll be writing another post marveling how the post received the same number of hits within three months of the new year. I doubt it, but the internet can be funny that way.
(Also, I’m fully aware that by constantly talking about it in blog posts, I’m increasing my traffic to it. The observer effect is in full bloom and I’m sorry to muddy my data).
At the start of 2019, I wanted to conduct an experiment. I had grown irritated with the volume of email in my personal account. Each day, I would wake up to 10 or so new emails from various retailers with information on promotions, offers, and deals. I had tolerated these emails for sometime because I liked to keep abreast of potential deals that I could take advantage of.
However, the emails weren’t just morning updates. I would keep my personal email open at work and clear emails throughout the day, which forced me to continuously switch back and forth. I wanted a better way of managing the inflow of messages without unsubscribing to emails that genuinely were bringing me information I would want when planning upcoming purchases.
I took some time and set up around 60 filters to automatically route messages from my inbox to a separate Promotions folder (I know Gmail can handle this, but I wanted to be intentional with the process). I also unsubscribed to a bunch of lists where I never opened the messages. It was a lot of front end work that took a few days to complete, but slowly my inbox got quieter.
Now, after 3 months of progress, I have seen between 1,500-2,000 messages get routed away from my inbox. 2,000 messages that I never read, and didn’t have to make a decision whether to open it or automatically delete.
I don’t think of this as some sort of productivity hack. At most, I’ve saved maybe an hour of time in 3 months, so it’s not like it’s a quality of life adjustment. Instead, the value I find is in the mental bandwidth saved from not having to constantly switch back and forth through email.
It’s a signal and noise ratio issue. So much of my time is spent wading through a lot of noise that is distracting me from focusing my attention on what’s important. On the best of days, I do my best to fight off my inability to focus on work and maybe carve out some meaningful time by avoiding things that have been designed to draw me towards them (I’m looking at you, social media and YouTube). Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes my monkey brain gets the best of me.
There are two strategies to deal with this. You can either intentionally focus the signal, or you can do what I’ve done in this instance and try to turn down the noise a bit. Too much noise can interfere with the signals you are trying to pick up. While email is hardly a signal-killing thing in my life, it’s a steady trickle of distractions that I’ve started intentionally cutting to make room in my attention for more important things.
I have carried some form of notebook for the last seven years or so. It started back at the tail end of grad school where I felt I needed a way to help me remember important appointments, meetings, and to capture to-do items. I started off by purchasing a Moleskine weekly calendar, which was great, but my cheap student mind didn’t like the added cost of the specialty book, whereas I could make the same book from a regular, ruled Moleskine. For the next two years, I would measure out the spacing and draw in the lines for the year. I appreciated the simplicity of the task and found it almost meditative, however I grew tired of having to do this at the start of each year.
Later, I switched from larger Moleskine notebooks to smaller, pocket books. Over time, I adopted the Field Notes brand of pocket notebooks as my go-to medium to capture thoughts, though I do keep an assortment of notebooks on hand (or on my shelf) for specialty purposes. The early days of Field Notes had me using a notebook until it was full, whether this was notes from a single month or from multiple months.
Eventually I settled on using one book per month, and started a fresh book every month, regardless of whether I fill the book or not. In this post, I’ll show you how I set up a notebook for the month of January, and provide some commentary on my choices.
The first step is to get a fresh notebook. You don’t have to use Field Notes, but I like the brand and the quality of the product. My only criteria when selecting a book is I prefer at least 48-pages that uses good paper and a grid pattern (either solid lines or dots). The paper is important because I use a specific kind of pen (I’ve settled on the Uniball Deluxe Micro as my preferred pen) that can easily bleed or smudge on poor quality paper as I write leftie.
The next step is to go through and number all of my pages. This is important because after I’m done with a book, I use an index (see below) to capture important pages that I want to reference in the future. The index does not capture any of the standard pages I set up at the start of the month, nor does it capture my individual days. Instead, it captures main to-do lists, important notes, or other things that I’ll need to find later. For instance, I use these physical books to remember passwords I rarely need to type. If I update a password, I note the date in my online calendar with a book reference (month, year, and page), so that I can go back and see what I set the password to. This doesn’t work when I’m out of the house, but I find this helps with keeping my rarely used passwords secure (instead of constantly answering security questions to reset the password).
After the index, I titled the second page my dream scratch pad. This is where I can do pie-in-the-sky thinking about things I want to do, accomplish, strive towards, covet, etc. To be honest, I rarely use this page, but I like to keep it on hand in the same place.
Next, any major to-do items get carried over. A lot of these have been on my carried-over to-do’s for some time, but I don’t want to forget about them (things like rolling over my passwords regularly, or little things I want to do around the house. If to-do items can be grouped under a specific theme (say, specific home repairs), they get their own lists later in the book. This page carries over everything else.
Next is my tracker page. This is where I track habits and other regularly occurring items so I can see them at glance. I list the dates along the left side (weekends get doubled-up so I can fit the entire month in), and each category of things to be tracked gets its own column. Some metrics are good things to track, while some of them I want to use to monitor my general health and well-being.
Since the entries per day are pretty short (not a lot of space), I keep this facing-page blank for additional notes on the month, if I need it.
On page 6, I capture my intentions and goals. I track goals and intentions a few ways. First, I have a “soul,” “mind,” “body” theme which allows me to focus on specific areas of my life (soul – social, philosophical, spiritual, etc.), (mind – learning, planning, etc.), and (body – physical health and wellness). I realize you can’t try and change too many habits at once and be successful, so these are just ways of helping me to prioritize things into themes, short-term and longer-term goals, and things I want to change. If page 6 is my capture page, page 7 would be where I would focus myself to a limited number of things. I would pick something from the previous page and devote more time or attention to it with specific plans and actions.
On page 8, I track some specific health indicators – my weight on the scale (left side), and my waist measurements (on the right axis) over time (the x-axis). Static views of single health metrics aren’t very helpful, so I’ve chosen to track weight and my waist as a better indicator of my overall progress in fitness. I’ve also started tracking blood pressure, which I input results for the day the data is collected as the systolic/diastolic reading.
Then, on page 9, I borrow a system I found on Reddit to track excuses. This is where I can measure intentions against action. For instance, if I set an intention to exercise and I skip it, I can capture what my excuse is for skipping it, assess whether it is legitimate (yes/no), and make notes on any ways I can mitigate the reality or implement solutions to keep my intentions.
Finally, on page 10, I start my first entry. Every day that I record in my notebook will receive a new page. I put the date across the top, then fill in tasks for the day, ideas, interesting quotes, or things to remember. Sometimes I’ll migrate thematic lists into this section, such as tasks I need to complete as Board Chair or for things around the house to repair.
This is the system I currently use. It borrows from a couple different sources, such as the original Moleskine planner I began with, elements from the Bullet Journal method, and good ideas I’ve found rambling through sites like Reddit. The notebook set-up iterates over time. I add and remove things depending on how useful I find them. Some of the items discussed above might get removed soon since I haven’t done a good job of keeping up with them, and therefore are no longer useful to me.
It is a little tedious to set up a new notebook every 30 or so days, but on the whole I like the systems I’ve developed and have found it immensely useful in my day-to-day life.
Share with me down below what kind of systems you use to help keep yourself on top of things. I’m always looking to borrow good ideas! I hope you found something here that was useful.