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Habit Forming

garrick-mykeys

“Look further down the road, you’ll have more time to prepare.” – my driver’s ed instructor

I floss my teeth every morning. For at least a decade, I didn’t. I had my excuses. None of them sound. Then, about 2 years ago, I had a bit of a tooth scare and committed to finding a floss that worked for me. One of my very first Seinfeld calendars was ‘I flossed today’. After about 12 weeks, it was part of my morning routine. Well, the shower-then-floss combo was my morning routine. Before this combo, each morning was a frazzled, half-asleep, reactive fire fight. This year I’ve been deliberately building atop this routine. My current Morning Routine includes 18 sequential tasks and lasts approximately 75 minutes. As I added items to the routine, my Seinfeld calendar shifted from ‘I flossed today’ to ‘I executed every item in the Morning Routine’. Along the way, mornings have became less stressful – even enjoyable.

I’ve found it takes me 26 continuous days to install a new daily habit. So, I revisit Morning Routine monthly re-ordering, adding, and removing items. The most recent addition has been ‘who am I grateful for?’, before that ‘weigh self’. These small things take seconds to complete especially within the larger sequence of getting up on the right side of the bed.

Morning Routine’s counterpart Evening Routine includes 12 things, and takes about 45 minutes to complete. More than once completing this routine has made the next day go more smoothly. If only for keeping me from making bad decisions when I should be sleeping.

These routines are one of the ways Future Garrick exerts influence over Current Garrick. As such, the only person disappointed when the activities aren’t completed is Future Garrick. He’s the one that ends up sleep-deprived and frustrated looking for lost car keys already late for a dentist appointment.

Future Garrick also wrote up Ideal Day to describe a what happens between Morning Routine and Evening Routine. This month, in response to a change in my class at the gym, I revisited my entire weekly schedule and discovered a couple of adjustments could increase the chances of me consistently realizing my Ideal Day by 28%. I made the adjustments.

From the frantic, reactive place I started, a morning routine of any kind was unimaginable. Now installed, it’s a surprising combination of malleable and resilient – especially when pointing toward a long term goal.

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How I Learned to Get Up Before My Kids

Despite a bad habit of staying up until 2am most nights, I hadn’t used an alarm clock for at least 6 years. Likely a decade. When I was up that late actively working on a project (versus binge listening to music or watching Netflix), I’d joke my ‘second day’ was from 8pm – 2am. Yes, I’d be worthless until lunch, but at the time my clients were 2 timezones away. I continued to be a night owl when I became a father. Once the kids were asleep and the day was behind me, usually 10pm, I’d be inspired to start one project or another.

When my oldest was still a baby in the crib, sometime between 6:30 and 7am he would fill his diaper so loudly it’d wake his mother and me. I’d get up to change him. As he grew older, he’d just yell for me: “Papa, Papa, Papa, Papa, Papa, Papa…” until I picked him up. Once he could walk, he’d get himself out of bed, toddle down the hall into my bedroom, work his way to my side of the bed, shouting “Breafkast Time!” at my sleeping head. In case I didn’t immediately respond, his little sister was hanging in the shadows. Every morning. 7am.

I’ve always equated the sleep deprivation of having a newborn in the house like that of finals week in college. It’s intense but you know you’ll be able to sleep in a week. Or twelve. Sleep deprivation and older kids is different. You can’t cross off the days until they’ll sleep through the night. They are. You aren’t. There’s no relief in sight and it’s the worst version of you they see in the morning.

On one especially challenging morning I had an epiphany, “I’m a better dad when I’m up before the kids than if they wake me up.”

A deceptively simple goal.

To achieve this, my sleep deprived mind reasoned, I needed to get up 30 minutes earlier. To do that, I needed to sleep more deeply and more restfully. With a more restful sleep, I could wake up refreshed and ready to help the kids. I researched natural sleep aids and picked up a 3 month supply of melatonin. At about 11p each evening I’d take one tablet and about 30 minutes later I’d feel drowsy and head off to bed. Easy. This regimen worked great for a couple of months. I’d fall asleep when my head hit the pillow and wake up alert. As I reached the bottom of the pill bottle, I developed a tolerance. Ninety minutes after going to sleep, my eyes would shoot open and I’d be wide awake. Higher dosages just made it worse. Some nights, lying wide awake at the ceiling, I couldn’t remember if I had taken it at all.

In September 2011, I heard about the Zeo Sleep Coach from Jamie’s links blog. The Zeo is an alarm clock that monitors your sleep cycles and goes off at the most appropriate point ahead of your alarm. Along the way, it quantifies your night’s sleep in a single “ZQ” score.

You’ll need to wear the supplied headband for it to work. The instruction card in the box warns your spouse will mock the fact you need a headband to sleep.

As I accumulated more sleep data, I could easily hit a 76, 78, or 80 ZQ. The card says, this was slightly lower than others in my age group. Nothing else. No odd periods of wakefulness through the night, no irregular sleep cycles, nothing out of the ordinary. Just a slightly lower ZQ score and the expected mocking. I tried to game the ZQ score. On weekends I’d score the occasional 90. With a maximum of 10 points per hour it was tough to crack 100. But I did. Nine times. All time high of 117. Looking deeper into the data, I could see my sleep cycles were consistently 90 minutes long. Shifting my awake time 30 minutes earlier didn’t fall within that window. I reset Zeo’s alam clock accordingly. When it worked – it worked brilliantly. I’d get up with the alarm, start my day, and be dressed and fed before the kids demand I help them with the same.

The Zeo had a 2 significant downsides. The first – it considered your alarm time as the latest possible waking-point rather than the most appropriate waking-point in your sleep cycle. The second – and one I believe will be a significant controversy of the 21st Century – Zeo stored sleep data on an SD card encrypted. The recommended way of decrypting the data was to create an account at myzeo.com and upload the encrypted data file to their servers. Having my personal biological data captured and encrypted by a device in my household that only I was using with the default method for me to access that personal data was through a for-profit company’s servers – that’s completely unethical. Accessing my personal data on a device I purchased shouldn’t require a soldering iron. Especially when it’s a csv text file. Especially when the company in question quietly goes out of business and their domain reverts to a GoDaddy landing page.

Thankfully by this time, I had 18 months with the Zeo and had cracked the secret to getting a good night’s sleep. Once I accepted it and worked through a sleep debt, I could consistently wake up unaided before 6:30a.

Three years ago, if you would have told me this secret to getting a good night’s sleep without the aid of technology (electronic or pharmaceutical), I would have replied with a hearty scoff and a, “No, that can’t be it.”

It turns out the boost of inspiration I get every night at 10pm is my mind’s counterintuitive way of expressing drowsiness. Something like that boost of inspiration you might get as your mind wanders in the shower. Rather than simply take note of the inspiration, I’d immediately act on it. The blue light of the computer monitor would compounding my alertness. Before I knew it, it’d be 2am

Now, I don’t start anything new after 9:30 and aim for lights out by 10:30pm. This guarantees 5 90 minute sleep cycles before morning. The night owl in me still scoffs. I let him. The last score he got was a 58 (still displayed on the dust-collecting Zeo). He’ll never appreciate how enjoyable and productive mornings are.

Elsewhere:

Those hours before sunrise became a kind of sacred space to me, and I’ve used them over the years to do whatever work has been most important in my life. – Steve Leveen

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No Client Work Before Lunch

Photo by Cult Gigolo

Patrick and I have been meeting for a Monday morning coffee for years now. It’s an excellent way to start the week. As good as it is, it still fell by the wayside when my new daughter was born. Once we reconvened, he asked me what I found valuable about our conversations.

Without thinking I replied, “How it reduces my available time.”

This is to say, the longer Patrick and I are discussing long term goals, world-changing projects, and how we’re striving to be better the less time I have available to get sucked into drama du jour/Twitter/Facebook/Hacker News. Priceless.

Six weeks ago, I came up with an experiment to see where this idea breaks.

  • Monday – Thursday: No client work before lunch.
  • Friday: No client work after lunch.
  • No client work on weekends.

I now have recurring appointments in my calendar for: strategic thinking, reading, writing, attending my favorite class at the local gym. Sure, even in these short 6 weeks the time for these things have been constrained due to, well, life; compiling documents for the accountant, meeting with prospective clients, attending the end-of-unit preschool party, taking the baby to the doctor, even some client work snuck in this week.

    The biggest benefit?

  1. With rules for when I do client work, I’m much more protective and focused on generating value for my clients during those hours.
  2. I always break for lunch

Even with my current 62.5% success rate [1], I’ve found myself focused and motivated at reaching project milestones within the scheduled time. Yes, I’ve had some late lunches on recent Fridays. I’m OK with that. This model is something like a really long reverse Pomodoro (focus on play for 3 hours then on work for 4 hours) though I prefer to think of it as the Oxygen Mask Principle (take care of yourself first, then you’ll be better able to take care of others).

1. My inbox zero success rate for this same time period is 75%. I believe they are directed related.

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How to Empty Your Email Inbox

TL;DR: The calendar is the vessel, not the inbox.

According to my email service, I receive approximately 1 non-spam message for every 4 spam messages. Everyday 400 obviously unwanted messages are destroyed for every 100 allowed through. Many of those 100 are easy enough to delete as well. Over the course of any given day, it’ll take me around 2 minutes to process 98% of those messages. That leaves 2. Two messages that for whatever reason – I can’t just immediately delete. Two messages I actually need to think about.

What do I need to do? How do I respond?

I have a daily goal of clearing out my email inbox. Just as I have a daily goal of cleaning out my physical mail box daily. Most days, both are easily achievable. In all honestly, the hardest messages, the ones I’m really truly avoiding aren’t sitting unread in my email. The ones I’m avoiding are partially written drafts – or worse – not yet started (except they have been – a thousand times in my mind) drafts. But that’s a different conversation – this conversation is about processing the email inbox.

Notice, we don’t really have 400 – or even 100 – messages to deal with. We really only have 2. Two messages that require our response. You might be thinking, “oh, Garrick – 2 messages is so cute. I’m a very serious high powered executive – and I have hundreds of messages daily requiring my response.” Two, I say. Two. Any more on a regular basis and you may be using your unread count as a status symbol. So, for the next 1500 words we’ll agree there are only 2. Cool? Cool.

Great, let’s take a look at those 2 messages.

One of them is sneaky. By all appearances, it looks like it shifts huge obligation onto your back and that you need to respond immediately to accept this obligation. But re-read it. Do you see it now? That’s right, the whole reason you weren’t able to process this message in the first round is that you’re scanning brain didn’t notice that a key bit of information was missing. In my client work, the things frequently missing from these sorts of emails are: attachments, targeted dollar amounts, dates and locations. Once you’ve figured out what was missing – hit reply and ask for it as apologetically as possible. For missing attachments, I like to use something like, “I’m sorry, the attachment didn’t come through on my end. Please re-send. Thanks.”

Some people enjoy using various auto-responders and snippet extenders to even more quickly reply in these recurring scenarios. If that works for you – excellent. This is more about realizing you haven’t received the information you need to confidently move forward and are replying appropriately. Of the two – this is actually the easiest to deal with. So reply and get it out of your inbox. Don’t fret, when the original sender replies with the requested information – the new message will be unread. Beauty.

When this message returns, it will be that lone message sitting in your inbox keeping you from the clarity of doneness inbox zero brings. So, what do we do with this sole, haunting message. First off – stop. Yes, stop, and ask yourself this one questions: “Are you in a state of mind to actually approach this email in a clear meaningful way?”

Yes, I’m serious.

Up to this point, you’ve been making ruthless, kneejerk decisions to hundreds of messages – rightfully so. None of those messages deserved your full attention. This one does. Stop and breathe. You need to be in the right frame of mind to meaningfully address this message. Clear your mind of any stress, bias, or intonation. This will prevent your kneejerk self from interfering with the thoughtful, calm, deliberate planning stage you’re about to enter. Always start from a place of clarity. If you need a quick, easy way to get there – step away from your devices and take a short 10 minute walk outside. It’s February in Minnesota as I write this – do not doubt my seriousness.

Now that you’ve the energy and clarity to look at this message, what’s likely the very next action you need to perform? Is it; review the proposal and provide a recommendation? schedule an interview with the candidate? prepare monthly progress report for the board?

It’s likely something similar, which means it belongs in your calendar as a commitment – just as a doctors appointment, team meeting, or the board meeting itself. Look at your calendar and schedule when you’ll actually do this thing. Yes, weigh all the constraints, deadlines, and other commitments, move things around if you must. But this first step isn’t really answering ‘what’. It’s answering ‘when’. If you look at your calendar and can’t find a 90 minute block within normal business hours over the next 5 business days where you can dedicate the mental energy to this one task – you’re the wrong person for this one task.

The goal is to move the message from your inbox to a scheduled time on your calendar with all the appropriate information moved into the calendar appointment. The calendar is vessel, not the inbox. The calendar knows your limits and your capacity. The inbox knows nothing of either – it only knows how to receive. To achieve inbox zero reliably and consistently – you must trust your calendar.

If you are the right person, and are unable to find 90 minutes for this task, case, look at all the commitments across your calendar and this new one – and as quickly and ruthlessly as you deleted those 98 emails earlier – identify the commitment you’re going to break. Now draft the appropriate message to the person whose commitment you’re breaking – the key thing here is to gracefully hand over the reins to someone more appropriately skilled.

Even after multi-week stretches of inbox zero, the right message will sit ‘read’ (though marked ‘unread’ repeatedly) while I contemplate the next action. Sometimes, it takes hours to figure out what the missing piece of information was that I still needed (like I said, these #2 messages can be very sneaky). For these messages, I quickly scan my calendar make the appointment and reply something to the effect of: “From your message, I assume X, Y, and you’re ready for me to get started.” More than once the reply has been – “Oh, no. We’re not ready for you yet.” Great. Suddenly I have 90 minutes available on Tuesday.

Either way, I can now focus on my calendar and not on my inbox.

Notice, we still haven’t reached that message where you are actually obliged to work on something. About that lone message that you’ve scheduled time to do. Immediately after scheduling a 90 minute block on your calendar – start a draft reply. Now you won’t need to be search for the original message to initiate a reply – it’s already started in your Drafts folder.

It’s always amazing what can be accomplished in 90 minutes of deliberate effort. In most evenings it’s the time I have for my discretionary activity – watch a movie, read a book, fix a bug, add a feature, write 1000 words. All these things take about an hour and half. Ninety minutes of deliberate effort is more than enough time to do something of significance. Commit to it. During this 90 minute block you’ve dedicated to start working on this task, fully focus on the task. This is the only time you have committed to it and you need to move the project forward. Get to work.

After you complete this first 90 minute session of work, it’s likely that the task is done and the drafted message can be completed or an additional 90 minute session should be scheduled. Do what’s appropriate. Then, instead of reviewing your inbox – do the next thing on your calendar.

Your work is in your calendar – not your inbox. Schedule your days as if every obligation is a it-takes-months-to-get-reservations-at-this-place appointment. It is. Nature abhors a vacuum. Especially when that vacuum is your iCal. If you don’t block off time to do your work – it will be quickly eaten up by pointless meetings, inane conversations, and trolling Facebook. Mapping your day on your calendar – especially a week or two in advance will give you greater confidence, more control over interruptions, and a stronger sense of what is important.

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$20 Standing Desk

I’m no longer frustrated that I’m not comfortable in the chair
– I got rid of it.

A couple months back, I started a serious and deliberate re-work of my office. While the introduction of a monitor extension arm helped – I was still uncomfortable. By the end of the day, I was achey, cranky, short-tempered, generally more in a mood to take a nap than be a dad.

On a whim, I stopped at IKEA and checked out their AS-IS section where I met a 17″x33″ kitchen wall cabinet for $20. Set sideways on my desk – it was the perfect height for a standing desk.

Plus, the pre-drilled holes were perfect for sending USB and power cables through.

The monitor peeks just over the top of the cabinet at an viewing angle that feels much more natural to me. My optometrist recommended that I relax my eyes throughout the day by not look a the screen – instead look at something a couple feet away (like the blank wall across the room). With this angle and height of the monitor, I can easily remove the monitor from my field of vision

The top (cabinet’s side) is just big enough for my notebook, keyboard, and trackpad. Nothing more. No room for clutter. Everything else that I might need – pens, notecards, test computers, storage drives – are all tucked inside the cabinet.

On the floor – an old yoga mat folded in half.

The lack of a chair keeps me free to wiggle, fidget, lean, stretch, and think, in a way that allows me to get into, and maintain, the flow of work very easily.

After working on at the standing desk for a just few weeks the thought of sitting down in a chair for long periods of times sounds hot, restrictive, and a form of entrapment.

Oh, the cute cat picture, in the corner , that’s the HP TouchPad blasting jungletrain.net.

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"Laugh at perfection. It's boring and keeps you from being done."

  1. There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.
  2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
  3. There is no editing stage.
  4. Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.
  5. Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
  6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
  7. Once you’re done you can throw it away.
  8. Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.
  9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
  10. Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
  11. Destruction is a variant of done.
  12. If you have an idea and publish it on the internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
  13. Done is the engine of more.

– The Cult of Done Manifesto – Bre Pettis

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Introducing: The Daily Reality Planner

Daily Reality Planner

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Nov 14, 1957

If you’re like me, you’ve continually struggled with answering 1 question:

“Where did today go?”

To Do lists are helpful in identifying what should be done. Assigning those To Do items a date and time on the calendar declares when they should be done.

But then – reality interferes.

Some things take more time, some things take less. Some hit a brick wall. Not to mention unexpected phone calls. Unexpected interruptions. Unexpected opportunities.

Too many productivity solutions make it frustratingly difficult to both plan for the day and respond to the day.

The Daily Reality Planner is comprised of 3 columns:

  1. Proposed
  2. Reality
  3. Proposed Tomorrow

Each column goes from 900-2300 hours, graduated in 15 minute increments.

How to use the Daily Reality Planner?

  1. Each morning I block off the first Proposed column with my fixed appointments, and the big things I want to accomplish during the day – each with their own time block – just like the fixed appointments.
  2. After that – I look at the clock, draw a line across the corresponding time and write down what I’m starting on.
  3. When I move on to something else, or I’m interrupted, I draw a line across the current time and write out what I’m doing.
  4. Things that don’t fit today’s Reality are assigned a time in Proposed Tomorrow – the 3rd column.
  5. Tomorrow, I’ll review that 3rd column and migrate anything still relevant to the first Proposed column of a new Daily Reality.

Simple, flexible. Handy. Real.

Try it out –
Download the Daily Reality Planner

And let me know how it works for you.

The Daily Reality Planner is released under a CC-By-SA license.