Monday, September 1, 2014

60 Minutes a Day: Know What to Give Up (Part IV)

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In trying to squeeze a little bit more out of each day, you might ask yourself whether 60 minutes is enough. Say you're trying to make headway on some long-term goals, and they all require you to spend "20 minutes a day or less" doing something. We've seen that promise in "10-minute meals" (eat healthier). It's apparent in "the 7-minute workout" (get fit). And pretty much any language-learning program you can think of will say you need to study "only 20 minutes a day."

The past few weeks, I've been trying to figure out, empirically and quantitatively, whether 60 minutes a day is really sufficient -- or whether time is the issue at all. Often we have time, but not motivation or bandwidth or some other necessary resource. For example, we all need rest. We need unstructured time in our days when we aren't doing anything at all. It's hard to give up too much of that rest time to fit in "just one more thing."

I'm tracking my three daily duties toward long-term goals with a few different apps. One of the simplest ones that I quite like is called Wonderful Day.

Wonderful Day is a free iPhone app that takes its inspirations from Jerry Seinfeld. Early in his career, Seinfeld wrote jokes every single day. His motivation for doing so was to keep a wall calendar where he would draw a big red X on every day that he wrote jokes. Once he had a couple of Xs in a row, he didn't want to break the chain. So he kept writing them.

Instead of Xs, Wonderful Day uses green and red dots. When you do the thing you said you were going to do, you give yourself a green dot. If not, mark it red. Gray means you didn't log anything for that day. Easy enough. The app makes crystal clear which tasks and chores you have and have not done consistently.

One thing I've learned from using Wonderful Day is that I have figured out well enough how to work two new tasks into my day: reading and studying Spanish. I don't have a perfect track record, but after a couple of weeks, I'm able to do those two things with some consistency.

But the third one... I've completely punted on it. I mean, I must not be even trying. My "stretch" task in Wonderful Day is a row of gray dots, which means I'm not even marking that I haven't done it yet. Why? Because in my mind, it's as if I haven't started yet. I'm on a zero streak, so I haven't even started taking this task seriously.

It's useful to know, though. Maybe if I get just one green circle, I'm try harder in earnest.

Part of me likes that I haven't even given stretching a real go yet, however. Working in two new tasks per day has been hard enough. In some sense, I think I actively chose not to start stretching yet.

When we think about prioritizing, we usually ask, "What is the highest priority?" In other words, what things do you most need to do? What can you not cut from your day?

But I think it's just as important to ask, "What is the lowest priority?" What is the first things you should cut when you have limited time or resources? Sometimes we face that thought, but not always. In setting goals, that is probably the case. Are you more likely to ask yourself "What goals are most important to me?" or "Which of the following goals is least important to me?"

It's a slightly different take on the same matter, but that shift is perspective can be rather effective.




Saturday, August 23, 2014

60 Minutes a Day: Strategies and Rationale, Failures and Successes Toward Meeting Goals (Part III)

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Timeful app for iPhone; smart scheduler
Let me be straight. I'm highly organized, and I spend a lot of time reading about and consider principles and practices related to productivity and efficiency. I'm good at this stuff. It's enjoyable.

Over the past three weeks or so, I've been on a quest to change my life by completing three big, long-term goals. I'm trying to increase my flexibility and improve my circulation, be more well read, and learn Spanish. How do you reach long-term goals? Generally, you achieve goals by breaking them down into short-term tasks and objectives. The tasks, in this case, must be routine and done daily: stretch, read, and study.

But how do you make time for that? Here's what I've been trying.

Strategies for Adding 3 New Daily Tasks
Strategy 1: Bundling. 
First I tried blocking out an hour at a time. My thought was, if I do three things back-to-back that takes about 20 minutes each, I carve out just one hour and that's manageable. The three separate tasks become one. My thinking should switch from completely three tasks to only one. In other words, I only have one new thing to do now, and it takes an hour.

It didn't work.

Strategy 2: Work small changes into my existing routine. 
Next, I tried spreading out these tasks over the course of the day: one in the morning, one mid-day during my lunch hour, and one in the evening. Wouldn't it be easy, I thought, to read in the morning, when I usually sit and drink coffee for 25 minutes and listen to talk radio? I'll just swap talk radio for reading. And isn't it easy to schedule my audio-based Spanish language lesson during my lunch break, when I usually walk and sometimes listen to a podcast? Finally, in the evening when I usually bum around the living room for an hour to unwind, I'll just sit on the floor and stretch instead.

Still no luck.

Progress
The problem as I see it is not so much the timing of the events but that I'm still trying to do too much at once. Whether it's an hour of time in one block or three small tasks worked into my existing routine, I'm finding it's just too hard to make changes of that size all at once.

Excuses, Excuses
The last three weeks have been extremely busy. I traveled one weekend to Washington D.C. The next weekend, I was on a flight to Buffalo. Then I spent 10 days in the Niagara and Toronto area on a business trip. This weekend, I'm out on Fire Island. So my typical routine has indeed been off kilter a bit.

However, I don't think any of those excuses are valid. Life always gets in the way. There is never a good time to make a change. I completely don't buy these excuses and didn't let myself pretend for an instance that a busy schedule was really the problem.

Plus, I did have a few more typical days in the last three weeks, and even then, I never once did all three of my new tasks.

Moderate Success
Let's focus on the positive. I have had a small amount of success, and by examining it, I think I can figure out a better way forward.

I have consistently been able to do one task a day. It wasn't always the same task, which in hindsight seemed odd. You'd think I'd prioritize the three tasks and, if I'm only going to do one, I'll do the most important one.

Not so.

Sometimes I made time for 20 minutes of reading. Sometimes I listened to my Spanish lessons. A few times, I stretched. I'm curious to collect a little more data to figure out why I pick one activity or another because in the moment, it simply feels like the thing I can tolerate.

Which brings me to my revelation: Add one new task at a time, until it truly becomes a habit.

I'm speculating that if I, for example, switch my morning talk radio time for reading, at some point it will be a true habit, and I will stop thinking of it as a new task. Only when that happens should I try to add the next one.

Apps
I'm going to keep tracking my progress and collecting data, and next time, I'll share some more detail about the apps I'm using. One of them is shown at the top of this post. It's called Timeful (free; for iOS only). More on that next time and another app I'm using called Wonderful Day next time.

Monday, August 11, 2014

60 Minutes a Day: Is an Hour for Your Goals Unrealistic? (Part II)

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I've just started an experiment to see if I can find time each day work toward on goals. My list is short, with just three things I want to do more:

  • study Spanish
  • read
  • stretch.

The idea is that each of these thing should take less than 20 minutes per day, so I'm committing no more than one hour a day.

I'm technically three days in, and I've managed to do only two goals on all three days. Even getting to two feels ambitious. An hour is starting to feel unrealistic.

The Current Hindrances
My schedule is a bit of a mess, however. I'm traveling for 10 days straight, staying at my sister's house right now. She and her husband have two little kids (2 and 4 years old). Chaos is everywhere. I originally thought that I could get to three tasks per day if only I worked them into my everyday routine. But right now, and for the next 7 more days, there is no routine.

I'd love to make that disruption in routine an excuse, but the fact is, busy people always have something irregular happening in their schedule. My partner, for example, sometimes vows to eat healthier and drink less beer, and every time he doesn't do it, he has a string of excuses. Friends are in town, so we have to have beers with them. It's a co-worker's last day at work, so he has to be social and have a beer with colleagues. We plan a Thursday night date night, and, c'mon, we're not going to pass up a drink with dinner. Every week -- if not every night -- there's something.

I don't want traveling to be an excuse. I make time, after all, to answer emails and futz around on Twitter. Why is it so hard to make time for the things I think I want to do toward future goals?

Future You
Part of the problem could be the age old issue of not seeing any urgency right now. There is no present consequence to not studying Spanish today. There is no harm if I don't read. I can always do it tomorrow. But in the long term, to be the person I want to be, I must be consistent in following through on these goals.

But Future Me doesn't have any agency. Future Us doesn't know how to show Present Us in real and tangible ways the consequences of not doing the small things now.

Social economist Dan Ariely writes about this issue in Predictably Irrational (and mentions it in his other books, too). He points to the idea of a Ulysses contract: Present You needs to do something in service of Future You. Maybe you've heard of people who literally freeze their credit cards into a block of ice. When they want to buy something, they have to thaw out the ice, which gives them pause and forces them to make a more thoughtful decision about whether to complete the purchase.

Strategies
In my next post, I'll talk concretely about the strategies I've been trying out -- the apps I'm using to schedule my goals and log my progress, and whether they are working. Should I do all three tasks back-to-back in a solid 60-minute block? Should I break them up? Is morning, afternoon, or evening the best time to try to work in a new habit?

I'll also explain my rationale behind the scheduling choices, and you can judge for yourself whether I'm sufficiently tricking Present Me into doing what Future Me wants.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

60 Minutes a Day: How to Find Time for All Your Goals (Part I)

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Think about all the long-term accomplishments and goals you'd like to do or improve on that take only minutes a day. They might include:
  • learning or studying a language
  • exercising
  • working on creative side projects
  • flossing your teeth
  • meditating
  • helping kids with homework
  • cooking at home to eat healthier, or 
  • making lunches to bring to work to eat healthier.
Most of these can be done in just 20 minutes a day or less! Twenty minutes! What a promise! 

Okay, but even if  you want to do only those eight things I just listed, that will cost you 2 hours and 40 minutes a day. Preposterous! Who has that kind of time?

The One-Hour Pledge
I'm on a quest to make room for those 20 minutes a day.

My list of goals started long, but I've paired it down to three:
  1. study Spanish
  2. stretch
  3. read
Of course there is so much more I want to do, but even four goals -- more than an hour per day -- seems unmanageable.

To Block or Adapt?
I plan to blog about my experiences here, explaining the tools and techniques I'm using and whether they work. If they fail, I'll try to discuss why. Should I try to do all three at once in a one-hour block? Will I be more successful if I split up these tasks? Should I stick to the same time every day or change it up to adapt to my schedule?

The 21-Day Habit-Forming Myth
Many people say it takes 21 days or more to form a new habit, but that so-called fact about habit formation has been debunked just as much as it has been supported. In any event, I'll give myself until the end of September to make real progress. That's about seven weeks from now, which is plenty of time to have hiccups and for life to get in the way, which of course it will.