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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

If Someone Changed Your Life, Tell Them... Then Again, Maybe Not

Drew Dudley tells a sweet story about how he changed a young woman's life but has no recollection of ever doing so. The point of his story is that we, all of us, have moments of leadership that go unrecognized because we sometimes think "leader" is an unattainable title.

At the end of his story, he asks his audience to think about someone in who has inexorably changed their life, and question whether that other person knows. Then he encourages everyone to make sure that leader knows.

The whole story is endearing, and the call to action quite simple. I love it and want to embrace it, until I think about moments when I did try to tell someone what they meant to me.

See, it doesn't always go well.

It reminds me a little bit of the advice to "be yourself." Not only is it easier said than done, but for some people, it's actually bad advice. We have social decorum for a reason, and some people, when just "being their true self" don't conform to these modes. For some people, it takes a lot of focus and effort to be an empathetic, generous, kind person who interacts with others appropriately.

A few years ago, I reconnected very briefly with an old friend. We weren't friends for very long, but it was during a time in my life when I had very few friends. This person's friendship meant a lot. We never had a romantic relationship, but I certainly did have feelings for this person and never said so. After we reconnected ever so briefly, in ever so few words, I asked for an email address where I could send a more thoughtful and nuanced letter. I wrote and explained how and why our friendship was meaningful, and that I had had mixed feelings at the time, but never acted on them, and sometimes question why I didn't.

The problem, you see, is that I thought I was expressing some gratitude, similar to the young woman in Dudley's story telling him how he changed her life.

The problem, you see, is that I am not tactful. My emotions are rather reserved until the moment I feel like pouring them out, and then they come gushing. They are full of unintended suggestions that I don't see at the time that I'm writing, but I do see many days later when I re-read what I wrote in a different mindset.

After I gushed to my friend, I heard nothing. Then I sent a very very short follow-up message via social media, where I knew it would be seen, and said simple, "Nuts. Too much?"

Still, no reply.

It's okay. I'm sure my old friend has already forgotten all about it. And it's not the first time I've done such a thing. So as much as I want to buy into Dudley's message, I would say to others, it may be a better than advice.

Even the Cop Did Nothing: A Story of Street Harassment

Street Harassment: Sidewalk Sleazebags and Metro Molesters

The video above was created by an organization called Vocativ.

I don't want to nit-pick the video, or the thousands of ignorant and hurtful comments viewers have posted about it. I just want to share a story.

The first time I was publicly groped, it was by some man in the Navy. I was 15. I'd guess he was no more than 25. I was hanging out with my friends by the docks in a little town called Northport on Long Island. We always hung out by the docks and the adjacent part. The streets were so crowded with people that lovely summer night that we had to squeeze along parts of the sidewalk.

I was narrowing my way through the crowd, trying to pass some people, when a young man dressed in a Navy uniform grabbed my ass. It was obvious and intentional. There was no mistaking it.

Let me just get this out of the way. Back then, I consistently dressed in baggy clothes. I don't have cleavage to show. I wasn't one to make eye contact with strangers.

Bear in mind, too, that he was in the Navy with dozens of other Navy cadets and officers around him. I was a 15-year old girl with one tiny friend by my side. Clearly, I was not going to physically assault the guy. I'm not stupid.

In the video above, one woman describes not knowing what to do when she was groped by a man on a crowded subway train who was masturbating behind her while leaning up against her. And it's true: We women are not trained in what to do in this situation, when the violence and power play are so subtle that they happen right in public. Scream out of nowhere, and people will treat you like you're crazy. There's a split second when the assault starts when you think to yourself, "Surely this is an accident. Surely this man is brushing up against me accidentally and doesn't realize it." And you know that if you react too quickly, he will say exactly that: "What are you talking about, you crazy bitch?" And you'll be left in the defensive position. It is extremely difficult to react.

So let me tell you what I did.

I spotted a cop, maybe 30 feet away. I went up to that cop.

"Excuse me," I said. "You see that group of Navy guys over there? One of them just groped me."


"And?" he said.

I stared in disbelief.

"Do you want to press charges?" he asked.

"No, I don't want to press charges—"

"—then there's nothing I can do," he said. "What would you like me to do?"

I was livid.

"What I want you to do," I said, "Is go over there and let them know that that's not okay. What I want you to do is keep an eye on them so they don't do something worse to some other girl."

If you're a man and have never been cat-called or publicly harassed or groped, you're absolutely unlikely to understand how it happens and why it is so difficult to react in the way you probably imagine you would react. It is a power play. Think about this for just a moment. Think about the fact that I found a police officer and reported what happened to him, within moments of it happening, with the perpetrator still in sight, and he told me there was nothing he could do. Just think about that for a moment.

Alert But Not Thinking: What I Love About Bicycling In New York

1980s Strawberry Shortcake bike.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of being on my bike, and being alone.

I rode a lot as a kid. I had a Strawberry Shortcake bike with a banana seat, then graduated to a purple dirt bike with matching purple grips around the handle bars.

I rode with my friends down the block, or sometimes just my sister. We'd meet at the dead-end court and race up the street. We'd try to build planks and jumps with the lumber left on the side of the road. We'd zip down to one of our friends' houses that had a pool, riding in bathing suits, towels trailing behind.

No one ever even owned a helmet.

We lived in a hilly neighborhood on a quiet street. Alone, I would ride around the block, pushing for speed on the downhill to see how far I could coast once the terrain leveled out. The houses were quiet with big lawns and driveways.

I remember trying not to skid out on piles of sand left along the side of the road after snow-plowing season. I remember the wind rushing by, whipping my ears. When I think back, I can hear birds, a lawn mower, the sound of a car crunching on gravel in the distance. But the gears and crank shaft and bicycle chair are all silent. I can hear the sound of my nine-year old brain in my head, talking to myself, figuring things out. Or not and just being quiet while I pedaled.

When I was 10 or 11, I decided I need a more serious bike, something with gears.

Huffy Capri.
I saved up and bought a pink and gray 10-speed Huffy Capri. It cost $100, plus tax. It was the biggest purchase I had ever made.

I still see that exact same Huffy Capri, the same color and everything, chained up in Union Square in New York. Sometimes I see it and I hate it. I have a lot of ugly memories of childhood, too, that coming flooding back at the sight of it. But I still think of it as my bicycle.

Five years ago, I started riding in New York City. Some urban cyclists say they like the thrill of danger that's inherent in riding the city streets. Inexperienced riders think taxis are the greatest threat (they're not). Cyclists get a bad reputation for being too risky and running pedestrians off the road, but I'd say, percentage wise, more cyclists obey the rules of the road than do pedestrians. I mean, who doesn't jay-walk?

Univega Gran Turismo touring bike, my current bicycle.
I ride 11 miles, round trip, most weekdays, to and from work. On the weekends, I might rack up another 30 miles. Eighty-five miles a week, give or take. I still mostly ride alone. It's what I like most about bicycling. Sure, I get to where I'm going. It's exercise. I get to be outdoors. But I'm addicted to the quiet time. Something blissful happens when the body must move mechanically, but the brain can't drift off and needs to pay attention. It's a zen-like state, alert but not thinking.

What I've learned from riding in the city streets is tolerance. Pedestrians jay-walk (which is supremely dangerous for cyclists). Cars making left turns jump red lights. Trucks change lanes without signaling. Teenagers joking around with one another push each other off the curbs. Cyclists weave erratically through traffic, blow red lights, and sometimes ride illegally on the sidewalk.

The key is figuring out how you fit into the big picture. When you're a driver, you realize how awful pedestrians are. When you're a pedestrian, it's easy to blame the terrible cyclists for making the roads dangerous. On a bike, my feeling is that you have to see the whole system at play and figure out where you fit in. Sometimes you have to break the law to be safer, for example, by getting in front of a line of cars at a red light. With time and experience, it's easy to tell which drivers haven't seen you and won't see you, unless you get directly in front of them. They need to be aware that you're on the road. So you squeeze between some cars at a red light and make sure everyone sees you doing it. Now they know you're there. Now they know to drive carefully. And hopefully while you were squeezing, you were watching the countdown clock for pedestrians walking perpendicular to where you are, to make sure you have a enough time to get to the front of the line.

I've learned to be tolerant of others, to see from their perspective as much as from my own. I have to assume that no one is trying to explicitly hurt one another. There's no sense in getting angry. A close call is still not an accident, and you have to shrug those moments off, sit your ass down, and keep pedaling.