The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

Build the Life You Want With a Hybrid System

Cheesy title, yes. But it describes how I’ve developed my use of various digital and analog tools over the past several years to live in a way that fits my beliefs and brings satisfaction. Is there room to improve? Of course — there’s always room to improve. But my combination of habits and tools is feeling settled and peaceful.

And as many people seem interested in these topics, I wanted to share my overall system.

Why paper and digital tools?

Simple. Both have advantages.

Digital tools are backed up, available on all your devices, and easily searchable. Paper tools enable clarity and add a sense of calm and slowness to your day. You can throw all kinds of things into your digital tools: images, links, text, files, and more. Paper tools give you the flexibility to use them in whatever way suits you best (at least, ones with blank pages).

Paper offers benefits to mental health

There is no reason to limit yourself to one or the other. In 2018, there are even several options that allow you to automate the process of getting your thoughts on paper into digital form. But that is not necessary: your use of digital and paper tools can complement each other and coincide.

Let me share how I do just that.

My system

My setup starts at the yearly level. I don’t have any 5, 10, or 50-year plans. I just take time each December to review my year past and plan for the year ahead. If I do well at that, I figure I’ll be in a good place at the end of the journey: however many years down that road that is.

So I plan each year with several high-level goals. Now, I call these goals, but many of them are truly habits. Or rather, habits are what will accomplish the goal. If you read much on this topic, you know people like James Clear are singing the praises of habits over goals. And I agree in general.

But I feel they go hand in hand. A common example is rather than having a goal of writing a book, just focus on writing 500 words every day. But while that habit is a fantastic one, on its own, it will not produce a book. Those 500 words could live in a daily journal, or 500 words could be combined into one 2,500 word blog post each month. But writing and publishing a book involves more. So while the habit should be the day to day focus, it’s also important to have a long-term goal that you revisit regularly.

And that is the heart of my system. Here’s how it works:

  • Each year I set several goals. Things like reading 12 non-fiction books. Run my first marathon. Write 35 newsletters. Be more positive in my interactions with our kids. Have 12 date nights with my wife (oh, settle down you with your 52 date nights … we have four kids and have goals for date nights with each of them. 12 dates is doing pretty good 😀).
  • The overall focus is being able to look back in December and feel that my time was spent on the things that matter most.
  • Each quarter, I list out the things that I need to do to meet those annual goals.
  • Each week I do a review (aka the weekly review) and look over the list of annual and quarterly goals. I choose 5–6 main tasks I want to complete that week. Some of those tasks are related to the goals (write 1 issue of the newsletter). But some are not (home maintenance items that are urgent for example)
  • And last, on the daily level, I track how I’m spending my time. This is not related to tools that track your actual activity on a computer or anything of that nature (although I use those as well). This is where habits come in: I have a list of 8 or so things I want to track daily. I do not necessarily need to perform each of these activities every day, but I want to track them daily to ensure I’m not going to long without each. Exercise is a good example: running seven days a week is too much. But I do need to complete 3–5 runs each week.

This entire process is set up to allow me to get into the details each day, but with a focus back on the higher level as I set up each week. And I use my paper tools for the daily items and digital tools for the long term. There’s a bit of overlap, but this is the basic gist of my system.

The tools

The tools themselves are not terribly important. Any mix of digital tools like task managers, note, and calendar applications would work for you. But I’ll list my preferences for full transparency (and because I enjoy reading about other people’s setups myself).

Ulysses is a fantastic tool for getting organizing your thinking

My primary software tools in this area are Ulysses, Day One, Things, and Fantastical. There is a bit of crossover here, and one could make a case for consolidation. But I do like each of these tools for a specific purpose:

  • Ulysses: this is where I store all permanent documentation, strategy, planning, and writing. These are the big picture documents that I refer to on a regular basis (such as my life vision document and annual goals).
  • Day One: in contrast, this app is where I store progress on things, the thoughts and feelings I may have, and longer-term thinking. That last item is similar to some stuff I’ll put in Ulysses, but there’s enough distinction to warrant it here. I put ideas for the more distant future in Day One — more concrete plans to achieve those goals and ideas go in Ulysses. And Day One is tied to time. Entries here can be easily recalled thinking of the time, season, and circumstances when the idea first came to me.
  • Things: this is where I track all the work. Where Ulysses may hold strategy, Things includes the actual steps to put the strategy into action. This is also where recurring tasks are stored.
  • Fantastical: last, this is where I get a high level visual of my week(s). When I’m planning my week and choosing my most important tasks, I prefer to use my quarterly goal and calendar (weekly view) side by side.

On the physical side, the tools truly do not matter. Not that they are insignificant, but there are so many great options available that people of all kinds of tastes can find something pleasing. Maybe a Bic and a $2 lined notepad are your jam. Or maybe a Moleskine and a fountain pen. Me? I love my Baron Fig notebooks and Muji pens.

But the important part is how you use them. What kind of consistent routines and habits do you employ with these tools?

Last, I must also give praise for the humble index card. I’ve used cards off and on over the years, but for some reason, I come back to them time and again. I like their ease of use and temporal nature. I use them when my day gets crazy, or I need to break down a larger task into an outline or smaller set of steps. And as I know the card is not going to be a permanent fixture I keep around for years, it gives me a little more freedom.

The humble index card is a nice disposal addition to a workflow

It’s common for me to have a page in my notebook with a weekly plan and an index card stuck inside with a plan for the day. I can go through 3–4 of those in a week.

What makes a hybrid system work

The first, and most important, habit that makes a hybrid system work is regular reviews. To be fair, this is what makes any productivity system work well. But it’s even more vital for this mix of paper and software tools. Because you have items in a couple of different places, it’s important to revisit them on a regular basis.

This is important in two ways. First, if you tend to jot down ideas or thoughts in a notebook (capture), some of those items need to get into your digital system at some point (processing). This is where a shutdown routine serves you well.

If you take the time every day to review what came your way and set up the next day, you’ll naturally process these kinds of items. Consistent collection and processing ensure you’re not searching through pages of notes on a Saturday afternoon searching for that one thing.

Second, I enjoy tracking my habits more on paper than in a digital tool. Again, habits are what will allow us to achieve our goals, to build the kind of life we desire. And there are apps to help with this, but I prefer paper.

Nothing beats the look of a nicely filled in grid

There’s something about filling in those boxes. Seeing consistency — and the results of that consistency feel wonderful. And taking 5–10 minutes in my day to review what I’ve done and physically mark things off brings a lot of contentment that I don’t seem to get from software tools. So this is another area where a hybrid system serves us well.

It may not be for everyone, but many people could benefit

There are some people who happily tap keyboards all day and keep everything in digital tools. But not me. And I suspect, not the majority of knowledge workers today. There’s a connection between our hands and brain that makes using paper calm and freeing. A hybrid system allows us to use that connection between body and mind, while also allowing us to disconnect from the screen and all its various sources of input and distraction.

Who doesn’t need a little more of that in 2018?


Do you use a mix of tools to organize your life? I’d love to hear about how you fine folks handle this stuff as well. Reply and share the details!

Until next time!

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How to Recover When Things Get Overwhelming

There comes a time when your tasks and responsibilities will get out of hand. Despite your best efforts and disciplined approach, you suddenly find yourself with overflowing inboxes, tasks and notes scribbled out on paper, and a sense that you're not in control. Something will be missed or forgotten. This happens to all of us.

And this is when people feel their “system” is broken and they jump ship. This can come in the form of reverting to old habits and ways of doing things. Or you start looking for a new tool, system, or framework for managing your life.

But before you take either of those steps, there are a few things I’ve done that help me regain a sense of clarity on the current state of things … and where I want to go. And with clarity comes calm.

When I find myself falling behind, it’s not because I’m lazy or undisciplined. It’s because I’ve suddenly taken on something new or a specific project or area of my life has taken priority and other things have had to be ignored for a while. Which is fine —that’s how life works. But it can start to be stressful when my inbox is in the double digits for a week at a time.

When that happens, the following are ways I recover.

Let Yourself Off the Hook

First, I recognize that the guilt or stress I’m feeling is usually artificial and self-imposed. Yes, those recurring or scheduled tasks that are piling up are important to me. But very few of them have true hard deadlines and most scheduled tasks are there because of intention, not an expectation of someone else.

So when things get crazy, the first thing I do is recognize that whatever I’m spending my time is important enough to take priority over the other tasks I had thought I might get to.

There’s a tricky balance to be found here. Systems, habits, and routines are wonderful tools, but terrible masters. I’m in control — and every so often the system needs a reboot, not me.

And so I remove the expectation. In Things, I use the Today view the most. And when that count gets too high for too many days in a row, I select all the tasks there and clear the When field.

Make a Date With Yourself

Next, I review my calendar and find a time when I can take the time to sit down and take stock of things fully. This would often happen in my weekly review on Sunday evening. But there are times when I will do this mid-week if required.

I add a spot to my calendar, usually in the early morning or after the family is all in bed. I prefer this type of planning to be done when there’s minimal activity in Slack, email, and Basecamp.

Clear the Decks

Once I’m enjoying a moment of peace and quiet and have nothing else scheduled, I like to clear the decks. Just get everything out of my head, out of my inboxes, and any notecards or scribbles in my notebook. It’s a little like the process David Allen describes in the early stages of setting up GTD.

There’s been a building sense of stress and pending disaster and we want to shake out our pockets, so to speak.

For me, this process works best with paper. I start by listing out my areas of responsibility (this also works well with the different roles in your life), then listing out all the things that come to mind that I need to address. Not necessarily do, but be aware of, planned, or scheduled. Give yourself time for this process because it takes a bit for the mind to warm up and recall all the things that have been adding to that sense of stress.

Sometimes it’s good to walk around your home as a part of this process. Likely, many of the things that cause stress are little things that you notice as you go about your busy days. That bathroom faucet that is starting to leak. The recycling that is piling up in the carport. Filling out that form for your kid’s school trip. Little things — but it’s the little things that are always pre-pended with “I should get to that” in our inner dialogue that cause the stress. And when you’re barely getting enough time to stay on top of the highest priority items, it’s the little things that pile up and drive you crazy.

So clear the decks and get it all out. When finished, you can then process the results. Cancel projects or plans where you can. Document where necessary (not everything needs to be scheduled and some things just need to be documented so you can get it out of your head). And plan or schedule the rest.

Focus Again on the Routines

Once that is all complete, the last thing to do is once again focus on routines. Your regular activities (aka habits) are what make your system work. So if you frequently find yourself feeling that your system is failing you, maybe it is. This is also a good time to review the rhythms of your days and weeks.

I think about this stuff enough (too much?) that going through the above exercises gets me to a place where I feel calm and in control once more. I don’t usually need to make large changes. It’s enough to remind myself of the importance of developing habits and make any small tweaks that may be needed.

Sometimes the right answer is to look for new tools and techniques. But most of the time, the answer is to get out of the trenches and see things from the big view. If you bring old habits to new tools, you’ll just end up in the same place.

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Bible Reading Plans

I recently was asked about Bible reading plans that I would recommend. And while I don’t have one go-to plan that I use regularly, I did have a few resources to share. Since this is a focus for a lot of you, I thought I would summarize things and pass them on.

First off, my own habits are to switch my focus year by year. Every second year I will read through the entire Bible. Again, I don’t have a specific plan — I’ve just used one from the options available on my Bible reading app. Or I’ll grab one that was mentioned on one of the blogs from Christian ministries I frequent (Desiring God is good in their coverage of this topic around the Christmas season).

Every other year, I choose a book of the Bible and read it through 20 times in a row. I started this habit several years ago after being inspired by a post on the very topic. The depth that is achieved by this practice balances well with the breadth that is achieved by reading the Bible in its entirety again and again.

But when faced with the question, I discovered I had a few recommendations based on what I’ve seen other people using. We’re already a little over 1/12th (8%) of the way through the year, but if you’re still looking for help getting into the word, maybe one of these would be of use.

  • John Piper talks a little about Bible reading here and links to his preferred annual reading plan
  • In fact, Desiring God has had a lot of good posts on this subject over the years
  • And the Bible Project has so much good content to supplement your reading plan, I can’t recommend it enough. Check out their Explore page
  • Another ministry I enjoy is Crossway. The ESV is my translation of choice for reading and memorizing (I prefer the NET for more in-depth study), they offer beautiful Bibles, have a decent app, and they offer a lot of reading plans. Both in their app and in PDF.

Whatever gets you in the word, go with that.

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Dictatorship

I wrote a giddy post-Super Bowl post last year. This year, my favorite sportsball team was back in the big game, but this year they came up short. And although my sons are now, through osmosis I suppose, getting into football and spent last Sunday wailing at the TV, flipping tables, or throwing hats on the floor, I was calm about the entire affair.

Well, I was suspenseful during the game. But once the outcome was certain, I was fine with how it ended. This is partly due to the fact that my employer has headquarters in Philly and half our team, whom I love dearly, resides there. I was very happy for them to enjoy their first Super Bowl championship. And it was also due to the fact that the Eagles coaching staff, Doug Pederson specifically, called a brilliant game. You have to give them respect for their approach.

And last, with 8 Super Bowl appearances and 5 wins in the big game, I have very little to complain about as a fan. But that won’t stop me from focusing on one aspect that turned me off on Sunday.

There was one thing that had me shaking my head. The view of Malcolm Butler standing on the Patriots sideline (aka the bench) not playing a single defensive snap. If you’re not familiar, this is the same Malcolm Butler who made the Patriots as an undrafted free agent out of college in 2014. He finished that season with the game-sealing nail-in-the-coffin interception of Russel Wilson the waning moments of Super Bowl XLIX (that’s 49 for you millenials who did not learn Roman numerals in grade school). The same Malcolm Butler who became one of the top players at his position in the NFL, despite being undrafted and lacking the size and traits that are prized for NFL cornerbacks.

There are times when Belichick’s schtick feels old. Even for a hard-core long-time Pats fan like me. Only Bill knows why he chose to sit Butler for the entire game. But as a fan, seeing one of the heroes of your team be treated this way doesn’t sit well. There is always some speculation and “inside sources”, but we know so little from the outside.

Regardless, absolute authority will bring skepticism. When one person wields that power and keeps things bottled up, you open yourself up to scrutiny. To date that has worked because the Pats have so much success.

But when that success stops, there will be only so much patience for that type of leadership. Even from the fans.

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