Ha, talk about my worlds colliding. Cal Newport covers the Bullet Journal system (aka BuJo) and suggests how it could be improved to better meet the demands of the modern day knowledge worker.
I thought it interesting that all his suggestions fit my own current usage:
I use weekly plans for my notebook, not the monthly log that BuJo suggests
My days are outlined in my calendar … not every hour of the day is there, but the major items get slotted in
He suggests keeping a deep work tally, which is exactly what I do with my monthly habit tracker for the things I’m working on including in my daily life
He also suggests augmenting the BuJo with a digital calendar and task list. That is a hybrid system that so many of us use already
Last, he suggests adding email to the mix. Hopefully, most of us are working with email in scheduled batch sessions and moving included tasks to our inbox of choice already (the recently released email option for Things is a nice option, although I do prefer the Things helper that allows the email to be linked to in the task itself)
Overall, it was fun to see Cal commenting on this system. And he nails why it’s so good:
First, I want to emphasize what I really like about the system. Its largely unstructured use of a blank notebook is a brilliant example of low-friction freestyle productivity. In my experience, these types of systems are much more likely to persist than those that require more involved constraints.
I agree. The Bullet Journal is a good place to start, but make it your own. Not every piece is going to fit how you work.
Year End Planning
Forget about goals. Instead, focus on habits. This is a common refrain of late. The likes of James Clear, Shawn Blanc, and Nir Eyal all make the case for habits being greater than goals.
I won’t go so far as to tell someone to not set goals. But I do agree that habits are what will enable you to meet your goals. I still like to set an end destination in mind, but I’ve finally begun to see how powerful — and vital — the habits and routine are for getting to the finish line.
What has made the most difference for me is running in 2017. My year looked a little like this:
I got into using Strava based on Rian Van Der Merwe’s recommendation
This got me running a little more regularly as I enjoy the stats aspect of these fitness apps
Having friends who used Strava was incentive to run more, especially those folks who could run faster or further than me (I’m a competitive type)
A friend was planning to run in a half-marathon event, so I set the goal to run the same distance at the same time
I made a plan, then ran the 21 KM a few weeks early
From there, I decided I might as well go for the real thing and run a full marathon in 2018
Keeping a pretty regular rhythm to my weeks is something I’ve done for some time (as regular readers have likely noticed — I talk about this stuff a lot). So all of that to say the biggest key for me seeing progress was one thing: running regularly. Putting in a plan to incrementally increase how often or how far I was running has made a significant difference.
In November 2016, I ran to my church and back for the first time. A distance of 14 KM. It was a big jump in my distance at that time and was a significant milestone. In November 2017, my average runs are 15 KM and quite comfortable. And all because I’ve been running 3 times per week.
So as we get ready for the end of this year and the start of the next, I wanted to share a number of articles I’ve enjoyed the past 12 months. They’re all focused on the themes of habits and rhythms and how to ensure you actually accomplish the things that are important to you.
This focus for me was triggered last week by this article. To be honest, I’m not crazy about the writing and the post is not incredibly insightful compared to other authors. But the section titled “The power of daily habits” got me thinking about the topic again.
Also note that by the end of the article, he admits that he sets goals now. And that’s fine. But when you realize that daily (or weekly) actions are what will actually help you get where you want to go, there also needs to be a recognition that you need to be selective.
You only have so much time to fit new habits in your day (unless you have a lot of time you're currently wasting). And itâ€™s not wise to try to build multiple new habits at the same time. So if you want to write a book in 2018, writing daily is all the change you can likely handle.
I mentioned James Clear in the opening of this newsletter. He’s been a very consistent voice on this topic. This post is a bit of a summary of his writing on this topic and includes a lot of links. But I also wanted to share a few of his articles I’ve read or had sitting in Instapaper from the last 12–18 months.
When you begin to consider the idea of focusing on habits over goals and projects, it’s hard not to move to discussing your calendar as well. I’ve talked about this a good bit over the last year (thanks to proponents of the idea like CJ Chilvers, but it just makes sense with this approach to achieving your goals.
Habits work best in a regular rhythm to your days & weeks. This is why Matt Perman includes two full chapters on setting up your weeks in What’s Best Next (titled Setting Up Your Week and Creating the Right Routines). Cal Newport and the folks interviewed in this article above are also proponents of making your calendar the place where you put your focus.
Not your task list.
My hope is this post and the content it points to will be helpful for you as you reflect. I know I’m going to enjoy the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day just resting mentally and envisioning the year to come. I hope you get a chance to do the same!
And let me close with this reminder: this is not just about your career! It’s so easy to read about focus and achieving goals and success and then apply that to our work life. But anyone who takes these ideas and applies them 100% to their career will likely end up feeling empty in the long run … even if they find success.
We’re more than our jobs. Let’s remember that as we plan for 2018. Your family, friends, coworkers, and physical & mental health all need as much (or more) attention as your profession.
The Cure For Complaining
A couple of weeks back, our senior pastor gave a message exhorting us all to live with a little less complaining. Or a lot less (he included himself as the target audience). Our church started a reading plan in September to get through the entire Bible in 9 months. And in tandem with this plan has been the pastors preaching from current reading. That has brought us to Numbers.
If you're familiar at all with the desert years for Israel, you’ll know complaining is a common theme.
One passage has stuck with me through the years. Phil 2:14–16(a)
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life
That first sentence hit me hard, especially during a period when I worked for a particularly inept supervisor back in my corporate life. I would dispute regularly. Worse, I would grumble constantly (many translations use complain here instead of grumble, but both words convey the same idea) and often when this person was not around. It was an area of sin for me, one brought on by my own pride.
And while I was in that situation, I felt convicted that my behaviour was wrong. However, I was not able to get past it; I was unsure how to change how my heart felt. And we all know that what the heart feels, the tongue eventually makes it known.
It was only recently that I’ve come across what I believe is the solution for complaining. The long-term, life-long solution for not grumbling.
A Life of Gratitude
Over the past 2 years, I’ve had the blessing of teaching at length from both Philippians and Colossians. As usual, I always feel that I get far more from teaching a class than anyone attending. When you're taking the time to prepare lessons, you tend to be more saturated with a few specific pieces of Scripture. My time in these two books was an immense pleasure and a source of peace for me.
And while my lessons were often focused on the larger whole, one aspect began to jump out at me. Paul is constantly preaching a life of gratitude. This is true for Philippians and Colossians, but also for his other epistles. The more I looked, the more I found a regular, rhythmic focus on being grateful.
In his epistles, the word thanks or some derivative (thankful, thankfulness, thanksgiving etc) is used almost 50 times. Here are a couple that have caught my attention.
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.
You read these over and over through the years and it can be easy to gloss over it. But when I started noting how important being thankful was to Paul, I was amazed at the consistency of his
A cup half full
I’ll be very honest with you: I’m a negative person. A cup half empty kind of guy. I’ll notice what I don’t like far before I find the good in things. Just ask my children!
As Christians, there is a bit of baseline thankfulness that has to exist. In order to believe that you must be saved, you have to face your sins, your flaws, and recognize God’s right to judge you. From there, you feel your need for a saviour. And when you make that choice to accept Christ in such a way, gratitude is the natural reaction.
But being thankful about that does not automatically result in a grateful approach to all areas of life. That’s why I love Paul’s emphasis on the topic.
In some cases, thankfulness is the end, the result of our circumstances. But in other cases, he’s exhorting us to choose to be grateful. The thankfulness is the means rather than the end. Phil 4 is a great example of this. Let me paraphrase this passage:
The Lord is near
Therefore, do not worry about anything
Instead, ask God about everything you need
And do so with thankfulness
If you do that, you will experience God’s peace, which transcends all things and will guard you from future worries
The end is experiencing God’s peace. But the means is having a grateful attitude.
Living it out
What that has meant to me is to pull back in situations where I would normally complain (if I can catch myself), then consider what I can be thankful about in that moment. There’s always something there if I look for it.
When my particularly disagreeable son is pushing all my buttons, I try to stop and appreciate how he’s improving his skills in debate. When the sun is down at 5pm and I think how we have 4–5 more months of cold weather ahead, I try to be thankful for a warm home and peacefulness of a fresh dump of snow. And when the
Sadly, I don’t have this all together. In a lot of scenarios above, old habits kick in and I miss the chance to make something better of it. But I’m learning.
Oak & Meditation
Meditation has been a part of my mornings for years now. But it likely doesn't look like what people would expect. Some days it's sitting still with my eyes closed and focusing on one thought, or one verse. But many days it's very different.
I would consider my morning time meditative over all. But that time will include prayer, reading the Bible more casually, and more concentrated study of a specific passage or topic. In Habits of Grace, David Mathis paints a picture of meditation this way:
It is a distinctively human trait to stop and consider, to chew on something with the teeth of our minds and hearts, to roll some reality around in our thoughts and press it deeply into our feelings, to look from different angles and seek to get a better sense of its significance.
Mathis quotes several Puritan’s in his book as meditation was an area of focus for many of them. One, Thomas Manton, put it this way:
The word feedeth meditation, and meditation feedeth prayer. . . . Meditation must follow hearing and precede prayer. . . . What we take in by the word we digest by meditation and let out by prayer.
I love thinking of meditation in this sense. More than emptying my mind, I see my morning time consisting of multiple activities that are meditative. I can move between them all, flowing from one to another as I’m led (whether by my thoughts or by his Spirit). But it’s one whole, these morning devotions, and the end result is (hopefully) peace, resolve, and a better sense of direction for the day ahead.
I have never tracked my morning times. I’ve consistently made space for it over the years and have been noting whether I do indeed spend any time in morning devotions each day. But how much? Never.
However, I've used meditation as one of my primary goals in Gyroscope each week. And it was one goal where I often fell short. Mostly because I only timed myself in the act of just sitting and clearing my mind in order to focus on one thing. Call it contemplative prayer, if you will.
But Oak has changed that for me. If you haven’t heard of it, Oak is a new meditation app for iOS from Kevin Rose. And it’s been a great addition to my homescreen.
It’s a simple app. It has 3 main sections: meditation, breathing, and wisdom. The latter is simply a few audio clips and I’ve not checked them out at all. But the meditation feature is good. You can conduct unguided, manual sessions or use “mindful” sessions where you have a voice guiding you (similar to Headspace).
Back to the meditation in a bit. What I really like about the app is the breathing section. It has 3 types of exercises that take you through a series of inhaling, holding, and exhaling breath.
This is a fantastic feature that helps you gain some clarity in those moments when you don’t have time to sit in solitude and silence and focus for even 5 minutes. But a couple of minutes of focusing on your breathing can do wonders.
What’s more, I’ll even start my morning devotions with one of these breathing exercises. It’s a great way to start. Then I begin an unguided meditation session, put the phone aside, and dig in. I might start with a short prayer asking the Spirit to guide my time, then read my Scripture passages for the day. From there I might spend time praying for specific needs, digging into a topic that caught my attention, or just reflecting and pondering on a passage that resonated.
It’s this last one that is the most enjoyable and results, as Manton and the Puritans observed, in the most heartfelt prayers and most intimate communion.
As for the app, Oak has been a help. But it adds your activities directly to the Health app, which in turn is pulled into Gyroscope. My total meditation times have been higher than ever. Yes, it’s a bit of gamification. But this awareness, plus the idea that I can just sit and breath for 2 minutes, has me opening the app during the middle of the day, or as I sit in bed reflecting on the day past.
Like Craig Mod, Ryan Holiday appreciates the value of walking. He loves nothing better than talking a long stroll in the countryside surrounding his farm (pictured above … here’s hoping he usually hangs on to the stroller). Brought on by an injury, he learned that the act of walking does something for our minds that is peaceful, freeing, and productive.
But it should be said that walking thoughts are usually a different kind of thought. They are not the racing thoughts of the worried mind. Or the distracted thoughts of the workplace mind. They are, as many walkers attest, more naturally reflective, calmer and contemplative.
I hope this is crystal clear: achieving clarity or a burst of inspiration is not a side benefit of walking. As if the exercise itself is the purpose and the calm, ordered thinking is just a secondary nice-to-have.
I walk in order to gain clarity and be productive in all the areas of my life.
Exercise itself? That is secondary. And living in the country affords one many other ways to get fit (have you seen my axe?) If you're on the fence, take 2–3 slots on your calendar this week and schedule a 30–60 minute walk. You’ll be better for it!
What Happens When We Work with Our Hands?
As I slowly move increasingly to using paper over digital tools, I can’t help but wonder exactly what makes the act more satisfying. There are various options in our digital tools that can mimic what paper offers. Writing down our thoughts, brainstorming ideas, and mind-mapping are a few examples of activities for which we have software tools available. Yet, I find myself turning to using my hands with older tools.
Pen and paper, or a whiteboard, seem to enable a greater connection to my thoughts. These tools are free from distraction, which helps. But more than that, the physical activity somehow helps me to gain a better sense of clarity and a feeling of “clearing the decks”.
On a recent episode of Jocelyn K Glei’s Hurry Slowly, she and Austin Kleon discuss this very topic at some length. They touch on a few points, but what stuck the most for me was the concept of analog tools are for thinking and planning, where our digital tools are for implementing those plans.
While I was listening to this episode, Craig Mod’s Drawing the Calendar came to mind. In it, Craig outlines his habit of drawing out a monthly calendar on paper. Rather than using a digital calendar, or even a paper calendar, he sketches out his own version on blank paper. Why do this?
Craig describes it better than I can (as usual):
the act of drawing itself becomes a meditation, and slowing down to feel the shape of days and weeks to come carries an inherent value not found in the already-made.
I concur. This is exactly why I prefer a blank grid in a notebook rather than a template of someone else’s choosing. He continues:
The most satisfying part of the drawn calendar is the more you use it, the more you fill it in, the more beautiful it becomes.
But most of all, the making of the drawn calendar becomes an act of reflection in and of itself.
This well captures what I’ve been finding for myself. I still keep a digital calendar. I still track projects and tasks in Things 3. But increasingly, I turn to paper for many things. Journalling my thoughts through the day, tracking the habits I want to adopt with regularity, writing down each day’s 3 core tasks, brainstorming larger projects … these things are more joyful when I use my hands and a pen and paper.
I can’t state exactly why this is so. And it may not be the same for everyone (it’s likely not). But the current resurgence with non-digital tools does not appear to be going away. I think we’re just getting started.