3 Simple Strategies for a Better (and More Productive) Day

Growing up as a little half-Filipino boy, it felt simple and easy to practice all day long on my game. I would be in the gym for hours at a time.

Practicing my handles. Shooting jumpers. Playing pick up ball. Running drills. In between these stretches of time spent in the gym only a few other, non-urgent activities consumed my life.

Getting home to have dinner because that was my Pa's rule. And going to school at 7 A.M. Oh, and mowing the lawn and taking the trash out were also on my list.

Looking back, I now realize that because I had such little other responsibility, being in the gym and working my basketball skills was relatively simple for one reason.

My willpower - or my capacity to make decisions - was being leveraged into what I deemed at the time, the most important thing in my life. Spending a good source of my energy each day in the basketball gym was really my only "big-decision."

Life was pretty much void of decision fatigue. Therefore, doing the work was simple.

But fast-forward over decade, and that half-Filipino boy just noticed a few gray hairs in his crop. I've learned that our willpower is not unlimited.

As we age, responsibilities pile up. We simply can't spend all day at the YMCA and suck on capri-sun's between games of half-court lightning. 

Life happens you know?

Work, school, and perhaps both of them simultaneously occupy the real estate of your time.

Your social life now requires effort (it just doesn't happen on its own anymore).

That thing called rent (or mortgage) is due every month.

Deadlines are real now. It's not like your Ma asking you to be home by 11 P.M., and if you walk in at 12:17 A.M., she greets you with, "Oh, honey, I was so worried about you. Your meatloaf is in the microwave."

You have little Ezmae that needs to get to soccer practice at 4 P.M., and Jax has judo at 5:30 P.M., and then you have to consider what you'll prepare for dinner AFTER you get home from CrossFit at 8:44 P.M.

You have to remember to park on the opposite street so you don't get a $91 ticket on your windshield for a street-sweeping violation.

And then we have breakfast. Do I eat or do this thing called intermittent fasting? Oatmeal or bagel? Juice or water? How much coffee? Will this three egg omelette make me fat?

The point is that as we age, more decisions come into our life. Understanding why this is important - rather then resisting it - is where the value resides.

Roy Baumeister ran a study on 205 adults. These subjects were strapped with beepers, and when these beepers were sounded, the subjects were asked to take a moment to reflect on what desires he or she was currently wrestling with in the last 30 minutes.

After one week, 7,500 samples were gathered.

Baumeister summarized his finding like this: People fight desires all day long.

The most common desires that the subjects reported were eating, sleeping and sex. The list was also rounded out with taking a break from hard work, checking e-mail, and social media, surging the web or watching television.

Not only does life pile on more decisions by default as we age, but it's also designed to bombard you with tempting distractions that cause you to grapple with another decision: "Do I indulge or not?"

Your response might assume a posture of individualism. You might pull your bootstraps up and tell yourself,  "I got this. I can do it all on my own."

The confidence is something like a college football player before running out of the tunnel before the Rose Bowl.

Look, I respect the bravado. But research shows otherwise. Here's the truth about willpower: You (and me) have a finite amount that becomes depleted as we use it. 

Why is this important?

If you don't design your environment in a way where you are making the least amount of trivial decisions, you're likely to deplete your willpower reservoir each day on things that don't matter.

And then, when it comes time to make a decision that carries weight - like hitting the gym, engaging in deep work, meal prepping, or sharpening your skills in your craft - you can't because your pool of willpower has been drained.

I'm just like you. I deal with this same issue. So, a few years ago, I began compiling this little playbook of rituals and habits that save me time, energy and effort.

My process is always a work in progress, but I've found that the key to minimize the amount of willpower necessary to transition into and from task to task is via rituals and habits.

By adopting a system that allows me to go on autopilot with decisions, I reserve my willpower for substantive tasks. 

Imagine a geisha pouring tea into a cup up to the brim, and then she keeps pouring. If your life feels like that cup of tea - overflowed with decisions - then it's time to cut down on decision making. It's time to adopt some practices that unload that cognitive demand.

I've got more on my plate now then to spend all day in a basketball gym. And I'm sure you're a busy person too.

This list of strategies are my own. The point is to let you have a glance at what works for me, but more importantly to nudge you into doing the same for yourself. Feel free to use any of them you see fit for your own daily routine. 


The Refrigerator Calendar 

Two things I don't want to have to remember to do are:

1. Take the trash out on the appropriate night. 

2. Park on the opposite side of the street the night before street-sweeping happens.

My simple method for this is a calendar on our refrigerator. Each month, my wife lays out the dates and marks the days when the trash needs to go out and when the car needs to be moved. This works well because I see the reminders every day, multiple times a day because the whiteboard is on the refrigerator.

The reason why we started doing this is because we got tired of having trash pile up when we missed a week. And, paying a street-sweeping ticket makes you want punch a hole in the wall like the Nard dog did in The Office. 

The white board automates the decision by reminding us without having to think about when to do each of the tasks.



The Block Method

Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work: Rules for success in a distracted world says this:

Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.

This is coming from a man who has published four books, earned a PhD, cranks out peer-reviewed academic papers and is a tenured-track professor at Georgetown University. He also has a wife and a few kids. He doesn't work past past five or six P.M., and has time to "listen to a Nationals game slowly unfold on the radio" as he puts it.

This guy doesn't have more time than either of us - he has the same 168 hours per week. So how does he do it?

He leverages the block method.

Meaning, he guards three to four hours of his day like his life depends on it.


Well, because it does. If he didn't use the block method, he could never engage in carefully directed,  concentrated work. This would do three things:

1. He wouldn't produce great work

2. He wouldn't even produce par work at an elite level.

3. His work days would extend due to lack of potency and he would have less time to spend with his family and for personal interest, like listening to the Nationals on the radio.

The cost of distraction transcends lack of productivity. It dilutes the depth of our work. It slows down our production. And it eats away at the margins of our life - those pockets of time where you spend time with your wife or in the garage restoring that 63 impala or playing guitar or going to the gym.

When you commit to the block method, you can compress your work schedule into less time without sacrificing quality or output. Research shows that we have about three to five hours of actual work in us each day. After that, things start to dip. 

Here's how I used the block method:

7:00-8:00A.M.: 60 minutes of reading.

8:00-10:30 A.M.: Writing.

10:30- 11:30 A.M.: Eat, take a walk.

Noon - 1 P.M: Emails, send article pitches, social media, or any meetings scheduled. 

1- 2:30 P.M.: Workout.

3-4 P.M: Shower, edit and finish any pieces that have deadlines.

4-5 P.M.: Light reading (blogs and magazines).

5 -6 P.M.: Walk and dinner preparation.

6 P.M. until bedtime: I leave it open. It's usually having dinner with Charlie. Sometimes we'll go for a walk. Sometimes we'll Netflix. Sometimes we'll just sit and talk. 

I'm a writer. Consequentially writing is my most important thing. Writer's need to read and research so that's a close second. I also coach people with their fitness, nutrition and wellness, so it's my personal belief that I've got to walk the talk. So training is up on my priority list as well.

These three things are my MIT's (most important things) as Leo Babauta, author of The Power of Less would say. And I've arranged my days to reflect that. The block method allows me to devote my non-renewable asset - time - to the three most important things I need to get done every day.

And, if you glance my schedule my actual work consists of about 3-5 hours each day.

Find a way to use the block method in your day. Here's a short bullet point list on how to do that if you wish to.

  • Find uninterrupted times in your day where you can devote concentrated work to. It doesn't have to be the full three to five. In fact, it's smart to start with 90 minutes blocks. Then, as you get accustomed to working this way, add more time.
  • Identify your MIT's (most important things). What are the three to five most important things that must get done each day. When you find those, everything else can wait.
  • Use triggers to get you into the state. For me, during my morning writing sessions, my trigger right now is when I take 10g of BCAA's (branch chain amino acids) infused with green tea extract. This immediately puts me into focus mode and off I go. The trigger heaves me into the action without having to think about it.


The 5/3/1 Method  

Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania organized interviews with over 350,000 thousand people over two decades to find out how they thought most of the time. His research is summarized in his book Learned Optimism.

But if you don't want to read an entire book, here why his work is important.

He found that the predominant quality of people who were happy and successful was optimism - hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.

This sounds warm and cozy right? Like something you find inside a fortune cookie type of stuff.

Before you write this off as cheesy, stay with me. 

I've wrestled with the softness of positive thinking and optimism myself. A lot of the advice sounds like it's coming from a world where only unicorns exist. However, I've found a principle - supported by a method that's helped me become more optimistic and think like a winner on a more consistent basis.

The principle of completion satiates a deep rooted desire we as come hard wired with: We need something to complete each day. Without completion on a daily basis, the hope about a successful outcome dissaptes. 

The landscape of modern work has thrown a wrench into what completion looks like for us today. Back when everyone was a craftsman - woodworker, blacksmith, saddlers, locksmith, shoemakers, bakers - completion was simple to achieve (not to be mistaken with easy).

It was somewhat linear to conquer your day's work. Make a pair of shoes. Bake two dozen baguettes from scratch. Build a table. 

Today, there are a lot more of us like lost children walking around K-Mart looking for their mother. The lack of definite completion due to the rise of mindless meetings,  administrative duties that lead to nowhere, power point messages that make you want to rip your eyeballs out, vague imperatives, and overload of distraction has caused us to become less optimistic because it's not clear as to what we've made for the day - it feels like we've just shuffled papers around and exchanged a few letters digitally. 

We can't see the completion of our efforts. This drives us mad.

In order to relieve this frustration, find something to finish each day. Identity a measurable outcome that you can chalk off as "complete."

For me, it's writing for about two hours a day. Regardless if I think it's good or not, I stay put in the chair and pound the keys for two hours. When I do this, it gives me a sense of completion. I've done the work. 

To support the principle of completion, I use the 5/3/1 method. 

It's simple. At the end of the day, I write down the five things that must get done the next day. Then, I write down the three things that I did well for the day. Lastly, I write one thing that I'm grateful for.

The 5/3/1 exercise is a good compliment to the principle of completion for three reasons:

1. It sets direction on what we need to complete the next day.

2. It reveals what you did well for the day.

3. It puts us in a state of gratitude each day.

Again, for me, writing at least two hours a day is my measure of completion. It's a simple mark that I can shoot for everyday. The 5/3/1 exercise helps me stay on track to do this consistently. And when I complete something every day, I become more optimistic. 


Wrapping Up

These three strategies have worked for me. They have provided a simple framework on how to manage my daily decision making.

And thus, it reserves mental and physical energy for me to be my best where my best is needed. I think you can take these strategies and make them your own to do the same. 


End notes: Thanks to Cal Newport, Martin Seligman, Roy Baumeister and Leo Babauta for helping prompt this post. 

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Work in a Distracted World

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Everyday Temptations