8 Killer Habits That Made Last Month So Productive
Certainly the most productive month of my whole life.
Wow. What a month it’s been.
I had planned high goals to achieve for me. But I managed to do even more. I’m almost done with a small Android app that I started to practice new skills, read two books, continued my quest for learning Mandarin Chinese, finished the new version of my portfolio, and gave a lot of thoughts to a book-notes project that I decided not to pursue — yet thinking about it was pretty cool.
This may sound like nothing, but I’m very happy about it. As always, what matters the most isn’t the end result, but the journey. And it has been made quite easier thanks to a bunch of new habits that I had committed to recently, thus I figured they would be worth sharing.
#1 Being a Sleeping Machine
Throughout my first three college years, I’ve been a night owl.
There is no problem with being a night owl. Except if you have to wake up early to go to work/university/something you have to do.
I used to live by the “I can sleep when I die” motto.
Working on my stuff on late nights. Hardly waking up 5 hours later saying, “NEVER AGAIN”. Powering through the workday. Promising myself to go to bed early. Suddenly regaining fake full alertness at night time. Repeating.
Is it good for my health? No.
Is it good for my productivity, in both my work and my projects? No.
WHY THE HELL AM I STILL DOING IT THEN.
Fortunately, I stopped before the end of 2017.
What matters is having enough sleep, every day.
Enough sleep highly depends on the individual. Nothing you can read about what others do can help. I’ve found out that 7h works perfectly for me. I shouldn’t have said that. Find yours.
Every day is nothing else but discipline. This is the part that matters the most. Find the right time to go to bed and wake up. Repeat.
#2 Waking Up Early To Start With What Matters
The most productive hours of our days are right after waking up. This is a fact.
I feel like I’ve always wanted to switch my usual timetable, and doing what I want to do in the morning, before going to work.
Because I knew I would be more productive. I knew it would work out.
Yet I’ve managed to always find a reason not to start. Until a few months ago.
I know have a 2-hour block that I can dedicate to whatever I want before my day actually starts. How great is this?
When you become a sleeping machine, nothing is stopping you to move the sleeping block you’ve created.
Just gradually change your established sleep block.
15 min by 15 min, till you reach your target.
#3 Using Time-Blocking For Your Life
Speaking of blocks.
I used to work on my projects when I had time, not planned, just when I felt like it and could. Sadly it’s really easy to get distracted by life, or wonder if it’s the right moment for doing it — Pierre, you know that you still have to finish that school report for tomorrow, right?. I often ended up half working and going to bed (very) late.
I’m an avid user of Todoist, one of the most famous todo-list services around. It has helped me organizing pretty much everything in my life for a year now.
But there is one important thing it doesn’t handle: durations.
One month ago, I’ve read about the concept of Time-Blocking.
Most people use it at work. But why should we limit its powerfulness, and not extending it to our entire life?
My new favorite idiom: throwing blocks at a project.
What triggered the shift on my end was the fresh redesign of Google Calendar Web. Wasn’t the new interface appealing to my eyes, I would have certainly let this powerful tool alone. But I wanted to build something with it.
The tool used doesn’t matter, really.
They are two important things to remember when setting time blocks:
- Allowing for breaks when necessary: you’ll always have this email to answer or that other thing to take care of. 15 min works pretty well for me.
- Throwing away the plan when needed: choose a tool that allows easy refactoring. It’s perfectly fine to let the present complications disturb the pixel-perfect calendar. What matters is reacting promptly and adapting.
“Make the plan. Execute the plan. Expect the plan to go off the rails. Throw away the plan.”
— Leonard Snart, The Flash
As I’m just an intern at the moment, I haven’t set any detailed block for the workday. Mostly because I only got one project that I have to work on, and my todo-list is more than enough for my planning needs. Speaking of todo-lists, Todoist has a nifty 2-way integration in Google Calendar, which pushes the whole system to a higher ground, allowing to have a great overview.
#4 Constantly Jumping Between Projects
I guess common sense is teaching us that staying focused is what matters the most in terms of rapid project completion and productivity.
However, I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t really work with me. I find it hard to know when I’ll be productive on a specified project.
What I know for sure is that I can get incredibly productive when I enter the so-called flow state, when the clock suddenly turns into a fan and everything else but the project freezes.
By NOT strangling your mind to focus on the specific area you wanted to.
But rather letting it dive into another project or area that may end up being much more valuable than the former.
To quote Tobias van Schneider in a story about productivity:
“Repeat after me: I do not have to finish a project before I move on to the next one.”
I use to keep track of my project ideas in a list named Upcoming Sides, that I regularly update to match with the new areas I’d like to explore or the ones that no longer excite me. I often review it side-by-side with my Life Goals list, in order to make sure that I stay on the right track.
#5 Exercising At The Worst Time
This is probably the most interesting thing I’ve found out last month.
As a Top-25 U23 mountain bike rider in France, there is no way around avoiding my daily workout. While it can be really hard sometimes, exercising is certainly one of the most important things the human body needs, and it is known that it can have a drastic impact on productivity.
Since I used to hit the gym — yes gym because my bike is on the other side of the planet till I return home— every day during the evening, about 1h30 after coming back from work. During this gap, I often had problems focusing, and always had others things to do than the ones I had planned. At this point of the day, the only things you want to do are laying down, eating junk food and consuming pointless content that falls in front of your eyes, such as social media.
From my experience, this is one of the hardest times to get back to what needs to be done on your todo-list, such as reading this great book your colleague told you about or perfecting that skill of yours.
On the other hand, every time I come back from the gym, my head is cleared. At rest. Full of energy. Ready to take over the world.
That’s when the refactoring idea came: moving the gym block right after work.
When it sucks the most.
And the outcome was even better than expected. Instead of benefiting from this energy gain only one hour before bed, I am now able to extend it through the whole evening.
I never thought I’d journal.
Why on earth would I need to spend time on this? Journaling is for children.
Yay. How wrong I was.
Journaling can prove itself incredibly useful. By talking to your inner-self, you can reach a whole new level of abstraction on your past, current and future work.
I’ve written quite a lot of computer code, whether on a university or personal exploration purpose. Facing a problem, whether it’s a bug or a lack of creativity, what was the most effective debugging tool I’ve found?
Talking. Finding someone to talk to and explaining to him the problem. What happens most of the time?
So you know for my calculator app code ... and after that I’m calling back the function to … HOLY CRAP I KNOW WHY IT DOESN’T WORK THANK YOU SO MUCH!
Your interlocutor doesn’t even have to say a word. You figured it out on your own.
And I’m pretty sure this has a much broader scope than just programming. By explaining, rephrasing, adapting, abstracting for a person to understand, the solution for your problem might show up, just like that.
And most of the time you just can’t have that person to talk to. However, a journal can be just the right candidate.
By starting today! Whether it’s on actual paper, on a smartphone app or anything else.
I guess it would be even possible to do it orally and speaking out loud.
I’m using Google Calendar again for that. I’ve set up a Journal calendar for it, and every night I’m adding a full-day event, using a qualificative title like “Best day of the month!”, adding the content inside the Description field. Using an IFTTT applet, it gets automatically backed up as documents in a specific folder on my Google Drive.
#7 Reviewing The Next Day
Back when I started waking up early, I sometimes took a long time to have breakfast and shower. Mostly because at some point, I didn’t really know what to work on during my morning block.
The thing is, when you start having time that you didn’t have before, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by nothing and forget to actually do something.
This is precisely what made me understand the simple fact that today started yesterday.
In order to get started promptly and avoid wasting the precious morning minutes that are said to be the most productive, it’s very important to know where to start.
It’s as simple as allowing 5 minutes at the end of the day to think about the day after.
What works for me is having a look at my calendar, and renaming the blocks with the project I’ll work on.
Additionally, I like to add a Plan B. As we previously discussed, there is nothing wrong with feeling more attracted by another project while working. But in order to avoid jumping to other pointless activity, we have to cover our backs. To do so, I put another thing to do in parenthesis, right in the title.
For instance, my morning Side projects block becomes Todoboard (Medium story).
#8 Allowing Thinking Time
Last but not least, as they say.
I’m pretty sure you exactly know what I mean and what to do about it. Ever got a genius insight while showering or walking?
Our minds are like children. When they get onto something they like, they can’t let go. The brain keeps that background thread running, and during a slow moment, it provides you with this answer you were looking for, hours, or even days before.
Still, that Eureka-moment can’t happen if our main thread is constantly occupied.
It doesn’t have to be hours. Optimizing every minute of your life is awesome, I can relate. So much to learn, no time to lose.
But letting your mind wander during that 5-minute walk back home can achieve so much more than this podcast fragment you’d prefer hearing.
Whenever possible, getting to bed 10 minutes earlier than usual can get similar results.
And that’s precisely how this story idea came to my mind.