This Easy Life Management System Will Make You Happier, Freer, and Twice As Productive
Originally published by Stephen Guise on his personal website.
Here’s the conundrum: We want freedom, but we also want to do things that matter.
Doing what matters requires intention, but intention (i.e., having plans) can sometimes threaten one’s sense of freedom. Also, operating from a default state of freedom makes it difficult to generate intention to do meaningful things. What’s the impetus to decide you will work on that book idea? It doesn’t happen randomly. If you’re lucky, you’ll be inspired to work on important things sometimes, but not often enough to make a difference.
Giving yourself structure is the toughest part of being a self-employed “type B” person. Every part of me resists structuring my day, but I’ve realized that it’s mostly because of how it’s typically done. I can thrive under structure if I create it under my own terms.
So how can one maintain a feeling of complete freedom, yet consistently make progress towards their goals? Mini Habits is one strategy for consistent progress that I’ve talked plenty about, but it’s for habit development. What about areas outside of habit development that require daily intention? Is a to-do list really the best we can do?
Those of us who want the combination of freedom, productivity, and flexibility could benefit greatly from a structured system with which to navigate through life intentionally. It needs to be better than mainstream time management ideas like the to-do list. It should be…
- Empowering (and never defeating, like when you don’t complete items on your to-do list)
- Easy to do
How many systems out there support these requirements? None… until today!
The Mini Flex System
Most systems designed to provide life structure are some combination of rigid, complicated, boring, demanding, and downright obnoxious to maintain. Getting Things Done, for example, is an extremely popular book, and for good reason. I love David Allen’s classic book for its accurate deconstruction of human life, but in practice, it is waaaay too robotic, controlling, and maintenance intensive. I’ve tried to implement it twice, and each time it felt like I spent more time managing the system than actually doing things to improve my life. It’s still a worthwhile read for understanding the different ways we can categorize our life actions.
The following system is different. It’s smarter, streamlined, and completely flexible every day.
Again, this is not a replacement for Mini Habits, but a supplement to them. Having mini habits has changed my life and thousands of others. They make progress and habit formation simple, fun, and doable. Life is mostly made or broken by our habits, but there still exists non-habitual factors that heed consideration. After much contemplation and experimenting, I have discovered the following solution for these aspects of life that works for me AND integrates with my current mini habits. Here’s what it looks like.
There are two components to this system — a big calendar and a large dry erase board.
The calendar serves as my mini habits progress tracker. I currently have two mini habits: read 2 pages in a book per day and meditate one minute per day. When I complete them, I write a check mark f0r that day. You’ll notice that I also have grades for each day, and I’ll explain that later.
The dry erase board handles everything besides my mini habits from one-time things like ebaying my microphone to frequently repeated actions like exercising or working on my video course to someday/maybe ideas like taking a Greece cruise. My board has four simple lists on it.
- Frequent tasks: The first list contains valuable things I would benefit from doing frequently (but that are not mandatory to do every day). Examples: play basketball, do HIIT training, lift weights, work on my video course, find a social event, clean, respond to emails, etc.
- NOW tasks: The second list contains one-time tasks I WILL do sometime today (these are not time-specific like meetings and appointments, as that’s what I use my phone calendar for). Examples: Mail a package, get my passport photo taken, call someone, etc.
- Soon tasks: The third list contains things I plan to do soon (within the next month), but not necessarily immediately. Examples: Revamp my websites, mail my new passport application, etc.
- Someday/Maybe: The final list is my someday/maybe list, which lists things I’d like to do sometime in the next 5 years. Examples: Greece cruise, visit various countries (China, South Korea, New Zealand, etc.), start a Meetup.com Group, etc.
Rules: What I Require Myself to Do Each Day
- I must do my two mini habits every day. They’re small enough and easy enough to knock out even if I’m tired and have limited time.
- On the dry erase board every morning, I will choose two tasks from the far left list (frequent or “core” tasks) to complete that day. On any day, I can decide to work on a “Near Future” task or “Someday/Maybe” task in lieu of or in addition to my core tasks. I may also have one-time NOW tasks that I’ll do as necessary, and they don’t count towards my two tasks. A typical day’s pair of tasks will be some form of exercise and some form of computer work, but I can switch it up however I please. This way, the system accommodates my typical goals, but gives me freedom to pivot at any time without feeling like I’m doing something wrong. It’s completely flexible.
- IMPORTANT: I am allowed to skip the dry erase board tasks on any day for any reason. I call this a “treat yo self” day. You can see in the photo that I took two days off already because I was at a casino with a friend. Unlimited days off is not a weakness, but a strength. I don’t want every day to be equally productive, because life isn’t (and shouldn’t be) that rigid and predictable. I don’t want a set number of “rest days,” because I might work for 200 days in a row and then take a month long vacation (something I’ve done before). Life is naturally dynamic unless you or someone else (like your workplace) artificially constricts it.
- Before bedtime, I grade myself on how I lived the day.
It’s designed this way for the following reasons:
- Setting intention: each morning begins by being intentional about today’s goals. Without that, I often found myself wasting massive amounts of time neither working or playing just because I never decided what exactly to do. I had dozens of ideas of what to do, but I felt helpless to decide which ones to do today. Moving that decision out of my head and onto a whiteboard makes it much easier to decide.
- Direction: The four lists and the mini habits combined show me the general direction I’m headed. Direction is more important than individual tasks because it ultimately determines where you go. Anyone can have a single great day or do a single great thing, but a great life can only be made by doing great things consistently. Consistency is direction. Think of each day as a step. Are your steps lined up in a single direction, or are you walking in circles?
- Fun: I call this board my command center, and it’s fun for me to feel like the captain in control over my life. This board gives me the information I need in the form of tasks I want to do (in every relevant timeframe), and it then gives me the power to choose!
- Daily choice: The problem with most goals or systems is that they turn you into a slave. Slavery is defined by lack of choice, and if you say, decide to exercise Monday-Friday at 5:30 PM every day, you’re effectively removing your ability to choose what you do. This is actually a positive thing when it comes to habit development, but it will exhaust you if you do it in too many areas at once. Thus, I have a basket of ideas I can choose from each day, and I never feel enslaved because I make that choice each day. The decision is made fresh each day, not a stale old burden from a New Year’s Resolution.
- Sense of control: If you put this all together, you will get a strong feeling of control over your life. Yes, bad things will still happen. Yes, you’ll fail sometimes. But for the most part, you’re a general examining the battlefield of life every day and deciding your next move. When you combine a reliable infrastructure with the freedom to maneuver as needed, you get the ultimate feeling of control and power.
- Imagining the process: The magic of choosing your tasks in the morning is that you immediately begin imagining the process of how they will be completed. For example, today I chose to write the newsletter, do HIIT training, plus prepare and mail two items at the post office. Because I knew everything I wanted to do, I logistically determined how I could get everything completed. Without knowing your full intentions for the day, you won’t manage your time and energy effectively.
This system is comprehensive while being as simple as possible, as flexible as possible, as easy to maintain as possible, and as fun as possible.
The secret sauce to this system that makes it awesome? It’s totally optional. On any and every day, I will permit myself to take a “treat yo self” day (“treat yo self” is a phrase from Parks and Recreation). This means I can do whatever I want and ignore the board (I still have to do my mini habits though).
You might wonder if this is a problem. What if I take off 20 days in a row? That’s unlikely to happen, but if it does, it’s probably because I’m busy doing something awesome like traveling. When I’m home and rested, I want to do productive things. I enjoy having this flexible structure in place to help me live a satisfying day of my choosing.
Freedom is imperative to my success with this system. I’d rebel otherwise. I don’t want to live a controlled and maintenance-heavy life, even if it’s a brilliant system like Getting Things Done. I want to be able to have random and fun rest days, not in an arbitrary amount like once per week, but as needed or wanted.
Built-in freedom makes me love and respect this system. What other life management system out there is even slightly lovable? They’re all about doing work and being more efficient with your time, even if it’s brutal to your energy levels and morale. The results from such systems can be nice at first, but you will learn to dread their iron grip on your life and that means they’re not going to last.
Freedom is especially necessary for this system because the tasks within it are larger than a mini habit. The available actions are generally 10 minutes or longer (see them in parenthesis in the picture below). That’s still pretty easy, but it’s not as easy as a mini habit. Simply knowing that I don’t have to do these tasks every day and that I can take a break at any time is empowering and makes them completely non-threatening.
What if your boss let you take as many vacation days as you wanted? You might take off quite a few days, sure, but wouldn’t it also make you want to be really productive at work because your boss is awesome? That’s what this feels like. You are that awesome boss!
There’s one last thing I thought was missing. I needed a way to gauge my performance. With Mini Habits, it’s easy — if you see the check mark, you’re doing great. But how would I evaluate my whiteboard actions? If I did nothing one day even though it wasn’t a planned “treat yo self” day, how would I make note of that?
Tracking your actions is important. It’s possibly the best and most reliable motivator because it provides self-accountability and encouragement in one easy step. I thought about assigning each task a point value, and then trying to earn, say, 20 points per day. It was too cookie cutter. How could I evaluate setting up a social event vs. doing an intense workout? They’re completely different and equally valuable. In addition, the value of a task can fluctuate depending on your circumstances. Typically, I would value exercise over say, finding a social event to attend. But if I’ve been a hermit lately, it might be more valuable that day to find a social event. I’d also have to figure out a point value for every single task I created for the board, and that would get old really fast. These are the little decisions that make or break life management systems. If I get annoyed, I quit, and I know I’m not alone in that.
I realized that I couldn’t rate my performance using a rigid score method. Life is too dynamic for that. Instead, I realized that it would be incredibly easy and intuitive to simply give myself a grade for the day. From F to A+, how did I do? The human brain can take many factors into account and instantly understand their meaning. Any mathematical or point model I came up with wouldn’t even be able to calculate how a headache or poor night of sleep might affect one’s ability to perform. But I can easily think, “I slept poorly but still accomplished XYZ… I say B+!” or, “I did get some work done, but with all that time and energy, I know I could have done better. I give myself a C today.”
Every night, I evaluate the day, considering everything. I know when I’ve screwed up, I know when I’ve crushed it, and I know when I’m somewhere in between. A subjective grade means it’s on the honor system, which is perfect because the greatest success is living the way you want to live. If I can take an honest look at my day and think, “I’m happy with how I spent my time and energy today,” then I’m doing well. Otherwise, I can give myself a lower grade and I’ll know exactly why and how to top it.
I call this The Mini Flex System because it combines Mini Habits with flexible task management.
If you wake up in the morning and feel directionless (or come home from work and feel directionless), try The Mini Flex System.
If you’re tired of stale goals, time management systems, and to-do lists, try The Mini Flex System.
If you’ve had success with Mini Habits and wonder what’s the next step, try The Mini Flex System.
Reclaim your freedom and be more productive at the same time. It can be done!