Routines, Running, and Getting Things Done

I love organization and task management tools. Whether it’s a one-off task like returning library books or a recurring task like calling my parents, I know I can’t remember everything that I need to do. I need systems to remember for me, and I’m always improving those systems (with blog posts to prove it). Continue reading “Routines, Running, and Getting Things Done”

A brief history of my TODO list

I’m obsessed with staying organized. I know how often I don’t commit something to memory or forget later, and I see life as a constant struggle against the chaos and idleness of disorganization. Having a system seems to be the key, and when everything can seemingly be solved with software, there’s an app for that. As such, I thought I would share a brief history into my own system.

The Folder

Until I got to college, I didn’t have a system. I think we were required to have organizers and time trackers during primary and secondary school, but I never really used any of that. In retrospect, it’s astounding how much effort teachers put into teaching us reasonable skills (like time and task management), which we completely missed because we were some combination of not busy, conscientious, or understanding enough of why we should do it.

Regardless, I went through the motions as much as required but never really used any of that. All I had was a single, usually plastic, two-pocket folder. I had to carry binders of notes, spirals, time trackers, and whatever else, but the only thing that actually mattered was in that folder. At a time where most tasks were homework, which was often a piece of paper, it was an easy way to keep track of everything. Fill the folder over the course of the day, then empty it as I completed things.

I’m not quite sure how I factored studying for tests into that system, but when calendars only had to be scheduled at most a week out, it didn’t really matter. It was a simple system, but it worked because the scope was so small. In truth, my teachers, education system, and parents really kept track of anything important. They doled out my tasks and calendar in bite-size pieces that were easily represented with a folder.

OSX Stickies

When I got to college, I started using the Stickies widget on the OSX dashboard page. Presumably, the change of context from high school to college rendered the folder ineffective. I’m guessing I developed the habit when I started putting my random addresses into Stickies and evolved random notes into a single, very long TODO sticky note. Despite being somewhat rudimentary, it was effective for planning out when I would have to study for one class or work on an assignment for another.

I was extremely reliant on it. When my motherboard died, I wasn’t worried about any documents on my computer: the most important thing was recovering my Stickies so I wouldn’t drop anything within the week. Overall, it is perhaps the closest to a true TODO list as I have ever used: it had few recurring tasks and could easily be populated and scheduled out to about a a week. During college, most of my tasks were still relatively short-term and could easily be accommodated in this system.

Evernote

Towards the end of college when I started working, I switched over to Evernote. I became an Evernote fan as a way to collect my dozens of random text documents on my computer, but it became the right TODO list tool because it was portable. When I had a work computer and a personal computer, I couldn’t sync up the Stickies widget, so I couldn’t do things or add tasks while at work.

The portability brought me over, but it was the checkboxes that kept me. As I transitioned into real life with errands and chores, I developed more recurring tasks, which I could check and un-check as necessary. This evolved into the regular TODO list, which I previously described. In brief, I divided up tasks into daily, weekly, monthly, and irregular tasks, and managed it in a single note.

Asana

My Evernote system was good and probably sustainable if I hadn’t found a better task management tool in Asana within the past few months. Evernote is more of a swiss army knife, where Asana was built specifically for task management in mind. I started using it because unlike Evernote, it works with other people. I started recording tasks around the house with Julie, but I instantly became a fan of the system. It reminded me of the issue tracking system I use at work, except it stripped away a lot of the doctrine and boilerplate to make it very simple to add, organize, and complete tasks.

It was easy to transition everything, and it allows me to set tasks to repeat. This was particularly helpful for my regular TODO list: instead of having to reset at the end of every period, it resets on completion and files it away until that day comes up. Even better, it has the due date so I can see how many days I have skipped on a daily task (usually exercise).

I think there are a few other nice features to it that I’m not recalling at the moment, but ignoring the details, I think everyone should be using Asana. I honestly don’t get how any adult can get away without a task management system, and Asana makes it so easy for both personal and team use. With a task management system, it’s hard to guiltlessly fail to do something: there’s a task that won’t go away until it is completed.

The Future?

One of my coworkers shared Bullet Journal with me, and she was right because conceptually, I love it. I love it because it’s an organization system. Moreover, it has 2 characteristics which I feel are missing.

First, it’s analog. Despite everything about my life, I still fancy myself a luddite and pretend like things would be better without computers. There’s something still satisfying about having a system in pen and paper.

Second, it has history. This blog and my advocacy for journaling are both symptoms of my interesting in recording my life. I have at various times tried to maintain lists of books I have read, events I have gone to, movies I have watched, and music I have been into, but none of it really stuck. All of it was more work than seemed immediately worthwhile. Having that documentation built into my regular flow sounds really nice, especially if it’s private and analog.

So I’m not sure what’s next, but at the current pace, in at most 3 years, I will have a new system because it satisfies some new requirement. Looking at my history, it seems that each change came about by a larger change in my life: first college, then work, then moving out.  I’m not sure what is happening in 3 years, but I’m sure I’ll need something different.

My Regular TODO List

I am, by upbringing, a planner. Recently, I have become a more self-aware planner, and a need to rebel has pushed me to be more spontaneous. The result is that I have rapidly gone through phases of more and less planning depending on what I’m reacting against.

Currently, I’m in a planning mindset, which has led me to my scheduled TODO list. A few months ago, I would set a daily TODO list at the beginning of each week and cross off items everyday. My personal life was amazingly efficient, but it also really started to look like work. I backed off from that, but over the past few months of limited computer use, I have found myself not doing very much. Evenings would just disappear after finishing dishes.

During that time, I have maintained a “floating” section to my TODO list, which are intended to be done anytime during the week, but I haven’t used it consistently. One problem is that it muddles the urgency and timing of many different things, so it takes some thought to determine what is important to address. When I start going through it, I mentally skip items I can’t immediately do, and the ones I can are lost in the mix. Also, there are many things I would like to do very regularly but aren’t part of a daily routine. As such, I have developed a new system.

My new system is to set TODO items as daily, weekly, or monthly. On those schedules, I check and uncheck items in evernote. It grants me the right amount of flexibility to not feel too regimented in completing things that I have handcuffed myself to do. A lot of them are also vague to encourage exploration.

Here’s what it looks like:

Daily

  • Exercise – even if I don’t make arrangements to run or play a sport, I can at least do a quick workout at home or stretch out my arms
  • Learning a 2nd language – it’s a New Year’s Hope, and language has to be used. I was doing German, but after talking to Julie, I don’t think that will be very useful. Instead, I’m going to pick up more Cantonese. Maybe it’s not globally very important, but I have missed out on enough family interactions by not speaking it, and with my sister’s wedding coming up, I’ll see all of them
  • Read – It’s been amazing to get back into reading. Just putting it on my TODO list is enough to get me to open my current book, and then I’m sucked in
  • Listen to iTunes U – still getting through classes. This one is a lower priority, but it’s a reminder to keep it up. It somewhat goes against my last post,  but I need to keep moving, or else I’ll lose context for not keeping up with a class
  • Relax with Julie – most evenings, we do dinner and catch up, but on some nights (like StarCraft night), we might barely say hi before heading off into different things. It’s worth the time to sit down and enjoy being together
  • Read the news – I get the New York Times and Politico in my email inbox daily. I have let it pile up for 2 weeks, and it just isn’t as valuable when just catching up.

Weekly

  • Play StarCraft – join us on Tuesday nights!
  • Play other video games – I have a video game backlog, too. It’s probably too much to do on weekdays when I’m on my computer all day, but it’s nice to play on weekends when I can
  • Blog – I am become much less consistent over the past few months. My blog is where I do a lot of thinking
  • Write in my journal – Maybe my life isn’t that interesting nowadays, or maybe it just doesn’t fit, but I haven’t written daily in a few years. I have since gone for months without writing. Weekly is a good balance since I can usually write Sunday nights and look back on the biggest thing that happened that week
  • Watch TV – Agents of Shield, Cosmos, and whatever other show Julie and I are currently working through
  • Work on my side projects – This is somewhere between daily and weekly. Currently, I’m mostly focused on Spawning Tool, so we’ll see how that goes
  • Watch a movie – I also have a huge movie backlog. I have wanted to but been unable to successfully do movie night, but I know I have time to do it at some point during the week
  • Cook something new – Julie and I cook a lot, but it’s pretty easy to fall back on the standards. At least once a week we should try a new recipe amongst our cookbooks and foodmarks
  • Bake – I do enjoy baking, too, and it’s something I can do to brighten other people’s days
  • Basic cleanup – Typically, we do a big cleanup right before some major event when people are coming over, but it would be less daunting to do one of the tasks once a week and keep things running

Monthly

  • Eat out somewhere new – I mostly prefer home-cooked meals, but there’s just so much good food out there, especially up in San Francisco, that i haven’t explored. If I do go out to eat, it’s usually with a friend, and I like to pick nearby staples. It should be easy, but I definitely need to make an effort to eat out
  • Keep in touch with an old friend – Every time I catch up with someone, we both lament how poorly we keep up with people. Put it on a schedule
  • Get out to do something – Go to a community event, join a meetup, see a performance, get outdoors, take a day trip somewhere. Find something new to do
  • Run my RPGs – I have a Tekumel and a Forgotten Realms play group. We’re not that intense, but it’s easy to fall off track, so I’m shooting to play monthly with them
  • Volunteer – Recently, I have felt a push to become more involved in my community. Volunteering is one of the positive ways to do it, but I haven’t really done any in Mountain View yet
  • Play board games – My collection grew quite quickly, and it’s another fun way to hang out
  • Do a more extensive clean – If anything hasn’t been touched in a month of weekly cleans, it should probably be cleaned
  • Book club meeting – There’s enough structure around this that I don’t have to monitor it, but it’s just a reminder for myself

That may be the best high level look at my life. Let me know if you have any suggested changes in it!

Taking Back Time By Letting It Slip Away

(This was originally written a few weeks ago in Anaheim at ALA. It has since been edited)

2 1/2 years ago, I went to my first library conference, and that feels like both too recent and too long ago.

StackMap is in pretty good shape nowadays. We can always make the product better, but we’ve worked out more of our practices, from our 30 second demos to code customization. Despite offering the same basic idea from our founding, we have learned and improved so much over 4 years, and we even have external validation for that. Before, we received a lot of skepticism from libraries. Mostly, they were concerned about using StackMap after we (presumably) moved on in a few years. Well, we haven’t, and now, we even get referrals in the exhibitors hall at the ALA annual conference from friends who noticed the “StackMap guys”. Even thought we’re still considered “new” in the library space, how libraries respond to us indicate that we’ve matured tremendously in their eyes. Somehow, we’ve apparently learned the secret phrase for acceptance into this world.

That development, along with other details, has made this the most relaxed conference I have been to. To get to the convention center by 9, I wake up at 8, which is well past my normal alarm nowadays. Without the usual chores of the day, I’m be in bed by 11 or 12 without any other distractions, and have even managed to do some reading before bed.

This fixed schedule is a major benefit I discovered after finishing school a few months ago and subsequently starting work. Overnight, my daily life changed, starting from my alarm going off and continuing through my social setting in the evenings. The biggest change, however, has been reclaiming my downtime. When I was still in school, I often felt like I was on the clock, regardless of the time of day. I had the obvious commitments on my calendar, y, like meetings and classes, I it also had my deliberate relaxation and procrastination.

I made the apparently liberating discover that time is fluid and that all activities are tradeoffs. At any time, I could sleep or study. Attending class is generally good, but if the time was better spent doing the homework for that class, I could just watch lecture later. Leisure was factored in there as a necessary part of a balanced life, but a lot of the value of free time disappears when you’re focused on what you’re giving up to take it. With this thinking, I broke free of the calendar and could work in my own way by paying attention only to deadlines.

The unexpected consequence of this thinking was that no moment was my life was ever truly free. Every choice had a very apparent opportunity cost, and the accumulation of all those losses in my mind sapped me of the joys that come from the unstructured, whimsical moments in life. I lost the value of the moment for itself, instead focusing on everything else it could’ve been.

Since then, I have been getting used to the idea that I have time that I don’t need to dedicate to anything in particular. I have been more often washing dishes for no better reason than that “I don’t have anything better to be doing with my time”, whereas my roommate often needed to get back to studying. Thankfully, I don’t mind washing dishes, but even if I did, it was worth doing just to use that reason.

A difficult point for me to adopt, however, has been savoring the moments in my life. Consider a specific example: lying in bed. Since midway through high school when I started falling behind on sleep, I have fallen asleep very quickly after turning the lights out. In the mornings, I rarely lie in bed just to enjoy it. I’ll stay if I’m tired and think I can fall asleep again, but if I’m awake, I don’t fear the world outside the warmth of my covers and starting the day as soon as possible.

Until recently, this gusto was worth having. During the week, my alarm was timed precisely with my class schedule, and on the weekends, I could always start brunch or homework on embark on some outing sooner. Now, weekends aren’t as often dedicated to planned activities or work. Weekends just happen, and I haven’t yet accepted that lying in bed is worth happening.

I’m probably blessed in my general alacrity, but I wonder what I lack that makes these activities not worth my time. I never stay in the shower to enjoy the water running over me, I don’t particularly enjoy walking as a method of transportation, and I don’t watch the iTunes visualizer. Ever.

After obsessing about the utility of every moment and working to maximize it both in the present and future, I have tried hard to let chance back into my life. It’s a battle as I turn my procrastination list back into a procrastination list instead of a backlog of recommended fun. My optimized schedule of relentless activities can loosen up and allow 30 minute gaps back in without seeming wasted. Instead of planning to make the most of all my time, I can grow into my life and appreciate how amazing this world, which I have always lived in, can be.

Getting Past Plans

After playing racquetball and eating dinner with Ben last week, I found myself with nothing to do for the evening. I pulled up my Stickies on my computer, but my green to-do sticky note was empty. My eyes drifted over to my procrastination list, and after rejecting any intensive reading, I decided to play “No One Lives Forever,” a PC shooter themed after a goofy, James Bond-style spy flick. I rebooted my computer into Windows and settled in for an evening of video games.

Playing it didn’t go so well. It’s a well-designed funny game, but I didn’t find myself enjoying it, and after a few minutes, I just quit the game and tried to figure out what else I wanted to do. I visualized my procrastination list and went through the items. Again rejecting all of the reading, I decided to instead chip away at a very long “Movies To Watch” list. I moved the coffee table in my living room out of the way and dragged the couch to 5 feet in front of the TV for Julie & Julia, the Nora Ephron dramedy. In my defense, I mostly wanted to watch the movie because it was about food.

I admit, however, that I enjoyed it far more than I would have just for the food. The acting was good, there were some laugh out loud moments, and I was engaged by Julie Powell’s plan to cook the 500-something recipes from Julia Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year and blog about it. With a cooking blog myself (that I’m not ashamed to plug), I imagined how much fun it would be to have a project like that. Thinking through the whole year, though, I could never do that myself. Julie couldn’t have had time for anything other than her day job and this cooking project; what about the rest of her passions in life?

Julie had a single-mindedness that I have had a lot of difficulty finding. I fill my life with plans, like an activity tonight, dinner tomorrow night, a weekend trip a week from now, my class schedule a month from now, my living situation a year from now, and my life goals a decade from now. And my procrastination list fills the time in-between all of those events. Apparently, I even plan for when I don’t have plans.

The lists and planning are good, until they become the goals themselves. Lists can conveniently list things to get done, but in the end, the list is just the representation of the goal. I think there’s a small satisfaction in crossing off an item from a list, but that’s peripheral to the reason why it was on the list in the first place. For example, about 3 weeks from the end of the school year, I wrote down every academic commitment I had left. I was excited every time I could scratch off a line, and I even liked throwing the entire list in the trash. All of that, however, was a slow march towards graduation, another step to the big payoff.

Reviewing my procrastination list and how I treat it, I think I might be using it the wrong way. Once, the list was a memory aid for things I might enjoy, but when my focus turns to the list itself, I end up playing video games not for the fun they actually are, but for the goal of deleting that line out of my Stickie. If I finish that item, and the next item, and the next item, all the way to the end in the same fashion, I might successfully complete my procrastination list at some point, but I would have also missed the reason it exists a long time before.

So I have tossed a few lists, like my reading and video game lists, and trimmed a few, like my procrastination list and movie list. My friend RJ mentioned the other day that he had finished watching a TV show and was wondering what might be up next. If he can get by without a backlog, I think I’ll manage with only 3 TV shows to finish. I still need to offload some of my memory into a usable form.

In trimming these lists and plans for my life, I still don’t think I’ll find the same single-mindedness that Julie did in cooking through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but I’m a step closer to relieving myself of the items on the backburners and throwing myself wholeheartedly into a yearlong project on a whim. On some level, even those 500-something recipes for her were put together as a plan in a list. I’m sure she had her share of breakdowns and moments of disillusionment, but I guess those are the moments to see through the plan for the goal behind it and figure out why the plan existed all along.

 

(Author’s Note: this post is a sliver of some bigger things I’ve been thinking about recently, and for awhile, this post was going to turn far more intense than either I’m comfortable with or what you likely care about. Even so, here are a few nuggets and insights into my writing process that didn’t make it into the final cut)

In some ways, plans are just like lists, too. I enjoy planning events and figuring out details. I also have panicked and fretted when plans don’t pan out, but often, things turn out fine anyways, and the only problem was worrying about the plan.

I should appreciate the fact that I have the capacity to be juggling the various things I’m doing at all times, but this mindset also means that I’m always juggling things. Since the end of my freshmen year, I have had no fewer than 2 jobs at any time and have been averaging more than that. I always think that things are going to get better soon, but because I believe that, I jump at the opportunity to be doing more, and things stay just about the same.

  • I have my life in plans and lists
  • I’m willing to finish things
  • always have a backburner
  • need to do less to do more
  • get by without it all