Posted on Wed 23 November 2016

Healthy habits and hacks

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I've been making a few small changes lately to my daily habits and how I set up my day. While each of these is a small change, altogether they've improved how productive I am, and reduced my stress levels.

Google calendar emails

I use Google calendar for all my time-based appointments. To make sure I never forget something I have scheduled, I turned on a handy Google calendar feature that sends me an email every morning with my schedule. You can find this in the notification settings for each of your Google calendars:

Edit notification settings for a Google Calendar

Most days I like waking up to an email saying I have no events for the day, but for the few times I do have something scheduled, the email adds peace of mind by making sure I know about it first thing in the morning.

Google Calendar notification settings

No email notifications... at all

I recently wrote an article for a freelance client about how harmful notifications can be to our focus and stress levels. Before writing the article I'd been noticing email notifications in particular were often bugging me or negatively affecting my mood; because most of my clients live in different timezones, I tend to get work emails at all hours.

After I wrote the article I turned off email notifications entirely. Both on my phone and my computer. I can easily forget about my inbox while I work, now, and it will never interrupt me. The extra sense of calm from not reacting to emails as soon as they arrive has been huge.

Daily power hour

This is a concept I just read about in Cal Newport's book, How to Become a Straight-A Student. He doesn't call it a power hour, but I like the sound of that.

The basic idea is to set aside an hour every day when you almost never have anything on your schedule, and plan to work during that hour every day. It's a strategy for overcoming procrastination, and Newport suggests students plan to work on particular classes during this hour each day.

For those of us who aren't full-time students, I like the idea of setting aside this hour everyday for a particular project or type of work that we tend to put off. No matter what else happens to derail your day, you can guarantee you'll get a solid hour of work done if you schedule your power hour and stick to it.

Longer to do lists

This will sound counterintuitive, but I get more done when I have a huge to do list.

Lately I'd been lazy about making my to do lists. Each morning (or the night before), I'd carry over anything I hadn't done and jot down one or two things I had on my mind. My to do lists were rarely more than five or six items long.

The problem with short to do lists is that I would end up with a short list of items I didn't want to do, and no alternatives, so I'd waste time doing nothing. With a long to do list, I can fill it up with work that needs to be done, and avoiding cleaning the microwave by doing something productive, rather than watching YouTube videos.

It can take a lot of effort and thought to plan a long to do list when you don't have a lot of obvious deadlines to force your hand, but I've found taking the extra time to fill up my list with productive tasks has helped me get more done overall.

Paper planning

In the past year I've been using analogue tools a lot more, and I've found it works well for me. Writing out my calendar events and tasks makes them stick in my brain more, so I forget things less and rarely feel overwhelmed or confused by my workload.

It also gives me a more tangible, visual representation of everything I want to get done and my upcoming deadlines. I find it especially handy for planning future deadlines when looking at a monthly paper planner.

Extended Do Not Disturb mode

Another change I made after researching how dangerous notifications can be was to extend the time period my phone is set to not notify me about anything. I'd previously scheduled Do Not Disturb mode for 10pm - 6am every day of the week. That's around when I go to bed and when I wake up, so the idea was that I wouldn't get disturbed when I was sleeping.

But I tried extending the period to cover anytime outside my standard working hours. I now schedule Do Not Disturb mode for 6pm - 9am. Which means when I'm having dinner, watching TV, reading, and going to sleep, my phone won't disturb me. But it also won't notify me about anything that happens when I'm working out, showering, and having breakfast in the morning. I've essentially told my phone to only interrupt me during work hours, from 9-6 every day.

I already kept my phone on silent always, and turned off notifications from most of the apps I had installed. But this extra period of not being notified has proven to increase my sense of calm and my ability to truly switch off and relax when I'm not working.

Night before planning

There are two reasons I try to plan my day the night before. One is that it helps me relax when I go to bed, because I already know what events I have on the next day, how busy my day is overall, and what kind of work I'm planning to do.

The other reason is that I find it helpful to end my day with a little review. Checking off tasks and habits I completed throughout the day and migrating unfinished tasks to tomorrow's to do list helps me see how productive I was for the day, and think about how I can improve tomorrow.

Swapping hard stuff for slightly less hard stuff

One thing I've noticed about myself lately is my tendency to skip things that seem hard or uncomfortable, even if they'll benefit me overall. A good example is workouts. I recently restarted a regular workout plan, and I noticed during my first week that after a rest day I found it hard to talk myself into working out the next morning.

As I lay in bed debating whether to push myself to do the workout or give up and just skip it, I realised part of the problem was that it was a 30-minute workout, and I'd been doing 15-minute workouts most days. Easing into a regular habit is important for not overloading my limited willpower, and being able to tell myself, "it's only 15 minutes" had really helped me stick to the plan so far.

The problem with this longer workout was that I felt my only two options were to do the full workout or to not exercise at all. But when I realised I could simply choose a 15-minute workout to do instead, I felt much better. I was able to talk myself into doing a shorter workout than I'd planned, and not have to face a full day of regret and shame over not sticking to my exercise plan.

Scott H. Young talks about this idea using the terms quantity and smoothness. When optimising for smoothness, says Young, you're looking for ways to make things easier so you can keep them up more regularly. In my case, doing a shorter workout was easier, so I was able to stick to my plan in terms of the number of workouts per week, even if I didn't do the workout I'd planned.

Smoothness is particularly valuable for the many things you feel guilty about not doing, but have no immediate consequences for avoiding. Exercising, reading books, investing, learning and charity are all things that can go slack for months or years before having major consequences.

Optimising for quality, on the other hand, means not making things easier on yourself—which sometimes is the right call, but can push your limits when it comes to motivation.

This is applicable in other areas, too. When I'm putting off working on a project or task that feels big, boring, or uncomfortable, I try to find ways to make it easier—opting for smoothness over quality. This helps me get started and make progress, while quality (i.e. completing the entire project or task to a high standard) can come once I'm over the hump of getting started.


P.S. I make some stuff you might like: Exist, a personal analytics app to help you understand your life, and Larder, a bookmarking app for developers.

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