Originally published on my blog

Last November I decided to become more intentional about how I go about work. The reasons for this are legion, so I'll save them for another post. Today, I just want to describe the system I pieced together and have been using since November.

The system is split into two parts: one for work and one for my personal life. That's because these two modes are fundamentally different.

My personal life moves slowly. There's a lot of exploration and careful iteration. That means I often find myself coming back to ideas or projects weeks or months after having worked on them. For example, my whole writing practice moves through long cycles of gathering-organizing-writing-reviewing, so each note helps future-Matt pick up where present-Matt left off. This whole thing feels like gardening, really.

But at work, I move through brisk, chaotic streams of tasks. These I try to capture, evaluate, and close out, at least as much as possible. There's less value in pondering things and more in simply not losing track of everything--an ok decision now is worth much more than a perfect decision later. It's also important to note who is involved so I can stay on top of communication, especially since I work remotely.

Anyway, let's dive into the details.

The Personal System

  • I use a slim version of BASB to keep track of Projects, Resources, Areas, and Archives.
    • Projects contain everything that I'm working on now or planning to work on.
      • I keep an index split into sections like "programming" or "writing", which are ordered by how soon I'll likely work on something.
      • Projects include everything from "Write blog post about X" or "Go through The Little Schemer" to "Fix the dishwasher."
      • This is where I note down progress and next steps. Doing so makes it much easier to restart work on a project weeks or months later.
    • Resources are where I dump all my notes, quotes, and files. It's proven especially useful for collecting notes on what I read because otherwise I'd forgot almost everything.
    • Areas contain personal, long-term streams of work, eg. exercising. However, this space is mostly empty because of how habitual exercise has become.
    • When a project is finished, I move it to the Archives.
    • I also keep around a file called INBOX so I can quickly save a quote or idea without have to find a good place for it first.
  • Every week, I do a short review and plan the next week.
    • I note down progress made on projects and the value it brought me.
      • It's just a few sentences, but it helps me introspect on what I'm doing and why.
    • Planning is mainly useful because it makes me confront the reality of how much I can really get done.
      • I usually plan for concrete things like "finish 2nd draft of post" or "find a dentist." I never plan social activities or fun stuff like watching movies.
  • Every month, I do a larger review and sketch out a plan for the next month.
    • This one takes longer. Maybe thirty minutes or so.
    • It follows the same format as the weekly review. I actually look over the weekly reviews while I compose this one.
    • This practice triggers a lot of reflection. I'm already doing this in my head a few days before I do the actual review.
  • I use watson to track my writing time.
    • Writing is important for me, so seeing how much time I spend on it helps me notice variations in my habits.
    • I used to track the time it took to write each post. However, I noticed that it was just noise because each post was so different, so now I simply track time spent writing.
      • I also make sure to include activities like outlining, pondering (sometimes), and organizing notes.

If you count just the administrative parts like organizing notes and writing reviews, I spend around an hour per month on this system.

The Work System

  • I use the same slim version of BASB to keep track of Projects, Resources, Areas, and Archives.
    • Most notes go into Projects and Resources.
      • Projects describe anything that takes longer than a day to complete.
      • Resources include everything from SQL queries or snippets of code, to interview and book notes.
      • Areas only contain 1-1 notes.
      • Archives are where I move completed projects to.
  • I keep a daily log.
    • Each day, I start the log with a Day Plan.
      • This is a bulleted list of everything I want to do today. It's ordered by importance. When I finish something, I cross it out.
        • Often, I will break some pieces into smaller chunks. Doing so makes it real easy to re-focus after an interruption.
      • When new things pop up, I add them to the end of this list.
    • At the end of the day, I add two more sections: Score and Value/Progress.
      • For Score, I come up with a number between 0 and 10 to rate how this day felt. Then, I'll note down what sucked or what was awesome.
      • For Value/Progress, I note down the work I did and what value it created and for whom.
        • Noting progress helps me track decisions I've made throughout the day.
        • Value is difficult to describe on long-running work where it usually manifests only at the end. However, it's easy to point out the value for myself, eg. "Refreshed my knowledge of the Python debugger."
    • Also at the end of the day, I start the next day's log file and pre-fill some of the Day Plan.
    • Every Friday, I go over these logs and summarize the week.
      • I focus on questions like "What went well? What didn't? What do I want more of? What do I want less of?"
      • This helps me notice and celebrate my achievements. It also helps me introspect on the things that didn't go well, a little like doing a short blameless post-mortem.
        • The former probably helps prevent burnout. The latter helps break negative patterns.
  • I record myself working and review the videos occasionally.
    • I wrote about this in more depth here: Watching Myself Program
    • This is still very much experimental. Two obstacles that I'm hitting here are:
      • I'm not sure what to look for. I'm often too close to the problem to see what I'm doing wrong. It helps a little to imagine I'm watching someone else work.
      • When work gets hectic, I often forget to review these. Today I realized I haven't reviewed a single recording in the past three weeks.

I spend about ten minutes in the morning on the Day Plan and another ten before I finish work on the Score and Value/Progress parts. The weekly review adds ten more minutes or so, which means keeping this system running costs me about an hour and forty minutes per week.

What does all of this get me?

Three months in, I feel like a lot. Among small benefits like providing me with a place to collect notes and work through writing blog posts, I see two major improvements in my life. First, my procrastination seems to have gotten better. Earlier, whenever I hit a patch of ambiguity, I would get stuck and seek out distractions. But because now I have to break work down into small chunks, most ambiguity is revealed right away, essentially making it just another task to tackle.

Second, the practice of keeping logs has made visible my tempo and its limits. Normally, I would plan to do many things and end up finishing only a few, which made me feel guilty. But now, when I can track the decisions leading up to that state, I see that they often make sense--like taking it easy after an especially tough day at work. And when they don't, I can now do something about it.

It's also made me realize something important: there's very little slack in my routines. When something unexpected happens, it puts every item on my plan at risk, so I usually tighten my jaw and borrow time from other things, usually sleep, to avoid falling behind. But unexpected things happen all the time, so this attitude keeps me in a constant state of overdrive. Has done so for years, actually.

I don't know what to do about it yet. But I can certainly appreciate any productivity system that would help me arrive at this kind of realization.

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It's also made me realize something important: there's very little slack in my routines. When something unexpected happens, it puts every item on my plan at risk, so I usually tighten my jaw and borrow time from other things, usually sleep, to avoid falling behind. But unexpected things happen all the time, so this attitude keeps me in a constant state of overdrive. Has done so for years, actually.
I don't know what to do about it yet. But I can certainly appreciate any productivity system that would help me arrive at this kind of realization.

I would love to see a follow up post about this.

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