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How to Engineer Your Day

How to Engineer Your Day

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    A single day is one of the core cycles in life. In your lifetime you are probably going to experience about 29,000 of them, so you might as well make them count. A habit, run once, may seem unimportant. But a single change can add up when you consider you will be doing it thousands of times.

    Engineering your day also requires you to take a different outlook on big decisions. Instead of asking how that big promotion, changed relationship or move to a new city will make you feel, you ask how it will affect your daily life.

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    I’ve done this process with myself. From adopting healthier eating and exercise habits to changing how I browse the web and answer e-mails, these changes may sound minor but they really add up over time.



    Quantifying Your Routines

    You can’t tackle ghosts. You need to make your habits tangible before you can alter them. In order to do that you need to get a broader look at your routines. When you are fighting your way through the jungle of everyday life, you lack the view from the treetops.

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    Not all of your routines can be broken down cleanly into numbers, but you still need a representative look at how your habits influence you over time. To do that, you need to start taking measurements. I want to look at three different types of measurements I find useful:

    1. Timelogs – Where are you actually spending your time? Carry a notepad with you for a few days and record every time you start or stop an activity. After that you can break up this raw data into different activity groups and look for trends in where you spend your time.
    2. Finance Logs – Where are you spending your money? This one needs a longer focus of at least a month or two to handle non-daily expenses. But keep track of where your money is going. You may be surprised how that daily coffee or pack of cigarettes adds up over time.
    3. Productivity Logs – Unlike the last two, these are field specific. That means you might want to do one for any broad area of your life you deem important. You could have a productive log for health, work, business or school. The idea here is to chart down what you accomplish and after what investment of time and money. Contrasting a productive log with time/finance logs should give you idea of what were wise and unwise usages of resources.


    Upgrading Your Habits

    With a broad viewpoint of how daily actions create effects over time, you are now in a position to upgrade your habits. Changing habits normally sounds like a painful, prolonged process of willpower. In reality, I’ve found the process can actually be interesting as it gives you a chance to modify the core of what makes up your day.

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    Changing habits isn’t really that difficult. My suggestion is to start with the Thirty Day Trial method proposed by Steve Pavlina. I’ve been using this for a couple years and it works incredibly well. I’ve researched many other methods for changing habits, but none of them match the simplicity and efficacy of this technique.

    Here are some other things to consider:

    1. Go Slow – I never do more than one, possibly two, trials at a time. Trying to do too much too fast is probably the biggest reason people fail. Engineering your day has to be a trial of patience, not motivation.
    2. Be Consistent – Your trial needs to be something you execute daily and consistently. Going to the Gym on Tuesday, skipping Wednesday, running on Thursday and doing Yoga on Friday may be a fun exercise routine. However, this scattered approach rarely results in well-formed habits. Consistency first, variety afterwards.
    3. Replace Lost Needs – Some people fail to change habits because they don’t consider the full impact an upgrade will have. I like the metaphor of engineering habits, because optimizations must align with all the forces that caused you to function previously. If you are feeling deprived, you need a new strategy, not more willpower.

    Taking a New Look at Big Decisions

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    The final impact of daily engineering is taking a new look at those big decisions. Here are some examples of big decisions you may be facing:

    • What do I want to do with my life?
    • Should I switch jobs? Careers?
    • Should I emphasize family, work or learning?
    • Should I get married and start a family or build my business?

    No approach will give easy answers to these questions. In many cases, I believe the answer can’t be satisfactorily reached without making mistakes and looking for opportunities. But a daily outlook can give you an approach you might not have considered.

    The idea behind a daily outlook is that every big decision is only going to create an impact on your days. Looking at this core unit of human experience, ask yourself, what will the difference be on your daily life. Ignore the abstractions of prestige, money and accomplishments if they don’t have a big impact on what you do between getting up and going to sleep.

    The answer that might surprise you is that generally, no one decision is going to have an overwhelming impact. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert discovered that most people overestimate the difference two situations will have on happiness. I would also add that most people underestimate the impact your day has on your life.

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    Scott H Young

    Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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