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The New Lifehacking #2 – How to Understand Your Current System

The New Lifehacking #2 – How to Understand Your Current System
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My prior article ended with the biggest tip from the New Lifehacking: gain a unique understanding of your current system of habits, practices and rituals, before looking for new stuff. I looked at time management / self management as an example of one area in which we need to gain some insights into how we do what we do, before being seduced by the latest advertisement for a new gadget, or a catchy headline on a blog post.

Not that this is easy to do. If you have ever walked into an auto-supply store with nothing more than a vague idea of what you need, you might know what it’s like to walk out with a list of information you need to return with, plus a cute little thingy to hang from the rearview mirror. The initial trip is a failure because you haven’t applied even the most basic diagnostic tools at your disposal – your eyes and ears.

The problem in time and self management (versus car repair) is that there are very few diagnostic tools available, and we don’t even know what to look for.

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One reason is that the system you use currently didn’t come from a manufacturer with all the specs fully laid out. The fact is, like most people, you started to put together your own time management system in your teens and completed the process in your early twenties. You may have tweaked it since then, but most people don’t – they stick with what works for them, and they forget the fact that they ever put it together; it sinks deep into the world of their unconscious competence.

This amnesia is the reason why people don’t throw down books and walk out of seminars when they realize that they are being spoken to as beginners in time and self management.

To help fill the gap, over the past few years, I have assembled an online 84 point assessment that looks at different aspects of one’s time management system. It’s based entirely on individual habits and practices and offers users a way to assess their skills by answering each question to the best of their ability.

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Here’s an expanded example of the kind of question I included:

If you were to decide to run an errand a week from now outside the home or office, what are the steps you would take more often than not to complete the task?

1. Try to remember the errand later, after first committing it to memory
2. Ask someone to remind me
3. Write it down on a loose piece of paper
4. Make a note of it in my little black book
5. Enter it in my paper calendar
6. Add it to my electronic schedule
7. Add it to my electronic schedule that is automatically backed up

In the assessment I created, I tried to imagine which actions are the ones that are most likely to be successful, versus those which are most likely to fail. The quality of the action taken ranges from 1 to 6, with a level 6 being the highest.

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Your opinion may differ from mine as to the exact placement of each action in this hierarcy, but the point is that it’s not hard to use best practices to build such assessments. Once they are built, creating a ladder from low skills to high, it’s possible to measure your own progress against these standards and lifehack your way to better performance.

In part, this approach is inspired by Benjamin Franklin and his quest to become a better writer. He made a series of continuous comparisons against the best authors of the day and tackled each of the gaps that emerged. Over time, he made dramatic improvements in his writing skill.

At the end of a complete assessment, what emerges is a personal profile. Most of the profiles I have seen have emerged from in-depth live training and they reveal something that you’d expect – systems that vary a great deal from each other, given the fact that they were self-created without much guidance.

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Lifehacks that are driven by this kind of knowledge set the stage for delicately crafted improvements. Instead of trying to force-fit one-size-fits-all prescriptions, you save time and energy by making strategic changes that you want, at a speed of your choosing. You begin to understand why the iPhone that helped one person become productive, destroyed the productivity of another, and did nothing for yet another, and why the same applies to books, programs, web services, etc.

How you start to implement the results of your assessment will be the subject of my next post here at Lifehack.org.

To view a sample assesment, click here to access the first sample quiz I ever put together that instantly provides you with some feedback on one critical skill while teaching a couple of new concepts.

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More by this author

Francis Wade

Author, Management Consultant

The New Lifehacking #7 – Why You Should Be Open to New Stuff, But Wary About Using It How To Manage A Post-College Productivity Dip Why You Need to Understand and Accept Your Productive Type A Tendencies The New LifeHacking #6 – Staying Away from Harmful Gadgets The New Lifehacking #5 – Tricking Yourself into Making the Changes You Need

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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