Energy and time – how I got more of both

Photo via Flickr by Mattysflicks (CC BY 2.0)

Photo via Flickr by Mattysflicks (CC BY 2.0)

January – the month of reflection and setting of goals for the year ahead.  I’d spent so much time reflecting over the last year that tbh, I couldn’t be bothered to do it this month.  Instead, I decided to give myself a break.  Work has been extremely busy and challenging over the last few months and I just needed to ease up coming into Christmas and at the start of the year.

But a conversation I had with a friend made me remember that this time last year, I was really struggling with my energy levels – in fact that’s been a continual problem for me for a number of years. I know I’m not alone. It appears to be a part of modern living.  As I reflected on this and looked back through my journal (I’m not an avid journal writer but I find it helps when I want to work through an issue or remember something interesting), I realised that this isn’t the case any more.  What a shocker!  Something I had been struggling with for years had eased up considerably and I hadn’t even noticed!

So, what’s happened?  I put it down to two changes I’ve made over the past year.

The first (and you’re probably going to go eugh…) is that I started exercising more.  In March last year, I read Surprisingly…Unstuck: The Power of Small Healthy Habits, In a World Addicted to Instant Results by Maria Brilaki (I wrote about it here) and switched my 20 min bus ride to work for a 30 min walk.  I get half an hour of exercise for the price of 10 mins.  Bonus.  And I started running.  Ha!  I don’t think you can even call it running yet.  It’s more moving-slightly-faster-than-I-can-walk but I found the trick was to keep my pace right down and build up my endurance.  I had a couple of false starts during the year but can now run 20 mins.  This amazes me every time, especially when I think back to the horrible feeling that my lungs were going to burst when I first tried to run for one whole minute.  I’ll work on my pace once I can actually run 30 mins without stopping.

The second change I made was to find a way of being more organised.  At times, I feel like a personal assistant to three people – myself and the kids.  And I realised my old habits of organising weren’t cutting it any more.  The stress of balancing work, social life, homework, studying and finding some time with Steven was exhausting.  Most of the time I felt like a headless chicken trying to juggle ten plates and dropping them all over the place.  At my work, lots of people had been talking about a book by David Allen called Getting Things Done (GTD) so in desperation I got it out of the library to see what all the hype was about.  The main premise is that you need to build one system to collect everything you need to do in your life so that it can free up your mental energy to focus on other things.  You know what it’s like – you remember you need to make an opticians appointment but your phone is upstairs and by the time you get up there you can’t remember what you came up for.  When you have your phone, you can’t remember who you were supposed to call.  Then you remember again when you’re in the shower. So you’ve thought about this task three times and still not done it.  What a waste of mental energy.

GTD is based on some fairly simple but powerful principles:

  • set up collection “buckets” where you can collect all the tasks you need to do – these can be physical places to hold things or a list where you can write things done.  e.g. I’ve got an electronic task list at work, a small notebook for when I’m at home and a couple of baskets to my house to collect physical stuff (bills I need to pay, presents I need to wrap etc)
  • Regularly go through these buckets and for each item in them decide two things:
    • can you do something with this task and if so what is the next actionable step e.g. I’ve had “Write a will” on my to-do list for years. But the next actionable step is not to write the will.  It’s to find out how you actually go about writing a will as I had no idea!
    • decide what context you need to be in to action that step
  • Instead of one large to-do list (which makes your heart sink every time you look at it) start a set of to-do lists based on where you need to be to do a particular action.  For example, I can call/text a friend from anywhere so I have a list called “Electronic contact” and usually do this on the tram or when I’m waiting somewhere but I prefer to to write a blog post at home on my PC which I put on my “At home computer” list.  To clear out the drawers in my study, I need to be “At Home”.  I also have a set of lists for my kids and Steven that I can put things on that I want to speak to them about and usually forget when I’m actually in a room with them.  Setting up these lists is one of the hardest but most important bits because you need to experiment with what to call these lists, but after a couple of months, I think I’m getting there.  Now when I’m at home and have a spare 15 mins, I can look down a much shorter list tailored with tasks that can only be done at home and actually get something done!  I love the feeling of ticking something off my list 🙂
  • Use your calendar to put in tasks that have to be done on certain days. We’re used to putting in appointments but perhaps don’t always put in time for things like renewing library books on specific days etc.  I also block out time to do particular tasks like studying or completing a project at work.  Top tip! We’ve installed Cozi, a free family organiser app which I am loving!  All four of us have our own colour so we know who’s appointments and tasks are who’s.  Steven and I can both add appointments to one calendar and assign who’s involved e.g. what birthday parties the kids are going to, the address and times and which one of us is taking them – no more looking for the invite and making sure the right person has it 🙂
  • Set aside time to review your list once a week to add or drop tasks and plan what you’ll do that coming week – I admit, I’m not so good on this yet but working on it.

This is the bare bones of GTD and what I’ve found most helpful so far.  It goes into much more detail about setting project objectives and the importance of writing down your life goals so that you can keep an eye on them and make sure you’re doing something about them over time but it’s a bit too complicated to go into in one blog post.  If folks are interested, I could write about this part in a future post.

I was fortunate enough to go a GTD training course and while it was interesting, I didn’t learn much more than I had from reading the book.  One thing I have found is that you need to put quite a lot of work into tinkering with setting up your system and don’t give up if you find it doesn’t work so well at first or if you give up on it for a while.  Just put a bit of time aside to try something a bit different with it and then try again.  For the time investment, it’s paid a lot back to me in terms of peace of mind.  While I don’t think I have absolutely everything I need to do on one of my lists, I know I have the most important stuff and that makes me feel much happier and in control.  If you use GTD or something else, I’d love to hear from you.  I’m always looking for ways to improve my system!  I wish I’d know about this growing up particularly as I got into exam territory so think it will be something I’ll speak to the kids about when they’re a bit older.

Overall, exercising more and using the GTD system have definitely helped my energy levels.  As I feel fitter and more organised, I have managed to cram even more into my life but doing the things I want to do, rather than wasting time looking for things or having that nagging, draining feeling that I should be doing something but can’t remember what.  Both of these changes have taken commitment and an initial outlay of energy, and it has probably taken the best part of 2014 to get them to be natural parts of my life but it has been so worth it.  If you try them and find you stall or fall back to old habits, go easy on yourself and just try again.  The more you do it, the easier it gets.  I promise.

How to change your habits by taking ridiculously small steps

Confucius was right: “It does not matter how slow you go as long as you do not stop”

Wow. I have been away for a while. The past couple of months have been pretty busy for me. Mostly, I’ve been working on getting my two pet projects up and running:

  • Stories Unspun – where I’ve been publishing my story “The Extraordinary Reality of Ella Rove” one post at a time alongside narration by Elena, aged 11. Have a look and leave me a comment about what you think 
  • Times Like Ours – this is a venture I’m trying out with my friend Harriet. We were looking for a space to discuss what it’s like to live and work in times like ours, and not finding it, we decided to create our own. We’ve been holding evenings in Edinburgh on all sorts of topics like the place of art in everyday life and the upcoming “are we obsessed by the pursuit of happiness?” But we’re just as keen to hear your thoughts wherever you are in the world so have a look at our FB page.

Back in January, I decided to change one habit a month for 2014.  In January I wanted to change how I used technology. While I managed to implement something like inbox zero, I still spend far too much time on social media. In February, I simply wanted to drink more water. How hard can that be? Pretty darn hard as it turns out.  So, true to what I said in that post, after failing for the second month (out of two!) in a row, I reviewed my goals and approach.  As I reviewed Continue reading

Announcing my new and really scary project – Stories Unspun (part of my quest to get over the fear of failure)

I’ve not posted for a while, sorry about that if you missed me 😉 but I’ve been working on something that I’m super excited about (more details further down…)

Failure as a tool - 2013vinod-19056

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about failure. On our manifesto, we have “Fail well and bounce back” because that is a hallmark of being adaptable and willing to take risks when doing something new and different – creating, not following, a map etc.  Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and creator of the infographic above says “No failure means no risk, which means nothing new.”  As failure is so importance, I’ve been thinking about my own failures, especially trying to focus in on my most spectacular one and what I learned from it. But I quickly realised that Continue reading