I always want to crack the secret code of being productive. The motivation is simple: time and youth. Those two are limited resources that becoming more scarce as more responsibilities come around. Like everybody else, I want to maximize the relatively large supply of energy and time that I have today to build a solid foundation for the later part of life.
Before discovering these habits, I have tried a lot of productivity methods. I tend to be on a grind. Been there, done that. Skipping sleep for three days straight, sipping caffeine while working until 5 am in a 24-hour cafe. Being a geological engineering student and later a front-line consultant justified the red-eye lifestyle.
However, everybody that does it knows that the lifestyle is not sustainable. Not only because of the health concerns from lack of rest plus Redbull/coffee overdose. More importantly, quality of work also suffers from the lack of thinking through.
After more than a year of trying and testing a bunch of new routines, these are three habits that stick and have tremendously improved my life.
Habit #1: keeping a bullet journal
The problem with keeping a journal to take notes is in finding the needed information later. It might be somewhere in the book, but you don’t know exactly where. We jot the notes down randomly with lack of context and organization.
One day, one of my favorite Youtube channels, How to ADHD, uploaded “Why the Bullet Journal is the Best Planner for ADHD Brains“. I am not an ADHD (at least not diagnosed yet), but somehow my brain works in an eerily similar way. Therefore, this bullet journal thing sounded interesting and I decided to give it a try.
Turns out, what’s cool about bullet journal is that it makes your notes being organized without sacrificing your freedom. You can easily plan your life around and take important information, then revisit them with just a glance. However, the format is fluid and not constraining your flexibility and creativity.
When your notes, goals, and plans are organized, your life is suddenly on track – without being too boring or predictable.
The secret, in my opinion, lies in the indexing system. That system solves the ONE problem – to rapidly find the information you need.
The other thing that I like is the way the journal tracks goals and responsibilities. You can write absolutely everything and keep it tracked, without producing exhaustive to-do list that turns you off. To-do lists, paradoxically, could enhance procrastination (ugh, my to-do list is sooo long! let me watch this “one” Youtube video first).
I tried the original bullet journal method explained by How to ADHD at first, then modify it over time. I’m in my third bullet journal now.
What I have found works best for me is to set monthly goals, then set weekly goals accordingly. Daily goals did not work too well for me because I tend to put urgent things that are not aligned at all with either monthly or weekly goals. So now, I try to stick with my weekly goals and reward myself at the end of the week if I can hit them all.
Needless to say, my relationship with work is much, much better with bullet journal. I know exactly what I should do for the week and for the month. I get much clearer visibility of what’s on my plate vs how much time I got. So, I can easily weigh options and decide whether or not to cater to “urgent” demands. More importantly, I am not in the business of doing the work that other people is paid to do. And the journal always reminds me that.
Habit #2: planning ahead meals & clothes for the week
Every weekend, my husband and I would sit down and check our fridges and food storages to plan the menu for the week. The plan consists of one menu each day, in which we will cook four servings at once for tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s lunch.
The menu we choose is the intersection between what we crave, the available ingredients, and difficulty level we can afford. Usually, weeknight meals are simple and can be done in 30 minutes or less. For instance, this week we are having chicken and bell pepper stir fry for Monday and spinach soup with chicken nugget sides on Tuesday.
Weekend meals, starting on Friday nights, would be the experimental type that takes longer to make. For instance, this weekend we will try to make sushi for the first time (wish us luck!!). If the menu succeeds, it will be added to the “proven menu” section in my bullet journal.
Also every weekend, I spend ~30 minutes in the closet, mixing and matching clothes for the week. During spring, when the weather is unpredictable in Houston, I would check the weather forecast first to determine the clothes plan.
Now that we are in the middle of summer, the process is simpler. I would hang one set of summer-appropriate work outfit for each workday and one set of clothing for the weekend. Then I would inspect each clothing item for odor, stains, colors, and hanging threads. If the stain is small, I would spot-treat it. Otherwise, the clothing item will go to the washing machine.
It is also the time to steam the clothes to get rid of the wrinkles. I used to iron them, but steaming turns out to be wayyy faster and more convenient. Just use this hand-held Conair steamer from Amazon then fill it up with distilled water that you can get easily from any grocery store.
The trick is to put behind the next item you need to steam behind the current one you’re steaming.
That way, the second item is halfway done by the time you’re finished with the first item. Also, close your closet door to maximize the steam exposure.
Doing these two takes less than an hour, yet saves me from unwanted surprises during the weekday when my focus and energy are 99% on work. Before doing this, I can’t tell you how many times I would wake up, take a shower, pick a shirt, before realizing that the shirt has embarrassing ink stains or that the matching hijab is still dirty. The morning stress is so unnecessary.
Then when I got back for dinner, I have craved a certain menu which turns out the coconut milk is missing, the milk has expired, or the eggs are not sufficient. So I would spend more time searching new menu with a questionable degree of success. Now, all it takes is to take a glance at the menu and we are onto cooking right away. If one of us not feeling the menu for the day, we can swap it with the other weekday menu, or revisit menus from previous weeks.
Trust me, try this. The little time on the weekend that you take is nothing compared to the peace of mind you will experience for the rest of the week.
Habit #3: Reading a few pages of a book before bed
Getting quality sleep is one of the most fundamental rules of productivity. A night of disturbed sleep could cost you the entire following day making dumb mistakes and performing less than stellar.
One of the hardest bad habits for all of us to resist is checking the phone before bed. This article from Havard Medical School (you know, the real deal) pins blue light exposure before bed from digital screens as a major circadian rhythm disruptor. Since the cycle is much dependent on light, the blue light tricks the body into thinking that it’s still daytime. Thus circadian clock is set accordingly, which is not the ideal rhythm for sleeping.
I have tested this and found that for the nights that I slept after reading or watching something on my phone or iPad, I woke up less refreshed compared to the nights passing out after dinner.
Since I am also training myself to wake up naturally before dawn without alarm, it means that I have to sleep earlier as well and stick to a schedule. Often, the body is not quite tired yet, however working on the laptop is no-go because of the blue light problem.
Therefore the solution that I found works for me is this: pick up a serious book and read a few pages until you’re sleepy.
Define serious? It’s the type of book that either philosophical, scientific, analytical or teaches hard skills. Something that you don’t read for fun or practical reasons. For example, novels could be too fun to read, and makes you want to stay awake a little bit longer to finish a chapter.
Although what I find lately is that reading novel not for the first time is fine. Currently, I’m re-running Gone Girl novel by Gillian Flynn for the bedtime easer. Since I already knew what was coming, my brain is not alert too much that I cannot sleep. However, I wouldn’t dare picking up new novel, let alone thriller ones, for bed.
The Art of Building Habits
Building a habit is hard. Being persistent is also hard.
I can attest to that from the on-again, off-again periods during the effort to carve these three habits into daily life. But one thing I learn about creating a habit for yourself is that it’s an art of negotiating with yourself. Instead of beating yourself up for missing a routine and call yourself lazy or an idiot, ask this:
why did you stop?
what makes you skip tonight’s routine, thinking your time is not beneficial to enforce the habit? is there something you need to change?
It happens to me during “reading a book before” bed habit-building, that led me to ditch novels and pick philosophical and scientific books instead.
The point is, it takes not only discipline but also being persuasive and fair to yourself. Making you see the benefits your future self will reap with sacrifices that your current self can afford.
I need to admit that there are some habits still in the working progress: waking up at the same time every day, sticking to a skincare routine, or even having a regular blogging schedule.
Let’s see how they go.
Do you have a habit that you want to adopt? Do you want to try doing one of the small habits above? Comment below!