Posts Tagged ‘Efficiency’

GTD’ing with Reminders and Quicksilver

April 3rd, 2013 2 comments

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 10.21.20 AM

A quick post today on integrating iOS and OS X’s reminders app into your GTD workflow, with the help of our friend Quicksilver.

GTD relies heavily on the concept of the “tickler”.  A folder that serves as a place for you to put everything that you need to do in the future.  If you want more details on the tickler, you can read about them here.  The intent here is to take Reminders and have it act as a digital substitute for your tickler.

First, if you haven’t installed Quicksilver, do so.  It is fantastic, and will save you time even if the only thing you ever use it for is to launch programs.

Second is the easiest step – setting up Reminders as a tickler.  While I have used apps like Remember the Milk to create complicated solutions to my tickler in the past, I have found that they’ve fallen by the wayside because of the overhead they require.  For our purposes, we want Reminders to be as lightweight as possible.  Here are the rules that we follow to create that:

  • create a reminder (with a day and time) for everything that needs to be done this month.  Any hard appointments (requiring a specific time and date – ie, a calendar appointment) should be in your calendar, and not your tickler;
  • for everything that is to be completed in one of the following months, create a reminder for the first day of that month; and
  • at the start of each month, review each reminder for that month and reschedule with a day and time.

Simple right?  That’s our game.

Third, we want to be able to add reminders efficiently, and with a minimal number of clicks.  To do so, we start by adding a Quicksilver script.  Download it here.  Save the unzipped file in ~/Library/Application Support/Quicksilver/Actions/.

If you are unable to find this directory in Finder, you may need to change your settings. You can do so by launching Terminal and entering the command:

chflags nohidden ~/Library/

Once you’ve done this, you can close Terminal.  The folder should show up in your Finder window right away.  If you want to hide the folder again afterwards, simply open Terminal again and enter the command:

chflags hidden ~/Library

Before we restart Quicksilver, there’s one final change we need to make.  First, identify the name of your list in Reminders.  You can do this by opening up Reminders and checking the left side of the app.  My list is called TODO.  Yours might be called something else.

Fourth, we need to update the script with your list’s name.  Navigate to the script you just put in to ~/Library/Application Support/Quicksilver/Actions/ and edit it using either Textedit or Applescript Editor.  Right toward the top of the script is a line that says:


Where listname will be the default list name.  Change this to whatever the name of your list is (mine now says showlist “TODO”).  Save the script and exit (you don’t need to compile it).

Now, restart Quicksilver.  At this point, you should be able to load up Quicksilver (using command-space, or whatever hotkey combination you set), and enter natural text reminders, such as “Remind me on may 4th at 9am to call julie”.  The complete workflow now looks like this:

  • command-space to bring up Quicksilver;
  • Type “.” to begin typing in text
  • “remind me to call julie on may 4 at 9am”
  • [Tab]
  • Type “Reminder”
  • [Enter]

Boom, new reminder added, from anywhere on your computer, regardless of what you’re currently doing.

Lastly, I find Reminders integration with to be super useful.  Whenever I have an e-mail that requires some kind of action in the future, I drag that e-mail onto Reminders’ app icon in the Dock.  It will create a reminder for me which includes a link to the original e-mail.  I can fill out the rest of the details and then archive the e-mail, knowing that it sits in my trusted system.

Good luck with all your GTD’ing needs, and feel free to post if you have questions.  Follow me at @adamquiney and @evergrowthadam, and my professional blog at for productivity tips beyond the realm of tools.  Lastly, a big thank you to @LoveQuicksilver for providing this handy Reminders script.


Overwhelm Cycle

July 14th, 2012 1 comment

For display today is my overwhelm cycle.  This is the cycle through which I generally move when I’m working on something.  The purpose of posting and gaining awareness of a cycle like this is that it enables us to become more aware of where we’re at, and to choose points to break out of our default.

No judgment here, no right or wrong – it’s simply another thing to be with.

Evolution abhors your comfort

November 6th, 2011 2 comments

I’ve just gotten back from spending some time today at a mingler with the folks putting on @TEDxVictoria.  This event promises to be an inspiring one, with a number of very interesting speakers attending.  I’m volunteering on the day of the event, and am looking forward to touching base and meeting a ton of new people.  I’ll be working the registration desk, so please stop by and say hi if you’re attending the event.

The theme for the event is “Cultivating Evolution”.  I had hoped to get my act together and submit a talk for the event, but had a number of other commitments that were more pressing and, to be fair, more important as well.

However, this theme is very near and dear to my heart.  Growth is an integral component of who I am, and it’s the reason my clients seek out my coaching services.  I help people find where and how they want to grow, and I enable and accelerate that growth.  Evolution, to my mind, means growth with purpose.

Does growth require a purpose?

No.  But, I believe that growth without any purpose is often cancerous.  It doesn’t lead in any particular direction and often results in imbalance, burn-out and resources being strained or devoted to the wrong things.

When house plants grow, they do so with the purpose of maximizing their exposure to sunlight.  Their purpose is to harness and utilize the available resources as efficiently as possible.  You’ll note that your plants often grow towards the source of sunlight in your home.  Growing in every direction without any purpose would be inefficient.  The plant would need to devote more energy to supporting the parts of itself that aren’t collecting sunlight.

Humans are the same way.  We need to ensure that our growth happens in a purposeful manner.  Optimally, we want to design our growth so that we move and grow in directions that are consistent with what matters most to us.  Growth that is in alignment with our values and our purpose will be growth that is maximally beneficial to ourselves.

Take a moment and think of someone in your network that has achieved great things, but is miserable.  Most of us know at least a few people that meet this description – many of us meet the description ourselves.  With the intense pressure put on young adults graduating from high school to enter university, get a degree and start working “in the real world”, there are ever greater numbers of people that have grown in ways that are simply irrelevant to their values and drive.  Aside from the intrinsic value gained from education itself, what good is an engineering degree if all you have ever wanted to be was a professional actor?

Where does comfort fit into this?

Let’s get back on track  — what does comfort have to do with evolution?

The answer is: Nothing.  Comfort is what will kill your evolution.

The thing is, growth doesn’t occur when we’re comfortable; it occurs when we are pushing outside of our comfort zone.  Comfort represents a number of things.  To name just a few:

  • Security
  • Safety
  • Inertia
  • The known
  • Being at peace with our surroundings

Most of these things are good.  Security and safety are important in our lives, and provide us with a sense of predictability and rationality in a world that doesn’t always behave that way.  Being at peace with our surroundings allows us to let our guard down, giving us the opportunity to rest.

When I was 19, I worked at McDonalds.  I made very little money, but it was enough to pay my rent, buy groceries and liquor, and go out to the bar with friends multiple times a week.  It was comfortable.  In fact, I could have stayed in that place for the next ten years without making any changes (and there were certainly some people that did just that).

But I demand growth from myself, and I think that you should too.  Evolution along our own values is something that we, as humans, intrinsically seek.  You may not even be aware of this drive, but you can feel it every time you experience a sense of discontent, or hear yourself saying “I feel like I’m better than this”.

There’s no growth in comfort

This is my key point.  Really juicy growth occurs when we are pushed out of our comfort zone and forced to adapt to circumstances that we have not previously encountered.

Our minds are rational.  It’s the way we’ve evolved to think.  We seek out patterns, we make predictable results based on those patterns, and then we assume that the same result will flow from that pattern the next time we encounter it.  When we’re exposed to new patterns or situations, the likes of which we have not before seen, we experience discomfort.  How do we know what result will come from this new situation?  We’ve lost our predictability; we’ve lost our rationality.

For the first ten years of my life as a dancer, I practiced my technique in front of a mirror, and it became very refined as a result.  But for those long years, I never felt like I was really progressing at the rate that I wanted to.  What had happened to the leaps and bounds that I’d been experiencing when I first started?  Simple — I was now only operating within my comfort zone.  When you allow yourself to remain in this realm, the best you can hope to do is refine what you already know.

Don’t get me wrong, refining our existing knowledge is its own form of growth and has its own value.  It’s just that it isn’t the same kind of growth, and it won’t generate those big rewards that you remember getting when you first started learning something new.

When I went to Vancouver and was put in a position where I had to dance in the middle of a circle of my friends, I was thrust right back in to that awkward, uncomfortable place.  And you know what?  My growth was incredible!  It felt discomforting and a little bit terrifying.  But those things are healthy.  They let us know that we’re doing something new.  We’re being exposed to something that is currently outside of our existing knowledge base.

If you want to grow, you need to be willing to expose yourself to something new

And so here’s the call of action to you, my readers.  Determine some areas in your life where you would like to see some growth.  Perhaps it’s meeting some new people.  Perhaps it’s quitting a habit that you’ve been carrying with you for quite some time.  Perhaps it’s pursuing a dream that you’ve let sit on the back burner for far too long.

Figure out where your first point of discomfort is with respect to this change you would like to make.  If you’re aim is to meet new people and become better at talking to strangers, perhaps that first point of discomfort comes merely from the thought of taking that action.

“What will I say after I say hello to them?”

“What if they just look at me strangely?”

“What if they don’t like me?”

These are all questions that represent that first point of discomfort.  See that point of discomfort for what it truly is: a milestone indicating an opportunity to grow.  Recognize that it doesn’t represent a failing on your part that you feel uncomfortable about it, and treat as a challenge, rather than a barrier.

Then, attack that point of discomfort.  Commit yourself to feeling uncomfortable for a period of four weeks, and then…

Dive head first.

Just do it.  It’s that simple.  The real meat of true growth is rarely about long planning sessions, strategy and identifying points of possible failure.  It ultimately comes down to your willingness to experience the discomfort associated with being in an unfamiliar situation.

Remind yourself, it gets easier every time, and that’s because you’re growing.  The first time you say “Hi” to a stranger will feel awkward and silly.  It’s outside of your comfort zone.  It’s not who you currently are.  But you’re doing it because you want to get better at it, right?  The second time you do it, it won’t feel quite as uncomfortable.  You’ve already done it once before, and you have an inkling of what to expect.  And so the cycle continues.

So what’s standing in your way?

We’ve all got complaints that go like this: “If only for X, I would be able to do Y”.

And make no mistake, X is entirely real to each of us, regardless of what it happens to be.  Maybe it’s money.  Maybe it’s the fact that you aren’t supported by your spouse.  Maybe it’s that you didn’t do something when you were younger, and so you don’t think you can achieve Y now.

But it doesn’t matter how real X is to you, because I have the real answer.

What’s predominantly standing in the way of your own growth isn’t X (or A, B or C either).  It’s fear.

Fear is what stops most of us from growing.  What do those fears look like?  Here are some:

  • Fear that we won’t be supported by our partner

This is something worth delving into a little more deeply, but if Y is something you truly want to achieve, why would your partner want to stand in the way of that?

(Probably because of their own fears).

  • Fear that you won’t be able to afford to do Y

There are always creative ways to achieve what you want.  Maybe you can’t do Y full-time until you’ve established yourself, but that’s not to say that you can’t start do a little bit of Y until you’ve made more of a name for yourself.

  • Fear that you don’t have the time to do Y

Is Y important to you?  Where are you spending your time?  Is everything that currently occupies your time more important than Y, or are there some things that could be dropped off to make more time for Y?

Again, most of these really amount to assuming that our current context, that is to say, what we are currently comfortable with, is the only possibility that there ever could be.  But there’s no validity to this assumption.  Although you’re probably quite comfortable with the way you’re spending time, if it’s stopping you from growing toward something that is truly important to you, maybe it’s time to experience some discomfort.

Embrace discomfort

Here’s your take-away point for today.  Take note of when you are experiencing discomfort, and rather than simply reacting to it, ask yourself why you are feeling that way.  What’s causing that sensation?  What is it that you are uncomfortable with?

Then, embrace it.  Recognize it as an opportunity for growth and let yourself sit with that uncomfortable feeling.

Let’s close it out

Here’s your summary for today:

  • Evolution is ultimately, in the personal sense, purposeful growth
  • While it is good to feel comfortable at times, true growth does not lie in feeling comfortable
  • In order to grow, you need to experience discomfort.  In fact, discomfort and growth are often mutually inclusive
  • Identify some areas in your life where you want to see some real growth, then find the first point of discomfort.  Once you’ve done that, attack that point head-on.  Dive in to the discomfort and let yourself sit with it.
  • Don’t simply react to discomfort.  Understand that it represents a challenge and an opportunity to grow, and treat it as such.

Breaking the Silence – It’s time for authenticity

October 24th, 2011 No comments

Simple RulesThis blog has now been silent for a little over a month.  I’ve sat down and written a few drafts, but nothing has come out the way I want it to, and that is for a simple reason: I’ve been avoiding being completely authentic.

Authentic to myself.  Authentic to my readers.  Authentic.  Period.

Authenticity is a powerful word.  In fact, it is one of the most important qualities we can be true to in our lives.  I will elaborate on what this word means to me as we go forward from here, but I want to share with you my own story, and how it is time to really drink my own medicine and live up to the ideals I’m purporting to help others live by.


The Background

I’m working through my final year of law school now.  When I went back to school, I wasn’t certain I wanted to be a lawyer, but found law fascinating and loved working with intricate and technical systems.  I also knew that, for me, education is an end unto itself, and I would therefore benefit simply from going back to school and learning more.

The first year of law school was very challenging.  Many of us forget what it feels like to start from ground zero again and have to learn something from the roots up.  This year, along the continuum of learning something new, my classmates and I moved from unconscious incompetence (we didn’t even know what we didn’t know) to conscious incompetence (we knew what we were doing wrong, and it stressed us out).  For lawyers, this is a continuing process that lasts far beyond the paltry three years of law school.

Since that initial phase wore off and I moved back a little bit more into my comfort zone, I’ve been able to focus on other things.

Okay.  I just spent fifteen minutes writing my around what it is that I actually want to say, so let’s just tear the bandaid off.

When I graduate, I’m not going to article.

There, it’s out.  For the last six months, I’ve known what I want to pursue when I graduate, and I’ve been taking significant steps to enable that future.  However, this is the first time I’m publicly affirming my decision here.

Put simply, once I graduate, I will be making my living exclusively as a coach and consultant.

Wow, that feels good.

See, for the last six months, I’ve been holding my cards right against my chest.


Because of fear.

Let me state that again, because it’s important.  I have not been authentically representing myself for the last six months because of fear.

Let me elaborate on some of those fears, so that you can see what I mean.

The idea is risky

Who in their right mind spends a whole bunch of money going to law school, so that they can not become a lawyer?  Well, I do.  And I do it for a number of reasons.  I can and do create tremendous value in my capacity as a consultant and a coach.  I’m passionate about this path.  I love turning other people on (in the general sense – this isn’t about sex).  This is something I’ve been doing my entire life, and I am an expert in the subjects in which I support people.

There’s not a really big safety net for what I intend to pursue.  Bay is working, and we have equity in our home, but we also have a great deal of debt.  If I flounder and fail, where does that leave us?  The answer: not looking too great.

Is this a reason to turn back from my vision?  Simply because it’s risky?  No.

Everything worth pursuing has a degree of risk involved.  No reward without risk.  You can’t grow if you don’t push outside of your comfort zone.

And besides, there are always creative solutions available.  If I don’t succeed in the direction I’m setting out in (I will), I have lots of experience and two highly valuable degrees on which I can fall back.

Other people aren’t doing this

There is great comfort and safety in staying with the pack.  Animals know this, and humans do too, even if only on an instinctual level.  If everyone else is doing something, it’s probably a good approach to take.  There is some blunt validity to this approach, and it works very well in general situations.

A wolf is trying to eat one of your own?  Run together in a pack so that it’s difficult for him to pick out one individual and eat him.  This behaviour has roots deep-down in our reptilian brain (the reactive part of our brain), and is fantastic when we’re operating in survival mode.  But most of us aren’t.  We live in a privileged society, and we are pursuing more than mere subsistence.  The people that I work with aren’t looking for simple survival – they are looking to optimize their happiness, their time, their output.  They are looking to optimize their lives.

We’re not all the same.  At the end of the day, we are each unique individuals (Sorry Fight Club, I’m right).  If we truly want to make ourselves happy, we need to follow our own path, hard as it may be.  Thanks to the society in which we now live and the advances that have come along with it, we are seeking more than mere survival, and mechanisms that address only this concern will fall short.

Having said that, while I know that pursuing my own path is the right approach, that does not simply delete the fear generated from going against the grain.  This concern raises its head often – pretty much every time someone tells me something like “well, that’s a neat idea Adam, but I really think you should reconsider articling”.

There is no guarantee

I can’t speak for other vocations, but a Law degree creates a considerable conundrum.  Upon graduating, students are essentially presented with the a situation where, if they are willing to work harder enough, they will be guaranteed never having to worry about money again.

What did you think when you read that?  If you’re like most people, you probably thought one of the following:

  1. “Pfft, must be nice”
  2. “First world problems…”
  3. “Take the money and run”
  4. “I’d like to never have to worry about money”
  5. “I knew it, lawyers make way too much money”
  6. “Pffft….  pfffft.”

Those are the common responses.  For a lot of people, it’s hard to look past the third and fourth responses.  Money has a powerful effect on us, and when we see dollar signs, it’s difficult to break the spell.  Here’s a question – how hard would you be willing to work for money to never be a problem?  Would you work 16 hours a day, six days a week?  What about 14 hours?  Where’s your limit?

If never having to worry about money meant that you sacrificed things like a relationship, exercise and your health, would you still take the deal?

I’m not suggesting that lawyers necessarily have to do any of this, but my own research has certainly suggested that the articling experience is unpleasant and highly demanding on the student’s time.  My time is too valuable for the remuneration rates and number of hours that are expected for articling students.  It wouldn’t be authentic (nor wise) for me to accept a position that placed a value that low on my time.

Focus on values and passion, not on fear

It is a testament to the power of fear that I have held back from writing about that which I am currently singularly most passionate about.  Doing so has meant that my writing has fallen off.  Every time I would sit down to write, I would have to hamper my creative process by trying to avoid writing about the thing that was most frequently on my mind.

This is the power of authenticity.  When we allow ourselves to maximally live and act in alignment with our values and who we truly are, we stop hampering ourselves.  Most importantly, we stop having to push ourselves to achieve.  When you set yourself along a path that aligns with what you feel is important, you will be pulled along – no more pushing.

Identify your Values

This is the most important piece of advice I’m offering today.  Take some time and try to identify what matters to you.  What is most important and most real to yourself?

This is often the first step that I take with my clients when they come to me indicating that they don’t know what they want to do, or why they hate their job so much.  Getting clear on your values can be a lengthy process and take time and effort, but it’s worth it.  Without knowing what is most important to you, it is difficult to be authentic.

Let’s wrap it up

The wrap up for today:

  • Let your values, not fear, direct your decisions
  • Be authentic to yourself and your values – it is the most important thing you can do
  • Just because the rest of the pack is doing something does not necessarily mean you should do the same
  • Spend the time and effort to identify what matters most to you.  Get a coach if you need to.  It’s worth it.

And that leads us back to…

Me.  The aim moving forward is to maximize the remaining time between now and graduation.  The way I will be doing that is working on my practice, building a client base, crafting a website and marketing strategy, identifying exactly who I am and what I do (in terms of my business), and of course, sharing that all with you through this blog.

Keep it tuned and stay locked for more updates as I continue to progress along the path to maximum authenticity.

Retreat to get ahead.

July 1st, 2011 1 comment

Ahhhh...A lot has happened since I last posted.  I included a link to one of my articles detailing my weekly review process over at GTD Times, and got over 100 daily visits across the span of about 5 days (without doubt a record for this humble site).

Unfortunately, that timing coincided with an assignment in one class and writing a take-home exam in my administrative law class.  As such, I effectively invited a bunch of people into my home and then fell into a coma for the duration of their visit.  Not the best way to increase traffic or treat people that are interested in what I have to say.

Administrative law was a challenging course, though only inasmuch as the subject matter was very dry, and it was a large-credit course condensed into half the time.  I was spending 8 hours a week in class, and additional time reading.  The challenge was to stay motivated and engaged throughout.  Nevertheless, things have started to settle down a little bit, and as I travel over to Vancouver for the weekend, I’m given the familiar gift of a dedicated 1.5 hours in which to put thoughts to keyboard.

Today I want to talk a little bit about the importance of retreating.  If you don’t need convincing and only want the strategy, you can skip to it here.


..from what?

From everything.

What I’m hoping to convince you is that there is value in having the self-discipline and awareness to take a step back from time to time and pull away from whatever you are currently focused on.



There are many good reasons to purposefully retreat from your current task or project.  First and foremost is the need to combat diminishing returns.  Although this is generally an economic theory, it is applicable to much of our daily lives.

Can you think of a time when you were banging your head against the metaphorical wall for hours, trying to solve a problem, only to go for a walk, return and immediately conceive of the solution?  These experiences are not uncommon, and are illustrative of the value of retreating.

When a problem is receiving all of our focus, we can develop mental tunnel vision.  Our mind’s become focused to the extent that we are unable to synthesize or incorporate any additional information from outside of our particular area of focus.  It is not until we step back that the blinders on our mind are removed and we are free to think of a solution in terms that exist outside of the confines of the box we were operating in.

Do you take breaks at work?

If you answered no, you probably thought to yourself “I’m way too busy to take a break, I can’t afford the time”.  The fact is, you can’t afford not to take breaks.

Without taking time to retreat and reconnect with yourself, the efficiency with which you are able to apply yourself to your work will diminish over time.  This is not an uncommon process amongst law students.  A-type personalities have an aggressive bent and love throwing themselves at a task.  Failure in achieving that task within expectations is met with zeal and resentment, and a redoubling of effort.  Many a weary face have I seen turning in assignments in the morning, telling fables of seeing dragons at 5 in the morning, shortly before they awoke in a pile of drool in time to hand in their completed paper.

I’m using hyperbole here because it’s more fun, but you can probably relate to this state of mind.  Most of us would benefit from procrastinating less (also here) and taking more frequent breaks.


I can’t afford to!

Actually, you can’t afford not to.

This is a good statement to trigger your self-awareness and alert you that maybe you need to take a step back.  With unbelievably few exceptions, taking 15 minutes away from a task you are working on is not going to result in failure.

Retreating from your tasks and projects is important, but this philosophy should be applied not just to work, but to life in general.

For the first two years of classes, I’ve been a part of the co-op program.  This means that I take classes for four months, then work at a legal job for four months, and back again.  A lot of my friends planned their work so that they finished on a Friday, and then started school again on a Monday.  When I told them that I had two weeks off, they exclaimed disbelief: “You’re so lucky!”.

Luck has nothing to do with it.  You have to actively make time for your retreats.  No one else is going to do it for you (and the same applies for your breaks at work).  Are you thinking that you can’t afford the time off?  Why not?  The benefit you will gain from taking two weeks off to process your own thoughts and reconnect with yourself will far outweigh the material costs of missing out on the paycheque.


But I go on vacation..

Vacations are awesome.  For many people they are a form of retreat.  It takes them away from their context, frees their minds up to relax and focus on what they want to achieve when they get back home, and spend time with the person that they love.  For some people, this is all that they need, although I must admit that the people I know that take the most vacations are often the ones that are the most stressed out on a daily basis.  They should probably be retreating more on a daily basis, and less on a monthly or annual one.

When you go on a vacation, are you doing a lot of planning?  Are you stressed out at all about the cost, either during the vacation or when you get back home?  Do you go on vacation to let your mind sit idle for hours on a beach, or to be exposed to culture different from your own?  None of these are cause for judgment, simply different approaches to vacation.  I love being exposed to new cultures when I travel, and so this type of vacation really isn’t much of a retreat for me — it’s time I spend actively engaging and expanding my mind.


It’s about balance — remember?

Regardless of the approach you take, the bottom line is balance is a quality that we must seek to imbue in our lives on a continual basis.  This balance must be sought at the microscopic level (on an hourly or daily basis) and on a macroscopic level (annual vacations, etc.).  If you never make the time to be at peace with your thoughts, you’ll never have the time.


Some strategies

Okay, you’re convinced.  Here are some of my own strategies to help adopt the habit of retreating:

  • Remember the trigger phrase
    • If you catch yourself saying something like “I can’t afford to take a break right now”, it’s probably the time when you most need one.
  • Question your assertions
    • If you’re telling yourself that you can’t afford the time away from your task or away from work, question how accurate this is.  Why can’t you afford to take that break?  Will the benefit you gain from taking a break really be that detrimental in the long run?  Looking back, would you have more regret for not taking the break, or for having taken it?
  • Ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t have the option of turning down the break
    • I always ask my wife this question when she refuses to take a sick day (in spite of being dreadfully snotty and sick).  What if she wasn’t given the option — would her entire project fail?  Would she get fired?  Would the world end?  Ask yourself what would happen if your power went out for 15 minutes and you couldn’t continue working during that period.  (If you’re thinking about how you really need to start saving your work more often, you’re missing the point).  The consequences of taking a break are not that bad.
  • Specifically schedule time in your work calendar for breaks.
    • Label them “appointment” or something sufficiently vague.  Doing this for 15 minute breaks may become onerous, but I know more than a few people that would benefit from booking time like this for a couple of hours during the day — if only to ensure that they have a few hours of undisturbed time.
  • Whenever your situation is undergoing change (new job, moving homes, etc.), give yourself more time than you think you need
    • Don’t assume that the weekend will be enough time — specifically leave a little bit of extra room between the end of one job and the start of the next one.  A few days off will not break your bank (and if it is, perhaps you should be focusing some attention on living within a tighter budget).  Taking the extra time will allow you to adjust and accept the change at a reasonable pace.
  • If you need more encouragement, think of all of the things you wish you had time to accomplish but never do
    • The simple act of contemplating what you might use the added time off for will help you focus on the value that retreating may provide, rather than just the costs

A new way of budgeting your time and productivity

May 10th, 2011 No comments

Time budgetSchool started proper again yesterday, and that means that the makeup of my days will change radically from that of the previous four months.  Although I’m writing today, the frequency of my posts will decrease drastically once work really gets underway.

I made the decision to take on a fair number of items this term, including:

  • Continue to be a good husband (yes, continue);
  • Continue to do well in school;
  • Devote a non-trivial amount of time to an application I’m working on with some colleagues; and
  • Teach weekly dance classes with my friend Jesse at a studio we’re renting in town

All of these items require substantial amounts of my time, and inconsistently to boot (meaning that I won’t get to choose when one of these items will need more attention – there will be peaks and troughs for all of them).  I believe that I’ve got the skills and ability to meet all four of these goals while maintaining my own sanity.  However, it will require planning to ensure that I’m ready when the storms start to strike.

This is a pretty short post, but if you’d like to jump to the summary, you can do so here.

A new way of looking at my available productivity

Because of these competing demands, it’s very important that I figure out the best way to maximize my productivity.  If I waste my opportunity to be productive, things will start to get backed up, and I’ll quickly find myself with too many things to do and not enough time to do them in.  Something will necessarily fall by the wayside (and if I’m being honest, I suspect it will be item #1 – it’s often easiest to let things slide with the person around which we’re the most comfortable).

Rather than try to plan everything down to the hour, I took a new approach to scheduling my productivity this term.  To start, here are my assumptions:

  • I can achieve what I’m setting out to do.

This is the most important assumption because it’s the starting point for everything else.  If I don’t believe this, then I should return to my list above and remove one of the items.  (If you don’t get this, ask yourself why you are planning to try and accomplish something that you don’t actually believe you are capable of achieving?)

  • I was apathetic the previous term and often felt myself wasting time playing video games instead of studying.

While I found the feeling of apathy generated stress, my grades did not suffer and I exceeded the standards I had set for myself.  This suggests to me that I had additional spare time that could be put to better uses.

  • I don’t want to spend any time this term feeling bored.

That is an indication to me that I currently have too much spare time.  Relaxing and just cooling out is one thing, but sitting around literally feeling bored is off the books.  If I find myself feeling this way, I should be looking to engage myself with a different pursuit.

  • I can be more efficient if I’m able to divide my time across multiple tasks.

Like most of us (all of us?), I experience diminishing returns the longer I spend working on any one particular task.  If I can divide my time across a number of tasks related to the different projects I’ve set out for myself above, I should be able to avoid the fall off that results from working on only one task for too long.

  • I have, roughly, between 3 and 5 good bouts of productivity in a day.

On really good days, I can get my process started first thing in the morning, and also find a second wind after the post-lunch tiredness.  On a bad day, I can’t seem to get the gears turning until 11AM, take a break for lunch, and only just manage to accomplish things by the time 5PM rolls around.

  • My bouts of productivity cannot easily be divided up into “clean” blocks of time.

Just like I don’t know what kind of day I will have until I find myself at the end of it (or mid-way through at least), I don’t know beforehand how long I will be able to stay in my flow for, nor how long it will take to read a particular set of readings.

Creating a workable system

So, with the above assumptions in mind, I set aside a couple of hours on the weekend to devise the system by which I would plan out my time and stay on track this term.  That system is based on the concept of productivity units (PUs from here on in).  PUs are what I call the blocks of productive work that I am talking about above in items 5 and 6.

Based on my assumption in #6, I don’t think that it’s a worthwhile exercise to try and map a PU to a specific amount of time.  In fact, it’s clear that I don’t usually think that’s possible.

Taking my range from item #5, I estimate that on any given day, I can probably accomplish about 4 PU worth of work in any given day, with no other demands on my time.

What does this actually mean?

So, what does it actually mean to accomplish one PU worth of work, if you can’t map the block reliably to an amount of time?

Here are some examples of what I would consider a PU worth of work:

  • Complete a set of readings for one of my classes
  • Spend some time writing out a few pages of a paper
  • Sit down and clear out my inbox, processing everything there and responding to any necessary e-mail
  • Spend some time working on my development team’s wiki, organizing everything and ensuring that all of our recent thoughts have been captured and stored somewhere for later reference
  • Attend one class

It is important to understand that these are the benchmarks I have drawn for myself.  Based on what you see above, you could probably estimate that one of my PUs probably roughly translates to 1 to 2 hours worth of work.  This is reasonable.  However, this will not always be the case, and there are times when it will take two PUs to finish a set of readings, or only half of my available energy to complete something.

The important part of my system is that it is adaptive, flexible, and dynamic, as these are all characteristics that I wish to imbue in the work that I do.  If my system does not embody the same traits that I myself wish to, there’s going to be conflict (which generally leads to the system being discarded and returning to old ways).

Your mileage may vary – you may find that you prefer to work in smaller chunks, but fit more of them into a day.  Whatever works for you is what you should do.  For me, this provides a clean and lightweight way in which I can rapidly estimate how much work I can accomplish each day.

This approach also provides me with a metric by which I can determine whether or not I should really be feeling upset that I’m not being maximally productive.  Let me explain.

I have no classes on Tuesday, which means that this is a wide-open day.  However, I have no shortage of work, and so ideally, I’d like to get 4 PUs in on Tuesday.  If I’ve finished one PUs worth of work, it’s currently 3PM, and I’m sitting on the couch playing video games, things probably aren’t going too well.  I should be kicking myself back into work.  But, if I find myself in the same situation, having completed 3 PUs worth of work, I’m actually doing pretty good.

Why is this distinction meaningful to draw – isn’t this pretty obvious and intuitive?

No – it isn’t.

These kind of separations are always obvious to us when we’re external to them, having them explained to us or reading about them on someone’s blog.  It’s easy to divide everything into bright clean lines when you don’t have anything at stake and you’re not in the middle of all of the chaos and demands placed on your time.  However, when you do find yourself in the middle of everything that’s when you will most need to be able to determine if the way you are feeling is due to something legitimate or simply a pressure external to yourself that actually doesn’t matter.

Thinking in these terms provides a quick “escape ladder” that can be used if I need to pull my head up from the mess and figure out if the way I’m feeling is really something that requires my concern.

The honest truth is that sometimes you’re going to feel guilty for taking some much needed time to recharge.  It doesn’t matter that that is the best thing you could do – your psychology will play games with you and tell you that you could not possibly take the time off from working on that paper!

Dividing my time up into these kind of chunks is a convenient way for me to check the way I’m feeling and determine if I really need to get the gears turning again, or can relax knowing that the break I’m taking is well-deserved (and will actually make me more efficient on the whole).

The view from my desk

Here’s the example that I’ve created, to provide you with some context.  My class schedule roughly looks like this:

  • Monday: 3 classes
  • Tuesday: 0 classes
  • Wednesday: 2 classes
  • Thursday: 1 class
  • Friday: 1 class

On Monday, I also run a dance jam down at Centenniel Square in Victoria, which eats up a decent chunk of time.  In short, I don’t have any additional PUs available for Monday.

Tuesday is wide open, and so I can aim for my maximal goal: 4 PUs.  The plan going forward will be to divide this time between reading/studying and the necessary time required for me to continue PMing the project I’m working on.  I have my time loosely divided in half between the two, but I can be flexible and if needed, I can devote all 4 separate PUs to studying (though I would rather not, as that will increase the diminishing returns that I experience).

Wednesday I have two classes, which means I have about 2 PUs remaining.  Likewise, Thursday and Friday each have one class, so I have 3 PUs for both of those days.  Just at a glance, this way of looking at my spare time gives me a rough idea of how much time I will have available to devote to the demands on my time.

If things get panicky or packed in tight, I may need to adjust my schedule, or attempt to squeeze an extra PU out of my day.  While this may be possible for brief bursts of time, I’m skeptical that that would be a sustainable practice.  Being productive for 10 of my 16 waking hours, on an extended basis, intuitively feels like I would be pushing the limits of my mental, emotional and physical health, not to mention my marriage.


That’s all I’ve got for today.  In general, writing a blog post is probably about 1 or 2 PUs worth of work.  It requires writing (a task unto itself), then polishing and editing before publishing.  I’ve finished three sessions worth of reading, and completing this entry makes a total of four PUs.  That means that I can now devote the rest of my day to relaxing and pursuing hobbies that are less intensive, and ignore any guilt that may pop up from time to time trying to tell me I should actually be working harder.  Not only should I not be working harder, I’m not convinced that my yield would be worth the extra effort.

Here’s the summary of what we’ve covered:

  • To maximize your productivity, break your time up so that you can focus your energy on multiple things throughout the day;
  • Breaking your time up into productive units, or PUs, can provide a convenient way to get a loose handle on what you can realistically accomplish in any given day;
  • Your PUs may be different than mine, and that’s fine – do what works for you;
  • If you’re feeling lazy or like you should be doing more work, check in to see what you’ve accomplished in terms of your PUs, and ground the way you feel based on that.  Sometimes you need to kick your ass back into gear.  Sometimes, you need to relax.  Both of these things will be equally hard to accomplish at different times;
  • A system doesn’t need to schedule or track every last available minute you have for it to work for you; and
  • Check in with yourself from time to time to see if the way that you’re feeling is a reaction to your circumstances, or something external (eg, unrealistic societal pressure that you can or should be productive for every single minute that you’re at work).

Productivity quickie: Use RTM tags to keep your errands distinct from other tasks

April 29th, 2011 2 comments

Most of us know that life can’t all be hard work and no play, but few of us realize that it’s our own responsibility to ensure that this is the case.


Some of my @RTM ListsI’ve just completed an incredible term working in Vancouver.  I’m in the middle of a retrospective that I want to post, but I’m suffering from mild writer’s block in that department.  Rather than hammer my head against the wall, I wanted to publish something and keep the creative flow going.

Accordingly, instead of a retrospective, today I’m going to show you how to I use Remember the Milk’s tagging functionality to keep my errands and tasks distinct.

Are they actually distinct?

Where you draw the line between an errand and any other kind of task will be subjective.  For me, an errand is any task that requires me to be out of the house, and generally with some degree of transportation available to me (bus, bike, car).  Sometimes that transportation is specific to the errand (to get groceries, I usually -but not always- need a car).

While I assign a time estimate to every task that I enter (it sounds cumbersome but once you make it part of your process, you stop noticing it), I don’t usually bother doing so with an errand.  This is because errands generally happen when I’m doing other things at the same time (I try to do errands in batches).  There’s also a lot that I can’t account for: traffic, running into acquaintances, getting held up somewhere, etc.

Also, because of the nature of errands, there’s no sense in me having them clutter up my attention when I’m planning to spend the next four hours getting work done at home.  At that point, they are simply noise, getting in the way of my signal, and increasing my risk of information overload.

RTM?  Tagging?

If you’ve gotten lost, let me refer you back to my original post discussing what Getting Things Done (GTD) and Remember the Milk (RTM) can do for you and how to leverage them here.

However, here is a brief summary:

Remember the Milk is an application that allows you to manage any number of lists, and is very flexible.  When you combine that with the GTD methodology for managing all of your stuff (information, todo items, chores, etc. – everything that is on your plate, every day), you have a pretty good system for avoiding information overload and staying on top of life.

Tagging in Remember the Milk

Everytime I enter an item into my GTD list, I record the following things:

  1. Due date (when do I want it to start showing up on my TODO list)
  2. Time estimate (5 mins, 10 mins, 1 hour, 1 day, etc.)
  3. Any relevant #tags

Tagging is a skill in itself, and the more you practice it, the better you’ll get (subtext: don’t get discouraged because it seems overwhelming.  Just do it and allow your system to evolve around you).  I have two kinds of tags:

  1. Those based around a context
  2. All other tags

Tags that are based around a context are tags that let me know, at a glance, what kind of environment I need to have around me in order to complete a task.  For example, if I need to follow-up with someone about a task at work, that will generally require email.  So, for that task, I would include #@email as a context tag.  Assuming that that task also requires that I email Bob specifically, I would include #@Bob as a tag too.

All of the other tags are simply keywords that apply to the task.  If you want to start out simple, you can ignore this part for now and just focus on including a context.  If you are ready for more, this is the place to build from.

The only rule for these tags is that you generally don’t want them to represent context – those tags get a ‘@‘ in front of them.  Your other tags don’t.  That’s all.

Some examples would be:

  • #boring
    • It sounds silly to record this information, but if that’s what pops into your head as you’re entering the task, include it as a tag.  It’s better to have too many tags than too few (I think), and maybe you’ll notice that you accumulate a lot of #boring tasks that don’t get done.  (It’s always good to have a place to focus your improvement).
  • #chore
    • Many of these tasks might also be tagged with #@home – many chores need to be at home to accomplish.
  • #vacation
    • If you have a lot of tasks that relate to your vacation, this is a very convenient way to enter them and be able to find them quickly later on.  You can even create a quicksearch to get all posts tagged with vacation (“tag:vacation”).
  • #fun
    • Most of us know that life can’t all be hard work and no play, but few of us realize that it’s our own responsibility to ensure that this is the case.  Tagging items with fun is a good way to divide up your tasks wisely.  With this approach, you can make sure that you do something that is enjoyable in between the lame stuff.  Think of it as a reward for completing the boring tasks.
      • Example: Bay and I have always had fun grocery shopping together.  So, even though it’s an #@errand, it’s also #fun.

Putting it all together

So, the only other step in putting tagging to use for you is to create and save some searches.  Based on the two lists I mentioned at the start, we’re going to want to create two lists:

  1. One list displays all tasks that are tagged with #@errand
    • Search is: tag:@errand
    • (Each of these tasks requires the errand context to be completed)
  2. One list displays all tasks that are NOT tagged with #@errand
    • Search is: NOT tag:@errand
    • (None of these tasks requires the errand context to be completed)

Once you’ve performed your search, you can save it by clicking on the save tab in the upper right corner of the web interface and naming it:

Saving an RTM search

It’s up to you what you call the smart list.  I try to choose names that are as intuitive as possible, to save myself time later trying to figure out the clever naming scheme I’d come up with.

I find the most intuitive thing to do in this case is to the corresponding context tag as the name.

Thus, our first list is @Errand, and our second list is @NoErrand.  (Note that this second name is not an actual tag that we’ve created.  Just the name of our list.  I find this makes the most sense to me, but if you find it confusing, by all means try out a different naming scheme).

Now that you’ve completed that, you’re set.  With just a glance at your system, you can now determine what errands you can do while you’re heading in to town.  Or, if you’re stuck at home for the next two hours, you can determine what chores you may be able to take on (without having to wade through the mental clutter of all your errands).

My Errand List in RTMMy No errands list in RTM

Note that my lists also contain a bunch of other search criteria – this is specific to my system and will likely not be relevant to your own.

Let’s be real

Don’t be discouraged if this stuff sounds complicated.  Find one thing to try and improve upon in your routine, and focus on that until you are satisfied.  The less you can succumb to information overload, the better you’ll be able to devote yourself to your own progress (that blog idea just got added to RTM, tagged with #blogidea and #listitem).

As I mentioned earlier, I’m feeling a little bit of writer’s block trying to capture the massive bowl of thoughts that the past four months represents in my head.  I’ve absorbed so much that I’m having trouble dispensing it in any articulable fashion.

Having said that, I have another week off before classes start up proper, so I have a line in the sand within which I plan to complete the task.  Once classes begin, I anticipate being extremely busy.  I am currently working on an application with two other very capable people and we’re seeing a lot of synergy and dynamism that is very exciting.

In addition to that, I’m also renting a studio with a very good friend and will be teaching dance classes there on a weekly basis.  I am very much looking forward to this development and am very excited to see how it continues to progress (I will post more information here soon – we’re meeting to pound out details this weekend).

With all of these items on my plate, my posting frequency will necessarily slow down – it gets difficult to write creatively when I spend all of my days studying and writing papers.  However, I will post when I have the time, and as usual, my posting frequency will increase again in four months, once my next workterm starts.  You can bet that I will have a lot to report after the coming four months.

Hang in there and stay tuned.  Life is an exciting journey, and if you’ve been reading these entries, hopefully you’re experiencing some of what that looks like through my eyes.

Braindump – Wondering what it looks like under the hood?

April 19th, 2011 No comments

Precious BrushyI’ve been back from Vancouver for a little over 48 hours. Since then I’ve been working diligently to clear out my inboxes, unpack, get back on top of everything and ensure that my time off between school and work can be used as effectively as possible.

This is usually the point for me where I feel at my busiest and can be most easily overwhelmed, and I think a lot of us feel this way.

Braindumps are one of the things that I like to do to centre myself and find focus.  To keep things interesting, we’ll start today off with my own example.  The speed with which my days are flashing by is incredible, and I felt like I needed some solitude.


The results

  • App Development
  • Project Management
  • Dishes
  • Laundry
  • Chores
  • Unpack
  • Arpeggiation
  • Reason
  • The Climb
  • Chords
  • Clean
  • Cook
  • Dinner
  • Exercise
  • Blog
  • Vancouver Retrospective
  • New blog


Five minutes.  Your thoughts.  Captured on paper.


The rules are simple:

  1. Devote no more and no less than five minutes to the process
  2. Don’t judge the thoughts

The application of the rules is the challenging part.  Many people either forget about the time limit or give up too soon.  By setting a time limit of five minutes, you will ensure that you don’t get hung up on any one idea, nor give up too quickly.

Don’t judge what comes up.  Just write it down as quickly as you can.  The sooner you can write it down, the sooner your mind will be freed to skip to the next idea.  I promise you that things will bubble up that surprise you.

See how I have redundant items up there (Clean, Chores; Cook, Dinner)?  That’s an artefact of the fact that I did not stop to judge the word as it bubbled up.  It doesn’t matter if it’s redundant.  In fact, capturing that thought actually added value for me: it indicated that those particular items were at the front of my mind.


A clean mind is an effective mind.

You may often find that a lot of minutia pops up while conducting a braindump.  Minutia it may be, but it’s occupying some part of your mind’s available energy.  Write it down, let your mind move past it.

Conducting a braindump is a great tool to apply when you’re feeling overwhelmed.  The simple act of writing your thoughts down is an act of control and will help calm you and let you feel like you’re making some progress (because you are).  Asserting control over your thoughts will help ensure that you are in control of them and not the other way around.

Lastly, seeing everything currently overwhelming you, written down and contained on a single piece of paper, will have a powerful psychological effect.


So now you’ve got another tool in your problem solving toolbox.  Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or like you can’t figure out how to move forward, set aside five minutes and splurge your brain.

Screen your music collection on the go

July 22nd, 2010 No comments

For a long time, I’ve been frustrated with the process of screening new music.  We’d get new albums, I’d put them on my iPhone, I’d screen them there, then hear the same songs I had deleted from my iPhone the next time I put my collection on shuffle on my media computer.

Well, I’ve got a quick solution that will effectively allow you to screen your entire music collection while you’re on the go.  To do this, you need an iPod device and iTunes on the computer you sync with.

Use autofill to fill your iPod with songs from your machine – I have stand-up comedy sets, audiobooks, podcasts, and voicememos that I don’t want to have filled on to my iPhone, so I created a playlist that does not contain any of these, and have iTunes fill my device from this playlist.  You can do something similar, or simply use your entire music collection.  The most important part here is that you don’t create a narrow or specific playlist – the goal is to screen through your entire collection, so you want to try and keep the playlist as big as possible.

Now, when you’re out listening to your device, make a point of rating your songs.  I find this easiest to do when I’m working, as I can plug my device into the USB port of my computer, and have the songs show up as they’re playing.  This makes it very easy to rate as each new song comes up.

If you find rating tedious, then you can skip most of them, except for the songs you want to delete.  Whenever a song comes on that you really don’t care for (we’ve all got them in our collection), assign it a rating of 1.  Any other song, rate between 2-5.  I keep songs that I’ve rated as a 2 usually because sometimes I will want to listen to them within the context of the full album, even if I’m not particularly keen on them (some songs sound better when they are included in the overall progression of the album).

When you get home, sync your device with your computer.  All of your ratings will be transferred back on to your main computer and synced.  Now, sort your Music collection by rating, and delete all songs rated 1.  Then, autofill your iPod again, and you’re ready for the next day.

Using this technique, you will gradually screen through your entire collection.  I like to have a random sampling, which includes some of my favourite songs, so I use a fairly broad playlist.  If your goal is to screen through your collection as quickly as possible, you can create a smart playlist of all unrated songs and autofill your device from that.  This will ensure that you’re always listening to songs you have not yet screened.

I’ve been using this little technique, and it definitely allows me to squeeze a tedious task into the little nooks and crannies of time that exist throughout your day.

Happy screening!

Surviving the first year of Law

June 20th, 2010 4 comments

Question MarkI’ve been out of class (having finished first year) for about two months now.  With a little bit of distance, I can turn my sight back to the last year and reflect on what helped make things easier (or harder).  Some of these suggestions may prove helpful to those of you that are starting out on a new challenge, some may be a bit specific for your tastes.  Let’s do this.

Take time to prepare for the change

After talking with Bay and making sure we could work it out, I arranged my departure from work so that I had three weeks off between my last day and the start of school.  Three weeks may seem like a lot of time, but it only feels that way if you don’t fill it.  I had a number of small projects that I wanted to complete, and I knew that if I was capturing ideas and staying on top of things, that time would fill up.

When you consider the fact that I was undergoing a radical change to the daily routine that I had been building on for the past five years, three weeks really isn’t that long.  Taking this time off may sound obvious or easy to many of you reading this, but these types represent only a portion of the population.  There are as many people that find it almost impossible to let go and accept that even if it means less money, you have to put your mental health before anything else.

Even if it costs more money (as not working is necessarily more expensive than working), it gives you the time to set up the foundation and groundwork for the next year.  Some people prefer to dive headfirst into a new adventure.  I’m all for being adventurous, but I want to reap the maximum benefit from those adventures, and that means setting up at least some kind of framework before diving in.

Some of the things that I accomplished in these three weeks were: performing an experiment with biphasic sleep, spend some quality time hanging out and catching up with some friends, spending some quality time with my wife, hanging shelves and doing some handiwork around the house that has been bothering us for months, and yes, even spending some days doing nothing but playing video games and staying up far too late.

This last one is every bit as important as the others.  Let’s be honest with ourselves – we like to do some things that generally aren’t always for our best interest.  Staying up late and playing video games is hardly a productive activity, but I enjoy it, and it’s a nostalgic thing to do.  Just as much as I know that, these days, I can’t do this very often, I also know that I’m going to want to do that at some points throughout the coming year.  If I’m going to need to exercise willpower to stop doing that in the coming year, isn’t it better to give myself a bit of a mental break and get some of it out of my system now?  I think so.  Again, we’re building a framework here – setting ourselves up so that we’re really able to accomplish our goals in the coming year.

Not only set goals, but be willing and able to adapt them

As of late I’ve heard a bit from studies suggesting that goal-oriented behaviour may not be the best approach for everyone.  This isn’t necessarily that astonishing, because there’s no such thing as “a best approach” to anything that fits for everyone.  We’re all different, and require different approaches to accomplish what we want out of life.  However, setting goals is an important part of how I accomplish and achieve in my life.  It gives me a metric to look back and see how I’ve grown, and it gives me something to drive toward and keep me on course.

Heading into law school, I had set the following goals for myself:  Maintain an A  average in my classes (I achieved this in my undergrad, so it seemed reasonable), continue playing squash three times a week, continue teaching dance, practice dance once a week, and, most important of all, continue to spend time with my wife (yup, you better believe she’s on my list of goals – something would be wrong if she wasn’t).

Throughout the year, life happened, my growth continued, and I gathered more data.  Some of that data was in the form of what realistic expectations were for a law student, vis-a-vis their GPA.  Some of that data was more introspective, such as better understanding how much I can divide my time between various activities.

Some people get overwhelmed when life is changing around them, or they are undergoing their own growth.  The new data creates cognitive dissonance, as it contradicts the goals that they set for themselves, and, if they’re unwilling to adapt, they are forced to either mentally ignore the new data (an awful habit to get into, but a common one), or they discard their goals and forget about it.  The correct approach is neither of these; the correct approach is to accept the new data, appreciate it, and adapt based on what it tells you.

After our first midterm was over, and having our professors impress upon us the fact that the grades we had received in our undergrad were not representative of what we would be getting (I heard the phrase “A B is a good grade!” repeated many times throughout the year, usually more often closer to finals), it became obvious that my goal to maintain an A average may have been unrealistic.

A lot of people believe that adapting your goals means that you have failed.  Many project managers struggle greatly to simply come out and explain to the client that the original goal of meeting a certain deadline is no longer possible, and that they will need to adapt their timeline in order to accomplish what they had originally set out.  This is not a failure on anyone’s part, but our society generally has trouble accepting this fact.  It is simply adapting to new data.  It is the intelligent, and sustainable, way to handle new information.

Changing my goal from an A average to a B average may have seemed to some people like they were giving up on themselves, or lowering their expectations.  In Law, there are many many type A personalities.  These people typically struggle with adaption; they have a strong drive, and they are used to setting their sights on a goal and not relenting until they achieve it.  This generates a considerable amount of stress.  By contrast, when I adjusted my goal, I was not giving up on myself, nor was I lowering the expectations that I held myself to.  This is simply by virtue of the fact that the GPA I wanted to maintain in school was representative of many things.

The GPA I would end with did not simply represent how smart I was, or how much time I had, how much I cared about  my career, and especially not about how objectively good I was at the study of our legal system.  It represented these things in part, sure, but it also represented how much of my life, and my time, I was willing to sacrifice to this pursuit.  Was I willing to sacrifice my other goals, in order to accomplish this one goal?  The new data I received was telling me that if I wanted to continue with my goal of maintaining an A average, I would likely not be able to achieve my other goals, such as regular squash, dancing, and spending time with the most important person in my life.

Here to is a stumbling block for many people.  When setting our goals, we initially start with X amount of data, and then lay out a set of goals that we believe we can achieve (well, that’s what we should be doing.  Many of us shoot far too high in our initial goal-setting process).  Upon receiving new data that tells us one of our goals will require more time/effort/whatever, it necessarily means that out other goals will have to change in order to meet this one.  Just a simple example below (skip if you already get my point):

Let’s say that you figure you have five hours a week to devote to your pursuits.  You set out goal A and goal B, figuring that A will probably require two hours of your time every week, and goal B, three hours.  (Of course, you probably won’t be explicitly thinking this, but when coming up with goals for ourselves, we’re generally considering this in some capacity or another).  Now you receive some new data.  You’ve found out that achieving goal A will now require three hours, instead of two (in my own case, this is basically what I found out about my goal to keep an A average).

You will no longer be able to accomplish both goal A and B with the spare time you have available.  You have a these options:

  • Fool yourself and keep the goals, pretending that you will be able to do six hours worth of goals in five hours of time.  (Note: This is the same situation as simply ignoring the new data)
  • Get frustrated and discard one of your goals
  • Adapt to the new data, and perhaps adjust goal A to something more reasonable.  Or, give up on goal A, and decide to pursue goal C

The hardest part about all of this is recognizing when you are a presented with a moment that a decision is required.  Many of us have these moments pass us by, and only realize when it’s too late that there was a actually a decision to be made.  For Law, it was fairly easy to see – we were told regularly what a reasonable expectation was.

If you’ve been reading this blog, or are a friend of mine, you’ll know that I came up against one of these moments with respect to dancing and squash, both during the school year, and again at the start of this co-op term.  If you read back through the blog entries I wrote in the past year, you can actually see me trying battling through the process of needing to adapt my goals.  Over time, I came to realize that I would either need to adapt my goals and choose one pursuit to prioritize, or, have that decision made for me (or, even worse, have both of my pursuits be given an inadequate amount of time and get dropped as a result).

Making the decision to change and adapt your goals can be a difficult one.  Sometimes you really want something, and we often have a difficult time accepting that achievements require sacrifice.  However, coming to terms with the nature of sacrifice is necessary, and no rewards will come without having to make some kind of sacrifice.  Learn to recognize these moments in your life, and embrace the change and adapation that is necessary – it helped me get through my first year.

Do something outside of school

I was lucky; I was accepted to UVic, the university right here where I live (and also a highly acclaimed law program).  As a result, I already had a social network, and many ongoing interests that kept me from existing solely at school.

Many students enter law school by way of moving to a new city and setting up shop there.  For these people it can be difficult to develop interests that don’t revolve around school in some way or another.  All of their friends are people they’ve met at school, they spend a ton of time on campus, they end up talking about school all of the time, etc. etc.

I continued teaching dance while going through first year, even though this added to my stress at times (it can be difficult to choreograph a class when you’ve got a memo looming shortly ahead).  However, it also maintained a continuous presence in my life that pulled me out of school.  It was impossible for me to allow my life to completely exist within the sphere of school,because there was something that recurred every week and demanded that I pay attention to it.

Maintaining a sense of identity that exists outside of school is essential to staying sane as you go through the process.  If you allow your identity to be defined solely by your experience at school, you’ll start to put too much emphasis on grades and exams; and buy too much into the pressure and stress that accompanies these things.

Worse than that, you can lose sight of the fact that life carries on while you are in school.  If you enclose your existence within the confines of school, life can pass you by, and you may find yourself graduating or coming up for air at the end of each year, only to realize that everything has changed.  By maintaining interests, friends, and activities that exist outside of school, you’ll help ensure that life doesn’t pass you by – it will continue to grow, progress, and move along, and you’ll continue to be a part of that movement.

Collaborate generously*

*where appropriate to do so

Not everyone will agree with this point, but I stand by my opinion, more so than ever before after completing first year.  In first year, there will be plenty of opportunities to collaborate.  Although collaborating on writing an exam or the written portion of an assignment may be considered cheating, most of our professors encouraged collaboration when studying, doing research, preparing outlines, and so on.  Outside of the situations where it would be considered cheating, I think that collaboration is a sure fire way to enhance your success.

The stress would get to some of our cohort, and more than once I would hear students declare that they didn’t want to assist someone any more because they felt like they were being used.  I understand this sentiment – when things are tough and stressful, it’s very difficult to keep our hearts and outlooks soft.  I framed my approach a little differently.  Being a project manager at heart, I already had a good understanding of the value that collaboration and synergy can bring about, and knew that any form of collaboration at all is generally a positive thing for me.  Here’s the real secret though – it’s almost impossible to collaborate with someone and not derive some kind of benefit.  Sure, my fellow students would benefit from anything that I provided or put out there (hopefully), but even if someone took my outline and provided me nothing in return, there’s always the possibility that they would come back to me and ask “Hey, Adam, I noticed you put this case in there – is that actually relevant?”.

Maybe someone would ask me why I had structured things a certain way, or note that I had incorrectly cited a specific case.  Sometimes I would exchange outlines with study partners, and then we’d both gain the benefit of third-party review.  Sometimes, helping out a friend that was having trouble just plain felt good.  Knowing that I was able to make the journey a little easier for some of my colleagues contributed greatly to my own sense of self-worth and self-esteem.  There’s no substitute for the positive feelings that being generous with your work and time can provide.

Being open and collaborative in this manner may really be counter-intuitive to some people.  I’m told that in some law schools, the competitiveness is so strong that people really don’t want to share anything with another student, for fear of it meaning that student will do better, affect the grading curve and result in the initial student’s grade being lower.  I think this is pretty short term thinking, and that if we are able to raise our grading curve collectively by improving each other, we all win in the long run.  Maybe my grade is relatively lowered because I helped another student get a higher grade, but I’m sure that in doing so, my knowledge of the actual material is deeper that it would have been had I not helped that person out.  And that’s what this is really all about – not getting the highest grade on some arbitrary metric, but actually deeply learning the material we are studying.

Sharing in this manner is a lot like the open source approach to developing and licensing software.  A lot of software companies have scoffed at the open source concept, where developers collaborate and work on projects for which there isn’t an obvious economic benefit or reward.  These companies are locked into the unfortunate perspective that the only thing that should really motivate your actions is the bottom line (financial).  This is akin to the law student that figures the only thing that should motivate their actions are their own grades (again, the bottom line, though in the academic context).

Both of these perspectives are short-sighted, and will ultimately cheapen your experience.  Collaborate with your peers, and embrace the opportunity to help educate them if you can.  The more times you explain a concept, the better you will be able to do exactly that when it’s time to write an exam.  If you find yourself explaining something to a colleague more than once, look at it simply as practice.  I guarantee you won’t regret it.

Be a project manager

Okay, this last tip may not be that helpful to those of you that don’t have five spare years of your life kicking around, or aren’t interested in management.  But, you can still take some of the tips that I write about in this blog, and learn to apply them in order to make yourself more efficient and more organized.  That’s what I’m talking about here.  An effective project manager needs to be able to multi-task, remain efficient, and handle many different threads at once.  These are all skills that are greatly benefitted by taking some time to increase your productivity.

My previous career working as a PM in software gave me ample opportunity to hone skills such as applying GTD methodology, effectively capturing ideas, avoiding procrastination, and appreciating the power of collaboration.  Before returning to school, make an attempt to develop some organizational skills, or to build upon those you already have.  Any time that you can put in now toward improving your habits will pay off exponentially as you apply it over the next three years.

Try to view the time you spend adapting these new habits before returning to school as another form of investment.  You’re investing time now into developing new, positive habits, so that later on you will be more efficient and better able to manage the demands that will be on your time once school starts.

Keep sight of the bigger picture

No matter how stressful it gets, always try to keep sight of why you’re doing what you’re doing.  You’re not writing an open memo assignment because you don’t want to fail, you’re writing it because you want to understand how to properly apply legal research and writing skills.  And why are you doing that?  Probably because you want to be able to seek out justice for those in our society that have been wronged.  Or maybe because you want to make a ton of money working a swanky job (a pretty poor reason to go to school for law, in my opinion, but to each their own).  Whatever it is that has motivated you to take on the next big step in your life, take time throughout the course of that journey to recognize that it truly is a journey.  If you cheat yourself out of the ability to recognize that, you really cheat yourself out of part of the experience, learning and benefits.  If things weren’t stressful, and didn’t require you to adapt or change, they wouldn’t be worth pursuing.

And, scene…

These tips are pretty general, and will hopefully serve you you well in whatever new portion of your life you are embarking on.  Change is generally going to be stressful, as we humans are creatures of habit, and changing our environment imposes new requirements and approaches to the habits we’ve developed leading up to this point.  However, if you take proactive steps and maintain a positive outlook, you can help ensure that the journey is rewarding, and that you maximize the benefit that you reap from it.  I always try to tell myself that when I’m feeling stressed out, it’s often because I’m learning something new, or in a situation that I’m not comfortable with.  Aim for this kind of distance and introspection, so that you can identify the situations where you may be able to learn something new.  The more often in life you are able to recognize an opportunity to learn, the greater heights you will be able to achieve.

Okay – I promised podcasts and audiobooks, and that will hopefully come up next time.  The ferry ride to and from the island is an awesome opportunity to write a post, and I really missed putting ideas on to paper (… screen, I guess).  I’m always looking for new ideas to write about, so please post a comment if there’s something that you would like to hear my thoughts on, or particular questions you may have.