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Oh, to be constant… in season and out of season

06 Apr

Consistency is one of the hardest nuts to crack.  We can all try and improve in small steps in different areas, but sticking to a particular plan with regularity for months and years is not easy.

Today, I read an eye-opening related article by Barry Hill* on “to-be lists”.  He explains the concept very nicely himself, though I summarise here for context:

Executive summary of “To-be lists”

It adds onto the familiar Todo list concept.  Items related to goals should firstly be listed.  (We forget easily!)  Secondly, prioritization of goal-oriented tasks should be significant.  For example: “spend quality time with my family” can be given a task such as “spend time one-on-one with each of my children every week”.

The problem: One Todo list to rule them all?

In my quest for competence and professional integrity, I admit I have fallen into the trap of being ruled by my Todo list at times.

My puzzle: how to both remind and motivate myself of all my commitments in a balanced way.

I’ve spent nearly two years logging into RTM on a daily basis.  (My Todo list tool of choice.)  With some personalised GTD implementation, of course – for those of you time-management geeks out there.

For the goals I had, I added them to my Todo list as repeating tasks.  Functionally, this reminded me on the correct day what needed to be done.  I prioritized liberally, processing thousands of reminders during my moving-country transition to only around fifty outstanding today.

And this worked.  It was good enough at the time.

What went wrong?  (Ahem… the D in GTD?)

Prioritization was, and is, fluid.  As a result, my regular goals could slip up or down a notch, relatively speaking.  Yes, I tried, and many days I checked them off faithfully.  But not every day.  Other high priority items could crowd them out and regular priorities could get de-emphasized.

Consider a one-off task with a deadline of today.  I’d push myself to get it done… but it is a lot harder to have the same motivation for a regular slot of chore-clearup, when I know I can always catch up the next day if neccessary.

Is there a better solution?

I have started using the don’t-break-the-chain system to help me keep track of tasks to be done regularly in order to satisfy a long term goal.  (These have tended to be forming new habits around my goals, or breaking bad habits that are preventing me from meeting my goals.)

Why does it work?  (The better-known benefits)

  • The satisfaction of crossing an item off the list
  • Consistently remembering that priority day after day adds up to a bigger achievement. The longer and stronger your habit gets, the bigger your motivation gets – in proportion – to avoid that break!

What makes it ideal for high level goals?  (Some bonus benefits)

It is insightful to be able to review your track record over time on that one specific task: answer questions like “Am I consistent only on weekdays?”, “Do I keep slipping up on one priority in particular, and need to have a mental refocus on it?”

As Bruce already recommended, Michael Hyatt has an additional useful podcast illustrating why incremental changes matter – they do add up!

So where can you start?

  1. I use Chains.cc I like the visually pleasing and functional interface: it gives a satisfying feeling to tick the days off.  (And sometimes the icons change after a week for an added feel-good feeling!)
  2. I add a chain for the next steps on my goals
  3. Each chain should be a Baby step. (As FLYlady reminds us!)  It has to be small enough to that you can do the whole thing the first day (no marathons, no heroics!) and every day after that, without making something else *POP* out of your schedule on the other side 🙂
  4. I keep around 4 chains live at any one time.
  5. Every month, add in a new chain for the next step on my goal.  They say it takes 28 days to form a new daily habit.  If this holds true, it is a reasonable schedule to cycle through new/next endevours, stepping ever closer to the end goals.
  6. As new habits become part of your regular life, put those chains at the end.  (You can still update them to make sure you’re not dropping anything, but by archiving these ones, you can focus on your latest set.)

The only drawback I’ve found with this technique, is that not every habit can or should occur on a daily schedule.  I’ve therefore redefined these tasks to work to their own schedule.

E.g. I always take Sundays off exercising. Rather than breaking the chain for this, I’ve defined my chain as “Excercise to my schedule”, so for days when I don’t exercise (deliberately), I still continue the chain.

Will it work for you?

Of course this is not a silver bullet.  (Chains do not replace a Todo list.)  It is yet another useful tool in our arsenal in striving for greater consistency in our lives.  With faithfulness, it can prove helpful.

And we need God’s grace to provide for us in even the most basic matters, providing us with the health and strength to do what we set ourselves to.  We can only do our best, with His blessing.

*Thanks again to Barry for his article!  While my system has been working well for the last month or so, his discussion helped me clarify my thinking on exactly why it is working.  It is helpful to have a distinction of terminology, and a clear boundary to help me decide what belongs in my Todo list, and what I need to chain.

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Posted by on Friday, April 6, 2012 in discipline

 

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