Do we outsource our memory too much?

Recently I started a new course that’s rather stressful and time-consuming. To prepare for it, at work, I wrote down everything I have to do between now and my August holidays. For Unclutterer, I didn’t do anything because Jacki has a lovely Google Calendar with all our publishing dates. And I informed my husband of when I would need to work on my course so that he wouldn’t feel ignored.

All good things, right? Communication, written task lists, and using sharing technology to its fullest. The height of personal organization.

But then, at work in doing one of my monthly tasks, I left half of it undone. Plus I didn’t go look at Jacki’s calendar and almost missed a publishing date (thanks for reminding me, Jacki). The only thing that didn’t go wrong was my relationship.

I asked myself why that happened.

I began by looking at my task list at work. When I’d written down the monthly task, I wrote down only the information for the first part of the task and nothing about the second. When I relied solely on my memory, I always went through a mental checklist to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Having written it down, I didn’t feel the need to go through that list and didn’t even remember the second part existed and it’s something I’ve been doing monthly for over 3 years!

Then I thought about the calendar and why I didn’t consult it. Lack of habit and assuming that I already knew it. I have to admit that last one is a biggie for me. I get convinced of something so much that I don’t bother checking to make sure that it is true.

This led me to wonder about using lists, relying on memory, or employing technology. Which works best and why?

With smartphones and prior to that day-planners, we have external memory devices around us all the time. No need to actually remember anything, right? But is that lazy of us? Over on Life Hacker, Thorin Klosowski did a personal experiment back in 2012 where he stopped relying on anything other than his brain to remember what he had to do and where he had to go.

To make sure he did everything he needed to, he would walk himself through the day each morning, similar to what I did for my monthly work tasks before making the mistake of half-writing them down. He found the experiment extremely helpful and although he didn’t stick to a brain-only memory prompt, he did decide to rely less on paper and technology.

Fascinated by Klosowski’s experiment, I thought I’d go see what else was out there and found an article in Wired from 2014 that looked at an experiment that tested people’s ability to remember things with or without the ability to write it down first. The results did not support note-taking as a memory tool. Those who relied solely on memory performed better.

“Okay, okay, maybe these are two isolated incidents,” I said to myself. “Let’s see what else is out there.”

Moving up to 2016, Motherboard published an article about how using technology to remember tasks makes it easier to forget them.

The author, Rachel Pick, was in a situation really close to mine — lots of commitments with different dates and requirements and no simple way to merge them all into a single list. She tried a physical planner, but just like me, she forgot to take it with her. She then tried apps, which were either too complex or too restrictive.

She finally tried Google Keep (which I use to remember restaurants in other cities, birthday gift ideas for my husband, and things that we have to take to the cottage). And she liked it, so much so that if something wasn’t written down in the app, it was like it never existed.

Being a curious person, Pick spoke with a neuroscientist to find out why this was happening. What he told her was basically what Klosowski discovered on his own — Pick was outsourcing her memory to Google Keep and was changing the way neurons were firing in her brain.

What was the neuroscientists advice? Rely more on memory and less on tools.

With so many things going on in my life, I can’t rely on just my memory, but what I have to do is start asking myself, “Are you sure that’s all? Are you missing anything?” and go through my mental checklists with paper and technology acting as prompts and light support only.

Making time to read

In the past I’ve sometimes dedicated a blog post to a book I’ve read that I thought would interest Unclutterer readers. But this time I’d like to recommend a reasonably short article in the Harvard Business Review:8 Ways to Read (a Lot) More Books This Year,” by Neil Pasricha.

This isn’t dry academic theory — it’s what Pasricha actually did to increase his annual book-reading rate from five books a year to 50 books last year and probably around 100 books in 2017. And as I read through his list of eight strategies, I could see how the ideas behind them could be applied to forming other new habits and reaching other goals.

The following are a few of the ideas he shared:

Set up the house so it’s easy to grab a book and hard to fall into mindless TV watching

Instead of relying on will power to switch from TV watching to book reading, Pasricha set up his environment to support his goal.

Last year my wife and I moved our sole TV into our dark, unfinished basement and got a bookshelf installed on the wall beside our front door. Now we see it, walk by it, and touch it dozens of times a day. And the TV sits dormant unless the Toronto Blue Jays are in the playoffs or Netflix drops a new season of House of Cards.

Write ongoing short book reviews to share with others

If you write reviews on Goodreads or send out monthly reviews to an email list, you’re making a public commitment to reading — your friends will notice if you stop. To me, this sounds better than just publicly proclaiming on January 1 that you’re going to read a certain number of books that year, because such claims are easily ignored. This is a way of continually celebrating that you’re living up to your personal commitment. And you get to share some cool books with others!

Have no compunctions about quitting a book before you finish it

Pasricha explained his mindset this way:

It’s one thing to quit reading a book and feel bad about it. It’s another to quit a book and feel proud of it. All you have to do is change your mindset. Just say, “Phew! Now I’ve finally ditched this brick to make room for that gem I’m about to read next.”

He also suggested looking at another article: “The Tail End” by Tim Urban. Urban looked at measuring his remaining life in terms of activities and events, figuring he might have about 60 Super Bowls left to watch and 300 books left to read, excluding books he read for work. That 300 figure (or whatever the number is for you) can make it easier to give up on a dud.

Make use of all those little bits of time that are easy to overlook

As Pasricha explained:

In a way, it’s like the 10,000 steps rule. Walk around the grocery store, park at the back of the lot, chase your kids around the house, and bam — 10,000 steps.

It’s the same with reading.

When did I read those five books a year for most of my life? On holidays or during long flights. … When do I read now? All the time. A few pages here. A few pages there.

Nothing that Pasricha did was all that unusual, and much of it is standard advice for anyone trying to build a new habit: make it as easy as possible to do the right thing, make a public commitment, celebrate your successes, etc.

What did seem unusual was how he combined all eight strategies to reach his goal. It’s a good reminder that forming new habits often isn’t easy, so it’s helpful to look at multiple ways to support those new-habit efforts.

One critical time management technique: saying no

As I noted when writing about the pitfalls of time management, some time management strategies are truly helpful. One of those is learning to say “no” at the right time.

Andy Orin at the Lifehacker website asked Jason Fried, the CEO of the software company Basecamp, about his best time-saving shortcut or life hack, and he replied:

Saying no. Techniques and hacks are all about managing what happens when you say yes to too many things.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying yes to too many things. If you find yourself overcommitting on a regular basic, you could use the technique that Ana Menendez wrote about for confronting her mistakes when she was a reporter. When she made a mistake that got into a published story, she was required to complete a form that included this information:

The error:
The correction:
How the error happened:
How I will prevent it from happening again:

When you find yourself overcommitting yet again, reflecting on why this happened and how you’ll prevent it from happening again, could be useful.

Elizabeth Grace Saunders wrote an article entitled “Quitting as a Productivity Tactic” where she recommended dropping some things from your to-do list. I like the two questions she suggested asking yourself: “Does this make me happy? Do I need to do this?”

Some tasks you’ll need to do even if they don’t make you happy, such as filing your tax returns. But you might realize you’re participating in some activities because they were enjoyable in the past, but no longer are. Or you may find things that you started doing because you thought they were important, but now you can see they really aren’t.

But sometimes you may need to make some difficult choices and eliminate things that you really do enjoy. As Leo Babauta explained on his blog, Zen Habits:

You might have to say No to certain work projects, or community groups, or committees or boards or parent-teacher organizations or coaching sports or some other worthwhile activity.

I know, it seems horrible to say No when these are very worthy things to do. It kills you to say No.

But the alternative is that you’re going to do a bad job at each one, and be stressed beyond your limits, and not be able to focus on any one. …

Saying No to worthwhile projects, and letting go of the idea that we can do everything, is very difficult. But it’s not more difficult than trying to do everything and not getting enough sleep and being overly stressed out. Saying No is hard, but it means you say Yes to focus and sanity.

When you’re organizing stuff, you’re aware of the physical limitations. There’s only so much that can be fit into a closet, cabinet, or garage. If there’s too much stuff for the given space, it’s time to unclutter. Similarly, you can’t fit 28 hours of activities into a 24-hour day. So you may need to unclutter your schedule and to-do list by saying no to some things. As with any uncluttering, that can be challenging — but you’ll almost certainly feel much better when you’re done.

The pitfalls of time management

Is time management an idea that’s been oversold? Oliver Burkeman recently wrote an article in The Guardian entitled “Why time management is ruining our lives,” which raised a number of interesting points.

Burkeman doesn’t seem to be writing about all time management strategies, but rather the obsession with productivity and getting as much done as possible in any given day, week, month, or year. One problem: When you get incredibly efficient, cramming ever more things into each day, you lose the slack time which allows new, creative ideas to emerge.

Slack time also allows you to respond to unanticipated demands on your time. Burkeman wrote about how this plays out in the workplace and the doctor’s office (where that doctor’s focus on efficiency may cause you to wait way past your appointment time when an earlier appointment runs long). But the same need to deal with the unexpected can happen to any of us. I recently had a dear friend who was facing some medical issues, and I was glad that my schedule was not fully booked so I could readily be there to help her.

Burkeman used the Inbox Zero approach to dealing with email as a specific example of a time management strategy that doesn’t always help the people who implement it. He wrote:

My own dismaying experience with Inbox Zero was that becoming hyper-efficient at processing email meant I ended up getting more email: after all, it’s often the case that replying to a message generates a reply to that reply, and so on. (By contrast, negligent emailers often discover that forgetting to reply brings certain advantages: people find alternative solutions to the problems they were nagging you to solve, or the looming crisis they were emailing about never occurs.)

For another critique of Inbox Zero, Burkeman pointed to an article by Sara Stewart in the New York Post, which begins as follows:

It’s happened to me more than once lately: A friend sees the glaring red number on my iPhone’s email icon (2,052, if you must know) and their eyes do that cartoon thing where they bungee out of their sockets. “How do you live?” they’ll ask in a horrified whisper. “I could never stand to see that every day.”

Really? Because to me, that little number represents the freedom I feel from the compulsion to check and erase, check and erase, like a rat in a lab experiment, all day, every day. …

I’d like to suggest an alternative: Inbox Whatever. As in, who cares?

But more than anything, these sentences in Burkeman’s article are what resonated with me:

We might try to get more comfortable with not being as efficient as possible — with declining certain opportunities, disappointing certain people, and letting certain tasks go undone. Plenty of unpleasant chores are essential to survival. But others are not — we have just been conditioned to assume that they are. It isn’t compulsory to earn more money, achieve more goals, realise our potential on every dimension, or fit more in.

I certainly want to be reasonably productive so I earn a decent living, serve my clients well, maintain key friendships, give back to my community, etc. But I’ve also decided that I’m not going to try to be a super-achiever, so I can also have time for things like lazing around in bed with my cats on a stormy winter day.

At times we may all need to be that super-achiever for various reasons, and get as much done as possible. But it’s worth stepping back every once in a while to make sure we’re still making time management choices that work well for us.

Time management and cognitive biases

Cognitive bias is a term used to describe some ways our brains can lead us to make poor decisions. Dr. Travis Bradberry explained it this way: “Cognitive bias is the tendency to make irrational judgments in consistent patterns.”

Wikipedia lists 175 such biases, which is hard to get your mind around. Buster Benson decided he wanted to understand these biases better, so he created his Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet, which condenses those 175 biases into a 20-item list. As I read through that list, I realized at least two of the biases can affect your time management.

Bias: In order to get anything done, we’re motivated to complete things that we’ve already invested time and energy in. The behavioral economist’s version of Newton’s first law of motion: an object in motion stays in motion. This helps us finish things, even if we come across more and more reasons to give up.

This way of thinking can be very useful if you’re working on something important: creating an emergency preparedness kit, for example. But it can also trick you into spending time on things when giving up might be a better option.

The “sunk cost fallacy” fits into this category — that’s the thinking can cause you to hold onto a bad purchase because the item was expensive. The money is gone, whether or not you keep the purchased item. Michael Davidson, writing on the Lifehack website, gave an example of how this same way of thinking can get applied to time, not just money:

“I might as well keep watching this terrible movie because I’ve watched an hour of it already.”

Or reading a terrible book that you are 100 pages into, or continuing a T.V. series on Netflix that has gone downhill, etc.

It doesn’t matter that you’ve already invested time into whatever media you are consuming. If you don’t like the movie, you can walk out of it.

Here’s another example: I’ve had ideas for blog posts here on Unclutterer that just didn’t work out. No matter how much time I had already spent on writing them, at some point I needed to realize the ideas just weren’t as good as I had thought, and move onto other ideas before I wasted any more time. But that can sure be hard to do!

Bias: We favor options that appear simple or that have more complete information over more complex, ambiguous options. We’d rather do the quick, simple thing than the important complicated thing, even if the important complicated thing is ultimately a better use of time and energy.

Information bias falls into this category: “Believing that the more information that can be acquired to make a decision, the better, even if that extra information is irrelevant for the decision.”

I thought about this as I sat with my long California ballot, with 18 propositions and a number of local elections. I tend to want to learn as much as possible about the issues so I can make an informed choice. But in some cases, I’ve realized, I don’t need every bit of information I could potentially gather. Sometimes the candidates’ stands on a few key issues tell me all I really need to know — I don’t need to understand the details of their positions on every last thing.

Other times you just need accept that you can’t get perfect information and become comfortable with the ambiguity. When I needed to replace my year-old printer that stopped working, there was no obvious best choice. But in order to have a functional printer again I needed to make the best decision I could, without taking forever to decide.

Understanding these cognitive biases helps you realize when you’re falling into their traps, so you can make other decisions and use your time more productively.

Finding the schedule that works best for you

Few of us can have complete control over our daily schedules. Work and family obligations, doctor appointments, and various other things will often dictate where we must be at certain times and what we must be doing.

But when there is a chance to make scheduling choices, it’s helpful to recognize when you’re at your best for certain activities (creative work, exercise, etc.) and then build your schedule based on that knowledge.

Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics, wrote in an “Ask Me Anything” on the Reddit website:

Your “productive hours” are very important. Think about when those are, and then practice maniacal devotion to work during those hours. …

One of the saddest mistakes in time management is the propensity of people to spend the two most productive hours of their day on things that don’t require high cognitive capacity (like social media). If we could salvage those precious hours, most of us would be much more successful in accomplishing what we truly want.

Ariely wrote that those two most productive hours are usually in the morning — the first two hours after you’re fully awake. But people are different, and being aware of what works best for you is what’s key.

A number of people find that starting the day early makes them more productive, and some of them start their days very early, indeed. Hilary Potkewitz had a recent article in The Wall Street Journal about people who choose to wake up around 4 a.m. For example:

Peter Shankman, a 44-year-old entrepreneur and speaker based in New York City, is usually out of bed a few minutes after 4 a.m. Twice a week he meets a buddy for a 10-mile run in the dark around lower Manhattan.

The city’s streets are usually deserted, providing a nearly distraction-free space for thinking. “If I’m busy dodging people or noticing who’s passing me, my ideas won’t come,” Mr. Shankman says.

By 7 a.m., he claims he is “showered, fed, watered and sitting at his desk.” …

The flip side is that he is in bed by 8:30 p.m.

Others find they function better later in the day. On the Lifehacker website, night owl Mike Vardy wrote:

As someone who does a lot of writing, I have found that I’m at my best in a creative sense later in the day, once all of my essential actions and errands have been taken care of. I call it my “Finally Time” — I finally have the clarity of thought, quiet I need and time I want to get my great work done.

That’s my own preferred schedule which is why I’m writing this post around midnight. I also find that trying to exercise early in the day just doesn’t work for me, so I’ve given up trying to force fit myself into that kind of schedule.

Some people work best by breaking up their day. YouTube creator and podcaster CGP Grey has found that afternoon is his worst time for getting his writing done, so he does that work in the morning (starting quite early) and the evening, taking the afternoon off. Such a schedule is obviously much easier to implement when you’re self-employed, but even people who have that flexibility might hesitate to stray so far from the normal workday pattern. But if an unusual schedule works better for you, why not go for it?

Being more productive by hiring some help

Unclutterer received an email from a reader who had a number of questions, many of which related to hiring people to help with various tasks. There are many reasons you might want to hire some help:

  • You may need to hire help to do things you physically can’t do yourself. I had this situation when I first came home after my hip surgery and had many movement restrictions. I needed someone to come in weekly to do the laundry, vacuum the floors, and run some errands.
  • You may need to hire help with specific expertise that you don’t have. For example, many people hire someone to do their tax returns.
  • You may want to offload time-consuming tasks that you don’t enjoy to free up time for other things that are more important to you.

And sometimes you may want to hire someone for more than one of these reasons. The only ongoing help I have is with my yard. My gardener knows much more about plant care than I do. She can readily climb a ladder to trim tall plants while that would make me uncomfortable. And I just don’t enjoy most gardening work and tend to put it off until it becomes problematic.

How do you best go about hiring the help you need? The following are some suggestions.

Define exactly what you want the person to do

Make sure your expectations are as clear as possible. This will mean writing things down, spending time explaining things verbally, or both. All the things you do by second nature will need to be specified. For example, when I hired household help I had to tell the person how my washing machine worked, what settings I used, how much detergent I used, etc.

Also determine what things you don’t care about. My home helper asked how I wanted my non-slip socks paired up and put away, and I told her to do it any way she liked.

If you make tasks as easy as possible for your helper, things will go more smoothly. When I sent my helper grocery shopping (with a list that included brand names and package sizes), it helped when I could tell her where in the store things were located, especially those that weren’t obvious. I also made sure she had my cell phone number so she could send me a text if she had any questions. If someone is going to unload your dishwasher, put away laundry, or otherwise tidy up, you may want to label the cabinets and closets indicating what goes where.

If someone is working on a project for you, make sure your communication expectations are clear. What kind of status updates do you want, and how often should they be provided? How quick of a response do you expect to calls, texts, or emails?

When relevant, be sure you’re clear about what supplies you’ll provide vs. what supplies the helper will provide. If the helper is providing things like cleaning supplies, do you have any restrictions on what products are used?

And be sure you’re clear about pricing and billing. If there’s an hourly or weekly rate, what’s included and what’s extra? Billing surprises are no fun for anyone!

Sometimes you may not know the specifics of what you need done, since you are hiring help to fill in for your lack of expertise. But even then you probably have some expectations you can define. For example, my gardener knows that I need to keep all plants from touching my house to minimize the risk of termites.

Consider your hiring options

Nolo has a helpful article about hiring household help. As the article explains, you can hire a company, hire a worker through an agency, or hire an individual. I got my home helpers through a company, while I hired my gardener directly.

And be sure you understand the legal aspects of your hiring decisions, including tax and insurance issues. Again, Nolo explains the basics, and you can consult a lawyer for more information.

Don’t be afraid to make course corrections

If you failed to specify some of your expectations (which can easily happen when you first set about hiring help) and now the work isn’t being done as you would like, talk with your helper about making changes. Sometimes just a tiny change can make a big difference.

If the change is too significant and you realize you and your helper are a mismatch, you may want to find someone better suited to your redefined needs. An ongoing mismatch may well make both you and your helper miserable, so ending the relationship can be best for all concerned.

Managing the overwhelmed feeling

I recently read an article in The Onion that, while satire, seemed very close to reality. The whole thing is worth a read, but the following is an excerpt:

Local man Marshall Platt, 34, came tantalizingly close to kicking back and having a good time while attending a friend’s barbeque last night before remembering each and every one of his professional and personal obligations, backyard sources confirmed.

While cracking open his second beer as he chatted with friends over a relaxed outdoor meal, Platt was reportedly seconds away from letting go and enjoying himself when he was suddenly crushed by the full weight of work emails that still needed to be dealt with, looming deadlines for projects that would take a great deal of time and energy to complete, an upcoming wedding he had yet to buy airfare for because of an unresolved issue with his Southwest Rapid Rewards account, and phone calls that needed to be returned. …

According to sources, Platt tried to put his responsibility-laden thoughts out of his mind and loosen up by opening another beer but suddenly remembered a magazine subscription that needed to be renewed by Friday, a medical bill he thought might now be overdue, and the fact that he needed to do laundry by tonight or he would run out of clean socks and underwear.

Many people get this overwhelmed feeling at times. The following are some strategies for dealing with it:

Get everything out of your head and onto a list

That could be a paper to-do list, a collection of sticky notes, a computer file, or a list within an app. You could create multiple lists (as the Getting Things Done methodology would promote) or a single list. But one way or another, have one or more lists that capture all those thoughts about obligations. Just creating a physical or digital list removes some of the stress — you no longer have to keep a mental list and worry about forgetting things — and it gives you a starting point for taking control of your situation and moving forward.

Prioritize by pretending you’re going on vacation

Many of us, as we prepare for vacation, suddenly get very clear about what must be done now vs. what can be put off until later — and the quickest way to deal with things. In the case of the imaginary Marshall, paying the medical bill and doing laundry would jump to the top of the list. But some emails probably don’t need an immediate reply, and those that do need a reply can perhaps get by with a couple sentences rather than five paragraphs. Instead of making an after-work trip to Bed Bath and Beyond for linens (another part of that Onion scenario), maybe buying online would be quicker and less stressful.

Renegotiate deadlines when necessary

If looming project deadlines seem next to impossible to meet, talk with the appropriate people (your boss, your client, etc.) to develop a new plan. Maybe there’s some flexibility in those deadlines. Maybe the scope of the projects can be changed. Maybe someone else can take over some of your non-project tasks to give you more project time.

Focus on the one thing you’re doing now

I remember going into a panic at one of my first jobs because I had so much to do. My wise boss helped me determine what needed to be done first, and then he had me clear my desk of everything not related to that one task. And it worked! I went through my many tasks one at a time, in priority order, focused each time on a single task. And everything got done just fine.

Remember that fun things can be priorities, too

Taking time to go a friend’s barbeque can be just as important as other things on your list. And if you’ve created your to-do list, set priorities, and renegotiated deadlines as necessary, you should be able to truly enjoy some time just having fun.

A straightforward seven-step process to achieve your goals

This coming weekend will mark a first for me: I’m competing in a sprint triathlon. As with any activity requiring preparation (moving, changing jobs, going away to school), there has been a great deal of planning and organizing involved to get ready for the race. When I made the decision to work toward this goal back in January, I felt like a project manager as I tried to figure out how to get to where I am today. Ultimately, I decided to use a basic, seven-step process to reach my goal.

To give you an idea of where I was before I decided to take on this project, I didn’t know how to swim. I could float around and not drown, but I didn’t know how to swim laps or do any proper strokes. I’d also never been on a racing bike, and the only bike in my garage was my two-year-old daughter’s, complete with training wheels. I couldn’t run a mile continuously and the idea of swimming, biking, and running back-to-back-to-back genuinely terrified me. I needed skills, gear, training, and confidence.

The first step in the planning process for this triathlon was the same as it is for any project: research and gather information. I read The Triathlete’s Training Bible, Triathlon Anatomy, and a couple more books. I jumped on YouTube and watched videos from races. I learned about all the equipment I’d need (swim goggles, a racing bike, fast-drying triathlon clothing, gym membership, running shoes …) and put together a rough estimate of how much it would cost and how much race expenses would be (hotel, travel, race registration). I extensively studied dietary needs for athletes. This is also the point where I saw my doctor for a physical and underwent other forms of athletic testing (anaerobic threshold, body fat and lean mass analysis, etc.) with a triathlon coach to learn as much as I could about my body.

The second step in the planning process was to evaluate the gathered information and decide if I wanted to proceed toward the goal as anticipated. In a typical project, this step might include changing the goal or moving the completion date or deciding if you need to bring in additional resources before continuing. You look at the information gathered and analyze it to see if you can achieve your goal. For me, the decision was much more personal in nature. I have a genetic disorder that makes competing in triathlons not the best idea I’ve ever had. My disability doesn’t prohibit me from doing a triathlon, but it certainly makes things more complicated. So, I had to decide if I wanted to continue knowing the risks and my limitations. I decided to continue, but I also had to agree to do everything I possibly could to reduce my risk of injury and complications.

The third step is mostly complete after the research stage, but it’s important to create an official budget for the project. No matter the project, be sure to build in a line item for unexpected expenses. Then, maybe, triple that line item. (I forgot I’d have to pay for childcare, for example.)

The fourth step is a lot of people’s favorite step: create timelines and to-do lists. This is the point where you identify what needs to get done, by whom, and when. As I previously mentioned, I needed to take lessons on how to swim and how to ride a racing bike. I had to weight train and build endurance. I also needed to overhaul my diet so I wouldn’t do damage to my body, which meant months of meal planning. I created milestones and points where I would check-in with my coach (for a work project, this would be where you check in with your client) and points to evaluate how my training was going so I could make changes, if necessary, as I progressed. Be specific during this step — swim 30 laps, pack two boxes, sort through one dresser drawer, write 1,500 words — so that it is clear to you each day when you look at your calendar exactly what you need to do.

The fifth step is the hardest and (typically) the longest: do the work every day. Once everything is in place, it’s time to get your hands dirty. This is when you crank the widgets. I joined a gym with a pool. I bought a racing bike. Some days I was up at 5:00 a.m. for swim classes. Other days it was raining or freezing or extremely hot and training was the last thing I wanted to do, but if I wanted to reach my goal I had to do it. You write the code or build the house or pack all your belongings into boxes.

The sixth step I have yet to complete on this project, but it’s my favorite step in the process: complete your goal. For me, this will be Saturday when I (hopefully) cross the finish line.

The seventh step is the final one and often the most overlooked: evaluate your performance. Once a project is finished, it is tempting to move on to the next project without taking the time to identify what went right, what didn’t, and your final expenses and time sheets. But doing so will help you in the future — the next time you move or build a website for a client or compete in a triathlon. This information will be a valuable resource to you in the future, so take the time to complete this step and help your future self. You won’t regret it.

All of these steps are intuitive, but that doesn’t mean you won’t want to rush ahead to start with step four before doing steps one through three. Or be so happy to be finished with step six that you skip step seven. Do all of these steps and you’ll be well on your way to achieving your goals. Taking on a large project also can create anxiety, but breaking it down and going through this process will help you to see that your goal can be reached.

Tackling major projects

Your to-do lists probably include many small tasks, but it’s likely that you also have some big projects you would also like to get done: getting in better shape, organizing your home, writing a book, planning a vacation or a major event, etc.

For some people, staying on track to accomplish major tasks can be a real challenge. The following are some ways to make sure things get done:

Make a realistic plan

An unrealistic plan is discouraging — no one likes falling behind. And creating an unrealistic plan means you’ll spend a good amount of time re-planning.

To keep your plan realistic, break big tasks down into smaller ones where you can better estimate the time needed. A project called “organize the house” is hard to estimate, but estimating how long it takes to sort through a box of papers is much easier. (And if you have many boxes and haven’t yet gone through any of them, you may want to go through one before finalizing your plan.)

When coming up with a plan, it’s always wise to remember Hofstadter’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.” People always tend to underestimate — forgetting some tasks, being too optimistic on how long certain tasks will take, and ignoring all the ways things might go wrong. Try for realistic estimates of each task, and then add some overall contingency time. The more this project differs from anything you’ve done before, the more contingency time you’ll want.

Schedule time to get the tasks done

Once you have a plan, you need to set aside the time to do the tasks on that plan. Some projects don’t even need a detailed plan — they just need dedicated time to accomplish the work. One example is writing a novel, and author Neil Gaiman explained how it’s done:

Set aside time to write that’s only writing time. Put away your phone. Turn off or disable your WiFi. Write in longhand if you wish. Put up a do not disturb sign. And make your writing time sacred and inviolable. 

And in that time, this is the deal. You can write, or you can not do anything. Not doing anything is allowed. (What not doing anything includes: staring at walls, staring out of windows, thinking broodily, staring at your hands. What not doing anything does not include: alphabetising the spice rack, checking Tumblr, taking your pen apart, playing solitaire or running a clean up program on your computer.) …

Doing nothing gets pretty dull. So you might as well write.

This idea extends well beyond a writing project. As Austin Kleon tweeted:

How to X more:

Set aside dedicated time for X.

The end.

Track your progress and celebrate your accomplishments along the way

Tracking your progress against your plan is crucial in case adjustments are necessary. If your plan isn’t working, the sooner you realize the problem, the better. You’ll have more time to work with others, if necessary, to change the deadline, the scope, or the budget to create a more workable plan. Also, keeping track of your estimated times vs. your actual times will let you make better estimates in the future.

Celebrating your progress can help keep you motivated. That can be something simple like a triumphant update on Facebook or Twitter, or (especially for major milestones) something more substantial — providing some sort of treat that’s meaningful to you.

Create your own home maintenance manual

Recently I recommended becoming your family’s technology manager. With a little forethought, you can be on top of backups, passwords, and your devices. This week, I’m expanding that notion to include general home maintenance by creating a DIY Home Owner’s Manual that will save you time and money.

The first project

I started my Home Owner’s Manual while repairing an old clothes dryer. Its drum had stopped turning, leaving a pile of warm, damp clothes. I grabbed the toolbox, unplugged the machine, and got to work.

After removing the rear panel, I saw its simple mechanics. A thin belt ran between the motor and the large drum. That belt had snapped in half, leaving the motor to chug along without disturbing the drum full of wet clothes. “Ha!” I thought. “I can fix this.”

I Googled the model number to find the right part, which I bought from the hardware store. At home, I took notes while making the repair.

I sketched the dryer, noting the screws that held the rear panel. I drew the interior, labeling the components. Next, I noted the model number and part number, and sketched out the process of replacing the rear panel. In a matter of minutes, the dryer was back in the clothes-drying business.

I’ve since made pages about replacing the furnace filter, changing the lawn mower’s oil, and wiring our smoke detectors. Today, I have a fantastic reference to our home, written by me, that’s fully annotated, and you can do the same.

Take your manual digital

You can very easily go digital with your manual, and make it tremendously easy to find just the page you need. First, get yourself an Evernote account, if you don’t already have one. Make photo notes of your manual, tagging the images as appropriate. Now, you’ve got a ubiquitous, digital home owner’s manual you can reference on your mobile device. But there’s one more cool trick you can pull off as part of this digitizing process.

You can create QR codes for one-tap retrieval of the project page you want. Every Evernote note has a unique URL. To find it, simply open the note in your Evernote app and select Copy Note Link from the Note menu. Then, make a QR Code with that URL, using a free QR Code generator like KAYWA QR Code Generator. Once that’s done, print the page on sticker paper, cut out the code and stick it to the side or back of your dryer, lawn mower, whatever. (You could also tape a regular sheet of paper to the device with a piece of packing tape.)

Whenever you need your notes for that device, all you need to do is scan the QR code and presto! Evernote will launch and open the exact manual pages for you.

A DIY Home Owner’s Manual can be an invaluable tool, and organizing one is easy. Take the time whenever you perform a home improvement or maintenance project to create the pages you’ll want again in the future. You’re creating a great reference that you can even pass on to others in your home or future homeowners if you sell your place.

Organizational tips from top tech CEOs

Tim Cook (Apple CEO), Jeff Bezos (Amazon CEO), and Jack Dorsey (Twitter founder and CEO) are some of the biggest names in business. It’s likely that their products touch your life every day. With such a tremendous amount of responsibility, how do these titans stay organized and on top of everything they need to do?

Late last year, TIME magazine published a look at how high-profile tech CEOs stay organized. I love articles like this since a peek at such high-level organization and productivity is rare…and often surprisingly simple. The following are my favorite insights from the article.

Jack Dorsey gives each day a theme. Mondays are for management tasks, Tuesdays for focusing on products, and so on. I’ve set aside a day for administration type work, but never thought of giving each weekday a theme and, therefore, a focus.

Meanwhile, Marissa Mayer (president and CEO of Yahoo) looks to the impromptu moments that happen between meetings and scheduled get-togethers to spark meaningful ideas. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” she wrote to her employees in 2013.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg embraces the power of creating goals for himself. In 2010, for example, he set out to learn Mandarin Chinese. Just four years later, he stunned an audience at China’s Tsinghua University by conducting a 30-minute interview entirely in their native language.

Finally, Wendy Lea, CEO of Get Satisfaction, makes a point to empty her mind and spend time on reflection. “I take 15 minutes every morning for contemplation and to empty my mind. I take a bag full of thoughts I need cleared and each morning I pick one out, read it, and send it down the river near my house.”

I love this one as it seems we spend less and less time in quiet reflection, processing the day’s activities, lessons and challenges. It’s so easy to succumb to the temptation to fill every quiet moment with a smartphone or an app that there’s no time to let your mind work on what needs attention. I’m going to adopt this practice and intentionally make myself stop, reflect, and process each day.