Structure & One Thing Self Improvement

Note: There’s now an app for this!

If there’s anything I’ve been jealous about people who live more traditional lives it’s their sense of structure. Actually, I don’t think jealous is the right word because I wouldn’t trade places.

But I think this is why entrepreneurs, freelancers, and artists are obsessed with goal setting and list making. It provides the sense of structure that we wouldn’t otherwise have. With nobody telling us what to do we have to tell ourselves.

For about 12 years now I haven’t had a real sense of structure. I’d go sleep whenever, wake up whenever (usually 7-9 hours after falling asleep), write down a list of things to do (either morning of or night before) and go at it (or sometimes ignore it completely). This list would usually include simple tasks like shopping or cleaning. Often, the idea of making a big list would be so overwhelming I wouldn’t bother.

I’ve been experimenting with less lists. Smaller lists. Different structure.

For example, I already know I have to buy food or I can’t eat so listing “go to the store” is somewhat redundant. I still do what I’ve done for about 7 years as far as shopping lists though: when I think of something I need to buy I put it on a list. Recently, I “outsourced” this. I buy a few things quite regularly from a small health food store (Świnki Trzy!) and asked them if I could place a standing order and pick it up once per week. This eliminates writing down what I need and takes care of that aspect of shopping. Note: I could probably also get it delivered somehow and completely eliminate this task, but being that I work from home I appreciate the 20 minute roundtrip walk to pick up groceries.

And if something needs cleaning I clean it. It doesn’t need to go on any lists if it just gets done. I’ve eliminated chores from these lists.

Cluttered lists don’t do us any favors.

Long lists lull us into a false sense of accomplishment when we check off chores and small everyday tasks. I’ve also realized that trying to force myself into a structure that doesn’t work for me (e.g. going to sleep early, waking up early) stresses me out. I’ve always enjoyed the dead quiet of night for my work time and when I try to, for example, get important work done during the day at home where it’s often loud (neighbors, construction, phone) or in a coffee shop (“fucking espresso machine!”) I get anxious and unfocused.

Instead of trying to force traditional structure I’ve been changing focus.

One Thing Productivity

I’ve been focusing on one goal per day – or what I’ve been calling my One Thing. Some days this might be as simple as “write 2 pages for a book.” Some days it might be “figure out xCode compiling errors.” And sometimes it’s something like, “learn to play 2 new bars of Doc Watson’s Deep River Blues.” Sometimes my One Thing only takes an hour or so, sometimes it takes a few hours (xCode compiling errors!) and sometimes it can take most of the day.

It’s not to say I won’t do anything beyond my One Thing. But One Thing is most important.

My criteria for my One Thing is that it must make a step towards improving myself or my business acumen. (Sometimes these are one and the same.) If I’m working on a big project I can break down the smaller pieces into One Thing each (like the fingerstyle blues, for example).

This One Thing productivity method is essentially a hybrid of Leo Babauta’s “No Goals” (complete lack of structure doesn’t work for me) and traditional goal setting (gets far too muddled and overwhelming to be effective).

At the end of the day if I accomplish my One Thing I can think to myself: “Karol, you’ve improved today. You rock.” The nice thing is the barometer is your own. You don’t have to look at what other people are working on and compare yourself to that. It’s easy to get into that loop and lose sense of self and reality.

Jimmy Valvano once said to have a “heck of a day” you have to laugh, think, and cry. I like that list, but would add just one thing (!) to it: improve.

Note: There’s now an app for this!

One Thing Productivity App Home Screen

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  • Hey Karol, this reminds me of Michael Nobbs’ one thing today: http://www.sustainablycreative.com/
    I have been in touch with Michael for quite some time now and recently interviewed him for TFA, and his approach is especially useful for people with very limited time or energy. Still, the idea behind it is very similar.

    Good thoughts on structure, too. I guess you’re right about that being the reason we are so obsessed with lists, GTD, etc. Now the trick is to get it out of the way in order to focus on the WORK. And not procrastinate by becoming a productivity expert. (Ahem.)

    Sad to hear the news about OnlyIndie. Guess your inbox will overflow these days, but I’ll be in touch later.

    • Thanks for the link Fabian. Downloaded the recent podcast and will give it a listen.

      My inbox never seems to overflow. I’ve scared people into not e-mailing me. Thanks http://five.sentenc.es! :)

  • Karol, I really like this. The most helpful part for me is having to prioritize what the one thing is to get done that would make the day wor
    thwhile.

  • I still find lists quite important. It’s not about structuring my day, it’s about remembering stuff to do. I remember one of the comments of Gary Halbert’s son to one his (Gary’s, not son’s) lists to him (the son, not Gary): most of the things that people do fall into one of the four categories: urgent and important (Q1), urgent and not important (Q2), not urgent and important (Q3) and not urgent and not important (Q4). The difference between successful people and those unsuccessful ones is that those successful do most things from the Q3 that they don’t get into Q1. OK, this example is maybe too complex compared to what I’m trying to say, but it’s always good to start with a quote by a famous and well-known person, right?

    But back to the topic: I keep one huge list where I put things I need to get done before they become urgent (and those that are urgent too). These are things like fix shoes, renew passport, buy trousers, etc. I pick one of those important but not urgent things to do when I know I will have the time for it during the day.
    I use WorkFlowy for that, out of your recommendation. :)

    • I use WorkFlowy for brainstorming. It’s amazing for that. And it’s good for breaking down projects into digestible One Things.

      But I can see how it would work phenomenally well for a general to-do list. It’s incredibly clean and user friendly.

      As for Halbert’s son: I’ve heard the same thing before. It’s a great example and mostly spot on.

    • I like the “One Thing” idea because it focuses on the now. To do lists are future oriented and suck energy from today’s meaningful task. If you can’t remember, then how important could it be?

  • Yeah, I keep tweaking my approach to productivity too and it seems we all do for one simple reason – this self-imposed structure is so elusive.

    Pomodoro worked for a week and went out the window. Inbox.com color-coded post-it notes worked great until I stopped paying attention. My to-to lists grow longer and longer until they turn into piles that get thrown away. Multi-tasking was exciting until it started being a drag.

    And from one imperfect productivity hack or app to another I somehow manage to get things done, push forward, limp ahead. I kinda doubt I’ll find the ultimate productivity mode for myself. Gave up hope really.

    But I do have some sympathy for the idea of single-focus days at this stage . I probably have to much to do to settle for one thing a day, but single focus should work. Also I think Leo in Zen Babauta is right on with his less more malleable, free-flowing approach to goals – works for me at least.

    • It’s definitely whatever works for you. If massive cluttered lists are your bag or if no lists at all are your thing it’s all good if you continuously progress.

  • Interesting as always, Karol – thank you for your insights.
    I particularly like your one thing per day.

    Thank you also for the OnlyIndie refund into my PayPal account.

    Something I learned recently (see below if you’re interested in reading the explanation of where and when) was about living (more than I ever have) in the present moment and really enjoying the hell out of it.

    This (to me)means a life of less structure, less planning and acceptance of what is happening without interfering in it (getting out of my own head and just enjoying what is going on),

    I observed how the monk I was travelling with, lives, and immersed myself in that lifestyle. Having spent the past 2 decades modelling others, and successfully implementing how to create a great, tailored lifestyle, the monk’s lifestyle was ..refreshing, and very free-ing. I have come to realise even more how flexibility, adaptability and versatility are traits to be honed.

    ..I am grateful to you for this list so that I can put my experiences into context here.

    I also like some structure – I have experimented on myself (a lot) and without any structure at all in my life, I fall in a heap, and so I I have also learned how to get up from the heap, having been there many times…

    Coming back to Australia is always a culture shock for me – and I tend to revert to the structure that I have created that keeps me afloat while I plan my next adventure. Sometimes I wonder if creating a life that lacks a lot of structure is running away, then I re-assess, and think about what it is like to have a prescriptioned life, always knowing what is coming next. While there is comfort in that, I prefer these days to have it in small doses – I also appreciate it (the comfort from the structure) even more when it occurs, such as coming home..

    I understand the 5 sentences thing, and although I seem unable to try it out here, shall work towards it from hereon. :)

    warm thoughts
    Michelle in Australia

    ..this is the bot below that explains some of the background to the above..
    I have just returned from 3 months in Asia (started Philippines, ended up in Thailand) and gearing up to go for longer next year.

    Something I learned in Thailand that relates to this list – I ended up travelling around with a monk (I teased him about writing a book, on: “Adventures with the Monk”) who travels around teaching natural therapies (liver cleansing, colonics/enemas/healthy principles of eating/acupuncture etc) to rural Thai people.