The New Year is a pretty awesome time of year. It's a natural beginning for new endeavors and goals- perhaps the best beginning of them all. At least, the most celebrated. Yet, the failure of New Years Resolutions are well documented. Perhaps part of the problem is that New Years, by nature, only happen once a year. You only get once a year to fail, then you have to wait till the next New Year. An oversimplification, but bear with me. If a New Year as a beginning is such a wonderful and inspiring time, then how can each week, or each day even, have the effect of a New Year? How can we renew ourselves regularly and feel the spark of inspiration we feel on December 31st, thus giving ourselves that many more chances to succeed?
Whether failing through lack of motivation, strategy, or the failure to adequately form new habits; change is hard. Most people aren't prepared to actually change. Change means doing new things and more importantly not doing what we're already doing. I needn't point fingers further than myself to find the perfect example of this. In the past, my method to implement change has been haphazard: throw lots of things and ideas up in the air and see what survives the fall. I suffer from a lack of a structure that I can stand on to reach my goals.
I want to find a method that works for me. In particular, I'm thinking about how I can combine a consistent routine, a satisfying lifestyle, and Agile sprints to create a satisfying answer to the two issues above.
I've tried for a while to have a structured routine each day that allows me to accomplish the daily tasks I set before myself. It's been a source of frustration for me to fail so frequently at applying a daily structure. Ultimately, I see using Agile-style experiments as the way to make small adjustments an incremental progress towards this objective. I'll talk about that later. First, I want to talk about why I think having a rejuvenating morning routine can help create a sense of beginning.
Brett McKay, on his blog The Art of Manliness, wrote in an article on the importance of family traditions: "Traditions and rituals often tell a story about a family... [and] add to the rhythm and seasonality of life. Our world and universe are composed of cycles big and small – sunrise and sunset, death and rebirth, winter, spring, summer, and fall. Even the generations move in cycles. A circular conception of time and a desire to follow the natural rhythm of the days and the seasons is embedded deep within us, but has been flattened out in a modern age that creates its own timetable and concentrates only on the present."
He's not talking about routines per se- in fact, he specifically defines why a tradition is different from a routine (writes McKay: "they differ from routines and habits in that they are done with a specific purpose in mind and require thought and intentionality"), but I'd argue that having a fulfilling, regular routine that involves more than just showering and brushing one's teeth still provides many of the benefits he describes traditions conferring. What tells a story about a person more than the activities they make sure to do, every day? What marks the passing of the days and weeks more than the personal rituals one does to renew oneself?
Through the ritual power of tradition we tap into something timeless and greater than ourselves on holidays like Christmas and New Years. Perhaps having a routine you enjoy and that propels you towards your goals has a similar effect. It becomes a personal ritual that heralds a unit of time (a new day or a new week), creates a transition between cycles of work and rest, and becomes regenerative and recreative in itself. You might start to see each day or week in terms of cycles of work, relaxation, recreation; that is, in the original sense of the word recreate, to re-create oneself.
A routine may not be as memorable as a family-oriented tradition, but I'd say it may provide many of the same benefits.
Routines as Ecotones
The analogy that comes to mind is an ecotone. In ecology, an ecotone is a boundary between two distinct ecosystems. A healthy ecotone is a gradual transition from one ecosystem to the next, and therefore has characteristics of both neighboring ecosystems to varying levels. Ecotones tend to be important habitats and from a landscape perspective are often the most interesting. Think of lowland forests along a riverbank or river deltas that empty into the ocean. What's important is this example is what happens when you remove the ecotone, or the transition: both neighboring ecosystems suffer as a result. The wetlands and lowland forests that form the transitions from land to water not only provide rich and unique habitats, they also stabilize the land against erosion and filter runoff water of impurities. Without these ecotones, water quality plunges, animals lose their habitats, and a destabilizing level of erosion occurs.
Heard of the giant "dead spots" in the Gulf of Mexico where nothing grows or lives? That's caused by the fertilizer from all the land that eventually drains to the Mississippi River, which if I remember correctly is about a third of the continental United States. The nutrients in the fertilizer causes algal blooms, which consumes all the oxygen in the water, oxygen that everything else in the ocean needs to survive.
What's funny is that the fertilizer in the runoff wouldn't ordinarily arrive all the way to the Gulf of Mexico if we hadn't destroyed the natural ecotones all along the shores of our water bodies. Centuries of environmental exploitation has meant that we've drained the wetlands and clear-cut the lowland forests, the very ecotones, or transitions, that protected the rivers, lakes, and oceans from pollutants.
All this to say, that a consistent routine may provide the ecotones in our daily and weekly life, creating a purifying and unifying transition between two discrete units, as in nature.
What do I do on a weekly basis to renew myself, to create weekly new beginnings?
There are two facets to the answer I have so far: creating psycological space where a beginning can incubate, and creating the structure to take advantage of it.
The first, easy to say but hard to implement: develop a life outside of work. No one can effectively work all the time. Having fun and working on other projects, hanging with friends, relaxation and recreation create the psychological space we need to see our lives and our work from a fresh perspective. Besides, they usually create more motivation to actually get the important things done while we're working.
The authors of Rework, Jason Fried and David Hansson, say it well: "[workaholism] leads to an ass-in-seat mentality—people stay late out of obligation, even if they aren’t really being productive. If all you do is work, you’re unlikely to have sound judgments. Your values and decision making wind up skewed. You stop being able to decide what’s worth extra effort and what’s not. And you wind up just plain tired. No one makes sharp decisions when tired. In the end, workaholics don’t actually accomplish more than nonworkaholics. They may claim to be perfectionists, but that just means they’re wasting time fixating on inconsequential details instead of moving on to the next task."
I've been MUCH better about this since striking out on my own and quitting my job at OU in August. If I wasn't working on weekends, I'd spend the time vegging out in front of a TV or computer, while silently panicking to myself that I wasn't doing enough. While this probably had more to do with it being my first job straight out of college (so I took it way too seriously), it definitely wasn't healthy.
Some of the best advice on this topic came from a book called The Now Habit by Neil Fiore. He advises planning recreation, social activities, fun and relaxation before planning any work activities. The cool thing about this is 1) I'm my own boss so I don't have to stick to a traditional 9-5, 5 days a week work schedule; and 2) This kicks Parkinson's law into effect: the amount of time you have available for a given task is how long it will take you to finish it. Knowing what I need to get done each week to stay on track with my business, all the better if I can get it done in, say, 10 hours instead of 40.
That leaves the structure.
For that, I've turned to the Agile methodologies I apply in my work. In other words, I'm going to try and think of the year in terms of week long sprints. At the end of each sprint, I can evaluate my progress and iterate to improve myself in the next sprint.
The part I'm excited about is running personal, Lean Startup style experiments in each sprint. In other words, each sprint I have one or more Yes/No questions I want to test. I have metrics to determine if I've "answered" the question yes or no, and I decide in advance how I change my behavior based on the answer to that question. The point is to learn quickly and inexpensively what works (so you can double down on that) or what doesn't work (so you can find a different way to do it, or decide to do something completely different instead- a pivot, using the entrepreneurship buzz-word). If your sprints are a week long, then that means that every week you're improving what you're testing. Plus, you're making decisions based on objective metrics and real data.
For example. Let's say the first hypothesis I have is, "I can wake up at 7am to begin my morning routine". The test I might decide on in advance is that I have to do so all 7 days of the week to answer "yes".
If the answer to the question is yes, I might stick with that routine and wakeup time and continue forming it as a habit. Or I might try waking up even earlier.
If the answer is no, in the next iteration I'd try waking up at 8am.
If you're familiar with the idea of 21 day or 30 day experiments, then this is similar. I've tried numerous 30 day experiments in the past, unfortunately, with little success. My attention span just doesn't last that long, and I don't naturally think in terms of months. It's too long a unit of time. Weeks are more tangible, and the built in weekly "retrospectives" means you can learn, adapt, and iterate on a weekly basis instead of a month long basis.
The goal of an agile methodology is to increase a person's, a team's, or an organization's ability to adapt to change. From that perspective, I'm learning and adapting four times faster with week-long experiments versus month-long experiments. That's 52 possible experiments in a year, at least. Once I feel comfortable running one personal experiment a week, I might try doing more than one experiment at once.
I also developed some simple yes/no questions that serve as litmus tests for how well I'm balancing each component of my lifestyle on a weekly basis. I like the idea of these because they're simple, fast, and you can easily change the yes/no question to reflect how big of a priority that component is at that time in your life.
For example, these are some of the questions I developed:
Health: Did I do my morning routine each day?
Learning: Did I finish a book in the last week?
Writing: Did I publish a blog article?
Adventure: Did I spend at least 1 night away from home?
If the answer to any of the questions are "no", then the follow up question is, why? And what can I do differently in the next sprint to correct it?
The tricky part is figuring out the metrics that determine whether you answer yes or no. They have to be simple, or it defeats the purpose of this exercise, but it also has to encapsulate the most important output or result of that aspect of you lifestyle.
In my case, I know that if I spent a night away from home, then I was likely out camping or getting into trouble. That's in line with the type of experiences I want to have more of in 2015.
With my writing, the metric is simple: I can judge it by the number of blog posts I'm outputting each week.
Of course, I will be iterating this system and working out it's kinks over the course of the next couple weeks. We'll see how it goes!
Wishing you the best for 2015,
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much