Nowadays it is easy to find countless books and articles about habits to increase productivity, health or happiness. It has become a real cottage industry, with a deluge of options, and there has even been a term coined, “life hacks”. Being a life improvement nerd, over time I have read about and tried a large number of life hacks. To me, the acid test is if someone has implemented it successfully for themselves. Successful implementation means the life hack can be integrated practically into your life, it sticks over time and makes a substantial difference. Successful implementation is indeed a high bar.
I want to share 3 life hacks that have passed this test for me.
1. Inbox Zero Management
Since I got my first email account in 1996 I started to be swamped by email. I have also struggled with procrastination and to-do management. Over time I have built a simple system to deal with those three problems through a system I call Inbox Zero Management. To build it I took from many sources, but the biggest inspiration is a great book, “Getting Things Done” by David Allen.
Inbox Zero Management consists of a folder management system for all my email accounts that allows me to process email and ensure I am on top of all my to dos. I have six folders for my personal and work accounts. #Action is for items I have to take immediate action on, usually during the day. #This Week is for items that require short term action. #Sometime is for items that I want to get around doing at some point, but are not urgent. #Read is for content I want to read. #Follow up is for items I have delegated or that require action from someone else but in which I need to ensure they happen. Processed is for items that don’t require my attention any longer.
I try to get to zero inbox every day by processing email in batches, usually two or three times per day on a PC. I usually use waiting times to get ahead on my mobile device. My processing routine is simple. If I can get something done immediately (<1-5 minutes depending on context) I do it and take the email to Processed. If not, I put it in the right folder. I will also write emails to myself for new actions I need to execute, I don’t use to do lists beyond my email folders.
When I have time to work I take first the #Action folder, then #This Week, then #Sometime, email by email. When I am going to travel I go through my #Read items, printing beforehand if electronic format won’t work well (e.g. airplanes). Once a week I go through my #Follow up emails. That’s it.
This routine has allowed me to increase my productivity, I always know what I should be doing next. It has also given me peace of mind as I rarely miss required actions that fall into my system. Put together your system, just the peace of mind before you go to sleep pays for it.
2. Eliminating caffeine
I used to drink a lot of caffeine in the form of both Coke and coffee. After reading about nutrition I got to the conviction that it was like taking on credit card debt for my energy levels, short term highs that you pay dearly for quickly. I decided to go cold on caffeine; it gave me headaches for a couple of weeks but substituting coffee by decaf made it easier socially.
It has given me much steadier and overall higher energy levels. There is no doubt about it that the “Return on Energy” of this decision gets you to pay back every day. As usual, there is no free lunch and the supposed high we get with every caffeine shot is paid dearly afterward. Drop caffeine today, it is a great decision. You don’t need to tell anyone, just take decaf (this can be difficult in Latam were decaf is still not widely available).
3. Organizing the time container
I used to be a mess in terms of times. I wouldn’t keep regular habits for sleep or work. Then, I came across the concept of “crunching the container” in a time management course. The premise is that if there are definite limits to your work you will be much more efficient. I connected this to regular sleep schedules thanks to my wife.
Over time I designed my day to suit my professional and personal needs. It is not always perfect, but I know what I aim for. Now a typical work week day looks like this:
6:30 Wake up and morning routine (if it is really hectic wake up earlier to catch up)
7:00 Getting the kids breakfast and prepared for school
7:50 Drop the kids at the school bus and head to work
8-20 Work (with its own organization)
20-20:30 Time back home with the kids until they go to sleep
20:30-21:00 Dinner with my wife
21:00-22:30 Relaxation, running, work if it is a hectic period
22:30 Go to bed and read a little
Regular sleep times are really good for me to be rested and refreshed, sleep is really valuable and I didn’t get enough of it. Spending time every day as a family and a couple is precious for me. Having a clear start time and end time for work allows me to be a lot more productive. I used to waste a lot of time when work didn’t have an end time, now I know I have to get stuff done quickly. So, how is your time container?
(En Español aquí)