Bookmarking the Zone

Bookmarking the Zone

I just finished posting the long review of my day and am about to head to sleep, but I had a tiny brainstorm about evening rituals as they relate to staying in the zone.

The Daily Habit

It seems that a lot of people I know (myself included) are obsessed about improving their daily routine. Well, there are TWO people, and they both are independent creative entrepreneurs like myself. One of them sees it as a way of improving structure in her life, and the other wants to introduce an entire new daily activity into a completely-packed schedule. As for myself, I’m somewhere in the middle: I just want to be making the best of every day, and I want to be producing the assets that I believe will bring me some happiness. I won’t go into the specifics this time, for once…you’re welcome :)

Anyway, the one thing I and others have noted about daily routines is that they start the night before. You have to go to sleep early if you’re going to wake up early, and this is one of my greatest challenges. My tendency, in the absence of an external schedule, is to stay awake until my brain conks out and I have to sleep. I dimly recall being a pain in the butt to my parents about that, and in a way it’s payback that I’m suffering because I not doing it to myself. OH WELL. At least I’m not at the point where I have to change my own diaper.

I just tried something which I haven’t done before, which was to scan the day’s list and write a new one for the next waking period. In five minutes I had a re-sorted list split up roughly by type of task. I suspect that I’m the last person on the planet to figure this out, but there are many benefits to doing this as a nightly ritual.

The Pleasure of Rewriting Things Down

I have always tried to avoid this because I hate rewriting things, but having just sorted through six months of unfiled bills without as much trouble as anticipated, I was feeling cocky. Plus, there are good examples of how rewriting lists is good for you. Scott Belsky’s post on analog rituals of the celebrated and successful is one recent example. And just this morning I watched my friend Gary go through his lists on paper, which he was kind enough to let me examine. I myself had noted the awesomeness of writing things down from Iron Chef Michiba, who inspired my Menu of the Day form; this is the primordial ancestor of the Emergent Task Planner.

There are a couple of reason I like writing stuff down.

  • First, when I’m forced to write something down, I can’t help but organize on-the-fly as I contemplate the meaning of each thing. Because I’m actively relating elements to each other, I’m actually building useful perspective on the day; this will pay off when it comes to prioritizing tasks, and it even leads to new insights and opportunities. Patterns, baby.

  • Second, I have a terrible memory…if I don’t write things down. Writing stuff down makes things stick.


p>The reason I didn’t like re-writing these lists every day was that it felt wasteful; I mean, didn’t I have a perfectly-good hierarchy of information? Most things didn’t change, and it feels dumb to build it up from scratch every day. This gives rise to the desire for electronic gadgetry to remove the chore of rewriting, theoretically freeing ourselves from a chore.

I am changing my position on this. You just need to have the list accessible. And maybe it needs to be reborn every day rather than kept like an unwanted fruitcake in the bottom of your refrigerator. Think about it: we don’t want to waste time rewriting our to-do lists, but we don’t like our to-do lists in the first place. They are a necessary evil. One could argue that it’s satisfying to destroy the old list and raise a new one from its ashes. If anything, it’s a much more colorful metaphor, and I like those. There are some necessary long-term elements that you need to account for, but I have an idea about how to deal with that for a future post.

The Pleasure of Pickling

One of my oldest productivity tricks is to use a pickle jar to hold thoughts. I evolved this trick when I was supposed to be writing a graduate school thesis, and I kept thinking of things I would rather do. I found that if I wrote down the idea on a slip of paper and put it into a pickle jar, that had a very settling effect on my brain. There’s all kind of ritualistic symbolism at work here, so your mileage may vary, but this was one of my favorite tricks.

Another trick I use to maintain momentum on complex programming projects is to keep a running log. This is in the form of a Word document, and I literally write down what I’m thinking of doing by telling a story to myself about how things should be working. I do this because otherwise, my brain can’t hold all the context at once necessary to program, something like a script-driven state machine for artificial intelligence in a video game. Building something like that for the first time is a many-step process, and without writing it out I get lost. Even then, there are times when a problem gets so hairy that I just have to take a break, and the danger there is that I’ll lose all my context and momentum. There’s a trick to the trick I use, which is to allow myself to take the break ONLY if I write down the next step at the bottom of my doc, so when I get back I’ll remember where I was. It’s like leaving a bookmark in the zone, and it works pretty well for me. I don’t waste time trying to think of something to do next, which keeps me motivated and focused.

I never thought about applying this to daily planning, but fundamentally the challenge is the same: I’m doing something that is really hard and new to me, and it’s hard to predict when breakthroughs will occur. There is one big difference though: I’m already familiar with the algorithms involved. That is, I know how to wake up, go to sleep, write stuff down, not be distracted, etc. Because I think I know how to do these things, I assumed that forming a ritual from these well-worn parts would be easy as eating a piece of cake. NOPE…that was a false assumption.

The Pleasure of Being Told What To Do

So…I’ve rewritten tomorrow’s list. For the first time, when I wake up in a few hours, I won’t have to center myself in the morning. Instead, I can just relax and drink my coffee as I contemplate the list, simplifying the number of hats I need to wear in the morning. I don’t have to put on my manager hat on at ALL; the continuity is already in place, ready-to-follow.

Or so I hope. It’s 7AM now, so I probably should get an hour of sleep, because I have to have the contacts in for a few hours.


  1. DiNitro 10 years ago

    Love your thought processes. Am intrigued by people writing about “analog” to do lists and the QUEST for the perfect To Do tracking system – all things I have spent decades playing with -and still no perfection. Though one could say that since I got to where I am, I must have perfected something. I continue to this day doing the daily list by hand, more out of the simple pleasure of writing with a nine pen on nice paper in a great notebook. I waffle between the night list and the morning list – mornings cause I don’t like to have my day so structured when I wake, and the night list when I have sooo much to do, I need to rest assured I got the major ticks listed out, elast I forget and let the new day take me down the river of distraction.

    Lately Dave, to a point you have written about a number of times, and that we emailed about, I have played with the KanBan system and have now transferred it to a simple spreadsheet format, so I can see (mostly) all of my tasks on one page on my computer screen. The web kanban system is way cool, but with a lot of tasks and without wanting to squint (or needing a 100-inch monitor), I can only get about half of my tasks in one view.

    Some day we should plan to sit down over some coffee and have a discussion of to do systems. Could be enlightening. Take care and thanks for your continuing discourses.

  2. Josette 10 years ago

    When I use my ETP, I usually keep it going a couple of days and then I rewrite. At first, I resisted this, then I realized that resistance was born of guilt or regret or whatever. When I rewrite the list now, I look at it as recalibrating. Does this task need to be on the list? Do I want to get this out of the way so I don’t have to write it down again? Tracking my things I am waiting for is helpful too, I do those in the “what else” area starting from the bottom and going up. As far as planning for today starting the day before, I have to make sure that I don’t go crazy and stay up too late. Is it possible to reproigram a night owl?

  3. Author
    Dave Seah 10 years ago

    DiNitro: It would be good to catch up one of these days! I haven’t been to Boston in quite some time. I still am dreaming of a catch-all big picture system, and I think it’s going to come down to writing some software to essentially work like Google Earth (or maybe Google Universe) for one’s goals and aspirations, my own Project Xanadu.

    Josette: Yeah, recalibrating! That’s a great way of putting it. I’m trying to reprogram my night-owl tendencies too. I think I stay up late because there seems like so much to do, and I have this kind of fear that I’ll miss out on something. Or, I am satisfying myself with junk inputs (surfing the net, watching movies) that keep my mind engaged in lieu of actually working. But then again, there are times that I am working, and don’t want to stop. The night seems especially conducive to that…fewer distractions, and maybe there’s part of me that just enjoys being up when everyone else is asleep.

  4. Marty Marsh 10 years ago

    I have to say, David, you inspire me on so many levels. This line says it all for me, too: “I just want to be making the best of every day, and I want to be producing the assets that I believe will bring me some happiness.” That’s what I’ve been striving for and you said it perfectly.

    I love the way you think about these things and then share them with us. Your emergent task planner gets used almost daily and it is the way I get so much done. And while I’ve been using a task list to keep track of things I have ideas for and don’t want to forget for a long time now, the idea of the pickle jar really tickles me.

    So, now, I have to go eat some pickles so I can have one of my own.

    Best to you!