This is one of a 4 part series on how to design your life to set you up for success

I started applying engineering and psychological techniques to maximize my performance in life in 2018 because as the end of the year approached, I hadn’t yet accomplished my 2019 goals. I lacked focus and accountability. In 5 months, I was able to perform 18 pullups (starting 6 pullups), reduced alcohol consumption to 2x per month, and bench-pressed 180 lbs (starting 135lb). #PatsSelfOnBack.

Identify your problems

My biggest obstacle was cutting out the wasted time in my life. I’d spend hours browsing Reddit because I was confused as to what I should do to achieve my goal. When I had a lazy Sunday afternoon, instead of taking action, I’d hop on the dopamine treadmill of Netflix. There was too much friction between determining what I should be doing and doing it.

Trust the system

Enter Todoist. Todoist allows me to manage what I need to get done today. I put my entire life in there. My list was:

  • 🦷Everyday - Brush Teeth
  • 🛫Book travel arrangements for Europe
  • 💪Workdays - Hit the gym
  • 💸Deposit check in the bank

Todoist had fresh content for me every day when I mixed habit actions (e.g. brush teeth) and irregular actions (book flights for an upcoming trip). Unlike habit tracking apps that have the same boring content every day.

Mario Tomic of Fitness Mastery recommends using a calendar to keep focused. This is a great alternative for people that want even more structure. You can assign a task to specific. Personally, my life is organic. I don’t always have the same set times available to do certain tasks. Any action someone asks me to do, it goes onto my action list for me to complete later. I no longer default to Netflix when I am unsure how to spend my mornings or afternoon.

Actions vs Goals

Todoist is for managing actions, not goals. Actions are short (preferably done in 45 min or less) and have a clear metric for success. If an action will take you longer than 45 min to complete, consider breaking it up into smaller actions. Large actions require large blocks of time and large blocks of time are so-so rare. The large action of “clean house” can be broken down into smaller actions like “clean bedroom”, “clean kitchen”, “do the dishes”, and “vacuum bedroom” that will be much more digestible and easier to accomplish.

Goals are accomplishments that have a clear metric for success but are too big to be considered an action. Example goals might be to “benchpress 180lbs” or “write 1,000,000 lines of code this year”. Goals do not belong on your daily Todoist list. But goals should be captured non-time-defined projects (e.g. don’t set deadline). If goals are added to your daily list, they will stay on your list, incomplete for months and months without actually providing much value. Your goal might be to bench press 180lbs and your better daily action would be to workout.

Habit building

After you enter all of your daily and irregular action items into Todoist, you need to build the habit of checking and completing the actions you need to do each day. This is much easier to do than a typical habit tracking app because the content in your list is dynamic and irregular. Yes, you will need to check off “brush teeth” every day, but you will have other actions like “email boss the TPS Reports” that will keep you from being bored.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, to develop a habit, humans need to be rewarded when completing an action. Developing a healthy reward system for using Todoist and completing actions will trigger a dopamine kick that will bring you back to the app to do more actions. These rewards must happen immediately after the action is completed and are healthy (Don’t go eat candy after a hard workout in the gym).

The best rewards you can give yourself are appreciating that you accomplished the action. Maybe the action was to file your taxes. Super boring action. How can that be rewarding? Love the experience of checking things off on your list. Each time I accomplish an action, I know I am one step closer to ending my day with an empty list. It feels good to know I am progressing in life.

Micro-wins - celebrating progress over the success

  • The act of completing an action. You get Todoist karma!
  • Celebrate! Did you complete all of your actions for today? Share it on Facebook or tell your spouse.
  • Avoid outcome dependent goals (e.g. close a sale by Friday). If your goal is to close your sale by Friday, then be happy you followed initiated daily cold calls, not that whether or not you closed that sale. Victory comes with time.

Focus on the journey, not the destination

The reward should be that you completed the action and not that the action was “successful”. Take dieting, for example, you might have an action of “eat an apple” every day to make you feel more full and help you lose weight. Be happy when you stay on track and eat that apple every day and not that your weight has decreased.

All or nothing thinking

If you can’t complete your list, that doesn’t mean you should do nothing. Many people get stuck in the mindset of “If I don’t have time to complete an action, I won’t do it at all.” Sometimes doing 50% is better than 0%.

Actions compound

Let’s say your goal is to be a successful blogger. Your weekly action is to write a blog article once per week. By the end of the week, you’re tired and you don’t have time to write a complete article. Instead of writing what you can, you do nothing and tell yourself, “better luck next week.”

A much better mindset is to be ok with partial credit. Write what you can and you can finish it later next week. Someone that writes every week, even if it is just a few sentences will be more successful than someone that writes 3-4 articles and stops

Overdue actions

After you develop the habit of checking Todoist and using it regularly, you will start to see certain actions being stuck in your overdue queue or maybe you continuously. This situation requires introspection.

Overdue action workflow

  • Is this action still important?
    • no? Delete it.
  • Why haven’t I done this action yet?
    • Is it because I don’t know where to start?
      • yes? break the action down and identify how to start
    • Is this action too big?
      • yes? Break the action down into smaller actions (and maybe distribute the new micro-actions to other days) For example: “Pay taxes” could be broken down into small actions:
        • Contact 3 accountants on Yelp
        • Choose an accountant
        • collect tax paperwork for accountant
        • remit tax payment on https://www.irs.gov/payments
    • Does this action have a clear goal?
      • Actions like “Get an A on my paper” are goals, not ask. These should either be removed or simplified.

Can I take weekends off?

Your body and mind don’t understand “weekends”. It only knows days. Take breaks, but try to maintain your foundational habits no matter what you are doing in life. Even on vacation, I will exercise every day or review study materials for classwork.

If this vibes with you, let me know.