How I Work: Zen Habits Applied to My Life

This article comes as a request from a number of readers who wanted to see how I apply the methods I talk about, and what my typical day is like. How do the Zen Habits work in a real-life setting?

The truth is that 1) I don’t have a fixed routine that stays the same each day; 2) I am continually experimenting with the habits and systems I talk about here to find the right mix and to see what works for me and what doesn’t (and thus the reason I’m always writing about this stuff — I’m sharing the results of my ongoing experiment); and 3) I apply these methods imperfectly, like anyone else.

I want to dispel any notion people might have that I am perfect at these habits, or that I am super productive and disciplined. The truth is that I am lazy like everyone else, but I’ve found ways to overcome my laziness (at times) or use my laziness to work for me. I have also improved my habits over time, but I am still working to improve them.

What follows is a typical day, which means it’s a day that I never follow exactly. Other things come up in the course of the day that throw off this schedule, and it’s a schedule that has changed even over the last couple of months, but certainly over the last year or so. But if it helps, I thought it might be good to use myself as an example — again, an imperfect one. I should also note that I’m not saying that anyone else should follow this example — I just thought you might be interested.

Here goes:

A Day in the Life of Leo

4:30 a.m. Alarm clock goes off. Most days, I jump up, walk across the room to turn it off (if it were right next to me I would go back to sleep), and then stumble into the bathroom. If I went to sleep late last night and am way too tired, I might set the alarm clock 30 minutes ahead and get some extra rest. But in the bathroom, I wash my face, stare at myself in the mirror until I realize who it is I’m staring at, and then walk out to the kitchen.

4:32 a.m. Get a drink of water and start coffee. Head over to the computer. Do a quick ritual where I greet the day.

4:34 a.m. Set my Most Important Tasks for the day. Three things I really want to accomplish. Check my Google calendar to make sure there isn’t anything on the schedule for today. I usually try not to schedule too much stuff as it limits my day and makes it more stressful.

4:39 a.m. If I’m disciplined, I’ll start writing. If not, I’ll check my blog stats real quick. I used to check my email and respond to them and the comments on this blog as soon as I woke up, but I’ve been working to break my email habit the last couple of weeks, with some success. I’ve been trying to write one thing when I wake up, also with some success. Because I’m tired, I’ve been using this morning writing ritual to write one of my easier articles for the day, something to which I’ve already given some thought.

4:56 a.m. Get coffee. I’ll usually break my discipline somewhere around this point and check my blog stats or look at the comments for my latest post. Then I’ll pull myself away and start writing again.

5:30 a.m. Exercise. I actually haven’t been doing this the last week or so, due to a back problem, but it’s my goal to start this up again in the next few days, so I’m putting it here. I normally either run or bike or do some strength exercises. If I don’t exercise, I’ll usually do some reading.

6:30 a.m. Wake up the wife and kids. Start prepping their lunches and mine, and getting ready for school. If we were good the night before, most of their lunches are prepared, the kitchen is clean, their clothes are ironed, and all we have to do is eat breakfast and groom ourselves and we’re ready to go. Otherwise, the mornings can be a rushed time.

7:15-7:25 a.m. We try to head out the door. Our routines have been changing a little here – Eva will take the kids to school most often and I’ll head straight to work. Note that if I commute by bike (which isn’t as often as I like) I’ll leave before 7 a.m. Either way, I try to make my commute to work fairly stress free, and I often use it to come up with ideas for articles.

7:45-7:50 a.m. Arrive at work. My day job is at the Guam Legislature, where I am a writer, researcher, veterans advocate, project planner, media consultant and more. When I arrive there is usually only our Chief of Staff in the office (he gets there before 7 a.m.) and it’s nice and quiet for about 20 minutes.

7:55 a.m. Review my MITs for the day. I simply write them at the top of my Moleskine notebook, on a fresh page, with today’s date at the top. I’ll also look at my inbox, if it’s not cleared, or my notes from the day before, if I did clear it, and see what smaller tasks I have to do today, and note them on my “batch” list. This is a list of smaller stuff I need to do today but that I try to batch process, all at once, so these tasks don’t take overly long or interrupt the important stuff.

8 a.m. If I’m disciplined, I’ll start on one of the MITs. This might be work-related or it could be an article I need to work on. If I’m not disciplined, I’ll read my Google Reader with a cup of coffee before starting on my first MIT (not including the article that I should have written first thing in the morning).

9:30 a.m. At this point, I’m usually ready for a break. If I’ve finished my first MIT, I check it off my list with some satisfaction. I know that a list of three things isn’t hard to remember, but I write them down in my Moleskine notebook simply so I can have the satisfaction of checking them off. Also because it gives me focus. If other things come up during the day (and they always do), I’ll also write them in my notebook, usually under “batch” but also under the MITs if it’s really important. I try to stay with the task at hand, even if another important request comes up, so that I finish my current task before moving on to the next task. Focus is important to productivity. Anyway, when I take a break, I will usually get some water or perhaps take a quick walk to get my blood circulating and ideas flowing.

9:45 a.m. Start on my second MIT. Note that this could also be work-related or an article I need to write. My day-job work is very flexible. My boss knows I’m good at what I do, and so trusts me to get my job done, which I always do. He also knows that I write as a free-lancer during working hours, and in fact has signed an agreement acknowledging my right to do so. I also have the right to work from home if I need to, which I am now doing on Mondays.

10 a.m. If I’m undisciplined, I’ll usually take a break and check my blog stats (when I say blog stats, this could be my traffic statistics, or one of my ad revenues, or something like Technorati or Digg or delicious — none of this is really necessary, and I’ve been trying to minimize the number of times I check it — it’s gotten fewer, to maybe 3 times a day, but I think I should cut it to 1). If I’m disciplined, I will finish my second MIT by 10:30 or 11 a.m.

11 a.m. Check email for the first time today. This is a huge improvement for me. I used to check it first thing, and then maybe twice an hour. This past weekend, I was successful in only checking it once a day, right before I go to bed. The world didn’t collapse. I’m thinking of doing this on weekdays too, although that’s harder because much of my work is done by email. Maybe twice a day on weekdays. Anyway, I use a single Gmail account (actually, I have three but they are all forwarded to one account) and I try to crank through it quickly, using only the keyboard. I shoot out short replies, most of the time, and note any actions I need to take that are not email related. If it requires a longer reply and I don’t have time now, I will put it in my @reply folder and try to get to it before the end of the day. The comments from this blog are also in my Gmail, and I read through them quickly. There was a time when I tried to respond to each comment individually, but now that there are dozens a day (sometimes over 100), I cannot do that. I do, however, read each one, and reply to ones that really need a response if I have time.

11:30-11:45 a.m. This time really varies for me, as my structure starts to fall apart by late morning. At this point, I might have a meeting or have to talk to a veteran about the status of his case, or answer some phone calls, or continue work on a project.

12 p.m. Somewhere around this time I eat lunch. I sometimes will continue working on one of my MITs into lunch, so lunch might not start for me until 12:30 or 1 p.m. (or even later sometimes). I always brownbag it for lunch. My coworkers all go out to eat lunch, so I answer phones while they are gone and eat lunch at my desk. I will often read my Google Reader or some other material in my reading folder while I eat.

1 p.m. Now I’m in the home stretch. I’m usually a little lazier in the afternoons, and I don’t get as much done. I try to start on my next MIT, although if I am lazy I might not get to it until 2 p.m. and I might do some smaller stuff at this point.

2 p.m. If I haven’t started on my third MIT yet, I do so by this point. If I have, I will continue it or batch process some of the smaller stuff.

3 p.m. If I haven’t written my Zen Habits post for the day, I’ll do it around this time. It’ll take me around an hour, including research. I schedule it to run at 7 p.m. my time, which is 5 a.m. Eastern Time. I do that because I like the idea that it’s sitting in most people’s RSS reader as soon as they wake up. I realize that for people on my side of the world (I live on Guam) they won’t get it in their RSS reader until evening, but then again they might not see it until morning. Anyway, that’s my post schedule, although on occasion I’ve been late.

4 p.m. Check email and batch process. I try to leave my physical and email inboxes empty, and my desk clear, by the end of the day. If I was good today, I will be done with my MITs by now. I rarely check off all the items on my list besides the MITs. If I’m not done with my MITs, I’m usually trying to rush to get them done before the end of the day so I don’t have to do them at home. I try to keep my evenings clear if possible for my family. Also note that if I’m done with my three MITs earlier in the day, I will find more of them to do. Sometimes I’ll get 5-7 of them done. As you can see, my work day is pretty wide open, and can fluctuate wildly. The main thing is that I try to focus while working on the important tasks, and batch process the smaller tasks, and check email and RSS feeds infrequently.

5 p.m. Head home, usually. By now, I’ve put in a solid work day. If Eva and the kids are on the road, doing something, I’ll often work until 5:30 or 6 p.m., as I don’t feel the need to rush home when they’re not there. Recently I worked until 9 p.m. because they went to the mall. That’s not a frequent thing, though.

5:30 p.m. Come home to be greeted lovingly by the wife and kids, and hear about their day.

5:35 p.m. I usually unwind a little, and Eva’s got dinner going. If not, I’ll cook dinner soon.

6-9 p.m. This time will vary, but it’s family time. We’ll eat dinner, watch a DVD, read to the kids, put them to bed. I try to avoid going on the computer at this time, although I’ve only been successful at this recently.

9 p.m. Around this time, I’ll check my email for the last (and sometimes first) time. This is also when I send out my daily email for the monthly challenge, which is going great btw (It’s closed now, so you can’t sign up until next month). I’ll also respond to any early comments, and do a final check on my blog stats.

10-10:30 p.m. I go to bed somewhere around here. Eva and the kids are usually sleeping before now. Sometimes I don’t get to bed until 11 or 11:30 (or even later, depending on what else happened tonight), and on those nights, I know that I won’t wake up at 4:30 the next morning. I really need to work on getting to be early so I’m not super tired the next morning.