version 0.3 — 2019-04-08
I’m writing this live and in the open, so sections may appear, disappear, move, change drastically, or be stupid. Your impressions and suggestions are welcome — firstname.lastname@example.org.
They tried to convince me of this in grade school, but it didn’t work. Someone recognized the power of habit and thought, “We need to make sure kids get this! We’ll empower an entire generation to reach their true potential through good habits!” (I spent a long time at war with the word potential, urgh.) So they rolled the TV into the classroom on a big cart in early-’90s fashion. On it they played some tape about how if we develop good habits then we can… eat healthy and get good grades? Or some other message that I immediately forgot because it was irrelevant to my juvenile psyche.
What they should have said to get that crucial lesson across was something like, “Every person you think is cool got that way by regularly doing things that made them a better person, whether they felt like it in the moment or not. Including Geddy Lee.”
But since they didn’t say that, and no other message about how to be an effective person got through to me either, I was a pretty useless human for the remainder of my adolescence. In fact, it took until I was 22 years old and working at a productivity app company to realize that perhaps I ought to have a systematic way of deciding what to do, and making myself do it.
This system has its roots in a decade and a half of pious Getting Things Done practice — I read and reread the book, attended the seminar, presented at the conference, got the coaching, designed the app, met the David. GTD is still a fine place to start, and you can get the substance of it in 15 minutes! I gradually mutated my own system from that starting point and a pantheon of other inspirations, until the day came that I realized I didn’t practice GTD anymore, but something new. Like the Ship of Theseus, replaced part by part until nothing of the original remained. As you read this guide, by all means take the pieces you like, discard the rest, and evolve your own system over the course of the rest of your life like a proper thoughtful human.
This guide is intentionally more of a pamphlet than a book. So many good ideas are imprisoned by the insistence that anything worth learning must be delivered in the form of a marketable text smeared across several hundred pages, so that it’s economical to print and ship around and put on store shelves at a certain price point. I once had to (gently) inflate my own writing to fill such a book, and I’d like to avoid doing so again.
Also, this is purely a bundle of advice and not a business empire — the advice has no special official stationery to buy every year, no certified consultants, no executive membership plan. I just want you to have an easier time of finding your way in life!
Anyone you can think of who seems to really have it together probably isn’t mentally superior. They don’t have any special unattainable willpower, intelligence, or memory. More likely, they’ve put systems in place that compensate for the cognitive glitches we all have. A brain that’s supported by systems can focus on what it’s good at, while the systems handle the rest. Like it’s happily riding in a little vehicle that protects it from the dangers of the world, allowing it to confidently do its thing.
We modern humans live in cities, work at companies, and socialize on the internet, none of which was a thing in the world that life evolved over billions of years to handle. The little bugs and outdated survival programs in your brain — cognitive biases — make it hard to see clearly and succeed in this world our species has just lately started building. We have it better than nearly every human who ever lived, but we feel anxious, even doomed.
Your precious, lovable, oblivious brain is made up of a crowd of dumb modules competing for a chance to shove thoughts and feelings into your stream of attention and trick you into thinking that they define you! Your consciousness, adorably, thinks it’s actually in charge, but free will is probably fake! The idea of the self is probably also fake! It’s all a bit of a mess. Trying to force yourself do useful things is futile and frustrating, and you pretty much can’t get anywhere that way. You may sometimes feel like a failure if you try, even though it’s not your fault that you weren’t evolved for this stuff.
But the good news is that there are ways to be compassionate to your brain, to take better care of it. You can carefully craft for it a sort of vehicle, to carry it safely through the difficulties of modern life. You can armor it, and gently steer it, and make gradual, deliberate progress over time.
The values that this system optimizes for are meaning and fulfillment. Meaning is the sense that there is something worth living for. And fulfillment is the sense that you are, more or less, doing it. You’ll notice that I don’t talk a lot about happiness or success. Those are just fine, but they tend to come as side effects of the more fundamental meaning and fulfillment.
You are many. You probably feel like you’re a single continuous being, experiencing a contiguous expanse of time starting from your birth and ambling in procession off into the future. Really though, you’re not the same person every day, or even every moment. You’re more like a series of individual selves experiencing a series of moments, each self somewhat like the others but gradually shifting, evolving in complex patterns, until you’re hardly recognizable anymore. It’s hard to get all of these instances of you to cooperate. Perhaps your yesterday-evening self felt motivated and focused, and decided to commit to a grand project. Your today self, though, might not be quite on board. How are these two even the same person?
The many instances of you are bound together by patterns. Habits are things you do automatically. Attitudes are things you think automatically. These patterns define your personality, making you you. The things you do may start out as conscious decisions, but they’re not really incorporated into you until they’re subconscious. The big idea of this system is to adopt good patterns, to wear good grooves into your life, to consciously design the bigger thematic self that encompasses those momentary snapshot selves. Any action shorter-term than a habit can be rounded down to doing nothing. Any notion shorter-term than an attitude is just a passing thought.
You can, and probably already sometimes do, think about your life on various time scales: the past couple of years, last month, right this minute, today, the next few weeks, the next year or so, &c. You can look at these different time scales as strata, layered one on top of the other, forming the substance of a life. Your brain is myopic, though, and tends to get stuck in the moment or to worry about something in the near future. So left on its own, it just flaps about helplessly at the lowest strata without striving toward anything bigger. (Maybe right now it would be good to just scroll the internet until four in the morning?… Hey, let’s spend all our energy fretting about whether our boss is upset with us… Hmm, maybe if we pursue enough disjointed side projects, unspecified good things will happen to us in the future?… Oh no, this long-term thing crept up on us and became a right now thing!) You can counterbalance this tendency with regular, deliberate check-ins at each stratum.
The strata of this system are like so, from bottom to top:
Examine what you get out of your actions. Then you can confirm that you’re doing them for good reasons. “Feeling like it in the moment” is not a great reason to do something, especially if it’s something useless that you’ll regret. “Wanting to have done it” is not a great reason to do something either; if you don’t get anything out of reading Melville apart from being able to say that you read Melville, it’s not contributing to anything bigger. We have such limited time in this universe to do things, we might as well spend it on things of value. So how do you know what’s of value?
Do things that feed into something bigger. If you imagine yourself as a character in a story, individual choices and experiences can seem to fit into a greater story arc. When you make a decision, take a moment to think about how it supports your aims on the higher strata. Get used to doing this with everything, at every level. Thinking stratum by stratum, you can honestly connect even what you decide to eat in the morning to your ultimate goals in life. Maybe you choose a thing of hippie yogurt because it’ll give you the healthy energy you need for a big meeting, which is important to success on a work project, which supports your career aspiration quest, &c. Maybe you indulge in a croque madame because it came recommended by an old friend at your celebratory lunch together, which supports your current quest of cultivating your closest friendships, &c. Either choice can be fine, as long as your reasoning is genuine and the support of the higher strata is real. If you can’t honestly say how something you’re doing feeds into the higher levels, that might be a clue that you should jettison it in favor of something that does.
Perhaps stop doing some of the things that you enjoy. This is a sad sentence to write. But if you can only do so much, you might as well intentionally choose what will be left undone. Upon seriously considering your pastimes, you may find dead ends that are enjoyable but that do not help you achieve anything bigger. When you evaluate an activity you’re spending significant time on, don’t just come up with a rationalization for why it has value — like “it helps me relax” — almost anything can be justified that way. Instead figure out if it’s categorically of more value than what you could be doing otherwise. A pursuit that’s relaxing or fun and that leads somewhere meaningful is better than one that’s just fun. Personally, building model robots would bring me satisfaction and relaxation, which seems to make it a fine hobby. But practicing music would bring me at least an equal amount of those benefits, while also supporting a number of my music-related higher-level quests, and in turn my cadence, at the highest level! As cool as the robots are, I can’t tell my ideal self a convincing story about how they’ll help me achieve anything grander than a shelf of impressive completed models. So I’ve set them aside. (For somebody else, the models may make more sense, depending on their aims!)
Okay, so the whole system is named after this thing, and everything you do is supposed to build up to it. So what is it? Cadence is music terminology for a chord progression that cathartically resolves a section of music. Jazz, for instance, has a particularly satisfying sort of cadence called a turnaround, that reflects on all the wonder that just transpired while carrying you back home. It’s a moment that makes worthwhile all the efforts that led up to it, and reassures you that it all fits into a bigger plot.
In this system, then, the cadence is a similarly all-satisfying moment you intend to live, somewhere in the foggy future. This one ideal moment should encapsulate all of the depth of meaning and fulfillment that you hope to realize over the next five, ten, twenty years, or even longer. Choosing your cadence is pretty dang important.
A truly ideal moment requires a lot of supporting pieces to be carefully put into place. Designing decades of a life around one tiny moment might seem disproportionate and frivolous, but if it’s truly ideal then it’s not tiny at all. In an ideal moment your thoughts are untainted by the slightest worry about money or health. Your mind is in a baseline state of gratitude about where you live, your family, and your work. You feel belonging and meaning and satisfaction. Everything is in its place. Only then can the cadence even be possible. This means you may need to do quite a few things on a multi-year scale like building a career, getting married and starting a family, finding social circles where you truly belong, reaching financial independence, breaking into an entirely new field, doing major work on your mental health and personality, &c., before you can even imagine having such a moment.
The moment can be brief or extended. Maybe the “moment” really is just one instant in time, or maybe it’s a whole day. Make it whatever encompasses and symbolizes everything you want to achieve.
The moment can be specific or fuzzy, and it can change over time. You might already have an idea of the details you want to realize, or you might just know the kind of things you want to have in place later in your life. The cadence can come in and out of focus as your situation and your values shift. But it should always give you something distant and meaningful to hang quests on.
The moment should seem a little bit ridiculously perfect. A cadence that you can achieve by next year is not ridiculous enough. Something ambitious enough that you’re a bit embarrassed to tell people is probably just about right.
You might not get the moment. Plenty of things won’t go as expected. Plans will change. Your ideas about what you really want will change. Some variables might never fit perfectly into place. The moment is, in fact, a macguffin — a catchy plot device to keep you moving toward putting everything in its place. So the secret, which you shouldn’t think about too hard, is that it doesn’t really matter if you get it. What matters is that if you earnestly pursue a perfect cadence, if you strive to put everything in its place, you’ll end up having a meaningful and fulfilling life full of nearly perfect moments along the way.
If you get the moment, you have to continue living afterward. I haven’t gotten mine yet, so I can’t tell you what this is going to feel like. The idea is admittedly just a story device for the plot of my life. But when you wake up the day after achieving your ideal moment, I think you’ll find that a life that was designed to yield that moment, with everything truly in its place, is a pretty excellent life to have. It will likely set you up to have another ideal moment, and then another, and another…
I’m not going to tell you my cadence. But to give you an idea — it started simply as a desire to live in a certain city, with everything else in life set up properly for that choice of location to make sense. Gradually I added the idea of running a certain kind of business there, and reaching a very specific and meaningful goal in that business. That’s all I’m saying! This megaquest will take between five and twenty more years, I think.
Each stratum of your life needs different methods for thinking about it and keeping it on track. Everything you intend to do should fit on some stratum, but planning is tiring. When you have the prodigious psychic resources it takes to decide what to do, use the review structures described below to plan. Do it on behalf of a future version of yourself who is too tired to plan and just wants to be told what to do.
A review is a regular check-in with your ideal self. The review structure at each stratum is a way have a little conference with your ideal self — the version of you that you would really like to be. You can get to know your ideal self via journaling, therapy, role models, or meditation. Imagining them sitting at the desk with you will keep you honest, but inspired, in a way you wouldn’t be alone. And regular planning meetings with your ideal self will bring you closer to being them rather than just idly wishing. There’s plenty more to come about the ideal self later on.
Find your own rhythms. In setting up your reviews, you don’t have to adhere to the artificial time intervals of hours, weeks, or months. Sometimes it can be valuable to let your own rhythm be a bit out of sync with the rest of the world. Maybe you actually work best in 41-minute chunks. Maybe it’s enlightening to have your periodic reviews fall in different parts of the year each time you do them. Maybe you need two “daily” reviews on Tuesday but zero on Saturday. Try things!
Avoid precious stationery. Don’t believe anyone who tries to convince you that spending a bunch of money on notebooks will make you more organized, at peace with your thoughts, or akin to some romantic historical figure. You need there to be as little barrier as possible between you and writing things down all the time; a fancy artsy notebook that costs 20 cents per page just paralyzes you with fear that whatever you write won’t be worthy of it. I recommend finding the cheapest per-square-centimeter notebook that you don’t dislike, or the lowest-tech software that isn’t unpleasant to use. Write like you’re going to throw it away. When you’re done, throw it away.
Starting at the top — this review is an opportunity for you to think deliberately on a long time scale. Pick an interval — 23 days, a month, 44 days, a quarter — something that works for you to spend a good while introspecting. Set aside enough time without distractions (at least a few hours) to really settle in and hang out with your ideal self. This can become one of the most important, meaning-dense activities you do.
It happens in a document. Intending to write things down is an excellent way to get yourself to pay attention to those things in daily life. In between periodic reviews, you may find yourself spontaneously composing narratives about how your quests are going. This sort of thing happens if you know in the back of your mind that you are going to have to write about them soon.
If this isn’t your first periodic review, start by reading through your previous review for context and a sense of progress. Then, write as much as you feel you need to for each of these prompts.
Overview — How is everything going? What’s the story arc of your life right now? What would you tell your past selves about how their efforts are paying off?
For each current quest — How is it going? Are there habits or attitudes you can put in place to make it go better? Should it continue being an active quest, or should you mark it paused, completed, or abandoned?
New quests — Are there any new quests you should instate, based on your current story arc and where you want the story to go next? Have you read anything or had any conversations lately that contained especially meaningful topics that you want to do something about? What habits or attitudes could support it? What is the purpose of the quest; how does it get you closer to your cadence?
Ideal self — Have you learned anything durable enough that it should be recorded in your Rules or Personal Canon?
Cadence — Does your cadence still reflect where you want your life to go? Can you make it more specific? Do you need to make it a bit more vague? Most importantly, are your quests actually bringing you closer to it?
Message from the past — Say hello to your future selves. What would they appreciate knowing is important to you now?
The project is the standard unit of work in this system, and about once a day is about the right rhythm for checking in on them.
Keep a list of your projects and their actions, and any new habits you’re cultivating, in one place. Some folks like to debate about task-management apps, and some of us have even devoted significant chunks of our careers to building them. I helped create one called OmniFocus that I still like quite a lot, but you can really choose anything you like.
You can only realistically maintain a handful of active projects at a time. This is because you can only do so many actions in a day. As tempting as it is to try to capture everything you’ve ever vaguely wanted to do into one database, list only the projects you’re likely to work on in the immediate future. Say, in the next month. Anything beyond that will probably be more demoralizing than helpful to document.
If you like, you can put “someday” projects in your commonplace-book, described later. But really, a scarcity of ideas for projects is not the problem that causes people to adopt systems like this one. It’s a scarcity of the time and drive to do them.
When considering whether to adopt a new project, its seeming like a good thing to work on is not enough. That’s how you end up with an overwhelming project list that just makes you sad. You probably need to decide what you’ll stop doing in order to make space for it. And of course, you should be able to articulate how each project is feeding into a larger quest or setting you up for your cadence.
This is all pretty strict. But you’ve got your strong and clear-headed ideal self by your side, so you can take it. Be strict during the review in order to feel more at peace in between the reviews, when you’re harried and uncertain and you just want a clear idea of what is truly important work on.
A daily review is an opportunity to check in (with your ideal self!) on your projects and new habits.
You can do momentary reviews of your progress on actions throughout the day, too. Do whichever of these makes sense, when it makes sense.
When you have some “free time” to spend and don’t want to decide what to do — choose one of your default activities.
Everyone has a set of default activities for filling the little gaps in their day, but they’re usually subconsciously chosen. You can get a lot of control over how you spend time by choosing sensible defaults. Keep a short list of good default activities to do whenever you have a few free minutes and you don’t want to decide what to do. For many of us, a common unexamined default is to open a social media app and scroll unhappily until we are torn away by the next responsibility. Could you open an e-book app and read a couple of pages, instead? Could you do some flashcards for your foreign language study? Text a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, to let them know you’re thinking of them? What if you just meditated for a few minutes? Setting beneficial activities like these as defaults avoids wasting time in ways that you’ll regret. It lets you scrape together many tiny moments into something meaningful, instead of leaving them as fragmented and aimless. In these moments, your ideal self can help you out by looking over your shoulder and gently asking, “Is this really more rewarding than reading a book?”
You may want to keep a set of themes for your defaults — perhaps based on your current quests — and periodically choose which defaults to slot in to these themes. Then you’ll always have a balanced variety to choose from. (Mine happen to be Focused Study, General Learning, Geekery, Creative, and Meditation.) Working on this very document is my Creative default right now. So today when I had a bit of time at home and felt like making something, I didn’t have to feel paralyzed by the choice of whether to reach for a guitar, a knitting project, or a drawing stylus; I just opened up this document on my phone and made some quick edits.
If you genuinely want to do something that’s not on your list of defaults, by all means just go ahead! If you keep coming back to that activity, and it’s a worthwhile use of time, consider swapping it onto the list. The idea is to carefully make a few good decisions when you’re in planning mode, so that you can have good answers already at hand when free moments come. Don’t obsess about the “best” way to spend your personal quiet time to the point that you waste the whole time fretting.
Human brains seem to have evolved to be pretty good at remembering to do certain things over and over again, for better or for worse; we call them habits. But they’re bad at remembering things that need to happen once, especially if there are lots of things to remember, the things are not in plain sight, and each has a specific deadline.
Capture everything that needs your attention in an inbox. Most productivity systems have some sort of “inbox” concept — a place where you collect things that you need to do something about. The crucial practice to cultivate here is automatically capturing everything as soon as you recognize it as something you need to do. No matter how sure you are that you won’t forget. No matter how small or dumb it seems. Ask Kara about where to eat dinner in Seattle; Pay the electrical bill; Put the mail by the door so you remember to send it tomorrow; Process all the notes from the meeting with Áthila into projects and actions.
When you immediately capture everything, you free up your precious, distractable human brain to focus on the matter at hand rather than worrying about whether it might be forgetting something.
Try not to leave stuff in the inbox for a long time — move important things to projects, finish small one-off tasks, and move daydreamy things into your commonplace-book.
Check your inbox often. As long as you know you’ll be checking your inbox soon, you can confidently ignore all of your worries, trusting that they’ll be in there waiting to be processed when the time comes.
A good system needs an unsystematic playground. You should be fastidious about your projects, habits, defaults, &c. But the commonplace-book is a place to relax. It’s a big heap of words and images you collect without worrying too much about their structure or immediate usefulness.
Here are some things you can do in a commonplace-book:
Don’t worry about organizing it. Maybe you’ll come back to these thoughts later and find something valuable. Maybe not. But anything truly important won’t let itself get lost. “Oh no, I forgot to learn to play the piano someday” is not a real problem anyone has. If you really want to remember the insights from a particular book, you can go back and find it. If you don’t think of it, maybe you’ll stumble across it anyway. If you don’t, that’s okay — there is a lifetime of other inspiring stuff to stumble across instead.
Revisit old pages at random. When you’re feeling introspective, flip through your commonplace-book and see what you find. Seemingly unrelated ideas may develop new connections and new meanings. The thoughts of your distant self may give you new perspective on your current self. You may (re)learn something, and you may gain a new appreciation for just how obviously you are not the same person over time.
Checking in with an imaginary ideal version of yourself is a shortcut to wisdom and good decision-making throughout this system. Here are some practices that can bring that ideal self into clear enough focus that they can sit down and plan with you.
Maintain a list of works to revisit often, to take guidance and inspiration from. This is a sort of bible that you compile for yourself. It can include books, films, articles, music, even places. These are things that you don’t just enjoy, but that you actually find bring you closer to the kind of person you want to be. When you return to your personal canon, you should feel more like yourself, like you’ve refreshed your perspective on the world and remembered what it is you truly value.
Don’t canonize people. If someone did a lot of things that you find indispensably valuable, then add those things to your personal canon. But heroes lead you astray, making you think you should emulate how someone else lived their life, as if every choice they made was good, and would be good for you too. This sets you up for disappointment when you inevitably discover something the person said or did that you don’t feel right about. People are complicated. No one else’s values and choices can be imported verbatim into your own life. Good ideas and works should be able to stand on their own merits, without us idolizing their creators.
Sometimes a turn of phrase from a book, a conversation, or a commonplace entry seems important enough that you should enshrine it as a rule to live by. Having a short, memorable phrase that represents something about how you want to live can help you recall it and follow it at crucial moments. Rules can help you achieve quests and keep them achieved, develop new habits, and generally move toward your ideal self. Imagine what your ideal self would say to you in moments when you need help — you can often imagine what a very wise person would say in a given situation, which actually means you are a very wise person. You just need to believe and follow the advice.
Each rule comprises:
Do you envy anyone? Do you ever worry that you should be pursuing a path more like this or that well-known person? Do you find yourself vaguely scoffing at someone because they’re successful and famous in a way that you secretly think you should have been? These are excellent awful feelings! You can use them.
Being good at something, being well-known for something, and having a good life are three different things. If someone you don’t know is visible to you, that’s fame. And fame is usually a product of putting a lot of work into being famous — which is one way to develop yourself, but not the only way. Most likely, the people out there who are most like who you want to be are not known to you. The best person in the world at any given thing is very likely not famous at all, but quietly pursuing what they believe is the right path for them. The path you need to follow almost certainly doesn’t already have some famous person following it, giving you an example. So whenever you see your false idols doing something, you can be assured that that’s not your life, not your path, and take it as a reminder to quietly continue with your own thing.
emphasize hedonic treadmill
revisit things in your personal canon that should make you happy; if they don’t, question why
Guess what! You can’t actually just become more productive without changing anything significant about your life, sacrificing some things you like, doing some things that seem boring, et cetera. Everything is a time and energy transaction — you’ll probably need to trade in some TV-watching or socializing or something, in order to see impact.
delayed gratification as a way of life — make a game out of trying to be a little bit more ascetic than you want to be
effort justification — try to enjoy doing things that are difficult because they are difficult
frugality — try being about twice as frugal as you think you need to. become the sort of person who enjoys watching their savings increase more than they enjoy buying random stuff all the time. stick to an absurdly small spending budget for a while, and notice that you don’t feel any less happy. try waiting one day for every dollar that a thing costs.
opt out of more things
don’t assume that the appropriate amount of something is “all the time” or “just as much as everyone else” or “whenever i feel like it”
“do it anyway”
optimizing for external metrics, like julius, will make you sad
do things that have endings
recognize, and plan for, different states of mind — ambitious, exhausted, creative, vulnerable...
Don’t wait until the achievement to be happy
be more skeptical of a thing the bigger its audience
get genuine recognition from one person
ignore stories about steve jobs
focus on your delta — what’s different because i am here instead of someone else?
sleep time is armor rebuilding time
random drift from the origin and deliberate snapping back to the origin — on short time scales (health and mindfulness) and longer ones (reviews); return to the origin every day
more review templates as questions
reviews are for not just planning, but feelings — your depleted immediate self is not going to come up with a better decision about how to feel than your ideal self did
emphasize that even when you cut out the most unhelpful things, you still end up with more things than you need
it's ok to turn off the system sometimes
terminology — ataraxia, temperance, resolution (double meaning), cadence
incorporate the discipline
celine, julius, jason, brittany, 303, jeff (especially for “cadence”), jesse