For years, I’ve struggled with indecision. In the few years after my college graduation, I almost blindly led myself into several irrational career changes as a result of frequent cognitive dissonance. Perhaps some of you have experienced the same kind of problem: You see someone that you respect and admire doing well both professionally and personally. What they’re doing with their life sounds interesting. Immediately, you decide that you’re not doing enough, that you need to do more, that you’re doing something, or some iteration of the three. This is where our problems begin.
“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
What I’ve learned is that if we don’t first decide what’s important to us right from the very beginning, and figure out how to keep this in mind as we go about making important decisions in our day-to-day, we’ll find ourselves pushed and pulled back and forth into one life decision after another, one thought after another, and never actually get anything done.
This system first began as a tool that I created for some of my students who also struggled with stress and indecisiveness, but quickly turned in to a tool that I began using myself. The moment finally came when I realized that it was time to stop following every single opportunity that came my way. As counterintuitive as it may sound, I had to start saying no to more things. I had get clear about what I needed to get done based on the roles that I already filled in my life. Everyone has long-term goals and plans, but unless we do exceptionally well at what we’re already responsible for, we’ll always be paralyzed by over-analysis. It’s about “taking control of [your] circumstances instead of passively awaiting for them to decide [your] fate.”
The GRV System
For this system, I use a standard dot-grid recycled notebook from Guided, but you can use any notebook or method that you feel most comfortable with.
First begin by dividing up your page into three columns labeled:
In the “Roles” column, the middle column, begin by listing all of the “roles” that you’ll be in this week. For example, if you’re a computer engineer or an engineer with a company, begin by writing:
Continue this until you’ve listed all the roles you’ll be filling this week. Include personal roles like “Girlfriend,” or, “Athlete,” if you have a significant other or play sports on the weekends. Include hobbies, organizations you’re involved with, and anything that requires your time or attention.
- What if I’m a student? > I always recommend that students list out all of their classes, as well as their student organizations and part-time jobs.
- What if my job requires several roles? > I’m an educator, so I list out each of my classes and deal with them one at a time. If you’re starting a company by yourself, consider each of the legs of your new venture that require your attention (i.e. marketing, budgeting, etc.)
As for our more long-term hopes and plans, like getting a promotion, backpacking a new country, experiencing something new, starting a business, or buying something nice for yourself, list the goal as a role as well. For example, if you want to backpack a new country, that will take money, time, plane tickets, lodging, and an itinerary. Each of these are tasks that at some point need to be completed, so each week, we’ll consider these individually and determine what next step is necessary. This will ensure that we protect ourselves from the delusion of only thinking about our long-term plans without ever doing anything to actually reach them.
Again, to reiterate, you want to list out all of the roles that you’ll be filling this week as well as any long-term plans that you have in mind. Once this list is complete, you’re done with Step 1.
This is really where the true effectiveness of this method comes into play. So often, people jump aimlessly into their work-week without any clear, concrete items to get done. Even for people who have jobs that are seemingly menial and soul-sucking, in some capacity, there are always quantifiable things to get done that can yield a huge amount of results, and over time, pay dividends in the form of promotions, pay raises, time off, etc. So, the question remains: “What’s important?”
Imagine that you go to work on Monday and begin the first hour of your day responding to items in your email inbox. Right away, your Monday turned into a series of reactive decisions. The inbox says, “Jump!” …and you jump. Although the items in our inbox may seem urgent, they may not be relevant to the more important things that we want to get done that week. They might not even be that urgent to begin with. If we spend an entire week simply responding to what the day lays out before us, we’re only responding and slavishly awaiting time and the world to determine our circumstances for us. Instead, we want to head into the week knowing exactly what we’re trying to get done that week, why we’re trying to get those particular things done, and we want to set up quantifiable measures to ensure that we actually made the mark at the end of the week. Everything else will be subordinate to those priorities.
The difference between beginning your week without any focused direction and not doing so is something that can only be understood after you’ve tried it. What we want to do for the Goals column is determine the 1-2 (and no more) things that we can do this week that would dramatically improve our position or effectiveness in each of our roles. The age-old acronym SMART becomes most appropriate here, because it is in this column where we are going to consider each role individually and ask ourselves the following questions:
- What is something specific I can do in this role this week that will help me make the greatest progress towards its fulfillment?
- How will I measure it to know that I did it or that it’s completed?
- Is this something that is attainable this week?
- Is this relevant to my long-term goals?
- When am I going to block out the time do it? (We’ll address this later)
To give a few examples, for one of my students who told me he was falling behind on one of the units in one of his classes, he told me that the “Archimedes Lever” for that week in that class would be to sit down and re-read the entire chapter slowly, even though the class has already moved on. This is a high-efficiency activity, as it is the one thing that he can do that will produce a huge amount of results for him (catching up back up to the class and saving him many hours of future frustration and misery). For all of you computer engineers, it might be to recode a particular set of code in the software you’re working on that you’ve been putting off. For a person who has just started a business, it might be 100 cold calls (20 a day) in order to make some sales.
What if I don’t know what the one thing is? > If you find that you’re having trouble deciding what one thing you could do that week in a particular role, as most people usually do, you might ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the one thing I’ve been putting off in this role that I really know I need to get done?
- What is one thing that I know I need to do in this role that I’ve just been afraid of doing?
- What is the one thing that will grant me the most results and benefits this week?
- What is the one thing I could do that would make all of my other to-do list items in this role completely irrelevant?
- What is the one thing that no one is going to tell me to do that I know I should be doing this week in this role?
We want to identify our weakness, shortcomings, and things that we’ve been putting off as well as the steps that will help us make progress towards our long term plans. Again, we want to keep this to a 1-2 item minimum per role in order to maximize our output and ensure that we’re selecting only the high importance, highly effective items. Keep in mind that these are not the only things that you’re doing to do this week, they’re just the high importance items. Once you’re done, you should have a long list of to-do list items, with 1-2 tasks per role. For example, if someone listed four different roles and one long-term plan…
- Graduate Student
- Backpacking Europe
…then they should have anywhere between 5 and 10 items listed this week. The list under Goals should look something like this:
- Finalize presentation for programming department
- Debug code for project Y
- Write research paper outline
- Surprise my wife with tickets to the symphony on Friday
- Finalize pitch deck
- Complete website coding
- Request time off for backpacking trip
You’ll notice that for this hypothetical list, this person had two tasks listed for Engineer, one for Graduate Student, one for Husband, two for Startup Project, and one for Backpacking Trip. All you need is the 1-2 highest leverage tasks to push your roles and plans forward that week.
Once this list is complete, schedule each of these items into your schedule for the upcoming week. This means that you’ll need to consider how many hours it will take to complete each item, and if you’ll need to split bigger tasks into multiple work sessions. It is crucial that each item gets concretely planned in your schedule, including where you’re going to work on or complete the task. We want to front-load as much decision-making as possible so as to make the week as seamless as possible by limiting unnecessary decision making.
I personally utilize the Calendar app on iPhone and input location reminders to inform me when it’s time to leave. Some people prefer a physical planner. How you do it is not as important as being able to access this calendar frequently so that you can ensure that you’re sticking to the schedule you set for yourself.
Some Rules for Work
Cal Newport has a fantastic book on what he calls Deep Work, in which he profiles highly effective people and their work habits. Deep Work refers to scheduled blocks of undisturbed work. That means that when it’s time to fulfill the first task on your list, in our example, finalizing a presentation for the programming department, once you begin this work you have to setup your work station to minimize as many distractions as possible. Phone and watch should be on “Do Not Disturb,” all social media sites should be closed, people and pets who will distract you need to be out of the room, and all external modes of stimulation (television, YouTube, etc.) should be off. Music works for some people, but you can always test what works for you.
Concentration is not so much a skill as it is a byproduct of the right environment—if we can get the conditions right, we’ll get the work done. Always remember that getting started on a task is the most difficult part, but once we’re moving, we naturally fall into a flow state and the work becomes easy. Getting the conditions right is absolutely crucial.
What about small tasks like picking up dry-cleaning, buying groceries, pickup up personal items, etc.? For these kinds of items, I use a simple to-do list on iPhone to compile these tasks in one place. When I complete my GRV on Sundays, I’ll go through the to-do list and consider if I can knock all of the items out in one 2-3 hour block, and if so, I’ll schedule that block into my week around my work. Sometimes, I need to schedule two shorter blocks for to-do list items. What’s key is that we never want to be responsive to items on our to-do list. Everything should be methodical and planned. When we become reactive, we become stressed and frustrated, and neither state is where we get any work done. Save the headaches and decide ahead of time when you can get your to-do list items done.
While the system that I just detailed is in itself enough to get anyone on the right track in their job, their personal projects, or their schoolwork, what I’ve learned is that there is a large component missing: things for ourselves. While the GRV method is intended to help us be more effective at the roles that we fill each week, it’s equally (arguably more important), to do things for ourselves. A friend of mine once reminded me in the middle of a personal crisis that people needed me and counted on me and unless I was feeling my best, there’s no way I could be the best for other people. While we may shy away from it, our mood and overall sense of well-being is the most crucial part of being effective and moving towards our more long-term goals.
You may notice that the GRV method is extremely tactical and keeps us thinking about the immediate tasks to get done, but what about the more long-term goals that we have? What if you want to backpack Europe for an extended amount of time? What if you want to get a promotion? What if you want to read a certain book? What if you’re trying to lose weight? These are all important items that enable us to operate at our absolute best, and unless we’re consistently working at these things, or as Stephen Covey would call, Sharpening the Saw, we’ll never operate at our fullest capacity no matter how much preparation and planning we do.
In the values column, this is where we’ll consider what James Altucher calls The Daily Practice. In this column, we’ll consider four domains that we’ll address every single day and every week in order to keep us operating at and feeling our best:
I personally use the app Productive to set daily reminders to fulfill. One I complete the simple task for each domain each day, I swipe the item off the list and the app automatically builds a visual series of links. Each day that I complete each component of the daily practice, the app shows me a longer and longer unbroken chain. The research of Jane McGonical has showed that when we tap into game mechanics to get things done, our brain is more incentivized to keep up with habits for longer periods of time. For more on this idea, which could be an entire post in itself, check out her book SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver, and More Resilient.
It is undeniable that our health should always be one of our greatest priorities. We need to ensure that we’re eating well, that we’re constantly moving, and that we’re taking care of our health. For the Physical domain, consider something you can do every day or a few days a week to address your health. The key is to keep it extremely simple. Here are some ideas:
- Walk three times per week
- Go to the gym three times per week
- Don’t eat fast food
The quality of our ideas, problem solving, creativity, and work depend entirely on the quality of the inputs that we arrange for ourselves. Warren Buffet is voracious reader and claims to spend almost 80% of his time reading. This means that the world’s most successful investor spends only 20% of his time actually engaged with investing. Again, the quality of inputs directly effects the quality of outputs. Each day, we want to do something for our mind that will promote creativity, higher-levels of thinking, and better problem solving. Here are some ideas:
- Reading 30 minutes every day
- Write down 10 ideas a day – I got this from James Altucher, who says that coming up with ten ideas a day about anything can do remarkable things for your brain
As I briefly mentioned before, our mood is the context in which we operate. Simply put: Good mood means productivity and bad moods mean regression. Think about the things that you enjoy doing and that generate the greatest amount of happiness in your life — if you can do at least one of these things every single day, you’ll feel the effects immediately. Oftentimes, our mood also has to do with the things that we don’t do, for example, staying away from toxic people, refraining from participating in things we don’t enjoy, and refraining from saying yes to obligations we know we don’t really want to participate in. Here are some ideas:
- Play with and take the dogs for a walk
- Don’t hangout out at bars
- Stay away from a particular person or group of people
- Work on your favorite hobby, something non-work related
- Learn a new skill
- Take a course online out of sheer interest
For both religious individuals and non-religion individuals alike, it’s crucial to take some time each day to focus on personal well-being in the spiritual sense. For religious individuals, this may mean praying daily or studying and reflecting on religious canonical texts. For non-religious individuals, this may mean some sort of regular practice or discipline that adds a sense of spirituality to your life. As a catch-all, and something I recommend to both religious and non-religious people alike, meditation practice (like Vipassana) can provide immense benefits for health and overall well-being, particularly in aiding with anxiety, stress, depression, blood pressure, and cognitive function. For a deeper look into the idea of spirituality from a secular perspective, see Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris.
In the most objective sense, a spiritual practice can be as simple as a consistent effort to become more aware of negative emotions and thoughts when they happen, and do our best to distance ourselves from them. It’s important to try to notice the recurring thoughts in our head and continually ask ourselves, “Do I want to be thinking or feeling this right now?”
“Love of bustle is not industry.” – Seneca
It seems today that whenever you ask someone how they’ve been, you’re likely to hear people talking about just how “busy” they are. Being busy is an indicator that someone is not in control of the circumstances in their lives. What I hope you will remember, and what I hope this tool will help you to remember, is that being busy all time simply for the sake of being busy is not any kind of industriousness at all. Simply running around and filling our time with things to feel that we’re doing something can actually be an illusion of progress. Tools like the one I created can help you to bypass this delusion and hopefully get on the right track with the things that are most important in your life. Anxiety and stress occur when we’re neglecting our mood and when we haven’t gotten clear about the things we need to get done. Tools like the GRV can help get those ideas our of your head, onto paper, and into a system that serves you each week. It’s designed to guarantee that you’re not reacting each week and is designed to keep you honest and accountable. I can only hope that you will adopt this method, make it your own, and watch your life come together.