Announcing the Effectivity Habits Project

In 2014, instead of trying to change 50 things at once for New Years’, I decided to try a serial approach, changing one thing each week. I made 47 such attempts (took most of August off) and had 13 wins and a bunch of other good stuff come out of the not-wins.

This inspired my friend and collaborator Brienne Yudkowsky to do her own version of this for 2015. She came up with a number of changes that I really like, and so I’m going to merge most of her fork back into my branch. But with one key change: a focus on effectivity.

I’m deliberately calling this project “effectivity habits” rather than “productivity habits” because I want to imply a focus on achieving important results, not just on producing a lot of stuff. Productivity is a really key component of effectivity, but loses sight of the end result in its heads-down focus on the process of d. Which is fine! Process is important. But I also want to deliberately install some habits that will make me pay more attention to whether or not what I’m doing is truly moving towards the goal. Nate Soares, in the linked article, writes:

My advice, if you want to be effective, is always be solving the problem.

Note that he says “effective,” not “productive”.

My original Habit-a-week project was totally random. That was fun! Each week, I chose a new habit to install based on whatever felt most juicy. In some cases this was due to having just identified an egregious personal shortcoming I wanted to address, but in other cases it was just an idea from a book or article I’d just read.

Brienne, for her habit-installation project, is focused on rationality habits—habits of thought. Whatever she needs next in her art as a rationalist. I think this makes a lot of sense for her.

For me, I’m focused at whatever will make me most effective at achieving my current Big Wildly Important Goal, or BigWIG: to grow the number of paying subscribers to Complice to a level where it will support me financially, by June 1st. So, while there are going to be a bunch of large concrete actions I’ll need to take to achieve that, this Effectivity Habits project (and this blog post) will focus on the moment to moment habits that will make me most effective at these larger objectives. That is, these are largely still 5-second-level habits that I’m training… aka “Defaults”, not “Routines”.

Ultimately this may involve a fair bit of skill-building as well, in cases where I want to have a trigger→action combo where the action is not something I’m very good at yet.

Executing like an organization

The reason for this whole thing comes out of listening to the audiobook The Four Disciplines of Execution (hereafter “4DX”) which was recommended to me by a Complice user. You can find a decent summary via google. The first of the disciplines is:

1. Focus on the Wildly Important. “If every other area of our operation remained at its current level of performance, what is the one area where change would have the greatest impact?”

4DX is designed for teams and organizations, more than individuals, but I thought it would be really valuable for my personal goals. When I first started thinking about 4DX, it was clear that this Complice-profitable goal would be one of my main WIGs. By becoming ramen-profitable, I will free up my time and other resources in a huge way, allowing me to dedicate my time working on whatever projects seem most worthwhile (including more improvements to Complice) rather than having to get a job somewhere to pay rent. It will also make it easier to travel, and the skills and connections I gain in the process will be something I can continue to leverage for future projects.

So this is clearly a wildly important goal. But I was still kind of thinking of it as a goal on the same level of some of my other general goals, like becoming more fit and writing more high-quality blog posts.

But then I listened to the chapter on installing 4DX in a large organization (which naïvely might have seemed like a totally irrelevant chapter) and it suddenly struck me: I could treat myself as a large organization, with this WIG as my BigWIG (they don’t call it that) and then with a bunch of other WIGs for each of the areas of my life that I track as a complice user. Because, for the reasons described above, nothing else is nearly as important as this particular objective.

So, having chosen this as a BigWIG, my next task was to figure out what area-specific WIGs would best support my overall WIG. Recall the part that says “if every other area of our operation remained at its current level of performance”: I’m going to keep writing personal blog posts, because that’s important, but Blogger!Malcolm will also have a WIG of seriously growing the subscribers to the Complice Blog. For Health!Malcolm, I’m going to keep doing daily pushups and periodic sprints, but I’m also going to intensify my focus on keeping a regular sleep schedule, which will help me do more focused work.

And in the area of habit-hacking, I reasoned that it would make sense to focus on systematically becoming more effective. WIGs are supposed to follow the format “From X to Y by when,” so the formal WIG here is:

Design and install 10 new effectivity habits by June 1st.

Pre-existing Effectivity Habits

Given the “from X to Y by when” format of the WIG, I initially wrote this as “from N to N+10,” which had the delightful effect of prompting me to wonder “what is N? how many do I already have?” It also stands to reason that if “effectivity habits” are indeed a thing, then I probably already have a few that I ought to be able to describe as examples.

So the first really obvious one is several years old now:

1. Pomodoro Technique

I didn’t invent this. The basic premise is to set a timer for 25 minutes and work for that time. No interruptions. Take a call or check your phone or your facebook in the middle, and you have to restart the timer. Then, when the timer goes off, you take a break for 5 minutes. This structure makes you less likely to slack off on something when things are hard (because the timer’s still running!) and more likely to take a break mid-sentence or halfway through implementing an algorithm, which is much more exciting to return to. I started doing this in 2012, and since I began tracking in mid-2013, have done an average of 2.23 daily.

Let’s now look at my habits installed during my habit-a-week project last year. Only 3 of the successful ones seem to be good examples. (There’s also Intentional Tabbing, which would be one, but I tried it twice and failed both times and it’s not clear to me that it actually makes sense).

2. Duration Calibration

(originally called Duration Tracking) I created a spreadsheet where on each row I enter a task and an upper and lower bound (used to be a single estimate) for how long I think it’s likely to take. Then I start a stopwatch. Then I work on the task. Time. How’d I do? Was I over? Why? This is a great example of the value of trying something for a limited period of time: I originally thought when I started this one that it would get really annoying after a few days, and that I’d learn a bit but then stop after a week. But it turned out to be fun, and dramatically improved my focus. Working against the clock means that if I think of something related I want to do in the middle of one task (common when coding) I have to save it for later or risk going over time. I now do this intermittently, only when I’m at home and have both monitors.

3. Focus blocks

Setting arbitrary periods of time where I don’t engage in any divergent distractions. During these, even though I work with the pomodoro technique, I spend my breaks dancing or playing a song on my guitar or meditating or doing any centering distraction: the kind that restores your attention rather than sucking it. Extensive post on these distraction models on the complice blog.

Interestingly, this one is marked as a “meh” (not quite a win, not quite a fail) on my canonical list, but it actually forms the basis of how I work first thing every morning now, so I think it came back to win after all!

4. Single-tasked writing

This one kind of turns any act of composing text into a mini focus block. The idea is that the best way to write an email, or a blog post, or even a comment on a facebook post, is all at once. Sure, maybe going elsewhere to get information, or a link. But not interrupting the act writing by checking something—one’s inbox, in the case of email, for example. These browser hacks I made help make this easier to do.


Having listed four of these, I notice two prominent things they have in common:

  1. they’re all related to focus & attention
  2. none of them are super solid as habits of mine, as of January 22, 2015

Regarding the first point: there are a lot of other ways in which to become more effective. Focus and attention are a subset of productivity, which is itself a subset of effectivity. Quickly thinking about it, other less focus-related habits to become more productive include:

  • finding more efficient ways to do things you do regularly, such as using more hotkeys or becoming a faster typist
  • use a specific workflow (like do, delegate, defer, delete) for processing stuff like email
  • taking advantage of walks for listening to podcasts/audiobooks, or waiting in lines for ebooks
  • automating things whenever possible

Then beyond productivity in terms of doing lots of important stuff, some effectivity habits might broadly include:

  • using an urgency/importance matrix
  • regularly asking the question, “was this thing I just did the most valuable thing?” (and if not, what could have told me that?)
  • 5-second level habits related to moving towards the goal

Then the second point: that these habits aren’t super solid right now. That’s okay. It’s evidence that they’re actually habits, as opposed to being rules that I’m still exerting a lot conscious effort to force myself to follow. Quoting Nate again,

A problem isn’t solved until it’s solved automatically, without need for attention or willpower.

Habit tracker apps sometimes forget this. They rarely move a habit beyond the point of requiring attention (at which point you’d stop using/needing the app). But that’s the goal here.

That said. These habits could probably use some booster shots. So I’m going to focus on bolstering them for the next week or so, while I decide on the first new habit I want to focus on. I’m going to be developing the which-habit-next decision-making process as I go.

What now?

This post is the announcement. To learn more about the habit-installation procedure I’m going to be using and to follow my progress, check out the Effectivity Habits page, which will be updated regularly as things progress.

If you have suggestions for habits to try, leave them in the comments below, or hit me up on twitter: @Malcolm_Ocean.

If you found this thought-provoking, I invite you to subscribe:    
About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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