Personal vision, regular reviews, habits and Obsidian – how I try to keep myself organised and focused

In 2018, I wrote a blog post which turned out to be one of my most popular: How I stay organised using Trello, Kanban, GTD and Inbox Zero. A lot has changed in the past 6 years! Wunderlist is no more. Trello has been acquired by Atlassian. I am no longer using personal Kanban. And there’s a lot that hasn’t changed: I am still a big fan of of all the principles like 80/20, GTD and Inbox Zero. In this post, I summarise my current process for staying organised and focused on what matters, and go into more detail about topics like personal vision, regular reviews and habits.

Long Term plAlan (see what I did there?)

There isn’t much point in making progress if you don’t know where you are trying to go. That is why I regularly set aside time to reflect on what I want my life to be like in the future. There are 3 ways in which I like to think about this:

My life in 25 years

A good way to come up with answers to this question is to imagine being on your deathbed and reflecting on a life well lived. What are the things that really matter in the end?

For me, the answer to this question includes statements like “Surrounded by friends and family”, “A life full of laughter” and “Jack of all trades, master of some”. These are the types of things I try to keep in mind as the target end state for everything else that follows.

My life in 5 years

I am barely recognisable from the person I was 25 years ago. But 5 years ago me is pretty similar to the person I am now. 5 years is far enough away to be ambitious, but near enough to get into the detail. I find that it helps to be specific, as it gives me something concrete to aim for – one big step en route to my 25-year vision. Visualising achieving it helps me validate that it is actually the direction I want to be going in.

My answer to this question includes statements like “3 day weekends every week or two. 1 week off every 3 months. No more burnout” and “Get outdoors a lot. Surf/swim/yoga regularly”. I have about 7-8 statements in total. I am already doing most of the things on my list. I have plans to get to the others in the not-too-distant future. Chief amongst them is getting an electric car. I’m thinking a Polestar 2 or an Ioniq 5. Let me know if you have an opinion on that!

Unsurprising, visualisations are a powerful technique for articulating visions of any length of time. Collaging a vision board of images which represent what you want the future to look like is a technique I have found valuable.

Goals

These are the themes or pillars which I need to focus on in order to get where I want to go. For me, they are people, health, fun & experiences, impact, learning, security, career.

I keep track of my achievements, ideas, priorities and plans under each of these headings, and organise my quarterly reviews around them.

Reviews

Reviews help me keep track of progress, reflect on my ambitions, and make more concrete plans for getting things done.

Quarterly reviews

My quarterly review template

I have kept up with doing quarterly reviews for most of the past 6 years. The times when I have done this have felt more balanced and productive. It feels like a really healthy habit.

In these reviews, I ask myself 6 questions:

  • What went well
  • What didn’t go well
  • What did I learn
  • What did I say I’d do vs what did I actually do
  • My plan for next time
  • What / who am I grateful for

To prepare for this review, I review three things

  • My long-term plAlan document (vision and goals)
  • My calendar
  • All of my weekly reviews from the last quarter
The checklist I use for my weekly reviews

Weekly reviews

I usually do my weekly reviews over the weekend, though I usually update my weekly note throughout the week. My notes include:

  • Notes, stories and learnings: these are often populated from my inbox, calendar and other notes I have created throughout the week
  • Actions: these are things I decided this week that I need to do.
  • Habits: these are all the new things I am trying to do once per week (eg. I am committed to doing a few hours of a coding project once per week). This doesn’t include things that are already well-entrenched habits.
  • Exercise: I try to do quite a lot of exercise every week. But I leave myself space and flexibility for rest days so that I don’t become a slave to the home gym, and don’t set my expectations of myself unreasonably high. Meeting my goal to exercise 5 days per week feels better than failing to hit a goal of 7 days per week.

I keep my weekly reviews private. But I know a lot of good people who like to work in the open with their weeknotes: Neil Williams and Steve Messer first among them. That doesn’t work for me though. I get quite anxious when I am writing for a public audience, and I want my personal reviews to be low-barrier and unfiltered. So instead, I like to keep my blogging focused on specific topics and keep my weekly reflections private. Though one strength of writing in the open is that you have the internet holding you to account to actually stick with the habit!

The checklist I use for my weekly reviews

Why I gave up on daily reviews

Daily notes or reviews are recommended by many. I have tried doing these, but I personally find it too hard to commit to doing one every day. I also find that if I miss a few days, I grow horrified at the empty templates in my daily notes folder and end up giving up on the whole thing. It’s a habit I find too easy to fall out of when I miss a couple of days. For me, I have found it much easier to commit to doing something for 30 minutes once per week than for a few minutes every day. The best habit has to be one you can actually do and keep on doing.

I am usually tired at the end of the day and am winding down. I can usually be found dosing off with some sci-fi or historical fiction as my girlfriend diligently does her daily review (which she does in a paper notebook. How very 19th century of her).

Focusing on forming productive habits

Habits help me get more done with minimum willpower because once doing something becomes a habit it just happens automatically (eg. brushing your teeth in the morning).

A big part of my review process involves habit. That includes both regularly doing the reviews themselves, and the things which I use the reviews to try to get myself doing more of / more often.

As well as the habits section in my weekly review of things I want to be doing weekly, I also have the following:

Morning & evening routine

These are things I do every day just after waking up and right before going to bed. For example, my morning includes things like drinking water as soon as I wake up, meditation and getting pestered by hungry cats. My evening routine includes things like reading before bed, setting my alarm to go off in a different bedroom to force me out of bed in time and you guessed it, feeding the cats.

Recurring tasks

I have a whole range of boring little tasks I need to do 1-2 times per week, fortnight or month. These range from watering plants to cleaning out the filters on the Dyson. I have set these up as recurring tasks, and I can see a live view of any that are due, overdue or upcoming in my tasks page. This page captures all tasks across all notes, with those that have a date or are tagged as important near the top.

Reusable checklists

For things I do often, I like to keep reusable checklists. Packing is a good example of one of these. Each time I do a trip I just untick everything on the list, and re-tick it when I’m packed. As I change the list, I carry over the changes to the next time.

The items at the top of my packing list

Separating work and play

The eagle-eyed amongst you will remember that one of my goals is to separate out my work and personal life. I work a 4 day week at Climate Policy Radar which is awesome, and I try hard to minimise time spent working late into the evening.

Separate profiles for work and life on Chrome. My work profile is too serious for a profile photo

It is hard to switch off properly when all my work notes are integrated with my personal ones, so I try hard to keep them separate. That is easy on a laptop or desktop, as I just have separate logins for work and life. It is a little bit harder on mobile though.

All my work is done with tools like Notion, Linear and Slack (read more about how we use Notion and Linear to manage our product backlog). I have access to these apps on my phone, but they are disabled Friday-Sunday and during the evenings after 7 pm. I have work email on my phone, but I keep the Gmail app for my personal email only. I access the work email via a separate email client, which makes it easier to block on evenings and weekends.

Check out my blog post on Make Time, Busy Bandwagon and Infinity Pools if you are interested in reading more about this topic.

Other changes I have made

List checkboxes vs personal Kanban

I still use Kanban boards to keep track of things I am doing for work. My work-to-do list automatically integrates with tasks assigned to me by the team in Linear. I also still use it in my personal life, for things like books I’ve read/want to read – largely because I haven’t bothered migrating this away from Trello yet. But I have moved away from keeping track of day-to-day personal life actions on a personal kanban. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Lots of the tasks I need to do day to day exist at very low fidelity. Too often this broke the work-in-progress limits on my kanban.
  2. The act of ticking things off a to-do list felt more suited to these types of small actions than moving them between columns on a Kanban board.

Migrating from Trello and Evernote to Obsidian

I was attracted to Obsidian for three main reasons:

  • It offered a way of managing tasks and notes all in one place
  • It was open source and infinitely customisable
  • It enables you to build a knowledge graph of all your notes – creating a personal brain

The migration away from Trello and Obsidian was fairly painful, but I am a geeky type of person who enjoys that sort of thing more than most. I like that Obsidian is based on open formats, which should make it easier for me to move away from it in the future if I have to.

Almost everything described in this post is done via Obsidian. I’ll write a separate more detailed post about this another time.

Top 10

I often find myself wasting hours of time worrying or thinking about things I shouldn’t do. This ranges from worries about health and career direction to smaller issues like whether I can buy myself a new smartphone yet (and when I do which one I should buy). This is a waste of time and energy.

To help me better focus, I have made a list called “top 10” of the things I like to worry about the most. For every item on this list, I have a note in Obsidian where I have articulated my plan for dealing with the thing. When I spot myself worrying about something on the list, I say “Top 10” to myself. I ask myself “Is there new information which means I need to update my thinking in my top 10 list?” If the answer is yes, I let myself think about it. Otherwise, I tell myself there’s no point wasting my time overthinking things and I move on to something else.

This is also not my invention – I read it somewhere years ago but cannot remember where!

Final note

All the practices mentioned in this post work well for me, but I am far from perfect in my application of them. I fail at all of them some of the time. But I do stick with them most of the time. And when I do, I feel better for it. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” is one of my favourite quotes. Consistency is key to forming productive habits, but consistency looks different to different people at different times.

Consistency looks different to different people at different times. Image source
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