Fitting it all in

One of the things that I always struggle with is the sense that I'm not achieving everything I possibly can.
I've always chalked this up to procrastination.
Recently, I think I've realised that, although I do procrastinate, it's probably not a particularly big issue. I think the bigger problem is simply unrealistic expectations of what I can achieve in the time available to me.
I have things that I want to achieve in lots of different areas of my life. The reality is that I don't have enough hours in the day to achieve the goals I want to set myself.

Let's look at some examples:

This year I want to set several personal bests in running.

  • I want to complete an ultra-marathon (since you're reading my personal blog, you probably already know this as I've been boring people about this for ages). 
  • I'd like to finally break 90 minutes for a half marathon. 
  • I've also entered the Edinburgh Marathon in May with a hope that I might get close to 3 hours and qualify for guaranteed entry into the London Marathon through the "Good For Age" entry. 
  • While I'm training so much, I might have a go at doing a 10k in less than 40 minutes (because the Corsham 10k goes past my house, so I might as well enter it). 

Based on my progress with last year's training, these goals are reasonably achievable. To really get to the level I want, I probably need to build-up to running around 50 miles a week. And, as I get towards the ultra marathon, this will increase as I will need to find space to have some weekends where I cover 40-50 miles or more in the weekend, as well as normal training runs in the rest of the week.
To complement my running I need to include some strength and extra stretching work. I learnt this the hard way after getting injured last year, partly through not doing enough of this. [And, possibly, also because I decided to complete a 10 mile cross-country run with a hangover, despite knowing I had an injury after about 1 mile. Idiot!]
Overall, this kind of training regime is going to need around 10 hours of training time in most weeks.

I want to make proper time for my family. This means regular "date" nights with Helena. And means spending good time with Seb and Isaac both during the week and at weekends. It means having family breakfasts, being home for the boys' bedtimes and being around at weekends.

I want to achieve several professional goals. I'm starting a new role and this will involve learning new skills, meeting new people, learning about new business topics, new technology topics and so on. It also means doing a lot of travelling. I'm not going to get away with spending less than 40 hours a week on my business efforts.

I'm keen to get back into a reading habit. I would like to finish at least one book a month. I already have dozens of books that I own, but haven't read yet. And over 250 on a wish list of things I'd like to read. And I probably add 5-10 books to the list every month. One book a month is probably achievable, but really I'd love to read more - one book a week would be better. I also like reading the Economist every week and National Geographic every month. And I'd like to keep up to date with technology news on the Internet. And I'd like to read a newspaper at least once a week.

I would like to learn some web-based skills. In particular, I want to get a proper grounding in HTML5 / CSS3 / Javascript. I'd really like to learn the basic building blocks of web-application development. This is partly professional, partly just a hobby, partly because maybe it could give me other options in my ongoing dream of running my own business.

I want to write more. It's kind of the counterpart of wanting to read more. I'm really interested in running and fitness training. They are my hobbies in a big way. But I don't really have that many people that I share this with. So, I'd like to write about it with the vague hope of maybe getting a few virtual friends to discuss the stuff I find interesting. The same goes for personal development, particularly around productivity and goal-achievement. I'm also interested in economics, politics, business and technology. I heard a great phrase recently (on the excellent iProcrastinate podcast, as it happens): "writing is a tool for thinking." This definitely sums up my feeling about writing. I'm interested in a lot of different stuff and I'd like to make time to write more, because in writing, I'll learn to structure my thoughts and I'll increase my own learning through it.

I'd like to be more sociable. Both in terms of contact friends and family on the phone and also in seeing them at weekends (or evening in the evenings if I was to build a more local group of friends).

These are probably the main themes. I also have all the small stuff. Cooking, eating, sleeping, tidying the house, staying on top of household chores, personal admin like tax returns.

And the trouble is that I really do want to do everything above. And it still wouldn't be enough for me to feel that I was achieving my potential.

And even what's above isn't totally realistic.


A "typical" weekday would probably look something like this:
0630 - alarm goes off. Either shave or do some exercise (e.g. rehab exercises for my injury)
0650 - Seb's sun/star clock changes to "yellow sunshine" meaning he can get up (and normally he gets up straight away). Help him get dressed, brush his teeth, take him down to breakfast.
0710 - Family breakfast, feed cats, tidy up kitchen as appropriate. Make lunch if I didn't make it the night before.
0745 - Finish getting ready to leave the house.
0800 - Finally get out of the house after chasing kids etc (most days, this ends up being more like 0820)
0820 - Into work if I'm at the Chippenham office (and this whole morning routine is quite different if I'm, going to, say, Birmingham or London)
1230 - Lunchtime run - takes about 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes including changing and showering.
1745 (often more like 1800) - leave work (if I've done a run, this means I've managed about an 8 hour day - which is often not enough to achieve everything I want to do).
1800 - Home and get changed
1810 - 20 minutes play time with Seb / Isaac before Isaac's bedtime at 1830. Some times I do his bedtime, other times I play with Seb until his bedtime at 1900.
1930 - Bedtimes are finished. Generally think about starting / finishing cooking of some description.
2000 - Dinner
2030ish - time for doing something - reading, writing, training, weekly grocery shop on Tesco.com on a Monday, etc
2200 - Get ready for bedtime, make lunch, stretching / rehab exercises
2230 - In bed, read
2300 - Lights out.

Some days vary, e.g. I might get up, get changed into running gear and get ready to run to work, then help Seb get dressed and start his breakfast, then I leave for work and hopefully still get to my desk at about the same time. Not then having to have a lunchtime run, means that I then can leave earlier, at about 1700.

Although I actually rarely follow this "typical" day, it's indicative of the general pattern. And, it's not that different on the weekends, just substitute a big long run on one day and family time on the other and occasionally work.
So, I get about 7.5 hours sleep, which probably isn't quite enough. But if I want to aim for 8 or more (which I should from a general health perspective, particularly around running), I end up not really having enough time for other stuff in the evenings. And I'm not prepared to trade-off time elsewhere in the day (e.g. family breakfast, lunchtime run, family time in evening, reading time at bedtime, etc).

In many ways, I think this is a good daily routine. It feels like I can get a good balance between family, work, running and leave a bit of time for other personal goals and stuff. But, as you can probably work out, this leaves me with about 90 minutes a week to learn web-development, or write, or do extra reading. So it's slow progress on all these other things. Even if I don't procrastinate, it's still a lot to fit in. And it's not enough.

The funny thing is that even though I realise I'm being unrealistic. I'm still not satisfied. I guess that's just part of my make up.


Looking for the perfect to-do list system

I suspect that messing around with "personal management systems" is the sort of thing that only habitual procrastinators can justify to themselves as being a productive use of time. Never-the-less, it's something that I can't stop myself constantly thinking about.

I've been trying to find good ways to manage all my to-do items and goals for as long as I've been in a working environment. I remember that, even as a young graduate trainee, I started building complicated spreadsheets to try to keep track the multitude of jobs I had when I was running a portfolio of half a dozen small projects. Seven or eight years ago, I first came across Getting Things Done by David Allen. As soon as I read it, I felt that it was exactly what I needed. Since reading GTD, any of the time I've spent tinkering with personal management systems has been based around the principles in that book and in the follow-up (Making It All Work). The thing is though, I'm not sure I feel any happier, more productive or more successful as a result. I feel that I end up spending too much time cataloguing what I should be doing, rather than actually doing it.

One of the things I've always found difficult is dealing with my goals that are spread amongst the various discrete areas of my life. My goals cover life and family, fitness, professional career, personal development, and so on. I always have way more stuff I could do than I have time to do. And I still want to have time to relax. In fact, I am sure that it's important to build that downtime. I don't think it makes sense to try to build a life that is focused on goal achievement for every second of waking time. Of course, the circular trap is that then downtime becomes a goal in itself. But that's a spiral of logic to deal with another day.

GTD was really interesting to me because the concept of contexts fitted well with my life at the time that I first read the book. I was often working across multiple sites and it felt like certain jobs would only make sense in certain contexts. I still have regular travel with my work. In 2014, I think this travel will increase significantly. Consequently, I've been rethinking my personal management system requirements and design again (yes, yes, I know this is classic IT industry waffle, bear with me, it's hard not to be infected by something that you spend 40% of your waking time doing). The basic features that I think I must have in a personal management system are:

  • Always available
  • Easy to carry
  • Simple to use
  • Capable of linking to other details if necessary
  • Lightweight maintenance
  • Ability to remind me of tasks that need doing at a specific time

On top of these fundamentals, my needs are largely optional or nice-to-have. In fact, I think there's a strong argument that I should be looking to strip away as many features as possible. The sort of features that have felt important in the past are:

  • Categorisation of tasks by context / location
  • Grouping tasks into projects
  • Prioritising tasks
  • Recurring tasks
  • Tagging tasks

Although David Allen describes building a system based around pen and paper in GTD, this just doesn't feel right to me. I don't think that I can see myself carrying pen and paper all the time. And I don't think that it's easy enough for me to maintain. I envisage that I'll end up constantly revisiting sheets of paper and re-writing them, rather than doing the stuff that's on them.
So, I have convinced myself that I need a to-do list system that I can access on a smart phone. And I want one that has offline capability (which implies a native application), because I don't want to be able to use it only when I'm online. And, for a similar reason, I would like one that synchronises automatically so that I don't have to think about sync-ing the app before I go somewhere without internet access (although this is slightly more of  a nice-to-have). And, ideally, I'd like the app to have good quality Android and iOS versions, so that I'm not tied to a specific platform.
And, because I spend a lot of time in front of a computer, I would prefer the app to have a web-based (or PC client-based) interface too. There's something very distracting about working on a PC and having to pick up a phone to add something to a list. It's definitely more distracting than picking up a pen to write on a piece of paper (even though I don't see why that should be).

I don't feel like I have any special requirements. But when I do a lot of looking around I find it very difficult to find a simple to-do list system that's going to force me to focus on getting stuff done, rather than procrastinating by categorising stuff into projects, tagging it, prioritising it, etc, etc.

A while ago, I build a to-do management system, based on GTD principle, in Evernote. This achieved a lot of my key requirements. But, ultimately, Evernote isn't designed with this kind of use in mind, so it definitely didn't achieve the lightweight maintenance goal. In fact, I found that I actually only used a couple of features of the list and so a lot of the set-up was wasted for me.

After a lot of Googling and browsing of app stores, I narrowed the choice down to three potential candidates:

  • Any.do
  • Todoist
  • Wunderlist

I gave each one a brief trial. I have settled on using Any.do for now as my main option. This post is plenty long enough, so I'll probably continue this in another post to explain why I made that choice.