On Personal Improvement

I’ve been working to improve myself in a bunch of ways over the past months, and the turning of the year always brings these sorts of things more sharply into focus. It also coincides with holidays where I have a few days off to sit and think about things without the ongoing distractions of day-to-day work and such.

During my week off I put together a list of what I want to accomplish in 2010. The quick (and incomplete because some are just for me) list:

  • Improve focus and execution: This is a purely work-related goal. I am far too easily distracted and thrown off track by things like IRC, Twitter, Facebook, the infinity of web feeds, etc. I need to really work on blocking stuff out, cutting things down, and improving my ability to focus. When I do — when I can hit that state of “flow” — I have a lot more fun and I get a lot more done. I would like to be able to get into that state on demand. Every day.
  • Lose another 12 lbs: I’ve lost around 15 lbs since last spring, but I’ve a ways to go to get back to where I want to be.
  • Read more: I love reading, but I don’t make enough time for it. I want to do so.
  • Write more: I love writing, but again I don’t make enough time for it. I want to do so.
  • Let crap bother me less: I tend to get annoyed more easily by things than I’m really happy with, and I sometimes have a problem letting things go. I want to fix that.

There’s some other stuff, but this is the core of it. Five goals, relatively straightforward, but each with its own challenges.

The tricky part is that these goals aren’t like “projects”. They will never be complete in any sense because they’re all ongoing, “from now ’til forever” sorts of things. I can’t just break these down GTD-style into a set of actions, then run down the list checking each off. All of these can only be accomplished by being very deliberate, conscientious, and focused on changing my personal habits over time.

So, what habits do I need to cultivate to achieve these goals? Here’s the current plan.

Improve focus and execution

  • Cut down the noise: Close all unnecessary apps and Firefox tabs while I’m working. Minimize IRC and IM sessions (I need to be available for pings, but only for direct pings).
  • Go full GTD: The old catch-as-catch-can system I’ve been using doesn’t scale. I need to adopt a (more or less) full GTD system for tracking projects and tasks. I need to assign and stick to real due dates for everything. If it doesn’t have a due date, it often just slides indefinitely.
  • Take advantage of available tools: For example, I should use an app that has a “distraction free” mode for all writing.

Lose another 12 lbs

  • Eat and cook (even more) sensibly: I’ve been working on this for quite a while, but there are things I can do to get a bigger bang for our caloric buck. Luckily I love food and cooking, so this shouldn’t be that difficult.
  • Work out regularly: I’ve been working out semi-regularly since last March, but I have to step up my game. “Regularly” is intended to become “daily” in time.
  • Keep a food and exercise diary: Tracking calories and nutrition is the only real way to understand how things are going and where things need work.

Read more and Write more
These are largely a matter of making the time and using it. This time could come from getting up earlier, staying up later, or eliminating/reducing other activities to free up time during the saner parts of the day. Right now, for example, I’ve eliminated all distractions and am simply writing. Blog posts count.

Let crap bother me less
This one’s a bit fuzzier and probably the most difficult of the bunch. Current strategies:

  • Meditate every day: It’s good for your head to just sit sometimes.
  • Better sleep: Better, more consistent sleep. I suffer from insomnia fairly often and this never helps my brain.
  • Step back: If something bothers me I have a strong impulse to react to it immediately, which is never the right thing to do. The idea here is pretty simple — if something bothers me for whatever reason, I need to use that as a trigger to step back and away from it for a few minutes or an hour or a day until I’m able to think about and react to it calmly and reasonably. I’ve been getting better at this over the past few years, but I’m hoping being deliberate about it will reinforce the habit.

I’ve started experimenting with a number of apps to help me with these things — I am a giant nerd, after all, and given that I’m in front of my computer most of the time (and within arm’s reach of my iPhone all of the time), I figured I’d take advantage of the tools at hand. Here are some of the applications I’m trying right now.


Scrivener is a bloody fantastic writing tool that, in addition to its already huge array of really useful features, has a beautiful full-screen distraction free mode. I really cannot say enough good about this app. Drawback: it’s Mac only. It’s also not free, but I’m OK with that, because it’s worth every penny. If you write — particularly if you write complex docs or have a number of different writing projects on the go at once — I strongly recommend you give the 30 day free trial a try.


OmniFocus comes in two parts — the desktop app and the iPhone app. It is not cheap, and you will spend a total of $100 for both. It took me a long time (and three tries) to really warm up to OmniFocus, but now that I’m juggling 20-odd projects and a dozen “due now” items every day, I have fallen completely in love with it. OmniFocus isn’t super intuitive, however, as it is designed to work specifically with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system. If you haven’t, you should read the book and use the demo version of OmniFocus for a while before committing to buying the application, particularly at these prices.

The iPhone app does what you would expect it to do, which is provide a full-featured version of the app in iPhone format that syncs with the desktop app. My only quibble is that it seems to take an awfully long time to sync sometimes.

Lose It!

Lose It! is one of those free iPhone apps for which I would pay good money if they asked. It’s simple, easy to use, flexible, and goal oriented in a way that makes me happy.

The premise is simple: You set a weight loss goal, the app calculates (roughly) the number of calories you need per day in order to achieve your goal. I set my goal (lose 12 lbs) at a challenging-but-doable rate of one pound per week, which gives me a target of around 1600 net calories per day.

Once that’s set, all I have to do is log whatever I eat and any exercise I do. Lose It! gives me a running daily total, a running weekly total, and pretty bar charts to show me where I stand. It has some other features — nutritional info, friends (via the Lose It! website), a public humiliation option, etc), but the goal setting and exercise/food diary is the core and all you need to use.

I’ve been using Lose It! for about two weeks and it’s great. I’ve lost 2 lbs, have become very much more aware of what I eat and how exercise lets me eat more (I really like food). I highly recommend this app if you’re watching your weight.

Touch Goal

If you want to develop new habits and/or break old habits, a habit tracker like Touch Goal is a really great way to increase your personal awareness of what you do or don’t do in a day.

I’ve set up Touch Goals to track whether I:

  • Eat breakfast in the morning (rather than at noon like I tend to)
  • Do cardio exercise
  • Do strength training
  • Eat fewer than 1700 calories
  • Drink four (or more) glasses of water
  • Read for an hour or more
  • Write for an hour or more
  • Avoid snacking after 8pm

With the exception of strength training, these are things I want to do every day (strength training has a target of 4x/wk). When I do one of these things in a day, I add it to Touch Goals, and I can see pretty quickly how I’m progressing. This is another straightforward app that helps simply by making me more mindful of what I do or don’t do over the course of the day.

Ben’s Virtues

This is a mostly-for-fun app. As the story goes, Ben Franklin created this system for cultivating personal virtues whilst on an 80 day ocean voyage. He drew up a chart that lists thirteen virtues he wanted to develop, and put the days of the week across the top. Each week he would focus on a different virtue and make a mark on the chart if he failed in that virtue on a given day. With thirteen virtues, this cycle would repeat four times each year.

Naturally someone has created an iPhone app version of this chart, and I’ve been using it just for fun. The thirteen virtues are all (well, mostly) completely valid and worth cultivating, so why not?


Pzizz is an odd little iPhone app that is supposed to help you sleep. I often have a terrible time getting to sleep, or I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to get back to sleep. I’m experimenting with Pzizz to see if it helps. So far nothing conclusive.


Meditate is sort of a Pzizz for meditation rather than for sleep. I haven’t used it much yet, so really haven’t got much to say about it. I should probably go put “meditate” on my Touch Goals list.

And there you have it. Goals, habits, and apps to help me get there. Maybe I’ll post an update in a few months to let (all three of) you know how things are progressing.

Bonus screenshots!
Since you made it all the way to the end, here are some pictures…

my iPhone

Ben’s Virtues

Lose It! daily overview

Lose It! weekly overview (oh Thursday…what the hell)

Touch Goal


One thought on “On Personal Improvement

  1. I use GTD and “Things” rather than OmniFocus, but whatever works for you. I’ve been using Pzizz (for the mac desktop) for almost 4 years, and I can’t recommend it enough. I use both the energizer and sleep modules, and create 20 minute power naps, as well as put myself to sleep when I’m having trouble sleeping. I don’t generally have trouble sleeping, but my husband does, and he also swears by Pzizz. He’ll put it on at night to fall asleep to, and it works.

    Good luck with all of your goals, and use whatever apps help you along the way!

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