January Challenge results: Great effort, great outcome, needs modifying

Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper

At the end of 2020, I've decided to make 2021 a challenging year (like 2020 was not challenging enough for me? I guess I like to inflict pain on myself). I have committed to doing 12 monthly challenges, one for each month. You can see the plan of the challenges here. Below is a summary of January's challenge.

What was the challenge?

  • Challenge: 3 priorities for the day, completed no matter what
  • Why: I've noticed that I often planned too many tasks for the day, and while trying to complete as many as possible, I left the more challenging and important ones for the end of the day, which often resulted that the critical tasks were not even started and needed to get pushed to the next day.

How well did it go?

Challenge completion rate: 100% (31 out of 31)

How hard was it?

At the end of each day, I updated the list for the month: if I have completed the challenge for the day, and how much effort it took, on a scale of 1 to 10. While it's subjective, it gives an idea of how hard it was to complete the challenge.

Average effort score: 8.1

Lowest effort score for the month: 6 (5 times)

Highest effort score for the month: 10 (3 times)

What did I learn from it?

It was punishingly hard to complete.

While my goal for the challenge was to learn to do important tasks earlier in the day, I largely failed at that. Daytime is too busy, too distractive and requires too many things to be done here and now. Tasks that are time-sensitive and urgent but not strategic take precedence and need to be done, at the cost of strategic work. My three main tasks for the day were usually strategic, which meant I was left with two or three unfinished tasks at the start of the night when I could finally work in peace.

Because of the type of tasks I was choosing (strategic, essential) and because of all of the daytime distractions, I went to sleep late the whole of January. Very late. I knew that the hours were crazy, but even I was surprised to see the numbers in my sleeping app (Sleep Cycle):

  • The number of times I went to sleep earlier than 5 AM: 1 (yes, one, and it was 4:58 AM)
  • The number of times I went to sleep between 5 AM and 6 AM: 8
  • The number of times I went to sleep after 6 AM: 22

I don't mind going to sleep late. I've been doing it for as long as I remember. But even for me, this was pushing it too far.

While I achieved what I wanted to achieve, this way of working wasn't sustainable long term.

But did I like the results? Yes, very much! I've done a lot, including pushing forward many strategic projects that you know are important but never have time for them because there are always more pressing things, more fires to put out.

January was my second-most effective month in terms of productive hours since 2014 (yes, I keep track of that too).

Will I keep doing it?

The results were great, but the cost to achieve them was too extreme

What's the best alternative?

I want to keep the results but reduce the cost. From now on, I'll be adding only two non-negotiable tasks on my daily to-do list that need to be done by the end of the day.

Knowing the risks (going to sleep way too late), knowing the benefits (working on important things and actually completing them), combined with reduced workload (two tasks instead of three) should still bring in plenty of value, while making life sane again.

Writing this article for at least one hour was one of my non-negotiable tasks for today. Mission accomplished. And it's still 12:50 PM, so it seems like the new system is working.

What's the next month's challenge?

February is for publishing.

  • Challenge: Publish something every day (an article on VelvetShark, a tweet, a tweet thread, a book summary, a Facebook post, anything goes)
  • Why: Get into a habit of daily writing.

I'll be publishing February's summary at the beginning of March. Drop your email below to have it delivered to your inbox when it goes live. Don't miss any of my struggles or learnings.

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