Long time readers of the blog will know for the past 18-24 months I’ve been obsessed with the concept of micro-improvements—how do I get 1% better each day?
For closed to two years–well up to 6 weeks ago—I tracked and scored myself on a series of questions. Thing like, “Did I set clear goals for the day; Did I do my best to achieve those goals; Was I getting the right exercise; Am I minimizing distractions…..”
For over a year, scoring myself every day, reflecting on what I did and didn’t do seemed to be working. I was seeing better focus, being more conscious and present on a day to day basis.
Half way into the process, I thought I was tracking too many things and my scoring methodology wasn’t working. I reduced the number of questions I reflected on, and simplified the scoring. This was partially to reduce my “gaming” of the process, but also to improve my focus.
Several months ago, I added a simple narrative at the end of each day. I adopted the concept of the “Six word story.” I would write a six word story about what I had accomplished in the day or what I was thinking about. (Google six word story, it’s a fascinating process.)
But, I found myself stalling out. I was going through the motions, being as honest as I could, but somehow I just wasn’t making progress.
While on the whole, I was improving, something was still missing.
Let me give you an example–it happened just this morning, which shows how much I still need to work on.
One of my key focus areas is: Did I do my best to minimize distractions during the day? I did all the obvious things, for example turning my phone off for large parts of the day, scheduling 3 windows in the day for email and social channels.
I was getting pretty good at those things. I had lapses every once in a while, particularly, when I was struggling with something or got bored. I’d open email, LinkedIn, or Twitter…..
While I’m getting better, I still have a way to go.
But this morning, I caught myself doing something that I realize I do too often. It’s an unconscious distraction, but collectively has a huge impact on my productivity and effectiveness.
I was in the middle of writing an important email to follow up a conference call. I was about halfway through the email, I paused and went to get a cup of coffee.
Seems like a small thing. But as I was pouring the cup of coffee, I realized how often, I get distracted by these unconscious things. Whether it is getting a coffee or water, letting my mind drift, or so forth.
I realized I was not creating the habit of completing things. By that I mean, if I had completed the email before getting the cup of coffee, I would have been much more effective and productive. Instead, by stopping, I had created a distraction. One of the distractions was getting the cup of coffee, another was recognizing this was a distraction and being further distacted by thinking about it. Eventually, I got back to the email, but had to remember what I needed to address in finishing the email.
It was just this very small, unconscious thing. By itself, it didn’t take a lot of time, but if I think how many times similar things distract me through the day and how much I could improve by eliminating–or reducing them, I would be much more effective. (Note, I’m not just worried about productivity and efficiency, I’m obsessed about effectiveness.)
Over the past six weeks, I’ve slowly started realizing I was focusing too much on the outcome–how would I answer those 20 questions at the end of the day.
I realized, I wasn’t paying attention to the habits that create the outcome. For instance the bad habit of interrupting a simple task and doing another simple task.
I’ve realized the process of micro-improvements is not simply one of being more mindful and reflective on what I do, but it’s a process of eliminating or creating good habit–micro-habits.
Something as simple as completing this post without any interruption, but finishing it before I get another cup of coffee, or day dream.
Micro improvements are not just about being conscious and purposeful. It’s about creating micro habits and making them habits.
I’ve also realized, at least for me. I can’t work on creating more than two micro-habits at a time. Right now, I’m focused on one–finishing each small task before I move to the next small task.
I’ve completed this post without interruption. After each call or critical activity, I’m completing the follow-ups, whether it’s capturing my notes, sending a follow up email, scheduling the next meeting. I do this immediately after the event/activity. As a result, I’ve changed my behavior in a substantial way. I still schedule 15, 30, 60 minute meetings. Except I complete them in 12, 25, 50 minutes and use the remaining time to “complete” the activity.
I’ve been on this journey for close to two years, but was stalling. Atomic Habits has helped me understand part of what’s missing, and I’ve resumed.
All I have to do is get a little better at just one thing every day—imagine where I’ll be in a year!