Everyday Systems That Help Me

At some point in my life, I read A Case Against Optimizing Your Life , and I took it to heart, and I lived by it. Now I think Wise People Have Rules For Themselves is the right approach for me.

The former basically says, "don't worry about trying to set up the perfect system; nothing will ever be perfect, so just relax and get used to chaos, and try to put all your focus on one thing at a time". The latter says, "set up self-imposed personal rules, because your quality of life will improve when your standards are clear".

I agree with that now. I've begun setting up lots of systems - everyday systems - in my life, and it has had a huge positive effect on me. Although it's a confusing time and I don't really know what I ultimately "want" in life, setting certain boundaries and having certain daily tasks really helps reduce stress and anxiety and leaves me feeling free and open.

Disclaimer: I don't know you, so I don't know if none, some, or all of what I write here will apply to you or help you. Just as that first article I read may have worked for someone but ultimately was not the right approach for me. Take all advice with a grain of salt. I'm just sharing what I actually do.

So I'll talk about boundaries (the things I don't do) and systems (the things I do).

Boundaries

I set boundaries in my life. I think it's useful to preemptively tackle sources of stress rather than hacking away at a problem that's already created.

  • Eliminate infinite scroll
  • Drastically reduce social media
  • Drastically reduce notifications
  • Drastically reduce incoming email
  • Separate work from the rest of life

Social media and infinite scroll

If there's anything with infinite scroll, I've trained myself not to use it. No scrolling through Twitter, no scrolling through reddit, no scrolling through Instagram, and I haven't had Facebook for many years. No scrolling at all.

I don't want to say something absolute like, "reddit is completely off limits!" because that's not the problem. Visiting the "Build a PC" subreddit to find advice on how to build a PC is fine. Infinitely scrolling through the front page or anything else is not. It's just a useless waste of time and addiction for me. So although I technically have accounts on some of these platforms, I have none of them installed on my phone and I almost never visit them unless I have an express purpose to.

Notifications

I only have notifications on my phone for two things: email and text. (Also calendar events, but since I've hardly had a calendar event in 2020 I almost forgot.) As I mentioned above, I don't have any social media apps on my phone. The less amount of dopamine obtained from shallow interactions, the better.

Twitter is my only connection to the outside world since it's where I'm connected to some other developers, and the only place I promote my work, but I still only check it once every couple of days or once a week. I also keep Slack off my phone.

Email inbox

I practice inbox zero. I try to respond to the emails that require a response in a timely manner. I don't respond to all or even most emails I receive. Things that I explicitly say I don't want on my website (guest posts, sponsors, ad requests) get automatically marked as spam. Websites that sign me up for their newsletter without explicitly asking get unsubscribed and marked as spam. This results in me getting very few emails, and the ones I do get are just genuine people.

Work hours

Work is home for me now, as it is for many of us. 9-5 are my work hours, and I don't do anything work related after 5 unless there's an explicit, special need to do so. No work apps or connections are installed on my phone (Teams, Slack, Outlook, work email).

Systems

I've been using various single-purpose apps productively.

  • One to keep all my personal notes, memories, articles, and lists (Bear)
  • One to track the tasks/habits/systems I want to be doing every day (Strides)
  • One to track the various to-dos I don't want to forget (Todoist)

Secret note: I built my own application for handling notes instead of using some other system, because none of the ones I found did exactly what I wanted. In the year I was building this app, I left my thoughts in limbo. I have since realized building and maintaining your own app for something like this is not the best approach. I did learn a ton while doing it, so it was overall a very positive experience.

I don't think it really matters if they're apps or not - you could use a bullet journal and a diary or random sheets of paper. I don't like writing by hand so apps make it easier for me. As long as I have one place I know I can go to retrieve anything I want to remember or work on, and little daily things don't fall through the cracks.

I have always felt like I could not do tedious, every day tasks (budgeting, counting calories, journaling). I had never done it well in the past, and I was always so spontaneous! and free! But it turns out those habits are not so oppressive or difficult, and the benefits far outweigh the positive.

Of course, you'll never be able to always do everything all the time. You'll miss a day of exercise here or there. You'll be tired and just go to bed. And that's fine - just gotta start each day brand new without being discouraged.

Note, I'm only discussing the physical things I do here, not any mental thought processes I have.

Clean up

Legitimately, every day I do these things:

  • Make the bed
  • Wash all the dishes
  • Put away all the clothes

I was never extremely messy, but I might let things go for a day or three - a few dishes pile up, clothes end up on the floor, the bed never gets made. Now I make the bed right after I wake up, I wash the dishes while I'm making the meal, and I put clothes where they belong right away. The house always feels clean and uncluttered despite almost no amount of time and effort having to go into it because there's never more than one day's worth of dishes or clothes to deal with at a time.

Exercise

Yeah, yeah. Exercise is good. What a revolutionary insight from me. Well, since it's cold AF in Chicago, outdoor exercise is pretty much out, and I don't feel like getting a gym membership. So I just pick a number and do these every day:

  • Situps
  • Pushups
  • Squats
  • Take a walk/bike ride (weather permitting)

You really can never have an excuse not to do the first three, as they require no equipment or space. It takes me 45 minutes - 1 hour every day to do the exercises, plus stretching. Can easily be done while multitasking with TV or audio. As for taking a walk, I often pick a cafe a mile or two away and walk to it and back to get a coffee. If it's biking weather, I try to ride 10 miles (1 hour) a few times/week.

Sleep

I would often find myself up at 1am, 2am, just listening to music, playing video games, watching Netflix, or surfing the web. I've also been a habitual snoozer my whole life, and usually set 3 alarms in the morning. Now I have the rule:

  • In bed by midnight
  • Don't snooze - wake up to the first alarm

This is a life long struggle but I know every time I live like this, things are better. Sometimes you have to do what sucks in the moment for the good of the rest of the day/week/month/year/life.

Track net worth

I've been tracking my net worth for several years now. I see a lot of people budget month-to-month, but I like seeing the big picture. I just add up all my assets (checking/savings accounts, retirement accounts, stocks, crypto) and debts (credit cards, car loans, phone payments, student loans). Yes, that means if you have no retirement accounts or money in the bank and you owe $100,000 on student loans, your net worth is negative. I don't like having any debt, so this helped me early on in my life to pay off all my student loans, and buy a cheap car with cash, and so on.

I just made my own custom Google Sheets page and I input all the numbers at the end of every month. So this is a "once a month" habit as opposed to some of the other "once a day" ones.

Learning and practice

I haven't necessarily felt the most amount of focus in my life. Art and music don't come as naturally to me as they used to. Although I want to practice music, for example, and learn new songs and how to sight read music, I don't always feel the motivation to do so. Nonetheless, I've set up a daily thing to do - in this case, 10 minutes of sheet music flash card practice. It has the dual benefit of being a more productive thing to do while waiting in line somewhere than scrolling through the news or reddit, and I'll be that much ahead when I do decide to sit down and learn a song.

So basically it was more productive for me to say "Practice sheet music 10 minutes a day" than "Learn this song" which is bigger and requires more upfront effort. And requires me to do something that isn't coding related, which is where I'll naturally gravitate for hobby purposes.

Do the annoying thing immediately

There is nothing I hate more than dealing with bureaucracy. Paying bills by mail when I can't do it any other way, calling up any sort of automated system, stuff like that. I usually put off very simple tasks like paying a bill or renewing car insurance for weeks or months, and it's always sitting in the back of my mind as something I know I need to do but I really, really don't want to.

I'm personally making an effort to put those on my daily to-do list and just getting them done. It's so much better than sitting there and knowing there's an annoying thing to do for weeks on end.

Daily journaling

Recently, Matthew McConaughey was on the JRE podcast and talked about how he has kept a journal every day for basically his entire life. This is something I've never been able to do - I've just kind of been going through it day by day and living life in the moment. But there was some great advice there - when things are good, keep track of what's going well. When things are bad, see all the factors of what was going on in your life during those times as well.

At least for myself, I occasionally have bouts where life just isn't going the way I want, and I feel anxious and depressed seemingly out of nowhere. Then at other times, everything is going great, and I don't know why. How much of it is within my control? How much is from external factors? Without having really kept track of anything that's going on in my life, it's really hard to say.

I'm aiming to adopt this strategy myself now. I can say things are going pretty well for me right now. I feel good at the moment, even with all the political craziness and lockdown and isolation and having a relatively recent breakup. I don't feel anxiety or depression, and I feel a lot of positivity, hope, and potential. I know I won't be able to write a detailed diary entry every single day of my life, but I'm making a point to remember to do it relatively often, and when important or interesting things happen.

Conclusion

Once again, this is just me talking about what I'm doing, not offering advice to you. All situations are unique, plus I don't have a husband or children to keep me busy. Not having to commute also opens up time to take care of some of these tasks.

By the way, there's nothing about writing in these systems. I don't set any sort of tasks, habits, goals, or systems for writing articles. I just write when I feel like it. People sometimes ask me how I've written so many articles, imagining that I'm so productive and doing it all the time. Honestly, I sit down like one or two days a month to write. Do that over 5 years with anything and you'll have a lot of evidence of your work.

In conclusion, if I could only implore you to do one thing every single day, it would be floss. Just do it. It takes 15 seconds.

Tania

About the author

Hey, I'm Tania, a software engineer, writer, and open-source creator. I publish guides and tutorials about modern JavaScript, design, and programming.

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