Get focused with interstitial journaling

If you are like me you’ve struggled with focus during the work day. Maybe tried a bunch of tools to keep track of your tasks and notes but nothing seems to stick over time. Eventually things just pile up and you either clear it out and pray, or work nights with a knot in your stomach.

Interstitial Journaling can probably help with that. It won’t miraculously give you any more time, and it’s not gonna clear out your inbox for you. But it will give you the breathing room you need to spend your time wisely.

I learned this about six months ago from the brilliant community over at Ness Labs and it has really helped me. My clients and colleagues are noticing my new strategic use of time, and I’m delivering a lot more.

Here’s how you do it

Pick a tool.

Pick a note taking tool. It can be anything, but it has to be with you in all situations. Paper works, your phones note app will also work. I use Roam Research but the tool doesn’t matter, it’s all about the process.

Your action trigger

It’s called interstitial because it happens between all your other tasks. Every time you stop doing anything, anything at all, you take a short note in your journal. It’s ok if you forget in the beginning, just take a note as soon as you notice. The important thing is you’re building a habit that will save you time.

What to do

Add a new line in your journal with three things:
The time. What you just did. And what you will do next.

That’s it.

What might this look like?

I usually start off my days quite organised and then suddenly there’s a four hour gap and I restart writing something like “2:15 oh no, I’m on YouTube again”. But that’s ok. The goal here is to create the habit, not to be perfect. You’ll start noticing patterns quickly regardless.

08:20 Finished meditating. Time to clear out my inbox.
08:58 Done with email. Gonna look at my todo list, and pick our the important things.
09:12 Started sorting my todos but I had forgotten my meeting with Annelie, omw now!
13:30 Meeting went well, but then I spent 2 hours “inspiration” browsing on Pinterest… Now I’m gonna cross of my first todos.
13:37 Planned next steps from meeting. Time to prep a presentation.

A fictional, but normal, piece of journal

Why does this work?

We all get distracted. Sometimes it’s simply tired brains wandering, but often it’s priorities changing, ad hoc meetings or calls. We can’t stop being interrupted. So we have to work with the interruptions.

Interstitial Journaling uses this fact by writing down what’s going on at every interruption, or every time we finish something. This way we can learn from the patterns in our lives, and it makes us consciously pick the next thing we’re gonna work on.

This is the core benefit of this form of journaling. Making how we spend our time explicit we become our own personal coaches. Checking that we do our reps, and advising us on what to do next, without the shouting.

A nice side effect is that we can start to notice patterns in how we spend our time. Helping us learn how much time certain tasks really take, and automatically becoming strategic.

It was just my second day journaling this way when I exited a meeting and was just about to resume a project, when updated my journal and realised that there wasn’t enough time before my next appointment. Instead I scheduled time with myself for the project later in the week and did some smaller tasks.

I was being strategic with my time, as a side effect of knowing what I was doing! It blew my mind.

This method has helped me a lot, and I hope it helps you too! Either way, please let me know your thoughts!

Revisiting life strategies two years later

At the end of my Life strategies post I promised to follow it up after 6 months and reflect on what worked and what didn’t. That was over two years ago, so today’s the day.

Did having explicit do’s and don’ts help me shape my life? Not at all, is the short answer.

I think the reason is that I didn’t spend any time reflecting on these strategies. There wasn’t a way for me to stumble across them in my day to day. Despite being tremendously powerful ideas to me when I wrote them down, I forgot about them after a few weeks.

Since then I’ve started using Roam, designed a competitive reflection journal with Ting, even practiced interstitial journaling for 6 months or so and I’d love to brag that I’m much better at revisiting ideas. But in all honestly I’m still not great at it.

I do weekly reviews of all my commitments and tasks. I journal every day. I do a monthly summary of everything I’ve learned and noted down. But there’s very little discovery of my old thoughts, and usually not a lot of time for reflection when I do reviews.

This could be my failure of priority. Basically a not taking the time. Or it could be I simply prefer to keep thinking forwards instead of backwards. Who knows?

What I do know is that I hope I can figure out a way to learn better from my own experiences. (If you have any strategies I would love to hear them?) Because what is the point of doing things, learning things, and taking notes, if we don’t take the time to reflect and learn from them? And how can we learn from our thoughts if we don’t revisit them from time to time?

Vacation from consumption

In a conversation with a friend he explained that he takes weeks off consuming in order to focus on creation. That sounds amazing.

He has, like me, the idea that he wants to create more than he consumes. Regardless of if it’s published or not, simply create for the joy of making things. That’s why I was excited about this concept.

My friend picks a week with few meetings and blocks off time for creative work. He writes down a handful of things he’d like to work on, and makes a commitment to not consume anything during the week. This sounds a lot like Taleb’s via negativa to me, which is an idea I like.

I asked him about the process during the week; his response was simply that he works on his list, and often he finds that he creates something quite quickly, after which he can spend the rest of the time blocked off exploring the offshoots of what he created. But he doesn’t start consuming.

Sounds like a perfect vacation to me. I can’t wait to try it.

Hard work is not the solution

I listened to the Tropical MBA podcast a few weeks ago and one idea made me drop everything and question my process. I wrote about it at the time, but since then my thinking has moved on a bit, and I want to share what I’m currently exploring.

So I truly believe, especially when you’re stuck, which is I’m sure a problem all of us have, it’s much better to experiment and play that gets you much further along than hard work. Now disagree with me if you want to. But the biggest breakthroughs in my business, and my personal life, they’ve all come through experimentation. Not hard work.

Darren Joe

This is frighteningly true in my case.

The best work I’ve done was the result of experimenting and stepping outside my comfort zone. But daring to experiment and follow the results requires an open mindset, and relaxed schedule. In other words experimenting with a sense of play. Not at all the structured process I usually apply to work.

A little later in the same episode the host, Dan, connected another thought to this powerful idea:

essentially practice based learning. You can’t read or listen to this podcast your way into being a great entrepreneur, you really have to kind of like monkey see monkey do

Dan Andrews

I believe this to be true. In fact it was the first topic we discussed when I studied pedagogics at University. Somehow I’ve forgotten this over the years.

The Idea

These two ideas paint a vivid picture for me, that make me want to change my approach to work. I’ll try to summarise this thought here:

  • You won’t learn the important things without trying them out. Reading, listening, taking notes, can only give you ideas you need to experiment with. Not the actual knowledge.
  • You won’t get much done if you’re only working hard. You can do linear, mechanical, work. But not the creative work that will really truly leverage your time. For that you need to experiment, and playfully.
  • So to improve your output and learning, you should maximise the amount of time you spend playing around with experiments. In short, follow your inspiration and explore.
  • Here’s the awkward part; it follows logically that hard work and formal learning might actually slow you down. So you should avoid them at all costs.

The Work

I’m excited to experiment with this. Though since this is a big change of direction, I’m not sure how. To make time to play and experiment, I need time, without the pressure of goals. So I need to stop working on a lot of the projects I’ve started.

I also need to follow my curiosity, but inspiration wanes, so I probably need to make smaller experiments profitable. One way of doing that is to publish the work.

I’m excited about trying this out. I will try to share my progress, but I’m also really interested in hearing other ideas on this topic. Drop me a message, or tweet. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Incomplete things drain you

Things you didn’t say. Tasks that haven’t been completed. Open tabs with things you want to look at.

Everything we don’t finish cost a little bit of mental energy. Just a tiny amount. But over time these things will drain all the energy you have.

Do you think I’m exaggerating? Try this: close all your tabs, and delete all your tasks, then ask yourself, how do you feel?

Being more creative, by being lazy

I recently re-read Show Your Work and noticed something I had missed on the first read, and I’ve been trying it out this week.

In order to be creative, we need to give our minds space to work. This is why you get so many new ideas while walking. New ideas and solutions can’t be forced, your brain is not a muscle, but your mind can offer up ideas when you give it space.

When you take a break, let your mind drift without input. Just like while taking a walk, just let it do it’s thing. Organising and synthesising the information we’ve consumed.

I’ve been trying this for a few days, and it’s surprisingly enjoyable. I take a break every 25 minutes to stretch my legs (I work sitting on the floor), and I’m not allowed to consume media on those breaks. Automatically reaching for my cellphone is a problem, my discipline has been far from perfect, but I’ve had great results.

I may be slightly more creative, but a lot more relaxed. I’ve put in more focused hours according to Rize and yet spent more quality time with my fiancé.

Try it, and let me know how it went.

Learning faster through play

I spend a lot of time trying to learn new things, so I was a bit flustered yesterday when I heard the following (paraphrased) on the TopicalMBA podcast:

Hard work and learning from reading is not the key to real growth. You have to experiment and play, to try out new ways of being to get different results.

I had to stop my deadlift set and re-listen to this a few times. Because this feels like an obvious truth that I’ve just neglected for a long time.

We all know instinctively that we can’t learn to ride a bike or skateboard by reading a book about it. At some point we have to get on the wobbly board and crash over and over again. We even know that this is normal, and while it might be a bit embarrassing it’s obvious that if we just try crashing and falling off a bunch of times we’ll learn.

So why do we retreat into books, podcasts, and listening to others when we’re learning about things like entrepreneurship? Shouldn’t the obvious step be to get on the wobbly board and expect to fall?

I think this ties nicely into the idea of Resistance from Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art, which if you haven’t read you should. When we’re doing things that are important to us, that importance increases our nervousness about the unknown. So we struggle to control the unknown future by basically procrastinating.

Avoiding to actually do the thing we instead prepare infinitely. There’s always another important book to read, another google search for the answer, another conference where we’ll learn the true way of doing the thing.

The insidious truth is that we do learn from others. It actually does help us get closer to the goal. Just not as fast as if we just experiment and play. And fall off.

This insight was profound for me, and I hope it might help you also. How much time do you spend researching, and how much of that time might you spend simply selling or building or playing around with new tools instead?

My typical day

Inspired by Anton Sten’s post on the same topic I wanted to share what my day looks like. Seems it’s a twitter trend originally, and I think it’s a valuable exercise. Both thinking about one’s own day and learning from others.

Because I lift heavy weights and have a history of insomnia I have quite a strict schedule for routine things like eating and sleeping. My days looks mostly like below, but I only work out 3 days per week.

07:00 – I wake up from my Apple Watch buzzing. I stretch and get out of bed. You can’t snooze and sleep well with insomnia, so I haven’t since I was a teenager.

07:00 – 09:00 After I get up I weigh myself on my WiThings scale. I’ve done this for years now, and it’s a good way to track if I’m eating and sleeping right. I only care about the body fay percentage.

After that I have coffee, maybe walk around the block, and if I’m not exercising I have a shower, ending with 30s of cold water. Final step of my morning process: meditating 15 minutes.

Then I catch up on notifications and read if anything catches my eye, which something usually does…

09:00 – 12:00 This is my main work block. I try to avoid meetings during this time, but my current client has a bunch of checkins so there’s at least a morning standup. I usually check my calendar, make sure I haven’t planned too many todo’s, and simply start whatever is most pressing.

12:00 – 12:45ish Lunch break, this is my first meal of the day. I try to keep it light as I tend to get really drowsy in the early afternoons, but since this is a workout day, I eat about 800kcal. Carb and protein split at around 50/50.

This is also when I have my last coffee. Can’t drink coffee in the afternoons and still get a good nights sleep sadly.

13:00 – 15:00 My second work block. This is usually meeting time, or email time, or both.

If I’m not cautious and get to sedentary during lunch, there’s a risk I get drowsy and end up doom scrolling twitter at this point. I’m not proud of it, I just haven’t found a solid fix for this yet.

15:00 – 17:00 It’s time to head to the gym before it gets too crowded! I used to go later in the day, but the pandemic imposed severe restrictions on people per square meter, so I learned to leave early. 15:00 has been my approximate time the past few months. Though I expect meetings in the fall will start pushing this later in the day.

17:00 – 17:45 Time to eat again, and then shower. This meal is usually quite obscene, as I need to eat 160g of protein in a day (which is a lot). I eat something like 1000kcal in this meal. Unless we’re not having popcorn later, because if we don’t I need to push it into at least 1500kcal.

18:00 – 19:00 My final work block. I finish up lose threads, or replan the things I didn’t get to. Usually I’m quite tired at this point, so I’ll do less creative things and focus on simple tasks.

19:00 – 21:00 My life partner and I will relax together. Usually eating a ton of popcorn and watching something, or listening to a podcast.

Lately we’ve been exploring classic cinema, and I’m happy we’re no longer participating in the gotta watch all the latest shows frenzy.

21:00 Time to get ready for bed. My sleep schedule is really strict, as a slight deviation can leave me with several days of bad sleep.

21:30 I read for about an hour before falling sleep. I tend to become really into either fiction or non-fiction for periods. Currently I want to read all the Harvard Business School strategy books, but because I’m on “vacation” I’m forcing myself to read fiction. Loving Bonjour Tristesse and A Moveable Feast though.

22:30 Lights out.