5 easy changes that will drastically improve your life

When building new habits or learning new skills, it’s important to focus on the smallest changes that will result in the biggest results. This is known as the Pareto principle, or the 80-20 rule, which states that “for many events, roughly 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes.” This is an extremely powerful rule, because it means that you can have a huge impact on your life, or your work, by simply focusing on the right tasks.

I’ve compiled a list of five easy changes that will have a huge impact on your quality of life. These aren’t huge systems nor will you have to change your entire life around. Rather, they’re small habits that will become second nature in a couple of weeks yet have long-lasting effects on your productivity and mental state.

Turn off email alerts

When I first decided to turn off push notifications for emails on my phone, my heart started beating a little faster. I was seriously getting nervous about disabling a tiny alert that was responsible for 90 percent of the distractions throughout my day. What if I missed an important email? What if I lost out on some opportunity?

It’s now been about a year since turning off push notifications on my phone and I’m never going back. There has not been one single moment that I’ve regretted my decision.

I’m not telling you to check your email less. In fact, you’re welcome to check your email compulsively. Pull to refresh that sucker every five minutes if you want — just as long as you disable push notifications. You’ll find yourself feeling the urge to check less and less.

The reason why turning off alerts is important is because that ding or buzz has turned us into Pavlov’s dog. Have you ever noticed that overwhelming sense of restlessness when your phone alerts you to a new message and you can’t check it immediately? Even if you know it’s junk mail (or, if you’re like me, you just emailed something to yourself and immediately forgot!) you’ll get that instant urge to stop whatever you’re doing and check the message.

It’s time to dull that response.

You don’t need to start segmenting the amount of time you spend in your inbox, optimizing your workflow, or only opening your inbox twice a day. Those types of systems can be helpful, but are completely separate from the bad habit associated with constant email alerts.

Give it a try for a week. You can always enable it again if you miss the interruptions, but I highly doubt you’ll go back.

Write down ideas immediately

Taking Notes on iPhone

One of my least favorite feelings is when I know that there was something I wanted to do but I can’t remember what it was. I’ll be walking through the grocery store with three items in my hands but know that there were four things I had wanted to get. That feeling of frustration when you get home and remember toilet paper! is the worst.

How many times have you thought of a good idea only to forget it moments later? With your grocery trip, there’s the cue to remind you that you’re forgetting something, but how often do we forget that we forget good ideas?

In The Non-Programmer’s Guide to Getting an App in the App Store, I talk about the importance of the Brain-Dump List, which is a method to get every idea about your app out of your head and onto a piece of paper. It doesn’t matter if the idea is for version one or version 20 of your app, you need to write the idea down in a trusted collection system.

The reason why this is important is deeper than you might think. It’s not just about remembering all your ideas or even giving yourself a way to organize your thoughts — creating a thought-collection system is about freeing your brain to think of even more ideas.

Our brain is only able to hold a limited number of thoughts at one time (Want to know just how limited it is? See if you can count the number of passes in this video). Every time you think of a project you’re working on or a list of things you need to do, your brain spends precious energy recalling everything you’ve thought of previously. There’s nothing left to come up with new ideas, and no way to hold onto everything.

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by a busy day, only to sit down and make a to-do list and realize it’s not as busy as you thought? That’s because your brain was struggling to hold onto everything, so it couldn’t get a proper overview of everything all at once.

But it’s not enough to just make a to-do list. You need to create a trustworthy thought-collection system to really put your brain at ease and get long-term productivity gains. Your subconscious is smarter than you, and it knows if that list on the back of a napkin is destined to be lost, or if you won’t look at that new note on your smartphone ever again. The brain will keep spending energy holding onto those thoughts, because it doesn’t trust the system.

The thought-collection system doesn’t need to be complex. I’m built my process around a simple to-do list application called Any.DO (iOS and Android). Whenever I think of anything, I add it as a new item on the list. Since my iPhone is always in my pocket, there’s never a time when I won’t be able to collect a thought.

Next — and this is an extremely crucial step — I read the entire list on a weekly basis. Your thought-collection system is useless if your brain knows that you’ll add something to the list and never see it again. Therefore, it’s important to constantly review everything you’ve added, archiving things you no longer need and adding more than come to mind.

Once you’ve created a trustworthy thought-collection system, your creativity will increase exponentially. The brain will be free to come up with new ideas that have never occurred to you before, and you’ll have a proper way to remember and act on these thoughts.

Writing down your ideas immediately will have a noticeable impact on your life, whether you’re building an app or website or just finding a good work/life balance. It trains your brain not to be afraid of losing old thoughts, which allows you to be open to new ideas. If there’s one new habit you pick up, I’d recommend a solid thought-collection system.

Perform short tasks immediately

Getting Things Done by David Allen changed the way I think about productivity. His book outlines an intricate system for capturing ideas, determining action items, setting priorities, and doing work. While I my current productivity strategies doesn’t mirror his methods entirely, there are some extremely valuable tactics that I’ve lifted from his book that are now common practice in my life.

One of smallest habits with the largest impact habit is Allen’s “two-minute rule.” He states:

If an action will take less than two minutes, it should be done at the moment it is defined.

This advice is part of a larger system, but the rule can make a huge impact all by itself. There are a few areas where you can immediately apply the “two-minute rule” with very little effort:

  • Adding plans to your calendar
  • Adding dates of note to your calendar (movie releases, driver license expiration, etc.)
  • Unsubscribing from an unwanted newsletter
  • Hanging up your jacket when you get home
  • Rinsing dishes after eating

By immediately performing short tasks, you can almost completely vanquish that nagging feeling in the back of your mind that says that you still have things to do. Your unconscious brain can’t separate the big stuff from the small stuff — they’re all loose ends, uncompleted tasks. By taking care of the small ones as they pop up, you’re limiting the number of to-do items that pile up.

One of my favorite short tasks is to immediately unsubscribe from email newsletters that I’m no longer interested in receiving. My inbox used to be overrun with junk mail (especially immediately after I discovered daily deal websites) and Gmail would become nearly unmanageable in a very short period of time. Soon, I wasn’t even reading any of the newsletters anymore — I was just immediately archiving everything just to clear out my inbox. The emails didn’t provide value, only took up my time and made checking email feel overwhelming.

Unsubscribing

As soon as I accepted that none of these emails were providing me any value, I realized that clicking the unsubscribe button took only a few seconds longer than clicking archive. I went on a spree, unsubscribing from everything I didn’t need.

At this point, I get very few emails that I don’t specifically want to receive. I’m no longer afraid to sign up for offers and newsletters, because I know that I won’t start drowning in a sea of unwanted crap. I just unsubscribe as soon as I no longer find the emails of value. My email inbox used to be so overwhelming that I swore people were selling my email address, but I soon learned that wasn’t the case. I get zero spam in my inbox now that I’ve unsubscribed from everything I don’t want. (If you’re feeling inspired to kill all unwanted email in one fell swoop, check out UnrollMe. It will change your digital life)

You’ll notice the positive mental effects immediately after starting this new habit. You’ll feel much less overwhelmed by your to-do list, because there will be much less to do. When you sit back at the end of the day, that quality time with your partner, kids, or just yourself will be that much better.

Back up your files

backup

I vividly remember the day when I accepted that all of it was gone. I had moved my entire iTunes library onto an external hard drive as a way to free up more space on my laptop, but my computer was no longer recognizing the drive. When I opened iTunes, every single one of the thousands of songs had a little grey exclamation point next to the title.

I tried everything, including downloading a data recovery tool, but nothing worked. I’m sure I could have brought it to a data recovery specialist, but my money was extremely tight at the time, and it just wasn’t worth it. I asked some friends to send me a few of my favorite albums and then I stashed the drive inside a desk drawer, telling myself that I’d be able to fix it later.

I never did get that hard drive fixed. I ended up slowing building back my music library from scratch. It took a lot of time, and a lot of work, and I vowed to never let something like that happen to me again. I don’t know what I would have done if I had lost all my photos or school documents.

I started researched backup tools. As a Apple user, I immediately started looking into Time Machine, the backup tool built into OS X. But this relies on a physical hard drive — just like the one that crashed and destroyed all my music — so I wanted something more reliable.

Then I discovered online backup. I had always been under the impression that these type of services were really expensive, especially if you’re backing up an entire computer, but I was pleasantly surprised at the cost. I initially signed up for Jungle Disk, but found it to be a bit too complex for me (Jungle Disk works with both Rackspace Cloud Files and Amazon S3, which was a little confusing for me to set up) and so I eventually settled on BackBlaze (affiliate link).

I pay $5 per month (it’s cheaper when you buy an entire year at once, but I opt for monthly) for automatic continuous backup of my MacBook Air AS WELL AS all my external hard drives. It runs completely in the background, so I never have to think about it again.

Not only have I stopped worrying about future disasters, it has also come in handy at a variety of different times. There has been numerous times when I’ve been at work and needed a file on my computer at home. I just log into the BackBlaze recovery platform and download the file.

Just like a thought-collection system, having a backup program constantly running in the background is a great way to gain better peace of mind. Hard drives and computers will crash, that’s just how technology works these days, and it feels good to know that you won’t be totally screwed when that day finally comes.

Always confirm plans

I faced an unexpected, though not unsurprising, fact when I started using a calendar and getting serious about being social: not everyone was as organized as me. I’d make plans with someone only to have them cancel at the last minute or simply not show up. By then, it was too late to make new plans, so I’d just go home feeling slightly resentful.

But then I picked up a new habit that brought plan cancellations down to nearly zero: I started sending an email or text the day before, or the morning of, our scheduled get together. My initial goal was to catch the cancelers early, so I’d have enough time to make new plans, but this practice had an unexpected outcome: it nearly completely eliminated cancellations.

Confirming plans email

With a quick email, consisting of just one or two sentences, I was able to keep increase the the consistency of my friends’ follow-through. I was amazed, and made a promise to myself that I would always send a confirmation message before meeting up with anyone.

Before trying the confirmation email method, I would send my friend’s calendar invites. This was especially convenient for me, since I relied heavily on my calendar and was creating a new event anyway. But sending a friend a calendar invite is only useful if they use a calendar as well. Not enough of my friends used a calendar, so this method proved ineffective. However, all my friends use email, so this became the best way to get their attention.

There have been a few instances over the years where I’ve forgot to confirm plans, and I’ll invariably get a cancellation or a no-show. I can no longer blame the other person — I know exactly how to prevent last-minute changes. It’s just a reminder to keep with the new habit and always confirm with people.

What are some shortcuts that have a big impact on your life? Let me know in the comments below.

6 Comments 5 easy changes that will drastically improve your life

  1. Emily

    I’m digging these posts Dann. I agree with your methodology surrounding the smallest things making a big impact and am trying to find ways to do more with less. Keep them coming.

    Reply
  2. Diana Quartey

    Dann, you are so right about writing ideas and performing ideas immediately. Like now, I’m out of soy sauce, it’s nearly Christmas Eve, I live in the middle of nowhere and have already visited the grocery store 3 times in the past week… but thank God it’s not toilet paper!

    Reply
    1. Dann

      Ha! Being out of soy sauce us generally a lot more manageable than being out of toilet paper, but with Christmas Eve looming, it’s better to have everything IN stock. Sounds like you’re in for a fourth run to the store early tomorrow, before everything shuts down.

      Reply
  3. Nick Smarto

    Dann, these are awesome suggestions for both those who are just beginningng a productivity-focused lifestyle, as well as seasoned veterans. I lie somewhere in between, and the my big takeaway from your post was the notion of disabling email alerts. I’m going to take the leap for a week and see how it fits. You write great content, thanks for sharing!

    Reply

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