What if everything you've been taught about time management was wrong?
We’ve heard all the typical productivity tricks before: plan ahead, go to bed early, minimize distraction. But what if there were uncommon ways to stay productive that were easy, unique, and fit with your lifestyle?
Mike Vardy is a productivity strategist, speaker, and author of such books as The Front Nine and The Productivityist Playbook as well as the host of The Productivityist podcast. I recently interviewed Mike for the LEADx podcast to get insight into his one-of-a-kind methods for staying on top of his game. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity)
Kevin Kruse: One thing I noticed is that you don’t start your year in January.
Mike Vardy: No no, I start my year in September.
Kruse: Why is that?
Vardy: Well, there's a few reasons. One of them is almost an investment kind of idea, is that my kids are out of school in July and August. To start my year and mirror their year after what they do makes a lot of sense, especially since I'm the stay-at-home dad. Martin Short actually, the famous actor-comedian from my hometown Hamilton, Ontario, Canada which is where I'm from, he's done this ever since he was in school. He actually mirrored his year, and still does to this day, from the September to August cycle.
The other reason I don't like to do this, and I don't like to start my year in January, is that when January rolls around, we are at our lowest energy cycle of the year. Whether it's through just the way the weather is, and as a Canadian, we have a longer stretch of this happening. Our Thanksgiving is in October. We're really proactive about it, but in November you guys have Thanksgiving and then you go right from Thanksgiving to the busy shopping season. Then you go right into the holiday season, the different holidays that are in December, and then what happens is on December 26th, you're like, “Okay, five more days. What big thing are you going to do starting January 1st?” You're kind of propelled into this idea of, “I better do something major or massive starting January 1st. Start a yoga habit, go to the gym, quit drinking, etc.”
Then January rolls around. You're at your lowest energy level, and that's when the expectation is to start doing these big, major, massive changes.
I just don't think that the cards are stacked in your favor when you do that based on energy levels, based on everyone else doing it at that time. We all know that going to the gym on January 2nd, you're going to have a hard time getting a spot in your gym because everybody else is doing it. Come January 31st, you'll probably have a much easier time because New Year's resolutions by and large― and there are studies ―they just don't work. I don't like to follow the crowd when it comes to that.
I like to mirror it around my kids' year. Having the summer to just ease into the new year because when September rolls around, Labor Day― which is a work day ―I'm ready to work. I'm ready to go and I've got my year planned out. Like we said, as of this recording, I'm almost halfway done with my year.
Kruse: You’re also not into New Year’s Resolutions. What do you do instead?
Vardy: The big thing for me is that first off, January for me is a month I generally consider a month of reflection. No big, massive projects are undertaken in January, but the big thing I do is I do what are called “Yearly Words”, my three words. Instead of saying what big resolutions I'm going to do, I look at these three words and I say, ‘What words are going to embody my year? What words are going to be the way points or the measuring stick so when I'm choosing the projects that I want to pursue, when I'm deciding what conferences I'm going to attend, when I look at what is going to take my attention away from my intentions that I already have or what things are going to fuel my intentions going forward, I can look at these three words.' If it doesn't hit two of those three words, if my goals or my projects or any new idea, I just cast it aside.
This year, my words are “Redesign,” “Rebuild,” and “Reclaim.” It's funny because everything I do, both family-wise and work-wise, are drawn and established by those words. It's nice to have that consistency throughout the year, that you just have to think about these three words as opposed to some massive resolution, or vision statement, or mission statement. It keeps me sane. It keeps me on track, and it allows me to make a quick gut check and look back at the Mike Vardy― who in August decided on those three words ―as opposed to trusting what Mike Vardy in the moment might want to do, because Mike Vardy in the moment sometimes isn't the smartest guy.
Mike Vardy in the past was very wise and thought about it, but Mike Vardy in the moment's like, “Hold on a second. I really want to do this. This sounds really exciting. It's shiny and new.” I have to look at those three words and say, “Hold on. Your elder Mike Vardy, the one who had more information in front of him at the time, he's saying really look at this against these three pillars that you've put in place.” It really worked for me.
Kruse: Do you actually theme different parts of your day, or is it days of the week?
Vardy: I have basically four different types of themes that can happen. The yearly words are actually a theme when you think about it because they essentially are themes for the year. The great thing about theming is I can work backwards, so I can say, “I'm going to figure out my daily theming first.” If somebody's new to this, they can figure out their daily themes and get through every day, or they can look at their months and theme through their months. Then there's another type of theming called ‘Horizontal Theming’, which is a lot like time chunking that you might've heard of where you say, “Okay, from 9 to 11, I'm going to do this.” The difference between doing that versus doing time chunking is you want to be fairly consistent across the board.
For me, daily theming is a great place to start because it gives you an overarching focus for every single day. I know that there's a lot of people that use their calendars as to-do lists. I don't do that. My calendar is kind of my guide for the day whereas my to-do list offers the details of the day. For example, we're recording this on a Monday. Monday's my administrative day. This is not an administrative task that I'm doing; this is a meeting, so this meeting basically takes me away from my theme for the day. When we get off this call, I will not go, “Well, now what do I do?” My question is always, “What day is it today?” The answer, very simply: administrative. “Okay, well what tasks are in the administrative vein? Oh, let me look at my to-do list and see what tasks I've labeled as admin.”
It gives me a lot more flexibility. It's a framework, but it's a framework with flexibility, but it also allows me to quickly get back into action as opposed to answering absolute questions with yes or no. “What day is it? This day. This day means this.” That's how I'm able to do it. With horizontal theming, which is going across, I have a horizontal themes for two different things: I have exercise, which is done in the afternoons, and then I have my core writing time which is honestly between 10pm and midnight six days a week. That is horizontally themed.
Then I have the monthly themes, which again are, “What is going to have my focus for the month?” If I'm asking myself today, “Okay, I'm done with this interview. What day is it? Oh, it's Monday. It's admin day. Well, what admin tasks should I do? Well, what's my monthly theme? Oh, my monthly theme is coaching. Great. Let me look at all the admin tasks that are revolved around coaching.” It just narrows the to-do list down to a smaller and smaller funnel so you can make better decisions and be quicker about it, as opposed to getting lost in your to-do list or being overwhelmed by seeing every little thing scheduled in your calendar and a slight deviation throws the whole game off.
Kruse: I like to challenge our listeners to get 1% better each and every day. What's something productivity-related that you want to challenge our listeners to try today?
Vardy: Well, review is one of the things that often gets neglected when you're trying to be productive. You're so busy doing, you're not spending enough time reviewing. You're not looking back so that you can look forward. I'm going to challenge everybody to start journaling, to start keeping a daily log. You can consider a journal and a diary a different thing. You can chronicle how you look at the task you complete throughout the day versus how you're feeling throughout the day as two separate things. I generally don't. I keep a journal every night. Before I wrap up my day, I write in my journal and I normally have a photo that goes with it to kind of act as a trigger.
If you do journaling, if you create a log every day― and there's no shortage of tools that allow you to do this, either ―by typing or even by voice-to-text, you can look back at the day that you've had, the weeks you had, even the year you had. I actually read my journal at the end of every year so I can see, “Hey, how far have I come? Did I deviate off course too far for where I wanted to go?” You'll get that percentage increase. You're able to actually reflect on what you did and course correct far easier. I would challenge everybody to grab an app like ‘Day 1’ for the Mac or ‘Journey’ for Android, or even use a tool like EverNote, or a good old fashioned handwritten notebook, and start to journal today. That way, you've got something to look back to so you can make sure you're moving forward in the direction that you want to go.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.