What You Should Do vs What You Have Done

Imagine a little app that tells you what you should work on each day based on goals you’ve set for yourself. So maybe there’s one day for reading, one day for creating, one day for playing, and so forth. So then maybe you set up a pattern for yourself each week, like:


So then each day, in that magical free time between dinner and bed, you check your little pre-arranged plan. There’s nothing forcing you to do what the plan says, of course. But during times where you’re looking for something to do, it can be fun to check in with your plan and say to yourself “oh, I guess this is a create day.” Sometimes it’s good motivation to do the thing, and sometimes it’s a reminder that you don’t want to do the thing it’s saying. Both are fine!

This system was created by William Van Hecke and I tried using it for a while while I reported out my findings. The general summary is that I loved it, but that it was probably solving a different problem than I was trying to solve. It helped provide a nudge for what I should do. But I realised over time that I probably wanted more insight into what I had already done.

Since August I’ve been using Screen Time to track where I’m spending my time. How much time is spent reading books versus idly scrolling through the news? How much am I writing? How about time spent on social media? I had a general sense of each answer, summarised by “I am reading too much news and too little nourishing content. I am also not writing enough.” But I wanted stats. So I got them.

It turns out that I was reading too much news, too little nourishing content, and I wasn’t writing enough. Hashtag nailed it. But three important things happened while compiling this data. First, I could see the ebbs and flows more clearly. “Not writing enough” isn’t binary. Sometimes you’re writing zero words a week, sometimes you’re just barely missing your target, and sometimes you’re wildly exceeding it for a day before going dormant again. Seeing these patterns in charts is much more valuable and addressable than a general sense that you’re doing everything wrong.

Second, my motivation went into overdrive when I saw the stats. I started setting a personal goal to read more each week than my overall weekly average. At first, that was easy because the bar was so low. But as I started reading more, the average went up more. I started making a concerted effort to read more, because I liked watching the numbers go up.

Third, I started to see patterns. It turns out the more time I spent reading news, the less time I feel like writing. Call it causation, correlation, or coincidence, but the end result is the same: I now have more motivation to make better decisions. And that feels nice.

It turns out these two systems can play nicely with each other. By tracking my patterns over time, it can motivate me to make better decisions. And then I can take those goals and put them into William’s system for little nudges. Like peanut butter and chocolate.

But there’s one more big insight about all of this. As anyone who’s read books on GTD or productivity knows, it’s not about the plan itself. It’s about consistency. You can choose to run a marathon in theory, but if you can’t get off the couch to run nearly every day, you won’t get far. And systems like this are no different.

Whether tracking what I’ve done or getting a nudge about what I should do next, neither system works without a periodic review. You have to take the time once a week (or once every 10 days in William’s case) to see what you’ve done, think about it, and decide what you want to do next. Without that consistent review, it all falls apart. So however you find consistency in your life, focus there. Big things happen when you do small things over and over.