Designing my life’s system

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I’m always looking for ways to get better. I know it is a long term goal. Actually, it is a forever goal. It doesn’t finish. I’ll do it consistently for my eternity. Every single day.

Sometimes I feel I’m getting closer. But closer to what? It’s just a feeling. I don’t have a real end goal. Actually, my end goal is to be able to do what I love to do daily. It’s all about the process. The end goal is my process. My process is my end goal. It’s all connected.

As Marcus Aurelius said, “You have power over your mind — not outside events”. I don’t control outside events, I only have power over myself. This is what I can fix, polish, and make better. I don’t want to lose my time trying to change something I’m not able to. Focus is important.

The focus is on my process and how to make it works for me. Everything can get better. A system is not an exception. I build it to try an experiment for a week. See if it works. Fix and improve if needed.

This post is my attempt to illustrate how I designed my life’s system, what I’m trying, and the next steps.

Topics I want to cover in this piece:

  • Goals
  • Systems
  • Habits
  • Mental Clarity
  • Personal Knowledge Base
  • Feedback & Review

Just a disclaimer before we start this conversation. This is how I designed my system. It can or cannot work for you. The best advice I can give is to read, experiment, and adjust it specifically for your life.

Disclaimer number 2: this essay won’t be like every single Medium article. I will not write a “5 steps to build your system” or “I created a system and this is what I learned”. Nothing wrong with these types of articles, but my essay is more like rambling about different things I tried and thinking deeply in each part.

The System

It all started when I was feeling overwhelmed by my own mind. I wanted to do everything, read all the books, learn every programming language, embrace all projects. Basically I was saying yes! for everything and doing nothing.

I needed to put my ideas down on paper. Literally. Yes, people still use paper. It cleared my mind. Writing and making drafts really help me gain visibility. And visibility is what I need. A place that I can see all the things I want to do. My goals, my studies, my projects, my bookshelf, etcetera.

It could be a physical place. But I didn’t want to use paper, notebooks, or physical calendars to organize my life. I wanted something digital. A place I could get very quickly anywhere I am. In my pocket. Or using my MacBook.

So it must be online.

But not only online. It should be simple to use. Easy to organize. And — maybe — the most important thing: give me the visibility of things I want to do and show my progress.

At first, I used Evernote for a long time. But I always thought of it as a draft tool. Not a place I could organize my life. Notion gives me that. It is digital, simple to use, easy to organize, and it enables me to create my system to give me visibility about everything.

But one thing I want to make clear is that Notion — and any other software — is just a tool. The most important thing is how you will use it.

As a perfectionist, I wanted everything, well, perfect. I wanted to design the best system for me. But to break this perfectionism feeling, the first thing that I did was to create a page called Drafts. This page was to write down everything I wanted. Or needed. All the expected ideas to the craziest ones. It allowed me to just try it out and make the ideas better. Polishing here. Refining there.

It doesn’t need to be perfect at first. Build the first version. Make it works. Experiment. Learn more things. Refine it.

This is one thing that I learned. This cycle is forever. We can always make it better. But it is not the main reason. It’s because we are people. We constantly change. What works now, may not work in a month. It doesn’t need to be perfect at first.

So I started simple. I built a Home page. This page would contain everything I need to have visibility. In the Home, I added the first page: the Daily Schedule. This page is just a simple calendar. But it joins two power features: a calendar and a to-do.

Every night before, I add To-Dos for the next day. Actually, not every night, but I tried my best. It has three main things:

  • Daily Habits
  • Work Expectation
  • Projects

I organize everything on these topics. With Notion, I can use the template feature to set up the default daily schedule very quickly.

With that, I have a very clear vision of my day. Basically what I want to accomplish. I try to make it very actionable to just execute it. I also use them to do a weekly retrospective.

This is an important topic. Doing a retrospective is like a feedback loop. I have all the information about my week there. I just need to grab and reflect on them. What worked. What doesn’t? How I felt about the week. And actionable items to work on the next week.

Daily Habits: we will dive into this topic more in-depth later, but the idea here is to cluster the habits I’m building daily. It’s just a bunch of checkboxes that help me keep track of the habits I set for me.

I started with some habits that I was already maintaining. It is always easier when we are used to something than other new things that we need all the learnings curve processes. It needed to be simple and easy to start.

As Notion is a central system, I use it to organize everything and to give visibility of my day. But at night I store every habit in the Loop Habit Tracker app to build a chart and understand my progress for each habit I’m building.

Work Expectation: this part is very related to the work I do as a software engineer. Add some important events or meetings I have, the tasks I’m working on, and other projects or ideas I need to separate a time to work on.

No big deal here. Just to remember me about the work for the day and organize my expectations.

Projects: writing, tech products, learning paths. I started with some topics I was already doing in my life. Start simple. Improve along the way.

I love sharing knowledge and writing is my main channel. I feel I can express everything in every detail I want with writing. But it is not only about sharing, it’s also about clearing my mind. We will dive into this topic later.

I love building things. Tech products are the side projects that enable me to make stuff and ship it. It allows me to be creative, thinks in different tools to make life easier, and have a big impact.

I’m always studying. Learning. Reading. This is my hobby and my process. I love it since I know myself as a person. Lifelong learning is part of me.

It was a very simple setup. I didn’t want to make it hard at first. After some days, I felt the need to transform these three things into a more detailed and organized page.

Actually, three separate pages: Project, Work, Habits.

Work

The Work page is the simplest one. It is just a page with different toggle lists.

Here I have these toggles:

  • Squad: I use it as the repository for basically everything related to the squad I’m working on. The projects, meeting drafts, doubts, questions.
  • Projects: These are the project I do that are not related to my current squad. As a software engineer, I love to build dev tools. It is not part of my squad goals, but I know it can have a big impact on the developer experience across the company. It helps me keep track and share with my colleagues the last updates of theses projects.
  • 1x1: This is easy to understand. Notes from 1x1s I have with colleagues and my tech leaders. Sometimes I write down some action points to do in the following weeks, or just add notes to have a focused conversation.
  • Learnings: At work, I’m always learning. This is one of my main reasons to work where I work. I need to be constantly learning. This page is just a repository of things I learned or notes from the tech talks I participated in.
  • Retrospective: This is one thing that is related to the squad, but I keep it separated to write down all the pain points along the weeks and be ready to share in our bi-weekly retrospective meetings.

I said I needed to start simple. Don’t get me wrong. This is not how I started. When I began to write it down, it was just the Squad toggle list. Nothing more. And I just added some notes from meetings to help me have a better understanding of business rules and product features.

Over the weeks I saw the need to add notes about other topics and start improving it.

This is the best part of the system. You can do your own way, start easy, and then increment with whatever you want.

Habits

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” ― Jim Ryun

This topic is one of my passions. I really like to learn about habit, habit tracking, and how to apply it to my daily life.

I wanted small, smart, and actionable habits. With that, I could do every day and think long term and the compound effect. I wanted to set up to succeed: part of the system is to make everything closer and convenient. In other terms, make it easy to do on a daily basis. And I wanted to document this. I really like the idea of learning in public and document all my process.

The last thing in my mind is to just enjoy and love the process because the process is my biggest reward. It is the process and the end goal at the same time. I could do what I love every single day, consistently.

At first, I wanted to add all the habits that will make me become the person I want to be. It is a natural thing to think and act like this. But after some reflection, I understood that I didn’t need to do everything. What I’ve learned?

  • Prioritize is important
  • Saying no is important

Yeah, it is obvious. But it is difficult at the same time. It is something I need to be constantly active and aware of.

So I wrote myself a question: “What are the essential habits I want to cultivate?”. To answer this, I started sketching and drawing on paper. I came with something that made so much sense for me and my life.

It just illustrates that I want to be strong on three levels:

  • Physically
  • Mentally
  • Spiritually

I thought about these three levels because if I want to do my best work and have peak performance — and this is my own hypothesis — I believe I need to master and compose them.

These three levels are a deep topic and require a long term journey. It doesn’t work overnight. I picked level number one first: physically healthy; and started working on it.

The habits I’m building daily are physical exercises, a minimum of 2 liters of water, a good amount of sleep, and eat healthily.

The exercise habit was the easiest one. I was already running daily. And I love running, it is a hobby of mine. At 7 p.m. I stop working and start running. It’s the best time for me to turn off work thoughts and be more energetic.

It was already good. But I wanted to improve this system, so I started paying a gym membership. Sometimes I run, sometimes I go to the gym. I gain variety. I don’t get bored.

This bored feeling is something I learned about habits. It’s good to be consistent and all, but the routine can be tiring. It is healthy to mix it up, try new things, and add diversity to the routine. Get bored is the first step to stop the consistency of your habit.

“I love the idea that the important things that happen to us continue to appear again and again in our behavior patterns until we learn to understand & confront them” — Ava Huang

And the last habit I wanted to do was sleep well. It is so simple: I sleep well. I have more energy. I can perform better. I have a better focus. I can do my best work. But I need to tell you. Sometimes I don’t take it seriously enough. So I’m trying these three things to help me sleep well:

  • Less caffeine: I love coffee. But it drastically disturbs my sleep. Instead of 3 to 5 cups of coffee, I take 1 (or 2, one in the morning, one after lunch), and if I want to drink another cup, I get tea instead. The idea is to mimic the same feeling but reduce caffeine.
  • Less internet: I love the internet. If I could, I would be almost all my time. But it is not really that healthy. To begin, I’m changing the internet time at night to read a book. This is a habit I wanted to cultivate: read the best books — I’m looking at you, Why We Sleep. Instead of being on the computer at night, I read books.
  • Build a routine: Set the hour to sleep. Set the hour to wake up. It is not easy. Sometimes I go to sleep late, or I want to sleep more. But the idea is to have a routine. Give a chance to my body to get used to the time to sleep, time to wake up.

With these three things, I want to improve the quality of my sleep. All these things are an addict or difficult to do. But realistic and simple enough to try.

One thing that I didn’t talk about was food. This topic could be a whole other essay, but I want to illustrate part of the system I built to eat better.

I’m not a nutrition specialist — and I don’t intend to be — but the food is a big part of my daily life, I wanted to have a better understanding of it. So I started going to a nutritionist. I didn’t go to just receive a diet plan and start this food routine. I wanted to understand food, nutrients, fat, etc.

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” ― Albert Einstein

Knowledge is important in all areas. It is the path to good decisions. In terms of food, I could have a better understanding of how to cook, what to buy in supermarkets, enough amount of food to eat in each part of the day. I didn’t need to do all this. But knowledge enables me to act like this.

I’m pretty amazed how healthy I’m eating now — but I’m more amazed to had confronted my laziness. It didn’t take too much effort. Buy quality food, cook at home, if go eat outside, try restaurants with a better quality of food, cut soda, reduce sugar, and so on. We all can do this. (disclaimer: we all can do this in terms of effort, not in terms of money. I have the privilege of independence).

But I have my days of junky food too and it is totally ok. We need to be happy with our decisions.

To be mentally strong, I wanted to cultivate habits that reduce toxic things in my life, not something that adds new features. And this is a powerful habit concept: a habit is not only about doing something but can also be removing or reducing some behaviors.

This is what I wanted to focus on: remove it or reduce it.

I use the internet a lot to do my work, to write, to read. So it is hard to reduce internet consumption. But I can reduce noise from the internet. I don’t need to have a thousand Chrome tabs. I built a Personal Knowledge Base (PKB) to help me with that. This PKB is a work in progress project, but I know I can reduce noise from my work by just let the articles, videos, podcasts stored for the right moment. And now I know where I go to when I procrastinate. The PKB is there for this purpose.

Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn. They are all noise. I reduced drastically the time consuming using these apps. And when I use it, it is to publish my work, my writings, or book reviews. I don’t miss the consuming time at all.

Two things in mind:

  • Mindset: Now my mind is set to use these media to create and share, not consume. I won’t lie. I consume them. But with this mindset, I reduced the consuming time.
  • Remove or Disable: One strategy that worked for me is to remove or disable the apps from my phone. I always used these apps when I wanted to procrastinate. As I don’t have these apps on my phone anymore, I can use my procrastination time to do other things. We will dive into this topic later.

Twitter is something I use constantly on my daily basis. At the same time, it can be an excellent tool to express ideas, it can be a distracting social media. I was a bit overwhelmed with all the content from all the following I had plus the ads are pretty annoying.

What if I could separate people into domains. It would help me consume content in a more focused way. I want to read about writing? go to the writing domain. I want to see the latest software engineering topics? go to the software engineering domain. And so on.

The specific knowledge for the right moment. I built this whole idea with simple private lists, where I separate people into domains. I started the idea with all my following group. If I followed the person sometime in my life, it is because I found the account interesting. So for every following, I

  • Added the person to a specific list, or sometimes, multiple lists.
  • Removed from the following.

The removal part was important because I wanted to reduce the noise in my Twitter Home. And move all the content to private lists.

This way, I could declutter my Twitter Home. I only see my tweets there now. Lists are the place for domain-specific content. And they have a hidden feature — it’s actually not, but I see is a feature — they don’t run ads in private lists. I gain focus and more focus. Only the content I subscribe for.

As an introvert, I don’t really like to be with people all the time. I always need my time alone and do all my things in my own way.

Looking for progress is essentially looking for pleasure. It is the pleasure of self-image, which says, “I’m in a better place now than I was before.” — Kapil Gupta

Like social media, people can also be toxic or just uninteresting. I don’t want to be in a circle of people that just blame life about everything and don’t act to change their own situation. I don’t want to be in a toxic network that everybody is the victim. I want to be with lifelong learners that want progress and will build the future. People are excited about innovation and science. Curious humans that want to learn everything and understand how the system works.

But I don’t need to find these people. First I need to be one of them. This needs to be part of me and we all get together along the way. What about the toxic people? Just snooze them.

For my life, writing has been a great tool to make everything clearer. It’s my daily habit. I do journaling, but not every day. The goal is mental clarity and I’m using this tool to get to this point. I write for my software engineering blog. The goal is knowledge sharing. I love this. It is my life mission to share and make knowledge open and accessible to everybody.

Now I’m trying to do a different thing: long and timeless essays. I know they aren’t going to be great at first, but it is a process. I’m writing mostly for me. I have so many thoughts in my mind and it is always fuzzy. I use writing as a tool to translate my thinking process into well-organized ideas, and them I’m able to communicate them in a compelling way — or I like to think that at least I have the chance to do that.

The spiritual part is a work in progress. I tend to focus too much on my skills and technical things. Most of the time I miss my mental health. And this is a huge problem. I’m studying more about this topic and also doing therapy. As it is a work in progress, I want to get more time to illustrate things I’m working on and how I’m improving in spiritual terms.

Projects

“One thing we do know: Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness.” — Eckhart Tolle

Projects enable me to be creative, try new things, and grow. For most things I wanted to accomplish, projects were an excellent tool to achieve them. If I want to try and understand new technology, I can use projects as a Proof of Concept (PoC). I can use projects to manage my digital bookshelf, what I am reading, my notes, highlights. If I see that I can improve my process, I build tools to automate it.

I think you got the idea.

I just want to stop a little moment to add some notes on goals. I always liked goals, but they are just what and not how. This is why I put most of my time on systems.

But goals are very good to give me a perspective of my future. I think of goals not about what I want, but who I want to become. It is a subtle difference. Goals are also a good first step to understand why I want this or that. Do I want to work as a software engineer because of the money — and only that — or I want to be a software engineer because I really like to build things?

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong to earn a good amount of money, I also like this part. But I have a different vision of my why. When I have a deep understanding of my why, it gets crystal clear to me. It also builds inspiration and motivation along the way. And it is truly important to me, because I know I’m playing the long game. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

I want to be remembered as a lifelong learner. A person who strives to learn and share knowledge. But not only share, but also advocate for open and accessible knowledge. It shouldn’t be a privilege of few. It should be free for everyone.

Here, I can talk more about how I learn and how I share and detail the system behind it.

“I’m still learning” — Michelangelo

I wanted to improve my whole learning process, making this a better experience and more conscious.

As I’m learning about myself and how my body and mind work, I’m designing my learning process based on those things.

What’s the best way to learn? The short answer is: I don’t know. I think we don’t have the right answer for every person on earth. But if I designed the learning experience exclusively for myself, I think I had a chance.

To understand what works and what doesn’t, I needed to try different methods as experiments: podcasts, articles, videos, courses, university, doing projects, books, etc. We have a bunch of resources and ways to learn.

What works for me?

  • Podcast: I use it as a distraction tool when commuting, running, and playing video games. I like to listen to discussions on technology and experiences in tech. I tried to use it as a learning tool but I always get distracted. So now, for example, if I want to learn React Hooks, I don’t listen to a podcast to learn Hooks. I prefer reading the docs (which is pretty good!). But if I want to learn how different teams/companies scale React, a podcast can be a good fit.
  • Articles: I love learning through reading articles. I tend to collect a bunch of different articles on one topic and read all to have a deep understanding of different perspectives. When I was learning JavaScript concurrent model with Promises, I got about 10 different articles to go deep in this subject. It’s also good for spaced repetition in my learning process. For example, if I want to learn JavaScript Promises, I read the first 3 to 4 articles in the first place and do some experiments (a.k.a. practice, code!). In the following days/weeks, I read other articles to have other perspectives or to just remember the concept.
  • Videos & Courses: When I started learning to code, videos were a big part of my learning process. As a visual person, I like to understand the concepts by seeing the code. It was also good because I watched a lot of tutorials. But nowadays, I don’t watch a lot of videos, I tend to watch tech video as an entertaining+educational content like fun fun function and Joma Tech. Specific for courses, I tend to like more educational platforms like Udacity that mixes theory (concepts) and practice (coding).
  • University: So let’s skip this part… kidding! Hmm… I’m a bit skeptical about universities. I tried it, but I realized that the “way of learning” was not the best for me. I didn’t fit in. A class of 30 people passively listening to a professor for 40 minutes. I like to be active, I like to question, I like to do experiments and practice. It didn’t work for me. Maybe it works for you. This is why to be self-aware is so important.
  • Projects: I love doing project-based learning. I’m doing a lot of this recently. When I was learning functional programming, I tried many different projects (PomoLambda, Luhn, Year Progress Bar). When I was learning React Hooks, I did some experiments to understand the concepts by building a mini pokemon “game”. When I was learning JavaScript concurrent model with Promises, I also tried different things. When I wanted to fix my struggles with CSS, I created the UI Challenges project. I think you got the idea.
  • Books: Books are a big part of my learning process. But I’m a slow reader. I like to take notes, organize my thoughts, and understand the details. And I know that I’m too curious about a lot of different things, so the challenge to me is to keep it up, to be consistent, and finish the books. Having this in mind, I’m trying something different: reading 3 books simultaneously. A biography or something about self-development (Mastery). A technical one (SICP: Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs). And a career one (The Effective Engineer). This is how it’s working for me. ¯\(ツ)/¯

So here we have a ton of resources and ways of learning. Basically my mindset is like a laboratory. Make experiments, try new things. But understanding what works for me. Asking myself how do I learn best? Which resources I really engage in and get the most of it? Keep in mind it doesn’t have any rules. Actually, you make the rules. You understand yourself, you understand the resources, and make the decision to keep it up with the best way of (your) learning.

“Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. What people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.” — Aaron Swartz

Now I divide my time in my three main resources: articles, projects, and books.

I have my own time to keep reading books, as I told you my experiment to read three books at the same time with different topics. I read daily now, like 30 minutes to 1 hour. My goal is to make it consistent.

Articles I read once in a while when I want to go deep in a topic, understand the theory and the concepts. I like to do a linked list of articles (or maybe a priority queue) and organize by topics to study later.

The projects are the resource I spend most of my time. This is the way I practice. The way I get the concepts I learn and make it live. The way I do experiments. The way I think deeply about the concepts.

With all these resources I can build a learning path. It’s basically a linear path with each resource linked to each other. This way I can understand what is the next step (read one more article or do a project?). And even though the path is linear, it doesn’t have rules, it’s flexible to change. The whole idea is to give me visibility of the learning process.

With everything I read, watch, and learn, I like to add notes and document my experiences. These notes are the first draft to write the next blog posts. I have a blog roadmap on Notion. In this board, I have the Draft column, where I can add all the drafts I’m working on. After compiling all the notes in the draft, I can start writing the post based on these ideas.

With the notes, I try to remove the friction to start writing. As I already have all the notes, ideas, and bullet points in the draft, I just need to reorder and organize. Then I review, refine, and publish it.

I wanted to make this process simple to focus on sharing knowledge. This is the main goal. I want to document my learnings. The blog is my voice on the internet. Writing is one of my passions. And I like it more because it is an excellent tool to distribute knowledge for everybody.

In the future, I want to try different media. Do live stream on Twitch, Youtube videos, podcasts, and so on. But now I want to focus on my writing.

These days I came across an interesting video about Should You Specialize or Be a Generalist? by Tim Ferriss. He talks about the idea of a Specialized Generalist. Combine a handful of skills that are rarely combined.

I also read an interesting idea from the book Originals where he talks about the concept of building a unique combination of broad and deep experiences and how this is critical to creativity. He tells about this study:

“In a recent study comparing every Novel Prize-winning scientist from 1901 to 2005 with typical scientists of the same era, both groups attained deep expertise in their respective fields of study. But the Novel Price winners were dramatically more likely to be involved in the arts than less accomplished scientists.” — Adam Grant

Reading and watching these interesting ideas, I’m also trying to broaden my skills. I always have a bunch of different hobbies. But now I want to double down on them and get more time to dedicate to these hobbies.

  • Sports: I like to run and table tennis. I really want to start tennis in the near future. I also want to get back to play Taiko as the old days of my life. (Taiko could be in all three different categories, it is an art, a sport, and music).
  • Arts: I always love drawing. It was my first hobby as far as I remember. I don’t do this every single day, but it is something I really like. In the future, I will definitely learn Sumie painting and Shodo.
  • Music: 10 years ago I started learning to play guitar. But I stopped for a long time. This year I bought a guitar, an electric guitar, and an amplifier. I do my guitar practices 5 times a week. To give you an idea, I have a very wide taste for music. At the same time, I want a piano do learn classical music, I will buy a launchpad to do some LoFi music with my guitar.
  • Languages: I want to get better at English, so I force myself to write all my essays in this language. I started learning Japanese again. After my Japan trip, I got passionate about the culture, the people, and the language again. Languages are so interesting because they open a whole new universe of ways of thinking. It is also great because it is so aligned with the culture. If I get some time, I want to learn other Asian languages like Korean and Thai.

These are what I’m currently doing. But I have a bunch of different things I want to do. Videography and Photography are a thing that I want to try and master in the near future.

First, I do because I like it. They are my hobbies. But second, because I feel more creative, it’s like using my brain in different ways.

It’s a social construct when society puts you in a “box”. If you are an engineer, you are good at STEM but don’t know anything about arts and humanities. For me, it’s bizarre that people believe in this. I see everything connected. People like to add non-sense boundaries. But I don’t care about this status quo. I will do my own thing, the way I want.

Final Thoughts

I’m learning a lot with all this process. I want to add my final thoughts by pointing out some learnings I had along the way.

  • Self-awareness is so important. Take a moment to reflect on your life and you as a person. Meeting new interesting people is awesome. But know yourself in depth will change your life. There are so many ways to get it works, but you probably have your own way. The way that works for you.
  • Simplify as much as possible. Don’t try to do all things at the same time. Start simple. It will make it so much easier to keep going and improve along the way. Simplicity is the goal.
  • Use goals as a direction. But build systems and habits to accomplish them. Goals are about what. Systems are about how.
  • Think deeply about your own life and who you want to become. You won’t have all the answers in the first place. It is a long journey, learn through the process.
  • Habits are also about removing or reducing. Think which things in your life are toxic. People, environment, city, work, projects, social media. Snooze things that are not healthy for you.
  • Mental clarity is so important to me. It gives me, well, clarity. Writing, journaling, sleeping well. These are the things that make my mind clear and rest to perform my best work.
  • If you want to play the long game, you need to start focusing on your health. Spiritual, mental, and physically healthy. Learn about it. Knowledge is the first step to great decisions.
  • Doing other hobbies — that are not related to my work — makes me so creative and with broad experience.
  • Projects are a good tool to learn. The blog is a great way to share knowledge.

I hope you had a great time reading this piece.

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