Bitton's 3-month Personal Review

by Bitton 9th Mar 2015No comments


This post is inspired by Peter Hurford's 3-month reviews. Although I don't spend as much time on direct EA work as Peter does, I think people here might find this interesting as a case study of the usefulness of productivity techniques and rigorous organization on personal effectiveness. My feeling is that this 3 month period may well have been the most successful 3 months of my life in terms of career progress, personal development, wellbeing, and learning.

Three months ago I started using a number of productivity apps and becoming more organized. Of these changes, the most important was my use of the app Toggl. With Toggl, I tracked everything that I did, every day. It took a couple of days to get the hang of but I quickly learned to start and stop my timer throughout the day with pretty little effort.

Those first couple of days, I struggled because I was being too specific. I was naming activities things like "helping [my roommate] write her email to quit her job" and "Working on my Response to Gwern blog post." But 3 months of specific activities like that would be a nightmare to sort through afterward. So I chose set categories to place every activity into.

My categories were:

  1. Sleep
  2. Social
  3. Internet
  4. Food
  5. Transport
  6. Exercise
  7. Meditation
  8. Web Development
  9. Economics
  10. Meta
  11. Career
  12. Day Job
  13. Housework
  14. Shopping
  15. Reading
  16. Writing
  17. Creative Writing
  18. Art
  19. Break
  20. Other

Many of these categories were additions that I only added in middle of this period.


Sleep: Time spent sleeping, including time where I'm lying in my bed waiting to fall asleep and time where I've just woken up but haven't got out of bed or started doing anything yet. 

Social: Everything that I do with another person for no reason other than to hang out or have fun.

Internet: "Internet" includes mostly unproductive time spent on Facebook, watching YouTube videos, or going on other websites such as this forum.

Food: Includes cooking, eating, and being at a restaurant. Any time spent not doing other things because I have to eat.

Transport: Time spent biking, walking from place to place, on public transit, and on the bus between Montreal and Toronto. I often switch to "Transport" a couple of minutes before or after I've actually left or arrived somewhere, meaning that putting my shoes and coat on is usually considered "Transport" rather than "Other."

Exercise: Self-explanatory. I was fortunate enough to have a slack retail job that allowed me to do copious amounts of sit ups while the store was empty. In the past couple of weeks, my routine has broken because I now have a different job and need to leave the house earlier. This period is the longest I’ve ever been able to sustain a personal exercise routine.

Meditation: Ten minutes a day, first thing in the morning using Headspace until my free trial ran out (since then I've changed sites a lot). I never noticed any direct benefits from this but it was useful for contributing to my morning victory spiral. I’ve also only done 13 hours.

Web Development: One day, after finishing all my daily goals by ~4pm, I decided to start something new. I did the HTML & CSS tutorials on Codecademy, Khan Academy, Shay Howe, and used a lot of other online resources to teach myself basic web development. After about a week of tutorials, I began giving myself challenges such as to code a perfect replica of my resume or a perfect replica of a specific website. The "Web Development" category includes any time I spent learning web development, whether I was doing a tutorial, working on a project, or looking up the answer to a question online.

Economics: On a whim, I decided to take the Khan Academy Microeconomics course. I went through about 55 videos in a couple of weeks and then found it difficult to continue. This is a pretty low priority for me but there were a couple of weeks of enthusiasm where I was teaching myself basic economics for an hour or two a night.

Meta: Shortly after beginning with Toggl, I began experimenting with other productivity apps. A lot of my time was spent reading lists of the most useful apps, writing myself lists for Workflowy, writing reminders in Evernote, monitoring my Beeminder, creating myself a homepage of my useful links, etc. All of this stuff I count as "Meta" because I'm spending my time monitoring my own productivity. For the record, many apps I didn't find useful. In particular, mood and sleep tracking apps did nothing for me.

Career: Job hunting, sending emails for informational interviews, doing informational and job interviews, researching for my career, updating my cover letter and resume, etc. In order to prepare myself for a job interview at an animation studio, I watched kids TV shows every morning in my "Career" time. 

Day Job: Time spent at my day job. I started off by counting all my time spent at work, thinking that it would be awkward to Toggl in front of customers and my boss. Eventually, I realized how much I could get done while at work and so I began using "Day Job" to refer only to actual work and to time spent at work doing nothing else. On the job, I did a lot of exercise, reading, and taught myself web development. At my new job, I don’t have time to fool around, so I’m on “Day Job” for the full 10+ hours barring (sometimes) lunch.

Housework: Washing dishes, sweeping the floor, taking out the trash. Mostly dishes.

Shopping: Shopping for groceries, gifts, clothes, plants, loitering in stores and malls, etc.

Reading: This one is a bit of judgment call. Just about whenever I'm on the Internet, I'm reading but I'm not necessarily in the "Reading" category. I'm "Reading" when I'm reading academic articles or books.

Writing: This includes my book summaries, blog posts, and posts on the EA Forum. It does not include creative writing, emails, or social media.

Creative Writing: I write little short pieces of Creative Writing. For 2-3 weeks, I included this in "Art".

Art: Includes reading fiction, watching movies, listening to music, etc. Of course, if I listen to music while job hunting, that only gets credited as "Career."

Break: Little breaks from working. I mainly use this category when I'm using the Pomodoro technique.

Other: Mostly time spent in the bathroom: brushing teeth, showering, etc. Also, some random, unusual stuff: For Christmas, I was taking care of a friend's cat, so each night I spent about 30 minutes of "Other" time at their condo feeding and playing with it.


My stats:










Creative Writing



Day Job










































Web Development







Sources of inaccuracy:

Sometimes things are difficult to categorize. When I go to a restaurant with my friend, is that "Social" or "Food?" When I talk to my friend on Facebook, is it "Social" or "Internet?" If I watch a stand up comedy act with a friend is that "Social" or "Art?" When I wanted to do research for a job interview at an animation studio, I was waking up an hour early each morning to watch kids TV shows. I categorized this as "Career" but it could as easily have been categorized as "Art." 

Also, I often do two things at once. For the first of these three months, I had a day job that allowed me to "slack off" and be actually productive on the job. So whenever I was without supervision I'd get some "Reading," "Writing," and "Meta" stuff done - and yet it was all categorized as "Day Job." Sometimes I'd exercise while listening to the kids shows and yet this all took place in a "Career" chunk of time.

For the past 5 days, my Toggl app has been broken on my phone. As a result, I could only update my time tracker on my laptop and thus had to do some post hoc guesstimation.

Finally, little things tend to get overlooked. When I stop my timer and then start a new act, there's usually a few seconds or minutes that get lost in the mix. Suppose I'm in "Internet" mode, going through my favourite websites and then I find something really interesting, which leads me to click on something else, which leads me to click on something else. Before I know it, I've transferred over into "Reading" but I'm not going to switch from "Internet" into "Reading" if I'm just reading one blog post. I have to read for a while before I go "okay, it now seems unfair to call this 'Internet,' it's time to toggle." So there are these little cracks in between toggles and it's easy to lose little "Breaks" and "Others" and "Readings" in those cracks. But with activities that you only do for a few minutes a day, it's important not to lose those few minutes a day in the cracks.


Lessons Learned:

Looking at these stats, I don’t feel like I see much about myself that I didn’t already know. I don’t get much out of scrutinizing my time use. Rather, I benefited from the process of organizing and monitoring myself.

For instance, I quickly realized how much I can get done in a day. Once I started setting myself daily goals, I found that I could usually complete them with several hours left to spare. That's why early in this project, I realized that I could fit web development into my schedule and work on it every day.

This process has made me really good at starting new habits immediately. After starting the Codecademy tutorial on a whim one night, I continued to teach myself HTML & CSS every day from then on, for at least an hour a day, with few exceptions. When I decided to meditate for 10 minutes each day, I started and then never missed a day. When I decided to watch kids TV shows in order to prepare for my job interview, I scheduled it into my morning routine and watched 1 or 2 new shows each day. Same for when I decided to do 50 sit-ups and push-ups each morning as soon as I get out of bed. And then when I decided to do 500+ sit-ups every day while at work. And then when my sister showed me the posture exercises she does. I got a bit of reading done every day. I started about 6 new apps and routines within the first couple of days and stuck to all of them without difficulty. About 3 weeks later, I created myself a budget and started updating it every single day with the amount of money I've spent. At one point, to prepare for my job interview, I began doing a mock expense report of my trip to Montreal and I updated that every day as well.

In the past three months, I have barely had any bad moods at all and the ones I did have were very brief (~1-5 minutes). Mostly, I felt very excited and in control.

Most of my bad moods are related to attending social events that I know I don’t belong at. I've noticed over these three months that most of the social activity I do is against my own will and interests. When people ask me to be social, I usually say yes even though I have other things I'd like to get done in that time. One of my goals for the next three months is to say no to social requests more often. Now that I'm organized and on track, the randomness of other people's goals and hang out plans just feels like a distraction. Many of the dollars I've spent eating out can be directly attributed to somebody else asking me if I want to go out with them and me agreeing even though I know it's not a good way to spend my money or a productive way to spend my time. I also have this weird thing where I genuinely have more fun on the job than I do while “having fun”.

The first thing I noticed about using Toggl is how aware it made me of the passage of time. I could constantly feel a ticking clock in the back of my head and that made it much more difficult to waste long hours of time. I had a constant sense of urgency. This was bolstered by all the other techniques I was using – Pomodoro, Workflowy, HabitRPG, Evernote, Beeminder – they create a self-reinforcing system. Skipping my morning workout is really unappealing when I know that that’s what comes before meditation in my morning routine. And I don’t give myself HabitRPG points until I’ve completed my morning routine. And I won’t be able to cross these off my Workflowy list of daily goals. 

Finally, I was surprised at how helpful rigorous organization was to me. I was initially skeptical of quantified self stuff but I noticed a very immediate and drastic difference in my productivity and mood as soon as I started. I’ve recently stopped doing most of these techniques because I got a new job that has completely changed my routine and I haven’t yet been able to adjust. Maybe I will never be able to string together more than a couple of consecutive months of enthusiasm but even a couple of months like this a year is great. These may have been the 3 most successful months of my life.


Career Progress:

In these 3 months, I saw significant career progress, going from unemployed to landing my first “real” job. I began this experiment shortly after completing work on a feature film and with no leads for future work. From there, I got a retail job in a furniture store. As far as retail jobs go, it was pretty good. I was left completely unattended and could use the time to read, practice web development, write fiction, and do 500 sit ups per shift. I stayed there for 6 weeks until I quit, knowing that I had several good leads for jobs in my field.

I spent one week doing job interviews, informational interviews, and research. The informational interview I did this week was one of the most productive I’d ever done (out of ~20) and I apparently only missed out on the job I interviewed for because the hiring had been rescheduled to the summer.

I spent a second week writing essays for lazy college kids. In that work week, I churned out ~50 pages on various boring topics and earned the same money as I would have received at my retail job in, at most, the same number of hours worked.

Finally, I was granted a one-week tryout shift as an executive assistant at an animation studio that creates kids TV shows. I have now finished my third week and, although I’ve yet to sign a contract, I get the feeling that I’m here to stay. This is big for me because it’s my first “real” job that pays a real salary and that keeps me hired for (hopefully) longer than a couple of months. 

In my first three weeks, I’ve already learned a lot about the job, the office, the industry, and have been given an unusually good opportunity to improve my organizational skills. To provide some context, my job is basically The Devil Wears Prada and involves keeping the President and VP of a 250+ employee company prepared and on schedule. The job is so fast-paced and high pressure that I often ride an adrenaline rush from the start to the end of my shift.

During these 3 months, I also continued talking to a writer-director about producing his short film. Although I’ve been a “production coordinator” and a “production manager”, I’ve never properly “produced” anything aside from my own crappy, student work so this is a good opportunity for me. It’s paid, a good learning experience, a solid addition to my resume, and a chance for me to stay involved in production even while working as an executive assistant.

I also wrote some basic, introductory posts for Effective Altruism Switzerland in this time, expanding the list of EA organizations I’ve worked with. I think I may be on the verge of expanding that list further.


Questions, comments?