Second Personal Retreat

I got a ton out of my first personal retreat back at the end of January. It helped me define a long-term vision for my life and had a significant impact on how productive I’ve been during the past three months. Now that three months have gone by it’s time to do it again.

For my first personal retreat, I decided to go whole hog and follow Mike Schmitz’s recommendation to do it “off-site,” away from home. I found a lot of value from getting away from familiar, distraction-laden environments. Back in January, I rented a hotel room for a couple of days. While the hotel room worked well, I thought I had a good chance of getting good weather this time of year and reserved a cabin at a local state park for two nights.

Preparing for the Retreat

Ahead of the retreat, I reviewed all my notes from Mike Schmitz’s Personal Retreat Handbook video course. I also finished up rereading The 12-Week Year (which I was reading for my Masterminds group).

I brought all of my notes from the last retreat but deliberately decided not to look at them ahead of time. Since I’d be at the state park cabin, I packed plenty of food and drink and a sleeping bag, along with my usual tech gear.


Last time I had made a last minute decision to do the retreat on paper, using a Field Notes Steno Book I had in my backpack. I liked the analog experience, so this time I planned for that in advance. I brought a Studio Neat Panobook notebook. I’ve had the Panobooks since the original Kickstarter, but I haven’t used them much because they seem too nice for just day to day use. The personal retreat seemed like an excellent opportunity to put them to work on something ‘special.’

I headed out to the cabin mid-afternoon on Thursday. After a stop at a local grocery store for some supplies, I enjoyed a nice dinner. I finished rereading The 12 Week Year while waiting out some rain showers then took a nice walk at sunset.

The Retreat

After breakfast and an early morning walk, I got started on the retreat.

Core Values

The first exercise is to define your core values. Rather than starting by reviewing what I’d written at my first retreat, I decided to go through the exercise from scratch. I thought it would be interesting to see how consistent my responses were. After all, core values should represent things that don’t change radically every few months.

Mike’s course has a great list of questions to help prompt you to think about what you value. After going through these, I opened up my notes from last time and compared them. They weren’t exactly the same, but I covered a lot of the same ground. I ended up keeping the same set of core values, but I refined the wording a slightly, merging two of the values together.

This time, rather than walking up and down the hallway of the hotel between exercises, I was able to get out and spend a bit of time enjoying the park by taking a short walk (I saw a trio of wild turkeys).

Where Are You Right Now?

The next exercise has you list out all of your commitments and rating your satisfaction with different aspects of your life. I found my responses were fairly similar to last time. The numeric values differed (it seems like I had been more willing to assign extreme ratings back in January) but the areas that had been highest continued to be highest, and the ones that had been lowest continued to be lowest.

Designing the life you want to live

Next up was an exercise involving thinking about your life five years from now. The Personal Retreat Handbook has a nice list of prompts to help you think about what you want your life to be like in the future. This is one exercise I really dove into at the previous personal retreat; I did the same this time.

The course asks you to write about a typical day in the life.  Last time I did this I ended up with a tremendously overstuffed day to fit in everything I wanted to write about. Since being insanely busy is not one of my ambitions, I decided to do a week in the life this time. That allowed me to fit more of what I’d like my life to be like at a much more realistic and relaxing pace.

The Retrospective – Major Accomplishments

After another break, I came back for the first part of the retrospective, listing your major accomplishments. I’d been making an effort to track my accomplishments better over the past 12 weeks, so this went a lot more smoothly than it did the first time. I was able to fill an entire page in the Panobook in fairly short order. Even before this exercise I felt like I’d had a productive quarter, but seeing everything listed out definitely drove home how much I’d gotten done. It was a very heartening experience.

The Retrospective – What you’re going to change

After lunch, I did the second half of the retrospective exercise, looking at what went well and what could have gone better during the previous quarter. While there were a lot of things I feel I did well, there were also quite a few areas for improvement.

Setting Your Goals

Finally, where the rubber meets the road. This time I set three goals, rather than the two that I set at my first retreat: one health-related, one around learning a new skill, and one around improving my task management. The skill goal, in particular, is also more ambitious than my previous goals.

One area where I part ways a bit with Mike is his suggestion that you concentrate your goals on the areas you rated lowest back in the “Where are you right now” exercise. The health and learning goals are actually in two of the areas I rated most highly. They’re highly rated because both areas are very important to me, so even though I’m doing well in them, I felt like I’d get a lot out of pushing them even further.

Rereading The 12 Week Year helped clarify the difference between goals (what you’re trying to accomplish) and tactics (how you’ll go about achieving that goal). These were somewhat muddled together in my first round of goals. This time they’re more clearly defined.

The other thing that rereading the book led me to change was to take a more quantitative approach to some of these tactics. I established leading indicators for all the goals (essentially how much of the time I’m performing the tactics compared to how often I said I would). Two of the goals have lagging indicators as well (real world numbers that the tactics should move the needle on).

One important aspect this time around was assessing my existing commitments for the quarter. I’ll be traveling for two full weeks, plus a few additional weekends. Recognizing this lead to some weasel wording in my tactics and indicators saying I’ll do them “when I’m not traveling.”

Executing the Plan

After a break, I picked up with the last exercise of the day. The main activity in this exercise is to create your “ideal week.” Last time around I dove into this, spending a lot of time creating a color-coded numbers spreadsheet laying out my ideal week. The spreadsheet was still mostly good to go, so this time I just tweaked it to accommodate some stuff related to my new goals.


With that, I finished my second personal retreat. I took another walk and made dinner (boneless buffalo wings, which is turning into a tradition on these personal retreats). Then played some Stardew Valley and binge-watched The Tick.

The next morning I enjoyed the state park a bit more, then packed up and headed home.


I feel good about my second personal retreat. It wasn’t quite as revelatory as the first one, but that’s really an experience you can only have once. I got more out of the retrospective this time around (and I think I’ll get even more out of it next time, with more ambitious goals and better-defined tactics). The goals this time around are much more ambitious. I’ll need those well-defined tactics to help achieve them. Come July, we’ll see how I did.

Jarvis Bamboo Standing Desk

When I got my recently acquired iMac, I got a sit/stand desk to go with it. I spend a lot of time at my desk and while I knew it wouldn’t be cheap, it seemed like a good investment in my comfort and health.

I have used a standing desk in the past, at a former workplace. In that case, the desk was standing only.1 What I wanted was an adjustable sit/stand desk that I could switch back and forth.


The desk I bought is a Jarvis Bamboo from, based on The Wirecutter’s recommendation. They offer the Jarvis Bamboo in a variety of sizes. I got the largest one to accommodate my three-monitor setup: 78”x30”. This is only slightly larger than my old desk and “printer stand”2 so despite the size I didn’t have to move much furniture to accommodate it.


There are two options for the adjustable height, one that adjusts from 27.25” to 46.5” and an extended range version that goes from 24.5” to 50”. I’m 6’5”, so the extended range version was a must for me, but I think that even those who are not at one extreme or the other height wise should consider it. At 30” wide this desk would be too wide to fit through some doors, including the relatively narrow door to my office. Before I got the desk I was concerned that when it was time to move I would have to disassemble the desk to get it out. Once I got it, however, I realized that if I lower it all the way down it’s actually shorter than it is wide, so I could flip it on it’s side and get it out that way. So when considering how much height adjustability you need, take a look at how wide your office door is in addition to how tall you are.

One upgrade that was well worth the price is the programmable memory controller. Rather than having to stand there pushing the up button while the desk rises, then bumping it up and down until I hit the height I want, I can just program my sitting and standing heights and switch between them with a single button press. It can memorize up to four options, so you could have sitting and standing heights for two different people.

I bought a big, beefy Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) along with my new iMac, and I wanted to have that on the desk, rather than having a bunch of power cables going up and down every time I changed the desk height. I could have just put it on top of the desk, but offers CPU Holders that attach to the bottom of the desk surface and hold mini-tower PCs. The APC UPS that I bought is about the same size as a mini-tower, so I got one of the CPU holders and mounted it underneath the desk (the UPS is heavy enough to require their heavy duty CPU holder).


I also picked up some cable trays and a neat swiveling pencil tray to hold pens and post-it notes, since I’m giving up my desk drawer.

One must-have with a standing desk is some sort of padded floor mat. When I was running a standing desk at work I just used a cheap one from Walmart, but offers an interesting option: the the Topo Anti-Fatigue Mat. It’s contoured with an angled lip around the edges and a bump in the middle to encourage you not to just stand there flat footed. They give a big discount for ordering it with a standing desk, so I picked one up. I think I like it so far, though I have almost tripped a couple of times when stepping back from the desk.

The Jarvis Bamboo comes disassembled in two heavy boxes; one for the desktop and one for the frame. Get someone to help you carry them if you can.

The desktop has holes pre-drilled for the legs and frame rails and those went in pretty easy. I should have pre-drilled some holes for the CPU holder and pencil tray, but I was afraid of overdrilling and coming out the desktop. It would have saved me several stripped screws. Other than that it went together pretty easy, with clear instructions. A power screwdriver with quite a bit of torque is definitely helpful. I had to hand tighten some of the frame screws, even with the pre-drilled holes.

I like my monitors fairly high for good ergonomics, whether I’m sitting or standing. offers monitor arms with their desks, which would work with the VESA mounts in my two Dell monitors, but not my iMac.3 Instead I decided to go with a riser shelf like I had on my previous desk. I spent a ton of time looking for something pre-made, but there was nothing out there tall enough or wide enough. All the commercially available monitor risers are designed to raise the monitor a few inches, which is nowhere near enough for my height. I ended up getting a 2×12 at Home Depot and having them cut it to 60”, and attaching a set of legs from Ikea. This worked out rather nicely, and while unfinished lumber is a bit low rent it doesn’t clash with the bamboo desktop too badly.


Overall I’m very happy with the new desk. It does a great job with my three-monitor array and the big work surface is super useful (as long as I keep it clean and uncluttered). Being able to switch between sitting and standing lends a lot of variety and I certainly feel better after working at my desk for a long time. The new desk is so much nicer than my setup at work it’s inspired me to arrange to work from home one day a week.

  1. Really, it was just an Ikea end table on top of a regular desk as my keyboard and mouse surface with the monitor on top of the desk’s hutch, which put it at eye level for me. 
  2. Not actually used for my printer. That lives on an adjacent file cabinet. 
  3. Apple does sell a version of the iMac with a VESA mount, but that’s not what I’ve got. 

I am a very high entropy person

I sometimes describe myself as a high entropy person. My natural state is one of disorganization and absentmindedness.  When I was a kid, my room was always a complete mess. I did poorly in school because I was always missing homework assignments. While procrastination was a factor in this as well, the fact that I had homework often just wafted out of my head almost as soon as I left the classroom (to the disappointment and disbelief of my much more organized parents).

So when my colleagues at work occasionally make jokes about how organized I am, it causes a bit of cognitive dissonance. If I seem organized, it’s because of the systems and practices I’ve developed to overcome my natural state of disorganization.

Every task goes into my task management system because if it doesn’t, its chances of getting completed are miserably low. I keep the number of emails in my inbox at or near zero because if I didn’t there would be hundreds (same for unread items in my RSS reader). My desk at work is clean and organized because if it wasn’t you wouldn’t even be able to see the desktop.

In short, the reason I’m writing a “productivity” blog is because this kind of thing does not come easy to me. I think that’s important to be forthright about for honesty’s sake, and because I’m sure there are more folks like me out there. If you are, know that you’re not the only one who struggles with this stuff.

The Never Ending Battle: Fighting Email Distractions

If I got a ding every time I got a new email, I’d go insane. So whenever I get a new device or try a new email program, the first thing I do is turn off the audible alert it makes when I get a new email. If I didn’t, every email would be at least a momentary interruption as my mind registers the ding. What’s more, it makes the arrival of each new email a moment of temptation; a chance for me to get off task and into my mail app checking on whatever new email arrived.

Apple has made going this route a little easier with it’s VIP feature. I’ve set it to alert me when I get an email from someone on my VIP list, so only emails from the most important people are an interruption. Importantly, I’ve been able to keep my VIP list short and the people on it are not ones who are emailing me constantly.

For many years now I’ve run my devices with the email ding turned off, but I still had the rest of the notifications options turned on. Oddly enough it wasn’t the more obvious notifications like the lock screen notifications or the banners that pop up when a new email arrives that made me realize this was still a problem, it was that badge on the app icon with the number of unread emails. Every time I was on the home screen of one of my iOS devices, that little red circle tempted me to just pop over to my email app and see what was in there.

I went ahead and turned off the app icon badges (and all other non-VIP notifications). While I was at it I turned off badges for all of my home screen apps except for Due, OmniFocus, Messages, and Drafts. In addition to helping with distraction this also increased the visibility and importance of alerts for those apps. When the red badge indicating tasks that are due soon in OmniFocus is one among many on my home screen it blends into the background. When it’s the only one it really stands out.

After I turned off the notifications on my personal devices it got me thinking about my work PC. Initially I was just going to turn off the desktop alert that popped up for new email, but I got to thinking about a couple of things:

  • I do my best, most productive work in the morning, particularly when it comes to technical tasks or high quality writing that requires intense concentration.
  • I seldom receive any email so urgent it couldn’t wait until after lunch.

So I’m trying an experiment: Outlook gets turned off before I go home at night and it doesn’t come back on until after lunch the next day.

So far I haven’t had any irate colleagues coming up to me and complaining I didn’t respond to their email fast enough (thankfully, the email culture at my workplace is not one that requires immediate responses).

I have run into a couple of issues though: Outlook is both an email app and a calendaring app. This means that I can’t open it up to look at my calendar at the beginning of the day without also catching a glimpse of my email. Now I do think my willpower is strong enough that I could keep myself from reading any email when I’m in there, but sometimes even seeing the sender and subject line can distract me into thinking about the email when I’m trying to spend my most productive time on another task. So I’m trying to develop the habit of checking my calendar in the morning on one of my iOS devices, where I have separate email and calendar apps (currently the excellent Timepage).

The other issue is that sometimes the task that I’m working on in the morning requires me to send mail and there’s no good way to do it without firing up Outlook and seeing my mailbox. This has me wishing for an email client that would allow you to send mail, but not read it.1

One way or another email has been an issue for me for a long time: Checking it too often, letting it build up in my inbox, allowing particular messages that I need to do something with (usually something unpleasant) to sit there and fester. I hope that the measures I’ve taken recently will help me make some progress, but I’ve got no illusions that these represent any sort of final victory. It’s a never ending battle.

  1. And also wishing for the flexibility to use a desktop email client other than outlook with our locked down email system, but that’s a different subject.