Creating A Productive and Balanced Life During This F’n Pandemic

Hello from our Bend Compound! Wherever you’re reading this – an apartment in Spain or NYC, a van in the woods, a house with bored kids tearing your walls down – I hope you’re thriving as much as possible given a worldwide pandemic.

A meme that struck home for me: “Introverts, put your book down and check on your extrovert friends. They’re not ok.” Some of my buddies must picture me, extreme extrovert that I am, straitjacketed and rocking in a corner.

Surprising both Chelsea and myself, I adapted quickly and am quite content. No straitjacket needed! (She’s still watching me daily for cracks to show though.)

Hard at work building the planter beds that Chelsea has always wanted.

A Quick Identity Pivot

Home-bound and content are NOT words that describe me. However, when I realized this pandemic was sticking around for the unforeseen future, it required a shift in my identity and priorities.

It took some effort to reorient. Thanks to a generous friend’s gift of a flight pass on United this year, I’d spun travel and adventure plans spanning the globe. Social time consumed large chunks of time and energy. Mountain biking season approached.

POOF. Just like that, all put on hold for who knows how long.

To ensure I possessed the stamina to weather this without cracking, I needed to make the most of this forced isolation. Banging my head against the wall and wishing for things to normalize wasn’t going to change much!

This quote from a Sarah Blondin meditation struck home:

When faced with great change, we must trust what comes budding forth. We must quickly release our grasp on the old and familiar in order to plant our new garden. Resisting change is futile. The longer we fight our current and therefore only reality, the longer we remain in limbo, trapped somewhere between the past and the future, far from the present.

I spun out a bit in March, then decided to focus on alive time vs dead time, seeking the positives in this upheaval. That mindset is working well for me to stay happy, productive and balanced during this pandemic. (Details at the end of this post about my approach.)

Oliver has finally accepted me into the family. It only took 15 years.

Let’s Just Say It: This Is Crazy

To say there’s stress in the air because of COVID-19 is an understatement. Helping our families be safe, canceling plans, sorting through business headaches, figuring out the precautions we need to take. It’s heavy.

At first, I found myself spiraling deep into NewsLand, gripping my computer as the stock market careened groundward trailing smoke and flaming 401(k)s. We’re not out of the woods yet (by any means), but the sense of chaos has lessened.

I find it darkly fascinating how fast the shift to a new normal happened. Initially I was overwhelmed with the enormity of state and country lockdowns. Now I wonder how reopening will go. Without a vaccine, when will I feel comfortable in a shiny metal tube hurtling through the sky with other people or sitting in a restaurant? 2022…maybe?

I’m swiveling my head like an owl to take in varied opinions about reopening. I understand (and support) that some people have zero options beyond reopening their small business to feed their family. Facing economic ruin, I’d do the same. Personal values (e.g. individual vs. collective outlook) play into it in a big way, so of course it’s nuanced, touchy ground.

There’s a line though. I find it difficult to identify with people holding signs saying I JUST WANT TO RACE (a motorcycle) or who must get their hair cut at a salon. Sacrificing personal leisure and vanity is the least we can do right now, so I’m surprised at the lack of stamina. Perhaps the philosopher Blaise Pascal was right when he said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Haircuts are overrated anyway.

I fear that reopening too quickly without listening to public health experts creates potential for COVID-19 to stick around. Will it become like school shootings, barely making the news unless there’s a huge NYC-style outbreak, collateral damage from “more important” needs like the economy?

The Stockdale Paradox comes to mind: You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

As a small business owner, I’m lucky as helllll to be doing ok. I feel for those in the travel and restaurant industries – ouch. However, this crisis wields far-reaching potential effects, so who knows how this plays out. I started my business deep in the 2008 trough and rode the wave up, but every tsunami crashes at some point. Every smart investor I follow is writing UNCERTAIN TIMES over and over.

And yet Chelsea and I are the lucky, privileged ones. I’m immensely grateful to keep working remotely and merely curtail socializing, travel and big outdoor adventures. Whoop de doo, small, smalllll price to pay. To all those on the front lines – be it hospitals, grocery stores, food supply chain, sanitation – a bow of respect and solidarity. Thank you.

Finding the Silver Lining

On a more positive note, without any social engagements or travel, there’s a LOT of freed up time. Using the aforementioned concept of alive time, I decided to take advantage of this.

For me, that means building new skills and following my curiosity. For example, what can I add to my toolkit for future goals (such as an outdoor planning and navigation course I am currently taking) or just make me a more complete human (learning how to garden)?

We’re cueing off an astronaut who lived in isolation in space for a year: have a schedule. You know, beyond “Work. Freak out at the news. Eat. Sleep.” Ours isn’t a strict timetable though. More like guidelines.

To help accomplish that, Chelsea had the excellent idea for a list of healthy habits and fun/productive things to accomplish each day. We each have a list where we check off items, then wipe our slates clean in the morning.

I recommend doing this, both for the routine it creates and for instilling productivity in otherwise shapeless weeks (months!) that blend into one another. I don’t always get to everything. However, it’s motivating and a nice steering wheel to grab when I start spinning out reading bad news or dreaming about my business cratering into a smoking pit.

It’s not a static list – I occasionally add or subtract things – but core items stick around. My goal was to hit the physical, mental, creative and “gotta do it” tasks. Here are some of the things on my list that I find valuable.

Finding solitude and zero COVID on the fire roads west of Bend.

My Daily Healthy Habits Checklist


  • One Thing – choose ONE task to accomplish each day. This could be as simple as “place online food order” or “build one planter bed.” Whatever you want it to be!
  • Checking in with family and friends – Daily conversations with my family and friends. My goal is always to talk about anything BUT corona.
  • Helping with Chelsea’s list – given how much she handles, it’s the least I can do.


  • Meditation – I’m using the Insight Timer app. Ten minutes a day, sometimes guided, sometimes not.
  • Writing – I’m loving daily prompts for journaling, most recently from Wild Writing. I find it generates far more introspection than “here’s what I did today.”
  • Chess – after years away from it, I’ve rekindled my love affair with chess. Such an absorbing intellectual challenge.
  • Guitar – daily practice using the excellent, affordable site
  • Reading – I’m feeling a strong pull toward the natural world and got absorbed in the books Braiding Sweetgrass and The Hidden Life of Trees. That and some far-reaching sci-fi!
  • – Loving this! Classes taught by people at the top of their field. Here’s a few I’ve dug: chess (Garry Kasparov), negotiation (Chris Voss, FBI negotiator), cooking (Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse), writing (Niel Gaiman, Malcolm Gladwell). Oh, and Masterclass is offering a gift a membership for a friend right now. Such a great value.
  • Cook something– for two months, we haven’t eaten anything we didn’t cook ourselves! These seitan jackfruit ribs are deeeeelicious.


  • Ping pong – YES. I bought a ping pong machine that shoots balls at me. Best $140 I’ll spend all year, I bet. One friend who shall remain nameless got one so I wouldn’t crush him after all this COVID crap ends. (You’re going down, Scott.)
  • GarageFit: I miss hanging with my crew, but I’m keeping the workouts going. If a bit more irregularly…
  • Physical therapy: This seems like a good time to fix those niggling aches and pains, right? I tore a ligament in my ankle taking a rock climbing fall in March, so this is a daily thing for me. I still can’t run, but it’s coming around.
  • Outdoor exercise: Bike rides or just a quick walk with Chelsea. Instead of mountain biking from crowded trailheads, I’m exploring new rides on my gravel bike with forays on fire roads and pavement to check out new loops and terrain.
  • Stretching and foam rolling – I often pair this with watching Masterclass or do it during a work call.
  • House projects – like many people (even you mobile van lifers!), we are digging into home projects that travel and socializing took precedence over in the past. I may even emerge from this as a competent gardener (gasp).
I feel like we dug the planter bed hole a little deep! (Not pictured: top trim edge, for all you perfectionists.)

C’mon, Do I Really Need This?

I bet a few of you are shaking your heads and thinking, “Yegads, how Type A can one person get?” I’d be surprised if not. I fought it initially!

Then I came around to the satisfaction and momentum building that comes from check check checking my way through a day. I left lame crap like “check email” off it because, well, I’m going to do that.

This is for the things I might skip that serve to move my life forward and stimulate my desire to get out of bed for another day in COVIDLand. (Way less fun than Disneyland: “One person at a time on the Gravitron!”)

I urge you to give the daily healthy habits checklist a shot. The result of this list is that every day, I never run out of things to do. I’m never bored. I wish there were more hours

There is always more to learn and additional skills to pick up. (A few more on my list: Sewing, local plant and animal identification, master gardener training.) Instead of wallowing in the news or whiling away the time waiting for “real life,” this is proving to be a productive, fun and creative period.

What positive things have you added to your life or how are you staying sane during this insane time?

And someday, Martin and I will get back to Smith Rock!

The Secret Weapon for Organizing Your Life and Achieving Bucket List Goals

Santa Cruz pier

Staying on top of life’s tasks can be overwhelming. Post-It notes disappear beneath the fridge; long-term goals get punted downfield, bouncing into the weeds. That’s no surprise, given all the activities of a busy life, plus the huge amounts of information we all consume daily. Tracking tasks for work, fun, travel, and hobbies is enough to short out C3PO. Some aspirations drift away into the mist like an unmoored boat.

As my friend Sean says, there are only seven days in the week, and Someday isn’t one of them. It’s easy to put off mailing that passport renewal app, delay signing up for Spanish or guitar lessons, or procrastinate starting your dream side business.

Organize Your Life!

To help people avoid looking back at a giant pile of Somedays, I always recommend one powerful tool.

It’s called The Secret Weapon (TSW). TSW is a free technique that helps me organize my life, stops things from slipping through the cracks, and empowers me to execute on both annoying to-dos as well as bigger projects.

Like most good things in my life, my wonderful wife brought it to my attention. The Secret Weapon is now the cornerstone for organizing all the information and tasks that cross my path.

I use it both professionally and personally and hope (/know!) you will benefit too.

Mendocino coast line

What Is The Secret Weapon?

Simply put, TSW is a combination of Evernote and the Getting Things Done (GTD) method.

Evernote is a web, phone and computer app that allows you to easily clip, save, record or otherwise archive information of any type.

GTD is a popular technique introduced by productivity consultant David Allen that moves planned tasks and projects out of the mind by recording them externally and breaking them into actionable work items.

TSW merges technology and work-flow techniques. In the words of its creators, the Secret Weapon is:

A free organizational methodology for both professional and personal aspects of life that re-organizes emails, ideas, and every to-do big and small into one system that stays synchronized across a person’s computers as well as their smart phones.

Deploying TSW allows me to keep track of personal and business tasks for both near-term and distant timelines without taxing my brain with stuff that clutters the corners and makes my eyes glaze over.

How the Secret Weapon Works

TSW organizes my life into discrete chunks to manage tasks. That ranges from copying a house key to negotiating business contracts to organizing a future bucket list trip like bikepacking the Colorado Trail. I also track quotes and book passages while I’m reading, clipping all my ebook highlights and importing them into Evernote for easy reference. You can use TSW for anything!

What does this look like? Here’s a sample section of my list prior to departing for Utah in late March, sorted for most pressing actions (1-Now, in TSW lingo). This is just part of the list – I’d wager most of you have similar things bumping around in your head that wake you up at night slapping your forehead.  (“AH, I forgot to drop the bike off for a tune up!”) By referencing this list every morning as our trip approached, we whittled down tasks until we were ready to launch.

Secret weapon

It’s Easier Than It Looks!

Not gonna lie: it took me awhile to start using TSW. I used Gmail’s task feature for years and thought it worked great. I’d type in tasks, handle pressing or easy items, and delete the ones that slipped to the bottom of the list. This worked well in some respects, but wasn’t ideal. It was task management fire fighting: spraying the biggest flames and praying small, untended fires would go out.

The power of TSW became apparent in 2013 when we were prepping our house so we could travel, building out the van, handling business changes, and generally burying ourselves with a stack of tasks taller than Paul Bunyan on growth hormones. With an endless pile of to-dos, my simple Gmail-based task system blew up into a hairy snarl of too much to do and no way to prioritize anything. We needed to crank out a serious volume of work. Our tenants’ arrival grew closer…

Enter TSW. I watched the free video tutorials that walked me through setting up GTD with Evernote , and dialed in the system. It continues to deliver value to this day!

Chelsea herded me along, focusing my efforts with skill a pyramid-building Egyptian foreman would envy. Maybe we were sweeping the front porch as our new tenants rolled up to the house, but we got it done! I’ve used TSW ever since. (I’ll say it again: this may sound complicated, but the video tutorials are short, easy to understand, and walk you through everything step-by-step. You don’t even have to be Type A. TSW can help anyone!)

The key to realizing TSW’s full potential is creating a habit for each morning. After my morning reading, meditation, and writing routine, I cue up Evernote, brain dump tasks on my mind, and then scan for things to accomplish that day.

As a rule, I immediately handle anything that takes less than two minutes, unless that item requires some research or coordination of some kind. In a few minutes, I’ve got my day’s road map.

Open road in Utah

An Example of The Secret Weapon

For a concrete example of how TSW works, let’s use the van buildout that I completed over the course of a few months in late summer 2013. This was an intimidating, time consuming, and complicated task. Put “build out the Sprinter van” on the task list and you’ll get to it later than “sort Tupperware lids.”

Instead, I broke everything down into smaller chunks and actions.  Every pending item for the van was tagged with “Sprinter,” and then given a When/Where/Who designation. Once everything was chunked up, it was a simple matter to add tasks based on priority, location (pick up at Home Depot) or who (me, Chelsea, or hiring someone, if needed).

Over the course of a few months, hundreds of tasks were researched, parts and components purchased, and the project was methodically completed in time for departure. (To be clear, “methodically” also involves me running about in a frenzy sometimes.)

Here’s a shot from the “Sprinter” tag that I pulled from Evernote, since we still have items we plan on updating or repairing.  A metal strip on our counter just ripped off and needs to repaired soon, hence the “1-Now” priority designation. If I decide something can be handled later, I can move it to 2-Next, or kick it way down the line to 5-Someday.

Sprinter TSW

This may seem complicated. It’s not. Once you get in a good workflow, maintaining this system from your computer or phone becomes a routine like brushing your teeth. The morning check-in prioritizes my day, and then I add or update items as needed, plus a late afternoon scan and update.

I’ve never felt more on top of things, even with my life pulled in many directions these days between managing investment properties, remotely handling my business and employees, writing this blog, and arranging our travel plans and friend meetups. (And sneaking off to mountain bike for hours at a time, of course.)

If you’re looking for a straight-forward technique for managing your life, look no further than The Secret Weapon. Not only is it totally free, I guarantee it will increase your productivity, get you to the fabled Inbox Zero, and help “free” time really be free time.

No more wasting minutes searching for lost info, or forgetting that small detail that hangs up a business deal at the last minute. You’re going to crank that stuff out and have time to focus on writing that book, starting a side business, or finally organizing all the photos from high school.

Head over to now and get rolling! The tutorials are broken into bite-size snippets that are easy to fit in over the course of a week. Cheers to organizing your life!

Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls in Yosemite.