Start With a Structure

Often, one of the biggest obstacles to getting started with something is your canvas’s initial blank state. It may be a white sheet of paper or a blinking cursor in the word processor. You stare at it, not knowing where to begin. When facing these conditions, I often find that adding a bit of structure does the trick. Having a framework frees you from having to pick a place to start. With a skeleton in place, your next step becomes clearer: all you must do is flesh it out.

Here’s an example. Many times in my life I tried to start a journal. Invariably, I’d sit down at the beginning of the day intent on writing a journal entry. Facing the blank document, I wouldn’t know where to start. What should I write about? The first few days (while still in the rush of having started a journal) I’d slog through the indecision. But eventually, something would happen—I’d wake up late, or go on a business trip—that would disrupt my routine. Under time pressure, the blank document became too hard an obstacle to overcome. I’d give up on journaling that one day, and it became a precedent. Soon I’d give up altogether.

Then one day I heard Tim Ferriss mention his approach to journaling in a podcast. He talked about having a structure that he aimed to complete every day. This made a lot of sense to me, so I adapted it to my needs. Now when I start a new day I start a new page with the following structure:

  • Date (this is the entry title)
  • Yesterday’s highlights (a few paragraphs)
  • Things I’m grateful for (three bullet points)
  • Things I plan to accomplish today (three bullet points)
  • Ways I aspire to be (three bullet points)

(You may be wondering about this last one. It’s mostly aspects of my character I’m working to change. For example, this year I’ve been working towards being better at selling my services.)

This simple structure has made all the difference for me. I no longer start the day facing the dreaded blank canvas. Now I know what I’ll be writing about; there’s a set of cubbyholes waiting to be filled. The habit finally stuck; I’ve now been journaling daily for a couple of years.

Here’s another example of how structure helps me be more effective: When taking notes for a meeting, I never start with a blank document. Instead, I start with the following structure:

  • Date (again, usually this is the entry title)
  • Participants (one bullet for each person in the meeting)
  • Note (what transpired)
  • Questions (often I will have questions I want to ask; I write them down here, so I don’t break the flow of the meeting)
  • Commitments (things people committed to in the meeting; one bullet per each, including who committed to what and by when)

As with the journal, this simple structure frees me from having to think about what I’m going to be writing. Instead, I can focus on the content of the meeting.

Where did these structures come from? In the case of the journal, I adapted Tim Ferriss’s. In the case of the meeting minutes, over years of taking free-form meeting notes, I noticed all meetings have these things common. Neither structure is static; they keep evolving them over time as I notice new things. (For example, the “Questions” section of the meeting minutes structure is a recent addition.)

The idea of starting with simple structures is incredibly powerful. Not only do they reduce the natural resistance to starting by lowering cognitive load; they also keep things on track. Notice that neither of these examples is neutral: the journal structure is designed to remind me to be thankful and to keep evolving, and the meeting minutes structure is designed to keep track of my (and others’) commitments. These are traits I aspire to, and using these structures helps keep me on track without having to think about it too much. They’ve transformed my life; I’m sure they can do the same for you.