I just finished an inspiring and challenging article by Harvard computer scientist Radhika Nagpal on the challenge of leading a balanced life as an academic. It’s one of the most useful articles I’ve read in months, and in it, Nagpal highlights seven unconventional things she did to maintain her sanity during her pre-tenure days at Harvard. Among these was making a decision to work no more than 50 hours a week (in a profession where many of her colleagues regularly crank out 80-hour weeks).

Nagpal’s article highlights a key difference between successful people and not-yet-successful people:

Successful people set rules for their lives.

Examine the life of any high achiever and you’ll likely find that their life is guided by rules, both broad and specific. Listen to Tim Ferriss interview Navy SEALs, Silicon Valley titans, and a certain former state governor. Read Daily Rituals, Mason Currey’s account of 161 world-class minds and their working habits. It’s obvious that these people have made conscious decisions about what is acceptable for them and what isn’t. Whether or not they have a grand life plan, they have consciously designed their day-to-day approach to life.

How many “regular people” could tell you what specific rules make up their approach to life? I don’t think many could, and I couldn’t until fairly recently.

The productivity root document

A few months ago, I read a blog post by Cal Newport (another computer scientist), on a related strategy: recording your rules for living in a single document which you keep handy. Newport suggests “[creating] a single page document that describes the key productivity rules, habits, and systems . . . that you currently follow in your life.”

I decided to try this out, and the result has been a clearer view of my own life, how I want to approach each day, and where my values and priorities lie. I highly recommend this practice, and getting started is easy. Here’s how I did it.

  1. Take out a blank sheet of paper or open a new document on your computer/phone.
  2. Record your current rules for daily living, both granular and abstract. How do you track your commitments on a daily basis? What’s your morning routine? What are your overall values?
  3. Keep it nearby, review it often, and revise it as needed—frequently, at first.

What’s the payoff? There are a couple.

First, as Newport mentions, you don’t have to try to remember the various productivity practices you’re currently employing. Find a clever hack? Add it to the list.

Second, when you have a difficult decision to make—one where there’s no obvious right or wrong answer—reviewing this document can provide a surprising level of clarity. Here’s what kind of person I am. Here are my core principles and the daily habits that support them. Here’s who I want to be.

That’s something worth having around.