When I was first seriously learning to develop software, I had the mistaken impression that I could only make progress when I was sitting at the keyboard, typing code.

This would lead to a pointless frustration when I was away from the keyboard even if I had a good cause for being away.

I have since learned that time away from the keyboard can be just as valuable to productivity, not to mention all the other valuable things that are valuable in this life apart from “feeling productive”. Rest is essential. Relationships are essential. Time spent outside in nature is refreshing.

In addition to the benefits that rest, relationships, and refreshment bring to a well-balanced life, I have found a way to use spare moments in between everything else: daydreaming. Note that this is not an excuse for being lost in thought when I should be present in the moment, but there are moments that do not require “presence” that can be conducive to daydreaming.

Allow me to introduce a heavy-handed acronym with which you too can daydream your way to self-improvement and productivity:

  • Daydream
  • Review
  • Evaluate
  • Act
  • Measure

Daydream: what would success look like?

In the daydream phase, you have the freedom to ignore all constraints. Money is no object. Time, energy, and attention are limitless. If you had nothing holding you back, no competing priorities, what would you want to do?

  • Travel to a special place?
  • Complete a significant project?
  • Learn a particular skill?
  • Develop a virtuous character trait?

The daydream phase can be an end to itself. You can allow yourself to enjoy the fantasy for a time, without any obligation to spend time, energy, and resources attempting to achieve such a dream.

Review: which daydreams are worth pursuing?

At a separate time, not while actively daydreaming, set aside an hour, a morning, an evening, to take stock of your life and to consider whether your current circumstances and daily activities are aligned with your goals. Consider whether you want to name one of your daydreams as a goal, or whether to release yourself from a goal and relegate it back to a daydream.

In reality, we all have competing priorities and constraints that make many dreams impractical. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by spending your time, energy, and resources attempting to achieve a dream that you know is not aligned with goals that you are not willing to sacrifice.

Experiment: try something different

You are the world’s leading expert in how you think and how you act, but how well do you know yourself? If you choose to think differently, will it lead to you acting differently? If you choose to act differently, will it lead to you thinking differently?

Insanity is repeatedly taking the same actions and expecting different results.

Try something new. You don’t have to commit to doing the new thing forever. You don’t even have to tell anyone you’re doing a new thing, or not doing an old thing.

Act: put intention into action

If you don’t actually do what you say you intend to do, then all of these steps have turned back into daydreams. Don’t let your dreams be dreams.

Measure: are you taking action?

What gets measured gets managed — even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organisation to do so.

  • V. F. Ridgway, Dysfunctional Consequences of Performance Measurements, 1956

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure

This step can be either a challenge or can be a huge help. I like numbers. I like checklists. But checking boxes just to make the numbers go up does not lead to true growth or true productivity.

Say that you have a Dream of being able to play the piano. You could choose to measure how many minutes per day you practice playing scales, or practice playing a particular song. But if at the end of the year you are boasting of how many cumulative hours you have spent playing scales, has that metric become your goal in place of your Dream?

For this example, rather than counting a total number of minutes playing scales, track how many days during which practiced at least a little. That metric can also become a goal if you’re not careful, but it more closely answers the question: are you taking action that contributes toward achieving your goal?

Epilogue: Repeat

These steps are not in any particular order, they all depend on each other and should be repeated in a cycle. Try it out and let me know what you think.