Designing My Life i.e. my R15 System

I’ve alluded to my R15 system many a time on this blog. The last time I did this was on Closing Days and I received two requests for more details on this. While I am not sure I can do justice to the awesome-ness of the system, I thought I would give it a shot.

First, the Why?
I was in my 4th and final year as a university student and had just spent 3 incredible years in a start up learning from some amazing folks, an experience that had me come face to face with myself in ways I had never imagine. I knew then that the biggest cause for many of my failures was a lack of discipline.

I knew what I ‘needed’ to do – read more, exercise more, write more etc but I just wasn’t doing enough of it. And ‘to know and not to do is not to know.’. This needed to change.

The Inspiration(s)

3 separate events inspired me to do this. It’s a very geeky collection but if you have been a regular, I trust you know what to expect.. :-)

– I watched a wiser friend put together a basic form of this system (let’s call it v1). He would target 5 key tasks in a day, 25 in a week and report his score at the end of the day. Every missed task meant he lost $10 to me. I was intrigued..

– I had ‘studied’ Covey’s 7 Habits book a few months earlier and it was (and has remained) a very influential book. I was inspired to develop a system that helped me put ‘First Things First’. I started with Covey’s weekly planner and that particular tool didn’t work for me.

– I had recently read another great book – ‘You Don’t Have To Be Born Brilliant’ by John Mcgrath that spoke of designing simple systems to ‘design’ our lives and probably most importantly, ensuring you had a coach to help you monitor your progress. All great athletes had coaches to help them with discipline, after all.

PS: I fondly call it the ‘R15’ system. :-) This was because this wiser friend called it that since it was 15 mins at the end of the day with Rohan.

How It Began

The system began as a very simple checklist. I had 5 things to do in a day and I received a point each for doing them. I think the initial list was a mix of 2 hours for my Final Year Project, 30 minutes of book reading, 20 minutes of exercise 3 times a week. writing home 3 times a week and a few other things I deemed important.

I asked a close friend to be my coach and I would meet him every Sunday to discuss my previous week and plan for my next one. For every task I missed, I paid him $1. (That used to HURT as a university student as I remember paying $13 a few weeks in.)

Building the Game – Boundaries, Rules and Scorecards

I began to see the fruits of this system very quickly and the ability to ‘make and keep commitments’ to myself was one that energized me like never before. Just the thought that I could tell myself ‘I promised myself that I’d read 30 minutes every day.. and I did’ was one that gave me no doubt I was onto something very special.

Now, this was also beginning to become lots of fun. I am a very competitive person and seeing this avenue to compete with myself energized me like no others. I wanted to beat my own scores – this was turning out to be a game than needed boundaries, rules and scorecards. I was helped in this process by people and books and I thought I’d share some of the key points of evolution.

Principles and Learnings

Never be rule maker and player at the same time. This principle resulted in a simple rule. If I felt the need for a change in rule, I was only allowed to do it on Sunday. I could not change rules while playing the game between Monday-Friday. Waiting till the weekend always gave me fresh perspective.

– Encompass all activities – production and production capability building. I realized I had 3 kinds of activities – Production (e.g. work), Production Capability Building (e.g. Blogging, Reading, Exercise, Staying in touch with family etc that helped my productivity) and Chill (i.e. everything else! :-)). If I wanted to truly measure my day and progress, I needed to encompass everything useful I did in a day.

Set clear boundaries and close days. This matters a lot! I close my days by sending an email to my coach with a score for the day.

Plan the next day, and week. Again, critical. Every time I slip on this, I regret it!

Align your to do list with your values. I realized, when reading about Prioritized Daily Task Lists that my priorities needed to be aligned with my schedule. E.g. If ‘Family’ was a value, I better have staying in touch / spending time tasks on my list.

Keep one to do list for all tasks and print it out! An insight that helped a lot is to keep one to do list for all tasks – work and personal. This is incredibly helpful as it ensures that you spend your breaks checking off other items that contribute to the whole picture. And printing the list and checking the boxes helps for me.

Use ‘sticks’ but only for short periods. I used to use ‘sticks’ like giving myself a -2 if I missed book reading. I still use ‘sticks’ but only for short periods to get me moving. If ‘sticks’ don’t work for 2 weeks in a row, the problem is different and it’s worthwhile solving the real problem..


A lot of these rules have changed and evolved over the years but the basic principles still hold true. Roughly, 45 minutes of productive work = 1 point. And depending on the value of the task, the number of points naturally goes up.

For example, some rules I have in place as things stand now are –

– 30 mins of book reading = 2 points: Every subsequent 30 minutes after is 1 point
– 20 mins of exercise = 1.5 points: Semantics but matters as it’s easiest mentally to get 20 minutes of gym done in a day
– ‘a-day’ tasks = 0.5 points: These are small tasks I do every day during breaks, travel etc that help. Catching up on news, blogs, The Economist etc come under this category
– Morning Routine = 1.5: Involves +1 for blogging and +0.5 for clearing email and NOT doing it first thing in the morning, a recent addition

.. and so on. I could explain the rationale behind every one of these but you have to remember that these have evolved over more than 120 weeks of the R15 system. When it started, it was all about doing 5 things I needed done every day.

Practical Stuff

Practically, this means having a template for a ‘day’ on OneNote that I edit. I work on this every Sunday when I plan my week and make edits as I see fit. I also change the plan for the next day as necessary before closing my day.

A sample day’s ‘to do’ list looks like this –


(The Weekend points are based on all useful good stuff done on weekends eg: Calling family, working on projects, playing football, socializing with friends etc. I’ve found this to be a nice ‘quick win’ when I start a day knowing I’ve notched some points up on the board.)

As you can see, the system has become fairly all encompassing and it’s one that undergoes a lot of change. For instance, I am currently operating on a simpler ‘Focus List’ that has drilled down the list to some bare minimum as I need all the time I have on hand for a couple of critical projects.

I’ve often had people wonder if this means you never have free time. On the contrary, I’ve found that being organized only allows for lots of guilt-free free time. But hey, it’s also a question of believing in the concept of organization.. this is only for the believers.

Update (Thanks to Yipeng)

Yipeng (in the comments) had a very good question – what software do I use?

I am a huge fan of Microsoft OneNote and that’s what I use. I have all my files on Dropbox and I have sync’d across my Personal and Work laptops so it’s all seamless (for the most part).

Vulnerability and a Few Thoughts to Wrap Up

I have thought about sharing this system many a time on this blog and a simple idea has stopped me – the thought of ‘feeling totally vulnerable.’ In many ways, this system is what I use to run my life. In the past 2 and half years of doing this, I have gone from a person who struggled with discipline and organization to one capable of both. Probably, most importantly, I have gone from someone who struggled with putting the concept of integrity in action i.e. making and keeping commitments to someone who is a LOT better at it.

But, in many ways, sharing this has meant putting myself out there. And while I think I’ve done a lot more of that than I’ve been comfortable with in the process of sharing learnings here and always been thankful for it, this does make feel ‘naked’. :-) But, the thought of saying ‘No’ to 2 reader requests meant putting these feelings aside..

Many friends have seen, and know of, this system. I’ve had all sorts of reactions to it over the years- from ‘Dude.. you need to take a chill pill’ to ‘Why do you complicate life? Everything you need to do should be common sense’ to ‘Wow’. It’s hard to explain a system as complex like this in a few sentences and I guess this post finally does that (or at least I hope it does).

I guess the bottom line is that this works for me. It is indeed different strokes for different folks and I’ve learnt to embrace and accept my own weirdness. More importantly, I’ve seen a few people try it and have seen it work for them too. And I thought I would share it in the hope that you might be able to build a system for yourself that might help you manage yourself better (if you have such struggles, of course..). 

And in case you decide to walk down this path, I have just two pieces of advice

Start with something VERY simple and iterate, a lot. For example, start with reading or exercising and a few other basic tasks and add layers (or not)

Find a coach. Just ask a best friend to be your ‘coach’. Nothing much expected. Share your progress, talk about it and slowly build the discipline to think through and solve these problems with yourself 

And finally, there’s a story that I heard the other day that sums this system up better than anything else.

Abraham Maslow liked to say that in any given moment we have a choice: Will we step forward into growth (+1) or back into safety (-1)?

Thus, moment by moment, we make a choice and we shape our destiny. Let’s say the alarm goes off tomorrow morning. Do we step forward and do the thing we said we’d do? (Exercise, jog etc) or do we step back into safety and pull the covers over our head?

That’s a +1 decision right there. A few strong positive steps forward at the start of a day can have a magical effect on the overall score of our days. And we always have the choice to take that step forward.

That’s really what the R15 system has me do, every day. It pushes me to take the step forward.. whether I like it or not. And that helps me, a lot.

I hope it helps you too.