Yesterday I was outside my apartment building, ready to go for a run down the East River, and I stopped to check my phone. As I pulled it out, I experienced something like dread. What if there was something, a text or email, that was so upsetting, I might not run? I needed the upside, or plus, of going running. I didn’t trust myself to not be derailed.

I put the phone away, with great resolve. As I jogged along, I was already feeling great about the better choice I’d made. And I knew if there was anything on the phone, it could wait forty minutes—of course. Then the pit-pat of “plus” and “minus” in my brain joined my pace on the trail, abetted by sunrise, against a soundtrack of angry FDR traffic and city sirens. By the time I was home, something seismic had changed in me.

Just by ticking off one thing in the “plus” column (exercise), just by consciously choosing a real positive over a real minus (the distraction of the phone in general) and all those potential ones (or many—manuscripts rejected, a broken lunch date, a missing swain), I was ready for a great day. I was missing nothing! After all, as my late husband often pointed out, no one’s ever won the lottery by email.

Prior to this epiphany, I was a productivity information junkie. Perhaps you’ve been there. All the tips for getting off social media are actually coming up in social media. An article that tells you to stop reading articles on your phone comes up on your phone. An expert lists 10 behaviors for success, and one entry is, “Stop reading these lists.” Helpful as all these approaches are, I was finding it hard to chart my course every day. Really hard.

In fact, one morning I woke up before the pre-dawn alarm and realized in a heart-pounding panic that I had not set my daily intentions the night before. I might have dreamed it. It didn’t matter, for my pulse was racing and I was not certain if I could settle in enough to do a journaling brain dump, some light meditation, and the 30-minute workout that was guaranteed to be my best channel to productivity yet. Just to get to that plan, I’d had to ignore the article that said not to exercise in the morning, when my brain was already at peak, for I might then be exhausted the rest of the day.

I decided to spend the rest of the day noticing all the pluses and minuses inherent in every task. I would monitor all the good and bad choices, while looking at everything that pushed me further down the road of feeling and performing great. The chatter in my head vanished; it was so simple. My whole day would be spent in binary mode: Choose this, not that. Plus, not minus.

I had not only exercised early, freeing up my brain from the “will I or won’t I” tape that runs most days, but I left the phone to one side for the rest of the morning. This led to, later, one or two longer sessions of taking care of emails, instead of checking every few minutes and wasting time on other little distractions (I almost called them “digital tasks” but honestly, Instagram and Facebook.)

It was an easy way to check all my habits, all day long. Snack? The granola bars looked deliciously full of sugar, but were not a plus. The handful of almonds—score! Go on Instagram? Distraction, definite minus. On LinkedIn? Potential distraction, but I need to address something I’d read about SEO and keywords in my profile. Plus. After that, it was just a matter of concentrating on the choice all day long: Plus and minus stayed central.

By the end of the day, I had to add a third sign: “equal.” These are “maybe” moments. “Equal” signs usually mean no obvious net loss, no obvious net gain, but often some invisible positive effect is buried there. In fact, I’ve discovered that “equal” moments are what keep me human and add value to my day anyway. The little old lady from my building sidetracked me about her recycling, so I spent a half-hour going up and down our six flights. I returned home so charged up that I flew through a couple of tasks. I made the “equal” or even “minus” choice of grabbing fruits and veg from the corner pushcart, instead of the more productive choice of shopping once a week at the local supermarket, according to conventional wisdom. At home, I saw that all I needed were fruits and vegetables. The supermarket aisles would have lured me to other, less healthy choices. I would have spent more money.

The hardest choices were on the personal front. I have a habit of being available to all my friends, all day long. Why not? They work, have jobs, and I work at home, where I can do anything any time I want, right? I have seen several days in a row blown up by well-meaning but heartbroken friends, or job-hunting ones, or bored ones who have actually said, “I’m just calling for entertainment!” I fobbed them off with excuses about finishing up a project—the plus and minus project. Tomorrow I’ll take a moment to explain to them, clearly, why each one of them wants to be a plus in my day, and me, in theirs. The heartbroken one, because she wasn’t venting to me, created her own path to regaining her self-esteem. Progress!

 I hope I’ll always know when the plus or minus system has to give way for being human.

Sometimes I don’t see the plus signs until after the fact. But they are adding up to a more peaceful day. I get tons done, waste less time, and have those tiny little columns in my head, adding up to less stress and the feeling that I’ve got this. Isn’t that what everyone’s been calling win-win?

I’m the sole contributor to, but launching The Little New York Kitchen, where joy in tasks and a life well lived are just two of the topics I meet with butter, sugar, and flour. Sign up for the mailing list, connect with me on LinkedIn, or just follow me here. I’ve a big mouth and not long to say everything, but I’m also a very good listener.