When you feel like you’re spending a lot of time on low-impact activities

Alan Lin asked:

One issue I have is prioritization. I sometimes find myself spending a lot of time on low-impact activities. How do you tackle this in your life? What’s the most important thing you’re working on right now?

It’s easy to feel that most of your time is taken up with trivial things. There’s taking care of yourself and the household. There are endless tasks to check off to-do lists. There’s paperwork and overhead. Sometimes it feels like you’re making very little progress.

Here are some things I’ve learned that help me with that feeling:

  1. Understand and embrace your constraints.
  2. Lay the groundwork for action by understanding yourself.
  3. Act in tune with yourself.
  4. Accumulate gradual progress.

1. UNDERSTAND AND EMBRACE YOUR CONSTRAINTS

Many productivity and time management books seem to have the mindset where your Real Work is what matters and the rest of your life is what gets in the way. Sometimes it feels like the goal is to be able to work a clear, focused 60-hour or 120-hour week, to squeeze out every last bit of productivity from every last moment.

For me, the unproductive time that I spend snuggling with W- or the cats – that’s Real Life right there, for me, and I’m often all too aware of how short life is. The low-impact stuff is what grounds me and makes me human. As Richard Styrman points out in this comment, if other people can focus for longer, it’s because the rest of their lives don’t pull on them as much. I like the things that pull on me.

Instead of fighting your constraints, understand and embrace them. You can tweak them later, but when you make plans or evaluate yourself, do so with a realistic acceptance of the different things that pull on you. Know where you’re starting from. Then you can review commitments, get rid of ones that you’ve been keeping by default, and reaffirm the ones that you do care about. You might even find creative ways to meet your commitments with less time or effort. In any case, knowing your constraints and connecting them to the commitments behind them will make it it easier to remember and appreciate the reason why you spend time on these things.

One of my favourite ways of understanding constraints is to actually track them. Let’s look at time, for example. I know I spend a lot of my time on the general running of things. A quick summary from my time-tracking gives me this breakdown of the 744 hours in Oct 2014, a fairly typical month:

Hours Activity
255.0 sleep
126.3 consulting, because it helps me make a difference and build skills
91.9 doing other business-related things
80.5 chores and other unpaid work
86.2 taking care of myself
38.3 playing, relaxing
30.4 family-related stuff
12.6 socializing
10.3 writing, because it helps me learn and connect with great people
7.4 working on Emacs, because it helps me learn and connect with great people
1.5 gardening
1.0 reading
0.5 tracking
1.7 woodworking

Assuming that my consulting, writing, and working on Emacs are the activities that have some impact on the wider world, that’s 144 hours out of 744, or about 19% of all the time I have. This is roughly 4.5 hours a day. (And that’s a generous assumption – many of the things I write are personal reflections of uncertain value to other people.)

Even with tons of control over my schedule, I also spend lots of time on low-impact activities. And this is okay. I’m fine with that. I don’t need to turn into a value-creating machine entirely devoted to the pursuit of one clear goal. I don’t think I even can. It works for other people, but not for me. I like the time I spend cooking and helping out around the house. I like the time I spend playing with interesting ideas. I like the pace I keep.

So I’m going to start with the assumption that this is the time that I can work with instead of being frustrated with the other things that fill my life.

An average of 4.5 hours a day is a lot, even if it’s broken up into bits and pieces. It’s enough time for me to write a deep reflection, sketch one or two books, work on some code… And day after day, if I add those hours up, that can become something interesting. Of course, it would probably add up to something more impressive if I picked one thing and focused on that. But I tend to enjoy a variety of interests, so I might as well work with that instead of against it, and sometimes the combinations can be fascinating.

Accepting your constraints doesn’t mean being locked into them. You can still tweak things. For example, I experiment with time-saving techniques like bulk-cooking. But starting from the perspective of accepting your limits lets you plan more realistically and minimize frustration, which means you don’t have to waste energy on beating yourself up for not being superhuman. Know what you can work with, and work with that.

You might consider tracking your time for a week to see where your time really goes. You can track your time with pen and paper, a spreadsheet, or freely-available tools for smartphones. The important part is to track your time as you use it instead of relying on memory or perception. Our minds lie to us about constraints, often exaggerating what we’re dealing with. Collect data and find out.

2. LAY THE GROUNDWORK FOR ACTION BY UNDERSTANDING YOURSELF

When I review my constraints and commitments, I often ask myself: “Why did I commit to this? Why is this my choice?” This understanding helps me appreciate those constraints and come up with good ways to work within them.

My ideal is to almost always work on whatever I feel like working on. This sounds like a recipe for procrastination, an easy way for near-term pleasurable tasks to crowd out important but tedious ones. That’s where preparing my mind can make a big difference. If I can prepare a list of good things to do that’s in tune with my values, then I can easily choose from that list.

Here are some questions that help me prepare:

  • Why do I feel like doing various things? Is there an underlying cause or unmet need that I can address? Am I avoiding something because I don’t understand it or myself well enough? Do I only think that I want something, or do I really want it? I do a lot of this thinking and planning throughout my life, so that when those awesome hours come when everything’s lined up and I’m ready to make something, I can just go and do it.
  • Can I deliberately direct my awareness in order to change how I feel about things by emphasizing positive aspects or de-emphasizing negative ones? What can I enjoy about the things that are good for me? What can I dislike about the things that are bad for me?
  • What can I do now to make things better later? How can I take advantage of those moments when I’m focused and everything comes together? How can I make better use of normal moments? How can I make better use of the gray times too, when I’m feeling bleah?
  • How can I slowly accumulate value? How can I scale up by making things available?

I think a lot about why I want to do something, because there are often many different paths that can lead to the same results. If I catch myself procrastinating a task again and again, I ask myself if I can get rid of the task or if I can get someone else to do it. If I really need to do it myself, maybe I can transform the task into something more enjoyable. If I find myself drawn to some other task instead, I ask myself why, and I learn a little more about myself in the process.

I plan for small steps, not big leaps. Small steps sneak under my threshold for intimidation – it’s easier to find time and energy for a 15-minute task than for a 5-day slog.

I don’t worry about whether I’m working on Important things. Instead, I try to keep a list full of small, good things that take me a little bit forward. Even if I proceed at my current pace–for example, accumulating a blog post a day–in twenty years, I’ll probably be somewhere interesting.

In addition to the mental work of understanding yourself and shifting your perceptions by paying deliberate attention, it’s also good to prepare other things that can help you make the most of high-energy, high-concentration times. For example, even when I don’t feel very creative, I can still read books and outline ideas in preparation for writing. I sketch screens and plan features when I don’t feel like programming. You can probably find lots of ways you can prepare so that you can work more effectively when you want to.

2014-12-03 Motivation and understanding 3. ACT IN TUNE WITH YOURSELF

For many people, motivation seems to be about forcing yourself to do something that you had previously decided was important.

If you’ve laid the groundwork from step 2, however, you probably have a list of many good things that you can work on, so you can work on whatever you feel like working on now.

Encountering resistance? Have a little conversation with yourself. Find out what the core of it is, and see if you can find a creative way around that or work on some other small thing that moves you forward.

4. ACCUMULATE GRADUAL PROGRESS.

So now you’re doing what you want to be doing, after having prepared so that you want to do good things. But there’s still that shadow of doubt in you: “Is this going to be enough?”

It might not seem like you’re making a lot of progress, especially if you’re taking small steps on many different trails. This is where keeping track of your progress becomes really important. Celebrate those small accomplishments. Take notes. Your memory is fuzzy and will lie to you. It’s hard to see growth when you look at it day by day. If you could use your notes (or a journal, or a blog) to look back over six months or a year, though, chances are you’ll see that you’ve come a long way. And if you haven’t, don’t get frustrated; again, embrace your constraints, deepen your understanding, and keep nibbling away at what you want to do.

For me, I usually use my time to learn something, writing and drawing along the way. I’ve been blogging for the past twelve years or so. It’s incredible how those notes have helped me remember things, and how even the little things I learn can turn out to be surprisingly useful. Step by step.

So, if you’re feeling frustrated because you don’t seem to be making any progress and yet you can’t force yourself to work on the things that you’ve decided are important, try a different approach:

  1. Understand and embrace your constraints. Don’t stress out about not being 100% productive or dedicated. Accept that there will be times when you’re distracted or sick, and there will be times when you’re focused and you can do lots of good stuff. Accepting this still lets you tweak your limits, but you can do that with a spirit of loving kindness instead of frustration.
  2. Lay the groundwork for action. Mentally prepare so that it’s easier for you to want what’s good for you, and prepare other things so that when you want to work on something, you can work more effectively.
  3. Act in tune with yourself. Don’t waste energy forcing yourself through resistance. Use your preparation time to find creative ways around your blocks and come up with lots of ways you can move forward. That way, you can always choose something that’s in line with how you feel.
  4. Accumulate gradual progress. Sometimes you only feel like you’re not making any progress because you don’t see how far you’ve come. Take notes. Better yet, share those notes. Then you can see how your journey of a thousand miles is made up of all those little steps you’ve been taking – and you might even be able to help out or connect with other people along the way.

Alan has a much better summary of it, though. =)

To paraphrase, you start by examining your desires because that’s the only way to know if they’re worthwhile pursuits. This thinking prepares you and gives you with a set of things to spend time on immediately whenever you have time, and because you understand your goals & desires and the value they add to your life, you are usually satisfied with the time you do spend.

Hope that helps!

Related posts:

Thanks to Alan for nudging me to write and revise this post!

Relaxed routines

I do a lot of things that productivity books and blogs tell you that you shouldn’t do, and I don’t do a lot of the things they prescribe. I wake up late. I read e-mail, but I don’t respond to it for a week or two. I go for variety instead of focus. I don’t try to motivate myself to reach time-bound goals or follow pre-set plans. Instead, I figure out what I want to do at the moment, and I go and do that.

What does that look like, day-to-day? Here’s what a typical day might be:

I wake up at around 8 or 9 after an average of 8.3 hours of sleep (although in November, the average was much higher). I stay in bed another twenty minutes or so, easing myself into wakefulness. During this time, I might do a quick scan of blog posts, Hacker News, Reddit, Facebook, and my e-mail. Sometimes I think of a few ideas I would like to explore that day, and I type that into Evernote on my phone so that I don’t forget.

Eventually, I leave the warmth of the duvet, slip into a fuzzy bathrobe, and head downstairs for breakfast. I feed the cats, too. After breakfast, I head back upstairs to brush my teeth and take care of other morning routines. I return to the kitchen (often still in pajamas), open my computer, and think: What do I want to think about today? What do I want to learn about? I look at my lists and outlines for ideas.

Depending on what I feel like doing, I might spend some time programming or writing. If I don’t feel particularly creative, I might read instead. I review my Org Mode agenda in Emacs to see what I need to take care of today, and I check my other lists for unscheduled tasks that might be good to do too. I keep my notes in large, lightly-structured text files so that I always have something to work on.

Here’s the important part of my routine, I think: I’m almost always taking notes. I keep a text file open on my computer as I program or debug, writing down the things I’m considering or where I’m getting stuck. I write, and I write about writing. Even when I’m away from my computer, I try to write brief notes on my phone.

People often think that taking notes takes too much time and slows you down. I find that notes help you cover more ground. When I don’t take notes, I get frustrated because I can feel my brain trying to jump from one topic to another too quickly. I forget. I have to figure things out again. Notes help me a lot. They don’t even have to be complete notes. Sometimes a phrase or two is enough to help me get back from interruptions or pick up loose threads.

I publish as many of my notes as I can. They often help other people, and I get to learn even more from the conversations on my blog. Publishing my notes also makes them easier to back up and search.

Back to my daily routines. At some point in the afternoon, I might respond to e-mail. I usually try to do this at least once a week, although sometimes I let it slip for longer. Sometimes I nap or take a break. Then I check in with myself again: What do I feel like working on now? There’s often a little time to get another chunk done before dinner.

We go to the library and the supermarket a few times each week. Sometimes we cook; sometimes we have left-overs. Evenings are for tidying up, taking care of things, and relaxing. Sometimes I read books I’ve borrowed from the library, or spend some more time writing, or play video games, or practise sketching.

When I go to bed, I catch up with W- and then read a little: often something unproductive but fun, like fanfiction with a rational bent.

After we turn out the lights, I wrap up by thinking a little about how I would like the next day to turn out: What do I need to do? What do I want to learn? What would make things even better? I dream my way into the next day.

I think I do less than many people do. I feel like I live at a more relaxed pace. Still, my weekly reviews show me more crossed-off tasks than I expected. My monthly reviews show that I keep moving forward on my plans. Whenever I do my annual reviews, I can see some difference between the past and the present. So maybe it’s not that I’m particularly efficient at doing things, but I’m good at keeping track of the progress.

I share my time data publicly, so if you’re curious, you can dig into it and find out more about what a typical day is like.

I don’t think I have any awesome productivity secrets. I live on the same 24 hours as everyone else. But I enjoy asking questions, taking notes, looking for opportunities for little improvements, and sharing what I learn along the way, and I think that’s what people respond to. If I can do this with a fairly relaxed pace, you can probably do something similar with your life too. =)

Related:

Emacs kaizen: ace-jump-zap lets you use C-u to zap to any character

I’m perpetually using M-z to zap-to-char and then typing the character back in, because I really should be using zap-up-to-char instead. But if I’m going to get the hang of fiddling with my muscle memory so that I do things the Right Way, I might as well use this opportunity to practise using ace-jump-zap instead. The ace-jump-zap-up-to-char-dwim and ace-jump-zap-to-char-dwim functions behave like their normal equivalents, but if you C-u them, you get ace-jump type behaviour allowing you to quickly zap to any character you see. And since I mentally think of M-z as not including the character, I may as well map it so that M-z behaves that way.

Now I just have to remember that C-u does cool stuff…

(use-package ace-jump-zap
  :ensure ace-jump-zap
  :bind
  (("M-z" . ace-jump-zap-up-to-char-dwim)
   ("C-M-z" . ace-jump-zap-to-char-dwim)))

Making personal blogs useful for other people too

When people ask my advice on starting a blog, I encourage them to start a personal one. I don’t mean that they should focus on writing about what they had for lunch or ranting about something that frustrates them, although they can, if they want to. I mean that it’s okay to let their blog reflect them – the quirks of their interests and personality, the little things about them that make them different. I think it’s because I hate reading those generic articles of passed-on advice that could have been written by anyone (and indeed, are often churned out a dozen at a time by low-paid freelancers). Our biases show in our advice.

On this blog, I tend to lean very firmly on the side of personal reflections – things I haven’t quite figured out enough to clearly explain. When you know something, you can explain it in a way that makes sense, and people see that logic and immediately get that you get it. This is why a well-structured course or book is a thing of beauty. It straightens out the path of learning and helps you get to your goal faster.

When you’re still making sense of something, you go in stops and starts. You wander down cul-de-sacs and dawdle along trails. You circle around something, trying to see it from different angles. This is me when I write, following the butterfly of a question somewhere. Perhaps with more editing and more planning, I can hide all of it and present you with just the polished end. But that goes against what I want to encourage.

When someone writes a tutorial with the reader in mind – like drawing a map for someone else to follow – you need to do very little to adapt it to your situation. You can see yourself in it, and you can see how to apply what you want to learn. On the other hand, personal reflections require more translation. It’s like the difference between reading a guidebook that someone has written for tourists and a travel journal with observations that sometimes slip into shorthand. You take the guidebook when you go places; you read the journal if you want the feel of someone else’s feel of a place.

There’s a middle ground here between guidebook and travel journal: a travelogue, written for yourself but also with an eye to other people reading it. In a travelogue, you might take a little more time to explain why a place matters to you instead of simply jotting down a few cryptic references to things that only you know. You might try a little harder to capture the local flavour. You might point out things that perhaps you’re not personally interested in but that other people might find interesting.

I think that’s what I’d like this blog to grow into over the years and years ahead. I’d like to write a travelogue of life. Far away from the “Top 10 Things to See in __“-type lists, but more than just a photo album of snapshots or a scrapbook of tickets and brochures. Something in the middle.

And I think that feeling one gets when you read a good account–not “Oh, that sounds exotic,” or “I wish I could go,” but rather something that hovers between a new appreciation for unfamiliar things and the familiarity of recognizing home in a strange place–that might be something good to learn how to evoke in readers (you and my future, forgetful self).

Coming back from this extended metaphor – on this blog, the kinds of things that seem to have evoked that kind of a response are:

  • Sketchnotes and other visual summaries/thoughts – interesting and easy to share
  • Emacs tips and other technical tidbits – useful
  • Decisions, reasons, experiments, reflections – sometimes they lead to things like “I feel like that too!” “Mm, that’s interesting.” “Have you considered…?”

So here are some things I might try in order to help this personal blog be more useful to other people (not just me):

  • Harvest more from notes, and organize them better.
    • Make skimming easier by creating more structure with summaries, paragraphs, lists, and formatting. If people can skim faster, that saves them time and lets them focus on what’s more relevant to them.
    • Think of other people more when writing; translate “I” to “you” occasionally so that other people don’t have to
  • Do more research and summarize the results. Bringing in other people’s experiences and insights can help me learn faster and it also gives me more to share with others.
  • Try more experiments. This is like going more places. I don’t think I’ll ever be patient enough to hold off writing until the end of the journey; I’m more of a write-along-the-way sort of person. But here’s a structure that can make it better:
    • Initial post: Share the plans and invite people along
    • Middle post: Share preliminary observations and progress, link back to initial post, connect with any others who’ve joined
    • Conclusion: summarize findings, link back to previous posts and to co-adventurers

If you have a personal blog, would any of these ideas work for you as well? Tell me how it’s going!

Exploring sketchnote colour styles

I’m working on expanding my sketchnote colour vocabulary. I want to go beyond tweaking colour schemes and the occasional coloured sketch (both from Jan 2014). Since comparing different examples is a great way to develop opinions (July 2014), I figured I’d review the Evernote clippings I’d tagged with technique:colour in order to roughly classify them by type of technique.

2014-12-01 Colouring inspiration guide - drawing

2014-12-01 Colouring inspiration guide – drawing

Here’s the list of links to the sketches themselves:

I thought about the different styles, and I picked five to practise with: decorations, accent text, toned text, background, and flood. I took this black-and-white sketchnote draft I made of The Inner Game of Work (W. Timothy Gallwey, 2000; Amazon affiliate link).

2014-12-01 The Inner Game of Work - base

and I coloured it in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro with liberal use of layers. Here are the results:

Of the styles I tried, I think I like the toned text one the most. It feels the most put-together while still being different from my usual highlighting style. I should play around with this a bit more to see whether blue/red makes a difference here, though.

2014-12-01 The Inner Game of Work - W. Timothy Gallwey

2014-12-01 The Inner Game of Work – W. Timothy Gallwey

This is also a handy way to practise nonjudgmental awareness, as suggested by the book. =) If I pay attention to how other people do things and how I do things, I can’t help but learn more along the way.

I hope other people find this useful!

Weekly review: Week ending December 19, 2014

W- and I have been preparing the concrete floor in the laundry area, scraping off paint and old flooring. We’ve also been mudding and sanding the drywall in the downstairs bathroom. It’s tiring work, but also good exercise and a good use of vacation time. Next week will be

Oh! This week was great for packaging. I copied my Makefile for EPUB and PDF generation, tweaked it a little bit, and published Emacs Chat transcripts. I also exported my 2014 blog archive (at least so far) as an EPUB so that I could re-read all of it in preparation for my yearly review. The format worked really well. I should tweak it and release it, just in case people feel like flipping through that. Besides, it’ll be handy for my archives anyway.

Next week will be more flooring and drywall, I think. So less drawing and writing, more family time, but that works too. =)

Blog posts

Sketches

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (31.9h – 18%)
    • Earn (11.4h – 35% of Business)
      • Look into IE8 Standards Mode-related bug
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (14.1h – 44% of Business)
      • Drawing (10.2h)
        • Sketchnote Write Faster Write Better
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (1.4h)
        • Convert blog to EPUB
        • Package EPUB
        • Package ZIP
        • Review transcript for Carsten Dominik
        • Convert How to Read Emacs Lisp to nicely-formatted EPUB
        • Set up EPUB workflow for Read Lisp, Tweak Emacs
        • Revise transcript for Magnar Sveen
      • Paperwork (0.9h)
      • Request Writing on Both Sides of the Brain
      • Clean up disk space
    • Connect (6.4h – 20% of Business)
  • Relationships (5.0h – 2%)
    • Bring bubble wrap to Hacklab
    • Buy LG WH16NS40 internal BluRay drive for W-
  • Discretionary – Productive (19.9h – 11%)
    • Emacs (7.9h – 4% of all)
      • Set up Emacs tools for sketchedbooks
    • Japanese
      • Collect words and examples from tweets about Emacs
      • Go through Basic Japanese
      • Go through Japanese for Busy People II
      • Write about my goals for studying Japanese
    • Writing (4.4h)
  • Discretionary – Play (12.0h – 7%)
  • Personal routines (26.1h – 15%)
  • Unpaid work (11.3h – 6%)
  • Sleep (61.8h – 36% – average of 8.8 per day)