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Figuring out how to deal with sub-optimal times

There are days when I’m at the top of my game. It’s easy to think, learn, write, draw, code, be present. Somehow, time stretches to accommodate the different things I want to do. Those are good days. I have them frequently enough so that my optimistic brain considers this the default, although there are also Really Good days when things totally rock.

Then there are times when I feel fuzzy or blah or frazzled or stressed. I guess you could call them sub-optimal, although sub-optimal is a funny word because there’s so much space below “optimal” that you’d spend practically all of your time in sub-optimal zone. Anyway.

I was thinking about the different variants of fuzziness, frazzledness, and such things. When you’re feeling out of it, sometimes you don’t have the ability (or inclination) to pin down exactly why you feel out of it and what you can do about that – either to help you recharge, or to at least mitigate the downsides of being down. It makes sense to come up with some ways to recognize and work around your brain state.

2014-09-04 Suboptimal Sacha

2014-09-04 Suboptimal Sacha

Here’s a quick list of sub-optimal states I sometimes find myself in:

  • Sleepy: Pretty straightforward. Tends to happen if I get less than 8 hours of sleep (probably even anything less than 8.3), or if my sleep is messed up by interruptions, buzzing brains, etc. Manifests itself as slowness, tiredness, yawns. The fix is easy: take it easy, nap, or go to sleep earlier.
  • Sick: The occasional cold makes me feel all blah and fuzzy. Hard to think creatively during these times. Good time to sleep or play video games.
  • Stretched: This happens when I’m trying to pay attention to too many projects or open loops. I feel a little frazzled around the edges. I can generally deal with this by writing down all the tasks into Org Mode and scheduling them appropriately, but sometimes I still get stressed around calendar events or multiple places to check.
  • Buzzy: When my mind skitters to and fro, usually because it’s been overstimulated by computers or video games. Hard to focus. Can be addressed by walks or sleeping. Can be minimized by not using computers late at night, and not trying to multitask important things during meetings.
  • Fuzzy: Hard to focus, but in a different way from buzziness. When I feel fuzzy, my thoughts feel slow and it’s hard to grab onto something. It’s a good time to do straightforward tasks that don’t require much thinking, like accounting. I can also break down creative tasks into smaller less-creative pieces, so I can still get small chunks of writing or drawing done even when my brain is tired.
  • Speeding: Sometimes I overlook details or things I need to do. When we catch that, it’s a good time to slow down and ask people to doublecheck my work. Related to buzziness and feeling stretched. Checklists, processes, and automation help a lot.
  • Absent-minded: Sometimes I’ll blank out when it comes to where I’ve put something or what I was about to do because I wasn’t paying enough attention. Related to fuzziness. Habits, reminders, and lists help; also, W- helps me remember or find things.
  • Anxious: Generally around being late, messing up, or forgetting important things. When I’m awake and reasonable, I know that the world tends to keep on going and that people adjust, but early meetings still disproportionately interfere with sleep. I can calm down my lizard brain when I’m awake enough to do it. Sleeping is easier with backup alarms and wake-up reminders.
  • Annoyed/frustrated: When things are more limited than I hoped they’d be, or I have to figure out complicated workarounds. Can handle this by dissociating emotion from dealing with things like Internet Explorer. Also, taking plenty of notes helps, since I can avoid having to re-solve the problem in the future. If I can share my notes, all the better.
  • Embarrassed: Sometimes I mess up, and sometimes programming/automation helps me mess up on a grand scale. Whoops. Somewhat mitigated if I focus on moving forward and fixing multiple gaps. Having team members provide air cover helps a lot too.

I’d been feeling a little bit stretched lately. When I recognized that, I made lots of lists of ongoing tasks and open loops. That helped a lot. =) I feel a little bit fuzzy in the evenings, but certain kinds of drawing and writing actually help with that instead of making it worse. Hmm…

Doing more consulting

As I mentioned previously, I’ve been doing a lot more consulting than I originally planned. At this point, I had been thinking of keeping my twice-a-week schedule for a few months, and then tapering down to the equivalent of one day a week, and then eventually letting go of it entirely. That might still happen. In the meantime, though, my primary client needs some extra help. I still carve out time to work on my own stuff, but I’m willing to postpone some of the things I could be working on because I can see how a little extra work now could create a lot more value for the client. Besides, it’s a good excuse to learn more about some of the things I’m curious about.

2014-08-27 Why do the extra consulting - #experiment #business #consulting

2014-08-27 Why do the extra consulting – #experiment #business #consulting

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a little about testing out this pace and observing what I ended up swapping out. It turned out that Harold Jarche had been thinking about similar things, and we chatted a little about it over lunch. (Yay lunch with people!) I mentioned I’d been fleshing out in more details the little things that tend to get put aside if I make work my default activity (at least until I reach 40 hours a week), and why I’m willing to make the trade.

2014-08-18 What am I really postponing or giving up - #experiment #business #consulting

2014-08-18 What am I really postponing or giving up – #experiment #business #consulting

On reflection, though, I can still make time for many of these activities or experiences if I use my time smartly. For example, I can still get enough sleep if I’m careful about morning meetings and late-night browsing. I can still work from home from time to time, which leads to afternoon walks to libraries and more relaxed evenings. I still exercise, actually, so that’s not one of the trades (it only feels that way). Deep reading and a feeling of leisure usually requires one of those open weekdays when I don’t have any work planned, but I get something similar to that feeling if I spend some time reflecting on what I’ve learned and drawing my thoughts.

2014-08-18 So if I'm going on a consulting sprint for 2.5 months - #experiment #business #consulting

2014-08-18 So if I’m going on a consulting sprint for 2.5 months – #experiment #business #consulting

Time is never static. Your day shifts in response to different priorities and stimuli. The stuff I’m learning and doing now is a good use of the time, but it’s also good to be aware of the flip side–even if it’s idealized, even if in reality some of those open days might be spent mostly napping and skimming books and wandering around trying to figure out thoughts. Knowing what I might be missing helps me mitigate those opportunity costs and remind myself: Yes, I am deliberately postponing this part and dropping that part and scaling back that other part, but it’s for this reason, so I should make the most of that opportunity. Then I can remind myself to re-evaluate things at a certain point, so that this new balance doesn’t become too routine. Otherwise you get used to the way things are, and then you wonder what you ever did with so much time in the first place. =)

Nudging the balance toward work

As an experiment, I decided to work a lot more last week than I normally do. I made work my default activity. If I didn’t have something particularly interesting in mind to write or draw or read, I’d log on to the network and check for requests, work on prototypes, and follow up on things I needed to do.

2014-08-13 Nudging the balance toward work - #experiment #consulting

2014-08-13 Nudging the balance toward work – #experiment #consulting

The result was a very productive week. I made a few interesting Javascript-y prototypes that we’re considering for use. On the the non-technical end, I worked on some marketing materials.  The momentum and focus felt great.

One of the things I realized about consulting when I was at IBM was that consulting is as much a learning opportunity for you as it is a way to create value for clients. At a little over two years, I think this is the longest I’ve ever worked on a single engagement. I want to make the most of what I can learn from this, while I’m immersed in the API and the environment and the experience. I’d like to get even deeper into building user interfaces, maybe even analyzing and tweaking performance.

2014-08-13 Discretionary work - #consulting

2014-08-13 Discretionary work – #consulting

These are skills I can build on that for future products, services, or consulting engagements. Because I haven’t been blogging or keeping copies of my code (didn’t feel right based on the IP agreement of my engagement), I’ll have to trust that the fuzzy recollections of my brain are enough for me.

My track record for remembering isn’t too good. I can only vaguely remember some of the details the projects I worked on at IBM, and I suspect I’ve completely forgotten at least one. (And t’s only been two years since I left!) But confidence and a certain sense of where things are or how I can go about doing things–those things stay with you, even if the specifics go.

Still, focusing on work makes me feel a little like I miss giving myself long stretches of time to tinker with non-work code, write blog posts, and figure out questions. It feels like my brain is a little buzzier, a little more tired. I usually sit down and write for an afternoon or two, when my brain is clear. In a few months, I’ll have plenty of time to follow my own interests, so I guess I can wait until then. But it’s good to know what I’m postponing so that I don’t get too used to not having it. From Daniel Klein’s Travels with Epicurus:

And Epicurus saw this opportunity for old age as one more benefit from leaving the world of commerce and politics behind us; it frees us to focus our brainpower on other matters, often more intimate and philosophical matters. Being immersed in the commercial world constrains the mind, limiting it to the conventional, acceptable thoughts; it is hard to close a sale if we pause in the proceedings to meditate at length about man’s relation to the cosmos. Furthermore, without a busy schedule, we simply have the time to ruminate unhurriedly, to pursue a thought for as long and as far as it takes us.

Incidentally, I really like this ability to change my work schedule on a week-by-week basis. This is the weekly variation in all the time I spent directly related to earning since I started this experiment in February 2012:

2014-08-15 14_11_02-Earn - quantified awesome

I started off working a lot, aiming for about 4 days a week. I tapered off a little to 2-3 days, and took a month off from time to time. Last week was more like the focused days of early in the experiment. I’ve gained a lot from learning to relax and use my time for my own interests, so we’ll see how that plays out against these desires to learn and create a lot of value.

Don’t worry about your tools in the beginning: Avoiding premature optimization

“What tools should I buy?” “What platform do I start with?” “What’s the best option out there?” Geeks have a special case of analysis paralysis at the beginning of things. We try to optimize that first step, and instead end up never getting started.

Here’s what I’m learning: In the beginning, you’re unlikely to be able to appreciate the sophisticated differences between tools. Don’t bother spending hours or days or weeks picking the perfect tool for you. Sure, you can do a little bit of research, but then pick one and learn with that first. If you run into the limits, that’s when you can think about upgrading.

Start with something simple and inexpensive (or even free). If you wear it out or if you run into things you just can’t do with it and that are worth the additional expense, then decide if you want to get something better. I do this with:

  • Food: We start with inexpensive ingredients and work our way up as necessary.
  • Shoes: Upgraded from cheap to medium.
  • Bicycles: Still on the first bicycle I bought in Canada, since it was enough for me.
  • Ukeleles: Glad I just bought the basic one, since it turns out it’s not quite my thing.
  • Knives: Okay, we splurged on this one and started with good knives, since I piggybacked off W-‘s experience and recommendations.
  • Drawing: I tried the Nintendo DS before upgrading to a tablet and then to a tablet PC. For paper, I tried ordinary sketchbooks that cost $4.99 on sale, and have been happy with them so far – although I might downgrade to just having a binder of loose sheets.

Don’t worry about what the “best” is until you figure out what your actual needs are.

There are situations in which the cheapest or the simplest might not be the best place to start. You can easily get frustrated if something is not well-designed, and some inferior tools like dull kitchen knives are dangerous. That’s a sign that you’ve run into your choice’s limits and can therefore upgrade without worry. Yes, it might waste a little money and time, but you’ll probably waste even more time if you procrastinate choosing (more research! more!) and waste more money if you always buy things that have more capacity than you ultimately need. You can tweak how you make that initial decision–maybe always consider the second-from-the-bottom or something like that–but the important part is getting out there and learning.

Planning my next little business

I’ve been holding back from experimenting with new businesses. I’m not sure how the next few months are going to be like, and I don’t want to make commitments like sketchnote event bookings or additional freelance contracts. Besides, focusing on my own stuff has been an interesting experiment so far, and I want to continue it.

Still, from time to time, I get the itch to build systems and processes for creating value for other people. For example, when I talk to people who are struggling to find jobs or having a hard time building freelance businesses, I want to support and encourage them by helping them see opportunities. Talking about stuff can feel a bit empty, but actually doing stuff–and showing how to do it–is more helpful, especially since I seem to be more comfortable with sales, marketing, and business experimentation than many people are.

So, depending on how these next few months turn out, what are the kinds of businesses that I’d like to build?

  • E-books and other resources: I like the way free/pay-what-you-want information makes it easy for people to learn without friction and still be able to show their appreciation through payment, conversation, links, or other good things. I also like the scale of it: I can spend some time working on a resource, and then people can come across it when they need it. No schedule commitments, either.
  • Software, maybe?: Someday. The upsides of working on stuff that other people use: feature suggestions, warm-and-fuzzies. The downside: dealing with bugs. I think the first step would be to build tools for myself.
  • Visual book reviews?: People seem to like these, and I enjoy reading.

Let me take a step back here and break that out into the specific characteristics I like. If I identify those characteristics, I might be able to recognize or imagine other businesses along those lines. What attracts me?

  • Scale: Build once, help many. I don’t mind lower sales at the beginning if I’m working on the kinds of things that people will find useful over a long period of time.
  • Accumulation: I like collecting building blocks in terms of content and skills because I can combine those in interesting ways.
  • Generosity: I like free/pay-what-you-want because it allows me to reach the most people and feel great about the relationships.
  • Flexibility: I like minimizing schedule or topic commitments because that reduces stress and lets me adapt to what’s going on. Self-directed work fits me well.
  • Distinction: I like doing things that involve uncommon perspectives or combinations of skills. I feel like I can bring more to the table.
  • Value: I like things that help people learn more, understand things better, save time or money, share what they know, or be more excited about life.
  • Other things I care about: I care about making good ideas more accessible, which is why I like transcripts, sketchnotes, writing, and websites. I also care about helping good people do well, which is why I help friends with their businesses.

Writing fits these characteristics pretty well. If I can help friends through process coaching and things like that, I can learn more about things that other people might find useful too. It’s entirely possible to build good stuff around just this learn-share-scale cycle. Anything else (spin-off businesses? software? services) would be a bonus.

I have a little more uncertainty to deal with. I can see the timeline for it, so I’m okay with giving myself permission to take it easy for the next couple of months. After that, I’ll probably have a clearer idea of what the rest of this experiment with semi-retirement (and other follow-up experiments! =) ) could be like.

What would more focused writing or content creation look like? I might:

  • Pick a subject people are curious about and write a series of blog posts that I can turn into e-books
  • Revisit that outline of things to write about and flesh it in
  • Organize blog posts and other content into downloadable resources
  • Create courses so that people can go through things at a recommended pace and with multimedia content
    • Ooh, more animations

I think that would be an interesting life. =)

I still want to do something to help all these awesome people I come across who are having a hard time finding jobs or building businesses for themselves, though. It’s odd hearing about their struggles while at the same time watching the stock market keep going up – businesses seem to be doing okay, but it’s not trickling down? Maybe I’ll spend more time listening to people and asking what could help. Maybe I can spend some time connecting with business owners and seeing if I can understand their needs, too. Knowledge, ideas, and encouragement are easy, but there are probably even better ways to help. Hmm… That gives me a focus for networking at events. Looking forward to helping!

Realistic expectations, ruthless elimination, and rapid exploration

“You’re pretty organized, right? Do you have a system for productivity that I could use?” someone said to me. She sounded frustrated by her lack of progress on some long-standing projects. I shrugged, unsure how to help.

I don’t consider myself super-productive. I am, however, less stressed than many people seem to be. I’ve been learning to keep realistic expectations, get rid of less-important tasks, and work in quick, small, useful chunks.

Realistic expectations: We tend to overestimate how much we can do, particularly if we’re looking a week or two ahead. Even if last week was derailed by interruptions, we hope next week will be a smooth ride. I’m guilty of this myself. I compensate by expecting little of myself – just one to three important tasks each day, moving forward a little bit at a time. If I find myself with spare time and motivation, I check my other tasks for something to work on. It’s okay if I end up procrastinating something. That usually means I spent the time on something I valued more.

Ruthless elimination: “But how do I motivate myself?” This is another thing that people often struggle with. I use different strategies depending on what I need. For example, I’m currently working on a project with a high risk of failure and a fair bit of work. For me, it helps to amplify the perceived benefits, downplay the small pieces of work that I need to do (it’s just a small task), and downplay the risks (failure isn’t all that bad). On some other projects, I might decide that my lack of motivation is a clue that I should just wrap up the project, get rid of specific tasks, delegate work, or transform those tasks into things I might enjoy more.

Rapid exploration: After I adjust for realistic expectations and get rid of tasks through ruthless elimination, I think of tiny tasks that will help me move towards my goals. That way, I can explore and get feedback faster. Then I try to get as much value as I can from those steps, usually ending up with blog post ideas and lessons learned in addition to the thing itself. This also means that I can squeeze work into 15- to 2-hour chunks instead of waiting for a 4-hour span of uninterrupted, energetic time.

There are a bunch of other things that help me out (keeping outlines of projects and tasks in Org Mode, documenting as much as I can, knowing my tools well), but those three behaviours above seem to be different from the way many people around me work. Hope that helps!