Category Archives: business

The 5-year experiment: A conversation with my anxious side, and how sharing time might be better than giving money

(If you want, you can skip past the reflection on anxiety and safety and jump straight to the part on how you can help. =) )

Having resolved to learn how to work on my own things, I’m experimenting with reducing my consulting to one day a week (from last year’s routine of two days a week). I spend most of the week reading, drawing, writing, experimenting, and coding.

2015-01-09 What do I do on my non-consulting days -- index card

2015.01.09 What do I do on my non-consulting days – index card

It’s not a big change in terms of hours. I already have plenty of time for personal projects. But I feel the shift in the balance. I can hear that inner self-doubt saying, “Is this real work? Is it worthwhile? Is it sustainable? Are you undermining your safety by goofing off?”

2015-01-07 Real Work -- index card

2015.01.07 Real Work – index card

It’s okay. I expected this resistance, this anxiety. It’s just one of those mental barriers I have to break. Fortunately, all those Stoic philosophers are there to remind me that it’s just a negative impression, not reality, and the truth is that I have nothing to fear.

I’m getting better at telling that anxious part of my mind: “Look. Even though I offer all those resources for free, people willingly pay for it. And other people write wonderful comments and send me e-mail telling me that I’ve inspired them to learn more and that they want to help, so that counts too. Yeah, there’s a chance I might need to go back to Regular Work if the stock market crashes or a catastrophe happens, but in the meantime, just give this a chance. And really, that scenario isn’t the end of the world. Other people do okay. I can too. Besides, that’s why we have safety nets, right?”

2015-01-06 Planning my safety nets -- index card

2015.01.06 Planning my safety nets – index card

2015-01-06 Safe, a little better, comfortable -- index card

2015.01.06 Safe, a little better, comfortable – index card

And then my anxious side goes, “Okay, you’ve probably got the basics covered. But what if your expenses grow, or W- gets tired of living frugally and wants to upgrade lifestyles a little bit? Is this really enough?”

2015-01-06 Is this enough for me -- index card

2015.01.06 Is this enough for me – index card

And then I say, “We’ll probably have some time to adjust our plans for that, and I can always go back to doing Real Work that satisfies you. Besides, if we want to upgrade our life experiences, learning the skills to make stuff for ourselves often works out better than buying things. Like cooking!”

(It’s true! It’s even called the IKEA effect.)

Then my anxious side goes, “Fine. Maybe you have enough space to experiment right now. You want to learn things and help people. But look at your blog! It’s so self-centred. You talk about your questions and reflections, and you rarely give people tips they can directly apply to their lives.”

Then I say, “I’ll get better at writing for other people. In the meantime, this seems to be working okay so far. People translate my reflections into stuff that they can use.”

Here’s how I think my blog helps other people at the moment. Maybe you come across my blog because of a search. You find something that saves you a little time. You browse around a little and learn about things you didn’t even think about searching for. Maybe you come back once in a while for more of those ideas. You bump into other topics you’re curious about, and you explore. You might subscribe, even though you know I post practically every day. You skim the headlines for things that interest you, and you dive into stuff you like. Sometimes you might even feel moved to comment, e-mail, invest time, or even send some money.

2015-01-04 What kind of difference do I want to make, and for whom - index card

2015.01.04 What kind of difference do I want to make, and for whom – index card

How people can help

My anxious side grumbles, “Okay. I’m not sure your blog counts as Real Work, but I’ll grant that people seem to find some value in it. I’d feel better if you were more serious about building a business around it – if you could cover more of your expenses with this instead of consulting income or dividends.”

To which I say, “You know, I’m not sure any amount of money would get you to the point of not worrying. Besides, it’s good that you worry, because that helps keep us safe. This stream will grow as I figure out how to make things that are truly valuable to people. I bet you I can pull it off while still keeping the free/pay-what-you-want aspect, because that’s important to me. Given that you tend to squirrel away additional money to build up safety instead of getting better at investing it to build up capabilities, what we really should be thinking about is if we can make better exchanges of time instead of money. That will probably make a bigger difference anyway.”

My anxious side is sufficiently boggled by that idea and can’t come up with a good rejoinder. This is promising. Let me dig into it further, then.

One of the concepts I picked up from Your Money or Your Life (Dominguez and Robin, 1999) is that you can think of money in terms of the time it took you to earn it, a sobering thought when you apply it to your expenses.

I can apply that idea to other people, too; if other people pay money for something I made, it represents the chunk of their life that they spent earning it (and the opportunity cost of anything else they could’ve bought or invested in, including saving up for their own freedom).

I’m frugal (bordering on being a cheapskate), having gotten very good at making the most of inexpensive resources. Because of the typical mind fallacy, I tend to think that other people should be frugal as well so that they can save up for their own freedom. I suspect that people might get marginally more value from saving that money than I would get from them giving it to me, since their stress reduction or freedom expansion will likely outweigh my slightly increased feeling of safety. On the other hand, people do get value from feeling generous and from patronizing something that they would like to see flourish, so I can agree with that.

If we translate it back to time, though, I’m more comfortable with the exchange.

I already have enough time for the priorities in my life, while many people feel that they don’t have enough time for the priorities in theirs. Adding more money to my life doesn’t easily translate into additional or more effective time (aside from transcripts and tools, which I already budget for), while translating that money back into time might make more of a difference in other people’s lives. So a direct swap doesn’t make sense.

However, if we can exchange time in an apples-and-oranges sort of way, that might make sense. That is, if someone gives me 15 minutes of their time that translates to much more than 15 minutes of my time or might even be something I could not do on my own, that would be fantastic. This could be something that takes advantage of someone’s:

  • experience or particular mix of interests
  • ideas, knowledge
  • perspective (writing, coding, and all sorts of things can be improved with the perspective of someone who is not me)
  • questions
  • connections

Technically, delegation is supposed to help me translate money into time that is qualitatively different from my time, but my anxious side has not been very good at evaluating, trusting, or making the most of learning from people who know different things than I do.

Figuring out a way to effectively receive other people’s gifts of time might be what I need to break through this barrier.

2015-01-04 Thinking in terms of an exchange of time - index card

2015.01.04 Thinking in terms of an exchange of time – index card

In fact, receiving time might be more effective than receiving money. Not only could that get around my difficulty with finding and paying other people for the qualitatively different time that I want, but if we structure it right, people will gain from the time that they give. If someone asks me a good question that prompts me to learn, reflect on, or share something, we both gain. If they invest more time into experimenting with the ideas, we gain even more. I can’t actually buy that on any of the freelancing or outsourcing marketplaces. There’s no way for me to convert money into that kind of experience.

So, how can people can give me 15 minutes of time in a way that helps them and helps me? Let me think about different things I’m learning about:

2015-01-09 Time is greater than money -- index card

2015.01.09 Time is greater than money – index card

2015-01-09 What am I learning more about, and how can people help -- index card

2015.01.09 What am I learning more about, and how can people help – index card

It makes sense to organize this by interest instead of by action.

  • Emacs: Ask a question, pass along a tip, share a workflow. Also, I really appreciate people showing up at Emacs Hangouts or being on Emacs Chats, because my anxious side is always firmly convinced that this will be the day when no one else shows up to a party or that conversation will be super-awkward.
  • Coding in general: There are so many ways I want to improve in order to become a better programmer. I should set up continuous integration, write more tests, refactor my code, learn more frameworks and learn them more deeply, write more idiomatic code, improve performance and security, get better at designing… I find it difficult to pay someone to give me feedback and coach me through setting things up well (hard to evaluate people, anxious side balks at the price and argues we can figure things out on our own, good programmers have high rates), but this might be something we can swap. Or I could work on overriding my anxious side and just Go For It, because good habits and infrastructure pay off.
  • Writing: Comments, questions, and links help a lot. A few of my posts have really benefited from people’s feedback on the content and the structure of ideas, and I’d love to learn from more conversations like that. I don’t worry a lot about typos or minor tweaks, so the kind of editing feedback I can easily get from freelancers doesn’t satisfy me. I want to get better at writing for other people and organizing more complex thoughts into resources, so I could benefit a lot from feedback, questions, as well as advice on what to learn and in what order.
  • Drawing: I’m not focused on drawing better (I can probably get away with stick figures for what I want to do!), but rather on being able to think more interesting thoughts. What would help with this? Hearing from people about which thoughts spark ideas in them, which ones I should flesh out further. Book recommendations and shared experiences would help too.

So: Paying for free/pay-what-you-want-resources is great at helping me tell my anxious side, “Look, people find this valuable,” and that’s much appreciated. But giving me time works too. If we can figure out how to do this well, that might be able to help me grow more (at least until I sort out a way to talk my anxious side into letting me invest more in capabilities). Shifting the balance towards time is probably going to make my anxious side more anxious, but I might be able to tell it to give me a year or two to experiment, which is coincidentally the rest of this 5-year span.

Wild success might look like:

  • Thanks to people’s gifts of time and attention, I’m learning and doing stuff that I couldn’t do on my own or with the resources I could get in marketplaces
  • Thanks to people’s gifts of money (and maybe teaching), I’ve addressed more of my anxious side’s concerns and am getting better at experimenting with the resources I can get in marketplaces
  • I can incorporate people’s feedback and revealed preferences in my prioritization so that I work on things that other people find valuable

I could use your help with this. =) Shall we figure it out together?

Move your goalposts to get around an inability to finish projects

I hardly ever finish projects. I start them with a burst of enthusiasm, and then I trail off when something else catches my attention. I’ve learned to work with this instead of beating myself up about it. On some days, I might even consider it a good thing. Here’s one of the things I’ve learned:

You can trick your brain by moving the goalposts.

Let’s say that you’re working on a project. Toward the end of the project, you catch yourself losing steam. You’ve gotten 80% of the way there, and the remaining 20% of the work will take four times as much time. The itch to start a different project is pulling you away.

Don’t think of yourself as nearly done. Think of yourself as getting started on another new project that just happens to overlap with the previous one.

 

In fact, mentally set the beginning of that project to include some of the work you’ve just completed, to take advantage of the Endowed Progress effect (research PDF).

moving-the-goalposts

Tada! Goalposts moved. You might find that the newly-reframed project is now novel enough to be included in the list of new projects you enjoy working on, and it might even tempt you away from other distractions.

Moving the goalposts is usually a bad thing. It’s why many people never feel rich, because whenever they reach what used to be unimaginable wealth, they find that the amount of money needed for them to feel happy has gone up. (Solution: don’t anchor happiness to amounts of money.) Moving the goalposts has led to many a logical fallacy in heated arguments. But if you don’t like playing a close-quarters game, moving the goalposts further away can help.

I often use this technique for life-long learning, especially for things that you can’t really declare finished. Can one ever finish learning how to write or draw or program? No, but you can keep moving your targets a little forward as you learn.

You might think, “I won’t be able to celebrate achieving my original goal!” You can still celebrate milestones. Better yet, celebrate even the tiny, tiny steps that you take towards your (constantly-moving) goal. Look behind you once in a while and celebrate the progress you’ve made.

It can be hard to see progress if you don’t have anything tangible. Invest time in looking for useful chunks that you can extract even from work in progress. It’s surprising how few projects are truly all or nothing. If you can share drafts, prototypes, alpha or beta versions, or even blog posts about the journey, you don’t have to worry about the whole thing being a complete waste of time if you get distracted from the project before you finish it. If you always wait until you’ve finished something, you might end up leaving a mess of incomplete projects around.

Worried that your mind will see through this technique and lose interest even earlier in the process? Try being playful about it instead of being too serious. Yes, it’s a mental trick (and not even a particularly complex one), but if your mind likes novelty and beginnings, it can hardly fault you for giving it what it likes.

This technique doesn’t solve everything – I haven’t been able to write a 200-page Emacs book yet, and our couch still doesn’t have a slipcover. But it helps me from time to time, and maybe it will help you too!

Predictable advice about productivity

Let me think out loud a bit about this, since there’s something here that I want to dig into.

Someone asked me if I’d consider answering the question “What’s your morning ritual/routine that helps you stay productive and organised throughout the day?” for inclusion in a blog round-up.

Ordinarily, I’m not too keen on answering surveys or filling out questionnaires from people. I know it’s a popular content-generation technique and that bloggers like doing it because it encourages people to link, but there’s something about the format that feels a little meh. I’m even less enthusiastic about blog roundups because the typical format–a list of names, links, and a quoted paragraph or two–doesn’t lend itself well to nuanced observation or discussion.

Still, I’d been thinking about reflecting on the topic for a while, so I bumped it up my list of things to write about and drafted this: Relaxed routines.

I sent a sneak peek of the draft to the person who asked me, and he responded:

The fact that you wrote “Sometimes I think of three things I would like to do that day, and I type a few notes and thoughts into Evernote” is very interesting because other experts also think of 3 things they want to do every morning and go after them.

And I thought, no, that’s not the point I want to make. Which made me think: What is the point I want to make? I said:

When you write, don’t look for the same, old, common, generic advice. Look for what’s unusual or unintuitive or idiosyncratic.

Come to think of it, I should probably expand on this thing about slowing down, taking notes, and sharing them, since a lot of people are worried about interrupting momentum or giving away their secrets. To me, that’s more interesting than picking a few priorities for the day, which (as you noted) many other people do.

So there’s an interesting thought there that I’m going to flesh out and add to the draft. Perhaps by the time you read this, I’ll have already added and posted it.

Anyway. This got me thinking about the predictability of most productivity advice. If I crack open a newly-published book on productivity or click on one of the countless blog posts that flow into my streams, I know that more likely than not, it will tell me to: Wake up early. Prioritize. Don’t start with e-mail. Take care of your health.

It’s about as surprising as reading a personal finance book that tells me to spend less than I earn. Granted, there are probably lots of people for whom the repetition of these concepts helps.

I wonder how to go beyond the same old advice. What kinds of information have been helpful for me when I want to change? What would be more helpful for other people? How can I go beyond writing generic thoughts myself? How can I notice and dig into the differences? How can I learn from more divergences?

Here’s what I’ve found helpful:

  • Collections of different approaches, so that I can experiment and find out what works for me. I don’t read books looking for the One True Way to manage your tasks. I look for the diversity of systems described by different people so that I can extract ideas that I can play around with. That also means that I don’t want trite advice that I already have previous samples of. I’m looking for new stuff, things to make me go “Hmm, let me try that.”
  • Pointers to interesting people, which is related to the first benefit. For example, when reading about how scholars managed information before computers (Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age), I came across historical role models like Seneca and Pliny. That led me to learn more about their stories so that I could understand their techniques in context. It isn’t just about isolated pieces of advice, but people whose lives that advice came from and why they learned that. Plus points for people I can identify with or be inspired by: “Oh, she did that, so I can probably pull off something similar too!”
  • Behind-the-scenes thoughts: Reading people’s thoughts about their own systems is more interesting for me than reading people’s conjectures about other people’s secrets. I like reading blog posts from people who are thinking out loud, because that lets me peek into other people’s thought processes and watch how they learn. I like seeing the in-between stuff, not just the polished products.
  • Reflection questions, so that I can direct my awareness to things I might otherwise overlook, and so that I can evaluate things.
  • Research, particularly with non-intuitive results. For example, applied psychology tells us our brain is subject to all sorts of fallacies, and being aware of things like sunk cost fallacy helps me try to correct for them.

So with that in mind, how can I improve that reflection on routines so that I and other people can get more value from it?

Let me think about potential points of divergence from common wisdom, and why I’ve chosen those ways:

  • I sleep in instead of getting up early. For me, it’s important to mostly go to bed at the same time W- goes to bed (unless he’s staying up really late). Since that’s usually between 12 AM to 1 AM and I need a bit more than 8 hours to feel well-rested, this means I usually get up between 8:30 and 9:30. I organize the rest of my schedule around this, including avoiding all morning meetings.
  • I follow my energy instead of forcing myself to stick to a plan. I used to block off time to work on specific things, but I realized that I enjoy flexibility and I work better with an open schedule. More about this.
  • I don’t make specific, measurable, time-bound goals. I found that I’m not motivated by “urgent” deadlines that I set myself. Instead, I keep a large list of small tasks, and I use those to keep moving forward on different things.
  • I slow down to take notes. Many people tell me they don’t have the time to take notes. I make note-taking part of the way I do things, whether it’s thinking about a decision, learning about a new topic, or debugging a problem. It’s not really slowing down, actually. I suspect that I make slower progress when I don’t take notes, because my mind gets more jittery and has to cover the same ground repeatedly.
  • I share what I’m learning. People are often concerned about giving away their secrets, looking foolish, or letting go of competitive advantages. I find that blogging helps me learn more, connect with interesting people, and get more stuff done.
  • I don’t worry about being responsive. I’m very casual about responding to e-mail and blog comments. I can go a week or two (and sometimes more!) before replying, although I check more frequently than that. I treat them as long-term asynchronous conversations, not as firm commitments. This lets me see my e-mail mostly positively as a source of interesting questions and ideas, rather than as an obligation that gets in the way of Real Work.
  • It’s easy for me to choose slack over status or stuff. This is more of a personal finance thing, I think. I’m picky about the things I swap my life for, because I prefer space, freedom, and resisting hedonic adaptation. This is why it’s easy for me to ignore advertising.
  • I’ve shut up the “You’re not an artist!” internal self-censor so that I can use visual thinking to explore ideas. People often tell me that they wish they could draw sketchnotes too. Pointing out that I draw like a 5-year-old still doesn’t seem to be enough to help them get over that mental barrier. Someday I’ll probably figure out how to help people hack around that.

For each of these choices, there are probably thousands of other people (at least) who do the same thing. That’s okay. In fact, that’s terrific, because then we can swap notes. =) I don’t have to say totally unique things. I’m not sure I can. I just want to add more to the conversation than generic “advice.”

So how do those choices influence my everyday routines? Well, waking up when I feel like it is an obvious one. Writing, drawing, and publishing throughout the day is another. This 5-year experiment is another result of those choices.

The most useful change that people can experiment with, I think, is the one of writing stuff down, even if they don’t publish it. Not just plans and reviews (although those are good places to start), but the in-between stuff, the “I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this” stuff. It could be a text file or a document or a paper notebook – just somewhere you can leave breadcrumbs for your brain so that you can come back to things after interruptions and so that you can go back in time.

But journaling is also part of the set of standard productivity advice, so what can I add here? The reassurance that no, it doesn’t make you go slower, it actually lets you cover more ground? A demonstration, so that people can see what that looks like (especially over years)? Workflow tweaks to better integrate it into the way you do things? Personal knowledge management ideas for organization? Surveys of other people’s systems so that we can pick up great ideas?

If I want some fraction of the people who read me to pick up this writing habit, what I can do to help them (you!) get over any barriers or excuses?

That’s what I should write. I’m not going to be able to trigger that epiphany in one excerpted paragraph in a list of twenty or fifty or people. But I can always explore the idea on this blog (with your help =) ), and other people can link to or summarize whatever they want, and who knows what conversations can grow.

Morning, afternoon, evening, commute: thinking about what to do when (sketched)

My days have regular rhythms, as yours probably do. In the morning, I’m usually fresh and energetic. The afternoons are sometimes a little slower, but they’re often solidly productive. In the evenings, my mind is a bit tired, but it’s a good time to catch up on chores.

2014-12-11 What is good for me to do when

I’m slowly learning about the quirks of my rhythms and choices. I’ve been thinking about what’s good to do when so that I can find better ways to use my time.

  • If I commute off-peak, I can sit down and write or play games. It’s easy to time this in the mornings. I often plan to avoid the evening rush, but I get stuck in it anyway. This is because I get distracted by cool things to work on or learn. Maybe I should set an alarm.
  • If I sit on the couch, one of the cats will usually settle onto my lap. This makes typing on a laptop inconvenient. But I enjoy spending time with the cats, so I don’t mind giving up a little productivity. It’s relaxing to focus on the cat instead of multitasking, and sometimes ideas float into my head. When I want to work on something, my phone can be more convenient than my laptop.
  • If I do a coding sprint close to midnight–say, from 9:30 PM to 11:30 PM–I have a harder time falling asleep, even if I’m no longer thinking about code. If I spend the same time writing, even on my computer, I’m fine.

Geeking out with W- is a good way to spend evenings. Brush up tech skills, spend time together, make the house a little smarter.

I hadn’t realized how similar cat-couch-time is to commuting time. I should be sure to keep my phone handy. Differences: drawing on my tablet PC is something that makes decent use of cat-couch-time that I wouldn’t do while commuting, and I can listen to podcasts while commuting but I’d rather listen to purring when with the cats.

Hmm. This gives me a way to practise using my time better during each phase of my day. I might print this and keep it handy, or bookmark it and refer to it often.

On a related note, what’s good for me to do on which days of the week? Hmm…

  • Saturday: Groceries, laundry, tidying, library, weekly review, meeting friends
  • Sunday: Cooking, meeting friends
  • Monday: Writing, coding
  • Tuesday: Consulting, because of team meeting; Hacklab open house
  • Wednesday: Packaging, drawing
  • Thursday: Consulting, because of team meeting
  • Friday: Accounting, paperwork, correspondence, transcripts, review, planning

What would your rhythm look like?

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!

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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:

2015-01-16 Morning routines -- index card #life #routines

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. =)

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