Category Archives: productivity

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!

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:

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. =)

Related:

Sketched Book: Just F*cking Ship – Amy Hoy, Alex Hillman

Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman wrote, published, and launched Just Fucking Ship in 24 hours, using a Trello board and an outline to quickly whip up this short reminder to stop procrastinating and get something out the door. They’re halfway through editing it and will post updates through Gumroad, so if you buy the book, you can watch it evolve.

I’ve sketched the key points of the book below to make it easier to remember and share. Click on the image to view or download a high-resolution version that you can print or reuse.

2014-12-12 Sketched Book - Just Fucking Ship - Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman

The principle I’m focusing on is #7: Start with atoms. I’m comfortable with making small pieces now: an outline, a blog post, a sketch. I’m working on getting better at assembling those pieces into molecules, and eventually I’ll be able to turn those molecules into rocketships. Eventually. But in the meantime, I can push more things out there.

I’ve been sorting out my EPUB/MOBI workflow by putting stuff up on Gumroad, like the Emacs Chat transcript collection. (Incomplete, but that’s what updates are for.) This will help me Ship More Stuff.

Today I noticed an opportunity for wordplay. The domain was available, so I jumped on it. Shipped.

Ship. Get your stuff out there, incomplete and in progress, because you’ll learn more from the feedback than you will from stewing on it by yourself. And if it flops? Don’t worry. You’ll do another one, and another one, and another one, and you’ll learn.

Want the e-book? You can buy it at Just Fucking Ship (Amy Hoy, Alex Hillman; 2004). You’ll get a PDF and updates. (Amusingly, no physical shipping involved.)

Like this sketch? Check out sketchedbooks.com for more. For your convenience, this post can be found at sketchedbooks.com/jfs. Feel free to share – it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution License, like the rest of my blog.

(Incidentally, I’ve quoted Amy Hoy before – see my post on Learning slack for another reflection on writing, productivity, and motivation.)

Figuring out how my temporary sleep schedule interacts with programming, writing, and drawing

I was thinking about how I can use these snippets of time to improve in programming, writing, and drawing. I realized that although I can easily imagine how other people can write or draw using fragmented time (writers scribbling in notebooks on top of washing machines, artists doodling on the subway), programming seems a lot less tractable. It doesn’t feel like you can break it up and squeeze it into different parts of your day as much.

It is generally accepted that context switching is evil when it comes to programming. So I’ve been carrying around this idea that Real Programmers are people who can pull all-nighters hacking on tough problems, holding elaborate structures in their heads. Your standard hero programmer stereotype, with the pinnacle being someone either building complex, cool stuff, possibly maintaining large and useful open source software.

Hence this little mental disconnect. I’m pretty certain I can get there someday if I really want to, but probably not if I extrapolate from current circumstances. Even maintaining a tiny piece of software sounds like more commitment than I want at the moment. (Heck, I might go a few weeks without responding to e-mail.)

Fortunately, I spent my first few working years in a corporate environment, where mentors showed me that it’s totally possible to be an Awesome Geek while still working a roughly 9-to-5 job, having families and hobbies, and getting plenty of sleep. Thank goodness. So I have this alternate model in my head, not of a Hero Programmer, but rather of solid contributors who keep making gradual progress, help teams of people become more productive, and who enjoy solving interesting challenges and expanding their skills.

So let’s say that I want to play with my assumption that programming is the sort of thing that’s hard to squeeze into the nooks and crannies of one’s day, at least not the way writing and drawing can. I know that I can go through technical documentation and design resources even if my mind isn’t completely awake, and I can still pick up useful things.

What is it about writing and drawing that make them suitable even in small doses, and how can I tweak programming? Writers can think about stuff during other activities. I can reflect on ideas while walking or cooking, for example. When I program, I still need more of that back-and-forth with a computer and an Internet connection, but maybe I’ll need less of that as I develop more experience. I can set pen to paper during any spare moment, sketching a quick line and seeing where it takes me from there. I might not be able to do that with implementation, but I can use that same playfulness to explore design. Behavior-driven development makes it easier to break projects down into tiny, clear steps, and have a way of verifying progress (without too much backsliding!). Getting deeper into frameworks and tools will help me do more with less effort when I do sit down at a computer.

Okay. I can do this. Worst-case scenario, I just move slowly until I get past this particular phase. I’ve seen role models who’ve pulled that off well, so that’s totally cool. Best-case scenario, I figure out how to hack around some of my current cognitive limitations, and maybe that might help other people who find themselves in the same situation too.

This could work.

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…