Category Archives: productivity

Dealing with distractions

I have a slightly obsessive personality. Once in a while, something latches onto my consciousness and distracts me. This can be good. I’ve written a lot of code following the trail of Just One More Thing. This can also be less than productive, such as when I get sidetracked by a jigsaw puzzle lying temptingly unfinished on a table (we’ve since banned them from the house) or a video game that’s almost but not quite done (Persona 4 Golden, currently).

It’s particularly pernicious when I’m trying to do something creative or focused, as the buzz in my brain makes it harder to concentrate.

I’m going to run into many more of these minor obsessions in life, so it’s better for me to figure out how to deal with this than to either give in or ignore it. Some research says that willpower is an exhaustible resource (Wikipedia has a summary), so it’s good to find easier ways to hack this.

Here are some things I can do when dealing with these discretionary distractions:

  1. Review my list of priorities and why they’re priorities. I’ve taken to drawing my key to-dos on an index card at the beginning of the day. If I can get those done, everything else is a bonus.
  2. Do those priorities first thing.
  3. When I feel distractions start to buzz, walk around the block or do some other form of physical activity.
  4. Accept that some days will be low-energy days, and some days will be spot-on days.
  5. Try social commitment. Tell other people what I need to focus on.
  6. Keep a list of low-energy tasks to work on.

Giving myself twenty minutes to indulge in something doesn’t seem to work, but maybe it will if I add physical context-switches instead of staying in the same place.


Thinking about how to get even better at bulk-cooking

two pans of lasagna

We like cooking in bulk. We find it to be an efficient way to make sure we’ve got healthy, inexpensive meals ready for the workweek. How can we improve our processes?

Cost and delegation: I’ve been tracking the cost per portion for the meals we prepare in bulk. Cost per portion tends to be between $1 and $3, while eating lunch outside tends to be about $8-12. I can prepare about 20 portions in 3 hours (+ tidying up of one hour or so), and have scaled up beyond that too. If we use $12-15 per hour as the replacement cost of labour (it looks like you can hire housekeepers for around that range), that works out to around $100 of savings if I outsourced preparation, and $160 if we do things ourselves.

I might experiment with this by hiring someone who’s experienced in bulk cooking and freezing, particularly if we can squeeze in 40 portions or more on one day. (It’s possible – see Once a Month Cooking.) If it works, then it can save us a chunk of focused time.

  • Upside: Time, new recipes
  • Downside: Cost and risk

Variety: Along those lines, we can adjust our grocery shopping so that we can eat even better. I was pleasantly surprised to find that lamb korma worked out to around $1.25 per serving. It still felt like such a treat. We don’t have to eat chicken most of the time, then!

We can experiment with new recipes for bulk cooking, and we can revisit old favourites. Next on my list: beef bulgogi, proper lamb korma (should try a few different recipes), lasagna (it’s baking season again!), shepherd’s pie…

  • Upside: Yum!
  • Downside: Slightly higher costs, time spent experimenting

Prepared meals and ingredients: We don’t use a lot of prepared ingredients like pre-cooked bacon, chopped carrots, or peeled potatoes. They’re more expensive than regular ingredients, and they’re typically not as fresh. We do use frozen vegetable mixes, which are much handier than cutting off corn kernels and chopping up carrot bits ourselves. We occasionally buy chicken drumsticks or thighs in order to save us time and mess in quartering them, and we also buy rotisserie chicken. We like frozen steamed buns, and J- has frozen nuggets from time to time. We buy the occasional frozen pizza when it’s on sale. In summer, we buy frozen burgers. We like the packaged lamb korma and the Jamaican beef patties. Canned soup is also handy. We hardly ever buy other frozen meals, prepackaged stock, and other convenience foods.

I would totally go for pre-chopped onions, as I hate crying over them. (None of the little fixes I’ve tried have worked so far; I’ll keep trying to hack this!). I would also go for peeled and chopped garlic, because I use so much of it. Fortunately, I can make my own packages. I’ve chopped and frozen most of our onions and all of our garlic. We’ll see how that works out! I’ll keep an eye out for other supermarket offerings, too. Being in a community-supported agriculture program means we buy very few additional vegetables (I’m currently drowning in a sea of broccoli rabe). We might experiment with using prepared meals to explore new recipes (like the way prepacked lamb korma firmly established that we have a taste for it) and with using prepared ingredients to make bulk preparations easier.

Prepared 1- or 2-person meals tend to cost around $4 to $5 per portion. Bulk meals like lasagna casseroles cost around $1.50 per portion, which is actually cheaper than our cost per portion for lasagna. Pizza costs around $2 per portion when it’s on sale.

  • Upside: Save time, try different recipes
  • Downside: Higher costs, package size is non-standard and throws off our storage scheme

Tools: I need to get better at using the tools we have: breaking out the food processor and chopping up lots of things, using the stand blender or the immersion blender for soups and purées, and so on. If I can use the food processor to do all the onions, then freeze chopped onions for use in future recipes, that would save me a lot of crying.

  • Upside: Save time
  • Downside: More washing (so it’s good to do this in bulk)

Meals:ingredients ratio: Right now, both our chest freezer and our under-fridge freezer compartment are at about about 1:4 (meals to ingredients by volume). We can make a concerted effort to spend weekends either cooking or editing one stack of frozen ingredients in order to replace it with one stack of frozen meals. Then we can shift to the chest freezer containing practically all frozen meals and the fridge freezer containing ingredients.

  • Upside: More convenience and variety, no need to dig around in the freezer for a meal, gradual editing of food in the freezer
  • Downside: Commits a chunk of our weekend (4-5 hours for every 21 portions?)

Meal density: Instead of packing individual ready-to-go portions, we might store just the main dish. That would double or triple our freezing capacity, but it would require more planning. Every three days, then, we would take out enough food for the next three days and defrost it. The next day, we would repack lunches. We would always make a large pot of rice each week, and we would keep frozen vegetables in stock. We might keep a few individual portions for emergencies.

  • Upside: Cooking main meals less often, having more variety
  • Downside: Defrosting and repacking takes time and foresight, might grab one of those multi-portion containers by accident when rushing to work

For this month, I’m going to focus on improving our meals:ingredients ratio, so that we can gradually clear out the old ingredients and provide a good base for future experiments. I may also prepare a large bag of chopped onions to see how well that works.

Do you cook in bulk? How are you improving your processes?

Personal projects

I rein in work to about 40-44 hours a week so that it doesn’t run away with me. This gives me some time during evenings and weekends to work on personal projects. It’s a good idea to have clear personal projects in mind so that I don’t end up wasting the time mindlessly.

“Do you want to spend your time productively or unproductively?” I asked J-.

“That’s a leading question,” W- said.

“No, I’m serious about it. Unproductive time is good too, as long as you choose it consciously,” I said.

For example, I spend some time here and there playing LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean. I don’t do it just because I can’t think of anything else to do or I don’t feel like doing anything else. I play because I’m curious about how the game designers have constructed puzzles and all those little secrets that dot the LEGO world. That’s definitely not a project, though.

What are the things I’m working on? Spelling them out will make it easier to pick a task that moves me towards them when I find myself with blocks of time.

Latin: W- and I are slowly working our way through Albert Harkness’ “An Easy Method for Beginners in Latin.” We’re on lesson twenty-ish now. Most people are working off the scanned book in Google’s digitized collection, but because the scans are images instead of text, the file is a little slow and unwieldy. I bought the first edition (it’s now the oldest book I have) and we’re working on digitizing it properly, re-typing it in with all the finicky accents and footnotes. We’re less than a fifth of the way through the book, so there’s plenty of work to do on this front. Goal: Digitize the whole book and answer all the questions.

Gardening: I want to get better at planning and growing the fruits and vegetables we like. That means getting more practice at starting seeds and helping them thrive. Gardening is relaxing, too. Goal: Grow, harvest, and measure the yield this year.

Cooking: Our frozen meals get us through most of the week, but I also cook new things based on what we need to finish in the fridge. For example, today I’d like to do something with the asparagus stock so that it doesn’t go to waste. I’m also picking up the community-supported agriculture box today, so that will give me a new set of challenges. This helps me develop the eminently useful skill of preparing healthy meals. Goal: Experiment with and collect summer recipes, then put together other seasonal notes.

Writing: I enjoy writing. I like reading my archive and remembering the steps. I like practising writing every day as a way to share what I’m learning, and it’s a good way to keep learning about content and style. Goal: Review, rewrite, and compile into an e-book.

Drawing: I’d like to get even better at drawing. It’s fun, and I’m learning how to communicate through it. I want to feel more comfortable using colours and drawing shapes. It’s all about practice. Goal: Draw a graphical review each week for a month.

Photography: It’s good, and we’ve got all this equipment already, so I might as well. ;) Besides, I enjoy taking pictures of the garden. Goal: Post at least one photo a week for a month.

What are you working on?

2011-06-16 Thu 08:25

Negative productivity and learning from oopses

So I accidentally blew away my self-hosted photo gallery because I overwrote the directories by copying them instead of using rsync. I attribute that to being slightly out-of-sorts, but the truth is that I might’ve made that mistake anyway bright and early on a well-rested weekend.

As it turns out, I back up my WordPress blog, but not my Gallery2-hosted photo album. And I hadn’t enabled server-wide backups before. You can bet I turned that on after I realized that.

It’s no big deal. The key thing I wish I hadn’t deleted was the sketch I’d made of the highlights of 2008, but that’s in my paper backup of my blog, and the rest of my sketches are probably somewhere in my files too. It’s just stuff.

The trick to dealing with negative productivity is to catch yourself – ideally, shortly before you mess up, but shortly afterwards is fine too. Do not make things worse in the process of trying to fix things.

It’s better to detect your periods of negative productivity on non-critical operations than to, say, accidentally corrupt the source code repository for the project you’ve been working on. In addition to remembering this general feeling of out-of-it-ness, it might be a good idea for me to come up with some small test for full attention/alertness before doing anything possibly irreversible. Then I would need to make it a habit, because it’s precisely when one’s tempted to cut corners and go ahead that one shouldn’t.

Hmm, checking for patterns…

Sleep 8.8 hours per night – normal (if not a little over)
Work 10.2 hours per workday so far – well above normal, and pretty high-intensity work, too
Work pattern current, 45.9, 56.9, 40.1 – current week is third of more intense period

Anyway. Dealing with oopses. Instead of beating myself up about it, I’d rather fix what I can fix, learn what I can learn, and then get on with a restful evening so that I can prepare for more awesomeness. Why beat myself up over a mistake? Better to figure out how to minimize the chances of making a similar mistake in the future, and to get on with life. =)

(Well, after wringing a blog post out of it first…)

2011-04-13 Wed 20:36

Thinking about personal random moment studies

John Handy Bosma (Boz) proposed a personal productivity random moment study. His goals are:

  • Find out how he’s spending his time in terms of the proportion between important and unimportant task
  • Show the connection between what he’s working on and the business priorities
  • Improve his productivity
  • … and do all of that with at most 5 minutes of tracking a day.

The interesting thing about randomness is that it might have a different effect on behaviour. If you can’t anticipate when you’re going to get polled and you’re honest about your responses when you do, would that help you focus on more important things so that you don’t catch yourself goofing off during the polling time?

What are good questions to ask during the sampling moment? Boz has:

  • What are you working on?
  • Who are you with?
  • How important is this?
  • How is this related to the business objectives?

These questions also helped Boz stay focused – immediate benefit.

Questions/ideas related to tracking:

Is the effect of uncertainty worth the added effort required to build a custom tracking solution (or buy one), or will fixed time intervals be acceptable? If fixed time intervals are okay, then off-the-shelf apps can be stitched together for this functionality.

Is there value in full randomness (ex: five reminders randomly set for one day, even if those reminders all come in the morning) or is it more about moment-to-moment randomness (ex: a reminder set randomly in each 2-hour period)?

In which circumstances would interrupt-driven methods like this be better than time tracking or time-and-motion-type studies? Boz shared that he never quite got the hang of time tracking, so it might be about enabling a different set of people to explore this class of experiments.

Does measuring time (either through sampling or through time-tracking) offer significant benefits over, say, tracking quantity of tasks completed in different categories (like Andy Schirmer does) when it comes to measuring alignment with priorities?


I might give it a try. I like my time-based analysis, though, so I may increase the granularity of my time-tracking (track at the task level whenever possible). I can then simulate work-sampling based on that data. I might also try fixed-interval sampling using KeepTrack on the Android, although I tend to skip interruptions.


2011-02-09 Wed 10:58

Tweaking fun and nudging myself out of procrastination

Using rational economics to analyze what I do for fun seems to have paid off. By changing the costs and benefits of different activities, I’ve managed to nudge myself out of (excessive?) reading and writing, finally tackling some projects I’ve been procrastinating for a while.

Increasing the cost of reading: I decided to be pickier about the books I read. Instead of skimming books looking for nuggets or interesting turns of phrase, I now check the table of contents, head straight for the chapters with the most promise, and evaluate whether or not to continue. This means I spend less time reading on autopilot. While I’d love to be enthused about Mortimer J. Adler’s collection of essays and references on the Great Books, it’s just lower-priority at the moment.

Increasing the cost of writing: Switching to a “draw first, then write” procedure is working well for me. Not every blog post is going to be illustrated, but it will be fun drawing more. I might also experiment with requiring myself to work on a non-writing, non-reading personal project (sewing, for example) before I can sit down to write a blog post. Or maybe walking, and even tying the length of time or the number of words I can write to the length of exercise or the number of steps (divided by a suitable number, of course). This probably means going back to evening pages, although exercise would go well with morning pages.

Decreasing the cost of drawing: Achieved by settling in for a good afternoon of drawing with pencils, index cards, and cats willing to provide creative breaks. Result: I drew the networking tips presentation I’ve been procrastinating. I’ve sent it off for review, and will post it when approved.

Decreasing the cost of sewing: Making the time to watch the instructional videos helped me learn how to use the serger, which meant being able to finish the pants I’ve been meaning to hem.

Next: Hmm, maybe I can apply the same process in order to become more social…

2011-01-25 Tue 20:45