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Crunch mode

I’m working more intensely than I expected to do at this point in time, roughly halfway through my 5-year experiment. I had planned to wind down to two days a week of consulting, or even one or zero. Instead, I’m working on a potentially high-profile project with shifting requirements and technology risk. I can definitely tell the difference between this time, my more relaxed consulting, and the longer spans of time I sometimes spend on personal projects. I feel it in the fuzziness of my mind at the end of the day, the shifts in the rhythms at home, the ebbs of my writing.

It’s good to reflect on the trade-offs I’m making, and to learn from the preferences they reveal. I agree with past-Sacha’s decision: the downside of temporary crunch time for the upside of an intense learning experience and the ability to help a good team at a moment when it matters a lot. I like the team and the work we do. It’s also fun to come up with a neat technical solution that creatively pulls together several pieces and saves the day.

But I can’t let myself get addicted to that feeling. =) It’s too easy to get used to this rhythm, to forget what other days are like. I think I’m about ready to focus on my own stuff for a while, after I get past the milestones I’ve committed to in the next month and a half.

Part of the reason for this experiment is to force myself to explore. There will always be more challenges and opportunities in the consulting world. I like the leisurely pace of unscheduled days and mornings without meetings, and the odd and interesting things you can learn when you meander.

Besides, my current crunch time happens to coincide with W-‘s crunch time at work. I miss the flexibility of being able to take care of all of the house things when W- needs to focus on work. While we’re happy to eat leftovers or reheat things from the freezer, J- prefers freshly-cooked food. I was helping out at Hacklab most of the weekend, and neither W- nor I got much cooking or planning done. Tonight we’re resorting to pizza delivery. (Hmm, maybe I should just scale back Hacklab, socializing, and other optional things for now.) It’s good that we have these options, and what I’m doing is worth it too. Still, observing this gap now will help me make better use of my time later on, when I’ve tilted the slider more towards retirement. Will I actually cook lots of fresh, yummy dinner? I hope so.

I like what I’m doing, and I think it’s worth it for now. And yet I also like the self that the gaps reveal, and the constraints help me have a clearer idea of what I want from different situations. From work, I want learning, tool-building, and generally more upsides than downsides. From recreation, I want that feeling of abundance and play, and the ability to make our home life smoother. There’ll be time enough to explore that, so I’m not worried. I just have to make the most of where and when I am. =)

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. =)

Planning ahead for experiments

Experimenting doesn’t have to be about coming up with conclusive answers. It can be about reducing uncertainty and increasing understanding. For example, compared to where I was at the beginning of this 5-year experiment with semi-retirement, I’m more comfortable with business. There are fewer unknowns in my life. No, actually–there are just as many unknowns, I think, but I feel more confident about handling them.

The original questions for this 5-year experiment were along these lines:

  • Would I be able to build a viable business that fit my goals and needs?
  • Would this kind of lifestyle be a good fit for me (and by extension, for us)?
  • Would I use the additional time well?

If life continues along its current path, I’m reasonably certain that the answers will be yes, yes, and yes. So I’ve been thinking: what other uncertainties do I want to explore? What other unknowns do I want to learn more about? Does it make sense to structure those as experiments as well?

2014-08-29 Considering the time after the experiment

2014-08-29 Considering the time after the experiment

Thinking of these things as experiments seems to work well for me. Not the high school sort of experiment where we dutifully rolled marbles down inclines or mixed various chemicals to note their reactions, but rather a time-bound trial that you prepare for, observe, learn from, and reflect on. Before I started framing things as experiments, I usually limited myself to small ideas and occasional improvements. Thinking of this as an experiment helps me say to myself, yes, it will take a bit of time to really unfold, so don’t worry about evaluating it too early, and don’t worry too much about messing up because you’ll learn something along the way.

Anyway… What other experiments might I run after this? Are there experiments that would make sense in parallel? I’m somewhat curious about trying out different business models to see what they’re like. I’m curious about building an even more solid foundation for future experiments in terms of health, skills, and other intangibles. I’m curious about learning and adapting to a changing world. I don’t have a clear experiment yet, not like the way I delineated my current experiment, but I’m sure that will come to me.

In the meantime, I have two years left in this experiment. Having the basics covered means that I can try bigger and more interesting things. Maybe software as a service? I’ve been avoiding this because of the risks and the support commitments, but maybe it’s time to learn more about building products and services that people might find useful. I know where to find the markets for some of the ideas I’m interested in, and I know some people who’d be willing to give me feedback and help me build things for them and others. There are a number of other non-business things I want to learn more about, too.

2014-08-29 Tweaking my experiment

2014-08-29 Tweaking my experiment

I like looking at other people’s lives in order to pick up ideas for things to try in mine. It’s useful to look at the life paths for both typical people and exceptional people, since all those paths sketch out different possibilities. If I can imagine myself clearly at different ages and on different probable paths, I can get a better sense of what I want to do in the near future. It’s a little like bringing those possible future Sachas together so that I can ask them how they got to where they are, and maybe adjust my current path a little. It’s a strange mental image, I guess, but it’s handy for me. And there are tons of other people to learn from, too–role models from so many different walks of life.

2014-08-29 Re-planning my life - #experiment

2014-08-29 Re-planning my life – #experiment

Hmm. Let’s see how things work out…

Anticipating experiment outcomes

I’m almost half-way through this 5-year experiment with semi-retirement. Every so often, I like reflecting on the possible outcomes and whether I want to influence things one way or another. (Totally unscientific here!) Thinking about this will also help me figure out what I need to try so that I can properly discriminate among the options. Here are some of the ways this experiment could work out.

  • A. “I want to go back to a regular job.” Let’s say that at the end of five years, I’ve learned what I want to learn to have a smoothly-running, wonderful life, and I want to go back to working within someone else’s business so that I can take advantage of its scale and infrastructure. I’d rebuild my network and dust off my resume, likely working my way back into a technical position in a team I enjoy working with. Life would be pretty similar to what life was like at IBM, except perhaps I’d be fitter, cook better, and write more.
    • Factors that would nudge me towards this: Possible job satisfaction, scale, learning experiences, team I like; also, if W- downshifts to part-time or takes a break
    • What would a typical week look like? Work, cook, read, write. I might use the extra cash to outsource chores or buy conveniences. Hmm, danger of lifestyle inflation here?
  • B. “I want to keep freelancing.” Let’s say that I like the flexibility and usefulness that consulting a few days a week gives me. I’d probably expand my consulting practice slightly so that I don’t have to worry about being classified as a personal services business. During my free days, I might continue to do the kinds of things I’m doing now: writing, learning, tinkering with stuff.
    • Factors that would nudge me towards this: Happy clients, continued growth; also, if W- downshifts to part-time
    • What would a typical week look like? Much like my current weeks, but maybe consulting for different companies for a good balance.
  • C. “I want to build a lifestyle business.” This would be if I’m curious about building other types of businesses. Maybe I’d learn more about web marketing, for example. I’d still keep it low-key so that I can do other things with the rest of my time.
    • Factors that would nudge me towards this: Curiosity about businesses that go beyond time-for-money exchanges; commitment to make products or automated services
    • What would a typical week look like? Responding to people’s questions, creating new things, improving old stuff. Occasionally learning new skills and trying them out.
  • D. “I want to ‘lean in’ in terms of business.” This would probably be the next stage after building a small lifestyle business that’s focused on products or automated services. Assuming I’ve got the rest of my life sorted out, I might channel my curiosity and energy into building the business so that I can help more people and apply what I’ve been learning from business books.
    • Factors that would nudge me towards this: Finding a good market that I really want to help
    • What would a typical week look like? I’d probably learn how to manage a small team, do lots of research and customer service, and make stuff happen.
  • E. “I probably don’t have to work, at least for a while.” Stock market growth and savings might mean that I’ll have lots of flexibility, so I could choose to work or not. Depending on our circumstances, I might decide to focus on building up skills, making our lives easier, learning things, and sharing whatever I can. It’ll be an interesting challenge figuring things out. I’d like to get really good at writing. I’d still be open to going back to work (even in a non-tech job) if the market plummets or W- needs me to cover things.
    • Factors that would nudge me towards this: ~3% withdrawal rate, good cash buffer for market corrections, productive things to do with my time, questions to explore
    • What would a typical week look like? Read, write, garden, exercise, cook. Occasionally get together with other people.

I’m the most curious about E (financial independence plus writing), but C (lifestyle business) that might eventually transition to D (larger business) could be interesting too.

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.

Thinking about leisure activities: noble, advantageous, pleasant

As an experiment (and because the timing works), I have a three-month break coming up. It’ll be quite a different experience from the 1-month breaks I’ve been taking so far, probably as different as the way that having an entire weekday to yourself is different from squeezing your activities into an evening. So I have a few questions to think about:

  • How can I make the most of that time?
  • With the answers to that question in mind, how can I make the most of the weekdays I have until then? How do those activities compare with working a little more from August to September?
  • Considering the most likely situations, how would I like to adjust my work/discretionary-time balance?

It got me thinking about what I actually do during my leisure time, and why. Oddly enough, despite the ability to spend lots of time reading and writing, I still end up writing at roughly the same rate I did back when I was working full-time. Some days the words flow freely and I queue up a few posts, other days I’m casting about for ideas. My reading has shifted a little, and for the better (I think). I doubt I’d have had the patience to read philosophy and reflect on it slowly back when I read in the evenings and the occasional weekend.

Aristotle writes in the Nichomachean Ethics on the topic of why we choose what we choose:

But that [virtue and vice] are concerned with the same things might become manifest to us also from these considerations: there being three objects of choice and three of avoidance–the noble, the advantageous, and the pleasant together with their three contraries, the shameful, the harmful, and the painful–in all these the good person is apt to be correct, the bad person to err, but especially as regards pleasure. (1104b30)

It might be useful, then, to reflect on these leisure activities and figure out how they stack up against Aristotle’s objects, along with some notes on how adding more time to these activities makes sense. This will help me make a decision about the months leading up to November, and for after the break (depending on how things turn out).

Legend:

  • T: Well-served by additional time
  • N: Noble
  • A: Advantageous
  • P: Pleasant
T N A P Activity and notes
T N A P Work so that I can develop my skills and reputation, help people out, make a difference, and enjoy excellence; More time = better skills, more help, more appreciation
T N A P Write or draw what I’m learning so that I can understand, remember, and share; More time = more application and sharing, and better skills too
T N A ? Spend time with people (online/offline) so that I can appreciate other people’s interestingness; More time = more opportunities to get to know people
T N A Copy, review, and apply my notes so that I can learn more; More time = deeper understanding and application, more connections among ideas
T A P Tidy up, take care of chores/errands, and cook so that we have a smoothly running household and so that W- feels wonderful; More time = cleaner and smoother-running household, but possibly diminishing returns
T A P Learn Latin so that I can read and enjoy older works, and so that I can enjoy learning; More time = more practice, but constrained by memory
T A P Learn Japanese so that I can enjoy listening to anime/podcasts and reading tech news/blogs; More time = more practice, but constrained by memory
T A P Bike so that I can exercise, get somewhere, and save money; More time = more explorations
T A ? Go to meetups and talks so that I can learn and meet people; More time = more knowledge and connections
T A ? Build simple furniture or fix things around the house so that I can make/repair things that suit us (haven’t done this in a few years, but worth revisiting); More time = better DIY skills
T A ? Work on Emacs so that I can learn more, customize it better, and help others learn; More time = more knowledge and resources
T A Finish projects so that I can reduce mental clutter; More time = more stuff done
? N A P Exercise so that I can become healthier; More time = fitter, but constrained by gradual training program
? N A Read nonfiction books so that I can recognize and articulate ideas, and so that it prompts thinking / writing. More time = more reading, but application may be better
? A P Have a massage so that I can learn more about my muscles; More time = more relaxed and more aware
? A P Draw what I’m watching or reading so that I can practise drawing people and so that I get more out of the movie; More time = better drawing skills
? A ? Read social media updates and interact with people online so that I can maintain connections and learn from people’s lives; More time = more interaction
? A Read and write e-mail so that I can help or learn from more people; More time = prompter replies
? A Balance my books and plan my finances so that I can make better decisions; More time = better prepared, but possibly diminishing returns
? A Sew so that I can make or fix things suited for us; More time = projects, better attention to detail, improved skills
? A Research and buy things to improve our quality of life; More time = wider awareness and better decisions
? P Play with the cats so that I can be amused and so that I can appreciate them; More time = happier cats
? P Garden so that I can slow down and enjoy watching things grow; More time = more attention, but limited by knowledge and conditions
N A P Cook at Hacklab so that I can connect with people and learn new recipes; More time = more elaborate or consistent meals, but limited by frequency
N A Simplify our things so that I can practise detachment and resourcefulness; More time = simpler life
A P Read blogs so that I can get a sense of other people’s lives and challenges; More time = greater awareness and possible interactions
A Do paperwork and plan ahead so that we can minimize risks; More time = better organization, but diminishing returns
P Watch movies so that I can spend time with W-, accumulate more in-jokes, and enjoy other people’s work; More time = more shared experiences
P Watch amusing videos and read fiction/blogs/analyses online so that I can appreciate other people’s brilliance; More time = more pleasure and appreciation, but limited value
P Play video games so that I can appreciate other people’s brilliance and enjoy figuring things out; More time = more pleasure and appreciation, but limited value
P Sleep so that I am well-rested; More time = an excess of sleep

Hmm. Tabulating and sorting it like this is actually pretty useful. I can see why work is so tempting for me, despite the opportunity to do other things. It is an opportunity to work towards and practise nobility/excellence through work; it is advantageous in terms of resources and reputation, which contributes to safety; and it’s pleasant, especially when I get a chance to do some rapid-prototyping magic or some custom analytics.

Writing and drawing are less clear and more self-directed. But they are useful techniques for working towards nobility; they are advantageous both in terms of the content and the skills I develop; and both the process and the results of figuring things out are pleasant. If I spend more time and attention on these things, I can improve my ability to observe and articulate. It may take me years to get the hang of these skills, but they are good to develop.

I can develop both writing and drawing in the afternoons and evenings, but I do notice a difference in attention. I usually watch movies in the evening as a way of spending time with W-. This is okay for slow and light writing, but does not lend itself well to study, deep reflection, or application. When I worked full-time, I generally wrote in the evenings (sometimes before dinner, sometimes shortly after) or on one of the weekend afternoons. I like writing on weekday afternoons, now. I like the pace. Would I pick that over consulting? Yes, actually, depending on what kinds of tasks I’d work on. I can put off writing when there are important and time-sensitive tasks to be done, but writing is also important to me long-term, and I’m willing to take on a little risk in order to experiment with it.

Hmm. If I do two to three days of work a week–maybe even four–from now to October, while leaving at least one full day for writing, that’s probably good. I can front-load the writing, since that’s important to me. If I feel it could use more time, I might adjust what I work on. I’ll spend the usual time cooking and taking care of house-things, although I might spend a little more time during the week to cook fresh dinners. I can use the three-month break to experiment with more writing and drawing. In the meantime, I can avoid getting used to the additional income by stashing it all in a safety net, opportunity fund, or similar budget. If we keep our lifestyle the same, it’s easy to evaluate work for its own sake.

Are there some smaller-value activities that I should spend more time on instead of reading, writing, and drawing? Spending time with people is nice, but it can be a little iffy in terms of energy, so I might take the occasional opportunity and use the rest of the time on other things. I can review my notes instead of reading lots of new books, and use those notes for material for blog posts and experiments. When I find myself looking for non-writing activities, this table might be handy to review.

Let’s see how this works out.