Category Archives: experiment

Learning slack

Amy Hoy’s post “Don’t write 1000 words a day” goes:

What would bring a person to ask, “How do you motivate yourself?” … This question presumes that You are not a single entity, but a split one: a cart driver, and a donkey.

The cart driver is trying to flog the donkey and the donkey is digging in its heels. If only the cart driver can figure out how to overcome the stubborn donkey, Writing Will Ensue.

This reminded me of what I wrote about word counts and chunks, and thinking in terms of ideas instead of an arbitrary number of words. I want to learn at least one new thing or share at least one thought, whether that takes lots of words or just a few. My goal isn’t to write, and it definitely isn’t to Become a Writer. It’s to learn, and I learn so that I can have more fun and live an awesome life. (You can see how everything fits into my evil plans. ;) )

On a different note, what Amy said also reminded me of this post I wrote in January 2014 about a conversation about writing, and reflections on taskmasters. I had resolved to let myself explore, instead of setting myself firm deadlines and concrete goals like all the productivity and entrepreneurship books tell you to do. I coded whenever I felt like it and didn’t when I didn’t. I reduced my consulting hours and spent more time writing, reading, and drawing. I went to parks with friends and hung out in the afternoon sun.

This is the story so far of my 5-year experiment:

  • Hitting the ground running, working more than I did before, trying out lots of different business ideas
  • Settling into a good rhythm, gradually decreasing commitments
  • Now, prioritizing flexibility, enjoying the journey

danceSlack turns out to be a powerful thing. These past few weeks I’ve been very much under the weather, almost out-sleeping our cats. It was great to be able to ride it out without getting too annoyed or frustrated at the changes in my energy. I told my clients about my limited availability. I turned over all my commitments to other people. I gave myself even more permission to nap, to read, to relax. Occasionally, as life permitted, I worked on little things that could help people (but whose absence wouldn’t hurt them). The world went on, and it was wonderful.

I found out that when I gave myself permission to do anything I wanted, my decisions worked out mostly like this:

  • Am I tired? If so, sleep.
  • Am I fuzzy-brained? If so, consider taking a nap, or relax with some light reading.
  • Do I feel semi-okay, and am I tired of reading? If so, practise drawing by copying other people’s sketches.
  • Am I somewhat coherent? If so, write.
  • Do I feel alert and logical? If so, code.

And even spending almost half the time in bed, I still feel pretty good about the things I did manage to do:

  • pick up recursive SQL queries and use them to create even better Tableau reports for my consulting client
  • coach team members on development and analytics
  • write a lot, and get better at working with outlines
  • work on Quantified Awesome a little bit
  • play around with Emacs and swap tips with other people

Things are slowly returning to normal. I can feel my mind becoming more alert, although it’s still a little squirrelly from the protocol I need to follow. But it was great to be able to explore what trusting myself more with time looks like.

I’m so glad that I could do something like this instead of having to force myself through the usual routines, or pretend to energy I didn’t have, or meet commitments I couldn’t shake. It’s a privilege and other people get through a lot worse. But hey, I’m here, so I might as well learn from what I can learn and share what I can share.

I’m not quite a slacker, but the word intrigues me. It might be interesting to be a slack-er, a master of slack, someone who knows how to create just the right kind of balance between tension and space, someone who can pay attention to the shifts in energy. If there’s just enough play, you can feel where things want to take you. If you pull too hard, you lose that sense. If you hold too loosely, you don’t pick up that difference either. Oh! Perhaps like dance.

I like the tips in J. B. Rainsberger’s “Productivity for the Depressed” (handy even if you aren’t). In particular, I resonate with:

  • Either work and feel terrible or avoid work and feel good, but don’t let yourself avoid work while feeling terrible.
  • Go with your energy.
  • Avoid commitments. Refuse commitments when others try to force them on you. Look for self-contained opportunities to contribute where completing the work helps people but not completing the work does not hurt them.
  • Look for any opportunity to build more slack into your life: money slack, time slack or energy slack.

surfAnother metaphor here that makes sense to me: energy comes in waves, and you can ride them. For me, it’s not just a single channel, not just a single beach to surf to. I can go lots of different ways. I don’t have to work with just the big waves either. I can take the small ones for a little bit of adventure. (Oh, that reminds me of this March 2014 post about having a buffet of goals, and this Oct 2014 post about wandering through parks.)

Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success (Shane Snow, 2014; Amazon affiliate link) has a chapter on catching waves. The best surfers look at patterns and decide things like:

  • Where should you position yourself to catch a good wave?
  • Which wave will you catch? (It doesn’t have to be the next one that’s coming.)
  • How can you paddle in order to catch it?
  • What will you do with it?

You can’t force a wave. (Okay, maybe you can engineer one.) If you’re out there, you just have to learn how to read the energy. There are waves going in different directions, and sometimes they combine to make pretty good ones. Even if nothing’s coming for a bit, you can still enjoy the view.

I’m reminded of how my sister kept a close eye on weather forecasts back when she was into the scene. Storms can lead to good surf, and calms can have their own charm. In life, too.

I like those metaphors. Not taskmaster/slave, but dancer, surfer. Let’s see where this goes.

(In real life, I was terrible at surfing: never keen on water, and with too much of a healthy appreciation for possibly poisonous or otherwise dangerous things in the sea. But that’s why metaphors are metaphors.)

What could I do if I showed up in a bigger way?

I’m reading Ben Arment’s Dream Year: Make the Leap From a Job You Hate to a Life You Love (2014), and there’s a reminder in here about the choice between the fear of failure and the fear of insignificance. “Choose the fear of insignificance,” the author says. And I think: Hmm, actually, I’m okay with insignificance (or minor minor minor significance, in any case). Stoicism reminds us that after thousands of years, very little of this will matter. But maybe I should care a little bit. Since I’ve done all this work to minimize the fear of failure anyway. I might as well play on that side of the equation.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’m wondering whether I should take this experience in social business and make something bigger out of it. I could probably negotiate something with my main consulting clients so that we could get ideas or even code out in the wider world, or I could independently develop something that they and other people would be welcome to use. I haven’t quite sorted out what that would be like yet, but I imagine it would start off as open source components, then possibly consulting and product development once I’ve established a reputation in that community.

Of social business, Emacs, and blogging, though, I like Emacs the most. There’s something about it. I like the community a lot: interesting people doing interesting things, and a remarkably flexible platform that has kept me curious and fascinated for years. If I were to show up in a bigger way, I suppose that would involve writing more guides, and maybe understanding enough of the core of complex things like Org and Emacs itself so that I could contribute to the codebase. I tend to focus on workflow more than bugfixes or new features, though… I think there’s something interesting in how people use the same things in such different ways. Maybe I’ll write more about my evolving workflow, using that and personal projects as excuses to keep tweaking.

As for blogging, there are bucketloads of people who are happy to give other people advice on what to do and how to do it. I’m interested in keeping it unintimidating and useful for personal learning, but I’m more excited about and curious about those other two causes. Still, I can show by example, and I can offer advice and encouragement when people ask.

What are the differences between this slightly bigger life and my current one? I think part of it is related to the way that I’ve been minimizing my commitments during this 5-year experiment, being very careful about what I say yes to and what I promise my time towards. Part of it is taking the initiative instead of waiting for requests or sparks of inspiration. Part of it is working more deliberately towards a goal. It’s not going to be a big big life, but it might be interesting to experiment with.

Reducing my consulting

I’ve been gradually scaling down my consulting. I started with a plan for consulting 3-4 days a week. Then I shifted to 2-3 days. Now I’m planning to target a regular schedule of one day per week, with extra for when there are important projects. I’ve been helping other team members pick up my skills, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with that. I think consulting one day a week will be a good next step in terms of giving me a deeper experience of self-directed time while still building on excellent client relationships.

What would be different if I work one day a week? I think this might be a new tipping point, since I’ll have a larger block of focused time – up to four days, compared to the bursts of single discretionary days of a Tue/Thu schedule. I’ll find out whether I can keep enough context in my head to make the most of spread-apart days, and if the mental leakage is worth it. Alternatively, I might experiment with working two afternoons a week, which still breaks up the week but allows for more responsiveness and momentum.

At the moment, I find it easier and more fun to work on specific people’s ideas and challenges rather than come up with my own solutions for the gaps I see. That said, I’m starting to branch out and make things that I think people will like, and these have turned out to be surprisingly helpful. Still, I’ve got a fair bit more to learn before I can be one of those idea-slinging entrepreneurs.

What do I gain from consulting?

  • The impetus to solve specific problems (learning a lot along the way)
  • The fulfillment of working on larger achievements
  • Taking advantage of other people’s skills without having to do the coordination myself
  • Feedback and ideas from other people
  • Interaction with a good team
  • A bigger safety net (financial and professional)

What other experiment modes do I want to try?

  • Active leisure: learning, writing, drawing, cooking, exercising, etc.
  • Product development: using writing, drawing, and coding to practise creating things outside the time=money equation
  • Open source contribution/maintainership: learning boost from commitments?

I suppose I could toss myself in the deep end and try a 0% schedule earlier rather than later. I’m planning to take a few months to look into this add-on development thing, and that should give me some more information on what I need to learn and whether I can get the hang of it. =)

Much to try…

Thinking about rewards and recognition since I’m on my own

One of the things a good manager does is to recognize and reward people’s achievements, especially if people exceeded expectations. A large corporation might have some standard ways to reward good work: a team lunch, movie tickets, gift certificates, days off, reward points, events, and so on. Startups and small businesses might be able to come up with even more creative ways of celebrating success.

In tech, I think good managers take extra care to recognize when people have gone beyond the normal call of duty. It makes sense. Many people earn salaries without overtime pay, might not get a bonus even if they’ve sacrificed time with family or other discretionary activities, and might not be able to take vacation time easily.

It got me thinking: Now that I’m on my own, how do I want to celebrate achievements–especially when they are a result of tilting the balance towards work?

When I’m freelancing, extra time is paid for, so some reward is there already. I like carving out part of those earnings for my opportunity fund, rewarding my decision-making by giving myself more room to explore.

During a sprint, the extra focus time sometimes comes from reducing my housework. When things relax, then, I like celebrating by cooking good meals, investing in our workflows at home, and picking up the slack.

I also like taking notes so that I can build on those successes. I might not be able to include a lot of details, but having a few memory-hooks is better than not having any.

Sometimes people are really happy with the team’s performance, so there’s extra good karma. Of the different non-monetary ways that people can show their appreciation within a corporate framework, which ones would I lean towards?

I definitely appreciate slowing down the pace after big deliverables. Sustained concentration is difficult, so it helps to be able to push back if there are too many things on the go.

At work, I like taking time to document lessons learned in more detail. I’d get even more of a kick out of it if other people picked up those notes and did something even cooler with the ideas. That ranks high on my warm-and-fuzzy feeling scale. It can take time for people to have the opportunity to do something similar, but that’s okay. Sometimes I hear from people years later, and that’s even awesomer.

A testimonial could come in handy, especially if it’s on an attributed site like LinkedIn.

But really, it’s more about long-term relationships and helping out good people, good teams, and good causes. Since I can choose how much to work and I know that my non-work activities are also valuable, the main reasons I would choose to work more instead of exploring those other interests are:

  • I like the people I work with and what they’re working on, and I want to support them,
  • I’ll learn interesting things along the way, and
  • It’s good to honour commitments and not disrupt plans unnecessarily.

So, theoretically, if we plunged right back into the thick of another project, I didn’t get the time to write about stuff, I didn’t feel right keeping personal notes (and thus I’ll end up forgetting the important parts of the previous project), and no one’s allowed to write testimonials, I’d still be okay with good karma – not the quid-pro-quo of transactional favour-swapping, but a general good feeling that might come in handy thirty years from now.

Hmm, this is somewhat related to my reflection on Fit for You – which I thought I’d updated within the last three years, but I guess I hadn’t posted that to my blog. Should reflect on that again sometime… Anyway, it’s good to put together a “care and feeding” guide for yourself! =)

Recovering from a sprint

Still a little tired from my work sprint, but I’m starting to feel the fog receding. I spent yesterday evening helping at Hacklab, holding up cabinets and assembling Ikea shelves. It was a little bit more work when I could be relaxing or helping out at home, but it will pay off, I think.

My client is a little apologetic since there are some more projects I need to work on instead of relaxing after the hustle of the last project. I can do it, but maybe a little more slowly. (I realized at 5pm that I’d spent the whole day with my buttons misaligned, but no one seemed to notice.) The perils of working on things I like because I want to: I want to leave them poised for success and I want to learn as much as I can, so requests are difficult to resist. But keeping my life in a certain balance helps me have more of those brilliant moments, so there’s something to that too.

I want to pay close attention to this transition. It might be my last sprint for a while, since I’m planning to change my pace to a leisurely stroll, dawdling among the fall leaves. So if this experience of coming down from a peak of concentration – like those programming competitions and website launches in my past – won’t be as common in the future, what do I want to remember about this now?

The preparation can be fun: building a temporary bridge and hoping it can hold up to the weight; planning for contingencies; working long days with good people. When the sprint is on, there’s something thrilling about being able to deal with the little challenges life throws at you. Maybe this is like tennis players getting in the zone. Afterwards, the high of celebration and of plans that worked. The signal to slow down is that light mental fatigue: small mistakes, reduced creativity and energy. I can do two weeks of 50-60 hour work, staying cheerful in the mornings and getting enough sleep, before I slow down; around that time is also when I strongly miss the discretionary time and the time spent at home.
On my own, I probably wouldn’t do any sprints. I’m not a big fan of deadlines and other fixed commitments. I’d probably focus more on steady progress, even if it’s slow. But it is nice to be able to point to something and say, yes, there, that was awesome.

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. =)