Category Archives: experiment

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Learning from frugal lives of years past

I’ve been reading a lot about early frugal living. I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), and I followed a link in a blog post to Ralph Borsodi’s This Ugly Civilization (1929) and thence to his Flight from the City (1933, during the Great Depression – particularly poignant bits in the chapter on security versus insecurity). Both authors provided detailed breakdowns of their expenses and descriptions of their methods, fleshing out philosophies of simple living. There’s much that I don’t agree with, but there are also many ideas that I recognize and can learn even more from. I’d probably get along with the authors, and their mental voices will be handy to keep in my mind. I found both of them somewhat more relatable than Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essays, but I’m sure Emerson will yield additional insights on re-reading.

Both Thoreau and Borsodi emphasized the freedom you get (or keep!) by minimizing your wants. Thoreau wrote, “… for my greatest skill has been to want but little.” Borsodi points out the artificiality of many desires as products of a factory-oriented culture that must have people buy the things that factories produce. By questioning your wants and becoming as self-sufficient as you can be, you free yourself from the restrictions many other people have. In a way, it’s a follow-up from what I’m learning from Epictetus. I like how the Greeks tend to be more about living in society instead of going away from it, though.

Homesteading is a big thing for both Thoreau and Borsodi. I’m not particularly curious about exploring homesteading at the moment. City bylaws ban keeping chickens, and I still struggle with garden productivity. The city is all I know so far. W- and J- both have reasons to be here. Besides, the Toronto Public Library system and a decent, reliable connection to Internet are doing amazing things for my learning at the moment. Perhaps someday, but not now. In the meantime, despite Borsodi’s disdain for the stock market, I like the fact that it’s doing well. The gains are much less than Virginia Woolf’s five hundred a year (about US$45,000 these days; mentioned in A Room of One’s Own), but I don’t need that much to live well, anyway. Still, I’m going to keep working on some skills for independent living (cooking, sewing, repairing, making, etc.), since I can do that wherever I am.

Onward!

Planning my next little business

I’ve been holding back from experimenting with new businesses. I’m not sure how the next few months are going to be like, and I don’t want to make commitments like sketchnote event bookings or additional freelance contracts. Besides, focusing on my own stuff has been an interesting experiment so far, and I want to continue it.

Still, from time to time, I get the itch to build systems and processes for creating value for other people. For example, when I talk to people who are struggling to find jobs or having a hard time building freelance businesses, I want to support and encourage them by helping them see opportunities. Talking about stuff can feel a bit empty, but actually doing stuff–and showing how to do it–is more helpful, especially since I seem to be more comfortable with sales, marketing, and business experimentation than many people are.

So, depending on how these next few months turn out, what are the kinds of businesses that I’d like to build?

  • E-books and other resources: I like the way free/pay-what-you-want information makes it easy for people to learn without friction and still be able to show their appreciation through payment, conversation, links, or other good things. I also like the scale of it: I can spend some time working on a resource, and then people can come across it when they need it. No schedule commitments, either.
  • Software, maybe?: Someday. The upsides of working on stuff that other people use: feature suggestions, warm-and-fuzzies. The downside: dealing with bugs. I think the first step would be to build tools for myself.
  • Visual book reviews?: People seem to like these, and I enjoy reading.

Let me take a step back here and break that out into the specific characteristics I like. If I identify those characteristics, I might be able to recognize or imagine other businesses along those lines. What attracts me?

  • Scale: Build once, help many. I don’t mind lower sales at the beginning if I’m working on the kinds of things that people will find useful over a long period of time.
  • Accumulation: I like collecting building blocks in terms of content and skills because I can combine those in interesting ways.
  • Generosity: I like free/pay-what-you-want because it allows me to reach the most people and feel great about the relationships.
  • Flexibility: I like minimizing schedule or topic commitments because that reduces stress and lets me adapt to what’s going on. Self-directed work fits me well.
  • Distinction: I like doing things that involve uncommon perspectives or combinations of skills. I feel like I can bring more to the table.
  • Value: I like things that help people learn more, understand things better, save time or money, share what they know, or be more excited about life.
  • Other things I care about: I care about making good ideas more accessible, which is why I like transcripts, sketchnotes, writing, and websites. I also care about helping good people do well, which is why I help friends with their businesses.

Writing fits these characteristics pretty well. If I can help friends through process coaching and things like that, I can learn more about things that other people might find useful too. It’s entirely possible to build good stuff around just this learn-share-scale cycle. Anything else (spin-off businesses? software? services) would be a bonus.

I have a little more uncertainty to deal with. I can see the timeline for it, so I’m okay with giving myself permission to take it easy for the next couple of months. After that, I’ll probably have a clearer idea of what the rest of this experiment with semi-retirement (and other follow-up experiments! =) ) could be like.

What would more focused writing or content creation look like? I might:

  • Pick a subject people are curious about and write a series of blog posts that I can turn into e-books
  • Revisit that outline of things to write about and flesh it in
  • Organize blog posts and other content into downloadable resources
  • Create courses so that people can go through things at a recommended pace and with multimedia content
    • Ooh, more animations

I think that would be an interesting life. =)

I still want to do something to help all these awesome people I come across who are having a hard time finding jobs or building businesses for themselves, though. It’s odd hearing about their struggles while at the same time watching the stock market keep going up – businesses seem to be doing okay, but it’s not trickling down? Maybe I’ll spend more time listening to people and asking what could help. Maybe I can spend some time connecting with business owners and seeing if I can understand their needs, too. Knowledge, ideas, and encouragement are easy, but there are probably even better ways to help. Hmm… That gives me a focus for networking at events. Looking forward to helping!

Quiet days

I set aside Tuesdays and Thursdays for consulting. Fridays are for meetings and getting together with people. Saturdays are for spending time with my husband or having the rare party, and Sundays are for cooking and chores.

Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are discretionary time. I could spend those days working. My consulting clients would love to have more time, and there are all sorts of other things I could work on as well.

I’ve been making myself find good uses of that time on my own, though. Depending on the projects I’m focusing on, I might spend those days coding, drawing, reading, or writing. Lately, I’ve been working my way through a stack of philosophy books from the library. Histories give me overviews and show me the relationships between thinkers, while treatises give me the context for all these quotes that have been floating around.

Hmm. Maybe that’s what fascinates me about philosophy at the moment. I’ve picked up bits and pieces of wisdom through quotes and summaries. Now I want to learn more about the context of those sound bites and the thought processes behind them. I want to reflect on the maxims, choose the ones I want to apply to life, and learn how to observe and improve. At some point, I’ll probably feel that I can learn more from experience than from books, and then I’ll jump back into the fray. In the meantime, it’s amazing to be able to condense centuries of thought into afternoons of reading. Not that I fully understand everything, but there’s enough to spark awareness and recognition.

I’m not particularly interested in the big questions of metaphysics, epistemology, or logic. Ethics, maybe–small “e” ethics, not as much the Ethics of What Everyone Ought To Do. I want to get better at choosing what’s good for me and doing it. The ancient Greeks have a lot to say about that, and some of the later philosophers also do.

I’m not an entrepreneur, or at least not yet. I’m using this space and capital to improve myself (or at least theoretically improve myself) instead of building a business. I’m not even focused on learning a marketable skill that I can list on my résumé, although I’m sure my interests will turn towards that at some point. In the meantime, it feels good to lay the groundwork for more clarity and better decisions.

What’s the next step? Well, since I’m interested in applied philosophy, that probably means testing these ideas out in everyday life. On the personal side, there’s living simply and thoughtfully. On the social side, maybe practising more loving-kindness. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a pure philosopher, so I’ll likely use my time to learn, code, write, and draw. I wonder what I’ll be curious about after I build a good foundation in this area. Useful skills, perhaps? Design and aesthetics? Business? We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll give my mind enough space to unfold questions and learn from the notes that people have left for us.

Hmm, maybe I’m not slacking off after all

Even though I’ve got the steady accumulation of DONE tasks showing my slow-but-constant progress, I still sometimes feel like I’m leaving something on the table when it comes to how I use my time. I feel like I’m living with a more relaxed pace, especially compared with the world of work around me or my fuzzed-by-time recollections of pre-experiment and early-experiment days.

Top line = All tasks excluding cancelled ones, bottom line = DONE

Top line = All tasks excluding cancelled ones, bottom line = DONE

I was thinking about how my time use has shifted over the past few years. I compared my percentages in different categories for 2012, 2013, and for 2014 to date. But the numbers say I’m actually spending more time on work and personal projects, and I do seem to manage to check off lots of things on my TODO list. =) So maybe I’m doing okay with this after all, even though sometimes I think I’m slacking off.

Top-level categories:

  • Sleep: Pretty consistent (34.5-36.6%) – this works out to 8.3-8.8 hours a day.
  • Business: Down, then up lately – 24%, 21%, 26%; but I expect this to be a little lower this year, since I’m taking three months off. =) I’ll probably focus on even more writing, drawing, and Emacs geekery then. (And maybe a crash course in a useful skill…)
    Avg hours per week 2012 2013 2014 to date
    Earn 20 15 17
    Build 12 13 18
    Connect 8 7 9
    Total 40 35 44
  • Discretionary: Up, then down – 18%, 22%, 16%
  • Personal care: Pretty consistent (13-14%)
  • Chores/unpaid work: Pretty consistent (7-8%)

As before, the business/discretionary trade-off is really the main thing that moves. The rest of my life stays pretty much the same. The second level of categories is worth looking at too:

  • Writing is pretty consistent at 3%, or roughly 5 hours a week. Still, I think I’d like to write more. What should get reduced? Ah, video games have been soaking up a little time – although they’re exercise too. Hmm, I could intensify that exercise so that I get more out of it. Oh! I’ve been spending more time gardening lately; that could be another reason. I like both of those alternative activities too, and I think they’ll taper off after a while. That’s okay, there’ll be time enough to write more. Besides, some of my writing is filed under Emacs-related time instead. =)
  • Trending up:
    • Drawing (2.0-4.1%): This is good.
    • Planning (0.2-1.5%): Hmm, this is interesting. Am I running into diminishing returns here? Maybe less time planning, more time experimenting.
    • Emacs (0.4-2.8%), and I’m looking forward to spending even more time on this.
    • Relaxing (0.6-2.0%)
  • Trending down:
    • Tidying up, cleaning the kitchen (2.3-1.6%) – about 3 hours a week? I should do more around the house (or maybe I am, and I’m not tracking it properly)
    • Working on Quantified Awesome (1.4-0.8%) – steady-state since I’m happy with the code so far?
    • Reading fiction (1.2-0.4%) – subsumed into other activities
    • Socializing (8.0-1.4%) – big drop here; winter, becoming more selective?
    • Networking (4.7-1.7%) – big drop here too; not networking as actively
    • Biking (2.4-0.7%) – but then it’s still early in the biking season, and I work fewer days too

I’ll continue to focus on gardening for a bit until the garden is more established. I want to exercise and bike more as well. And there’s all sorts of Emacs coolness to learn about and share! =) Writing will have to be content with these little snippets–thinking out loud, sharing what I learn, and other things like that–until I can spend more time focusing on developing ideas. Mostly, the increase in time on other activities seems to be coming from the time I used to spend socializing. I actually like this new balance. The stuff I make and share online seems to lead to more ongoing conversations than those hi-hellos at tech events, and I’m still happy to spend a few hours getting to know people or going somewhere.

I got the time numbers from http://quantifiedawesome.com and a bit of spreadsheet number-crunching, and the task numbers from Emacs + Org Mode + R. =) Yay data!

Reflecting on risk aversion

I’m more careful about risks than I was at the beginning of this experiment. I see more negative consequences when projecting the results of decisions, and I perceive more volatility. I tend to overestimate the probability and impact of negative possibilities, and I’m conservative about taking advantage of opportunities.

This is interesting to me because I expected the opposite result when I started this experiment. A safety net should enable me to feel comfortable with taking more risks. In particular, I would probably have expected to take more risks in terms of:

  • Tools: get better at seeing the possible improvements or new capabilities opened up by tools
  • Education: learn faster with other people’s helps
  • Networking: connect with and help more people
  • Creation: make and ship more things
  • Delegation: working with other people to get even more done
  • Commitment, schedule: plan for larger things, and hustle in order to get more things done

Hmm. Come to think of it, even my perception about increased risk aversion is perhaps inaccurate. Over the past two years, I’ve learned a lot from taking risks in terms of business models, sales, delegation, and so on. Let me take a closer look at the categories I mentioned to see if I can come up with counterpoints:

  • Tools: Small hardware, software, and network upgrades have worked out well.
  • Education: I’ve learned that I can learn a lot from books, experimentation, and connecting online, which is why paid courses and conferences haven’t really been on my radar.
  • Networking: The Emacs Chat podcast is a new thing for me, and I’m slowly getting the hang of it. I’ve been moving to getting to know people online instead of focusing on in-person connecting, and I like connecting with peers or people I can help rather than trying to connect with high-flying celebrities. I think I like the direction I’m going, actually.
  • Creation: PDFs, guides, and e-mail courses are new for me. That’s working well. Free/PWYW helps me reduce risk and avoid being anxious about satisfaction.
  • Delegation: Not as good as I could be when it comes to assigning tasks, but still better than nothing.
  • Commitment, schedule: This is probably where the biggest difference is. I’m less inclined to schedule things, and I try to minimize my commitments in terms of time and energy. Every so often, I think about whether I should be hustling more, but I like my current pace.

Oh, that’s interesting. I think I’m surprised by the way I’m getting better at saying no, which is apparently a very useful skill. I’m getting better at not feeling guilty about it, too. I want to make sure I’m saying yes to some things, what I’m saying yes to is worth it for me, and that I’m not prematurely closing off things that do want.

How do I want to tweak this? I’d still probably minimize the number of commitments. I might take more notes on decisions. That would give me a better handle on risks that worked out well and risks that didn’t, because what I recall is biased by my mood. What I take notes on is biased by mood as well, but it’ll be easier to find contrary examples.

Also, when I find myself possibly overestimating the likelihood or impact of negative possibilities, I can sanity-check my perceptions with research and with other people. Hmm…

It’s kinda fun noticing when your brain is acting a little weird. =) We’ll see how I can work around things!

Thinking about what I want to do with my time

Every so often, I spend time thinking about what I want to focus on. I’m interested in many things. I like following my interests. Guiding them to focus on two or three key areas helps me avoid feeling split apart or frazzled.

I balance this thinking with the time I spend actually doing things. It’s easy to spend so much time thinking about what you want to do that you don’t end up doing it. It’s easy to spend so much time doing things that you don’t end up asking if you’re doing the right things. I probably spend slightly more time on the thinking side than I could, but that will work itself out over time.

I balance thinking with moving forward. It doesn’t matter if I might be going in the wrong direction, because movement itself teaches you something. You discover your preferences: more of this, less of that. You get feedback from the world. For me, moving forward involves learning more about technology, trying experiments, making things, and so on. Taking small steps helps me avoid spending lots of time going in the wrong direction.

(And are there really wrong directions, or just vectors that don’t line up as well?)

What do I want to do with my time?

Fitness: The weather’s warming up, so: more biking, more raking, more compost-turning, more carrying water to the garden. It would be good to be fitter and to feel fitter. I like the focus on fitness rather than exercise – not exertion for its own sake, but practical application.

Coding: I like coding. Coding might be a perfectly acceptable answer to the question “What do I want to do with my life?”, at least currently. I’ve been doing a lot more Emacs coding, and I’m digging into other technologies as well. I like it because I can build stuff – and more importantly, learning helps me imagine useful stuff to build.

I think I want to get better at making web tools that are useful and that look good, but I’m not sure. Lots of other people can do this, and I haven’t come up with strong ideas that need this. (Back to the need for a well-trained imagination!) I can wait to develop this skill until I have a stronger idea, or I can learn these skills to lay the foundation for coming up with ideas. I’ve been thinking about getting better at working with APIs, but that’s even more like digital sharecropping than creating content on other people’s platform is. APIs, pricing models, and all sorts of other things change a lot. I’m wary of investing lots of time in things that I have very little control over.

What would a few possible futures look like? I could be a toolmaker, building lots of little tools for niche audiences. technomancy and johnw are great role models for this. I could be a contributor or maintainer, building up part of something like Org or Emacs, or perhaps one of the modern Web stacks. If I need to keep a path back into the workforce, maybe back-end development would be a good way to do that. I like talking to fellow geeks anyway, so it’s okay if I don’t focus on front end–that way I won’t have to deal with fiddly browser differences or client tweaks.

Writing: Writing helps me learn more and understand things better. It saves other people time and tickles their brains. It’s also a great use of my time, although sometimes I feel like coding has more straightforward value.

Lots of people write. I want to write about things things that are not already thoroughly covered elsewhere. I want to be myself, not some generic blogger – to write (and draw!) things that are geeky and approachable. I like writing about Emacs (goodness knows how we need more documentation!), self-tracking, experiments, technology, and learning.

What’s on the backburner for now, then?

  • Sketchnoting other people’s content: Useful and easy to appreciate, but potentially distracting from the other stuff I want to do. I may make an exception for books, since I like reading anyway.
  • Spreading sketchnoting: I can leave this in the capable hands of Mike Rohde, Sunni Brown, and Dan Roam. I’ll still use sketchnoting to think through things, though, and I’ll share them on my blog and on Flickr.
  • Spreading alternative lifestyles (semi-retirement, portfolio careers, etc.): Jeff Goins, Pamela Slim, and Mr. Money Mustache are doing fine with this. I tend to stay away from giving advice, and I don’t want to inadvertently feed wantrepreneurship as a substitute for actually taking action. I’ll still write about my experiments and decisions, though.
  • Spreading blogging in general: I’ll answer people’s questions and encourage people along, but I won’t dig into this as much as I could. I might make an exception for tech blogging, because I have a vested interest in getting more geeks to blog – more search results to come across and more posts to learn from! ;)
  • Drawing better: I draw well enough for my purposes, and I want to keep things approachable.

What does this reflection teach me about what drives me?

  • I like the feeling of figuring things out and of contributing to something that will build over time.
  • I like positive feedback, but I can move away from it if I want. For example, people always ask me about sketchnotes, but I like Emacs stuff more even though it’s hard to explain in regular conversation.
  • If I don’t have a particularly strong idea for something I want to build, I can spend the time learning more about the capabilities of the tools I use. Along the way, I’m sure to run into lots of small gaps. I can fill those in to demonstrate my learning.
  • I tend to build things for my own convenience. I open it up if I think a web interface will be handy, and if other people find it helpful, that’s icing on the cake.

For amusement, you can check out my list of back-burner things from October 2013. Back then, I wanted to focus more on drawing and writing. This time, I’m geeking out. Yay! =)