Category Archives: experiment

A reflection on leisure and discretionary time

I’m coming up to the 4-year mark of this 5-year experiment with semi-retirement. The start of the final year might even neatly coincide with the next substantial change I’ve been planning. I’ve been very lucky to have had this opportunity to explore, and it’s a good opportunity to reflect on self-direction and leisure.

This past year has been a little like the openness of my final year of university, when my habit of taking summer courses freed up half the typical academic load for the schoolyear and I had plenty of time to explore open source development. This time, I had even more autonomy. No exams to study for, no projects to submit; just choices.

I’m learning that my physical state strongly influences my mental state, which then strongly influences how I use my time and how I feel about that use. If I’m tired or fuzzy-brained, I won’t get a lot done. I’ve learned to make better use of fuzzy-brained times by keeping a list of small tasks I can do, like housework. I invest some of my alert time in building the systems and processes to help me when I’m fuzzy-brained, too. Long-term, I’m probably well-served by investing more time in health. I’ll rest when I need to. Beyond that, if my mind’s not as active or as energetic as I’d like, there’s always working on my energy.

I feel particularly good when I use my discretionary time to:

  • contribute to the Emacs community by organizing resources, writing code or posts, answering questions, and experimenting with ideas
  • build tools for myself (interfaces, scripts, etc.), especially if I can learn more about libraries or frameworks
  • dig deeper into thoughts through a combination of drawing and writing
  • sew something, especially if I end up using it a lot
  • research, plan, and take notes
  • work on other skills
  • watch or read something informative/interesting/useful, particularly if it’s practical or skill-related

I feel good when I:

  • declutter, organize, document, and/or improve our routines, files, and other resources
  • cook something yummy (mostly focusing on familiar recipes at the moment, but I’m looking forward to exploring more)
  • play video games with W-, especially when we pick up new in-jokes or when we pull off neat tricks when beating the enemies
  • keep the household running
  • go for a long walk, especially with a useful destination and an interesting podcast to listen to or a question to think about
  • stretch a little or do whatever exercises I can
  • watch a good movie with W-, especially when it results in more in-jokes or an appreciation of how the movie is put together

On the other hand, I feel like time’s just passing when I:

  • write, but not end up posting my notes (although it’s a little bit better if I organize them for later review)
  • read casually, without a particular application or goal: books, e-books, the Internet
  • play games, especially if there’s not much sense of progress

I’ve come to enjoy a lot of different kinds of discretionary time. I think I don’t need a lot of pure leisure, at least not the vegging-out kind. I definitely like having a lot of discretionary time – to be able to choose what to do when – but even the things we do for day-to-day living can be enjoyable.

I will probably have less absolute time for leisure and less control of my time in general, but I think I’ll be okay. Because of this experiment, I’ve been learning that time probably isn’t my limiting factor when it comes to things like writing or learning or making things. It’s probably more about curiosity, observation, motivation, and experience, and those are things that I can develop through the years.


Moving past getting things done

2015-06-19a Moving past getting things done -- index card #present #mindset #being

2015-06-19a Moving past getting things done – index card #present #mindset #being

When I have a lot of energy, it’s easy to do good things for my consulting clients or on my personal projects. This energizes me further, and so on. This is a good cycle.

When I’m feeling blah, or when I don’t feel like I’m accomplishing interesting things, I tend to feel even more blah – even if I know that the difficulties are temporary, local, and impersonal.

I realized that my feelings about my days tend to be influenced by whether I made progress. This makes sense; there’s even a book about it.

2015-01-07 Sketched Book - The Progress Principle - Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work - Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer

2015-01-07 Sketched Book – The Progress Principle – Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work – Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer

While it’s useful to be motivated by progress, I wonder if I can tweak my mind to get better at enjoying life even when it feels cyclic and mundane. Instead of noting just the new, non-routine tasks of the day, I could reflect on whether I’m getting better at routine stuff like self-care – to enjoy being, not just doing.

2015-06-19c The gap between who I am and who I wish I was -- index card #gap #mindset

2015-06-19c The gap between who I am and who I wish I was – index card #gap #mindset

I find it a little difficult to relax into this mindset, though. Part of me is pulled towards the satisfaction of making progress, and I find myself wishing I could be better at that. I could improve my skills. I could make things better at home. I could be more energetic. I could cover more ground.

2015-06-19d Maybe the delta is okay -- index card #gap #mindset

2015-06-19d Maybe the delta is okay – index card #gap #mindset

But then again, maybe the outcomes of this hypothetical self and my current self are not that different. Sure, it would be nice to make all the progress a hypothetical me could make. But whatever’s important can be handled by other people, and whatever’s not important isn’t worth stressing out over. Besides, this path can also be interesting.

So, back to this curious thought. What’s beyond getting things done? I’m learning things that are hard to check off a list: how to forget annoyances and frustrations, how to enjoy ripe fruits and sunshine, how to listen to the moment and the silence. How to embrace squirrel-brain, fuzzy-brain, and foggy-brain, and how to gently fan a spark of interest.

It will be worth it, I think, learning how to sit still. “Don’t just do something, sit there!”, as the flipped phrase go.

When the check-things-off part of myself gets antsy, I code or read for an hour or so. Once it’s satisfied, I explore things with payoffs that are less straightforward.

Another thing I used to be antsier about: The thought “Will I ask good-enough questions? Will I think good-enough thoughts?” intrudes less and less these days. I trust that when I sit down to draw, I’ll notice something I want to explore; and if not, it might be a good time for a walk.

2015-05-10d The best thing I can do with my time -- index card #experiment

2015-05-10d The best thing I can do with my time – index card #experiment

It might be interesting to decide, even if it’s temporary and on faith, that this is the best thing I can do with my time.

2015-06-15g Re-evaluating my experiment failure mode -- index card #experiment #failure #equanimity #premortem #narrative

2015-06-15g Re-evaluating my experiment failure mode – index card #experiment #failure #equanimity #premortem #narrative

On a larger scale, I might even become comfortable with this as the general flavour of my experiment. In the beginning, I identified “5 years and nothing to show for it, not even a good story” as one of my potential issues in my experiment pre-mortem. I feel myself starting to let go of the need for a neat story.

Getting things done is good. There are also other things that are good. I wonder what it’s like to live an awesome life, or better yet: live a life awesomely.

Tweaking my daily routines for that feeling of progress

I found myself feeling like I hadn’t gotten a lot of things done. My weekly reviews showed me I made progress, but it didn’t feel like it day to day. I thought about what I’d like to feel instead.

2015-05-04c Keeping the end of the day in mind -- index card #life #quality-of-life

2015-05-04c Keeping the end of the day in mind – index card #life #quality-of-life

A little structure helps me do useful things even if my mind is fuzzy.

2015-03-11d How can I structure these types of days -- index card #limbo #routines

2015-03-11d How can I structure these types of days – index card #limbo #routines

I’ve been experimenting with this more now that I’m regularly up around 7 or 8 AM. I seem to have developed a routine that works well for me. I start by having breakfast and reading a book. Then I usually spend an hour or two coding, slowly working my way through my personal project task list. If I want to explore a thought, I spend a little time drawing. Lunch is followed by (or preceded by) playing video games. Then it’s time to draw or write a bit more. Sometimes I nap in the afternoon.

2015-06-09a Designing my mornings -- index card #kaizen #mornings #life

2015-06-09a Designing my mornings – index card #kaizen #mornings #life

If I sit down to read or code, even if I don’t feel like doing so in the beginning, I often find myself getting into it. I know that after I read or code, I’ll have something to add to my daily index card journal, so the rest of the day feels more relaxed. If I keep track of the tiny steps I take – each book, each finished task – I know they’ll add up to a surprising distance during my weekly or monthly reviews.

2015-06-08c What could make this even awesomer -- index card #life #kaizen

2015-06-08c What could make this even awesomer – index card #life #kaizen

I’d been wondering what could give me a good sense of progress in a self-directed life, and this might be the start of an answer. Even if I feel a little lost in other areas, it’s nice to know that I’m a bit further ahead than when I started.

It might be nice to make writing more habitual, since I tend to do it in spurts. It’s easiest for me to write about code, but it might also be useful to write about how I’d like to apply what I’m learning from books or about life. Besides, writing is a good way to organize my thoughts and drawings into larger chunks.

I think I’ll add walking into this routine, too. Maybe in the afternoon, so that I can return the book that I just finished and I can pick up any holds that have come in.


From dreams to experiments

Since my childhood, my parents have always told me to follow my dreams. It wasn’t just the usual maxim passed on from books and the child-raising culture of the time. I had proof of the power of dreams in the adventures of my father.

I talked to my parents last weekend. They’re a little worried about me during this amorphous 5-year experiment with semi-retirement. Am I doing okay? Am I following my dreams?

At that moment, I realized that I’d found something that resonates with me even more than dreams do. I’m not following my dreams. I’m doing something stranger and more exciting to me. I’m experimenting.

2015-05-10e Plans, dreams, and experiments -- index card #experiment #mindset

2015-05-10e Plans, dreams, and experiments – index card #experiment #mindset

I’d reflected on the difference between plans and experiments, and dreams are like that too. A plan has a certain end. A dream is a plan with passion and maybe a long-term story: “I’ve always wanted to…”. There’s that sense of certainty when you’re following your dream. You know where you want to go, and you know what progress you’re making towards it. You can feel it in every fibre.

I want something else.

I want the experiment. Uncertainty. Learning. I seek out in myself where the vision is still uncertain, where there’s not enough data from other people’s lives.

It’s neat being able to trace my growth over time. In 2012, I became more comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” In 2013, I started letting go of the need for certainty, for clearly defined passions. In 2014, I found a metaphor that resonated with me: exploration. Now I know that I want this more than I want to check off boxes. I find myself the most curious about the things that are hardest to explain, going further away from common experience.

I could not have dreamed what I’m learning now. I’m well into territory that my younger self couldn’t have imagined. I didn’t know it was possible, then. Even now, I don’t know the full range of possibilities. I’m not entirely clear on what awesomeness would look like. But I’m curious, and exploring is its own adventure. Wherever I end up, I’m sure it will be somewhere my present self can’t picture.

I don’t dream of being happy, and it’s not something I pursue. That’s is because I am happy. I see happiness as a deliberate response to the world: a steadfast focus on what’s good about life.

If I strive for anything, it’s equanimity. But even that is in my grasp as soon as I want it. Equanimity isn’t a destination to arrive at. It’s something to practice. Only time and trial can tell.

Aside from equanimity, what else is there to want? I’m as comfortable as I could be: roof, food, resources, tools, community, access to knowledge. Even those things are not essential. People have lived greater lives with less.

I don’t dream of mansions or influence or fame. I don’t need to wait for these things. Knowing that makes me free to appreciate and make the most of my current life.

I want a mind that takes everything as fuel. I want to turn both victories and obstacles into springboards. A thought: How can I intensify this experiment? How can I get better at learning?

  • Reading and re-reading can help me identify role models, build on other people’s wisdom, find the words to describe what I’m thinking, and combine interesting ideas.
  • Developing practical skills increases my independence and enjoyment. Sewing, electronics, and woodworking might be good candidates to focus on.
  • Writing and drawing might help me find people who resonate with these ideas. If I’m lucky, we might even explore them together.
  • With self-care as a solid foundation, I can slowly grow outwards to encompass more within my circle of influence.
  • To do that, I’m learning more about playing with the world: negotiating changes, developing relationships, applying energy and enthusiasm. We’ll see how it turns out!

It’s odd – I’m still not a big fan of uncertainty when it comes to physical space. Spur-of-the-moment road trips? That would drive me up the wall. I like having autonomy and being able to manage my levels of stimulation. But there are some kinds of uncertainty in life that have a different flavour to them, and that’s what I want to explore.

Is this, then, my dream? It seems so different from the usual dreams that it’s understandably hard for other people to understand. It feels constantly novel and evolving, instead of being a fixed North Pole for my journey. It is what it is, I guess, and I’ll explore it while I have the space to do so.

Quiet afternoons and weeks

I work about one day a week, sometimes less: enough to keep interesting things on the go at my consulting client, and with plenty of space for other things in my life.

2015-04-23e Working once a week -- index card #consulting #pace #experiment

2015-04-23e Working once a week – index card #consulting #pace #experiment

It’s been a little tricky working once a week, since the communication gaps are much wider than they were with a twice-a-week schedule. I could probably not work, but I like the team and the work we do. My client would be happy to have me work more hours, but I like the rest of my week, too.

2015-04-14c Work vs Explore -- index card #self-direction #experiment

2015-04-14c Work vs Explore – index card #self-direction #experiment

Still, it’s not quite like the extra-long weekend that W- sometimes jokes about. At home, I’m not sure if I’m using my day the best I could, but I’m also not keen on cramming it just because I can. There’s something to be said about being patient and working through my mediocrity as I learn the skills for self-direction. Exploring is not as clear-cut as working, but I hope it will still be useful.

2015-05-03b Shifting visions of success -- index card #experiment #success

2015-05-03b Shifting visions of success – index card #experiment #success

It’s hard to want anything too different from what I have now. My quiet, flexible life is more tempting than, say, entrepreneurial success.

2015-05-03c Tracing evolution of wild success -- index card #experiment #success

2015-05-03c Tracing evolution of wild success – index card #experiment #success

I know that I hadn’t always wanted this, but I think that was mostly because I hadn’t even considered it a possibility. In university and grad school, I wanted to teach, catalyzing students’ enthusiasm and learning. As a consultant, I enjoyed working with great people on awesome things. Work-life balance and happiness was already on my radar, though. And now that this is here, and this is a possibility… I like it. I would like it to continue. I would like to figure out how to get really good at it, although I’m not quite sure what “good” and “it” and “really” are in this case.

2015-05-04a More than quiet afternoons -- index card #experiment #pace

2015-05-04a More than quiet afternoons – index card #experiment #pace

But there’s still a little bit of restlessness, especially when I feel fuzzy. There’s still that urge to check something off a list, the desire to feel momentum, that feeling of wanting validation, even after three years of trying to get used to self-direction. I think it would be good for me to keep getting used to this, relaxing into it. There might be something interesting there, in between ambition and a narrowly-circumscribed life…

Learning from a diversity of ways to live a significant life

I have plenty of role models in terms of people who’ve done wonderful things as part of regular careers and entrepreneurs who’ve created products or services. I even have a few role models who’ve explored alternative paths: simple living, writing, arts, crafts, trades… I love having such a diversity of life paths illuminated for me, with so many examples of people doing well.

I’ve been thinking about the path that I might take. The path of growing outwards – self, household, close relationships, and beyond – seems unusual, or at least harder to find information on. It feels a little feminine, I think, skewed towards domesticity. I think that’s part of the appeal for me. I want to take the skills I’ve learned in the mostly-male world of the technologies I’ve learned, and apply those skills in areas that might not be gender-balanced for a long time. This way I can maximize learning and difference-making.

2015-04-10b Reflecting on paths for living a meaningful life -- index card #experiment #evil-plans

2015-04-10b Reflecting on paths for living a meaningful life – index card #experiment #evil-plans

The impression I sometimes get from stories of startup founders is that they jump so quickly to imagining and building a service or product instead of developing deep understanding of needs, people, systems, opportunities… I know that doing things is a great way to learn things – fail fast and fail often – but I’m also curious about developing my understanding by other ways. I imagine that if I do this well, I’ll gradually develop the relationships and insights that would help me make a good difference. In the meantime, I can focus on improving myself, helping and connecting with people, and taking and sharing my notes.

2015-04-20e At peace with a small life -- index card #experiment

2015-04-20e At peace with a small life – index card #experiment

It’s getting easier and easier to not be tempted to shortcut this process. At a recent party, I was talking to a serial entrepreneur who was looking for a successor he could mentor. He seemed to derive a great deal of pride from having created a wonderful product, and it was well-deserved.

He asked me if I had created any products that could be identified with me, and if I wanted to. Reflecting on the conversation, I realized that no, I don’t particularly need to work toward that kind of significance right now. I’m happy to continue my experiment to at least the 5-year mark that I had initially set for myself, and possibly longer.

2015-04-19c 5-year plan vs 5-year experiment -- index card #experiment

2015-04-19c 5-year plan vs 5-year experiment – index card #experiment

The 5-year experiment thing boggled him too. I think he was thinking of it more as a 5-year plan: have a certain goal, get there with actions and the occasional workaround. I think of this 5-year experiment as creating a safe space for me to explore and learn, and the timeframe is there to prevent me from running back into my comfort zone too early.

I guess I could describe my aims this way: I work towards cultivating happiness/equanimity and producing understanding as my first two priorities. At this point, I’m not working towards wide impact, fame, influence, or money. I might get to that someday, but I’d like those first two things well-covered first.

2015-04-20f Experiment timeline -- index card #experiment

2015-04-20f Experiment timeline – index card #experiment

When might I move on from this phase? It’s not that I don’t think I’m ready, that I’m waiting for the stars to line up, or that I feel constrained to do this right now. I’m stacking the deck, and I’m collecting people and ideas.

2015-04-20h Conditions for considering a startup -- index card #experiment #startup

2015-04-20h Conditions for considering a startup – index card #experiment #startup

What will likely happen is that, after I figure out a little more about life, I’ll have these relationships with people I strongly want to help as a business partner or as a provider (preferably both). For example, if W- wants to start a business, or if I resonate strongly with a friend’s idea, I might dig into it more deeply. But I’d still want to see if we could build a company without making the personal health or relationship sacrifices that you often hear about in entrepreneurship circles. I’d want people to still get good sleep and spend time with other people who are important to them.

So that’s how my Evil Plans might unfold…