Category Archives: experiment

What did I learn from this experiment with semi-retirement?

I’m so glad I started this experiment! The timing worked out perfectly.

I was pretty happy with the corporate world, but I also wanted to learn about all sorts of things that don’t fit into the usual 9 to 5. I learned that I can have fun building very different kinds of businesses, and that people are wonderful to work with. Enterprise social business (prototyping, analysis, and consulting) was a natural extension of my master’s research and my work at IBM. I got the opportunity to work with my biggest client because a former mentor happened to read my blog when I was planning the experiment, so hooray for blogging. Rails development and Linux system administration let me help a friend out of a tough spot. Graphic facilitation, sketchnoting, and illustration helped me explore new areas and play with visual thinking. Answering people’s questions on Google’s short-lived Helpouts platform showed me ways I could help people learn more. Publishing pay-what-you-want resources opened up lots of conversations and exposed people’s generosity. And to top it all off, I found that I actually enjoyed the nitty-gritty details of running a business: updating my records, filing my taxes, forming agreements, specifying projects, delegating work, and even following up on late payments.

The most important thing I learned was how to have enough. I gradually shifted my balance away from work and toward leisure, freeing up roughly one day a week every year. I learned to trust the butterflies of my interest instead of being driven by the taskmaster of self-imposed deadlines. I learned how to sit in parks and have long conversations with friends, how to cook for crowds, and how to sew for myself. I learned how to get through fuzzy days and foggy days. I learned that I love the stillness and openness of quiet time.

The experiment helped me gain the confidence to take on the challenge of raising a tiny human. I’m not worried about a large gap in my career. That won’t matter if I can come up with a business that fills a need. I’m not worried about being starved for time or autonomy. I got to enjoy so much of it up front, and I can wait a few years for more. I’m not worried about my finances. I enjoy a frugal lifestyle and I manage the numbers well. We’ve got probably one of the best starting points for another experiment, and I’m looking forward to exploring that adventure.

Also, because I didn’t need to take parental leave, W- got to take all the paid leave, so A- got extra time with both of us! Awesome.

What’s next? Another long-term experiment, this time with a more conventional label. I’d like to see what it’s like for us to have at least one parent at home with A- during her preschool years. That will most likely be me, but it could be W- if circumstances require. Children become eligible for kindergarten in the year they turn 4, so we’re already a quarter of the way there. I’ve learned so much about human development in the past year, and I look forward to learning even more. I might even get to incorporate some of those ideas into whatever businesses I end up starting in the next phase of this experimental life.

How do I want consulting to fit into my life?

I do a tiny bit of consulting to help a long-standing client with prototyping and data analysis. It lets them take advantage of the experience I’d built up with their tools and platform, and I get to keep my technical skills and professional network going.

Before we went on our trip, I was averaging about two hours a week, after A-‘s in bed. A- tends to nurse frequently at night, probably to make up for distractions during the day, and we’re okay with this. Sometimes I might be able to do an hour or two of uninterrupted work, and sometimes I clock in and out as I get interrupted by nursing. Fortunately, I built a pretty handy time tracking interface, so it takes only a few taps on my phone.

Because of my limited availability, I try to pick tasks that don’t require a lot of coordination with other people, that can bear with interruptions, and that aren’t risky when done with a fuzzy brain. So, no meetings, no big chunks of new things to learn, and no messing with write access to production data if I can help it. Despite this limited availability, I was able to prototype a few add-ons they wanted, yay!

IA- has been a bit more clingy lately (might be because of teething) so I’m not sure how much time I’ll have in the next little while. I’d like to have the brainspace to learn and build new things so that I can help out my main client, since he has moved up in terms of his role, but that can probably wait. In the meantime, we get decent ROI if I focus on quick answers and prototypes.

t’s important to me to manage expectations well and to turn over as much as I can. This means not committing to more than I can work on, and keeping people up to date on timelines and risks; making sure the team has access to my code and can take things over if they need to; and building in small steps so that I can deliver something of value as soon as possible. It’s fun to break an idea down into the minimum viable product, the intermediate steps to get there, and the incremental enhancements that would make it even better.

I’ve thought about expanding my available work time, but I chose not to. This is the last month and a half of W-‘s parental leave, but I’d rather spend the time enjoying parenting A- with him than squeezing in more computer things. He’s awesome with A- – better than I am. I’ve sometimes asked him to take care of her while I handled high-priority things that needed focused time (such as doing my business tax paperwork!), but I don’t want to commit more of that time than I need to.

At the moment, I’m not particularly keen on getting a babysitter after W- returns to work. I know the math could work out and that the socialization might even be an awesome thing for A-, but I’m curious about the things I might learn from going through this experience myself. I like the fun of problem-solving and the validation of helping a great team, but I can get that later, too. I also don’t quite trust my ability to pick a good person and build the kind of long-term relationship that would be good for A-, so there’s that too. In the meantime, I can learn from A- as she learns, and I can try to shape her world. We’ve got a rare opportunity to do this in a flexible way, and I want to take advantage of that.

So, how do I want consulting to fit into my life? I think the current arrangement is pretty good. I prioritize my self-care, A-, W-, and the general upkeep of the household; then my journal and Emacs News, since both are time-based; then more discretionary things, like consulting or personal coding. The clients seem happy. They’re not slowed down by me or kept hanging, and they get good value considering the time and money involved. I might be able to do more work if A-‘s sleep solidifies, but I’m in no rush. It might be that I’ll have limited work availability until she’s old enough for playdates or school, and that’s fine too.

I’ll think about this again after we settle into new routines, when W-‘s back at work. It’ll be interesting to see how things change.

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.

Related:

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.

Hmm…

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.