Category Archives: experiment

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. =)

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.