Category Archives: life

Relaxed routines

I do a lot of things that productivity books and blogs tell you that you shouldn’t do, and I don’t do a lot of the things they prescribe. I wake up late. I read e-mail, but I don’t respond to it for a week or two. I go for variety instead of focus. I don’t try to motivate myself to reach time-bound goals or follow pre-set plans. Instead, I figure out what I want to do at the moment, and I go and do that.

What does that look like, day-to-day? Here’s what a typical day might be:

2015-01-16 Morning routines -- index card #life #routines

I wake up at around 8 or 9 after an average of 8.3 hours of sleep (although in November, the average was much higher). I stay in bed another twenty minutes or so, easing myself into wakefulness. During this time, I might do a quick scan of blog posts, Hacker News, Reddit, Facebook, and my e-mail. Sometimes I think of a few ideas I would like to explore that day, and I type that into Evernote on my phone so that I don’t forget.

Eventually, I leave the warmth of the duvet, slip into a fuzzy bathrobe, and head downstairs for breakfast. I feed the cats, too. After breakfast, I head back upstairs to brush my teeth and take care of other morning routines. I return to the kitchen (often still in pajamas), open my computer, and think: What do I want to think about today? What do I want to learn about? I look at my lists and outlines for ideas.

Depending on what I feel like doing, I might spend some time programming or writing. If I don’t feel particularly creative, I might read instead. I review my Org Mode agenda in Emacs to see what I need to take care of today, and I check my other lists for unscheduled tasks that might be good to do too. I keep my notes in large, lightly-structured text files so that I always have something to work on.

Here’s the important part of my routine, I think: I’m almost always taking notes. I keep a text file open on my computer as I program or debug, writing down the things I’m considering or where I’m getting stuck. I write, and I write about writing. Even when I’m away from my computer, I try to write brief notes on my phone.

People often think that taking notes takes too much time and slows you down. I find that notes help you cover more ground. When I don’t take notes, I get frustrated because I can feel my brain trying to jump from one topic to another too quickly. I forget. I have to figure things out again. Notes help me a lot. They don’t even have to be complete notes. Sometimes a phrase or two is enough to help me get back from interruptions or pick up loose threads.

I publish as many of my notes as I can. They often help other people, and I get to learn even more from the conversations on my blog. Publishing my notes also makes them easier to back up and search.

Back to my daily routines. At some point in the afternoon, I might respond to e-mail. I usually try to do this at least once a week, although sometimes I let it slip for longer. Sometimes I nap or take a break. Then I check in with myself again: What do I feel like working on now? There’s often a little time to get another chunk done before dinner.

We go to the library and the supermarket a few times each week. Sometimes we cook; sometimes we have left-overs. Evenings are for tidying up, taking care of things, and relaxing. Sometimes I read books I’ve borrowed from the library, or spend some more time writing, or play video games, or practise sketching.

When I go to bed, I catch up with W- and then read a little: often something unproductive but fun, like fanfiction with a rational bent.

After we turn out the lights, I wrap up by thinking a little about how I would like the next day to turn out: What do I need to do? What do I want to learn? What would make things even better? I dream my way into the next day.

I think I do less than many people do. I feel like I live at a more relaxed pace. Still, my weekly reviews show me more crossed-off tasks than I expected. My monthly reviews show that I keep moving forward on my plans. Whenever I do my annual reviews, I can see some difference between the past and the present. So maybe it’s not that I’m particularly efficient at doing things, but I’m good at keeping track of the progress.

I share my time data publicly, so if you’re curious, you can dig into it and find out more about what a typical day is like.

I don’t think I have any awesome productivity secrets. I live on the same 24 hours as everyone else. But I enjoy asking questions, taking notes, looking for opportunities for little improvements, and sharing what I learn along the way, and I think that’s what people respond to. If I can do this with a fairly relaxed pace, you can probably do something similar with your life too. =)


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.)

Figuring out my own path to awesomeness

Following up on a previous reflection about working within my current constraints, I was thinking about multiple models of awesomeness.

  • There’s the 10X Hero Programmer idea of someone who can brilliantly cut through the clutter and write just the code that’s needed to solve the problem you didn’t know you had. Awesomeness might involve being able to perceive the true need, bring together different components, and create something solid.
  • There are architects and team enablers who can work within organizations (both formal and informal) to make bigger things happen. Awesomeness might involve balancing multiple trade-offs, keeping track of complex structures, and using soft skills to get stuff done.
  • There are people who envision products and services, bringing them to the people who need them. They might create things themselves, or they might invest in forming a team to create things.
  • There are people who create bridges for other people so that they can get started or they can develop their skills. Awesomeness might involve presenting things in a clear, logical, inspiring, and useful manner. Plenty of role models doing cool stuff in this area, and lots of ways to grow.

Oh, that’s interesting. That makes sense to me. I can see myself growing into that last one. It fits the things that tickle my brain.

I don’t have to worry about doing Clever Things or Big Things. As I get better at doing what I already enjoy doing, sharing what I’m learning and helping other people along the way, I’ll find my own path to awesomeness.

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.

Dealing with uncertainty one step at a time

Sometimes it’s hard to plan ahead because there are just too many factors to consider, too many things I don’t know, too many divergent paths. I can come up with different scenarios, but I can’t figure out a lot of things that would make sense in all the likely scenarios. Some of the scenarios are exciting, but some of them are also scary. They’re hard to hold in my mind. They fight my imagination. I can’t plan straight for these. I can’t come up with step 1, step 2, step 3. At best, I can come up with if-then-elses, but I still have to wait and see how things turn out.

Sometimes it’s easier to take life one day at a time, because if I think about too large a chunk, I start getting lost. Sometimes it’s better to not focus on everything that’s needed, just what’s needed right now.


It rattles me a little bit because I’m more used to seeing clearer paths. Or do I only think that I’m used to that?

Let me try to remember when I felt that sense of clarity and certainty. I was certain about taking computer science; I loved programming even as a kid. I was certain about teaching after graduation; I loved helping people learn. I was certain about taking a technical internship in Japan; it was an interesting thing to do. I was certain about taking my master’s degree; it was a logical next step, necessary for teaching, and the research was interesting.

I was not certain about being in Canada, and I was often homesick during my studies. But I was certain about W-, and now this place also feels like home. I was certain about IBM and about the people and ideas I wanted to work with. I was certain about saving up an opportunity fund so that I could explore other things someday. I was certain about starting this 5-year experiment with semi-retirement.

So I’m familiar with what it’s like to plan for a chunk of certainty – half a year, four years, decades. It feels good when a plan comes together, when I can see how each step leads to a future I’ve already lived in my head.

I am certain, now, that I’m going in roughly the right direction. I don’t know exactly how it will work out, but I know that it will be interesting.

Ah! There it is, I think, the thing I’m trying to grasp. The future Sacha of this five-year experiment is fuzzy in my head. That evaluation point is only two years away now, and I should be able to imagine her more clearly. But aside from a few abstract characteristics (future Sacha is a better developer and writer, future Sacha continues to be happy, future Sacha gets to work on what she wants), I don’t have a good sense of her yet – not with the same solidity of past futures. I’m not sure what to put on that Conveyor Belt of Time (as Mr. Money Mustache puts it) aside from generically-useful gifts to my future self: decent finances, relationships, skills.

Circling back to the metaphor that emerged while I was drawing and writing my way through this question, I suppose this is like the difference between hiking along a trail with a view – or even unmarked ground, but with landmarks for orienting yourself – versus exploring the woods. Not that I know much of the latter; I’ve never been lost in the woods before, never strayed from the safety of a trail or the sight of a road. (Well, except maybe that one time we were hiking along the Bruce Trail and got turned around a little bit, and we ended up scrambling up a slope to find the trail we really wanted to be on.)

I can learn to enjoy exploring, knowing that in the worst-case scenario, I’ve got the figurative equivalent of supplies, a GPS, emergency contacts, backup batteries and so on. I can learn to enjoy observing the world, turning questions and ideas over, noticing what’s interesting about them, perhaps cracking things open in order to learn more. I can learn to take notes, make maps, tidy up trails, and leave other gifts for people who happen to wander by that way.

Ah. That might be it. Let’s give that a try.

Cooking at Hacklab: Coconut barfi

It took me an hour to get from downtown to Hacklab on a stop-and-go Queen streetcar. Next time, I should probably take the King streetcar instead, or even go all the way north to Bloor and then south on the Dufferin bus. Anyway, I’d given myself enough of a buffer to not feel horribly guilty about being late meeting people who were expecting me there around 6-ish anyway, and that was when I made it. Max was already there when I arrived, and Gabriel joined us when we were at the supermarket picking up groceries.

Chris and Alaina were busy making two courses (korma and hot-and-sour soup), so I figured we’d go with an Indian vegan dessert to accompany the korma. Some rapid Googling turned up this Coconut Barfi recipe from Diwali Sweets (by way of Veg Recipes of India’s review). We made a triple batch of the following recipe:

  • 1/2 cup semolina flour (we used medium, but this might be better with fine)
  • 1/2 cup dry coconut flakes (we used shredded)
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cashew pieces (got roasted cashews from the bulk bin so that we could snack on them while cooking)
  • pinch of salt

For the sugar syrup:

  • 1/2 cup ground raw sugar (we used turbinado sugar, couldn’t find anything raw)
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder (we ended up grinding our own, since the nearby supermarket doesn’t stock powdered cardamom)

It took longer to make the sugar syrup than expected, but then again, I’m pretty new to syrup making, so I wasn’t quite sure what “one thread consistency” meant. Anyway, it still turned out as nicely cardamom-scented nibble, crunchy without being jaw-breaking.

Gabriel generously remarked that the amount of salt I added made it remind him of salted caramels. I think perhaps a smaller pinch would do next time.

It was lots of fun cooking with both old friends and new acquaintances, and the kitchen at Hacklab supports having multiple people quite nicely (aside from a bit of stove coordination when we had three things on the go). Yay cooking!

Coconut Barfi recipe