Category Archives: life

When you feel like you’re spending a lot of time on low-impact activities

Alan Lin asked:

One issue I have is prioritization. I sometimes find myself spending a lot of time on low-impact activities. How do you tackle this in your life? What’s the most important thing you’re working on right now?

It’s easy to feel that most of your time is taken up with trivial things. There’s taking care of yourself and the household. There are endless tasks to check off to-do lists. There’s paperwork and overhead. Sometimes it feels like you’re making very little progress.

Here are some things I’ve learned that help me with that feeling:

  1. Understand and embrace your constraints.
  2. Lay the groundwork for action by understanding yourself.
  3. Act in tune with yourself.
  4. Accumulate gradual progress.

1. UNDERSTAND AND EMBRACE YOUR CONSTRAINTS

Many productivity and time management books seem to have the mindset where your Real Work is what matters and the rest of your life is what gets in the way. Sometimes it feels like the goal is to be able to work a clear, focused 60-hour or 120-hour week, to squeeze out every last bit of productivity from every last moment.

For me, the unproductive time that I spend snuggling with W- or the cats – that’s Real Life right there, for me, and I’m often all too aware of how short life is. The low-impact stuff is what grounds me and makes me human. As Richard Styrman points out in this comment, if other people can focus for longer, it’s because the rest of their lives don’t pull on them as much. I like the things that pull on me.

Instead of fighting your constraints, understand and embrace them. You can tweak them later, but when you make plans or evaluate yourself, do so with a realistic acceptance of the different things that pull on you. Know where you’re starting from. Then you can review commitments, get rid of ones that you’ve been keeping by default, and reaffirm the ones that you do care about. You might even find creative ways to meet your commitments with less time or effort. In any case, knowing your constraints and connecting them to the commitments behind them will make it it easier to remember and appreciate the reason why you spend time on these things.

One of my favourite ways of understanding constraints is to actually track them. Let’s look at time, for example. I know I spend a lot of my time on the general running of things. A quick summary from my time-tracking gives me this breakdown of the 744 hours in Oct 2014, a fairly typical month:

Hours Activity
255.0 sleep
126.3 consulting, because it helps me make a difference and build skills
91.9 doing other business-related things
80.5 chores and other unpaid work
86.2 taking care of myself
38.3 playing, relaxing
30.4 family-related stuff
12.6 socializing
10.3 writing, because it helps me learn and connect with great people
7.4 working on Emacs, because it helps me learn and connect with great people
1.5 gardening
1.0 reading
0.5 tracking
1.7 woodworking

Assuming that my consulting, writing, and working on Emacs are the activities that have some impact on the wider world, that’s 144 hours out of 744, or about 19% of all the time I have. This is roughly 4.5 hours a day. (And that’s a generous assumption – many of the things I write are personal reflections of uncertain value to other people.)

Even with tons of control over my schedule, I also spend lots of time on low-impact activities. And this is okay. I’m fine with that. I don’t need to turn into a value-creating machine entirely devoted to the pursuit of one clear goal. I don’t think I even can. It works for other people, but not for me. I like the time I spend cooking and helping out around the house. I like the time I spend playing with interesting ideas. I like the pace I keep.

So I’m going to start with the assumption that this is the time that I can work with instead of being frustrated with the other things that fill my life.

An average of 4.5 hours a day is a lot, even if it’s broken up into bits and pieces. It’s enough time for me to write a deep reflection, sketch one or two books, work on some code… And day after day, if I add those hours up, that can become something interesting. Of course, it would probably add up to something more impressive if I picked one thing and focused on that. But I tend to enjoy a variety of interests, so I might as well work with that instead of against it, and sometimes the combinations can be fascinating.

Accepting your constraints doesn’t mean being locked into them. You can still tweak things. For example, I experiment with time-saving techniques like bulk-cooking. But starting from the perspective of accepting your limits lets you plan more realistically and minimize frustration, which means you don’t have to waste energy on beating yourself up for not being superhuman. Know what you can work with, and work with that.

You might consider tracking your time for a week to see where your time really goes. You can track your time with pen and paper, a spreadsheet, or freely-available tools for smartphones. The important part is to track your time as you use it instead of relying on memory or perception. Our minds lie to us about constraints, often exaggerating what we’re dealing with. Collect data and find out.

2. LAY THE GROUNDWORK FOR ACTION BY UNDERSTANDING YOURSELF

When I review my constraints and commitments, I often ask myself: “Why did I commit to this? Why is this my choice?” This understanding helps me appreciate those constraints and come up with good ways to work within them.

My ideal is to almost always work on whatever I feel like working on. This sounds like a recipe for procrastination, an easy way for near-term pleasurable tasks to crowd out important but tedious ones. That’s where preparing my mind can make a big difference. If I can prepare a list of good things to do that’s in tune with my values, then I can easily choose from that list.

Here are some questions that help me prepare:

  • Why do I feel like doing various things? Is there an underlying cause or unmet need that I can address? Am I avoiding something because I don’t understand it or myself well enough? Do I only think that I want something, or do I really want it? I do a lot of this thinking and planning throughout my life, so that when those awesome hours come when everything’s lined up and I’m ready to make something, I can just go and do it.
  • Can I deliberately direct my awareness in order to change how I feel about things by emphasizing positive aspects or de-emphasizing negative ones? What can I enjoy about the things that are good for me? What can I dislike about the things that are bad for me?
  • What can I do now to make things better later? How can I take advantage of those moments when I’m focused and everything comes together? How can I make better use of normal moments? How can I make better use of the gray times too, when I’m feeling bleah?
  • How can I slowly accumulate value? How can I scale up by making things available?

I think a lot about why I want to do something, because there are often many different paths that can lead to the same results. If I catch myself procrastinating a task again and again, I ask myself if I can get rid of the task or if I can get someone else to do it. If I really need to do it myself, maybe I can transform the task into something more enjoyable. If I find myself drawn to some other task instead, I ask myself why, and I learn a little more about myself in the process.

I plan for small steps, not big leaps. Small steps sneak under my threshold for intimidation – it’s easier to find time and energy for a 15-minute task than for a 5-day slog.

I don’t worry about whether I’m working on Important things. Instead, I try to keep a list full of small, good things that take me a little bit forward. Even if I proceed at my current pace–for example, accumulating a blog post a day–in twenty years, I’ll probably be somewhere interesting.

In addition to the mental work of understanding yourself and shifting your perceptions by paying deliberate attention, it’s also good to prepare other things that can help you make the most of high-energy, high-concentration times. For example, even when I don’t feel very creative, I can still read books and outline ideas in preparation for writing. I sketch screens and plan features when I don’t feel like programming. You can probably find lots of ways you can prepare so that you can work more effectively when you want to.

2014-12-03 Motivation and understanding 3. ACT IN TUNE WITH YOURSELF

For many people, motivation seems to be about forcing yourself to do something that you had previously decided was important.

If you’ve laid the groundwork from step 2, however, you probably have a list of many good things that you can work on, so you can work on whatever you feel like working on now.

Encountering resistance? Have a little conversation with yourself. Find out what the core of it is, and see if you can find a creative way around that or work on some other small thing that moves you forward.

4. ACCUMULATE GRADUAL PROGRESS.

So now you’re doing what you want to be doing, after having prepared so that you want to do good things. But there’s still that shadow of doubt in you: “Is this going to be enough?”

It might not seem like you’re making a lot of progress, especially if you’re taking small steps on many different trails. This is where keeping track of your progress becomes really important. Celebrate those small accomplishments. Take notes. Your memory is fuzzy and will lie to you. It’s hard to see growth when you look at it day by day. If you could use your notes (or a journal, or a blog) to look back over six months or a year, though, chances are you’ll see that you’ve come a long way. And if you haven’t, don’t get frustrated; again, embrace your constraints, deepen your understanding, and keep nibbling away at what you want to do.

For me, I usually use my time to learn something, writing and drawing along the way. I’ve been blogging for the past twelve years or so. It’s incredible how those notes have helped me remember things, and how even the little things I learn can turn out to be surprisingly useful. Step by step.

So, if you’re feeling frustrated because you don’t seem to be making any progress and yet you can’t force yourself to work on the things that you’ve decided are important, try a different approach:

  1. Understand and embrace your constraints. Don’t stress out about not being 100% productive or dedicated. Accept that there will be times when you’re distracted or sick, and there will be times when you’re focused and you can do lots of good stuff. Accepting this still lets you tweak your limits, but you can do that with a spirit of loving kindness instead of frustration.
  2. Lay the groundwork for action. Mentally prepare so that it’s easier for you to want what’s good for you, and prepare other things so that when you want to work on something, you can work more effectively.
  3. Act in tune with yourself. Don’t waste energy forcing yourself through resistance. Use your preparation time to find creative ways around your blocks and come up with lots of ways you can move forward. That way, you can always choose something that’s in line with how you feel.
  4. Accumulate gradual progress. Sometimes you only feel like you’re not making any progress because you don’t see how far you’ve come. Take notes. Better yet, share those notes. Then you can see how your journey of a thousand miles is made up of all those little steps you’ve been taking – and you might even be able to help out or connect with other people along the way.

Alan has a much better summary of it, though. =)

To paraphrase, you start by examining your desires because that’s the only way to know if they’re worthwhile pursuits. This thinking prepares you and gives you with a set of things to spend time on immediately whenever you have time, and because you understand your goals & desires and the value they add to your life, you are usually satisfied with the time you do spend.

Hope that helps!

Related posts:

Thanks to Alan for nudging me to write and revise this post!

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. =)

Related:

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.

wpid-2014-11-11-Dealing-with-uncertainty-one-step-at-a-time.png

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.