Category Archives: productivity

Embracing the fuzziness

I’m feeling a little more clear-headed at the moment — not as fuzzy-brained as before. Well, there’s the slight matter of my ongoing cough and congestion, so I’m not quite all the way there, but I can think more easily than I did last week.

Cycling through different mental states (normal, squirrel, fuzzy, etc.) in quick succession has been helping me get better at differentiating among them, and I’ve been thinking about how I can make the most of them. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the consequences of considering one or the other as my “default” state, or of getting rid of the notion of a default state altogether.

2015-05-03e Default or majority state and fuzziness -- index card #fuzzy

2015-05-03e Default or majority state and fuzziness – index card #fuzzy

If I think of clarity as my normal state and fuzziness as a short interruption, then when I’m sharp, it makes sense to make the most of it, and when I’m fuzzy, it makes sense to do the background work that will help me make the most of my next sharp period.

If I think of fuzziness as my normal state and clarity as a gift, then when I’m clear, it makes sense to invest a lot into building the systems, habits, and skills that would make fuzzy times even better. I’m not sure how probable this is, but I’m leaning towards it being likely, even though I tend to remember my past as clear. I’m basing this on the fact that many people around me have reported being relatively slower compared to their younger selves, possibly due to age and circumstances. On the other hand, I know a few people who are older than I am and who seem to be accelerating, so there’s something to be said for that.

A mix of both strategies seems to make sense. I can spend some time putting the infrastructure in place to do well during fuzzy times, and I can also take advantage of quick sprints to make things happen when I have a clear idea.

So that might translate into the following:

2015-05-02e When I'm sharp, when I'm fuzzy -- index card #fuzzy

2015-05-02e When I’m sharp, when I’m fuzzy – index card #fuzzy

When I’m sharp, that’s the time to lean in on health and systems and skills, the time to act on ideas and explore questions, the time to come up with lots of ideas and define tasks that I can do while fuzzy. It’s important to write, too, so that I can remember what it’s like to be sharp.

When I’m fuzzy and don’t feel particularly like pushing, that’s a good time to focus on self-care and close relationships. It’s okay to relax, to observe, to explore.

One of the nice things about being fuzzy is that it’s easier to explore alternatives and develop skills; it’s all right to do something you’re mediocre at when you feel mediocre at everything, or too fuzzy to do things you’re normally excellent at. <laugh>

And there’s always the philosophical practice at being patient and dealing with challenges… It’s good.

Hmm. What’s a good way for me to tell whether I’m under-preparing, over-preparing, or getting the balance right?

2015-05-05f Balancing preparation and action in different mental states -- index card #fuzzy #sharp

2015-05-05f Balancing preparation and action in different mental states – index card #fuzzy #sharp

  • If I under-prepare for fuzziness while I’m sharp, then when I’m fuzzy, I’m stuck with low-value activities like video games. This is okay, but with some thought, I might be able to tweak it to get more value.
  • If I over-prepare for fuzziness while I’m sharp, then I’m missing the opportunity to build momentum and get stuff done.
  • If I under-prepare for sharpness while I’m fuzzy, then when I’m sharp, I end up spinning my wheels or doing things that I could have done when I was fuzzy anyway.
  • If I over-prepare for sharpness while I’m fuzzy, I might prolong my fuzziness or feel bleah.

Hmm. It might be interesting to revisit my notes on the kinds of things I can do when I’m sharp and when I’m fuzzy (High energy and low energy activities). That might help me detect if I’m using my sharp time well.

Also, it’s okay not to totally optimize this. =) I can be a little inefficient.

There’s definitely more fuzziness in my future. It might be interesting to graph this to see when I’m majority-sharp and when I’m majority-fuzzy, but even without those patterns, it can help to start slowly thinking about how I can make this better. Hmm…

Enjoy the prep work

In sewing, the actual sewing–the stitching of layers of fabric together–seems to be such a small part of it.

There’s choosing a sewing pattern, or making one up.

There’s choosing the fabric, thinking of how it feels, drapes, stretches, handles, and washes.

There’s tracing, marking, and adjusting the pattern.

There’s cutting the fabric. Accuracy in this step makes everything else easier.

There’s marking and pinning. How you pin it together depends on how you want the finished piece to feel like.

Sometimes there’s lining, sometimes there’s interfacing. I haven’t learned how to really work with these yet.

And then – sewing! But just a little at a time, because…

There’s pressing, which is a little like ironing except with more time and pressure. This is what creates those creases and curves. It’s important to do this. If you skip it, your seams might pucker or puff. Things just don’t hang right without it.

Sometimes you trim things with scissors, or carefully rip threads and resew if needed.

And then more pinning, more sewing, more pressing, more cutting… So much of sewing is outside that narrow definition of “sewing.”

Cooking is like that too: choosing tastes, recipes, ingredients; preparing the ingredients; cooking!; adjusting the taste; serving.

What are the writing equivalents? Researching, outlining, writing, revising, packaging.

Coding? Planning, coding, testing… Maybe testing is like pressing – it helps make different pieces of code fit together neatly.

It’s like these activities have a part where you can say “This is it! I’m sewing/cooking/writing/coding!” But all the other parts might be even more important than that one bit. Hmm.

The trick, perhaps, is to enjoy those other parts as well, even if you don’t feel you’re making good progress, even if it’s not the part with the pay-off or the glamour. Doing the prep work well makes the main work more effective and enjoyable.

I wonder if life works the same way too…

Tell the difference between diminishing returns and compounding growth when it comes to investing in skills

When is it worth improving a skill you’re already good at, and when should you focus on other things?

I started thinking about this after a conversation about what it means to master the Emacs text editor. Someone wondered if the additional effort was really worth it. As I explored the question, I noticed that skills respond differently to the investment of time, and I wondered what the difference was.

For example, going from hunt-and-peck typing to touch-typing is a big difference. Instead of having to think about typing, you can focus on what you want to communicate or do. But after a certain point, getting faster at typing doesn’t give you as much of a boost in productivity. You get diminishing returns: investing into that skill yields less over time. If I type a little over 100 words per minute, retraining bad habits and figuring out other optimizations so that I can reach a rate of 150 words per minute isn’t going to make a big difference if the bottleneck is my brain. (Just in case I’m wrong about this, I’d be happy to hear from people who type that fast about whether it was worth it!)

Some skills seem shallow. There’s only so much you can gain from them before they taper off. Other skills are deeper. Let’s take writing, for instance. You can get to the point of being able to competently handwrite or type. You can fluently express yourself. But when it comes to learning how to ask questions and organize thoughts I’m not sure there’s a finish line at which you can say you’ve mastered writing. There’s always more to learn. And the more you learn, the more you can do. You get compounding growth: investing into that skill yields more over time.

I think this is part of the appeal of Emacs for me. Even after more than a decade of exploring it and writing about it, I don’t feel I’m at the point of diminishing returns. In fact, even the small habits that I’ve been focusing on building lately yield a lot of value.

No one can objectively say that a skill is shallow or deep. It depends on your goals. For example, I think of cooking as a deep skill. The more you develop your skills, the wider your possibilities are, and the more enjoyable it becomes. But if you look at it from the perspective of simply keeping yourself fueled so that you can concentrate on other things, then it makes sense to find a few simple recipes that satisfy you, or outsource it entirely by eating out.

It’s good to take a step back and ask yourself: What kind of value will you get from investing an hour into this? What about the value you would get from investing an hour in other things?

Build on your strengths where building on those strengths can make a difference. It can make a lot of sense to reach a professional level in something or inch towards becoming world-class. It could be the advantage that gets you a job, compensates for your weakness, opens up opportunities, or connects you to people. On the other hand, you might be overlearning something and wasting your time, or developing skills to a level that you don’t actually need.

When you hit that area of diminishing returns – or even that plateau of mediocrity – you can think about your strategies for moving forward. Consider:

  • What kind of return are you getting on your time? (understanding the value)
  • Is there a more effective way to learn? (decreasing your input)
  • Can you get more value out of your time from this skill or other skills? (increasing your output)
  • If you learn something else first,
    • will that make more of a difference in your life?
    • will that help you when you come back to this skill?

These questions are helping me decide that for me, learning more about colours is worthwhile, but drawing more realistic figures might not be at the moment; learning more about basic Emacs habits is better than diving into esoteric packages; and exploring questions, doing research, and trying things out is likely to be more useful than expanding my vocabulary. I’ll still flip through the dictionary every now and then, but I can focus on developing other skills.

How about you? What are you focusing on, and what helps you decide?


Intentionally interrupting momentum and limiting flow

You know how when you get going on something, you want to keep going? It’s a great feeling. You’re in the flow, you’re in the zone. Time passes unnoticed. You’re getting stuff done.

I don’t trust that feeling. At least not all the way.

Here’s what got me thinking about this: I had just finished sketchnoting a book. It was fun. I felt accomplished. I wanted to do another sketchnote. In fact, I had already returned the previous book, picked another book from the shelf, and settled in for more drawing.

Then I stopped and asked myself, Is this really what I should be doing next? I was basking in the glow of people’s appreciation on Twitter and I already had all my tools set up for doing the next book, so it made sense to do another sketchnote. But was that really the best use of that moment?

More of the same, or something else?

I still stay up too late programming sometimes. I still spend hours reading. I still write my way past lunch, snapping out of the trance, suddenly starving, late in the afternoon. But I’m getting better at paying attention when part of me pipes up with weird questions.

I dug deeper and found these sub-questions that help me evaluate whether to continue or whether to switch, and what to do next:

  • Am I at the point of diminishing returns or temporary saturation? It’s like the way that if you’re eating your favourite food, there’s a point after which you don’t enjoy it as much. Sometimes giving it a bit of a rest lets you appreciate it more.
  • What could I be neglecting if I focus on this, both in terms of things I need to do and things I want to do? Am I better off spending time with W-, taking care of things around the house, or learning about things that don’t currently give me the same thrill?
  • Is there value in letting this simmer and blend? I can crank out a lot of similar things quickly. Or I can give myself time to learn from people’s feedback and my reflections on process, so that I improve more with each step. Sometimes different things mixed together result in interesting flavours and textures, like the difference between a purée and a stew.
  • It’s easy to do more, but what would enable me to do better? How can I step back and improve the infrastructure for future work? Infrastructure is not exciting, but it’s good to do. It helps to think about specific ways to make something better. What could better mean?
    • Faster?
    • Deeper?
    • Broader?
    • More consistent?
    • More focused?
    • More aligned?
    • More engaging?
    • With better chunking or flow?

Sure, sometimes I’ll lose myself coding or writing or drawing. But sometimes it’s good to interrupt my momentum and ask: What’s important to do, even if it’s not currently as shiny or as fun as what I’m doing?

Do you do this too? What have you learned? What questions do you ask yourself to help you decide what to do next?

Related posts:

Move your goalposts to get around an inability to finish projects

I hardly ever finish projects. I start them with a burst of enthusiasm, and then I trail off when something else catches my attention. I’ve learned to work with this instead of beating myself up about it. On some days, I might even consider it a good thing. Here’s one of the things I’ve learned:

You can trick your brain by moving the goalposts.

Let’s say that you’re working on a project. Toward the end of the project, you catch yourself losing steam. You’ve gotten 80% of the way there, and the remaining 20% of the work will take four times as much time. The itch to start a different project is pulling you away.

Don’t think of yourself as nearly done. Think of yourself as getting started on another new project that just happens to overlap with the previous one.


In fact, mentally set the beginning of that project to include some of the work you’ve just completed, to take advantage of the Endowed Progress effect (research PDF).


Tada! Goalposts moved. You might find that the newly-reframed project is now novel enough to be included in the list of new projects you enjoy working on, and it might even tempt you away from other distractions.

Moving the goalposts is usually a bad thing. It’s why many people never feel rich, because whenever they reach what used to be unimaginable wealth, they find that the amount of money needed for them to feel happy has gone up. (Solution: don’t anchor happiness to amounts of money.) Moving the goalposts has led to many a logical fallacy in heated arguments. But if you don’t like playing a close-quarters game, moving the goalposts further away can help.

I often use this technique for life-long learning, especially for things that you can’t really declare finished. Can one ever finish learning how to write or draw or program? No, but you can keep moving your targets a little forward as you learn.

You might think, “I won’t be able to celebrate achieving my original goal!” You can still celebrate milestones. Better yet, celebrate even the tiny, tiny steps that you take towards your (constantly-moving) goal. Look behind you once in a while and celebrate the progress you’ve made.

It can be hard to see progress if you don’t have anything tangible. Invest time in looking for useful chunks that you can extract even from work in progress. It’s surprising how few projects are truly all or nothing. If you can share drafts, prototypes, alpha or beta versions, or even blog posts about the journey, you don’t have to worry about the whole thing being a complete waste of time if you get distracted from the project before you finish it. If you always wait until you’ve finished something, you might end up leaving a mess of incomplete projects around.

Worried that your mind will see through this technique and lose interest even earlier in the process? Try being playful about it instead of being too serious. Yes, it’s a mental trick (and not even a particularly complex one), but if your mind likes novelty and beginnings, it can hardly fault you for giving it what it likes.

This technique doesn’t solve everything – I haven’t been able to write a 200-page Emacs book yet, and our couch still doesn’t have a slipcover. But it helps me from time to time, and maybe it will help you too!

Predictable advice about productivity

Let me think out loud a bit about this, since there’s something here that I want to dig into.

Someone asked me if I’d consider answering the question “What’s your morning ritual/routine that helps you stay productive and organised throughout the day?” for inclusion in a blog round-up.

Ordinarily, I’m not too keen on answering surveys or filling out questionnaires from people. I know it’s a popular content-generation technique and that bloggers like doing it because it encourages people to link, but there’s something about the format that feels a little meh. I’m even less enthusiastic about blog roundups because the typical format–a list of names, links, and a quoted paragraph or two–doesn’t lend itself well to nuanced observation or discussion.

Still, I’d been thinking about reflecting on the topic for a while, so I bumped it up my list of things to write about and drafted this: Relaxed routines.

I sent a sneak peek of the draft to the person who asked me, and he responded:

The fact that you wrote “Sometimes I think of three things I would like to do that day, and I type a few notes and thoughts into Evernote” is very interesting because other experts also think of 3 things they want to do every morning and go after them.

And I thought, no, that’s not the point I want to make. Which made me think: What is the point I want to make? I said:

When you write, don’t look for the same, old, common, generic advice. Look for what’s unusual or unintuitive or idiosyncratic.

Come to think of it, I should probably expand on this thing about slowing down, taking notes, and sharing them, since a lot of people are worried about interrupting momentum or giving away their secrets. To me, that’s more interesting than picking a few priorities for the day, which (as you noted) many other people do.

So there’s an interesting thought there that I’m going to flesh out and add to the draft. Perhaps by the time you read this, I’ll have already added and posted it.

Anyway. This got me thinking about the predictability of most productivity advice. If I crack open a newly-published book on productivity or click on one of the countless blog posts that flow into my streams, I know that more likely than not, it will tell me to: Wake up early. Prioritize. Don’t start with e-mail. Take care of your health.

It’s about as surprising as reading a personal finance book that tells me to spend less than I earn. Granted, there are probably lots of people for whom the repetition of these concepts helps.

I wonder how to go beyond the same old advice. What kinds of information have been helpful for me when I want to change? What would be more helpful for other people? How can I go beyond writing generic thoughts myself? How can I notice and dig into the differences? How can I learn from more divergences?

Here’s what I’ve found helpful:

  • Collections of different approaches, so that I can experiment and find out what works for me. I don’t read books looking for the One True Way to manage your tasks. I look for the diversity of systems described by different people so that I can extract ideas that I can play around with. That also means that I don’t want trite advice that I already have previous samples of. I’m looking for new stuff, things to make me go “Hmm, let me try that.”
  • Pointers to interesting people, which is related to the first benefit. For example, when reading about how scholars managed information before computers (Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age), I came across historical role models like Seneca and Pliny. That led me to learn more about their stories so that I could understand their techniques in context. It isn’t just about isolated pieces of advice, but people whose lives that advice came from and why they learned that. Plus points for people I can identify with or be inspired by: “Oh, she did that, so I can probably pull off something similar too!”
  • Behind-the-scenes thoughts: Reading people’s thoughts about their own systems is more interesting for me than reading people’s conjectures about other people’s secrets. I like reading blog posts from people who are thinking out loud, because that lets me peek into other people’s thought processes and watch how they learn. I like seeing the in-between stuff, not just the polished products.
  • Reflection questions, so that I can direct my awareness to things I might otherwise overlook, and so that I can evaluate things.
  • Research, particularly with non-intuitive results. For example, applied psychology tells us our brain is subject to all sorts of fallacies, and being aware of things like sunk cost fallacy helps me try to correct for them.

So with that in mind, how can I improve that reflection on routines so that I and other people can get more value from it?

Let me think about potential points of divergence from common wisdom, and why I’ve chosen those ways:

  • I sleep in instead of getting up early. For me, it’s important to mostly go to bed at the same time W- goes to bed (unless he’s staying up really late). Since that’s usually between 12 AM to 1 AM and I need a bit more than 8 hours to feel well-rested, this means I usually get up between 8:30 and 9:30. I organize the rest of my schedule around this, including avoiding all morning meetings.
  • I follow my energy instead of forcing myself to stick to a plan. I used to block off time to work on specific things, but I realized that I enjoy flexibility and I work better with an open schedule. More about this.
  • I don’t make specific, measurable, time-bound goals. I found that I’m not motivated by “urgent” deadlines that I set myself. Instead, I keep a large list of small tasks, and I use those to keep moving forward on different things.
  • I slow down to take notes. Many people tell me they don’t have the time to take notes. I make note-taking part of the way I do things, whether it’s thinking about a decision, learning about a new topic, or debugging a problem. It’s not really slowing down, actually. I suspect that I make slower progress when I don’t take notes, because my mind gets more jittery and has to cover the same ground repeatedly.
  • I share what I’m learning. People are often concerned about giving away their secrets, looking foolish, or letting go of competitive advantages. I find that blogging helps me learn more, connect with interesting people, and get more stuff done.
  • I don’t worry about being responsive. I’m very casual about responding to e-mail and blog comments. I can go a week or two (and sometimes more!) before replying, although I check more frequently than that. I treat them as long-term asynchronous conversations, not as firm commitments. This lets me see my e-mail mostly positively as a source of interesting questions and ideas, rather than as an obligation that gets in the way of Real Work.
  • It’s easy for me to choose slack over status or stuff. This is more of a personal finance thing, I think. I’m picky about the things I swap my life for, because I prefer space, freedom, and resisting hedonic adaptation. This is why it’s easy for me to ignore advertising.
  • I’ve shut up the “You’re not an artist!” internal self-censor so that I can use visual thinking to explore ideas. People often tell me that they wish they could draw sketchnotes too. Pointing out that I draw like a 5-year-old still doesn’t seem to be enough to help them get over that mental barrier. Someday I’ll probably figure out how to help people hack around that.

For each of these choices, there are probably thousands of other people (at least) who do the same thing. That’s okay. In fact, that’s terrific, because then we can swap notes. =) I don’t have to say totally unique things. I’m not sure I can. I just want to add more to the conversation than generic “advice.”

So how do those choices influence my everyday routines? Well, waking up when I feel like it is an obvious one. Writing, drawing, and publishing throughout the day is another. This 5-year experiment is another result of those choices.

The most useful change that people can experiment with, I think, is the one of writing stuff down, even if they don’t publish it. Not just plans and reviews (although those are good places to start), but the in-between stuff, the “I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this” stuff. It could be a text file or a document or a paper notebook – just somewhere you can leave breadcrumbs for your brain so that you can come back to things after interruptions and so that you can go back in time.

But journaling is also part of the set of standard productivity advice, so what can I add here? The reassurance that no, it doesn’t make you go slower, it actually lets you cover more ground? A demonstration, so that people can see what that looks like (especially over years)? Workflow tweaks to better integrate it into the way you do things? Personal knowledge management ideas for organization? Surveys of other people’s systems so that we can pick up great ideas?

If I want some fraction of the people who read me to pick up this writing habit, what I can do to help them (you!) get over any barriers or excuses?

That’s what I should write. I’m not going to be able to trigger that epiphany in one excerpted paragraph in a list of twenty or fifty or people. But I can always explore the idea on this blog (with your help =) ), and other people can link to or summarize whatever they want, and who knows what conversations can grow.