Category Archives: productivity

Making my to-do list more detailed; process versus outcome

Some time ago, I wrote some code to make it easier for me to update my web-based Quantified Awesome time logs from Org Mode in Emacs, clocking into specific tasks or quickly selecting routine tasks with a few keyboard shortcuts. I’ve been refining my/org-clock-in-and-track, my/org-clock-in-and-track-by-name, and defhydra my/quantified-hydra, and I’ve been getting used to the new workflow. The more I smooth out the workflow, the more possibilities open up. Because I’ve set it up to prompt me for a time estimate before I start a task, I can see a running clock and timer in my modeline, and Emacs lets me know if I’m running over my estimate. Come to think of it, this makes it even easier to track at the detailed task level than to track at just the medium-level categories available through my web or mobile shortcuts. (If you’re curious about the Emacs Lisp code, you can check out my Emacs configuration.)

I’ve also been sorting out my workflow for quickly adding tasks. C-c r t (org-capture, with the t template I defined in org-capture-templates) displays a buffer where I can type in the task information and set a time estimate. From there, I can file it under the appropriate project with C-c C-w (org-refile), or maybe schedule it with C-c C-s (org-schedule).

Since both creating and tracking tasks are now easier, I’ve been gradually adding small, routine tasks to my task list. This includes household tasks such as vacuuming and quick computer-based tasks such as checking for replies to @emacs. These tasks are in my routines.org file or tagged with the :routine: tag, so I can sort them in my Org agenda view or filter them out if I want.

It might be interesting to bring that data from Emacs to my mobile phone, but it’s not particularly important at the moment. I’m usually home, so I can just check my org-agenda throughout the day. If I’m out for some errands, my errand list is short enough to remember (or quickly note somewhere), and I can use my phone to quickly jot short notes to add to my to-do list when I get back.

The next step for that workflow would probably be to improve my views of unscheduled tasks, choosing new things to work on based on their time estimates, contexts, or projects. I already have a few org-agenda-custom-commands for these, although I still need to tweak them so that they feel like they make sense. Project navigation works out pretty well, though, and it’ll get better as I gradually clean up my Org files.

It feels a little odd to use my to-do list this much throughout the day, compared to the less-structured approach of deciding at each moment. The day feels less leisurely and expansive. Still, there’s a certain satisfaction in crossing things off and knowing I’m taking care of the little things. I’ll find a new balance between the number of items on my list and the time I want to use to follow the butterflies of my interest or energy. Maybe I’ll use tags or priorities to highlight energizing tasks, the dessert tasks to my vegetable tasks. (Ooh, I wonder how I can get different colours in my org-agenda.) In the meantime, I think that fleshing out my to-do list even more – capturing the little routines that might get forgotten if I get more fuzzy-brained or distracted – may help me in the long run.

I think one of the things about working with a list of small, varied tasks is that there’s less of that feeling of accomplishing a big, non-routine chunk. One way I can work around this is to pick a dessert-y project focus for the morning and finish several tasks related to it, before getting through the rest of the routine tasks. There’s also a different approach: focusing on the process instead of the outcome, cultivating the satisfaction of steady progress instead of the exhilaration of a win. If I keep on improving my workflow for managing tasks, ideas, and reviews, I think it will pay off even as circumstances change.

2015-12-04e Process versus outcome -- index card #productivity #mindset #perspective #stoicism #philosophy

2015-12-04c Preparing for steady progress -- index card #productivity #fuzzy #preparation

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?

Related:

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).

moving-the-goalposts

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!