Category Archives: productivity

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When it comes to juggling multiple interests, it helps to limit your expectations

imageI have a lot of ideas, and it’s easy to get discouraged by the fact that I’m not making progress on as many of them as I want to. It’s simple math. If I make progress on two projects but let eight languish, I tend to feel guilty about those eight.

So I’m borrowing an idea from just-in-time delivery: the kanban method. The ideas are (according to Wikipedia):

  • Visualize: See what you’re working on and where it is in the workflow. Also, keep track of where you’re approaching the limits.
  • Limit work in process: My limit is probably two projects in focus. I work on one at a time. The other is there for switching to if I hit a snag or need to change things up. (See also: Managing Oneself) Everything else is on the back burner, the someday/maybe list, or the “nifty idea but probably not for me” list.
  • Manage flow: I’m not paying much attention to this yet. It would be interesting to track how things move from current to back burner. I have some of that data through my timetracking.
  • Make policies explicit: What gets a project onto my someday/maybe list, onto my back-burner, or into focus? There are lots of ideas that I’m happy to let other people explore; I pick up only projects that I’m personally motivated by and that I see value in. Of those, I identify which ones I can actually make some progress towards today. I focus on 1-2 things that I like the most (especially if other people want them too). I don’t stop myself from working on back burner things, but I no longer have to feel guilty about letting them lapse. If it turns out that I don’t actually spend time on back burner items in a month or two, that’s usually a good sign it’s a someday/maybe thing due to lack of present motivation or capability.
  • Implement feedback loops: I haven’t paid much attention to this yet. Usually, people nudge me if I let some projects take too much of my attention.
  • Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally (using models and the scientific method): Tweaking my mindset to minimize guilt-friction is a good, small improvement. Looking forward to other small improvements!

Strict kanban would probably mean not even starting until I’d cleared off at least one work in progress, I think. I’m not that strict. I’m happy to switch back and forth, but it’s good to be clear about what I’m focusing on. That way, I don’t feel pulled in ten different directions.

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Writing is my key project. Drawing, Quantified Awesome, and Emacs swap in and out of the #2 slot. Delegation tends to be more on the back burners. Someday/maybe? More business stuff, getting better at gardening, learning sewing, and so on. If I were better at delegation, I might be able to increase my capacity to do more, but it’s a lower priority at the moment (I appreciate the extra cushion that frugality gives me). I’m cheating with “Writing” and the books on my list – I’m planning to write them in short segments, one blog post at a time.

Knowing this helps because when requests come in for things that I’m not focused on, I can happily and guiltlessly refer them to other people. It makes decisions easier. Do I spend $X to attend a conference or course on Y? No, that’s on my someday/maybe list. It’s good to know what you can say no to in order to say yes to other things.

I might be able to make more progress if I focused on driving 1-2 things to completion, not switching them on and off the back burner. In that case, I would eliminate writing from my list of projects (it’s never done!) and move up the book projects. I tried that kind of intensive writing with Wicked Cool Emacs and it burned me out a little, but maybe I’ve learned since then. I like the interplay of interests, though. Maybe I can experiment with “week on, week off” patterns – there’s value in immersion as well…

Anyway, the point of this post is: I can’t do everything at the same time, so I’m learning to not stress out about it. =) If that’s something you struggle with too, then you might find that clearly identifying the things you are focusing on and gently letting go of the other things (at least for now) might help. Good luck!

What’s on your back burner?

It’s easy to get discouraged by the vague feeling that you’re ignoring lots of things that you wanted to work on: hobbies that fall by the wayside, projects gathering dust on your shelves, Someday/Maybe lists that grow and never shrink. I’m learning that thinking about what’s on your back burner can help you make your peace with it, deliberately choosing what you want to work on during your discretionary time and letting go of the rest.

I’m focusing on consulting this October and November. Assuming all goes well, December will be taken up by a vacation: wrapping up consulting, going on vacation, and recovering from the whirlwind. I’m going to be less “retired” than I thought I’d be at this point, so I want to be deliberate about what I’m putting on the back burner and what I should keep doing.

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Consulting leaves me with one or two days a week when I can focus on other projects. I also have little bits of time here and there, and some time in the evenings. What do I want to fit into those opportunities?

Daily drawing: I really like this practice of thinking about ideas or questions on paper, and I plan to continue doing this. Since I’ve made it a warm-up and cool-down activity, I don’t need a lot of separate focused time for it. I draw to start and end my day, and I spend a little time filing new sketches. Decision: Continue doing this in small pieces.

Visual vocabulary: Someone asked me if I could share my visual vocabulary with people. I had figured out a good workflow for building my visual vocabulary using other people’s sketches, but I didn’t want to share my 1,000+ term collection because it’s based on other people’s sketches (copyright, you know!). So I started building a new visual vocabulary using only my own sketches. So far, I’ve processed all of my sketchnotes from 2013.

The next step is to process my personal sketches (including my daily sketches) from 2013, and then start going backwards in time. Although the work was simple and not challenging, it was a lot of fun reviewing my past sketches and remembering what the talks were about. Decision: I’ll spend a little time on this each week. I thought about outsourcing parts of it, but it’s probably going to be easier, faster, and more useful if I do this myself.

Topic-focused blog/book: I’ve been playing around with the idea of spinning off a separate blog focused on a small set of topics. The poll results were tied between learning/writing/notetaking/etc. and visual thinking/mind mapping/planning/etc., so I’m planning to focus on learning/writing/notetaking/etc. first because that will let me do all the rest even more effectively. Decision: I probably won’t split it off into a separate blog yet, though. I’ll use some of my daily drawing time to explore topics and flesh them out into a series of blog posts – possibly hitting two birds with one stone. =)

Quantified Awesome: I have bugs to fix, features to add, analyses to run… Well, the bug fixes come first. I’m going to set aside some of these focus days or weekends to get token authentication and a few other things working again. I’m curious about my groceries data now that I have more than a year of it, so I’m looking forward to crunching the numbers. Just how much rice do we go through in a year? How can we organize our space to allow us to stock up even better? Decision: Coding benefits from long periods of focus time, so I should use my free days for this. Once I get past the bugs, though, I’m okay with scaling back on this a little.

Server administration, learning new tech skills: My web server isn’t set up optimally. It’s probably slower and more conservative than it needs to be. There are configuration options I haven’t dug into, performance limits I haven’t tested, and so on. Still, my server hasn’t fallen apart recently, and it should be fine for now. Learning new programming languages, frameworks, or platforms might also help me in the long run, but that’s something I can guiltlessly postpone for this quarter. Decision: Postpone, revisit next year.

Delegation and automation: I keep wondering about how I might be able to take advantage of other people’s skills and experiences in order to learn more or do more, but I’ve been slacking off in terms of actually delegating things to people. I’ve been digging into why that’s the case (what are my excuses? am I missing some quick wins?), so you’ll probably see a blog post about that shortly. Still, I don’t want to delegate for the sake of delegating. I want to make sure that I specify work clearly and can pay enough attention to give good feedback as well as learn from the experience. This takes time and brainspace. I’ll dig into this if the opportunity comes up, but I don’t mind waiting until later.

As for automation, I’ll probably learn more about that on the way to doing other things. For example, AutoHotkey looks like it will repay further study. I’ll use some of my focus days to tweak things here and there, but I don’t need to push too hard on this. Decision: Postpone or do opportunistically.

Sketchnote lessons: This is where I teach myself (and other people!) more about sketchnoting by drawing different variants of common techniques. It helps broaden my visual vocabulary. I currently publish a sketchnote lesson every Thursday. If I make it less formal and more playful, I might be able to fold it into my daily drawing / doodling sessions. For example, I might try drawing people in different professions or in different situations as a way of expanding my visual vocabulary. This does require a bit more research, though, because I need to look at other people’s sketchnotes and reference photos. If I relax my expectations of publishing and make it, say, once a month, then I don’t have to worry about scraping the bottom of the barrel. (I should do one just about metaphors… =) ) That way, if I end up ramping up my drawing/doodling so that I have something publishable once a week or once every two weeks, that’s awesome. Decision: Scale back a little, and focus on doodling different categories?

Wrap-up

When I started thinking about what’s on my back burner, I felt a little overwhelmed. There was too much to fit into my week, not to mention the stuff on my Things I want to learn list that I haven’t gotten around to even starting. As I thought about what I could fit into small pockets of time, what needed more focus, and what I could postpone, things felt more manageable. Now I have a few things I can focus on, and I don’t have to feel bad about temporarily letting go of some of the things I was curious about. We’ll see how this works!

There will always be more things you want to do than time to do it in. You can get stressed out by your limitations, or you can exercise your ability to choose. Good luck!

Not about not wasting time

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A fact-checker from FLARE Magazine followed up on a recent interview I did on time-tracking and sleep, which will come out in the September issue. Among other things, he asked me to confirm the following statement: "You mentioned that after a few weeks or months analyzing sleep date and daily schedules, most can find more otherwise wasted time for sleep." It turns out I have a strong reaction against this idea of “wasting time”, so we explored the nuances in a phone call. I thought I’d dig into those ideas here so that I can understand them further.

People often ask me about tracking time. They say things like:  “I waste a lot of time commuting/waiting/doing chores/watching television.” “I want to spend more time writing, but work and family obligations get in the way.” “I should be exercising, but I find myself playing video games instead.”

I try to share not only the mechanics but also a good mindset. Like everything that you can track, you can lose yourself in self-criticism or frustration. Beating yourself up may work for some people, but I find that it’s easier to learn and grow if I accept where I’m coming from. Practise loving kindness, even with—especially with—yourself.

You choose your activities because you’re getting some kind of payoff from it. Maybe you don’t consciously decide, and maybe you haven’t questioned your assumptions, but you always get something – whether it’s the opportunity for progress or the avoidance of pain. You might take a chance that doesn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean your decision was bad. It’s okay. Embrace that, and work on understanding your decisions and trade-offs.

I gave this example: Work is valuable. But if you work long hours and deprive themselves of sleep, it can affect your ability to do things at work and outside work. If you’re okay with the trade-offs, then it’s fine – maybe a temporary sacrifice to make things better. If you aren’t okay, it might be a good opportunity to examine your assumptions. Is more really better?

So that’s one reason why you aren’t wasting your time: you’re probably getting something out of it, although you might not have thought about what that is and what you’re giving up. If you try to cut out all television-viewing for your life so that you can free up time for reading, but you don’t address the underlying needs or tensions that were why you chose TV over other activities before, you’ll be fighting yourself.  The Power of Habit has a good explanation of the habit loop and how to replace habitual actions with others.

My life is full of things that people might consider wastes of time. I sleep when I’m sleepy. I write my way through tangled thoughts. I read things that may not be immediately helpful. But it’s all part of my life. Sometimes I consciously decide how to spend my time. Sometimes I do things without looking at the trade-offs well. Sometimes I take chances that don’t work out. Still, it feels better to work with what I have than to judge myself for what I don’t.

So instead of “don’t waste time”, I think the goal of my tracking is more about “understand myself better and make better decisions”. Hope that helps clarify the difference!

Do you think you waste time? What do you get out of it?

What do I want to do right now? Understanding my algorithm for discretionary time

Noorul asked, "How do you generally begin your day and how does it span? Do you plan for each hour or do you plan a task across many days/weeks?"

I have three kinds of days:

  • Weekends are reserved for spending time with W- or friends, helping out around the house, cooking, and getting ready for the next week. I take an hour for my weekly review, and I often have more time to write or read, but I don’t count on it – people get first dibs.
  • Consulting days – Tuesdays and Thursdays, usually, although I’m planning to take all of August off. I wake up, have breakfast, get ready, bike, work from about 10 to 5 (earlier or later, depending on attention and need), bike back, and then go to a meetup or spend the rest of the day at home.
  • Discretionary days – Wide-open and wonderful, these are the days when I follow my interests freely: writing, coding, drawing, learning… Sometimes I punctuate them with meetings—I’m practising talking to people. 

I briefly experimented with planning my life in detail before, assigning tasks to specific days or even blocking off hours in my calendar. I wanted to make sure that important tasks didn’t fall off my radar and that I didn’t overcommit my day. It didn’t really work for me – I kept moving things around depending on how I felt.

What works for me now? Minimizing commitments, thinking in terms of weeks, making decisions moment by moment, and always having good things to choose from (it helps to keep track of good ideas). Not wasting energy in beating myself up about what I haven’t done; instead, I celebrate the things I do.

Here’s what my decision process looks like when I ask myself, "What do I want to do right now?" It’s roughly in terms of priorities, although I might pick something lower on the list if that’s what I really want, and I save chores for downtime.

  1. Does W- need my help with any projects?
  2. Have I promised anything urgent to anyone?
  3. Are there chores to be done?
    1. Is the kitchen clean?
    2. Is there laundry to be done?
    3. Does the garden need watering?
    4. Do the litter boxes need to be cleared?
    5. Do things need to be tidied a little?
    6. Have I gotten a bit of exercise?
  4. Do I want to work on my computer?
    1. Do I have something to write about? What am I curious about?
    2. Do I feel like coding?
    3. Do I feel like drawing?
      1. Do I want to draw my own things? 
      2. Do I want to work on a book review?
  5. Are there books I want to read?
  6. Do I have Japanese flashcards to review?
  7. Is there e-mail I need to reply to?
  8. Are there stories I want to read?
  9. Do I want to reach out to anyone and brighten their day?
  10. What else do I want to do?

I prioritize things based on happiness, relationships, energy, what I’ve been doing recently (momentum!), what I haven’t done recently, whatever else comes to mind…

E-mail and social networks are pretty far down my list. Sometimes I trawl my inbox for blog post ideas, and once in a while, I go through my inbox to reply to as much as I can. (I try to do this every week, although sometimes it stretches.) TV and movies are background activities, to be saved for sessions of laundry-folding or coding – almost always DVDs checked out of the library, so that we can watch with subtitles and rewinds. In the interstitial time between activities, I do flashcards or read blog posts on my phone.

Commitments go on my planner (Org Mode in Emacs, for flexibility); all the rest are unscheduled tasks that I can review by context or look up by project depending on what I’m interested in or drawn to. There are things that I plan to do that I don’t end up doing, but that’s because they get preempted by things that are more important to me.

So that’s the discretionary stuff. What about our routines?

I wake up at 8 or 9, snoozing if I feel sleepy. I use the bathroom, wash my mouth guard, let the cats drink from the faucet. Downstairs, I have our "standard breakfast": one fried egg with brown rice, sometimes even two eggs as a weekend luxury. I head upstairs to brush my teeth and dress up. Then I pack my lunch and whatever I need (if I’m going outside) or settle into working on my own projects on our kitchen table or at our standing desk. W- leaves for work, J- leaves for school. If I’m at home, I have a simple lunch (salad? home-made frozen food?), and then I move on to whatever I want to do next. J- comes home, W- comes home. We have dinner, and then it’s time for chores or exercise or a little more writing. I tidy up, shower, brush my teeth, and go to bed at roughly midnight, although sometimes I stay up later.

I’m lucky. We keep our lives simple so that we have time.

How do you decide what to do?

See also: How I use Emacs Org Mode for my weekly reviews

Unstructured time, shaping your wants, and giving yourself permission

I was talking to a couple of other Quantified Self Toronto members about the management of unstructured time, since one of them was taking a gap year from school and the other one had just wrapped up regular employment. “How do I make sure I don’t waste my time?” they asked.

Here’s what I’ve been learning from semi-retirement: it can be easy to make good use of your discretionary time. (And to feel like you’re making good use of it!)

When I was planning for this experiment, I worried that I would end up frittering away the time on frivolities that people frown on: vegetating on the couch, playing games, getting sucked into the blackholes of social media and random Internet browsing.

It turns out that when you fill your life with so many more interesting possibilities, it’s easy to choose those instead. It reminds me of something I’ve learned about finances, too. Many activities make me just as happy as other activities do, so I might as well pick activities that are free or inexpensive and that align with my values. Likewise, I might as well pick activities that give me multiple benefits or that align with how I want to spend my time. A movie is diverting and it’s also good for learning about emotions and storytelling, but watching a movie while folding laundry is more useful than watching a movie in the theatre. I enjoy cooking more than I enjoy eating out. I enjoy writing, drawing, or spending time with W- more than I enjoy playing games.

So I don’t fill my days with plans or box myself in with calendared intentions. I look at the week ahead and list tasks that I need to remember, promises and appointments I’ve made, and maybe make space for one or two personal projects or ideas that I don’t want to forget about. I have a regular client engagement on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which I do because I like the client and what I get to help them with. Sometimes I take a week or an entire month off, to re-set my sense of time. Even during my regular weeks, I try to leave plenty of space.

It’s important to have space to follow where your interests and energy take you. I try to minimize the number of things I’ve promised to other people so that I have the flexibility to follow opportunities when they come up. That way, if I don’t feel like writing, I don’t. Maybe I’ll draw. Maybe I’ll code. Maybe I’ll work in the garden. Maybe I’ll tidy the house. Maybe I’ll read. Maybe I’ll plan.

I make exceptions for conversations. It’s hard to not schedule those if I want to make sure they happen at some point. Left to my own devices, I might never get around to talking to people. So I pay someone to handle my scheduling, and I ask her to space some of the optional ones apart (maybe one a week?) so that I have room for focusing on my things. It’s a little weird scheduling three or more weeks in advance, but space is important.

The rest of the time goes to whatever I feel like doing the most at that moment. It helps that I feel good about the things that I want to do, like writing, coding, and drawing, and that many of the things I do are also valued by others. I remember coming across in some book (was it Early Retirement Extreme? I should dig that up again) the idea that you can raise your skill in some activities or hobbies to the point that people are willing to pay you for it (now or in the future). Other things like exercise or cleaning the kitchen have their own rewards.

Did I luck into wanting these things by nature, or did I shape my wants to fit what I wanted to do? It’s hard to say. Most of it feels natural, but I do consciously tweak my motivations. Here’s an example of where I’m deliberately working on hacking my wants: exercise. W-‘s been helping me build a strength training habit through lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement. I also remind myself that the time I spend exercising will pay off both short-term and long-term, and that helps me get better at picking it over other alternatives (ex: bike to work and get some exercise versus work from home). It’s like what Mel wrote about digging out a path of least resistance so that it goes where you want to go. The other day, I was on my bike for almost 4 hours: 6 short trips, back and forth, covering mostly the same ground. I might not add as much to my “Done” list, but it’s good for me.

One of the benefits of choosing to spend my time this way is that it’s easy to say no to the common time-wasters that people often beat themselves up about. You don’t feel that need to escape because you haven’t been trying to keep yourself disciplined all day long. This also means that you aren’t wasting the emotional energy you’d otherwise use to beat yourself up about bad decisions. =) There are tasks that I postpone or don’t get around to, but it’s not because I suck. it’s just that I wanted to do other things instead, and I may get around to those tasks someday.

Even leisurely activities become experiments. I spent one Monday watching animé practically the whole day. I’m studying Japanese, so I watched the episodes with the original soundtrack and English subtitles. It was fun hearing the sounds start resolving themselves into intelligible words… and it was interesting feeling that barrier of “Oh, I should be doing productive things because it’s a weekday morning!” start to erode as I learned more about giving myself permission to follow my interests. (It turned out that watching those animé episodes was great for helping me follow along with the audio and the script. I often listen to just the audio as a way to immerse myself in the language and enjoy commuting or working… Bonus!)

Maybe the trick to managing an unstructured schedule isn’t to get better at discipline, but to get better at wanting good things, to get better at seeing the value in different activities. Then you can trust in yourself, with a little review and feedback so that you can tweak your course and make better decisions. At least that’s what seems to be working for me, and it might be something that would work for you too. =)

Dealing with distractions

I have a slightly obsessive personality. Once in a while, something latches onto my consciousness and distracts me. This can be good. I’ve written a lot of code following the trail of Just One More Thing. This can also be less than productive, such as when I get sidetracked by a jigsaw puzzle lying temptingly unfinished on a table (we’ve since banned them from the house) or a video game that’s almost but not quite done (Persona 4 Golden, currently).

It’s particularly pernicious when I’m trying to do something creative or focused, as the buzz in my brain makes it harder to concentrate.

I’m going to run into many more of these minor obsessions in life, so it’s better for me to figure out how to deal with this than to either give in or ignore it. Some research says that willpower is an exhaustible resource (Wikipedia has a summary), so it’s good to find easier ways to hack this.

Here are some things I can do when dealing with these discretionary distractions:

  1. Review my list of priorities and why they’re priorities. I’ve taken to drawing my key to-dos on an index card at the beginning of the day. If I can get those done, everything else is a bonus.
  2. Do those priorities first thing.
  3. When I feel distractions start to buzz, walk around the block or do some other form of physical activity.
  4. Accept that some days will be low-energy days, and some days will be spot-on days.
  5. Try social commitment. Tell other people what I need to focus on.
  6. Keep a list of low-energy tasks to work on.

Giving myself twenty minutes to indulge in something doesn’t seem to work, but maybe it will if I add physical context-switches instead of staying in the same place.

Hmm…