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More thoughts on week beginnings: it’s about being proactive

One of the great things about reflecting out loud is that other people share their own insights and make things even clearer. Here’s what Mel said about my post on week beginnings:

I think I’d like to try weekends as week-beginnings this weekend. It’s treating Saturday and Sunday as time to set up for the week ahead, rather than time to recover from whatever the week did to you – it’s a decision to happen to life rather than let life happen to you. And that’s the way I want my week to be. Proactive rather than reactive.

Mel Chua, “Brain-clearing on equilibrium”

That’s it. It’s about taking responsibility for how you want your week to unfold, and investing the time into making it happen. To combine that with another point Mel makes in her post:

So maybe it’s something like this:

  1. Figure out what you want to do.
  2. Figure out what doing that thing is like when you’re good at it, and it’s easy – the ease that comes from skill and practice, the ease that comes with awareness and control.
  3. Figure out how you’re going to get yourself in shape so that the thing you want to do is easy.

… it’s about figuring out what a good week feels like, and setting things up so that you can enjoy that kind of week. What does the difference feel like?


For me, a good week involves:

  • Good work at the office: clear priorities and progress
  • Plenty of focused time for personal projects, like writing or drawing
  • Social connection with W-, J-, friends, and folks online
  • Smoothly flowing household routines: knowing where things are, remembering what’s important, minimizing useless stress
  • An appreciation for all the days of the week, instead of slogging through some days in order to get to others

What did I do to prepare for that?

  • Invested time into learning about project planning and Rational Team Concert so that I can always work with a clear, prioritized task list with time estimates.
  • Switched to waking up early so that I could have blocks of focused time for personal projects.
  • Planned social events into my calendar and prioritized social interaction for evenings.
  • Packed individual lunch portions and stored them in our freezer so that we can be sure of having good food for lunch; cooked dinners during weekends and organized the leftovers in the fridge; switched to using a beltbag instead of a purse so that I’ll always have my keys, badge, and phone in a well-defined place; helped tweak the corridor flow for leaving and entering the house (the big shelves near the front are really useful!).
  • Planned my week to make sure I have things to look forward to during the week and during the weekend; set things up so that I enjoyed my work; developed things to enjoy outside work as well.

On a bigger scale, the same principle applies. It’s not about escape, it’s about preparation. The two-week staycation W- and I took in August 2009 is a good example. We thought about we wanted life to be like, and we invested time into getting a little bit closer to that vision. We use our long weekends the same way. It’s relaxing and productive. I take breaks so that I can have focused time to step back, reflect, and work on the foundation of my life, the moments of truth, the systems that will pay off a lot over time… and maybe enjoy a new experience or two along the way.

This reflection reminds me of a discussion from my university theology classes: the difference between freedom from and freedom for. Many people think about breaks as freedom from work. I like thinking about them as freedom for awesomeness. =)

Week beginnings

What day does your week start on? It’s the same seven days, but where you start can influence how you look at things. Today I realized that my week doesn’t actually start with Mondays, as I thought before. Or maybe it shifted.

W- and I treat our weekends as week beginnings: the perfect time to lay the groundwork for a smooth-running and productive week. We do the laundry, shop for groceries, prepare food, drop off and pick up library books, tidy up, finish assorted tasks, reset our sleep schedules, and tweak our household routines.

Preparing is fun. W- and I enjoy cooking, so it hardly counts as a chore. This weekend, we made chicken adobo, leftover stirfry, and these incredibly moist and airy brownies. I also experimented with making onigiri, which would be great for afternoon snacking throughout the week. I may have gotten a little carried away.


Other chores are relaxing, too. Washing dishes, folding laundry, and putting things away are meditations in action.

If we finish early, or we want to take breaks along the way, then we spend time on other interests. I set aside blocks of time for reading, writing, coding, drawing, or sewing, depending on what I feel like. I also make time for social interaction – not so much that I’ll feel worn out, but enough to get to know other people better.

Some weekends are busy, such as our once-a-month lunch-packing extravaganza. Then we’re doubly glad when Monday comes around: proud of the accomplishment, and looking forward to the relative relaxation of the work-week!

I love the way this has been working for us. Most weeks run smoothly. When crunch time comes, we’ve got healthy food in the fridge, routines we can rely on, and relationships that carry us through.

Using part of our weekend to make the rest of the week better also helps keep our stress and energy levels on an even keel. Instead of swinging wildly from “Oh no, it’s Monday” to “Thank goodness it’s Friday!”, or treating the work as something that gets in the way of life, we treat all of the days as part of life, and we invest time into making those days more wonderful. We also make sure we don’t end up thinking of the weekend as something that gets in the way of work.

Try turning your weekend into the beginning of your week, and use that time to make your week better.

Experimenting with mornings

Here’s my approximate sleep data for the past week, tracked with the free “Sleep on It” app I installed on my iPod Touch.

Woke up Slept
November 13 1:30 AM the next day
November 14 7:54 AM 11:14 PM
November 15 7:09 AM 8:45 PM
November 16 6:50 AM 9:23 PM
November 17 5:32 AM 9:06 PM
November 18 5:05 AM 9:34 PM
November 19 5:00 AM

I switched back to an early-morning schedule, and I really like it. Let’s see how wonderful it can be if I can tweak things further!

What’s working well?

I set my cellphone alarm a few minutes after my iPod Touch alarm. Then I put my cellphone on the drawers in the hallway. Tada! Social obligation to get out of bed AND deal with cats, instead of just reaching for the oh-so-handy snooze button.

Also, I made several lists. Here they are:

Things not worth staying up late for: Browsing the Web (it will still be there tomorrow). Reading books (ditto, save it for lunch). Things worth waking up early for: Writing. Drawing. Hacking, particularly because I can get lots of momentum and make tons of progress before our 10 AM update.
Things worth staying up late for: Social interaction. Laying the groundwork for a productive morning (setting clothes out, etc.) Things not worth waking up early for: casual web browsing. Hitting the snooze button.

This classification makes it easier for me to put away my computer and get ready for a 9-ish bedtime. (Yes, I’m often in bed before J-.) It also helps me use my morning time more productively. I didn’t get up early just to spend hours on! (Besides, it only takes me a few minutes to see the latest cat pictures…)

I haven’t run into problems with afternoon fatigue. It might be the way I switch between different kinds of tasks I enjoy, and it might be that I eat a light lunch and I have snacks.

There are still a few things to work out. Commuting to work means interrupting flow, although if I wake up early enough, I can get a chunk of time. When I go into productive hacking mode so that I can check off lots of tasks before our morning status update, I find it hard to make time for my hobbies during the regular workday, because people come in with interesting requests. And then there’s syncing up with W-, who’s more of a night owl, but that’s where shared activities and routines can help.

If you’re experimenting with waking up earlier, maybe social obligations and self-reminders can help you too. I’ll keep you posted as I learn and experience more!

New note-taking workflow with Emacs Org-mode

The new workflow looks like it works better for me. Or rather, it’s an old workflow with new tools. Now, instead of using Windows Live Writer or ScribeFire to post my notes directly to my blog, I’m back to using M-x remember and Emacs, keeping a superset of my notes in text files and publishing selected parts of it.

  • The new workflow
    • M-x remember saves quick notes into a large text file (~/personal/, possibly with tags, with diagrams inserted later.
    • I regularly review and file items into the appropriate sections of ~/personal/
    • I post selected items to my blog using C-u M-x org2blog-post-subtree, scheduling them by adding a timestamp or using the C-c C-s (org-schedule) command.

    I sometimes use Microsoft OneNote on my new tablet to take notes during meetings, but it’s easy enough to convert my handwriting to text and paste it into my Org-mode file. I still have to think of a better way to refer to images while keeping my file manageable, but a filename is probably okay.

  • A worked example

    This is being composed in a M-x remember window. (Well, remember is bound to C-c r on my system, so it’s easy to invoke).

    After I finish braindumping, I’ll use C-c C-c to save it somewhere.

    I may schedule the post immediately (C-c s (org-schedule) and then C-u M-x org2blog-post-subtree), or tag it for later review. (:toblog: – ready to go, but not scheduled? :rough: – needs more thinking?)

    When I review the items, I’ll copy this into the Geek – Emacs section of my

    It feels nice having my notes in plain text, and being able to organize it in more than just chronological order…

  • The history

    From 2001 to about 2006, I kept an Emacs Planner wiki with all of my notes in it. Emacs Remember let me write notes that were automatically hyperlinked to whatever I was looking at, and I added code to Planner that made it easy for me to file the notes both chronologically and topically. Planner rocked. I loved being able to easily hyperlink between topics, and the wiki structure kept pages a mostly manageable size. (My public Planner files are still on the Net, but I need to regenerate the index or enable directory lists so that they’re usable.)

    When I moved to WordPress as a blogging platform in order to make it easier for people to leave comments, I hacked around with RSS to import my posts from Planner into WordPress (ex: Moving to WordPress meant a change in my workflow. I now had two places to store my notes: Planner and my blog.

    I tried Emacs Org because I liked the way it organized information. In Planner, we’d been struggling with elegant ways to manage tasks and notes that needed to be accessed in multiple contexts. The approach we had taken in Planner was to make copies of the information, but Org had a cleaner way to do it using different views. It was intriguing.

    When I started working at IBM, however, my information workflow diverged. I shifted to using a web-based to-do list and Lotus Notes, posting on an internal blog and an external one, and managing multiple sources and repositories of information.

    I wanted to go back to keeping my notes in plain text, encrypted if necessary, and to have a place where I could keep notes that might not be publishable. I still had to manage multiple computers, but synchronizing systems like Dropbox or SpiderOak got rid of some of the hassles I’d encountered with git. When I found out about org2blog thanks to a test link from punchagan, I modified the code to work with subtrees instead of new buffers, and that solved the blog publishing part of it.

The value of constraints

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because I’ve been surprised by how useful they are. One of the challenges of being an agreeable, optimistic person is that I’m often tempted to say yes to many opportunities and try all sorts of things. Explicit constraints help me keep things manageable, and they help me remember why I chose them.

For example, this year, I’m experimenting with limiting my presentations to one talk a month, and little or no conference travel. Except for March (always conference/event season), I’ve been pretty good at sticking to that. It’s easy to explain the constraint to people, and they’re happy with either referrals to other speakers or postponement to one of my free months. It means I have more time to think, experiment, write, and draw.

I’ve also been trying a limit of one blog post per day, instead of bursts of two or three posts. One of these days, I’ll crunch numbers to see if I have a significant difference in terms of volume or comments. I like the rhythm, though. It makes me think more about what I want to publish, which posts I want to prioritize. I still write a lot, but that’s more so that I have a buffer for those busy days.

Now that I’ve gotten over the initial disruption of having a Playstation 3 in the house, I’ve been getting back on track with my sleep schedule. Limiting the hours I spend on work and other things forces me to be clear about my priorities and work more efficiently.

I’m getting better at knowing when I need to use constraints. When I pack my life too full, I find myself reshuffling my task list too often. My mind feels like it buzzes. Choices threaten to overwhelm. It’s a good time to step back and ask myself: How can I simplify this? What can I limit?

Proactive communication: Five tips for following up

Isabelle’s manager wanted her to get better at proactive communication. She’s comfortable e-mailing people, but she has a hard time following up when people don’t respond. Timezone differences between team members in Singapore and in the US compound delays. She reached out to me for advice, and I suggested a few things that might help:

1. Clear, dated requests. When asking for help or a response through e-mail, specify a target date instead of leaving it open-ended, and give a reason for that date if possible. This makes it easier for people to prioritize working on your task. (Don’t always ask people to get back to you TODAY, though. It looks like you don’t plan well.)

2. Clear, dated responses and priorities. If you’re working with other people on some lower-priority tasks, those tasks might never be finished. Clarify the relative priority of a task with your manager: it might turn out to be higher-priority than you thought. If it really is a low-priority project, contact the people you need to collaborate with and get an estimate of when they might be able to work on their part of the project. Find out what other important projects they’re working on, too. This will allow you to:

  • give clearer reasons for delays (“We can only work on the report next week because we have to finish the keynote presentation this week”)
  • negotiate better solutions (“I can do that part of the presentation if you can do this part of the report”)
  • re-negotiate priorities with your manager (“Actually, this report is more important than adding animation to the presentation”), and
  • give you dates for following up (“John is working on the presentation now, but he promised to work on the report on Monday, and I’ll follow up with him then”).

3. Status reports. They’re good for your manager and for you. Keep track of where you are on projects: what your next actions are, what you’re waiting for, and what you’ve accomplished. Share this with your manager frequently, so there are no surprises.

4. Concrete follow-ups. When you’re waiting for a response, schedule a follow-up so that it doesn’t slip through the cracks. Follow up by e-mail, and then move up to following up by phone or instant message if needed. I don’t do this for all of my tasks, but I do this for tasks I “own,” and it helps.

Concrete follow-up dates also help you write better status reports. Instead of reporting “Waiting for response”, you can report “Waiting for response; will follow up on ____ by e-mail and _____ by phone.” Clear follow-up plans make people feel more confident that the task won’t be forgotten.

5. Tactful escalation. When people don’t respond, sometimes you need to find other ways to get things going. Isabelle had learned how to cc:ing her manager so that her manager could stay updated, but she wasn’t comfortable with cc:ing the other person’s manager because it felt like escalation. If done tactfully, though, escalation can be a good tool.

How to escalate: Give people the benefit of the doubt, and acknowledge that they might be busy working on priority projects. Send them a gentle reminder, cc:ing their manager. In the note, explain to the manager that you understand that the original contact may be busy or your request might be a better fit for someone on the team, and ask who might be the best person to talk to.

Hope that helps!

2010-08-24 Tue 10:20