Category Archives: productivity

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…

Thinking about how to get even better at bulk-cooking

two pans of lasagna

We like cooking in bulk. We find it to be an efficient way to make sure we’ve got healthy, inexpensive meals ready for the workweek. How can we improve our processes?

Cost and delegation: I’ve been tracking the cost per portion for the meals we prepare in bulk. Cost per portion tends to be between $1 and $3, while eating lunch outside tends to be about $8-12. I can prepare about 20 portions in 3 hours (+ tidying up of one hour or so), and have scaled up beyond that too. If we use $12-15 per hour as the replacement cost of labour (it looks like you can hire housekeepers for around that range), that works out to around $100 of savings if I outsourced preparation, and $160 if we do things ourselves.

I might experiment with this by hiring someone who’s experienced in bulk cooking and freezing, particularly if we can squeeze in 40 portions or more on one day. (It’s possible – see Once a Month Cooking.) If it works, then it can save us a chunk of focused time.

  • Upside: Time, new recipes
  • Downside: Cost and risk

Variety: Along those lines, we can adjust our grocery shopping so that we can eat even better. I was pleasantly surprised to find that lamb korma worked out to around $1.25 per serving. It still felt like such a treat. We don’t have to eat chicken most of the time, then!

We can experiment with new recipes for bulk cooking, and we can revisit old favourites. Next on my list: beef bulgogi, proper lamb korma (should try a few different recipes), lasagna (it’s baking season again!), shepherd’s pie…

  • Upside: Yum!
  • Downside: Slightly higher costs, time spent experimenting

Prepared meals and ingredients: We don’t use a lot of prepared ingredients like pre-cooked bacon, chopped carrots, or peeled potatoes. They’re more expensive than regular ingredients, and they’re typically not as fresh. We do use frozen vegetable mixes, which are much handier than cutting off corn kernels and chopping up carrot bits ourselves. We occasionally buy chicken drumsticks or thighs in order to save us time and mess in quartering them, and we also buy rotisserie chicken. We like frozen steamed buns, and J- has frozen nuggets from time to time. We buy the occasional frozen pizza when it’s on sale. In summer, we buy frozen burgers. We like the packaged lamb korma and the Jamaican beef patties. Canned soup is also handy. We hardly ever buy other frozen meals, prepackaged stock, and other convenience foods.

I would totally go for pre-chopped onions, as I hate crying over them. (None of the little fixes I’ve tried have worked so far; I’ll keep trying to hack this!). I would also go for peeled and chopped garlic, because I use so much of it. Fortunately, I can make my own packages. I’ve chopped and frozen most of our onions and all of our garlic. We’ll see how that works out! I’ll keep an eye out for other supermarket offerings, too. Being in a community-supported agriculture program means we buy very few additional vegetables (I’m currently drowning in a sea of broccoli rabe). We might experiment with using prepared meals to explore new recipes (like the way prepacked lamb korma firmly established that we have a taste for it) and with using prepared ingredients to make bulk preparations easier.

Prepared 1- or 2-person meals tend to cost around $4 to $5 per portion. Bulk meals like lasagna casseroles cost around $1.50 per portion, which is actually cheaper than our cost per portion for lasagna. Pizza costs around $2 per portion when it’s on sale.

  • Upside: Save time, try different recipes
  • Downside: Higher costs, package size is non-standard and throws off our storage scheme

Tools: I need to get better at using the tools we have: breaking out the food processor and chopping up lots of things, using the stand blender or the immersion blender for soups and purées, and so on. If I can use the food processor to do all the onions, then freeze chopped onions for use in future recipes, that would save me a lot of crying.

  • Upside: Save time
  • Downside: More washing (so it’s good to do this in bulk)

Meals:ingredients ratio: Right now, both our chest freezer and our under-fridge freezer compartment are at about about 1:4 (meals to ingredients by volume). We can make a concerted effort to spend weekends either cooking or editing one stack of frozen ingredients in order to replace it with one stack of frozen meals. Then we can shift to the chest freezer containing practically all frozen meals and the fridge freezer containing ingredients.

  • Upside: More convenience and variety, no need to dig around in the freezer for a meal, gradual editing of food in the freezer
  • Downside: Commits a chunk of our weekend (4-5 hours for every 21 portions?)

Meal density: Instead of packing individual ready-to-go portions, we might store just the main dish. That would double or triple our freezing capacity, but it would require more planning. Every three days, then, we would take out enough food for the next three days and defrost it. The next day, we would repack lunches. We would always make a large pot of rice each week, and we would keep frozen vegetables in stock. We might keep a few individual portions for emergencies.

  • Upside: Cooking main meals less often, having more variety
  • Downside: Defrosting and repacking takes time and foresight, might grab one of those multi-portion containers by accident when rushing to work

For this month, I’m going to focus on improving our meals:ingredients ratio, so that we can gradually clear out the old ingredients and provide a good base for future experiments. I may also prepare a large bag of chopped onions to see how well that works.

Do you cook in bulk? How are you improving your processes?

Personal projects

I rein in work to about 40-44 hours a week so that it doesn’t run away with me. This gives me some time during evenings and weekends to work on personal projects. It’s a good idea to have clear personal projects in mind so that I don’t end up wasting the time mindlessly.

“Do you want to spend your time productively or unproductively?” I asked J-.

“That’s a leading question,” W- said.

“No, I’m serious about it. Unproductive time is good too, as long as you choose it consciously,” I said.

For example, I spend some time here and there playing LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean. I don’t do it just because I can’t think of anything else to do or I don’t feel like doing anything else. I play because I’m curious about how the game designers have constructed puzzles and all those little secrets that dot the LEGO world. That’s definitely not a project, though.

What are the things I’m working on? Spelling them out will make it easier to pick a task that moves me towards them when I find myself with blocks of time.

Latin: W- and I are slowly working our way through Albert Harkness’ “An Easy Method for Beginners in Latin.” We’re on lesson twenty-ish now. Most people are working off the scanned book in Google’s digitized collection, but because the scans are images instead of text, the file is a little slow and unwieldy. I bought the first edition (it’s now the oldest book I have) and we’re working on digitizing it properly, re-typing it in with all the finicky accents and footnotes. We’re less than a fifth of the way through the book, so there’s plenty of work to do on this front. Goal: Digitize the whole book and answer all the questions.

Gardening: I want to get better at planning and growing the fruits and vegetables we like. That means getting more practice at starting seeds and helping them thrive. Gardening is relaxing, too. Goal: Grow, harvest, and measure the yield this year.

Cooking: Our frozen meals get us through most of the week, but I also cook new things based on what we need to finish in the fridge. For example, today I’d like to do something with the asparagus stock so that it doesn’t go to waste. I’m also picking up the community-supported agriculture box today, so that will give me a new set of challenges. This helps me develop the eminently useful skill of preparing healthy meals. Goal: Experiment with and collect summer recipes, then put together other seasonal notes.

Writing: I enjoy writing. I like reading my archive and remembering the steps. I like practising writing every day as a way to share what I’m learning, and it’s a good way to keep learning about content and style. Goal: Review, rewrite, and compile into an e-book.

Drawing: I’d like to get even better at drawing. It’s fun, and I’m learning how to communicate through it. I want to feel more comfortable using colours and drawing shapes. It’s all about practice. Goal: Draw a graphical review each week for a month.

Photography: It’s good, and we’ve got all this equipment already, so I might as well. ;) Besides, I enjoy taking pictures of the garden. Goal: Post at least one photo a week for a month.

What are you working on?

2011-06-16 Thu 08:25

Negative productivity and learning from oopses

So I accidentally blew away my self-hosted photo gallery because I overwrote the directories by copying them instead of using rsync. I attribute that to being slightly out-of-sorts, but the truth is that I might’ve made that mistake anyway bright and early on a well-rested weekend.

As it turns out, I back up my WordPress blog, but not my Gallery2-hosted photo album. And I hadn’t enabled server-wide backups before. You can bet I turned that on after I realized that.

It’s no big deal. The key thing I wish I hadn’t deleted was the sketch I’d made of the highlights of 2008, but that’s in my paper backup of my blog, and the rest of my sketches are probably somewhere in my files too. It’s just stuff.

The trick to dealing with negative productivity is to catch yourself – ideally, shortly before you mess up, but shortly afterwards is fine too. Do not make things worse in the process of trying to fix things.

It’s better to detect your periods of negative productivity on non-critical operations than to, say, accidentally corrupt the source code repository for the project you’ve been working on. In addition to remembering this general feeling of out-of-it-ness, it might be a good idea for me to come up with some small test for full attention/alertness before doing anything possibly irreversible. Then I would need to make it a habit, because it’s precisely when one’s tempted to cut corners and go ahead that one shouldn’t.

Hmm, checking for patterns…

Sleep 8.8 hours per night – normal (if not a little over)
Work 10.2 hours per workday so far – well above normal, and pretty high-intensity work, too
Work pattern current, 45.9, 56.9, 40.1 – current week is third of more intense period

Anyway. Dealing with oopses. Instead of beating myself up about it, I’d rather fix what I can fix, learn what I can learn, and then get on with a restful evening so that I can prepare for more awesomeness. Why beat myself up over a mistake? Better to figure out how to minimize the chances of making a similar mistake in the future, and to get on with life. =)

(Well, after wringing a blog post out of it first…)

2011-04-13 Wed 20:36

Thinking about personal random moment studies

John Handy Bosma (Boz) proposed a personal productivity random moment study. His goals are:

  • Find out how he’s spending his time in terms of the proportion between important and unimportant task
  • Show the connection between what he’s working on and the business priorities
  • Improve his productivity
  • … and do all of that with at most 5 minutes of tracking a day.

The interesting thing about randomness is that it might have a different effect on behaviour. If you can’t anticipate when you’re going to get polled and you’re honest about your responses when you do, would that help you focus on more important things so that you don’t catch yourself goofing off during the polling time?

What are good questions to ask during the sampling moment? Boz has:

  • What are you working on?
  • Who are you with?
  • How important is this?
  • How is this related to the business objectives?

These questions also helped Boz stay focused – immediate benefit.

Questions/ideas related to tracking:

Is the effect of uncertainty worth the added effort required to build a custom tracking solution (or buy one), or will fixed time intervals be acceptable? If fixed time intervals are okay, then off-the-shelf apps can be stitched together for this functionality.

Is there value in full randomness (ex: five reminders randomly set for one day, even if those reminders all come in the morning) or is it more about moment-to-moment randomness (ex: a reminder set randomly in each 2-hour period)?

In which circumstances would interrupt-driven methods like this be better than time tracking or time-and-motion-type studies? Boz shared that he never quite got the hang of time tracking, so it might be about enabling a different set of people to explore this class of experiments.

Does measuring time (either through sampling or through time-tracking) offer significant benefits over, say, tracking quantity of tasks completed in different categories (like Andy Schirmer does) when it comes to measuring alignment with priorities?

Hmm…

I might give it a try. I like my time-based analysis, though, so I may increase the granularity of my time-tracking (track at the task level whenever possible). I can then simulate work-sampling based on that data. I might also try fixed-interval sampling using KeepTrack on the Android, although I tend to skip interruptions.

Related:

2011-02-09 Wed 10:58