Category Archives: reflection

Thoughts about time

A friend sent me a link to “Your Life in Weeks”, which got me thinking about my changing attitude towards time and ambition. Here were the key points I picked up from the blog post:

  • It’s good to be aware of the passage of time and how limited it is.
  • Measuring your life against famous people’s accomplishments or lifetimes can be eye-opening.
  • You should ideally spend your time doing things that improve your future or the lives of others and that you enjoy. Utility without pleasure or pleasure without utility is okay but not great. Don’t waste your time doing things that are neither useful nor pleasant.
  • Every week can be a fresh start.

I agree with some aspects of these points. I can remember being the sort of person who agreed more, and that’s interesting for me – tracking the changes in my attitude towards time.

2015-07-27a Thinking about time and role models -- index card #time

2015-07-27a Thinking about time and role models – index card #time

I can remember a time when I kept an eye out for the milestones by which other people had achieved a lot: the youngest people who did X/Y/Z, the lists of thirty under thirty, the stats in math and physics of early achievement and momentum.

I moved on from that in my late teens or so, when I realized people used stories like that to beat themselves up, give up, or push themselves to an unhealthy pace. I wanted to find something to tell people who told me, “Wow, you’re so young and you’re already good at computers! I could never do something like that.” For myself, I saw the kinds of lives people sketched out for people who had “high potential,” and I wasn’t sure if I really wanted them. Instead of those stories of young CEOs and world-changers, I resonated more with attention to those who continued achieving later in life, or even started late, like Grandma Moses taking up painting at 78. I liked the stories those lives could help me tell to people who felt they missed the boat. I liked the stories of deep interest, like Isaac Asimov’s decades of writing, and how those stories illuminated the possibilities. I liked examples of older people continuing to engage, like Benjamin Zander.

The books and magazines and newspapers I read were filled with stories of mainstream success, but I found myself more curious about people who had thoughtfully explored alternatives. I liked discussions of frugality and deliberate consumption more than luxury and excess. I liked communities around lifelong learning, experimentation, and early retirement.

2015-07-24a How do I want to feel about time -- index card #time #pace

2015-07-24a How do I want to feel about time – index card #time #pace

One of the things I picked up from looking at other people’s lives was the possibility that you could feel time as abundant instead of scarce – not so plentiful as to be wasted, but enough for the important things in life. Life didn’t have to be a rat race or a hurried rush from one thing or another. I didn’t have to do everything. I didn’t have to have it all. I could do what I can and enjoy where I was.

Still, I was curious about acceleration. I periodically experimented with the productivity techniques that other people liked: making lists of goals, plotting out timelines, looking for ways to accelerate. I found that committing to an artificial deadline or target date to a goal didn’t really resonate with me. I decided not to be my own taskmaster, trusting instead in my shifting evaluations and priorities. I’m nowhere near where my far-past self might have guessed I’d be, but I like where I am. I’m somewhere my far-past self couldn’t even have imagined.

I hadn’t come across Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life until a few years ago, but when I did, I found it in things that I had come to believe about my own life. “It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.”

What does it mean to invest it well, though? I remember occasionally measuring my life against the estimate of my remaining days, tallying up what I had done and what I wanted to do. I felt the passing of time in the days and the months. I remember observing the differences in familiar people and in the world around me: my parents’ graying hair, my friends’ lifestages, the shifts in technologies. Back to the tick-tock. I think one of the reasons I’ve found it so easy to keep a weekly/monthly/yearly review (and now a daily journal) is that I don’t want to wake up one day and wonder where all those years went, as people often do.

Something has shifted in my perspective, though. I’m not sure what caused it. Maybe philosophy has helped me let go of the worry about making sure I live a life of great significance. I don’t need to be in history books. I can focus on living life well, and other people can decide how much they want to take from it. Maybe this equanimity had something to do with the day-to-day focus of my current phase. These days, I’m mostly focused on being when I am – not trying to fast-forward or rewind, but rather seeing and making the most of now.

I still want to make something of my life. I want to leave behind notes, tools, and ideas that will make it easier for other people to go a little farther or a little faster. I’ve felt that way for as long as I can remember. It feels a little different now, though. Instead of worrying that I’ll fail or that I’ll choose the wrong path, I know I can keep building and exploring, and that the benefits will grow and grow.

Pleasure and utility

A friend mentioned that the Venn diagram in “Your Life in Weeks” resonated with him. The diagram focused on the intersection of what you enjoy and what builds your future: try to spend your time on activities that do both; one or the other is okay, but if something doesn’t address either of those, you should probably stop doing it.

While reflecting on the diagram, I realized that I prefer an X-Y chart instead. It reminds me that there’s a mix of pleasure and subjective utility in everything I do. Otherwise, I wouldn’t choose to do it. Pleasure and utility vary by activity, and even for a particular activity, they may vary based on factors such as time or energy. There are no hard cut-offs or fixed measurements. I can adjust things up or down with attention, too.

2015-07-25a Pleasure and utility -- index card #choice #utility #pleasure #time

2015-07-25a Pleasure and utility – index card #choice #utility #pleasure #time

For example:

  • I can increase my actual utility by double-checking subjective utility against what actually happened (decision reviews, etc.).
  • I can increase my subjective utility by thinking about what I could get out of an activity. For example, co-op gaming turns out to be a fun way to spend time with W- and practise managing small stresses.
  • I can break an activity down into the things I enjoy or find useful about it, and find similar activities that might be more enjoyable or more useful.
  • I can increase the pleasure I get from a useful activity by focusing on different factors
  • I can decrease the pleasure I get from an activity by focusing on the opportunity cost or thinking about what I enjoy about other activities.

Here’s where a few of my current activities are on this chart:

2015-07-25b Utility and pleasure - activities -- index card #utility #pleasure #time

2015-07-25b Utility and pleasure – activities – index card #utility #pleasure #time

This reminds me a little of my reflection on leisure activities (noble, advantageous, or pleasant, following Aristotle’s distinctions). It might be useful to analyze utility (noble/advantageous) and pleasure with the extra dimension of energy/effort.

While the sweet spot of high utility and high pleasure (for me: prototyping and learning) is fun to be in, I also like spending time outside that intersection. It’s not all about “Hell, yeah! or No”. Experimenting with things that make me feel awkward or mediocre might lead to discovering an activity that I enjoy or find really useful.

Lately, I’ve been giving myself permission to focus on things I enjoy, even if they aren’t particularly useful – like playing video games in the middle of the day. At the same time, I’ve also let go of the desire to enjoy everything. Some activities are not pleasant, but they’re necessary. Even as I get through them, though, I’m happy about my growing ability to get through them. I might be annoyed for a few minutes, but I’m happy about the decisions of my past self and the results that I anticipate for my future self. I’m learning to enjoy adapting to my circumstances, even as I know those circumstances will change.

2015-07-27b Pleasure and satisfaction -- index card #pleasure #philosophy

2015-07-27b Pleasure and satisfaction – index card #pleasure #philosophy

I like being able to step back and think about what I do, why I do it, and how I feel about that. Because I can influence how I feel about something, I can change why I do it, and even what I do. Through little nudges here and there, I want to make things that are good for me both easy and fun. If I can’t, I want to make them extra-useful and satisfying.

Past, present, and future

It’s moving more slowly than I might like, but I’m learning how to live in the present. I spend a little more time in the future than I probably should and I’m less comfortable in the past than I’d like to be, but those can wait.

2015-06-15e Past-present-future balance -- index card #balance

2015-06-15e Past-present-future balance – index card #balance

I tend to do a lot of planning and anticipation: rough sketches of just-in-case scenarios, extrapolations of ideas and potential decisions. There’s a lot of waiting for some experiments, too. Can’t rush the seeds growing in the garden, can’t accelerate the learning, can’t jump ahead to see the results.

In a sense, I could, if I let the time in between blur instead of slowing it down even more with experiences and reflections. I get the sense that “passing time” is what leads to people waking up and wonder where their life went, though. Better to kick off more parallel experiments and explore more questions.

I’m making myself keep a list of things that I’m not thinking about yet: things that are too far-off or uncertain, things that are waiting for other things. It’s tempting to spend time thinking about those things – that seems more useful than simply playing games – but it can be counterproductive.

Better to live each moment, then, even if it makes life feel slow, too. It’s good to learn how to be, instead of just distracting myself with juggling as many plans as I can.

What is it like? Napping when I’m sleepy, eating when I’m hungry, cooking for the joy of it, reading for pleasure, even playing games. Stretching out on the deck in the sunlight. Enjoying the seedlings for what they are, instead of wondering if they’ll make it all the way to becoming vegetables in a garden of caterpillars and squirrels. This present will pass, too, so I may as well enjoy it.

Besides, the present might be all I have someday, when the future is short and the past is fuzzy. Might as well learn how to live it!

Moving past getting things done

2015-06-19a Moving past getting things done -- index card #present #mindset #being

2015-06-19a Moving past getting things done – index card #present #mindset #being

When I have a lot of energy, it’s easy to do good things for my consulting clients or on my personal projects. This energizes me further, and so on. This is a good cycle.

When I’m feeling blah, or when I don’t feel like I’m accomplishing interesting things, I tend to feel even more blah – even if I know that the difficulties are temporary, local, and impersonal.

I realized that my feelings about my days tend to be influenced by whether I made progress. This makes sense; there’s even a book about it.

2015-01-07 Sketched Book - The Progress Principle - Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work - Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer

2015-01-07 Sketched Book – The Progress Principle – Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work – Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer

While it’s useful to be motivated by progress, I wonder if I can tweak my mind to get better at enjoying life even when it feels cyclic and mundane. Instead of noting just the new, non-routine tasks of the day, I could reflect on whether I’m getting better at routine stuff like self-care – to enjoy being, not just doing.

2015-06-19c The gap between who I am and who I wish I was -- index card #gap #mindset

2015-06-19c The gap between who I am and who I wish I was – index card #gap #mindset

I find it a little difficult to relax into this mindset, though. Part of me is pulled towards the satisfaction of making progress, and I find myself wishing I could be better at that. I could improve my skills. I could make things better at home. I could be more energetic. I could cover more ground.

2015-06-19d Maybe the delta is okay -- index card #gap #mindset

2015-06-19d Maybe the delta is okay – index card #gap #mindset

But then again, maybe the outcomes of this hypothetical self and my current self are not that different. Sure, it would be nice to make all the progress a hypothetical me could make. But whatever’s important can be handled by other people, and whatever’s not important isn’t worth stressing out over. Besides, this path can also be interesting.

So, back to this curious thought. What’s beyond getting things done? I’m learning things that are hard to check off a list: how to forget annoyances and frustrations, how to enjoy ripe fruits and sunshine, how to listen to the moment and the silence. How to embrace squirrel-brain, fuzzy-brain, and foggy-brain, and how to gently fan a spark of interest.

It will be worth it, I think, learning how to sit still. “Don’t just do something, sit there!”, as the flipped phrase go.

When the check-things-off part of myself gets antsy, I code or read for an hour or so. Once it’s satisfied, I explore things with payoffs that are less straightforward.

Another thing I used to be antsier about: The thought “Will I ask good-enough questions? Will I think good-enough thoughts?” intrudes less and less these days. I trust that when I sit down to draw, I’ll notice something I want to explore; and if not, it might be a good time for a walk.

2015-05-10d The best thing I can do with my time -- index card #experiment

2015-05-10d The best thing I can do with my time – index card #experiment

It might be interesting to decide, even if it’s temporary and on faith, that this is the best thing I can do with my time.

2015-06-15g Re-evaluating my experiment failure mode -- index card #experiment #failure #equanimity #premortem #narrative

2015-06-15g Re-evaluating my experiment failure mode – index card #experiment #failure #equanimity #premortem #narrative

On a larger scale, I might even become comfortable with this as the general flavour of my experiment. In the beginning, I identified “5 years and nothing to show for it, not even a good story” as one of my potential issues in my experiment pre-mortem. I feel myself starting to let go of the need for a neat story.

Getting things done is good. There are also other things that are good. I wonder what it’s like to live an awesome life, or better yet: live a life awesomely.

Working with fragmented thoughts

Some days it’s hard to hold a single thought and dive deeper into it. Sometimes it’s because I get distracted by other shiny thoughts. Sometimes my interest peters out. Sometimes I bump into the limit of what I can think about on my own, without experiments or research.

I’ve come to really like the way index cards let me capture ideas that aren’t quite blog-post-sized. Technically, I haven’t drawn a physical index card since early February, but the digital index cards I draw are calibrated to that scale.

Still, some days it takes me a really long time to draw five index cards. I catch myself wondering if I’ve picked a good question. Sometimes it takes a while to find the next step in the thought. Sometimes it’s easier to let my attention drift to other things.

On the other hand, there are some days when my mind is overflowing with little thoughts. It’s pretty easy for me to switch to another index card, scribble down part of a thought, and then come back to it later.

2015-06-01e Fragmented writing and drawing -- index card #fuzzy #fatigue #writing #drawing #fragmentation

2015-06-01e Fragmented writing and drawing – index card #fuzzy #fatigue #writing #drawing #fragmentation

I’ve been figuring out a better way to work with fragmented thoughts. I tried flipping my habit by writing before drawing. Sometimes that’s a good way to clear my backlog, but sometimes it means I don’t get around to drawing.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with quickly capturing text fragments – a chunk even smaller than index cards. A few taps on my phone bring up a single-line prompt. Whatever I type into that dialog gets saved to a timestamped file named something like yyyy-mm-dd timestamp - keyword.txt, and that’s synchronized over Dropbox to my computer. I have some code in Emacs to read those files and add them to a date-based outline, and I’ve included the code at the end of this blog post just in case it’s handy.

I’ve found myself capturing more and more of these snippets these days. When a possibly interesting thought occurs to me while I’m walking around, it’s easy enough to take a moment to unlock my phone and add a note. My Emacs-based workflow fits me a bit better than the Evernote-based one I used to use, but that’s the benefit of customization.

2015-05-24e Working with surface thoughts -- index card #fuzzy #drawing #thinking

2015-05-24e Working with surface thoughts – index card #fuzzy #drawing #thinking

There’s still the challenge of bringing those thoughts together, of course. The text titles and fragment keywords are often enough to remind me of what I was thinking and how the different thoughts might be connected to each other, and I can always open the sketches in a new window if I want to refer to them. I have an ever-growing outline of sketches that haven’t yet been chunked into blog posts, and now I have a chronological tree of these little fragments. I have another bit of Emacs Lisp that lets me quickly get a montage of the sketches listed in part of my outline. Maybe I could use that more often – perhaps even randomly picking an outline node, coming up with a montage, and prompting me to either glue the chunks together into a blog post or draw whatever’s missing.

So this is what the index card workflow looks like as a whole:

2015-05-08b My index card management system -- index card #zettelkasten #workflow #index-cards #drawing

2015-05-08b My index card management system – index card #zettelkasten #workflow #index-cards #drawing

and then the text fragments feed into the beginning of that thinking process.

It’s been almost six months of thinking with index cards. I sometimes feel pretty fragmented, but there are confounding factors so I don’t know whether that’s a side-effect of this way of thinking. But I think it’s unlikely that my past self was that much more coherent and better at concentrating. Remembering what it was like to write my notes before and what it’s like to write my notes now, I think I like this way a lot. I feel like I’m getting better at writing about the small things, not just the big things, and I’m gradually getting better at tying things together.

What might be some interesting next steps for this system?

2015-06-12h 6-month reflection on index cards -- index card #index-cards #drawing #zettelkasten #chunking

2015-06-12h 6-month reflection on index cards – index card #index-cards #drawing #zettelkasten #chunking

It might be cool to visualize how much has been chunked and what’s still isolated, in a way that’s more engaging than my outline. I’m also curious about the time separation of thoughts. For example, this post brings together four cards spread over a little more than a month, a set of connections I probably wouldn’t have been able to follow without these notes.

The fragment code I mentioned:

(defun my/read-phone-entries ()
  "Copy phone data to a summary Org file."
   (lambda (filename)
     (let ((base (file-name-base filename)) contents timestamp category encoded-time date)
       (when (string-match "^[^ ]+ [^ ]+ \\([^ ]+\\) - \\(.*\\)" base)
         (setq time (seconds-to-time (/ (string-to-number (match-string 1 base)) 1000))
               encoded-time (decode-time time)
               date (list (elt encoded-time 4) (elt encoded-time 3) (elt encoded-time 5))
               category (match-string 2 base))
           (insert-file-contents filename)
           (setq contents (s-trim (buffer-string))))
             (find-file "~/dropbox/tasker/summary.txt")
           (org-datetree-find-date-create date)
           (unless (save-excursion (re-search-forward (regexp-quote base) nil t))
             (goto-char (line-end-position))
             (insert "\n")
             (insert "**** " contents "  :" category ":\n" base "\n")
             (insert (format-time-string "[%Y-%m-%d %a %H:%M]\n" time))

             (if (member category '("Think" "Do"))
                   (org-back-to-heading t)
                   (if (looking-at org-outline-regexp) (goto-char (1- (match-end 0))))
                   (unless (looking-at org-todo-regexp)
                     (org-todo "TODO"))))
             (if (string-match "^Energy \\([0-9]\\)" contents)
                 (org-set-property "ENERGY" (match-string 1 contents)))))
         (delete-file filename))))
   (directory-files "~/dropbox/tasker/data" t "\\.txt$")))

Growth, experiments, and shifting my preferences

I’ve been thinking about how to respond to e-mails from former virtual assistants who are looking for additional work. I remember what it was like to feel that the world was a candy store of talent. My experiments with delegation led to interesting experiences. But at the moment, I can’t really think of tasks that I want to specify or how much I would value someone else doing them.

Besides, I tend to get rid of tasks or write programs before I consider paying people to do things, so that tends to get in the way of delegation experiments. I find it more difficult to give instructions to people than to computers.

2015-02-03 Delegation and dreaming small dreams -- index card #delegation

2015-02-03 Delegation and dreaming small dreams – index card #delegation

I tried thinking about ways I want to improve my life at the moment, and how I might want to accelerate those improvements. Compared to my answers from 2013, my current ideas feel closer to where I am, less of a stretch.

2015-06-12a Questions to revisit -- index card #kaizen #experiment #delegation

2015-06-12a Questions to revisit – index card #kaizen #experiment #delegation

Considering various ideas, I catch myself thinking, “Well, that would be nice to experience/be/have and I can imagine being happy with that, but I can also imagine being happy without that.” I wondered whether that detachment came came out of avoidance or peace, and whether I wanted to tweak my balance of detachment and desire – ambition can also be quite a handy thing.

I know that a fuzzy brain dampens my ability to plan and anticipate. This is normal. I also know the fuzziness is temporary, so I’m not too worried about it. Still, I find it interesting to explore.

2015-06-12b Finding my own balance between desire and detachment -- index card #stoicism #philosophy #detachment #desire

2015-06-12b Finding my own balance between desire and detachment – index card #stoicism #philosophy #detachment #desire

2015-06-12c Exploring this distance -- index card #stoicism #philosophy #detachment #desire

2015-06-12c Exploring this distance – index card #stoicism #philosophy #detachment #desire

On reflection, I think it’s less about avoidance / running away from, and maybe more about not preferring something as much as I think I should. Consciously developing your preferences is an idea from Stoicism that I’d like to explore a little more.

2015-06-12d When I don't prefer something as much as I think I should -- index card #stoicism #philosophy #preference

2015-06-12d When I don’t prefer something as much as I think I should – index card #stoicism #philosophy #preference

“Should” is a funny word, anyway. I avoid using that word with other people, but I sometimes still slip up and use that word for myself. So maybe it’s more like I think it might be interesting if I had stronger, clearer preferences for things that were generally acknowledged to be good, but if I don’t, that’s more of an opportunity for learning than a personal failure.

In addition to general fuzziness, I think that gap happens when I have conflicting factors or motivations, and when I underestimate benefits or overestimate costs. I can untangle conflicting factors with reflection and honesty, even if sometimes that leads to uncomfortable realizations about my current self. I tend to overestimate costs more than I underestimate benefits, especially in terms of energy. In any case, my perception of one affects the other. I can work around this by giving things a shot, like the way skills often become more enjoyable the better you get at them.

Even when I have a good idea of the benefits and costs of different choices, sometimes it would be better for me to prefer things that have a lower short-term value than other things I could do.

A tangent: This might be pretty similar to how startups disrupt incumbent companies, actually. An incumbent company initially has lower marginal costs because of its investments. It would be more expensive for that company to shift to a new technology. On the other hand, a start-up doesn’t have those sunk costs, so it’s easier to invest in new technologies. Some startups succeed, getting to the point where they can beat the old technology in terms of return on investment. Other startups fail. But it’s hard to tell which is which until you try, so it makes sense to have a bunch of start-up-like experiments even in larger companies.

2015-06-12e Thinking about disrupting myself -- index card #experiment #disruption

2015-06-12e Thinking about disrupting myself – index card #experiment #disruption

So, what would it be like to use these tools to develop my preferences? There’s the slow evolution of my preferences through reflection and incremental improvement. At the same time, it might be interesting to mentally budget X% of my time for exploring things even if I feel a little meh about them: not just “Hell, yeah” or No, but also things I still feel mediocre at. (‘Cause you don’t get to awesome without being mediocre first!) Doing those small experiments to play with my understanding and preferences might even be easier during fuzzy times than during sharp times, since my opportunity costs are lower.

I might keep my goals and experiments a little close to myself at the moment, focusing on elimination and automation rather than delegation. Maybe I’ll branch out again when I have a little more brainspace to manage and train people, since I don’t want to get to the point where I resent other people because of the consequences of my own mediocrity in delegation. In the meantime, little by little, I’d like to get better at understanding my preferences, and maybe shifting them ever so slightly.